Laurie Eldridge from Phoenix, Arizon was sweapt away to Finland as part of the Fulbright U.S. Scholar program. Here she covers the key elements of her cultural and professional experience so far.
I am from Phoenix, Arizona where snow is an incredibly rare experience. However, I find the snow blanketing Helsinki to be beautiful. I have been here now for almost two months as a recipient of a Distinguished Fulbright Teacher grant. On dark days, the snow looks almost gray. On sunny days, the snow dazzles as it reflects the light. On snowy days, the wind blows the snow in my face, something I am having a hard time getting used to.
By observing the Finns, I am learning to embrace the snow and cold. Along with Amanda Siepiola, another Distinguished Fulbright Teacher who is based in Helsinki, I have observed an ice sculpture contest in Helsinki, swam in icy waters near Vantaa, ridden in a sled pulled by huskies in Oulu, and slept in a hotel constructed of snow in Kemi. I have learned from my Finnish friends that having fun in the snow is the key to keeping the cold at bay.
The Finnish Fulbright Commission provided an orientation meeting for the Fulbrighters who arrived in Finland at the first of the year. Basic information such as what to do if your passport is lost and information about paying taxes was covered. In addition to conveying such important information, we Fulbrighters were given a taste of Finland. Karelian pastries and salmon casserole were some of the items on the menu for the day. The Finnish Fulbright Alumni Association provided us with copies of the Finnish classic “The Kalevala”, a tote bag full of Finnish surprises, and ginger cookies and glugi. All in all, a wonderful introduction to Finland!
In addition to the orientation, the Fulbright Commission organized a trip to a smoke sauna and ice swimming for us at the Kuusijarvi Outdoor Center near Vantaa. Upon first entering the smoke sauna, I couldn’t see, then my eyes adjusted to the dimness and my mind took in the quiet. Cautiously I climbed up onto the bench and breathed in the steam and delicious woody smell of the smoke. Someone threw a ladle of water on the embers, and the steam sizzled up into the darkness. I felt as though I was in a womb-like environment.
At sitting for a while in the warmth and shadowiness, I gathered up my courage to walk down to the lake. I still felt warm from the sauna as I walked through the snow. Then I lowered myself into the icy water. So cold! But after I got out of the lake, my body felt warm again—all pins and needles! I walked quickly back up to the sauna for another chance to steam and sweat. I repeated this two more times, until a delicious glow surrounded me and then it was time to return to the bustle of Helsinki.
My capstone project for my Fulbright experience revolves around learning about the Sami people of Finland, and then writing an intercultural curriculum unit for my students so they can learn in turn about Finland and also about her indigenous people.
I was tipped off by Karen Lee, another Distinguished Fulbright Teacher who is based in Jyvaskyla, that February 6 was national Sami day, and there was a festival in Helsinki. The day was snowy, but a smattering of people turned out for the small festival. There was music, a fashion show, food and crafts for sale.
As an art educator, I was fascinated with the crafts that were offered. Beautiful silver brooches, implements made from reindeer antler and beaded bags made from reindeer hide were only a few of the items that were on display. I purchased a few examples to share with my classes back in Arizona.
I look forward to learning more in the months to come, and sharing what I learn with my students when I return home. Many thanks to the Fulbright Commission for making this intercultural exchange possible.