One of the fastest ways to adapt to a new place is to adopt a routine. To get used to things.
And because I am primarily here on an exchange programme at the Aalto School of Business, studying should still be the main business. The structure of courses differs from what I am used to at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Back home a module like Finance would be covered across twelve weeks, with a three-hour seminar every week. Here the same twelve weeks are divided into three periods. Probably more flexibility, but it also means that there are classes for Investment Management module every Monday to Thursday.
Modules are thus compressed within four weeks. I have three courses in the third period, two in the fourth, and one in the fifth. So I will work hard(er) in the beginning, spend a little more time in Helsinki the neighbouring cities in the weekends, before unwinding towards the end.
The school is a nice starting point for routines. That means taking the same train and bus rides. Familiarising oneself with the walks to the school and the gym. Going to a few regular shops, cafés, and hangout places. Packing a gym and school bag, and remembering to include more plastic bags for grocery shopping (they cost about 0.20 euros at the supermarkets).
That things are more expensive here is one of the many reasons why grocery shopping has been particularly interesting. You have to think long-term with condiments and dry goods, choose the affordable house brands, and compare across the varying grocery stores. Figuring out the items I needed was challenging too: sugar is sokeri, salt is suola, pepper is pippuri, and butter is voi. Without a 3G connection, you could ask the friendly employees, but I prefer to play an “observation game”. Simple process I stick to: I hang around the aisles, watch the popular picks among the locals, consider my shortlist, and consult my wallet.
Most eye me suspiciously, but some were happy to offer recommendations too.
Observation is a big part of my routines. I have learnt how to bag my groceries at the check-out counter and when I choose my fruits and vegetables. There, each item is tagged with a number – 54 for carrots and 78 for onions for instance – and one would have to get a price tag at the self-service weighing machine. Also when I had my first (and only) meal at Hesburger, the largest Finnish hamburger restaurant chain, I sat across the clearing station quite deliberately to see how the trash should be disposed. Otherwise, I would have to peer awkwardly into the bins: one for food waste, liquids, and ice cubes, and the other for the plastic products. The same goes for the recycling of rubbish at the student hostel.
School lunches are pretty affordable at about 2.50 euros, and hence the few of us at the apartment have resolved to cook dinner regularly. A regular meal out will cost one between eight to 10 euros. Fast food value sets do cost less, but you want to be nice to your body.
My roommate from the Netherlands is a good cook (I consider myself to be a fairly competent one). He talks about getting herbs, spices, things for the fridge… On Wednesday he whipped up some carbonara – a recipe from his Italian aunt, I believe – which was delicious. I have returned the favour, and made pasta with Bolognese sauce (from scratch!)
In fact I made a little more of the Bolognese, and kept the remainder in the fridge. Thrifty practice for an exchange student.
Besides routines, you gravitate towards the familiar. In school, it is with the exchange students from NUS and others from Singapore. There is no Chinatown – not the street, not the arches – in Helsinki. Instead the other day, Simon brought me to the Asian stalls, where you could buy everything you need. Rice from Thailand, oyster and soy sauces, fresh greens (xiao bai chye, chai sim), Milo… Even durian (frozen, nonetheless). Granted, they are all pretty pricey – the aforementioned vegetables sell for 5.90 euros a packet – but the congregation of stalls with its offerings forms a familiar community. As Andy Lau croons in the background, you hear the shopkeeper conversing with shoppers in Mandarin and dialects.
I guess I am settling in well, and am thankful for that.
And of course, writing and reading regularly are two of my best routines. Even as I traipse around Finland and Europe, this blog anchors, and reminds me that I am never far from home.
Check out The Finland Chapter, from start to finnish.