Sunday, August 26, 2007

F.innish U.s. Senate. Y.outh E.xchange

Over the past summer, my other FUSYE companions and I actually had a little bit of homework to do while living abroad. Our assignment was simply one of observation and documentation (which was something I was coincidentally doing already all summer!) Afterwards, we were to produce something like a three page essay written about our experiences and what we had learned living in Finland. I am choosing to post my reflections of my summer that I had written even before the end was near. My ideas are still very much the same, yet it is also unique to now view Finland from a foreign perspective having once again traveled safely back home to America.

Looking back now, it is amazing to think about how my entire summer in Finland evolved and only then be able to see the beginnings of the countless things I have experienced and learned along the journey. Just months ago, I filled out the application for the FUSYE scholarship with an inclination that I wanted to go somewhere that I never thought I would go. When I found the opportunities for Finland I thought exactly what my friends and family would later say when I applied – “Finland!?? What is there?” That is how I knew that I had to learn about the country. I had done some background research and that inspired me, if not solidified my compassion to truly understand what this nation has to offer. I was impressed with the staggering superlatives of the nation and intrigued by the idea of a lone nation with only 5.5 million people that could affect our world so much – yet also be so humble to largely go along with its hard work under the radar of the rest of the world’s superpowers. I felt the drive to find out how the nation worked and what made it achieve its exemplary statistics and significantly high standard of living. I knew that living there was the only way I could satisfy my desire and curiosity to learn about the nation.

At my YFU interview, filled with questioning about my lifestyle in America and what I looked for in traveling overseas, I was confident in my idea that I wanted a challenge. That is why I wanted to go to Finland. I wanted to learn about this nation that I largely never knew much about and submerge myself in this foreign culture that I had little preparations for prior to departure. I wanted to be actively learning amongst a nation with a language I have never heard along with the warnings that it was one of the world’s most difficult languages due to its lack of linguistic relatives anywhere in the world. I wanted to prove it to myself that I could make many friends and experience and learn about teenage lifestyle in a nation that is stereotypically known for being extremely shy and "silent in more than three languages". I had my lists and I had mentally prepared myself to step out of this "comfort" zone and really put myself in a situation more foreign than I had ever imagined yet. My expectations for myself were high, and I was ready for the experience of a lifetime.

Arriving in Finland was a whirlwind. Everything happened very fast and I bonded quickly with the other American scholarship students as they became my support and home away from home. Our orientations were very structured, yet, as we had learned a lot, the true experience hadn’t truly begun. Right away after moving in with my host family, I realized I had received my challenge. My host siblings were young, 8 years old and two 3 year old twins. They were as cute as can be, but past that "tip of the iceberg"I learned just how much care, attention, and patience is required for young girls.

I remained very proactive and optimistic and even through testing times, I really made the effort in myself to make every experience a learning one. The fact was that I was having the normal struggles of simply living in a foreign environment including experiencing the culture shock also with the addition of this immense lifestyle change. I was a 17 year old male teenager with a natural brother aged 16, now living in a household with girls less than half my age. I found it in myself to make the most of these challenges and I was able to pick up some Finnish as well as some newfound maturity as I figured out my role in the family. I made the choice early on that I was not going to stand to be an outsider or a guest, so I became the big brother instantaneously.

Surpassing my expectations of a challenge, I was given a true test of patience and will power to find the positive aspects in my newfound lifestyle and as the weeks went on I found the benefits to be very rewarding. I learned Finnish words, matured as a teenager and also mastered body language to communicate with my young siblings. I feel that I took my experiences in an optimistic light and in the end I came to have a love and compassion for my new lifestyle, host family, and siblings.

In terms of other expectations, I was ready for Finland to have everything close by and near – for being a small country, everything must have been only a bike trip away, right? From my Mapquest searches of my house before I traveled, I saw that I was only a few kilometers away from the city of Turku, and my grand plan was to just ride my bike and experience the life of the city! Not that it was a pessimistic realization, but I lacked the realistic idea that Finland was a spacious nation with a lot of area in between its communities. This mistake that is now laughable didn’t affect me much since I found so many great things in my own city including scenic nature routs, friends, neat places, and even historical venues – all still by bike. I was so happy to be able to learn about my own city, and even though I did travel to the city often, I made my own journeys in my own island and nearby towns just as memorable with experiences.

Before coming to Finland I was under the impression that since Finland was known for successes in English proficiency amongst its citizens that I would be able to freely go around speaking normally as if back home. Even though many friends I had met in Finland had years of experience through school, I didn’t take into consideration the fact that while Finns learn a lot of English, they rarely are able to use the language. This challenge presented me with the difficulties of breaking down my own speech (and thus realizing how difficult it is to express a thought with as little words as possible!) while also understanding a different form of English responding to me. Living in America, our culture tends to make us hide the truth, or possibly soften things. The Finns on the other hand tend to be more blunt and to the point, and this does come across with their English as well. Many instances took me by surprise when my own native language was making me barrier in a defensive since some things came across stronger than possibly the speaker perceived, or more than likely, out of the norm of ‘American’ English. The concept is difficult to fully describe, but over all, while learning Finnish, I even learned about my own language in what is meant by the words and phrases we say, and how different cultures can use them in the same way, but mean many different things. I ultimately learned the versatility of a word, and the meanings universally of complex thoughts through hearing my native language from foreign tongues.

One of the greatest impacts of my experience in Finland was the great friends that I had made in the country. I knew coming that I would have to ‘break out of my shell’ and be the outgoing one if I wanted to make friends. Although I may have had darker features than the ‘average’ Finn, I may have not have been pointed out immediately as a foreigner. I was however noticed for being different when I would walk up to a group of teens and say ‘Hi, I am Chris, and I am from Michigan in America!’ while simultaneously pointing at my city on the map of Michigan on my hand (a little trick all Michiganders use!). Many of the times the teens I met would look either petrified or just stare blankly like I was mad. It was only after a bit more talking that they really became comfortable and began asking many questions about myself and my country. This expectation from what I learned was that Finns are shy in the outset of an introduction. However, a little bit of charisma goes a long way, and conversation and friendship was then found easily. This became so true, since the friends that I made in Finland really became true friends and wanted to show me their country and introduce me to their friends and hobbies. This was one of my prominent goals and through a little effort, which, being honest, was mentally exhausting, in the end provided me with so many lasting friendships and memories that I desired when coming to Finland. Like my other challenges, I took this one with a determind mindset as well, and in the end experienced the satisfaction of accomplishment.

Finland surprised me by having so much to offer. For all of my family members and friends I will proudly emphasize how great the scenic landscapes are in the nation – from the bustling cities with impressive architecture and market squares, to the silent but overwhelming beauty of the northern Lapland regions which I was also able to discover. Through my travels by boat and train around the heart of Finland to the North, and also around the coast of the archipelago region I was able to see just how diverse this nation really is. Along with this, the weather, with its promising four seasons of beauty as well as summertimes filled with long nights, campfires, boat trips, saunas, coffee parties and berry picking shows how much cultural experiences await. Aside from the amazing physical elements of the nation, the people of Finland are also something major in which I would note. The hospitality and friendship that I received was excellent and truly provided a very positive impact on me about how the citizens in Finland take pride in their nation and their neighbours. I feel it is this reason that the country of Finland has so many impressive statistics in the world and has a high standard of living. I would advertise these great memories and experiences so that my family and friends can experience and discover the same great thing!

The FUSYE program allowed me to discover far more than I ever thought possible while pondering my initial goals for international travel. Initially, I wanted to learn of a culture that I did not know much about, yet, along with this, I gained so much more. Along side tackling the obstacles of language barriers and small cultural misunderstandings in both sides of a situation, I discovered myself analyzing the world around me, constantly creating an understanding through comparison and contrast, and ultimately gaining the skill of appreciating my world community through the observations I was able to make through the care of a new family, and many newly founded friends. The hospitality of Finland welcomed me with caring family members to true friendships that really provided me with excellent opportunities to see so many facets of the Finnish cultural spectrum. Starting from a nation that caught my eye from staggering superlatives - Even more impressive characteristics and details of the nation were revealed by living and experiencing the nation alongside real Finnish citizens who wanted me to experience the great parts of their nation along with them. Thinking back, I feel that means I had achieved my goals since a country that sounded so grand in statistics proved that they are not just by any coincidence; Finland has grown to be what it is today because of its patriotism, pride, and hospitality, all of which fully embody and symbolize what the FUSYE program has given me and many other Americans in the present and past.

Writing a three page essay on Finland (... thus turning to seven... to emphasize my point) is quite a challenge since it is quite impossible to capture the true feelings and all of the knowledge, charisma, and confidence gained while living in such a situation, environment, and country. I tried my best for myself personally to keep my new life up to date with a daily online journal and even there, with hundreds of photos and stories, I do not feel that every detailed has been served the justice of its potential. Over all, I have learned so much and it proves that the only way that I can express what I learned while living abroad is sharing my stories to others and spreading the excitement of world travel. With this realization, I feel that is the true meaning and goal of the FUSYE program in the first place.

Coming Home

Early - Very Early - Saturday morning felt like the end of a long day and the beginning of another long day. Over the previous few hours - it would be lying to say "the previous night" since that hadn't finished - I was able to enjoy every moment of my last hours in Finland hanging out with my host sister and new friends all around Helsinki. I don't generally sleep well on planes, so I was probably setting myself up for some dramatic jet lag, but I had no regrets. Once home after venturing the city, Anna and I enjoyed some coffee and looked at pictures while chatting the last remaining time away. I got the last of my luggage together and before long, it was early in the morning, yet, time to head to the airport for my long journey back home. My luggage checked in successfully - no stressful dejavu's this summer - yet, rushed like always, it was time to say goodbye to the Kiukkonen's.

Even in a short week's time they had truly welcomed me with excitement and so much planned and that made my final travels in Finland very special. Anna was an especially important part of my summer and her enthusiasm to show me her home city was reflected in our exciting tours. We always had great things to talk about and she has given me many inspirations to experience and learn new things around the world.

Anna, and my other family members from the Kiukkonens, had made my summer extremely memorable as well, and I have a deep gratitude for what they provided me with as well as a great satisfaction that I have another connection, family, and trust, in yet another part of Finland, and part of the world. Saying goodbye was special because I knew that the special bonds that were created in the week past were not always easy to come by, and I had acquired another international family that meant so much to me.

The planes rides themselves were a little dizzying and left us feeling delirious. Our flight to Frankfurt came quickly in only a mere few hours and once again we were overwhelmed by the expansiveness of the International airport abounding us. Herding as a group we all arrived through and made our next flight which would have us crossing the Atlantic during a never ending morning ( as we would arrive in D.C. still early on in the same day).

The flight was really a lot of fun, since the really close friendships that were made throughout the whole summer between us American travelers gave us hours of talking and laughs.

We had been able to do really so much together and shared some great experiences at each others sides.

Although stated many times, it was really so unique that we all came from different backgrounds from around the country, yet we had the special unity of being Americans. One of the embassy workers applauded that are group was exactly what the embassy tried to explain and instill in their foreign visitors : 'Americans' defines groups of all types with such a proud diversity of all different backgrounds, and our group exemplified that.

Once back in D.C. many of us had long layovers before going home and we were able to spend our first hours back in America appreciating our last hours together. For many of us we planned to keep in touch and even visit each other, but it was depressing having so many goodbyes in one week, let alone, one day. Throughout the afternoon we clustered around the airport wishing everyone farewells and enjoying each others company.

We had to laugh since we had the reverse feeling coming back that we were like foreigners - around the airport feeling like ' those American kids that lived in Finland'. We were almost in a state of denial, since we had challenged ourselves all summer to blend in with the Finnish lifestyle, and now back in the comforts of our own home - there was nothing more comfortable than laughing as a group of 'adopted Finns' with all of our culture clashing jokes that would only make sense to us, along with our random Finnish words and phrases that unanimously flowed into our average speech.

Our little group had really become tight knit largely to the fact that we felt and pronounced each other nonverbally: Our homes away from home.

Coming back to Michigan I had the great thoughts of my associations around the globe and even in my own country with so many really close friends that I had experienced so much with. We all shared the same struggles and bonds and that immediately connected us in ways that others couldn't comprehend. That comprehension being what it really felt to live in Finland, and ultimately abroad in a foreign situation, that is largely difficult to even begin to express in words. Finland had impacted me immensely and I had gained so much out of the experience - even new friends and 'family' in my own home country. It is that what had really made the final moments of my YFU FUSYE experience incredible. The day had been long - and I had been even longer with out sleep - but the excessively long day had been filled with so much emotion, excitement, fun, and compassion and the only thing ahead of me was the readjustment to the my 'normal life' aside from my connections to my home, friends, and families abroad --- and probably a lot of jetlag.

Helsinki Parks

There was no time to lose. After the factory it was already early afternoon and, since we had very early flights the next morning, we had less than 12 hours left being in Finland. We all took one last trip to the YFU offices to say goodbye to a few of our group leaders who would not be seeing us later on in the evening for our flights, so we had one last chance to say thank yous. It was really nice in Helsinki since I was able to see Johanna again who was my YFU area representative in Turku, as well as Mirjam, who had a very large role in making our FUSYE activities in Finland so incredible.

It felt strange leaving the YFU office since everything for the very busy week was done, and then, since there was only hours until our next flight, there was a sense of limbo filling the void.

Anna, my host sister in Helsinki, and I had become very close in just a short weeks time since we really had a lot in common and so much to talk about. As Anna seemingly always had something fun planned, she wasn't going to let our last night be any different. Just a few blocks away I met her in the early afternoon at the Havis Amanda statue near the market square ( another great meeting place in Helsinki).

Anna had aranged with some of her friends to all meet at Esplanadi park across the street so the they could hang out but also have a chance to meet me as well. As I have noted, Esplanadi park really may have been one of my most favorite parts of Helsinki; The park was a narrow strip down the busy streets to the market square, and it was beautiful with sprawling flats of green lawns and park benches. There were statues along the open walkways, in counterbalance to the dense city life in peripheral vision to the right and left.

The coolest part was that it was full of people simply enjoying an excellent summer's day relaxing in the park. It was so European and so exciting to me.

Once we met up with Anna's friends we got some ice cream, grabbed a bench, and followed suit with the hundreds of other relaxing park-goers around us.

The atmosphere was so nice and in accordance to my stray thoughts of my last moments in Finland, this happy memory pronounced itself as one of the projected perfect first moments back in Finland as well, one day. After a long sunny chat, something that was so fitting for the social culture here, we all split our separate ways, even though I would see some of the girls later in the evening since Anna was planning to get together with more friends again ( It
was their last Friday evening before school started as well - Teens were enjoying summer everywhere.)
For the late afternoon, Anna and I were going to go her her mother's house to have my last dinner there. Everything was able to slow down a little bit and we had a nice relaxing meal while being able to talk about some of the things I had seen during the day. The Kiukkonen's are big fans of the Iitala products and really liked the factory as well. I was able to see some of their collections at the house. Saila, my Helsinki host mother, was really so kind and along with everyone in my host family for the week, I was going to look forward in keeping in touch with everyone. The completion to my final meal in Finland was very fitting since there really wasn't anything more perfect in Finland for deserts than the berries, and a bowl of fresh blueberries was extremely satisfying.
That evening, as planned, Anna and I met friends in downtown Helsinki for my last hours in Finland, and their last Friday evening before school - overall, it was worth the festivities.

As a matter of fact, the park in which we met everyone at to hang out for the evening was the very first park that Anna showed me near her school on our Helsinki tour earlier in the week ( which already felt like ages had past with all of the events and experiences). The coolest thing was that the park was filled with teenagers and young adults all enjoying an absolutely gorgeous summer night which was one of their last before busy school years began once more.

Chatting on a blanket spread out in a park into the night, and then getting up to stroll the brightly lit streets when it was ( on a very rare instance for being out at night in the summer for me) truly dark out was incredible. On my last evening in Finland I was really enjoying the Helsinki city life and the downtown night experience in Europe with the sounds and the lights was really exhilarating.

It was really so much fun talking and hanging out with many new friends that I had met and filled my last hours with dozens of memorable moments.

Everything had gone so fast since, before we knew it, Anna and I had to go and catch the final bus for the early hours in the morning to get back home for me to pack and catch my plane. Time was not even an issue anymore - At the brisk rate everything was happening, an all-nighter was only appropriate so that I could truly value every moment with my host sister and new friends overall making my last experiences in Finland incredibly fun and exciting.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Iitala Factory of Helsinki

In every Finnish home you will most likely find a large assortment of high quality glass products with a little 'Iitala' emblem on the side. Finns take pride in their own country, and this is reflected in there love and appreciation of glassware products made by the Finnish company of Iitala. I had seen many products over the summer in homes that I had visited, as well as in department stores I browsed through, and for a great opportunity for a closer look into the art, design, and craftsmanship behind the products our last event for the FUSYE Helsinki program was a special trip and guided tour to the Iitala factory in the city of Arabica, neighboring Helsinki.
Iitala followed suit with with many companies in Finland with an outlook into modern style and design. The general offices and entrance areas were very modern, specially designed to emphasize simplicity and the glassware itself ( which led my observations to the fact that many of the office cubicles were like glass cases - interesting).

With our tour guide we were taken further than the front of the headquarters and were able to see all the steps to the final Iitala products behind the scenes. Inside the back floors we were led to many machines rotating with wet ceramics being filed and shaped down to size.

For glasses and mugs, handles were put on sub-manually with each one having to be assisted by a manhandled machine. Albeit expensive, you could tell that you were paying for quality, care, and precision when buying an Iitala product when seeing how much effort was put into the production in the factory.

From the background knowledge of the tour guide we learned about the philosophies of efficiency and top quality of Iitala. They make many precautions to not waste materials and also have high standards when selecting which products are acceptable for sales.

Another floor consisted of the kiln which was an enormous oven that baked the products into their final states. It was definitely a little warmer on that floor. Outside on the cooling racks were crates upon crates of thousands of plates, glasses and mugs. It was incredible.

We also learned how images were screened onto the mugs which was the same set up for the famous Muumi mugs which are one of the most popular products of the company.

After the tour of the back factory area of the home-goods quarters we were led to the presentation room for the remainder of the tour. The room was very large and well lit, modern of course, and really presented the whole collection of Iitala products very well.

While looking around we learned about the history of the company and the thought process around the product's designs.

Many of the glass products came in a variety of colors, and for that reason, a variety of prices, since different colors required more precision and time to get it just right ( deep red was the most difficult to create apparently, making it a much higher price than, say, clear or blue). There was also a whole table dedicated to the timeless Aalto vase which is the classic design by architect Alvar Aalto.

The design may seem a little weird, but once you see it in its element in a well furnished, modern Finnish home, it really looks spectacular - and you do see these in pretty much every Finnish house!

Many of us really enjoyed viewing the collections put together since they all complemented each other very well. After touring around we had an opportunity to shop at the factory's store and pick out some Iitala classics for ourselves as last minute souvenirs since we were already past being in Finland for less than 24 hours.

After our tour and shopping excursion, we all were very excited and adrenalin rushed since we only had hours remaining in our summer living in Finland.