On January 9, I left a very sunny Jamaica to voluntarily fly to Helsinki, Finland. I arrived in Helsinki at -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit), just in time for two feet of fresh snow to be dumped on my doorstep that night. Hailing from Philadelphia, I can manage snow, but -20 degrees and only five hours of daylight was a shock. I knew it would be cold, and packed accordingly, but I had never been exposed to such a deep freeze before. To put the temperature in context: in the first week I learned that my iphone would not turn on for hours after being exposed to the cold (a problem it has yet to recover from), my earmuffs snapped in half, and my nose would fill with tiny icicles the moment I stepped outside.
On my first full day in Helsinki, geared with two coats, two pairs of pants, strong winter boots, earmuffs, cozy mittens, and an incredible level of determination, I trudged through the snow to get to work. I must admit that at this time I was thinking I had made a huge mistake – I had voluntarily opted to move to Helsinki, was freezing, and had no GPS to navigate my way (thanks, iphone).
Luckily I arrived at my office in one piece, albeit slightly icy, but I quickly thawed thanks to the wonderful and warmly welcoming working environment I entered. From January to March I spent time as a Fulbright Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs (FIIA). My team at FIIA was exceptional, providing me with incredible opportunities, brilliant intellectual discussions and debates, and a beaming smile, despite the cold.
Within two weeks of arriving, I was speaking to Finnish media about the U.S. elections and sitting on panels in front of 70 people discussing sanctions policy. I had explained to my director that I am not an expert on these subjects (although I do work in government and wrote my master’s thesis on sanctions), so I approached the events with trepidation. “Why was I the best voice for these discussions?,” I wondered. What I quickly learned at FIIA though was that it wasn’t my expertise that was important, but rather my analysis of the situation as an educated American. Did I look at things from a different angle from the Finnish populous? Could differing opinions help us to find a middle ground? Why are some Americans enamored with Donald Trump? (This last question became a regular topic of discussion for me as an American living in Northern Europe).
I also learned, within the months ahead and during the rest of my grant in Sweden, that my research opened doors and allowed me to meet with influential individuals in my field. My primary research, besides being the Trump-decoder for Northern Europe, actually focuses on Finnish and Swedish national security policies, in the context of their relationships to the European Union and their choice to not be members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The hierarchy and red tape that we sometimes face in the U.S. is much less apparent in Sweden and Finland, which meant that I had access to leaders in my field, trusted government advisors, military planners, and ministry officials. All of the individuals I’ve met with during my time here have regarded me as an equal, and have been incredibly interested in my insight and analysis as someone looking at the NATO debate in Finland and Sweden with an outside perspective.
In the months since I’ve come to Helsinki and Stockholm I’ve learned a lot about not only my research, but myself. I’ve learned that it’s my understanding of the situation around me, and how I analyze it, that can make my insight interesting. I’ve learned that Samsung devices are much more trustworthy in the bitter cold, and that iphones should come with warning labels that say “Does not function from January through April.” I’ve learned that you can enter countries that are dark and cold, and find some of the warmest people with welcoming smiles. I’ve learned that ice swimming on the frozen sea in -20 degrees is terrifying, but is an enormous relief of stress after a sauna of over 100 degrees Celsius.
I’ve also learned from my Finnish and Swedish colleagues and friends, that I am now returning to the U.S. with a renewed sense of sisu. Sisu is a Finnish word, which loosely translated means courage in the face of adversity. This perseverance is a testament to Finnish culture – it’s evident in how they make it through the winter, how they protect their borders, and how they sit in a sauna for hours on end. More importantly though, my sisu will propel me back to my job in the U.S. with a renewed sense of purpose and belonging, with a yearning to serve my country to the best of my ability, and with a deeper sense of cultural understanding.
Carrie Weintraub was a Fulbright-Schuman fellow based in Finland and Sweden in the spring of 2016. The views reflected here are her own, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Department of State nor of the Fulbright Program.