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. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014


Life is beautiful lately. My life is unfolding in the most beautiful way.

I've always been sort of a neurotic, anxious person. As I described in my previous post, sometime last summer I began the process of letting go; I think I was tired and seduced by the sun, and the spell that kept me in a sort of self-made prison was broken. I feared it wouldn't last into the winter, but it very much has.

Although I still have far, far too little teaching work, the quality of my teaching has improved. I'm more confident, more adept, and I feel more relaxed standing in front of a class. I had a few troubling experiences last year, but those really served to vet me. Nothing can touch me now.

I'll be taking the YKI testi in April, which I'm not terribly worried about. Should I be? While I'm well below the ylin taso, I think I have a firm grasp of the things that I anticipate will be on the keskitaso test. Don't worry - I'm studying my ass off regardless. It's good for me to do so anyway.

I see a therapist. I started seeing her last winter when the depths of my depression and the burden of my anxiety were too much to take. I see her less often now, once every two or three weeks, and I think our sessions will conclude altogether fairly soon. She's given me a really beneficial, third-party perspective on who I am and why.

She once described an autobiography she'd read about a Rwandan genocide survivor. This woman, as you might expect, led a life of twists, turns and uncertainty. My therapist said, "I thought of you and how there are many, many ways in which to live a life."

I was kind of stunned by the comparison. It seemed almost crass. I have never wanted for food or shelter, nor have I ever, ever feared for my life or for the safety of my family. I am certain that my cushy existence bears little resemblance to that of this person. Still, I think what she meant was that I've led a rather strange life. I've made strange choices. There's been a fair amount of upheaval and tumult, although both are a result of my own meandering whims. It was surprising and enlightening to realize this.

In a sense, this tendency to meander is something I've really got to watch, observe and keep in check. In another, it's something I must to some extent accept. I'm not a person who's ever had average desires or plans. Hell, I'm not someone who's ever had a plan at all. It might be nice if I did, but I simply don't. All I have are tentative ideas about what might come to pass. That's not to say that I don't desire to work towards something; on the contrary, I feel a need, a compulsion to carve a productive, happy place for myself. I just have an overwhelming sense that life, opportunities, circumstances and seemingly innocuous choices will lead me to places of which I cannot even dream. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

I know some things have to change

My adolescence continues.

Since the last, glorious summer, my definition of home has undergone a fairly significant revision. The intense homesickness I felt a year ago has receded and been replaced by a sense of tentative comfort as well as a deep affection for Lappeenranta.

I feel rootless, as though nothing is keeping me in any one place or in any particular station. Even so, when I imagine leaving Lappeenranta, or Finland in general, I feel the loss.

My Finnish is improving by leaps and bounds every day. I don't even think to measure my progress much anymore; what I know is that I'm able to use it, understand it, and I don't fear mistakes or misunderstandings as I used to. I can't be expected to speak it perfectly, naturally or colloquially yet, nor can I expect flawless, fluent comprehension on my end.

I'm still lonely, and I still yearn for connection, but my outlook is a positive one.

A few things have helped me to become happier, I think. The first and foremost is regular exercise. Running has improved my quality of life in innumerable ways; it has made me healthier and more satisfied with my body, it has required me to fulfill a daily obligation, even if said obligation is only to myself, and it's given me a chance to enjoy and explore Lappeenranta.

I've noticed something else, too: the more I'm able to form associations between music and my existence in LPR, the more at home I feel. For instance:

I associate this song with sitting by the lake at midnight, looking out over the dusky, late-June horizon.

And when I hear this song, I think of running past the hiekkalinna, the sun on my face and my lungs filling with summer.

But my good memories and their corresponding songs aren't limited to warm weather.

It wouldn't be winter without some good drone. I think of nighttime walks in the snowy November woods when this song pops up on shuffle.

So, if you're struggling to integrate, to find joy and connection, I say, force the issue. Suck joy like a sponge from the things you love, and take good care of yourself. Form a healthy obsession. Accept things for what they are. And, though I hate to be one of "those people", exercise daily.

Good to be back.