International Explorer: Nicola
I attended the course Introduction to Bioethics at the University of Helsinki Summer School. I am currently busy with my MPhil in Journalism and the subject of bioethics will ultimately form a chapter in my thesis. My topic is ‘The role of the media in framing President Zuma’s concurrent sexual relationships as cultural polygamy’.
The visa application was pretty painless. As with any administrative process it is a good idea to have all your paperwork in order before even setting foot in the embassy. The staff at the Cape Town Consulate in Oranjezicht were friendly and helpful and it took about two days to complete the process.
It is worth noting that you can not pay for your visa in cash – you will need to make a direct deposit into their bank account and take proof of payment with you when you apply.
I was initially scheduled to stay at the Eurohostel, but this was changed about two weeks before departure to the Pihlajamäki apartments. My apartment was pretty spacious (about 20 square metres) and included a small kitchen (with bar fridge, stove and all cooking utensils) as well as my own bathroom.
The summer school coordinators emailed quite clear directions about how to get to the apartment – a 30 minute bus trip from Helsinki. The only drawback to not staying in Eurohostel was the fact that I needed to buy a travel card. (Eurohostel is located in Helsinki and everything is therefore within walking distance.) The plus side of staying in Pihlajamäki was the fact that we each had our own spacious apartment with no communal kitchen or bathrooms. There was also a nice courtyard at Pihlajamäki where we met most evenings and was a great place to meet other students.
The apartment was spotless and even though the guidelines sent by the coordinator mentioned that there might not be bedding, everything was available in the apartment I stayed in. Pihlajamäki also has (free!!) laundry facilities and a sauna. Every apartment has a broadband connection and it is therefore useful to bring your laptop along and set up a Skype account to phone home with.
Cost of living:
Helsinki is extremely expensive, especially alcohol. A beer in the supermarket will set you back between two and four euro and you can count yourself lucky if you manage to find a restaurant that serve a pint for under six euro.
Restaurants are almost unaffordable, but I found the food in the supermarkets pretty reasonable. There are various outdoor food markets that offer excellent value for money and a chance to mix with local people. The most famous food market is next to the harbour, called Kauppatori. Also look out for the indoor market right next door.
The summer school provided all of us with a card that entitled you to discounted meals at the university cafeteria. Depending on your choice, the cafeteria meals ranged from 4.50 euro to 6 euro and offered real good value for money. Lunch consisted of a choice of salads, breads and a main meal (a choice between a meat dish, fish and vegetarian, as well as a starch). You can have as much water with your meal as you like, as well as a glass of milk or fruit juice.
The Finns are a coffee-drinking nation, averaging an incredible five cups each per day! The two main coffee shop chains are Roberts and Wayne’s Coffee. I preferred the latter because they had a nice brew as well as a morning special where you paid half price until 10am, i.e. 1.75 euro for a latte instead of 3.50 euro.
Travel inside Finland is very expensive, but with so much to see and do inside Helsinki it is pure indulgence to venture farther away. The return train ticket for our class excursion to Tampere was 50 euro for the two-hour journey.
The orientation programme was great and really afforded one the opportunity to meet other students. I took part in three organised events: the city tour (15 euro), the outing to Nuuksio National Park (40 euro) and the dragon boat safari (9 euro). Of these the trip to the national park – where we went on an hour-long hike, swam in the beautiful lake, kayaked and had a barbeque – was definitely the highlight. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that I went back another day to hike some more in the beautiful forests. Being late summer the blueberries were in full bloom and it was wonderful to stop every now and again and pick some berries along the way!
There were further social events such as a movie night (great! I highly recommend that) as well as a welcoming and farewell party at Jenny Woo, a club in the centre of Helsinki, close to the Central Railway Station.
I think it is pretty self-evident that you will end up making good friends with the people in your class as you usually spend all day together, but the social programme at least affords you the opportunity to meet other people as well.
Our academic programme sounded quite mild compared to some of the other courses. We had a full day of lectures every day (from 10am until 4pm), but hardly any assignments or reading work for after class. (We did have a pre-course assignment and plenty of pre-course reading work.)
Classes usually consisted of formal lectures in the morning until lunch and then workshops and group discussions during the afternoon. There were 19 students in my class and I think we represented about 10 countries. The insight one gets from listening and debating people with such diverse backgrounds and philosophies was incredible!
1. Arriving at Helsinki Vantaa airport.
There’s a great video on YouTube about the Helsinki Vantaa airport and how to catch the airport bus to the Central Railway Station. You can of course opt to take a taxi from the airport to your place of residence, but the taxi service from the airport to Phihlamaki was in excess of 30 Euro compared to the 4 Euro price of the bus ticket.
2. Tallinn, Estonia
The city of Tallinn is only a 3-hour ferry ride from Helsinki and compared to the prices of train travel in Finland, it is remarkably cheap: only 22 euro return. My Lonely Planet guidebook called the crossing to Tallinn the ‘original booze cruise for Finns’ and it is definitely true that many Finns cash in on the cheap booze available in Tallinn, especially when you compare it to the prices in Finland.
A party atmosphere is evident from early morning with many passengers having their first beer as soon as the bar opens on the ferry at 7:30am. If you look past the revelry, the trip is definitely worth your while as the town of Tallinn is simply breathtaking. Our ferry left Helsinki at 8am, arriving in Tallinn at 11am. We caught the ferry back at 5pm and were back home by 8:30pm.
Estonia is part of the EU, so the Schengen Visa you obtained to enter Finland is valid. Remember to take your passport with for in case, but they never checked ours. Estonia is going over to the Euro in January 2011 – we just drew money in Tallinn or paid by credit card.
This really was a once in a lifetime opportunity for which I am extremely grateful. I have come back with renewed interest in my studies and my work. I think travelling opens your head to all the possibilities that are out there just waiting to be taken. I’m sure many of us can’t wait to pack our bags again and maybe look up some of the new friends that we have made