Ever since I was little I wanted to come here. I used to look at the poster we had on the wall of one of Finland’s 187,888 lakes and tell myself one day I would see it with my own eyes. So I was thrilled when my dream gradually turned into a reality through the process of applying for an exchange at the University of Helsinki.
I arrived in Finland the morning of the 9th of August, after an epic journey from Australia. It consisted of an 18hr flight to Doha, followed by a 5-hour flight to Helsinki, in which I got next to no shut-eye. Let’s just say I have a new record of not sleeping for 40 hours. Being alone in a new country was exhilarating but also overwhelming and nerve-racking at times. Despite being half Finnish, I had no strong family connections in the country and was the first to arrive out of my two randomly assigned housemates, so I had to figure things out for myself. I arrived at my new home which is about 30 minutes by metro to the city centre. I dragged my 27kg suitcase through the gravel and up 2 flights of stairs, only to go back down again because I had the wrong building. It was a relief when I finally found my apartment. It was clean, simple and minimalist; with essentials like a bed, table, desk, chairs, and a set of sheets. I have a room to myself and the kitchen/dining area, toilet and bathroom are shared.
Savouring the Finnish sun
Finland had just had its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Helsinki reaching 33 degrees Celsius. I took advantage of the remaining summer heat by frequenting the small ‘beach’ 5 minutes walk from my new home. I say ‘beach’ in quotation marks because it is nothing like the beaches of Australia. I now have a deep appreciation for Bondi and Hyams beach but cannot deny the quaintness of this little Finnish beach in Meri-Rastila, Helsinki. This was especially so when I saw how much Finns enjoy a warm day, spending all day outside when the sun is out. I also visited Hietaniemi beach (more like an Australian beach), for the WKND music festival, where Martin Garrix was the main act.
The next day I went north to Oulu via a 9-hour bus ride, to visit a friend I had made online years ago. It was really nice to meet in person and I got personally guided through the city’s main attractions. Oulu was near where my grandmother was from, so it was interesting to imagine what her early life may have been like, with the help of museum visits for the local history. I got the flu which made the bus trip home ridiculously bad - but still worth it. Amidst the worst day of my flu after returning to Helsinki, I got a nice surprise when Kate from North Carolina arrived. The following week, Amy from South Korea arrived. It was fun making a home with them and I feel lucky to have such easy-going, kind housemates.
After hearing too many stereotypes about antisocial Finns, I was really surprised by how fun and inclusive the student life is. There are many associations you can join and a strong focus on international students. To welcome exchange students, the university organised orientation activities and assigned us to groups with two Finnish students as guides. We explored the city, played games, signed up to our courses and extracurricular activities, went to bars and on excursions to nearby Islands. I also recruited keen students from this group to join me in the Freshers Adventure. This is a student tradition where teams wear themed costumes and run around the city on a scavenger hunt. We had a great time and enjoyed an afterparty with the main act by the famous Finnish rapper, Mikael Gabriel.
At ANU I am doing a bachelor of Arts with majors in Anthropology and Digital Humanities. This term I am taking courses in digital research methods in environmental science, research in Big Data, as well as an intensive Finnish language course. Education at UH is high quality and I am grateful to study at a university with a strong interest in Digital Humanities, being the home of the HELDIG research network. As a city, Helsinki has many exciting things happening in technology and computing and is just 2 hours by boat from the ‘Silicon Valley of Europe’, Estonia. There are often interesting events in public spaces throughout Helsinki and the University provides many opportunities for students to further their knowledge and skills through lectures, conferences, projects, and hackathons.
Pick up a new hobby and find a community
On exchange is a great time to try new things. When you move to a new place it’s important to establish connections and a sense of community. Joining clubs and picking up new hobbies is a great way to do that. I joined the Helsinki Debating Society after they persuaded me (haha) at a welcome fair. I would never have guessed I would end up doing a 12-hour debating tournament. It was super fun and I met lots of interesting people there.
Debating also improves your critical thinking, public speaking, and knowledge of current affairs. Another good piece of advice I took, was to join a gym, sport or dance class. It gets you moving, learning, socialising, adds structure to your week and is actually energising; all of which is useful in Finland where we have long dark winters.
Helsinki Culture: a peaceful but fun city
One of the first things I noticed about Helsinki was how quiet it was for a capital city. In that way, it is a little like Canberra. It is peaceful, with lots of open spaces and is not overcrowded like other European cities. Helsinki offers many sweet surprises; the cute cafes that sell korvapuusti (cinnamon buns), the vibrant Latin dance nights, the countless jäätelö (ice-cream) kiosks, museums, galleries, cultural events, and of course the saunas. The latter of which is a must-do for anyone visiting Helsinki. If you want something a little luxurious, there’s Allas Sea Pool, and for those with a sense of adventure, there’s Sompasauna, a community-run wood-burning sauna by the Baltic Sea. (Be prepared to see lots of naked people! This is a normal part of Finnish sauna culture) I am proud to say I have completed the sauna and dip in the ocean routine but am yet to do ice hole swimming. (I’ll get back to you during winter on that one!) Two months in and there is still so much to see and do here. I look forward to sharing more of my journey with you all.