|USIA Fulbright Scholar in Finland|
(third letter from Ed)
We resumed school on Thursday after the Christmas holiday (it is politically correct to say "Christmas" holiday around here, as opposed to something more generic like "Winter" recess, since almost everyone is a Lutheran). We are in the middle of the third period now. As I mentioned before, the school year is broken down into five periods. The second period ended the first week of December. In the second period, I had two chemistry classes at the school I usually teach at (i.e. the High School), one covered organic chemistry and the other environmental chemistry. For the organic chemistry course (about 20 students), the student's grades were solely determined from the one test that I gave at the end of the period. Although a few did ok, for the most part I was kind of disappointed with the results. It seemed like many of them hardly studied at all or did any of the homework for the duration of the 8-week course. I think it would have been a good idea to maybe give them a test half-way into the course, or to make them hand-in some of there homework, or something along those lines. I guess I realized this all along, but I just didn't want to make any extra work for myself. It is the usual case here to simply give the one test at the end of the period.
I have noticed that what several of the math and science teachers do here is have one or two or three students put problems on the board before the start of class. That is, the students arrive early to class and write the solutions to the problems on the board and then I imagine the teacher discusses them once the class begins (I have never actually sat in on a class to observe this, but I certainly can see the students arrive early to put the problems on the board as several of them come in to write on the board as I am still cleaning up my things from the previous class). Of the twenty students, one received a "10", the highest grade, and two received a "4", meaning that they do not get credit for the course. For those who do get a "4", they do have the option of retaking the exam. Neither student was interested however. Although I was disappointed with the exam results, the actual in-class time seemed to go fairly well. For the most part, the students are well-behaved and attentive (of course, they have their bad days). Most do not actively participate (i.e. by answering and asking questions) unless they are called upon. There are usual only 2 or 3 who are willing to answer most of the questions (not unlike what I find in the States) so I have to keep reminding myself to not get in the habit of just calling on these few. The course met 5 hours per week.
The second chemistry course I had was the environmental chemistry course. In this class I only had two students. Actually the course is still going on as it has carried over into the third period (the one we are in now). It is a kind of informal course where we meet an hour or two each week and talk about issues like nuclear waste, the greenhouse effect, global warming etc…In this class there are not any exams, but the students grade is based upon a project that they submitted as well as a presentation on their chosen topic. At times it's been a little unusual to only have two students in the sense that on several occasions one or both of them have not shown up for class. Somedays I have had no one to teach to, and on others, it was just me and one other person in the room. No place to hide in this case if you are the student. To say the least, environmental chemistry is not my specialty, so when all is said and done (probably within the next week or so), at least I will have learned something. Hopefully the students have gotten something out of it too.
During the second period, I also picked up an unexpected class. I was asked to substitute for one of the English teachers at one of the local evening schools for adults. There were about 10 students in this class, ranging in ages from about 30 to 50. The people in this particular course were all businessmen and women from the town. They all owned or were actively involved in running a local business. Courses such as this one are partially funded by the European Union to encourage the learning of English.
The temperature these days usual ranges from about 20 F to 32 F. We have a few inches of snow on the ground, but not so much. Nothing at all like what I have seen on the news from places like Chicago. The days are still short (sunset about 3:20) but getting longer!!!!! Below are some more excerpts from the log I am keeping during my stay here, if you are so inclined. Included is a description of the traditional Finnish Christmas. Best of luck this semester. I hope everyone is happy and healthy.
I went on a cruise to Stockholm with some of the teachers (many of them retired) from the Yläaste (middle school). We took the boat to Stockholm, never got off, and then just turned around and came back. The whole thing took about 24 hours. Essentially it involves eating and drinking the whole time. There was dancing at night and many of the older teachers were fairly good at that (dances like the um-pa, and waltzes). For occasions like this I wish I had some dancing skills.
(2:13 am) I want to record some of this weekend while it is still fresh in my mind. It is now very early Tuesday morning. I visited a Finnish teacher's (who was an exchange teacher in Maryland last year) school today in Espoo. It was a middle school. For the most part, I was very impressed with all aspects of the school. The children seemed to be very interested in their lessons. I sat in on two chemistry lessons. Both classes involved the students either doing a laboratory experiment or watching their teacher do it. In one class they tested unknown solutions by using litmus paper and by adding silver nitrate to see if a precipitate would form. In the other, the teacher did a demonstration to produce hydrogen gas (zinc + HCl).
I also sat in on a math class. Actually in this class, I thought the students were fooling around quite a bit. One student in particular kept mimicking that John Travolta dance from Pulp Fiction. They were covering sin, cos, tan etc…The students at this school were ages 12-15 (it was an yläaste).
I also went to one English class where I answered some of the students' questions (they didn't have many questions but one student asked if I knew any famous people), and in another English class, I read the verb in Finnish and then the students had to tell me what it meant in English, and then in another English class I was asked to pretend to be a travel agent for students who were asked to pretend to be traveling to Europe.
At the school this day, they also just happened to have a brief retirement party for one of the teachers. It was a 15 minute celebration with a couple speeches and a few gifts (the rest of the faculty all stood and sang a song for about a minute; I was told this was some sort of tradition.
Tallin had a very charming Old Town (nice cobblestone streets and restaurants with some atmosphere). The rest of the city was nothing special. Many of the apartment buildings were the drab Soviet style. On Saturday we took a tour of the city. This included a visit to the Old Town as well as some other places (like where they had the sailing events for the 1980 Moscow Olympics). Later in the day we met a local who took us for a walking tour. He brought us again to the Old Town and we drank a bottle of champagne in an area of the Upper Old Town that overlooks the Lower Old Town. On Sunday we went to the "Black Market" (it looked like your basic Swap Swap, except without the circus). According to Hanno, and others, just about everything there was some sort of pirated product. For example, there were thousands of music CD's, computer CD's and video for VERY reasonable prices (I can't remember how much the Titanic video was; somehow I believe it was 130 EEK, about 10 dollars). I am sure that a Rolex watch was going for 180 EEK, about 14 dollars. I imagine that it probably just had the Rolex "face" and not the Rolex "inside". On Sunday, Hanno took us for another walking tour. He is an architect so he pointed out the significant features of many of the buildings. I was very impressed when he showed us a monument to a famous Estonian chess player that he designed. It was quite a large monument in the heart of the city. I also saw the memorial to all the people who died on the "Estonia" in 1994 in that Ferry accident. The boat trip back to Helsinki was very crowded. On these ships, many people like to drink. Others also enjoy the dancing.
I couldn't help but notice that ABBA songs appear on the radio much more frequently here (although most of the songs are still English or American)………..The days are getting shorter. It is now pitch dark by 5:00 (give or take ten minutes). For me, one nice thing about it is that at first you think it is very late in the day and that you have no time left to get anything done. Then you look at the clock and it is only 6:00 (instead of 9:00 or 10:00) and you feel good that there is so much time left in the day…………I don't know if I have mentioned this yet but some of the American TV programs on here are the Bold and the Beautiful, Peyton Place (……….."tonight, police are searching for Jack Chandler, who they know is capable of hurting young Rachel Wells…..", they play this commercial over and over; is that Ryan O'Neill I recognize???), Sunset Beach, Onnea Pyörä (a Finnish version of Wheel of Fortune), Seinfeld (just started once a week), Ally McBeal, Michael Hayes (starring David Caruso), Dellaventura (starring Danny Aiello), Dallas (yes, the one with JR) and some others.
Went to Tampere last night with a group of students to see the musical Rent. I don't know why but I just assumed the performance would be in English since it is a Broadway play, but it was in Finnish. I thought the singing was remarkably good. I enjoyed it much more than the ballet I saw over the weekend. I wasn't that crazy about the story however (from what I could understand)………..
There are two English students in my Finnish class and two Irish students. They don't get along very well with each other.
I went to Säkylä last night to do the sauna and jumping in the lake thing. I didn't know if I would have the nerve to jump in the water, but I didn't want to seem like a wimp so I did it. I guess the water was zero celsius because the ice had to be broken away so there was a place to go into the water. People don't exactly jump into the water either, they walk down stairs into the lake. I noticed even the most hearty of them did not stay in the water very long. Most just climbed down the stairs, stayed in for a few seconds and then came out. When I first walked out of the sauna into the cold air, it didn't seem so bad. I think that being in the sauna somehow gives you a temporary protective barrier from the cold. It's hard to describe but I think that you almost feel a little numb because of the steam being so hot. The typical person would do the sauna to lake routine about four or five times. I just opted for once.
Then last night I also went to Tampere. I was going to sample some of the night life and then do some shopping on Sunday for Christmas gifts. As it turned out, all the big stores were closed on Sunday. On Saturday night, I met a Finnish women named Outi at a local establishment. My first line to her fits into the category "only Ed could have done that". I wanted to approach her and say something in Finnish. I thought for a while and, given my limited skills, I figured I could piece together the Finnish equivalent of "I would like to meet you". I knew for sure that "I would like" = "Haluaisin" and I was almost certain that the correct form of "you" in this case was "sinua". I was uncertain, however, how to say "to meet". I was sure that the expression "Where should we meet?" is "Missä tapaamme?". So given what I knew about verb conjugation, I figured the infinitive form of the verb "to meet" would be "tapaa". Well, it's not, "to meet" is "tavata". As it turns out, I can't find the word "tapaa" in the dictionary. However, the word "tappaa" is there and it means "to kill". So my first line to her sounded a lot like "Haluaisin tappaa sinua" = "I would like to kill you".
I went with a group of students and another teacher today to a the nuclear power plant in Olkiluoto. The presentations were in Finnish but the tour guide had spent a year in the States working at a nuclear power plant and did an excellent job at answering my questions. It was a very informative visit. First they gave us some cake and coffee and then showed us a film about the facility. Then we took the bus into an underground tunnel and went about 60 m down to where they store the low- and medium-level waste. In these areas, they did not mind if I took any pictures. We were able to look into the deep silo which housed the low-level waste (which I would say was about another 40-50 m down). The guide said the things stored there were things like clothing and other things that may have been used and possibly contaminated when maintaining the reactor. Then we went to the main building which housed the reactor. In this area, I was not allowed to bring my camera, but the Finnish teacher was. I learned that the type of reactor they have is a little different than the one that I have known about before. For example, this one (a Swedish design) uses only two water "systems". One water "system" circulates through the reactor core and is turned to steam, and the other "system" is the Gulf of Bothnia water which is used to condense the steam (I believe the type that is common in the states has three enclosed water systems). I also learned that handling of the unused uranium fuel does not require any special protection since the radiation levels are so small (this is what I was told); I still think they must use some sort of protection. The high-level wastes (i.e. the fission products) are stored in a pool of water for five years within the main building and then transferred to an interim-storage facility where they will be housed for 40 years. At that time it is intended to put them in a permanent storage facility which has yet to be built. After the visit to the plant, we stopped on the way home to get a bite to eat at Hesburger (similar to McDonalds). I have to admit that on the bus ride home I did wonder just how many years I had taken off of my life today by being so close to all that high-level waste. Of course, now I'm talking about Hesburger.
I went to a pikkujoulu (Little Christmas) party for the teachers last night. It was interesting and usually fun. Two of the young teachers arranged most of the activities. They had virtually the whole night planned out with certain activities. For example, one time everyone had to put a sticker on their head that said who or what they were. But they couldn't see the name and they had to ask others yes or no questions to figure out who they were. Then we did several dances, like the Flamingo and then Rumba (I think those were the names). One person was in charge of teaching the others. What it really was intended to be however was fun chaos and not really learning how to dance because we had about 15 people on a dance floor of about 10 feet by 10 feet. Then another thing we had to do was put a piece of paper on our back and everyone in the room had to write three nice things about that person. It was kind of obvious which words were mine since most of them were in English. By the way, one of the adjectives used to describe me was "Suomalainen" ("Finnish"). Speaking of Finnish, I have been here for about three and a half months now and I have tried to learn the language but I still can't understand 97% (give or take a percentage point) of what people say. If people are patient with me, I sometimes can formulate a simple sentence myself. One frustrating thing, however, given the complexity of the Finnish case endings, I am virtually certain that something about my sentence is going to be wrong. Getting back to the party, we did about 5 or 6 other silly games like the ones I described and then some of us went to Seurahuone (the pub/night club) across the street.
It is now Sunday night. I just returned back from Seinäjoki where I have been since Wednesday night. The Finnish-American society there, as well as the local schools, hosted some of us American Exchange teachers for a few days. I was originally supposed to stay with a family the whole time but the family I was supposed to stay with was repairing their bathroom so the Finnish-American society (I assume it was them who paid for it) put me up in a hotel for a few days. It was a modest hotel but very comfortable. On Thursday and Friday I visited the Lukio (High School) in Seinäjoki, the biggest Lukio in Finland. Most of the classes I attended were English classes. In all of these the teacher asked me to say some things about my life in America, the school I teach at etc……Also the students asked some questions about whatever they wanted to know about America. In one case they had even written out a list of questions ahead of time. Recurring themes among the questions were, "Are the schools in the USA safe places", "Is violence a general thing among the youth?….What about drugs?", "What do you think of Finland and Finnish people", "What do you think of Bill Clinton's case". Many of the students just sat there and did not ask any questions. In each class it was mainly three or four students that asked all the questions. Overall, the students seemed a little shy about asking questions. Regarding this, it seems to me that the students I have met who have been exchange students in the States (either at the school here in Huittinen or the one in Seinäjoki) are considerably more extroverted than the typical Finnish student. It could be in part because of better English skills, but I think it is more a reflection on the different cultures. I am continuously getting the question "What do you think of Finnish people", but before I have a chance to answer they will offer there own opinion that, in general, Finns are very shy. Americans are looked upon as being more outgoing and, in some cases, friendlier. On the other hand, several people have told me directly that at the same time, Americans are often looked at as superficial and phony. One of the teachers in Seinäjoki also offered that Finns often see Americans as naive (in the sense that we are totally focused on our culture and not so in tune with world affairs).
On Friday night we were given a tour of the few buildings in town that were designed by Alvar Aalto (a famous Finnish architect). Then we had a little cocktail reception that was hosted by the city.
On Saturday we had a Thanksgiving meal. There were a total of about 25 people there, including four American teachers and their family members. It was a semi-traditional American Thanksgiving meal. They had the turkey, but they also had some salmon to go along with it. They had pumpkin pie, but no stuffing. Thankfully, they had no sweet potatoes. On Saturday night, I stayed at Heikki's home in Lapua (near Seinäjoki). Heikki, who has a home in Florida, is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. He has made most of his money as a ham radio salesman (and has a large unit for himself in his house), he is a professional magician (he appears to be quite good as he demonstrated some tricks for us), and he is also a pilot.
I took the bus home on Sunday. If I do go there again, I will take the bus only to Tampere and then take the train from there (I did not realize this option was available). The bus from Huittinen to Seinäjoki was not always on main roads. Some of the route was even over dirt roads (and it takes about an hour longer than the bus-train combo trip).
Today was the first of classes for me for the third period. This morning I showed up for my first class and, for the second time this year, I was the only one there. There was a ceremony in the gym that everyone was supposed to attend. A few students who had recently passed their matriculation exams were given their white caps for graduation. One of the other teachers who passed my room clued me in. At the ceremony, Hanna (one of my students) played the piano (she was excellent).
I had my first Kemia 4 class today with the same group of students I had for Kemia 3 (and a few extras). I was very much not looking forward to it because this is the one class that had given me a little trouble. Actually it was just one student, Kalle, who was the major problem. But, he seemed to be a different person from the one who was in my class a couple months ago. He actually came to me over the break and asked me a question about a chemistry concept (before he just seemed too arrogant to do so); and then when we started to talk a little and I mentioned that since he has so much natural ability for chemistry (which he truly does) that he might consider doing an independent study instead of coming to class (I think something like this would be a good learning experience for him but I have to admit that it was also my way of indirectly asking him to not come to class). What he said next almost shocked me. He said that he thinks he should come to class so that he can learn to get along with other people better. I just hope he wasn't pulling my leg. He seemed sincere.
I went downhill skiing today with Erkki. I spent most of the time on the kiddie hill. First I got a lesson there and then I just stayed there a little longer to practice some more. I felt a little silly there since just about everyone else was under 8 years old (not to mention that they were better skiers than me). I finally gave one of the regular hills a shot. My biggest worry was that I was going to crash into someone. I ended up doing the regular hill about 4 or 5 times (the hill I chose wasn't all that big either). I didn't hit anyone but I think I fell down at least once on each run.
Last night I went to yet another pikkujoulu party. This one was a pretty big affair attended by the business people in town (there were about 150 total guests). I was invited by the people who were in the English class that I was the substitute teacher for. The leader of the group made a point of welcoming me to the event. After dinner, there was dancing. I wish I would have known what I big thing dances are here before I came (I would have taken some lessons).
I was late again today for another Christmas affair. I guess I should get the facts straight on exactly what type of party it is. I have assumed that all of the Christmas get-togethers were basically informal parties in which you could stroll in anytime. To the contrary, most of them have been somewhat formal with definitive starting times. The one I went to tonight was more like a concert. All of the people who work for the town, including teachers, were invited to a Christmas concert at the main entertainment hall in town. When I arrived at 7:05, I noticed that no one was outside the arena and that all the coats were already hung up. I could hear the music playing and I didn't look forward to walking in and being the object of everyone's attention (as if I need some more of that), at least temporarily. I waited for applause and then I tried to walk in as inconspicuously as possible. I almost tripped going down the stairs, but fortunately made it to a free aisle seat without much further fanfare. After the concert (which consisted of mostly Finnish Christmas music), everyone gathered in the cafeteria for some rice pooridge topped with some sort of plum sauce (apparently this is a traditional Finnish desert for Christmas time).
My father surprised me with a visit this weekend. He arrived on Friday. We went out to eat at Havis Amanda restaurant (seafood) and then went to Rendevous (a cafe overlooking the Main Street for some desert and coffee). After spending the night in the Royal Hotel, we did some shopping in the morning. Then we tried to find the "Hotel and Restaurant Museum". When we finally found it (in an old warehouse that was itself was being refurbished) we found that it was being renovated and was closed. At 3:00 we went to a Fulbright party. Four of the teachers from this year and several of the Finnish teachers from previous years attended. It was one of those potluck affairs. At the end of the event we had a surprise visit from Joulupukki (Santa Claus). He came with his helpers to give out little gift packs to the kids.
On Saturday night we came back to Huittinen. I gave Dad a tour of the town on Saturday morning and then we went to a friend's for lunch It was very sweet of the family to go to so much trouble. They had a big meal prepared and then gave my Dad some gifts to bring home for Christmas.
It is now early Saturday night. I went to Ari-Pekka's all-star game this afternoon. I spent most of the game talking to Antti, the teacher from the yläaste, who was also there.
Last night I went to Säkylä again with Timo. A neighbor of his, who spoke a little English, drove us there. The temperature was actually fairly mild, about +1 or +2 celsius. I did the sauna followed by going in the lake thing again. I did it about four or five times this time. The first time I was going to go in I asked Timo's neighbor, Velimatti, if he wouldn't mind taking my picture. He said sure but that he would do it later since my camera was back in the locker room at the time. My intention was to go in once, get a picture, and than that would be it (I don't know if I've mentioned this yet in this log, but the time I went jumping in the lake before, the picture did not come out!). He just assumed that I would be doing the lake thing about four or five times. Well, as I've already mentioned, it did turn out that way after all. After the first couple times I had gone in the lake, he asked if I wanted a picture now; I did, so I went and got the camera. He then took a couple pictures of me in the water but the flash didn't work! I wimped out after the first two attempts at the picture and I made a beeline for the sauna. We tried it again a short time later and, hopefully, the picture was successful.
I know that the shortest day of the year is tomorrow, give or take a day, so I wanted to capture the moment by taking sequential pictures of the skyline throughout the day. I went outside for the first picture at 7:00. I noticed that we had gotten a roughly 1 inch dusting of fresh snow during the night. The snow did a lovely job at covering up the ice below. As soon as a took the camera out of it's case, I promptly slipped on the ice and wiped out. Fortunately I was ok, but my camera was not so fortunate. The on/off mechanism had broken off.
I noticed that my camera still seemed to be somewhat functional, so I decided to give it a try again today. No such luck. After a couple pictures, the camera was no longer working properly. I went to the camera shop to get a one-time-use camera and I will try again tomorrow.
On a more positive note, several of the girls from the Yläaste (middle school) gave me a little Christmas gift and card. They are the ones who come to basketball on Wednesday's.
The temperature plummeted today. At midday it was about -10 C. When I ran to the weight room at 7:00 pm, I was very happy to arrive because my face was so cold.
On a professional note, I spoke to the Kemia 4 students at the end of class today for a few minutes. I asked them about the homework I assign and if they actually do it. Most of them said no. One reason they gave was that I gave so many problems. They said that, for example, their math teachers only give two or three problems a night. It is true that I do give more than that, but I was assigning about the amount that was in the back of each section in their Finnish book. Another reason they said, was that many of them just save the studying for when the exam approaches. They also conceded that, to a certain extent, they really start to study hard when it comes time to take their matriculation exams in their third year. One of them pointed out that this strategy may not be so wise because it may be too much to learn all at once if you save most of it for the last year (not to mention that it may be too much if you save all of it from one 8-week class until the end of the 8-week period). I told them that what I would do starting in January was to give the same number of problems but outline 3 or 4 as those which should be high priority. Actually this is something I do back home (one thing I have learned this year is that the same strategies that seem to work back home seem to work here).
Today was a short work day. There was an assembly early in the morning. Some students performed some Christmas songs (either singing, or playing an instrument). Every time I go to one of these events that involve student performances, I am pleasantly surprised to see that one of my students has a talent that I was not aware of. Even Aya, the Japanese exchange student, got into the act. She sang a couple Christmas songs. She blended Japanese, Finnish and English into the songs. She was quite good and a real crowd pleaser. After the performance, all the students and teachers went to the cafeteria for the glögi (I don't know if I am spelling that right; it is a holiday drink with raisins, some sort of nuts, some sort of warm juice and vodka [except we didn't have the vodka at school]) and danish. Then the teachers surprised me with a uniquely Finnish Christmas gift. They gave me some cufflinks and something else (I am embarrassed to say that I'm not sure exactly what it is) that were made in Finland.
Christmas in Finland………On the evening of the 23rd I went to Helena's for dinner (she is an English teacher at school who has helped me out on numerous occasions).
Then on Christmas Eve, Leena and her family came to pick me up at noon and we all went to Alpo's house for the day. We had dinner about 5:00. The meal included ham, potatoes, rutabaga casserole, liver casserole, and carrot casserole among other things. Everyone was there except for Tero, Teuvo's son (he was spending the holiday with his Mom). Then after dinner we got a visit from Joulupukki (I had thought that I might have to play the role based upon the article that Anne had submitted to the local newspaper; one of Ari-Pekka's hockey friends played the role however, and he was quite good). The kids, as expected, were very excited to see Joulupukki. They hardly gave him time to take the gifts out of his sack. There were numerous gifts for everyone. I even made out quite well. I got a great Finnish National Hockey Team shirt with number 99 on the back as well as my name. I'm really looking forward to showing it off. I also got a clock from Anne's Dad, and a candle and some other nick nacks from Leena and her family. Unfortunately I broke one gift even before I got it. I dropped it as one of Ari-Pekka's girls handed it to me. It was some ceramic dishware from Timo and Nina. I think Juhana, one of Leena's sons, liked the Monopoly game I got him as he took it out to play later in the evening. Leena, Teemu and I played with Juhana. Juhana must have already played the game as he knew it quite well. He seemed very confident and adult-like for the first part of the game but then the realities of being an 8 year-old sank in as he started to cry when he was sent to jail for about the third time in ten or so turns. All was well in the end, however, as Juhana ended up winning (thanks in part to some creative financing by the other players to keep Juhana from going bankrupt). We ended up playing until about 1:30 in the morning. Also in the evening, Ari-Pekka and I took a Christmas sauna. This one was certainly the most rustic of those I have taken so far. It was in a shed behind Anne's father's house. There was no lighting so we relied on lanterns. I chose not to do the rolling in the snow after I was finished with the sauna. I did however walk back to the main house in my bare feet.
After a short night's sleep, Ari-Pekka, Leena and Alpo came to pick me up at 6:45 to go to 7:00 mass. It was a Lutheran service. After mass we visited the graves of some of the Mäkelä's families relatives, including Anne's mother. Because of the cold, and the darkness at that hour, as well as all the candles that were lit by the graves, the whole atmosphere was quite solemn (in contrast to the mood the night before). They dropped me off and then about noon I rode my bike to Alpo's for lunch. Making my way through the snow was fairly easy because most of the snow was well packed down. Then at night I went to Timo and Nina's for snacks.
Well, I have just returned from my trip to Spain. Barcelona in particular. First let me mention my trip to Suomen Urheiluopisto (the Finnish Sports Institute). I went there on the 27th to take some tennis classes for a few days. They had very good facilities (for tennis and for the living accomodations). It was all fairly reasonable too. For four days and nights, you got three meals a day, a decent room and the tennis lessons for a little over $300. One of the other participants in the course indicated that it was so cheap because in Finland, sports institutes such as this one, are subsidized by the government. The course lasted until midday on the 31st but I left on the 30th so I could get back home to organize things for my trip to Spain.
I caught the airport bus very early in the morning on the 31st (3:00 am) and after arriving at the Helsinki airport around 5:30 am, I took off for Spain about 9:00 am. (I thought it was quite humorous when they made the announcement in the airport before I boarded the plane that "fireworks are not permitted on the aircraft".) The flight included some good views including mountains which I assume were the Alps and the Pyrennes (I believe the latter are the ones between Spain and France). I arrived in Barcelona about 11:00 am local time after a four hour flight. My initial impressions of Barcelona were not so great as the area around the airport seemed a bit run-down. I suppose this can be said for many cities. I took a bus to the downtown area and after about 20 minutes of unintentional wondering, I finally found my hotel. By this time I noticed several other things. One being that the look of the swarms of people on the downtown streets, with their deep dark hair, was quite a contrast to the often blond look of the Helsinki crowds. Also, the Barcelona population appeared to be much more diverse in terms of numbers of different ethnic groups. Regarding the weather, it was quite warm (not by Florida standards of course); the midday temperatures were about 50 F. What I also started to notice at this point, and what was confirmed throughout the weekend, was that fewer people speak English in Barcelona compared to Helsinki and they don't seem to feel the need to cater as much to an English speaking tourist (i.e. fewer menus or signs were in English). The downtown area was much nicer than the airport area. I guess it was like a typical city (if there is such a thing); not immaculately clean, but not bad considering the numbers of people on the streets every day. Of course, it had a lot more character than most American cities I've seen (for example, there was the Old Town area with it's extremely narrow streets, all of which seemed to be well maintained). In the evening, I bumped into someone I had met earlier and we went to her friend's house for a New Year's Eve gathering. We were also joined by Evan, another American exchange teacher in Finland for the year who was also visiting Barcelona for the holidays. There were a total of 8 of us there. We had a late dinner and then at midnight followed the Catalan tradition (Barcelona is in the part of Spain called Catalonia) of eating one grape each time the clock chimes at midnight (i.e. you are supposed to eat 12 grapes within about 15-20 seconds). I was only able to finish five. I protested that I should have been given seedless grapes since I was an amateur. Afterwards, we went out to a Scottish pub and stayed out until about 4:30. Several of them insisted on following some sort of other tradition of getting an early morning snack (a kind of chocolate pastry, I don't recall the name). I was quite glad that they couldn't find a place nearby as I was quite tired by this time.
The next day (after a long sleep) I did some walking around the city and then went out to eat at night with Carmen and Nuria (one of her friends). Then on the 2nd I went to see the Picasso museum and the Museum of Catalonia History. I realized for the first time that Picasso actually had a stage early in his career where his paintings were quite realistic looking. In the evening I again went out with Carmen and her friends. We went to an Italian restaurant to celebrate the birthday of two of them. Then on Sunday, the last day, Carmen took me on the grand tour of the city and I saw all of the major sights. I saw Parc Güell (a very unique park up on one of the hills surrounding the city). Also we visited the area where they housed the Olympic athletes (this was now a quite popular restaurant and night club area). Then we saw the Holy Family Cathedral (Sagrada Família). It was quite a spectacular church. Unfortunately it's only about half finished so far (for example it doesn't have a roof yet). Because the original architect insisted that it only be built with private funding and no help from the government, construction is taking a little longer than expected. They started building in 82……….that's 1882. Carmen says that the unfinished look is part of it's charm and she joked about her own culture saying that it was typical for the Spanish to take this long to get something done. We also saw the Olympic Stadium.
It's now Saturday afternoon. I spent a good part of the day trying to learn some Finnish. On Thursday night of this week, I went to the meeting of the local women's club. I gave a brief presentation about my life in Florida. The event was at someone's house and was attended by about 20 of the members. It was a very nice farm house and according to the person who invited me (Riitta Väätäinen, a local doctor and wife of the mayor) it is one of the nicest houses in the town. I started off the talk by trying to say some things in Finnish. I could see that they were relieved when I gave that up and went back to English. It seemed like a majority of them understood what I was saying. I showed them some of the pictures that Anne had sent me from Florida. Several were impressed with the way Carey had the undivided attention of one of his students……….(it was a picture of him explaining a concept to the skeleton at the halloween party).