Polson welcomes exchange student's family
POLSON — Pirjo and her husband Veli-Pekka Pihlainen both said their favorite thing about Polson was “the people, I think” with a smile.
Visitors from Finland, the Pihlainens and their daughter Kaisu, 12, have been staying near Polson for about 10 days.
Why would Finnish folks visit our area? Well, the answer is their daughter Katja, 15, is an exchange student and a junior at Polson High School. During her year of school in the United States of America, Katja lives with Chellie and Brent Matson. Katja agreed with her parents that people are “really nice” here, a big difference from big cities.
Veli had visited Washington, D.C., and New York City before this visit, and Pirjo also had been to New York City for a couple of days.
While big cities have their charms, Veli said, “Real America or real Finland is in small cities.”
“We live one hour from Helsinki, in the town of Hameenlinna,” Pirjo said.
Veli described Hameenlinna as a town whose main business is metal and plastic industries. About 50,000 people live in Hameenlinna so it’s bigger than Polson.
It’s “kind of an administrative city — near Helsinki and other big cities,” Veli said.
Since the Pihlainen family speaks English as well as Finnish and Swedish communicating with Polson people has not been a problem. Pirjo also speaks Spanish.
Veli explained, “95 percent of the people in Finland speak Finnish; five percent speak Swedish.”
The Pihlainens said every place they’ve gone Montanans have been open and friendly.
The Matsons and the Pihlainens took a day trip to Glacier National Park. Unfortunately, it was a foggy day and lots of Glacier’s buildings and roads aren’t open yet although they did get to see McDonald Lake Lodge and McDonald Lake itself.
Brent has thousands of stories about the area and has been a very good guide Veli said. One example was Brent’s explanation of glacial Lake Missoula and its impact on the landforms.
Also Veli went to Whitefish to ski at Big Mountain. He said there was good snow, and it was in good condition.
Pirjo had her heart set on riding with a Western saddle. She rode a lot in her youth and had taken the sport up again recently. In Finland they ride English saddles; and Pirjo really would like the Montana cowgirl experience.
Although they’d seen lots of wild west movies, the Pihlainens didn’t know anything about Montana or where it was in the continental United States.
Katja wrote her parents a 14-page letter outlining all the reason they should let her become an exchange student. When she found out in January of 2009 she had been assigned to come to Montana and live with the Matsons, Katja and her parents started researching via the Internet and compiling information about Montana.
Then Chellie sent the Pihlainen family a FaceBook message. Chellie and Brent have hosted several exchange students; Katja is number nine. Chellie explained what she and Brent would expect from Katja and asked what rules/expectations Pirjo and Veli had for Katja. She stressed the two families would need to communicate openly and trust each other. The conversation reassured Veli and Pirjo they could trust the Matsons with their daughter.
“Chellie and I agreed about many things, such as rules,” Pirjo said.
Both Veli and Pirjo said many Montanans have asked them “How could you send your daughter so far away?”
Although “it hurts us to send our girl away,” the Pihlainens said Katja was quite mature for her age. They also felt she would be safe with the Matsons, and they were dealing with a reputable exchange student organization.
“Society is more demanding. Parents should support their children … give them abilities to face the new world,” Veli explained.
Katja said her parents are very supportive about everything.
“They encourage me to do things,” Katja said.
Veli and Pirjo are practicing what they preach, too. Katja will be living in another city two hours from her parents when she returns to Finland to attend a drama high school, specializing in the arts, dance, radio/TV, music and acting.
“I’m really proud my parents trust me,” Katja said.
It’s not common in Finland for a 16-year-old to live on her own although maybe more common than in the United States. Katja said she’s excited about “renting an apartment and all that.”
The Pihlainens said the U.S. is a huge country with lots of opportunities. Finland is very much smaller; if you want to succeed you must go outside of Finland.
As far as the school in Polson compares to Katja’s school in Hameenlinna, Veli said Finland is always first, second or third in world standings so their education system is very effective, very theoretical.
Katja said school days are much longer here but “very much harder” in Finland. In Finland there were 15 different subjects, and classes times and durations varied. Katja said she always had the schedule in her pocket or bag because a class could go from 8 a.m. to noon one day and 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. another day.
About American schools, Veli said, “One thing, in school, everywhere in your society. It’s a deep warm society — lots of art, lots of discussion … easier for students to speak and express their feelings.”
One way Katja expresses her feelings is by singing.
“I sing, play the piano and guitar, compose and write,” Katja said, describing her music as Indie jazz.
“I want to be a musician,” Katja said.
Katja has been doing vocals for five years now. Her favorite class at Polson High School probably is choir. She also has two independent study music classes, one where she practices piano and singing and one class on music theory. Katja loves both classes.
Pirjo and Veli got an opportunity to hear Katja singing classical music during their visit. Katja said she had done some classical musical in Finland with not very good results.
Pirjo said she liked the way Chris Bumgarner treated the kids, supporting them, saying, “I’m proud of you.” She said it’s very important for kids to hear they’ve done well.
Katja said, “I learned so much from Mr. B.”
Her Finnish music teacher advised her to come to either the United Kingdom or the United States of America.
Katja also got involved in PHS by running cross-country last fall. Her parents were amazed when she started training before she even left Finland.
When she wasn’t running around Polson, Katja has been traveling. She’s visited Los Angeles twice since she’s been in Polson; there’s a good college in LA she’s interested in attending as well as one in London and in Germany. Also Katja plans a trip to Texas soon.
“I really love traveling,” Katja said, explaining that she doesn’t think she’ll always live in Finland.
“I’ve always loved big cities,” Katja said.
Big city girl or not, Katja said she’s enjoying her year in Polson.
Veli and Pirjo added an invitation for Polsonites to visit Finland, land of 150,000 lakes.