A Little Bit of History & Visiting Clara

Despite being involved with the Red Cross since a kid, I did not know too much of its 150-year-long history before my Fulbright project. Of course I was familiar with the name Henry Dunant, the Swiss businessman known as the founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863, but that was about it. Learning more about the history of the organization and how it intertwines with world politics has been fascinating.

When I started to read more about the Red Cross history, I soon realized that strong women played key roles in the early days of the organization. Even Henry Dunant himself commented that “it is to an English woman that all the honour of that Geneva Convention is due”, referring to Florence Nightingale. Nightingale’s heroic work during the Crimean War (1853-1856) to improve the care of sick and wounded soldiers was great inspiration for Dunant. Later, Nightingale initiated the foundation of the British Red Cross in 1870. In Finland, Countess Aline Armfelt was the driving force behind the foundation of the Finnish Red Cross (originally known as ‘the Association for the Treatment of the Wounded and Sick Soldiers’) in 1877.

The American Red Cross was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton (1821–1912). Based on the biographies, she sounds like quite a character: “a renaissance woman” who seemed to excel in anything she did, despite being very shy and living in a society where women were all but encouraged to work outside home. In her early professional life, Clara Barton first pioneered as a teacher, and then worked in the Patent Office, becoming one of the first women to gain employment in the federal government. During the Civil War, Barton risked her life to bring supplies and support to soldiers in the field, getting the nick name “Angel of the Battlefield”. At the time of founding the American Red Cross, she was already 60 years old and had a notable career behind her, but that did not stop her from leading the organization for 23 years, until the age of 83! Even after that she remained active and founded the National First Aid Society that later became part of the Red Cross.

Clara Barton was originally from Massachusetts. In 1855 she moved to DC for the first time due to her work in the Patent office, and since then she lived and worked on and off in the area. Hence here are several interesting sights commemorating her and her work. One of them is Clara Barton’s Missing Soldier’s Office on the 7th Street NW where Clara Barton lived and worked from 1861 to 1868. The site is currently undergoing restoration and hence closed to public, but the restoration should be finalized in spring, so I hope to be able to visit it still before my Fulbright year is over. 

The last 15 years of her life Clara Barton spent in Glen Echo, Maryland. When I heard that her house can be visited year round, I planned a bike trip there right away. And what a memorable bike trip it was: I had never before biked in 17-18 m/s wind combined with a sub-zero temperature! But it was well worth it, as the guided tour in the house was pretty interesting. For example, I learned that Clara Barton’s favorite drink was milk – so she would have made a good Finn! I also learned that Clara Barton’s home served as an early headquarters of the American Red Cross. (My workplace, the current headquarters was finalized only in 1917.) Interestingly, also the volunteers lived on the site, mainly to save travel time. That made me think if I should propose a similar arrangement either to my boss or to the current president of the American Red Cross…

WP_20131124_024Clara Barton’s home in Glen Echo, Maryland

WP_20131124_018Volunteers’ office in Glen Echo in early 1900s

WP_20131127_002A volunteer’s office in Downtown DC in 2013

WP_20131124_011A volunteer’s bedroom in Glen Echo in early 1900s

WP_20131024_003A volunteer’s bedroom in Columbia Heights in 2013

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My First “Snow Day”

On Tuesday this week, I experienced my first “snow day”. It is a common precaution here that the federal government as well as public schools are closed for safety reasons in case of ‘inclement weather’, mainly due to the risk of icy roads. Many non-governmental organizations follow the lead of the federal government, including the American Red Cross national headquarters, so also our office was closed. These snow days are warmly welcomed not only by school kids but also by adults as they are extra paid days off. Many people have particularly fond memories of the Snowmageddon a few years ago when DC got a thick snow cover and the government stayed closed for days.

US Office of Personnel Management (OPM) is the authority to decide whether the weather is ‘inclement’ or not. In addition to their website, they give updates on their Facebook page. On Monday night, OPM posted: “We are working closely with transportation authorities, the National Weather Service, and the Washington Council of Governments to monitor the weather, road conditions, and closures. Based on all feedback, we will be able to make the best decision for the operating status in the early morning hours. We are committed to announcing any changes to the operating status for the DC area by 4 a.m.” This triggered 100 amusing comments from the general public, some panicking, some sarcastic, all eagerly waiting for the verdict. When OPM confirmed on Tuesday morning that the federal offices in the Washington, DC area will be closed, they quickly got 514 likes!

Before moving to DC, I had never heard the word ‘inclement’. It took me a while to calibrate what it means. Since realizing that the criteria is a few inches or so of snow and/or temperature dropping close to the freezing point, I’ve been entertaining my housemates and other friends with stories of Finnish winters. For example, when I went to school, kids had to spend all the breaks between classes outside, rain or shine. The only exception was if the temperature dropped under -15 Celsius/5 Fahrenheit! In Finland and other Nordic countries it is also totally normal that babies nap in sub-zero temperatures.

To keep up the reputation of crazy Finns, I delighted my housemates by going for a morning run in the “snow storm”. Here are a few shots from my adventure to give you an idea what was going on:

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Only ducks kept me company in Rock Creek Park.

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In Woodley Park I spotted a brave family sledding – or at least trying to as there was not really enough snow on the grass.

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The basket ball court in Adams Morgan was deserted.

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But there was some action at the playground. I actually should have run to ask them if they were Finns, too!

Best of November

1. New York

This was my sixth visit to New York, but the first time when I got there by bus. I guess it will still take me a while to get used to the fact that NYC is only 4 hours and less than $30 away! I started my mini-break by catching LIRR to Long Island to visit an old friend in “natural habitat”, Great River. It was so much fun to see where she grew up, and meet her parents, and her adorable 5-year-old daughter of course. Long Island highlights included walking on the windy Robert Moses beach, a clam fiesta at the Cull House, and enjoying a picture perfect fall day in the pretty Old Westbury Gardens.

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After Long Island, Manhattan felt like a whole new world: All of a sudden the tranquil suburban scenery was replaced by high-rises and herds of yellow cabs. Although I am the biggest fan of silent, remote places, like Lapland, there is something captivating in the buzz, diversity, and ‘live and let live’ mentality of NYC. I wonder if I will ever get enough of it, as so far the city has surprised me positively time after time.

The original inspiration for this New York trip was the NYC marathon. Spectating the race in Bronx was good fun, and so was catching up with a group of Finnish runners. My former coach even brought me a Finnish triathlon magazine – and Fazer chocolates! Beyond those chocolates, NYC gourmet experiences included a Turkish feast at Ali Baba close to the Grand Central, Japanese comfort food at Supercore in Williamsburg, arepas and salpicón at Empanada Mama in Hell’s Kitchen, and the most amazing Japanese dinner at Iroha, a hidden gem in a basement unexpectedly only steps away from Times Square.

In addition to all the nice reunions with friends during the weekend, this was also my first business trip to NYC: Visiting the IFRC Delegation to the United Nations gave me a whole new perspective to the international activities and policy work of the Red Cross.  At the American Red Cross Greater New York office I got invaluable input to my daily work at the National Headquarters by interviewing front-line fundraisers.

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Check out additional New York photos on Flickr.

2. Museums, Yoga, and Ice Skating

DC is famous for museums. As the weather started to get a little colder and grayer in November, I finally made it to a couple of them. The Arthur M. Sackler gallery got the honor to be my first “Smithsonian” with their Yoga: The Art of Transformation exhibition. The exhibition about the history of yoga was pretty interesting with some fine pieces of art, but the smash hit was joining an Iyengar yoga practice at the museum. I had wanted to try out this form of yoga that emphasizes alignment of body parts in the performance of postures for a long time, and this was definitely a memorable way to do it. You can read more about the exhibition and the yoga workshops on the Washington Post and the Washingtonian.

The day continued by a sumptuous vegan brunch at Todd Gray’s Muse, the café of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. The food was truly lovely: Red curry cous cous risotto with coconut milk, kabocha squash, and crispy tofu. Truffled macaroni and “cheese” with wild mushrooms, garlic, and parsley. Granola-crusted whole wheat French toast with quince & golden raisin compote. And all kinds of sweets and treats, even baklava.

After all that eating, ice skating is not the first thing one would have in mind, but believe it or not, that is what I found myself doing just a moment later – inside the Corcoran! It turned out that there is currently a synthetic, black rink in the museum’s rotunda as a part of sculptor Mia Feuer’s solo exhibition about the global oil industry. When gliding happily around the rink, I was thinking how the freezing hours on skates during school years were finally paying off. You can read more also about this exhibition both on the Washington Post and the Washingtonian.

131117 Corcoran

3. Finns and Finnish Americans

I often get the feeling that Finns living in the US and Americans of Finnish descent are in many ways more Finnish than Finns back home. Empirical evidence from a sauna event organized by Finlandia Foundation National Capital Chapter, FFNCC at the Embassy of Finland seems to support my theory: For example, would anyone eat carrot casserole in Finland in November? (And yes, there is indeed a sauna at the Embassy of Finland. Actually there is a sauna at each and every Finnish embassy! You can learn more about our best diplomatic weapon in articles by Vice and BBC.)

I just loved listening to sauna discussions about Finnishness. At some point I realized I was the only Finn from Finland in the sauna. When the others realized that, too, I became the ultimate authority and specialist in anything and everything related to Finland in their eyes. I was asked to affirm that Finnish soldiers won battles in the second world war because they went to sauna, and that the Finnish word for a helicopter is two lines long. One of the ladies also spoke about her grandparents’ memories of “living by a river opposite to Russia”. The first two statements were easy to comment, but the third one puzzled me. I could not think of where the border between Finland and Russia would follow a river. Only much later I realized that the lady probably referred to Rajajoki which is not part of the current border but indeed served as a natural border between Russia and Finland in 1812–1940…

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On the following day, I met more Finns, Finnish Americans, and Finnophiles at the Finnish Christmas Bazaar organized by Finn Spark, Inc. (Kipinä-Kerho) in Bethesda. There many ladies even wore Finnish national costumes. Another sign that Finns outside Finland are super Finnish! I was very impressed when I learnt that the bazaar attracts more than 1,500 people and has been organized for over five decades. The most popular sales articles were Finnish rye bread by Nordic Breads and Karelian pasties. Naturally I was hoarding those, too, like any real Finn – but I paid for them with a check, now isn’t that American? After the “breadline”, it was time to take a break in the bazaar café and enjoy a salmon sandwich, and ‘joulutorttu‘, a pin-wheel shaped Christmas prune tart, with ‘glögi‘, the Finnish version of mulled wine. Before heading home, I still found one more treasure: a bottle of Nordic style dark syrup, a key ingredient for Finnish gingerbread.

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Turkey Trot and Friendsgiving Feast

Thanksgiving is one of the most important American holidays, “a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest and of the preceding year”. The history of Thanksgiving in the United States dates back to 1621 when the pilgrims who came over from England and landed on Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts celebrated their first successful harvest with the native Americans. Although that feast was technically the first Thanksgiving, it became an annual celebration only much later. In 1941, Thanksgiving was made a federal holiday and fixed to the fourth Thursday of November. Thanksgiving is often said to be an even more important family celebration than Christmas, and the eagerness to get families together really shows at the airports and roads: Wednesday before Thanksgiving and Sunday after it are the busiest travel days of the entire year.

Many people have asked me if this was my first Thanksgiving. Actually this was already my third one in the US. Additionally I had an opportunity to join a terrific Thanksgiving meal cooked by a friend from New York in Helsinki a few years ago. My first Thanksgiving took place in San Francisco already in 2002 when I was on my way home after an exchange semester in New Zealand. I had never been to the US before, and only while reading Lonely Planet on a flight from Fidzi did I realize that due to crossing the dateline I would actually arrive in the US on the Thanksgiving Day. So, as it happens, I got my first turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce meal with my Thanksgiving rookie friends from New Zealand and Australia only a few hours after immigration. How legendary! A sadder memory of that evening was seeing numerous homeless people sleeping on the otherwise totally deserted streets while we walked back to the hotel.

In 2007, I visited an expat friend of mine in Los Angeles. We drove down to San Diego for Thanksgiving. McCormick & Schmicks was one of the few places that was open. I remember most vividly their amazing pumpkin and pecan pies, as well as the crazy Black Friday shopping adventure that followed the dinner. An outlet mall in San Ysidro by the Mexican border opened at midnight. When we arrived, the parking lot was so full that we could not find legal parking. What we thought was a creative solution turned out not to have pleased the officials, as when we returned to the car at 5am with our catch, the car had been towed away! Several additional creative ideas were needed before we were happily reunited with the car, including hanging out at a 24h Walmart for a few hours to stay warm. Somehow we sorted it all out, even despite the fact that my friend had forgotten her driving license and all of the car’s documents at the hotel, meaning that we only had the car keys to prove that the car belonged to us. This is how memories are made, I guess, and this is how I learnt what a fire lane is…

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This time I started the Thanksgiving Day by waking up ridiculously early to participate in a turkey trot in the sunny but chilly November morning. Turkey trots are fun runs/walks that are held on or around Thanksgiving Day to raise funds for local charities and to burn off calories in the anticipation of indulgent Thanksgiving feasts. When I heard about this tradition, it was a no-brainer to sign-up. In DC, the turkey trot is organized by SOME (So Others Might Eat), an interfaith, community-based organization that provides the poor and homeless of the city with food, clothing, and health care. In addition to being my first turkey trot, SOME’s 12th Annual Thanksgiving Day Trot for Hunger 5K also got to be my first race on this continent. It felt great to run, even more so for a good cause, and chasing fellow participants dressed as turkeys was unforgettable.

Being curious to see and learn how the fundraising practicalities were organized was a big part of my motivation to take part in the event. I wanted to collect new ideas for similar events in Finland. This year there were ~10,000 participants, and a total of nearly $0.5 million was raised. The registration fee was $30-$35 per person. Most of the additional funds must have been raised through personalized Turkey Trot websites that were set up for each participant/team as a part of the registration process.  SOME also listed a few additional fundraising tips, and encouraged participants to share tips with each other on social media. Naturally sponsors were in a crucial role in the event, too. The list of sponsors was impressive, indeed.

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After recovering from the morning run and completing a surprisingly hassle-free cooking operation, it was time to head to my “second home” for a Thanksgiving dinner – or Friendsgiving, as it was called in this case. Although Thanksgiving is primarily a family celebration, there are always Thanksgiving orphans who are too far away from family to join them or choose to stay in DC for other reasons. My friends welcomed me to join a special dinner where a group of orphans gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving together. We even had “foster parents” as a friend’s parents were visiting from Ohio and joined the dinner.

Saying grace before starting the dinner was exactly like in a movie, and then it was time to dig into the food. The super tasty turkey was the star of the meal, of course. Additionally, there was (at least) mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, sweet potato casserole, barbecue chicken, pork chops, stuffed mushrooms, deviled eggs, dinner rolls, cabbage, brussels sprouts, broccoli, and apple quinoa pudding, my new signature dish. For dessert, we had a classic pumpkin pie, an apple crumble pie, a blackberry pie, a frozen sweetheart cake, and ultimate killer brownies. What a feast! Everything was so delicious that I am sure the calorie intake must have exceeded the number of calories burned during the 5K run big time, maybe 10 times?

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The non-food related highlights of the Friendsgiving evening included hearing funny childhood stories shared by the “foster parents”, learning about the goals and activities of Peacecorps, and playing Catch Phrase. Catch Phrase is a word guessing game that resembles Taboo, as well as Alias that used to be hugely popular in Finland. Catch Phrase is even more intense than Alias, though, due to the constantly beeping electronic timer that the player who is giving the clues has to hold until the team mates guess the right answer. Only then can the player pass the timer on to the opponents. Teams take turns until the time is out, and the team that is not in the possession of the timer when that happens gets a point. Such a simple concept, so much laughter, and a great way for me to learn new English phrases!