Tervetuloa Turkuun

Last week I went to Turku, which is a coastal city in the far southwest of the country, very close to Sweden.  

I traveled to Turku to participate in the ‘American Voices Seminar’ held by the University of Turku’s North American Studies department, and co-hosted by the Finnish Fulbright Center.  All of the American Fulbrighters were invited to give a short (20-minute) presentation on ‘something American’.  We were instructed to choose a topic that was of interest to us, and that was ‘American’ – this was actually really hard for me.  What’s ‘American’?  Because I didn’t want to talk about politics, or history, or something equally likely to showcase my ignorance of exactly what it means to be ‘American’.  I chose to go the silly route, and presented about Halloween traditions.  The other Fulbrighters pulled out all the stops, though, really stepping up to the cultural ambassador plate.

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A week in Helsinki

As the post title suggests, I just spent a week in Finland’s capital city of Helsinki to attend the Fulbright Center Orientation for new grantees.  It was very ‘bright lights, big city’ after the field station tour of the north country I did for my first week in-country.  As far as natural dichotomies of human nature (baker vs. cook, urban- vs. rural-dweller) I have discovered about myself that landscape is one of the ways in which I am truly flexible.  I am comfortable in large cities, and also in secluded wilderness – I have no overarching preference, although a balance of the two seems perfect.  This is a way in which I am very similar to Finns, who have made taking a summer retreat to the woods a national pastime.  In fact, the word in Finnish for a summer cabin (kesämökki) has no adequate or easy English equivalent, as the entire summer cabin experience is encapsulated in the single word ‘kesämökki’ (kay-sah-mourk-key).  But I digress…

Below are two pictures I took while in the Helsinki International Airport.  This was the small waste basket in my bathroom stall (a bathroom which is decorated to resemble a birch forest, complete with a bird-noises soundtrack issuing from overhead speakers) – and I found myself asking if I was actually in a spy movie?  Why in the world would you need a fingerprint-proof hands-free tiny garbage pail in each stall of the ladies’ restroom??  Mystery: unsolved.  An auspicious beginning to my Helsinki experience.

I am also really proud that I only got a little lost on the pubic transit system getting to my hotel from the airport!  I did get a nice walking tour of the city central during my slight rambling, which is littered with these birthday ribbon statues, commemorating Helsinki’s 200th birthday as a city.

It was really nice to meet my Fulbright cohort and the staff of people who work at the Fulbright Center in Helsinki, shown here outside of the Fulbright Center building (there’s 20 of us: 10 grantees, and 10 scholars/distinguished chairs).

While the majority of the 4-day orientation was spent in a series of short, intense sessions where invited speakers taught us about everything from how to do our Finnish taxes to the etymology of Finnish noun structure, we were also given a lot of opportunities to experience Finnish culture and to sight-see around the city.  On our first afternoon, we were taken to the Ateneum Art Museum, which is Finland’s National Gallery.  We were given a short presentation on the history of Finnish artists from the 15-20th centuries, and then given a personal tour of the current exhibition on Helene Schjerfbeck by the head curator!  I cannot remember a time when I enjoyed a museum so much, although I’ve also never had a personal tour from the world’s expert and head curator.  She had a great story, and subtle suggestions about interpretations for what seemed like all 300 pieces in the exhibit.  It was really special.

Here’s one of Helene Schjerfbeck’s most famous pieces, and recently voted the ‘favorite’ by Helsinki Ateneum-goers.  It’s titled ‘The Convalescent’, 1888.

We were also gifted a city tour by the city of Helsinki!  Below are some of the shots of us on the tour.

This is the Sibelius Monument – made of 600+ hand-wrought steel tubes welded together in the general shape of a wave.  Each tube also has a design welded into it.  This was all done by an elderly, frail-looking Finnish woman, and was installed here in Sibelius Park in the late 1960s.  On a windy day (which was not the case when we were there), you can hear a very distinctive sound issuing from the tubes, so I’m told.

Here you see me, Meghan Whalen, Hannah East, and Cora Meehan (the daughter of one Fulbrighter).  This photo was taken by Sophie Knowles, another Fulbrighter.

And then began the ‘Jump!’ series of photos.  Here’s Meghan, Hannah and I jumping! (photo: Sophie)

And then it’s a Jump! with Sophie Knowles, Rae Ellen Bichell, me and Cora! (photo: Meghan)

Let’s continue our ‘Jump!’ series at Congress square!  Is Van Halen running through your mind yet, because it was in my head this whole day… (photo: Sophie)

Our most dangerous ‘Jump!’, Hannah, Meghan and I jump from the steps of the Congress building gifted to Helsinki by the Russian Czar Alexander I (the statute in the photo above is of Czar Alex I, not that you can see who’s on the pedestal..).

We also went to the ‘Rock Church’ (Finnish: Temppeliaukion kirkko), which is a round church, designed and excavated out of a single mound of rock by a set of brothers in the late 1960s.  The inside of the roof is a spiral of woven copper plating on top of some insulating material, which dampens echo, making the acoustics of this building famous.

This church was amazing – a truly magnificent building that seemed to demand reverence.  It helped that there was a concert pianist playing gorgeous music while we were there.  The copper ceiling is held up on all sides by wooden beams, all spaced apart so the church is lit by natural light.

The only aspect that was a little bit of a ‘wet blanket’ to unparalleled natural splendor was the pew upholstery.  Rough, natural rock walls, a copper ceiling with 360-degree sunlight roof – I also would have jumped straight to blue and neon red-violet pews (shown below)!  One wonders if these are the original colors, chosen in the 60s, or if this is a more 80s-esque scheme??

(tour ended)

The second night we were there, a small group of us went to a pasta restaurant near the main train station, where you get one of these little credit cards when you walk in, and then you walk around to chef stations, order something that they make in front of you while you stand there waiting, and they scan your card.  The bar and dessert table also have card scanners.  You then just present your card when you’re ready to leave, and the balance of everything you’ve ordered is on it.  It’s brilliant – they don’t actually have to have servers, your food is made-to-order where it’s only your fault if it’s not exactly how you want it, and no more split checks!  Why don’t we have (more of?) these types of restaurants in the states??

On my last night, I went with Ben, Kate, Rae Ellen, Meghan and Lindsay to the Linnanmäki Amusement Park (in the middle of Helsinki).  Ben is a Fulbright scholar from last year who got a job after his grant period and now lives in Helsinki permanently.  Meghan and I asked Ben where we might get a good hamburger in the city, and he suggested we go to Kattila, a restaurant inside this theme park.  We were dubious, despite his assurances that this burger joint boasts a Michelin star (!), and that it also had kickin’ milkshakes.  We coerced Kate, Rae Ellen and Lindsay to join us on our adventure.

Unlike their American counterparts, amusement/theme parks here don’t charge general admission, you simply pay by the ride, so we were able to just walk in to go to the restaurant.  The burgers were good (no Dottie’s Dumpling Dowry by any stretch of the imagination), and the milkshakes were made in what I think of as ‘African-style’, meaning they were shaved ice with chocolate milk poured on top, and were decent for what they were.  It was overpriced – a basic cheeseburger costs about $15, and that’s without the extra $8 for ‘friend fries’ (I’m not even kidding here – that’s what they’re called on the menu!).  Before dispersing, I tried for one more ‘Jump!’ picture, but the combination of my camera and the dusky light was not ideal.

And then I took the 10-hour train back ‘home’ to Rovaniemi on Saturday morning.  The train station in downtown Helsinki is one of the most famous buildings in the city (and that’s saying something for a city known worldwide for its architecture).  The lantern-toting rock men are iconic Helsinki, so I wanted to make sure they made it into the slideshow (although you can see a parody of them above in the amusement park ‘Jump!’ shot).  Farewell, Helsinki.  I’m hoping to convince Brandon to do a few days in Helsinki with me later this year, to visit my new Fulbrighter friends, and to explore more.  :)


Tervetuloa!  (welcome!)  People also just say ‘terve’, which according to my dictionary means ‘goodbye’, but apparently can also mean ‘hello’.  But ‘päivää’ means ‘day’, and it’s how one is almost always greeted.  You simply say ‘päivää’ back to them.

I’m at the Kevo field station right now, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.  I might have to use a thesaurus soon, because I feel like that’s the word that pops into my head every time I look out a window here in Finland.  I looked up the word in Finnish to try to give my mind a break from ‘gorgeous’: it’s ‘upea’.  This is the view from the back of the building I’m staying in at the Kevo station.  That’s lake Kevo (Kevonjärvi).

I’ve now had my chance to scope out the two sets of field sites, and it’s still up in the air about which is more appropriate.  I have to think on it a bit, but I must know by the time I get back from Helsinki next week, so there’s a small amount of pressure.  This is one of the potential field sites from here in Kevo.  Right after I took this picture I saw a moose on the other side of the pond!  I swear, this place is like a brochure.

I’ve also decided that what I really need to be studying is teleportation, because it would be so useful!  I’ve been thinking about useless things a lot lately – brought on in part by my sick and twisted love of ‘The 10th Kingdom’ (a miniseries that is awful, but amazing, and I accidentally started watching it again the other day), and by my endless hours alone on a bus this week.  I’ve decided that if I could have some magically-derived powers, they would be (in this order): 1) fluency in all languages, because I kinda hate not understanding/being understood; 2) teleportation, like in ‘Jumper’, but without the assassins out for me.  If I knew what everything meant in Finnish, this sign in Ivalo probably wouldn’t have been so funny to me… :)

There are also a few local artsy things I’ve noticed around Lapland (not sure if this is a Lapland thing, or a Finland thing, or a summer thing…).  They’re these beautiful sculptures of twigs.  I’m including the only picture I’ve actually gotten of one, because I’m usually speeding by them in a bus.  This one was near a river in Ivalo, which I snapped a shot of when I had an hour break in my bus trip up to Kevo.  Nowhere near the most impressive I’ve seen by far, but an example of what I’m talking about.  If I ever rent a car and drive up north on my own, I’ve got the best photo projects planned, because I could stop the car whenever I wanted!

I’ve also gotten to do a lake-side sauna (say this as sow-nah, because the Finns actually invented saunas, so they get dibs on pronunciation rights) at both field sites.  I have to tell you, anytime the sauna comes up with a Finnish person, the first thing they tell you is that it is NOT a sexual experience (also almost always accompanied by that head-tilted-down, super-serious-are-you-understanding-me? face)!  Perhaps too many foreigners have come to Finland expecting an orgy in the tiny, wooden room that’s heated to almost boiling temperatures?  I have to admit, when I’m in a steamy, 180-degree hot box, sex is the last thing on my mind.  I’m concentrating on breathing without my nose holes feeling like they’re on fire!  Perhaps to cut down on temptation, it is customary to have a separation of the sexes during sauna, either spatially or temporally, but swimsuits are always absolutely forbidden (there are signs!).

The saunas have been amazing.  Finnish saunas are generally a wood-fired stove with rocks piled on top, and you throw warm water onto the rocks, they steam, and then so do you.  :)  When you are sufficiently steamy and sweaty, you run out of the sauna and jump into the lake (järvi), which is a temperature change from +80C to +4C!  Then you repeat the process.  It’s quite the workout for your circulatory system, but it’s also super relaxing and your skin feels amazing and clean afterwards.  I’m a fan.  Strangely enough, in Kilpisjärvi, I did a co-ed sauna with about 25 Norwegian and French undergrads who were celebrating the last night of a field course they’d been taking at the station for the last few weeks.  There was quite a bit of drinking during the sauna, which seems a little too dehydrating to me, but there’s actually a word for a beer in the sauna: ‘saunakalya’, so it can’t be too strange.  I think a few of the undergrads didn’t get the ‘not-a-sexual-experience’ memo, but my 30-year old body kept me safe from any untoward advances from the celebrating 20-year olds.  ;)

And I saw an actual reindeer farm today – smelled like a cow farm, but it made me feel like I was in the Finnish movie ‘Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale’.  If you haven’t seen this movie, I recommend it – it’s hilarious, and upea (ah, you like that?!), and you get to hear spoken Finnish.  It’s currently available on Netflix instant watch, too.  Anyways, this is a big farm, and I was just taking a quick picture while driving by and not trying to disturb the herders who live there, but here it is (the sign says ‘public road ends’):

Anteeksi, en ymmärrä.

‘Sorry, I don’t understand’ (that’s what the post title means, and is pronounced: uhn-tayk-si en ewm-mar-ra).  Story of my life.  My “incomprehensible curse” continues in Finland – this is the phenomenon where I will be saying the right words, and yet I’m still incomprehensible to the person I’m attempting to communicate with.  It should be noted that this curse extends even to my mother tongue, so even when I’m speaking English to people, I cannot be understood.  Really?!?  I was hoping that this would be the ONE country I’ve visited/lived where I could escape my accursed lack of communication prowess, but alas, blank stares and scrunched/confused faces are my bread and butter.  Sigh.

In lighter news, I’m living in Finland!  I did very little sleeping on the planes over here, which meant (perversely), that I had very little jet-lag, as I passed out upon arrival at my hotel, and only woke up 13 hours later.  My internal clock was thusly reset.  Praise be.

Tonight I’m writing from Kilpisjärvi, where I’m visiting the University of Helsinki’s Biological Field Station to check on possible field sites for my study this year.  So today I climbed a fell (what they call a mountain), because I heard tell there were wetlands there.  Unfortunately, all the wetlands were super shallow (bedrock was only about 2 inches below the surface), but it did afford these gorgeous views from the summit!  Below is Saana fell, which just so happens to be the highest point in Finland!  You can also see the little town of Kilpisjärvi at the base of the fell along the lake.

The other direction – Norway and Sweden!  Those snow-capped mountains are Norway, and Sweden is to the left of there.  This is the point where all 3 countries meet!

And here’s the cottage I’m staying in at the field station.  Funny thing: all the buildings here have these ladders up to, and then extending onto the roofs.  I was going to ask someone why soon, because this seems to be a common feature.  Something to do with snow?  For watching the northern lights?  Where you send the children when they’re whining?

The field station’s mascots are Arctic lemmings, which are more characteristically colored than the Alaskan ones I’m used to.  I am planning on asking for an explanation of the kiss/hugging/fighting nature of the mascots’ pose, shown in the pattern on the curtains in the main room of my cabin…

Tomorrow I travel back down to Rovaniemi, and then on to the Kevo Field Station (near Utsjoki) for the next few days after that.  And then to Helsinki for 3 days for the Fulbright orientation.  I feel a little travel-tired just thinking about it, but other than the nagging fear of missing my bus connections and exit points, the bus rides through the Finnish countryside have been idyllic.

I’ll leave with a picture of a reindeer in the middle of the road – I had to stop my car at least 4 times in 20km because these guys were hanging out.  I got my own back, though, because I definitely ate a giant plate of reindeer stew on mashed potatoes for dinner!  Muwahahaha!