It has now been close to 2 months since I left Australia and embarked on my trip to my new home away from home. During this time, I have had plenty of opportunity to experience new things and to question my own sanity. I am not the type to be consumed by fear but there is something about starting an entirely new life that would be daunting to even the most fearless. Nonetheless, the past weeks have been nothing short of amazing.
On the 21st of January, after a week of learning about Finnish culture (something I would soon find that I didn’t really need living on Åland Islands – the people here are, at times, more Swedes then Finns) and practicing Swedish, I was collected by my counsellor and we began our journey to Mariehamn: the largest – and only – city on the islands I would call home for the year to come. After several hours of driving, a brief tour of Helsinki (the capital city of Finland), a feast, some sleep and 10 hours on a ferry, I had made it. I had a two-week detour at the home of my counselor before moving in with my first host family.
I officially started school at Ålands Lyceum on Thursday the 9th of February, although I had attended some classes previously before the students had their exam session. Within days of attending the school I had come to notice just how different it was from Hervey Bay state High, and every other Australian school I have attended. In Finland, they do not wear uniforms, school lunch is free, you can leave the school as you please (provided you don’t have classes to attend), you call teachers by their first names, everything is inside and … I have a locker, so no more lugging around a heavy backpack full of textbooks and supplies. The teaching styles do however, seem to be mostly the same. I have been using lessons as a chance to further develop language skills as well as attending weekly lessons outside of school.
School has at times been difficult, or more specifically, getting to school. There is something about having to be on the bus by 7 for an 8 am start that does not work for any person who loathes mornings. Add to this the fact that it is still dark – for the first few weeks, the sun was still hiding until well after my 8am start – and far more cold then I had ever experienced, and you have a recipe for disaster. Somehow I managed to make it to school on time every day in what I can only describe as the work of magic.
During the past weeks I have been able to meet numerous people, including host grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins. I have also gained an understanding of what it means to live on Åland; most people know each other so when I meet someone new I need to be prepared to tell my host parents who they are, what their last name is and where their parents work (this seems to be more of an island joke than anything).
I have visited the two main museums on the island - Ålands sjöfartsmuseum (maritime museum) and Åland Museum. Ålands sjöfartsmuseum brought to light a history I was surprised I hadn’t discovered in all my research prior to leaving Australia – In the 1930’s the Aland sailing fleet was mainly occupied on three trades; wood and timber in the Baltic Sea, timber for England and finally grain from Australia (Mainly South Australia). At Åland Museum, I was given a private tour. This museum has artifacts from when the first people – seal fishermen – first came to the islands all the way to a display of typical day to day things from more modern times. It was amazing to learn about the connection between my two homes and also to see the extensive history of the islands.
While going to school, meeting new people and visiting museums I have been able to experience the wonder of waking up to fresh snow – along with all the not so joyous experience of slipping, over and over and over again. I was able to build by first solo snow man, ride Icelandic horses, attend rotary meetings, meet all of my host parents at a dinner for my birthday, introduce people to some Australian classics (lamingtons, hamburgers, sausage sandwiches and Anzacs) and taste new foods; including reindeer, and fastlagsbulle/Shrove bun (a sweet yeast dough bun, traditionally filled with an almond paste and whipped cream). At times I still feel somewhat foreign or like a visitor, but for the most part I feel at home- in some bizarre sense of the word.
The most striking culture shocks:
Wearing crocs seems to be completely acceptable, even with socks. (mainly in the country but some do dare wear them in public)
Coffee and milk are, for most, the definition of life. The consume milk at breakfast, lunch and dinner
The people on Åland (along with Swedish speakers in general) breath as they/ to say yes
It is expected that you own a reflector (like the ones on bikes or the bright yellow work vests)
When you go to the supermarket you are expected to pack your own bags
Every single day as the sun goes down, someone will say to you “it’s getting brighter” because the sun is setting 5 minutes later then the day before
Ice cream is usually rectangular and you cut off what you want (ice cream in tubs does exist but isn’t so common)
The light switches go in the opposite direction
It isn’t unusual to eat dinner at early as 4pm, however most tend to eat between 4:30 and 6pm
Most families on the islands have a Friday night taco eating tradition, but no one can tell me why
Until next time,