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

Cherry Blossom Special

Having been a hanami enthusiast in Finland and elsewhere for years, I could not have been happier to learn that the cherry blossom is a big deal in DC. The tradition dates back to 1912, when Japan gave 3,000 cherry trees as a gift to the United States to celebrate the nations’ friendship. Another 3,800 trees were donated in 1965. These trees were planted around the Tidal Basin, East Potomac Park, and on the grounds of the Washington Monument. Each spring, over a million people come to see them bloom.

There was still snow on the ground when I familiarized myself with the bloom statistics and started to check the bloom forecast almost daily. After weeks of waiting, the peak bloom occurred this year on April 10, only 11 days after the last snowfall! During the past 30 years the peak bloom has occured this late only twice. The record is from 1958, though, when the peak bloom happened only on April 18. The earliest peak bloom was on March 15, 1990.

A Finnish friend of mine was extremely lucky with the timing of her visit to DC: She landed exactly on the day of the peak bloom. We spent most of her stay cycling around the super sunny and warm city and viewing the flowers. Here’s a glimpse of what we saw:

Cherry Blossom

Finally!

Cherry Blossom / Jefferson Memorial

Jefferson Memorial

Cherry Blossom / Washington Monument

Washington Monument

Cherry Blossom / Arlington Cemetery

Arlington Cemetery

Cherry Blossom / National Arboretum

National Arboretum

Magnolia Blossom

So beautiful!

Like the hawk-eyed readers surely noticed, the last photo is actually of magnolias. For some reason the magnolia blossom is not as famous as the cherry blossom, but if you ask me, that is pretty sweet, too.

After five days of summery weather, it was raining heavily and it was (literally) freezing cold on Tuesday. Now the sun is back, but the city is green rather than pink all of a sudden, as most of the petals are on the ground. This is a classic example of how quickly the bloom can be over, and exactly the reason why the “luminous and beautiful yet fleeting and ephemeral” cherry blossom has become a metaphor for life itself. Make the most out of it while it lasts!

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’!