Around here, autumn means a welcome return of the back to school routine, and maybe a little chill in the morning air. For our family, it also means a couple of weeks of repeated trips to the airport to welcome foreign exchange students.
Participating in the Rotary Youth Exchange program is one of the most rewarding aspects of being a Rotarian. It gives us an opportunity to get to know students from across the globe, inviting them into our homes and clubs, learning about their cultures and traditions.
The Rotary program is a true one-on-one exchange: for every student we welcome here, we send a student on exchange. With their service, our host families and clubs, counselors, committee members, and other volunteers make life-changing opportunities available to local students every year.
By staying involved with the program, our returning students (we call them rebounds) enhance the exchange program. Their involvement is critical. They know first-hand what it means to be an exchange student, and provide insight into our interview, training, and orientation processes.
Mike wasn’t super excited about renting a car for part of our trip to Denmark, and for a quick jaunt into Germany, but there were places we wanted to go where buying train tickets for the whole family was going to be super expensive, or our destination was out of the way enough, the train wouldn’t quite get us where we wanted to be.
By this point in our journey to visit the place our son had been living for a year and attend the wedding of a former exchange student, we’d experienced no real problems. None. No missed connections or lost luggage or screw ups with our Airbnb hosts.
Which made it the PERFECT time to put all marital and familial relationships to the test by having one us navigate while another drove (possibly illegally, we never really looked that up), and the rest rode in nervous silence in the back.
Or if not total silence, at least everyone tried to keep their startled screams and audible gasps to a minimum.
Saara gave Mike a quick and helpful tutorial about driving in her part of the world. It was basically pretty much the same as driving in the United States, she said, except with regard to stop signs.
“We actually stop at them,” she said. Which made us wonder what she thought we were actually doing at stop signs in our home country.
A couple of weeks into our trip, we had another opportunity to explore Copenhagen, when we returned from Finland with the honeymooners, en route to Sønderborg. The flat we rented this time was more centrally located than the one in Nørrebro, and if the weather cooperated, we’d easily be able to walk to a few attractions.
The weather did cooperate (which in Denmark means temps in the low to mid 60s, intermittent rain and some sun. As with our last trip to northern Europe, I made the mistake of packing sundresses. Sigh.), so we came up with a plan to do way more than would be physically possible for mere mortals in one day (if you know us, you know that’s kind of our MO).
We returned from Germany on Sunday and dropped Jack off at his host family home in Sønderborg (he’ll finish out the last week of his exchange and then travel home from Billund. Our tickets are outbound from Copenhagen), and continued on to see a couple of other points of interest in Denmark.
One of those was the town of Haderslev, not too far north of Sønderborg. Mike picked this place out because he thought it would be a quiet stopover on our way north, and also because at least one of my ancestors is from here: my grandmother Betty’s great grandfather Nis Jensen Krough, to be exact. Nis was born in 1849 in Haderslev, and died in 1908 in Des Moines, Iowa. He married Gertrude Marie Christiansen, also of Denmark (although her birth city is unknown to us).
It has happened before: regardless of what Einstein said about the definition of insanity, we’ve done the exact same thing we’ve always done and had something totally unexpected happen. Take this trip, for example. We’ve had such good luck finding lodging with minimal knowledge about where we were going or extra wads of cash to spend. Even when we were in Copenhagen, and I’d made our airbnb reservations after reading exactly one article on how cool the Nørrebro neighborhood is, we ended up getting a hip, little flat in what turned out to be the neighborhood about which everyone we’ve talked to since has made that sucking-air-through-your-teeth-sound at, even then we had good luck.
That luck-with-the-lodging thing kind of went pfhht in Hamburg.
Our oldest son is a young man of many talents, but I must say, he’s got a ways to go if he wants a future in the travel industry. When we’ve talked about the town he’s called home this past year, he totally undersold it. The impression he left us with was: safe, small, and rainy. There’s a rocky beach and a harbor, a decent mall, and a great kebab shop within walking distance.
We weren’t really prepared to be blown away by Sønderborg, a seaside town of around 30,000 that straddles the narrow straight of Alsslund in southern Denmark.
Two summers ago, Saara, who’d been our first exchange student nine years ago, visited with her beau, Joona. We did all the usual Idaho stuff to see if we could scare him off. We camped, set off fireworks in the street, made him drink cheap beer at a baseball game in a zillion-degree heat, and asked him all kinds of intrusive (to Finns) questions like “how was your flight?” and “did you sleep well?”
Anyway, we and the other members of Saara’s Boise circle failed to scare him off that week and – long story short – he proposed before breakfast on their last day in town, and then we all hugged (more intrusion), and sat down to pancakes.
Later that same year, Saara sent me a locket with a small slip of paper inside asking if I would be a bridesmaid. Saara’s the kind of person who puts a lot of thought into things like that. The fact that she knows I am more of the kind of person who recruits bridesmaids over beer and still thought I would be suitable for the job tells you a little about the bond we have.
It’s obvious how much thought Joona and Saara and others have put into planning our stay in Finland. On our first full day, Saara had to work for part of the day, so Joona took us on a short walking trip around Pori and to visit a natural history exhibit in the town museum. That evening Joona’s parents, Matti and Pirkko, fixed another meal for us in their home in town.
Pori is a town of about 85,000, with a university, and lumber and manufacturing as major industries. Established in the 1550s, it has burned down and been rebuilt nine times until someone got the great idea to install wide esplanades as firebreaks.
Next week, it will host its annual Pori Jazz Festival, and organizers were setting up tents and platforms in the streets while we were exploring in the drizzly weather. I don’t know a lot of the artists on the bill, but Chaka Kahn and Grace Jones were two I recognized.
In Finnish there are, apparently, a number of different words for “mosquito,” and one that in certain dialects, also means “cow.” I don’t know what that says about Finns, the complexity of their language, the mosquitos around here, or cows for that matter. I haven’t seen any cows, but the mosquitos are prolific.
For the most part, they’re also thankfully disinterested in our party. I think if one of those words is for “polite mosquito,” that’s the kind we appear to be dealing with this week.
We arrived in Pori yesterday via Onnibus, a low cost transit service that features double decker buses, with free wifi and chargers. For about 30 Euros per round-trip ticket, plus a small charge for seat reservations, I was able to secure the front row on the top deck for our party. It’s about the most fun and lowest cost way to travel the three and a half hours from Helsinki to Pori I could imagine. The scenery was fantastic, and the chance to sit and watch the landscape go by gave us a nice respite from the crowds and cobblestones of Helsinki (although that is one of our favorite cities).
I have to say, I thought our kids would remember more about Helsinki from our last trip here than they actually do (which just goes to show, if you’re trying to make family memories with young-ish kids, or even with pre-teens, you should formulate your plans around what the adults want to do and just tell the kids later what a great time everyone had, but I digress). The last time we were in Helsinki, the boys were twelve and eight years old, and I’m thinking they were more focused on not losing track of their luggage than they were on taking in the scenery.
… Maybe it’s because we kept saying: “if you forget anything, we’re not coming back for it,” which was not the exact truth, but at twelve and eight years old, one rather freaks out about losing one’s Gameboy, or being abandoned on a train platform. I don’t know why either kid would think we’d abandon him, but I am impressed with how each of them tends to keep up on our trips.