Ethereal Chemist's Adventures

This is the story of my three months in China, and now my year abroad studying at the University of Helsinki!

Arrival Journal! (aka what life is like in Helsinki ;))

So, eventually I finally arrived in Helsinki, and although I didn’t see much of it on the drive from the ferry to collect the key and then onto the accomodation since more attention was being paid to following the directions than the scenery, I have since had the chance to explore it a little bit, and I have to say it’s a really beautiful city. It’s not too big, so it’s quite easy to navigate, and the public transport is fantastic. What makes that even better is that, with a student discount, I basically get unlimited travel on trains, buses, trams, the ferry to Suomenlinna, and the Metro for 20 euros a month. Considering that I’ll be needing the bus to commute from where I live to campus every day, as well as into the city, that’s incredibly good value!

It’s rather depressing to admit, but the first thing I made sure was set up when I moved into my accomodation was my laptop and my internet connection. And then I did a load of washing. But I needed clean clothes from the trip anyway, so it at least made everything smell nice and meant that I learned where the laundry was and how to operate it very early on.

On my first full day in Helsinki I went to go buy a Finnish phone handset, and I ended up making friends with a nice young Finnish woman who was kind enough to help me navigate the three shopping centres which are all interconnected underground to save going outside in the winter. We probably would have parted forever and she would have spent the rest of the day with the warm glow of having done a good deed, except that I met her again in the station the next day when I was getting my travel card. Twice in two days is more fate than accident, so at least I have a contact who can answer my stupid questions about Helsinki like a very patient native.

In the evening some of the international chemistry students met at a bar to get to know each other, and we had a couple of drinks and then went out for some cheap pizza. It was a good night, and a really nice group of people. It was also a much gentler way to meet them than it would have been if we had all had first contact on campus at 9 am the next morning. 9 am is just as early for students here as it is there, especially factoring in travel time.

The Kumpula campus, which is where all the scientists are, is really nice, and the chemistry building is lovely. The labs look great and I’m looking forward to getting to work in them. It’s also about a twenty minute bus ride from the accomodation, and the bus leaves from right outside, so it’s really convenient. After the faculty and departmental orientation talks, and the acquisition of the all important hug cards (it’s exactly what it says on the tin, you present it to someone for a hug), we grabbed lunch and headed into town to the city centre campus for the welcome fair.

I do just want to pause to say something about the food: with the government subsidy, and the subsidy for membership of the student union, I can get lunch for 2,60 euros. By lunch I mean as much salad as you want (or can fit on your plate), as much carbohydrate as you want (or can fit on your plate, and this here means rice or potatoes, sometimes noodles), and a portion of food (like chicken nuggets or something), bread, Finnish pancake is 1 euro extra, or free from the bread table if they have some they need to use up, and water. It’s fantastic.

The welcome fair is a great opportunity to find things out and get paperwork done, if you’ve had a chance to print everything, otherwise it’s an exercise in patience, particularly when they only have two people distributing IT account information for the whole crowd. On the plus side, mutual complaining is a great way to make friends, and being British, I’m naturally good at queuing, so I made friends with a very nice Dutch girl who is doing her master’s in chemistry here too.

Thus far things don’t feel too different. To be honest, the weather is much the same - it’s been raining for a lot of the past week, and it rains more or less like it does at home! The public transport is, if anything, better, and things seem very well organised. There’s a real independent spirit here, but for all I’ve heard about Finnish people being reserved (until you make the first move), everyone I have spoken to, and everyone I have seen other people speak to, is more than happy to help you if you get confused or lost. I’m sure the temperature will drop soon (apparently the Finnish for November translates approximately to “moon of death” but that’s fine because it gives me an excuse to stay in and Nano instead), but for the moment it’s really nice, and the atmosphere is incredibly friendly.

A++ would recommend.

(If you guys want more detail about what it’s like where I’m living, or any of the exploring I’ve done/experiences I’ve had, please just ask :))

Copenhagen, Stockholm, and the ferry to Helsinki

Alright, so, in order to save time, I have decided to condense the whole of the rest of the trip into one blog entry. This is mainly because the journey itself was quite busy and stressful, there wasn’t always easy access to internet, and in Stockholm Steve (my computer) started acting up. That is now fixed, as in, properly fixed, thank goodness, but still.

We had two nights in Copenhagen, in what was a very small hotel room for three people. It was alright for just those two nights, but there wasn’t a huge sense of privacy involved. The bathroom was in kind of like a pod, and the shower was a bit like being in one of the transportation/teleportation units you see in some scifi films. The first night was at the end of the trip from Odense, via Roskilde. We ate in a Danish chain restaurant, where we actually ended up eating the second night as well, called Jensen’s Bofhus. It was, unsurprisingly, primarily steak, but it was one of the nicest steaks I’ve ever had, and yes, we went back the second night. They also had really nice sauces, the house wine was good, and the desserts all looked great but they had a kind of bottomless ice cream thing like pizza hut. Interestingly, complimentary tap water does not seem to be a thing in Denmark - good to know, I think?

On the full day that we had in Copenhagen we wandered around a bit in the morning and went to Nyhavn, where we took a canal tour. It was really interesting, and a very good way to see a lot of the city. Copenhagen has really good public toilets, by the way, which are free (unlike Stockholm and Helsinki).

We ate lunch in the market hall - thin pizzas, and some delicious cinnamon buns which we ate afterwards in the botanical gardens (also free, and very nice) and then walked back to our hotel, which was quite close to the Tivoli gardens.

The day after we drove all the way over the bridge to Malmo and up through to Stockholm. It was a very long drive. Dinner was very nice that night though, if expensive. We ate in a proper Scandinavian fish restaurant and tried a sampler of the main dishes as a starter. The smoked salmon was fantastic, unsurprisingly, the herring was very nice, and the prawns were delicious. There was also a sort of cheese quiche which I really liked! I had meatballs after that, though, and they were very different from Ikea style meatballs, but equally nice.

There were also meatballs on the breakfast buffet, interestingly enough.

In Stockholm we spent a lot of time wandering aronud the old town, down by the harbour. We went into the treasury museum of the Swedish economy, near the Royal Palace, because it had a free toilet, and was a free museum. It wasn’t the kind of place we would necessarily have chosen to go to, but I actually heartily recommend it. It was very interesting, and had a really good display on entrepreneurs. Also I can now officially say that I understand why in old money there were 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound, and I’ve seen the largest coins in the world.

We walked out to one of the islands and around it, admiring the fortress, the Swedish Tivoli, and the museums which were all over the place, and then went to get some coffee and cake, which was also very nice.

The next morning, before the ferry to Helsinki, we did the shorter canal tour and bought a moose (and a lamp), as you do. I have to say the hotel in Stockholm was very nice, it had a bear in every room! Oh, and water is complimentary in Sweden too.

The ferry itself was… unexpected. That’s a good word for it, I think. For a crossing that was 111 euros for three people and a cabin, there were about 7 different restaurants on board, designer goods everywhere, and a tax free superstore. In which we bought wine for me to drink here in Finland. It was a much smoother crossing than the North sea, too, I would like to say that. We ate in the Italian restaurant on board, and while it wasn’t cheap by any means, it was very good food.

It was a really interesting way to spend a week, and I’m very glad to have had the opportunity to do it. I have some great photos from the trip out through the Swedish archipelago which I will upload at some point soon. And now, on to Helsinki!


So last night we checked into the hotel in Copenhagen, and we ended up having dinner in a very nice restaurant (which we returned to tonight). It’s actually a chain, I looked it up, they have 33 restaurants in Denmark, 8 in Sweden, one in Germany (in Lubeck) and one in Norway. It’s called Jensen’s Bofhus (I can’t do the special characters on here) and it’s one of the nicest steaks I’ve ever had, without question. Nice house wine, too! And reasonably priced. So there, that’s the food.

Anyway, today we went out in the morning and walked down to Nyhavn to do a canal tour. It was absolutely fascinating (we used the Netto company) and about half the price of the alternative tour for the same route. We got some great views of a lot of thigns, including the back of the Little Mermaid statue, and the guide was really informative, and coped well with commentating in Danish, English and German! It’s no mean feat to switch between three languages so smoothly.

After that we went to the market hall, which is where we had a very nice lunch, actually. Incredibly thin crust pizzas, and some cinnabuns to take away. I wish I had taken a pciture of that cinnabun because I honestly don’t think a better one could actually exist, but I might be biased. We ate those in the botanical gardens - free entry by the way! - and they were wonderful, even if I was attacked by a very persistent wasp.

The last thing we did in Copenhagen, on our whistlestop tour, was Rosenborg castle, which was absolutely fantastic. It was a beautiful 17th century castle and palace, with a fascinating history, which has been a museum since the 19th century. One of the floors was closed, but it didn’t detract from everything else, and they also have an exhibition of the crown jewels and state regalia.

There is not a thing I did today which I wouldn’t recommend, so, do them! If you get to Copenhagen, do them.

That’s me out for now, I’m afraid!

Tomorrow we’re off to Stockholm, via the Oresund bridge and Malmo, so hopefully no eco-terrorists this time!

Roskilde and Viking Ships

Alright, sorry I didn’t blog last night, time got away from me and it was late and I was tired and blah blah blah… excuses, excuses.

Anyway, yesterday we drove from Odense to Copenhagen, and stopped at Roskilde.

We didn’t actually go into Roskilde proper, but we did go to the Viking Ship Museum, and seriously, I recommend it. I cannot recommend it highly enough. The finds are spectacular, and well presented, the experimental archaeology is fascinating and… well, it works, too! The exhibitions are interesting and you learn a lot about the Vikings as well as getting a sense of European and even global history.

For example, the three main Viking nations are Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The Swedes went down the Russian river systems and reached as far south as Constantinople where, because they were on average 10cm taller than the southern Europeans, and because they stank from all the travelling, crammed into a longboat, they were recruited into the emperor’s bodyguard and also employed as tax collectors, which was, funnily enough, much easier work than all the raiding.

Vikings, particularly Norwegians and Danes raided the monasteries on the North coast of the Frankish empire, and occasionally got as far south as Paris, looting, raiding and generally burning it to the ground every four to five years or so until the emperor got tired and ceded them lands in return for coastal defence, which is the origin of Normandy - Norman = North Man.

Harald Hardrada, king of Norway, served as a bodyguard in Constantinople, and was sent to Sicily to fight the Normans, and then later invaded Britain, where he was defeated by Harold Godwinson, who lost to William the Conqueror from Normandy about ten days later, which I feel is nicely cyclical.

There was interesting information about the intrinsic differences between trading and war ships too, like the structure - keels for example. Trading ships have much more of a keel than warships because you need the stability in a trading ship so you don’t lose your cargo, but in a warship you don’t have much of a keel because you want to be able to run the ship right up on the beach and leap out to attack.

I could go on and on, but actually, I think that should cover it! If you’re interested, please do check out the website, and look for the video of the voyage of the seadragon, because they reconstructed the largest of the ships that were sunk in the blockade, a thirty metre warship, and then sailed it to Ireland (since dendrochronological analysis showed tht it had been built in Ireland), and then sailed it all the way around the British Isles and back again. I don’t know if that’s on the web anywhere, but if it is, do check it out.

Roskilde Viking Ship Museum

Esbjerg and Odense

Harwich and the ferry

The ferry, and Odense

Alright, so the trip has finally begun! I’m not in Helsinki yet, don’t get excited. We started off heading to Harwich, and got the ferry from Harwich to Esbjerg in Denmark. Apparently this line is being closed for good at the end of next month, and being some of the last people ever to travel on it is kind of special.

The ferry itself was really fun. Dinner was really nice - we went for the buffet, with a very nice rose and funnily enough the fish bar was really delicious. The cabin was very comfortable too, and although I was on a fold out bed, it was very comfortable and felt very stable.

The journey itself started off very calmly, but there was an announcement in the evening that there would be pitching and rolling expected after midnight. While that was true, I think the sea was certainly getting rough earlier on in the evening! None of us got much sleep, I have to say. I was very comfortable, but even though all I had up there with me was my book, my ipod and my alarm clock, I was paranoid about something taking a flying leap off the bed and either concussing someone or shattering.

A side effect of this, since the crossing itself was about 19 hours or so, was that we spent most of the rest of the day feeling like we were still on the boat and the ground was pitching and rolling beneath us, even when it was solid.

After we landed at Esbjerg (the breakfast on the ship was also fantastic, I would like to say) we drove to Odense. Tomorrow we go on to Copenhagen, but it was a convenient and very pleasant stop en route which was easier than trying to push the whole way without a great deal of sleep at all.

Odense is the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen. We had a nice walk around in the afternoon, and did most of the Andersen trail, following the footprints backwards because we like to be unique. The cathedral is a beautiful brick building, and there are some really lovely parks. We were also lucky enough to catch the end of a performance by the Andersen museum with many different stories featuring, and some of the songs from the Danny Kay movie (including The Ugly Duckling!). That was not the strangest musical encounter today though, the award for which goes to the busking group performing Seven Nation Army entirely vocally with no guitar of any kind, or attempt to hum the hook the song is famous for. It was recognisable from the words and the singing was good, but it was a very different approach!

Dinner was Mexican, not bad, but possibly qualifies as random in Denmark!

Overall it’s been a great start to the epic journey to Helsinki, and I can’t wait to continue on! I’ll post some pictures soon, when I have more faith in my internet connection.

Take care!

Pre-departure Journal

My university makes me write journal entries on my year out, and here’s the one I wrote before I go ;) You will get much more frequent updates, I think I only have to write four for them!

I’ve always been determined to go abroad as part of my university experience. Even before I knew precisely where I wanted to go, or what I wanted to do, I knew that I wanted to take advantage of the unparalleled opportunities to explore the world. It’s true that when you have a job and you’re earning money, you can take the chance to explore then, but there’s nothing quite like living, studying or working somewhere to really get a feel for what it’s like.

Yes, I know this sounds a little bit like a sales pitch, I’m sorry, that’s just how I write!

When I started looking around universities in year 10 or so (yes, I know I was precocious. I wanted to look at courses that sounded interesting so I could be sure to pick the right a-levels to follow the path I wanted to in life. I like planning ahead, especially for things that matter.) I had a look at York, not least because I had fond memories of a physics summer school I attended when I was 14, living in Goodricke Cell Block C (James N block as it is now). Discovering it had one of the top chemistry departments in the country only made me more sure of my choice, and finding out about the study abroad opportunities I could incorporate into my degree, and the fantastic languages programs available only made me more determined to come. To be honest, I’m glad Oxford rejected me - they made my choice for me. Yes, I know it’s a little (or a lot) cliche to be an Oxbridge reject at York, but when I say I would have struggled to make the decision, I do sincerely mean it, and I haven’t looked back since.

I looked at all the destinations listed on the chemistry year abroad page, and I decided, even before I’d got to York, that I wanted to spend my fourth year in Helsinki. One of my favourite bands was Finnish, I’d never seen any of the Nordic countries, though I’d been to some of the more popular destinations like France, Spain and Germany. I already spoke French and Spanish, I didn’t learn German at school… and though I was a fairly proficient speaker, the idea of trying to do a chemistry degree in a foreign language didn’t appeal, and everything I could find about Finland said they taught in English and there was no language requirement.

I grew up in America, and in my mind it was expensive and a long way, as was Australia (though a sincere dislike of spiders, particularly deadly ones, had pretty much ruled that one out for me already). So, Finland it was to be.

When I finally got to the end of second year, and decisions started to be made, it was all very exciting and a little disconcerting to realise that this thing I had been planning for so long (with a little diversion into European industrial placements, which I won’t talk about) was finally coming to pass. Despite spending three months of last summer in China, it was very daunting to suddenly be making all these arrangements and plans and applications. Mainly because of the amount of paperwork. Don’t let anyone pull the wool over your eyes, there is a /lot/ of paperwork.

I was so determined to study abroad because… another cliche, I hope you’ll forgive me, I have always had a passion for learning. A hunger to learn and understand about anything and everything. There were quite a few things I could have studied at university, so I decided to pick the one you needed to be properly qualified to do (they don’t let you near the fun chemicals without a degree, unfortunately). I wanted to learn a(nother) new language and experience a different culture and the challenge of Finnish appealed to me, especially after Japanese and Mandarin (my last two… conquests is too strong a word. I might be able to get by.) Learning about the University of Helsinki and its place on the world stage just made me more certain that this was the place to go, and I’m just looking forward to another chance to be independent and experience so many new things.

I may regret saying this now but I’m not too worried about homesickness. That hasn’t been too much of a problem before, not even in my three months in China, which is both further away and even more of an alien culture than Finland. I’m more worried at the moment about the practical things, like whether or not my accomodation is going to be sorted out in time for me to move in, what will I and won’t I be able to buy in Finland, what the food is going to be like out there… but I’m far more excited than I am fearful, certainly at this stage.

And so now, after what is probably four or five years of this being a distant dream (maybe a few more if you count from the first yearnings of “I want to go abroad…”), it’s finally about to become a reality (conditional upon my exam results, because at this stage in life, everything is conditional on exam results). I’ve done all the paperwork (almost, and what I haven’t done I don’t have yet), I’ve made contact with the host institution, I know what area my project is going to be in (The Chemistry of Nucleotides and Nucleosides, by the way… it’s stuff to do with genetic material, so if anyone tries to tell me when I’ve finished that it’s not ‘biological’ enough for a Master’s in Biological and Medicinal Chemistry I might throw a crying fit). Now it’s just a countdown till the end of week 10 when I find out if I did well enough to go.

New Adventure!

Looks like this old blog will be starting up again with a new adventure! Come August/September, I am heading to Helsinki, the capital of Finland, for the Master’s year of my degree.

For those of you unfamiliar with the British education system, I am doing a four year university course with an integrated Master’s year, so I do four years, I come out with a Master’s in Chemistry, with Medicinal and Biological Chemistry. I hope.

I’m looking forward to starting a new journey and sharing it with you!