Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Fulbright Orientation

In the Fall of 2012, my KU piano professor at the time introduced me to an article in the International Piano Quarterly. It explored Sibelius' Kyllikki Suite, Op.41, and its roots in the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic. Glenn Gould wrote the article, and he's one of my favorite pianists. Also, I love Sibelius' violin works and symphonies. This was promising.

I had never heard of the Kyllikki Suite before, but was captivated by its strange, strong beauty from the start. I'm a little embarrassed to say, but I didn't even know Sibelius had written such a substantial amount for piano - over 100 pieces. Many of them have programmatic titles that refer to nature, and some have to do with folklore and folk music, while others bear generic titles such as "impromptu" or "humoresque." Sibelius lived to see Finland gain independence, and contributed significantly to the nation's identity. A recognizable character permeates his body of work, but what makes it Finnish? How exactly did the Kalevala, folk tunes, and the landscape of his country influence him? How can I find out more about this? The Fulbright program offered me an opportunity to research just that closer to the source. And that, in a nutshell, is how and why I'm here in Helsinki.

Today I've been here two weeks already. The application process for such a grant is nothing compared to the logistics involved in moving to a foreign country. However, most kinks and paperwork have been worked out, and I'm feeling pretty much moved in to my new home. My apartment is about 30 minutes from the city center by bus (less by bus + metro), and it's mainly a house for international students. There are various flats with one common room and balcony, and in each flat there are four apartments with two rooms each. The apartments share a kitchen and a bathroom. It's small, but it has everything necessary for living. Internet is provided, so I can chat and Skype with my husband. Plus, there are heated towel racks, free laundry, bi-weekly cleaning, and a sauna. My roommate is also a Fulbright student, as is another girl in the same flat, different apartment. They are a lot of fun, and I really could not have asked for things to be better!

The first week here was a marathon through a flood of information while getting over jet lag. My plan to just not sleep for two days on the way over here did help me go to bed on time, but wasn't so great for waking up early. Regardless, it was a very exciting week made possible through the Fulbright Center Finland, and their amazing staff. 

Most of orientation week (Aug. 27-30) was held here, and the Fulbright Center, in the Hakaniemi area of Helsinki.

It began with an informal dinner, where we all got to know each other.
(Photo: Fulbright Center Finland)

It was great to finally put some faces with names from e-mail, and to get to know the other grantees. I even met my roommate, Nancy, here for the first time.
The dinner was amazing: salmon, meatballs, quiche, bread, and salad.
(Photo: Fulbright Center Finland)

The building was gorgeous and sleek, with this view:

As a welcome breakfast, we were provided with a quintessentially Finnish bakery item: Karelian pasties, or karjalanpiirakoita (the "j" is pronounced like the English "y" in "yellow"). It consists of rye dough cupping a rice (sometimes potato) filling, topped with "egg butter," a kind of hard-boiled/deviled egg garnish.

I had been reading about these and could not wait to try them. They are delicious!
 Thank you, Fulbright Center!
The orientation program was all encompassing: speakers from the Fulbright Commission, the U.S. Embassy, the U.S. Consulate, former Fulbright grantees, the American Resource Center, Nordea Bank, the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture, the University of Turku, tax managers, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs all gave in-depth presentations throughout the week. In addition to these info-packed sessions that will help us adjust and research successfully in Finland, they planned several excursions in Helsinki. We had the chance to see a good deal of interesting places, taste some amazing food, and get to know the staff and our fellow grantees better. Here are a few highlights:
Kaisaniemi Botanical Gardens:  
(Photo: Fulbright Center Finland)

The Botanical Gardens has a little restaurant. We were treated to whitefish, salad, cheese, rye bread, and the best cauliflower puree known to man.

This is Rautatientori (Central Railway Station) in the city center. From here, you can catch almost any train, tram, or bus - even a Finnair City Bus to the airport.

Within the city center: the Ateneum, a museum of art pre-1960

For the Ateneum visit, the museum curator lectured on Finnish art, and then gave us a tour of the museum.
(Photo: Fulbright Center Finland)

We were also taken on a sight-seeing tour on a bus with huge windows.

Helsinki really is a "green and blue" city. You can always find a lake, a harbor with an outdoor market, or a park with a sunny bench.

Here is the Senate Square, with a statue of Alexander II:

It can be seen from various places around the city.

This is where the trams go at night:

Many of the buildings closer to the city center have these ornate details:

Lots of people grow plants and flowers on their balconies.

We went to Temppeliaukio, the famous "Rock Church." No, not rock music, it was build inside a rock and is pretty neat. Located in the Töölö area of Helsinki, it hosts many different concerts throughout the year. Here it is from the outside; it's the building to the left, half covered with ivy.
(Photo: Fulbright Center Finland)

These windows wrap around the inside:

(Photo: Fulbright Center Finland)

The ceiling is made up of a copper chord, 2 kilometers in length, wrapped in a coil.

We liked it.

(Photo: Fulbright Center Finland)

The tour took us by Olympic Stadium, the center of the 1952 Summer games and the stage for Coca Cola's arrival in Finland. It was actually built to host the 1940 games, but those were cancelled due to WWII. The statue on the left is Paavo Nurmi, the famous distance runner nicknamed the "Flying Finn." Apparently, he was reluctant to show up for the unveiling of this statue, but was convinced to go in the end. After the reveal, someone asked him what he thought of it, and he replied "I don't run naked," and left.

One of my favorite places of the tour: the Sibelius Monument! Here are tons of pictures of it:

Obligatory selfie with roommate Nancy:

 Flatmate Sophia, me, and roommate Nancy.
(Photo: Fulbright Center Finland)

 All of the grantees:
(Photo: Fulbright Center Finland)
 There can only be so much propriety (sadly, that pipe was not head size).

On Thursday, we met Ambassador Bruce J. Oreck. Pretty cool guy. 
(Photo: Tuomas Hellman)
It was rather serious, with strict dress code, mandatory invitation and passport, and tight security.

I should mention how easy it is to get around the city without a car. In fact, having a car would probably just be more of a hassle. Buses go everywhere, a network of trams makes city center traveling a breeze, and an underground metro line provides quick transport from one end to another.

Nancy and Sophia:
 Ben Alldritt, VP of ASLA-Fulbright Alumni Association

The Fulbright center set us each up with "buddies," former grantees in our field. Mine wasn't able to attend, but the event was fun nonetheless. I met an ethnologist who is interested in my topic, and offered me a lecture venue at Helsinki University's Research Seminar.

The buddy event was held at the Sibelius Upper Secondary School. It's like an arts magnet school, with lots of talented kids.

They put together a program for us,
(Photo: Fulbright Center Finland)

(Photo: Fulbright Center Finland)
and gave us a tour of their school. Throughout the rooms and hallways, we found kids practicing, hanging out, and playing together for fun. Here was an impromptu performance in a lounge:

Our final day of orientation was held at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Department for Communications and Culture. We learned about how Finland works economically, politically, and what its general mindsets are with regards to communication, expression, and representation.

(Photo: Fulbright Center Finland)
It was wrapped up with a surprise gift from the Fulbright Center: a certificate, and our very own copy of the Kalevala!
(Photo: Fulbright Center Finland)
I totally cried.

So that was my first week here in Helsinki. I'm still getting classes settled at the Sibelius Academy, but next Wednesday everything should be in order, so I can start my studies and research. For now I'll be practicing, reading my new book, exploring the city, and giving you updates as often as I can.


  1. Great Pictures. Finland looks amazing during the end of summer. I cant wait to see your winter pictures. Try to get some northern lights =)

  2. It is beautiful here! When I say that to people who live here, they say "yes, it is right now," and then with deadly seriousness "but the winter, it's miserable." 0.0

  3. Lovely pics and a lot of great news! Can't wait to hear some more stories on friday!!
    It will be so great to see you in switzerland!
    Xx, ursi