Enriching Experiences with Fellow Fulbrighters

One of the perks of being a Fulbrighter is getting to participate in the Fulbright Enrichment Program. DC is one of the six cities in the US where a dedicated Fulbright Enrichment Coordinator is in charge of organizing all kinds activities to enable us visiting scholars “to better experience America and to further the Fulbright Program’s goal of increasing mutual understanding between the people of the U.S. and people of other countries”.

The 2013-14 Fulbright Enrichment Year was kicked off in early October with a reception at the offices of the Institute for International Education (IIE). After numerous emails exchanged to complete the immigration paperwork, it was great to meet Fulbright program administrators from the Council for International Exchange of Scholars (CIES) in person. In addition to them, we were warmly welcomed by the representatives of the United States Department of State. The diversity of the Fulbright community and the wide spectrum of Fulbright programs became very tangible when mingling with fellow Fulbrighters. For example, I met several Humphrey fellows who are here for a very cool program consisting of non-degree academic study and related professional experiences. A special highlight of the evening was learning that there is an awesome bike trail from DC to Pittsburgh.

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In the end of October, it was time for the next activity: a Symbolic Tour of Washington, D.C., a bus and walking tour around the city. Buildings, monuments and other sights looked great in the beautiful fall weather: Embassy RowGeorgetown Waterfront, the White House, Union Station, U.S. Capitol, Jefferson Memorial, and finally Lincoln Memorial. Out of the endless anecdotes that our guide shared with us, for me the most memorable ones were related to the statue of Abraham Lincoln. I learned that his hands symbolize his two opposite traits: power and strength (the closed fist), and peace and compassion (the relaxed hand). The guide also pointed out that a face is carved in the back of Lincoln’s head, potentially Robert E. Lee‘s – although the authorities do their best to bust this myth.

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A few weeks later, it was time for the third adventure: a visit to the Amish communities of Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The Amish are a group of traditionalist Christian churches. Their history dates back to the 17th century Switzerland. In the early 18th century, many Amish immigrated to the US. Today, the total number of Amish is 250,000-300,000. The biggest communities live in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana. The Amish are known for simple living, plain dress, and no or limited adoption of modern conveniences and technology.

Before the trip, I felt a bit uneasy: Of course I was excited and curious to learn more about the Amish, but at the same time I was afraid that visiting them with a tour bus would feel impolite and intrusive, almost like going to a “human zoo“. During the day, I managed to convince myself that Amish people might actually appreciate a genuine desire to understand their faith, beliefs, and motivations. Our guide, a lovely retired teacher who has lived her life as a neighbor to Amish families, did a great job helping us build this understanding.

The most interesting stop of the day was at an Amish Farmhouse that now serves as a museum, surrounded by a real farm (as a consequence of which the bus smelled like goat poop for the rest of the day…). There we got to step into a one-room schoolhouse. It was fascinating to hear about the Amish approach to education: Most Amish children go to Amish schools until the age of 13-14 when they typically discontinue formal education. Thereafter children focus on working in the house, the farm, and family businesses, and learn the additional skills needed in life on the job. For Finns who are big believers in education, as well as for many Fulbrighters making a career in academia, the idea of uselessness of higher education and abstract thinking can be quite distant and thought-provoking.

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Amish are often said to be reluctant to adopt modern technology. To be more exact, the main difference between Amish people and most other Americans might actually be the deliberation that takes place before deciding whether to embrace a new technology, or to which extent to embrace it. For example, most Amish are ok with using electricity, but instead of getting it from the grid, they use diesel generators and solar panels, as they want to maintain a separation from the rest of the world. That’s why Amish houses can be recognized by the absence of electric lines. (Another easy way to spot Amish houses are their unique clotheslines that are up in the air and operated with a pulley.)

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Amish are also not allowed to drive cars – and also bicycles are prohibited – but they are allowed ride in cars if other people drive. Most commonly they continue to use horse-driven buggies, though, and those were a common sight on the roads of Lancaster. Amish way of life is very family-centric, and the reasoning behind all these rules and traditions is to “keep the family together”. In other words, it should not be made easy to end up far away from the family, or let anything distract family life. To read more about the Amish and their relationship with modern technology in particular, have a look at this blog post. And like always, Wikipedia is a great resource, both in English and in Finnish.

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The last stop before heading back home was at one of the many Amish farmhouses that have a gift shop for tourists. When I realized they sold jam made without sugar AND without artificial sweeteners, I filled my bag with jars of strawberry-rhubarb jam, blueberry jam, and apple sauce. The biggest hit was a hot, soft pretzel, though, possibly the tastiest pretzel of my life so far – and believe me, I’ve had many, especially in Germany. My first pretzel experience in the US must have been at Auntie Anne’s in New York in 2005, so it took eight years to learn that in this country pretzels are an Amish delicacy. Without becoming a Fulbrighter I would have probably never found out that also the founder of Auntie Anne’s has an Amish background!

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Devastation beyond Comprehension, and How You Can Help

It was literally calm before the storm when I visited the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) in New York City last week. Before my visit, it had been rather unclear to me what exactly is the role of IFRC in relation to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). I learned that – very simply put – IFRC focuses on helping victims of natural disasters, whereas ICRC assists people affected by armed conflicts. National Red Cross and Red Crescent societies work to mitigate human suffering in their own geographies, and support each other, IFRC and ICRC.

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On November 8, only four days after my visit to the IFRC, Typhoon Haiyan, locally known as Yolanda, hit the Philippines. High winds, torrential rain and storm surge caused devastation beyond comprehension. The scale of the catastrophe is daunting: Almost 12 million people are affected, 2.5 million are estimated to be in need of food assistance, and nearly 1 million people are displaced. 4000-5000 people have lost their lives according to the latest reports. The typhoon has been described even as “perhaps the strongest storm ever to make landfall in recorded history”.

The power of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement gives hope even when facing a natural disaster of this magnitude. The global Red Cross network is responding to the emergency needs in the Philippines with food, water, and relief supplies. 1,000 staff members and an estimated 500,000 active volunteers of the Philippine Red Cross are engaged in disaster response. National Red Cross societies, including the Finnish Red Cross and the American Red Cross, provide financial assistance, and are additionally lending people, expertise and equipment.

So how can we all help? Online donations to support the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan can be made easily at the dedicated donation sites of the Finnish Red Cross and the American Red Cross. In both countries you can also donate by SMS: In Finland, text the word SPR to 16499 (15 EUR). In the US, text the word TYPHOON to 90999 (10 USD). For more ways to help, have a look at this excellent article by CNN.

Fall in DC

Best of October

1. Hawaii

My father ran his first marathon in Honolulu in 1990. I have been dreaming of Hawaii ever since. Last January a New Zealand based friend of mine and I were joking that if I get the Fulbright scholarship, we should meet on Hawaii, as it is conveniently half way between Auckland and DC. Like (delightfully) often seems to happen in my life, also this joke became reality in early October.

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The state of Hawaii actually consists of hundreds of islands, out of which we had a chance to explore two on this trip. First, we spent a few days on Oahu in Honolulu, the capital of Hawaii. Having been a big fan of the Hotel board game as a child, staying in a hotel by the Waikiki beach felt quite surreal. Highlights of our stay included hiking the Diamond Head crater trail, visiting the battleship USS Missouri at the Pearl Harbor, and meeting up with a researcher at the University of Hawaii.

After catching a flight to the actual island of Hawaii, often referred to as the Big Island, things got even more exciting and intense. Only a few hours after landing we were snorkeling with sea turtles and fish that looked like they escaped from an aquarium or a Disney movie. The same evening we drove to Mauna Kea and visited an observatory where star-gazing – or rather galaxy-gazing – got a new meaning. The furthest galaxy that we saw with the help of canon-sized telescopes and conversant volunteer grandpas was 7.5 million light years away!

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Finally, the main reason for the timing of our trip was the legendary Ironman World Championship in Kona. About 2000 athletes get to compete in this brutal race annually, and complete a 2.4-mile (3.9 km) swim, a 112-mile (180 km) bicycle ride and a marathon (26.2 miles / 42.195 km) in the heat of Hawaii. The professional athletes get going at 6:30 am and are done in some 8-9 hours, whereas the amateurs – also known as the ‘age groupers’ – start at 7am and need to be done by midnight, so in 17 hours.

The nature of the race makes it a long day even for the spectators: We woke up at 4:40am and headed to the shores of the Kailua Bay to maximize the opportunities to witness the madness and cheer our “countrymen” from Finland, Estonia, and New Zealand. The most incredible experience was to see the last athletes cross the finish line at midnight, several amputees among them. Quoting Ironman World Champion 2013 Mirinda Carfrae, “the best IM memories sometimes come very late at night“, like this amazing story proves. If Ironspectating does not maximize your training motivation, nothing does.

Check out additional Hawaii photos on Flickr.

2. Art, Bikes and the City: A DC Mural Ride

AIGA, the professional association for design, organized a fun mural bike ride with the theme “Art, Bikes and the City” as a part of the DC Design Week. Thanks to my wonderful friend, I got to join the designer crowd for the tour. It was fascinating to realize how rich the DC mural scene is. Some of the works I had spotted on my own while cycling around the city. Others I would have never found without our knowledgeable guides. The guides excelled at pointing out interesting details, too. For example, if you look at this mural carefully, you will notice there is a mural in the mural. The first meta mural I’ve ever seen!

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Especially some of my DC readers might be happy to learn that the map of the murals we visited and more information is available online. DC Murals and Mural Locator are excellent resources with lots of photos, and this blog post describes in more detail the efforts of building a bridge to legal street art.

The tour ended to the pretty Georgetown waterfront where we had yummy treasures by the Malmaison for lunch. As an extra turn after the picnic, we still biked to Rosslyn, Virginia, and checked out the Silver Clouds by Andy Warhol at the Artisphere, just in time before the exhibition ended. Designers really know how to spend sunny Sundays!

3. Halloween

Celebrating my first Halloween in the US started when I joined a friend, two adorable 3-year-olds (a pirate and a train conducter), and a 4-month-old (wearing a fake moustache) to a Halloween party for kids at their school in the middle of the Rock Creek Cemetery. On the following night, there was a Halloween party for adults organized at my “second home”, a cool group house where I almost ended up living. Participants were dressed up as meticulously in both parties, and I promise to avoid the rookie mistake of not taking the ‘costumes-preferred’ guidance seriously next time… 

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On the actual Halloween, my colleague treated us with delicious pumpkin bread, and our home street was filled with cute trick-or-treaters. As a final Halloween highlight, I joined a Zombie Ride around the city. One of the zombies turned out to be a Canadian actor on a 2000 km bike tour to draw attention to the environmental impact of fracking. I promised this energetic trumpetist to advertise his cause on my blog, so please have a look at the Save Our Water with Art project.

PS. If you like to see more photographic evidence of my life in DC, here’s a hot tip: I post extra photos of fun stuff on Flickr every now and then also between blog posts.