Countdown to half

I must be mad.

Shortly after struggling through a mere 10 k, I foolishly decided to sign up for not one, but two half marathons. Yes, yes, I really must be mad.

I have 221 days until the starting line of the Helsinki City Run, the first of the two half marathons. That’s 31 weeks give or take. After struggling to find my motivation following that soggy Helsinki Midnight Run at the beginning of September, I’m returning to base training starting this week.

Many runners including a good friend (who also happens to be my own personal running hero) recommended Hal Higdon‘s half marathon training programmes. My mornings since receiving his book largely consist of reading a chapter from his training book and attempting to keep the panic at bay.

Following a few longer yet rather difficult runs the past few weeks, runs which left me feeling completely uncertain and lacking enough confidence to get beyond 5 k let alone 21 km, I decided to start with Hal’s base training programme and work up to the novice half marathon training programme. These two programmes consist of a total of 24 weeks of training, giving me 6 weeks of wiggle room for any potential injury or illness in the interim. Touch wood I don’t need those extra six weeks for either.

Today’s run? A very simple 1-mile (or 1.609 km). It felt great and helped boost my confidence, even if it was short and sweet. But, also given my shortage of time in recent weeks, beginning with short runs helps me sandwich in training around everything else. This might just work.

It’s a long way to 13.1/21km, but I’ll get there.

 

Week 1 of 24

The view along the paths on today’s run. Day 2 of week 1 of 24; countdown to half marathon #1.

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Stolen moments

This ‘summer’ in Helsinki has not exactly gone to plan. It hasn’t been bad; just not entirely what I expected.

But, moments—collections of seemingly insignificant moments—have made this summer much more memorable and heaps lovelier, best intentions and expectations aside.

Whilst work has kept me crazy busy and completely disinclined towards boredom or sitting on the balcony to enjoy a bit of afternoon reading in the sunshine, Helsinki’s weather hasn’t brought the sunshine and warmth our balcony garden needs to flourish let alone temps comfortable enough to sit without multiple layers for any amount of time. My free time has also coincided with days utterly devoid of sunshine. Sod’s Law, naturally. Rather than chillaxin on the balcony admiring giant sunflowers in July and August, we only seem to find a few moments at a time to spend tending to our balcony garden / wildflower ‘patch’ or to fill up the bird feeders. We do finally have tiny little wildflowers just now opening up, which thankfully go largely ignored by our community of feathered friends.

It’s lovely enough out there even if we have not spent any amount of time truly enjoying it. Those tiny little flowers are gorgeous. They’re also a nice reminder to be patient and accepting—there simply isn’t a whole lot we can do if we don’t have just the right balance between across and elements.

It is what is, this Helsinki summer. So, we’re finding the bits that are lovely and focusing on those. I’ll focus on these lovely little bursts of purple for as long as they stick around.

From seed to flower

From seed to flower, from our balcony garden and ‘wildflower patch’

As I add miles to my weekly run tallies, it’s also been incredibly important to find time to bond and unwind with The Cuban. So, nearly every evening that we can, we go for a walk, no matter how short on time we are or how stressed we may be and, lately, regardless of weather conditions.

This last week, we’ve spent a bit of time on our jaunts sitting on a lovely little bench just at the water’s edge, enjoying the view and completely letting go of all that ails us.

A few days ago, we were treated to an incredible sunset and absolutely tranquil conditions.

sunset in munkkiniemi

An evening sunset in Munkkiniemi. 

Stolen moments these are. And, as my schedule intensifies for the autumn term and life gets busier and more chaotic, I’ll not only remember these precious moments, but also try to steal and enjoy a few more.

 

In the blink of an eye

10 years_2

Arriving in Helsinki from Sheremyetyevo, 21 July 2007

Ten years.

Ten years ago today, we took our three suitcases and Che Fufu carrier (with Che Fufu less-than-pleased to be in it) and made our way to Sheremyetyevo with one-way tickets to a country next door and yet worlds away. Several security checkpoints and an hour-long flight later, we arrived in Helsinki’s very clean and quiet airport.

Ten years. It simultaneously feels like yesterday and a lifetime ago.

There’s still so much of this city and country that remains utterly foreign to us (Finnish language, perhaps?). And, yet, we’ve built a life here. I remember that first summer missing a bus whilst standing at the stop because we didn’t signal as it approached. I remember being in awe at how huge and well-stocked the supermarkets were and how cheap things like clothes were. I remember the novelty and delight of an online journey planner which would tell us how long it would take to walk to the bus stop and what time the bus would arrive at that stop. And, even better, how long to the minute the journey would take. Furthermore, it was typically correct!

After Moscow, this was utterly unbelievable. Much of our new life was. It all seems so normal now, but was completely surreal ten years ago.

Helsinki has been good to us, and it isn’t at all a bad place to live. It’s clean, it’s well-organised and safe. It’s quiet—so quiet that when we first arrived the quiet proved unsettling.

Since we’ve arrived, we’ve celebrated milestones (getting married counts, right?) and birthdays, endured unimaginable uncertainty (residence permit saga anyone?) and come through it all to enjoy a bit of calmness and serenity. The world beyond may be crumbling or chaotic, but our little life here is relatively peaceful and stress-free these days.

Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine living in Finland. But, here we are. I never imagined marrying a Cuban until I met mine. I’ve no idea how long this glorious-in-summer / abysmal-in-winter land will be home to us, but here’s to ten years and counting. It’s passed in the blink of an eye.

Metamorphosis

As a twenty-something graduate student, I never imagined teaching. The prize that I kept my eye on at that time was research, ideally in a position related to policy in some way, shape or form. At that time, as an arrogant graduate student rather myopically focused on her own research, I thought landing a teaching gig would be the worst possible outcome of all those hours and years spent as a graduate student.

Oh, the irony. Life has a way of reminding us of just how foolish we can be as young (or, even, older) idealists.

Fast forward 20-plus years, and here I am lecturing to graduate students. What’s weirder still, I love it. After three full academic years of teaching at the University of Helsinki, I cannot imagine not teaching.

Part of my enthusiasm for teaching lies within the topics I teach: academic writing, conference presentations and presentations in general, and grant writing, along with a few other transferrable skills courses. I was fortunate as a graduate student to have incredible mentors, professors-turned-friends who I still rely on for their wisdom and guidance, even if I don’t constantly pester them or hover in their doorways. The lessons they taught me years ago remain with me even now, and often echo in my own lectures. I can only hope that I do these incredible minds and kind souls justice. Because they shaped me in so many ways and helped me to become a more dedicated member of the academic community I now feel duty-bound to serve.

As exhausting as the academic calendar is and as much as I look forward to summer and winter breaks, being an instructor never ceases to provide further inspiration and immeasurable rewards. This most likely reflects the immense privilege it is to guide the pool of students that grace my classrooms. These brilliant, dedicated individuals, wise beyond their years, amaze me. They are, quite simply and, as one professor referred to me, indefatigable. As I sift through my inbox sending reviews and feedback to those who worked incredibly hard throughout whichever course they took with me, some of these bright young minds provide feedback to me. I welcome these moments because they help me do better in future. But, this, this I wasn’t expecting and it has moved me in ways I can’t begin to describe:

…. [O]ne thing that I found particularly inspiring was that you seemed to let your personality bubble through your professional instructor role. I have noticed that especially women often somehow suppress or flatten their personality when acting in an expert position, which is maybe because they are afraid of not to be taken seriously otherwise. I don’t want to end up falling into this pit, so I also want to thank you for showing an empowering example that it is possible to be a professional without burying yourself under a role.

For whatever reason, this feedback from an incredibly bright young student represents one of the most powerful indicators that I’m doing what I should be doing. What I was intended to do. And, perhaps, something I’m truly good at. If my classroom example encourages young women scholars to be themselves regardless of stereotypes and expectations, all the better.

Indeed. As a graduate student, as a young career professional and later as a mid-career professional, I didn’t always feel sufficiently empowered to be me. Perhaps the greatest gift this gig has offered me is a way to find my own voice and to apply that voice to providing guidance to others. Without consciously realising it, my own voice appears more genuine and more authentic than it’s ever been before. And, oddly, more confident.

I love my job. Truly. But, this personal metamorphosis was so entirely unintended, yet I completely welcome it. And, can only hope that it continues. At the very least, I hope my own metamorphosis allows others to transform as well…

 

 

The greenness of spring

It seems like we wait all year for spring to arrive in Helsinki. This year in particular — a mere two weeks ago we endured days of snow flurries and living in a giant snow globe when our feet should have been enjoying the freedom of sandals. But, whenever that shift from winter to new growth arrives, there’s an unnatural greenness to the landscape which never ceases to surprise, delight and amaze me. Each and every year.

I don’t know if it is simply the newness to the green leaves or the sudden explosion of them everywhere. Leaves seem to grow overnight, transforming from tiny buds to giant leaves so, so quickly. But, this green. This green against the darker trunks of some of the indigenous trees becomes fluorescent. Add in the budding green shoots of the grass, the insanely loud cacophony of the birds screaming for their mates and the lengthening days and shadows of those long summer evenings, and you can’t help but smile and feel alive.

Winter—the long, dark, greyness of winter—often seems never-ending and at times unbearable. So when spring comes, perhaps my mind simply doesn’t recognise the loveliness that is this new growth, leaving me confused and processing that colour as something almost other worldly.

Whatever it is about spring and this green we experience in the far North, I welcome it. It is truly glorious and I’ll soak it in for as long as it lasts. After my class this morning, I was standing at a bus stop marvelling at the dark blue, stormy sky of summer as the backdrop to those bright green leaves of new growth. Those are the moments we carry with us as we suffer through the darkness. Simultaneously, those are the images we forget on the darkest days as a way of perhaps protecting ourselves from the darkness. And, those are the images we delight in each spring.

It takes a specific mindset to survive in this environment and not lose all hope of the sun returning to it’s brilliant glory. And, looking at trees in winter, it’s hard to imagine them ever living again. Perhaps this is what makes summer so incredibly glorious and wonderful.

Whatever makes the leaves this green, I’ll take it.

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Neither here nor there

As an anthropologist, I’m intellectually familiar with and fully comprehend the concept of reverse culture shock. As a person experiencing it, I just want to crawl into bed with the covers over my head and hide from the world for a while until it subsides or we return to Cuba.

My first real experience feeling bewildered by coming home hit me full on when returning from my first trip to Moscow in 1998. After a mere 9 weeks, landing at JFK was one of the most surreal experiences of my life up to that point. E V E R Y T H I N G felt unfamiliar and odd. Whilst my body was firmly planted in New York and eventually back amongst my things and in my flat in Connecticut, my mind persistently resisted leaving behind my surroundings and new-found friends in Moscow. Any time a question was asked, my response came in Russian (unsurprising perhaps since I hadn’t heard English for the last 3 weeks of that particular trip). Everything which at one time had been automatic in my US-based life became awkward and … difficult.

The unfamiliarity and disconnect subsided, replaced not necessarily by normalcy but passive acceptance that I was cognitively straddling two worlds. When I moved to Moscow the following year for what I assumed was a brief 6-month to 1-year teaching gig, I experienced culture shock upon my return to Russia, largely because I was on my own rather than sheltered and taken care of by a host family; the shock was somehow less pronounced. I continued to straddle my Moscow-based and other life in the US, but the divergence and cognitive dissonance between those worlds seemed less traumatic and … well… shocking.

Fast forward 17 a few years and insert two different worlds and that oddly and unsettling familiar feeling of reverse culture shock has returned. Whilst two different countries feature as home (Finland rather than the US) and home away from home (Cuba vs Moscow), the experience and feelings differ very little.

We returned from our epic journey to the land of rum, cigars, 1950s cars and chanchullo 3 weeks ago today and I’m still experiencing the worst sort of disconnect from life and missing Cuba and, more importantly, Cubans desperately. Finland, which is a relatively comfortable and easy place to live and has become home to us, feels wrong. It is too quiet. There are too many products and options and things from which to choose. And, it’s too clean and organised. Weird, right? (First World Problems, anyone?)

We knew before we left for the airport that our return to ‘civilisation’ and the ‘real world’ would be a slap in the face. How could it not be when we had such an amazing 6 weeks in Fidel’s Cuba? But from the moment we landed in Amsterdam and the experience of navigating Schiphol, once a favourite place for me, to returning to our flat and our life here, I cannot shake that sense that something is misplaced and off about my situation. Or more precisely where I am situated. My surroundings, including my beloved workspace, are somehow not quite right. I wake up each morning utterly confused, having dreamt about various goings on in Helsinki, but all situated and populated by those familiar faces from Cuba we left behind. In some cases, the actual stage is Cuba, but the events and people are all from our life in Finland. It’s maddening really.

This past weekend, the sense of longing for Cuba was so strong that after writing about chicharritas in the morning, I went on a quest to find green plantains and black beans so that we could at least eat Cuban food again, even if it wasn’t prepared by our favourite home cooks.

Perhaps it’s that the weather simply sucks this time of year in Helsinki, particularly this year. Perhaps we’re just missing our friends and family ‘over there’. That’s natural. Perhaps we simply haven’t ever really connected to Finland in the way that we should to properly ‘return’ to it. I know my toes will never prefer being stuffed into boots for 6 months to freely wiggling in the seaside air and burying themselves in the white sand beaches of Cayo Blanco.

For now and until this maddening mental state passes, I shall endeavour to be patient and ride out the reverse culture shock. I have great friends here, I love my students and teaching, I’m surrounded by brilliant colleagues and Finland possesses so many conveniences and a vast array of fresh produce that we truly missed when we were in Cuba. And, we have the internet once again. More importantly, my Cuban is here.

Eventually, my head will catch up with the rest of my body and realise that we are here in Finland. But, my heart remains in Cuba. For now…

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Proud to be an ally; not proud that it is necessary

It’s Pride Week in Helsinki. My husband and I will be there to march and show our support and allegiance with not just Finnish but all lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) individuals during a week we’d rather be celebrating marriage equality for all. Alas, Finland has yet to adopt a measure which would allow all couples regardless of their genders to marry legally.

Now, more than ever, it seems crucial that we do something, anything, to show our solidarity with all LGBTI communities.

We unequivocally support everyone’s right to love who they want and to show that love for one another openly and without fear of being persecuted. Love is love. It’s a thing of beauty in its many varied forms, shades and expressions. And, the world and all of us could benefit immensely from a bit more love and a lot less contention and hate.

But, as we in much of Western Europe and North America works towards marriage equality, LGBTI communities in places like Uganda, Jamaica and Russia among far too many others face situations much worse and far more dangerous. The reality in these contexts for individuals suspected let alone known to be gay, lesbian or transgender is akin to what I’d imagine is hell on earth. There is an element of extreme hatred towards LGBTI communities, where violence and criminal prosecution for simply existing are daily realities. And, yes, LGBTI individuals fear for their lives.

What does this have to do with me? Well, my fellow countrymen are complicit in creating these realities. It goes without saying that I do not support their actions nor their efforts and will do what I can to call them to account.

God Loves Uganda tells the story of how American evangelicals, primarily those affiliated with the International House of Prayer (a more sinister use of the acronym IHOP), work to ‘spread the good news’ to Ugandans (and others further afield). Unfortunately, rather than spreading messages of loving they neighbour, the growth of evangelicalism in Uganda seems to be fanning the flames of hatred and bigotry.

Essentially, interpretations of Biblical dogma legitamize and grant licence to allow hate, violence and in extreme cases death to individuals identified as LGBTI or their allies. During a two-conference lead by Americans in Kampala in 2009, my fellow countrymen provided justification and fodder which ultimately resulted in a law which would make homosexuality a criminal offence.

It’s sick. And, quite frankly, the worst sort of application of religion possible. In all honesty, I’m struggling to describe the film in a way that isn’t just as hate-filled as the rhetoric it captures.

Perhaps it is because it is Pride Week here that we feel compelled to act and even more motivated to voice our allegiance. As an American and as an American who grew up in a relatively conservative Christian household, I find myself particularly proud to be an ally. I am not, however, proud that it is necessary.

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