Enter Fulbright!

[photo © Fulbright Foundation]

As of 1 February 2013, there’s a little less than a month remaining before me taking off on a Fulbright Scholarship to Harvard University… This brings me back memories of May, last year, when all the scholarship recipients got together in the House of Estates (Säätytalo) in Helsinki for a formal award ceremony hosted by Jari Sinkari (Deputy Director General, Department for Communication and Culture, Ministry for Foreign Affairs). A happy day and a happy night!

Before the formal festivities in front of a general audience, the evening was opened by Mr. Sinkari’s introduction into what has recently become to be known as the country brand of Finland. Somewhat exotic as the name tag may sound, his talk amounted to a brief summary of the final report by the so-called Country Brand Delegation – published in November 2010 by a group of leading cultural figures of Finland, originally appointed by Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Stubb in 2008. Ranging from philosophers and artists to entrepreneurs and politicians, the delegation worked together for two years and was chaired by the former Nokia CEO Jorma Ollila.

Mr. Sinkari spent the bulk of his introduction talking through the three central points brought to the fore in the country brand report. These are, following my paraphrase of Sinkari’s wording, (1) Finland’s unique problem-solving ability; (2) Finland’s long-term cherishing of nature; and (3) Finland’s unyielding commitment to topnotch education. Before long, a handful of political pundits quipped in the national media at the report’s arriving at a most traditional country brand, which, surely, at least the second emphasis on nature can be understood to buttress.

One must think critically, however, even about the arguably traditional accents of the country brand. Take, in particular, the second emphasis. It goes without saying that Finland boasts vast spaces of virtually pure nature, with relatively clean waters for swimming even in the bigger cities and with a significant density of forests also within vicinity of urban environments. But how well is our country living up to the ideal of cherishing nature around us?

While environmental values are a living part of our culture, the past couple of years have also witnessed a few ecological setbacks created, in part, by an indifferent stance towards ecological sustainability shown by certain instances. I cite two examples if only briefly. First, the recent incidents centering around the Talvivaara Corporation – a mining company specializing in nickel and zinc to have produced a series of environmental disasters in Kainuu, Eastern Finland – seriously call into question the standards of ecological surveillance conducted in the mine area. Secondly, the Finnish values are not always greenest where nature around us is greenest; for one, things such as organic products or the Green Party (I mention the two in passing, but the point carries enough truth) still bear an unexpectedly exotic stamp in the minds of folks coming, say, from Northern Finland, where my own family roots reach as well…

The high level of Finnish education system, in turn, is a topic one frequently hears international friends ask about. I have no extensive critical remarks to make on that topic for now; the theme would deserve a post of its own (see the post below for a couple of remarks). And when asked about Finland’s unique problem-solving ability, Mr. Sinkari offered Finland’s experience in international conflict solving – exemplified, in a broader context, by President Martti Ahtisaari’s Nobel Peace Price in 2008 – as but one case of how we might contribute to a more pragmatic and negotiation-oriented co-operation within global communities.

As to what else this and other strengths of the Finnish country brands might mean, that will (or so I would humbly take it) remain the responsibility for us Finns to decide in our varying forays into the international venues.

Linda Haapajärvi about to deliver a speech in the award ceremony.
[photo © Fulbright Foundation]

[the other photos © H. A. Kovalainen]

How international are we?

Today, one of the catchiest slogans, at least in Finland, is to promote whatever’s international. Be it imported or exported goods, start-up companies or educational exchange, it is often taken for granted that the more international we get the better off we will be. By and large, this is the prevailing view even though the recent years have also seen an increase of hostility towards internationality manifested, for instance, by the anti-immigration stances defended by populist parties in Europe. I’m going to spend a moment musing not as to which path to choose, but how the very idea of getting “international”can be misunderstood.

I went to an international high school (International Baccalaureate in Oulu), but international there means virtually less of other foreign languages and more of English. I’ve lived for a year or more in the United States, England and Germany, where I’ve always studied in the universities, and I’ve spent some time living and learning French in Aix-en-Provence. They say that international experience is invaluable in education, but I’ve seen Oxford-educated Finns go unemployed and have trouble have their studies accredited in Finland… And I’m not aware of many job applications in my home country (not even in the academic contexts) where mastering different languages and being able to communicate in them has made a genuine difference.

Literally, the word international doesn’t just connote the foreign countries as such; it alludes to the ‘inter’, the in-between – or even better, the via – the two-way exchange between (at least) two different countries. You can’t be international by just spending time in a different country. Nor are we international by just unreflectively embracing elements from foreign cultures, say American films or Eastern religions.

For me, genuine internationality connotes far-reaching openness to whatever’s new and foreign: constantly overcoming, in the first place, our own “provinciality” and open-heartedly embracing, secondly, the fact that we’ll never be finished in the task of becoming international. It’s all about being enthusiastic about the foreign, of craving to experience what we do not as of yet understand. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, one of the paradigm cases of Romantic cosmopolitanism, once said that the more languages you know the more times you are a man… My experience confirms the point: it is an entirely different thing to learn a language in a way that immerses you in the culture where the language comes from, and where you, the language-learner, are ready and willing to open your eyes to new horizons of experience…

Why is the matter increasingly urgent? Because the Europeans have seen, during the recent decade or so, an increasing number of arguments against internationality, immigration and openness to foreign cultures. In Finland, we’ve witnessed the cinderella story of the political party of The Finns (formerly calling themselves The True Finns) to have rocketed into success – producing a rise from 4 % to 19 %  in the parliamentary elections of 2011. Despite party-leader propaganda to the contrary, The Finns accommodate a wing of radical voices of what they euphemistically tag “criticism towards immigration”, when in fact their views (I’m speaking of the few radical voices, not the entire party) teeter on the brink of racism.

*   *

In point of fact, the notion that Finland should be saved for the Finns and that Finnish culture should be about raising from the dead the Sibelian and the Karelian traditions of the Golden Age of our culture are ludicrous ideas to be entertained in the 21st century! A culture of a nation always emerges from a blending of cultures: virtually all the pre-eminent voices of, say, the Finnish cultural Renaissance in the 19th and 20th century stemmed from the Swedish-speaking minorities of Finland! How could a country, let alone a culture, come into being in the first place without a crossing of inter-national influences?

In spite of all our success in global comparative studies (the Pisa studies on education, the happiness indices, the Failed States index or related lists of countries suffering from the least corruption), it is my conviction that Finland still suffers from a cultural inferiority complex of sorts. Even though we’ve been part of the EU for about 18 years now and seem to be doing well on an international scale, a strange stereotype still persists – among surprisingly many Finns – of our country as somehow irredeemably isolated, of our people (if you allow me a hyperbole) as backwoodsmen of some kind, as takapajuisia, as we would say in Finnish… To be sure, it could also be because of the very trend of increasing internationlity that some folks like to withdraw to their shells.

And since a bulk of my Finnish friends could easily argue against me, let me offer one example: last spring in Helsinki, I spoke to an award-winning Finnish dancer-choreographer (to be shortly moving, as it turned out, to Paris and Prague) in the award ceremony of the Uudenmaa Cultural Fund in Helsinki. I insisted that there are no reasons whatsoever why we the Finns should not feel like our gifts and abilities were precisely up to the pitch of other Europeans. The cutting-edge choreographer insisted, in spite of my arguments to the contrary, that our country remains, even today, isolated from the heart of Europe and not just geographically but also culturally…

How international are we, then? The cited quip of a choreographer, surely, has only limited appeal, but I’m hoping its coming from an unexpected quarter suffices to suggest a general trend. The problem is that views stressing our country’s isolation pretty much produce their own proof. As long as the stereotype of the Finnish backwoodsmen persists (and this can happen in the most nuanced ways), we are not as international as we’re entitled to be and become, regardless of all catchy slogans.

[photos © Fulbright Foundation]

Finnish Education!

If Finland has gained some unanimous international recognition recently, this has been in the field of education. In the international PISA studies on education, our country has constantly ranked high on the list, with the likes of South Korea, Singapore, Japan, and Canada. So successful has our nation’s performance been, indeed, that international delegations working in the field are increasingly paying visits to the Scandinavian country, to see what could be learned from the Finnish system. I had the fortune of having a specialist from Finland come and explain the secrets of the system to us at Harvard, at the Askwith Forum in April 2013 at Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Pasi Sahlberg, Director General of CIMON (Centre for International Mobility and Cooperation) at the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture – my apologies for the convoluted title! – gave a most inspired and inspiring talk before a crowd of some hundred people gathered at Harvard. In a nuthshell, he went through five factors to have contributed to Finland’s performance in education, followed by a summary of the educational policies underlying these. The emphasis was on early education, and I’m assuming his points carry somewhat less truth if one were to move through the middle period towards secondary education. The five points stressed include the following, in my paraphrase:

  1. Finland has never aimed to be the best in education unlike, say, the U.S
  2. The Finns pride themselves on public education as one of the country’s great achievements
  3. We trust our public institutions more than perhaps any other country, including the legel system, health care, education, and police
  4. Proportionaly speaking, wealth is distributed more equally than is often the case – and a sense of equity pervades the school system as well
  5. Finland performs highly in various international indices (see the picture below)

In his book Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn From Educational Change in Finland (2012) as in his Harvard talk, Mr. Sahlberg argued that international thinking on education has been too often plagued by what he nicknamed the GERM (Global Educational Reform Movement). According to such educational philosophy, one strives for standardized tests, increased competition and hence test-based accountability, whereas the Finnish instead stresses collaboration, personalization and trust-based accountability. The former set of characteristics was summarized under the umbrella term MARKETIZATION, while Finland’s way of improving education was summed up as PROFESSIONALISM.

The three educational policies, in turn, underscored by Mr. Sahlberg were, first, better equity reaching from the structures of society to educational organization at schools; second, investment in early education (including special education), proportionately higher than that in the U.S. (investing a relatively high sum of money in the middle rather than the early period); and third, teacher pforessionalism, captured by the fact that every teacher in Finland needs to get a Master’s degree before they can teach. The last point, for one, was seen as guaranteeing trust-based accountability: since the Finnish system of education implements strict quality control at the level of entrance to teacher education, we don’t need to worry so much about test-based accountability. (Indeed, the speaker emarked how accountability often fills the blank vacated by responsibility.)

Throughout the talk, Mr. Sahlberg quipped at how the U.S. might not be the best country in the world after all; just take a look at, say, the international indices measuring varying degrees of happiness such as depicted above…! Here, a bristling sense of humor and spontaneity that the speaker displayed softened the blow of what, perhaps to some, may come across as unwanted news… At any rate, the American setting for the talk seemed to propel Mr. Sahlberg to offering various comparisons between Finland and the U.S., regarding their respective educational systems.

The Q & A session at the end included concerns such as Finland’s established excellence in education leading to stagnation (and hence, lack of novel innovation) as well as challenges posed by the cultural differences between different countries resulting from their discrepant national histories of (in)equality. The former Prime Minister of Finland, Esko Aho – who was also in attendance (currently working at the Kennedy School at Harvard University – pointed out that Finland’s edudcational success story has its flipsides as well, as exemplified, say, by the proportionately high number of boys dropping out (or at least becoming socially outcast) at schools.

I had a chance to chat briefly with Mr. Aho after the talk, expressing related concerns about the absence of athletics in the Finnish school system. The fact that the American schools, in comparison, make sports an elemental part of school activities from the comprehensive level all the way to the universities, offers an important venue of self-expression to such youth as may find themselves uncomfortable sitting at desks six hours a day. Some of Mr. Sahlberg’s points stressed in the talk, moreover (adding here a couple of remaks of my own), come with drawbacks: the Finnish trust on public institutions, for example, occasionally leads to blind faith before authorities, which in turn makes it more difficult to tackle problems at work (e.g. to do with persnal tensions in the working environment) when they arise.

All in all, I was happy as a Finn to have a Finn come to the U.S. to speak about Finland and the U.S., and it wasn’t so bad either to speak to the ex-Prime Minister about sports and the problems boys face.

Getting international: Practicalities

Getting international just for the sake of getting international doesn’t always work. Rather, international encounters can be organized around interests that we already share: in arts, religion, sports, science, or politics. Thus construed, becoming international is not something we necessarily need to make an extra effort to bring about; oftentimes, it can grow out of international elements already present in our everyday natural behavior.

Here are a few concrete thoughts, stemming from about 20 years of international experience, of what’s NOT such an efficient way to foster cultural exchange, on my view, and how RATHER to do it. It goes without saying that these are my opinions which ought to be seen as alternatives to the ways in which international matters are often understood as opposed to knock-down arguments! My aim is to challenge stereotypes (presented below in quotation marks). Since the topic is large, I’ve decided to prefer quick flashes of insights to anything definitive and elaborately explained.

*   *

I. STARTING POINTS 1/2

“Getting international begins with critical distance to nationalistic feelings, because you can’t be genuinely international if you love your country too much.”

NO: Healthy love of one’s country, RATHER, is a precondition for genuine internationality in the first place; in the end, nationalism & internationalism are two sides of the same coin.

II. STARTING POINTS 2/2

“Only a person with extensive experience of and living in a specific culture can make a contribution to the the culture of that country.”

NO, RATHER: Sometimes an “outsider” is better adapted to offering fresh insights into a foreign culture: think of, say, the Frenchman Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America.

III. NATIONAL VS. INTERNATIONAL

“Whenever spending time abroad, it will be good to spend a lot of time with people from your own country and get to speak your native tongue.”

WELL, ONLY TO AN EXTENT: Since one communicates with friends back home anyway, you’ll be better off concentrating your energy in immersing yourself in the culture you’re in.

IV. ORGANIZING EXCHANGE

From top to bottom: “Let’s have centrally organized institutions to help folks from different countries get in touch with each other and get together.”

From bottom to top: Today’s social life is largely co-ordinated through things like social media anyway, so we should help people organize on their own at the grassroots level.

V. IMMIGRATION POLICY

“Let’s close our doors to foreigners and not take any more in, especially not those abusing our welfare system.”

NO, RATHER: If our country offers great opportunities, we can take active initiatives to make these opportunities available to everybody (e.g. the Visa Lottery in the U.S.).

VI. STEREOTYPES OF IMMIGRANTS

“A person from a foreign culture can never become fully integrated into an entirely different kind of culture.”

RATHER: Take a look at how well various immigrants cope in their new home country, and don’t deny the fact that the natives are often out of touch in their native land, too!

VII. ARTISTIC INTERACTION

“Let’s have people, e.g., knowing how to play an istrument perform music such that each plays something from their own country, adding appropriate costumes.”

NO, RATHER: Since music is an universal language to begin with, it will be wiser to just get people from different walks of life together to play great music.

VIII. CULTURAL IMMERSION

“If people are living in a foreign country, say, in the U.S., it’ll be good for them to indulge themselves in some quintessentially American traditions (e.g. barbecue and baseball).”

WELL, TO A LIMITED EXTENT: Since so many countries are increasingly global anyway, we could get to know people from different ethnic backgrounds wherever we live.

IX. CULINARY MATTERS

“Once spending time in America, let’s make sure we get fully acquainted with American food.”

WELL, ethnic food in America can be intriguingly different from ethnic food, say, in Europe. (A few concrete examples: Afghan food in America, or, say, the Assyrian Orthodox people organizing the church potluck in a Finnish Orthodox church.)

X. SO WHAT TO DO, IN THE END?

If we genuinely wish to promote things international, I suggest we distance ourselves from stereotypes and explore the world with an open mind. Getting international isn’t a special procedure or a technique: it means healthy pride of one’s own culture and insatiable hunger for the new. After all, we’re dealing with human beings interacting with human beings…!

In sum, since the world is increasingly global and multicultural, much of what we call “international” can arise from distancing ourselves from extensive reliance on ready-made structures, encouraging rather spontaneous, natural and meaningful interaction between folks from different cultures on a daily basis.

Photos by Eija Ruohomäki (in the middle),
a fellow Finn I met through WorldBoston.

Philosophy of Internationalism

The annual meeting at the International Center of Worcester, MA, on 17 June 2013  where I was privileged to represent Finland as one of the two invited speakers  gave me a chance to develop some afterthoughts on what internationalism is really about. In the meeting, I discussed “Internationalism: What Works and What Doesn’t” by offering insights and concrete examples originally developed here on my home pages. The friendly hosting of Dr. Royce Anderson and the lively discussion in the Q & A session at the end of the talks now propel me forward to articulating what I venture to call my Philosophy of Internationalism.

I’m not very interested in internationalism that leaves us untouched, unchanged at the core… I’m captivated by international encounters that transform us, offering us a new angle of looking at things, a new aspect of our personality that we had not seen before, a new way of forging connections and finding our ways in the world. When I spent the year 1994-1995 as a Rotary Exchange Student in Albion, Michigan, my gradual acquaintances with local American youth in the little college town were not just something superadded onto my previous friendships back home. Rather, they set me on the path of rethinking the values of my life whenever I spend time abroad, taking stock of the good things already achieved, setting challenges for what is yet to be accomplished.

International friendships strike to the very heart of who we are, and they do this in a different way than domestic friendships. Neither the long distance between friends nor the extended gaps in getting together face-to-face do nothing to dim the light of insights gained whenever we sit down for talks with international friends. I will want to go as far as to suggest, indeed, that it is the very differences between us that make possible an examination of our lives in ways that would be more difficult to come by in our home countries.

There is no idea in so-called internationalism I’d be more averse to than that of cultural supremacy, of fashioning the fantasy that a certain country (or countries) stand(s) superior to others in its/their achievements. This is a vicious circle: if one holds such a view, one has nothing to learn from other cultures… This is to deny the transformative power of internationalism.

If international encounters, on the contrary, can genuinely transform us, then should we not approach all the different cultures with open-ended curiosity? If we have something to learn from all different cultures, then is it not ultimately the case that not only all human beings but all different cultures are equal? Is it not, as a matter of principle, ethnocentric narcissism to think that we have most to learn from the members of our own culture and not so much from those of others?

I hold the opposite view. Since inter-cultural encounters can really have a transformative power, those encounters can be just as effective when two people from cultures relatively remote from one another chance to meet on common ground. I’ve been touched by music from Serbia, flabbergasted by the deliciousness of Afghan food, moved to tears by the sheer beauty of Iranian or Japanese film. And many of us are familiar with stories of people from different cultures meeting without a common language to start with, little by little forging a lasting relationship.

I think of different cultures, in sum, as taking part in a global & multicultural conversation or a series of conversations  aiming at increased understanding of the world. With some imaginative stretching of terms, I want to call this democracy of cultures, and it is of foremost global importance to foster democracy or equity at such an inter-cultural level. Even matters of disagreement – if only we are willing to pierce their surface, precisely by thinking that different cultures can come into a dialogue – can be used as impetus for growth and increased understanding of the surrounding reality.

At the Questions & Answers session following our talks in Worcester some of the most intriguing comments went in the direction of encouraging the idea that folks from different cultures can indeed create unexpected co-operation and vicinity. It goes without saying that there are stories of ethnic groups failing to meet on common ground, where they remain isolated both from one another and from the country they’re inhabiting. But oftentimes this is far less an expression of the incommensurability of different cultures as such than of failed policies of integration or, say, the spreading outbursts of prejudice. Most commonly it is a matter of doing something together that helps us bridge cultural differences.

The first speaker at the event, an Armenian Professor of Medical Education, Gevorg Yaghjyan (who works for the National Competitiveness Foundation of Armenia) discussed the health care system of his country from an international perspective and the various examples of successful interaction therein. His country is one of far-reaching diaspora: approximately 3 million Armenians live within the borders of their home country, while 7 million Armenians live outside of those borders. If those Armenians living in diaspora can make an important contribution to Armenian culture, then is that not, as I’d like to think, another encouraging sign of how people with difficult fates can carry out important international work?

[Photos by the International Center of Worcester]

 

Boston Symphony!

In the spring 2013, my longtime dream of hearing the world-famous Boston Symphony Orchestra live in a concert setting came finally true. In 2008 and 2010, my research fellowships at Harvard fell on such unfortunate dates that the orchestra had already begun (around the start of May, as they always do) their summer season without regular concerts at the Symphony Hall. This year, however, I was happy enough to attend three of them!

Friday March 1

Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos, conductor
Lang Lang, piano

HINDEMITH Konzertmusik for Strings and Brass
RACHMANINOFF Piano Concerto No. 2
BARTÓK Concerto for Orchestra

The very second day after arriving in Cambridge, I figured the best way to get settled into Boston would be to see if the BSO had something like a concert to offer. And they did the young (infamous no less than famous) Chinese virtuoso pianist Lang Lang playing Sergey Rachmaninoff’s beloved 2nd Piano Concerto. I didn’t know much about the pianist except for the fact that he was outrageously popular, and not just within classical music circles.

The young man’s playing was extraordinary: he rendered impeccably not only the quick cadenzas of the Concerto but also its slower, more lyrical textures which make up much of the Rachmaninoff piece’s charm. In particular, I was moved (and even more so than on the recordings of the same Concerto by the same artist) by his free treatmenf ot rhythm which lended the performance a distinctive poetry of its own. To be sure, Lang Lang’s reception was just as ecstatic than that of a rockstar, with fanatic screaming and incessant smartphone snapshots from the relatively young audience.

As regards the musical personality of Lang Lang, I have to note I find one phenomenon – by no means his own fault – particularly disturbing. Adorned by certain circles, he is shunned by others in ways that would be virtually unimaginable in the case of a pop/rock artist. Just google “Lang Lang” or type his name in YouTube, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Lang Lang himself carries out important work in overcoming precisely such stereotypes that do serious harm to the very reception of classical music – and it is doubly disconcerting that such blackmailing falls on an artist doing so much to advance more easygoing reception of the classical repertoire.

Saturday April 27

Daniele Gatti, conductor
Anne Sofie von Otter, mezzo-soprano
Women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus (John Oliver, conductor)
Boys of PALS Children’s Chorus (Andy Icochea, conductor)

MAHLER Symphony No. 3

I’m much too young to write an overview of all of the Mahler Symphonies, or even just one of them. Giant of Viennese Neoclassicism, the grandmaster of fin-de-siècle decadence in proto-contemporary music, Gustav Mahler dedicated the bulk of his working energies to composing massive symphonies, many of which last longer than an hour and are too long to fit on a single CD. As a general trend, I find that his symphonies are relatively easily digestible from the First to the Fifth, after which his symphonic oeuvre adopts increasingly vast and increasingly difficult-to-digest ambitions.

That is not the whole truth, however. Among the early symphonies, the Third shows massive scale, with a half-an-hour introduction lasting longer than the entire Seventh Symphony by Sibelius, and with vocal parts performed not only by the mezzo-soprano soloist but also by a large choir, in the BSO concert made up of women’s and boys’ choirs. For a philosophical listener like myself, the climax of the Symphony is to be found in a solemn mezzo-soprano solo adopting a text from Nietzsche‘s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, from “The Second Dance-Song,” the penultimate chapter in Part III of the book:

O Mensch! Gib acht!
Was spricht, die tiefe Mitternacht?
"Ich schlief, ich schlief -,
Aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht: -
Die Welt ist tief,
Und tiefer als der Tag gedacht.
Tief ist ihr Weh -,
Lust - tiefer noch als Herzeleid:
Weh spricht: Vergeh!
Doch alle Lust will Ewigkeit -,
- Will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!"

Allow me to confine my remarks on the piece to the humble observation that Mahler no less than Nietzsche succeeds in capturing the experience of the sheer depth of life: be it of life’s joys or sorrows, their work craves to give expression to the sheer interiority of experiencing life. In a concert setting, receiving such introspective music is of course no easy task, and to my dismay the audience had to witness certain listeners leaving the Hall right before the entrance of the soloist… (The Symphony was played without an intermission.) This is Mahler’s music curse and its blessing: that it is charged with exaggerated emotion, extreme joy and extreme sadness.

Friday April 26

Bernard Haitink, conductor
Camilla Tilling, soprano

SCHUBERT Symphony No. 5
MAHLER Symphony No. 4

“I like the Fourth, because it’s not as overplayed as the First, not as religious as the Second, not as long as the Third, and not as self-absorbed as the Fifth…”

These were the words by which one of the violinists of the Boston Symphony introduced Mahler’s Fourth Symphony, what she was naming “a jewel among Mahler’s symphonies”… To be sure, she had something bad to say of the latter symphonies as well, but I’m just as incapable of recalling those wordings as I am her name. My last BSO concert for the spring was only two weeks after the Boston Bombings (in the Boston Marathon) which certainly leave an abiding trace on the cultural life of the city. Between the lines, the violinist seemed to be saying that playing Mahler’s Fourth could be part of the “Boston resurgence” after the terror of the bombings.

Among the Mahler symphonies, I count myself among those who like less the grandiose drama of the Fifth than the modest beauty of the Fourth. If I had to name some of the most beautiful themes in classical music – or even some of the most beautiful movements  I would not hesitate to name from Mahler’s Fourth the first and the last movements. The main theme of the first movement stands for me for one of the most moving expressions of beauty of life in music, and in the piece’s finale we find ourselves in heaven. If those remarks sound stale, I mean them in earnest.

Often on a CD, proto-contemporary works such as Mahler’s Fourth come across as more neoclassical than they do in a concert setting. Playing the works at a typically moderate volume at home, one pays perhaps more attention to the power of the themes than to the intricacies of the orchestration. Only in a concert setting, however, did I realize how Mahler’s orchestration in the Fourth is not only highly sophisticated (as it always is) but occasionally markedly modernist. He can take a theme and carry its nuances over to the most unexpected instrumental arrangements, such as the silent hissing of the percussions, the dark growls of the bassoon or the fragile delicacies of the harp. I was fortunate to have concluded my forays into the BSO repertoire with such a tranquil Mahler performance.

Thank you, Boston Symphony Orchestra, for all the music!

Bonding pt 1: The case of music

Among all the means of social interaction, I find that music provides a unique and most fertile way of coming in touch with people across continents. Listening to music together, to begin with, can be highly valuable, but getting together to play music provides a yet better example of international bonding. We don’t have to know each other in order to play together, and we don’t even have to have practiced the music too much, for there are always the notes (or our working knowledge of the music to be played)… And even without extensive experience together, playing music together can show a high degree of spontaneous, gesture-by-gesture communication.

In June 2013  during a weekend of when the Finns were celebrating their Summer solstice back home – I had a chance to sit down with old friends from Michigan to do something new together. A rather spontaneous gig was put together at the initiative of my friend Ben who had been asked to play live music in a French Market organized by connoisseurs of French culture in the small town of Albion, Michigan. I happened to have planned a trip to see old friends at the same time, so by way of American spontaneity, Ben threw in the option for me to join him and our shared friend Dan to play together.

Since my primary instrument are the drums, I suggested we could carry a drum set to the scene, if only we find one lurking around somewhere… And we did: in the living room of Ben’s house (owned by his son Aiden), cozily covered in Angry Birds stickers and to brought into better tune with a few tricks here and there and a drum key purchased at the local music store.

I didn’t know the songs to be played, but I asked for a list in advance from Ben and took a quick listen to the songs through Spotify. We had a chance to practice but one time – the previous night, of course, in their living room – but that was no obstacle to getting on stage and trusting our instinct. During the gig, about half of our songs were based on improvisation, where I the drummer would characterize the rhythm and the tempo (and perhaps something like a scale to be used or a tone to be adopted), and then we would jam freely and yet in a structured enough vein to keep up the attention of the audience…

And luckily enough, we heard back from family members to have heard the rehearsals the day before that playing live we played much better! We had a whole lot of fun and were named the Ash Street Band following the name of the street where the impromptu collaboration came about.

Another chance for musical breaking of barriers during my Fulbright period arose in Cambridge, MA in May 2013 with the Harvard Jazz Band. A handful of the band members get together every Thursday at Harvard main campus to put out a Jazz Jam featuring jazz and funk classics at a college pub titled Queen’s Head. I’m not a specialist in jazz, so it took me a few weeks of some careful listening before I found my way into the band with a couple of percussion instruments purchased from a local music store in Allston. Playing the percussions, to begin with, warmed me up and I was ready to play a full song with the band sitting in at the drums! Again, we jammed freely, and I surmise I brought more of my rock experience onto the stage than virtually all of the other drummers would. But this only shows that spontaneous communications between musicians coming from different backgrounds can emerge even when they don’t share a long tradition together…

 

Bonding pt 2: The case of sports

My forays into a sport I love and play quite a bit back home – badminton, which, by the way, ain’t a picnic! – turned out to be a small-scale lesson on how to conduct myself in international affairs. In the American schools, including the universities, the athletics play a remarkably bigger role than in many European countries; the different sports are always integrated into school activities, and the universities have their representative teams in various sports. In the U.S., badminton isn’t one of these, which means that getting to play it takes some extra effort.

Badminton is a popular sport in Northern Europe, but in the U.S., it is hardly considered a serious game, and played only somewhat sporadically. In Boston, a city size of Helsinki, there is no commercial arena for playing badminton: should you ask about available courts, people usually tell you that Harvard has two courts and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) has something like eight. In both of these world-class universities, the Badminton Clubs are virtually run by Asians, in particular, Chinese students, who play at an admirably high level.

This was the case with Harvard, too, though the practices every now and then saw a few Europeans as well, and there was one regularly attending American member. At first, I was stunned by the overwhelming number of players contrasted with the strikingly low number of courts available at Harvard. Harvard Badminton Club met every Sunday for about five hours, and the average turnout of players was something like 25. Virtually, there was no chance to play singles, but all the time was spent playing doubles, including mixed pairs…

I spent a few months trying to learn the secrets of playing doubles, with varying success. I was hoping to catch some of the rudimentary tricks from the more advanced players, and hopefully I learned by imitation what we didn’t discuss verbally. Thus the semester went and I felt like I could improve much faster. When the summer came, the official practices winded down, and I was left wondering whether there would be a way to play in the summer…

I volunteered to organize the practices, and in about a week, I took the initial responsibility for confirming that the courts would be available for us every Wednesday night, and I sent out emails each week encouraging newcomers to come and play. I decided not to change anything in the system (or lack thereof) that most of the folks playing the Club seemed to prefer. And little by little, I found that more and more people were showing up in the practice, and all of a sudden, I was one of them.

*   *

And here’s the lesson learned as far as international exchange: Whenever you find around you a slow start in inter-cultural interaction  whenever you feel like things should be done differently – don’t hesitate but give yourself time to find a natural way of fostering exchange. Whenever tensions arise, it is the case that they can be better alleviated through doing things together rather than trying to affect a change on a theoretical plain. Nothing need not necessarily be changed, but you will be changed…

 

Plight of the Homeless

According to Wikipedia, there were “643,000 sheltered and unsheltered homeless persons” in the United States in January 2009. I tried to do a similar search for Boston, but didn’t find the statistic. I did find a page telling me how “the Commonwealth experienced an increase in homelessness from 2.6 percent of the population in 2011 to 2.8 percent in 2012″, which would mean that there are currently at least 850,000 homeless people. I’m guessing the real number is not far from a million…

On the same website on Boston, however, they tell you that “96.8 percent of homeless people are reported as sheltered” (according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development 2012 Annual Homelessness Assessment Report). It feels ironic to discover this statistic online, given that there’s no information available on the actual number of the homeless in Boston (or if there is, it’s too hard to find)! Finding a shelter, moreover, amounts to nothing like overcoming homelessness (and inversely, if the shelters were permanent, the whole statistic would be misleading).

My Fulbright Fellowship at Harvard University came to a happy close at the start of July, 2013. I departed for Finland from New York, so I took a bus from Boston to New York one day before my flight. I was hoping to book a cheap hotel not far from where the bus took me, in the relative vicinity of the Times Square…

… As I was walking back and forth from the hotel, I gradually discovered that the homeless folks were setting up their dwellings on a dark street only a couple of blocks from my hotel. Falling asleep in the vicinity of the Church of St. Francis of Assisi… I spoke to a black man scracthing himself at the steps of the church, with him wondering whether my photos were part of journalistic project.

During my stay in Boston, one of the voluntary projects I took part in was the so-called Open Door, organized by the local Orthodox Church in Allston. Every Monday evening, the church prepared a free meal for the Boston homeless, served within the premises of the church. Every week, the church had volunters from the parish – often but not always young – come and do the voluntary work of cooking, setting the table, serving, doing the dishes and cleaning up.

I joined the group three times, and will not forget the sentiment I felt when the folks came in the first time. They came from a different reality, and at the same time, we spent a moment together in a shared world. Moreover, I was glad to notice that many young men showed up for the voluntary work as well. In my home country, such voluntary activities usually attract the attention of women, and not so much of men.