Her exchange was 47 years ago, but still is very much a part of her

Story By Janelle Holt, State Coordinator of Queensland

Images by Risto Petäjäniemi

As a YFU volunteer I am often asked, “What will I get out of traveling overseas” or “Why should I host a foreign student?”  Those questions do not leave me stumped because, to me, the answer is as natural as breathing.  “You will gain another family.”

Forty-seven years ago I travelled to Finland as a YFU exchange student.  I was seventeen and had never been far from my Michigan farm or my family.  June 1968 I boarded a plane in Detroit and flew into the unknown.  I felt excitement, but also angst.  I asked myself, “What have I gotten myself into?”

Images by Risto Petäjäniemi
Images by Risto Petäjäniemi

My home was in Rovaniemi, Finland with Olavi and Kerttu Lahtinen.  I became their fifth child, as they had four of their own, Kirsti (18), Veikko (15), Ritva (11) and Heikki (8).  Rovaniemi is located just ten kilometres south of the Arctic Circle.  This far north never gets completely dark in summer nor light in the winter.

The early days of exchange I was terribly homesick and in 1968 there was no internet and long distance telephone calls were expensive.  The only connection with home were letters that arrived by post.  To ease my homesickness, my host mom climbed the stairs to my room each morning to bring my letters and a cup of tea.  Years later I came to understand just how pampered I had been.

Early in my exchange my senses were on overload.  As summer wore on I became familiar with the sights, sounds, and smells of my new home.  I woke each morning to the aroma of Karjalan Piiraka (Karelian Rice Pies).  My mom made them to sell at the local markets.  It was a foreign smell to me at first, but as summer progressed I came to love waking to the smell of those pies.  Now if I smell of those pies baking, I’m transported to my days in Kerttu’s kitchen.

Kerttu and Olavi spoke no English and I did not speak Finnish.  We learned to communicate with hand gestures, looks, or in other ways.  One day Olavi was eating clabbered milk.  It is a soured, unpasteurized raw milk that was left in a temperature and humidity controlled environment.  It looks thick and elastic, similar to hot mozzarella cheese.  Never having liked milk, I found this particularly disgusting.  My father, generously, offered me a taste.  I wrinkled my nose and shook my head.  His loud voice boomed, “Hyvää”, which I knew to be the word for “good’.  I again shook my head and said,  “no hyvää” and we both laughed.  To this day I have never forgotten that word, or my ‘conversation’ with my host father.

Summer passed, and I was more and more comfortable in my adopted home.  I felt truly cared for me and part of the family.  They seemed to enjoy having another child in their midst.  As the day of my departure neared, I felt a tugging on my heart.  It was such a bittersweet feeling.  I wanted to return home to my friends and family, but I also didn’t want to leave.

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Host Siblings

Years melted away after returning home, but I never forgot my Finnish family.  Admittedly, as a teenager and young adult I became more self-involved and lost touch with my Finnish family for many years.  Once I became 30, though, and had a child of my own I decided that I wanted to rediscover my family in Finland.  On a chance I wrote a letter and sent it to the house address in Rovaniemi.  Luck was with me because Heikki, my little 8 year old brother, was now grown, married and living in the house.  He told the family immediately that I had written.  Soon letters were going back and forth through the post.

One day I received a package.  In it was a videotape that the family had made for me.  Each family member spoke to me and showed me their homes and their families.  Time had changed how everyone looked, but their hearts were still connected to mine.  I cherish that video because it was the last that I would ever see my father, Olavi.  He passed away before I could return to visit.

The connection has stayed strong for nearly thirty years now.  I have visited my family several times.  I have gone to celebrate birthdays and participated in the Christenings of my great niece and great nephew.  I took my son there when he was eight to meet Kerttu, his ‘mummo’ and the rest of the ever-growing family.  My son and mother communicated without words and it was magic.

Through the years my four siblings grew and had children.  I now have two brothers, two sisters, two nieces, five nephews, five great-nieces and three great-nephews.  My family keeps growing and filling my heart with joy.

One of my most special memories, though, was when Kerttu, Kirsti, and Ritva travelled from Finland to Florida to celebrate my 50th birthday.  Kerttu was 75 years old and had never been to the U.S!  The fact that they went to so much effort and expense to spend that time with me made it the best birthday I’ve ever had!

YFU exchange is not just about the spending months overseas, learning another language or getting to see sights you’ve only read about.  Exchange is about opening your heart, taking in new sights, sounds, and smells, sharing another language, and living a life different than your own.

For this reason, when asked “why go on exchange”, or “why host an exchange student”, I speak from the heart.

“It will help you grow.  It will enrich your mind.  It will change your life.”