Robyn in Finland

Depending on how accustomed to overseas travel you are, your pre-departure experience will differ. Most importantly, of course, is the visa application process, which you should begin as soon as possible after the three-months-prior-to-your-flight date is reached. I can’t offer advice on the Finnish visa application process, because I applied for a general Schengen visa due to my planned  extended stay in the Netherlands after leaving Finland, but I can say that Photo Studio Lockley in Plein Street, Stellenbosch is a good place to get photos taken – they’re conveniently located, they take photos for all kinds of visas and passports, and they are actually one of two photographers recommended by the Dutch embassy (which means that they should be approved by other embassies, as well). It can really take a while to get all your documents in order for the embassy, so do start the process early! You’ll likely need many certified copies of your ID and/or passport – this can be done at the post office. Second most importantly – booking your flight. According to some sources on the Internet, it is best to book 6-8 weeks in advance of your desired departure date. I got a good deal on Turkish Air, and only a two hour waiting period in Istanbul before my connecting flight. Then, depending how much time you have on your hands, do some research about the place you’re going to! The Helsinki Summer School provides great tips for places to go and things to do on their student extranet; but it’s also nice to browse the Internet and page through guidebooks for ideas. Once you arrive, you may find you’re too busy to plan to do anything that it is not made obvious or suggested to you. Look for museums and activities that interest you, and maybe particular restaurants/eating places you’d like to visit (e.g. if you’re a vegetarian, or particularly interested in Finnish food). You’ll also need to sort out your finances – a cash card, available at most banks, is a useful thing to have – swiping is free and withdrawals (at any MasterCard ATM) cost 2 EUR. Finally, you should get an EU adaptor plug if you need one (Fidder’s in Andringa has them).

I was enrolled in the course “Intercultural Communication – Inclusion and Exclusion in Multicultural Society”. In terms of structure, the course was similar to a standard Stellenbosch University Humanities course – it involved a fair amount of reading, and we were assessed by means of an essay and a group presentation. The makeup of the class, however, was vastly different from a typical Stellenbosch University class. Students from more than 20 nationalities were enrolled, and a diversity of professions was also represented, including teachers, human resources managers, and other people in the corporate world. This made for particularly interesting group presentations at the end of the course – even though some groups had chosen the same topic, their manner of approach could be completely different. The diversity of perspectives provided on the theoretical matters we covered in the course was invaluable.

In terms of extra-curricular activities, the Helsinki Summer School social programme is very well organised. When you apply, they offer an “Ultimate Fun Package” for purchase, which includes three of the biggest social activities (a City Tour, the Baltic Sea Cruise and a trip to a nature reserve) on the programme for a slightly discounted price. These activities were all enjoyable, so I’d recommend buying the package. On top of this, there are many free activities offered; for example, a Finnish movie night, and an event in which traditional Finnish dancing and “Nordic walking” are taught to the students. The summer school also organises a trip to Tallinn, Estonia by sea, which makes for a pleasant day out.

On top of all these things, there are also many things to do in Helsinki in the month of August. When the weather is good enough, the Esplanade park is a good place to sit and listen to the nightly concerts put on. There are music recitals put on in various churches throughout the city (I went to an organ recital in the Lutheran cathedral), and in early August there is the Flow Festival, hosted in an industrial space next to a power plant. This a three-day weekend event that draws a lot of international musicians and also features good street food and a cinema tent. For slightly more intellectual activities, Helsinki museums also typically have at least one day a month (and sometimes one day a week) when they offer free entry for a few hours. The Finnish Natural Museum is good if you’re interested in nature, and the National History Museum gives a detailed overview of Finnish history. On the Night of the Arts (21 August) many museums open their doors for the whole day. This is a good time to go to the Ateneum Museum by the railway station, and in general a good day to wander around the city – on the Senate Square this year, citizens were building replicas of Helsinki buildings using cardboard boxes.

In short, there are so many things to do during your stay that you’ll probably struggle to fit them all in. And this holds even if you don’t want to spend a lot of money. Public transport is very affordable, so it is possible to just spend your days exploring Helsinki (the same tariffs for city transport apply even to the ferry to the island fortress Suomenlinna, which is a beautiful place for a walk and an excellent picnic spot).

Instead of flying back to South Africa, after leaving Finland I flew to the Netherlands, where I am due to start a Masters programme at Utrecht University on 1 September. Having never been to Europe before, I am extremely grateful that I had the opportunity to attend a structured programme in Helsinki before coming to the Netherlands alone. Helsinki introduced me to many smaller details of European life – for example, taking a number and waiting to be called when you want service in a shop, and the existence of separate bicycle and walking lanes (it is very important to be aware of this in the Netherlands!) During the summer school it was also good to meet people from around the world, and to be reminded that although people may have different backgrounds, this does not necessarily override the things you have in common. Overall, attending Helsinki Summer School was a wonderful experience, and I’d highly recommend it to other Stellenbosch students.