Thursday, June 25, 2015

Land of The Free

I arrived on U.S. soil (after not having been back for two years) about three weeks ago. I'll be back in Finland by this Sunday morning.

I've experienced reverse culture shock in ways that I never would have anticipated. I thought I might find food-related things surprising - the overflowing supermarket shelves, the enormous portion sizes, tipping culture - and of those things, it was really only the last that gave me pause (the other two delighted me, actually).

The real shock, though, was the idea that I can't simply go anywhere I'd like, within reason. Since taking up running, I've become kind of outdoorsy, and I love exploring any road, street or path that looks as if it will lead somewhere interesting. There is absolutely no lack of natural (or even industrial) beauty around here, but much of it is off-limits to me or to anyone.

This is Collinsville, an industrial village that once housed an ax factory. In the last 20 years or so, it's gone from a decaying northeastern town to a genuinely nice place to explore and spend time. Some of it, though, is still very much in decay (see above). When I stole this picture, I was technically trespassing; as the sign indicates, people certainly aren't allowed to traipse through these old buildings, but even setting foot on the property is something I ought not be doing. 

Fortunately, no one seems to give a shit, and the illegality of my being there is about as serious as jaywalking (jaywalking in the U.S., that is). 

However, there are vast and wild forests everywhere, full of crude paths, overlooks and stunning vistas. Some parts are state-owned and accessible to everyone. Others (some near my childhood home, in fact) are owned by people who feel very much violated by hikers and explorers. 

In Finland, we're protected by the concept of "freedom to roam", or jokamiehenoikeus. From the Finnish Wikipedia entry: 

                              "Jokamiehenoikeuksilla tarkoitetaan jokaisen oikeutta nauttia luonnosta ja                                            hyödyntää sitä riippumatta alueen omistussuhteista."

which basically means that everyone has the right to enjoy and make use of (I assume this means to pick berries, collect mushrooms, etc.) nature regardless of who owns the land. As I understand it, this has some very reasonable limitations, like picnicking in someone's yard or "enjoying" nature through the act of destroying it. 

As I was trespassing in the woods the other day, I thought about how, in Finland, there'd have been other people there, too, enjoying the wilderness and experiencing no hesitation in doing so. On one hand, I wished more people were able to make use of those woods. On the other hand, I was glad that I didn't have to share the space with anyone else. 

Now, when I think about the fact that I'm not allowed to enter privately owned forests in which no one ever steps foot, I feel sense of indignation. I don't know that I thought much about it before moving to Finland, other than to knowingly engage in some good old trespassing every now and again. Now that it's a part of me, I'm fairly sure that every man's right is a thing I'll never renounce, 

Monday, February 2, 2015


Why, hello there.

What is there to say? I'm sorry I've gone quiet, and, I assure you, it's not that I'm dead or that I've moved back to the states or both. I suppose I've been experiencing something of a blogging crisis.

My teaching career is growing and developing, a thing regarding which I had completely lost hope a year ago. I'm nearly a functioning adult person, although I'm still painfully anxious and hopelessly fumbling sometimes. I still walk everywhere, and it gives me a sense of autonomy but also one of rootlessness, like a roving traveler.

It's just that I can't imagine why you'd care much about what I'm up to these days. I'm not a tourist or a visitor or a person fresh off the boat, only just coming to discover Finland, the existence of a partitive case, mustamakkara and the like. Although I continue to experience new things on a frequent basis, those experiences have morphed from ones novel and bemusing into something more like habitual and familiar (with, of course a dash of mitä vittua). And wasn't it my bewilderment and confusion that drew you to me in the first place?

What bewilders me now is how I ended up here. How utterly weird it is that I came to live in Finland of all places, and on little more than a whim, too. I mean, if I'd been even a little older, a little wiser, would I have ever come here at all? And yet, somehow, it's all working out and I've become someone different. Or, maybe not completely different, but I've gained a dimension. I guess that's due mainly to the language; I'd suppose I use Finnish and English in roughly equal amounts these days, though absolutely not with equal facility. Knowing Finnish has granted me a new understanding of the world -  added a new dimension to things.

So, I dunno, maybe I'll leave it up to you. Assuming you're interested at all, what would you like to know about?

Thursday, June 19, 2014

when the sun hits

As Ira Glass once said (of David Sedaris in Paris) on This American Life, learning a new language can be traumatic. Traumatic, that is, if it becomes your new mode of communication, your new everyday tongue. You have to surrender familiar words, phrases and, most wrenching of all, familiar ways of thinking. That's not all, though;  competence, fluency, security and being able to express yourself in precisely the way you intend fly out the window, seemingly lost to you forever

Basically, you have to accept that, for a long and terrible while, you're going to feel like an idiot. 

The moment in which this feeling starts to dissipate is memorable, even palpable. It might be when a native informs you your credit card is declined and you understand every word he says without strain. It might be when you're talking to a friend and manage to describe your feelings to your own satisfaction. It might be when you have that first conversation in which you do not feel lost or left behind. 

Language learners at every level have moments in which they note their own progress and think, "Wow. I sure as hell couldn't do that before." But at some point, using the language, really using it, becomes somewhat easy, if only by comparison to your abilities 1, 2, 3 months ago. It seems to me that this is the light at the end of the tunnel. This is when you start to become less and less of an idiot every day. 

I'm still an idiot, but I'm an idiot with the skills to deal with nearly any everyday situation. 


It's official. I start teaching English literature, language, and oral skills at the lukio level this autumn. Planning these courses has already been challenging and fiercely rewarding, and I feel quite at home in the environment and with my very open, kind, helpful colleagues. 

After months of boredom, I hit the jackpot. 

My life can continue now. 

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Say My Name

I haven't written about the YKI because, well, a very unfortunately timed flu prevented me from taking it.

"Oh, so you didn't end up traveling to Joensuu?" I hear you wondering.

But I did, in fact.

I was supposed to leave at 17.00 the night before. I sent a text message to my ride at around 16.05 and cancelled the whole thing. At around 16.30 I put a call in to him, cancelled my cancellation, and we were on the road by 17.00 after all. Coughing, sputtering, fever rising, I made it to the hotel and we had a bite to eat.

In short, it was a huge mistake to go there in the first place. I coughed all night, and I was feverish and very ill by morning. During the ride back to Lappeenranta, sick, defeated and depressed, I kept wondering if I could have made it through - if only I'd shoved the fever and raw throat to the back of my mind. I'm still wondering. The good news is that I'll be taking the test in August, at which time I won't even have to travel a kilometer to get there.


During the two and a half years that I've lived in Finland, I've been called many things. My family and friends pronounce my name with the emphasis on the second syllable. For most of my life, it was a somewhat unusual, even exotic name. I was almost sure to be the only Elena in any given social situation. Now, I'm simply one of a seemingly massive minority.

The one fact of my name that remains here in Finland is that no one can pronounce it correctly.

People often call me "Ellu" without so much as a moment's hesitation. I like that. It feels familiar. It feels like my Finnish persona. It also feels like an escape from being called "Ellen" with an ugly [ʌ] tacked on the end.

I've often thought of going by my middle name. It'd solidify, exemplify the transformation I have made, and it would keep my real name and my previous persona intact. Still, it would require confusing a lot of people, so I've done nothing other than toy with the idea.


My professional life is undergoing big changes. It looks as if I will be able to do what I always intended to do and what really suits me best: teach. I'll save the details for when the Ts are dotted and the Is are crossed. Basically, forget everything I said before. As usual, I'm just riding the current, hoping I don't smash my face on a rock. 

Thursday, April 3, 2014

What do I know?

A general update:

Tomorrow I'll be traveling to Joensuu. Because test spots filled up so quickly here in Lappeenranta,  I'll stay the night there and make my way to the YKI testi in the morning. Apparently I'm not the only one who's got to travel a ways. A couple of classmates of mine will be taking the test in Mikkeli.

I've applied to study at ammattikoulu. I've been thinking of changing careers, as I lack teaching work and, really, the idea of leaving academia is appealing on some level. In the US, we're taught that a university degree is a compulsory, logical next step in any given person's education. In my case, it was true. Still, it hasn't served me much in any way other than my own betterment, pleasure and edification. That's some pretty great stuff, but was it worth $50,000, a debt I'll be paying off for ages to come? I wouldn't return it for a refund, but the answer is a definitive "no."

I've thought of continuing my studies more than I can tell you. I miss learning. I'd love to keep on studying language: linguistics, literature, philology, what have you. I'd even love to change my focus and study something like psychology or pedagogy.


I can't afford to do any of that in my home country, and my Finnish skills aren't yet good enough to do so here. There are certainly a lot of opportunities to study in English, but no such programs to suit my taste in Lappeenranta. And, finally, while I'm not entirely opposed to the idea, I'm quite reluctant to move to another city.

So I'm planning to start over. I've waited so long and been so very bored. And while I've been cooped up without much to do, I've desperately missed the times when I was in a position to help people who needed it. Perhaps I was always meant to be a lähihoitaja after all.

It's not as if the intellectual challenge won't be massive; while I've made great strides with the language, I doubt very much that studying anything entirely in Finnish will be easy. To be honest, I'm really looking forward to it.

This morning, I took a short language test for foreigners who have applied to this specific program. Though my performance was nowhere near perfect, I finished long before the allotted time was over and I left feeling very good about the whole thing. I sort of feel as if I was just freed from jail. My life is moving forward. 

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Nothing - Guilty of Everything

I rarely post exclusively about music, but shoegaze band Nothing's new release has me utterly smitten. I've been listening to it for about three days straight, truth be told.

Here's a piece on them that covers a bit of their background, which I find musically fascinating. I've always seen a connection and an opportunity for convergence between shoegaze and heavier forms of music. These guys seem to embody that idea, although you could really debate just how much hardcore influence there actually is to be heard in their sound.

Either way, wherever they come from and whatever their influences are, this album is great and I love it. 

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Crazy Sexy Cool

I used to think that eating a sandwich for breakfast was truly bizarre. I remember the first time I took the Finnair flight from New York to Helsinki, I was sort of bemused to find that what they were calling "breakfast" was what I'd call "lunch": rye bread, ham, cheese and, totally out of my realm of experience, butter.

Now I'm writing to all of you at 8.00 over coffee, rye bread, ham, no cheese, and tomato.

How I've changed.

Earlier in the week, I went with a very special friend to Jyväskylä, where I had a few hours to myself in which to explore the center.

I haven't traveled nearly as much as I'd like within Finland (due to lack of funds, travel companions, etc.) so it was nice to broaden my horizons so to speak. Firstly, I was sort of amazed at how much shopping there was to do. Being right on the border, Lappeenranta is known for attracting Russian tourists with promises of shopping sprees. It made me chuckle to see just how much more there was to consume on Kauppakatu in Jyväskylä than pretty much anywhere in Lappeenranta. I've mentioned before that I'm not much of a shopper, but there's something about doing it alone, with the music in your earbuds subsuming what plays over the loudspeakers, that I really enjoy. I even bought a skirt! I think that proves there's a normal human lurking somewhere within me.

Because this winter has been unbelievably mild, it was pleasant to hang around outside, too. I found the kaupunginkirkko and the kirkkopuisto, where I sat for a while and scarfed a Mars bar.

And, finally, I found this gem in H&M:

I'd like to title this photo "Adventures in Getting Old". You see, a large percentage of my friends had both this shirt and this album when I was about 10 years old. It's now a retro item, something "the kids" wear for its nostalgia or its irony or just because they see it in H&M. On a related note, this is Finland. Was TLC even a thing in Finland? Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

And now, powered by coffee and ruisleipä, I'll take my leave and run on the snowless streets of LPR.