I still remember the sandpit we had in our garden when I was a little kid, mum and dad still get it out occasionally when we are looking after young kids. I spent countless sunny afternoons sat there in the small yellow tub playing with plastic spades and trying to build sandcastles even though the sand was too dry to stay in place. It didn’t matter to me. Since then most of the sand that I have sat on has been on beaches in Wales, the Isle of Wight, and now in Finland too; perfect for sandcastles.
On Thursday, I spent the sunny afternoon playing in some sand in the forest near my base. I had a 10kg fake concrete anti-tank mine which I was burying. It was yellow, just like my sandpit. The reason I bring this up is because the very next day I got my weekend off and was visiting family and, at almost exactly the same time in the day, found myself sat in a sandpit, in my full army uniform, burying stones with my cousin’s young children. I thought that would make for a good snapshot of my life right now.
The pace of army life is starting to increase. Where, in the first week or so, we would have lectures for most of the day and the occasional bit of practical training, it is now rare for us to sit down much at all during the day. Now if our uniform is not perfect when we go for lunch then we eat last, the ten minute warnings have turned into five minute warnings, the inspections are getting increasingly thorough, and, worst of all, I now have to shave every day rather than every couple of days.
On the bright side, I am starting to get used to carrying so much gear with me everywhere. I think the combined weight of the typical soldier’s equipment is about 30kg but all of that weight is on your shoulders and once you have put all of the gear on it will be a long time before you can take it off. Then there are the rifles too. Even though they are not actually that heavy, they certainly start to strain your back and shoulders when you have to hold them out in front of you for more than a few seconds. Also, every stance that we have been taught for firing the gun is ridiculously uncomfortable as they prioritise the accuracy of the shot over the comfort of the soldier. I guess that part is fair enough.
The thing is though, I am really enjoying it. I am welcoming the physical challenge and the aching muscles because they are tangible evidence that the army is changing me. It feels good to lie down in bed with a sore back and bruised shoulders because I can say that I achieved something that day. You know that feeling of satisfaction you get when you have had such a really busy day that your feet ache whenever you stand on them? That is every time I stand on my feet now.
I should say as well that there is another thing that I am challenging myself to do while I am here which I don’t think I have talked about on my blog yet. As of the 1st of July I said to myself that I would not watch anything on YouTube or Netflix or Amazon and not play any video games or games on my phone until I have finished my service and that I will keep my time on the internet to a minimum. Instead I have been filling that time with other things like polishing my boots, tidying my locker, doing exercise, and reading the complete works of Shakespeare. So far I have read The Tempest, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merry Wives of Winsor, Measure for Measure, and Much Ado About Nothing and I am loving it. There have even been a couple of moments where I have had to stifle my laughter at some of the jokes. Turns out Shakespeare was a pretty good writer after all.
I’m sure I’ll do full blog posts about all of this later. I would like to do a few on some Shakespeare plays and definitely one at the end on what it is like to only use the internet for talking to people for an extended period of time. So far it has been relatively easy, although Pokémon GO has been gnawing at my willpower. The game I have dreamt about since I was a 7 year old kid has become a reality and everyone is playing it, talking about it, and enjoying it. Except for me. Oh well, I’m sure it will still be fun when I get to play it in 2017, even if no one else will be playing it anymore.
The interesting side effect of this challenge which I had not anticipated was that people have started talking to me about what I am reading. To be reading Shakespeare in a room full of guys staring blankly at their iPhones makes you stand out quite a bit. I must have had at least six or seven people introduce themselves to me at this point with the question of why I am reading such a massive book. One guy is even bringing a book about social psychology to the base next week for me to borrow. The other thing that has helped with meeting people was the care package that mum and dad posted to me with a bag full of dozens of free Metrobank lollipops which I went around the rooms giving out. Having a locker full of sweets certainly makes you a lot of friends very quickly.
Oh and the last thing I have to say in this post is that my spiritual life has improved as well. Obviously, it is not that easy to have your mind on religion in an army setting, particularly when the only Church services are Lutheran ones that happen about once a month in a language I don’t yet speak. Most of the day I am too focussed on not messing anything up and trying to learn a second language to think much about God but I have found a nice bit of time to carve out in the evening. Lights out happens at about 10pm every night but the being surrounded by 13 other guys pretty much guarantees there will be at least one source of snoring going throughout the whole night. My solution to this has been to put in ear plugs every night and that is the moment that I make sure to pray. As I do the right ear plug I thank God for the good things that have happened that day and as I do the left I pray for everyone at home and the things I am struggling with. It isn’t much but it has become a part of my routine now and something that I will try to build on.
That is really the point that I think I have come to in my time in Finland. I have found a routine, I have settled in and I have my foundations laid. I have the sand. I have the bucket. Now I just have to try and build the biggest sandcastle I can while I am here.