torstai 28. huhtikuuta 2016

One week

That´s about the time I have left in Finland, before I go back to France and get ready for my next adventure (I´m not quite sure yet what it will consist in - time, and opportunities, will tell).

So, how does one feel, tone week from the end of a long-awaited, exciting, enriching stay in a country you dreamt of for so long?

It probably won´t come as a surprise when I say that I feel bittersweet. I´m impatient to go home to my family, my friends, my dog. I can´t wait to comfortably slip back into a language and culture I understand and am familiar with - living abroad really gives you a new perspective on your own home country, be it positive, negative, or a bit of both!

I´m also sad to leave people and places I´ve grown fond of, and to go back to reality (and responsibilities!)  after twelve months spent on focusing on myself, my wants and my experiences. I feel very privileged to have been able to take and enjoy that time, an opportunity many people don´t get. I´m grateful for it, and I think I made the best of it.

If I had to describe my experience, I would say it has been good. I encountered difficulties in adapting and understanding the Finnish culture, and communicating with people. These difficulties didn´t always have to do with the language barrier, but also with expectations, both mine and those of the people I worked with. So yes, there were disappointments and tough moments where I questioned my decision.

Nevertheless, I´m really glad I made the decision to carry out an EVS and waited so long for it to happen. It has been a beautiful year full of friendships, discoveries and memories to be treasured forever.

On Finland... well, Finland isn´t the easiest country to approach. Finns really are quite a mysterious people to understand, especially for a southern european who has grown up with different behaviors and social expectations! I thought I was reserved and independent, and really I am if you hold me to french standards, but I am no match for the native Finn! In fact, by far the hardest part of my stay here has been my drastically reduced social life.

Finland is an intriguing country for sure, and one year certainly has´t been enough for me to fully comprehend it. But I did get a good insight on the way the Finnish school system and the social structures dedicated to youths in general work, which has been extremely interesting and enriching.

If I had to do it again, then, would I?

The answer is yes, absolutely. This has been such an amazing experience on so many levels, and I think I have benefited and will keep benefitting from it on many levels as well. So at the end of the day, I have no regrets!

This is my last article on the blog and I have to say I quite enjoyed this little writing project. It has helped me organize my thoughts and keep track of things. A lot of personal thoughts and honesty went into those posts, so I hope that, if you read them, you enjoyed them too! :)

- Nahia

tiistai 19. huhtikuuta 2016

Perks of living abroad - Part II

* Getting to become familiar with places you didn´t even know existed. Two years ago, had anyone asked me what i knew about Kotka, Finland, I would´t have been to answer anything other than "uuuuh..." (let´s not even mention Pyhtää!) Now, I can impress all my friends with my knowledge of Finnish geography, a skill that would make anybody jealous. And you never know, this kind of trivial knowledge could come in handy if I ever end up on "Who wants to be a millionaire"!

* New appreciation for some unexpected aspects of your home country. I swear I will never again complain about the price of a magazine in France... with how much they cost, you´d think Finnish magazines have pages made of silk!

* Having the chance to travel to nearby countries that would otherwise be expensive and/or difficult to travel to: hello, Sweden and Denmark! Sweden in particular has been a true revelation. Not to add fuel to the fire of the old Finland/Sweden rivalry or anything (I refuse to take sides), but Sweden is pretty darn awesome.

* Exotic fauna. Well, I admittedly haven´t seen very much of the famous Finnish fauna... since I´ve arrived here, I have seen exactly one moose, and that was from the inside of a moving car. I´ve also seen one raccoon dog (I prefer the Finnish word, supikoira - it sounds much cuter!), and that was also from the inside of a moving car... at night.

Well, I´ve seen plenty of mosquitoes, so there is that...

Think you are going to enjoy Finnish summer? Hahaha WRONG, I and all my friends are gonna make your life a living hell!

- Nahia

maanantai 14. maaliskuuta 2016

Perks of living abroad - Part I

* What I call the "Cool Factor",  i.e. people (youngsters especially) thinking you´re cool just because you´re a foreigner. A great conversation starter, although it can occasionally backfire and then you end up having to listen to a stranger (sometimes the stranger will be drunk; this is Finland, after all) telling you all about the school trip to Paris they took when they were 13, or about their great-aunt on their mother´s side who was half French, supposedly anyway.

* When you live abroad, going to the supermarket is an adventure, the first few times especially. So many labels you can´t decipher, so many mysterious items... said items might look like food but then it turns out they aren´t, or vice versa. There are some life-changing discoveries, too, like industrial vispipuuro which I eat unreasonable amounts of.

More specifically, this one

* In fact, everything is a discovery when you live abroad! Things that are everyday objects in your host country may be totally unknown to you (the juustohöylä is a good example). You will find yourself having to constantly ask "what´s this?" or "how does this work?" to the people around you and you will feel a bit silly at first, but you will eventually take pride in mastering the object in question. When I arrived in Finland, I had no idea of how the Moccamaster coffee machine you find in every workplace worked, but I´ve since become an expert at using it.

A very familiar feature of my life in Finland

* When the street salesperson you´ve been trying to avoid (no, I don´t need a new phone plan, thank you) inevitably notices you and marches up to you to try and convince you to buy X item, you can still whip up the "sorry, I´m a tourist" argument (use English for an even better effect). This technique can also be applied to overzealous christians who feel it is their duty to convert you while you´re waiting for your bus, for example.

And in case you are wondering... yes, this is all personal experience!

tiistai 8. maaliskuuta 2016

How I ended up in Kotka

I was born and raised in France and happily lived there for 19 years, with the very occasional holiday abroad. I was always interested in languages and traveling, but for a long time, I didn´t think I had it in me to actually live abroad, far away from my family, my friends and the culture and habits I´d always known. It was a scary, daunting prospect.

One day I had the opportunity to spend the third year of my Bachelor´s degree studying abroad, with the Erasmus exchange programme. At the time, I was studying English, so it made perfect sense for me to spend a year in Britain, a country I´d visited twice before and which I´d always been attracted to. And I thought, well, a year in the UK is not so bad, it´s not too far from home so I can come back for Christmas, and it will look good on my resume. So I attended the meetings my university organised to talk about the programme, started talking to professors about recommending me for the universities and colleges I had chosen, and eventually applied (I´m not gonna lie, it was a long, tedious and chaotic process). By that point, I was really invested in this project and was getting more enthusiastic by the day. After several long months spent waiting, I finally received a positive answer. I was being sent to my first choice of a school, a somewhat  prestigious college located in the centre of London, for one year.

Play this for effect.

Everything happened very fast then.There was a lot of paperwork to do, and I had to apply for both government and regional grants, and for a room in a university residence (the cheapest option, which was still outrageously expensive because that was London after all), not to mention selecting an arrival date and a lot of other things I´m probably forgetting. The D Day eventually came, and I was both ecstatic and, understandably, really anxious.

My very first night in London was essentially spent crying to myself and wondering what on Earth I had done. I was certain I had made a huge mistake, and I was already regretting my decision and picturing myself flying back home after two weeks because I couldn´t take it, couldn´t stay the whole year.

Long story short, the opposite happened, and after one year in London, I certainly hadn´t had enough of it! So I applied to do my Masters in Translation there, and after an even more chaotic, even more nerve-wracking applying process, I went back to London for twelve more months of hard work (and a good deal of fun). And the more I thought, the more I realised I wanted more of this type of experience and the EVS, which I had known about for years, was the perfect programme for me. I was about to finish my studies but didn´t want to settle down right away, I wanted to travel (and I knew exactly what country!) and gain more work experience: it was truly ideal. One year after I made the decision, I landed in Helsinki-Vantaa with three suitcases, ready for my next adventure!

The reason why I took the time to talk about my time in London is because I believe that, hadn´t I had such a great experience in the UK, or hadn´t I had that experience at all, I probably wouldn´t have ended up doing an EVS. Especially not in Finland, a country I had never visited and whose language I didn´t speak, and which I did´t know all that much about in spite of all the research I had done (Finland and its inhabitants are quite mysterious, so it seems!)

My first experience abroad made me more confident, more curious and definitely more adventurous, and most importantly, eager for more experiences. Of course, it helps that 2 times out of 3 I travelled with the help of a european programme: it gives you security and support, which I believe are very important especially for a first timer. In addition, both Erasmus and EVS include financial help and the EVS in particular is pretty accessible to young people with small monetary means. I´m lucky enough to have very supportive parents who covered some of my expenses which would have been difficult with only my EVS money (such as buying good winter clothes!) and so do many others; and it´s good to have some savings, especially in Finland where life is VERY expensive. That said, I do know some volunteers who rely only on their monthly allowance for their extra expenses and who manage that way.

The EVS is not a perfect programme - in practice, it´s not very consistent and there are big disparities between how the volunteers are taken on in the different organisations. Applying is long and fastidious, too. But it has so many pros that I would encourage anyone who is interested in a volunteering experience abroad to research it and, if you like the sound of it, to consider it.

My own EVS is ending in two months and I enjoyed (almost) every minute of it. It has been a wonderful opportunity to travel and immerse myself in another culture and I learned SO MUCH. About Finland and what it´s like living here of course, but also about working with children, and I learned a lot about myself, too (corny, I know, but true). I know I will cherish the memories I created here forever, and smile every time I look at the photos I took because they will remind me of my very brief, but very happy and fulfilling stay in Finland.

If you are potentially interested in doing an EVS, this is a good summary of what it is and how it works!

Thanks for reading,


torstai 11. helmikuuta 2016

The four houses of Kotka

There are four youth houses in Kotka, located in different parts of town and with different atmospheres and characteristics.

Yes, a bit like that

I have worked at all four of them and will continue to do so for the remainder of my stay in Finland, and people frequently ask me what I think of the different houses and whether I have a favourite (but I´m not playing this dangerous game!). I thought it would be fun and maybe somewhat interesting to describe the four different houses in Kotka to give you a better idea of what they are like!


* Youth house Greippi is located smack bang in the middle of Kotka, near shopping centre Pasaati and other cool places.

* Its inside decoration could best be described as colourful... Very colourful. On the outside, Greippi is a beautiful old wooden building.

* Size-wise, it´s probably the largest youth house in Kotka... go big or go home, as they say!

=====> Greippi has got to be Gryffindor!


* Mesta is in the middle of nowhere in the quiet countryside.

* It has the smallest, oldest pool table of all the houses, BUT it has a BALL POOL!

* Its inside decoration could be best described as a diverse assortment of things that shouldn´t really go together in theory but somehow do; the end result is very cosy and relaxing.

=====> Mesta has got to be Hufflepuff!


* For a youth house, it sure is constantly full of old people. This is because Kulma doubles as a day centre for the elderly during the day! Imagine my surprise when I arrived in Kulma for the first time, expecting a crowd of teenagers, and instead walked into a gathering of 80 year olds doing gymnastics.

* Is the only house which has a piano. If only I could play it...

* Its inside decoration could be best described as green. Yes, green is Kulma´s colour.

=====> For this reason, Kulma has got to be Slytherin!


* Has a wonderful craft club, ran by myself every Tuesday. Totally not advertising my own club here, honest.

* Has a really neat phone charging machine, with locks and everything. Fancy.

* Its inside decoration is light, airy and modern, and also very minimal - in part because Welho is a brand new youth house, and still not completely finished.

=====> Welho has got to be Ravenclaw!

Feel free to disagree with my comparisons, of course... Nevertheless, this is how I think of the different youth houses myself  ;)


keskiviikko 10. helmikuuta 2016

A few very interesting observations

After nearly 10 months of living and working in Finland, I feel qualified to give you my VIP (Very Important Perspective) on what I believe are the cool things, the not-so-cool things, and the just plain weird things about Finland. Let's begin right away!

Cool things about Finland:

* Reliable train services (you really learn to appreciate this after growing up in France)

* Candy and ice cream all day every day, and for every one! A diabetic's nightmare.

* Dogs. Everyone has dogs, and they are well taken care of (not stuck in the garden day and night like a good chunk of the french canine population), don't produce unwanted litters that flood the local shelters, and in winter they wear cute litte jackets and booties, which is an undeniable bonus.

* The landscapes are kinda beautiful, especially in winter.

Yeah, I've seen uglier.

* Vispipuuro! By far my favourite culinary discovery in Finland.

* Finns are a rather distant people for the most part, not easy to approach; but, perhaps because of the environment I work in, or perhaps because I walked into this project with a rather open mind, I haven't found most finns to be cold so to speak. Reserved, for sure, with personal space being something important, but that is something I can appreciate and which I even like. It's nice that being quiet or even a little bit shy aren't automatically considered character flaws!

There are lots of things I like about Finland, too many to just write them down like this... but for the sake of balance, let me tell you a bit about the things I don't like that much (no country is perfect after all!)

Not-so-cool things about Finland:

* Pineapple on pizza. Seriously, what's up with that?! Why do finns like weird pizza toppings, and especially pineapple, so much?!

* Pickled cucumber mayonnaise. Ewww.

* The obvious lack of pungent, smelly, slightly mouldy cheese. 

French cheeses. Aren't they beautiful?

* Now, this might be specific to the area and not the whole of Finland, but I find the bus stops here incredibly frustrating. A lot of them are really just a sign on a pole in the middle of nowhere; no bus timetable in sight, no number or name that you can look up... you better know exactly which bus stop you have to get off/wait at, because very often there is no indication of anything!

Now, for the things that don't fit in the cool or uncool categories, but rather in their own "What, why???" category...

Finnish oddities:
* Crocs. I don't know what it is about Crocs that makes them so popular, but every single finn I have met owns at least one pair of Crocs. 

These patriotic Crocs, for instance, belong to one of my coworkers

* Lactose-free everything. Apparently, half of Finland is lactose intolerant to some degree because never have I seen so many lactose-free products in any other country.

* What I call "sauna & chill", that is literal chill: the practice of going to sauna, sitting there cooking for a while, then throwing oneself into the snow or into a frozen lake. I know it's supposed to be good for you and make you feel great, but, uh... I haven't tried it, nor do I think I will in all honesty!

* Gambling machines everywhere, and this is especially puzzling to me as the regulations on alcohol consumption are so strict. It doesn't surprise me anymore now, but when I first arrived, I was stunned to see gambling machines in every little corner shop!

Really, my entire finnish experience has been a long series of surprises and discoveries. Some of them good, some of them less good, but all of them exciting and memorable. There is nothing better than an experience abroad to make you realise that all the things you have been taking for granted your whole life can be vastly different elsewhere. In any case, I do thing Finland is a really underrated country!


sunnuntai 24. tammikuuta 2016

Finland, Finland, Finland

"Why did you decide to come to Finland?" is naturally the question I get asked the most (closely followed by "Have you been to Sirius?", which is evidently also a natural question if you live in Pyhtää)

Well. I have been interested in visiting Finland for a long time now. There is something fascinating about a country so different from yours in so many ways, be it history, culture (there is so much to be said about this. I´ll come back to it!), food, social expectations and even climate. And the language, too! I´ve always loved the sound of Finnish. So when I decided I wanted to be an EVS volunteer, I didn´t have to think too hard about my target country; Finland it would be!

Finland has it all and I'm living the dream

Of course, even though I had done a lot of research on both Finland and Pyhtää and Kotka (going as far as looking up the locations of every single youth house in Kotka on Google street view - I was a bit obsessed), there is a huge gap between theory and practice, and the number and nature of differences - especially cultural differences - I encountered has been surprising!

As for the finns themselves, well... this isn't completely true, but maybe like, a little bit true?

Youth houses, for instance, don't have the same importance is France as they do here. There are fewer of them and I would guess fewer youngsters visit them (I have never been in a french youth house myself - it's just not somewhere most youngsters think of going). This is probably due in part to the fact that  our schooldays are much longer than in Finland.

In France, a typical schoolday for a primary schooler is probably 8h30-16h30. Wednesdays are typically free, however - Wednesday in France is "children's day", and this is when all the little french kids attend their football or tennis or dancing lessons! From secondary school on, we unfortunately lose this privilege, although Wednesday usually remains a shorter day, where kids only work in the morning.

There are so many major differences between the french and finnish school systems I would have to write a separate post about it, lest this one become a giant wall of text, but here are a few key differences that might give you food for thought:

* Attending a (public) school is free in France, however school lunches, notebooks, pens and all the material we use are not. Schoolbooks are typically lent by the school, but they have to be returned at the end of the year - preferrably undamaged!

* In french public school, you are not allowed to wear any obvious religious signs. This applies to every religion equally in theory, but sadly, in practice, there tends to be more leniency towards christian children who still choose to wear a cross around their neck rather than, say, muslim girls with their headwear.

* The french school system is pretty old school, really. There is a lot of emphasis on "intellectual" subjects such as maths, physics, history etc. and more manual and creative subjects, namely music and visual arts (no textile work, home economics or woodworking for us!) are seen as less important and not really valued, unfortunately. Sciences are almost always viewed as superior because of the prestige associated with them, and the kids who thrive neither in sciences nor humanities and who prefer sports or arts will face judgment.

I'm painting a pretty bleak picture of the french school system here but really, it's not all bad. I do think however that the finnish system is much kinder to the kids and much more flexible than the french one is... but this is becoming a wall of text, precisely what I wanted to avoid, so I'm gonna leave you with a couple pics from an arts and crafts activity I ran this week at Nuorisotalo Welho. The club will run again this Tuesday from 3 to 5 and is targeted at kids between the ages of 7 to 12, though it's open to anyone really, so feel free to join!

A flock of colourful birdies made out of styrofoam balls!