29 April, 2013

Every now and then

...I find an article that has me nodding, and nodding, and o-my-godding. This is one I shared on Google+ a while back, but it deserves revisiting.

The article is here: http://ogodsendhelp.blogspot.fi/2012/05/kielipaa-on-finnish-language.html (you can go read it now. Don't worry, I'll wait until you come back.)

In particular, this is one of the first real parts that resonates with me:
"At the moment, I've taken a year's worth of Finnish, and I'm at the awkward transitional stage where I can ask questions, but I never understand the answers."
You betcha. I'm still at that point after three and a half years. I (usually) have time to rehearse what I'm going to say, for example at the newsagent's. I announce what I need, silently congratulating myself on asking correctly, and then all my poise is undone in an instant as the sales assistant asks me a question in return. I haven't a clue what they asked; even if it's a six-word question, not a single word sounds like anything familiar. Were it written down, it's possible I'd have identified four words of the six, but in another slap to my pride, they will always be words which are unhelpful at deciphering the sentence (of course, however something or something).

I discovered early in my residence here that it's no use telling people that I don't understand Finnish. I am blessed (cursed?) with not having any discernible accent, so they hear my announcement in fluent Finnish and don't believe it, ignoring me as if I'd begun to small-talk about the weather. I resolved to be more specific and switched to, "I don't speak Finnish well," but since it's an opening line, it's having a similar effect, and is sometimes treated as an invitation to speak freely at top speed. To their credit, most people at least forgive me being slow or not understanding. They can't say they weren't warned, after all.

It's been in evidence many times since I started my volunteer work at the library. They approach me and begin to ask something complicated, and if I can manage to interject and apologise before they finish their request, my declaration cuts them off dead. I'm not even 100% sure how to correctly tell them they should ask someone at the front desk, but they get the idea when I mumble "ask, table" and motion in that direction.

But the older people in particular are not intimidated by a dirty furriner. Maybe it's because I'm female; maybe it's because I smile as I apologise; maybe it's because I don't "look foreign". I'm keeping score. So far I've successfully helped two people find books in the library while not understanding a dang thing they babbled at me about the books they wanted. They both had their titles written down. The second one, today, had a long list of classics - Moliere, Voltaire, T.S. Eliot. We found about half of them, and I managed to explain that the others weren't at this branch, which she had apparently expected. She was evidently very pleased with me, although I haven't a clue what she said beyond "good help" and "I can't work the computer, myself".

Now as for words and vocabularies, I was reminded of this today. I am conducting inventory of the entire collection's reference books, pulling out anything that is marked "lost" in the database, or hasn't been borrowed since 2009, or has had less than 10 uses in the past 10 years. Today I pulled unwanted enormous Finnish translation dictionaries from the shelf one by one.
"...dictionaries are just an inside joke played on foreigners by Finnish publishers."
Oh yes. In so many ways. Finns even know how ridiculous the language is - wait, that's unfair, let's call it "unique" instead. They are unanimously impressed when someone tries to learn, no matter how stupid I know I must sound. They are also unanimously incredulous that anyone would want to come from Australia to live in Finland. Most of them (being Finns) have nothing more to say on the matter beyond a vague wow-type gesture, but the friendlier ones will then describe Australia as being warm, sunny and filled with wonderful beach-going. Australia is, I am assured, a dream destination for many Finns. Left unsaid is that I must be an idiot. It is an ironic thing, because Finns consider their culture and nature infinitely valuable and precious, yet can't understand how any of it could appeal to anyone else. Perhaps this is why Finland has never had a tourism industry. Those in the game will be upset (hey! We've got the Northern Lights and Helsinki's got beautiful architecture, and there's Santa's post office and there's reindeer and fantastic fashion and design) but it's part of an all-pervading idea that nobody else will ever be interested in what Finns have. Especially the language. Why bother, when everyone under 50 can get by in English?

Why bother indeed. I guess it's hard for anyone to understand if they haven't been there. But it gets old, really fast, to always be perceived as stupid because you have to constantly explain to the checkout operator (or the bank, or the doctor) that you don't understand the language. The thing is, being Finnish and all, they don't always switch to English. They think their excellent English isn't perfect enough, so they don't want to use it. They just fall into silence and don't bother, leaving me feeling abandoned.

And it really sucks to get home and discover what they had tried to tell me - that my yoghurt has been opened, or the cheese is expired, or the coffee was full price because only the other type was on special. That's why I want to learn the language...

27 April, 2013

Work Placement

As part of my course, I am spending 6 weeks in a voluntary work placement. I say voluntary because it's not paid, but it's not actually voluntary. Or, you could say, I'm being paid by way of the unemployment benefit.

The reasons... I'm not entirely sure. I bet if you ask the politicians it's because I need experience in being part of the workplace. Fair enough; except, this course contains only people with educations - there are no illiterates in the class and it is primarily people with work histories and tertiary qualifications. We know that you need to dress appropriately, turn up on time, and be respectful. In that regard, the work placement scheme would be more appropriate for the "slow" class (primarily refugees and other immigrants who arrived in Finland unable to read or write in their native languages). I had these kinds of clients in my previous life, people who honestly didn't know that you should dress nicely for a job interview. Well, how could they know, if nobody in their social circles had ever been to one? Sometimes, what appears to be stupidity is merely a lack of life experience. Without having seen a formal dinner table, you'd never know that the knives go on the right, and so on.

However, the teachers have all talked about this work placement as being a time to practice speaking Finnish. Sadly most of us, at around level B1, are not at the level required to understand ordinary conversation from a Finn.

I'm doing mine at the local library. I quite like it - the people are pleasant enough and the work is not stressful. In the first few days I spent most of the time on my feet. I swear, I have not known such foot-agony in my life. Even back in the days of a checkout operator when I was standing up for 8 hours. But the biggest frustration is the language. I have now lost my chance to practice each day at the lunch table with my friends (the library staff carefully stagger their lunchtimes to be alone, so I just sit and read as I eat). The main supervisor is very nice, but I understand almost nothing that she says. She will repeat it when I'm confused, but it still isn't any easier for my beginner ears. Then, she'll just pantomime it or switch to English.

The big boss is very patient with me and dumbs it down so I understand, but she's got other libraries to run as well, and I'm lucky if I see her for ten minutes a day. The other staff mostly just switch to English, or begin in English. I also spend long hours of the day doing tasks by myself.

None of it is the fault of the library staff. Really, they have been very kind and appreciative of me. They've even offered me things for free - like, food - why there's so much in the library kitchen I don't understand, but there always is - and any of the books for sale, I can take home for free. It's not their job to improve my Finnish. I'm just really frustrated and worried that I'm going backwards. Worse, even if I don't go backwards, I will be sliding down the class as all the others improve.

I had coffee with my classmates on Thursday (it was WONDERFUL!) and two of them have noticeably more fluent Finnish already, after just 6 days in the placement. One has hit the jackpot, with two co-workers whose entire working lives now seem to revolve around their new helper. A second one's boss has thoughtfully forbidden anyone from using English or Russian with her, ensuring that she gets plenty of practice in nothing but Finnish for at least half her work day.

But I'm not alone. One guy is chopping vegetables all day. His Finnish knowledge is excellent, but he says he's completely unable to talk as he works. Another student (also excellent Finnish) has unwittingly discovered that her boss cherishes her other language skills, and she has found herself speaking Russian all day with tourists.

I suppose on the balance of things I have it ok. It is merely marking time; we all know that in about 6 weeks' time we will be forcibly ejected back into the world of unemployment, equal to Finns in the eyes of the law, but with a myriad comparative disadvantages, meaning we'll never get selected from a pool of applicants, unless we somehow find the position which only a foreigner can fill. We (mostly) haven't got enough Finnish to even function in a conversation with the local shopkeeper. The Finns, meanwhile, pretty much all have the English skills that some jobs require. And yet we can't study to improve our Finnish. Those magical skill numbers declare that we're finished. If we want that, we're kicked off unemployment and told to go apply for student benefit - which will be rejected (there is no provision for an adult wanting to study at anything less than degree level). No, we can't even go to a course that's ONE night per week, ONE hour per week.

Where's the logic? They say they need immigrants - particularly skilled ones - but let's imagine I were a trained nurse. How many of us would still bother to stay, after being here almost four years and still can't get work thanks to the language? Even the ones who WANT to stay, aren't allowed to study Finnish in order to get there. Net result: we nurses take our (educated, skilled, Finnish) partners and children and we leave Finland. Net result, Finland just lost four potential taxpayers.

The only recourse for me is to choose between three difficult roads. Illegal study using a false name (I am not very fond of this route). Or sitting at home unemployed, looking for work and being slapped down non-stop (not fond of this one either; even the main employer of cleaners requires fluent Finnish, and supposing I got work from somewhere else, I would still be... a cleaner, not a life's ambition of mine). Or, thirdly, somehow using my own skills to become self-employed. Except I don't know what I can do. English is not a selling point for me and no advantage whatsoever, despite being not only native and fluent but able to use it to a business level. I don't have relevant qualifications (my computer skills are excellent but so are half the country's). I have, variously, made money by blogging, writing articles, selling jewellery, and completing surveys, but none of these really suit me as a full-time career.

My career is just... it's an endless cycle of wondering. It's an exercise bike. It's not goin' anywhere. I don't know what I am. Husband just tells me to continue being "awesome" but it's just more spinning wheels, in my head. I don't know...

04 April, 2013


Today with school we went back to Musiikkitalo (Music House) to see the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra. It was really great :) The price was right - free for school groups booked in advance, and only €3 to get in otherwise. It was the final rehearsal for their concert which begins tonight. They played Schumann, Prokofiev and Beethoven, and the solo violinist was Viviane Hagner from Germany - very talented. I took my 17yo daughter with me. She even said that she had enjoyed it, and wished she played the violin herself :)

Pro tip: if you live in Helsinki, these shows happen regularly. You can check out the website to see the dates, www.musiikkitalo.fi (it's also in English). They have a lovely sunny cafe indoors, and fresh pastries for sale. Unfortunately there's quite a rush at intermission, so if you want to buy something, sit close to the door and make a dash for it the moment intermission starts. They won't let you into the doors if you're late, so arrive in time to use the cloaking service.


The rehearsals are informal - leave your furs at home and wear jeans (the whole orchestra will be in jeans too). The musicians ignore the audience, so this is a little different to "going to the symphony". The conductor often asks them to play small sections of the pieces again, asking them to play louder in the horn part, or tell the violinists they're a bit slow to begin the fast section, and so on. It's kinda interesting :) Even the building is spectacular.