Monday, 5 September 2011

Amaze Me Leader! August 2011 - Finland

From 22nd August to 28th August, I was given a great opportunity to participate in an international rural event exploring the Finnish country side. Prior to the trip, I was unaware of the existence of LAG or Leader programs in Europe. The more I found out about the trip, the more I was excited to get involved. As I am fascinated by foreign cultures, I could not decline a chance to visit a new country.
After many meetings, we finally set off on Sunday 21st August, not fully aware of what to expect. After arriving in Tampare airport, we met up with Marita Hankila who drove us to Pieksämäki, a small town North East of Tampare. We visited “Café 76 Sata” youth centre where we were greeted by Suvi Sikanen. She explained to us that the café was entirely funded by the local council & Leader as there were no youth facilities available previously. Suvi is responsible for organizing local youth events and supporting young people with their needs. After a night stay at a lake side lodge in Mäntyharju, we drove south to Helsinki for our first Amaze Me Leader! Meeting. Before the first meet up, we ascended to Best Western Airport Hotel (Pillotti Helsinki) for a breakfast followed by a meeting with the French Delegates (from the Northern France). We discussed the possible exchanges between France, Finland & Scotland. Following issues were discussed thoroughly; funding, associations and the schedule. We also discussed about Earth Hour, a global event held on the last Saturday of March annually, asking households and businesses to turn off their non-essential lights and other electrical appliances for one hour to raise awareness towards the need to take action on climate change. Marita suggested if the exchanges occur between the countries, environmentally friendly events should be prioritized. After the meeting, 2 boys from the French delegate (who are also participating in Amaze Me Leader! event) joined our van, heading to Hilton Hotel at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport. At 12pm, we arrived at the conference room of the hotel greeted by many participants and the staff. As the AML registration begun, we were divided into 16 different groups. After the local police officer thoroughly briefed us on the road safety, Antero Lehikoinen, one of the main organizers gave us some poignant words; “Because of what happened in Norway last month, it is crucially important for all young people from different European nations to work together and exchange ideas”. After further comments (with added humour) from 2 other main organizers, Juha-Matti Markkola & Tomi Kervinen, we were ready to go. As the Belgian groups flight was delayed, my group had only one other girl, Paulien van Beesten from the Netherlands. We were given 16 cars from the Hertz car rental and we were off! First stop, Vierumaki Ghosthall, roughly 2 hours north of Helsinki. After struggling to operate the GPS (on the Nokia phones we were provided), we were joined by others for our meeting point. This hall was one of the few buildings that survived the 2nd world war, and is used by the local community ever since. Finnish Leader funded the renovation of the property and it is still partly under construction. After an impromptu dance lesson by Juha, we were off again. Next stop, our accommodation for the evening, Marjoniemeu Poukama lodge house. We were all given our first chance to experience the legendary Finnish sauna, followed by a midnight swim in the lake.
Tuesday the 23rd, another beautiful day. We were told that all 16 groups will be going to entirely different locations, visiting various projects funded by Leader/LAG. After being joined by Benedicte from Belgium, 3 of us drove off to Teatteri Lumpero for “Art Hysteria”. We were given 3 different tasks, painting, dancing and a sculpture making, overlooking the beautiful Saarijarvi (Island Lake). After refueling our vehicles, we made it to Pihtipudas, a small town 358 km north of Helsinki, given us an early indication of how far we will travel after a week of driving. Our final stop of the day was at Hiekan Hippos race course outside of the town. We each made a toy horse which we raced each other by carrying it. I personally thought this activity was very bizarre, however we were all reminded again that Leader also supports local businesses for developing rural economy. We were all left out of breath, but couldn’t stop smiling with laughter.
After the race, we headed to our accommodation at Pihtiputan Lukio (Pihtipudas Junior High School) where we were to sleep in the School gym. After dinner, we got together in the courtyard in front of the school for some group activities (to build our team work). The best teams of the day were given a star for their vehicles. The day ended with a Heavy Metal concert at the town square, with Finnish staff shaking their heads saying “Finland is not all Heavy Metal”. This meaningless but humourous discussion of British stereotype image of Finland gave me an opportunity to get to know the Finnish staff, young students volunteering to make sure that the whole tour goes according to plan.
Wednesday the 24th, another beautiful day! After departing Pihtipudas at around 10am, my group headed to Maasseutu Opettaa Farm in Keitele where we were given an opportunity to drive a tractor and visit the cow shed. As Paulin studies Agriculture in the Netherlands, this was a project we could not miss. We were given a tour of the milking shed where they milk the cows for the Finnish dairy company “Valio” for fresh Maito (milk). We discussed the procedures the Finnish farmers follow on Organic milking, and the realities of modern farming. After eating lunch at Pielavesi, we headed to Sonkajärvi for the world famous “Wife carrying” competition. This national obsession in which male competitors race while each carrying a female teammate. The objective is for the male to carry the female through a special obstacle track in the fastest time.
The usual prize, the wife's weight in beer, was replaced by a T shirt from their limited range of merchandise for good measures. This event was not funded by Leader; however it was an important event to experience something Finnish and to build team spirit. As there were 3 people in our group, with 2 girls, this was not our strongest participation but a thoroughly enjoyable experience.
We then headed to Vieremä for what was to be the most bizarre activity of the trip. Not everyone including myself knew how to react to this pedal cart race as it seemed a little childish, and we were told to wear a baseball cap with a black & yellow sponsorship “Ponsse”. I was not happy with our foreheads marked with a corporate advertisement. However, we were told that the company was supported by the Leader funding, so I realized that this was not entirely a bad thing. This has given me an indication that we will witness all kinds’ of projects in all extremes. We finally arrived at Koljonvirlta camp site, near Iisalmi, 480km north east of Helsinki.
Thursday 25th, possibly the hottest day of the trip. After some group building activities in the camp site, my group headed to Iisalmi city centre. At the town square, we were greeted by Kaisa & Reeta, our Finnish staff. We were given a unique task of asking questions to the locals. This had nothing to do with the LAG or the Leader projects, but possibly to encourage us to get deeper into the Finnish culture. Shortly after, we headed to the café Häggman for an interview for local press. Afterwards, we headed to the local playground for our “Parkour” lesson, provided by 4H, Finnish youth organization. Parkour is a method of movement focused on moving around obstacles with speed and efficiency. Originally developed in France, the main purpose of the discipline is to teach participants how to move through their environment by vaulting, rolling, running, climbing and jumping. 4H, which stands for Head, Hands, Heart and Health, is the biggest youth organization in Finland with more than 79000 members. 4H provides children, youths and young adults with practical skills and courses to support their career paths. Afterwards, we arrive at Kolmikanta camp site in Outkumpu, east of Finland and part of the North Karelia region.
Friday 26th, a very warm day. First stop, Keretintie Golf club. A Leader funded Golf club, situated just outside Outkumpu, is a perfect green for all Golf enthusiasts. It is a complete fabrication that all Scottish people are excellent at Golf. This ridiculous theory was put to test by me and my Scottish colleague Kathryn Maxwell. As predicted, we were the worst Golfers on the green, which baffled the staff at this Golf Club! As of this moment, their club house incorporates with a Petrol Station. It was a great joy to be told that Leader would be funding their new club house, which would improve the services of the site, bringing in large income for the local economy.
After departing the Golf Club, we were followed by the Media team filming our car whilst driving. Very dangerous act, but for the benefit (viewing pleasures) of the executives at European Union.
We headed to Roukolahti in the North Karelia region. Local people at Roukolahti village hall provided us with quick lessons in baking & dancing. The baking lesson provided by a master baker whose name I cannot recall, taught us how to cook traditional Rye bread. Rye bread, an ancient staple diet in Eastern Europe, was developed in Finland as people could not afford wheat. This cost cutting method eventually became traditional bread and a symbol of Finland. Rye bread is high in fibre, and is a healthy (and extremely delicious) alternative. Baking class was followed by a traditional dancing class. Finnish folk music is set to Karelian traditional songs. Dancing was a favorite past time for Karelian people, who has witnessed unprecedented amount war, suffering and invasion.
This ancient tradition is dying rapidly and is overshadowed by an enormous popularity of Heavy Metal music in the country. Therefore, for the elder villagers who volunteered to help, it was a glimmer of hope to teach many young foreigners how to dance, to keep the tradition alive. Again, this village hall is supported by Leader, a vital partnership. Hannele Mikkanen, the Mayor of Liperi, a local Municipality, joined us for the dancing, and told us about the local area. North Karelia region, said to be the most beautiful area in Finland, holds the record for the hottest temperature ever recorded in the country. Roukolahti village recorded a staggering 37.2 °C (99.0 °F) on 29th of July, 2010.
After we checked in at our accommodation at Hietajärvi camp site, we took a bus to a nearby Raatevaara village house for a night of dinner and entertainment. We were treated to a local Mushroom soup which was very delicious. This was followed by another bus trip to a nearby forest for a midnight “Night Boletus” (mushroom picking). As we walked deep into the forest, we found some enormous mushrooms we have never seen before. Some in strange shapes and sizes. As my groups collection weighed in 8.7kg, we came third in the competition. However, I realized I was not going to eat any of it which was a great shame. That was the main purpose in my participation.
Saturday 27th, another very hot day, this baffled the geography of our minds. After abseiling the nearby cliff, we drove off to Parikkala for another Finnish obsession, Milk cart rally. After getting deposited into the lake by my trusted team mates, we were awarded with a T shirt, which I was in dire need of. After a quick lunch, we headed to Särkisalmi to visit the Voluntary Fire service. After a brief fire extinguishing exercises, we were told that these men risk their lives for free as there are no fire service in the area. It is nice to acknowledge that Leader has funded the entire project.
Afterwards, we headed to Kokko farmhouse, Uukuniemi, another farm partly funded by Leader. As we participated in several activities (“how tall is the tree?” and “how many pigs in the field?”), we were told that Russia was 100 metres away. On the edge of the farm, a sign reads in 5 languages; “Stop; Frontier Zone, No entry without special permit”. Russian soldiers patrol the narrow road in their Jeeps twice a day. This 200m of no-man’s land is haunted by silence. The Fin-Russian border with its “generous” price tag of $400 Euro fine, a night in jail & no nonsense policy by the Russian government has become one of the most successful boarders in Europe with very limited illegal immigration. However, the economy of the nearby villages on each side is very different. The gap between the rich and the poor is worth a mention. This is very educational for someone like me, from an island country, in which we rarely deal with such issues with neighboring countries.
After arriving at Uukuniemi Recreational centre, Uukuniemen Virkistyskeskus, we headed to a nearby Papinniemi camp site for dinner and a closing ceremony. All participants, staff and the local co-ordinaters were mentioned and congratulated. Afterwards, we went off to the nearby Elotuli Rock Festival, with the Finnish staff repeatedly reminding us that Finland is “Not all heavy metal”. Wonderful mix of Finnish folk rock bands and Finland’s world famous strict smoking/drinking laws ended what has become one of the greatest week of our lives. While expressing my deep love for the country, Juha-Matti Markkola, AML co-ordinator, he spoke of his trip to Scotland and his love for the Scottish country side. He expressed his interest in AML 2012 to be held in Scotland. If this event was to occur, it would be an enormous gain for the Scottish youngsters. Young people of Scottish countryside need more interaction with foreign people and their culture, and to promote the beauty of Scotland.
The next day was very positive. As Juha-Matti joked (but in a serious manner), we drove around Finland like maniacs, polluting the air with the guzzled fuel of our cars. So we compensated the AML Carbon footprint by planting trees at Simpele in South Karelia region, an area that was devastated by a storm last year, a fitting tribute to the purpose of Leader projects in Finland. After our farewells, we drove back to Helsinki-Vantaa airport to return our cars. After that, each of us returned to our countries, our cities, our towns and villages, but with our collective consciousness left behind in Suomen Tasavalta (Republic of Finland).

It is difficult to sum up my experience in Finland. The most isolated and furthest north many of us will ever travel. A country with its poetic landscapes, dramatically changing through different regions. People with the most isolated language in Europe, spoken with pride. A nation rich in history and technology.
Prior to this trip, my knowledge of LAG or Leader was next to none. It was sheer coincidence that my mother received an email through the local rural office in Dumfries & Galloway (Southwest Scotland), a single email that changed my life. As I travelled the lengths and breaths of Finland, I became more aware of the work LAG and Leader provides for Europe. Since the devastation of WW2, European Union was vital in rebuilding Europe. I feel fortunate to become involved in such organization.
Working with 70 young people from 16 different countries was difficult at times. However, we exchanged lifelong friendships, cultures and ideas for the future of Europe. In these difficult times, it is vital for young Europeans to work together and achieve our mutual goals.
There were several things I must criticize of the whole event. Some of the activities were selected unfairly, as many of us missed out on what each of us wanted to do. Also, as we were told that this was not a competition, stars that the teams were given each day became competitive. As I was in a group with 2 girls, there was no way of winning any physical activities. I was not so much interested in winning, but to participate. However, as Juha-Matti summed it up; “You will always learn from mistakes, and all criticism will be dealt with to improve the future AML.” To organize AML was an enormous task, and I am forever grateful that the people in Finland has given me this valuable experience, in which many tourists or even Finns will never experience.
I was fascinated by Finland in every way. The beautiful land, the most generous people, the delicious food, everything imaginable. Since the trip, I have become obsessed by Saunas (followed by swimming in the lake), Letta (pancakes), “karjalanpiirakka” (Karelia’s pie/porridge pie) and Makkara sausages. It was important to delve into the culture, one of the most amazing things about travelling to a foreign country, which was helped by an unusually warm weather for Nordic country, which baffled the Geography in our minds.
The trip has definitely inspired me to think about my life and the future. AML has given a vital insight into the importance of rural development, and I would like to be involved with more projects in the future. As I am writing this at my next work in Italy, the trees of Finland are still flickering before my eyes.