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Cover of the Winter 2008 issue


VOL. 34, NO. 2





Spectacular 'Finnish': Study abroad experience
brings friends, food, family heritage
closer to home

Oulu statue of a policeman

The chubby statue of a policeman at the marketplace of Oulu is a fine representative of Oulu people. It has been photographed by hundreds of tourists—and locals—every year. (large image)

“How do you know two Finns are friends? Well, they’re both looking at their feet—and they’re friends if they look at the other’s foot instead of their own,” says Jeremy Roberts, jokingly, to describe the social shyness of the Finnish people. A fifth-year nuclear engineering undergraduate, Roberts spent the 2006–2007 school year in Tampere, Finland, the country’s third-largest city with a population of about 200,000, comparable to Madison.

Roberts says he was impressed by the Finns’ appreciation of nature. He says the public transportation is phenomenal and he misses the unpolluted air. The result of the cultural focus on conservation is a beautiful forest landscape, he says. “Within five minutes, you can get to three lakes in Tampere,” says Roberts.

While overseas, Roberts attended the Tampere University of Technology (TUT). The TUT website refers to the institution as Finland’s most international university, and Roberts says his experiences there definitely broadened his world view. “It’s a profound experience to leave the United States and see another technologically advanced country,” he says. “It makes you take a step back and look at what’s going on in the world beyond you.”

Roberts lived in an international apartment with roommates from Pakistan and Germany. Though most classes were in English and he communicated with his roommates in English, he attempted to take kvantti koneoppi, or quantum mechanics, in Finnish. “The subject was hard enough, but with translating the information into English and translating the homework back into Finnish, well, I’m not that good,” Roberts says.

Overall, Roberts says his language skills were good enough for him to get around in day-to-day life. He has taken Finnish language courses at UW-Madison since his freshman year; his interest in the country stems from his family heritage. “My ancestry is Finnish, and my grandparents live in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where there’s a Finnish plurality,” he says.

Roberts’ interest in the Finnish culture helped him overcome the Finns’ social hesitancy and make friends with local students. His international tutor, Noora, was glad he tried to speak and learn the language, and they became friends quickly. “A lot of people will open up if you show genuine interest in something, whether it be a language or attending a metal concert,” he says, referencing the hugely popular metal music genre in Finland.

Roberts’ travels encompassed the entire country. He visited Helsinki, Finland’s capital near its southern tip. Because the city was created as the capital during Russian rule, the bulk of Helsinki’s downtown architecture is modeled on St. Petersburg.

In the northern Lapland province, he saw a lot of reindeer. The animals still are herded by the Sami people, who comprise Europe’s largest indigenous group, and Roberts spent time learning about the culture at a local museum.

He says a sense of direction, a sense of humor, and perseverance are key to international travel. While visiting Moscow with Spanish friends, Roberts thought he lost his passport—and in a country where English is not spoken commonly, he had to approach several people for directions to the embassy. “You try communicating in their language—you sound silly, but if you try in your language, you sound Martian,” he says. “Taking it all in stride is pretty important.”

Roberts finally did find an English speaker who directed him to the embassy. “Perseverance in the face of extreme unintelligibility, headaches and exhaustion worked out for this good old Yank,” he says.

His sense of humor was especially important when his Spanish friend discovered they hadn’t actually lost the passports in the first place.

Language problems weren’t the hardest adjustment Roberts made, however. “Finland gets dark at 3 or 4 in the afternoon in the winter, and it’s unnerving,” he says. “It just throws you off.”

Other lifestyle changes came in the form of food. While in Finland, Roberts became a fan of rye bread. Finns use rye extensively; Roberts says Finns told him the flat, coarse bread with a hint of sour was the first thing they missed when outside of Finland.

There were parts of the Finnish culture and cuisine, however, that Roberts opted out of experiencing—including mustamakkara, a black blood sausage he says he wouldn’t touch.

Roberts encourages everyone to consider traveling and living abroad. “Don’t pass up the opportunity to go,” he says. “It’s totally worth it wherever you go.”

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