UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


IMESS Year Abroad Blog 2020/21

Alisa Musanovic arrives in Helsinki for the start of her year abroad at Helsinki University. Read about her experiences in the monthly blog below!

September 2020 - Arrival in Helsinki

Greetings from Finland (or, as people say here, ‘moi’)!
The start to my year abroad at the University of Helsinki has certainly been different to those from the year groups before me! After arriving here a little late, I undertook a recommended 14-day quarantine which, although isolating at times, really helped me to settle into my flat and my local area – plus I had plenty of time to decorate my room. Most of my classes so far have been online, which has certainly had its benefits – waking up for a morning class and doing it in pyjamas with my tea really beats rushing to get into the centre of town in time…But smaller meetings such as my Master’s thesis seminar will be in person, and Helsinki’s amazing libraries and student spaces are all open for us to use, too, so there is thankfully some sense of a gradual return to normality here!

I have been very grateful for the sheer amount of nature that this city boasts – everywhere you look there are trees, parks and forests – truly a welcome change for me from the concrete jungle of my hometown London! I’ve used this opportunity to go on many runs and walks, and to just enjoy being in the outdoors, breathing in all the fresh air. We have also been truly blessed with the weather so far – despite the stereotypical image of Finland as being cold and grey, September has on the whole been warm, sunny and bright (my experience of Finland later in the winter months though may indeed live up to the stereotype…). My flatmates and I have made great use of the sun so far by going on lots of trips within the city, as well as a few further afield. We particularly liked our trip to Suomenlinna – a military fortress on an island off the coast of the mainland, which is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage site. And, from the trips further away, we fell in love with the Old Town of Tallinn (the capital of Estonia) – only two hours away from Helsinki!

I’ll end with a note on some cultural things that I’ve noticed while I’ve been here. People often say that Finns are stereotypically shy, and this may often be the case at first, however almost everyone I talk to, whether at the post office or the supermarket, is really friendly, open and willing to help once you talk to them. Also, most people’s knowledge of English here is outstanding. In terms of the academic culture, I have loved discovering different forms of assessment; at Helsinki you get marks for participation during discussion and assignments such as “learning diaries”, which is very new to me and quite different from the UK – I love the emphasis on gradual improvement and learning being a process throughout the term.
I’ll be back next month with some more scenic autumnal photos, updates about my life as a student, and some insights into the topic of Finnish cuisine!


 My local area, Kannelmäki


 Tallin, Estonia 


October 2020

As the global pandemic continues to intensify around the world, I have been feeling extremely appreciative of the peaceful life that I have been able to lead here in Finland so far. While there are certain restrictions and recommendations in place to ensure the safety of everyone (all classes are still held on Zoom, for instance), I have been able to live a pretty “normal” life despite everything. The University of Helsinki’s spacious and airy libraries are open, providing me with a much-needed separation between my “classroom” (my bedroom) and where I do the reading and writing for my classes. I have also now got membership of ‘UniSport’, the university’s sports services. Going to my regular yoga and power training classes has been really important for my mental health during this time, particularly as it gets darker here (this is important when you’re living in the northern-most EU capital!). So overall, my feeling this last month has been one of gratefulness for the small things.

I have also been keeping up some of my travelling! Over the last month, my favourite place that I visited was Lapland (the official home of Santa Claus). My flatmates and I decided to go for a four-day trip during our reading week in mid-October to make the most of being in this amazing country. We were really lucky to have the first snow of the year up in the city of Rovaniemi – it felt very magical and definitely put us into a Christmassy mood. We went on some amazing walks in the Arctic Circle hiking area in the days, and we chilled out in our cottage’s sauna after dinner every night before rolling in the snow straight after…(it’s a Finnish tradition, I promise). It was very cold outside and got dark quickly, but it’s been nice to start getting cosy for the winter. Back in Helsinki, there hasn’t been snow, but the amazing golden colours of autumn have been out in full force. In Finnish, there is a special term signifying the brilliant colours of the autumn foliage: ruska. The autumn colours here are some of the most vivid I’ve seen.

I’ll end by mentioning some of my favourite foods that I’ve been eating here. First of all – and this is an absolute classic – cinnamon rolls. In Finnish they are called korvapuusti. They are really, really good here. You’ll find them in pretty much any shop, and they are just perfect for this time of year. I’ll often go on a walk in the mornings with my coffee and buy a cinnamon roll from the local shop to have on my way to the library. Another thing I have loved eating here is rye bread. Rye bread is very popular in Finland! There is a huge variety of rye breads on offer in every shop – I’d never been a huge fan or maybe I just hadn’t tried good rye bread before, but here I have become obsessed. Which is good, as it’s really healthy! So, if anyone wants a taste of my Finnish experience while in the UK, then I’d recommend going out and getting a good cinnamon bun, some jam and rye bread, and curling up on the sofa with a hot drink after a nice long walk in the forest…
Until next month!

 Arctic Circle hiking area, Lapland

 Autumn foliage in Helsinki’s central park


November 2020

November was a month of sudden changes. In many ways! The Covid situation worsened a little in Finland (although it is still probably one of the best places to be in in Europe), leading to quite a few closures of public facilities for students (such as gyms, and most significantly, libraries). November also saw the last of the fiery autumnal colours of October, which very quickly faded away to leave behind the bare skeletons of trees; this, along with the sudden darkness that has descended over the country this month, is aptly encapsulated in the literal translation of the Finnish word for November (marraskuu): month of death.

Therefore, I had a lot to adapt to this month, and on top of this I was a little unfortunate and sprained my ankle quite badly (after slipping while running for a tram…just year abroad things). I was very lucky to receive quick and free healthcare in one of the main hospitals, and I was given crutches to use until my ankle got better. I’ve basically completely recovered now, but a word of advice to anyone thinking of running for public transport on tram tracks like I did: patience is a virtue…
So, this month, with all the closures of libraries, and the fact that I couldn’t go very far with my foot anyway, I learnt to appreciate the cosiness of the indoors, and I really got to bond with my flatmates on a much deeper level, since we were together in our flat all the time. We all developed our own work routines that worked for us in the day, and we chilled out by baking or watching films in the evening. Since my flatmates are both only here for a semester, I really appreciate that we’ve been able to see so much more of each other this month compared with the last two months.
However, this month wasn’t spent completely indoors! Before the middle of the month when quite a few things took a turn for the worse, I actually managed to see and do a lot. I explored some libraries I hadn’t yet visited in the city centre, including the magnificent National Library. I went on some lovely long walks by the sea and saw some amazing sunsets – somehow I feel that the cold and wintry sunsets have been so much more vivid than the ones in September and October. I also went to the cinema (before they closed!) to see a film about Tove Jansson – the Swedish-speaking Finnish author and artist that created the famous Moomin characters and stories. And finally, I went for a trip with my flatmates and some of our friends to a beautiful and quaint little medieval town called Porvoo, about an hour away from Helsinki. The colourful wooden houses seemed like they were from a fairy tale! I’m looking forward to seeing what more this country has to offer next month!


 National Library of Finland

 Sunset by the sea


December 2020

In December I enjoyed walking in the snow, I finished many of my end of term assignments, and I said goodbye to a lot of people I have come to love. I managed to fit a lot in before I headed home for Christmas!
While it doesn’t nearly compare to the amount of snow I saw in Lapland, Helsinki got its own snowfall in December and it provided such a lovely change of scenery from the dark and bleak days I’d gotten accustomed to. Seeing my local area lightly coated in white provided a much-needed escape from spending so much time indoors. I went on quite a few refreshing walks with a cup of coffee in hand during my breaks in between Zoom classes and writing essays.
I find that December is always a very busy time of year and this year was no different, despite there theoretically being less to do because of Covid (in terms of going out and socialising). As always, I have had a lot of end of course assignments to hand in, such as portfolios, learning diaries and essays. I have had a good combination of individual and groupwork assessments which has provided a nice balance of tasks and has meant that there isn’t as much riding on my final essay as in my past university experiences. It being the end of a semester on a year abroad, I have been in the unique situation of saying goodbye to people I’ve only been with for three months, which has been sad. But the bond that many of us have created has been so strong that I know we’ll be reunited at some point in the future, when Covid allows. Trying to spend a lot of time with people for the last time along with fitting in all my assignments has therefore been quite a difficult task at times!
One thing that has really helped me relax amidst all the business this month has been one of the most famous Finnish institutions…the sauna. In our student housing we have a sauna that we are able to book up to three times a month for our own personal use. We often go in groups so that we can have as many goes in one month as possible! During these cold and dark, and often quite stressful times, I have been so grateful for my regular saunas, and for the fact that we are still even able to use them given the pandemic. The intense heat has really helped to recharge me when I have been feeling down.

This month was also the time to get excited for Christmas; the golden Christmas lights were up and glowing all around the city, and people bustled around doing their Christmas shopping. In the flat, we listened to loads of Christmas music and enjoyed our mulled wine. The 6th December was also the Independence Day of Finland, which we celebrated by listening to Finnish tango music and baking our very own cinnamon rolls. This provided a really fitting end to what has been a wonderful first term in Helsinki.


Christmas Lights

Cinnamon Rolls