Finland 2018 (Part 1a): Jyvaskyla

By complete accident, 2018 has turned out to be the year of travel, featuring everything from short weekend getaways to the countryside for the purposes of hearing nightjars vocalizing on the heath to much longer jaunts halfway around the world for work. One of the few trips I’d actually been aware of and planning for fairly well in advance was a visit to Finland with some friends, one of whom took the lead in planning the entire affair; I just said ‘yes, that sounds great!’ to all of her suggestions and then handed over money whenever she asked. A few months after that trip was first conceived, I was offered an opportunity to contribute to a symposium at a conference that also happened to be in Finland—as it turns out, in pretty much the same portion of the country. So it happened that, having never been to Finland in my life (and having previously been to Scandinavia only once), I found myself visiting twice in one year, going to the Lakeland area both times. I’m not usually so disorganized, but this is the kind of unexpected thing that happens when you are working too hard to pay attention to details.

That said, it’s not exactly like this was a regrettable mistake. Finland is awfully pretty, and mid-June is a fantastic time to visit. My final destination was Jyvaskyla, which I reached by train. I rode a local train to Tikkurila, about 15 minutes from the airport, and disembarked there to wait for the inter-city train. I wasn’t properly in the countryside yet, but already the air was clear and fresh and wholesome. Although the sun was shining brightly, the air was that comfortable sort of magical moderate temperature where you could wear anything from a sleeveless shirt to a hoodie and be comfortable.

Lake Jyvasjarvi, Finland

Although the ride to Jyvaskyla was fairly lengthy, it was very pleasant—not just because the seats were comfortable (wide, with head rests that didn’t bend my neck and with footrests to help my knees!), but because the landscape outside the window was so picturesque. There was something sort of familiar about it, which I at first attributed to the fact that I’ve read books and seen movies set in Scandinavia. But then I realized: It looks exactlylike the parts of Minnesota that I have visited. The evergreens—many (all?) of which I know are plantations rather than original natural forest—are stately; the lakes (which increased in number the further north we travelled) are an eerie black that contrasts beautifully with the surrounding vegetation; the homes, built in the traditional style, are welcoming; and the endless lupines are enchanting. The scenery was gorgeous…

…and then the train pulled in to Jyvaskyla. I’m not saying that Jyvaskyla is the leastattractive place I’ve ever been, but I amsaying that it isn’t the most attractive, and it certainly didn’t live up to the precedent set by the countryside we passed on the way to the city. It has an attractive square with an old church/town hall in the middle and some grounds where people can (and did) lounge in the sun, and there are some residential neighbourhoods with more of those beautiful, inviting Finnish-style homes in a rainbow of cheerful colours. There is a fantastic ‘activity trail’ (this is actually what it’s called—reflecting the fact that people don’t just bike and run but also do more unconventional activities like cross-country rollerblading) that runs all around Lake Jyvasjarvi. There are also some great cultural facilities, such as the events venue where my conference was held, the University of Jyvaskyla, and a selection of museums (more on which later). But so many of these were built in an extremely modern, functional style. Although Finland achieved independence from Russia in 1918, Jyvaskyla, at least, still very much has the look and feel of mid-century Soviet territory.

Lots of this sort of angular, modern-looking thing in Jyvaskyla. I disliked most of it but obviously this one amused me because it looked like a Star Trek comms badge.

My hotel was right in the middle of this sea of concrete blocks, which was a bummer in terms of aesthetics but quite handy in terms of access to the train station (5 minutes away) and the conference venue (an additional 5 minutes beyond the station). I was also right around the corner from a great grocery store, which was convenient given that I had deliberately selected accommodation with a ‘kitchenette’. I put that word in quotation marks because it was described as a kitchenette—which, in my mind, involves a particular bare-minimum set of appliances and resources—but consisted merely of a kettle, a microwave, and an empty and never-quite-cold minibar fridge.

It is worth describing my hotel in a little more detail, because it was weird in other ways. It had no reception desk, no check-in or -out, and no keys. On the day of my arrival in Jyvaskyla, I was emailed a door code that enabled me to pass through four portals: a barred gate giving access to the front door, the front door itself, a door to my floor, and the door to my room. The hotel was easy to spot from the sidewalk because it was labelled quite clearly, but then the main door was hidden away around to the side in a gated parking lot. There was nothing wrong with it and I never had any trouble with anyone, but it all somehow felt a bit seedy. My room had two single beds, both of which were permanently attached to the floor, positioned side-by-side under a wall-mounted reading light at just the right height to prevent you from sitting up comfortably in bed. There was also a dining table at which there were two chairs and two single-sized futons folded up into seats; none of these was very comfortable to sit on for very long. Oddly, the room also featured an unexpectedly (and unnecessarily) large television, and there was a hairdryer that I could plug into an outlet in the bathroom, so it wasn’t a totally ascetic existence—though I also wouldn’t describe it as comfortable.

In case you are wondering how I dealt with the matter of sustenance, I will tell you now that my solutions were inspired. Taking a cue from the other former rulers of Finland, Sweden, I bought supplies for smorgasbords: some of the seemingly infinite types of wholesome cracker (sturdy enough to build with, I think); some soft cheese; cucumbers; tomatoes; and shredded cabbage salad. To construct and contain these, I also purchased a set of transportable cutlery from a camping store, and a collapsible bowl. A matching collapsible cup gave me something out of which to drink my raspberry-flavoured sparkling water (purchased by accident because I had no idea what the label said but could tell the water contained bubbles, which is what I was after), and I already had a travel mug out of which to drink tea and some cup-of-soup mixes. The bowl could be reused for yogurt and granola at breakfast, which I also supplemented with a steady supply of fresh fruit. I even splurged and bought a pack of reusable plastic containers so I could take my lunch to go and whip up a batch of trail mix. The best part? All that culinary equipment—plus a scrub-brush I’d bought to help me do dishes in my bathroom sink—returned home to the UK with me. Best souvenirs ever, am I right?

Smorgasbord dining. Don’t be jealous of my mad food prep skills.

You maybe are thinking that, brilliant as this solution was, it sounds like something you’d do as a PhD student rather than a full-time employee. To that I would say: yes, probably, but I really hate eating out over and over because I have a very sensitive stomach and inevitably I wind up feeling unwell when I have to cede control of my diet to strangers. Also, Scandinavia is not cheap. Finland was not as bad as I expected, actually, but I spent more than I would have liked just on a few basic ingredients, so I can’t imagine how much it would have cost to have purchased a full meal multiple times a day for the entire duration of my stay. At this point, I probably could go without eating smorgasbords for the rest of 2018, but actually it was quite pleasant while I was doing it.

It was a bummer that my hotel wasn’t a bit more lavish (or, really, even fractionally lavish at all), because I ended up spending a fair amount of time there. To someone without a vehicle providing access into the surrounding countryside, there is a limited amount of entertainment to be found within Jyvaskyla itself – and I did partake of these things, which I will describe in more detail later. Those didn’t take that much time, though, plus I was on deadline to write a magazine article. I needed to read quite a bit of research before actually composing the piece, and I had always intended to use a portion of my Finland getaway to accomplish this. I had imagined that it would happen under slightly more comfortable conditions, but, having recently weathered such a hectic, non-stop period at work, it felt incredibly decadent and indulgent to be able to just sit, and read, and think, and create. As with the food I was eating, simple and uncomplicated did not mean unappealing.

Uncomplicated, but very appealing

So what did I do when I ventured out of my little dorm-style room?

The ECCB conference. This is why I went to Finland to begin with, and obviously it would have been remiss of me to skip my own talk. I was one of eight people in a symposium dedicated to thinking about how science communication (‘scicomm’) can achieve conservation goals by helping people connect with nature. I had the dubious honour of being the first speaker, but I think I did a decent job setting the tone. The room was packed, which was gratifying even though I suspect the audience was perhaps more interested in some of the more globally recognizable contributors. I haven’t spoken at this sort of conference for a few years and had therefore never observed the new live-tweet culture from the lectern; it was so strange to see a dozen people lift up their phones and take a photo every time I changed slides—but it was also encouraging, since I could see that people were engaged and interested. I did some live-tweeting of my own during my fellow presenters’ talks, partly to help draw attention to the event, partly to pass on useful tidbits to some of the scicomm-lovers who follow me online, and partly to create a record of advice that I could later consult myself.

Selfie taken in the symposium room in between speakers

I also attended a keynote lecture by the poet-scientist Madhur Anand, who read some of her poems, talked about the process of writing them and blending science with verse, and, in turn, verse with conservation action, more generally, and then answered questions from the audience. Although I am neither shy nor lacking in confidence, I hate asking questions in a conference setting (I did not have a good experience my first time around, and I think it has haunted me ever since). However, I did pluck up my courage to ask Madhur the following: I’ve read a lot about how there has been an increase in the popularity of poetry, and yet when I chat with friends and colleagues, I get the sense that I’m in a minority as a regular reader of verse. How does this compare with the sense you have of your audience / potential audience, and what does that make you think about using poetry as a means of scicomm intended to influence public opinions about nature and science? She confirmed my impression that, while poetry may be increasingly popular, it’s not really at Stephen King levels of sales—though there are some extremely popular ‘Insta poets’ (e.g., Rupi Kaur) who are changing this. She also pointed out that quality may outweigh quantity when it comes to the scicomm value of poetry; where it has been incorporated into projects, it has been very impactful because of how strongly it affects people’s emotions and opinions. It was a thoughtful and interesting answer towards the end of a thoughtful and interesting talk, and I look forward to reading her book A New Index For Predicting Catastrophes.

Thinking about how poetry can help us understand complicated concepts in surprisingly accessible ways

Lake Jyvasjarvi. I had originally planned to hike all the way around the lake using the activity trail, but I ended up doing the western loop twice rather than the whole thing once. The section that I selected seemed to run through more wooded areas, which was nice not just for the sake of aesthetics, but also for shade and protection from the sun; I had forgotten to pack sun cream (this is not a supply that seems essential for a trip to northern Europe) and was acutely aware of how close and intense the sun felt even on cooler days. Starting at an access point near the conference centre, I a) walked west along the northern edge of the lake, b) headed down to the University of Jyvaskyla campus where there is a suspension bridge that allows you to cross to the other side and head through the trees for a while, before c) coming back to another bridge that you can either head under for some additional walking (to do the full loop around the lake) or cross over to return to where you started. I could never really lose myself in nature because the city is still very much right therealong the entire pathway, but it was still very calming to be by the water, and there was some good wildlife viewing to be had: I saw fieldfares and redwings in their summer habitat, a mama great-horned grebe with a chick on her back, a lady mallard leading her ducklings to water, a common toad (the first toad I’ve seen in the wild in years), and more chaffinches than I have ever seen in my life. It was great to be able to strike out from my hotel room and have such a spacious and pleasant walking path so close by. All cities should have something similar.

Lupines along the path

The Craft Museum of Finland. There is, as I said, only a limited number of options for organized outings in Jyvaskyla, so it’s not entirely surprising that the Finnish Craft Museum makes all the ‘Top 10 Things to Do in Jyvaskyla’ lists. However, it genuinely is a top-ten destination, and is one of the most enjoyable museums I have ever visited. It has three main types of exhibit:

  1. Static displays providing information on a range of different crafting genres that are and have been important within Finland (e.g., spinning, weaving, knitting).
  2. Static displays on traditional Finnish dress (which may seem unrelated except when you consider the fact that a) both the costumes and the materials used to make them have been, and to some extent still are, constructed by hand, and b) the entire idea of a national costume, and what different types of national costumes arose in different areas and in different eras, is itself a bespoke creation.
  3. Rotating displays showcasing…whatever is deemed interesting and relevant. During my visit, there was a collection of ‘outsider art’ from contemporary crafters who are not really part of any formal artistic or crafting movement or community—in other words, people whose work is often called ‘folk art’ rather than ‘real’ art, even though many (including me) would argue this is an arbitrary and condescending distinction.

The Museum isn’t very large, physically, and yet, thanks to a clever use of space, it manages to fit in quite a bit; it kept me entertained for several hours because I felt compelled to read every last plaque and interact with every last hands-on display. One thing I particularly liked was how there were drawers of ‘extras’ underneath many displays, such that if you were intrigued by a particular exhibit, you could see additional examples or find out more about techniques / context by sliding open the drawers to view the supplementary information. There was also a craft room where you could go in and experiment with different activities and techniques—including fairly advanced things like soldering and whittling.

A selection of Finnish national costumes
A felted crafter and the source of her wool

Not to be materialistic, but the Craft Museum has a wonderful gift shop full of unique handmade items; it also leads next door to a larger associated independent shop that has an even wider range of artisan items ranging from food and luxury toiletries to ceramics, hand-printed tea towels, and upscale clothing. I wanted somany things, both for myself and to take home as gifts, but I had almost no spare space in my luggage (especially once you factored in the dishware I had purchased and would need to transport home)—plus the prices were exorbitant. I love to support artists and I understand why they charge what they do, but it’s costly enough in my own currency; trying to afford it despite unfavourable exchange rates in a very expensive country was just more than I could manage. Maybe I can save up for a splurge during my next trip to Finland.

The Alvar Aalto Museum. In my wildest dreams, I would never have expected to enjoy a museum devoted to architecture and design. I visited the Alvar Aalto Museum not because I had ever heard of Aalto (I hadn’t, though he is internationally renowned) or because I had a particular interest in his work, but because the museum was so close and got exceptionally high reviews online. Entry was only €6 so I figured I had nothing to lose. Another way to look at it is that I also had an opportunity to gain quite a lot, which I did—in particular, knowledge of and respect for Alvar Aalto and his impressive work. I had such a great time that I got home and composed a lengthy Twitter thread just to share my excitement. I have reproduced it here for those who didn’t catch it the first time around (i.e., pretty much everyone):

 

As I was wandering through the museum (which is also incredibly well designed, as you might expect given the focus of the venue), I had a flashback to 6thgrade when my wonderful art teacher (shoutout to Mr Stobart!) introduced us to the basics of drafting and set us loose on designing blueprints of our dream homes. I can still picture the project I produced for class; I also remember enjoying the activity so much that I kept designing house after house for months afterwards. Obviously, given that I went on to be a scientist rather than an architect or engineer, I eventually grew out of my design phase, but the appreciation for clever and attractively shaped buildings has remained. It was fun to take a few hours to reacquaint myself with my interest in this topic.

I encountered quite a bit of unusual and intriguing street art in Jyvaskyla

The one obvious thing I didn’t do in Jyvaskyla was properly visit the university campus and explore the facilities there—including the natural history museum. However, given what I do for a living, I figured I have had more than enough experience with university campuses; plus, I was already planning to visit an even larger museum in Helsinki at the end of the trip, so ultimately I couldn’t feel too guilty about leaving this one destination off my itinerary.

Thus, despite the amount of time I’d spent holed up in my hotel room doing nerd work, I felt pretty satisfied with my stay in Jyvaskyla. I had gone for quality over quantity in terms of activities, which allowed me to experience those fewer things at a less exhausting pace, and therefore in a deeper, more memorable way. This is often something we either don’t do when traveling, or don’t have the luxury of doing, and it was a good reminder to myself that I am not just permitted to take it easy, but will, in fact, probably benefit from doing so.

Stay tuned for the next instalment to find out whether I internalized this lesson sufficiently to put it into action when I relocated to Helsinki for the final two days of my trip…