When you live abroad, you discover new sides of yourself. I am now half-way of my Fulbright-KAUTE Foundation Award visit in Charlottesville, Virginia, and it has been quite a ride already. The preparation for the visit started couple of years before as I was originally meant to be here in 2021 but then I moved back to Finland to Vaasa for a new position.
One of the amazing benefits of the Fulbright program is the orientation session. Three small big things happened that still play a role in my everyday life in the U.S.
First, we were divided into groups based on the location of our host institutions
"Did you know that one of the best factors predicting a successful research visit is knowing someone from there beforehand?"
Many were leaving for the well-known universities and Fulbright Finland Foundation team member came to us and said directly that we are all important to the Foundation: this is not just an exchange program to the well-known universities but between Finland and the U.S.
Many people in Charlottesville have asked me, why did I choose to come here when I could have gone anywhere in the U.S. I was surprised. I was expecting that they would be more in favor of their home state. When I got used to this question, I started to answer: “Because professor Mark Schwartz is here”. He has been and is an amazing host. Did you know that one of the best factors predicting a successful research visit is knowing someone from there beforehand? I had met Mark when he was visiting in Denmark (just before Covid-19) and as he was also one of the few economists in the politics department there (and I thought he was German so I approached him auf Deutsch), I had spoken with him a few times. This also explains why I am attached to the Political Science department at UVA, because Mark is here.
Second, a previous Fulbrighter made me promise that I would get a car.
She had gotten one during the last month of her visit and it had made all the difference. I was struggling without a car, but the traffic was scary. I even walked to the grocery store (30 minutes by foot one way) and ordered food online. Luckily my fiancé visited me after couple of months here and while I was sitting next to him in the car, I got a bit more used to the traffic – and life was much easier with a car than without.
Thus, despite having last driven like five years ago, I remembered that promise I made to the Fulbright alum and got myself a car. Driving and parking was very stressful at the start but let’s face it: in this area, you do need a car. I did try the local bus once. And waited for a connection ride for 30 minutes. I asked another person at the bus stop if that’s normal and she looked bored by the question and replied yes.There are also other areas, like Texas, where having a car is even more important. I hadn’t realized before why a car is important. Car was also a place where I finally felt more settled into the culture: After driving, I stayed in the car to eat my dinner instead of going inside of the building where I was heading and eating there. I listened to the radio and realizing all of a sudden, I said out loud “now I get it”. This is why Americans spend time in their car after driving: it is convenient and comfortable.
Third, we were told by Fulbright alumni that we will discover that our English skills are lacking.
All alumni seemed to agree on that. As I had survived with English and Danish in Aarhus, I couldn’t imagine that a native speaker could have problems with my English. Well, as always, Fulbright alumni were right and I am enormously thankful that they told that to us. As I perform interviews with the locals, I noticed that especially my pronunciation of the word “goal” is hard for them to understand in this area, where I have only met two persons who could speak Finnish (who are to my knowledge native Swedish speakers).
"This Fulbright visit is still ongoing and I am eager to see what else I learn."
As always, moving abroad is hard and I met also other challenges. In my case, the department was empty during the summer and the town was also very different from the lively form that the students bring to the area. Actually, experiencing the summer in Charlottesville might turn out to be crucial for my research project. Charlottesville is very different during on- and off-semester. However, the businesses that I do research on, need to thrive or at least survive also during off-semester. The difference in the feeling and traffic is notable.
If you read my previous blog post on University of Vaasa (that I wrote on train while crying due to yet another long distance relationship), you know I have a quite considerable international experience. This Fulbright visit is still ongoing and I am eager to see what else I learn.
I will soon have performed all my interviews and I have started transcribing. As this is my first time doing qualitative research, you can imagine that my view on qualitative research has developed quite a bit. I never before understood how big of a deal it is to make your own data! I also have my first car and now I understand why so few people bike here (I think it doesn’t look that safe and if there are bike lanes, they can disappear all of a sudden).
It also took me a while to find a place where I could feel that I belong. When I was visiting Aarhus during my PhD, I joined an international choir that became my new family. In Charlottesville, I didn’t join a gym due to higher (almost double) prices than in Vaasa, Finland. But when the semester started, a yoga studio had a cheap 2-week trial that I took. After several sessions, I felt that I had found my people in Charlottesville and joined them for 3 months. Each time abroad, I have been surprised by the price level. Yet, they did say at the orientation that “U.S. is expensive”. Luckily, I was a bit prepared for the prices.
If we compare my identity in Aarhus, Denmark, to the one in Charlottesville, Virginia, they look quite different right now. In Aarhus I was biker, in Virginia I am a car driver. During my first Aarhus stay, I was a choir member, in Virginia I am a yogi. In my second Aarhus stay, I rediscovered my connection to nature and how important forests are to me. Currently in Virginia, I visit the local park counting days for a visit to a local natural park.
A similarity between my Aarhus and Charlottesville identity is, however, that my cooking skills have evolved. I am ordering a meal kit that brings me groceries and recipes for meals that I couldn’t have imagined to cook before. While in Finland, I am mainly a baker.
Blog article photos: Jan Gustafsson