Latitude_first_steps_palkki.jpg
By Sari Väyrynen. Translated by Richard Foley. Photos by Kaisa Sirén.

Latitude tags along with exchange student Farah Mahmood as she arrives in Rovaniemi.

“Can we take a look at the laundry room?”
“One of the lights in my room doesn’t work.”
“Did you really go swimming? Was it cold?”


It’s early August, yet there’s a surprising hustle and bustle – with a mix of accented English – in front of a student dormitory. The sunny summer evening sees a gathering of students who have come in over the last few days from all parts of Europe for a month-long intensive course in Finnish language and culture.

In the middle of the group stands a young, fair-skinned man with long hair who is leafing through a bright blue folder, answering questions and assuring the crowd that everything is under control.

“We can soon go take a look at all the common facilities.”
“There’s a shop right near here where you can go get a new light bulb.”

Stina, a Belgian, and Javier, a Spaniard, went swimming, and even the locals are impressed: after all the rain in the past few days, you can hardly say the water in the Kemijoki River is warm, although the air temperature here in the Arctic Circle almost hit 25 ºC today.

Latitude_first_steps_pikkukuva1.jpg
Twelve hours of traveling behind her and an entire exchange year ahead of her. Markus Ylikoski, tutor for international students, shows Farah her new apartment.


Markus Ylikoski, a tutor for international students, is used to this – a relaxed atmosphere tinged with confusion and full of expectation, and the inevitable deluge of questions from people in a new place. He has one year behind him helping international students get their bearings with studying and life in general in Rovaniemi.

Now, a couple of kilometres from the city centre, we’re waiting for three young women who are coming in on the early evening flight. One of them, Farah Mahmood, a law student from Great Britain, has promised to give the magazine a blow-by-blow account of her first encounters for the next month as an exchange student in Rovaniemi.

And, sure enough, up drives a grey taxi with Farah, Laia, from Spain, and Christina, from Germany. After bursts of greetings and introductions and laughter, Markus gives the new arrivals the keys to their apartments.

“Where’s your room?”
“Hey, we’re roommates!”

Markus shouts into the commotion that he’ll show Farah her apartment first. Carrying her enormous suitcase toward a nearby building, he wonders how Farah managed to get the airline to take it on the plane, with all of today’s regulations on the size and weight of luggage.

“Actually, I had to leave some stuff at home”, she laughs, and says that she has luggage with her for a whole year. After the Finnish course, she’s going to stay in Rovaniemi for the year, to study European Law; most of the other students on the course will head off for different parts of Finland and other universities.

Latitude_first_steps_pikkukuva2.jpg
Meeting roommates fot the first time: with a half a year at the University, Jacinthe Briand-Racine will be just the guide for Farah in adjusting to life in Finland.

The stairwell in the grey 1980s prefab dorm is a bit musty, but the apartment itself looks cosy – and very familiar. It reminds me of my student days and dorm rooms: three rooms – one room per person – a kitchen, bathroom and front hall. There were the beige kitchen cupboards, wine-bottle candlesticks and plants on the windowsill. And the place comes complete with roommates.

There’s Stina, whom we met in the parking lot and who will be taking the same Finnish course and staying on to study industrial design for the autumn; and Jacinthe, who spent spring term at the University and is leaving Finland at the end of the month. The buzz at this first meeting shows that the three women are really going to hit it off.

“The town seems fairly quiet”, says Farah when asked for her first impressions.

This is no surprise considering that she studies in Nottingham. Rovaniemi, with a population of 60,000, is one-tenth the size, and she’s now living virtually in the country, right next to Ounasvaara, the city’s outdoor recreation area.

“But this is more or less what I expected, because there was a guy here from our university last year and I pumped him for information before I came. The room is bigger than I imagined and the view is nice”, she says, as she looks out the window onto the courtyard and mountain ash trees that have just sprouted the berries that, come autumn, will adorn them in bright orange bunches.

Markus recaps the programme for the evening and the next few days: in the evening it is a tour of the common facilities in the student dormitories – the laundry room, the sauna, hobby rooms; on Monday at 11 there’s a trip to town with another tutor to run errands and a get-together in the evening; Tuesday at 9 is course orientation. After a look at the map to make sure Farah is clear on where the apartment, University and town centre are, the tutor is off to help the next student.

Outside the door to the building is a pair of high heels – a reminder of some weekend merriment?


“How strange it was that it didn’t get dark last night.”

We’re at a flea market in town looking for bikes with another tutor, Laura “Nuppu” Oravainen, and Farah seems a bit tired after her first night in Rovaniemi. The light kept her awake; the sun comes up at four in the beginning of August. It’s quite different in the winter – there are only a couple of hours of daylight in December. And in the middle of the summer the sun doesn’t go down at all.

The group of students – twenty strong – livens up what would other­wise be a lazy afternoon day in the shop. A bicycle is the vehicle of choice for most of the students in town. Some bike year round: the distances between schools, dormitories and the town centre are short and you can cycle in winter as long as you dress warmly enough and have winter tyres, a good bike light and reflectors.

Latitude_first_steps_pikkukuva3.jpg

Farah is checking out a violet bike.

“Oh, this only has footbrakes!”, she exclaims on the test drive and says she has only ever ridden bikes with handbrakes.

She’ll pass on this one; there’s time later in the week to look for a better one.


“Tervetuloa Rovaniemelle ja Lapin yliopistoon! Minun nimeni on Päivi Martin.

The fifty-odd exchange students in the auditorium are amused, as Päivi Martin, International Relations Secretary, welcomes them in Finnish and introduces herself.

This is the fifth year that Rova­niemi has been chosen as the site for EILC, an intensive course in Finnish language and culture funded by the European Commission. Held every August, the course is open to Erasmus exchange students. They have 60 hours of language instruction ahead of them; in addition to the classes, they complete a “culture passport”, which involves four student tutors showing them the Finnish way of life and Finnish culture through outings, food, music, films, art, various events and lectures. Not everyone interested in taking the course gets a spot, so Päivi encourages the chosen few to make the most of their month.

At least the Finnish teachers on the course – Hannu Paloniemi, Riik­ka Niukkala and Anna Rönkkö – have decided that it won’t be easy going. In a month, the students have to learn enough Finnish to be able to go shopping, go out to eat and answer simple questions.

“Finnish is different – no, I didn’t say ‘difficult’ – so you have to make sure you are on board from the very start if you want to pass the final exam”, Hannu points out.

The high spirits and excited buzz in the crowd intensify as the teachers start asking everyone to introduce themselves in Finnish using key words projected on a screen.

Hei, kuka sinä olet?” (Hello, who are you?), the teacher asks.

Minä olen Farah. Minä olen englantilainen”, Farah says when her turn comes around, giving her name and telling everyone that she’s English.

Now the first language class can begin.


On the other side of the room, two young men look at an electric mixer in wonder. They have been told to bake a blueberry pie. It’s Finnish cuisine night. Everyone can – actually has to – make something.

Tutor Marjo Pernu patiently advises the students, who are now making traditional Finnish foods. Farah already has a routine down for making Karelian pies – pasties consisting of a rye crust filled with rice porridge – although she says she doesn’t ordinarily cook much. Elsewhere in the room students are making salmon soup, reindeer stew, mashed potatoes, barley flatbread...

Latitude_first_steps_pikkukuva4.jpg
Karelian pies in the making in the Finnish cuisine course. Farah, Margaux Verbist, Katharina Peschkes, Phoebe Niestrath ja Andrea Selina Soutinho show how it’s done.

The students are a week and a half into the course and, in addition to learning the language, they have had a chance to experience Finnish baseball, the sauna culture, an Arctic zoo, and nature in the Arctic. Tomorrow they’re off on a three-day trip to northern Lapland, where the programme includes a visit to a reindeer farm and an opportunity to see Saami culture first-hand.

International services, the student union and other student organisations at the University offer similar free-time programmes to students during the academic year. During the intensive course, the schedule is just a lot tighter.

Päivi Martin points out that the range of guidance and free-time ser­vices offered is designed to make it easier for students to adjust to living in a new country and a new culture. It is not always easy to make the adjustment: when the initial thrill wears off, the difference in customs and the way people behave might cause such serious culture shock that studying in the new country becomes impossible. International students coming to Finland are often bewildered by people’s apparent silence, the weather, differences in food, and little habits such as not wearing shoes in the house.

There are no signs of culture shock – being homesick or becoming withdrawn – in this group at least: the exuberance doesn’t die down until after everyone has enjoyed a full-course meal, topped off with a most successful blueberry pie. It’s hard to talk on a full stomach; they have all they can do to roll back home. There’s no denying that traditional Finnish food is filling.


The air is cool in the language lab. It was chilly in the morning – the temperature might have dipped below zero at night. Summer in the North has turned towards autumn. Two weeks of intensive study – three hours of Finnish a day four days a week – has started to bear fruit.

“It was hard for them to learn how to tell time in Finnish, but otherwise everything has gone well”, comments Riikka Niukkala.

Riikka says that about half of the 200 exchange students who come to the University every year take one or more of the Finnish for Foreigners courses offered. Students who remain at the University of Lapland after the intensive course can continue their studies at Level 2. The skills achieved at this level are still not enough to enable them to study in Finnish, but the University offers a range of courses in English: master’s programmes, multidisciplinary minors and individual courses. There is also a module on offer where students can complete a minor in Finnish language and culture.

Farah and Lotte, from the Netherlands, focus on asking and telling prices and learning the names for different kinds of foods.

Latitude_first_steps_pikkukuva5.jpg

Mitä sinä syöt illalla?” Lotte asks Farah what she is going to eat for dinner.

Minä syön lohta vihannesten kans­­sa.” Farah says she is going to have salmon with vegetables and then adds she is crazy about salmon.

They have a test coming up in the afternoon, and they’re pretty sure they’ll pass it.


Markus and Nuppu are like two characters from an old movie: the tutors have gone to the flea market just to get outfits that will bring to mind the dance pavilion culture that is part and parcel of the Finnish summer. We’re learning Finnish dances on the dance floor in the restaurant Valdemari, whose ample windows offer a late-summer view out over the Kemijoki River towards the town centre.

The waltz was easy enough, but even yours truly – a Finnish journalist – has two left feet when it’s time for a Finnish tango. Fortunately, I’m not the only one: only a few couples seem to have really got the hang of the dances from the directions the coaches are shouting above the music. When a jenkka starts up, the floor seems ready to split open: left-right-hop, left-right-hop, hop-hop-hop-hop. The floor sags rhythmically with each hop. Some of the dancers have already lost the beat, as the same song starts up for the fifth time.

Latitude_first_steps_pikkukuva6.jpg

“This is quite a work-out. No wonder Finns are so thin!”, Farah laughs.

Later in the evening the students on the course get the opportunity to experience another Finnish pastime – karaoke. Karaoke became immensely popular in Finland twenty years ago and today you can hear it ringing out in restaurants, homes, on television, in contests – wherever. When Stina and Lotte go up and sing Väinö, which they have learned in Finnish class, even the restaurant owner is dumbfounded.


At the beginning of September, the language course has ended and the daily routine of life as an exchange student begins.

It is orientation week for international students when I meet Farah at lunch one noon. Her morning orientation session covered the Finnish higher education system, student health care, computer services, network environments and academic writing. Later in the week, they have a meeting with the international coordinator from the Faculty of Law and presentations of the library, the sports services and the friendship family programme.

“I haven’t really had time to get homesick, since we spent 16 hours a day together during the Finnish course. Let’s see what happens now when my studies proper begin”, Farah muses.

Farah knows that she is a rarity: there are only a few British exchange students at the University of Lapland every year, because spending a year abroad is not as popular among Brits as it is among students in other countries. However, one of the reasons Farah decided to go to Nottingham University was that its law programme had an option to study abroad for a year.

“Originally, I thought I’d go to Prague, but then I realised that a year in Lapland would really be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”