Eduardo's Story in Oulu
I'm Eduardo Gouveia from Porto, Portugal. I study IEM at Porto University. After deciding to take the Erasmus programme during the Fall of 2004, a question tormented my mind: Where to go? I always wanted to be in a Nordic country, especially Finland (not just visiting, but actually living there). I wanted Finland because it would be the most extreme experience for me. I believed there was no similarity between Portugal and Finland except the Euro currency (I was right...). The city of choice was obvious: "Helsinki", I thought. The remaining preferences were Tampere in second and Oulu in third. Well, it happened that two students with better grades than mine got the first two vacancies, and I got Oulu (I am still thanking them for it...). What did I know about Finland? Just that it is cold, the language must be really weird, it's full of blond, tall, cold but honest people (lowest corruption rate in the world), "where Santa lives", 70% of forest, 20% of lakes, and of course, I knew and listened to about a dozen Finnish music bands :)
In a nutshell: Oulu is the 6th biggest city in Finland (120 000 hab). It is considered to be the Northern Europe's centre of competence, having a considerable amount of high technology ability concentrated in the area. Oulu University is the 2nd biggest in Finland (its airport is also the 2nd busiest). You can find more at www.oulu.fi.
Getting to Oulu
It’s not hard to get to Oulu, it just takes longer than to other places, and it all depends on where you come from. If any “low-cost” airline company operates in your country (Ryanair, Air Berlin, German Wings, Easyjet, Blue1, etc)*, you should use them. Oulu airport receives direct flights from Helsinki, Stockholm and Copenhagen with Blue1. So my advice would be to get to one of these cities first and then fly to Oulu. Another option would be to fly to Tampere (using Ryanair) and then take the train to Oulu. I wouldn’t recommend this since you wouldn’t have the student discount yet (50%) and it takes about 6 hours to get there, making it an expensive and boring trip. Portuguese students should use Ryanair (Porto-London-Stockholm) and Blue1 (Stockholm-Oulu). If booked 2 months in advance it can cost less than 200€ (round trip, which means 6 flights).
The first days in Oulu, like in any Erasmus destination, were emotionally wild. First of all, you meet your tutor who shows you to your room, and then you’ll attend the wonderful Orientation Programme where the International Office staff will inform you about the City and the University. For 3 days, you’ll do a number of things with their help (opening a bank account, enrolling at University, taking care of paperwork, meeting the other exchange students, etc). After this, you’re almost settled and ready to go. This is a pretty intense period and if you get any sleep at all, I congratulate you. One curious thing: why do we always remember the country where exchange mates come from after we first meet them, but we only memorize his/her name at the 3rd or 4th time?..
Let’s talk about the area I was living in. Yliopistokatu means "University Street", so you can probably guess by the name how far it is from where I had to go to take my courses... This place really gives meaning to the word "campus". Let's see: 4 tall buildings filled with international and Finnish students plus laundry rooms and saunas, next to smaller houses (also for students), a Sports Hall, a secondary school, a kindergarten with playground, a student health care centre (YTHS), tennis courts, 3 big supermarkets, a post office, technology companies HQ's, restaurants (mostly pizzerias), a bar/pub, the University itself ("only" the 2nd biggest in Finland) and “Technopolis”. Also nearby, we have Tellervontie and Tapiontie (streets where more students live), 2 big lakes, the Botanical Gardens and a library, uff… Well, I challenge anyone to find a nicer campus than this. I never felt the lack of anything during my stay. And most importantly: it all works...
Optiem is the IEM group (or guild) in Oulu. My experience wouldn’t be the same if I hadn’t felt so welcomed amongst them. It was of great importance for my integration and enjoyment of Finnish culture and student life. It would have been quite easy for them to just ignore the single exchange student (me) that semester, but no. Fortunately, they were present since day one and I never felt any kind of neglecting or mistreatment at any second. I made some good friends here. Hopefully, most of them will be for life. They organized some events during Fall 2004, for which I was always invited. I didn’t go to all of them, but I attended the most important ones: Fuksisauna (“freshmen sauna”), Vulcanalia (opening of the school year), Soccer League, Estiem Regional Meeting, FuksiExcu (3-day excursion, have to see it to believe it…), Proffasitsit (dinner with professors) and Pikkujoulut (“Little Xmas”). All of them were memorable and funny, and I would recommend any future exchange students to participate in anything that Optiem has to offer.
One of the things I was most afraid of before going to Finland was the COLD. I worried about the temperature differences I heard about between outdoors and indoors (where practically everything is heated) and the effects that it would have on me, being so keen in getting colds and sore throats. And negative degrees (which I never experienced) were not my idea of a good time. But hey, I wanted something different... I couldn't complain.
Amazingly, I made it without ever being sick. I believe that my discipline at "taking off my jacket indoors and wearing it outdoors" made a huge contribute to that fact.
I laugh at those times now... how scared I was. The hardest test and also the proof that all my fears were ridiculous was when I was caught off-guard (meaning with no underpants on), while walking downtown with some friends, with - 18C! It turned out I walked for a long time, with my normal clothes without much trouble. Of course I was cold, mainly on the face (frozen and rocky...), but I even thought it was fun. That's just what I needed: an experience like this to let me know that "Hey, there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes".
I hardly had any Finnish lessons, so what I learned was mostly from talking to people. I realised that it is true that Finns like that you speak Finnish to them. They wonder why the hell should you even try to learn it in the first place and I could tell they appreciate the effort very much. First thing is to learn how to introduce yourself in Finnish. At least the ladies couldn't let go of my hand until we were finished talking (was it me or the beer I had before?...). Many people say it's difficult to learn. Some foreigners are in Finland for many years and can't even order a meal in a restaurant. I say it's a matter of dedication and practising every day without being afraid to speak nonsense, and in some decades, you’ll be fluent ;)
The courses I took where mostly in Faculty of Economics, because there are very little courses in English that are IEM-related in Faculty of Technology. But still I felt comfortable in all those areas. They weren’t hard at all compared to what I would have to do in Portugal, but that’s exchange student life, right? Studies are really not the priority here, unlike many future Erasmus students think. The sooner you realize that, the better and the more enriching your stay will be.
Cost of Living
The cost of living in Finland, in spite of what most people may think, is not expensive. At least in supermarket items, and everyday needs, I didn’t find a significant difference from Portugal. Maybe in terms of Housing it is a bit more expensive than here, but considering that there are better housing conditions, it’s a fair price to pay. And travel by bus is also expensive, yes. But if you get the 30-day bus card, and possess a student card (the “golden” card in Finland), you’ll have special discounts (50%) in trains, for example.
Being an exchange student has its downsides. One of them is the time to say goodbye to people you’ve been sharing your life with for months. Many of them (especially exchange students) will never see you again. As in the beginning, I didn’t sleep for 3 days and really didn’t know what I was doing, just hugging people in “farewell parties” and hoping that the day came as soon as possible to get it over with. It’s not nice. Some people just don’t say goodbye at all… and vanish. They can’t handle the pain. Maybe I could do that as well, but surely would regret it. There are lots of ways to deal with this, but I think everyone can decide for himself on the best option.
I liked my stay in Oulu so much that I did what few exchange students do…return to the “scene of the crime”. In April / May I went to Oulu again and stayed for 5 weeks. Basically it was a month of holiday, where I got to travel more (Helsinki, Tampere, Tallinn), be with Finnish and exchange friends again and see what Vappu was all about. I wasn’t disappointed, although it was a really weird time, being in a foreign country that long without… much to do. It gave me a new perspective on things and it was a great inner adventure for me. I went alone again and experienced almost the same feelings as before, only shortened to 5 weeks. But Vappu and Optiem were great as always, I loved being with them and seeing upclose how they celebrate student life. It wasn’t as crazy as people told me it would be. In Portugal students get crazier, I think, during that week (we also have kind of a “Vappu” but it lasts a whole week). In the end, it was worth it.
Many unforgettable and beautiful memories from Oulu are in my heart: walking on a frozen lake at 4am and being able to see clearly from the light the snow reflects; getting used to sauna and actually enjoying it instead of trying to survive; the few hours of light that made me have a different perspective on lifestyle; the few trips I did, in particular to Rovaniemi and to the Arctic Circle; the bicycles and the amazing Oulu nightlife.
I was lucky enough to make friends amongst exchange and Finnish students, in a balanced way. During our Orientation programme, one of the lecturers (an American former exchange student) warned about the “easy trap” that is to stick around with international students only. This option is usually regretted in the future. One should interact as much as possible with students and people of the country they are visiting. In case of Finland, I highly recommend that. And do not be afraid to experiment new things, or to be surrounded only by Finnish students who speak Finnish all the time. The feeling of being a “stranger in a strange land” can’t get better than that… this is why you travel, isn’t it?...
Anytime a friend of mine is considering going on exchange, he/she really has to put up with me, since I am trying to convince everyone to go to Finland. There is a reason for that. I was definitely “marked for life” from this experience. The feeling of going totally alone to a distant and different place from yours and start everything from scratch is emotionally brutal. And I am very proud of all my achievements in terms of establishing human relationships, trying new things, rising my self-esteem, becoming more open to the world, more independent and, above all, the certainty that I don’t have to be afraid of new realities, because I’ve adapted to an extremely different one and succeeded. And I can’t wait to return…
Porto, Portugal – August 26th 2005
Eduardo's Weblob about Oulu
Note*: any mentioning of airline companies in this text has the single purpose of informing students and not that of advertising.