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’!

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!

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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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.

Welcome Home!

After a nerve-wracking yet effective apartment hunting process and 3+ weeks of living out of a suitcase, it was simply brilliant to get to move in to my new home in Columbia Heights in late September. And this week, returning to DC after 11 days of travelling proved that my home really is here now: It was great to be welcomed back by my awesome roommates, and I haven’t slept as well in a long, long time as in my own bed during the first night after the trip.

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The classic landmark of Columbia Heights is the Tivoli Theatre, a beautiful old movie theater from 1924. Since the opening of the DC USA mall in 2008, the latter seems to have stolen the show, though. DC USA hosts massive stores such as TargetBed Bath & Beyond, and Best Buy. Next door, there is also Giant Food, a huge supermarket that is open 24/7. You would typically find all these major retailers only in the outskirts of cities surrounded by huge parking lots, not in a densely populated area next to a metro station. This makes me think of the mall in Ruoholahti: suburban services for urban people without cars! Luckily, the local restaurant scene resembles more that of Kallio, with gems like Sticky Fingers, a vegan bakery.

The history of Columbia Heights is fascinating and eventful. In the early 1800s, the area was still preferred mainly by cows, but in the early 1900s, it was preferred by some of Washington’s wealthiest and most influential people. Four street car lines provided transportation to downtown. From the late 1940s to mid 1960s, African American residents began to buy apartment buildings previously owned by whites, and Columbia Heights became a middle-class African American neighborhood. In 1968, following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., riots ravaged in the neighborhood, and many homes and shops remained vacant for decades.

After the Columbia Heights Metro station was opened in 1999, the area started to gentrify, and during the past years it has been one of the fastest gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States. According to Wikipedia, even despite the recent gentrification Columbia Heights still is Washington’s most ethnically and economically diverse neighborhood. In 2010, 43.5% of the population was African American; 28.1% Hispanic; 22.9% White; 3.2% Asian; with the remaining 2% belonging to other groups.

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My new home is diverse too: All my roommates have US passports, but they have roots at least in Russia, Ethiopia, California, France, England, Cyprus and Sicily – and there are just four of them! (It is actually quite unique here in DC to be a Finn who was born in Finland, grew up in Finland, has Finnish parents, and even Finnish grandparents.) The five of us share a house with three floors and a nice patio. Compared to Finland where living in shared houses and apartments after graduation has traditionally been considered relatively hippie or even left-wing, it is very common over here. For me, it was absolutely the preferred option: so much cheaper, and most importantly so much more fun!

In our house, on the ground floor there is a kitchen, a dining room, and a living room – equipped with a projector instead of a TV, just like in my castle in Helsinki. Bedrooms, including my small, sunny basecamp, are upstairs. I was conveniently able to buy nearly all the furniture I needed from the cool Bulgarian NASA scientist who rented the room before me. The basement is the kingdom of one of the roommates (and his pet snake), but additionally there is the laundry room, and a sauna. Yes, a sauna, can you believe it? I mean who would’ve thought that I end up living in a house that has a sauna in DC?

Best of September

1. H Street NE Festival

Out of all the street festivals that I explored in September (and there were many), the H Street NE festival was my favorite. Super diverse, super laid back. A DC bike map sponsored by WABA, an invitation to join the Black Girls Run movement (they do not discriminate!), and a yummy Burgorilla black bean burger were some of the highlights of the event.

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The most memorable part still was a dance performance by a group of multi-cultural kids. All that energy and joy! Towards the end of the performance, I was astonished to realize that all the kids were actually deaf or hard of hearing. Incredible. Inspired by what I saw, I wanted to learn to understand better how these kids can be so great dancers without hearing the music, and found an excellent article on the topic by Gallaudet University.

2. 7th Street Social

It was my third evening in DC when I was walking back from my yoga class and saw an amazing scene: 50 or so cyclists were riding together, led by a bike that carried a huge stereo system. It looked like loads of fun! The only problem was I had no clue what was going on or who was behind the event.

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Fortunately, soon I figured out that I had spotted the 7th Street Social, which is something between a group ride or a party on wheels organized by a local bike shop, BicycleSPACE. Last Thursday I joined the ride. For two hours we biked around the Capitol Hill area with music playing and lights blinking. We even rode up the ramp of an empty 4-story parking garage somewhere in Navy Yard to take a popsicle break at the rooftop, overlooking the waterfront and the city lit up at night. Unforgettable!

3. Nuit Blanche DC at Wonder Bread Factory

DC tends to have somewhat dull reputation. Based on my first month here, this is an unfair verdict. All you need is to make friends with a few nice key individuals, in my case an interior design student and a graphic designer, and all of a sudden cool-hunting becomes very easy.

As a result, you may find yourself at events like Nuit Blanche DC. This event was a part of Art All Night DC 2013, a free overnight arts festival in the Shaw neighborhood right next to the Howard University. The four floors of the renovated, post-industrial venue, Wonder Bread Factory, were filled with installations, performing and visual arts, short films, and DJs. For a street art fan like me, seeing graffiti artists in (legal) action was like Christmas.

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The Finnish readers could imagine the event being a mix of the Flow Festival and the Night of Arts in Helsinki. And similarly to these events back home, randomly bumping into acquaintances happened all the time. I had not even realized that I already know enough people in DC for that to happen. DC really is a village rather than a city, a cool village.