A traveller’s guide to Greece

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I am back home at Greece for holidays. It feels strange. It is not only the fact that you have missed a lot since the last time you were here but also people’s attitudes towards you or your behaviour towards your compatriots differs. You are perceived as a tourist or a creature from another planet.

The local shoe repairer in my neighbourhood here in Kozani was born and raised in Australia to Greek parents but decided to return to Greece with his wife 9 years ago. For the Australians, he was “the Greek” while for the Greeks he was “the Australian”. On his shop’s window one reads “The Australian”. He used that as an inside joke to be sarcastic about the whole situation.

After a long, dark winter in Helsinki and a rainy summer full of mosquitoes in Rovaniemi I was dreaming of the time I step foot in Greece. But the moment I got into the plane in Helsinki airport that would fly straight to Athens, I got cold feet. A plane filled with many Finnish tourists heading to the Greek islands of Kos, Rhodes and Crete, few mixed Greek-Finnish families with kids, and a small number of students and businesspeople.

Getting out of the airport and carrying all that heavy luggage in 38 C, getting on a freezing, air-conditioned bus and, then, being surrounded by loud, bubbly Greeks was a major shock compared to the finnish living conditions. I felt a tourist in my own country. But being Greek myself gives me the edge of the inside, tacit knowledge of the culture.

Many of my friends think of Greece as the ultimate summer destination. But there are a few cultural things that might upset Greeks as well as international visitors. And it is true that there are indeed many places worth visiting, beautiful sand beaches and crystal clear waters, breathtaking mountains, food available in great quality and quantity, cosmopolitan nightlife, extreme sports, and all these at reasonable prices.

But, here is list of what to avoid:

First, Greece is the paradise of smokers. Smoking rules are for breaking. If you don’t smoke you might find yourself in an uncomfortable situation but please tell people that it bothers you. Soon the EU law will be enforced, amen!

Second, do not take your pet in a restaurant. Mostly, it is not allowed and it is against etiquette. Confirm with your hotel that pets are allowed.

Third, do not rent a car if you are not accompanied with a local or you know the place very well. Even GPS doesn’t help. Plus, Greek drivers are notorious for driving impatiently and with disrespect to the rules.

Four, do not order just a greek salad for main course. There are many jokes for tourists that only eat salad and drink beer. There is a variety of healthy, light meals you can choose from. Go ahead and try!

Fifth, in general, Finns have a good reputation as tourists but drinking, street fighting and sea can be a lethal combo.

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A bridge of love

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Throughout history migration was caused due to poor living and working conditions in the homeland, such as unemployment and economic problems, religious or ethnic persecution, natural disasters, famine, political strife, oppression, or war.

In today’s globalised world new social links are being created between people across national borders due to international travelling and tourism. I have heard many stories about Finnish women vacationing on an exotic island or tropic paradise and after the holidays they bring to Finland a souvenir… man! ‘The souvenir people’ phenomenon hides the desire to experience a fairytale romance. Finns seem to be quite good at this headhunting and eager to add some colour at their nation’s gene pool.

The initial intercultural romance can lead to a multicultural relationship. According to the Finnish Institute of Migration, 47 % of all foreigners living in Finland have a Finnish spouse. Among the Finnish men their wives are most often Russian, Thai or Former Soviet citizens followed by western countries of wife’s origin, such as Sweden and the United States. The Finnish men with the highest average level of education have Chinese, French, Hungarian, or Japanese wives. Statistically, Finnish men have had the highest divorce rates from Estonian, Thai and Former Soviet spouses.

On the other hand, among Finnish women the majority of spouses came from the United States, Turkey, Great Britain, Sweden, Germany and Morocco. The most highly educated Finnish women are those whose husbands come from the Netherlands, Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. However, divorce rate for Finnish women has been the most noticeable in the case of men born in Morocco and Turkey.

Phases within a multicultural marriage

As Elli Heikkilä from the Finnish Institute of Migration describes, at the beginning of a multicultural relationship is the admiration phase characterized by pride of falling in love despite the differences. The active adaptation phase comes when the couple begins to settle and discover its roles and responsibilities. The most crucial phase during divorce occurs most often is the re-evaluation phase, where the person is able to clearly distinguish their personal and cultural traits from its spouse’s. In the fourth, or the objective adaptation phase, comfortable solutions have been found for the most fundamental problems such as the upbringing of the children, relatives and in-laws, friends, values, gender roles and even meals. A “third culture” shared by the couple is the ideal situation.

It is a fact that economic dependence on the Finnish spouse and informational dependence due to the language barrier may lead to frustration, conflicts and misunderstandings. In addition, sometimes the couples use a third language such as English or Spanish in order to communicate and end up lost in translation. But to rephrase an old saying: “Where there is love, there is a way”. And the romance ends with “happily ever after…”

It’s all Finnish to me!

Finnish is notoriously regarded as a difficult language to learn. As a foreign adult learner of the Finnish language, I find it culturally revealing and interesting to learn. Personally, having studied Ancient Greek for 6 years and Latin for 3 years, learning Finnish is a doable task. In this sense, Finnish is just different from other western languages of Indo-European origin.

People often mistakenly -due to their ignorance and stereotypical notions- assume Finnish is related to either Swedish or Russian. This is the reason why I get a lot of: ‘Finnish is like Swedish, huh?’ Both Swedish and Russian belong to the Indo-European group of languages, while Finnish is one of the Finno-Ugric languages. The Finno-Ugric language group includes Hungarian, Estonian and several lesser-known languages spoken in Russia.

Why Finnish is a tough language?

Latin with its six cases and Ancient Greek with its five cases are regarded difficult, that is the reason why people infer that Finnish language with its fifteen must be even more arduous to master. In my opinion, here are the hindrances for a foreign learner:
1) Consonant gradation (k,p,t astevaihtelu). The sixteen alternation patterns make it a nightmare for a beginner to even look up a word in the dictionary.

2) Cases’ endings. The cases correspond to the prepositions of the Indo-European languages. They can express a variety of things (place, time, ownership, object, manner) and what is most confusing is that you have to know what you want to say before starting to add the various endings to the stem. It is a true mind exercise that results in chain-words.

3) Partitiivi. The most difficult case. It is hard to grasp the logic behind it and even when you do there is an exception that throws it all away.

4) Exceptions. One rule, ten exceptions. The endless amounts of grammatical forms and exceptions to be memorized often discourage learners.

5) Absence of gender. The same pronoun ‘hän’ denotes both he and she. It may happen that you read a whole book without knowing the sex of the main character.

6) Word order. The subject can be either in the nominative or partitive case depending on what is the new information you want to give away. For instance, ‘Kadulla on koiria’= ‘There are some dogs on the street’ and ‘Koirat ovat kadulla’ = ‘The dogs are on the street’.

7) Kirjakieli vs. puhekieli. Teachers try to explain Finnish in the most official and academic way but reality is often proven different. What you learn at the Finnish course might be outdated in every day discussions. We learn: ’Me maalaamme talon ensi kesänä.’ Finns say: ’Me maalataan talo ensi kesänä.’

Suomi: Love it or hate it!

To be honest, Finns look the same to me. The high cheekbones, the blank blue eyes, the same outfits picked up from global mass-market stores or simply from the second-hand shop. But, the time that I have spent in both Rovaniemi and Helsinki, I realised that they are far from a homogenous nation. For instance, a vast gap exists between Helsinki Finns and Rovaniemi Finns.

Below, I list my thoughts about the capital of Finland and the capital of Lapland, which form the ultimate clash!

10 Reasons to hate Helsinki

  1. My 22m2 flat, which costs a fortune.
  2. Neighbours are noisy and spy on me through the peephole.
  3. The weather is schizophrenic; it drives everyone crazy. You have to have a T-shirt on under your pullover, also wear winter shoes and definitely carry an umbrella. In the morning the sun might wake you up but before you reach the bus stop it will start snowing heavily, yet after you finish school or work and return home it will be windy and rainy.
  4. Public transport network is wide-reaching but the majority of the drivers are terribly unhelpful and sometimes unpredictable. You speak to them in Finnish and they reply in English. You ask them a question in English and they ignore you. Then, you are lost!
  5. The snobbish people. This category thinks Helsinki is the Mecca of civilisation and fashion. Plus their slang isn’t exactly music to my ears.
  6. Tramline 10 smells like cheap beer, sweat and urine.
  7. Too stressful place to be. No comments.
  8. Lots of beggars.
  9. Lots of policemen and CCTVs. I understand that people need to feel secure when they go out for a walk, but every single street I have been on in Helsinki has at least 1 CCTV watching you and police cars are patrolling 24/7. I don’t have to feel like a terrorist every single time that I am going to Kamppi.
  10. The delivery people waking you up on Sunday morning by ringing the doorbell to get in the building. A discount coupon for pizza, anyone?

8 Reasons to love Rovaniemi

  1. Neighbours drive snowmobiles or repair them next to your back yard. A noisy habit as well but at least they can keep your spare house key in times of need.
  2. From a photographer’s point of view, this is an amazing city to take pictures. But so cold that your hands and feet are just freezing.
  3. Public transport network is merely limited to the centre. Areas like Nivavaara are left in isolation. It is like forcing citizens to have a car for each member of the family.
  4. People are so warm hearted, honestly. Especially, older people are so helpful and interesting to talk to.

5. 6. 7. No tram, no beggars, less stress but sometimes it is just boring.

8. Cultural life isn’t exactly massive but design influences are all over the city. Additionally, music concerts provided by the Chamber Orchestra
of Lapland are exquisite and exceed dynamically even the quality standards of Helsinki orchestras.

To sum up, it is evident that Rovaniemi won this challenge! However, I must admit that downtown Helsinki is NOT Finland. Amen to that!

Live your myth in Rovaniemi!

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A question everyone asks me when we first meet is how I found my way in Lapland. I reply that it is a good question. Rovaniemi has a charming aura around it. Many people I know who have been here as exchange students or simply as tourists always come back and sometimes for good. I am just a live example of the charming power of Rovaniemi.

What is it that makes people return to Rovaniemi? The long, dark days which start from late October and finish at late March? The slippery pavements, the empty streets, or the laconic Finns? Well, my explanation is that Rovaniemi is an international, developing city with huge potential. Despite the harsh climatic conditions and the vast distances from urban centres, Rovaniemi’s people managed to turn all the negatives into positive selling points.

Twenty years ago hotels were closing at the wintertime. Now, four-star hotels, safari companies, restaurants and local handcraft businesses have great profits from the masses of international visitors who fly in flocks every Christmas season to visit Santa Claus’ hometown. Here is another success of Rovaniemi. Apart from the internal strength -‘sisu’ as Finns call it- to make a living, they are great business minds knowing well the rules of marketing and branding. If Rovaniemi didn’t have Santa Claus, they definitely had to invent him!

In terms of education, the University of Lapland and the University of Applied Sciences attract a great volume of international students from all over the globe by providing courses in English and an opportunity for young people to experience life up north. Sauna, riding a snowmobile, ice-fishing and tasting reindeer meat and fresh salmon. Hmm, that must be heaven! Well, not really but quite exotic.

On the other hand, some tourists are complaining that things are too commercialised -for instance 20 Euros for a picture with Santa- but generally Finland is an expensive country. However, it has other things to make it up. Last week that I was in Rovaniemi I realised how much I miss the beauty of the frozen rivers Kemijoki and Ounasjoki and their surrounding nature. Slowly I will make my way up here again. Shamans casted a spell on me again!

New Year’s Resolutions

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In Greece around 5th century BC, Antiphon the Sophist, in his work named On Truth describes time as such: “Time is not a reality, but a concept or a measure.” Time is indeed a human creation but yet it manages to impose strict restrictions on our daily lives. Deadlines, appointments, aging… I was recently discussing with a friend of mine about how fast time passes when you grow older. As a kid time, for instance from one New Year’s Day to another, seemed almost as eternity. Nowadays as an adult, I feel as if the year has shrunk. 

New Year’s Eve is approaching and I have decided to set some goals in order to better utilise my time. The term New Year’s Resolution is commonly used in lifestyle magazines and everyday life in the USA and UK. New Year’s Resolution is a commitment that an individual makes to pursue certain objectives that normally go effect on New Year’s Day. 

Many New Year resolutions in the Western world involve maintaining peak vitality, physical fitness, or appearance. For example, one person’s goal might be to quit smoking or drinking but the most common New Year’s resolution is weight loss.  New Year’s Eve has always been a time for looking back to the past, and more importantly, forward to the coming year. It is a time to reflect on the changes we desire to make and resolve to follow through on those changes. This is my top-5 list: 

1.   Enjoy Life

Given the hectic, stressful lifestyles I lead, it is vital trying to bring balance to my body, mind and soul. I resolve to go to art museums and music concerts more often, since Helsinki offers a wealth of artistic and recreational activities to meet just about anyone’s wishes. 

2.   Learn Something New

Have you been considering a career change, want to learn a new language, or just how to finally read this book you bought months ago? Whether you take a course or read a book, you will find education to be one of the easiest, most motivating New Year’s resolutions to keep.  

3.   Get Organized

I am a hoarder, like these birds or hamsters, which like accumulating piles of stuff in their nests. However, a cluttered home, office or a car may symbolize cluttered thinking. So, before being emotionally overwhelmed, I resolve to organise my life so that I could find the stapler when I need it and get rid of junk that is just taking up space.  

4.    Dream

Kevin Kleinmann, a twenty-eight-year veteran of the classical music recording industry, at a recent seminar said that ‘before the man went to the moon, the artist had already dreamt about it’. So, I resolve to allow myself to dream limitlessly. 

5.   Feel proud of accomplishment

By all means, feel proud of yourself. It doesn’t matter how simple your goal is, what matters is you’re one step closer to becoming a better individual.  

Onnellista Uutta Vuotta!

Happy New Year!

Dreaming of a white Christmas

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I entirely sympathize with those of you who are feeling exhausted already and depressed by the darkness. But cheer up! Christmas is coming! The trees will be decorated, the houses will be illuminated, the streets will be packed with shoppers looking for presents and the tourists will be taking pictures with Santa Claus. The whole atmosphere is warm despite the cold artic weather.

The holidays I spent in Rovaniemi are engraved in my memory. Lots of Finnish food, tones of snow, presents and happy faces. This time of year, Finnish houses are given an extra good cleaning in readiness for the season and hours are spent in the kitchen, cooking and baking special treats for the family festivities. Last year I have indulged into Finnish cuisine. Oh, Finnish cuisine! I have only good things to say. Where should I start? And where to end? I have tasted them all: Lanttulaatikko, perunalaatikko, rosolli, lottipatee, poronpaisti, taatelikakku , and tens of piparkakkut accompanied with warm glögi. All delicious and mouth smutching. Additionally, the tradition of Pikkujoulu was indeed interesting and totally new to me. Last year, I attended one of the Kreikan Ystavät Oy where I had been invited.

On the other side of Europe, Greeks greet each other by saying ‘hronia polla’ means many happy years and say ‘ya mas’ = ‘to our healthwith every sip of their wine. On Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day children usually sing carols to the tinkling of triangles. They go from house to house and are rewarded with small gifts. On Christmas Eve, groups of people gather around the holiday table to eat turkey and sweets such as kourambiethes, a Greek nut cookie with white caster sugar on top. At New Year’s Eve, in every household there is a countdown till the clock says 00:00:01 and Greeks eat vasilopita a delicious cinnamon ban which contains a coin. Father usually slices it in pieces and gives it to the members of the family. The one finding the coin is said to be enjoying a magnificent new year filled with good luck. Very few presents are exchanged between friends and family during Christmas. Gift exchanging takes place on January 1st, Saint Vasili’s Day. Fireworks are a common practice but not as big as in Finland.

Season Greetings!