Tucked in the forest of Orivesi, Finland, there stands a beautiful and warm wooden house on rolling hills, surrounded by tall trees of lush green foliage and a barn filled with egg-bearing chickens. Out back is a rectangular pool filled with well-water (unheated), a trampoline, and a pine board swing that hangs on ropes at least ten meters long. The grass is long and unfettered, a friendly dog wanders about, and the family has welcomed the five of us for drinks, dinner, and conversation.
Inside the house are vibrant and expressive artworks painted predominantly in the colors of blue, red, green, yellow, and black, a baby grand piano, a cello, and long, inviting tables for food and conversation - and with this group there will probably be ample laughter, as well. On the table in the window-enclosed patio is a standing candelabra with half-melted candles, a set of playing cards outside their box, and flowers from the garden. In the kitchen is homemade korvasieni (poison mushroom soup, carefully cooked and ready for eating), a cauliflower and vegetable dish, and a Thai watermelon preparation.
We were welcomed by our friends to their house after music class for an evening of relaxed conversation, a sauna, dinner, and music - and it was an evening I hope to never, ever forget - there were so many elements of the evening that were touching, inspiring, and laced with deep affection and intimacy; I was grateful for this opportunity to share with them in deep Finnish hospitality.
We started with a tour of the house and garden, the hen house (whose barn also housed an impressive array of sculptures), a ride on the tallest swing I've ever had the pleasure of riding - swinging high and fast about the house grounds and the trampoline close below - and discussions about collecting birch branches for therapeutic treatment in the sauna. As we took turns on the swing, several people left and returned with bunches of flexible birch branches (leaves attached) with promises of the birch's ability to improve circulation and a fresh forest aroma when used.
We took turns enjoying the sauna and dipping into the cool water from the well, and went inside for korvasieni, the now-unpoisonous mushroom soup. This soup is creamy and buttery with small bits of chewy mushrooms now the consistency of perfectly-cooked calamari. Between the swinging, the sauna, the korvasieni and vegetarian dishes, and the conversation about life, music, and education, we were hours into the evening - but without darkness falling, who was to know? It was a delightful evening filled with ample conversation from interesting points of view and we were merely progressing through time. At some point the father and the 17-year old daughter stood up from the table - he proceeded to sit down behind the baby grand piano and the daughter, in a lovely evening dress, sat on a chair close by - and played for us a flowing and melodic piano/tuba duet. I've never heard a tuba played so beautifully and I was inspired by the care in which the daughter approached and played this instrument. She was an artist and the act of playing the tuba was her passion.
After such a life-changing week at the music course, it was clear that I wanted to continue this musical exploration when I returned to the States so I asked Doug Goodkin, sitting next to me at the dinner table, about the upcoming Intro to Jazz course at the San Francisco School. I expressed interest, but also my concern, that perhaps I wasn't ready to be participating in such a group. Doug suggested an audition at the piano - for me to play alongside him as he played - with the promise that he could make me sound "good." Terhi encouraged me and even promised me a free plane ticket if I failed. (She must have known me well enough to know I couldn't turn down a free ticket for playing poorly!) Terror rose up inside me because this exemplified everything that brought me to my knees: performance, playing music, vulnerability, and embarrassment. I didn't want to do this but I also knew I had to - plus, it was "safe" amongst these friends - and Doug would be playing louder (and better) than I. Still sitting at the dinner table, he said, "Let me know when you're ready."
When I mustered up the courage I asked if we could close off the wall between the two rooms by shutting the accordion-style doors - but I could not get the doors to budge. Doug proceeded to sit on the left side of the piano bench and I sat on the right, and to my horror, our friends followed us into the room and sat around, ready to watch and listen.
I asked them to leave but they would not; there was no easy way to push back against the momentum of the events leading up to this moment.
Doug started playing some jazzy progressions on the piano - joyfully and enthusiastically - making it sound easy, rhythmic and enticing. He encouraged me to play by repeating, "Don't worry! I'll make you sound good!" He gave me only one note to play - a process that's designed to make improvisation easier for someone like me - and I think he gave me the A key. After a few strokes I told him it was "boring" so he gave me both the A and the C. When I told him it was still boring, he let me play the A, C, and B-flat.
I won't go into detail about what happened but I will say that a few times my playing seemed to "work," but most times it did not. When Doug said, "Have a conversation with me" and played 4-6 notes in sequence - and I was able to reply in a musical conversation - it was fun! I was able to play a little bit of rhythm with varying accents and some phrasing - but what I was playing would still be considered a beginner mix. He seemed okay with whatever I was doing - even though my playing was hesitant and apologetic - and he told me I was allowed to join the Intro to Jazz class. (Oh my gosh!)
When we finished playing we looked down and to our surprise, there under the piano were our friends - reclining themselves on the floor UNDER the piano! Doug and I had been so involved in what we were doing we forgot about where our friends had gone or what they were doing - they were enjoying the vibrations of the piano's sounding board as it came down through their bodies and into the wooden floor of the house. It was then that I remembered this experience from my childhood and I said, "I used to do that when my mother played the piano!" He and I dove under the piano and Terhi sat down to play some classical music. (Listening to music like this is "heaven" as long as the notes that are played aren't too high.) I placed both of my hands directly above my head and onto the sounding board so I could feel the vibrations moving through my body and I said, "Doug, try this!" and he placed his hands on the sounding board, too. I sat up and put the top of my head between the supports and up against the piano's sounding board and I said, "Doug, try this!" which he did, also.
The Finns have challenged me, have nurtured me, and have surrounded me with warmth. None of this growth, or any of these experiences, could have happened if I had stayed within the comfort and safety of my own home. Perhaps this week, and the hospitality and generosity of our friends and hosts for this memorable evening, best encapsulates what can happen when one leaves their "normal" life in order to meet new people, become ensconced in a completely different culture, and opens oneself to a new way of life. Here, in the rural countryside of Finland, with two Americans who had never before met and six musical and artistic Finns, joined together for a delightful evening of friendship, conversation, music, and laughter. I would wish this for all people. Thank you Fulbright, thank you, Finland, and thank you to all the beautiful people with whom I shared this week and this evening - you know who you are. :)