Connection: Our Human Nature

When I first began reading about Finland, the people, and the culture, I read that Finns can be reserved and introverted, especially in the wintertime when everyone hibernates during the long, dark hours. I remember Maija, one of our Fulbright Distinguished Teachers from Finland that studied in the US this past fall, saying that we Americans are so friendly, and will tell anyone our life stories. While these generalizations of our two cultures exist, I can only base my opinions on the experiences I have had thus far: The people here in Joensuu are some of the nicest, friendliest people I have ever met. They have made my first two weeks in a new country the best.

Making Connections in Joensuu

The Hiltunens: Let’s talk about how I came to live here at Kontionkatu 6, with Santeri and his wife Anna. Back in September, I was beginning to get concerned about my housing situation in Joensuu. I had learned that housing was very impacted due to the amount of exchange students at the university, and it was likely they wouldn’t have a university apartment for me. I began to look into other means of housing, which was not easy as I did not speak Finnish and would not be in Finland until January, still several months away. I ended up reaching out on the Couchsurfing network, one I have used several times throughout my travels. I have stayed and hosted some wonderful people, and have gained a glimpse into a different side of a culture by living with a host. In November, Santeri contacted me, saying he had just moved into a house and was looking to rent out a room. The house was about 2km from the University. Perfect. Santeri and Anna are about my age, have traveled quite a bit, lived abroad, and Anna is German! I couldn’t help but feel like this would be the perfect match.

I have a room on the ground floor of the house

When I arrived in Joensuu last week, I felt even more so I had made the right choice. Because Santeri and Anna are currently out of town, I was met by Saara and Sippo, his parents. Again, I was overwhelmed with hospitality and warmth from this family.

Last weekend, Saara invited me to her house in Niittylahti, about 15km outside of Joensuu. They have a beautiful wood house tucked into the woods on Lake Pyhäselkä. What a wonderful evening! Saara and Sippo have spent many years living abroad in Thailand and Vietnam, and have many friends around the world. We spend much of the evening discussing living abroad, cultural differences we have encountered, and, of course, education. What a refreshing feeling to have “real” conversation with like-minded people.

The Saimaa ringed seal (norppa) on display in the biology department at UEF

Side note on science: We watched a program with Saara’s grandkids about the norppa, or Lake Saimaa ringed seal, a rare lake seal that is found in only 5 lakes in the entire world, one of which is right here in Eastern Finland.

Read more about the Lake Saimaa ringed seal: University of Eastern Finland Research or On Safari to see Rare Finnish Lake Seals



After dinner, Saara and I went on a nighttime snowshoe on the lake, which is right out their backyard! While my picture doesn’t quite do it justice, it was a beautiful walk around a small island situated in the lake, with just a little moonlight peaking through the clouds. Saara informed me that on a clear night, you may even be able to see the northern lights from her backyard. I am patiently waiting for the skies to clear and the temperatures to drop, increasing the chances of seeing the lights.

Snowshoeing on Lake Pyhäselkä at nighttime

The evening would not be complete without a sauna! After our snowshoe we enjoyed the sauna. Saara and Sippo have a wood burning sauna (most others are heated with electricity), which was ready for us when we came back inside. The steam is created by pouring water over the hot stones. At a nice 80C/167F, this was a most enjoyable way to end the evening.

Processed with MOLDIV
A sauna is typical in almost every Finnish house

Making Connections at the University

The University of Eastern Finland, Joensuu

My advisors, Kari and Sari: I met Janet English, a Fulbright Distinguished Teacher here in Joensuu in 2013, at our Fulbright orientation in August. She was one of the alum there to help guide us and give us tips and tricks for life in Finland. She was also here in Joensuu (most others go to Jyväskylä or Helsinki), and had Kari as her advisor at the University. When she found out that Kari would also be my advisor, she was beyond excited for me, and told me over and over what a wonderful person he was. She could not have been more accurate in her description of him, and he is part of the reason my experience here so far has been so wonderful. He spent the past semester at Stanford as a Fulbright Scholar as well. Kari, along with Sari, my other advisor, have bent over backwards to make sure we have what we needed, have introduced us around campus to staff, students and teachers at the University’s teacher training school. Kari has helped me at the grocery store as I try to translate and make sense of everything in Finnish, and even given me recommendations on what kind of bread to buy (there are so many choices!) Sari found me a bike, and Kari took me to buy a helmet to brave these icy streets. I am feeling blessed

The students at UEF: Because we are not technically students enrolled at the University of Eastern Finland (UEF), our niche at the university has been hard to find. We have our hands in many different pots, connecting with students, professors, and everyone in between.

At our orientation, I had the opportunity to meet several international teachers studying here for the semester. And, just as it should happen, I met one future teacher from California, LA to be exact. Small world! Joyce is completing her undergraduate studies in education, and is hoping to be a Kindergarten teacher. We had lunch this past week at Hyve&Pahe (which means virtue and vice- how clever!), and discussed courses she is taking, thoughts on education, and what we hope to learn during our time in Finland. It was nice to connect with someone new to teaching, as we both have much to offer each other.

The climbing wall at the school in Kontiolahti, about 25km outside of town

Rock Climbing: Being the active person I am, I knew that my hobbies while here might differ slightly from what I enjoy doing at home. First of all, there aren’t really mountains here in Finland. Secondly, Joensuu is a pretty small city in comparison to Denver, so the options for sports are a little more limited than what I might find in a bigger city. I’ve spent the last couple weeks trying out a variety of different activities, from working out at a regular gym, trying out the only boxing gym in Joensuu (sorry Easton friends, it just doesn’t cut it), to cross country skiing (more about that in my next post), and finally to rock climbing. I put a post on one of the Facebook groups I’ve connected with, Joensuu English Speakers, about places to climb here in Joensuu, and was introduced to Heikki, an instructor who runs many courses for university students. He told me about the climbing group here in Joensuu, and has warmly welcomed me to climbing with them at the Joensuu Areena, where they have a small but challenging climbing wall. There I met him and Samuli, a student at the university studying linguistics. I haven’t really climbed consistently in over 10 years, but am looking forward to getting back into it again while I am here in Finland. Until it gets warmer out, we are limited to the gym. Thank you Heikki and Samuli for getting me back into the sport!

Part of an experience are the connections you make, the ones that penetrate your heart. Joensuu has worked its way into mine, and I look forward to watching the connections run deeper.

A reflective sunset walk along the river

My musings:

  • I am hopeful for the day I can pronounce any name correctly the first time
  • It is appropriate to refer to your professor by their first names, even though they hold a PhD. They would be uncomfortable if referred to by their title.
  • 60C/140F is cold for a sauna!

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