December 02, 2007

A weekend of choirs and rock bands

I have not been very disciplined in my blog writing this last week, but this is not for the lack of things to talk about. I moved out of my flat on Tuesday, and so now I am staying in Erkki and Paivi’s home where I have been made very welcome and entertained a great deal. There are always people coming and going here, so there is never a dull moment!

On Friday night Clint and I went to a concert at the university that was put on by the choir. It was all in Finnish, but the singing and music was really good. The concert was celebrating forestry, for which the university has a big department, and all the choir were dressed in traditional Finnish clothes of people who work in the forests. After the concert, and after wandering about the town, I ended up in an Irish pub playing scrabble and drinking hot chocolate! :)

On Saturday we went to see the Joensuu basketball team beat their opponents from another part of the country. I never thought my first basketball experience would be in Finland, but at least I was there with an American who could explain the rules to me!

In the evening I went to Ilkka’s Christmas party at his house which involved quite a different concert from the previous night. It was a small gathering of friends which I was privileged enough to be invited to. We sat around eating and drinking (as is necessary at any Finnish occasion) in Ilkka and Sari’s living room with some special entertainment: Ilkka’s band Takauma played a short set of their own songs as we sat bopping away on the sofa. It was really good, so good in fact that I am sure the neighbours were rocking away to the sound of the drums and guitars in the surrounding houses. After the performance, we had the traditional Christmas drink (Glögi) which is similar to our mulled wine, and then we headed to the sauna. There was plenty of light fluffy snow in the garden (the snow goes like that at -10 degrees) and so we rolled about in the snow to cool off in between trips to the sauna.

Also at the party I learnt to make ice lights. Here is what you need to do… Fill a bucket with water and leave it outside for a few hours (or if you are in England you probably need to leave it for a week or put it in the freezer). The water freezes at the surface and at the sides and bottom. Using a knife (which it seems everyone carries in Finland!), cut a hole in the top of the ice and pour the water out. Now with a little persuasion (or hot water) the ice in the bucket will come out in one piece that forms a hollow cylinder. Then a candle can be placed in the hole to make a pretty ‘ice light’.

Today (Sunday) has been different again, because Clint and I took Dr. Lee from South Korea on a tour of the local area up to Koli. Clint organised a university car and we were free to drive wherever we liked for the day – the American and the Englishman as tour guides in north Karelia! Koli was as beautiful as ever, with the lake starting to freeze over completely, and now the surrounding slopes have enough snow we saw many people out skiing.

We rushed back to Joensuu to catch the university choir performing at the main church in the city. I was surprised this time that they were singing most of their songs in English, and I was most pleased that I was able to sing along to the classics such as O Little Town of Bethlehem and Oh Come Let Us Adore Him. I am sure that Warwick Buddhist Society choir wish they were here! Joensuu university choir sang beautifully as ever (especially Anya!), although some of the hymns were not exactly in the style of Narborough church and their set failed to include (in my opinion) the best Christmas carol We Three Kings Of Orient Are. I hope there will be chance to warble away to this one when I get back to England. :) It seems that I am consistently attending church events whilst I am in Finland – as yet I have not met another Buddhist!

Back at the house we were able to relax over tea and cake – an activity that should be cultivated at every opportunity. The cake, expertly baked by Paivi, was to celebrate the fact that Erkki has secured funding for an international science festival for children (SciFest) – and if SciFest tastes as good as the cake then it will surely be a big success.

November 21, 2007

Snow fun in Kitee

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I am starting to quite enjoy the Finnish idea of work. Today we had a PhD seminar/brainstorming session for the EdTech group. Rather than hold it at the university, Clint organised for us to go to more inspiring surroundings in the town of Kitee about one hour from Joensuu. So we rolled up at the Evangelic Folk High School of Kitee in time for a big lunch to get the day off to a good start. This was followed by a tour of the buildings, in which we got a glimpse of the swimming pool and sauna that would later be the place for us to continue our discussions in the evening. Before we started the intellectual work though, we decided to build some snowmen and partake in a good snow fight. I have been eager to make use of the huge amount of snow laying waiting on the ground. The first few days of snow in Joensuu I was very tempted to start a snowball fight on my way to university. I am sure if you transported the whole of Warwick to Finland right now, there would be huge snowmen everywhere and one large continuous snowball fight throughout the day! So today we finally got to let out our childish excitement about the snow. This clearly contributed to the creativity in the seminar, because when we finally got down to doing some thinking it was really productive. I think singing the school’s hymn in Finnish also helped our creative juices flow.

However, the fun did not stop there, because after the presentations in the afternoon we had dinner and then continued discussions in the sauna, steam room and swimming pool (see the photos). This is definitely not your average school. If my school had been like this then I am sure I would have been much more creative and would have probably have won a nobel prize by now. So Kitee definitely has the thumbs up from me, and thanks to Clint for organising an exciting day. The only problem we have to solve now is how to find another excuse to go to Kitee for longer next time. :)

November 20, 2007

Koli Conference

The last week has been pretty busy and so I have not had a chance to update you all at home. I got down to some serious work last week, well some work, but it was not that serious. My teaching involves a weekly workshop on Creative Problem Solving. I can hear you all questioning what I know about creativity, and it is true that I am probably learning more than the students that I am supposed to be helping. The trouble is that they are just too imaginative, I cannot keep up! So far they have been thinking up magical watches that can assist you on a first date, proving the existence of aliens, and designing a computer that can buy Karelian pies. If you have a problem that needs solving then let me know and I will put it to the class – I am sure they will soak it up. :)

Last Thursday night I got on a minibus to Koli for the annual baltic sea conference on computer science education (Koli Calling 2007). It was dark (as it is quite often here!), it was snowing (which is also common), and our confident driver was propelling us to our destination at breakneck speeds down country roads covered in snow. I was sat in the front seat, and I could just about make out two grooves in the road, either side of which was a foot of snow. Thick snow was falling heavily from the sky and hitting our windscreen giving the effect of badly tuned television. It was quite an experience. If we had been in England, the country would have crawled to a halt by now, but in Finland driving on snow is as common as tarmac – and seems therefore to be treated so! (I had to chuckle at the BBC news yesterday about the inch of snow that brought chaos to roads and homes across the England.)

The conference was excellent: the talks were very entertaining, the people at times dressed as pirates, the scenery spectacular, and we had saunas every night until the small hours. We had time to explore the surroundings each day, and I took some photos.

On Sunday, Mikko took us on a hike around the Koli national park for a couple of hours in the snow. It was quite special to be making paths through deep snow. I thought that people would be skiing, but according to the Finns the snow is ‘not good enough yet’. I cannot wait to see it in December when the downhill ski routes open. As you can see from the photos, the trees are already quite weighed down with snow.

After our hike we visited Koli church for the Sunday service, where I learnt to sing hymns in Finnish for the first time. This might actually be a good way of learning to pronounce the more difficult Finnish letters (like ‘y’ which I gather is pronounced ‘ou’). I have not made much effort to learn Finnish during the activities of the last week, especially having met so many foreigners – but this should change now I am back in Joensuu and I am making attempts with Clint to be ‘friendly’ to the ‘locals’.

This week I still have a few activities to keep me busy. Tomorrow I am off to Kitee (a town about an hour from here I believe) with the research group for a PhD seminar day which should be fun – especially as there is a sauna and a swimming pool. The good news is that the swimming pool is not a lake, but it is inside and there is a slight chance it might be heated. So this might be one of the few non-masochistic activities available in the area. I will report back soon!

November 13, 2007

Ice hole survival

Today started quite normally, walking to the university in the snow, moving quickly to keep warm, and slip sliding in the usual fashion. I went back to my flat for a lunch of fried rice – one of my two staple meals since I arrived. At the end of the day I headed to Erkki’s house to find something to do. After a good session of computer games with Anton and Clint, Erkki and Pavi came back from dinner and immediately Pavi suggested that the next activity should be a trip to the ice hole. I had heard, in disbelief, about these ice holes, where a hole is cut into a lake for people to jump in. The reason for this was unfathomable to me, and remains so! Anyway, Pavi was pressing Clint to go who had cunningly forgotten his towel and trunks, while I tried to laugh off the idea. There was no way I wanted to put my body anywhere near ice cold water.

Sometimes, though, you have to make sacrifices for your country when you are in foreign places, and I didn’t want to be seen as the weaker party – especially in the presence of a fellow American. But this was not a sacrifice, this was suicide! However, with my ancient roots, I had to honour the Gale motto: Never let the side down. So I casually went along with the idea, and Pavi kindly prepared the necessary equipment for the mission. When your path has already been chosen, or your sentenced passed, the only thing you can do is accept it gracefully and enjoy those last moments. As such, I confidently strode out into the night air ready for whatever I would have to suffer.

On arrival at the ice hole there was some confusion as to whether it was still open. For a few moments I thought that God had intervened, but He was just torturing my kilesa. My hopes were dashed, the damnable hole was open! I had used the bathroom before leaving the house, but now I needed to go again. Slowly I put on the speedos and headed out into the cold night air. Pavi was striding confidently towards the water, while I surveyed the icy surroundings. Luckily madness got to me before fear, and I pushed on quickly to the water. My feet touched the surface and before I could feel any sensation I had dived in.

Seconds later shock, pain and feared took hold of my brain. I was several metres from the edge and an odd burning feeling was attacking my limbs, the ice eating away at my skin. As the sensation engulfed my entire body, I was swimming as quickly (and as coolly) as I could back towards the edge. I pulled myself out with the ladder which was completely covered in ice – just like my body! Then it was a case of getting to the sauna as quickly as possible without passing out.

The sauna was warm, but I was shaking from the cold. For once, I actually wanted the sauna to be unbearably hot! After 5 minutes of intense heat I was still only half defrosted. Pavi advised me not to dive in because if you get your head wet then you can get cold – as if the rest of the experience was not intended to make you cold! A short time later I was warming up nicely and singing the praises of the sauna.

Unfortunately, we had to take another dip before going home. I prepared myself, took the long walk down to the edge and then plunged in. This time I did not stray far from the edge and I was out again no time, sprinting towards the sauna once more. I did not even hear Pavi saying we should go now. Apparently I was not allowed in the sauna again. But Clint followed me in, and we defrosted a second time. However, Pavi insisted that we must take a dip in the ice hole last, which meant that a third attempt on my life was necessary.

I readied myself. Then, at once, I dashed out of the sauna with a mind focussed completely on the mission. This approach was the most successful – there was no thought of pain, no hint of like or dislike, no desire to return to the sauna (well maybe). It was like meditating past the pain barrier. And after it was over I actually felt quite good. My skin was tingling on the way home, but generally I felt relaxed and satisfied. Maybe I even enjoyed the experience – in some strange Finnish masochistic way! The good news is that I do not think I will be afraid of swimming in the English sea after this – nothing could be colder than a Finnish ice hole.

November 07, 2007

Here comes the snow

Every morning I have woken up and looked towards the gap in the curtains to see if there were any signs of snow. The first two mornings I was sure that I saw white outside, but it turned out to be frosty white, not snow. This morning I saw white again, but I had learnt not to get too excited by this. However, when I finally opened the curtains I realised that it really was snow today. I took a long tour of the streets between my place and the science park to get to work, enjoying the snow-covered streets and roads. The snow did not seem to slow the walkers, cyclists, and drivers on their journey to work – everyone was moving along as quickly as usual. There is no fear of the snow on the roads in Finland, it seems that it is as natural to drive on snow for Finns as it is for us to drive on tarmac! I think the drivers here must have a sensitivity to snow that we never develop in England.

Anyway, I have not spent much time in the office today as I decided I should go out and explore the city in the snow. I found the Finnish Orthodox Church which is very pretty. See some more photos.

November 06, 2007

Settling in to Finland

It was an early start this morning as I was picked up at 8.15am to be taken to the university. (Not before I had stoked up on my English tea!) By 9am I had an office – all to myself – with my name on the door, a computer, a new email address, and my own coffee mug. After eating a tasty Paella in the canteen for lunch, Ilkka took me into town to get a bank account. So by early afternoon I was set up and ready to work – perhaps a little too efficient these Finns!

By half four most people seemed to have gone home, so I printed off a map and set out to find mine. It turned out to be less than 10 minutes walk from the office and not much of an adventure, so I grabbed my woolly hat and left for the town, which I found in another 10 minutes. It might have been quicker if I had walked at the pace of a Finn. I thought I walked quickly, but here I look slow and tentative compared to the care-free locals gliding over the frost covered paths.

I managed to pick up some vegetables in town, and I made an important discovery: Mama (Thai soup noodles). I was quite excited by this, as I am sure any Thai would have been in my circumstances. I was so excited that I forgot to weigh and price all my loose vegetables – much to the annoyance of the checkout lady who ended up doing it herself rather than attempting to explain my mistake. Anyway, on returning to my flat, I made good use of my well-equipped kitchen to make my Mama (with vegetables!) and relax in front of the television. Did I mention that my flat has everything that I could possibly need? Most importantly, it has its own sauna! In fact, as I drink a cup of tea writing this diary entry, my sauna is warming up.

[some time later…]

I can report that the sauna is excellent. Well you have to try these things out, indulge in Finnish culture and all that sort of thing. But now I am back to my heritage, having put on my Thai gang geng lay and picking up my book on the history of the British Empire, I am ready for bed.

See some pictures of my room.

November 05, 2007

Arriving in Joensuu

Exactly seven days ago I was frantically preparing my thesis for printing, eventually finishing it at 3.30am and going to bed soon after, although I was unable to sleep. I remember sitting up meditating at 4am, my mind racing from the past week’s work to the coming week’s preparation for Finland. That week actually turned out to be at least as hectic as when finishing my thesis, because I spent the time rushing between Norfolk and Warwick three times, visiting friends and family, attending a workshop and packing my thermal underwear. Eventually, yesterday, I left for Finland, arriving in Tampere late last night. Coming in to land, an announcement was made over the radio: “This is your captain speaking. We will shortly be arriving in Tampere, ahead of schedule. The local time is 8.50pm. The outside air temperature is minus one degrees, and the conditions look… urm… snowy!” Not only was RyanAir on time (Vic: you should come to Finland instead of Newquay!), but I was welcomed by snow. Even the Finns on the plane – of which there were a majority – were excited and surprised by this announcement, as was I.

I soon found my way to the hotel, moving quickly through the streets to keep warm. I went for a short walk around the town but I was tired and returned to bed. It must have been my first good sleep for weeks – a good nine hours – and I needed it. By the time I dragged myself up and out of the hotel, it was almost time to catch the train to Joensuu, a journey that would take 5 hours and the remainder of the day’s daylight hours. I must have still been feeling a little weary as I decided to grab some breakfast at an internationally-known fast-food restaurant (I am too embarrassed to mention its name). When I got on the train I was relieved that I was on my way to my final destination, and so I slept again. I think I must have been abusing my body quite badly during the last couple of weeks for it to want to sleep that much. As I got closer to Joensuu and became more conscious, although disappointed at the lack of snow in the east, I was feeling more relaxed than I have been for weeks. Arriving at Joensuu I was met by Ilkka and Sari who kindly took me to my place to drop my bags and then, more importantly, to eat!

We dined at a small pizzeria next to the university. My pizza had so many vegetables that I think I have had enough vitamins to make up for the junk food earlier. Next stop was the supermarket where I quickly found some essentials: milk and Twinings English Breakfast tea. Ilkka and Sari found this most amusing. I do hope this tea is the real thing – I cannot stand that weak excuse for tea made for the European palette. We may not have many culinary delights back in Blighty, but we sure know how to make a good brew. After shopping we visited Erkki’s house where I met, and was welcomed into, his family. I was shown around the house, given more food, and given a room to stay in whenever I wish. It was a real warm welcome and made me feel that I definitely did the right thing coming here. Returning to my flat later in the evening I was really looking forward to all the plans we have made for the next few weeks. I just hope there is some snow! Actually, I cannot wait to get to work tomorrow morning – after my cup of English tea!

March 28, 2007

Berlin photos

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The rest of the photos are in the gallery under Berlin—enjoy!

March 27, 2007

The troops return from Berlin

Team Awesome and Team Supreme landed back in England late last night after another successful mission for Queen and country. I was reunited with my car in the early hours of this morning and very carefully drove home to Warwick. Since then I have had a few hours sleep and most importantly, a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive. When I have had a second I might be in a position to upload some photos from Berlin…

January 10, 2007

The monkey and the bear

but walk a little faster
and don’t look backwards
your feast is to the East, which lies a little past the pasture

Quote of the day Go to 'Today's Quote'

Charles M. Schulz
"There's a difference between a philosophy and a bumper sticker."


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