A stranger on the bike stopped on the crossing because it was red for him. It was green for me. As I was crossing the road, he gave me a big bright smile. I smiled back, so he nodded and then we simultaneously said“Hei”, still smiling, both of us. It could have probably happened anywhere and anytime in the world, but it happened on a February morning at the corner of Suvantokatu and Torikatu, in Joensuu, Finland, and that is just one of the reasons why I love Joensuu so much and why I felt my heart was breaking because I leave.
If I think about it, this is a bit funny. Because I never actually wanted to come. When applying for my program, I applied for two out of three universities: Potsdam in Germany and Groningen in the Netherlands. The third one was in Finland. I had several reasons why I didn’t apply for that one, and I was sure I would get the ones I wanted. But when I got an official acceptance letter in May last year, I was so angry! They said I was to go to Finland for the first semester. I remember how I felt that day: I was pissed off and nervous. I didn’t want to go there! It’s far away, it’s cold, it’s dark, and once again, I didn’t want to! But then my mum calmed me down a bit, reminding me I had never lived in Finland before and that I should consider this a new experience. (Mums are the best.) So by the end of the day I felt better, but still a bit sceptical.
Once I arrived to my new home, I guess I liked it. It was new and different and thus interesting. I also must admit, and you may have seen that on this blog, that the autumn colors were amazing. But soon enough everything started to annoy me. The snow was too early for my standards. It was damn cold. Especially if I would compare temperatures to the ones in Belgrade – they had a real Indian summer over there. It was windy, and I had to cross the bridge twice a day. There was nothing much to do there. Going out was expensive. Food was expensive. Eating out was just an idea, nothing more. Days were becoming shorter and shorter, and I was desperate, I needed some light. My favorite pair of boots got holes in their soles due to the little stones Finns use to prevent sliding and enhance melting of the snow. At that point, that was just too much. Nobody messes with my favorite pair of boots! I remember clearly telling my friend that I hated Finland. He tried to convince me that I shouldn’t. After all, he said, these things could have happened anywhere. But they indeed happened in Finland, and I couldn’t help building the connection. I’m sorry. This is just not for me, I thought. At least I knew I had tried.
Then I started taking vitamin D. It was in the middle of November, and I’m sure it wasn’t a placebo - because around that time I started appreciating Finland. I went to Helsinki to visit a friend and had a great time. I went out in Joensuu a couple of times. I started using Finnish in the stores and bars – it was nothing special, of course, but it felt great. A friend of mine visited me in Joensuu and we had an amazing time. Just what I needed! We had an unusual Finnish language lesson, where we learned to bake traditional Finnish sweet pastry – pulla. I myself am not really a baker, nor a cook, so it was great to make something edible, and it was fun because we did it together.
Snow was now everywhere. I would lie if I said I didn’t think the scenery was pretty. At the very beginning of December I went to the northernmost point I have ever gone in my life – Finnish Lapland. And that was quite an experience! Seeing AuroraBorealis was always on my bucket list, but I was never sure I would do that one day. And I did. Along with other great things I have seen or done for the first time in my life on that trip.
I was happy to go home to Serbia in December. But once there… after couple of weeks, I started missing Finland. My life was there now. The snow, the most delicious teas ever, the Muumis, my flat, my flatmates, my route from home to the uni, everything that was just mine. And loved. I realized it was loved the day I arrived to Finland after four weeks. At the airport, hearing Finnish everywhere. On the train, having free wifi. In Joensuu, where I walked from the train station to home wearing a brand new accessory – my smile. I was smiling because I was back. I loved it. I felt good.
Finland cured my broken heart. Finland pushed my limits. Finland made me count days until I would see a friend or family, but also made me feel good to be there. Finland made me finally understand why Scandinavians wear short sleeves when it’s only 15 degrees and we continentals are still wearing jackets. Because, you see, once you spend several weeks in minus 26, minus 10 is an okay weather, not really cold, and zero degrees is almost spring.
Finland brought some new people into my life that I would have never met had my wishes about the universities been fulfilled. Some of them I probably won’t meet again, but I will always remember them and the moments we shared. We will always have Finland :)
Finland made me take a new perspective in life, cherishing the differences – whether it be language, the habit of jumping into the cold water after the sauna, having light switch inside the bathroom, having sweet soup as a dessert, or something else. Because in differences lies the beauty.
Finland made me more positive than I was, and I consider myself an optimist. Maybe I didn’t learn to be patient and wait for the good things to come, because my newly discovered love for it happened all of a sudden. But it did teach me to be more patient in the future, as I strongly believe that after the rain comes the sun. So if I had found sun in Finland, I will find it anywhere!
Finland made me realize I could enjoy even the things that are not my first choice. Joensuu is not really Manhattan, and even though I originally come from a small town, I spent five years in Belgrade, much more lively and crowded, so I learned it suits my personality much better. But instead of staying home and spending hours complaining about how there is nothing to do in Joensuu, I tried to make something happen – at least to me. I went to an ice hockey match. I went out. I went to sauna. I went to Helsinki. I met people. And things started falling into place.
February indeed is the shortest month of the year. This year it was shorter than ever before. It was full of events, I travelled to Norway, Helsinki, my sister visited me, I went to Helsinki again, I had a lot of assignments, I went out a lot and spent a weekend in the cottage in the nature. So the day D was approaching really quickly – the day I had to move to Germany. I felt really sad. I was sure I would miss Finland. I loved it so much there. I paid special attention to every day and things I may be doing for the last time. Especially during the last week. Last time in Kerubi club. Last time in Jet Set bar. Last time in Play bar. Last time on campus. Last time in the cafeteria. I am really sentimental when it comes to these things.
Seeing the city centre for the last time, from the cab on the way to the airport, I couldn't help crying a bit. Joensuu, my Joensuu. From a town I’d never heard of before, it turned to home.
Now I’m somewhere else. I’m sure I’m gonna like it here, because I did like it in September last year, and it is something I’m more fond of: lots of people, lots of cultural events, gigs, cheap beer, cheap everything. Easier to get to Serbia, and actually easier to get anywhere. But Finland has a special place in my heart now –and forever. Thank you, Finland.
(P.S. Be careful of “oh, I have time”. You don’t. Whatever you want to do some time in the future because you have time – do it now. I wanted to go to Taidemuseo (Arts Museum) in Joensuu once when I have time, and I never did. I wanted to go to the lake – I didn’t. I wanted to sing karaoke – I didn’t. I wanted to have lunch at this superfancy cafeteria on campus that doesn’t offer student discount – I didn’t. It’s not that I didn’t have the time, I just thought I had so much time I don’t need to worry about these things at the moment. Hopefully I won't make the same mistake in Germany.)
and visit Finland in your life sometime
P.S. The text washe text was originally published on the author’s personal blog Wandering Polka Dot in March 2014. You can find more photographs and impressions from Finland on the blog.