Ruth Sieder is freezing in the autumn sun of Central Europe. "I should go back to Finland", she smiles. After all it was minus twenty degrees last winter in Jyväskylä and it wasn't too bad.
Ruth and Felix Eichenberger have plenty of experience of icy weather, for both have studied one semester at the University of Jyväskylä. I meet them in the grounds of the Technical University of Zurich, Switzerland. They both study at the university to become PE (sports) teachers. Ruth is specializing in ball games, Felix in dance and floorball.
Felix has always been inspired by the cold and dark Nordic countries. Ruth, on the contrary, didn't have the slightest interest in exchange programs in the beginning. If she was ever going somewhere, it would be Norway.
There were a lot of possibilities for exchange studies, but only Nordic countries had courses in English. Finland got the upper hand on rather peculiar grounds: Lund in Sweden was too warm, Trondheim in Norway too expensive. Jyväskylä in Finland had the most exotic image.
"I knew the legends of Finland: beautiful nature, a lot of lakes, few people who speak a funny language, and cold weather. But when I stepped out of the plane in January and the temperature was -30 degrees, I was in shock", Felix says.
"I also knew that the Finns are sport maniacs, but I had no idea how much. Every time I told somebody I study PE, people reacted positively and appreciated it. In Switzerland the sport studies are considered the last resort if you can't do anything else."
"The Finns jog very much", Ruth adds. "You can see couples taking a walk together everywhere", she clarifies.
The greatest love was the sauna
Listening to Ruth and Felix, it is easy to sense they have really got to know the real Finland, since they are familiar with all funniest habits, and some more.
During their half a year they both totally fell in love with Finland. They liked almost everything: the Finns, the studies at the University of Jyväskylä, the cycling in the snow, bunnies and Karelian rice pasties, the winter, ice skate fields and the amount of snow. Even the darkness was extremely exciting and not at all as depressing as you would have thought.
"In the first day the sun set almost immediately after I arrived in Finland. I was amazed and didn't know what was happening", Felix says.
Ruth was impressed by the space in Finland. "Once we rented a car and drove all the way to Lapland. It's amazing how far you can drive without seeing any houses. I wouldn't want to live there, but somehow it was beautiful."
They both awed the amount of gambling machines, which everybody from teens to grannies played and the respect the people have for the law; nobody crossed the road on a red light even if there were no cars at sight. Everybody was cycling everywhere even in the middle of the winter.
Felix learned to appreciate the way the Finns trust each other. "Valuable sport equipment was kept in some storage and everybody was free to use them. 'Just return them in the evening, they said'."
Ruth appreciated the security of Finland, the fact that you don't have to be scared of anything. "The sense of security struck me when there was an explosion in the Myyrmanni shopping centre, and the Finns were totally shocked. In Switzerland we are more used to things like that since we are in the middle of everything. From the reactions I realised how much further away Finland is from everything."
But the greatest love for both was the sauna. Ruth went to sauna almost four times a week, Felix almost as often. "It was fantastic to come home totally freezing and go straight to sauna", Ruth praises. Both also tried the Finnish winter sport, ice hole swimming. Ruth went even further than most Finns. "From the ice hole I went straight to roll in the snow. The snow got stuck everywhere and I was freezing all over."
Finnish baseball and steps of tango
The University of Jyväskylä is a popular choice for exchange students from all over the world, and especially in the spring there were a lot of special courses for exchange students in sports. For example sport management was a new and interesting subject for Felix and Ruth. Courses where sport cultures of different countries were compared were refreshingly different.
The foreigners were also introduced to Finnish ballgames, cross-country skiing, ice hockey and national dances. Especially the cross-country skiing and ice hockey made an impression, and the ice skating fields were a source of enormous joy for Ruth and Felix. For downhill skiing Finland was unanimously found too flat.
Ruth praises the way that languages are taught at the Finnish universities as well as the fact that you have to pass tests in several foreign languages. As a typical Swiss she speaks many languages herself: English, German, French and Italian. However in Switzerland the compulsory language studies end already in high school, so many people forget the languages they have once learned.
Another difference to the Central European universities is the relaxed communication with professors. "The students are not regarded as disturbers of the breaks, but are always treated friendly. It was easy to ask and organize things", says Felix. And organizing was necessary, for timetables were sometimes a real chaos - courses overlapped each other, and didn't last the whole term, but accumulated to certain weeks.
Felix and Ruth both lived in the Kortepohja student village, where the atmosphere was great. "There were a lot of parties and foreigners. Students living there were young - the Finns leave home at a very young age", says the 22-year-old Felix, who is still living with his parents.
Finnish is a funny language
"The Finnish people are very helpful, and try to help in every possible way even if they don't speak English. After they recover from the shock that somebody actually asked them something", Ruth laughs.
Sometimes breaking the ice can be difficult. "Women are talkative and communicative, but men keep a certain distance", Ruth says. Felix shares her experiences. He lived for a while with a Finnish boy, and his need for privacy was something Felix just couldn't understand. "He was so quiet, getting any contact with him was extremely difficult. We didn't talk much during the couple of months we lived together."
Ruth misses the sound of the Finnish language. "It is an incredible language. For example yksi kaksi kolme sound really funny", she laughs. Felix attended a funny Survival Finnish - language course as soon as he arrived. He doesn't remember much, for Finnish was simply just too difficult, but he enjoyed the course anyway.
When we say goodbye to each other, Ruth and Felix are both glowing from all the memories. "Es war super", says Ruth. "I fell in love with Finland", Felix admits.
Ski jumping competition
"Although in April, when my friends in Switzerland were having a barbecue in the garden and I was pushing forward in the snow, I started to wonder whether the spring was ever going to come. When the days then suddenly became longer and the spring came at last, it was a great experience. I missed the Finnish summer, I still have to experience it some day."
When I return home to finish the article, I flick through a summer issue of a Finnish magazine. I look at the pictures: blonde Finnish faces, children swimming in the cold lake water, scouts having a picnic in the forest, strawberries growing next to the road. Suddenly I see Finland as a foreigner and know why Felix wants to go back.
Viivi Handolin 9.10.2003