I was born in Florida, and lived there for most of my life. I always loved talking with and helping others, and all my friends agreed that I would make an excellent therapist. I always got good grades, and decided to apply to study abroad for my PhD in psychology. I always wanted to see the world, and broaden my understanding of the way different cultures think. I sent in applications to universities in Canada, France, the UK, and Finland. To my surprise, within 2 weeks of waiting, I received acceptance letters from the Canadian, French, and Finnish schools. My mom and I reviewed the details and graduate stats of each school. We eventually decided that the Finnish school would be the best option for me- the University of Oulu. It is located in the city of Oulu, the European capital of culture, which I was excited about. They would take care of my medical payments, help me with housing and education costs, and buy my books for me. They had not only the highest graduation rates and grades among the 3 options, but in the whole of central Finland. Everything was perfect, except for one thing: the weather.
Of course, being from Florida, Tallahassee specifically, I was used to the sweat on my back sticking to my shirt 8 months out of 12. Only while packing did it cross my mind that Finland is probably the closest to Santa’s workshop a place could get. To no surprise, we couldn’t find much in the way of freezing weather clothes for sale locally, and what we could find was a bit overpriced. We figured I could find some cheap once I had arrived in Finland. I gathered everything I wanted and needed to take, including my passport and international license, and in 2 months was on the plane.
I had briefly studied Finnish before my departure, and intended to continue studying it while I was there for a few years. I hadn’t to worry much, though, as many of the staff and locals were also versed in English. Once I arrived, I was brought via bus straight to the school where I met my foreign studies director, a well-kempt English-speaking native named Laraa. She was about 40, with snow-white skin and dirty blond shoulder-length hair. Blue eyes, of course. Her voice was very high, but had a mature tone to it. She was pretty well acquainted with the English language as well, which unfortunately would eventually become a rare comfort for me during my time at Oulu. The only other versed English speaker I would come to know there was Doug, a black student about my age from North Carolina. He was from Charlotte, which was in the mountains, so he was more acquainted with the cold than I was. After our brief orientation with Laraa, we received her phone number, email, and campus address, and were shown to our dorms. Doug and I were studying two different subjects, I psychology and he astronomy, so naturally our dorms were fairly distant from each other. We traded information, and once we were unpacked we met at the cafeteria and made some plans to get to know each other before the fall semester began. He had brought some winter clothes, but was surprised when Laraa informed him that they were not warm enough. The first thing we decided to do was to get in some shopping.
We had one week before the semester began, so in that time we walked around campus, already sporting some of our new cold weather clothes, meeting the sparse settling student who happened to speak English with a fair bit of confidence. Everyone we met was pleasant, but they all had a somewhat exclusive attitude. Almost as if they viewed us differently because we were foreigners. They all seemed surprised that we were wearing heavy jackets and long pants despite it being “only 50 degrees.” For someone from Florida, 50 is frigid. Yet crooked they looked, with confused or even giggly expressions. Meeting new people was fun, yet somewhat isolating. The isolation we felt only became stronger once the semester had begun. Doug and I went our separate ways, and only texted on occasion between studies. We would go out for coffee once every couple of weeks perhaps.
The classrooms spared us not from further isolation. Though both Doug and I had enough of an understanding of the Finnish language to comprehend simple sentence structure and phrases, the lesson plans sped by with no concern for our deeper language barriers. We needed to take notes, console with Laraa, and receive tutoring from other English-speaking staff. It was hard work, but we pushed through it. There was one thing we could not push through, however. Something that not even the locals could, but something they had learned to live with. Snow.
We were one month into our fall semester when the first snow began to fall. The only time I had seen snow, it was thin and fleeting. The rare snowfall in Florida covered the ground in a thin, crunchy layer of dirt and sleet, then melted away the next day. The snow in Finland was soft, fluffy, and mystifying. Rather than small, icy flakes that melted, then refroze into ice when hitting the ground, this snow was big, round, and landed daintily on the ground, staying long enough for another flake to land on top of it. It was a pleasant change, and it collected surprisingly quickly. The native students also became more light and refreshing once the snow began to fall. Whether it was their appreciation for winter and the holiday season, or their interest in my reaction to a north-pole winter, or both, they smiled more frequently and engaged with me more willingly than before. However, something held me back from becoming receptive to their friendly advances. The temperature was just too damn cold. The heavy, hairy, felt, insulated clothes weren’t enough. The constant coffee and hot chocolate wasn’t enough. I didn’t know how to ice skate, nor could I tolerate the sharp winds, so I began to involuntarily isolate myself. My month’s worth of attempts to break the ice with the natives had become fruitless as the icy temperatures penetrated my skin and my mood. Then, the days got shorter. And shorter. And shorter.
Winter was an interesting time for Oulu University. Being located above the arctic circle, they experienced arctic extremes. However, because they voluntarily placed their school above the arctic circle, they knew what they were getting into. Winter was just another season for the staff and students of Oulu. As the snow piled up, they began to wear snow shoes and carry their supplies behind them on sleds. As the days became hours, then minutes, they carried strong flashlights on their heads. And as the snow banks reached 8 feet, my first-story dorm room became completely buried. As the weeks went by, I watched out my sliding bedroom door as the top of the snow grew higher and higher. 1 foot, 2 feet, 30 degrees, 20 degrees, 4 feet, 6 feet, -10 degrees, -20, more native smiles, more personal isolation, colder colder colder, darker darker darker. I became depressed. The natives had a system in place where they could bring food, water, and other pleasantries to the students who decided to stay during the winter. The buildings had wide ramps and stair wrapping all the way around, so they could deliver supplies to dorm balconies and funnel them down to the first floor. Occasionally Laraa would visit. God how I wish she could have just stayed. The depression got worse every time she left. I hadn’t heard from Doug in weeks, and every time I saw Laraa I would forget to ask about him. The internet was scant, and I dared not go outside. I was trapped, physically and mentally. Of course my sleep schedule was rancid. I’d sleep whenever I was tired, which was most of the time. And when I didn’t, I’d stare at the densely packed snow pressing against my window. I had never seen something like it. It was like looking at tons of Italian ice built up outside my dorm and huggin the windows and sliding door, or perhaps smooth, fluffy, white insulation. It was honestly a little unsettling, but it was better than keeping the curtains shut. The curtains made my room feel like a prison, and at least the snow was something different.
Sleeping was a guessing game. “Am I tired? I’m always tired. When was the last time I slept? Who knows. Who cares?” When I did sleep, it was short, uncomfortable and honestly scary. I felt achy and isolated, but surprisingly not cold. The snow packed against my window acted as an insulator for the heat blasting out of my vents. Oulu knew how to keep their students warm in the winter. There was one night, however, where I was the most hopeless I had ever felt. Terrified. Alone. Cold.
I had become acquainted with the image of the snow against my window. I knew intimately the creases it formed on the chilly white canvas. One night… or day. Whenever it was, I had decided I wanted to sleep for a bit. I shut my lights, turned the heat up, drank a glass of water, put on something warm, and wrapped myself under the blankets. I didn’t smile, nor did I exhale in relief as I often used to when getting in bed. I simply covered up, and drifted off. After who knows how much sleep, I found myself awoken to the sound of snow moving. It was jarring, yet it took me a second to become aware of what the sound meant. I laid there, with my back against the window, waiting for my senses to come to me fully. When they did, I became keenly aware of the sounds and their implications. I hadn’t felt terror in a long time, but it was now something to ad to the list of things I felt during my first and only winter at Oulu. A cold shock of adrenaline seethed from the back of my neck down my spine as I listened to the squeaking and crunching of snow being shifted outside. The staff said the snow capped at 8 feet, and my window was 6 and a half feet high. Yet the sound continued as if it was my own feet pressing against Oulu’s first snow. Then the second dose of adrenaline came once I heard a sliding squeak against the glass itself. Something was moving through the snow outside as I slept. Something, through the -20 degree temperature, total darkness, and shredding winds had slid through feet of snow to find itself sliding against my window. In my tired, depressed state, my body froze in absolute agony as I listened to every detail of its movement. “Sliiiiiiide… crunch, crunch squeeeeeak… slide…” I couldn’t move. I didn’t want to move… I was positively horrified. I had never felt more vulnerable in my life.
The sounds went on for what felt like hours, until finally, abruptly… they stopped. I waited and waited for who knows how long for it to continue, or at least for the sun to come up and calm my nerves. But neither happened. All I could do was lay there in a bed that was given to me by strangers, and wait for my own psyche to muster up enough courage to move even a little. Finally, after what felt like days, I got a knock at my door. The sound startled me so much that I gasped and shuddered at it. My body was aching and I was so hot I had begun running out of sweat. After about a minute, the knock came again. With the knock, this time, came a familiar voice. It was Laraa. I didn’t even remember when the last time she visited was, nor did I realize that she would have come again at this specific time. Her voice gave me momentary relief, and the courage to jump up and rush to the door. When I jumped up and turned on my bedside light, however, I was met with the most horrifying image. Outside my window, carved into the dense snow pressing against it, was a long, narrow tunnel.
I was too afraid to bring it up with Laraa. I didn’t ask about or attempt contacting Doug. I didn’t talk to any of the natives. I slept on the couch in the living room where the windows were small, and survived the rest of the winter in shambles. The snow melted, and I finished my first and final year at Oulu, then transferred back to Florida. The transfer student program promised me an experience that I could take with me for the rest of my career, and though it was likely the most uncomfortable and terrifying experience I had ever had, it has indeed helped me understand the pain of others as a therapist. So for that at least, I can appreciate my experience at Oulu University.
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