Cultures don’t meet, people do: an exchange period told through three reflections

welcome to Finland

First, some questions answered 

Where: The University of Jyväskylä in Jyväskylä, Finland 

Wait…where: About three hours by train north of Helsinki 

Was it cold and dark: Yes

Did you learn any Finnish: A little bit (I am especially good at saying “En puhu suomea” or “I don’t speak Finnish”) 

sun setting above apartment buildings at 2:29 PM

Löyly, Avanto, and Sisu. 

Sauna culture was something I looked forward to exploring while in Jyväskylä and I was pleased to learn that Kortephoja, my student living complex, boasted a proud five saunas. It is also important to clarify that the correct pronunciation is sow-na, because the Finns know best. Learning about Finnish sauna culture meant embracing löyly, the steam that rises off the rocks in the sauna when water is splashed on them, and avanto, the practice of dipping into a hole in the ice.

a hole in the ice waiting for a sauna-goer

Taking multiple sauna turns a week meant time for long conversations with friends. More adventurous sauna experiences included running into the Arctic Ocean in Norway while a Finnish bus driver yelled at me to put me head fully under the water; this gets one closer to the Finnish concept of sisu. Sisu is comprised of determination, grit, and resilience and is said to express the Finnish national character. Choosing an exchange experience in college means choosing to embrace sisu (and saunas, if one finds themself in Finland). 

Are you the one who needs a violin?

After my first day of classes I plodded through the dark, the sun set at 3:30, without an instrument, my violin was safe at home in Montana, towards the music building, a twenty-minute walk from my apartment. Groups of musicians have a certain buzz about them, and that night was no exception. Timpani drums were tuned, a saxophonist played a scale, and rosin was applied to bows as I quietly stood in the corner and observed. As the symphony tuned, a trombonist emerged beside me and asked, “are you the one who needs a violin?” I was offered her grandfather’s violin for me to borrow. I lovingly nicknamed the violin ‘Pavo’, after violin’s original owner, and slipped into my spot in the second violins.

say hello to Pavo

As the only exchange student in Sinfis, the student symphony, I found it refreshing to be around only Finnish students. Works by Grieg, Mendelssohn, Bizet, and Saint-Saëns were the soundtrack for those three-hour Monday evening practices. The rehearsals were conducted all in Finnish, but I quickly learned “yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljä” (one, two, three, four) as the count to begin as a symphony. My ever-patient stand partner, Rita, spent hours leaning over to me and whispering what measure number we were rehearsing each time the conductor offered a direction. While our final concert was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those hours spent making music remain some of the ones I am proudest I spent during my exchange. 


Because my roommates and I had the largest apartment, it was decided that we would host brunch. Miriam and I pulled out the desks from our room to make the dining room table longer. Shannon took muffins out from the oven while her ‘brunch’ playlist played out of her phone. Sienna stood ready at the door to hop in the dangerously small elevator and let our friends into our building.

a bounty from some creative exchange students

About once every two weeks this was our ritual. Gathering for a meal with friends from Spain, France, Hong Kong, Madagascar, and Russia meant lots of food, conversation, and laughter. Our earnest interest in building lasting friendships was born out of these meals together and has continued since. In late March when the composition of our study abroad experience was altered due to the global pandemic – this group of friends rallied in an impressive way. When universities called some of us home, others showed up to clean the entire apartment top to bottom while we packed. Our last hodge-podge meal all together was composed of only desserts and food we had purchased in an attempt to use up our food stipend for that month (can’t let good euros go to waste). Though I spent half the amount of months I had planned to with this friend group, we’ve stayed connected: reminding each other of inside jokes, bi-weekly zoom calls, and plans to see each other have kept the spirit of our brunches very alive.  

our kitchen before our last meal together

Cultures don’t meet, people do 

With a focus on the global theme of culture and politics I tried to construct my schedule at the University of Jyväskylä around these large concepts. As a Communication Studies major I had never previously studied intercultural communication. The University of Jyväskylä specializes in instruction and research in this field. I took multiple courses with an underlying focus on intercultural communication. My main take away from these courses, and my time outside of the classroom in and around Jyväskylä, was an awareness of the simplifications we tend to make when we take about intercultural communication.

One of my most impactful instructors at the University of Jyväskylä took a critical view on commonly held beliefs about intercultural communication and borrowed a subtitle from a book by Hoffman and Verdooren to remind her students that “cultures don’t meet, people do.” This lesson was solidified around a table constructed out of desks, while rehearsing music I understood in a language I did not, and in a cedar plank sauna in the Artic Circle. 

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