1. A Year in Helsinki: Reflections

    It’s officially been over a year since I moved to Helsinki. Whew. 

    It has certainly been a challenging and rewarding year for this American ex-pat. It’s amazing how much can change in one year, isn’t it? I’ve met a lot of really amazing people and experienced my first real taste of loss. I’ve adjusted to life in Helsinki, gotten a job and kept on top of my studies. I’ve secured a primary AND secondary thesis supervisor, have a somewhat solid thesis topic and have structured my time in such a way that I will likely complete my thesis mid-spring. I’ve visited new countries, tried new things, made mistakes and somehow still manage to wake up each day to tackle new challenges.

    I think the most striking thing to me about this past year is how much I have changed. I like to think that I am seen as a relatively organized and driven person, so the aforementioned experiences shouldn’t really be too surprising to you, my dear reader. Physically, I’ve stayed pretty much the same (as I have been since I was a junior in high school), but it’s the subtle changes that I’ve experienced that are probably the most interesting, most controversial and mostly none of your business. Since this is the digital age and I am the owner of this here blog, it’s clear that I’ve waived my right to complain about the lack of privacy since I basically broadcast my thoughts, ideas and personal life to anyone that can type my name into Google. Cool, right?

    So what are these changes? Why am I making such a big deal about this? Well, for starters, these are the things that people usually don’t ask you about. People in the U.S. see you and ask “How are you?” without usually actually expecting a detailed response. After my grandfather passed away, I got a lot of these questions, to which I mostly responded that I was “fine” or “hanging in there,” but I was pretty torn up about it. Things have gotten better, but it took me a few months to really feel like myself again. Talking about the subtle changes that happen throughout the course of one’s life simply aren’t casual conversation centerpieces. Thank goodness for blogs and bloggers that are comfortable speaking candidly about their very personal experiences, right?

    For starters, my speech pattern and pronunciation have changed a bit since coming here. I annunciate more purposefully and adjust my inflection so that I am better understood by those around me. I don’t really notice the changes much until I speak with someone from back home and realize that I slip back into my somewhat lazy pronunciation and very Midwestern way of speaking.

    Living in Finland has allowed me to reflect upon my status as an American citizen and what it means in a larger context. I’ve been told countless times that I am not a “typical American,” whatever that means. Is this a compliment? Insult? Should I take pride in the lack of nationalistic proclamations in my daily vernacular ? I am not sure. But I do know that I’ve grown increasingly more frustrated by a lot of things in the U.S. The things happening in Ferguson regarding the shooting of Michael Brown are unacceptable, the way that the Chicago Police Department has dealt with crime and construing actual crime statistics is unacceptable, the human rights violations that continue to occur on the U.S./Mexico border and in the Middle East, among other places, are unacceptable, and I could go on and on.

    As an American living abroad, there are often situations where I am expected to take the blame for my country’s shortcomings. There are also scenarios where I may not be as informed about a particular issue as other people and my Americanness is called into question. But that’s the price I pay for a luxurious European lifestyle, right? I’ve received criticism in the past for openly discussing my experiences regarding identity formation and change, but I will not apologize for them. I think that reflection is an integral part of the growth process. How else can you learn and move forward? I should clarify that I am happy to be an American citizen, but also that I find ideas of nationalism somewhat problematic. I don’t believe that being of a certain nationality makes you worth more or less than another person, though I probably wouldn’t jump at the chance to become a Canadian citizen if it meant losing my American citizenship… 

    I am aware that my place in the world as a white, male American is a privileged position, and it is from this position that I approach my research. I am a firm believer in the field of ethnographic research, especially as one of its main features is the reflexivity of the researcher. It is through this reflexivity that a researcher is able to remain transparent, address biases and limitations, and open the discussion to other people for future research.

    I feel more confident and I am adjusting to my role as an “academic in training.” However, I don’t know that the life of an academic is necessarily the life for me. While I enjoy researching and the view from the ivory tower is quite enticing, I fear that I would eventually get bored unless I was able to set a lot of my own rules. I am still planning to apply to a few Ph.D programs anyway, but applications don’t necessarily mean admittance, admittance doesn’t necessarily mean that funding comes along with it and funding doesn’t necessarily mean that starting a Ph.D at the age is 24 is necessarily for me. I have a lot of thinking to do.

    The prospect of staying in Europe is very attractive to me, even as many of my friends in Chicago get promotions and nicer apartments and go on trips. I never really thought that a traditional transition from undergrad to “real life” would be for me, but I never could have guessed that my version would take me to Finland. I may have sacrificed some of my potential professional network in coming to Finland, but my personal network continues to grow and I now have friends all over the world. I definitely wouldn’t trade that for a LinkedIn endorsement.

    One of the most difficult things that I’ve had to learn in my life thus far is so accept that I wasn’t blessed with the power to see into the future, so I guess I’ll just have to hold on extra tight and enjoy the ride until I end up at my next destination. 

     

  2. On Friday I attended a free Marimekko runway show that was held in Esplanadinpuisto, a park in the center of Helsinki. The show not only showcased Marimekko’s Spring/Summer 2014 line, but also commemorates the 50th anniversary of the iconic Unikko print. It was a neat experience, and as you can tell I was right at the front!

     


  3. On Life and Loss

    When I committed to studying at University of Helsinki, I knew that the experience would bring unexpected  challenges and uncertain rewards. As with any big life change, I had to leave certain things behind to make room for new experiences and new adventures; not only did I leave behind my physical possessions that didn’t fit in my two suitcases, but I also left my friends and family. 

    Making the final decision to come to Helsinki was no easy feat, but in some ways I knew it was something that I needed to do for myself. After spending the second half of my undergraduate career working nonstop in order to avoid succumbing to more student loan debt in what has become 
    commonplace and accepted as the “American Way”, I felt that focusing on my studies would be refreshing and new, which it has been for the most part in my stay in Helsinki so far. I knew that my decision was important and that opportunities to really challenge myself as much as moving to a new country has been rarely actually become a reality. 

    While I have had my own share of frustrations, mishaps and moments of feeling lost, I still feel that coming to Helsinki is one of the most important things that I have ever done for myself. I am very fortunate to have a family that not only understood my decision to move halfway across the world, but also one that wholeheartedly supported this decision.

    And what’s more, one of the hardest things about this decision was that mere days before I flew out (four, to be exact), my grandfather had an exploratory surgery that changed the lives of my family members forever. While cancer may be something that has become commonplace in our discussions about healthcare medical research, for my family it was something inherently new and exceedingly difficult to put into context. We feared for the worst and the worst happened. 

    Now, this is where I need to pause for a moment to make sure to give you, my dear reader, some context. I come from a tough family. Both my mom and dad’s families have worked hard for everything that they have. That being said, when things get bad, you just keep on going. You can’t stop. And that’s exactly the attitude that my grandpa employed throughout his entire treatment process.

    The type of cancer that my grandfather had was called cholangiocarcinoma, which is a fancy name for cancer of the bile duct. This type of cancer is really only treatable by removal of the infected areas and is quite rare in that it only affects 1-2 in every 100,000 people. The exploratory surgery conducted on that balmy August morning left my grandmother, my mom, my aunt Joelle and me with the news that the cancer was stage 4 and had spread from his bile duct to his liver and lymph nodes.

    After recovering from this surgery, things returned to normal for a while, at least from what I can make of how things happened after I left. My grandpa came home from the hospital 20 minutes before I had to leave for the airport. Talk about timeliness. Things still seemed pretty okay at Christmastime and I am so thankful that I got to spend time with my whole family at home. I last spoke with my grandfather on the phone about two weeks ago when I called to let my grandparents know that I had officially booked the tickets to come home for my sister’s wedding this summer. 

    In many ways, I think I am still processing the news that my grandfather is gone. As the oldest grandchild, I think I probably have more memories of him and more stories to tell than my sisters and cousins might. He definitely took the most video footage of me as compared to my other family members… But that can probably be attributed to the newness of both the camcorder technology and having a baby around. I mean, how much video can you really take of sleepy, crabby baby? Apparently a LOT. 

    But I think one of the hardest things for me is probably also one of the most selfish. I know that I lost one of my biggest supporters in virtually everything I have ever tried in my life.  Now that I’m a bit older, I suppose I have fewer band concerts and performances and sporting events to attend, but I always took comfort in knowing that no matter what happened, my grandpa would still be there to help me up (or at least try to make me eat my weight in whatever was in the kitchen at that time)

    I am so, so thankful for modern technology, since I was able to keep in regular contact with my grandpa and also receive updates about his condition (I mean, I may have played a role in convincing my grandparents to buy an iMac instead of another P.C. My grandma even has an iPad!).

    Cancer, being the unpredictable and untamable beast that it is, sometimes causes its victims pain and suffering in ways hard to predict and also grueling to treat. I feel a sense of relief knowing that my grandpa isn’t suffering anymore. It’s never easy to see your sources of strength in their weakest moments, but I am glad that he passed on surrounded by the people that he loved. I am also so glad to have the ability to join my family at home for a bit of peace and quiet and good old fashioned family bonding. My grandfather made me promise that I wouldn’t home home “when [he] croaked,” but that was simply a promise I could not keep.

    Gramps, I’ll miss you more than you probably could have ever guessed. Thanks for everything. I’ll do my best to live a life that would make you proud. 

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  4. Helsinki at night.

     

  5. Snapshots from Stockholm.

     

  6. This is a runebergintorttu, a pastry that is named for Finland’s national poet, Johan Ludvig Runeberg. Legend has it that Runeberg’s wife created the pastry and that he ate them for breakfast every day. These delicious goodies are only available from the beginning of January until February 5th, which is Runeberg’s birthday. 

    They’re pretty rich and are typically flavored with rum and almonds and traditionally feature a dollop of jam (usually raspberry) on top of a sugar ring. I tried mine with my friend Emma at Kanniston Leipomo, one of my favorite bakeries here in Helsinki.

     


  7. New Year, New Direction

    Welcome to the year 2014!

    I’m aware that it’s been well over a month since I last posted on this ol’ blog of mine. I am also aware that it is 3:20 am here in Helsinki as I’m typing this, but I am somewhat jetlagged still and my apartment feels like it is located on the equator with no air conditioning (they’re fixing my radiator and have to keep it on the max setting, or something). But, in my defense, a lot has happened and I have been mulling over taking this piece of internet in a new direction. I’ll give you a brief overview of the past month of my life:

    • My sister got engaged (and is subsequently planning to be married this summer).
    • I turned the dreaded 23, but it’s not so bad so far.
    • I finished up my first semester of grad school.
    • I won the (traineeship grant) lottery! This means that I am guaranteed three months at a paid internship somewhere in Helsinki… If someone hires me (I also now conveniently have summer plans). 
    • I went home for the holidays and spent time with family and friends, though unfortunately missed out on seeing many people due to schedules, the stomach flu, lack of transportation and weather. I’ll be back again someday, Chicago. Don’t worry.
    • I started my second semester of grad school (which is also the last semester I will take “real” classes, as I will spend the bulk of next year writing my thesis). 
    • The planets aligned and I managed to find not one but two thesis supervisors
    • And, last but not least, I signed up for my next half-marathon here in Helsinki in May.

    So, back to this blog. I will be completely honest in saying that posting here often makes me feel stressed and is also very tiring. What do I say? What is of interest to you, my dear reader, who may come from any number of age groups with an exceedingly large number of interests and things that will keep you reading? It’s difficult to please everyone, but one thing that I’ve heard time and again (and though my own experiences managing social media and web content) is that people LOVE pictures. 

    In an effort to please everyone, as well as a way to motivate myself, I am going to try to post more pictures here from the things that I do around town, more pictures of my classes and classmates, and just more photos in general. I also brought my film camera back with me, so if all goes according to plan, I will spend some time in the darkroom when I have a free hour or two. 

    This is where I leave you for now, friend. Check back in a week for two to see what I’ve been up to!

     


  8. Everything Happens For A Reason

    For the last few years, so it seems, I have believed that everything happens for a reason, if only because there is no other way to explain it. Some may attribute it to the glory of God while others discount this belief entirely. But for me, as a solitary speck in the massive universe in which we live, this is my way of justifying the things that happen in my life.

    This belief system is not without its flaws. Thinking this way may encourage the belief that you are the axel upon which the universe rotates, that everything happens to you specifically for a specific reason. Believing in such a way makes bemoaning your problems and shortcomings all the more easy, allowing for excuses to be made and certain things justified.

    I, as a sociologist (har har), prefer a mixed methods system of belief to prevent becoming too egocentric (yes, this may be a jab at some of the lecturers I have observed since starting my master’s programme). Yes, I believe that everything happens for a reason in my life. But I also believe that we are all interrelated and that the things that happen to us have effects that are beyond our comprehension. The things that happen to us personally have grander and broader reaches than just our one, tiny existence.

    For those of you questioning this, I’m not atrributing the minuscule details of the every day (whether you have coffee with breakfast, what shoes you wear, etc.) to fate, but am rather examining the happenings in life in a more general sense.

    Without divulging too many details, I will just say that a lot has been going on in my life lately that will surely have a lasting impact on me. Somehow this belief that everything happens for a reason makes these things easier to stomach, even if they make me extremely emotional and sad at the same time.

    I should note that I am not trying to justify my own actions in this way of believing. It is the things that we cannot control, the strange happenings in the universe that give way to major change, that leave me thinking this way. I have one specific example that may shed light on this otherwise vague concept, a story that many of you have probably heard before, but one that is still kind of amazing to me:

    My freshman year of college, I was extremely depressed and unhappy. I became friends with people that didn’t really align themselves with the same values that I had, and I really heavily considered transferring from Loyola to another university. However, while at Loyola, I befriended someone that urged me to apply to be a Welcome Week Leader, something that I hadn’t considered and didn’t really take seriously. I half-heartedly filled out the application and submitted it a mere hour before the deadline. As it happened, I was selected and decided to accept the position. The friend that had so diligently urged me to apply ended up not even being able to commit to the position due to other responsibilities. I decided to do Welcome Week anyway, even though I literally knew nobody else. 

    When the time finally came, I had one of the best weeks that I have ever had in my entire life. I met people that I now consider some of my best friends, who put me in touch with other people, who in turn put me in touch with even more people, all of which have taught me so many things about life and myself that I cannot even begin to describe in one blog post. 

    I can’t attribute that sequence of events to anything other than fate. As with anything else in life, there are so many tangents that stem from that one event. If you really think about it, a lot of events in life are sort of like this. It’s really kind of amazing.

    Life is sort of like this sometimes: things may get tough, but you learn from them. Working 50 hour weeks while also going to school full time and staying involved was certainly not a walk in the park for me, but I am better for it. The things currently happening in my life are not easy, either, especially being so far away from what is familiar. But they’re happening whether I like it or not, so I might as well embrace them and do my best to take them in stride.

    It isn’t particularly fitting to try to understand things as they happen; many things in life don’t make sense until you look back on them. As the cliché goes, hindsight is 20/20. I couldn’t agree more. 

    I may not be a particularly religious person (which some of you may see as a good thing and others as a bad thing while I simply think of it as a thing that I am, among others), but I believe in the good of others. Good people come into your life for a reason, whether they stay forever or for a short while. There is something to be learned from our experiences, both good and bad.

    All you have to do is look.

     


  9. Choices

    "You’re not a kid anymore. You have the right to choose your own life. You can start again. If you want a cat, all you have to do is choose a life in which you can have a cat. It’s simple. It’s your right." - Harkuki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

    This quote is from a book that my friend Caitlin sent me as a housewarming gift when I first got to Helsinki. I love this quote (and I highly recommend the book as well). I think that this message so often gets lost in the reasons that people choose the things that they do for themselves. Sure, some decisions aren’t the best. But you can start again if things don’t go the way that you wanted them to or if what you chose is no longer of interest to you. There is always another option.

    For me, moving to Helsinki was kind of killing two birds with one stone: I had no clue what I wanted to do with my life and an intense fear of getting trapped in the retail world (not that it is a bad thing if you choose retail as your career; I have had some wonderful managers that are making  jobs in retail their careers and they are doing phenomenally). I knew that it wasn’t likely that I would find a job with my sociology degree. Rather, I would have used skills that I’ve acquired through other experiences to land a job that I would have tolerated. While searching for jobs halfheartedly this past spring, I found that what I really wanted was a clean slate. I was overworked, underpaid, and in general pretty pessimistic about a lot of things in my life.

    So coming to Helsinki was my choice. I chose to come here. Up until this moment, I’d say that it has been a welcome change and I have learned a lot, both in my courses and just in thinking about my experiences and what they mean to who I was, who I am and who I am becoming. I can’t really speak to what will happen next, but for the time being it’s working well.

    The decision to come to Helsinki was just one of many choices that I’ve made lately. We make so many choices every day of our lives. What will we eat for breakfast? What clothes will we wear? Who will we talk to today? How will you react when someone does something you don’t agree with? 

    In my opinion, one of the most important choices you can make is to choose good people to keep in your life. There are people that come in and reliable, life-giving people. And then there are the people that take advantage of you and use you, people that seem to suck the life right out of you. I have encountered a lot of people in my short time on this planet so far, and I see it as my duty to choose to be one of the first type of people and avoid the second type of people. There may be times when I am not able to fulfill my duties, as I am human like each of you reading this post. But I sure try my best. There may also be times when you are unable to distance yourself from the second type of person. But this is okay, too! It teaches you things about life, about yourself and about how the world works. 

    I am very fortunate that I have parents that taught my sisters and me the differences between what is right and what is wrong, as well as what to do in situations where your morals are challenged. My parents also raised us in an environment that encouraged challenging existing ideas and figuring things out for ourselves. It may also be that I have a specific personality that is averse to giving into trying things that I am uncomfortable with or letting other people determine what I believe (for instance, I haven’t tasted a drop of alcohol or tried any other type of drugs and do not intend to do so). Who knows.

    Where am I going with this? Lately I have felt on edge because I feel like I am being repeatedly told what to think and what not to think, what is right and what is not, how to feel and what to avoid feeling. I am simply not comfortable with this. There are times when professors say things that I don’t agree with. Heck, I even called out a lecturer for using a set of data that couldn’t possibly be an accurate representation of the population she was talking about (thanks, Professor Brown and your dreaded statistics class!). I feel like I am constantly tiptoeing around certain people with what I say, like I am constantly censoring myself in person and on this very blog. And you know what? I’m kind of tired of feeling this way.

    In general, I feel that I am a pretty open person about a lot of things. I really value differing opinions, belief systems, ideas, cultures and any number of other things that are different than I am or than I believe. I think that differences are what make interacting other people so interesting and so worthwhile. I do my best to let other people speak and express their opinions. I work through ideas by approaching them from all angles, and the more ideas I have about a particular subject, the better prepared I am to have an informed opinion about it. I simply can’t stop thinking about something or exploring something because sometime tells me not to. It’s not who I am, nor who I will be.

    That said, this blog is meant as a way to gather my thoughts. I may articulate my experiences but also my feelings about them. I posit questions and sometimes answer them. I try to explain the phenomena that I notice in an effort to show you, dear reader, what I am doing with my time here in Helsinki since you’re obvious interested enough to read this far into my post. So, in the spirit of this post, if you feel that you have something to say to me, please do so. I welcome dialogue and conversation. But know that there is a difference between discussion and argument and that I will choose to not waver in articulating what I feel to be right to the best of my ability. It’s simple. It’s my right.

     


  10. It’s November!

    I can’t believe that November is already here! This means that I am nearing the end of my third month living in Helsinki so far. I really can’t believe it. 

    Not a whole lot has happened in the past few weeks. My friend Evgenia threw a Halloween Party on Halloween. Halloween isn’t huge here in Helsinki, though they do sell a bit of Halloween candy and novelties in some stores. 

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    The party was really fun! I didn’t really dress up. I wore all black and some of my friends said that I looked like a burglar. I was going for the black screen that you get when your phone dies, but such is life. 

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    We spent the night enjoying Halloween treats, listening and singing along to a random Helsinki radio station that played some old standbys (think Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It” and The Bee Gees’ “You Should Be Dancing”). It was fun. 
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    Last week I also gave my first presentation in my reading seminar course on social theory. As a sociologist, I think it’s important and relevant that we learn about where the ideas we so frequently talk about came from, but that doesn’t mean that I necessarily enjoy it. I sometimes feel quite far removed from the theories, especially as they have been translated from their prospective languages and into others, and then analyzed by scholars and re-analyzed and so on. 

    Regardless, I gave my presentation about Georg Simmel and his concept of the metropolis as a locus for modernity. I found in doing my research and re-reading our course texts that I barely scraped the surface of Simmel’s work in my undergrad courses. I also found that it seems to take these scholars forever to make a single point, which I guess is the point of making a concise presentation from their information. I impressed myself by how confident I was in a topic that is normally quite over my head. I guess this is what pursuing a master’s degree is all about?

    Last Friday I also went to a film screening presented by the Taipei Representative office in Taiwan with my friend Pille. My friend Grace, who is from Taiwan, was the one to mention the free screening to us. The film was called “A Year In The Clouds" and details a year of life of the indigenous Tayal people in a remote village in the mountains. The Tayal are the only people in Taiwan to practice common ownership of land and property, which I found really interesting. This film also made me think about the validity of documentaries and taking the truths that they show the viewer with a grain of salt. I don’t really have any question that was is portrayed in the film is true, but rather wonder if the conflicts portrayed in the film were dramatized to boost viewership. Either way, I highly recommend it to anyone that is interested in Taiwan, indigenous peoples, or a documentary films with beautiful scenery. 

    That’s about all that it happening here. Yesterday was father’s day here in Finland, so I made sure to wish my dad “Hyvää isänpäivää” on Facebook yesterday. Today, my Facebook newsfeed tells me that it is snowing in Chicago, while we have yet to receive a real snowfall here in Helsinki. This further proves my point that I am equipped to deal with winter in Helsinki after 22 years in the Midwest.

    I will write paper after paper in the coming weeks as I approach the end of my first semester here at University of Helsinki. Did I mention that I am coming home for Christmas? Surprise!

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    Track of the Week: “Let Go (ft. Kele & MNDR)” by RAC