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.