Linnan juhlat, school food and Tapiola through the eyes of our exchange students

Once again, the student body of Tapiola has received two international additions to its merry lot. This year we have two exchange students: Theo from Brazil and Arthur from Belgium! Vitsanen was able to catch the exchange students and interview them a bit in the midst of their dance practice and coursework, and we asked them a couple of questions about their life in both Finland and their home countries. The interviews are available in both English and Finnish.

From the country of chocolate, beer and football to chilly Finland

18-year-old Arthur Dehalu (pictured right in the photo up above), who has already graduated from his home high school, is from Belgium, more specifically Namur, the capital of the mostly French-speaking province of Wallonia. At home, his hobbies included rugby and hanging out with friends. The change from medieval castle views to Espoo hasn’t been too shocking for him, but some things are totally different in Finland.

“I was a bit lost with my studies and didn’t know what I wanted to do after high school,” Arthur says. “So I thought ‘why not’. I chose Finland especially because I’m a bit disappointed in the school system of Belgium. I think it’s not that good. Maybe two or three years ago I saw some videos of Finland – the school system, all the futuristic things you have everywhere in here, and I thought it would be interesting to see that with my own eyes.”

Arthur also likes the clean environment and the beautiful views, both in Lapland and the modern cities of Finland. He’s also come across some surprising things.

“The first time going naked in the sauna was kind of weird,” Arthur says. “For me, being naked is not really a problem, but I was really surprised since the Finns have the reputation of being one of the coldest populations in the world. I was really surprised to see them hug each other and go naked in the sauna.”

The stereotypes associated with Finnish people’s shyness and coldness have also been broken at our high school, which I, the interviewer, am very glad to hear. According to Arthur, people started to ask him to have lunch with them already during his first days here, and he really likes the atmosphere of Tapiolan lukio. That felt surprising to him.

Arthur’s coursework in Finland has gone well. He’s chosen especially music and art classes, and lots of English, of course, but also for example psychology, because he’s interested in it. He was really surprised with the level of English of our students, and it’s been really helpful to him in getting to know people and learning the language. However, the differences between Finland and Belgium are most clear in the world of education, especially in high school.

“In my home school, we didn’t even have Wi-Fi for the students,” Arthur tells us. “And we had to ask permission to use the phone. I think it was better in some ways, because here, people sometimes don’t talk with each other at all on breaks and just are on their cellphones.”

Other unique things in the Finnish high school system are the length of lessons (it’s only 50 minutes in Belgium), Wilma (in Belgium, a paper notebook is used for the same purpose), the huge freedom in choosing your schedule, and free lunch. To top it off, there’s no national final exam like the Finnish matriculation exam in Belgium. School also ends a year earlier, when students are 18, but on the other hand school also starts when a child is six years old.

“The mentalities are also really different here,” Arthur says. “I think the students here are almost happy to go to school! The teachers don’t have to tell the students to keep quiet all the time, because everybody knows that at school it’s time to work and not to have fun with your friends. The students are also more independent.”

At the end of the interview I decided to ask Arthur whether he had some kind of life philosophy or advice for his fellow students. After a moment of thinking, he had an answer ready.

“I think Finns never break the rules, you follow them all the time,” Arthur says. “I think we only have one life, so please go and do new things even when they seem scary! Don’t break the rules just for the sake of it, but bend them when you need to and have a good time.”

Brazil is more than just the coast

17-year-old Theo Trevisan Hecke is from Brazil. He patiently explains to me, his interviewer who knows very little about South American geography, that there are actually no mountains in Brazil, as the Andes are actually located in the west coast. After a quick explanation, I understand the map better.

“I’m from the south part of Brazil, and I come from the state of Paraná. My city is called Curitiba, and it’s really different from the stereotype of Brazil. It’s far from the ocean and really cold and rainy compared to the rest of the country. My city has one of the highest counts of green square meters per habitant in the world, and I really enjoy it because I’m a vihree poika. I like nature and I’m really glad that I was born there.”

Theo chose Finland as his exchange country in the end because of the snow, the good education and the opportunity to learn a new language. He also considered the US and Canada, but in the end they were so close that going to Northern Europe and getting to know a completely different culture seemed more interesting, not to mention the prices of the American exchanges.

“I speak fluent English, so there would be no challenge in America,” Theo says. “It would just be a normal gap year – nice, of course, but too expensive.”

However, he’s been happy with his choice. Like Arthur, Theo had also heard stories about the shyness and coldness of Finns, but he was quickly surprised when he arrived here.

“The people here at Tapiola break the typical Finnish people stereotype,” Theo says. “From the first day, people have been really open! They were really curious and wanted to reach out to me, which was one of the things people told me Finns don’t do. It was really funny at first, but I was really happy about it, because I got my friends because of it.”

“I think people are really welcoming here in Tapiola,” he adds. “All the students have a good time with each other. I haven’t seen anyone being bullied, which makes me so happy. And even though you might not be close friends with someone, everyone talks to each other if they sit together. It looks like everyone knows each other, like a big family. It’s really nice. The environment in this school is really good.”

There are also some small quirks that surprise Theo even after several months spent in Finland. One example is the recently organised presidential Independence Day party, also known as Linnan juhlat.

“We watched the independence day TV programme with my host family, and I was like ‘Why would you want to watch the president shaking hands with people and dancing?’. Also, I’ve heard that there’s an invisible guitar contest in Finland. I also participated in a wife-carrying contest when I was in America in the international Scout Jamboree last year. I went to talk to the Finns, because I knew I was coming here. They proposed a game to me, and I thought they were going to ask me to play football, but instead they asked me to carry a girl around with obstacles. It was pretty fun.”

There are notable differences between the Finnish and Brazilian school systems. Theo and many others go to a private school, because like in the US, the quality of public schools varies a lot.

“Learning new languages in Brazil is really expensive high society stuff. Good teachers are expensive, and they never are from school. Here, you have the option to learn Finnish, Swedish, French, German, Spanish, of course English, and Italian, so seven languages! That’s bonkers compared to Brazil, where we only have one: Portuguese. We do have Spanish and English back home, but the teaching just isn’t good.”

There are, of course, some shared traits as well. High school studies are the same length as in Finland, three years, and they end in a final exam. However, Theo says that it’s a lot harder than what the Finnish matriculation exam seems like, but because he’s only a second-year student back home, he’s not too stressed out about it yet.

“It’s harder and much less well-balanced. It’s all the things you’ve ever studied in your life put into a test that you do in two or three days.”

School food isn’t free, and schools are often big: there are 3000 students in Theo’s school, and even though it’s one of the larger schools in Brazil, others aren’t far behind. There are usually 40 students in one class, and even in high school, they stay with the same class for the entire year. The students don’t change classes between lessons, the teachers do that, and students generally have a lot less freedom to choose than in Finland. On the other hand, making friends is easier in a tight-knit class. Also, there are lots of after-school clubs and sport teams, just like in the US, and they’re taken seriously.

As the interview approaches its end, I’m glad to hear that Theo has some life advice to share, and even better, two of them!

“Be more personal and close to people! Don’t be scared to reach out and talk about personal matters. Physical contact can sometimes be so good, like hugging your friends when they’re sad and showing affection. In here, especially men don’t really show emotions, but in Brazil it’s normal – my friend started crying when he said goodbye to me before I came here. Sometimes just hugging someone can say more than actual words.”

“Also, visit Brazil! Not just the coasts either – the country’s much bigger than you think. One of the states alone, Goiás, is the size of Finland. My state, Paraná, is the size of Senegal!”