Up to this point in my life, the most incredible summer I’ve ever had was spent in Finland. To some, this may sound dull or insignificant. Some may think I must not have experienced too much in my life, or had very many good summers. They must not have seen or heard or felt Finland like I have. They must not know what those tingly goose bumps feel like on sweaty skin after leaving the sauna and a cool summer breeze comes along to brush against the neck and shoulders. They must not know how the fresh strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, and cucumbers smell like as their aromas float through the air at the Helsinki market on a Sunday afternoon. They must not know how it feels to stare into the vastness of a lake, a clear blue penetrating into the eyes, as one wonders where water meets sky and where sky meets water. But I do. And I’ll do my best to put it into words.
In the seventh grade, I wasn’t like a lot of the other kids in my school. I was fascinated with a country called Finland, and wanted to tell everyone about it. I was fascinated with Finnish traditions, language, and nature. I was always dreaming about Finland. I had Finland fever. When, in the eighth grade, I found out about a Finland summer scholarship through Youth for Understanding called the Finland – U.S. Senate Youth Exchange programme, or FUSYE for short, I found myself counting the days until I became eligible to apply. After waiting a few years and finally applying to the FUSYE programme, I had been accepted and found myself prepping to leave for Finland. I was nervous, excited, scared, and overjoyed, all at the same time.
And then I made it to Finland. I arrived to Helsinki and was quickly whisked off to Turku, a city that was perfect in every way. I remember everything about Turku, getting ice cream in the city centre, shopping in the beautiful stores on the street, and the market where I could buy fresh fruits and vegetables. I remember a short trip to the Baltic Sea, where we sat in a sauna, swam to sea, and repeated. I remember the warm faces of the people I met in Turku. I remember the way the sun lingered against the sea, never fully leaving.
After my time in Turku, it was time to go to my host family. My host family was in Jyväskylä, a good-sized city in central Finland. If I had thought I had fallen in love with Finland in Turku, it is because I hadn’t yet been to Jyväskylä. Even writing this a year later after my exchange, everything about my time there remains clear in my head. I remember the countless times my host sisters, Maija, Maaria, Saara, and I bicycled to Jyväsjärvi, the lake in the centre of Jyväskylä, and spent hours laughing on the shore laying in the sun. I remember riding our bicycles down the path around Jyväsjärvi, but stopping instead at a place called Viherlandia, where we got vanilla ice cream and looked at all of the beautiful Iittala glass we could buy.
One thing about Finland I will never forget is called the kesämökki, or in English, the summer cottage. My host family had a summer cottage where we often met Mummo (Grandma) and Pappa (Grandpa) for a day of sauna, swimming, and strawberries. My host sisters I would go to sauna and jump in the lake where they would teach me Finnish rhymes and songs. Then we would go back to sauna for a few more minutes and to the lake again, until Mummo called us inside to guess the number of strawberries she had prepared in a very large glass bowl. (The winner got extra.) While I didn’t win, there were still plenty of strawberries, sugar, and cream to go around and so many people I was coming to love to share these moments with.
So many unforgettable things happened to me in Finland. I visited amazing sights like the countryside of a place called Kangasala, the bustling urban area of Helsinki, even a UNESCO World Heritage landmark, the Old Church of Petäjävesi. Even so, all of these places I went to and things I did seem to pale against the thoughts of all of the people I came across. Finland is vivid, captivating, and extremely beautiful, but its people are even more so. It’s true some people in Finland may come across as shy or guarded at first, but behind all of that, they are the warmest people I know. I think about my host family in Finland everyday. I think about how they have affected me and how much they care about me. I cannot help but be humbled by them. I have never known so many people with so much heart.
Come to Finland to see the vastness of nature, the beauty. Come to wander and explore, to truly get lost. Most of all, come to meet a people who are as unique and inspiring as the country they inhabit.
Yhdysvaltalainen Jenna vietti kesän 2009 Jyväskylässä FUSYE-stipendiaattina.