A tale of four countries, twelve days and a little bit more

Hi, and greetings from the middle of a sorrow that accompanies the ending of the world’s greatest journey! A little over two weeks ago myself along with Kiisa Kemilä, Miljabella Saukkonen, Anni Törmä, Minna Korpierkki and Eveliina Partanen took our way to the United States of America. The trip was a 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’s main purpose is 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 major complications. The trip was already off to a brilliant start. The flight to Helsinki felt like a fever dream: were we really leaving today? It felt as if the past four months would have been condensed into just a few short minutes, right there and then. It was only a few days ago when we first heard of this whole experience, right? Well, anyhow, we were on our way to the United States of America, and that’s what mattered the most. After arriving to a good old rainy Helsinki, we were off to London, as we had a connection there. Finnair had awarded, or randomly put, a few of our group members into their new Premium Economy- class. Although they don’t offer their full amenities on short-haul flights, the seats were ridiculously nice. Speaking from experience here.

Heathrow Airport saw us running to catch our flight to New York, as our boarding passes were a cause of 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 truly had planned to watch movies and work on school during the 8 hours flight time. It quickly became impossible, possibly due to being way too excited and happy that we were closer to our final destination. Let’s just say, music was consumed and views above the clouds being 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 presented us with the news: our flight had been cancelled. As a matter of fact, almost every other flight had been as well. There was a heavy storm, and the weather conditions were not suitable 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 made our way to the border control checkpoint. Everything went rather smoothly, and our bags arrived after a short wait. It was then time to figure out what in the world we would do next. All kinds of options were pondered. Long story short, after careful thought and consideration, the decision of renting a car was made. It sure was a stressful time for Minna and Eve, who were responsible for the driving, and also keeping everyone safe and sound. The rest of us four were laughing in the backseats and having the time of our lives. Not once did any of us have an inkling of doubt or frustration in us. Somehow, we all knew that it would be okay.

I don’t think any one of us 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 made a stop in the nearest Starbucks available. Maybe President Joe Biden also went there in his earlier years? This was his hometown, you see. After having indulged our coffees and other beverages, we were on the road again. This time we were on a mission to reach Canada. The views were mesmerizing, ranging from forests to rivers and hills that almost touched the clouds. Somewhere in between we left our beloved rental car that had taken us so far. Before we even knew it, we laid our eyes upon 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 that tasted something close to chlorine and were ready to go and see the falls. One cannot describe them, it’s a natural phenomenon like no other. Even just seeing them, you feel really small and powerless compared to nature. What’s also compelling is to see how well the falls have been monetized. There, right next to the water, stood a city filled with colorful lights built solely for tourists. In Finland these falls would be a 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 definite core memory that we’ll all remember for the rest of our lives. Seeing the sun reflect through the water made one feel like they’re 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, us four students, Anni, Kiisa, Miljabella and me, reflected on the past, present and foreseeable future. We send our most sincere apologies to our driver, who had to listen to us giggling in Finnish for a good four hours. Each were probably a bit 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 shortly: it truly 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 really were the epitome of excellent hosts. A week isn’t a long time at all, but all of us really got deeply immersed into the American culture. In fact, 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 and all of our lovely hosts and other people who made our visit amazing. 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 a hope and a dream that the stormy weather wouldn’t make a cameo. After delicious bagels and cake pops from Starbucks, we found ourselves to be sitting in the smallest plane ever. It didn’t really matter, because we were off to the greatest city in the world. My mind 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 Flatiron District, near the Chelsea neighborhood. The Empire State Building could be seen from our hotel room – which we didn’t even realize at first. It was Minna who 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 near, too bad it was under some heavy construction. 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 little bit colder than Medina had been, but for us Finns the temperature was the perfect one to stroll around and experience culture. We went to 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 Kadinsky. After a touching blend of music and colors, we headed to Broadway and went to see Hamilton. What can I even say – the most amazing experience 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-recognized universities in the world. The university introduced us to some amazing students, who all very kindly shared personal stories behind their language studies. So many different people with different backgrounds, all 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. Who knows, maybe one of us will one day be a part of that bunch? The possibilities our school can give to a student hoping to experience the world are endless.

Our last day in the city was spent 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 coming to an end, but at the same time being so fortunate and happy about all the memories we had made, that I really struggled to keep it all together in that very moment. Sometimes an author has a better way with words than one could even dare to think. After the library we headed to the Museum of Modern Art, which was an amazing experience as well. It was much larger than I had anticipated, and different art styles kept appearing after every corner. I recall you’d need approximately fourteen weeks to thoroughly explore the entire museum.

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. Driving and seeing the skyline behind us touched me in many ways. How lucky I had gotten to be able 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 when I found myself at the airport paying 17 dollars for a few 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 into something magical. Thank you to Heli Sirviö and everyone else we met at C Columbia University. And finally, I’d like to thank the people I traveled 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.

Text Jenna Sundell
Photos Minna Korpierkki and Jenna Sundell