Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Take Away

No I’m not talking about the Finnish Kebabs…even though their deliciousness does warrant their own post! This is a list of things I’m taking away from Finland…

1.       Many new found friendships (some surrogate Finnish families of my own)
2.       A strong addiction to coffee
3.       Some Finnish and Swedish words and phrases
4.       Permanent goose bumps from Ice Swimming adventures
5.       The smell of a wood fired sauna
6.       A Finnish food baby (which I have affectionately named Pettri)

...but most importantly

7.       The Finnish perspective on life and people as a whole

I have never met a group of people so inherently content and humble.  Acceptance and equality are around every turn.  Everyone seems to be on the exact same playing field no matter if you are an educated, accomplished and respected physician, or employed as a simple factory worker.  Wearing designer clothes or generic…differences and putting people in a box or a class seems to not exist.  Comparing themselves to others…simply not done.  No one thinks they are better, more accomplished, or more deserving than anyone else. 

Also they think of this complicated life we lead with all its problems with such simplicity.  I can’t say how many times I heard a Finnish citizen say something to the effect of, “Yes it was a great tragedy…but such is life!”  They address it, but shrug, smile, and move on!  Nothing to be justified, explained, or over analyzed.  Pointing a finger is just not important. 

Please keep in mind…I’m speaking generally and I don’t mean to be misunderstood; I’ve certainly met/know people in the U.S. who have this attitude as well.  But I think it left a greater impression on me in Finland because this attitude seems to be a national truth. (or perhaps the accent makes it hold more water! Haha)

The Finnish kindness and simplicity is natural and effortless it has left a wonderfully positive impression on this 25 year old American.  I packed this attitude up in my head, along with many memories and experiences.  I’ve taken away with me a better understanding of life and the people in it.

Monday, April 16, 2012

District conference and departure

Photos only on this post, as we are only 1/3 of the way (seven hours of 21) into our travel day. 

My two favorite hosts, Juha and Mikael.  Please be extra kind to them in Kansas.  Both are looking forward to great quantities of barbecue and T-Bone steaks. 

Sanna is also flying west on Friday.  She is managing her inventory of Finnish lapel pins for distribution. 

And while it may look like we are unhappy, the opposite is true.  We have well-practiced Finnish smiles. 

And finally, we are leaving.  We miss our Finnish friends already. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Oma koti kullan kallis. (Home Sweet Home,)

In the last few days, many times we have heard "You must be excited to be leaving on Monday.  A month is a long time to be away from home."  It is a long time, but it also doesn't quite seem long enough.  As most once in a lifetime opportunities go, there is always a part of you that doesn't want it to end.  It's a bittersweet farewell to Finland for me.  Yes, I have missed many friends and family back in the States, but have made many new friends and temporary families while on this trip.

At the Rotary District Conference yesterday, we arrived in the cold rain not entirely sure what was on the schedule for the day.  Soon after we got in the doors of the Kokkola town hall, we began seeing so many friendly, familiar faces we have met along the way.  Hosts coming up to tell us hello again, and ask how we enjoyed our trip.  During our last presentation, it was really something special to look out and see so many generous people who gave us a warm bed, an afternoon cup of coffee, or took the time out of their busy schedule to tell us about themselves and the work they do in life that makes them happy.

And then there were the Rotary Youth Exchange students, a group of 16 and 17 year olds that are sponsored by local clubs to come and study in Finland for a year and stay with host families.  No matter what country they were from, they all briefly introduced themselves...in Finnish.  (Maybe there is still hope for me and my Finnish skills.)  Later I spoke to one of the girls from Germany, and she was telling me about her stay, how she loved it, and how much she has learned in the 8 months she has been here.  It was really impressive to see so many young students from all over the world getting to study in a foreign country and really enjoying themselves.

In every home in the last month, I have felt very welcome.  I often heard the words, "Please make yourself at home."  It was never difficult to do.  I can't wait to have an opportunity to pay it forward, and give someone who is very far from home, a place that they will be able to call "home," even if just for a day or two, or maybe even for a few hours.  Every little effort from my host families to make home feel a bit closer meant so much, and that is something I will always remember from this trip.  No matter where you call home, it's never easy to leave and always good to come back.

Home Sweet Home...Whether in Kansas or in Finland.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The little things

I made my hosts some banana bread last night.

I ended up at home a couple hours before they were supposed to arrive, saw some aging bananas, and jumped into action.

It meant taking a gamble - first, that they wouldn't mind the intrusion on their pantry, and second, that they might like it!

They got home just in time, we made coffee (at 10:30 p.m.? Sure, why not!), and sat down to snack and chat about the day. Rolf and Beatrice each had a couple of pieces, so I think they at least didn't find it totally disgusting. I will admit, it was a little gooier than I prefer to make.

The bread wasn't the big success I was hoping it would have been. But I am trying. Trying to give back - just a little bit more. The sheer amount of generosity from which we have benefitted on this trip still hasn't properly registered in my mind. It is incredible. For each of us to have accomodation in ten cities, and transportation to and from three or four daily appointments, plus meals planned and arranged every day - plus dozens of other behind-the-scenes arrangements to which I am sure we are mostly ignorant - is a massive undertaking.

We are each so lucky to be a part of this Rotary International Group Study Exchange, and I expect it has already changed each of us a little bit. As Adam mentioned, I think Jussi in Lapua put it best when he said to "open your heart, and the rest will follow."

We are doing our best to do the same, and I think if any of us didn't claim it before, we have each gained a stronger appreciation for putting faith and trust in people, opening our hearts and minds, and being as giving as possible - without any expectation of return.

Urban Translations

Many times we have been asked to explain the differences between Finland and Kansas. My hosts often joke that everything in America is bigger, from cars to hamburgers. We often laugh at each other about the differences, and the Scandi-Kans (our team) has yet to truly figure out the purpose of the hose looking thing attached to the sink in some public restrooms. On the lighter side, this is round one of the Urban unofficial Kansas-Finnish translation guide. Round two to follow after I catch up on sleep.

Kansas: Cold pizza or grabbing a protein bar and coffee on the way to your car

Finland: 6+ option breakfast featuring oatmeal, salmon, rye bread, cheese or Brie, fresh berries, espresso and/or coffee, bran flakes, 2-3 kinds of milk, juice, sliced turkey or beef, pastries, and maybe a small piece of dark chocolate to cap off the third cup of coffee that just went down the hatch

Kansas: Baseball, Football, Basketball, Soccer, Hockey, Tennis, Golf.

Finland: Hockey, Hockey, Basketball, Soccer, Hockey, Finnish Baseball, Hockey, Soccer, Hockey.

Kansas: Anything below 30 fahrenheit. Snow? Let the media frenzy begin.

Finland: I can feel my legs and my face, it's a nice day.

Kansas: Video game application that was developed by the Finns

Finland: Groups of birds that are pissed off when they travel several hundred miles to the middle of Finland tricked into thinking that it is Spring, only to be snowed on a few more times. (I think they developed the video game application from this phenomenon, you should see the angry birds)

Kansas: 30 more seconds and my fish sticks should be ready from the microwave, time to defrost the tarter sauce

Finland: Pass me the knife, we just pulled Suzy Salmon out of the smoker, straight from the sea.

Kansas: Mid-August, driving in your car before the AC fully kicks in

Finland: Located in every home, some businesses and schools -- where people go 2-3 times a week or more to relax -- followed by fellowship and drinks. As one of my hosts put it, in the Finnish Bible, there was an amendment to Genesis that states, "On the 7th night, after the rest of the world was resting, God created sauna for the Finnish people because he realized he created a country that was too darn cold."

Kansas: White wine

Finland: Koskenkorva (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koskenkorva)

Kansas: Missouri - home of the Tigers, need I say more KU fans?

Finland: Russia - where the former President can next be the Prime Minister, and then subsequently be elected as President and given more power.

Kansas: Fully enclosed shower. Bathrooms standard in public and private places, except for truck stops, where you can take a shower, play fake gambling or buy a metal decal or coffee mug on your way to the can.

Finland: In homes, it is the room in the way of the sauna. Typically an open area with no walls, a squeegee to push the excess water down the drain, but nice heated floors and towel racks. In public places, you really don't notice what the bathroom looks like, because you are typically in sprinting formation due to the 2 pots of coffee you just had with pastries.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Rotary -- what it means, what I have learned

"I was a Rotary exchange student in high school. I spent a year in _____," is a phrase we have heard many times throughout the trip, in nearly every city that we have visited in Finland.

Sure, I admit, I thought I had an understanding before leaving Kansas of how Rotary has an impact on the World. I really didn't. What does it mean to me now? What have I learned?

Simply put, I now truly understand the meaning of the word humanity. Odd? Yes. Didn't you learn that in elementary school? Yes.

We say the phrase "I am only human" to reconcile or explain fault. We use the word "humanitarian" to explain selfless acts of kindness and aid. At the height of love, laughter, or sadness, we are at the peak of materializing "human" emotion. Understanding humanity is the realization that no matter where you are in the world, we are all the same, we are all tied to these inherent concepts -- it is only our purposeful human undertaking that creates differences.

If you think of it on an abstract level, societies are created by the framework of individuals living within a defined boundary. Nationalism, culture, and the economy develop as time passes, and government and law typically establish the framework for which people live. War, political turmoil, and other human events change the history within that framework, thereby changing the paradigm in which one views the world. Whether we see it through a divine spiritual lens, or not,, we as humans make everything up. We innovate and adapt to the world which we were given in a point in time.

Universally, however, the basic concepts of humanity stay the same.

No better example can be found than our stop in Lapua, specifically, the back of a thrift store. After digging through 70's style sweaters and Finnish Star Wars video tapes, we were invited in the back of the thirft store to share coffee, cake, and smoked salmon with an elderly lady who did not speak English. We were delightfully surprised at the invitation. For 30 minutes, with someone we had never met, we used hand gestures and caught various phrases to find a common understanding. It wasn't anything that she said that I took away, it was the smiles, hugs, and laughter that we shared with someone whom we have never met -- half way across the globe from our families and friends. The feeling when we closed the door behind us is one we will never forget.

Coming back to the phrase, "I was a Rotary exchange student in high school. I spent a year in ______" Rotary, and the gracious hosts scattered throughout the world should be proud. Just like many others across the globe who have uttered these words, you have provided us the opportunity to understand humanity, to bridge the cultural gap, and be individual olive branches of peace. Each Rotary exchange is a small act on the stage we know as the world, but each vitally important in providing meaning to the word humanity, and closing the curtain on cultural differences.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Vaasa, Finland

Easy question, difficult answer.

The answer to the most frequent question is, by design, difficult and nebulous.
The Group Study Exchange program is fairly open-ended. Therein lies its beauty. There is no syllabus, no weekly quiz and no final examination. It is experiential, you learn as you go, and your expectations and capacities evolve.
I am sure we have each had our Admiral Stockdale moments over the last three weeks. “Why am I here?” Yes, my answer has refined itself several times, but the concepts remain consistent.
The Final Four, MLB’s Opening Day, springtime in the Midwest, Easter with family and loved ones. I have missed them all…this year. But they will come around again. This opportunity will not.
I am here because Rotary has grown to mean a great deal to me in the last several years. I am here because I still have a great deal to learn about Rotary. I am here because several Rotarians I respect a lot have participated in years and decades before me. I am here because I am smart enough to appreciate that the more I put into Rotary, the more I get back from it.
I am here because I do not know the finite answer, but each experience, each friendly face gets me closer.
I have said, over and over, that our experience improves with each city. That is likely an assessment of our capacity to appreciate the experience, as opposed to the quality of the hospitality from our hosts.

Our recent stay in Lapua will be nearly impossible to beat. Club President Jussi Taluitie (translated to “winter road”), at just a few years older than me, is decades younger than his club’s average age. He faces, with courage and conviction, the same things many of us face in the States, as a contributor to his community and as a small businessman. The breadth of his knowledge is amazing. His ability to succinctly explain it is even better. “When you open your heart, all else follows.”

Jussi--thank you for opening your heart and sharing your family, your community and yourself with us.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Early morning in Alavus

Despite the sad Jayhawk loss this early morning, I decided to go for a stroll instead of going back to bed. (We'll see how I feel about this decision around 4pm today.)

Anyway, it was a beautiful morning despite the negative temps.  Here are some pictures of my stroll.  The lake here in Alavus was foggy and made for some great pictures.  The cemetery is really interesting because almost all the headstones have lanterns by them, and some of them are lit.  I am not sure the story behind the lanterns, but am hoping to find out some of the history behind them today and will post the answer soon.

Another cup of coffee and ready to start the day.


Tuesday April 3, 2012 (approaching breakfast time in Finland, late Monday evening Kansas time).

Alavus, Finland, 4:23 am tip time. Two computers, one iPad, and five eager Kansans in the newly-remodeled Hotelli Liesu.

The beer and grape long drinks and Coke Zero were on ice in the shower. Lucky shirts were worn—some of them even recently laundered.

Some things are universal—Cinderella’s slipper doesn’t; always fit, and “I.T. is I.T., in any language,” and it doesn’t always work. Our team’s technology component has been flawless so far, thank you, Erika. We have, however, watched and listened to many PowerPoint presentations boot up, or even better, waited as the presenter clicked and searched for it.

Tonight/this morning we enjoyed the National Championship game, but maybe only saw 50% of it. We saw a lot of blank screen and video buffering. We had a nice morning, with Erika running a direct pipeline to Lawrence, Lee neurotically hedging his bets, Karl recalling his high school sophomore year glory, and Sarah joining us once her alarm made the conversion from Missouri time.

There is one real winner here—Lee won his big pool…by predicting a Kentucky win. We should have seen it coming, when he donned the Russian Army hat in the Finnish war museum. He will not soon live this down, at least not in the next two weeks, Komrade. 

Tuesday looks to be a great day. The early fog is clearing from snow-covered Lake Alavus, and I smell bacon, eggs and coffee downstairs. We’re on to the Lapuanjokivarsi area in a couple hours, after an almost-American breakfast, and a thirty minute nap.

Vaasa photoblog

Here's a glimpse of my favorite city so far!

The Skinny on Vaasa

Located right on the sea of western Finland, saying that Vaasa is a beautiful city is an understatement.  (Especially when you are on a run along the sea while it’s snowing.  Sunday for me!) The city was founded in 1606 but the original, almost entirely wooden, town unfortunately burred down in 1852.  The city was relocated closer to the sea, in it’s present day location and was re-established in 1862. 

Just considering my profession alone, one of the things that I was obviously “Awww-ed” with was the city’s juxtaposition of old and new.  The city is a huge mixture of 200-year-old buildings and 5-year-old buildings right next to one another.  This integration of new amongst, and sometimes within, the old does not seem to be a disrespectful addition but honors and adds to the historical structures.   For example one of the finer examples of this is design esthetic can be seen in Vaasa’s Media City.  The advanced technical production company has made it’s home in Vaasa’s old abandoned textile mill from the early 1900’s.  The remodel is sleek, simple, and modern, but it’s integrated with the raw industrial features of the old mill.  Each aspect works with the other and provides compliment. 

Vaasa’s professional companies are not the only ones taking full advantage of all the old buildings in the city.  Vaasa real estate has also drank the Kool-Aid, and it tastes just as good.  Brand new state of the art condos can be found in an old family owned manor overlooking the sea, as well as Vaasa’s old abandoned army barracks. Karl and I are both ready to move in!

To sum it up Vaasa is design conscious as a whole.  From the unique buildings and their interiors scattered around the city, to the cups and saucers we drink our 18th cup of coffee of the day.  Design is everywhere, it’s important, honored, and appreciated…and frankly. It’s nice to see!
 Interior Courtyard at Media City

 Hallway at Media City, a clear contrast

 The snowy sea from my Sunday evening run

 Staircase of the Vaasa Court of Appeals building with the sea beyond

 Karl posting tonight as well...GSE team motto...we work with what we have!! 

Fourth on the depth chart

We are in Vaasa for a week, and my hosts are a wonderful couple with two children. Kristian is 15, and just like American 15 year olds. Actually, he’s a lot nicer than most US teenagers. Nicollo is 3 ½ and has more energy than I’ve ever seen. He’s my new best friend, but more about that later.

I have learned over the last ten days that I have an absolute tin ear for the language. Hosts are wonderfully accommodating and patiently polite when I look with a blank stare at the words they taught me yesterday.

Perhaps as penance for not learning Finnish better before I left, English is the fourth language in the Bäck house.

Mikael is Finnish, but speaks primarily Swedish. Natalia is from Russia. Mikael speaks Swedish to Nikolo. Nikolo speaks Russian to his mother. Natalia seems to lapse between Russian, Swedish and a little bit of Finnish back to Mikael…who, often without laughing, tries to update me on three branches of conversation, finally in English.

The other funny part of my first twelve hours in Vaasa has a little to do with basic domestic geography. A typical Finnish bathroom is very open. The toilet, sink and shower share a common open area. They then squeegee the floor water toward a common drain. Nothing like our sealed-tight systems, and this now brings me to the doors. The main floor of the Bäck‘s house has the guestroom completing a circle from a back hallway to the laundry room, and through the bathroom with sauna, tub and showers. Entering from my bedroom I was very comfortable there, when, with soap in my eyes, little Nikola walked in to the shower area through the other door. I must have been quite a novelty as I held his rapt attention (is it possible that I shower differently from the Finns?).  He then pointed out that he is quite fond of the Jacuzzi tub, and spent the entirety of my shower trying to convince me that it was better than the shower. He continued his helpful ways while I shaved, put my contacts in and dressed. I guess this is one good way to make friends, as I have not been without my shadow since.

In all seriousness, I cannot strongly enough thank Mikael, Natalia, Kristian and Nixu for the wonderful hospitality through the week. I can, however, call upon my Kansas Rotary friends to extend the same hospitality to Mikael—he is one of the team visiting our state next month!  Please make it easy on him, though, by using either Finnish or English as one primary language.  I am now very poorly-practiced in three additional languages. 

Friday, March 30, 2012


Vaasa and its people continue the streak .....warm weclome, a cup of coffee, and a pastry. We are all prepared to purchase new clothing prior to our departure & have a Finnish (first and last name) for our respective ulcers.

Seriously, we have been met with tremendous hospitality and we thank Vaasa for its kindness. I had several points to discuss about Vaasa, but my internet connection kicked me off of the last post and did not allow me to save what I had prepared. I will post it when I have additional time. So before I get booted again, I want to use this post to thank my current and former hosts for all of the great times and education...... the Finnish White Wine, spicy meat balls, (MAA-mi), sauna and hot springs, lessons on legal structure, real estate finance, Finnish television and music, and a special thanks to our *Little Savior* for preventing broken bones on the giant mountain Karl and I *navigated* skiiing with pure style and grace.

A shout out to Henry for teaching me Arabic, Italian, and a little Swedish this evening, with some interesting history stories to follow. A huge thanks to his wife Maiya-Liisa, for being an incredible cook, yet taking the time to walk with me, so I don't blow up like the marshmellow man from Ghostbusters.

I am off to bed and ROCK CHALK!!!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

"Would you like some coffee?" Erika always answers, "Yes."

Erika's favorite experiences in Finland after 10 days:

1. Coffee breaks complete with pastries and pulla every two hours, almost to the second.
2. Meeting elementary aged-kids in schools, getting fantastic tours of the school buildings from the teaching staff, and becoming more and more aware of how unique and special the education system is here in Finland.
3. Finding a natural ability to play Finnish darts.  (I am not sure how useful throwing darts upside-down, between your legs really is, but if you are in need of this service I can help you out.)
4. Attending a jazz concert by Jo Stance.  Definitely worth a listen.  www.jostance.com  (Thank you so much Perrti!)
5. Being welcomed into homes by our Rotarian host families, and treated so very well.
6. Being so tired that experiences  or conversations shared between our team become so funny we are in tears.  (Lee, thank you for supporting my sometimes inappropriate humor, and Sarah thanks for getting locked in Timo and Paivi's car with me.)
7. Waking up to snow covered trees on Sunday morning in Seinäjoki.  It was like waking up in a snow globe.
8.  Annuka's 5 second lesson to try and teach me how to roll my R's.  (I may be a lost cause, but I am going to try and accomplish this by the end of the trip.)
9. Saying kyllä.
10. Going into 0˚ C lake water after sauna literally takes your breath away so you can't swear at the ridiculous cold water even if you want to, but internally, expletives are flying like you wouldn't believe.  And then Karl does the best dinosaur/T-Rex impression. (Note: We returned to the water about 3 or 4 times, we liked it so much.)

Post-ice swimming one big happy Kansas family picture!!

 Lee and Sarah enjoying our caravan camper ride back to Kauhajoki!

 Cheese tasting in Juustoportii, yum!

Easter witch art projects in schools we have visited this week.

What a weekend!

I don't think any of us were quite prepared for just how full our days would be here in Finland.

For example, last Tuesday, our second day here, we realized in the morning that we'd be giving three presentations that day! (the third audience was the luckiest)

Other days, we have visited and toured one or two or three (and was there a day of four?) public projects and private enterprises - ranging from a pre-fab concrete factory, to a producer of designer linen fabrics, to a fabulous art school (in which I'd love to enroll), to elementary schools and high schools and city administration centers and chambers of commerce, not to name many, many other fascinating organizations.

If we had the time, I think each of us could write a few blog posts a day, based on all the information we're taking in, and the things we're learning, and the cultural observations we're making. But I'd like to mention a few highlights from the last few days in Seinäjoki and Jalasjärvi.

On Friday, Lee and I were hosted by Teemu and Maritta (and their children Samuli, Santtu, and Sanja), in Jalasjärvi. They found out neither of us had gone skiing before - so they decided to take us!

Long story short, they took us to the "small" ski hill, got us strapped into ski boots, and set us up with poles and skis. We had a quick demo on how to "stop" and grabbed onto the ski lift. Lee made it all the way to the top of the hill, but I somehow came unhooked from the lift and fell over sideways before even making it up. I started to sidestep up the hill, and had made some slow, steady progress, when Santtu whooshed over and pointed to a spot lower on the hill where I could just slide in. Oh, of course, I thought! So I turned around, sidestepped down a bit more, and set off.

I tried to cross my skis a bit to slow down. Lee had apparently wiped out about halfway down the hill, but there was no chance I could help him. I said "hei" as I buzzed past him. I was flying faster and faster, bending my legs a little so I wouldn't be so far from the ground for when my ensuing crash would happen. I came upon an unsuspecting skier, and my attempts at circumnavigation failed, so I just sort of yelled "AAAHHH," closed my eyes (I think) and somehow wiped out sideways. When I stood up, I realized my pockets were full of snow, I had not taken out the other person, and that I had made it most of the way down the hill - right side up!

It was exhilarating, challenging, and I would love to do it again, albeit, perhaps, with a few more lessons first, and maybe on a smaller hill.

There are more stories from Saturday and Sunday - involving a concert at the Rhytmikorjaamo (Rhythm workshop / garage) and lots of fun cold-weather activities - but I'll save those for another time (or perhaps another writer? hint, hint, team). We arrived in Vaasa last night, and I am itching to get out and explore a bit. It's a beautiful, old city, right on the water.

Lee, Me, Santtu (our savior!), and Maritta.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Jet lag - Rock Chalk in Finland

Jet lag causes our team to wake up at various hours. I went to bed shortly after 1030 pm. Tonight the KU Gods woke me up at 12:20 am. (I usually wake up around 2). I was able to listen to the game on my IPAD. As the late Harry Carry says, "Holy Cow!!!". ROCK CHALK!

Substantive post on our weekend to come soon, great weekend, with a great ending.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Coffee Breaks

There is a telltale sign to indicate an extroverted Finn. When he is talking to you he looks at your feet instead of his own.

While the Finns have worked hard to earn this reputation, I think they did it on purpose, and I also think it is wholly inaccurate. Especially when juxtaposed with the hurry-scurry-worry-work me-first American attitude.

The Finns are very industrious, with a work ethic that would put most of our country to shame. They are also tremendously friendly (but again, I don’t think I am supposed to give away that national secret). We have been graciously greeted over and over again, even as we intrude clumsily.

The special needs student who marched, arm extended, out of his classroom to introduce himself and ask who we were and why were there. He was pleased to meet us. A classroom interrupted in the states might have brought out another reaction.

The master craftsmen at the Sella Furniture Design Center who put down their sharp tools and sandpaper to patiently answer our questions…and then simply wanted to know more about us.

The factory manager at Suomen Lampopuu Oy who interrupted his day. Despite coming upon his busiest season (because they do not store inventory in Europe) of heat-treating lumber for construction and decoration, and especially despite the fact that two of his buildings, including his biggest oven or kiln, had just burned down.

I think I know the answer to both their industriousness and their friendliness: The Coffee Break. Twice a day, morning and afternoon, they all take a break and talk. Yes, a conversation, gathered around a table. They enjoy a small (maybe 6 oz.) cup of coffee in real cups, and they do take a break. This allows them to know their colleagues better, and then they go back to real work. There is no multi-tasking during the coffee break.

In America, it would not work. We’re in too much of a hurry to engage the Starbucks clerk’s inquiry about our morning while we wait for our supertanker to go. And at the office, we should always be using that time some other way, or, more accurately, three other ways at once.

This is amazing. Coffee break time, you sit down, sip coffee, and talk. Even with strangers.

Now back to the funny (and some meaningful) pictures.

An X-Ray representative of a GSE team's collective brain after six days of travel. 

Now Karl is working on recruiting.

Exchanging banners with the president of the Rotary Club of Jurva. They meet at the restaurant Tarina. Tarina means “story.” When the movie theater across the street closed, the restaurant appropriated the name, along with a great neon sign.

The Alpha and Omega of our time in Kauhajoki: Restaurant Kruovi.

We’re off to Kristiinankaupunki tomorrow, and then Jalasjarvi tomorrow night.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Mämmi, Sleep, repeat...

Hyvää ilttaa!

I am giggling at myself at the moment for a few reasons:

1. I am trying to get around Google in Finnish, so if this post does not turn out in the right place, you will know why.

2. I keep trying to type apostrophies, but instead I get Ä.  So please excuse the punctuation. I will ask Annuka tomorrow how to type in English and speak in Finnish.

It has really been a great few days.  My free time is spent talking with Annuka and Lauri about gardening, history, with a few dispersed Finnish lessons throughout.  It has been great meeting everyone so far, but also nice to know we will see Saana and Juha in Kansas after we return home.  The days are already going by really quickly and its always time for bed before I know it. Hopefully will be back at my computer soon and can post some pictures!

Until then, I will continue the mystery and say that I agree with Karl and Lee... Mämmi is quite good.

Sauna tips from a rookie

If you visit Finland and are invited to a Sauna, just say yes.


- Eat something substantial. Salty.
- Drink some water.
- Wash your hair and face.
- Blow your nose.

Immediately before Sauna, it's good to jump in the shower. Heat is milder in humid conditions - so don't towel off before you go in!


- A cold beer is nice.
- Same goes for cold water.
- Don't yell.
- Talk, or don't.

I offer these tips, as I just learned a couple of things the hard way. As it turns out, stepping into a 70-degree steam room (158 degrees Fahrenheit!) will make you sweat faster than you have ever sweated before. If your hair is oily, your eyes will burn as sweat drips down your face. And if you are congested, (though you soon won't be) it is very difficult to breathe hot air.

So, I discovered two things: first, Sauna can be somewhat intense if you can't breathe and can't see well (and simply aren't used to the heat), but it's also quite relaxing and cleansing to sit, talk or meditate, and sweat from all of your pores simultaneously for however long you can stand it.

Though a hot tub might be a similar physical experience, Sauna is quite different psychologically. It feels calmer, cleaner, healthier, purer.

Final tip: Part of the tradition involves cooling off outside, then going back into the sauna, outside again, back inside, etc. (bringing your beer with you the whole time) - so if you plan for many cycles of this, you'll be fine.

Also, on an unrelated but also cultural note, I agree with Lee that Mämmi is delicious.

Monday, March 19, 2012

First Night and First Day: 1/2 a world away, closer than you think

First Night in Kauhajoki Finland

I stepped out of the car, it was late, and the father of my host family Passi Linna was there to greet me. Immediately met with a warm welcome, he invited me in to his home, introduced me to his four daughters and wife, Anna Maria. Pizza was waiting for me in the kitchen, while his two miniature doberman pinchers were trying to figure out who I was and why I smelled like I had been in NY for two days without my baggage.

The classic tourist trip that you take with your family, or the images of a foreign country that you see on TV, only allows the mind to form surface thoughts about another culture -- providing a narrow paradigm with little opportunity to break stereotypes.

As I walked in seeing orange juice on the table, American Idol (Finland) playing in the background, and dogs and kids stirring about -- it was the realization that we are 1/2 a world away, but closer in mind and in spirit than what anyone would think. It is impossible to describe the experience over a blog, you just have to see it with all 5 senses engaged.

The reminder of my first night was spent partaking in the traditional Finnish sauna. Passi and I went into a stone based sauna, built by his very hands in one of the main bathrooms in the house. After the sauna, we walked outside in the snow and jumped in the "Hot Springs" (Hot Tub). The experience was surreal. We are in the middle of a forest, with no city lights for miles, the stars and nature in full swing -- drinking a local beer. Nothing better than sauna after 36 hours of travel as described in my last blog post.


Kiitos to Adam and Karl who covered the first day very well. I only add a couple of bullet points of my impressions:

- The Finnish people are intuitive entrepreneurs: Within an area that is comprised of about 25,000 people, there are hundreds of unique manufacturers, boutique shops, and very few chain stores in site. Why? Tradition partly, but also because they grow up in an environment that: (a) places value on creativity through music and the arts; (b) develops cutting edge vocational skills such as design and robotics; and (c) embodies a unique sense of freedom and equality, that any individual, whether rich or poor, can use his mind and body to to innovate and be an active participant in the marketplace.

- The younger population is moving from rural to urban areas, small farmers are being taken over by large farming operations, local governments and the judiciary are being examined for consolidation, school funding for professional development is virtually non-existent, and the growing aging population, particularly in rural areas, will completely change the dynamics of health care needs. Sound like Kansas? Yes. These were the top challenges identified by the Vice-Mayor in today's presentation at Kauhajoki Town Hall. A 1/2 a world away, but closer than you think.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Kauhajoki, Finland

A great first day!

A good night’s sleep, a shower (sometimes a sauna) and a nice home-cooked meal can really refresh a person.

After the drive from Vaassa, I was greeted by a familiar sight—Juha and Erja had placed sunflowers in my bedroom—what hospitality!
Our first day then started and then continued with a busy but efficient schedule, in true Finnish fashion, with everything starting exactly on time.

We had a team meeting and newspaper interview at Restaurant Kruovi, where both Rotary clubs in town meet. We then walked 200 meters for a nice tour of the Kauhajoki Town Hall and a photo with the Mayor, and a presentation by Director of Administration, Mr. Markku Vahnanen. The city’s name, translated means “Spoon River” but bears no connection to Edgar Lee Masters.
We then walked another 100 meters for a lunch at the Kauhajoki school Centre, and a tour of the facility, both hosted by Principal Mr. Arto Taipus. The school is beautiful, and at two year of age, is state of the art in every description. Their attention to science, the arts, and also integration of special needs students is fascinating.  We’re not sure if this was a good place for our first sauna or not.

Lee and Sarah were also looking to recruit another member of our team. I hope that was not meant as a comment on the age of their leader.
Before a conclusion at the Kauhajoki and Suupohja Health Care Center, we had a nice visit at the Panula College of Music. The school was founded by District 1380 GSE coordinator Jaakko Panula’s grandfather. Principal Ms. Niina Kiprianoff hosted a conversation over coffee and cake, and concluded with a tour and a serenade by some young students. We felt like royalty.

Plans for the evening are varied. I know some of us are looking forward to a nicely-prepared tenderloin of moose. Yes, moose.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

We are here!

We have all arrived in Vaasa! We had a very warm welcome last night from Tapio Hautala, Juha Orpana, and Jaakko Panula.

Today, we are visiting the Kauhajoki town hall (kaupungintalo), where we will meet the mayors and be interviewed by the local newspaper.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Travel Recap Timeline: Happy St. Patrick's Day New York

4:30 a.m. -- Wake up

6:00 a.m. -- Check in at Kansas City United Airlines counter. Adam, Erika, Karl, and Sarah are advised by front check-in advisor that something is wrong with how the computer shows their respective itinerary. Quote from Erika's representative, "this is the most messed up itinerary I have ever seen." (Foreshadowing?)

6:45 a.m. -- We all made it through security after a few friendly pat downs. In celebration, Karl breaks out a zip lock container full of homemade lemon bars and we have a community breakfast at Gate 14.

8:06 a.m. to 11:55 EST -- Airplane from KC to Washington D.C. Dulles

12:00 p.m. -- Discovery that our DC to JFK flight is delayed until 4:00 p.m., possibly cancelled.

12:00 p.m. to 1:40 p.m. -- THE CIRCUS BEGINS: Adam gets in line after a customer service representative from United Airlines says, "if you have any issues, please go to the customer service line at gate C15." Adam waits...and waits... In the interim, Adam works through Rotary Travel, who was extremely helpful, to find that there are alternate options given that our DC to JFK delay may cause us to miss our Helsinki flight. Adam actually makes it to the front of the line and all chaos ensues. United Airlines merged with Continental, so they are on day 12 of a new computer system -- and according to the representative -- no one has been trained on how to use it!

Some pleasantries are exchanged, then Adam finally has a representative who appears to start helping. Goal was to get us on a direct flight to Copenhagen, then to Helsinki.

Karl, Erika, Sarah and I had been waiting patiently -- the customer service representative says that we need to go to a different customer service line!!! We are in the "EXPRESS" line and the international line was at Gate D20. Seriously? You could have told us that an hour ago.

1:40 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. -- LEARNING THE COMPUTER SYSTEM, AND YES, I AM KEITH URBAN'S COUSIN: While Adam works through the circus in the "express line," we take a long walk down to Gate D20.

Enter Monica, the hard charging multilingual customer service representative, who was not only very impressive -- but she stayed late after her shift was over to help us. Monica spent an hour on the phone trying to get Fin Air to allow United to have "control" over bookings so they could "push" our ticket and issue it at the counter. Monica then handed off part of the process to 2 other representatives, and soon we had the entire United Airlines staff of 5 working on our tickets. (We promised Monica that we would buy her a shot for her help). A separate rep works on baggage, and she asks if I am related to Keith Urban. Of course I am, I will be the cousin or relative of any famous actor, singer or songwriter if that means baggage gets from point A to point B.

Finally, after nearly 3 hours, Monica says -- "I have you booked on the Copenhagen to Helsinki flight and a verbal from Fin Air to release your tickets for issuance. We were all delirious at this point, hungry, and but excited that we might actually step foot on an airplane. Mind you, we have been standing long enough that WE ACTUALLY SAW THE SHIFT CHANGE!!

Monica leaves.....enter Dublin..who will go unnamed to protect identity. Dublin literally has her ear to the phone for 45 minutes, with what appears to be no one on the other end. At approximately, 4:00 p.m., the words come out of her mouth "I can't do it. I can't get control to issue you the Fin Air ticket to Copenhagen." If eyes were daggers, Dublin may you RIP.

Dublin then says, "I have found a delta flight, which should allow you to make your original JFK to Helsinki flight."

4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. -- After having the delta tickets issued, baggages re-routed to JFK - we make the mad dash for the Delta terminal. The Delta terminal was like a large marble palace compared to the musty, humid, and cramped United Terminal. Jogging, walking fast, and praying that the plane has not left.......ahhh.....the plane has not left. The Delta rep was friendly. We even had a few minutes to spare, so we all grabbed food and threw it down. It was indeed our best meal of the day, in fact, other than the lemon bars, it was our only meal of the day.

5:00 p.m. to 6:10 p.m. -- On the flight from DC to JFK, we met Ricky and Shaniqua, who deserve an entire post dedicated to themselves, but I am running out of time. Ricky was our energetic and spunky flight attendant, who indeed, exemplified customer service. Ricky has been a flight attendant for nearly 25 years. Shaniqua was a passenger, who was extremely friendly, and from the great "Hotlanta." (Atlanta). Ricky moved all of us to the front because he knew that we were going to be sprinting for our lives. Ricky gave me a wink, turned on some Damien Rice music, and told all of us to get out and start running for Terminal 1 -- where he thought the Fin Air ticket counter was located.

6:10 p.m. Like the scene out of home alone, the Skandi-Kans sprinted for Terminal 1 (basically across the JFK expressway). Our hearts racing, we made it to Terminal 1. We are all running around trying to find the Fin Air counter. Nowhere. Where the hell is it? We walk up to the Lufthansa counter and are informed, "Fin Air is in Terminal 8. You won't make it."

6:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. We get on the Airtran to Terminal 8 to find no one at the Fin Air counter. Out of nowhere, a lady walks to the counter who appears to be the Fin Air representative and starts helping us. We indeed missed our flight, but the best part, indeed the night cap:


8:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. After another hour with United Airlines getting vouchers and being advised that our baggage could be anywhere from DC to Vaasa, we finally make it to the shuttle for our hotel. As we wait for the shuttle, I pull out my phone and play the Jay Z and Alicia Keyes song "Empire State of Mind." Indeed, we were in an Empire State of Mind.

Ending the night, we all stepped in to the hotel bar for dinner, and looked at each other. Tired, our minds had stopped working, and we were ready for bed.

(Believe it or not, this is the short version).

Happy St. Patrick's Day New York!

Location:Doubletree JFK Airport

Friday, March 16, 2012

On our way. Sort of.

The day is finally here, and United Airlines decided to break up our long travel day. We’ll spend much of St. Patrick’s Day in New York—cool! Maybe not that cool, as we’ll be working to improve on our actual travel time vs. time spent negotiating about it ratio. Today it was 3.5 hours actual travel, 4.5 hours discussing it (and that does not include three-plus simultaneous hours on the phone). So, easily 1:2, the bad way today.
We’re slated to arrive finally in Vaasa about a day and a half late. We’ve got our fingers crossed.

Here are three good ambassadors, Karl, Lee and Erika, at the United Customer “Service” desk.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

12 hours and counting...parting thoughts

I purchased a watch from Wal-Mart that has a dual time feature. Hyvaa Huomenta Finland!!! It is roughly 4:30 a.m. Everyone is giddy and having a nice time exchanging our last minute questions and thoughts prior to departure at KCI. We all have a different reason why we signed up for this adventure, but our mission is united, and we certainly have bonded as a group.

My parting thought comes from KU senior night. Jordan Juenemann said, "It is nice to be important, but it is more important to be nice." The quote resonated with me that night,and it has been on my mind ever since. While it plainly speaks about humility, it also speaks to the importance of kindness. I hope, in the spirit of kindness, that our exchange forges a lifelong bond of mutual respect with our Finnish brothers and sisters. We shall remain humble, thankful, but most importantly, we shall remain nice. We are, in a small way, ambassadors of peace. We take that seriously, but simultaneously, we are all ready to have one heck of a good time with our new friends.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Finland flag cake!? So cool.

I was surprised with a Finland flag cake at staff meeting on Tuesday morning from the Lied Center staff!  Nothing like some sugary blue frosting and chocolate cake to make a girl pack even faster.  Chocolate helps with everything, including playing a newer version of Tetris with clothing, gifts, and boots.  Thanks  to everyone for all the good wishes for a great trip!  Let the countdown begin.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Reading List Amendment

Required travel reading for all team members:  there will be a quiz, in Helsinki (after about 18 hours of travel time). 

Last Weekend Stateside

We’re going to miss the Kansas spring weather. Here are Sarah and Erika with Rosie and Thunder at the beautiful farm home of Andrea Norris and Tom Beisecker. Thank you, Andrea and Tom for a nice Saturday afternoon send-off.

Packing is never fun, but it can be more tolerable by the fact that a heavy spring rain is falling on Sunday, and by using the perfect luggage tag.

We’re going to have a lot of airport time. I’m going to need a bit of a reprieve from my Finnish vocabulary studies.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Preparation and Purpose

Today we met for some more practice, some editing of our presentation, and some consideration of our trip’s purpose.

Our training process over the past several months has had several points of focus: learning about Kansas so that we can present and represent it well, learning about Finland so that we can appreciate the culture better while there, and also learning about Rotary International and especially The Rotary Foundation, which sponsors the Group Study Exchange program. We’re very fortunate to have this opportunity within Rotary’s structure, and we will keep the “Service Above Self” slogan top of mind.

In the coming twelve days we will refine our stated purpose and our goals for the trip. We'll also keep this in focus as we share what we learned upon return.  Toward that end, our group (nickname to be revealed soon) has really turned into a team--especially if inside jokes are an indication—and presenting a unified theme will not be a problem.

The editing of our presentation was borne of our dress rehearsal at my Village West club last week. The team did a great job and we received plenty of feedback, most of it even constructive. We made some of those tweaks today.

Here is a photo of us at Dave & Buster’s, wearing one component of our uniform cold-weather gear.

And here we are this afternoon, proudly wearing our GSE team badges…and also some “Kansas City” baseball caps.