LeRaysville native spends year in Finland
Published: September 29, 2013
Maddy learned about Lapland. She learned about “lukio.” She learned about rye pudding and “muikku” and saunas. And really, really cold winter days.
And Maddy learned about Maddy.
Madalynn Milnes of LeRaysville — everyone calls her “Maddy” — recently returned from a year in Finland as a Rotary exchange student. During that time she attended school, made friends, traveled, learned a new language, and grew as a person.
It was an “amazing, incredible year,” she says now. The people loved her, and she loved them.
Today Maddy, a Northeast Bradford graduate, is back in the U.S. and starting college. But she takes with her a heart full of memories, from a land across the sea.
Perhaps it all started when she was 9 and visited Epcot at Disney World. There, she saw sections patterned after foreign countries. “And I loved it!”
She dreamed of traveling. Finally, she decided: “You have to do something about this” — or she’d regret it. So one day, she walked into the school guidance office and got exchange student information. She filled it out.
The Rotary picked her to go to Finland.
Surprise! She’d expected a western European country. But, “it was fine,” she says. “I was happy. Finland is one of the safest countries in the world, one of the cleanest countries in the world.” It’s very developed, too, she says.
Her dad, George, wasn’t so sure. “He didn’t really want me to go.” But he, too, thought Finland was a good place, and in the end he supported her.
So Maddy packed her bags. On Aug. 4, 2012, she climbed aboard a plane and flew across the Atlantic. This place was far away. It would be a long time, and she’d be away from family and friends.
But it was time to see this new country.
Finland is northeast of western Europe, tucked up in the Nordic area. Russia lies to the east, Sweden and the Bay of Bothnia to the west, Norway to the northwest and the Gulf of Finland to the south, according to Wikipedia. Part of Finland is above the Arctic Circle. The whole nation has only about 5 million people.
“It was really flat,” Maddy reports. It’s “the land of 1,000 forests and lakes,” she says and is pristine and full of wildlife. The landscape offers lots of trails. “You spend a lot of time on the lake,” or walking, she says.
Finland has quite a bit of industry, too, and is quite self-sufficient. It manufactures a lot of clothing and products for outdoor activities.
The houses are smaller than ours, she recalls, sort of cottage-like. Yet the people have a high standard of living.
She would spend her year in Pieksamaki, a forestry and railroad center of 20,000 in eastern Finland. It has enough stores to supply basic needs, and even some designer shops, but the people often travel farther away to buy clothes or other things. The young people don’t think it’s very exciting, but Maddy loved it. “It was wonderful!”
She lived with three host families. The Moilainens were the first. Their daughter Minna was one year older than Maddy and the two became very close, studying together, teasing and even fighting like typical sisters. They still keep in touch. “She was awesome!” Maddy says. “She’ll come visit me someday. ... I’ll definitely go back.”
Many days, when Maddy came home and stepped into the house — Mmm! — there it was, warm and hugging her ... the smell of pulla, a sweet pastry Minna’s mother baked. “It was awesome!”
It was a happy home filled with “How was your day?” and “Good night.” Minna helped Maddy study Finnish, and Maddy helped Minna study for a big college-entrance test. Finnish is a difficult language. Maddy translated a lot at first, but by year’s end she’d mastered conversational Finnish.
The second family was the Luhtinens. Maddy often cross-country skied with the dad. The third was the Sopanens, where she had a “brother” close in age. “We fought so much!” she says, “but we had a lot of fun.” She and Mrs. Sopanen grew very close, too.
And Maddy gets a kick out of remembering how the excited Mr. Sopanen couldn’t speak English — but, gosh, he tried his hardest!
“I expected to get homesick, but I didn’t really.” Sometimes she missed home or friends, but she kept busy. And here, she had new friends and family.
She’d be all right.
The people tend to have very light blue eyes and short noses, Maddy says. Girls dress like American women but jump on clothing trends more quickly. Young men follow styles more than American males, too, like wearing skinny jeans. Guys have trendy hair, too, often short on the sides and styled on top. Lots of people have bright, dyed hair, too — green and red locks aren’t unusual.
Summers could get hot. And winters cold. Very cold. “The weather was freezing!” Maddy says. The coldest days hit 30 below, and eyelids and hair could freeze outdoors. Girls would walk to school then put on makeup indoors so it wouldn’t freeze. And, yes — people walk most places there.
They don’t get heavy snowstorms, Maddy says; just light snow that piles up through the winter. They don’t plow, and the roads get an icy coating — that’s why she did cross-country skiing instead of her old sport, running.
And winter was perfect for ... avanta. “Avanta” more or less means “sauna.” The Finnish use saunas (everyone has one) almost daily. When they want to do “avanta,” they end their sauna bath with a run outdoors in the snow or stand on the porch. It’s refreshing, Maddy says. And tiring, too. But “it’s a good feeling.”
Time to hit the books.
The Finnish school system is highly rated, Maddy says. Children begin elementary school at 7, then go to middle school until 15. Then they have a choice:
For the next three years, they can attend a specialized upper secondary school, focusing on a vocation like forestry. Or they can attend “lukio,” which offers a more academic track and prepares them for a university. “It’s more challenging than the other ones,” Maddy says.
She attended lukio. There, students take classes for six weeks, then switch to others. Some courses are required, others not.
“They move through things quite fast,” she says. They focus on just the relevant information; for example, instead of memorizing a formula, they might only memorize when to use it. They can look up the formula. And teachers don’t have to discipline much — students are there to learn.
Finally, classes end halfway through the last year. Students spend those last few months studying for the big “matriculation exam,” which they must pass for college. Maddy compares it to our Keystone exams.
Students do not compete. They take school seriously because “they want to,” she says, not to beat out the next guy. “It’s their own personal goal.”
This attitude seems to spill into society in general. The Finnish are relaxed, accepting of one another — bright red hair and all. They don’t gossip. They’re even shy.
“The environment’s a lot less stressful,” Maddy says. Less “panicked.” People can do what they want.
Maddy sees both sides. Competition has benefits, but she enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere. It “was a lot more pleasant,” she says.
Time for fun!
Finnish like floor ball (similar to indoor hockey) and basketball and have a form of baseball. Schools do not have sports; instead, teens go to towns to play. A lot of people visit gyms, too.
And Pieksamaki is actually known for — ready for this? — beach volleyball. In fact, Maddy even knew one young man who was the Finnish champ.
“I tried a lot of Finnish sports, but I was not very good at them!” she insists. She did take traditional dance classes and performed in a dance later.
They watch the NHL. And during the World Cup ... well, “It’s like the Super Bowl every night or three nights a week when it’s on!” she says. They throw parties. They wear Finnish jerseys, carry Finnish flags.
“Finland winning is not really as important as Sweden losing!”
Most TV shows come from the U.S., some with dubbed-in Finnish, or from England. (Maddy brought home a bunch of Disney movies in Finnish.) A lot of the music, too, is from the U.S. or even Latin-style. But Finland does have some of its own programs and music.
They like to party, too. “Clubbing” is popular and Finland does have a problem with alcoholism, she says. Police don’t crack down on underage drinking as strictly as in the United States.
But often, friends just hang out. They sit and talk, have a cup of coffee. Or they walk along the forest trails, or go to the lakes.
And the social scene? “People only date with the intention of getting married,” Maddy explains. They don’t rush into relationships. Also, there’s not much emphasis on the differences between males and females. Men, for example, do not open doors for women or pay for dinner, and Maddy says the language doesn’t even have words for “he” or “she.”
The Lutheran Church is the official state church. It has lots of members, but Maddy says few actively practice it. Students, though, can get school credit for attending religious camps — a strange idea to her.
During her year in Finland, Maddy spent a lot of time outside Finland. “I saw a lot of Europe while I was there!” she says with a laugh. She visited Russia. It looked depressed and dirty to her; and don’t ask the Finnish what they think of Russians! She ventured up to Lapland for husky- and reindeer-sled rides. She went to Estonia. She and her own mom, Ruth, saw Ireland and England. And she hit practically all of western Europe: German, Belgium, France, Italy, Austria and more.
She was in France on Northeast Bradford’s graduation night. She was sad. But then a friend reminded her, you’re here by the Eiffel Tower!
Well, she had a point. “I’m not at graduation, but I am in Paris,” she thought. That sure cushioned the blow.
To Maddy, the whole year was worth being away. “I would never trade my experience for the experience of a senior year.”
Time to eat!
The Finnish spend a lot of time eating and drinking. First, of course, there’s breakfast, then a coffee break, then an early lunch, then a coffee break, then an after-school snack — then a coffee break.
“They drink a lot of coffee!” Maddy says. “Way stronger than coffee here!”
After the evening dinner, there’s one more coffee break, and finally an evening snack of a sandwich or cereal.
But all that eating doesn’t hurt them. “They’re in pretty good shape,” Maddy says. “They don’t eat processed food.” The portions are smaller than ours and, of course, people walk everywhere.
What’s on the menu? Aged meats, reindeer meat (considered a treat), blood sausage or soup. Rye bread, harder and drier than ours. Pickled fish. Raw salmon. Salty licorice (Maddy thought she was being poisoned, but by the end she liked it). There’s a fish snack called “muikku” – they fry ‘em and eat ’em whole.
And at Easter, they eat rye pudding; no one really likes it, but, hey, it’s tradition. (Actually, Maddy liked that, too.)
Finland doesn’t have Burger King, she reports. It does have McDonald’s, but people don’t eat there regularly. More often, they go to Subway. They have things like Coke, Mountain Dew and Snickers, but no Hershey products, she says.
And then there’s perhaps the crowing glory: Finnish chocolate. “REALLY good!” Maddy declares.
And finally, it was time to go.
Maddy packed her bags, climbed on a plane and flew back across the Atlantic. Again, she was leaving friends and family.
It was “so weird” to come home. “It was so foreign to me.”
She had learned the Finnish mannerisms, language, attitude. Now it was time to speak English again, live in America. She had a little trouble with simple words. It was harder adjusting to life here than there.
She doesn’t like hearing people criticize foreigners, after all, she was a foreigner for a year. Out shopping one day, she was scared by a super-friendly store clerk; the Finnish had been so quiet. “I can’t handle this!” she thought.
But she’s adjusting. It was great to see people she knows. “I think I’m getting back into things,” she says.
Her year overseas taught Maddy about Finland. And it taught Maddy about Maddy.
Joining a different culture temporarily stripped away the parts of her personality and life shaped by her own culture. What was left? Not Maddy the American, or Maddy the Pennsylvanian. Just pure Maddy. She saw who she really was, separate from the influences of home.
“You learn a lot then, completely independent of all other influences,” she says. “You learn who you are and what you believe in.
“It’s easier to realize who you are when you’re independent and you can recognize influences for what they are.”
So who is Maddy?
“I’m a naively optimistic person,” she says. She knows the world is cruel. But you can’t focus on that. “I’ll try to make a difference for the good.”
Today, she’s attending Loyola University of Maryland in Baltimore and someday she’d like to join the Peace Corps. Although she hasn’t picked a major, she likes international business. “I would like to become a diplomat with that.”
A lofty goal? Yes. “You never know unless you pursue it.”
Whoever Maddy becomes, whatever Maddy does, wherever Maddy goes, part of her will be “Finland Maddy.”
That year was special. She didn’t choose to spend a year in Finland, “but I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she says.
“It made me a much happier person.”