(Lokakuu means October, and the cover photo is near my apartment – my daily walk to the gym!)
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Usually, weather is a topic reserved for small talk. But Finland is a magical place where small talk does not exist and weather is one of the hottest topics of conversation (yes, pun intended.)
September 25, a month after my arrival, marked the first time I actually felt cold. I was standing outside waiting for the tram, and suddenly realized that I could use an extra few layers. October 21 marked the first time I saw snow in Finland—just a few flakes, but nobody was surprised. “Don’t get too excited,” Marja, one of the teachers in the kindergarten, told me. “You’ll be seeing a lot of snow.” The weather has been changing drastically by the week, and it’s gradually acceptable to wear more and more layers. In early October, people started wearing peacoats. Ankles were covered up. Everyone was wearing a scarf. In mid October, young children started wearing snowsuits. People started wearing reflective stickers and keychains, which are truly lifesaving devices as the daylight grows dimmer. I think my bus pass is actually reflective.
These days, the sun is a winter sun: it’s often cloudy and the light is muted, but during sunrise and sunset (which grow increasingly later and earlier,) the light shines through the trees in a brilliant way. If I’m going to be outside for longer than 5 minutes, I’ve started wearing fleece-lined leggings and leather gloves. I even braved the Finnish version of Black Friday (Hullut Päivät) to find some more scarves and hats—and I wasn’t surprised that the Finnish Black Friday is much more mild-mannered than American Black Friday.
This month, I also joined a gym, which has been a cultural experience in itself. My gym has four or five locations throughout the city, each with a different set of classes and amenities. The location closest to my apartment was converted from an old movie theater and is open 24 hours. I’ve been to a few classes—all in Finnish, of course, so I do my best to stay in the back and not get called out–because if that happened, I would honestly not even know if I was being spoken to.
Each gym has at least one sauna, a huge part of Finnish culture, which I really have yet to explore. It took me a few days to surreptitiously snap enough pictures of the signs to be able to translate them, and a few more days of observing before I could figure out how to open the door. The first time I went inside, I was relieved that the room was empty so I could enjoy my sauna in peace without worrying that I was doing everything wrong—and then an old lady came in. I was wearing a towel. She was not. I knew it was going to happen… but I was still caught off guard. I left thirty seconds later.
Realizing that it is quite difficult to communicate with the younger kids I work with, I also decided to start a Finnish class at the equivalent of the community college here (Helsingin aikuisopisto – adult education center). Most of the people in my class are between 20-30 and came here for work. We have two Australians and one other American, and the rest speak limited English: there are people from Spain, France, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Brazil, Afghanistan, Iran, Italy, and one guy from the Åland Islands, which are an autonomous archipelago in Finland, where only Swedish is spoken. When the girl from Indonesia asked where I was from, and I told her America, she was confused. “America is a good place to live in,” she said. “So why would you leave?” It struck me that many of these people may have left their countries in search of better opportunities. I told her I was only here for one year, and she was also confused. So far, we have learned the names of the letters (not super useful), numbers, days of the week and various ways to say hello, which there are a lot of, especially for a country where people don’t greet each other in stores or on the bus.
A new friend of mine showed me Finnish Nightmares, a popular blog that pokes fun at especially awkward aspects of Finnish culture. (Its description on Instagram is uncomfortable social situations, uncomfortable everything.) Follow Matti as he navigates life in Finland, and maybe things will make more sense:
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