Between travel and the time change, the previous day had lasted 44 hours before I went to sleep shortly before midnight. Despite this, I awoke at 3 a.m. for reasons not completely known. While certainly unplanned, this gave me the opportunity to fully appreciate the Finnish summer only one week after the solstice. I can only assume that darkness fell on the country for a brief period but I myself never saw it.
Lessons in City Travel
Our morning task was simple: Check out of our first hotel and arrive at our second. Both hotels were in Helsinki but a continuous stay was not possible due to the availability of rooms. I was put in charge of navigation to the Hilton and was confidently armed with Google Maps, an international cell phone data plan, and a newly gained general understanding of the city’s tram system.
We boarded our tram as planned and made our way to the city center. As the tram was stopped a few blocks away from the central train station we had one more stop before disembarking to transfer to another line. After several minutes, I realized our tram was ahead of schedule and waiting for its scheduled departure time. As our transfer point was mid-way between the two stops, I suggested we exit from here and walk to the connection point. When I left the car about to be followed by the others, the doors closed and we became separated. Momentarily unsure what else to do, I smiled and waved goodbye to my confused traveling companions as the tram left the stop.
I attempted to run after the tram and catch it at its next station, but lost it after a blind turn among a network of interconnected rail lines. It was at this point I realized that we had not made any plan for separation. I also realized that I was not completely sure how to make a call from one US number to another while in Finland. After a few failed attempts at international dialing and an unreturned email (the others had their data plans turned off), I migrated between tram stations while a light rain fell. We eventually made connection by email and agreed we would both make our way and meet at the new hotel.
With communication restored and a plan in place, I double checked the location of the Hilton and make my way solo across Helsinki. I arrived and inquired as to my companions, only to find that they had not yet arrived. I attempted to check in but was told I did not have a reservation. Fortunately, I was carrying my confirmation paperwork and I soon discovered that there are two Hiltons in Helsinki, at opposite sides of the city. With the delays mounting and they day’s schedule in jeopardy, I opted for a 20-minute cab ride across town to finally be reunited with the group. Though this was all obviously unintended, in retrospect I greatly enjoyed the adventure and challenge of having to figure out what to do and navigating a foreign city in order to be reunited with the team.
Shortly after being reunited, I again broke away from the others. This time, however, it was preplanned. When I first decided to join the study abroad group and travel to Finland, I made inquiries through some at my church as to contacts in the area. This was not part of the academic program, but rather a personal opportunity to develop relationships between congregations around the world.
Through several degrees of separation, I was able to make contact with the International Evangelical Church of Finland (IEC Finland). They operate two services in Helsinki and one in Porvoo, all occurring primarily in English. The IEC is loosely affiliated with the Lutheran church but operates independently. Started by Americans in Finland, the church focuses on outreach to expatriates including refugees, asylum seekers, and others moving to Finland from abroad. The congregation is made up of both Finns and non-Finns and is open to all. The church’s outreach includes multiple levels of Finnish language classes and assistance to those attempting assimilation into Finnish society.
I attended the 1 p.m. worship service held at the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Mission building. The IEC does not own a physical building but rather uses spaces from other congregations to gather. For a time, they were meeting in the Temppeliaukio (Rock Church) which we visited the previous day. Their normal lead pastor, Samuel Vogel, was on sabbatical the week I visited but the meeting was led by Pastor Fabian Sewoyeba Woyu, a Cameroonian minister who worked across Africa but who now leads a Cameroonian congregation within Finland. A delightful man, his love of God and people was transparent. We had the opportunity to speak for a time following the service and exchanged contact information for the future.
The church holds an informal social event with coffee and pastries following each service. There, I was able to get to know Marlene, who is originally from North Carolina and was my initial contact to the church, along with her Finnish friend Johanna. I also met a man originally from Texas, an Iranian woman who is fluent in Persian, Finnish, and English and is working as a translator contracted to the Finnish government, a staff member with Lutheran Missions originally from Australia, and an American woman with her young son who moved from New York to Sweden for grad school and later married her Swedish husband and moved to Finland.
After coffee, Marlene and Johanna invited me to lunch where I sampled Finnish staples such as Karjalanpiirakka (Karelian Pie) and salmon served over potato salad on rye. Finnish food is not extravagant but savory and satisfying, blending fish, rice, rye, potatoes, and in the Northern regions, sausage.
As we ate, we discussed Finland’s role within the EU and the current political situation from the perspective of Finland’s history with Europe and Russia. Johanna felt that EU membership was not universally beneficial for the Finnish people. For example, her son is a farmer who must plant all his crops using EU guidelines. She said even if he plants a small section of crops for only his family’s use, this still must be declared or he could face penalties. She also felt that while there was some benefit from the EU — specifically the switch to the Euro currency — on the whole, Finnish citizens not receive the corresponding benefits from what they pay into the system. Johanna told me that when Finland joined the EU, the popular vote was touted as only EU political membership, not currency adoption. Switching to the Euro was supposed to be a second referendum. After the first vote, however, Finland adopted both the EU and the Euro.
While this and other conversations represent only distinct slices of the greater Finnish perspective, I found the input invaluable as a means of cultural and political understanding. Great facts can be learned by study, research, and review, but the addition of this type of personal context is exactly the reason I chose to travel as part of this educational program.