Last Reflections

There’s some good points, some bad points… I will find a city, find myself a city to live in.”

Talking Heads, “Cities”

Before starting the Fulbright period, I figured I’d experience some growth, personally and professionally. But I had no idea how far it would go — I definitely do not see the world, myself, or my future the same way anymore. For one thing, I didn’t originally see myself seriously considering staying in Europe after the year was over. But now, I see no great reason not to return. Really, I’m itching to get back as soon as possible. And if I end up in Finland then I’d be thrilled.

I could go on for a while about why I loved Finland so much, but here I’ll just mention a few recent times that Finland has gotten international recognition:

But don’t let me try and convince you that Finland is flawless — it certainly has its own problems. A Finnish winter isn’t for the faint of heart, even if only because of the darkness. Alcoholism is a big issue, and it has a somewhat high suicide rate. No country can be perfect, of course, but overall, I felt like I fit right in.

Professionally, my advisor at the University of Kentucky, Benjamin Braun, and I were able to complete a paper together. A preprint is available here (click on PDF on the right for the article itself), and is undergoing the peer-review process. I’ve also been working on a second paper, the product of my main research under the Fulbright grant. I managed to meet with a bunch of mathematicians at different stages of their careers in multiple countries, and it seemed like everyone had something very insightful to say. Moreover, I got an idea of different teaching styles in the classroom as well as the different university structures that exist in different countries.

These cover only a tiny part of what I’ve learned and done over the past year, but to avoid being too wordy, I’ll wrap it up here. If you want to know more, I’d be happy to talk about it! Just ask me personally.

There are about a thousand people I need to thank for making all of this such an amazing experience; fortunately I’ve already talked to most of them personally. But I still want to take some space to say it again here: I owe many thanks to the Fulbright organization both in the United States and in Finland; to Aalto University for hosting me, especially Alex Engström; to everyone at the University of Kentucky who supported me, especially Ben Braun, Peter Perry, Carl Lee, Uwe Nagel, and Patricia Whitlow; to my wonderful friends in the United States for their encouragement; to the many friends I made in Europe for their warm welcome; to my family for their support even though every time I move somewhere, it seems to be farther and farther away from them (I promise it’s not intentional!).

On to the pictures! After wrapping up work at Aalto University, I spent about a month traveling around Europe. I didn’t get to go everywhere that I wanted, which means I’ll just have to go back to visit the rest! I started out in Paris, staying at a hostel near the Montmartre district. I had heard mixed things about the city, so I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Fortunately I had a great time there and learned a lot while seeing the big attractions and the lesser-known ones. These pictures are just a small portion of the photos I took, so if there’s anything you want to know more about, just ask!

Where part of The DaVinci Code was filmed! Also, there’s some art inside.

The cafe where Amélie works

In Montmartre

After Paris came Geneva for a couple of days. I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to visit CERN, but I did take a short visit to the UN office.

The inside of a conference room at the UN. The ceiling isn’t just a painting — those are actually hanging down

A statue of Freddie Mercury; he had close ties to Montreux later in his life.

After Geneva, Zurich:

Vienna came next. It was nice to go somewhere a little bit cheaper after about a week in Switzerland.

Inside the Volksoper. We saw an amazing performance of Fidelio!

A small portion of a pathway older than the United States.


After Prague came Berlin. I didn’t take many pictures this time since I had been there before in March, so I’ll post pictures from that trip.

A bahn station

Inside the Pergamon

More Pergamon


Part of the East Side Gallery, the longest stretch of remaining Berlin Wall.

Next was Stockholm, but I’ve already posted about that. I’ll go straight to Oslo.

And that’s all! So ends a truly incredible year. And who knows? Maybe a good job opportunity will pop up at some point… either way, this won’t be the last time I find myself in Finland.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it!


Two months (in photos)

I hope you didn’t think I forgot about the blog! Life has been pretty busy lately, but I’ve finally worked out some time to let everyone know what has been going on since… a long time ago.

First up: Christmas in Stockholm! I spent about a week there, spending some time with friends and doing some sightseeing that I didn’t get around to last time I visited. Probably the main highlight was visiting the Vasa Museum; it’s main attraction is the Vasa warship, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. It fought valiantly, but eventually lost a battle against a slight breeze only 1.3 km from where it left harbor. Lesson learned: always make sure that you balance your giant ships properly.

Not the best picture since, for preservation purposes, the lights are kept pretty dim. But this is a beast of a ship, and intricately crafted. Very impressive to see in person!

There is so much fascinating information in the museum, from the ship’s origins, to how it was raised from the sea in 1961, to how it is preserved, to who the people on board were and how we can figure out this information.

A Swedish friend of mine also told me about a Donald Duck tradition: on Christmas Even, nearly half of Swedish television viewers tune in to a particular Disney cartoon, Kalle Anka. I thought he was joking, but he it is absolutely a thing. To read more about it, a good summary can be found here.

I can’t help but mention the U.S. Ambassador to Finland, Bruce Oreck, right now. First of all, yes, Oreck as in that Oreck. Secondly, he apparently caught some grief for sending out the following greeting in 2012:

From 2012

Some people weren’t so happy with this. So what did he do for 2013?

From 2013

No wonder he seems to be pretty popular in Finland.

Back to the main story: I returned to Helsinki for New Year’s, which was really pleasant. They had their own miniature version of Times Square, held in Senate Square. I got there around 10 pm, and entertainment started about an hour later. They had bands, dancers, speakers, and lots and lots of people: last year’s estimates had around 10,000 packed into the area. It seemed about the same number while I was there, but it didn’t feel cramped at all. At the end of it all was a brilliant fireworks display:

Shortly after New Year’s I took a wonderful trip back to the United States for two weeks. When I got back, it was almost like stepping into a different country. For basically all of November and December, the sky was covered in ugly gray clouds, there was rain a lot (not even short heavy rains, but the long, drizzly, annoying kind), and temperatures just above freezing. I’m told that this is usually confined to November and having it last through December was pretty unusual. That all changed while I was in the US, though — when I got back, there was snow everywhere, temperatures were around -15 C, the clouds were mostly gone, and those that stuck around were white and distinctly not miserable. 

Aleksanterinkatu, a street downtown

Outside of Kalasatama, a metro stop

Aalto University, with its famous main building in the back

A pay on the way to lunch last week

Unfortunately it’s been getting a little warmer here, and the temperatures are back around 1 C. While it seems like everyone I know in the US is sick of winter, I want nothing but more snow and colder temperatures.  If I can go outside in Finland in the middle of February without a hat and scarf, then something isn’t right. At least the snow is somewhat sticking around.

Remember that coffee shop near the bay that I posted in one of my earlier updates? I’m actually writing this up (partiallyfrom that same shop, and took a picture of what the bay looks like now. I wish I had taken a picture a few weeks ago! Finland is beautiful.

I just recently found out about Runebergin päivä, a day celebrating the birthday of Finnish poet Johan Ludvig Runeberg. On this day, February 5, it’s traditional to eat a Runeberg Torte (Runebergintorttu), the very tasty treat shown below. The top is made of jam and sugar. According to a Finnish coworker of mine, Stockmann makes them best.

From Wikipedia

That’s all I have to share for now — next time, some more trips!

Two weeks (in photos)

A lot has happened since my last update, so this update will mainly be pictures!

First, Stockholm. A beautiful city! I gave a talk at KTH and had many great conversations (mathematical and otherwise) during the trip. The day that I had the most free time turned out to be a little rainy, but that didn’t detract much from exploring the city. Stockholm also has pretty high food standards: it’s a bit more expensive than Helsinki, but everything was very high-quality (and I hear that this even goes for their fast food).

A view of Stockholm from KTH

Inside the city hall courtyard

At Stockholm University

Near the Swedish Royal Palace

A touristy street in Old City

The day after I got back, the annual lighting of the the senate square Christmas tree took place, along with a short parade after. Just before the actual lighting, I went with a couple others to visit a nearby cathedral:



The entire building is gorgeous

If you look closely, you can see Santa

Some of the parade members

Another parader

More recently, the Fulbright group were able to visit the Finnish parliament:

Very civil

Those massive yellow books are the budget that were under discussion

These elevators are constantly moving: the left side going up and the right side going down. When reaching one end, the elevator moves horizontally and continues in the other direction. Pretty neat!

After this, a handful of us continued on to Kiasma, a museum of contemporary art across the street. Fortunately for us, the museum has been having a bit of a “greatest hits” period, which included lots of cool exhibits (as well as some bizarre ones).

This is an adjustable steel structure that is installed differently in each museum it goes in. It’s the only piece in the room. I like it even if only because (warning: math ahead) it looks like a function on a 3-dimensional polytope with a pole on each facet

One of my favorite installations! I don’t want to spell it out, but it also might not be obvious what makes this so cool. So just ask, if you’re curious

This was fun — walking through a jungle of ribbons is an experience

Magnet art

Suspended marble art

I’ve taken over 200 pictures in the last few weeks, so if there is anything you want more of, just ask!


(Edit: See the comments for corrections!)

I promised an update on the Finnish language, and, after a technical issue yesterday, I’m finally able to follow through. So if you’re looking for some pictures, you’ll have to wait until next time (or you can ask me for something you’re interested in seeing!). Although I haven’t taken any courses on Finnish (yet — I plan to during the spring semester), I have done some self-study using Beginner’s Finnish by Agi Risko.

To start, I might as well get this out of the way: learning Finnish is an objectively hard language to learn. As you probably guessed, there very few cognates with English, and it takes a while just to get used to how words sound. The alphabet is also somewhat different: Finnish doesn’t contain B, C, F, Q, X, or Z (although these do show up in loanwords). It also contains the letters ä and ö, which are “long” versions of the regular a and o. The letter y is pronounced as a long u.

The first words I taught myself were the counting numbers (I am a mathematician after all!). The first numbers are

  1. yksi
  2. kaksi
  3. kolme
  4. neljä
  5. viisi
  6. kuusi
  7. seitsemän
  8. kahdeksan
  9. yhdeksän
  10. kymmenen

Yep. Trying to figure out patterns with words can be tough. Fortunately the numbers aren’t very complicated: for 11 through 20, add -toista/-toistä to the end of the appropriate number. So 15 would be viisitoista

One thing that wasn’t mentioned in the book was that folks in Helsinki tend to shorten these words. Yksi becomes yks, kolme becomes kol, and the rest have similar shortenings.

There are no prepositions — instead, postpositions are used. This means that, depending on the context, you have to decide which of the MANY endings to attach to a word. There are endings for someone/something being located on or at something (-lla/-llä), being located in something else (-ssa/-ssä), being from somewhere (-sta/stä), moving to a place located on top of something or onto a surface (-lle), moving away from a place (-lta/-ltä), and so forth. You’ll see that some of these endings can be very close to each other, which can make it difficult for a non-native speaker to be understood. I’ve already witnessed a few times where placing emphasis on the wrong syllable, using the wrong postposition, or even just a (seemingly) small mispronunciation can cause confusion.

All of this being said, Finnish seems to be pretty good at having consistent rules. There are exceptions, of course, but as long as the structure is followed, it appears difficult to be too wrong — it just takes dedication.

There is one word I wanted to mention specifically: rakastaa. It translates as “to love,” but the literal translation by no means conveys its Finnish meaning. I wouldn’t claim to have a perfect sense of how love is viewed here — I’ve only been here for about 10 weeks, after all — but I have already learned how rakastaa carries far more weight than “to love” carries in English. A Finn probably wouldn’t end a phone conversation with a parent by saying “Minä rakastan sinua” (“I love you”), since the parent would get very concerned about their child’s well-being. Two people might say they love each other in English, but it is understood to be taken more lightly. Once rakastaa is used, things have gotten very serious.

I have already heard the following joke about a Finnish husband and wife three times since arriving: the woman tells her husband, “You never say you love me anymore! We’ve been married fifty years, how come you never tell me you love me?” The husband responds, “I told you I loved you on our wedding day fifty years ago. When I change my mind, I’ll let you know.”

Exploring Finland

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything, so to make up for it, I’m making two posts this weekend! I’ve also added some links to the blogs of other Fulbrighters in Finland, Alistair Hayden and Olivia Jamandre

A couple weeks ago, a two-day seminar called American Voices was organized at the University of Turku. Each Fulbright grantee was given twenty minutes to speak about, essentially, whatever they wanted that could be considered “American.” The talks were all fascinating, with some of the topics including the U.S. tourism industry, young adult literature, philosophizing on love — more on this in tomorrow’s post — the range of regional dialects, and the various fiddle styles that have developed (which included live demonstrations!). I chose to speak about jazz music and its role in American society, particularly from the 1930s through the 1960s. Not only was it great to see the other Fulbrighters again, many for the first time since August, but we got to see each other share our passions. Anyone who has been in a class with an apathetic teacher/professor knows how important a passion for the material is.

The first evening concluded with a Fulbright dinner, taking place on a boat. Here, I had the best steak I have ever eaten. Once I had my first bite, I actually involuntarily paused to soak in the moment. Below is a photo of the first course.


Not pictured: the life-altering steak


The view from the boat at night

After the seminar ended, I spent the night in Turku with a few other Fulbrighters. Turku is a beautiful city, although quite a bit smaller than Helsinki with only about 181,000 people as opposed to about 610,000. One of its advantages is its ability to provide a beautiful sunset, like the one below. Another advantage, for me, is its Fibonacci number art (perhaps at some point I’ll give a short description about what exactly it is I do, and why I prefer things like the Fibonacci numbers to arbitrary real numbers).

The Cathedral of Turku

Sunset in a more rural area of Turku

Source: Wikipedia (this picture is much better than what I took) 

This past weekend was the Carnival of Light. It took place at Linnanmäki, an amusement park in Helsinki. Aside from its usual rides and attractions, there were free concerts and performances, with a grande finale fireworks display. Unfortunately with how dark it was, I couldn’t get too many pictures. During a pre-carnival dinner with others, I tasted salmiakki for the first time. It’s salty licorice, which on its own sounds reasonably tasty. Unfortunately I didn’t have the same experience with the candy as I did with the previous week’s steak. It was definitely worth trying, I’ll probably try it a few more times to see if my tastes develop, and I would definitely recommend a visitor try it, but I doubt that it would take the U.S. by storm.


A moment of the light display on the Ferris wheel

This post may be short on details, but hopefully I included enough links to keep you busy if you are interested in reading further! If there is anything you want to know more about or want pictures of, please let me know! and I’ll do my best to make it happen!

Downtown adventures (part 1)

“A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”

Paul Erdős (attributed)

“…except for weak coffee. Weak coffee is only good for proving lemmas.”

Paul Turán (attributed)

As a mathematician and, now, a resident of the country that ranks highest in coffee consumption per capita, I must admit to feeling a certain duty to find some of the best coffee shops in Helsinki. I’ve been to a few so far, but today I ran across one that will be very tough to beat: johan & nyström. While my drink was delicious, the biggest advantage it has is the view: there is plenty of seating out front that looks directly out to the Baltic Sea.

Out of view on the left: the Baltic Sea

Some ceiling decorations inside

Yep, I’ll be going back soon. A lot.

I think I can call today successful.

Later, I spent some time wandering around downtown. One thing I’ve noticed is that street musicians are pretty common here. I’ve seen guitarists, pianists, accordionists, trumpeters, and surely some more that I can’t remember right now. But, once again, one day about a week ago sticks out in my mind. Someone had set up some posts with bottles hanging off, filled to various levels. There were bottles of lots of shapes and sizes, so each one had to be filled to just the right level. Along with some prerecorded accompaniment, he played his contraption quite expertly.

An update related to my previous post: the statue of the child riding a dinosaur has disappeared. While disappointing, I choose to believe that it’s because an even more awesome statue will take its place.

A correction to my previous post: I had intended to say “[Have a] good day!” So, since “hyvä” means “good” and “päivä” means day, it seemed logical to put the two together. It turns out that the endings of words change when describing the quality of something. I should have instead written “Hyvää päivää!” This provides a good segue into my next post, which I plan to make about the Finnish language.

Until next time!


[Sam’s] round eyes were wide open – for he was looking across lands he had never seen to a new horizon.

J.R.R. Tolkien

I made it to Helsinki! Once I got here, I met my “Fulbright buddy” (volunteers to help incoming Fulbrighters settle into their new countries), who has been wonderful in helping me get started here! This week has mostly involved getting some odds and ends that I decided to travel without, meeting the research group I’ll be working with at Aalto University, and exploring the downtown area. There was a lot going on today:


The dream of the 90s is alive in Finland


A kind of floor hockey being played at Kamppi, a kind of city center. There were a bunch of these games being played, which must be easy with such a small playing area. Seriously, look at those goals!


Helsinki doing it right: a statue of a child riding a dinosaur

There are plenty of things scheduled during the upcoming Fulbright orientation, and lots of Finland to explore. I’ll write a more detailed update later, after I become more exposed to Finnish culture. Hyvä päivä!