An evening at Retrodorm

Teksti & Kuvat:
Article & Photographs: Anni Savolainen
  • The former exchange students have left a piece of them in Luolavuori: the pine trees are heavy with shoes.

A former nursing home, Retrodorm is now a home for international students. Despite being a legendary part of exchange students’ experience of Turku, its story might soon be over.

I’m cycling up a steep, long hill in the Luolavuori district in Turku. It’s a Tuesday evening in October. It’s calm and a bit gray outside.

Halfway through the hill there’s a sign that says Luolavuoren vanhainkoti. It’s Finnish for the Luolavuori nursing home.

The sign is terribly old, but that’s my destination. Why isn’t there an updated sign anyway?

The former nursing home is now a home for 156 exchange students and carries the name Retrodorm. This exchange student dormitory was founded in autumn 2012 by the City of Turku.

For the first year or so, international students and local elderly people were living in the same buildings. The nursing home wasn’t shut down until December 2013.

At first glance you can’t tell that this is not a nursing home anymore. The buildings have the appearance of a hospital, and the buildings look old – and worn out, to be honest. However, I’ve heard this place is a vibrant party hub.

Then I start seeing more. The main entrance of Retrodorm has a charming, colorful mural next to its door. Despite the grayness and emptiness the yard looks quite inviting. It is relatively big, and it seems like it’s waiting for some people to sit on its benches. Several walking paths start here and lead deep into the forest.

Numerous pine trees frame the buildings, making this place feel like a getaway from the city center and all of its urban hastiness. There’s also a small garden. Some students slowly walk up the hill, carrying plastic bags full of groceries.

If I walk in the university campus, I don’t feel or see the presence of international students, but on this yard it’s all different. People dress differently and don’t have the same Nordic feeling to them as most people in Turku. I love it!

This place can be a total surprise. The false sign in the beginning of the street is like a secret message. It reminds me of the Finnish saying tietäjät tietää.

It doesn’t translate very well, but I guess it’s close enough to say if you know, you know.

I’m here to meet some international students, wanting to hear what it’s like to live in Retrodorm.

Let’s move from the gloomy autumn weather to the warm cheerful dormitory. It’s a special night: they are throwing an Oktoberfest party tonight.  

The one international area in Turku

Retrodorm isn’t only for the students of University of Turku. International students from Åbo Akademi and the Turku University of Applied Sciences also live there.

Retrodorm itself is divided into a few sections. In addition to the A and B wings there’s a smaller house, called the H building.

In fact, there are not only exchange students, but Retrodorm also houses 11 people who work as researchers in the University of Turku.

Walking up the stairs to the upper floor, we pass many poems that are written on the walls. They are all in Finnish. They must have been made when the building was still a nursing home.

One of the poems is the following: “Olet kuin sininen minttupastilli joka kalahtelee hampaita vasten, pysähtyy kirkonpenkille papan viereen.” In English this means ”You’re like a blue mint pastille that clanks against the teeth, stops on the church chair, next to the grandpa.” Very poetic.

There are 70 students attending this Oktoberfest. We have gathered in the social areas of the A wing. There’s some music, and some girls braid each other’s hair, people have gathered in a comfortable cozy circle, drinking beer and waiting for the food.

The Hungarian student Bence Almási tells me that the Retrodorm is known for its parties.

“Actually a lot of students who live in the Student Village come here for parties”, Almási says.

This autumn the students have been sharing their culture – by sharing food. The Japanese already served sushi, and the Germans are hosting tonight. The hopes are high for getting some pasta made by the Italians.

The German hosts tonight serve a typical German Frühschoppen. It includes “two to three Weißwurste, one Brezn, Obazda”. In other words, everyone is served traditional Bavarian sausages, the type of baked bread product that is shaped into a twisted knot and a Bavarian cheese delicacy.

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Left: The Belgian Lucas Comissaris says that there’s no real drying room for fresh laundry, so he hangs clothes anywhere he can.
“I got a confirmation for the Student Village too, but I decided to stay in Retrodorm because of the price and the atmosphere”, Stefanie Erlebach from Germany says.

Photos of friends and family in Austria and souvenirs from Stockholm decorate Lisa Wimmer’s room.

As I entered I was going to take off my shoes, but I saw people still wearing their own. This was very Finnish of me as Finns never wear shoes indoors. Small things like this make Retrodorm feel international.

Actually, I don’t think you can find any other place in Turku that is so completely international. As far as I know, there isn’t any other building in Turku that doesn’t have a single Finn living in it.

Lisa Wimmer from Austria says that she tried to get a room in the Student Village, but thinks that Retrodorm is great for getting to know a lot of international students.

“I think everyone wanted to get a room in the Student Village. But on the other hand, Retrodorm is nice because it is much more social and has all these parties”, Wimmer clarifies.

Stefanie Erlebach from Germany agrees, saying the best thing about Retrodorm is getting a lot of friends from all over the world.

“We have already grown together into a huge clique and spend most of our time at home together, cooking and playing games during the week and with great trips and parties on weekends. Also, it is cheap here and the view over Turku from our small hill is awesome!”

Erlebach also appreciates the fact that exchange students have everything they need there, and the kitchen and the common areas are well equipped.

“But the kitchen is a bit too small for the students in each floor, which is 17 people”, Lucas Comissaris says.

Comissaris comes from Belgium. He thinks the social areas or the living room is the biggest advantage in Retrodorm.

Comissaris enjoys Retrodorm, because everyone is there “for the same reason”. The atmosphere is really good, he says.

“You don’t have to spend evenings on your own. I’m almost never in my room!”

Few options for exchange students

Retrodorm isn’t only a social hub, but also one of the cheapest places to live in Turku.

Each tenant pays 285 € per month for the accommodation. Everyone has a small room, approximately 10 square meters in size, which includes a bed, table, chair and a personal toilet.

As Retrodorm is cheaper than other places, the students are happy with their accommodation. Exchange students basically have three options for finding an apartment: Retrodorm, the private market and The Student Village Foundation of Turku, TYS.

TYS has 18 housing locations in total, but exchange students can only apply for apartments from two of them: Iltakajo in the Varissuo area and the Student Village.

Many students struggle to find a place to stay. It’s not too easy for a local, so it must be even harder for foreign people. Was it difficult to find a place to stay in Turku?

“Well, it was difficult to find a cheap one”, Bence Almási says.

The tight social community has another side to it. The walls are very thin, so you can “hear everything”, like Almási says. Retrodorm really has a lot of people in a small area.

Stefanie Erlebach agrees. Despite enjoying their time in Retrodorm, the noise is sometimes a problem.

“Sometimes it is too loud and noisy to sleep or study which can be really annoying when you have to do something for university.”

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After two months of international parties, this jug is already full of pop tabs. That’s actually 1600 of them, Bence Almási from Hungary says. 

Lecker! The correct way to eat this baked bread product Brezn is to dip it in Obazda, which is a mixture of cheese and onion.

This is a German night, and people are dressed up accordingly.

I’m talking with a group of students. They all agree that Retrodorm is a fun and communal place to live.

That’s why it beats the Student Village, which has its numerous buildings scattered around a big area.

The location of Retrodorm is both a positive and a negative, Wimmer thinks.

“Retrodorm is not that near to the city center and there are no bars nearby. It’s good though that there are no neighbors so they don’t complain about the noise. Also the building is old and in bad condition”, Lisa Wimmer says.

She’s correct. The building is indeed worn out and untidy. It seems that it’s not taken care of accordingly. The old sign also gave that message.

The City isn’t eager to continue

The rumor has it that Retrodorm will be shut down in the near future.

According to Harri Malkki, who works as Service Manager in the City of Turku, this has not been confirmed yet.

However, it seems likely.

Virvoituksentie and its surroundigs have been rezoned, and the new zoning will likely be ready for execution around 2020-2021.

“This zoning will affect Retrodorm’s future, for sure. What I can’t say is how it will affect”, Malkki says.

Malkki reminds that Retrodorm is an old premise. Therefore maintaining and renovating the buildings requires a lot of effort.

He thinks that from the perspective of the City of Turku it’s a good thing to be able to provide this dormitory for exchange students.

He isn’t positive about working on developing Retrodorm or any other dormitory for exchange students.

“I would question though if the city is the right actor to provide this service. At the moment the City of Turku is an unnecessary middleman between the schools and their students.”

Retrodorm was originally founded to be a temporary solution as there was a huge demand for apartments. A temporary solution turned in to a pretty stable service.

As a result of this, Malkki thinks that it’s not their job to provide student dormitories, but actors like TYS and Åbo Akademi should take care of that instead.

Malkki adds that Retrodorm might live on if TYS buys the premises, for example.

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