Kiitoksia, Fulbright Finland
It’s not American hyperbole to say that spending the year as a Fulbright scholar in Finland has been among the most momentous experiences of my life. Fulbright Finland is a dynamic organization that offered me multiple opportunities for presenting my research, traveling to areas of Finland outside of where I was living, and gaining insights into the national spirit of an amazing country. In addition to the professionalism and cultural opportunities offered, everyone at the organization was warm and personable, and on numerous occasions (some of which I have written about in this blog), they guided me through the administrivia and other pragmatics of living in a foreign country. Because Fulbright Finland is widely respected throughout Finland, I was always greeted with respect and admiration as a visiting scholar. I made so many new friends and developed a more international network of colleagues who I know will continue to be a part of my life, both personally and professionally. I also greatly appreciated the Fulbright buddy program, since my “buddy” and her family not only welcomed us when we first arrived, they have also become our friends. I signed up for the newly established Fulbright buddy program in the US and cannot wait to meet visiting Finnish scholars.
It is difficult to summarize my gratitude for this opportunity. While I have traveled outside of the US on numerous occasions, living outside of the US was a much more expansive experience than I ever could have imagined. This is my final post, and I hope that this blog will provide inspiration for future Fulbrights.
Part 1: Moikka Suomi
I am writing this from the second row of an express bus en route to Helsinki’s airport. Kumppani is sitting across the aisle from me—four seats were necessary due to our excessive carry on items. Fortunately, buses are rarely crowded here, so it’s not like we’re those people on the subway who need a separate seat for our bags while the pregnant woman is standing and holding on to the pole. Our carry-on items are small in comparison to all of the stuff we have packed into the SIX large suitcases that are in the baggage compartment of the bus. I’m pretty sure the bus driver did a double take when he pulled up and saw us sitting there, with our family of luggage lined up. I promise we are leaving with less than we brought, but somehow, regardless of the things we gave away or threw away or never purchased (oh, all of the Scandinavian design we once imagined bringing home), we had to buy an extra suitcase AND ship boxes home. “Don’t worry,” Kumppani said, “just pretend like its other people’s things.” And true to Finnish service and efficiency, the driver loaded everything under the bus like it was just a usual day. Along with the Posti, I will miss public transportation in Finland more than I can explain.
I’m partially writing about the bourgeois tragedy of an international move because I am avoiding feeling sad about leaving Finland. I cried in the backseat of the taxi to the bus station while a particularly melancholy pop song played. I didn’t understand most of the words, but I knew it was about love and loss. Of course, I feel loss because I’ve gained so much this year. Academically, I’ve had time to focus on my research and writing, make new colleagues, work with international students, and present my work at multiple conferences and symposiums. Personally, my worldview has broadened, I’ve gained new perspectives on global citizenship, I have a whole new set of Facebook friends, and with any luck, I’ll hold on to my fundamentals of suomi.
I never could have imagined how special Finland would become for me. One year ago when we were preparing to leave, I was excited though nervous, and I had no real concept of what living in Finland would be like. You never can, really, no matter how many travel books you read or how many websites you look at—you have to go and find out for yourself, and I am so glad I had the opportunity to take the leap.
There are so many things I haven’t written about in this blog, because I was too busy living. Here is a partial list of some things that I was doing during my radio silence of the last months:
*Writing and submitting academic things for publication.
*Participating in symposiums and workshops with the John Morton Center for American Studies here at the University of Turku (if you come here, be involved!).
*Presenting at the Fulbright symposium at University of Jyvyskala.
*Teaching in Tornio, Finland for a week through the Fulbright Arctic Summer School Program.
*Seeing an actual Finnish baby box (the one that EVERY new parent receives, that includes clothes, blankets, bottles, toys, and condoms).
*Beginning to understand the mathematics of suomi when I figured out the formula for counting to 100.
*Presenting at the Maple Leaf and Eagle American Studies Conference in Helsinki.
*Traveling to Constanta, Romania for the European Association for American Studies Conference.
*Traveling to Berlin to attend the Popular Seriality Conference at the JFK Institute.
*Spending a week in a quiet cabin on the archipelago with family and wanting to stay forever
*Finally, while we will sadly miss Turku Pride, we did get to attend fundraiser events like a vegan brunch and a pop-up store opening and now we have this fab Swedish tote bag to remind us of the awesome queer community there.
During our last week in Finland, a friend was visiting from the U.S. and Kumppani and I took him to one of our favorite bars in Turku that is housed in an old apteeki (apothecary). All of the original wood cabinets with drawers are in there, they have an impressive craft beer and whiskey selection, and the bartender knows everything about all of it. We were sitting in a room in the back of the bar (Finnish bars often tend to have multiple rooms, which gives them an old club feeling), and a woman who had heard us speaking English introduced herself, asking where we were from. She was an artist who used to work for the university, and was really interested in the fact that we were from New York. She also wanted to assure us that she knew that there was no way the US would be foolish enough to vote Donald Trump into office. “I don’t have faith in God,” she said, “but I have faith in the American people.” She asked me my name, and when I told her, a man standing nearby turned and exclaimed, “Everyone knows who you are, we’ve been reading your Fulbright blog!” Then he pointed at Kumppani and said, “she must be the butch!”
That man made my year. It was a beautiful note to end on, and in so many ways, representative of my experience in Finland. It is a country where people take care of things, like old apothecaries and other beautiful places, both natural and human made. It is a country where people are respectful of others’ personal space and also friendly when social opportunities arise. To be sure, it is a country that is struggling with its own political conflicts of the old and new ways of doing things, whether that takes the form of government funding cuts to social welfare programs, arts, and education, or challenges with accepting new immigrants and the increasing diversification of the country. No place is utopian, though Finland certainly offered me possibilities for imagining what utopia could look like.
Part 2: Hello US
I’m writing this from a hotel in New Jersey. It took three hours to figure out how to get all of our luggage from the gate at Newark to the rental car pick-up because everyone told us something different. Three. Hours. It is possible to laugh and cry at the same time. We had to wheel two carts full of six suitcases over bumpy curbs, into elevators, and over the awkward gap between the platform and the strangely small train cars of the Air Tram because you cannot take a cab to rental car pick-up because it’s not a real place. It exists in some sort of megalopolis airport limbo. And because, quite the opposite of Finland, nothing is easy here.
Back to the land where you don’t leave anything in the trunk of the rental car, you always look through the peephole before you open the door, and servers have no problem kicking you out of a restaurant when they’re closing even if they agreed to let you eat just twenty minutes before. Also, the water tastes strange.
Back to the land where you can find every kind of delicious food from everywhere in the world, friendly strangers start random conversations, and stores are open 24 hours a day.
To prepare myself for re-entry, I’ve been reading ex pat blogs. Of course there are all kinds of perspectives, ranging from patriotic exultations (If you don’t want to live in a Nordic welfare state, this is the place to be) to a complete refusal to ever move back to the US (25 reasons why…).
A Finnish friend who lived in the US for a few years remarked that the pull of national belonging was so strong, she often felt compelled to participate. It is a seductive place, the United States. Every day in Finland I encountered some cultural reference to the US—someone wearing a t-shirt proclaiming “Live in NYC!” or an acoustic suomi cover of a Led Zeppelin song. There’s a joke about the Finnish cousin, in that most everyone in Finland has one in the US. Someone whose family immigrated generations ago, likely to the upper Midwest. There is a very strong relationship between the US and Finland, despite our different ways of being in the world.
I’ve been watching the presidential conventions—okay, let’s be honest, mostly just the DNC—and I am amazed by the ways in which feeling good about and proud of ourselves as Americans (as helpers; as heroes; as community members) is so central to our national selfhood. Of course, I knew this intuitively, or at least like my Finnish friend, I felt the pull of belonging that comes when you sing the national anthem or say the pledge of allegiance or light a sparkler on the Fourth of July. However, I did not know this on a conscious level, at least not in the way I do now, after watching from across an oceanic distance. It was an out of body experience, those moments of seeing people on social media or on the news, celebrating holidays, expressing pride, or arguing vehemently about their political opinions. When I tried to explain my complicated feelings about returning to the US to some Finnish friends, they remarked that the US is an emotional culture—this, of course, while I was emoting. It was the first time I really understood that, and saw so clearly that no matter where I live, I will always feel a need—an entitlement, even—to express my feelings as part of the American-ness that is so deeply embedded in me.
Coming back to the US after living in Finland for a year is like walking out of a library into a giant party (it’s not that people in Finland don’t talk, it’s that they mostly talk quietly out of respect for the other people around them). Some people at the US party are yelling at a sports game, and the group next to them is arguing politics, behind them some other people who just met are connecting on social media and making future vacation plans, just next to the bar some people are beating the crap out of each other, and right next to them a few others are completely ignoring them while drinking overpriced artisanal cocktails. In Finland, pretty much one thing is happening at a time, and you focus on that one thing, whether it’s a movie or a conversation or a sunset. In the US, everything happens ALL AT ONCE ALL THE TIME. Everyone is doing all of the things and feeling all of the things and saying all of the things that they are feeling. This is why so many people want to go to there, because America is so unabashedly EXPRESSIVE. It’s what we call freedom. This is also why it is nice to take some time away from all of that expression, and read a book, or just sit and stare at a river. I spent a lot of time staring at rivers this year, and it was very restorative.
As a Fulbright colleague recently wrote in her blog, this past year we were “given the gift of calm.” Like her, I am working to reconcile the calm, quiet, and focus of my time as a Fulbright in Finland with a return to the intensity of the US and my regular academic schedule. As the fall semester starts to pick up, I will be keeping Finland in my heart and on my mind for balance.
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