February – final post

I’m leaving back for good in two days. I will try to include everything that is worthy of a mention in this post, that has happened since the last one.

There’s a good chance that this post will turn out to be a monster-post, so don’t feel bad if you don’t have time to read it all at once. Like I mentioned in the beginning, I now have only two days left here in Munich, so I’ve found myself reflecting on the past six months and everything that I will be leaving behind soon, and of course on everything that will be waiting for me in Finland (so yes, the prevailing feeling is of course happiness).

As I wrote in the previous posts, snowboarding in the Alps has been one of my dreams since I learned to snowboard in the small hill of Vihti, Finland. Now being able to live out this dream, I’ve been somewhere in the Alps snowboarding on every weekend from Christmas to the exam period, which means mid-February. Most of the time I’ve been going to my normal neighborhood mountain in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the arena of most of my previous mountain experiences (see earlier posts from autumn 2012). It still amazes me how I can get up in Munich in the morning, take the U-bahn to Hauptbahnhof and from there be at the slopes at nine. On one weekend I joined on the ski-trip with other Finnish exchange students from our facebook-group, which was all in all really relaxing to switch off my language-brain for a while and just enjoy the day in homey company. Since I normally speak only German here, I really enjoyed being 100% back in the loop of the discussion, catching every small word and being able to express myself to the full extent. Even though I do get around well with my German, in longer and in-depth conversations foreigners have a tendency to come out a bit cave-manish with the constant ongoing in-head translation.

On one weekend we headed out towards Innsbruck, Austria, with my friend from Finland currently working in Switzerland and another Finnish guy from the skiing trip with the facebook-group. As the time was pretty in the middle of the main season, finding available accommodation for the weekend wouldn’t be a given fact. We had though, decided we’d do this trip. So we managed to book one of the few places we could find online with an apartment left. The apartment was located near the ski-resort of Kühtai, which had it’s base-stations already at 2000 meters, meaning excellent snow-safe slopes where you wouldn’t have to worry about raining water or running out of snow. We weren’t really sure what to expect from the apartment, and we didn’t really care. We only needed beds to sleep in since we’d be spending most of the time in the slopes and somewhere eating afterwards in the evening.

When we arrived at our Apartment, we rather quickly noticed a few small issues:

1) The Ski-bus we were relying on bringing us to the slopes every morning hadn’t stopped next to the house since last year.

2) The ski-bust station, and every other place (for instance restaurants and grocery stores) were about 3 km away from our apartment, which was literally at the end of the road in a valley which itself was as well a rough 20 minute drive away from the slopes, 30 minutes with the skibus.

3) The apartment we had booked was described as a “Romantic Paradise”. Equipped with a master bedroom and a unfoldable couch bed. We were three guys..

Aside from being located in the furthest corner of the smallest town in the middle of nowhere, our apartment house was very nicely equipped. We had our own infra-red sauna (?!), which was basically a large wooden box which operated on the same principle as a toaster. We Finns found this very hilarious, even though it didn’t come anywhere near a real sauna. In addition, we also had our own yacuzzy (=bathtub with blowing air nozzles) and a spacious kitchen, dining area, living room area and our own balcony. We had already been accustomed to the Germans (and Austrians and Swiss) to incorporate non-funcionality in everything they build (for example doors opening inwards; doors, that can be locked from the outside trapping people inside; two-knob water faucets, one for hot- and one for cold water..) but the combined shower-bathtub, which we named “korposuihku” (korpo=knee standing stance, suihku=shower) took the first prize in this. Taking a shower in the korposuihku was extremely unconventional, since you had to be on your knee, wash yourself and try to not spill too much water on the floor, because water drains on bathroom floors are also a thing that the German-speaking peoples have not yet learned to build.

Since we were basically stranded at our apartment, the owner kindly offered her husband to drive us all the way to the slopes each morning. This was extremely helpful, since otherwise we would have had to order a taxi (which we heard aren’t operating in the area..) to the town center, from where we would have had to take the ski-bus. Not wanting to be a constant burden to the very nice owners, we walked down to town, since a half-hours walk isn’t actually that bad, even though the everyone we told about it was shocked. This corner seemed a lot like the states, you can’t really go anywhere without a car. Though someone might have gotten all cranky about the not-so-perfect location of our apartment, we were maintaining a very positive happy-go-lucky attitude and found that things just have a tendency to work out.

Once, on our walk to town in search of some place to eat, a guy who was driving past us stopped to ask what the heck we were doing on foot in the dark street, and offered us a ride to town. Even though he’d picked us up at the end of the way, he knew a place that was still open (it was already 9 pm.. the town went to sleep early) and dropped us there. At the restaurant/bar we were told that “sorry, we don’t have any more food, but we have pizza.” 😀 Apparently the non-food pizza meant some sort of frozen pizza. But, of course, we were very happy with the fact that we’d even found some food for the evening. The other night, the owner of our apartment recommended a restaurant (probably the only other restaurant than our pizza place in town..), from which we would get a ride back home after dinner. We weren’t looking forward to walking down to town again, so we borrowed some sleds to ride down the 3 km road to town. Sadly the Austrian road service proved again too efficient, and there was not enough snow and ice on the road to ride our sleds :(. This ended up being the only setback of our trip. After walking again we got to the restaurant and the food and price was great and we indeed got a ride back up to our hotel. It really makes my day to see that in some places you can in fact, still find good service and hospitality.

Even though the sun didn’t shine that much during the weekend, the snow was just awesome, and it kept on raining during our whole stay. The resort had breathtaking off-slope areas, and thanks to the constant snow, we were often the first ones to discover the powder paradises. On the last day, the sun came out briefly and I took my camera along for a few snow shots.

Our trip was really great fun and I enjoyed every second of it. You can check out the pictures from http://sonkeri.1g.fi/kuvat/Timo+Kerola/February/

——- end of snowboarding weekend near Innsbruck ——

Shortly after returning home from the snowboarding trip to Innsbruck, I begun to have my exams. The exam culture in Germany, or at least from what I saw here, was very different from what I’m used to in Finland. First of all, there appears to be a law stating the maximum time for an exam should not exceed 90 minutes. I’m used to spending 3 hours per exam, having enough time to think about my answers and formulate them nicely on the paper. Here there’s no chance for that. In one exam, for example, we had 18 pages of questions!! The funny thing is, that also the course staff recognize this problem, and you are systematically given “extra time”. So, at the beginning of the exam you are given the official length of the test + the extra time.. Only in Germany.. As if this wasn’t enough, I heard that the ending time of he exam is flexible (at least in this one course I attended). I however, was so dumb to think that he time written down for the end time, would be the time you must give the paper back.. Only afterwards I heard that I could have stayed as long as I wanted to write down my answers. Unbelievable.. And of course, this particular exam had questions of the type we hadn’t had during the course, so I was in a constant state of panic figuring out the answers (which by the way I knew I could figure out, if I had been given enough time..) in time.  I basically did horrible, since I didn’t have time to go through my answers at all not to mention correcting them. The final result for me from this course was a 4, which is the lowest possible grade that still passes the course. My teacher seemed even more upset than me about this, since he also knew that I was capable of answering the questions based on what he had seen during the course. Luckily, I recently found out that all of my grades I get during my exchange will be translated into a pass/fail -grade in Finland. So basically, it doesn’t matter what grade I get, as long as I pass.

I also had, for the first time ever, two oral exams. The concept is very refreshing, if you have a nice professor to help you out if your answer is not perfectly correct. Also because of the nature of the exam, you couldn’t be asked that many complicated questions, so it’s normally enough that you learn the most basic theories and results.

I had the luxury of having all of my exams in English, which made it a lot easier. One of my friends was not so lucky, and he had no chance to make it even to the end of the exam in time, because of the time needed to translate and understand the questions and formulate the answers..

——- end of exam complaining ——-

And of course, I have now returned form the snowboard hiking course I managed to sign up for in the beginning of the semester. The course lasted from Monday to Friday, and on each day we climbed a mountain with snow shoes and rode it down with our snowboards. Our teacher for the course was a mountain guide, who, in addition to teaching us theory in the evenings, made sure we wouldn’t be caught in an avalanche.  The entire week was simply perfect.

We stayed at a gasthouse directly by the mountains in Lesachtal, Austria. The place was so remote, that getting there using public transportation would have taken about 7 hours and cost about 100 euros per direction. So not good of a deal. As always before, things worked out and one of the course participants had a car and a seat to spare.

Because of it’s remote location, we were practically completely alone in the mountains. Once our guide said he’d seen some tracks on our tracks, indicating the presence of other climbers as well. We were alone, and that’s what you really want when in nature. On our last day, we ran into a couple of other groups, but nothing like a mass-tourist group, so it was OK.

Before the course I admit to thinking a bit about the avalanche danger we’d be facing in the mountains. To make it even worse, I had googled the region and “avalanche” and discovered that only a month before three people, all professional mountain rescuers, had been killed in an avalanche there. We also found out one evening, during our course, that two people had been caught in an avalanche right in the region where we were climbing, leaving one unharmed and one hospitalized. This all might sound very scary, and you may be wondering why on earth did I take this “massive risk”. The only honest answer I can give you, and the answer that I believe in, is that it’s all about risk assessment. If you assess the risks in the mountains wrong, you’ll get in to trouble. But if you keep humble you stay safe. The three people killed earlier had set out in a 4/5 avalanche danger level. We would have never done this, and our guide also confirmed that usually only locals go out with this kind of a danger level, thinking they know the mountain too well to be caught in an avalanche. Probably this is the case most of the time, but it only takes that one time in ten years.. It was really humbling to listen to the gasthof-keeper tell about the incident with teary eyes. In this small community it felt like everyone knows everyone. The deadly avalanche had left a family of two kids alone without a mother and father. The third killed was the head of the local mountain rescue team. It really makes you think of things..

For us instead, he avalanche situation was perfect. Our guide told us that it is very rare to have fresh snow and only danger levels of 1 and 2 (we had a 2 only on the last day). Of course even with a 1 you can get caught in trouble, if you can’t read the landscape and plan your route correctly. But that was what our guide was for. We saw avalanches that had been set off spontaneously daily on our hikes, which was very good training for what they look like and in what kind of situation certain kind of avalanches will take place. On our last hike on Friday, we had a 2 and also the most exiting crossings (of slopes) of the week. Nothing happened, but a couple of times you could see cracks forming on the snow where you’re walking.. Makes you kind of cautious..

In case of avalanches, we were of course equipped with state of the art avalanche rescue equipment, consisting of an active locator-search -device, shovels, avalanche probes (the sticks) and biwacksacks (thermal bags to keep warm in). We also learned how to use these and how locate and rescue people caught in an avalanche.

The scheduling of the course was also just perfect. We spent most of the day in the mountains, and after arriving back to our gasthaus tired of the day’s challenge, the family started preparing dinner for us. After a wonderful dinner (I’ll tell you more about this next), we had about an hour of avalanche-theory and route planning for the next day’s hike. After this, and usually a couple of weissbiers, we were completely ready for bed and to repeat this perfect schedule on the following day.

The gasthof itself was also as if directly taken from a movie. It was completely family run, and they also had a farm to run in addition to the pub and inn they had in their main building. The man of the house was the one we were mostly dealing with, since he would act as our waiter during dinners and was at the bar most of the time. The character and kindness of these people is, for someone who’s used to the Finnish “professional distance from customers”, really mind boggling. Every time we were kept in suspense of what we would have for dinner, since they would always reply “it’s a surprise!”. The dinners always consisted of a really nice salad, soup, the surprise main course and surprise desert. We were always having a great time trying to guess the dessert from the cutlery meant for it. The portions were always more than enough, which was also a bit dangerous, since we learned it’d bring bad mountain luck to leave food uneaten. The oldest daughter of the family had apparently just finished her professional cooking studies (or something of the kind) and she had really done an exceptional job.

The family also had two cats running around, which was nice for me to have foster-cat to pet. In addition to the two live house animals, they had a huge amount of stuffed marmots and other animals they had hunted around the house.

pictures from the snowboard hiking course can be found here: http://sonkeri.1g.fi/kuvat/Timo+Kerola/snowboard-touren/

——- end of snowboard hiking course ———

So, now back to the present. My departure is imminent and it’s really been one heck of an experience. It’s of course hard to leave all the new friends I’ve made during my stay behind, but it also means I now have good friends all around Europe. Most of my friends that are also exchange students are staying here for another semester. Another interesting point is also that most of my Southern European friends will stay in Munich even after their exchange. I’ve really learned a lot about how life really is in other countries, and consequently begun to really appreciate Finland and how good we really have everything there.

I will surely miss Munich, but of course I’ve also been counting the days to my return back home. I have a lot of things going on there now: school, job interviews, teaching, friends, family and most importantly my own home with my fiancée Enni. (and the small task of the wedding planning..).

I will keep the pictures on Enni’s dad’s photosite for a little while after getting back home, but if you want to look at them later, feel free to download them onto your computers. The photos are at http://sonkeri.1g.fi/kuvat/Timo+Kerola/

That’s it folks, thanks for reading 🙂