Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Only Sound in the Room....

January 6, 2013

The only sound in the room is the hum of the heating pipes.

It is 6:15 on Sunday morning, my second full day in Finland. It is dark outside and a streetlight shines through the curtain on my studio apartment window. There are sounds coming from the heating pipes - a flowing sound - the result of the burning of peat in the Joensuu heating factory. My apartment lights are off except for the light on my iPad.  (I really should turn on some lights.) Decorative lights illuminate the dark, snowy streets. There is safety and serenity here, but also loneliness; only my thoughts to keep me company. Conquering this will be my challenge.

I remember last year when I moved from my old classroom downstairs to my new classroom upstairs in the science building in the middle of the year; my seventh period class was having difficulty settling down. I asked them why they were having trouble and they said, “There are new sounds,” “The desks are slanted rather than straight,” and “It’s just different.” It was revealing to me how they were having trouble adjusting, how their brains were processing the new information and how the human brain thrives and calms with patterns; how it thoroughly resists changes. A third of my class rose their hands when I asked how many of them were having trouble adjusting to the new location – and that adjustment was only about changing something small in their life: they still had their friends, their school, their families, their teacher, their everyday life.  Even with all that stability, they still had trouble settling down and being productive.

I think about my own brain right now because it’s having trouble – silly, but true – trouble because everything is so new and I feel isolated. Typically, my life is filled with activities, friendships with people of all ages, many projects and many levels of organization with lots of energy being exerted – all the time. If there is empty time I fill it up. Being in a new and quiet apartment in the dark, far from everyone I know, is new and quite different from my typical patterns. This experience will change me, for sure, and hopefully it will be for the better. If what I learned from my students is true, I should try to build into my life some patterns so that I am more comfortable with the changes I’m going through. I know I need to have patience with myself – I’ve been in Finland less than 48 hours, I have jet lag, I’m adjusting to new cultural norms in a foreign country, there’s a new language and I need to learn how to navigate their world.  Okay, I need to cut myself some slack.

In addition to my research project this semester I want to learn how to photograph the amazing light I’m already experiencing in Finland. I will cross country ski again. I will learn to cook simple meals with Finnish foods that will satisfy and nourish me.  I will have to do these things to thrive and to grow.

So I take stock in what I know is comforting here – the Finns have been kind and generous with themselves and their time and I feel completely safe. The Finnish people, even in their largest airport, seem at ease with themselves and the people around them.  I don’t feel any angst or the need to watch out or that anyone is concerned with my presence other than to be kind and considerate when I approach. They don’t say “Hi” very rapidly, but I do; they seem shy. That’s okay, I feel shy, too.

I contrast my Finnish experience (thus far) with what I experienced in the Los Angeles airport last Thursday – the two couldn’t be any more diametrically opposed. At LAX there were so many people and too little space, and everyone was trying to get their own spot in line; it took many people real effort to remain calm in that environment.  Here, there is ease, at least so far. People walk and even cross-country ski in the darkness without fear, even late in the evening. 

At dawn I walked down to the lake, down the cross-country trail and into the woods toward Joensuu. 

I saw several parents pulling/pushing their children on sleds, people walking, others riding bikes, people skiing, or walking their dogs. I met several friendly dogs and their owners. I also met some girls in a photography class who were shooting pictures on the lake. It gave me the idea to try and find a photography class - in English – but finding one that teaches in English might be the challenge.

I had two or three conversations with Finnish people walking their dogs. Well-fed, balanced dogs seem to wag their tails and wiggle with excitement everywhere you go in the world. My limited Finnish vocabulary lets me say things like, “Good morning. Do you speak English?” “I speak a little Finnish.”  “Excuse me/I’m sorry.”  “Thank you.” “Good-bye.”  “Hello.”  A smile goes a long way when you don’t know the language.

My iPhone shut down during the walk but hopefully it was only because of the cold. (It seems to be working now, inside and plugged in.)

I missed the bus, then took another bus to the city center and tried to follow the path Kari and I took yesterday so I could find the stores I needed. I was largely successful and was able to find many things. I also picked up some bread and soup for dinner. I have enough fruit and veggies for a few days.

On the bus ride home I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss my stop and I ended up pushing the “STOP” button too early; I ended up further away from home than expected.  Oh, well.  Another (longer) beautiful walk and another lesson learned.

Tonight feels better, probably aided by the amount of exercise I got today and the ability to connect with friends and family on Facebook and email. Bryan said he looked at the Joensuu marketplace webcam to see if he could see me.  I told him I had walked to the little hut in the marketplace with the star on top just in case he was looking. We miss each other and our silliness, and somehow we meet in our minds through the marketplace webcam. (I don’t have Internet in my apartment yet.)

Tomorrow I need to transition to “work brain.” I need to pull out my notes and prepare for my meeting with Kari and his colleagues on Tuesday so we can talk about my research project. Perhaps I should bring my work to the library so I can spend more time away from my apartment during the day. I think it would be helpful to spend more time around other people.  I also need to open a bank account.

The only sound in the room is the hum of the heating pipes.


  1. Wow! What an adventure. Keep warm, keep moving and enjoy! Love to hear about your research when you return.

    Brian McElfish

  2. Don't forget to turn on your warm happy light!

    1. Un. I'm embarrassed to say that I never got to use it because I forgot to use the transformer and it blew out when I plugged it in. The good news is that I don't need it!

  3. Janet! Hello!. Here you are on your amazing adventure! So exciting!

    Thank you for sharing it with us.

    We've only been to Finland once and that was long ago before the boy was born. Two memories spring to mind.... First... Lingonberries are delicious, especially when in pastry or made into wine. Second..The sunlight there is beautiful. It makes everything buttery warm and cool grey soft. Years later, if I see a certain blue or grey green I'm back there eating rye toast and fresh salmon and dill.

    Take care of you. Get some rest and drink lots of tea. We'd love to Skype with you if you get a moment.

    Sending hugs and good thoughts your way, Marilyn <3

  4. Thanks, Marilyn. I LOVE lingonberries - and those are memories of when I lived in Sweden when I was 17 years old. Lovely taste. Thank you for your wonderful notes. :)