Best of July

1. Fourth of July Fireworks

Musselman, Toronto, Nigara Falls, and the Disney World definitely belong to the Best of July, but many cool things happened also back home in DC, like the Fourth of July fireworks. This was the third time I was in the U.S. on the 4th of July. In 2007, I went to see the Macy’s fireworks with 40,000 others. As the weather was extremely cloudy and rainy, unfortunately there was not that much to see in the end. In 2012, I happened to land in NYC exactly on the Independence Day. This time the weather beautiful. Routinely, we headed to the East River for the spectacle, only to find out that the fireworks had been moved to the Hudson River, in other words to the west side of Manhattan…

4th of July Fireworks

The third time definitely was the charm. My Independence Day did not start too well as I had a terrible cold. After spending the day in bed, in the evening I still decided to leave the house, hop on my bike and head downtown to meet up with friends. I’m so glad I did! I had been invited to a friend’s friend’s rooftop to watch the fireworks. The vantage point was fabulous: an unobstructed view of the Washington Monument, the Old Post Office Tower, the sunset, and magnificent fireworks. The view of the U.S. Capitol was not too shabby either. It made me think of my first 7th Street Social bike ride in September, and all the great things that had followed.

US Capitol

2. Paddling on the Anacostia River

I love to brag how Helsinki is such a unique capital city as there is so much nature just a stone-throw away from the city center. I was astonished to discover that DC has a bit of the same flavor. The Rock Creek Park has a feel of a real forest, and paddling on the Anacostia river makes one forget the surrounding huge metropolitan area instantly. My first paddling experience on the river was in May in a wonderful free event organized by Casey Trees. During our couple of hours of paddling we even spotted a turtle and a beaver! In July I had the opportunity to get on the river again, that time to celebrate the anniversary of the Anacostia Watershed Society. So peaceful, so relaxing, highly recommended. Both Casey Trees and the Anacostia Watershed Society are worthy organizations doing invaluable work to preserve urban nature. They offer a vast array of exciting and fun ways to get involved. Have a look!

Paddling on Anacostia

3. American-Russian-Ethiopian Celebration of Love

Two of my roommates got married in June. Due to my conference in Florida, I was unfortunately not able to travel to Italy to attend the actual wedding. Luckily, the groom’s mother organized a wonderful Welcome Home party for the newlyweds in July. The event started with the blessing of the marriage at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of St. John the Baptist not far from our house. I had become very familiar with the cathedral during my triathlon training, as I ran by it on most of my morning runs. Actually my favorite hill for hill repeats was right by it. I had never had a chance to peak inside, though. Seeing the incredibly beautiful interior was like stepping into another world.

The blessing of the marriage was followed by a reception at the River Farm of the American Horticultural Society. The venue was amazing: an old estate house surrounded by beautiful gardens overlooking the Potomac River. Funny enough, I knew also this location from before as it happens to be right by the Mt. Vernon Trail. We spent a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon and evening enjoying delicious American, Russian, and Ethiopian food and saw some unforgettable Russian dancing bridging any generation gaps. Realizing how many of the other guests I had had the opportunity to learn to know during the year made me feel like a part of the family. (Ironing the groom’s suit five minutes before leaving for the church had of course given plenty of that feeling as well.)

Ceiling at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist

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Best of June

1. Virginia Road Trip

After The Head and the Heart saved my day in March after one of the most challenging half marathons of my life, I was determined to see them live soon again. When I spotted them in the line-up of the (free!) Norfolk Harborfest in Virginia, I decided to use their concert as a perfect excuse to plan a weekend road trip to Virginia – or use the road trip as an excuse to get to the gig. This time I managed to recruit a “partner in crime” over lunch at the World Bank.

As I was well aware of the notorious reputation of I-95, we started our drive early on Friday afternoon. The drive time without traffic should take around 3 hours, so I assumed that the early start at 1:30PM should help us to get to Norfolk in 4-4.5 hours. That’s not exactly what happened. There were at least four accidents on the highway making the traffic jams exceptionally bad even for a Friday. Eventually we made it to our hotel in about 6.5 hours, parked the car, rushed to check-in, tossed our bags into the room, hopped on a cab, and made it to the festival grounds at 8:35PM. The band had just started so we did not miss more than half a song. What an amazing race! And what a lovely concert! The music and the dark warm summer night by the water were a perfect combination.

The Head and the Heart

On Saturday morning, our first “sight” was Walmart. My friend had never been to one, so I wanted her to experience this essential part of America. Slightly disappointingly, we did not come across any very strange people this time, but at least we were able to stock up the car with snacks. The drive up from Norfolk to Virginia’s Eastern Shore and eventually to the Chincoteague Island was super scenic.  The 50 year-old Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel was definitely one of the highlights of the day. This 20-mile / 32km long “engineering wonder of the modern world” took us over and under open waters exactly where the Chesapeake Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean.

Chincoteague Ponies

The Chincoteague Island is most famous for Chincoteague ponies, also known as Assateague horses. The latter makes much more sense as these wild horses actually live on the neighboring Assateague Island. The ponies have lived on the island some 400 years, and no one knows for sure how they ended up there. The main theories are that either they were brought by early settlers or that they are shipwreck survivors. Before heading to Chincoteague, multiple people did their best to manage my expectations and warned me that we might not see a glimpse of the ponies as they often hide in more remote parts of the island. Hence, we can consider ourselves lucky as we spotted a herd of these small, shaggy creatures right after getting on the island.

In addition to the bridge and ponies, Saturday highlights revolved around food and taking it easy. For lunch, we had delicious fish tacos at Bill’s Seafood Restaurant. Then we spent a couple of hours on the beach on the Assateague Island. On the way back from Assateague we stopped for ice cream at the legendary Island Creamery. In the evening we had a Vietnamese takeout on our patio. Our hotel Waterside Inn was perfectly located for admiring one of the famous Chincoteague sunsets, and excellent for star-gazing, too. The combination of sea, stars and silence reminded me of Coromandel peninsula in New Zealand, one of my all-time favorite places. I think I can add Chincoteague to the same list.

Chincoteague Sunset

Trying not to neglect my triathlon training on the road trip entirely, I started the Sunday morning with a 10-mile run around the two islands. It was pretty hot already before 8AM. Not long ago I would have whined about this, but now I just perceived it as an excellent opportunity to practise running in heat and test how my body reacts to salt tablets. The other highlights of Sunday included returning to the beach on the Assateague Island once more and swimming in the Atlantic, climbing to the Assateague light house, and having a “gourmet carry-out” lunch (gazpacho and a huge sandwich) at the Sea Star Cafe.

Atlantic Ocean!

Driving back from Chincoteague to DC through Maryland was fortunately not as slow as getting to Norfolk. This time we crossed the Chesapeake Bay over another gigantic bridge close to Annapolis where we stopped for an ice cream break at Storm Bros and to pick up another World Bank friend who needed a ride back to DC.

Check out additional Virginia road trip photos on Flickr.

2. Midsummer

Celebrating midsummer (juhannus in Finnish) is more or less as important for Finns as Thanksgiving is for Americans. In a country far north with long dark winters, the summer solstice is an important milestone, as after it days are getting shorter again. Maybe that is why Finns take this celebration of summer and light very seriously. I know I am all but objective, but I can’t help finding it more logical to refer to the occasion as midsummer rather than the first day of summer, like it is called in the US.

The most typical way to celebrate midsummer in Finland is to gather with friends or relatives to someone’s summer cottage (mökki) and spend up to four days by a lake. The main activities are eating, drinking, and having sauna, and maybe lighting a big bonfire (kokko). Most of my midsummers have followed this exact formula, but this was not the first midsummer that I would spent abroad. Ten years ago when I lived in Brussels, we had a very authentic and successful midsummer simulation. Those fond memories inspired me to do my best to create midsummer spirit in DC.

As sauna is a cornerstone of Finnish midsummer traditions, living in a house that has one put me to an excellent position to host a midsummer party. The trickier part was how to get a vihta (also known as vasta), a bunch of birch branches used to gently whip yourself or each other in the sauna to relax muscles, stimulate the skin, and enhance blood circulation. (I must admit this may sound pretty weird or even violent, but it is simply great.) First I considered asking someone to send me a frozen vihta from Helsinki or heading to a nearby park in the dark to collect a few branches. A friend of mine even offered to check out the local offering on her business trip to Moscow, but as we did not want to take any chances, we continued scheming. Then we found out that it is possible to order one on Amazon! Who would’ve thought? I placed an order immediately. When the mailman brought a big parcel a few days before midsummer, a big smile spread across my face.

Juhannusvihta

In Finland, the first potatoes of the new season are typically available just before midsummer, so it would be hard to find a midsummer party where people would not be happily munching boiled new potatoes. DC is so much further south that here the potato season is obviously starts much earlier and is much longer. I decided try my luck at a couple of nearby farmers’ markets anyway to see if they had anything comparable available. No potato luck at the Adams Morgan Farmers’ Market, but I did find excellent rye bread (Russian style, not Finnish, but still). My next destination was the Mt. Pleasant farmers’ market. When I saw boxes full of nice small round fresh dug potatoes, it was time for another big smile. Even after bargaining, these were probably the most expensive potatoes of my life, but definitely worth every penny. As a bonus, I found fresh rhubarb as well.

Midsummer Delicacies

Having secured the birch branches and new potatoes, I knew the evening would be a success. And it was! I loved having our house and patio full of friends. I was of course super late with my slightly too ambitious cooking plans, including making rhubarb soup and Finnish pancake, but that did not matter at all as the kitchen was immediately full of helping hands. The atmosphere could not have been more authentic, so casual and relaxed. It felt like people had known each other for a long time, although many of them met only in the party (or in the sauna). In the end, nearly 30 people joined the fun, mainly Finnish and American and a few brave representatives of other countries. All the Finns loved the sauna, and so did most foreigners, even the beating with the birch branches.

3. Bike Virginia

Participating to Peasantman was not only consequence of bumping into a friend a mine at the pool in spring. There was a raffle at the Peasantman race packet pickup happy hour, and I happened to win a one-day participation to an event that I would have otherwise probably never heard of, Bike Virginia. It is a six-day-long bike tour in a different part of Virginia each year. Participants can choose between multiple route options varying between 14-100 miles in distance. The routes are fully supported with drinks, food, and special treats. This year the event took place near Williamsburg, and there were some 1,500 participants. Again I was lucky to find a friend who was interested in the event, this time a fellow triathlete. We signed up for one of the days pretty randomly.

We had signed up for the event before my knee issues started on our Memorial Day bike tour. I had done only one longer ride after the tour. On that ride I started to feel some pain after about 30 miles / 50km, so I had been resting the knee since then. I had no idea how biking 68 miles / 110km would feel, and how smart biking would be. Following the advice of two of my midsummer guests (a Finnish nurse and a Finnish physician), the day before Bike Virginia I got my knee KT taped at Rose Physical Therapy by Claire who was so kind that she promised to help me out with a short notice between her other customers.

With a nice pink strip of tape on my right knee, I hopped on a train with my bike and camping gear that Monday night and made my way to Alexandria. We had agreed that I would stay over at my friend’s place to make our super early start more doable. On the train I could tell right away that an old man sitting close to me showed a special interest towards my bike. A few stations later he dared to open the discussion. It turned out that this grandpa was from Colombia, an avid cyclist himself, and from the same village as one of the future Tour de France talents (Giro d’Italia winner Nairo Quintana, I assume). For some reason he totally loved my Focus Culebro. He even complimented the design of the seat. What a great start for the Bike Virginia adventure! The best crab cakes of my life cooked by friend’s boyfriend made the evening still more glorious.

Bike Virginia

On Tuesday morning we had to get on the notorious I-95 again, this time already 5AM. We managed to get out of DC before the morning rush hour and made it to the Bike Virginia based camp, the Chickahominy camp site in a few hours. The weather was beautiful when we got on our bikes around 9AM. I felt almost cheating being on a road bike with clip-in pedals as my friend did the whole ride with her hybrid and running shoes. The benefit of this asymmetry was that for me the pace would be very relaxed, meaning less work for my sore knee. This was also the first time that I had a cadence meter, so I could practise maintaining a super high cadence.

Crossing the James River via ferry was a fun way to start and end the day. The ferry was very similar to the ones I had taken on a bike tour in Turku archipelago in Finland, so I felt immediately like home. Whereas in Turku archipelago we were biking in the middle of wheat and canola fields, here we were surrounded by endless corn fields. After my friend told me about a horror film where aliens are hiding in the corn fields, I spent the rest of the day trying to spot one.

There were three rest stops along the route serving everything from PB&J sandwiches and animal crackers to baked potatoes and ice cream floats. Being able to indulge in all kinds of treats during the ride is a big plus for biking compared to running! Despite the high number of participants, the crowd was so spread out that we mainly saw other bikers at the rest stops and on the ferry. Whenever we chatted with anyone, my accent triggered the usual questions, and I happily shared my Fulbright elevator speech over and over again.

Glamping

My knee behaved well the first 60 miles, but after that it got pretty painful again. The comforting fact was that the Half Ironman bike ride is only 56 miles, so that would have been fine. Once we were done with the pedaling for the day, even with the last painful miles, we got our second ice cream serving of the day.

After having a blissful shower, it was time to set up our tent. I’m pretty sure that two of us had the biggest and fanciest tent of the entire campsite, so this was not only my first time of car camping, but also my first time glamping! I slept super well in the fancy tent. Spending the whole day on the bike and having a brief but fabulous massage after dinner probably contributed to that as well. On the following day, my friend made sure that my visit to the Virginia countryside would be as complete and educational as possible by taking me to the Colonial Williamsburg first and then to Cracker Barrel for lunch.

Check out additional Bike Virginia photos on Flickr.

Best of May

1. Peasantman

Triathlon training has been an integral part of this spring. My 5-month-long Half Ironman training program with the DC Triathlon Club started in mid-February. The goal race is in mid-July. When I bumped into a friend at the pool in April, it was an easy job for her to get me excited about Peasantman. A friendly event at a nearby beautiful location during the first weekend of May was a perfect milestone half way towards the big day. And the laid-back reputation of the race reminded me of my first official triathlon at Kisko.

Without thinking too much about what I was getting myself into, I signed up for the Olympic distance race: 1.5k swim, 35k bike, and 10k run. I had raced this distance only once before in Kuopio in the end of last summer. At the time, it still felt like a nearly petrifying challenge (although it turned out to be fun). Now it felt just natural. I guess that’s what happens when one accumulates enough American confidence on top of Finnish perseverance.

My Lucky Water Bottle

We drove to Lake Anna already the day before the race to take the most out of the race weekend. It was my first visit to the Virginia countryside, and I loved every bit of it. It was quiet, it was green, and the weather was gorgeous on both days. On Saturday we had a chance to attend a bike clinic and an open water swim clinic. This was the third time basic bike maintenance and fixing a flat were demonstrated to me during my Fulbright year, and each time I’ve learned a few new tricks. The open water swim clinic by Denis from WaveOne was excellent. I loved his philosophy of turning tricky weather conditions to one’s advantage. After his motivational speech it was time for the first open water swim of the season. Magically I managed to convince myself that the waves were just being playful, not threatening!

Transition Setup

Saturday was rounded up by a relaxing pre-race dinner with friends getting ready for the first triathlon ever. Then early to bed, an early wake-up on Sunday, and soon the race was on! The lake was calm, and I finished the 1.5k swim in 34:28 – my new record. The bike ride was even more fun. Ever since I had a bike fit done by a local guru called Smiley, I am no longer afraid of road biking. With an ear-to-ear grin on my face, I was done in 1:28:58. The course was a little shorter than the official Olympic distance: 35k instead of 40k. Next I need to learn to drink and eat while biking instead of stopping for a picnic at each U turn…

The 10k run was by far the toughest part for me, mainly because it was so HOT. Well, for a Finn anyway… The temperature at Lake Anna rose to 28’C / 82’F in the shade, and there was almost no shade. If I had my way, I would always race in below 20’C / 70’F. I had to walk part of the second lap to keep my heart rate under control. After encountering a loose horse on the running course, I started to run again.  (Edit on Jun 20: A reader suggested that I would clarify that there literally was a loose horse running around that had ran away from the nearby stables. Others saw it, too, I was not hallucinating.) Finally I completed the “run” in 1:09:22. My total time of 3:19:44 was only a few minutes slower than my time in Kuopio, so I’m super happy. Such a great start for the season!

140504 Before & After Peasantman

2. Florida

Making my debut in the American triathlon scene was not the only objective of my Fulbright year that I achieved in May. Thanks to Finnair miles that were about to expire, I also finally made it to Florida. I had been dreaming of a roadtrip along U.S.1 to Key West for years. Ever since I saw An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary on Al Gore’s campaign to fight global warming, I’ve also been painfully aware that the future of Florida Keys is all but rosy due to the rising sea level.

The Southernmost Point of the Continental USA

It is amazing how much we saw and experienced during a 72-hour long mini-break. Already during the scenic drive from Miami to Key West we drove by a turtle hospital, saw tiny, cute key deer, and had a slice of key lime pie, a local delicacy. In Key West, we stayed in a lovely B&B worth recommending right by the southernmost point of the continental USA. (I actually visited the southernmost point of the entire country on Hawaii in October.) This part of the town is very nice and quiet, so very different from the loud and crazy epicenter of tourist traps in the other end of Duval Street. Another great find only a few blocks outside the tourist habitat was Azur, an excellent restaurant run by a guy who used to cook at the Italian Embassy in DC.

Hemingway's Six-Toed Cat

We visited the Hemingway Home (obviously) where the descendants of Hemingway’s six-toed cats stole the show and were definitely the most memorable part of the tour. We also went snorkeling (obviously). It was lovely to swim in the turquoise water and spot a few colorful fish here and there, but to be honest, the coral reef was quite a sad scene. More than 2 million tourists visit the reef each year, so no wonder it is suffering. After seeing the reef, it was also pretty obvious why the snorkeling tour operator advertised so heavily that an unlimited supply of beer, wine, margaritas or even rum was included in the price: to help people forget the damage they saw and contributed to… After snorkeling, we still checked out the somewhat surreal Butterfly & Nature Conservatory.

Bahia Honda State Park

On the drive back to Miami, we had a couple of awesome pitstops: At Bahia Honda State Park our main activity was supposed to be sunbathing. I naturally got impatient in the heat after about 10-15 minutes and improvised a small open water swim practise instead. The stop at the Everglades National Park was a success as well. When approaching the park, the first thing that took me completely by surprise was a puma warning sign. I had no clue that there are felines in Everglades! Quick wikichecking revealed that there is indeed a small Florida panther population (<100) that lives in south Florida. We did not spot any of those rarities, though, but we did spot all kinds of birds and numerous alligators. It was unbelievable to see alligators lurking in the water just a few meters away from the Anhinga trail.

An Alligator at Everglades

The last highlight of the trip was a yummy dinner at Michael’s in Miami Design District.

Check out additional Florida photos on Flickr.

3. Sailing on the Chesapeake Bay

Fulbright enrichment activities have made it to this blog several times. There is one more fantastic outing that simply cannot be omitted: A sailing trip on the Chesapeake Bay. The trip was organized in cooperation with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) on their skipjack called the Stanley Norman. The boat was built in Salisbury, Maryland in 1902. It was named after the original owner’s two sons, Stanley and Norman. We got on the vessel in Annapolis, a cute historical town that used to be the capital of the US for a short while in 1780s. In many ways, Annapolis reminded me of my home town Porvoo, the second oldest city in Finland founded in 1346.

Skipjack at the Dock

The friendly CBF crew did a great job in educating us on the past and the presence of the Chesapeake Bay. Oyster dredging used to be huge on the Bay. Skipjacks, like the one we were on, are single-masted vessels designed to harvest oysters under sail. In the late 1880s, there were close to 1,000 of them. Now there are less than 20 left. During our trip, we had a small dredging demonstration to understand how it happens. In no time at all we had a pile of oysters on the deck. After having been introduced to the living conditions and biology of oysters, eating them will never be the same again. The main destination of our trip was a local seafood restaurant where we had a huge lunch, not oysters though (as they are not in season) but delicious crabcakes.

Oyster Demo

Like I had suspected, the CBF crew took care of the actual sailing. For the rest of us this was a very relaxing day on the sea with lots of time to discuss and learn to know each other better. As always, the group was super international with participants from Armenia, Australia, Czech Republic, China, Finland, India, Japan, Pakistan, Russia, and the US. One thing that I noticed right away was how much everyone’s English skills had improved during the year. This helped to add depth into conversations, and that’s what I love. We were able to cover topics ranging from social finance and rehabilitation of child soldiers to environmental concerns and Muslim-Christian understanding. The sweetest thing was to see a 3-year-old Chinese girl chat with an Australian scholar in beautiful English.

At the end of the trip it was time for the first farewells of my Fulbright year as this was the last Fulbright enrichment activity for me. Big thanks for the Fulbright organization and our awesome Fulbright Enrichment Coordinator for making all these wonderful events happen!

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

PS. Some of you have already heard stories of another amazing adventure that I was a part of in late May. You may wonder why it is missing from this list. The simple explanation is that it deserves its own blog post and will be covered soon. Stay tuned!

Best of April

1. TEDxFulbright

I bet most of you are familiar with TED talks and have seen videos of e.g. Steve Jobs, Hans Rosling, or Susan Cain presenting their ‘ideas worth spreading’. So had I, but I had never had the opportunity attend a TED seminar in person before this April. TEDxFulbright, an independently organized Ted event, took place here in DC at the beginning of the month.

The day of the event happened to be one of the first sunny Saturdays of the spring, so it felt like a huge investment to spend the day indoors. Luckily, it was worth it. I had no idea how much one can learn just by listening to inspiring speakers in just one day. The speakers shared their stories of how they had dared to start to tackle social, societal, and environmental problems around the world. The tsunami of topics covered everything from carbon capture, open data, and drones to empowering street kids by teaching them ballet. All the speakers and performers were Fulbright alumni. It was incredible to see the amount of talent and geographic reach that the community has.

The finals of the Fulbright Social Innovation Challenge were also a part of the event. One of the finalists pitched over Skype from Lahore, Pakistan. I thought that was quite cool, but it was maybe even more memorable to see a grandpa pitching. My favorite finalist, a facilitated hitch-hiking service Lawrence OnBoard, did not get too many votes from the audience, but I definitely plan to stay tuned to how their story continues. After eight intense hours, the event ended with a champagne and cookie reception and further cross-cultural mingling. Just another day in the life of a Fulbrighter?

Grandpa pitching at TEDxFulbright

2. Getting Outdoorsy

I could not have been happier in April when even Americans started to consider the weather to be nice enough for all kinds of outdoor activities. One of the highlights of the month was volunteering with REI to clean up Kingman Island and prepare it for Kingman Island Bluegrass Festival. I was pleasantly surprised to see that there really was a lot to do for 100+ volunteers, even some serious pruning. Mom would have been proud, had she seen me using my raking and weeding skills developed as a child. And it was a proud moment for a Finn to see Fiskars garden tools in action. Once again, I also learned something new: Fiskars produces machetes! Finally, I should mention that all the volunteers – obviously – got a free T-shirt.

Volunteering with REI

Another great outdoorsy experience was the first hike of my Fulbright year. A friend of mine is a member of the Wanderbirds Hiking Club that organizes weekly hikes. Early on a Sunday morning, we hopped on a bus full of sweet old ladies and gentlemen. The bus dropped us of somewhere in Maryland, and we started our beautiful day hike along the Catoctin Trail to Gambrill State Park.

The Wanderbirds concept is brilliant: The leader of the hike leads the group and leaves red arrows to otherwise potentially tricky turns and crossings. Hikers can either hike with the leader, or at their own pace, like we did. Another experienced club member is a designated sweep whose task is to be the last one to make sure that no one is left behind and to collect the red arrows. This makes hiking safe and accessible for a wide audience, regardless of previous hiking experience.

Hiking with Wanderbirds

When it comes to food, Finns living abroad typically miss most rye bread, our national obsession. I’m not an exception. The only equivalent in the US market is rye bread made by Nordic Breads in Long Island City, NY. Their products unfortunately can’t be bought in grocery stores outside NYC. Thanks to my recent Finnish visitor, I happened to have my favorite snack available for the hike: Reissumies. If you ask me, nothing beats the taste of fresh rye bread enjoyed in a scenic spot and with great company.
Hiking with Wanderbirds

We spent about a little below four hours on the 10 mile / 16km trail. I loved every moment in the quiet and peaceful forest! After the hike, the group gathered by the bus and hung out for a while sipping recovery beers, eating chips, and chatting. I made lots of new friends with my secret weapon, Finnish chocolate by Fazer, hand-carried to me by another awesome Finnish friend. This icebreaker even triggered one of the hiker ladies to share that she had been on a business trip in Finland in the 70s when she worked for CIA in Paris.
Hiking with Wanderbirds

3. Major League Baseball

Americans love not only free T-shirst, but also their sports. Before coming here, I was pretty familiar with NHL, NBA, and NFL. My knowledge of Major League Baseball, MLB, was very close to zero, although our national sport is actually also called baseball, pesäpallo. That’s why I was delighted to be able to go to my very first MLB game as a part of the Fulbright Enrichment Program.

The biggest benefit of going to the game with the Fulbright group was that before the game started, we got a brief but incredibly comprehensive introduction to the sport. Our baseball guru could not have been more knowledgeable: Michael Gibbons has been the Executive Director of the Babe Ruth Birthplace & Museum in Baltimore, MD since 1983, so baseball really is his life. (Babe Ruth was a legendary American baseball outfielder and pitcher who played 22 seasons in Major League Baseball from 1914 to 1935.)

Mike summarized for us everything from the history of the game to rules, roles, and tactics. The way he illustrated his key points on a whiteboard made me think of an ice hockey coach. One of my key take-aways was that the role of the pitcher is far more important in American baseball than in the Finnish version. Our pitcher does not even have a pitchers mound! The shape of the field and locations of the bases are also somewhat different. Otherwise there are lots of similarities in the logic of American and Finnish baseball. That made learning the main rules relatively easy for me. For many, even the idea that the defending team always has the ball may be completely foreign.

After the thorough briefing, it was time to head to the Nationals Park. It was fun to see all the theory in practise right away. Washington Nationals seemed to completely dominate the game since the beginning. They ended up winning San Diego Padres 4-0. I leave summarizing the game in more details for someone more professional. Mercifully for us first timers, the game was exceptionally short, only 2 hours and 19 minutes. The average lenght of a Major League Baseball game is around 3 hours, but they can last up to 7 hours.

Major League Baseball at the Nationals Park

Best of March

1. Colorado

Sometimes it is pretty handy to have a sister who lives on the West Coast. For example, when you need to come up with an excuse to travel to the Rockies. That’s how I made it back to Colorado after almost seven years – to literally meet her halfway. My previous visit was a quick pitstop in Vail (with an epic dump) on my way from Phoenix to Helsinki in 2007. This time we stayed in Breckenridge for an entire relaxing week. The daily routine consisted of snowboarding, dining, studying snow forecasts, and sleeping. Early to bed, early to rise. Good times, crowned with having sauna three times.

The most typical lodging option in Vail and Breckenridge are ridiculously priced millionaire lifestyle hotels. Luckily, my sister had insider information of a real gem: The Fireside Inn, the coziest B&B one can imagine. This cute light blue wooden house was a perfect basecamp for us with pleasant English owners who seemed to understand our Finnish humor, a hottub, and – wait for it – free cake après-ski daily at 4pm! Highly recommended. Another hot tip is that lift tickets are somewhat more affordable (yet still expensive) when bought in advance online.

Volunteer at the Volunteer

Before this trip, I had never gone cross country skiing in the US or above 3km / 9,000 feet. When I realized that this is possible in Breckenridge, I became obsessed enough to sell the idea to my sister. So one fine afternoon we headed to the Breckenridge Nordic Center to rent skis and hit the trails. Seeing the Finnish flag outside the reception building inspired me to try to negotiate a special rate for Finns (as for a Finn it is unheard to pay for the access to cross country trails). A discount did not work out, but revealing our roots nearly turned us into celebrities.

The most legendary part of our ski tour was encountering a moose on our way back. We had seen a moose activity warning at the reception, but at that point it had felt more like a joke. However, when all of a sudden a gigantic moose was blocking our way, it was not quite as funny any longer. The moose are apparently so used to people in Breckenridge that they do not run away when someone approaches them – like any sane moose would do back home. This one was happily chewing branches and showing no signs of plans to disappear back to the forest. Hence, we were left with no other options than to turn back and take an alternative trail,  albeit partially so steep and icy that we had to take the skis off. This still seemed like a more appealing option than trying to get around the moose through the thick bushes. A little bit of extra adventure for the famous Finnish sisters.

Moose Activity

Another unforgettable episode was one of the numerous brief conversations we had on the chair lifts. The usual small talk topics were the snow conditions (of course) and what brought the two of us to the US. However, when an old man heard we are from Finland, he taught us an interesting piece of trivia: The American ski industry exists thanks to Finnish ski troopers! As the story goes, the U.S. Army established their winter warfare trained troops inspired by the victories of the Finnish soldiers on the skis over Russia in 1939. These troops fought in Italy later on in WWII. After the war, many of the veterans became ski instructors or contributed in other ways to the development of skiing as a vacation industry. To me this all sounded truly unbelievable, but Wikipedia confirms that the old man knew what he was talking about. On our last day we also spotted a statue in Vail commemorating the American ski troopers.

The Ski Trooper

Check out additional Colorado photos on Flickr.

2. Rock ‘n’ Roll USA Half Marathon

It had been quite a while since I last woke up at 5am to have breakfast and get ready for a race. That’s what I did on March 15 to participate in the Rock ‘n’ Roll USA Half Marathon. The walk to the Columbia Heights metro was quite surreal that early on a Saturday morning. It was still dark, and it was very silent on the streets. Most people out on the streets were there for the very same reason. The metro was full of runners, all heading towards the start line on the Constitution Avenue. Just before the race started at 7:30am, the sun came up and the national anthem quieted the crowd of 25,000 runners. I think I will remember that touching moment for a long time. A nice brisk morning, anticipation of the race, and so many silent Americans.

The Mall at Dusk

Despite the “high altitude training camp” in Colorodo, the race itself was physically quite tough for me. This might have something to do with less than 100km of running this year before the race (combined with the lack of sleep during the night before). Thank God I had signed up only for a half marathon and not for a full one! I barely managed to complete my 21.1km/13.1 miles in below 2.5 hours, so this was a good reminder that although perseverance and experience take you far, proper training takes you there faster…

Luckily, the best part awaited after the finish line. It was not the first aid guy who came to ask if I was ok when I was feeling sick right after crossing the finish line… Nor was it the free chocolate milk, or the free pretzels, or the free beer… It was a stunning post race finish line surprise concert by my latest favorite band The Head and the Heart! Somehow I had managed to entirely miss the fact that a finish line concert is an integral part of the Rock ‘n’ Roll running event concept. Had I completed the half marathon in 2 hours (like I was dreaming when signing up last fall), I probably would have been showering at home by the time the concert started.

The Head and the Heart

3. TRI-Mania

In this country, anything can be turned into a big deal. A great example is the TRI-Mania Summit and Expo, a massive event focusing on triathlon and nothing but triathlon: gear sales, clinics, races, lectures, even a panel discussion on the future of triathlon. All this sounded somewhat overwhelming to me, but as so often, curiosity bet introversion.

The event took place at the Georgetown Preparatory School in Strathmore, Maryland. I had not bothered to find out in too much detail where I was heading. Instead, I had just checked the location roughly on a map, hopped on a train with my bike, and thought I would figure out the rest while biking from the train station. Finding my way turned out not to be a problem, but I can tell I was quite astonished when I found myself on the grounds of an all-boys Jesuit boarding school founded in 1789!

TRI-Mania Welcome!

I made it to the expo just in time to sneak in the seminar audience for the keynote, a Q&A with 2 X Ironman World Champion Mirinda “Rinny” Carfrae and Ironman Champion Tim O’Donnell, who also happen to be married to each other and are hence known as the “triathlon’s fastest couple”. The athletes answered questions related to their careers, training, futures plans, even childhood. Nothing extraordinary, but it was fun to listen as both seem to have a great sense of humor.

After the keynote, I wandered around the expo for a moment, ate some free candy, and managed to stay strong and not buy anything. I was already on my way out when I saw people standing in line. I got curious and then found out that they were waiting for autographs from the Ironman Champions. I am pretty sure I haven’t asked for an autograph from anyone since the late 90s when I was a teenager and a huge fan of Finnish snowboarders. Then again, I was not in a hurry, so I joined the crowd.

Already while waiting in the line, I met a triathlon celebrity: Tom Knoll who was one of the 12 finishers of the very first Ironman in 1978. He was on the expo promoting his book Where It All Began. He had brought his original Ironman trophy with him: literally an iron man.

One of the Original Ironmen

Finally it was my turn to meet Carfrae and O’Donnell. In the end, asking for an autograph and chatting with them was not that intimidating… But I did surprise even myself by saying things like “this is like meeting Obama, but better”. Well, at least I made them laugh. And now I have a lucky water bottle signed by the triathlon’s fastest couple. Like I wrote after returning from Hawaii, if Ironspectating does not maximize your training motivation, nothing does. This event was a perfect extra boost. 100 days to go to Musselman Half Triathlon!

O'Donnell & Carfrae

Best of February

1. Fun for Free

Although living in DC is notoriously expensive, experiencing fun things for free is actually very easy. For example, the entry to all the Smithsonian museums is free. Still I had only visited one Smithsonian in November before I made it to the National Portrait Gallery. A guided tour (free, naturally) led by a volunteer was a great way to get an overview of the vast collection and learn a few funny anecdotes of U.S. presidents. The most memorable part of the visit were the life masks of Abraham Lincoln from 1860 and 1865. I certainly hope that my five years with Nokia did not take as great a toll on my health as the Civil War took on Lincoln’s.

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There is a free performance at the Millenium Stage of the Kennedy Center every night at 6pm. My first millenium-staging was the Capital One Comedy Night. The stars of the evening were Sara Armour and Kurt Braunohler. Watching stand-up comedy in a foreign language is quite an acid test for language skills and cultural knowledge, but I had a great time. I was pleased to realize that I seemed to understand most of the jokes – probably equally many as in the case of Finnish stand-up comedy…

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Other fun free things in February included free cupcakes and cookies at the AIA gift store, an “ahh-some” free yoga class, a free visit to a luxury gym, swimming for free, and danah boyd‘s book launch event.

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2. Oysters, Tarts, and Buns

My birthday was in October, but I got to relive it in February when my sister was visiting DC. As a birthday present, my parents had authorized her to take me to a nice dinner. Accompanied with one of my foodie friends, we indeed had an excellent dinner at the table in Shaw. The 4-course tasting menu consisted of oysters dressed creatively (e.g. with grapefruit), beet carpaccio, trout, and a passion fruit dessert. So good! After the dinner we headed to a neighboring bar, A&D, to celebrate my sister’s name day. That was actually in December, and my present to her was to take her out for a drink in DC.

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I was not the only one whose birthday was celebrated in DC in February. February 5th was the 210th birthday of J.L. Runeberg, the national poet of Finland. Why would we celebrate that? Some might say because Runeberg wrote the lyrics of our national anthem. Most Finns would admit, though, that the real reason why Finns still celebrate his birthday every year are Runeberg’s tarts. The poet had a sweet tooth. Once when the family was out of anything sweet, Runeberg’s wife Fredrika had to invent a pastry, the prototype of a tart that according to the legend the poet enjoyed for breakfast every day since then. I made a batch of Runeberg’s tarts for our Super Bowl Party, and as they were a big hit, another batch for the Red Cross colleagues.

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In the end of the month, there was still time for another traditional Finnish baking project: Shrove buns. These buns are a premium version of the most typical Finnish pastry. They are filled with whipped cream and either almond paste or strawberry jam. The debate of which one is the correct filling is most likely never-ending. I opted for strawberry jam this time, for very pragmatic reasons: that was easier to find in the grocery store. A funny detail is that most of the buns had been eaten by the time I realized that Shrove Tuesday was actually only at the beginning of March this year, so I was accidentally a week early.

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3. DC Independent Film Festival

One of the things that I missed from Helsinki during the beginning of the year was the brilliant documentary film festival DocPoint. Hence I was more than happy when I heard of the DC Independent Film Festival. The festival started with a feature-length documentary film Partners for Peace. The documentary follows a group of American and Canadian women on a trip to Israel and Palestine on a mission to learn about the decades-long conflict and to support local female peace activists. Among the audience were several members of the delegation, including writer and activist Jaclyn Friedman and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams. They shared their thoughts, experiences, and frustration after the screening. I’m pretty sure this was the first time that I went to see a movie with a Nobel Laureate!

Jerusalem

The second movie that I saw during the festival was 3 Mile Limit directed by Craig Newland from New Zealand. New Zealand Embassy sponsored the event by catering the audience with kiwi delicacies, such as savory pies and Moa beer. The film is based on an unbelievable true story of a young guy who is a huge fan of rock music and starts a pirate radio station to break the New Zealand Government’s monopoly on broadcasting in 1960s. After the film, the audience had an opportunity to ask questions from the director over a Skype connection. 3 Mile Limit was chosen as the best international film of the festival.

Auckland

Best of January

1. American Cuisine

‘American Cuisine’ is my favorite Fulbright enrichment activity so far. This event raised of lot of interest already before it took place. Everyone who heard of it – American friends included – seemed puzzled: What is American cuisine? What would we cook? Pizza? French fries? Hamburgers? Would we go to McDonald’s together? Or to KFC? The answer was revealed at the beautiful home of our Fulbright enrichment coordinator in Bethesda on a rainy Saturday. When we arrived to her house, three expert home chefs had been working on the preparations for our cooking session for hours in the most amazing and well equipped kitchen that I have seen in a long time.

The menu consisted of popcorn soup, cedar plank salmon with maple glaze, Kansas City ribs, spicy Southwestern vegetable skillet, summer corn salad with champagne vinaigrette, and finally carrot cake for dessert. For me, the most unexpected item on the menu was “popcorn soup, a fanciful version of a traditional corn soup“. In addition yellow corn, popped popcorn was really used as a key ingredient, not only for garnish. Who would’ve thought? The soup was so delicious that I’m looking forward to making it for my American house mates. None of them had ever heard about it!

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Coming from Finland where smoked salmon is nearly a staple, another highlight was getting introduced to cedar plank salmon. Back home, alder chips or juniper twigs are most commonly used for smoking though, not cedar, and I had never heard of plank cooking. It turned out to be a pretty simple yet brilliant Native American technique to prepare fish on a piece of wood that gives the food a subtle smoky flavor. A key learning was that planks made out of untreated cedar specifically for cooking purposes are widely available in American grocery stores. Another great tip was to use greens of scallions under the fish to have some air circulating between the fish and the plank. Finally, I also learned that a giant golf umbrella is a handy tool for barbecuing in heavy rain…

Like advertised, the event was “a relaxing day of preparing, cooking, eating, and talking about good American cuisine“. Thanks to all the preparations made by the chefs, for the rest of us the session was indeed very relaxing – an eating class rather than a cooking class! Learning about the history, evolution and cultural context of American food was fascinating. And not only did I learn about American food, but also cuisines of Brazil, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan from our small but super international group.

2. Liberty Mountain

After taking a bus, the metro, another bus, two planes, a train, a bus, three more trains and finally a cab with my huge snowboard bag on my way back from Finland, I was determined to use the equipment as soon as possible. The opportunity arose already during the first weekend after my return as I managed to sell the idea of a day trip to Liberty Mountain to two friends from the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

We spent the sunny Sunday morning navigating towards Gettysburg. As a result of missing a turn somewhere in Pennsylvania, we first ended up to a small town called Waynesboro instead. The timing for getting lost could not have been better, though: Frank’s Pizza, clearly a favorite among locals, opened for lunch exactly when we randomly parked in front of it. Some 15 minutes later the restaurant was packed, but we were already happily working on our lunch special consisting of two giant “New York style” pizzas (that were enough for dinner, too).

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Eventually we also found the Liberty Mountain. It was a mountain in the same sense as “mountains” in Finland, but a fun setting for opening the season anyway. A little bigger than Messilä but a little smaller than Himos. A handful of chairlifts and a dozen of slopes with amusing names, such as Dipsy Doodle and Heavenly, kept us busy for a good couple of hours of relaxed riding. And a hot chocolate break on the sunny patio was naturally a vital part of the wholesome experience.

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3. Caps-Sharks (or rather: Sweden-Finland)

When a colleague of mine asked me if I would like to spontaneously join her and a bunch of other colleagues for ice hockey, my first question was “to play or to watch“. The answer – someone might say obviously – was to watch. I had been to an NHL game only once before in Montreal in 2004. I figured watching one every 10 years is probably a good idea, so I joined the crowd heading to the Verizon Center.

The teams playing were the local pride of DC, Washington Capitals, and an enemy from the West, San Jose Sharks. As there was little time for pre-game prepping, I just quickly checked the single most important fact: Are there Finnish players in any of the two teams? Caps: No Finns in Caps unfortunately, but there are two Swedes. Sharks: Bingo! The goalie is Antti Niemi from Vantaa. As there are no Swedish players in Sharks, in my mind the game quickly turned into a Finland vs. Sweden battle.

Despite Caps having more shots on goal than Sharks, Niemi played an amazing game and gave me lots of reason to be proud of my country. He was even selected as the best player of the game. We really got value for our money as the game went to overtime and eventually to shootouts. The last one from Caps who got to attempt to score was the Swede Nicklas Bäckström. As he missed, Finland won. The slogan of Sharks is “Fear the Fin”. For a moment, I thought it was “Fear the Finn”. At least judging based on this game that would be pretty fitting too.

You can find a more professional write up of the Caps-Sharks game here. You might also like a recent article by New York Times about how Finland, a country of 5.4 million people, has produced more NHL goalies than any other European country.

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PS. Finns were giving hard time to Caps also the night following the Sharks game: Pittsburg Penguins bet Caps 4-3 with Finns Olli Määttä and Jussi Jokinen responsible for the Penguins’ final three goals. Earlier in January, Finland won the Ice Hockey World Junior Championships in Sweden. What made that win even sweeter was that the final was against the hosts. Let’s see what happens in Sochi… Hopefully some exciting and eventful games between Finland and Sweden – and Finland and USA!

Best of December

1. Progressive Dinner

Month after month, my new home keeps on surprising me positively. At the beginning of December I learned that our 2-block strip of the Monroe Street has an active street association and received an invitation to a progressive dinner. I had never heard of the concept before. The idea is that a number of residents open up their houses for neighbors to enjoy one course of the dinner at each home. The other dinner participants contribute by providing food, so that the hosts do not need to worry about that.

The schedule looked like this: appetizers at 5:30pm, soup at 6:30pm, salad at 7:15pm, dinner at 8pm, dessert at 9pm, and nightcap at 9:45pm. Busy with other Saturday activities, I missed the first two courses, but joined the fun starting from salads that were served at our place. I was amazed when exactly at 7:15pm the doorbell rang and the house filled with people, young and old, kids, adults, grandparents, students… Food contributors brought amazing salads featuring everything from pomegranate seeds to jícama.

After 45 minutes, the “boss of the block”, an energetic 9-year-old rang a bell to signal that it was time to move on. We followed the crowd across the street and got to enjoy numerous mains and sides, endless desserts and finally a night cap (or a few) in three more homes. What a great way to learn to know your neighbors and strengthen the community feeling!

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2. Gingerbread House Workshop

I have been a big fan of gingerbread houses since a kid. In our family it was always my mom who made the gingerbread dough and prepared the parts for the house, and we kids focused purely on decorating. My mom was also in charge of assembling the house with melted sugar, as that step was considered way too dangerous for kids. At the age of 26, I decided I was finally old enough to maneuver the whole process, and since then I have built a house every other year or so. Inspired by my new home town, this year I selected the Washington Monument as my gingerbread house project, and I must admit I am very happy with the result.

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Getting company to my multi-day gingerbread house workshop made the project more fun than ever: My designer friend had never done anything similar before, but she was eager to give it a try and turned out to be a natural gingerbread house talent! Without using any patterns, she created a lovely farm scene with a barn, a silo and a whole array of animals from piglets to roosters. The other workshop participant was one of my house mates who loves building just about anything. Leveraging his experience from making surfboards out of fibreglass, he was great at dealing especially with 3D shapes. The credit of the hill under the Washington Monument goes to him.

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3. Ugly Holiday Sweater Parties

In the past couple of years, ugly holiday sweater parties have become an “ironic” megatrend in the US. Also I got invited to two. Although the last weeks before Christmas were quite busy, I did not want to repeat my rookie mistake from Halloween of showing up without appropriate attire. My plan A was to head to Goodwill to look for a suitable sweater, but it turned out there is no Goodwill in DC; the nearest ones are in Virginia and Maryland. Instead of looking for another thrift store, I chose an alternative approach as my plan B: I decided to ‘uglify’ my old black snowboarding sweater myself!

In my opinion, the Christmas tree with a bunch of bow ties that I made out of metallic ribbon intended for wrapping gifts came out pretty ugly indeed. To my surprise, many Americans considered it cute rather than ugly. Someone even described my creation as a typical example of elegant Nordic design! Next time I need to come up with something way more extravagant, I guess. Well, no matter ugly or cute, I had a great time at both parties – surrounded by an impressive selection of funny, tacky, and hideous sweaters. One of my favorites was the genuine retro sweater from the 80s that the girl on the left is wearing in the picture below. Her mom had apparently not been too flattered for getting her dear holiday sweater rebranded as ugly, though…

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Bubbling Under

At the least the following additional highlights deserve to be mentioned: Opening the holiday season with The Nutcracker by Washington Ballet at the Warner Theatre, baking Finnish Christmas buns and pin-wheel shaped prune tarts for the Fulbright Holiday Party at the Slovenian embassy, baking even more and hosting a Pre-Holiday Brunch & Hangout for friends, checking out the National Christmas Tree by the White House, the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree and the ZooLights, experiencing my first white elephant gift exchange, and eventually getting introduced to the 30-year-old ultimate holiday movie classic A Christmas Story (highly recommended!) and promoting Rare Exports and the Finnish film industry in return.

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With this, I wanted to wish you and your loved ones Happy Holidays and lots of Sweet Surprises in 2014 already a few weeks ago. Most holidays are over by now, but as today is the orthodox Christmas, I use the opportunity to finally wish you all ‘Hyvää Joulua ja Onnellista Uutta Vuotta 2014’!

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.

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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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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… 

Halloween 2013

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.