An adventure in four parts.
It’s been more than two months since I got to Finland and the novelty and chaos of being in a new environment have worn off, leaving a routine that is sometimes interesting, often mundane. This is more or less to be expected yet it’s still hard to accept how much of my energy is directed towards minutiae – go to class, go to the office, pay my rent, do some yoga, go to the grocery store, call my mom, rinse, repeat. I am less busy than I have been in years and all the free time can be oppressive. Turns out that not being stressed is stressful.
A few weeks ago this started to get to me. There is not a lot of expectations management in the Fulbright application and orientation processes and I spent so much time thinking about all the ways that this year would be amazing that I skipped over the ways it would be challenging. I am working through a low-level crisis of purpose – why am I here, what is the point of my research, am I making the most of my time in Finland, etc. – that I think is shared by many other Fulbrighters (and actually many other recent college grads).
I’m addressing this because I realize that my blog and my instagram and my responses when people ask how things are going make my life here sound like a nonstop adventure. And indeed, the rest of this post is going to continue along the same lines. But it seems dishonest not to acknowledge that in between the blog-worthy updates I am spending a lot of time alone, dealing with the banalities of adult life, trying to figure out what I’m doing here.
One way to combat these feelings is to force myself out of my routine. The rest of this post will be four stories from the last two weeks, all of which reminded me of the possibilities within reach here.
PART I: AMERICAN VOICES
In which I embrace my nostalgia.
Peter, Maya, and me talking about our shared love of small liberal arts colleges.
Two weekends ago I traveled to southern Finland to speak at the American Voices conference in Turku. This was the first time since the orientation program that the entire Fulbright cohort got together. Every Fulbrighter presented on some aspect of American culture and society, ranging from 3D printing as a modern day form of “maker culture” to the American immigrant experience to the traditions of marching bands. I talked about small liberal arts colleges with Maya, a 2017 Pomona grad, and Peter, an economics professor at Middlebury. Our talk covered a little bit about the history of small liberal arts colleges and the achievements of students from these institutions in graduate school and fellowship acceptances and a lot about the weird and wacky experiences of students at these schools.
We arrived at this topic because the liberal arts model is largely unfamiliar to European students and educators. I have had multiple conversations in which I’ve tried to explain things like living on campus, what it means to be an English major, dining halls and meal plans, or college sports. Sometimes the conclusion has been, “yeah, it is kind of like college in the movies.” American Voices was a great opportunity to talk about what makes liberal arts colleges unique and why they are effective educational institutions. It was also a great opportunity to feel a little sentimental about Williams. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss being a college student but reminiscing about WOOLF and Mountain Day and long afternoons in Tunnel got some of the nostalgia out of my system.
Our talk was a hit with the Finnish audience – the Fulbright people told us they wanted us to repeat it verbatim for the Ministry of Education. Which would be cool except we did not rehearse and barely had notes. Alas.
It was a fun way to spend a couple of days and a good opportunity to reconnect with the rest of the Fulbrighters. It’s a really nice group of people and it was reassuring to learn that I am not the only research grantee who’s not entirely sure what they’re supposed to be researching.
PART II: ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE IN AN ARCTIC CONTEXT
In which I pretend to be an expert.
The House of Estates in Helsinki
Traveling to the southern part of Finland from Rovaniemi is a bit of a chore, so after American Voices I decided to stick around Helsinki for an event hosted by the Finnish Ministry of the Environment about ongoing scientific projects associated with Arctic Council working groups. I hoped this event would bring into focus some of the issues I’ve been reading about and kickstart a transition from theory to practice.
The event was a fairly high level gathering of scientists and policymakers. It was hosted in the House of Estates (pictured above) which is a very fancy government building. I found many of the presentations to be very interesting and I learned a lot about current research areas. Even more interesting were the political dynamics that shaped the structure of the day without ever being addressed explicitly.
Most obvious were the positions assumed by French and German researchers as co-organizers of the event. France and Germany are not members of the Arctic Council but they both have observer status, which means that they have no decision-making power, but they are able to attend the Council’s meetings and contribute resources to working groups. It was clear that both countries are invested in growing their Arctic expertise, but the motivations for these investments are less obvious.
Inherent in these events is a lot of pageantry – the fancy building, the formal introductions, the assigned seating – and it’s possible that the ritual obscures the content. I think strategic partnerships with observer countries are crucial to the success of the science-policy interface in the Arctic, but it’s worth thinking about whether public displays of soft diplomacy actually accomplish anything. It was definitely interesting to be a fly on the wall since these dynamics are at the core of my research this year.
PART III: NORTHERN LIGHTS
In which serendipity takes over.
Some Rovaniemi residents boast that you can see the Aurora Borealis 200 nights a year here – if it’s not cloudy. And it’s been cloudy almost every night since I’ve moved to Finland. That, combined with my aversion to staying up past midnight, has prevented me from seeing the famed northern lights. But on Thursday, thanks to a series of magical and very Finnish events, that changed!
I had been wanting to go to the climbing wall but it’s hard to show up at new places without a buddy so I convinced my friend Adri to go with me. Of course my fears were completely unnecessary because everyone at the gym was super friendly. The regular members were very willing to teach me routes and coach my technique. I directed most of my questions towards a woman named Stina and eventually our conversation turned towards the northern lights. I have an app on my phone that alerts me during periods of high meteorological activity, which usually means that I wake up with a bunch of notifications. But I had seen that the index was getting high and when I told Stina I had yet to see the aurora she offered to go home, get her car and her dog, and take me and Adri to a special spot to look for the lights.
As we left the gym, I glanced over my shoulder and saw a flicker of green against the horizon. Stina and Adri, somewhat used to this, kept walking, but I stopped in awe. Even if you’ve seen pictures, in person the northern lights are infinitely more magical. Photographs can’t do the northern lights justice any more than they can capture the experience of looking up at an incredible starry night. These ones, diminished somewhat by the city streetlights, weren’t even that impressive. Yet I was filled with a sense of awe watching the lights shimmer faintly against the night sky.
Stina got her car and her dog and Adri and I got some warmer clothes, then we headed out of the city to the top of a hill called Santavaara. We drove up an unpaved road, totally dark except for the glare of the moon and the occasional flash of light from forestry machines. When we got to the top, we walked about five minutes to a laavu, an open shelter with a fire pit. Another person was just leaving so we adopted her fire and roasted bananas filled with chocolate while we waited for the lights to return.
From our vantage point on the top of Santavaara, we could see the stars and the aurora above us and the city lights of Rovaniemi below. I don’t have any photographs because you need an SLR camera and I’d left mine at home, but there’s something about the elusiveness of the lights that makes them more valuable. You have no choice but to put down your phone, keep warm by the fire, and just watch and wait.
It was the perfect introduction to one of Finland’s most impressive natural beauties. Kind strangers, a crisp, clear night, and a reminder that sometimes you have to stop what you’re doing and look up at the sky.
PART IV: TO THE NORTH
In which I get us lost.
Foggy views in Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park
Last weekend four other Fulbrighters came north to do some adventuring before winter arrives. I put on my tour guide hat and did my best to show the group around Rovaniemi. We did not succeed in seeing the northern lights since the clouds had returned, but we had a great nature adventure at Pallas-Yllastunturi National Park. The park is about two hours north of Rovaniemi by car so early Saturday morning we headed off in our rental to explore a new part of Lapland. The highlight of the morning drive was the “traffic” we encountered – herds of reindeer crossing the road, not giving a fig about the oncoming cars.
We planned on doing a 15 kilometer hike, but some confusing signage and limited Finnish skills led to some wrong turns. I was in the lead so this was mostly my fault but fortunately everyone else was a good sport about it. I was the only one worrying that we would have to construct an emergency shelter out of moss and branches after it got dark. We made it back to the car about ten minutes before the sun set and calculated our total distance – 24 kilometers. Whoops.
The hike took us through a variety of Arctic subbiomes, winding through marshy bogs and forests and rocky alpine hillside. Once we got above the treeline we were engulfed by a dense blanket of fog. Except for the ski lifts that decorated one of the fells, Pallas-Yllastunturi felt wilder than any place I’ve visited in Finland. Except for the extra mileage, it was a great day trip and I’m excited to come back once there’s snow on the ground (which will be any day now – it’s snowing as I write this).
That’s all for now – the next few weeks will be busy with some actual deadlines and a visit from my mom (yay!). Moi moi!