Hi, and greetings from the middle of the sorrow accompanying the ending of the world's greatest fabulously! A little over two weeks ago, I, along with Kiisa Kemilä, Miljabella Saukkonen, Anni Törmä, Minna Korpierkki and Eveliina Partanen, on our way to the United States of America. The trip was part of an exchange project, Transatlantic Classroom, funded by the Finnish National Agency for Education and partly by the U.S. Embassy in Finland. The project aims to enhance internationality and communication between young people in Finland and the United States.
Our journey began at the break of dawn from our local airport. Surprisingly, everyone made it there without any significant complications. The trip was already off to a brilliant start. The flight to Helsinki felt like a fever dream: were we leaving today? It felt as if the past four months would have been condensed into just a few short minutes, right there and then. We first heard of this whole experience only a few days ago, right? Well, anyhow, we were on our way to the United States of America, and that's what mattered the most. After arriving in a good old rainy Helsinki, we were off to London, where we connected. Finnair had awarded or randomly put a few of our group members into their new Premium Economy- class. The seats were adorable, although they don't offer full amenities on short-haul flights. We were speaking from experience here.
Heathrow Airport saw us running to catch our flight to New York, as our boarding passes were a cause of a slight problem. The aircraft was completely jam-packed. There was no water in sight, and the pillows provided felt like a textbook. Everything calmed down once the plane took off, and pretzels were served. I must say, British Airways beats Finnair and American Airlines with their in-flight service. Yours honestly had planned to watch movies and work on school during the 8 hours of flight time. It quickly became impossible, possibly due to being too excited and happy that we were closer to our final destination. Let's just say music was consumed, and views above the clouds were admired. None of us probably slept all that well. Sooner or later, we were heading closer to the Big Apple. Cloudy New York welcomed us after a brief circle in the air. Oh, if we had known what awaited us on the ground.
We were rushing to catch our final flight to Cleveland when an airport worker told us that our flight had been cancelled. Almost every other flight had been as well. There was a heavy storm, and the weather conditions were unsuitable for aviation. On top of that, New York had seen the worst flooding in 80 years. Seriously? This seems like just our luck. After a brief recollection, we arrived at the border control checkpoint. Everything went relatively smoothly, and our bags arrived after a short wait. It was then time to figure out what we would do next. All kinds of options were pondered. Long story short, after careful thought and consideration, the decision to rent a car was made. It was a stressful time for Minna and Eve, who were responsible for driving and keeping everyone safe and sound. The four of us were laughing in the backseats and having the time of our lives. Not once did any of us have a clue of doubt or frustration. Somehow, we all knew that it would be okay.
I don't think we would've dared to expect a road trip on top of everything else. But there we were, driving from New York to Pennsylvania, where we would spend our first night in the U.S. After a much-needed night's sleep, we quickly stopped in the nearest Starbucks available. Maybe President Joe Biden also went there in his earlier years? This was his hometown, you see. After indulging in our coffee and other beverages, we were on the road again. This time, we were on a mission to reach Canada. The views were mesmerising, ranging from forests to rivers and hills almost touching the clouds. Somewhere in between, we left our beloved rental car that had taken us so far. Before we knew it, we looked at Niagra Falls on the Canadian side.
It was just like in the postcards and nature documentaries. Well, until Applebee's charged us an added amount of 27 dollars on our final bill. We also survived poutine and Sprite, which tasted something close to chlorine and were ready to go and see the falls. One cannot describe them; it's a natural phenomenon. Even just seeing them, you feel tiny and powerless compared to nature. What's also compelling is to see how well the falls have been monetised. Right next to the water stood a city filled with colourful lights built solely for tourists. In Finland, these falls would be subject to excessive acts of nature conservation, but everything's different across the pond.
Folks say that the falls are better on the Canadian side. We ought to see it ourselves, of course. I have to agree – the Canadians had it better. But that said, our experience on the U.S. side wasn't anything short of the day's prior. We took the Maid of the Mist - the closest a person can physically get to the falls. Safely, that is. The ferry ride is a core memory we'll all remember for the rest of our lives. Seeing the sun reflect through the water made one feel alive.
After the falls, it was time to head to Medina. We were all incredibly thankful that we got to experience yet another country and the falls – without our road trip, it would've been much more unlikely. As we drove along Lake Erie, our four students, Anni, Kiisa, Miljabella and me, reflected on the past, present and foreseeable future. We sincerely apologise to our driver, who had to listen to us giggling in Finnish for a good four hours. Each was probably nervous but mostly excited about attending an American high school for a week. What would it be like? We reached the parking lot of Medina High School at the peak of a beautiful sunset, and off we went with our host families.
Writing about our host families or life in Medina would take up about two novels worth of text, so to put it briefly, it was the most amazing week of my life – and I know the others would agree as well. Right from the jump, everyone was so lovely, welcoming and kind. You were the epitome of excellent hosts. A week isn't a long time, but we all got deeply immersed in the American culture. I can still hear country music in my head when I lie down to sleep. You introduced us to your life so wonderfully and uniquely, and that's worth its weight in gold.
After an incredible week of school, meeting new people and seeing new places, it too quickly became the time to say goodbye to Medina, our lovely hosts, and other people who made our visit unforgettable. It's not a farewell, though. I'd love to visit again – and so would the others. With a yellow miniature version of an iconic school bus, we were dropped off at the local airport in Cleveland. It was time to head to New York City, with hope and a dream that the stormy weather wouldn't make a cameo. After delicious bagels and cake pops from Starbucks, we sat in the smallest plane ever. It didn't matter because we were off to the most fantastic city in the world. I wasn't sure whether it should play Frank Sinatra, Paloma Faith or Ella Fitzgerald when we landed – there's just so much to NYC!
After a rather discombobulating incident with our reserved car that would've left two from our group in the middle of Queens, the decision was made to reach our hotel by the famous NYC metro. Everything went smoothly, and not even a single rat was spotted near our presence! Climbing the stairs with heavy suitcases in a rainy New York City wasn't all that pleasant. Perhaps because of the city, everything still felt like a movie. Our hotel stood in the heart of the Flatiron District, near the Chelsea neighbourhood. The Empire State Building could be seen from our hotel room – which we didn't even realise at first. Minna pointed out one of the world's most well-known landmarks from our window. I didn't think it'd be that close! The Flatiron Building was also nearby; too bad it was under some heavy construction. It's still fascinating, though! It's interesting walking through cities everyone learns about from a textbook. Before you even know it, Brooklyn Bridge opens right under your eyes. It's a surreal feeling.
New York was a bit colder than Medina had been, but for us Finns, the temperature was perfect for us to stroll around and experience culture. We visited Hall des Lumières, an immersive light and art exhibition in the historic Emigrant Industrial Servings Bank Building. It was beautiful, featuring the art of Marc Chagall and Vasilij Kandinsky. After a touching blend of music and colours, we headed to Broadway and saw Hamilton. What can I even say – it is the most fantastic of my life. There I sat, quietly singing out Schuyler Sisters to not disturb the others. Even on the first day, New York City showed us so much of its beauty.
On the second day, we got to visit Columbia University and attend a Swedish lesson held by Heli Sirviö, a teacher of Finnish and Swedish in one of the city's two Ivy League schools. It was compelling to see and hear how languages familiar to us are being taught in one of the most well-recognised universities in the world. The university introduced us to some fantastic students who kindly shared personal stories about their language studies. So many people with different backgrounds gathered together for small and complex languages from the North. Sirviö also told us a bit about the community of Finns living abroad in New York City. Maybe one of us will be a part of that bunch someday. The possibilities our school can give a student hoping to experience the world are endless.
Our last day in the city was exploring the New York City Public Library. A few tears were shed when viewing the original inspirations for Winnie the Pooh and all other animals from the stories. It felt like a full-circle moment. A narrator read a chapter of the book, and it reminded me of a quote from it: "How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard."
I guess I was already feeling a bit blue about the trip ending, but at the same time, I was so fortunate and happy about all the memories we had made that I struggled to keep it all together at that very moment. Sometimes, an author has a better way with words than one could think. After the library, we headed to the Museum of Modern Art, which was also a fantastic experience. It was much larger than I had anticipated, and different art styles kept appearing after every corner. You'd need approximately fourteen weeks to explore the entire museum thoroughly.
Sooner or later, it was time to drive to the airport. We got to see even more of New York from the comfort of a car. Going and seeing the skyline behind us touched me in many ways. How lucky I had gotten to be a part of this experience. How lucky we all are that we go to the same school and can still share the memories from this trip. It was already difficult enough to leave the people of Medina, so how would I survive without those who've shared this all with me?
I was quickly brought down to earth from my bittersweet, reflective moment at the airport, paying 17 dollars for snacks. And another 10 dollars for Starbucks. It was all worth it if you'd ask me. The plane quietly took off, and so had we left New York. After a decent night, we were in Helsinki once again. One flight more, and we had arrived back home. Bags, final hugs, and home we went.
This was our journey, told as shortly as possible. There are so many people to thank, so I'll try to keep it short: Thank you to those funding the project: Finnish National Agency for Education & the U.S. Embassy in Finland. Thank you to our hosts, teachers, new friends and everyone in Medina: you made our visit magical. Thank you to Heli Sirviö and everyone else we met at Columbia University. And finally, I'd like to thank the people I travelled with: thank you for being a part of these memories that will last a lifetime. I adored every single second of every single day because of you all.