A Marathon of Traveling: Tourist and Tour Guide

Mid-May marked the beginning of the end of my year in Finland. All of my lessons and concerts at the Sibelius Academy wrapped up, and I braced for 1.5 months of being a tourist and a tour guide.

First, I took a spontaneous trip to Oslo. It was my first time in Norway since 2009, when I was a student at the International Summer School. At that time, I had never left the US and was completely starry eyed about Norway. Six years later, would Oslo still captivate an older and much more seasoned traveler?

After a morning flight and train ride into Oslo, I was greeted by a fellow St. Olaf alumni, Ida. She and I were friends and bandies, but only for a short year, as she was a freshman when I was a senior. She gave me a warm hug and we started chatting as if we saw each other yesterday. We hiked around Bygdoy on a beautiful spring afternoon and prepared for many fun adventures during my short stay in Oslo. I explored the city center, the royal palace, and other familiar sights on my own one morning while Ida worked. I was pleased that I could still navigate around Oslo and surprised at how much had changed in the city over the past six years. Ida and I visited the sculpture park, the Nobel Museum, and my beloved Sognsvann (my get-away for hiking, jogging, and swimming during my summer at the I.S.S.). We also made Norwegian waffles, and I fulfilled my yearly quota of brunost by eating it with almost every meal. YUM! Another highlight was connecting with a fellow I.S.S. alumni who is living in Oslo. When you go so many years without seeing someone, it’s easy to worry if things will be socially weird. However, so far in my life that has never been the case. Reconnecting with old friends and classmates is always worth it!

Beyond the sight-seeing aspects of my trip to Oslo, I had plans to visit a band rehearsal. Norway has an incredible wind band culture, with thousands of bands located throughout the country. Bands are ranked into divisions based on ability level, and competitions, concerts, and festivals occur throughout the year. Ida’s band was in the top division, and they sounded great even in their sight-reading rehearsal. Students at the University of Oslo were guest conducting and leading the rehearsal, and they did a fabulous job. I had a blast watching and listening, and the evening was capped off by the traditional trip to the pub for a beer and some pizza. It was fun and educational to chat with the band members and conductors about Norway’s music scene, and it gave me an even stronger urge to travel to Norway again (permanently!). What a beautiful, healthy, and musical country!

While my new Finnish friends and American Fulbright friends have been an incredible support system this year, I was amazed at how unbelievably refreshing it was to hang out with an Ole. The bonds that are made in college, and especially in the St. Olaf Band, are impressively strong. I can’t believe I had forgotten about that sensation! Skype, social media, and emails have helped me keep in touch with friends and family back at home, but nothing beats getting to spend some time with another person face-to-face. Let that sentiment be valued for generations to come!

Bygdoy and Sognsvann

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Norsk vaffler med brunost og syltetoyIMG_1480

St. Olaf/ISS reunionIMG_1496

Band rehearsal in OsloIMG_1500

After my trip to Oslo, I impatiently counted down the days to seeing Chris again. We had finally planned a proper “honeymoon” (11 months after our wedding…), and after 2.5 tough months of being apart we were SO ready to spend time with each other.

We visited Copenhagen, Brussels, Bruges, and Amsterdam in 6 days. Sounds like a lot (well, it is), but it’s definitely manageable to travel around Europe and see a lot of sights in a short amount of time. We found that the best way to learn about the city and meet fellow travelers was to go on free walking tours (these exist in most European cities). For example, we met a Canadian during our Copenhagen walking tour and went out for some beers at Mikkeler bar that evening. It turns out she is a scientist who has studied abroad and recently got a top-notch job in the US. In Brussels we got an explanation for why the city is the way it is (it’s very unorganized and is a strange mix of French, Flemish, old, and new…basically a “melting pot” of Europe). We also got a great sampling of Belgian beers on a beer tasting tour, meeting many interesting people from all over the world. Of course, Chris and I had plenty of time to explore the cities on our own, eat nice food, visit museums, hold hands whilst walking alongside the Amsterdam canals, and talk about life. The whole week was pure bliss for us, and while it was tough to say goodbye again the trip was more than worth it.

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This past week my parents visited me in Finland, thus beginning my one-month-long phase of being a tour guide. It was pretty surreal seeing my parents in sights that have become so familiar to me on my own: the metro, the music building, the parks around Helsinki, etc. They were excited to see and do a lot, and we had a fantastic time together. We went to Turku and Tallinn, Estonia, as side trips. My parents, both Cold War era Americans, never thought they’d find themselves in a former Soviet Union country. We went on a KGB tour at our hotel and learned about the spying tactics that were in place during that time and also about life in Estonia during Soviet times. Other than that, we ate good food and did a lot of walking around and exploring. Finnish summer is in full bloom, with many flowers and new leaves on the trees. Though the weather is still cool and windy, it is a perfect time to enjoy Finland, especially with almost 20 hours of daylight every day! I will get to repeat the Helsinki-Turku-Tallinn tour with my friends from St. Olaf in a few days, but now it is time to rest and enjoy the suomalainen kesä.

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Hyvää Vappua!

Vappu in Helsinki.IMG_1417 IMG_1420 IMG_1422 Vappu in Tampere: Dipping the freshmen into the freezing cold river. IMG_1428 Tehe signature white caps worn by ALL graduates and high school alumni. IMG_1429

Scenes from Tampere IMG_1434

Views of the lake territory of eastern Finland


“Vappu” (Labor Day) is celebrated every May 1st in Finland, and it is a party that no one misses out on. April 30 (Vappu Eve) is the peak of the partying phase of this holiday. Every corner had someone selling balloons, every park had people having a picnic, every bench was full of people drinking beer or champagne (the police turn a blind eye to public drinking on this day so long as people are under control), and almost everyone was wearing a white sailor cap. These hats are the high school graduation caps of Finland, and they are NOT a hat you wear only once (like those in the US). Current graduates, college students, adults, and elderly people alike all wore the same hats on Vappu Eve and Vappu Day. I felt a little out of place…

Another fashion statement you may have noticed from the pictures is the jump suit. Different universities and even different departments within the same university each have their own colored jump suit. Students wear these jumpsuits while out completing different “challenges” throughout the year, and they are awarded a patch to sew on after the challenge is completed. It’s like a Girl Scout vest for college kids. Anyway, the students were out in full force on April 30. They paraded down Esplanade (a main park area in the center of Helsinki) and put their caps on the infamous statue of the naked woman. Apparently the statue was a huge scandal when it was presented in Helsinki in the early 20th century–nudity in 1900 was most appalling indeed! Naturally enough, the university students more or less “adopted” this statue and paid homage to it every year on Vappu. Needless to say, the people watching that day was fantastic!

Every city has their own Vappu traditions, and I was lucky enough to see more than just Helsinki. On the morning of May 1st, I was invited to play saxophone at the President’s Castle for President Sauli Niinistö and Finland’s “First Lady.” We played a couple of songs and were invited inside for some munkki (doughnuts), snacks, and champagne. The president and his wife were lovely hosts. They knew that the band had previously toured in Austria and was asking the director and students about their experiences (way to do your homework, Mr. President!). They also were kind enough to take a “selfie” with one of the students and they also chatted with me for a few moments. (I haven’t posted any pictures of this, because I don’t know if that’s OK to do). It turns out that the President of Finland has been to Minnesota (surprise, surprise?), as his hometown of Salo is the sister city of St. Anthony Village. Thus, we were able to small talk about Minnesota with great ease. What an incredible experience to meet a president! I’m not sure if that will happen again in my life, and I’m really glad that the president I met was the delightful Sauli Niinistö.

Back to the Vappu traditions, though. Tampere is another pretty big university town, and every year the engineering students use a crane to dip all of their freshmen into the freezing river. They seemed to be having a good time, but I was happy enough with my blankets and picnic food!

That weekend I stayed in Tampere to conduct the Bofori wind band in their final concert series. We did a collection of mostly popular music (very fitting to have light music during a holiday season) and performed a concert for a sizable crowd. It was a very nice gig!

Of course, it would be all to logical to go home after that. Instead, though, I took the train to Varkaus (saw some beautiful scenes of the lake area of Finland during the long sunset…it didn’t get dark until about 10:00 PM). I then hitched a ride to Rantasalmi (home of the mushroom hunting adventure from September and skiing from March). I had a lovely time with the Ikonen family! One day was spent watching their incredible school musical–they are nationally famous for their music theater in teeny-tiny Rantasalmi–and playing with the Ikonen children outside. The next day was spent in school. I visited a general music class at the public school, where the entire class was preparing a few rock songs for the Mother’s Day concert. All of the students were divided up as guitarists, bassists, drummers, and singers and were all participating in the performance. It was really cool! After some pea soup for lunch at the school cafeteria (verrrry Finnish) I went outside and joined the gym class’s lesson in pesapallo (Finnish baseball). The students were all in 1st grade, so the game moved pretty slowly. However, the teacher quickly found out that I have some technique in throwing and catching. When it was my turn to “bat” (just throwing the ball into the field–more manageable with 1st graders), he told me to throw it as far as I could. So I did… My team won. 🙂 After visiting the public school, I went to the music school to work with the B and A Orchestras’ marching band. I introduced the roll step into their vocabulary, watched some DCI videos, and learned a few basic moves and formations (boxes and follow-the-leader moves). It was by far the most unique gig I’ve had in Finland, and I think it worked out alright! It is always such a joy to be in that community–a small town that cares about it’s music program!

My next adventures were in the first country outside of the US I traveled to…

Easter in Finland

One adventure that deserves its own post!

For Easter I was invited to my friend’s house near Tampere, Finland. She, her husband, and her toddler twins hosted me for a traditional Finnish Easter weekend. It was excellent!

On Good Friday (called long/sad Friday in Finnish–probably a more fitting definition) I arrived at her house for a quick coffee and snack and then we were off to the beautiful Tampere cathedral for a concert: Barber, Sibelius, and the Rutter Requiem! The cathedral was beautiful as was the music.

On Saturday we went outside despite the dreary weather. We ventured into the city market, where fresh produce, pulla, bread, and tons of fish was displayed on many small shops. We picked out some fish for dinner and sampled many different breads and cheeses (not to mention enjoyed some excellent people watching!). We also went over to the Tampere lookout tower to eat some fresh munkki (Finnish doughnuts) and see the sights of the town. Then we went home and explored the neighborhood. The kids had little kick bikes, and we walked, fed the ducks, and played frisbee golf in the park. We made sushi for dinner out of the fresh fish, and it was delicious!

On Easter Sunday we went to the church service in Lempälä, a small community outside of Tampere. The Finns aren’t a particularly festive people, so I wasn’t sure what this happy day of Easter would bring. Well, I’ve been to more enthusiastic Easter services… My Finnish friends were impressed that they had a violin AND a choir, and that more than 3 hymns were sung. Other than that, it seemed like a normal service to me. I didn’t quite catch much of the service, but singing hymns in Finnish was really fun! I should do that more often to practice my language skills :).

The Easter meal was lamb (very traditional), side dishes, and mämmi for dessert. Mämmi is a pasty thick porridge-like substance made mostly of rye malt. It was dense stuff! Served with a bit of cream, and it’s not too bad. I wouldn’t eat it every day, but…well, it was alright. I think I would have liked it better with ice cream on top!

Kiitos paljon, Hanna, for an excellent and authentic Finnish Easter weekend!!

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Life on the Road

From the moment I hopped off the plane in January, I knew I was in for a busy spring semester. These past few months have taken me to all corners of Finland and surrounding countries, and it has been an incredible (and admittedly very exhausting) adventure. Here is my long-awaited summary of my crazy spring in Finland.

After our weekend in Stockholm, I hopped off the plane and onto a bus to Rantasalmi, where Chris and I enjoyed a lovely weekend skiing with the Ikonen family. There was still plenty of snow in eastern Finland, so we spent an entire day on groomed ski paths winding through the forest. Halfway into our excursion, we stopped near a tower to eat some makkara (big nasty hot dogs…Minnesotans, think “Dome Dogs” from the stadium-formerly-known-as-the-Metrodome) and snacks. Climbing up the old wooden tower was not for the faint of heart, but we did it and got to see some beautiful views of the dense forests and rolling hills of eastern Finland. After having been to Rantasalmi in the fall and winter (soon I will be going there in early May), I have to admit that eastern Finland is one of the most beautiful parts of the country. It was a great weekend spent with awesome friends!

Then I went from bus to train…Onward to Lappeenranta, where a military base and the Finnish Dragoon Band is located some 30 miles from the Russian border. Working with the military band was one of my best academic experiences in Finland. For some reason, it was the most confident and successful I felt on the podium all year, and the band and I really connected on a musical and professional level. One highlight was getting a bunch of (allegedly) grumpy Finnish military musicians to laugh and play with more spirit after a joke about drunken revelry (I’m sure they laughed out of politeness and not their first-hand experiences in such matters…). All jokes aside, we prepared Johan Svendsen’s “Norwegian Artist’s Carnival” for an excellent performance in a beautiful 18th century wooden church for a nice sized audience!

The week also brought a few extra activities and surprises. First, we got to see a former Sibelius Academy conducting student in action as she hosted us in her youth conducting class. She took it upon herself to start a beginner conducting class at the Lappeenranta music school to get young students interested in conducting. The students were all about high school aged, and they were super friendly and excited to learn. What an awesome idea! The surprise of the week was this: the king and queen of Sweden were, for some reason, visiting Lappeenranta while we were staying there! My Finnish classmates were not very enthusiastic about seeing a kings and queens (no love for monarchies here), but my Danish teacher, Peter (still enjoying the monarchy in Denmark), joined me and the masses of Lappeenranta folk to greet the Swedish royalty. How often does an American get to see a king and queen, anyway! An extra bonus to that week was a side trip to Helsinki, where I played the subcontrabass saxophone in the Helsinki Saxophone Orchestra’s 25-years concert. That saxophone is a beast! Phew, what a week…Can I go home now?

…Nope! When the Lappeenranta week ended, I took a surprisingly scenic bus ride to Jyväskylä through the forests of eastern/central Finland (also known as the middle of nowhere). It was Chris’s last weekend in Finland, and I wanted to spend time with him and help him pack. The weekend was far from relaxing, but still very fun. There were many Fulbrighters in Jyväskylä that weekend, as there was a seminar there from Thursday-Friday. As a result, we hung out with friends for dinner, drinks, coffee, a trip to the Panda chocolate factory…so many activities! Despite all that, Chris and I were able to enjoy a couple home-cooked meals and a relaxing trip to the sauna. It was definitely bittersweet to say goodbye to life in Jyväskylä.

After a short two days of class at the Sibelius Academy, Chris came down for his final day in Finland. While it wasn’t necessarily a day that either of us were looking forward to, it turned out to be a beautiful and glorious day. It as the first sunny and mild day since October, and the city of Helsinki was coming out of hibernation. People helped others into tram cars, chameleon-ed themselves into the cozy nooks in the rocks by the beach to sneekily read a book in the sunshine, and I almost saw a Finn smiling…Seriously, though, there was a huge shift in energy going on in the city, and it was a fantastic day to be outside and explore the parks, beaches, and shipyards of Helsinki. We stopped often for snacks and coffee (and maybe a beer or two), and snuggled inside with some delicious pizza for dinner.

And just like that, Chris was gone and I was off to Espoo for the Finnish version of the Midwest Clinic. I played in a concert with the Sibelius Academy Winds and met with a lot of friends and colleagues in the wind music world. Though my heart was only halfway there, it was healthy to be around wonderful people and play some music while coping with Chris’s move back to Minnesota.

And I had to keep my head in the game, because less than a week after Chris left our class hosted Captain Michelle Rakers from the President’s Own Marines Band (no pressure). It was so great to work with such an incredible conductor and insightful person!

Before I had time to process all of that, though, I was off to western Finland to conduct in an honor band in Huittinen. Rehearsals were from 6:00-9:00 on Friday night, 10:00-8:00 on Saturday, and 10:00-3:30 on Sunday (concert included). Wow! The students were really attentive, enthusiastic, and musical. They were mostly farm kids who just happened to love playing music in a band, and they reminded me a ton of the Pine City students. Needless to say, it was an awesome time!

Because I apparently hate sleeping in my own bed, I planned a tour of music schools in western Finland right after the Huittinen weekend. I visited Rauma, a beautiful historical town on the western coast of Finland with a HUGE band tradition, and I also visited the music conservatory in Turku. It was great to see how other schools in Finland ran their music schools and explore the beautiful Old Town of Rauma and jog along the river in Turku. While the countryside is more flat and boring in western Finland, the towns are very old and quaint. It was a worthwhile adventure!

I had a few days to crash at home before giving a 40 minute presentation about competitive marching bands in the US for the 2nd “American Voices Seminar.” The seminar was for English language teachers in Finland, and they were really enthusiastic about my presentation…Because marching band and drum corps are awesome!

After the seminar weekend I immediately started our final project at the Sibelius Academy: the Korvat Auki concert. Korvat Auki is an association of young composers in Finland, and our class collaborated with them to arrange a concert of new music for wind band. It was a really cool project, and I absolutely loved the piece I was assigned. It was awesome to work with a composer in real time to prepare for a concert. Usually, the composer of the score you are studying is somewhere far away (or dead), so the conductor has to guess what the composer’s intentions and visions were for the music. Now there was no room for misinterpretation! It was an excellent experience.

In mid-April I had a week off. Why relax at home when I could enjoy life on the road some more?? A couple of Fulbrighters and I had discussed a trip to the country that had ruled Finland until 1917: Russia. You can travel to Russia visa-free by taking the ferry from Helsinki to St. Petersburg and staying in the city for no more than 72 hours. Sounds exciting! …So we did it. I saw my first opera (Spartacus) at the Mariinsky Theater, oggled over the splendors of the Hermitage, explored St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Church on the Spilled Blood, and walked around the streets of Classically-styled old St. Petersburg. The city was crowded and busy, but the main tourist areas were quite clean and safe. We weren’t daring enough to get a glimpse of the rest of the city, which was probably a good call. The language gap in Russia is much more intense than in Finland, and none of us spoke Russian. The restaurants we went in worked fine for English-speaking tourists, but in some of the bakeries we had to simply point and gesture at what we wanted. It was exotic enough for a short trip, and it made me really curious to learn more about Russia. That’s one of the best phenomena of traveling: sparking curiosity. I would definitely consider going back to Russia again and seeing a bigger picture of the country (beyond just the touristy areas), but preferably with someone who speaks the language!

Now our final week of class has officially ended. We went to the Tikkakoski Air Force base to work with the Air Force jazz band. It was a cool way to end the year–what an excellent group! Can you imagine a conducting master’s class at an American University simply getting to spend a week with the Airmen of Note or the Marines Band? Well, that’s one of the luxuries of studying in a small country with a huge appreciation for music!

Next up is a Vappu week. May 1st is Labor Day in Finland, and it is a HUGE celebration, especially if the weather is nice. Not to worry, I still have MANY more days on the road and stories to tell before I fly home in the summer.

(NOTE: I could not get my pictures to upload in this post, but I will try again soon in a separate post!).

Vi besøkte Stockholm! (We visited Stockholm!)

Well, actually that was in Norwegian…but close enough to Swedish, right?

Chris and I had a final “hurrah” in late February: a mini-vacation to Stockholm. We found some cheap plane tickets and decided that, after our excellent trips to Estonia and Lapland in the fall, we should try to do one more short trip together in the winter.

Something the average American doesn’t know is that Finland was (like most of the other Nordic countries) once ruled by Sweden. In fact, it was part of Sweden for quite a long time (some scholars say it started as early as the 12th century and lasted until 1809). Swedish is the 2nd official language of Finland; all students are required to learn Swedish in public schools. Some parts of Finland are entirely Swedish-speaking (the area around the city of Vaasa, for example), and I hear some people speaking Swedish here and there in Helsinki. (Don’t get me wrong: Finland is proudly Finnish, and most Finns claim English as their most fluent other language instead of Swedish). Anyway, considering that history we were interested in checking out a country that has close cultural ties to Finland.

In Stockholm we enjoyed the life of a tourist. For example, we couldn’t pass down eating at a restaurant called “Meatballs for the People” (We ate meatballs with potatoes and lingonberries. Chris got a shirt). We explored the city’s Old Town, where the royal palace and Nobel museum are located, on the first day and checked out the museums inside the palace. The royal apartments, where guests of the royal family stayed, were filled with ornate decorations. The royal armory had (creepily) the clothes that several Swedish kings were killed in during various battles and controversial assassinations. The royal treasury had collections of queens’ crowns, robes, orbs, and scepters (maybe they even had one from Queen Elsa from “Frozen”…). Basically, lots of royal things. Since Finland has no history of kings and queens, it was fascinating to look back on the lavish lifestyles of Swedish nobility. Even compared to the things I saw during my summer in Norway (2009), Sweden took the cake in terms of a history of wealth, prosperity, and wartime drama.

Another thing we saw that was super interesting was the Vasa Museum. In the 1950’s, Swedish scientists were able to remove a huge ship from the 1600’s that sunk on its maiden voyage. Thanks to the low salinity of the Baltic Sea (chemistry), the water preserved the wooden ship for centuries. After some careful planning, they turned the ship into a museum about 17th century ship building, sailing, and life at sea. Fascinating! If you’re ever in Stockholm, you should definitely check out that museum.

We also got to see some Nordic animals (including a lynx!) at an outdoor museum and eat more nice (though expensive…darn Scandinavian countries…) food. Check out some pictures from our trip! I’m hoping to get more “caught up” in blogging in the coming weeks.

My next adventure in April will take me to the country that ruled Finland from 1809-1917…

IMG_1097 Sleeping Lynx at the Zoo The Vasa Museum DSC00302 Meatballs for the People DSC00290 Inside the Royal Palace

Winter in Finland

I must say, Chris and I were looking at our return trip to Finland after Christmas with a bit of despair. Sure, at that time we were sunbathing in Arizona and had the somber 9:30 A.M. sunrises and 3:00 P.M. sunsets to look forward to in Finland, so who wouldn’t be a little saddened by that reality? After a crazy 10 days back in Finland (working nonstop with professional and amateur bands far away from Helsinki), I began to settle into what winter in Finland is really like.

To sum it up, it’s absolutely lovely. (Really!) The weather in southern Finland is significantly tamer than most Minnesota winters I’ve lived through (usually temps hover around the freezing point), and, while the days are short, they get noticeably longer with each passing week. The month of February in Finnish language is called “helmikuu,” which literally translates to “pearl moon.” That was one of the most enjoyable months I’ve had in Finland. With daylight getting over 30 minutes longer with each passing week, the light reflects on the snow and surrounding landscape more and more vividly. In early February, I visited Chris in Jyväskylä, where they had experienced their coldest days of the year (nothing any Midwesterner couldn’t handle, though). When I arrived, I noticed the large park on the north side of town was covered in…something. At first, it looked like a fresh coat of snow, but as I looked more carefully I realized that it was a thick coat of frost. It looked so enchanting and delicate, but it didn’t melt away during the daylight (perhaps because of the weak sun rays and low temps). The entire city looked like it was made of crystal for the entire weekend. Even during pitch darkness it felt like I was walking through a black and bright white dream world. That fragile beauty made me realize what the month of “helmikuu” was all about. Here’s another description of Finnish winter from a former Fulbrighter (and my good friend), Dan, who also lived in Jyväskylä:

“Let me see if I can accurately describe Finnish winter. Yes, it is cold and dark. But there are many other aspects to it as well. Finnish winter has very distinctive light. During the shortest days there is little of it, of course, but the low sun when it is above the horizon makes for very distinctive lighting on everything outdoors. Shadows are long and paint the landscape in a thousand shades of grey, especially on open fields, where the low-angle light brings out every irregularity on the snow-covered surface. When it gets really cold—like around -15 C (single digits F), which it was for most of December—everything gets covered with a crystalline frost. Every branch, twig, and needle sparkles in brilliant white. Often the landscape is like a black-and-white photograph. The only things with color are man-made objects like street signs and buildings. The snow, which we do not have any more of than in upstate NY, acts as an insulator, so everything is quiet and still.

When the conditions are right, the colors of winter emerge. When the moon is full and the sky is clear, like it was the night before Christmas Eve in Juva, the moonlight washes the landscape in muted shades of blue. The following morning, one of the shortest days of the year, there was a surprising amount of light from the moon reflecting off the snow. And at dawn and dusk when it’s really cold, the colors are not orange, like we usually associate with these times of day, but pink.

Outsiders consider Finland to be a forbidding place in winter, but the colors of the season are often breathtaking. Some day, some foreign photographer is going to discover the beauties of this place and do for Finnish winter what Ansel Adams did for the American West.”

I don’t know if pictures will do it justice, but hopefully the photos in this post will give you some idea…IMG_1053 IMG_1043 IMG_1045 IMG_1056 IMG_1066 IMG_1087

A Holiday Month: Where is “home,” anyway?

Well, here I am with a few minutes to reflect on the whirlwind that was the holiday season. Chris and I literally traveled across the country: Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Iowa City, Phoenix, and even Pine City, MN (my old home).

The Midwest Clinic in Chicago was the main reason we went back to the US for the holidays. In case you haven’t heard of it, it is the biggest wind music (band and orchestras) festival in the world. Thousands of people from across the country and the globe make the trip every year to network, hear famous people lecture about profound and practical musical topics, and attend incredible concerts (for example, The Airmen of Note: the US Air Force Jazz Band). The Sibelius Academy Wind Ensemble played a premier concert on the Friday night of the clinic (I think there were almost 2,000 in the audience), and I had the chance to see a lot of old friends and colleagues, attend lectures and concerts, browse instruments and sheet music, and eat the best pizza in the US of A. With my friends Alex and Katie, former instructors at St. Olaf, and both of my parents at the concert, I experienced a really fun mix of being with people I hadn’t seen in a long time and a bunch of international students who had never been to America before. It was a great week!

The weekend was equally upbeat, as I spent it at the Truax’s house just outside of Milwaukee for their family Christmas parties. Between all of the chatty band directors and musicians at Midwest, the ukulele duets with the Truax’s, and shopping in a store entirely dedicated to cheese, crackers and jam (for said cheese), and beer, I was going through quite a bit of “reverse culture shock” during my first week back in the US…And I was loving it!

While I was in Milwaukee, Chris was catching up with his twin sister and her cuddley dog, Rio, in Detroit. We met up in Minnesota just in time for me to catch the annual cookie baking party with friends in Waseca and for Chris to catch influenza… Ok, so while the next leg of our trip home was rough in that respect, we were able to visit a ton of family members and friends between Minnesota and Iowa. Also, I figured out how to drive a car again (4 months later…) and sampled great American delicacies such as Chipotle, Q’doba, Pancheros, BBQ ribs…(sigh). Christmas ROCKS!

We were both healthy in the waning moments of 2014. In fact, we were getting caught up on our Vitamin D supplies by soaking up the sun in Arizona! I had my 26th birthday in a place with a warm climate for the first time ever (best birthday ever!). My family and Chris’s brother and sister visited my grandma and had an awesome time going swimming, hiking, rock climbing (well, the boys did that…I took pictures), and eating delicious, delicious Tex-Mex (sigh).

My final few days in the US were spent back in Minnesota, and I really made them count! Chris was already back in Finland, so I decided to catch up with some of my college friends in Minneapolis, visit my former teaching mentor at school, and stop by my old home, Pine City, all in a span of a few days. It was so refreshing to see so many familiar and friendly faces. I couldn’t believe how many people wanted to talk with me! I rarely hear a conversation in English on the streets of Helsinki, and seeking out a conversation with a stranger (i.e. “small talk”) is a completely foreign concept in Finland. Thus, I’m used to leading a pretty quiet life in Finland day-by-day. My time back in the US really gave my voice a work out in a really great way!

And I really needed that energy and rejuvenation in my first week back in Finland, because it was INTENSE! I arrived back in Helsinki on a Monday night, took the Tuesday 8:00 A.M. train to Turku, and spent the week with the Finnish Navy Band. We had 4 hours of rehearsal every day, an indefinite number of hours watching video from those rehearsals, and the rest of the hours of the day left for studying, practicing, and trying to ignore jet lag! The musicians in the Navy Band are all professionals, so the quality and responsiveness of the ensemble was amazing. The band was also supplemented by Turku Conservatory students, which gave us a nice BIG sound. I managed to introduce my piece at the concert in Finnish (it was a children’s concert, so I wanted everyone in the crowd to understand me), which was actually a lot more difficult that I could have ever imagined. You see, I was conducting a collection of music from the Harry Potter movies. (Piece of cake, eh? Gryffindor and all that jazz). The problem is that the Finnish translation of the world of Harry Potter is a little out of whack. For example, “Hogwarts” is “Tylypahka”…And I’ll just stop the list there. You know you’re trying to learn an impossible language when…

Well, that impossible language is what I attempted to use when I had my first conducting gig the day after the Turku concert. I was the director of the B-Orchestra in Varkaus at the Hankihönkäys (go ahead and try to pronounce that) weekend honor band camp. It was quite the experience, indeed! As my classmates warned me, the first rehearsal went terribly. I was so worried that I picked the wrong level of music, but things started piecing together after some sectional time and extra practice in the afternoon. The camp treated Chris and I and the rest of the conductors to a delicious dinner (Hallelujah! Good steak exists somewhere in Finland!), and then a really remarkable thing happened the next morning. Instead of forgetting everything we worked on, the band actually got better overnight! We had an awesome rehearsal on Sunday (despite me stumbling through Finnish numbers and figures of speech), and we were ready to go for the afternoon concert. The B Orchestra was joined by the A Orchestra trombonists for a roaring “Lassus Trombone,” and the entire A and B Orchestras combined to play Sousa’s “Washington Post March” as our final piece. It was a blast!

Now Chris and I are basically back in the swing of things with our daily lives. I am studying and practicing as much as I can, and Chris is discovering new projects and ideas for chemistry. He will rejoin his lab in Minnesota in March, thus ending his Finnish adventure. I’ll be here until July, so at least the midnight sun is on the horizon (in 6 more months…). IMG_2507 IMG_2377 IMG_2461 IMG_0954 IMG_0959 IMG_0983 IMG_1023

A Weekend in Lapland

For those of you who don’t know, “Lapland” is the name for the northernmost region of Finland. Basically all of Lapland is above the arctic circle. Chris and I decided to take a weekend trip to this winter wonderland and see what it’s all about!

We searched Air B&B and found a random place to rent that was relatively close to the Kittilä airport, and it turns out we were headed straight for the skiing capital of Finland: Levi. The ski resort town had miles of cross country ski trails and a large downhill ski area…Sweet! We were really excited for a weekend of skiing, Christmas shopping (yep, my mom would have a blast with all of the souvenir shops in the village), and our first glimpse of the northern lights.

Our flight took us straight north from Helsinki. As it neared our destination at around noon, I couldn’t help but chuckle at the “intense” sunlight: “high noon in the Arctic.” It is DARK in this part of the world in December. In fact, my smartphone’s weather app. informed me that the sun would rise at 11:00 and set at 1:15 that day. At least it’s better than 24 hours of darkness!

Actually, the snow illuminated everything beautifully. Chris and I were so excited to rent a car and explore the area (and to drive a car for the first time in 4 months…watch out for reindeer!!), and our drive into Levi was absolutely stunning. On Friday we got the lay of the land and also did some cross country skiing in the afternoon. The trails were scenic and challenging (Chris may have wiped out going down a hill, and I will also admit that I am less agile on CC skis..though I have no bruises to prove it!). We really worked up a sweat, and our efforts were rewarded by being passed by every other skier on the track between the ages of 15-75. Oh, wait…We were rewarded by cooking a delicious dinner and hopping in the sauna that evening!

On Saturday we woke up (not bright) and early to hit the downhill ski slopes. We went over to the hill and were immediately VERY confused about the chair lifts. You see, they weren’t chairs and didn’t lift you…so you could see where that would be confusing! We took a couple of trips up the kiddie run just to get used to the lift, and then we headed towards a run that seemed much more interesting. By interesting, I mean it was the longest run I’ve ever done in my life! (Thank you very much, Midwest skiing). The run started above the tree line, so I took some time to soak in some nice scenery before spending the next several minutes skiing down the hill (aaah, my legs are on FIRE!). It was GREAT! We skied all day, and then I made Chris go on a drive (away from the well-light ski hill) to catch some northern lights.

When I was a kid, I would look out of the car window as my family drove home from Christmas Eve parties. I would gaze at the sky intently, trying to catch Santa’s sleigh in the sky. …It was an unsuccessful project. That’s basically how our attempt to see the northern lights went on Saturday night. The skies were clear (a rarity in Finland), but the moon was full and lighting up the entire sky. No luck. It was such a bummer!

The next day, we finished up some Christmas shopping, skied again, and headed towards the airport. On the way to the airport, I said, “Chris, look! I see a northern light!!” After the previous evening’s expedition, he didn’t take me very seriously. That was a mistake, because it was DEFINITELY a northern light. (The wife is always right…) I snapped some pictures from the car window, and the two of us got to watch it before going into the airport. It was a perfect way to wrap up our weekend trip to Lapland!

This week, I am rehearsing with the Sibelius Academy Wind Ensemble in preparation for our trip to Chicago’s Midwest Clinic. This is a HUGE venue that I’ve always wanted to go to, and I’m so excited to be a part of it this year! This time next week I will be on my way back to the USA! Chris will join me later in December after he wraps up some projects and publications in the lab (yay, productivity!).

Happy Holidays, everyone!

Finnish-style doughnuts and coffee at the airport

Finnish-style doughnuts and coffee at the airport


"High Noon" in Lapland

“High Noon” in Lapland

Our first glance at a winter wonderland

Our first glance at a winter wonderland

Cross-country skiing at 2:30 P.M.

Cross-country skiing at 2:30 P.M.

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Lapland snacks: reindeer-flavored (??) chips and "bread cheese"

Lapland snacks: reindeer-flavored (??) chips and “bread cheese”


Our fun "chairlifts!"

Our fun “chairlifts!”

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Autumn in Finland

The conducting class meets Santa

The conducting class meets Santa

The Turku cathedral

The Turku cathedral

September in Rovaniemi

September in Rovaniemi

On my first cruise ship!

On my first cruise ship!

Views of Old Town, Tallinn

Views of Old Town, Tallinn

Sunlight at noon in early November

Sunlight at noon in early November



Finnish Parliament votes to legalize same sex marriage

Finnish Parliament votes to legalize same sex marriage

Conducting in the Pikkujoulu Concert

Conducting in the Pikkujoulu Concert

Clearly absolutely nothing has happened between the middle of September and Thanksgiving weekend! Just kidding, allow me to catch you up on things…

In the end of September, I took a trip with the conducting class to Rovaniemi, Finland. The city is right on the Arctic Circle and is home to some 58,000 people, an important military base (with an EXCELLENT military band!), and Santa’s “official” village. We spent the week working with the professional military band on Finnish wind band pieces, and it was an incredibly positive and supportive experience. The class had plenty of time to bond during these rehearsals and our expedition to Santa’s village (4 inches of snow included!). We ventured through an admittedly creepy-looking building full of mannequins of magical creatures and oversized toys and stuffed animals. After that jarring experience, we found a very amiable Santa Claus with a most impressive fake beard! I never knew that Finnish Santa was so jolly and good at small talk! Our 10-minute session with Santa ended with a harmonious singing of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (in English and Finnish) and of course purchasing the rights to share our Santa picture with the world (see below).

In the beginning of October, Chris and I traveled to Turku for the Fulbright “American Voices” seminar. I was assigned to give a 15 minute presentation about “something American” to the University of Turku’s American Studies students, so I chose to talk about competitive marching bands and drum corps in the US. As expected, the presentations consisted of a wide array of topics (football, politics, the history of craft brews…). It was a nice weekend to see friends and explore Turku. We went to the cathedral in the center of the town (15th century I think) and our friend Mia took us to the Turku castle (an excellent museum!) before we left on Sunday.

We spent the last weekend of October in Tallinn, Estonia. It was our first trip outside of Finland this year, and it was a blast! Tallinn is actually quite close to Helsinki, so we took a short 2.5 hour cruise ship ride across the Baltic Sea into Estonia (that alone is an experience in itself). Despite the short distance, the sights of Tallinn were remarkably different from Helsinki. The “Old Town” dates back to the 13th century, and it is astonishingly well-preserved (considering its history as an important city for trade, WWII, and years of Soviet occupation). We spent the day exploring the stunning sights of Old Town, visiting several museums (and leaving several more on the “to do next time” list), eating lunch at a soup shop that reminded me of something out of Game of Thrones, enjoying some “thank God this place is cheaper than Finland” beverages, and going out for a delicious dinner. The city was so beautiful and historic, and after a short 24 hours of vacation time we felt completely recharged!

Chris has been settling into things in Jyväskylä. His lab work has been quite successful (yay!), and he has had some fun experiences with his colleagues. In fact, we had a very unique “Halloween” in that one of his lab mates defended his dissertation that day. The PhD defense process is incredibly elaborate in Finland. His friend invited an expert in that branch of chemistry all the way from England to Jyväskylä to “challenge” his dissertation. The process of challenging a dissertation can last anywhere from 2-6 hours, and it consists of academic discussion and sometimes a heated debate. When the challenge was over, we had a reception with cake and coffee and then proceeded to a fancy dinner hosted by the PhD candidate. Between the nerve-racking challenge, reception, dinner, and post-dinner speeches, the whole experience reminded me of a wedding! Also, I saw this internet meme that said, “in Finland, you are given a top hat and sword when you get a PhD diploma.” I had the chance to fact check that statement…and it turns out that it’s true!

My first semester at the Sibelius Academy has been challenging and rewarding. I have worked with EIGHT different wind band conducting teachers, which has given me a really well-rounded perspective of the subject (to say the least). I have also studied and conducted probably around 20 pieces of music, maybe more. The pace of the class is FAST, but it has exposed me to a ton of band repertoire!

The month of November in Finnish is called “marraskuu,” which literally translates into “dead moon.” How uplifting! Well, it is indeed the season of rain/drizzle/sleet/something that isn’t quite snow. Yes, the days have been short, cloudy, and dark. But I also want to let it be known that I have NOT officially put on my winter jacket yet, which means my friends and family from Minnesota are besides themselves with jealousy. Other than the sun rising at 9:00 A.M. and setting at 3:00 P.M., it’s not THAT bad here in Finland!

The last few days of November were incredibly eventful. When you’re an expat, Thanksgiving is a tough holiday for homesickness. When you’re an expat living in a place that absolutely NEEDS to have something to look forward to in the depressing month of marraskuu…It’s especially tough. The Fulbright organization did an excellent job of organizing fun and interesting activities for Thanksgiving weekend. We got a tour of the Fazer chocolate factory on Thursday morning (free samples included? YES!) and then we enjoyed a potluck Thanksgiving dinner in Helsinki. We were even able to stream a football game (I don’t know which made me shed a tear: the fact that I got to watch football or the fact that it was the stupid Lions vs. Bears game). On Friday, we got a tour of Finland’s Parliament building. The tour was scheduled about a year in advance, and it just so happened that Friday was a really important day in Finnish politics. While we were on our tour of the building, our guide led us into the gallery of the room where the members of Parliament were passing/rejecting bills. One of those bills was to legalize same sex marriage in Finland, so the gallery was pretty full and emotional (by Finnish standards–when the bill passed, there was a single “Woot!” and a few tears…then everyone left.). Definitely a neat experience. I was lucky enough to have another expat Thanksgiving dinner on Friday evening and a Tex-Mex themed dinner with the conducting class on Saturday night. It was a great weekend to eat and socialize!

It was also a great weekend to work! The conducting class had its Pikkujoulu (“Little Christmas”) concert on Sunday afternoon, and it was a blast! There were a lot of Fulbrighters in the audience (thanks for the support!) and the band played really well. What a great way to wrap up the weekend!

Next up is a trip deep into the heart of Lapland (fingers crossed for a chance to see the Northern Lights!!), a week of intensive band rehearsals, and a trip to the Chicago Midwest Clinic, where the Sibelius Academy Winds will perform a concert of Finnish wind band music! Hopefully I’ll get another post in to share stories and pictures from those adventures before Christmas. Thanks for reading!