Today I'm going to be focusing on giving an overall impression of the five months I spent living as an exchange student in Turku, Finland, having just written about the specific adventures and trips that took me out of the mold of my everyday life in the Nordic countries that semester.
I left Italy on January 3 of this year, having been there for about three weeks with my extended family, joined as well by my parents and sister for part of the time when they came to spend Christmas with us all. I boarded my flight from Milan to Helsinki full of a disbelieving and surreal anticipation, watching a journey to a place I had dreamed of living in since I was eleven years old come to life before my eyes. I landed in the sleek and glassy architectural marvel of the Helsinki Vantaa Airport, and took a bus through darkness and belatedly hanging Christmas lights two hours to Turku to start the adventure of the next five months of my life.
I lived in a section of the Student Village housing in a neighborhood called Varissuo, about fifteen minutes from the center of Turku on the city bus service, in an apartment which I shared with two other exchange students, a French guy who had been there since the first semester, and a Mexican guy who had just arrived alongside me.
I studied at the University of Turku, one of about five or six different universities located in town, taking full advantage of my freedom as an exchange student to take courses across different departments: Finnish for Foreigners, Variations of the Finnish Language, Nordic Gendered Norms and Practices, Finnish Society: Culture and Institutions, Cross Border Areas in the Baltic Sea Region, and a Practical Swedish night class at a continuing education institute outside of the city's university systems entirely.
When I wasn't in class, I often did my work or studied in the plentiful work benches or little corners complete with couches and desks in the hallways of the academic buildings, or in the lovely Feeniks Library. I often walked around the center of the city, the old town square near the medieval cathedral, and the park on the hill where the Turku Art Museum looks down on the city. Turku, as I mentioned in one of my previous Finland posts, is full of adorable and high-quality cafes of all vibes and calibers, and I found it wonderful to sample all of them, forming a special connection in particular with my favorite, Kembuz Cafe, whose cardamom coffees and smoothie bowls I enjoyed on many occasions over good books and Finnish homework.
One of my favorite things about Finland in general, no less true of Turku as a city, is that there's a strong connection to, proximity to, and respect for nature. My neighborhood, fifteen minutes from the center of town, was located in a suburban area interspersed with tracks of fresh pine forest which, if you wandered in for a while, you might forget there was any city nearby at all. In particular, the banks of a nearby lake called Littoistenjärvi, about a twenty minute walk from my building, became a place of refuge. I would walk to the lake nearly every day, sitting on a vantage point atop a tall outcropping of rocks with a lovely view of the calm cobalt waters and twin islands that stood in the center of the lake, and as the days lengthened I was treated to some sublime and indescribably beautiful sunsets from that spot.
Overall, my time living and studying in Turku was a very happy and rewarding one in my life. I loved living and being in Finland, and being able to study Finnish and Swedish, which are two languages I very deeply love and have wanted to learn for a long time. Turku and Finland in general are very calm and safe places that it was easy to navigate, and I found quite comfortable operating within and adapting to the local culture. The things I was learning in my university courses were fascinating, fulfilling, and rewarding in a way I can barely begin to describe.
But it was also not without its challenges. Because I was underinformed both by my hosting organization and the Office of International Education back at my college about how many credits I needed to transfer, and the university's bureaucratic system was a nightmare to navigate and classes confusingly and contradictingly scheduled, I nearly landed myself in a place where I would have had too few credits to transfer home to keep my scholarships. Because of how long I'd been away from home, and constantly having to pack up, say goodbye to people I care about, and start over again in new places all the months prior, I felt deeply exhausted both mentally and emotionally, and this burning out led me to shut out many people around me, and avoid trying to put myself out there socially.
Perhaps the greatest challenge in my Finnish life was that I felt very disappointed and alienated in the social scene that unfolded around me as an exchange student. I came to Finland because I'd fostered a deep and personal investment in learning about Finnish culture and studying the Finnish and Swedish languages for a very long time, but this was not true for 99.9% of the others around me, many of whom didn't care about such things, and had chosen to come essentially on whims. Many of them did not care about meeting or connecting with Finns or their culture at all; only about belonging to international environments where they could speak English, and many even would go out of their way to socialize and associate only with exchange students, make fun of actual Finnish culture, and display disrespect towards locals who couldn't speak English "well enough." Many of them were younger than 20, and living away from home for the first time (going wild in the process naturally).
Drinking and partying culture was heavily dominant in the exchange student community; even though people did do other things, and there were some groups on the fringes of the community who didn't care too much about it, partying was still the centerpiece of the exchange student social scene, and anyone that wanted to do much else would be greatly hindered in making exchange student friends. In the first few months, because I was so lonely arriving without any kind of built in support system like I'd had with my fellow Beloiters and our international friends in Moscow, I grit my teeth and went to the parties. It was even kind of fun at first, as partying in Finland tends to be a pretty low pressure social thing that groups of friends do together, and people tend to be respectful of other's space even at the most crowded of times. But it was just so monotonous and shallow - meeting up at the same times, to play the same drinking games, drink the same things, playing the same playlists of background music, going to the same clubs...and not much else. I grew to hate it quite quickly because I felt just as alone as when I was by myself, because people weren't really talking to or connecting with each other. I found myself mystified as to how everyone seemed to find it fun, or how they could actually know anything about each other. People were also very disrespectful and tactless in how they handled themselves, destroying property, causing chaos, making shit tons of noise, and staying up until as late or 6 or 7 in the morning on a regular basis. At times I felt really alienated by feeling like I seemed to be the only person who disliked these things, or wanted something different out of my social experience. Because of how burnt out I felt emotionally by about the third month, and how difficult it seemed to be to find like-minded exchange students, I gave up on having an established friend group.
One of the silver linings of my experience was being able to live in the same city as my dear Finnish friend Maarit, who I met on the Icelandic program we both did two years ago in the Westfjords. I'm not a person who believes that everything happens for a reason, but that certainly most things do. And I understand now that the reason I got placed at the University of Turku by my hosting organization, rather than my first choice of the University of Helsinki, was so that I could be in the same city as her. Having a like-minded and familiar person, one who was a local and able to give wonderful insider perspective on life within Turku and all of Finland as a whole, was illuminating and therapeutic. We did so many fun things together, cooking, exploring, having fun, trying out new restaurants and cafes, going on little outdoor adventures when the weather got nice in the spring, hosting dear friends, and just learning about each other's lives, past and present. I'm so thankful that I got the chance to be in the same city as her, as that truly made my whole experience. Jos luet tänän nyt, Maarit, kiitos kaikesta sydammestä. Tuli ikävä sua.
Overall I'm incredibly thankful and happy that I got to spend my five months in Finland this past spring. There certainly were challenges. But I learned so much about things that I care about immensely, which validated my interests and dreams, changed my life, and taught me to find fulfillment in the things I learn and do privately, even when surrounded by difficulty in other aspects of life. I got to watch the transformation of twenty hours of darkness a day to twenty of sunlight, which was truly magical and allowed me to witness the land and all that defines it in a comprehensive and hollistic sense. I got to strengthen a friendship that has become one of the closest and most important in my life. Although I certainly didn't become fluent in Finnish or Swedish, I learned a lot more Swedish and became comfortable in simple conversations, and I gained a base in Finnish that I am continuing to work on and will go back to improve, hopefully soon. And even my imperfect and simplistic knowledge was enough to bring a new dimension to my interactions with locals - when I asked for directions, payed for my groceries, ordered my coffee, or other simple things like that, when I used Finnish, even more when it became obvious that I was foreign, people opened up, visibly smiled, and gave off such wonderful energy. In a more diverse university city like Turku it was easy for people to coast by using only English, and many did. But even my elementary Finnish skills brought a depth and intimacy to my Finnish experience that would have been out of reach otherwise.
I truly miss Finland, and feel nostalgic writing this. In spite of any challenges I may have faced, it definitely falls into the category of places that I now consider home at some level, and I hope to return for a longer period of time at the earliest opportunity.
Halauksia ja rakkautta Suomeen ja kaikille suomalaisille ystävilleni!