Life Beneath New York’s Sidewalks

Over the past four years Finnair’s in-flight magazine Blue Wings has been one of my main clients. I’ve written all kinds of articles for them, ranging from monthly travel news blurbs to longer features. Thus I thought I’d share one of my favorite articles that I have ever written for them. (To see the original layout, go here and scroll to page 20.) This is is about all the subway artists that are working so hard in the tunnels of New York, and are making commuting more fun for others in the process. 🙂 (And sure, there are always some people who are annoyed at these musicians and dancers as they bring noise to the subway car. But you can’t deny that some of these guys are crazy talented!)



My Big Russian Media Debut!

Check this out – I’m famous in Russia! Woohoo!

Okay, well maybe not that famous, but at least a little bit – a translated version of my article about travel writing was published today in a Russian travel website called Arrivo. Apparently the website gets about one million unique visitors a month, so not too shabby! I would guess that’s just a few more than what my blog gets. 😉

You can get a general idea of the gist of the article if you read it with Google Chrome, as the browser does an automatic translation.

Or better yet, you can read the original English-language version here, as the article was first published by 219 Magazine, a publication of my alma mater, the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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For those of you that can read Russian, you’ll notice that the English version is organized slightly differently. In the words of the translator, Ivan Kuznetsov, “It’s not a word-to-word translation, but that way it sounds better in Russian. We changed it a bit: made it shorter, mixed myths and truths and your personal story, which was originally in the beginning, as your quotes.”

And how did I get to be published in Russia? Easy. All I did was host Ivan, a Russian guy, through Couchsurfing.com in Finland for one night back in the summer of 2012.

Ivan recently emailed me that he was on the path to becoming a travel writer himself, partly due to being inspired by my example! And he asked if he could translate this article of mine for Arrivo, one of his clients.

Those of you that speak Russian can learn more about Ivan from his traveler profile, also published on Arrivo. He also has a personal blog that is partly in English: www.kunavithewriter.com.

And here’s a picture of me and some friends with Ivan (who is wearing glasses) from his trip to Finland in 2012, when we went to visit the eco-village of Livonsaari near Turku. That was a fun day and we definitely saw some alternative ways of living – including a family with young kids that was happy to have no running water. They just bathed with buckets in order to save water and eventually the planet. That sounds all fine and dandy in the summer time, but the Finnish winters can be pretty harsh! Brrrr. But of course they had a sauna that makes it slightly better…

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SAM_8893There was another woman building a giant wooden house for herself in the forest, after being tired of living in a “kota” for three summers – kota is a Finnish teepee of sorts. And there was another lady building a house with huge windows that allow in as much sunlight as possible.

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Speaking of alternative life choices: It turns out that Ivan’s life totally turned around after this visit to Turku and the eco-village!  Though not in the way you would expect (nope, he didn’t move to the woods to be a hippie). Instead Ivan met a Polish guy at the eco-village who told him about the European Voluntary Service (EVS) program and he decided to apply for the program himself.

Here’s what Ivan wrote to me a year later from Italy:

“I would like to thank you very much for this unexpected tour to this village.I mean, this day in Turku with you and your friends really changed my life. My main goal was Stockholm, it was cool, but nothing amazing happened there. Turku was on the way to Helsinki, but many things happened.

The story behind is that after this day in Turku I thought about my life for the rest of the summer. I decided to quit my office job, my rental apartment in Saint Petersburg which I never really liked, and go for traveling. While applying for the EVS I discovered many new things and possibilities for budget travels, like Help Exchange and WWOOF, and many others.

Now I am a volunteer in an environmental education center in a small city or better to say a village – Lamon, in Dolomites mountains, about 100 km from Venice. We do workshops for kids, learn local nature, meet local people, learn Italian and just have a lot of fun. The place is very beautiful. Mountains around. I have never been in such a nice place. I love Italy very much. We already visited south of the country – Napoli (which is just a crazy city, in some ways even more crazy than New York!) and we are planning to go to Toscana the next weekend.

After the EVS I am planning to go to South America for at least one more year to travel, to learn Spanish and to collect material for my new book. Actually, my new book is writing itself just here in Italy. But this is only the beginning! Okay, it going to be a long letter. I just want to wish you good luck, to send a picture from my window now and to say that I miss Finland, north, nature and people very much.”

Here’s the picture he sent me. Not a bad outcome for a night of Couchsurfing in Turku! And cool that it lead to my Russian media debut as well. Life can be pretty surprising sometimes. 🙂

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Want to be a travel writer?

Are you an aspiring travel writer or would you just like to know what life is like when the whole world is your office? Click here to read the article I wrote about the ins and outs of travel writing for 219 Magazine, published by my alma mater CUNY (The City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism).

The article can also be read in a different format on Medium.com.

Hope you like it and find it useful!

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It’s been a year since Sandy turned me into a breaking news reporter

Today it has been exactly a year since Super Storm Sandy ravished the lives of New Yorkers and many others on the Eastern Seaboard. My Facebook feed has been full of commemorative status updates and links. I checked out a few of the articles and photos, including this story of a man who lost his life partner and every photo of him in the storm. Heartbreaking.

I was lucky last year in that my part of Brooklyn wasn’t really affected by the storm. Instead, I experienced Sandy from a different standpoint – I was covering it for Finnish media. The stories I wrote were published in Helsingin Sanomat, Finland’s biggest newspaper for whom I’ve written a number of travel stories, such as this one about the Trans-Siberian vs. The Indian Pacific.

The first call from the newspaper came on Monday morning, and the storm was due to hit that night. The paper had already found a photographer for me to work with, and they said they’d need a story about how New Yorkers were preparing for Sandy. And they would need it in about three hours. On top of that, they wanted me to find some Finns to interview, if possible.

Not going to happen, I thought – what are the odds I would find Finnish people wandering the streets of downtown on such short notice? The times I run into Finns in New York are few and far between anyway.

But the universe was on our side: as soon as photographer Kaisa Rautaheimo and I arrived downtown in our prospective cabs, we bumped into a Finnish couple! It truly felt like a small miracle. The couple, consisting of a Finnair pilot and his common-law wife, agreed to be interviewed. We got some great quotes from them about how they were stranded in New York as the airport was closed.

“Overall the feeling is peaceful, there’s no panic,” they said at the time. “We’re taking this as an adventure.”

We also found a number of other New Yorkers willing to give us a quick quote, and I rushed home to type up the story. Mission accomplished! For the rest of the night I huddled in a friend’s apartment, anxiously waiting for the storm of the century. The next day the newspaper in Finland ran three different versions of my story in their various print editions.

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Tuesday morning I woke up to another call from Helsingin Sanomat. They updated me on what the storm had done while I had been asleep – hundreds of thousands of people were without power in Manhattan, the bridges were closed. They asked me to go out to find three people affected by the storm and to interview them for a post-storm article. Again, they needed the story in 3-4 hours.

The morning was super chaotic as I was trying to figure out if there was a way for me to get to Manhattan to do the interviews. If the bridges were closed, there was no public transport and the cabs were all taken, what could I do? Magically a friend just happened to be driving into Manhattan, and had heard rumors about Brooklyn Bridge being open to private vehicles. It was and I got a ride – phew.

I met up with Kaisa at Times Square and we spent the next few hours taking cabs around Manhattan in search of people to interview. On 14th street and 8th Avenue we saw a crowd had gathered around an apartment whose front wall had fallen down. Very few restaurants were open, and the lines were long. Finally we interviewed a woman who had huddled all night in her dark apartment downtown, a man who had ridden his bicycle from Brooklyn to Manhattan to see the damage and a Lower East Side family whose whole building had lost power.

As Kaisa also didn’t have electricity in her downtown apartment, we rushed back to Brooklyn to get online to send our stories and photos to the paper. We called the editor as we were on our way back. I started writing the article in the cab but had to change it midway after getting more instructions from the editor. Yikes.

I remember sitting down at the desk to write and looking at the clock: the story is due in 45 minutes! The pressure was building but I knew I couldn’t let that get to me. Whenever I got too self-critical, I remembered the advice of Anthony Mancini, my features professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” So I just typed as fast as I could and told the stories exactly how they had been told to me. And phew, I finished the article right on deadline. That story, too, made the front page of the foreign section the next day.

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It was only at that point, almost 20 hours after Sandy had hit, that I actually had time to start learning about what had happened. I felt fortunate that I had gotten away with hearing a few howling winds outside my window and seeing a few overturned trees.

And I felt really lucky I had been around to deliver the stories to Helsingin Sanomat. It was my first real foray into breaking news reporting and was great practice for what was to come about a month later – the Connecticut elementary school shootings. I covered that for another Finnish paper, Iltalehti. That to this day remains the hardest reporting assignment I have ever done for multiple reasons.I’m sure it would have been even more challenging, had I not had the Sandy experience fresh in my mind.

As terrible as the storm was for many people, it taught me that reporting breaking news is not as scary as I had imagined, and it’s something I actually enjoy. The feeling of having finished an article right before deadline is an endorphin high like no other.  And it felt great to be writing about something that actually mattered, rather than doing yet another hotel review (as fun as those are). By all account, Sandy was a big deal, and I’m happy to have written up a tiny piece of history.

Were you affected by Sandy in some shape or form?

Happy 90th birthday, Finnair!

Finnair, the trusty airline of my home country, is celebrating a big birthday this year. Only 10 years to go until the BIG 100! Woohoo! 🙂 In January Finnair was named the world’s safest airline in 2012.

While just five years ago I didn’t have any particular ties to Finnair,  nowadays I have quite a lot: in 2011, I was selected as one of the seven Quality Hunters bloggers traveling on Finnair for seven weeks. That gig saw me zoom from New York to Europe, Japan and India in my own personal record speed. I also now have a couple of friends who work at Finnair as flight attendants.

In addition, I’m a frequent contributor to Blue Wings, Finnair’s in-flight magazine, where I’m currently in charge of compiling the monthly calendar of events. So if you are flying with blue and white wings anytime soon, check out my event recommendations under the “This Month Around the World” pages. My favorite event for this month is the breakfast buffet festival for monkeys in Lopburi, Thailand. Would love to check it out one day. 🙂

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With all these Finnair connections I’ve got going on, it was only suitable that Blue Wings asked me to write an article about Finnair’s 90th birthday – but to do it from the perspective of the passengers. Without the passengers, there would be no Finnair. So back in July I spent a day at the Helsinki Airport interviewing families and individuals for the story (and visiting the Book Swap that I helped create!). The point of the article was to show who flies with Finland’s national airline, and what they think about it.

Though I had to get up super early to get to the airport by the time the 6 a.m. rush starts, it was a really fun day of reporting. I was roaming around the airport together with photographer Tuomas Kolehmainen and our Finnair liason Markku Remes. Markku and I worked together during the Quality Hunters project too, so it was nice to catch up again. We met tons of interesting people, from international business men to Croatia’s official athletic team and Finland-loving Japanese tourists.

And here’s the result! The article is a pretty cool-looking three-page spread in the November issue of Blue Wings that is just now hitting the seat-back pockets of every Finnair flight from Hong Kong to New York. So if you are flying with the airline this month, keep an eye out for my story and my calendar. You can also read the latest issue online here (scroll to pages 24-25 for the birthday story that is pasted below, and to pages 64-65 for the start of my events listings. Just so you know – “sivu” means page in Finnish.). Hope you like reading the story as much as I liked reporting it!

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Have you flown with Finnair? What was your experience like?

Inspiration and desperation at the Social Good Summit and Global Citizen Festival in New York

Last week was truly something else – I learned more than I ever dreamed possible about various problems currently affecting the world: extreme poverty, funky-sounding but terrible tropical diseases like hookworm, global warming, infant mortality, malaria, lack of education for girls…. Phew! Needless to say, my brain was running on information overload after receiving all of this info from two NYC events: the three-day Social Good Summit held at the 92Y, and the one-day Global Citizen Festival in Central Park. These happenings were the source of a lot of inspiration (extreme poverty is on its way out!), but also desperation: so much to do, so little political will to do it!

I attended the Social Good Summit, organized by the UN Foundation and Mashable, mostly to report on the latest climate change news for The Interdependent.com. To read my article on how social media is playing a role in the fight against global warming, click here.

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During these two eye-opening events I also saw a ton of celebrities, like Al Gore, Alicia Keys, Will.i.am, the drummer and bassist of Linkin Park, George W’s daughter Barbara Bush and my favorite reality TV star, Ernesto Arguello from NBC’s short-lived show Ready for Love. I even got a photo taken with him! 🙂

ErnestoArguello, who is a “humanitarian entrepreneur” according to his Twitter account, spoke at the summit because of something you see in this photo. The yellow belt he is wearing is the symbol of Snap2Live, a “life-saving fashion statement” campaign that promotes seat belts and traffic safety. Sadly enough, car crashes are currently the leading reason of death for children worldwide. Someone dies on roads every 6 seconds: a million of the victims are children. With 70 percent of its profits going to the Road Safety Fund, Snap2Live supports the UN’s “Decade of Action for Road Safety.”

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Discussing new energy initiatives are singer Will.i.am and Jessica O. Matthews, CEO of Uncharted Play. They spoke at a panel called “Sustainable Energy and Global Youth: Making a Complex Issue Fun and Accessible for a Measurable Difference.” After having been kicked around for 30 minutes, the ball that Matthews designed can generate up to three hours of electricity.

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Linkin Park’s bassist Dave Farrell was at the Social Good Summit to to promote “Recharge.” This new climate change-influenced videogame is part of the band’s “Power the World” campaign, which supports the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative.

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Al Gore, the former U.S. vice president, revealed his latest campaign, “What I Love,” a multimedia exhibit that makes climate change a personal matter. The site lets you choose things you couldn’t live without and explains how those things are threatened by global warming.

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On Saturday, a few days after the Social Good Summit ended, some 60,000 New Yorkers and visitors attended the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park. Here I am with my friend Faviola, who scored us two of the free concert tickets given through the website. The fundraising day featured a collection of well-known artists: Kings of Leon, Alicia Keys, John Mayor and Stevie Wonder. We were all the way in the back and could only see the performers as ant-size on stage, but it was still good times for a great cause!

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Did you by any chance attend the Social Good Summit and/or the Global Citizen Festival live or via the Internet? What did you think?