My first weeks in Finland have been busy, exhausting and exhilarating. For the entire first week, I didn’t have a single meal by myself— a good thing, because finding ingredients in the grocery store can be a bit of a puzzle sometimes. Finnish is probably one of the most difficult languages to learn, and I’m not new to learning languages. Before I left, I borrowed a few books and a CD from the library, but after a month of faithful reading and listening, I was really only able to say moi (hi), anteeksi (excuse me), kiitos (thank you) hyvää päivää (good day), and kurja ilma tänään (miserable weather today.) I was thoroughly overwhelmed and a little hesitant to speak English my first few days. As Americans, we’re taught that when we travel, it’s rude to assume that everyone knows English and that they feel like speaking it with you. But it became increasingly difficult to communicate with my limited Finnish, so I soon gave in. I do have plans to continue learning Finnish though, so hopefully soon I will be able to do more than describe the weather.
I arrived on a Wednesday and spent the rest of the week taking care of bureaucratic things like purchasing my bus pass and applying to be a resident of Helsinki, which apparently is necessary in order to get paid. Some of these tasks were a little reminiscent of waiting in line at the DMV, where you take a number and wait in a long line–except here, they actually call your number in under ten minutes. So far, efficiency and organization have been top-notch. You even take a number at the post office, even when you’re the only one there.
That weekend I attended a bar mitzvah at the community, where I met at least 200 people, including many of the community members, young adults and teenagers I will be working with. Many of them were already aware that I was arriving, so I didn’t have to explain too much. Since then, I’ve been able to put more names to faces, and I’ve only had a few embarrassing instances of mixing people up.
Basya, last year’s JDC fellow, returned from a trip later that week. She slept on the couch in my new/her old apartment, and we overlapped in Helsinki for two weeks, which I was extremely grateful for. She showed me some of her favorite spots in the city, tricks for using public
transportation, and introduced me to some of her friends. We spent many evenings jamming to Finnish pop music while setting up my apartment and crafting for the upcoming events at the synagogue. Although it is, of course, a generalization, many people in Finland are quite reserved and not incredibly forthcoming, especially to a newcomer. Personal introductions are extremely important, and sometimes it takes even two or three introductions to establish a relationship. I have a strange feeling that had Basya not been here, I would not yet have met anyone my age.
That Sunday was Aira, a learning seminar for women that Basya and another woman from the community, Avital, had organized. Over 50 women attended, and the sessions ranged from the history of Jewish dress to sexuality and spirituality. I had a chance to have dinner with two of the speakers who flew in from London and Israel that Friday at the Chabad house, and I found myself speaking with pride about the culture and community I was beginning to call home.
The next weekend, I hosted my first Friday night dinner for Finnish young adults, ages 18-24. Basya started this tradition last year, and after hearing from some of the people involved, I see the
importance of this series of dinners in giving Finnish young adults a space to be Jewish on their own terms. In fact, when they heard that I would be taking Basya’s place, a few young adults implored me to continue this tradition. Many went to the Jewish day school, which ends after 9th grade, and lost touch afterwards. Others never attended the school and felt far removed from the community. The dinners are fun—two or three people will come a few hours early to help cook and set up, the blessings are said, everyone eats, drinks, plays a card game or two, and spends the rest of the night together, whether in or out. Developing a group for these young adults to stay connected is so important, and a record 25 people showed up to my (way too small) apartment this past Friday!
To end the whirlwind two weeks, the synagogue celebrated its 110th anniversary with a ceremony and gala that Sunday. I helped out with many of the logistics, and as an usher I met one of the bishops of Helsinki and the Finnish Speaker of Parliament.
I tried very hard the next weekend to get out of the city, but was only really successful on Sunday. Both the Viikki nature reserve and Tarvaspää appeared like day trips on a map, but in reality were both accessible by 20 minute Helsinki bus rides–classic Finland, where the public bus drops you off exactly where you want to go, even if it’s a lake in the middle of nowhere. In both places, the water was pristinely flat and reflective, the air smelled of raw birch, and I found spots along the shore to curl up with the book I’ve been reading, Riding with Reindeer: a true story of the bicycle trip of an American Jewish man from Helsinki through Arctic Lapland and Norway. Many of the people I have met and places I have visited were already featured in the book, which gave me a strange sense of importance. Sunday I went to Porvoo, a medieval town about an hour outside of Helsinki. It was a sleepy day, and many of the shops in the old town were closed, but the cobblestone streets and red huts along the shore, which were painted in traditional red, felt like the “real Finland” everyone has been talking about.
I’m looking forward to another busy few weeks as I’m getting ready to start some of my own BBYO programming and prepare events for the high holidays!
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