Sunday, July 29, 2012

The wonders of cultural differences

Cultural differences. That endless source of misunderstandings, good laughs and unending conversations. When traveling a lot you get used to adapting to the ways of whichever country you are in at the moment. Naturally meeting new cultures also results in misunderstandings now and then. Misunderstandings which at their best lead to a good laugh or at their worst to serious consequences. I have been lucky enough to avoid anything all too bad, but then again I am very open minded, which in my opinion is something very important. Being open minded is the very foundation of being able to travel. Sure there are travel agencies, who organize all inclusive travel packages, where you don't even have know how to speak anything but your native language. No english is required to survive, let alone any knowledge of the local language, whatever it is.

For me traveling is something completely different. Certainly I have taken one or two of these travel package trips, but I did it very differently than most people. But that's not what I wanted to talk about. For me traveling is all about getting to know the culture and the local people and their ways. This is when it becomes impossible to avoid coming across cultural differences. Surprising is that cultural differences can exist within your own country. Only these you might not recognize as cultural differences, since you are subconciously aware of the differences. The bigger ones, the ones that may cause confusion and conflicts, are mostly met in other countries than your own. And I have a feeling that the further you go, the bigger the differences are. Nevertheless I have come across quite a few even within Europe.

I recently traveled to Hungary. Hungarians and Finns are supposed to be related, at least language-wise. Well, as a linguist I have studied this matter somewhat, and surely there are grammatical similarities, such as the fact that both are agglutinative languages. Being in Hungary and listening to people talking doesn't really confirm this fact though. The melody sounds familiar, but as a Finn you can't really understand a single word. However, people who have traveled in Europe, have most likely visited various museums in different countries. In many museums there are age limits for youth discounts and mostly that age limit is 25. Well, usually this is marked in the information as "up to 25" or something similar. In most cases this means that the discount is for young people until 25, and the 25th year is included, which means that the discount is valid until the day you turn 26. This is not the case in Hungary. I visited a castle in Eger, and the info said "discount for ages 6-26". So I thought "nice, I'm 26, I get the discounted prize". How wrong was I. The argument was that the discount was up to 26, but I already turned 26, so I was already OVER 26... Somebody else might have started arguing, but I thought to myself that this is quite an interesting cultural difference. Afterwards I asked my Hungarian-Jamaican friend, who said that this is quite common in Hungary.

I have noticed something strange about myself. When traveling more and more, I learn more about different cultures and their ways, which of course is great. The thing is that due to this, I am starting to dislike my own country more and more. Finnish people lack in etiquette and civil manners. They just don't care. Here's a good example. A few months ago I was supposed to have dinner with a large group. I had made the reservations and the staff had told me that they were fully booked, and it would be unlikely that they would have space for additional people if our group turned out to be bigger than the reservation. I was the one who had the information on who was attending and what they had ordered. Firstly most of the people just went to the restaurant without waiting for me, and they promised other people that it would be okay to attend, even without having registered. When I arrived - quite pissed - I learned that they had told the waitress, that it was okay to bring out the food. Even though not everyone had arrived yet. Finally, while the last ones were still eating, a part of the group just left - because they had finished their meal. I was speechless.

A French friend of mine who is married to a Finn once told me a story about a party he attended, when he had recently moved here. France has a lot of social rules and for example leaving a party is a process. You start by mentioning the intention to leave, and actually leaving can take hours, while still talking and enjoying some wine. He was awestruck at a party in Finland, when people just got up and said that they are leaving. A minute later, they were gone. Surely you can argue whether this is a good or a bad thing. It is certainly easier not having to keep to some strict social rules, but being plain rude and not even realizing it, isn't very good either.

Something I particularly despise are Finnish drinking habits. Going out is all about drinking and really getting waisted. Even the way to say that you're going out partying in Finnish is literally, "let's go drinking". The main thing isn't meeting friends or going dancing, but drinking. You drink at home at first, so that you can get more drunk, without having to spend too much money. Naturally I am generalizing, not all Finns are like this. Unfortunately it applies to regrettably many. Walking through a Finnish city centre on a Friday or Saturday night you can see that the streets are full of really drunk people fighting, trying to pick up someone or throwing up. In this matter Finns surely have a lot to learn from other European countries. I don't even feel like going out in Finland anymore. I usually only do that when traveling nowadays. Of course I can't say I haven't gotten really waisted myself. I was brought up in this country after all. Nevertheless I do recognize the problem, and don't want to behave like this.

Finns aren't all bad though, and surely each people have their upsides and downsides. The more you travel, the more you become aware of these. Cultural differences are good, as long as you are open minded and willing to learn from them. You end up yet again more aware about your surroundings, and when you get back home, you see your own country with different eyes. When encountering cultural differences, it is good to stop for a second to think about them, and about why they are the way they are. In the beginning your own culture is your point of reference, but while expanding your travel experiences and hence your cultural awareness, the reference points starts to grow and it all becomes more blurry. One big beautiful mess of cultural customs. At it's best you can apply some of the greater differences to your own life and learn something new about yourself.

What kind of cultural differences have you encountered? Which ones have made you change your idea about something?

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Discover the world, discover yourself!


I can't begin to explain how much this means to me. It surely is the best thing on this earth. I couldn't bare without being able to plan my next trip. Almost daily I am browsing and other airline home pages and thinking about what to do and where to go next. Last fall I got a new job, which keeps my occupied full time. This means more money, but also less time. The eternal dilemma, that is. So after my trip to Jordan in November I didn't really have the opportunity to travel for a long time. Which was very depressing seeing that I spent almost 5 months traveling last year, to 21 countries in total. And these were all for pleasure, not for business.

My favourite two things about traveling are people and food. A boring or less interesting place can be fantastic if you have great people around. If you ask me what my favourite place of traveling has been so far, I would give my answer according to the people I met in that particular place. Of course it is very hard to say which places I loved the most. I mean, you can't really compare places, since they are so different. But I guess if I'd have to choose... At the moment would say that so far of all my travels I've enjoyed Jordan, Sicily and Bosnia & Herzegovina the most.

So far all my travels have been with friends or alone somewhere where I had friends. My current journey, which is ongoing at the moment (I'm writing from Hungary), has been different from all my travels so far. Initially I was supposed to travel with a friend, but at the end she weren't able to go. So I decided to go alone.

Do you want to know about the love of my life? Something that changed my life? It's called CouchSurfing. For those of you who don't know it, it's a website where you can search for people anywhere in the world. On their profile pages the couchsurfers either offer to host you or just to hang out. So when you're traveling somewhere you can search the place for cs:ers and send them a request to host or meet you. It's genius! I mean hostels are fun and you meet people there too, but they are usually travellers as well, and just as unaware about the place as you might be. Couchsurfing gives you the opportunity to get to know local people and really get to know the city and it's best places.

So this year for my travels I decided to do what I love the most: meet people. People I've hosted, people who hosted me and some new cs:ers. I wanted to visit Hungary again, where I had a fantastic time last year and also I wanted to go somewhere new. In April I hosted a Sicilian guy, and I thought that would be the ideal place. I've heard great things about Sicily and seen amazing pictures. So Sicily and Hungary. What else? I started looking up the cheapest ways to get there and back. Here we come to another of my loves. RyanAir. People say a lot of bad things about RyanAir. Like that they're cheating people with all the extra fees and that the prizes aren't initially as cheap as they promise. To these people I'd like to say: think a second on what you get. The flights are short, so it's okay to sit in a small seat for a few hours. You are not required to buy all the things they offer. You don't even have to minimize that much to be able to travel light with only hand luggage. And if you travel a lot you save lots of money by getting the RyanAir prepaid credit card, because you don't have to pay the additional card fee. I mean think about it. You can get off really cheap, so don't complain about it. If you're not happy about the services you can always choose another airline and pay tons of money. It's your choice. Anyways, after searching for a few days I found some good connections. I would fly to Trapani, then to Milan, Budapest, Stockholm and finally back to Helsinki. And all this for a crazy cheap price. I onyl paid 155 euros for all five flights together. And I have no problem traveling with only hand luggage, even though it's 2,5 weeks... In the summer you don't need that much clothes and stuff anyway. Besides it's the traveling that counts, not the things you carry around with you..

In Sicily I stayed with a couchsurfer, well actually more like a friend nowadays, in San Alessio, which is a small village close to Taormina. After two days I continued to Palermo, where I met with a local cs:er and two russian couchsurfers, crazy girls! We had a fantastic time exploring the city and the surroundings for a couple of days. From Trapani I flew to Milan, where I stayed with another couchsurfer, whom I hosted in the end of April. Yesterday I came to Budapest, where I met with a cs:er I met last year. Finally in the evening came to Eger, where I surfed last year as well. My journey continues to Budapest and maybe also to Miskolc to meet some cs:ers from last year. The final destination is Stockholm, where my pattern breaks and I'm meeting a good friend, who I don't know through cs. Nevertheless.

Basically what I'm saying is that there is nothing better than traveling. Some time back I saw a quote somewhere which went like "travel is the only thing you can buy that makes you richer". This is so true. Traveling helps you learn more about other cultures and even about yourself. Every time you learn something new, also from bad experiences, which I have been lucky enough to mostly avoid. You become more tolerant towards new things and you learn to appreciate small things. You realize what things are important to you and hopefully you grow as a person. Especially when couchsurfing you learn to adapt to other cultures and to not just think about yourself. At the best couchsurfing brings you new great friends that you keep in touch with forever. At least I hope that some of the friendships I've acquired are going to last.

So I can just encourage everyone to travel and get to know new cultures. It truly makes you richer.