Week 1

January 19, 2017

So, I have been here in Athens (Agia Paraskevi, to be precise) for a full week now. I’ve spent the week getting my bearings in this delightful neighborhood which is roughly the size of Marvyille but with a distinct urban feel.  You certainly know when you are here that you are in the capital due to the city buses and tons more cars (and their honking horns, oh the horns!) than I ever see in Maryville on an average day.

The people in this middle class neighborhood are friendly, wanting to talk about all kinds of things. Although, I must say I have had more conversations about gun control and American politics than I thought I would have.  The Greeks I have talked to do NOT support the current direction of American politics.  And, I can see why. One of the residence hall directors told me that the kind of thinking that is pervading the current American discourse is what led to the decisions that were made in the 1980s and 1990s which ultimately led to the Greek economic collapse in 2004 and 2008.  [A layman’s summary of the situation can be found in a 2016 New York Times article: Here]

IMG_3071Speaking of that collapse, evidence of struggle is prevalent along the main street leading to the ACG campus (Agiou Ioannou). There are empty store fronts and empty restaurants. On Saturdays, there is the occasional pan-handler which so far has only been elderly women.  But the one thing that clearly has endured the economic struggle: coffee shops.  I counted no less than 20 coffee shops within a 6 block radius of my apartment. And, yes, there is a Starbuck’s on campus. The typical Greek breakfast is a coffee or two and cigarettes. Not healthy, I know.  As I partake in neither, I am sticking to fresh baked tyropita (cheese pie) and frosted flakes.

Despite the evidence of decline, there is though a sense of recovery here. There is new construction going up and new businesses opening.  The neighborhood instituted a discount day at some of the local stores which is really not all that different from our Maryville Chamber bucks program. I’ve been informed that I really need to attend those sales because you can get designer fashion for about 75% off.  Since I already went through a pair of running shoes while here, I’m clearly going to have to “suffer” through this shopping experience. The sales extravaganza is meant to keep money circulating in Greece so that taxes drawn from it can be used for local needs like infrastructure, healthcare, education, etc. It’s the Greek equivalent of the “Buy American” slogan we have all heard before. And in this neighborhood, it seems to be working. There are signs of hope. [Granted the EU is talking about giving more bailout money to Greece so that helps]

IMG_3072For the presidential inauguration tomorrow, I plan to go down to the city center and spend time on the Acropolis to reflect on the evolution of democratic principles.  Saturday, Athenian women are participating in the Women’s March on Washington movement by marching from the US embassy to the Acropolis.  I think I will go down and be a part of history.

 

Mai Pen Rai

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As most already know, Asia is known for its exquisite temples and the history behind them. I did not realize how many temples I was going to see when I got here. But after spending almost four months here already, viewing temples is just another part of daily life here for me. I see them everywhere, driving into the city, around the city, in local parks, national forests, etc.

I visited Ayutthaya which is the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Siam, before Bangkok became the capital city of Thailand. Ayutthaya is located 80 kilometers north of Bangkok and transportation is simple to get there. I paid 60 baht ($2.00) to catch a ride in a van. Ayutthaya was a prosperous international trading port from 1350 to 1767 when it was razed by the Burmese. Ayutthaya contains palaces, Buddhist temples, monasteries and statues. Arriving there, my friend and I noticed that there were no taxis in sight except tuk tuks who were only trying to scam you. Since Ayutthaya is huge and takes more than one day to see all the ruins and temples, we decided to rent a motorbike for a 100 baht all day pass ($3.30). It was much more enjoyable to ride around on a motorbike than to sit in on a tour with a large group of other people. This way we could visit certain temples at our own pace, and have a lax schedule where we could see whatever we wanted for however long we wanted. It was unbelievable walking around, I could definitely still feel the history here. The temples and ruins were amazingly beautiful and so intricate. It is so hard to wrap my mind around how these huge stone buildings were built so long ago with no modern technology.

As I mentioned before, stray dogs are everywhere in Thailand. Some nice, some not so nice. I had a little run-in with a stray dog while touring on our motorbike. We took a road that we thought was leading to the next temple, but turns out it was a dead end road leading to a man’s house. As we were driving up and quickly realizing that we were not on the correct road, a stray dog came running up to us barking and growling. Coincidentally our motorbike died right as this was happening. I have never been more scared in my life (this almost beats the first time I saw a gecko in our dorm kitchen). This was just our luck: taking the wrong street that lead to a dead end and having a stray dog attack us right as our motorbike died. Nevertheless, we quickly started back up the motorbike and zoomed off as fast as we could. I was sitting on the back laughing so hard and also still shaking at the fact my life flashed before my eyes! The rest of the trip we decided to only stay on main roads and avoid stray dogs as much as possible.

A few weeks after my visit to Ayutthaya, I took a trip to Chiang Mai, a city located on the northwestern corner of Thailand. The main reason we traveled here was for Loy Krathong, translating into English as “to float a basket”. This is also known to westerners as the Lantern Festival. This festival takes place on more than one day. One day boats are released to get rid of all your bad karma throughout the year, and most make a wish as their boat is released. We were very lucky to get to create our own boats with our hostel owner. He cut slabs of bamboo trunk as the center base, and picked loads of banana leaves to decorate our boats with. It was such a fun experience to get to learn about this holiday and be able to make it more meaningful by creating our own boats rather than spending money on one that another person created. We went to the river in Chiang Mai as a group, and one by one we released our boats making wishes and letting go of all of our bad karma. The next day was the releasing of the lanterns, symbolizing the same sort of idea: releasing karma and creating a clean slate for the year to earn good merit. Due to my class schedule and tests, I had to leave a day early and miss the releasing of the lanterns. I was pretty bummed about it, since it is such an amazing event to witness, but I was fortunate enough to look out the window and see the thousands upon thousands of lanterns floating in the sky as I was going home on a bus.

 

Laos, The Hidden Gem

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“The best trips are usually unplanned, random, spontaneous and most importantly fun.”

 

This is the most accurate quote for my trip to Laos last weekend. Two friends and I last minute (and I mean the day of) booked a night bus to the capitol city: Vientiene, Laos. Our friend Logan had just visited Laos a few weekends before and told us all the amazing things he did and saw, so I knew I had to travel there. From Vientiene we took a van 3 hours through the windy underdeveloped roads to a little backpacker town named Vang Vieng. Laos opened my eyes in ways I never thought possible. Coming to Thailand I thought it was pretty underdeveloped, but Laos took it to a whole new level. I saw many adults walking around barefoot and ripped clothing selling fruit or little trinkets they made themselves just to put dinner on the table at the end of the day. Just the venue of the village showed you how underdeveloped the country was with the shacks serving as houses, dirt roads, and the amount of poverty I saw. But despite all of this, I met the most genuine and happy people I have ever met in my life here. This trip to Laos really made me take a step back and realize how easy we have things in the States. We take even the simplest things for granted and Laos really taught me to become more aware of the way I live life and that the things I worry about are minuscule compared to the things going on there.

I took a 3 ½ mile bike ride through the village to a blue lagoon at the base of a mountain. As I was biking through the village I could see very clearly inside the houses because none of them had doors. One house I remember vividly had only two blankets on the floor serving as a bed, and a fan. Nothing else. I also saw the owner of the house boiling water outside over a fire since none of the water there was safe to drink. This is when I really got a sense of the culture here and how I wanted to show my respect here and prove myself not to be the typical American that everyone has a stereotype for. The woman noticed me biking by and gave me the most beautiful and happy smile and waved, and I smiled back and greeted her by saying “sabadee.”

Children were walking back home from school on the side of the road and that showed me how safe this village is. One thing I kept thinking about when I saw all these things was, “wow. What a way of life. What an amazing way to grow up.” Children were actually enjoying themselves playing soccer with each other and running around having fun outside. Today that’s becoming very uncommon back in the states.

After the blue lagoon we biked back to our hostel located on the main road of Vang Vieng. We went to bed pretty early because we planned a pretty exciting and packed day the next day. When we woke up, we ate breakfast and got picked up by the bus that took us about 30 minutes up the mountain to a spot by a river where we went tubing through the caves. This was one of the scariest yet most exciting things I’ve done for the fact of my huge fear of being in water when it’s dark. The cave was pitch black, and the only way we could see where we were going was from a head light our tour guide provided us with. At first I was doing alright and not really thinking about the fact that I had no idea what was swimming under me until I felt something slimy and warm slide across my back. I lost it after that. My tour guide couldn’t quit laughing at how scared I was how much I was freaking out. I tried lying on top of my tube to where no parts of my body touched the water until we reached sunlight again.

After our tube tour through the cave we stopped for lunch before our next adventure. We were sitting on a big rock near the river watching 5 little boys play in the water and catch fish with a water bottle. Someone handed them a plate of rice and all of them were fighting over it and scarfing it down. When I saw this my heart fell to my stomach and I thought about anything I could do to give them more food. My friends and I had leftover bread and bananas from our lunch so I grabbed them from our table and brought them down to the boys. They snatched them up so quick I don’t think they even had a chance to see what kind of food it was. This brought tears to my eyes. It immediately made me regret every bite I had just taken of my own lunch because there are others that need it way more than I did.

After we hung out with the boys for a little bit we had to leave for our next adventure: kayaking. This was my first time kayaking so I was pretty nervous but I was in the kayak with my friend Sami who was pretty much an expert kayaker so that helped a lot. The view while kayaking was unbelievable. Huge mountains in the backgrounds with beautiful trees lining the river. The water was so clear and in some shallow spots you could see all of the colorful rocks beneath.

We ended our trip with a hot air balloon ride over Vang Vieng before catching our bus back to Bangkok. This was absolutely breathtaking. It was completely silent and peaceful looking out at the mountains and village under us.

I will remember my trip to Laos and all the feelings I had and things I saw forever. This trip made me so thankful for all of the things I have and experiences I get to do. It also taught me to chill out and not worry about the things that I think are a big deal because there are much bigger things others are worrying about and I saw that first hand.

XoXo, Olivia

Coming Soon….

I am not scheduled to arrive in Athens, Greece until January 12, 2017.  Check back in the new year for accounts of my experiences.

Until then, here is a picture from my last trip to Athens.Parthenon

 

Mai Pen Rai

This was taken at the Veggie Festival in Chinatown, Bangkok. All the foods here are so unique and the way they prepare the meals is also so fun to watch.

If you look close, you still won’t be able to find me! This is a picture of all the international students studying this semester at Mahidol University. On this day we each planted a tree to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the King’s reign, and also to celebrate the 84th birthday of the Queen.

Just a little scenic photo of an island off the eastern seaboard on the Gulf of Thailand, known as Koh Phangan.

 

Sawadee ka from Bangkok, Thailand!

My time here continues to be more and more amazing everyday, and “mai pen rai” is still apart of my daily outlook on life and how to handle any situation here.

Coming here I was told to take notice of everyone’s happiness and smiley faces and WOW everyone was right. Thai people are so happy and welcoming. Everyone looks at me with curious eyes because they know I am not from here, wondering what I am doing here, but they are always smiling. I am nowhere near fluent in the Thai language, but when they see me trying to speak in Thai they love it.

I would like to talk about the little things here I have noticed that make this country so unique and amazing. There are stray dogs EVERYWHERE. I mean everywhere. That was one of things I noticed most when I came here. 15-60% of stray dogs in Thailand have rabies, so that was one of the first rules P’A gave us: DO NOT PET THE DOGS. It is such a sad and unique thing to see, because most of them are so cute and look so nice so you would think a little love would brighten their day, but that is not the case.

Another unique and awesome thing I have noticed here in Thailand is the amount of geckos there are, inside and outside. One of the first nights I was here I went into our kitchen area to fill up my water bottle, and when I turned on the light 2 little geckos ran up the wall. Nothing has scared me more than when I saw those little things! At that time I did not know it was normal for geckos to climb walls especially inside, so that took some getting used to. But now it is one of those little things that I will definitely miss seeing when I return home.

You learn very quickly (and I mean within the first few hours) that bug spray will be your best friend here. With the immense amount of humidity, and the fact that we are in a tropical jungle, mosquitoes are everywhere. Dengue and Zika are the two main viruses you can catch from a mosquito bite, so I have been sure to keep bug spray with me wherever I go. Although it is not a problem and probably won’t be for the rest of my time here I do not want to risk it.

But let’s talk about food, one of the best parts!

This is by far one the biggest things I am going to miss when I go home. Food here is amazing, Simpy Siam in Maryville doesn’t even begin to compare! It is also very cheap almost everywhere you go. Across the street from my dorm is a little family owned, in-house restaurant that I could definitely survive off of for the rest of my life. We call her pasta lady. She has everything from pad thai, rice with vegetables or meat, sandwiches with crab, ham, chicken, or tuna, multiple kinds of spaghetti, and salads. A meal here costs 30-40 baht which is right around $1 USD.

Down the street right next to our ISA office is a little restaurant called Little Girl. It has many more Thai food options for around the same price as pasta lady, anywhere from 30-60 baht. Also very amazing place to eat. It is cheaper to eat out every meal than to buy groceries, which sounds unhealthy, but there are so many healthy options and restaurants to pick from. Our school has a great cafeteria as well, called the atrium canteen. Meals here are also 30 baht, and you can choose from so many different Thai cuisines. Smoothies are a huge thing here in Thailand, also very healthy and very cheap. There are some American foods that I miss having in my day-to-day life (CHEESE!!!), but I know one day I’ll be home eating all of the things I miss here, thinking “man I really miss those amazing Thai cuisines, and pasta lady!”

One important and culturally relevant event that happened last week was the passing of Thailand’s King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Until his death he was the longest reigning monarch in the world. He reigned over this amazing country since he was 18, a total of 70 years. The loss of the nation’s father has taken a huge toll on the Thai people. A national broadcast has announced a year of mourning has begun. I have noticed so many changes in the culture and the vibes in general here. Many businesses, restaurants, clubs, etc. have willingly closed down for the time being. For the first few days, music was not allowed to be played, and celebrations of any kind have ceased. One place I noticed this the most was on the BTS sky train. Usually it is a very loud, energetic ride every time I take it, but ever since the passing of the King it is completely silent. There wasn’t any music playing or any adds on the televisions. Another thing I have noticed is the change of wardrobes: everyone is wearing neutral colors, white, black, or gray. It is so unique to be here during this emotional time, and I just try to remain respectful and show my condolences for the Thai people. It is also very eye opening to be here for such a major event, because I saw with my own eyes how much it has impacted Thailand.

This event has made me appreciate Thailand in general so much, and I can only show my respect toward this culture and the people as much as possible. One goal of mine while here was to submerge myself into their culture in any shape or form, and I continue to learn new things everyday and look forward to meeting new Thai students and learning from them. Like I said in the beginning, this experience continues to be more and more amazing, all thanks to the Thai people, my director P’A, my fellow ISA friends, and everything else about this amazing country.

Sawadee ka and kop khun ka!

Olivia Herzberg

Mai Pen Rai

 

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Sawadee ka from Bangkok, Thailand!

This trip has been so unimaginably awesome so far. Tomorrow will end week three of being here for me. I have learned so much and grown so much in these past three weeks that I never thought was possible. I have met so many awesome people, friends, locals, teachers, students, and most importantly our ISA resident director, Aaron aka P’A. This experience would not have been as amazing without everything he has done for our ISA group. So, let me tell you about some of the things I have experienced, food I’ve tried, culture, and much, much more!

My ISA group consists of 19 students from all over the United States. It is hard to describe how close knit our group has gotten just in these 3 weeks of being here in the unknown. The first day we arrived, we had a welcome orientation held by P’A. We talked about some cultural norms, do’s and don’ts, safety, basic language, and Thai life in general. After this orientation we loaded up into two vans and drove 2 1/2 hours outside of Bangkok to Kanchanaburi. When we arrived, we checked into our hotel, by the way it was so beautiful, so many gorgeous plants, trees, and scenery. We left for our first floating market, which was more unbelievable than I had ever imagined. I experienced so many different smells, foods, crowds of people, sights, and socializing with the locals. The next day we visited the Death Railways War Cemetery and Research Center. I learned so much about Thailand’s history here. It was so eye opening and stomach wrenching to see how people got treated.

After that, we took off to swim with elephants at Erawan National Park. We got to ride in the back of a pickup truck with benches and a safe overhead cover. This is one of the many popular forms of transportation utilized in Thailand. Swimming with the elephants was by far my favorite part of the whole trip so far. I had so much adrenaline the whole time! You don’t realize how huge those animals are until you are right up next to them and in the water with them. Eventually after they started warming up to us and vice versa, we got to ride them around in the water. They are such playful animals, they loved to dunk you under and try to knock you off. The owners of the elephants lived in little huts on the same land as the elephants, which I thought was so beautiful and different.

The next day we drove to a different part of Erawan National Park and hiked up 7 levels to the top of a gorgeous waterfall. It probably took an hour to hike up to the very top, and in the heat and humidity here it was not as easy as it sounds. But the second I reached the top and saw the scenery, every drop of sweat was worth it. The water was so clear and full of minerals. It was a little bit chilly but felt amazing. We had around 3 hours to hike around and do whatever we wanted, so we played around in the water, and I got some great shots of the views.

I also visited a temple cave during our Kanchanaburi trip. It was unbelievable to see such a huge Buddha in the cave, and so many people were in there peacefully meditating and worshiping the Buddha.

So there are a few things I have experienced throughout my first week here in Thailand. In my next few blogs I will expand more on the culture, food, Thai people, language, and life here in general.

Kop khun ka for reading, and always remember Mai Pen Rai. (This means “it is what it is,” a huge expression used, and lived by here in Thailand.)

America v. Finland: A Princess Complex?!

I had taken a month long break from the Lovely University of Lapin AMK. During that time, it wasn’t truly a vacation; it was spent navigating the Spanish bureaucracy to obtain a visa (“Fun” times, Believe me). While returning back to Tornio, Finland (literally on the train back), my housing emails had still not been responded to, thus, I was homeless.

Frantically, I’m trying to get in contact with the program intern or the program director. They must be able to do something, right? They would be the person willing and able to change something or help, right? Wrong, the response I received wasn’t my expectation at all.

In a nutshell, I was told that it was the weekend, I should have contacted them earlier, and that they were busy. Of course, this starts full panic mode. Of course, I try to reach out to the director, which I was told she was busy and she shared the previous thought as well. The suggestion: stay with someone else for the night, and go to housing on Monday. It was Saturday. After 26 hours of travel, running on 4 hours of sleep, and a protein bar, I was not a happy camper AT ALL.

I received a message the next morning as I was holed up in a classmate’s kitchen, that the housekeeper would give me a key later on in the evening. I could’ve wept. Three others were in the same situation as myself, and we all were going to be on the floor of a mutual acquaintances one-bed room.

On Monday, class resumed in the summer school. I was still peeved that such a thing occurred. It was then the Director of the program addressed the situation by stating that “some” (meaning me) of us have a “princess complex.” It meant that we expect people to do things for us as we command. The Director stated that in Finland, weekends are sacred and work life is separate from weekend life. We shouldn’t expect additional assistance, outside of emergencies, during these times.

Shocked, and admittedly pretty irritated with that statement, I came to a realization. In the US, we don’t compartmentalize our responsibilities. We maybe on vacation, or out of town, but we are prepared to answer work calls whenever to create 24-hour service. Even if it is not our job, we expect to have service or assistance from someone, somewhere at all times. Specifically, in academic services, professors answer emails on weekends, residence halls have RA’s or hall directors for aid, and so on. In Finland, when things close, they CLOSE.  It doesn’t help that the emergency contact in the building doesn’t speak English.

A situation that I believed was an emergency was seen as merely a temporary inconvenience that I could figure out. The ideals of customer service are definitely different. In the US, we are much more demanding because, culturally, we believe that we should get what we paid for and then added services to keep us coming back. Customer Satisfaction is important in a competitive market, so it is valued heavily.

Customer Satisfaction is still greatly valued in Finland. However, it is customer service as defined by the rules. You will receive a quality product with great service, but when the time comes to close, or the task is outside of the usual means of operation, you will receive a simple “no, it cannot be done.” Of course, it depends on who and what company.

I was pretty disappointed with this as an international student who felt stranded in an unfamiliar land and not receiving the help I expected from the host school I was attending. However, it is a lesson learned. When you travel, you must change your expectations to fit the local culture.

America v. Eastern Asian Beauty Standards: It’s Cute?!

In the Arctic Summer School at Lapland University of Applied Science (Shameless Plug), we have many different nationalities. The 33 students hail from many different parts of the globe, however, we have a sizeable portion of the class from Eastern Asia. Of course, beauty standards differ in various areas.

For example, in the US, we have been making movements that support body positivity with #Effyourbeautystandards in an attempt to embrace beauty of all sizes, or the natural hair movement to encourage women to love the hair you are born with. Many more movements exist and more pop-up with increasing popularity, all with an attempt to make beauty a more inclusive term. Eastern Asian countries, in my experience, tend to steer toward a specific standard of beauty that promotes thin bodies and pale skin.

Not only is that a cultural norm, it appears that it is public scrutiny of your appearance is common, particularly in the family structure or with people you are closer to. I was told that mothers can easily tell their children they are fat, or need to stop eating so much, or to stay out of the sun out of love. In the US, we would easily consider that to be emotional abuse and unbelievably rude.

You can only imagine my reaction, when a classmate come to me, and while feeling my arms says that they are “fluffy like a marshmallow.” When I expressed how that was kind of offensive, the response was “It’s cute!” This is the same classmate that disclosed her mother’s tendencies to criticize her body. I was definitely ticked off and more than a little bit upset that someone who I felt close to would make such a rude and insensitive comment.

This point was noted again when a second classmate from eastern Asia patted my stomach and stated how had the same stomach, as she poked hers out and laughed. The original classmate then said “See!” It was meant to be in reference to Asian culture’s openness to discussing the body in negative/positive (depending on which end you come from) lights. Even after I explained how the statements were offensive, it was laughed off as if unimportant. When I asked how does it make them feel for their mother to say those things? I was expecting them to say it made them feel negatively, to inspire them to maybe not say those comments that I considered to be so rude. It was once again just laughed off and it was deemed to be normal and common, therefore unimportant.

I left that conversation very upset. 1) I felt like my feelings weren’t considered at all. In the US, if you offended a friend, even without the intent to offend, you would apologize. That wasn’t the case here. 2) I was saddened. Over the short period of time knowing these young ladies, I had heard them refer to themselves as fat and ugly. I had watched as they tried to stay out of the sun because darker skin or a tan would bring scrutiny to them. I had listened to their stories of their family members speaking of their bodies negatively. And the worst part, to me, was that they viewed all of this normal, as if it should be expected to hear and say these things.

The comments I felt were rude and would never refer to a woman’s body in such a way, especially in public, is common place. So when I was hurt and offended by the comments because my culture has deemed them insensitive, another culture saw no issue with comments therefore there was no reason to apologize.

Cultural differences play a huge role in how we view ourselves and others. While America is trying to push away from conventional standards of beauty, other cultures may have a totally different view on dismantling, or maintenance, of beauty standards. I still don’t appreciate the comments that were made (and admittedly how they responded to it as well) however, it has made me realize some important things.

  • Self-love is crucial. I could let someone define and dissect my body based on their own preferences and biases, but how could I ever truly be happy always trying to live for the acceptance of someone else? My body may not be where I want it to be, but I love the skin I am. I whole-heartedly believe that I was not designed to be anything other than me.
  • Culture plays a role on what is tolerated. Things that I felt shouldn’t be said, were perfectly common to someone else. Though, I may not like it, it’s important to be considerate of someone else’s culture (even if they aren’t considerate of your feelings lol).
  • Finally, Words matter! As much as I would like to say the words didn’t affect me, they did. They made me look at my body in a way I hadn’t previously. It was very unsettling for a simple sentence could make me question myself. It made me wonder, how many conversations did I walk away from feeling fine while the other person felt belittled, ugly, unattractive, or stupid? Probably a lot, I may not have been my intent, but it was the reality. Instead of building someone up, I have, at some point and time, either deliberately or accidentally, torn them down and made them feel less than the wonderful person that they are. It’s a harsh reality, but a great reminder that sticks and stones leave physical scars, but words leave wounds that only the soul feels so deeply.

My Life at the ArcticSummerSchool!

Hey, Bearcats and Bearcat Family!

I’m currently studying at Lapland University in Tornio, Finland for the summer! I’ve got one month down and two to go! Instead of just telling you about how great and wonderful my experience has been; I’ve decided to show you through this colorful cartoon! Actually, it was for one of the many projects I’ve had to do this summer, but STILL it’s got some really great info in it! So…sit back, relax, and enjoy the film!

World Wide Wanderlust: 5 countries, 1 car

Moi,

What happens when you put a Dutch, a Hungarian, a Scott, a Belgium and an American in a Volkswagon Golf? A 14 hour car ride extravaganza of the sorts, I tell you what.

This past weekend I got to go on my first trip of the semester. I traveled with 4 friends (also exchange students) in a rental car to Levi, Finland. Levi is in the northern most part of Finland in a region known as the Lapland. It is literally like a Christmas snow globe. Santa Claus lives in the Lapland in a city called Rovaniemi, so obviously we had to make a stop to make sure we were all on the nice list for this Christmas. We also go to see some reindeer and husky dogs among other things.

The Lapland is also known for the Aurora Borealis. Unfortunately it was extremely cloudy every day we were there and we were unable to see them. I know I was pretty bummed but I’m pretty dead set that I’m not leaving Finland without seeing them (and photo evidence).

Anyways, back to the trip. During our extremely long car ride that seemed like forever, we did a lot of singing to try and detract from the pain and numbness we started to feel in our butts from sitting for so long. Eventually we made it to Levi just around 11 pm. We struggled to find our lodge but after a short trek through the snow, we found our quaint little cottage to live in for the weekend.

Friday morning, first on the agenda was heading to Yllas ski resort. I for one had never touched a pair of skis or snowboard so it ended up being quite the experience. Rachael (Scottish) and I both being inexperienced decided to experience it together. We were able to rent a snowboard, boots and a helmet for 35 euro for two days which is far cheaper than any ski slopes in the States. Krisztain (Hungarian) and Romain (Belgium) both had been before so they got the pleasure of attempting to teach us the basics. The first time down the slope we mostly just tumbled/rolled to the bottom. The boys stuck with us the whole time though helping us get up and trying to explain how we were doing it all wrong (language barriers suck in situations like this). After a few struggling attempts down the mountain, we got the hang of things and are now self proclaimed professionals and are now training for the Winter Olympics. Place your bets now on the US and UK taking the gold and silver.

After a windy, cold morning on the slopes, the lifts were closed for the day so we had to find some other way to spend our time. We coincidentally were staying less than 100 yards from a snowmobile shop. We went in to check out their safaris and they were pretty pricey and we couldn’t go during any of the scheduled times. Fortunately we were able to get some cheap prices and our own private little safari…… Must have been my American charm or something. Anyways, we had an hour or so to eat quick and get back to the shop before our little trip. Rachael and I shared a snowmobile while the boys rode alone. We definitely had more fun together but caused more problems. I may have flipped the snowmobile on its side a couple of times and the tour guide may have said he wasn’t surprised but hey, it was all in good fun. It led to lots of laughs, mostly at us and not with us but if you can’t laugh at yourself, then you’re not really living life. Friday also was Rachael’s birthday so we bought a case of beer and had a few drinks to celebrate.

On Saturday morning, we once again headed back to the slopes since, you know, we’re professionals now. We stayed on the mountain into the afternoon and then headed home for some food. Our next stop was an ice bar. It wasn’t nearly what we expected and actually turned out to be more of a museum/ice castle. We may have brought our own supply of alcohol in to make it really an ice bar….. Oops. It was pretty cool though. There were etchings in the walls and an ice hotel. The owners claimed they’re booked every night but there’s no way I could sleep in a building made entirely of ice. I’m too big of a pansy. I need heat. After the ice castle we tried to look up some husky and reindeer farms to visit. Well….. long story short they were all closed and we thought we would take a shortcut back home and we got lost on a road that didn’t exist on googlemaps and couldn’t turn around because it was a one-way road and the snow drifts were a solid foot high on either side of the road. So that was the fun we had on Saturday night.

Sunday morning we slept in awhile and left for Pori around 11 am. We had to try once more to see some reindeer so we went to a farm that (of course) was closed. Don’t worry though, I used that good ‘ol American charm I talked about before and the owner let us feed the reindeer for free. It was pretty cool. Reindeer are beautiful creatures. And of course since we saw Rudolph, we had to go see Santa Claus. So we hopped in the car and drove two hours to Rovaniemi to get a picture with the fat man himself (picture to come soon). That was the last official stop on our trip.

Although I didn’t get any new stamps in my passport from this trip, it was more fun than I could have expected. My advice: take a quick weekend trip with your friends, or even with people you aren’t really friends with. You will have the time of your life, I promise. Even if you’re a poor college kid like me. It will be worth it.

Hyvasti,

Hannah