Finding Finland

Introduction (Helsinki)

How in the h*ck did I end up in Finland? Good question. Excellent question. You’d think I should be somewhere nice and warm like Hawaii (don’t worry, I’m not a complete poser – I’ve been to Hawaii a few times). I like to wear Aloha shirts and shorts as much as physically possible, and frequently listen to a questionable genre of music that could best be dubbed “summerwave”. I have no connection to Finland whatsoever, except that my grandmother was somehow involved with someone marketing Finlandia Vodka, which resulted in a few miscellaneous pieces of Finlandia merch (a big inflatable bottle, some glassware, a t-shirt favored by my father) punctuating my childhood memories. I don’t think I’d even thought about Finland more than a handful of times before that fateful year 2020, and many of those Finland thoughts were most likely related to the exquisite but dubious “Finland” section of Osaka’s famous hot spring amusement park, Spa World. So then, what gives?

When inevitably asked the question, I start with the true, but ridiculous, answer: it all began with Minecraft. It’s not that surprising to me or those who know me well, as I think I could probably trace almost every aspect of my current life back to Minecraft somehow even now that I’ve quit, but obviously strangers are quite taken aback. No, it really did all start back during the “Late”, or perhaps better termed “Very Late”, period of my Minecraft days, when I hopped in a server voice chat and started messing around with some fellas I didn’t know well but was getting along great with. As the night grew old, the atmosphere eventually turned to that sort of camaraderie between strangers that occurs in bars thanks to alcoholic lubrication, except in this case nobody had been drinking. Eventually, I got an invite from a half-Finnish guy to come stay in Espoo (Finland) with him during the summer, as an extra room had just opened up in the residence of his extended family. In the same manner that I accept any travel proposal while drunk, I immediately assented. Unfortunately, the worsening Covid situation made travel to Finland rather difficult for unaffiliated tourists, and everyone who was there that night lost touch with each other as we were successively banned from the server. However, what the whole affair did manage to do was put the idea of Finland in my head, just as I was being forced to consider future plans and consign myself to a single fate.

The whole Covid thing had thrown a bit of a wrench into the ambitions of many, mine included. I had never really been concerned about the job market before as I had a pretty good feeling that by this point computer stuff wasn’t just going to be a passing fad, so I hadn’t really done any of the sort of preparations that professors, the university “career center”, online gurus, fellow classmates, pseudonymous forum posters and the like all recommended. In fact, I took a bit of pride (although I admit a large component was laziness rather than principle) in not engaging in all of that cynical careerism stuff like joining/creating do-nothing technology-related clubs, turning my Github account into a portfolio of “passion” projects, or “networking” at various events/the dreaded LinkedIn. I didn’t have a resume and I hadn’t even made an attempt at getting any sort of allegedly-vital internship experience. I suspected a lot of the commonly-parroted career advice was probably bullshit, coming as it did from people working at places like the university career center rather than, say, Google, but what if they were now correct thanks to the Covid employment crisis? In retrospect, computer stuff was probably least affected (as one would expect), however at the time the sentiment online seemed quite pessimistic.

The solution I eventually arrived at was to continue on towards a Master’s degree. In this way, I could basically go into stasis and delay entry into the job market another couple of years, while still appearing on paper to have been making forward progress the whole time. Thinking back, though, I think that all the Covid job market stuff may have just been an excuse. Really, I just wanted to enjoy a few more years occupying the revered status of Student. You get all sorts of discounts, people think you’re doing something worthwhile even though most schoolwork is largely worthless and forgotten the second it’s graded, and of course you avoid a cacophony of nagging from Mother. I wanted to continue on the easy path, ducking additional responsibility and sticking with what I knew. After a decade-and-a-half of schooling, I was an expert student by this point, which is pretty much all the modern educational system can teach you. Unfortunately, it’s not really a viable occupation, despite or perhaps thanks to the fact that we train so many millions to be expert students.

Regardless of my true motivations, when I started looking at master’s programs to apply to, the concept of Finland happened to still be floating around the top of my mind. As a pathological cheapskate, I was still reeling from the price tag of my bachelor’s studies, and one of the main impressions I had gotten of Europe from years of reading boastful online comments written by Europeans is that it was the land of cheap healthcare and tuition. Plus, I was in the middle of a major “good urbanism” phase and thought it might be nice to try living somewhere where I get could by easily without a car. As a result, I skipped right past all the programs in the US and immediately started looking at ones in Europe, and within those, Finland.

The University of Helsinki, Finland’s premier institution of higher education, seemed promising: its name sounds authoritative and prestigious enough to convince Americans unfamiliar with European universities of its lofty position, it was high on many of those questionable university ranking lists but not so high that it would be nearly impossible to gain entry, and of course it was also where Linus Torvalds created Linux while he was a student. As part of my ultra-pragmatic approach to school selection, I didn’t look at all at the curriculum. It’s my belief that the computer science curriculums at all reputable universities are basically interchangeable because as I said before, the only thing you can really learn by being a student is how to be a student, completing homework and passing exams. For their part, professors can only teach what they know, which is how to be an academic. As such, if you don’t pursue any outside internships or projects, when you graduate and get your first job, you’re going to have to learn on the job how to be a software developer. The school you go to beforehand is just a brand name to attach to your resume, so you should look to get the best brand name you can at a good price. The price for the University of Helsinki, incidentally, was also quite good (free).

At some point, I made the mistake of letting it slip to my mom that I was once again looking at schools to apply to, but this time in Europe. I’m not sure who ended up with more stress from the last iteration of the process several years before, my mom, who pored over dozens of college application advice books/rankings and became deeply concerned with the sorry state of my GPA and extracurriculars, or myself, who was forced to endure hours of nagging and college choice/application discussion, not to mention being dragged into several new activities in order to pad the college application, when all I wanted to do at the time was Game. All of this effort ended up culminating in the completely unremarkable result of just attending the fairly-reputable big state school in my hometown, after a brief, costly false start at a boutique “liberal arts” school a bit further away from home. In any case, I didn’t have to do much more work finding programs in Europe to consider, because before long, they all started arriving (courtesy of my mom) for perusal at my leisure in my inbox. This time, I was a bit older and no longer shackled so much to Gaming, so I actually did have a decent look at most of them.

As the months went by, the list of likely candidates settled down and applications began to open up. When I took a deeper look and started looking at the actual applications, an immediate frontrunner emerged: the University of Helsinki. Their application was by far the most streamlined: one online form with a few fields to give responses about motivations, previously-completed coursework, and plans, and then the submission of an undergraduate transcript. That was it. No resumes, no long essays, no letters of recommendation, no application fees, no interviews, and so on. As a bonus, the online application form itself was well-designed and easy to work with. It looked like my fate would be sealed on account of my laziness once again, although I guess you could more generously call it an intolerance for bullshit. I let the idea of going to Finland tumble around in my mind for a few more weeks without telling anyone, and it gradually grew on me more and more.

In my head, I started constructing a romanticized narrative of my future life in Finland, and the desire to put it into action is what drove me closer and closer towards going to Finland. It was going to be a sort of exile for me, but to punish what exactly? My crimes in Minecraft, and the wasted years I spent worshipping at the altar of the false god of Gaming of course. Away from distractions like friends and family, alone in a foreign country with a frigid climate, I could focus on healing myself. I would live a minimalist, monastic (cheap) life. I would hone my skills (reading and writing, mostly) and my body (exercising, eating lots of fish, sauna). I would conquer the demons that still haunted me, like social media. I would prove to myself that I had the strength to go completely out of my element and thrive, unlike the last time I tried to do so. The final factor that topped it all off for me was the contradiction itself, of the tropical fetishist ending up in Finland, and by his own hand no less. With my life, I would play a strange joke on everyone, throwing myself right where I am most out of place. When I prowl the streets of Helsinki and people notice the perpetual, slight smile on my face, as if I’m being amused by some sort of private joke, it’s all because of that. It’s hard to say if Finland inspired this sprawling fantasy or if the fantasy merely grew around Finland, but either way I was soon absolutely convinced that it had to be Finland.

Having mentally gone from leaning towards Finland to Finland or bust, I eventually submitted only one sole application to a Master’s program, to the University of Helsinki. Whether I was guided by fate or arrogance is hard to tell, as both can be quite strong in my case. Several months later, I got the result I expected, though still feared somewhat. Either way, my fate was sealed. The next August, I packed my bags and got on the Amtrak train, using a discounted USA Rail Pass I had gotten as a graduation gift to say goodbye to my country. Then, after my last rail pass segment, I boarded a very empty Finnair flight, booked with the Alaska Airlines miles that I had so carefully saved during my previous travels. On the plane I rewatched Tenet (shaving off a good portion of the epic runtime by skipping every mostly-inaudible dialogue scene) since part of it is set in Tallinn (capital of Estonia, 50 miles south of Helsinki across the gulf of Finland) as I tried not to think about what I was in the midst of doing.

So, the status report, a few months in: how are things coming along compared to what I expected? The minimalist, monastic lifestyle thing is a rousing success in some aspects, and a minor failure in others. As for the successes, I do not think I have lived cheaper nor will I ever live this cheap again, thanks mostly to the generosity of the Finnish taxpayer (or the Finnish government with the taxpayer’s money) towards even those from distant shores. The rent for my student apartment, with all utilities including internet, comes out to a mere $320 per month. To be fair, it is squalid, situated right next to the busiest highway in the country, and I do have two roommates, but it is also right next to a commuter rail station and extremely convenient 24-hour full supermarket. For food, I have found a variety of student restaurants in the city, where you can serve yourself a heaping plate of a daily fish/chicken entrée, rice, potatoes, bread, and salad, all for a discounted price of around $3. Unfortunately, nearly all of them are closed for dinner, so I swoop in to the supermarket around 8 pm, when they close the hot foods area and discount all the leftovers by 50%. I don’t have many other expenses, but almost all of them come with a generous student discount, such as the monthly regional transit pass. I feel like a bit of a freeloader so I guess the best I can do to make it up to the Finnish taxpayer is evangelize Finland a bit.

The minimalism thing is also going quite well, in fact, I may have even overdone it a bit. I only have like 3 pieces of furniture and 3 additional pieces of “décor” in my room now: a TV stand I put my computer monitor on, a folding IKEA mattress that I lounge and sleep on, a boxspring/bedframe thing somebody moving out left by the garbage that I dragged up to the room (I do not actually use it, though), a hideous red curtain, a strange bulbous miniature table lamp that I don’t even use because it’s not very bright, and finally, a cross stich image of a sheep next to a lake or something. Everything besides the IKEA mattress and boxspring thing were brought home on the train from the Finnish equivalent of Goodwill. There are definitely actual monks with more furniture, namely a chair and a desk, but instead I lay on the mattress and look left at my computer monitor on the TV stand, which is probably killing my neck. The roommates thing is not ideal but we have all mutually established an unspoken non-interference pact, so I almost never see them. The only evidence of their presence is that one of them seems to cough a concerning amount, and sometimes I get a whiff of strange leftover smells in the kitchen or the bathroom.

Of course, a big part of the whole monastic lifestyle thing was so that I could focus on my goals without getting distracted, and as for that all I can say is that it’s going better than before. I have been eating lots of fish, getting very fit (I think) from lifting at the gym and playing lots of the arcade dance game Pump It Up (somehow I ended up living very close to one of the only cabinets in the country). I have kept up a pretty aggressive reading schedule, and added to it a good amount of writing as well (like this), probably the most writing I’ve done since middle school, when I worked on my now-long-lost juvenile novel The Couch Wars while bored in class. It’s never enough, though: I still feel like I waste far too much time browsing through the internet and social media, and that I could be reading and writing SO MUCH MORE.

Oh right, classes, my eternal studies, yeah, almost forgot about them, how are they are going? Ha ha great, not bad at all, going alright, I say when people ask. They never question why I always seem to be available to hang out whenever they ask. Truth be told, they finally got to me, the classes did. I’ve been on the grade grindset since time immemorial (10th grade, after I cleaned up my act from freshman year) and have cranked out countless A’s and occasionally a B or two without blinking for years and years, from high school to college. Burnout, haha, what’s that, nothing but an excuse for cowards and quitters. Then, suddenly, after one term at school in Finland (good grades of course), I hit a wall mentally when it came to classes. The fuel in the motivation tank had just abruptly run dry. Maybe the gauge had just been broken all along. There was, after all it seemed, a limit to how many soulless bullshit essay responses to unspeakably dry and irrelevant computer science papers that I could write. Had I accidentally broken my ability to stomach writing bullshit by finally starting to write what I wanted to, outside of class? Perhaps it was because I had also realized that there were options out there beyond the eternal academic grind.

Either way, I did something previously unthinkable: I slowed down, way down. Previously, I had derided those who stuck around for their degrees longer than necessary because they had not minmaxxed their classes, as I had done in order to graduate on-time despite completely switching majors halfway through. I guess I did have a point back then since each extra term means shelling out more tuition fees and whatnot, but in Finland there’s no such problem. I noticed that many of my classmates already seemed to be working fulltime jobs (most in the tech industry already, which makes me wonder why they are even bothering with a Master’s, but maybe things work differently here) and there was no way they were taking a full schedule with that time commitment. So, as fed up as I was, during a particularly busy stretch in December, I dropped classes until I was left with a minimum load and… nobody cared. I still had my coveted status as student and all the discounts it entailed, without having to do much of the actual studenting that I had grown tired of.

This is when many may lapse into Gamer or “goblin” mode, but not I. I had already escaped from that trap once before, so instead, I was going to put my liberated student time to far better use, towards the kind of studies I SHOULD have been doing. So, during the time I imagine people believe me to be doing various student activities like homework or attending lectures or “studying”, in fact I am leisurely taking the train to the city center around midday, lunching at the student restaurant that has the most appealing entrée for the day, then making my way to the university main library Kaisa-Talo where I hide in a corner on the third basement level, near the safety of the American literature section which I often read from, and sit on my poor little laptop composing rants against podcasts and oat milk.

Now that it’s been a few months, I feel like I’ve settled into Helsinki, which is making me restless as settling down always does (similarly, travelling too long makes me want to settle down). Writing my sprawling, indulgent piece about the All-Japan Tower Association Stamp Rally has made me long for some real travel, and I realized recently that I’m sitting right at the edge of a huge, unexplored (at least for me) country. With plenty of free time and a 30% student discount on the already quite reasonably-priced Finnish nation railroad VR, there was actually nothing stopping me from becoming an actual amateur travel writer. The time spent on the trains, in remote regions without internet, would be perfect for focusing more on reading or writing. Thus, “Finding Finland” was born.