Last night, I helped a man find his way to the Central Railway Station here in Helsinki. Having just arrived in Helsinki, not being accustomed to the colder weather (it was around 33 degree at the time), and not understanding the Finnish language to any degree, the man – who will be called L — was lost in a city he’d never been to before, far away from his home in Russia. And in fact, I’m pretty sure this might have been his first time outside of Russia. He seemed lost, cold, and eager for any sense of guidance in this foreign city.
When he initially approached me, showing me an address on his phone, I didn’t know how to help him. I still don’t really know directions here, and I definitely didn’t know how to get to where he was trying to go. I told him I was sorry that I couldn’t be of more help and went on my way. But realizing that there was a mall right across the street, I walked back intending to tell him about the access to free Wi-Fi that the mall provided to shoppers. As I approached L, I overheard him talking on the phone about a white church – a place I definitely knew how to get to. I offered to walk him to the church, and he graciously accepted almost immediately. He was looking for a particular hostel, and apparently it was located near the Cathedral, the most popular church in Helsinki (and I would venture to say in the entirety of Finland). It was nearby and I was just walking around anyways, so for me it was no big deal. But for him, it probably seemed like a godsend.
It was only after I left L that I realized I knew exactly what he was going through. My first day in Helsinki was more or less the same experience (except maybe the part about the weather, though that…let’s say “surprise”… would definitely come in time). This past month has flown by, but I remember that first day like it just happened.
When I first arrived in Helsinki from Stockholm, I was beat. The eighteen hours of traveling had taken their toll, and I was just glad that there were no more flights I had to rush to (when I arrived in Stockholm from Chicago, I had a 40 minute layover – 35 of which were spent in a customs line). My suitcase arrived in baggage claim quickly, and I was soon off to my apartment with the Aalto University tutor assigned to pick me up from the airport. Even from the short 30 minute drive from the airport, I could tell that Finland was a beautiful country; I had seen vast stretches of treetops from my descent into Helsinki, and it reminded me how much I miss seeing all of the natural green-ness everywhere. It’s just not a common sight in San Diego, so seeing it in such abundance made me happy. Once I got to my apartment, I briefly introduced myself to my roommate David (from Austria!), checked in with my dad, and then passed out on my bed, using my stack of underwear as my pillow (not exactly the most comfortable thing, but it was better than nothing). The rest of that day was spent getting some much needed sleep, unknowing of the day ahead of me.
Sometime the next morning, I realized that my packing job (largely done the day before my departure) and general preparations were…insufficient, to say the least. By the time I woke up, my computer had died, and the adapter I brought would not fit my computer charger. I realized I had forgotten to pack a towel, which obviously meant I couldn’t take a shower. And I had no access to Wi-Fi, which most crucially meant I had no access to Google Maps, which meant I had no idea how to get to the places I needed to get to in order to purchase things like a towel (IKEA naturally) or an international adapter (verkkokauppa.com, like a big Best Buy but with a domain name as the name of a store). With the confidence that I would be on my way in no time, I set off at around 8:30 am to buy some towels from a store recommended by my roommate.
Morale took a hit within 30 minutes. I more or less wandered the area around my apartment looking for the store, but to no avail. By the time I actually found the store, it hadn’t opened yet. And when the store had in fact opened, I found no towels (and I was pretty desperate for a shower, as I still had that almost-full-day-of-traveling-dirty feeling all over). Defeated, I selected an apple juice from the refrigerated section and made my way to the train station to hopefully get any directions for IKEA (I’ll get to buying things listed only in Finnish later, but just know that I was searching for a sense of certainty at this point, and that bottle of apple juice was something in which I could be certain of knowing what it was).
The train station was no more of a consolation. After being asked how to get to IKEA (pronounced ee-key-uh, by the way), the only answer I really received was “Well, that’s pretty far away.” I would realize later that day that I was not actually at the train station and the desk I approached was more like a security information desk, but still the answer struck another blow to my morale. I entered a shop next to the info desk – one which I still go to at least once a week – and bought a breakfast sandwich. At this point, I was just about ready to have the first of maybe three potential breakdowns of the day.
When I returned to my apartment after eating, I locked myself out of my room…twice. The worst part about it was it wasn’t because I forgot my key in my room, but rather because I didn’t know how to operate the locks. It turns out pounding on the door is not how you open it. After eventually being taught how to use the lock by the live-in housing assistant (twice), I finally was able to enter my room. Tears of frustration and desperation may have been welling up, but another breakdown was avoided. This was before 11 am.
After spending some time in my apartment, desperate to just do something with some intentionality, I asked what my roommate had planned for the day. He said he was heading to campus (his campus, not mine, but I didn’t know that yet) and asked me if I wanted to join him. I jumped at the chance. At the train station, David showed me how to buy day passes and we made our way to the school. Once we arrived, he head off to a meeting he had to attend, and I made my way around campus. I was just glad I finally knew where I was. Heading to the library after wandering around a bit, I immediately logged on to a computer, updated my dad on my current predicament, and looked up directions to IKEA. It was at about this point that I questioned what I was even doing in a place like Finland, but that was essentially a product of being overwhelmed than any actual doubt in my choice in study abroad location. I would eventually made my way to IKEA (well, after I took one wrong bus), bought some necessities for my room, and eventually arrived back at my apartment only to pass out on my bed soon after. It had been a long day.
What I’m trying to say is…well, I knew what L was going through. I too had been lost, confused, overwhelmed by this entirely foreign place. Having even one person provide any sort of guidance can be the difference between regaining a sense of control in stressful, unfamiliar circumstances and having an emotional breakdown (or two…or three…). I eventually got L to the train station, where a friend-of-a-friend was going to pick him up. An unexpected hug of appreciation followed, and with a handshake and well-wishes, we said our goodbyes. He thanked me for my being very “communicable” and gave me some hand wipes as a gesture of thanks. I told him good luck and to enjoy Helsinki while he was here. With a smile and a wave, I made my way toward my train home.
My time in Helsinki so far has been amazing. To try to explain these past six weeks would be impossible, but what I can say is that it has been a time of learning. There’s so much to see, so much to do, so much to hear – there’s just so much stuff to experience all over the place! If you’ve read this entire mess of journal entry, just know that I’m figuring stuff out (How do you know if you’re buying laundry detergent if the words on the packaging are only in Finnish? The answer is you don’t) and I’m always doing something – even if that something is just walking around the park in Hakaniemi, watching the sun set, or reading at a pop-up café next to the Market Square. I’ve come a long way since that first day, and I haven’t had any problems even remotely similar to those experienced that day (with the exception of doing laundry, as it is hard to operate machinery when the directions are primarily in Finnish). But now I realize that those issues, which seem so minor and easily solvable now, were all part of the experience of just being here. My time here has been smooth sailing since, but you appreciate the smoother waters when some of the choppiness is behind you – and sometimes you even laugh at how trivial those times seem now.
I plan to update this more frequently from now on. I wouldn’t expect too many long posts like this from here on out. But I will be traveling much, much more in the coming weeks so you can expect some updates with photos soon. I’ll also try to post some of my photos of things that I’ve done since getting here. I am planning to put up more of my pictures on Facebook, and I am always uploading pictures to my Instagram account (callmejarjar). Expect lots of pictures of public art. And maybe a reflection or two on saunas. But if anything, look forward to more content, and I’ll talk to you soon!