Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip - Part 6

Part Six: The Tour de Finland

Mr. Rickbeil's Field Trip
Part 6: The Tour de Finland

This post is the sixth installment of a blog series chronicling Mr. Rickbeil's educational trip (and much needed vacation) to Finland this past summer.

In the middle of my stay in Finland, I signed up for a one week bike tour in an area of Southwest Finland called the Turku Archipelago.  This bike route spans a region in the Baltic Sea covered with thousands of islands, stretching from the city of Turku toward the Aland Islands that lie between Finland and Sweden.  The route I took was 186 kilometers (or 115 miles) long, containing long days of biking Finland's backroads and island-hopping on ten separate ferries on the Baltic Sea.  For me, great vacations take me out of my regular routine and into the wilderness, and I can't imagine being much more "out" than this tour along Finland's coast.  The cool 60-degree weather of most days also was a welcome relief in the midst of a typical sweltering summer in Baltimore.

On the first morning of the bike tour, I found myself somewhat unprepared for the 43-mile trip that would follow that day.  The company had sent me detailed directions of where to turn, but I was in full "vacation mode" and didn't really study the routes.  At the bike rental shop where I picked up my bike for the week, I noticed a young German couple named Robin and Claudia trying out bikes and realized that they must be on my trip as well.  This was my opportunity.  After introducing myself, I asked if they would  mind if I rode with them for the day, since we were headed for the same place.  They agreed, and it was the beginning of a friendship that would last for the next 115 miles.

I certainly understood that bicycles and married couples do not need third wheels, so I started the trip by biking with them while allowing them to have their space whenever the opportunity presented itself.  Robin would navigate the route with his map while Claudia stopped to take photos of the picturesque scenery.  I did my part by tracking our GPS coordinates on my phone, occasionally settling disputes about whether we were supposed to be turning left or right.  They were excited to practice their English skills by speaking to me, and I was excited to learn about life in Europe through them.  After we arrived at our lodgings on the first day, I decided to eat dinner on my own to give them the space that they probably booked the trip to enjoy together.  It was my last meal alone for the rest of the trip.

Two other English couples were also on our tour, and I spent considerable time biking and dining with Richard and Jenn, who were from Bristol.  Richard had the hilarious British sense of humor that you often see on movies, so he was an immediate hit, even if he did not enjoy my puns.  Jenn was warm and welcoming from the beginning, and I always felt comfortable joining them for a meal or a cup of tea.  The third day of our tour allowed us a rest day, and I spent nearly the entire day with them walking around the island, eating meals, and enjoying the scenery.

When I signed up for the bike tour, I imagined that I would spend the entire week taking in the scenery and solitude of a week of my bike.  Instead, I found myself more and more occupied by my new friends.  We spent all of our meals together, dining on increasingly larger tables that could accommodate all of our group.   I learned how to enjoy a conversation over tea in the morning or a five-course dinner at the end of the day.  I learned more than I ever imagined about German medical schools, cold water swimming, European tax laws, and the European Union.  But more than anything, I learned how to be a European for the week, with the sights, tastes, and large hotel breakfasts that came with it.

Anyone who has ever seen me run a 5k race or coach a basketball game knows that I am competitive, and I enjoy the thrill of competition and the feeling of victories and accomplished goals.  I envisioned my bike tour being full of personal fitness goals and photographs that I could post of Facebook to the delight of my friends.   However, it did not take me long to realize this tour was not a race, but a casual ride with six new friends on the journey.  This is a very Finnish way of looking at things, where teamwork is treasured and the frequent recesses offered during school days are seen as classrooms in collaboration.  I like this approach, as collaboration and partnership are indoctrinated aspects of Finnish life.  Collaboration and teamwork even make their way into their tax structure, as Finland pays some of the highest taxes in the world (the value-added tax in Finland is 24%), but many of the people I met agreed with the high taxes and the benefits of the services the taxes provide.

In the United States, we have a way of turning many things into competitions, and school is not immune to this competitive culture.  Students want the highest scores on the test and the highest honors at the end of the school year.  Even simple games at recess can turn into Super Bowls of competition.  School is not much fun as a competition, however, and is much better off seen as a journey with other cyclists on their way.

I think that life is often like my bike trip, trekking through picturesque scenery on a path to heaven, with traveling companions assisting us along the way.  As we continue our trek through this school year, let's learn to enjoy the companionship of our fellow bikers.  After all, they are the best part of the trip!

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