Monday, July 16, 2018

Asiat, jotka olen huomannut: Suomen painos - Saker jag har märkt: Finskt utgåva -Things I've noticed: Finland edition

Hey everyone! 

So, it's been a while. 

I'm currently writing this post from my cozy and well-situated little apartment in Reykjavik, Iceland, as I'm participating in a language program I've aspired to since high school (an experience I will be sure to tell you all about in due time). 

More than any other experience in recent memory, I let my blogging go while I was in Finland. I've had scores of drafts lying dormant in my posts list for many weeks now, and now that I've had plentiful time to relax and re-energize after the end of the semester and a month back home in the States, I'm ready to share some of my musings and adventures from my semester studying abroad in Finland and exploring all the rest of the Nordic countries. Aloitetaan (let's start)! 

1) By and large, Finnish people tend to be quite multilingual. 
Next to Azerbaijan, Finland is by far the most multilingual society which I have experienced. In contrast to Azerbaijan, where in spite of widespread knowledge of Russian, English, Turkish (to a far lesser extent), and so on, Azerbaijani is the only official language, Finland is a bilingual country in which Finnish and Swedish share official status, spoken by about 93% and 5% of the population respectively. Finnish municipalities are either bilingual if more than 5% of inhabitants speak the other language, or monolingual if the majority language is spoken by 90% or more. For the purposes of federal censuses and population registries, all citizens choose one of the two official languages as their mother tongue. However, regardless of what language(s) are official in their home municipalities or which they identify as their mother tongue, all Finns have to learn the "other national language" for the entirety of their state-required education, and all citizens have the right to request services and address authorities in their native tongue. The most bilingual regions are the southern and western coast along the Baltic Sea, where most Swedish speakers live, particularly in the largest cities (which are all located in those areas), and some municipalities in these areas may be monolingually Swedish. Knowledge of Swedish decreases the further east you go, as few native Swedish speakers live in these areas. By and large, Swedish speakers tend to speak more Finnish than vice versa, as a result of the practicalities of being such a small minority in a mainly Finnish-speaking country. In addition to this official bilingualism, many Finns, particularly young people, tend to speak at least intermediate-level English, as it's a required and well-taught subject in their schools. Many people may have at least some knowledge of other languages as well, such as Spanish, German, or French, that they may have taken at school. There are also several municipalities in the province of Finnish Lapland in the far north of the country where the Inari, Northern, and Skolt Sami languages have official status at a municipal level, and are being actively revived through creating immersive educational spaces. 

2) Turku in particular is a very multilingual city.
One of my favorite things about my life in Turku was how multilingual it all was, and how I got to hear and use so many languages used around me. Being one of the largest cities in the country, it also has one of the largest immigrant populations, and many visiting professors and international or exchange students come as well because of the university. Moving around the city, I would of course here Finnish and Swedish spoken by locals, animated conversations in Arabic, Kurdish, Somali, Russian, and Estonian spoken by immigrant families, and boisterous exchanges in French, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese, English, and more among circles of international and exchange students. Some of my best memories are of going to language evenings organized by one of the local Erasmus Student Network (ESN) chapters, and practicing all kinds of languages with unexpected, friendly, and welcoming groups of people. 

3) Finland-Swedish identity is quite unique and fascinating. 
When I got to Finland, one of the things I was the most excited to get to know better was the identity and culture of its Swedish-speaking minority, and its place within the country. Finland was part of Sweden for nearly six hundred years, and since Finnish as a language was not really written until the 15th century, Swedish was the language of administration, business, and the upper classes in Finland for many centuries. Though the vast majority of the population has always spoken Finnish, a small minority has always spoken Swedish as their native language. They call themselves finlandssvenskar or ruotsisuomalaiset, which translates roughly to "Finland-Swedes" The general consensus, certainly for Finland Swedes living on the mainland, is that they tend to identify as Finns who feel a sense of belonging in Finland and constitute an integral part of Finnish society, but just happen to speak Swedish as their native language for reasons of familial heritage and personal identity. As I found when I did my four-month Swedish night class in Turku, Finnish Swedish is very different from the Swedish spoken in Finland, with an intonation, pronunciation, and accent that is highly influenced by Finnish, and therefore lacks the characteristic sing-songiness and unique sounds that are
(stereo)typically associated with Swedish. In fact, I found that Swedish as spoken with the local accent was pronounced in a way so akin to Finnish that, especially living in a city like Turku which has a prominent Swedish-speaking minority, that I would often not be able to tell which of the two people were speaking until I walked right past them.

4) The stereotype of Finnish people being aloof and unfriendly is highly overblown. 
What I'll say about this, as I've mentioned in the (first) Icelandic version of my "things I've noticed" series, is that Nordic people are surely quite a lot more reserved in many ways compared to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern people, which are the two regions that I can claim to have some level of intimate knowledge of through direct experience. However, this doesn't mean that they are any less hospitable, welcoming, or friendly than the former, it's just that they approach hospitality in a different manner. A Finnish person probably won't come up to you and make a point of going out of their way to ask if you need help as, say, an Italian or a Turk might do. But the minute that you ask a Finn for help or to do you a favor, they will oblige in a graceful, efficient, and selfless manner. A quick walk around pretty much any Finnish city will help to evidence the fact that Finns are indeed friendly, smiley, and outgoing people who socialize normally, contrary to stereotypes. Bars and clubs in Finland tend to be quite loud places, as of course a few drinks do wonders for loosening Nordic tongues. But it manifests in all kinds of contexts. Parents scuffle after their boisterous young children as they jump into lakes in the summer and sled or ski down snowy hills in the winter. Friends chat contentedly and laugh continuously over hot cups of coffee or hot chocolate in the plentiful cafes. University students run excitedly up to their friends when they meet in the hallways or in between buildings to discuss that test or presentation they were anxious for, highly anticipated plans for the weekend, or the moment that cute person smiled at them in class. In other words, like pretty much any place. Just that, as an added benefit, people tend to be quite respectful of each other's privacy and personal space, and it's not considered weird to have natural pauses or silences in gatherings or conversation, spend time in public by yourself, and so on. 

5) Saunas really are an integral part of Finnish culture indeed. 
It stands to reason that sauna is the Finnish loanword that has become best known and most frequently used in English and other languages. It's something which is truly integral in the culture, to the extent that most homes or apartment buildings will feature them, even in the largest of Finnish cities. It has been rumored in some of the books that I've read that United Nations Peacekeepers hailing from Finland have built them abroad, even in climates as hot as sub-Saharan Africa. The general idea is for people to spend time inside the sauna, preferably with a beer in hand, throwing water periodically onto the boiling rocks and release more steam so as to make the sauna hotter and get sweattier, before eventually rushing out once it gets too hot to bare for a moment of fresh air, a quick dip in an adjacent body of cool water, or (for the most adventurous), a brief bout of rolling around in the snow, repeating the cycle several times in a ritual which is held to be beneficial for the body and releasing lots of toxins. I experienced saunas in Finland a number of times, and though I lack the resilience to put up with temperature extremes that most Finns are used to as a result of growing up taking sauna their whole lives, it was always a highly pleasant experience that left me feeling refreshed and re-energized afterwards. 

6) So too are mökkis. 
One of the things that I have learned over the course of 2018, as I have spent all of it (save for the month of June while I was home in the USA) living in and exploring Nordic countries (I've now been to every sovereign Nordic state), is that Nordic folk are the unquestioned masters of getting to the literal middle of nowhere. It's something out of which they've practically make an art form. Every Nordic state has its iteration on a family cabin that most inhabitants will have, a sanctuary for introspective relaxation and fun memories with loved ones far from civilization, situated in a place of great natural beauty and worth. The Finnish version is called a mökki, and there are numerous types of them situated in different places and along different bodies of water - sea or island mökkis, river mökkis, lake mökkis (which, given the innumerable quantity of lakes that dot the Finnish landscape are probably the most common), and so on. I had the immense pleasure of getting to experience one myself, which was located next to a river along some slight rapids, tucked away among rolling hills and thickets a half hour away from the nearest bus stations in either direction. Long considered a rustic opposite to the luxuries of city living, many mökkis are being made into literal second homes, complete with Internet, electricity, and indoor plumbing. Even with the addition of 21st century trappings, it's still a reminder of the typical Finnish yearning for quiet and tranquil spaces, the connection to nature which is a key component of the nation's overall character.

7) Public transport is awesome. 
In spite of being a relatively sparsely populated nation, Finland boasts highly well-organized, efficient, and frequent public transportation services. The only city in Finland with a metro is the capital of Helsinki, and though I didn't live there, I did ride the metro numerous times during my stays there, and found it to be a good way to get around. In Turku, which doesn't have a metro, the main way to get around is the public bus. Most Finns have a bus card even if they own a car, as wherever you live in the city, plentiful services connect different neighborhoods and areas through frequent services, up to four times an hour up to 11:30 pm during the week, and 2:30 am on the weekends. The intercity bus system is also stellar, being comfortable, well-connected, nearly always on time, and with efficiently well-planned stops. 

8) Finnish coffee is the lifeblood of society. 
I'm glad that I've learned to like coffee in college, as it's a truly key component of Finnish culture, frequently shared among friends or offered to house guests as an informal socialization event. Finnish coffee gets a bit of a bad reputation, particularly among Italian expats, as I noticed, for being very strong and admittedly harsh-tasting filter coffee. Though an ardent lover of espresso and cappuccino, I personally came to find a special place in my heart for Finnish coffee, as I had many warm cups in the university cafeteria and tasty lattes in local cafes that have been among my favorites. Indeed, Finnish cities are full of tasty cafes, and I came to form special bonds and memories with many of those present in Turku. Need a quick cup to get you going in-between classes? Assarin ulakko, the largest university restaurant, is your best bet. Want to hear a cello quartet or a poetry show in a vegan place full of feminist and queer theory textbooks? Kirjakahvila on Vanha Suurtori is there for you. Want to get some work done or have a nice conversation with a good friend in a calm environment with nice, smooth colors and delicious smoothie bowls? Try out my personal favorite, Kembuz. Want to treat yourself to something a little bougier, like decadent slices of artisan chocolate or carrot cake, fair trade teas, or rich lattes? CafeArt is your gig. And so on the list goes.

9) The education system really does rock.
The Finnish education system is frequently and widely lauded as one of, if not the very best, in the entire world. Though I can't speak on the K-12 level, I can certainly say that I'm overall quite satisfied with the structure I found in my courses at the University of Turku, and the knowledge I gained over the course of the semester I spent there. I took full advantage of my ability as an exchange student to take courses among different departments, taking a beginner-level Finnish for foreigners class, a Finnish dialectology and linguistics course, a Nordic gender studies course, a Finnish society course in the sociology department, a political science class on border regions and identity studies in the Baltic Sea region, and a Swedish night class outside of the university system altogether. I found all of the courses to be organized and taught quite well, featuring a good balance of lectures and interactive discussions or group activities, and with plentiful space for students to structure their schedules, complete their work, and receive credit in ways that were best suited to their own lives.

10) The bureaucratic structure is surprising. 
On the other hand, I found that for all the stereotypes of Nordic organization and efficiency, these do not extend in the least to the bureaucratic structure of the university system, at least at the University of Turku. I found myself often sent in loops, misinformed on the requirements for different courses I was interested in (as course descriptions on the university portal were very often copied and pasted from one year to another without including any changes), and was caught having to navigate the highly difficult situation of making sure that I had enough credits to transfer back home and retain my full-time student status and scholarships, in spite of the fact that there was a shortage of English courses taught this past semester, most were worth few credits based on the skewed transfer system of my home institution, and I had to navigate highly conflicting and differently organized schedules and courses. Some met twice or thrice weekly for periods of three to four weeks, and then the grades were entirely based on exams or essays completed independently. Others met once or twice weekly for up to four months, and then had grades entirely based on mandatory lecture journals. It was all highly confusing, and nearly got me in deep trouble. 

11) Though it has its flaws, wellfare state is something to be admired. 
I don't claim by any means to be an expert on the Finnish wellfare state, and will save most deep reflection or transition of information for posts that I will publish in due time of little assignments from my Finnish society course (among others) that will help shed more light on the topic in an informative way. But suffice it to say for now that Finnish citizens are entitled to a myriad of commendable services and privileges such as high-quality free healthcare, education, job and unemployment benefits, and so on that could serve as models for numerous other countries.

12) The amount of societal trust there is truly is mindblowing and reassuring.
In my experience so far, this is something that applies to effectively all Nordic countries, but since I've lived there and experienced local life the longest, I can definitely confirm it for Finland beyond any shadow of a doubt.
By and large, people tend to be very relaxed with one another, have few guards up of any kind, and are highly trusting of each other. Perhaps the best example of what I'm talking about which I experienced regularly were the coat racks in the front entrance of Assarin Ullakko, my favorite student cafeteria where I ate lunch nearly every day in Turku. As soon as people would come inside, they would leave their jackets and all other heavy apparel needed to brave the weather outside, as well as their bags, down by the entrance, leaving computers, books, and all other contents downstairs, sometimes even going as far as to only remove a single credit card from their wallets and only keep that card and their cell phone on their person as they moved upstairs to queue for their meal. Even in more public places this held true - people would think nothing of leaving all their things spread out on a table on a cafe, with a bag and coat hanging on their chair, while running to the bathroom. And no one worries about their things getting stolen, because it's just not done, and it's simply something that doesn't have to be a cause for concern.
For me, this was actually one of the hardest things to get used to culturally. Coming from the United States and Italy, which are two places where I would never dream of leaving things around so readily for fear of them disappearing (a mindset that had been even deeper engrained in my head by the time I arrived in Finland thanks to my two 2017 sojourns in the ex-Soviet Union), this was something that I got used to very gradually. For the first few months of my stay, I wouldn't leave anything downstairs at all, unzipping my coat as I walked in the door, leaving it on, and hauling my backpack up the stairs to leave them at the seat I claimed. My instinct to be careful proved a very difficult habit to break. But over time, as I came to guage the safety of the situation, very much appreciated this level of social trust, and wanted to be a part of it, I would start to leave my things downstairs by the door as I walked into Assarin with fewer and fewer trepidation, the anxiety in the back of my head diminishing a little more every time I went there for lunch, until by about two-thirds of the way through my stay it felt pretty much second nature.
This level of cohesion and trust on a social level is indicative of a very beautiful aspect of Finnish culture. Things are very much collaborate group efforts, and people are trusted to do their part in an elegant, efficient, and expert manner, with great results the great majority of the time. 

I hope you've enjoyed reading some of my reflections about my time in Finland. I'm working on getting some more of those dormant drafts out into the blogosphere as soon as possible, and it's been fun getting back into writing after such a long hiatus. Looking forward to what comes ahead.

All the best!

Hei hei,

My favorite Finnish song, meaning "on the other side of the world"
One of the numerous beautiful sunsets Mother Nature treated me to by the lake a 20-minute walk from my place, which became something of a sanctuary for me. 

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Italy - Christmas 2017 and New Year's 2018

Hey guys!

To keep up with the theme of long-overdue updates, today I'll be sharing a recap of my experiences from my time in Italy over the holidays, in between my two study abroad programs in Moscow, Russia, and Turku, Finland.

On the 16th of December, I packed up everything from my Moscow dorm, spent some final moments with the dear friends I'd made, and took the Aeroexpress train to Sheremetyevo Airport. The three hour flight straight to Bologna was one of the emptiest of my whole life; I don't think the plane was even half full. I hit the absolute jackpot of having a window seat with a row empty aside from myself,  so I got to relax fully. Upon landing, my aunt, uncle, and grandmother surprised me at the airport (I'd only been aware that my aunt would meet me there), and we headed back to the little town of Viadana where they all reside.

The first ten or so days of the trip before my parents and sister arrived from the U.S. were somehow simultaneously relaxing (sometimes a little too much) and jam-packed with activity. At first a lot of people I know and hang out with there were not free very much, since most of my friends still had exams that they were finishing, my relatives were still working and not free a lot of the time, and my parents and sister still had not arrived from the States. I spent those days largely relaxing, waking up and going to sleep very late, reading, writing, taking long, introspective walks or bike rides alone at sunset and taking beautiful photos, and just resting. As I've not shied away from putting in no uncertain terms, my time in Russia was very difficult in many ways and often, to put it frankly, sucked, so being in a place that I love and cherish so much, that I feel truly and fully at home in, surrounded by people that I care about, and eating lots of delicious food, truly helped to replenish and soothe me, both body and soul, after the hardships that I had struggled to make it through in many parts of my Muscovite experience.

After about ten days on the ground, starting to get a little restless and hoping to see three different friends of mine that live outside the immediate vicinity of where my relatives live before my parents and sister arrived, I embarked on a four-day adventure, a nutsy navigation of several different corners of northern Italy, which I came to affectionately refer to as my "Grand Tour of Friends."

  • First, I spent a day in Verona with my dear friend Francesca, who is originally from Sardegna, now studies in Trento, and I met when she was an AFS exchange student in Pinckney, about forty-five minutes from where I grew up in Michigan, three and a half years ago. I'd visited her last year in Trento, but we decided to shake things up a little bit this time and lay our scene in fair Verona (haha see what I did there), a city both of us like a lot. I'd last been when I was in Italy as a thirteen year old, the last time I'd come with my whole nuclear family at the same time, and so it reminded me a lot of that formative time in my life when the ardent pride in my Italian heritage and language skills that I have today was just beginning to take shape. We caught up a lot on my experiences in Azerbaijan and Russia, her university life in Trento and visits home to Sardegna, personal lives, friends of hers I'd met in Trento and that I'd told her about from back home, and just spent a wonderful day together enjoying each other's company in one of Italy's loveliest towns. 

  • In the evening, after Fra hopped on a bus to the Verona Airport to head home to Nuoro for the holidays, I went back to the train station and, just managing to dodge a fee for buying an incorrect ticket and not authenticating it properly, arrived in Bologna in the evening. Having arrived slightly ahead of schedule, I wandered around the Piazza Maggiore aimlessly, taking random turns down the streets, and in one of the world's truly cosmic moments, ran into my best friend from Viadana who happens to study there, with just enough time to grab an aperitivo before my meeting time with my friend Sofia. One of my best friends in the world, we met on our incredible language immersion program in the Icelandic Westfjords back in 2016, and hadn't seen each other since I was in Italy the previous winter. Since she's doing a lot of amazing things in her life right now, starting a PhD program in Torino while doing a journalistic writing job on the side, we unfortunately had far less time to spend together this time around, but we took full advantage of it, heading back to her beautiful and worldly little family apartment, ordered in two pizzas, and talked for nearly five hours straight of all matters of travels, realizations, love, friendships, poetry, personal projects and goals, and more that had come up since our last meeting, continuing over breakfast the next morning as well. I'm sorry both that we didn't get to spend more time together, and that I didn't get to be in Bologna longer, as it's truly one of my favorite cities in all Italy and all the world. But I'm so grateful for what we had, and for both efficient planning and lovely company, the 12 hour encounter felt much longer. And now I look forward to hosting her for a long weekend in Turku come May. :)

  • Once I said goodbye to Sofia, I headed right on ahead to the Central Station to begin my journey towards my last destination of the Grand Tour, Como, which ended up being one of the most time consuming due to a transfer in Milan, and my absentmindedly hopping off the train at the wrong station and needing to grab a new one. But in any case, I made it to Como relatively sane and in one piece, and had a hug from my fellow Turkish CLSer in Baku this past summer, Giovanna, waiting for me. :) We went for a long walk together around the lakeside path, taking in the beautiful views of the water and the mountains at dusk (and ended up being commandeered to take part in a marriage proposal in the process), had an aperitivo in the center, and then went back to her family's place in the nearby hilltop village of Casnate con Bernate for a delicious dinner of spaghetti alla matriciana, one of my favorite Roman dishes, and reminisced further about our time in Baku over a National Geographic documentary on Azerbaijan that her family had recorded. The next morning, we took the train together into Milan, explored the city center and the Castello Sforzesco, and had a tasty lunch and interesting conversation with an ex TV announcer who waited on us at a restaurant in the trendy Brera neighborhood. It was my first CLS reunion since we all said goodbye to each other last August in waves - first in Baku, then in the airport in Baku, then in the airport in DC - and it was a wonderful one. Giovanna and I are both half American and half Italian, but in reverse ways, having grown up in Italy and the USA respectively, and it's absolutely fascinating to discuss our identities and feelings about our places in the world and how many parallels there are between them, in spite of the fact that we experience the intersection differently. 

It was an incredibly refreshing time, full of lovely reunions and memories made with dear friends, and was absolutely worth it. But after days that had been that jam packed with plans and movement and SO. MANY. TRAINS., I was quite glad to head back to Viadana, hunker down for a few days over some dubbed Italian Disney movies and episodes of RuPaul's Drag Race, and sleep in generously before my family arrived from the U.S.

When they did arrive, on the morning of Christmas Eve no less, it was truly one of the best holiday gifts I could ever have asked for. I've missed a lot of things in the U.S. while I've been abroad since September, and they're certainly top of the list. Since they all rented a car and drove down from the airport, the bear hug-filled reunion took place on the street outside of my grandmother's apartment building, rather than the arrivals hall of Malpensa as I'd so often imagined in the months we'd spent apart. I ran into each of their arms and hugged them hard enough to jolt them out of their jet lag for just a minute. :)
The holiday celebrations began pretty much right from there. We had a big Christmas dinner together with my grandmother, uncle, and aunt, complete with traditional seafood dishes, and then stopped by my aunt's relatives to say hello, where I spent Christmas Eve the previous winter. The next morning, with everyone feeling refreshed after a solid night's sleep and two meals of Nonna's cooking, conversation was even more stimulating. Thoughtful gifts were exchanged, and we spent a lovely time catching up and discussing all matters of things.

The next big highlight was a two-day trip that we took with two of my mom's childhood friends, who have always been close family friends of ours, to Naples. Though I was definitely excited to go and glad that I got to, seeing as Naples is an important city within Italy and the south remains a part of the country that I have not seen very much of, I'll be frank in saying that I don't think whoever chose to travel to the south in the winter made the best decision. We had the grave misfortune to be there over two days of awful weather, in which it rained constantly and the winds ruined all the umbrellas we continued to buy within twenty minutes of purchase. But the final morning, when the skies opened up and a radiant golden sun lit up the city's grand coral palazzi and quiet grey alleys, which we spent wandering along the coast and admiring the imposing figure of Vesuvius across the sapphire bay, made everything completely worth it.

I spent New Year's at my friend Francesco's house, just as I had the year before (though this time with my sister as well), but this time it was an intimate gathering of close friends relaxing over some good food and wine, rather than a huge party like last time. We rang in 2018 comfortably and happily, with another New Year's to remember, though in a completely different way.

At that point, given that I had to be in Turku by the 3rd of January at the latest for my exchange student orientation, the time I had left in Italy with my family at that point was little. As I recall, we took little trips within the vicinity of Viadana to have some fun and discover the area a little more. We spent one afternoon in Sabbioneta, a town about fifteen minutes away from Viadana by car which is a UNESCO World Heritage sight by merit of its lovely historic center and well preserved ducal palace, theaters, churches, and synagogues, and spent some time touring the ducal palace and grand theater. I remember once when I was in Italy as a child, perhaps around ten years old, I visited a Gonzaga palace like that one with my mom and sister, and my mom saying something along the lines of "we're learning about our ancestors," which made the whole structure come alive for me in a way it hadn't been before, and I have never forgotten.
Then we also spent an afternoon in Modena with my aunt and uncle, enjoying some hot chocolate and admiring the lovely architecture of its piazza and own leaning church that is far less famous than that in Pisa.

My parents accompanied me to Malpensa for my direct Finnair flight to Helsinki on the morning of the 3rd, hugged me goodbye in front of the security line, and so once again I found myself embarking on a solo journey, ready for my next great adventure.

Overall, this was a truly lovely trip. Every time I return to Italy is soothing and revitalizing for me, both body and soul, and brings new opportunities to connect with and understand my own identity, background, and culture. And this was no exception. When I'd visited the winter before, I was feeling a little bit insecure within my identity, not fully confident with it and feeling like my Italianness was not being fully recognized. Thanks to advancement in my own academic knowledge and therapeutic experiences I'd had in bonding with the Italian community I found among the international students in Moscow, I felt far more comfortable and confident this time in the context of that particular matter. What was very interesting to me was the way that the experience sort of changed being there with my whole family. We'd not gone all together at the same time since I was thirteen, and much has changed since then. The last couple of times I've gone in particular, I've always either gone just with my mother or alone, and in both of those cases I find that the linguistic and cultural immersion within the local context is truly total. But this time, being all together the experience felt much more dual, as I was speaking English with my dad and my sister, and so felt like I was experiencing a meeting of both cultures at the same time, rather than moving into the local one fully. In any case, it was quite interesting to experience it in that way, and to be together with my family after so many months apart.