My Fulbright Scholarship Experience
I arrived in Helsinki, Finland in mid-August of 2003. I came adorn in a sweater and jeans. Finland wasn’t as cold as I expected – it was over 70 degrees, sunny and the air was as clear & pristine as you could imagine blowing off the Baltic Sea.
I spent my first 3 days with Finnish Fulbrighters, Minna & Timo, who were headed shortly to Berkeley, California for the ir Fulbright experience. I was renting their apartment in Maunula, which is about 20 minutes north of Helsinki Center, for the year and they agreed very kindly to show me the ropes before departing. Their help was very much appreciated; during those first few days I enrolled at Helsingin Yliopisto (University of Helsinki), purchased a transportation pass, learned two bus routes home, became acquainted with the Social Sciences Facility, and visited local grocery stores and shops. By the time they left I was off and running.
During the first 3 weeks, I participated in a number of ice-breaker University events (trust me, with Finns there’s a lot of ice to break). But mostly I explored the main attractions of metro Helsinki: Esplanade, the Rock Church, the Sibelius Monument, the Central Cathedral, the Hakaniemi Market, the Gardens and the Olympic Stadium. I didn’t really meet anyone, but that was just fine. In fact, as the year bore on, while some of my fellow Fulbright expats became depressed and homesick, I grew fonder and fonder of the solitude offered not just by a foreign environment, but by a people who have been socialized to respect the quiet privacy of others. You may have heard this before, but I can attest firsthand to the truth that if someone is talking on a packed bus in Helsinki, they’re either drunk or American (or both). In fact, if there is one thing I miss about Finland, it is the solitude allowed by the people and offered by nature. The second would be the fresh sea air blowing in off the Baltic.
Moving on, after 3 weeks I was joined by my wife and 1-year-old daughter. It is amazing how fast little ones can adjust. After a day or so, it was like my daughter had never lived anywhere else. She only missed her grandparents from time to time. Before school started for me, we spent a lot of time outside walking the trails behind our apartment and visiting the many playgrounds. Quickly we found out why Finland is ranked at the top of industrialized countries for best places to be a mother; sturdy, well-maintained playgrounds and parks are everywhere! Additionally, the total length of maternity and parental leave is over 250 weekdays!! That sure beats 30 days in the USA.
After a number of Fulbright get-to-know-yous I was essentially on my own. Thinking that I would start working diligently at my research project, I enrolled in two University courses: Globalization & Intensive Finnish Language 1-2. My globalization class was awful; the professor was essentially anti-globalization and devoted each lesson to desecrating the evil capitalists that ran the United States, blaming the US for the ailing Mexican standard of living, etc. I often joked that he would go to class, bash the US & globalization, then go home and crack a Pilsner Urquell, flip on his Sony flatscreen and watch an American movie on a Swedish TV station. My Finnish language class on the other hand, was absolutely fantastic. Taught by Eila Hamalainen, a respected and seasoned language professor during her final year before retirement, I was immersed in the oddities and complexities of a unique language while simultaneously getting to look out at the historic Senate Square in downtown Helsinki.