A Finnish Easter with Bonfires, Mämmi, Mignon Eggs, and More!

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IMG_0060I was told before and after moving to Finland that the overall population of Helsinki was not as religious as the population of Indiana.  So I wasn’t sure what I should expect of a Finnish Easter.  I knew that from the beginning of March there were beautiful Easter displays in shop windows.  Fazer, the major chocolate company of Finland and a major national obsession,  had the most beautiful Easter display in their windows.   It was full of chocolate (obviously) and colorful eggs and chickens and rabbits and bows and color and flowers.  It filled me with hope of spring!   Even when it was cold and snowy, I would look at the window of a flower shop and just pretend like it was a nice 50 degree day with sunshine and cheer!

Here at the Fazer shop (and really everywhere in Finland) they 113307594_07c5b072ab_mf0eac681bc8036fd319e443d6e4ed820were selling what I thought were regular eggs.  However, they were actually Fazer Mignon eggs!  These beautiful Easter eggs are a strong Finnish Easter tradition.  They are made by hand in the Finnish Fazer factory by cutting a small hole in the bottom of a real egg and then sucking out all of the egg and replacing it with chocolate/hazelnut/almond nougat inside the real eggshell.   So, when you crack open what looks like a hard boiled egg you actually find  a solid chocolate egg that tastes very much like solidified Nutella.  I am bringing several of these home for my cousin’s children and I am going to tell them that this what all of the chickens lay in Finland…..Chocolate eggs!

So, while there is definitely a commercial side to Easter very similar to the U.S. with Easter Bunnies and chocolate and decorated eggs, it all seemed to  me to be made of higher quality content.  There was not a lot of flimsy cheap/ plastic looking Easter merchandise.  It all seemed to be done with a little more artistry and reverence.  Almost like they took the holiday a little more seriously.  I found it refreshing.   Then I found outIMG_0058 that the entire city shuts down Friday through Monday for Easter and I was even more impressed.  Very very few businesses and restaurants are open on Easter Weekend.  These business are not just closed on Easter Sunday but also Good Friday (which they call Long Friday) and the Monday after Easter as well.  Which is wonderful!  Some other ex-pats have had a hard time with this somewhat inconvenient halt to the city and I suppose it was a little inconvenient.  However, I loved the respect the holiday was given.  And I planned for the holiday and bought some groceries ahead of time and it has been fine.   I think the U.S. should reevaluate our priorities.  Do we really need to shop/ go out to eat on holidays?  Can we have just a few days a year where we stay in and be with family and do nothing?   Perhaps we could all do with a little more “inconvenience” in our lives.

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On Good Friday there is a tradition of having an Easter play of Jesus’ last night leading up to his crucifixion.   Every year there is a different twist to the story and this year it was done in modern times.  The disciples were all normal guys with common jobs from road construction worker, to police officer, to bus driver.  I thought this was very fitting.  Judas was a smooth looking businessman who betrayed Jesus for a briefcase of money.  I showed up to the performance about 45 minutes early and I am so thankful for that.  Even in the dark and the cold rain there were hundreds of people who showed up for the performance.   However, if there is one thing I have learned about Finnish people it is that they do not let bad weather stop them from doing what they had planned on doing….if they did, they would never get anything done!  As they say;  “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”  This I have found to be really true.

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So, Thankfully I got there early and I got to stand in the front where I could see everything.  This was particularly helpful because the entire thing was in Finnish.   The production started at 9:30 at night in a park downtown.  It was dark, rainy and ominous, which actually made me reflect on the darkness of the actual evening 2000 years ago.    The performance began with a song and a dancing angel.  The only word in the song I recognized was hosanna, and still it was moving and the dancing angel was captivating in a somber reflective way that brought me to tears.  IMG_0105Then they told the story of the last supper, Judas’s betrayal, Peters betrayal and all of the events that happened in the garden of Gethsemane leading up to Jesus’ arrest.   Somehow standing in the dark park in the middle of the night made it all seem so much more real.  It was as if I really was in the garden of Gethsemane.

After Jesus’s arrest he was led by modern looking soldiers down the path right in front of me to the Courthouse.  Then the large audience followed him on that path.  We were guided along the way through the dark city by angels and drummers.  Again, it was strange to be walking in the middle of the night with a giant crowd in the middle of usually busy streets.   Everything was usually open and vibrant and glowing with light, but tonight it was somber and silent.  The traffic had been redirected and the whole city seemed to be put on hold in order to focus on the meaning of Easter.  Finally the long procession stopped in front the courthouse.  Here they did the reenactment of Jesus’ trial with first the Sanhedrin IMG_0116and then with Pontius Pilot.  Again, this was done with a modern twist and so it felt like a modern day game show where the crowd got to vote for  the either Jesus or Barabbas to be released.   Pontius Pilot tried to free Jesus but the crowd voted for the Barabbas who was dressed in an orange prison suit and who looked liked a mass murderer.    After the trial, Jesus was given a cross and He, followed by the crowd of hundreds of people, was lead by police to the Helsinki Cathedral on Senate Square.  Here he was symbolically crucified next to two inmates.  The play ended with him saying “It is Finished”.  The lights went out and we were left to go home in the dark and the rain and in silence.

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Although the cross is where “It was finished”, I left feeling so thankful that it did not end there!  I am glad I knew, unlike those who where at the original Crucifixion 2000 years ago, that the story did not end with the cross but with an empty tomb!   Yet on my long, cold walk home I couldn’t help but wonder at how dejected alone and confused Jesus’ followers must have felt that evening.  However, we know the rest of the story!  We know that Jesus defeated death!  And because of that empty tomb we are all saved!   What a glorious day!  What a victory!

Saturday I attended a special Easter Bonfire at an open air museum on an island by Helsinki.  This is where I found out about some interesting Eastern traditions that are very different than the US.IMG_0176  For one thing, all of the children were dressed up as cute little witches with brooms and pointed hats and everything. It was like a weird combination of Easter Meets Halloween.    I suppose this started as an Easter tradition on Palm Sunday, where the kids go from house to house waving palm branches and reciting poems and songs in exchange for chocolate eggs.   This happens more in the country.  This Bon-fire in Helsinki is a way for the  kids to do that without going from house to house.  They lit the bonfires at 6:30 and then the children got in a line in front of the microphone and took turns singing songs.  It was really cute.  I disappointed, however, to learn that only one or two of the dozens of songs sung had any religious connections.   Another part of the fire is supposedly to scare away evil spirits and the bad winter weather.  I suppose this did not happen as it started to snow and sleet on my walk home from the fire.

imagesSunday morning I woke up and had some Mämmi for breakfast.  This is a traditional Finnish Easter dessert. It is made out of rye, water, molasses and salt.  It takes several days to make as the rye bread has to soak for several days to get the uhem…beautiful texture.  It is usually only had for Easter.  It looks like brown goo, but tastes like soggy raisin bran cereal.  It is served with cream and sugar.  It isn’t bad.  I enjoyed it, but I don’t think I need to eat it everyday or anything.   I think once a year at Easter would be good enough.  🙂

Then I set out for church.  I decided to try an large international church that was on the other end of Helsinki.  So I took a tram and a metro and I finally arrived, but the doors were locked.  Apparently the times listed on the website were wrong and I had missed the services.  Thankfully, as I was standing there a very kind family came up to me and suggested a small church to me.  They said the people were fantastic, but then warned me that it was not very traditional because it has guitars and drums and is non-denominational. The preacher went to school at Hillsong in Australia. photo And told me it was all the way over  near Kampi.  AND with every word they said my heart swelled!  It was EXACTLY  what I was praying for!  It sounded just like the churches I had grown up with and it was RIGHT next to where I was living!  God is just so good!  So I found this new church and I instantly felt like I was home.  It felt so right.  I had attended a few other churches in the area, but they were Lutheran and felt really formal….plus they were in Finnish.  I was lost.   This service was run exactly the way I was use to in Indiana and they had headsets with English translation.   I recognized all of the songs being sung and many of them were in English!  Everyone was so welcoming and kind.   I even won a prize during the sermon.   After the service, everyone went upstairs for more Mämmi, and I got to meet a lot of the members.  It was great.  I have found my Finnish church home!  I can’t wait to come back next  Sunday!  It has turned out to be a wonderful Easter!

Good Friday- Understanding Christs’ Humility

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I have visited many cathedrals and grand churches in many countries around the world.  And no matter the location I  am always in awe of their grandeur and decadence.  I usually end up rendered speechless by their overwhelming size and opulence.  And while I always appreciate the aesthetic beauty and the sheer accomplishment of creating somethingIMG_1294 so grand and monumental (especially considering most of these churches were built before the existence of modern machinery), I also typically feel a little uneasy.  It seemed so strange to me to think that the church in those time periods would build something so grand, so expensive and so elaborately coated with gold while there were people starving in the nearby villages and cities.  It never set well with me.

It didn’t seem like the churches back then really understood the point of Christianity.   As someone who grew up as a non-denominational Christian I have often had a hard time understanding these grand traditional views of religion that is based on hierarchy of man and full of man-made traditions.  It always seemed so formal and distant and not at all consistent with the Jesus that I knew who fought against a deeds based/ self glorifying concept of righteousness. I often wonder what he would think of these palatial cathedrals.  The Jesus I know didn’t grow up in a palace surrounded by gold.   He was born in a stable. He was real and probably dirty and smelly in comparison with current social norms.   His hands were most likely rough and callused by years of hard work as a carpenter.   He lived a life of true humility and loved everyone without judgment.  He, who was fully man and fully God, was the only one worthy of glory and honor and yet he received none.  IMG_1294

I was thinking all of these things as I entered into St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg Russia.  I was instantly struck  (and I say struck because it hit me like a two by four to the stomach) by the beauty of the church.  I stepped inside and I couldn’t move or breath for a moment.  I know I talk often about being overwhelmed by beauty, but this time I literally was.  I just stood there in the entryway with my mouth open not really able to take in the grandeur and extreme beauty and over the top decadence that was displayed on every inch of this magnificent cathedral.  It hit me more than any other cathedral I had visited before.  And I began to wonder that if I feel this in awe of this place, how overwhelmed will I be of Heaven.  That is when it hit me…..I understood something about cathedrals that I had never understood before and for the first time I had an emotionally spiritual moment in one of these grand churches.  The below video captures what I was thinking and feeling.

After that video I went into the holy prayer room.  There I truly communed with God in prayer and worship.  I thanked him for all he did for me.  I thanked him for choosing an ugly humiliating death on a cross instead of the life of decadence he deserved.   I thanked him for loving a sinner such as myself and allowing me,  even with all of my imperfections, to glorify him with my life.  Then I just sat in reverent worship of Him and His perfect and beautiful plan for the salvation of man.

IMG_1297When I left the prayer room it was amazing to me to see how just being in the very presence of God through prayer and worship transformed my perspective of the church.   The building that had before seemed so striking seemed dull and insignificant in comparison to the glory of God.   I suddenly saw it for what it was…a beautiful building that will one day waste away.  However, God’s glory is eternal and the only thing worth our adoration and praise.  And one day when I have been cloaked in the complete righteousness of Jesus, I will be able to enter into His very perfect and indescribable presence and behold Him in all of His glory, not because of what I have done, but because of Christ had done for me.  And in that place, because of the gift of Jesus’ sacrifice on a cross,  I will be able to abide and dwell in God’s presence and worship Him forever and ever.   That is worth my worship and honor and praise….not a building made of stone.

A Cabin Dripping with Hygge, a Fireless Fire, A Journey over a Frozen Lake, and a Cannonball in the Snow: Lapland Day One

IMG_1065Lapland is a winter lover’s dream.  Seeing how I gravitate to all things cold, snowy and cozy, I instantly fell in love with this winter wonderland.  It was seriously like I entered into the secret world of perpetual winter as described in C.S. Lewis’ timeless tale the Lion the witch and the Wardrobe.  Everything sparkled with a perfect dusting of clean, fresh, white snow.  The homes, which stood in direct contrast to the the icy landscaped beyond, looked cozy, warm and inviting.  Even time itself seemed susceptible to the cold and seemed to pass in a natural and unburdened manner.  It was liberating to be free from the distractions and business of our age while we drifted back into the age of yesteryear.

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The Cabin was everything a cabin should be and I wanted to stay here for a month instead of one night.  I imagined myself vacationing here with my family in the future.  I could see myself sitting in the rocking chair next to a roaring fire place while safely watching the wintery exhibition displayed through the frosty windows.  It felt safe and warm and full of goodness and “Hygge”.  This Danish word pronounced “Hoo-ga” has no actual translation into English as it is a cultural feeling/ sensation.  IMG_0857

The closest translation for the word Hygge is and I paraphrase:  The feeling of complete coziness, fellowship and contentment you get when you are in a rocking chair next to a roaring fire, roasting marshmallows while holding a warm cup of coco in one hand and a warm cookie in the other with all of the people you love most in the world sitting nearby laughing and talking as you listen to Christmas carols and smell the pot roast that is in the oven while the snow gently falls on the roof of a moss covered cabin in the middle of the woods on a beautiful starry night.  Phew….say all of that in one breath! 

IMG_1034 Hygge is a word that needs to be introduced into our vernacular because the above definition is a little too long to put into an actual conversation and it is such a valuable concept!  The word that describes this feeling of complete happiness and contentment is hygge.   The warmth and glow of candlelight- that is hygge.   Sitting around a table talking and laughing with friends- that is hygge.  Curling up with your favorite book in your favorite chair and warm blanket- that is hygge.   And the cozy cabin we found in Lapland was dripping with hygge.  

IMG_1328The landscape beyond the cabin looked pretty great itself.  While I wish I had the luxury of wasting the day inside the cabin, I knew my time in Lapland was limited.    So I had to leave my cozy little haven of Hygge and explore.  The first thing I noticed when we first arrived to the Kakslauttanen winter resort was the dozens of sleds standing in attention outside of the main lodge.  I couldn’t wait to ride them.  I quickly found out that they were actually designed to transport luggage to the cabins and Igloos.  I did not let this stop me from having my fun though.

IMG_0922IMG_0951Then I set out to cross the open field just down the hill from my cabin….and halfway through crossing the “open field” I figured out it was actually a frozen lake.   It was at this point that I realized I had made a major mistake.  I suddenly noticed the bridge and wished desperately to be on that bridge instead of standing the middle of a frozen lake.  It wasn’t that I was worried that the ice would break and I would fall through.  The problem was the amount of snow on top of the ice.  Somewhere along the way I found myself standing in waist deep snow.   For a moment I had a hilarious flash forward of someone finally finding me in the middle of the night stuck in snow up to my armpits in the middle of a lake not being able to move…like a frozen Kelly Popsicle.  Thankfully this did not happen and I struggled through crawling and clawing my way across the lake….I am sure I looked really cool doing it too.  I also wished I was wearing snow pants not just regular jeans…… Anyway, I finally made it across the lake and I found the Igloo chapel, and the…well I am not sure what to call it but “iceberg” seems fitting.   Anyways, these were beautiful sculptures made out of giant piles of snow and ice and they drastically added to the charm of this little cabin village.

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On my way back to the cabin I saw a building on Fire…..There was smoke billowing out of the windows and edges and I was immediately alarmed.  I of course, went to the front desk and told them about the fire.  They said that building I described was their smoke sauna and I could enjoy a wonderful smoke sauna from 2 to 6 that afternoon.  I politely thanked them for the invite and left knowing I would never want to do a smoke sauna….ever.  It looked like my worst nightmare.

I finally returned to our cabin soaked and cold so I decided to make use of our private (regular, non-smoke) Sauna.  So I got in my bathing suit and sat in the Sauna….I don’t know what I did wrong but it didn’t get that hot.  Anyway,  I still wanted to do the whole jump in the snow thing.  So half way through my sauna I went outside in my bathing suit and did a cannonball into a big pile of snow.  This was not as fun as it seemed.  1) It was cold, like so cold it took my breath away.  (duh.)   2).  The snow was kind of hard and icy and I ended up with scratches all on my legs and arms.  3). It was so deep there was not a clear exit strategy.  I suddenly had to relive the whole lake fiasco of me crawling my way out of snow that was deeper than myself…. only this time I was in my bathing suit.  So, I would not recommend this to anyone who thinks it would be fun to see what it like to cannonball into a giant pile of snow wearing only a swimming suit.

Late that evening we were taken on a Reindeer sleigh ride through the Tundra under the most spectacular display of northern lights Lapland had seen in the last decade…..but that is worthy of a  blog post all on its own.   It was amazing and incredible but also very cold.

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We returned to the cabin that night wanting desperately to sit and warm up by a nice fire in the gorgeous fireplace.  However….making a fire turned out to be an exercise in futility.  I spent more than an hour, an entire box of matches, several flammable hair products an entire notepad of paper and several ripped pages from my book and we ended up with a big fat nothing in our fireplace.   I vowed then and there that the next time I visit the most perfect little cabin in Lapland I will either A)  know how to build a fire,  B)  have a husband with me who can build me a fire  or C) bring a fire starting log thing….they make those right?

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I didn’t let the lack of fire keep me from enjoying the hygge cabin…..for too long.  I am not going to lie I was a little bitter at one point.  I mean why had adults warned me my whole life not to start a fire and burn down the house or the forest.  I couldn’t start a fire even when I wanted to!  OBVIOUSLY it is more difficult to start a fire than adults let on and I should have just gone ahead and played with matches.  Oh- well.   I settled into my rocking chair and I finished knitting a scarf I had started on this trip and I simply enjoyed being in Lapland.  I knew that tomorrow I had another day of adventures ahead and I was so thankful for all that had happened to lead me to this point in my life because I have a wonderful life!

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St. Petersburg: Experiencing Imperial Russia

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Russia.  Just the mention of this country conjures so many emotions, expectations, preconceived notions, and perhaps even some socially conditioned stigmas.   I was born in 1986 and the first years of my life saw the end of the Cold War and with it the literal and figurative crumbling of the Iron Curtain across Europe.  I do not remember ever feeling afraid of Russia as my parents did growing up.  If I am being honest, I really only ever felt sorry for Russia.  I was sorry that Russian people didn’t have the freedoms, advantages and democracy that I had in the US. IMG_1280 I grew up hearing jokes about Russian communism and continually seeing  the Russians cast as the role of bad guys in films.  I learned about the Bolshevik Revolution in school, the tragedy of the murder of the Romanov Royal family, the creation of Marxism and the development into the  communistic control of the USSR.  I was also, like many girls my age, obsessed for a time with the animated movie Anastasia.  This perhaps more than anything gave me the desire at an early age to visit St. Petersburg.  (Cue the song in my head:  “Have you Heard, there’s a Rumor in St. Petersburg” )

IMG_1311I also should note that my travel to Russia in no way supports the recent decisions being made by the Russian government.  Taking over Ukraine is not acceptable and I did debate if I should go to Russia or boycott it on moral grounds.  Perhaps, maybe I should have.  However, I also reasoned that the average person in St. Petersburg, (a city that hates Moscow by the way) is not to be blamed for the corrupt and intolerable decisions of Putin.  Or….perhaps I am selfish and weak and traveling to a historical city is my biggest and most compelling obsession and I should have taken the moral high ground and boycotted but I just didn’t have the self discipline.  The debate is mute now, seeing how I had already given the Russian government their money with the acquisition of my Visa.  Which, by the way I found out has been almost IMPOSSIBLE to receive.  All of the other Americans I have met here in Finland say that NO ONE has been able to get a Visa into Russia.  They were then especially shocked to discover that I not only  had a VISA, but I also had a THREE YEAR multiple entry VISA.  Apparently this is like the holy grail of Visas- and I can come and go out of Russia freely through 2018.  I had no idea it was hard or unusual.  It was an easy process for me, (well, easy relative to the whole Chinese Visa debacle of 2013)  but apparently I got lucky.

IMG_1193So, this was kind of my perspective of Russia leading up to my visit.  So, when I boarded the train to St. Petersburg last Saturday morning at 6:00 am, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  The countryside didn’t look that different from Finland.  Then we hit the Suburbs of St. Petersburg and I started to get a little nervous.  They were looking a little…ok… a lot run down and what someone growing up with Cold War sentiments might expect of Russia.  I later found out that suburbs in this part of the world are the scary parts of town.  Unlike the US where Suburbs are the safe little havens away from the big city full of stepford wives and shopping malls, the suburbs in Russia (and in Finland too, although not to the same degree as Russia) are where you find the most unemployment, alcoholism and crime.

IMG_1217When the Train stopped I had to check with the others that we were actually in St. Petersburg.  The stop was not in the center of the city and I was a little confused.  It didn’t look like a major metropolitan train stop.  I was sure that we were not in St. Petersburg yet.  However, the kind wonderful woman I met on the train assured me that it was.  I got off the train and the first thing I saw was a crowd of about 20 men holding signs declaring themselves to be taxi drivers and all of them wanted me to choose them.  I found the one closest to me and he took me to my hotel witch was in the city center.  As we drove I started to see more and more of the city I was expecting….and THEN I saw MORE than I was expecting.  The closer we got to the historic part of the city the buildings became bigger, more beautiful, more elaborate and more historic looking.  Every corner became a new discovery and with it was a new monument or statue, a new brightly colored building or church or magnificent Cathedral.

I was blown away and so ready to explore this majestic city.  The Pushka Inn Hotel was perfect.   I HIGHLY recommend it to anyone who finds themselves in St. Petersburg.  It was a fabulous price with helpful and friendly staff.  It was clean and comfortable and beautifully decorated.  However the best part was its location!  It was only about a 5 minute walk away from the Hermitage/ Winter Palace in one direction and about a 7 minute walk to the famous Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood the other direction.

IMG_1239So, I dropped off my Bags and headed for St. Isaac’s Cathedral which was the furthest away location on my itinerary .  I quickly discovered that you could climb the somewhat questionable stairs to the top and get an all encompassing view of the city.  The views from the Top took my breath away.  They were fabulous and I suddenly realized that I had a lot to discover in just one short weekend trip and I might have to return…. thank goodness for a multi-entry Visa!  The skywalk around the top dome of the church was such a fun and unique way to see the city.  I was getting a different and up close look at the statues located up top and an incredible perspective of the city and its winding canals and streets.

Then I entered the cathedral and I was IMMEDIATELY OVERWHELMED….I want to do a separate blog post on this.  I had so many emotions and this post is already long enough.

IMG_1225After an emotional time at St. Isaac’s cathedral I headed towards the Hermitage.  I stopped and got some hot coffee and a quick lunch!  The waitress was so kind and attentive.  She was a young girl and I started to notice two separate reactions to me as an American.  There was the reaction from the older Russians who were not unkind, but not very friendly….ok…maybe a little unwelcoming.   And then there were the younger Russians (anyone my age or younger) that were so friendly and helpful and greeted me with a smile.  I think it was a combination of the fact that those older than thirty can’t speak English have lingering resentment of the Cold War.  While those younger than thirty were obsessed with American culture and American movies.  The young crowd talked about how much they wanted to visit the US and how much they loved American TV and movies.

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After my coffee pick me up, I visited the Hermitage which was the Winter Palace during Imperial Russia that now exists as one of the worlds largest art museums.   It was rather hetic trying to buy tickets and  I was instantly glad that I decided to do this part of St. Petersburg during low tourist season.  I can’t imagine how busy this gets mid July.  After I finally got a ticket and entered the palace I was just floored by the ornate beauty and grandeur of the place.  Every single room was more grand and opulent than the next.  I can’t even begin to do the place justice with my words.  I spent the entire day with my mouth open in shock and awe at the display of splendor and decadence. I kept imagining Catherine the Great roaming these immense halls.  I visualized the other queens and kings of High Imperial Russia walking up and down the grand stair cases.  I imagined the palatial balls and the luxurious parties and performances held within these royal walls and concert halls. This magnificent palace was built during the height of  Imperial Russia while the infant US was still being formed into a nation. I also suddenly realized the frustration with Imperial Russia leading up to the Rebellion.  The people of Russia were starving and the Czar lived here in a place with so much extravagance it defied words…..It definitely gave me a new perspective into the revolt of 1917.

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While there might be some truth to objection to the superfluous wealth on display in this palace there is no denying this place was something of extreme beauty and a reflection of Russia’s grand tradition and cultural heritage.   This history and tradition is worth preserving and worth celebrating and Its majestic rooms and halls are definitely worth the trip to St. Petersburg.  You can see the video montage I made of the palace by following the below link. //flipagram.com/f/S9bcW1jVe5/embed

So, while Russia has had a tumultuous and devastating past, I came to realize during this trip that it has also its times of triumphs and prosperity.  A country that can produce the grace and power of the Russian Ballet, that gave the world the Nutcracker,  Swan Lake,  all of the captivating symphonies of Tchaikovsky and Stavinsky  the moving and unforgettable novels of Tolstoy and some truly remarkable and distinctive architectural treasures can’t be all bad.  And while, I may not see eye to eye with its politics or governmental decisions there is no argument that Russia has its own beauty and unique culture that has truly enriched the world.

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Finland: Initial Thoughts, Experiences and a trip to Jyväskylä.

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Helsinki Harbor

I have been in Finland a little over a week now.   When I first arrived I was shocked to discover how warm it was. The Polar Vortex of 2013 followed by another historically cold Indiana winter had drastically changed my definition of cold. That combined with the fact that I was just a few hundred miles away from the Arctic Circle made me brace myself for truly glacial temperatures. I was certainly not expecting to be greeted with the mild(er) temperatures of Helsinki. Yet ever since I arrived the temperatures of this humid city has been comfortably shifting between 35 to 45 degrees. I have even slept with my windows open most evenings.

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Apartment Living Room

I arrived Wednesday morning and went straight to my apartment and it was perfect! (Blog post on the apartment coming soon!) I unpacked all of my things and set up camp for the next few months. I took a short nap and then I went out exploring that afternoon. I got lost a couple of times, but I eventually figured out how to get to the University. I also found Kampi (the main shopping center) where I could buy some essentials that I was not able to bring with me (EU hair dryer and hair straightener).   I also got a small amount of groceries and bought a bus pass and a Finnish Phone system. By the time I did all of this I was quite exhausted and I made the trek back home to my apartment. (I had not yet figured out the tram system and as I had reached my limit of learning new processes I decided it was just easier to walk.)

The next morning I woke up early and set out to meet my adviser. I got to campus early, met with the director for international students, filled out some paper work and then I and got the keys to my office. I had no idea I would have an office on campus! This made me realize how well respected the Fulbright program is in Finland. While this is quite an honor it also made me understand the level of performance that is expected from me during my time in Finland. This is when my insecurities started to rise. I suddenly began to worry that I may not be what they were expecting.

IMG_1028So, I was suddenly even more nervous to meet my academic adviser. Ever since he had been assigned to me I have been reading all of his papers and research in the field of mathematics education. I came in with so much respect for him coupled with the intense fear that I would disappoint him.   However, He was great, and helped me observe a math education course for first year education majors at the University.

Then we discussed my project. I instantly realized I was not as prepared to discuss my research as I had previously thought. I am in a whole different ball game when it comes to University level research at an institution as dedicated to academic research as Helsinki University. I left the meeting feeling very insecure about my abilities to perform at the academic level and produce doctoral level research. I realize now, that was partly my fault. I had not accurately communicated the expectations of my program goals or the level of my own experience when it comes to formal quantitative research.

I left the meeting feeling very tired and worried. It was probably a combination of jet lag, exhaustion, hunger, and my personal demons of intellectual insecurity. I also realize now that I had just had my first meeting with a Finnish person. They are not known to be overly talkative and enthusiastic. Many people had warned me that the first time you meet a Finn you might not think they like you. Looking back with a different lens perhaps he was perfectly receptive to my project. He just didn’t respond to it the same way an American would.

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View From Restaurant

Later that evening I met up with my adviser again and He and his girlfriend took me out for dinner to a very nice restaurant that overlooks Senate Square, the most beautiful and iconic spot in Helsinki. It took a little while to warm up, but once we did, we realized we had so much in common. The evening was perfect. It was full of laughter, fun and conversation. They told me about their incredible lives and I was able to entertain them with some of my classic “Kelly Day” stories. We also made fun how uncomfortable Americans (in general and me specifically) are with silence, while Finns think that silence is a perfectly normal part of a conversation.   After Dinner Dr. Hannulu took me for a walking tour of Helsinki and it was nice to see the city from the perspective of a native Finn. It is true what they say- the Finnish people are reserved when you first meet them, but once they open up they can be some of the most fun and inviting people in the world.

image_previewThe next day I got to work. While I am sure many of my insecurities were self imagined I also knew that I still had a lot to prove. Then there was also the added pressure of my looming presentation in Jyväskylä.  in just a few short days. Other than a short trip to Suolimena island with some newly made friends, I spent the next several days bunkered into my apartment researching, reading and creating a cohesive presentation.

Finally, the week of the Fulbright Forum arrived. I woke up early to catch my train to Jyväskylä, a small city in the middle of Finland. About 10 minutes outside of Helsinki, I realized how unique the capital is to the other parts of Finland that are not surrounded by the temperature moderating Baltic Sea. The rain I had experienced the past three days suddenly transformed into snow and I found a whole knew country that looked like a winter wonderland. The sudden difference was quite a shock. It was as if someone had drawn an invisible line in the ground and I had magically entered the land of Narnia.

As I watched from the train window I was suddenly enchanted by the Finnish countryside. It was covered with brilliantly white snow, perfectly green pine, quaint little farms and sprinkled with frozen lakes and ponds. I don’t know if it was just me, but the greens were greener, the snow was whiter and there were moments where I wished I was not in a high speed train, but in a one horse open sleigh exploring the powdery forests filling with quiet snow.

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Although there is a fabulous foot Bridge across the Lake in Jyväskylä, some local students still walk on the ice to get across to the University.

Once in Jyväskylä I check into my room, practiced my presentation for the umpteenth time and then headed to the town in search for food. I suddenly realized that the beautiful snow came at a cost. The city of Jyvaskyla does not salt or plow its sidewalks. Instead they sprinkle it with small rocks to give it traction to the many pedestrians and bikers who use these sidewalks daily. While this is a financially sound decision (especially considering the amount of snow they receive), it does however create a very cold and slushy 20 minute walk into the city center.   And while the view was gorgeous along a beautiful frozen lake, I was a little less enchanted with the snow than I had been while watching from my comfortable train window. I was also very hungry. In my feverish attempt to create an awesome presentation for the Forum I had kind of forgotten to eat in the past couple of day.

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Jyväskylä Harbor

I needed something good and something Hot. I wasn’t sure where to go. So I asked a woman on the street. In true Finnish style she went above and beyond the call of duty. She told me that if I allowed her to drop some things off at the post office she would then walk with me to the city center and help me find a good place. 11054502_991214752146_5336294002768095866_nSo after a wonderful stop at the post office we headed towards a Viking restaurant. She not only took me there, she followed me inside, helped me order from the Finnish menu and sat and talked to me while I ate. ( She had already eaten lunch.)   This was so incredibly kind and we had a lovely chat and visit. I think I made a real friend. Now, fully fueled and warmed, the walk back to the hotel felt a lot less daunting and I was able to enjoy the gorgeous Jyväskylä Lake.

That evening I was able to meet up with some of the other Fulbright researchers in Finland. We went as a group to visit the Alto Museum that showed the amazing contributions this Finnish Architect made to the world.  They are an incredible group of individuals and it is quite an honor to be counted as one among them. The U.S. Ambassador to Finland also made an incredible and inspiring speech to the Fulbright crew. This reminded me again how much respect and esteem the Finnish people have for the Fulbright program. IMG_1185

The next few days we did our presentations and I was immediately impressed by the breadth and depth of knowledge represented.   My presentation went very well and I am proud of what I was able to produce. I feel like I conveyed my message in an informative, clear and interesting way.   I left the conference feeling absolutely amazed by the individuals studying here in Finland.   I was inspired by the diverse and incredible projects presented. The topics ranged from the mechanics of wind turbines, the transformations in information technology, education reform all the way to the gene expression of the Stickleback Fish. It was clear this world is full of interesting, intelligent and passionate individuals and there is just soo soo much to learn from this world!

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I left the conference feeling like I had made many friends and I was ready to be a Fulbright recipient. I also left feeling a great sigh of relief. My presentation is over and while there is still a lot of work to be done I now feel like I have the freedom and time to focus in and do the work I set out to do over the course of the next five months.

But first I must visit Russia!

Tune in next time to hear about my exciting one day trip to St. Petersburg!

How Fulbright? Why Finland?

1538713_915985696776_2591682710804324384_nHow did I become a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher?  How did I end up here in Finland researching at the University of Helsinki?  Why did I choose Finland?  These are all very interesting questions and the answer is very simple.  God planned it.  He set out an intricate plan for my life.  He wove a very intricate trail of experiences that have led me to this point at this time for His purpose.

It all started with me wanting to spend a year in Bolivia in November of 2013.  Yes. Bolivia.  A country that couldn’t be more different than Finland if it tried.  I don’t know why in particular I wanted to spend a year in Bolivia.  Maybe I had just hit the 5 year slump as a teacher and felt I needed a change…… and teaching in Bolivia would be a real change.  I do know that in October of 2013 I suddenly felt very restless.  I had started dating a great guy, but I realized I didn’t want to settle down.  I was terrified of commitment and I wanted to do something else.  Something big.  I broke it off with him and knew that right now if a “normal” life with a house and kids was not what I wanted then I had better start pursuing what I did want.   I remember finally expressing this decision out loud for the first time to my group of girlfriends at our favorite restaurant in November.   I told them my fears of leaving a school I loved, but that I felt like I needed….more.  More of what I wasn’t sure, but I know I needed change and a challenge and Bolivia seemed like as good as place as any.  I could learn Spanish. It would be cheap.  And that was all I knew.  I had literally just picked Bolivia out of thin air, as if I had just picked it out of a hat. I knew it was in South America, but that was about it. The following weekend I told my parents I was planning on spending a year in Bolivia.  I didn’t have a plan or a reason, however I have the most supportive friends and family in the world and they told me that I needed to follow my heart!

So, I had finally made my proclamation and verbalized the fact that I wanted to move on to something new. Now I just needed a game plan.  I remembered that a woman I had met  randomly in July 2013 when I was researching in China suggested I looked into researching for Fulbright.  I was telling her about my project in Asia and she said a Fulbright placement was just right up my alley.   I  hadn’t heard of it before, but I wrote it down and thought I would check it out later.   God had sent her to me all the way in China to plant this seed in my head.  However, He usually has to drop me several hints before I recognize His plan.  Then last October (2013)  I found myself back in Idaho with my great aunts visiting my great uncle.  Idaho is where I go to recenter myself and this trip meant so much for several reasons.  During my time there, I was starting to discuss my feelings of unrest with my Uncle.  He also brought up Fulbright.

IMG_0763So a few weeks  later when I was looking up opportunities in November of 2013, Fulbright was fresh in my mind.  I started trying to find a Fulbright placement in Bolivia.  I didn’t meet the requirements for the placement, as I would need a PhD.  I decided it would be easier to switch programs than get a PhD.   So, I started looking down a different rabbit hole.  I looked into other Fulbright placements and found myself in a placement described the Fulbright Distinguished Award in teaching.  I read the description of what this program did and I KNEW this was for me.  I JUST barley made the requirements.  You had to have 5 years of teaching experience.  I was currently in my 5th year.   You needed to have a minimum of a master’s degree, which I had JUST completed thanks to a seemingly random and quick decision on my part 18 months earlier. I just kind of woke up one morning and signed up to get my master’s degree.  I literally went to work one day not even thinking about going back to school. Then I got an email advertisement for a program through Purdue and signed up that afternoon.  It seemed like a whim, but it was God working everything out!  He had me start and finish my degree just in the nick of time!

So, I met ( barely) the Distinguished Award in Teaching criteria, but there was one problem.  They didn’t have a program in Bolivia.  So, I started looking at where they did offer this program. I looked at the list and Finland instantly jumped out at me.  I didn’t know much about Finland so I started to research and read about its education system and became mesmerized and obsessed.  The more I read the more excited I got about the prospect of studying and learning here from some of the BEST educators in the world.  I discovered that Finland was one of the few countries where girls out performed boys in mathematics and I knew I just had to figure out what they were doing to support female development in math!   So I sent a text to my parents and my friends:  “Change of plans:  Finland, not Bolivia.”   Yes,  like Finland, Finland!  And they were all instantly relieved.

So, I started the application that fateful morning!  And as I did I started to laugh and cry at the same time.  I prayed that God would use this, and I thanked him for leading me to this point in my life.  I was so filled with joy at the prospect of going to Finland and researching here, but more importantly I was filled with absolute glee at knowing I would be fulfilling God’s plan for my life.   I thanked him for that and my heart was in a state of reverent worship and total giddiness as I wrote my application. I seriously sat there laughing and crying because I knew….I just knew that God was going to make this happen for HIS glory!  And if He didn’t, he had something even better planned.  The absolute joy of knowing God is in control of your life is truly indescribable.   He was in control not me.  I don’t have to be perfect.  And although I just barely met the criteria for this award, I knew that if He wanted me to go He would make it happen!   This became even more apparent to me when I botched the interview.  I did not do very well on the interview, but I am so thankful for that.  If I had done well, I would have been tempted to give myself the glory.  However, God gets all of the glory here!  He worked it out even though I was/ am imperfect and I messed up.   This is the beauty of our God!  He uses imperfect and messed up people like me to fulfill His purpose and to bring Him glory!

IMG_0815So, why am I here?  I am here because God led me to this point.  That is all I know for now…and that is good enough for me!  I know that without a question of a doubt.  I just pray that I am open to the opportunities He sends me to expand His Kingdom and bring Him all of the Glory and Honor and Praise forever and ever!

Sevilla: The Soul of Spain

IMG_3031     The air smelled of oranges, the heat radiated spices and the very ground seemed to vibrate with the music and rhythmic stomps of a 500 year old Flamenco tradition.  Everywhere you looked you could taste the culture and feel the intensity of this city.  Madrid may be the life giving sustaining heart of Spain, but Sevilla….Sevilla is the soul.

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IMG_3289Just like the powerful Flamenco dance, Sevilla is a city that captivates you with its intense passion, mysterious sadness and old secrets.  Like any exotic temptress, its the mystery that draws you in.  You suddenly have a deep desire to expose the stories behind those soulful sorrowful eyes.   As you navigate the labyrinth of ancient streets, dark alleys, and ornate plazas that comprise the beloved Barrio De Santa Cruz district you can’t help but be captivated by this city and wonder at her past.  Every corner you turn there is another chapel, mosque, synagog or cathedral that exposes a new layer, yet gives no answer to the city’s enigmatic charm.

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There is also a beautiful story of intricate Moorish architecture and artistry.  The city is mysterious, yes, but it it is also beautiful and full of flavor, color and life.  I had the best mojito of my life on a rooftop bar overlooking the gorgeous and enormous (3rd largest in the world) Cathedral de Sevilla.  I stood in awe of the  lavish rooms,  decadent court yards and exotic gardens of the Moorish Palace Real Alcázar.  I have visited several fascinating places but this palace built in the 14th century one was one that truly left me speechless.  It was unlike anything I had every experienced before.  I had no words to describe the paradise that I had entered with its intricate maze of gardens and ponds and palm trees.   I had no idea that such a place like this  could exist in real life.

IMG_3197  IMG_3064I didn’t really have a plan of action as I wondered the city of Sevilla.  Like most of my travels I just set out aimlessly to see what I would see.  On my way to a city park I stumbled upon the Plaza De Espania and I instantly knew I had just discovered the best jewel of the city.   This larger than life plaza became my favorite spot in all of Spain.  This colorful courtyard  was built for celebration!   It was a magnificent square that was specifically designed to showcase Spain in 1929 world fair and it brings to life the beauty of Spain and its unique culture.  It too is among the top of my favorite spots to visit in the world.  And between you and me, that is saying something.   IMG_2935

Sevilla is one of my all time favorite cities.  It has so much to offer and so much to give.  Every corner you turn there is something new to see and discover.  It has such a rich history and is simply dripping in culture.  I loved every second of my trip.  I will never forget exploring the vibrant bustling night scene which literally ended with fireworks.  My heart is still recovering from watching a powerful performance of a real flamenco expert.  Her intense performance had so much intensity and soul I couldn’t help but feel her pain and heartache she stomped and moved passionately across the stage.  Her emotions were so vivid and real that the audience truly felt them with her as she expressed them in dance.  I still wish I could accurately capture the larger than life architecture sprinkled amongst the palm trees throughout the city.  If you want to truly know Spain and her beauty, life, heartache, and mysterious charm you must visit Sevilla.  Only there can you truly get to know the depth of her character and soul.

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