Every month, Fulbridge interviews Fulbrighters around the world (current grantees and alumni) to get a sense of what life is like in different placements. This month, Megan Gleason, a 2018-2019 ETA in Latvia, spoke with Augusta Finzel, a 2018-2020 ETA in Greenland.
This is your second year as an ETA in Nuuk, Greenland, and in 2018-2019 you made history as the first ETA to go Greenland. But how did you end up in Greenland in the first place? I know your trajectory was a little complicated.
I started out as an alternate for Russia. Then at first [Fulbright] asked me if I wanted my application transferred to Latvia –
Really?! [the author was a 2018-2019 ETA to Latvia]
Yeah, and I said ‘Sure.’ And then I didn’t hear back.
In mid-June I got an email from Fulbright again, this time asking if I wanted to transfer to Greenland. And I said ‘OK sure, send me over there!’ – not really expecting anything to happen at that point, since last time I didn’t hear back.
Then less than 24 hours later, I got a response: ‘OK, you’re going to Greenland!’ And I was like ‘Excuse me?!’ Because I pretty much decided to accept it on a whim – I hadn’t really considered what going to Greenland meant. And let the record [show] that I’m so glad I did this… but it could have turned out so poorly. Because I didn’t realize [until later that] there’s only 57,000 people in Greenland-
I didn’t realize that until this moment!
I looked it up on Google after I found out! And then I thought ‘Oh… Well, that will be interesting!’
[And] in the end, it’s been great. I knew it could be awful, but I also didn’t have any expectations, I didn’t know anything [about Greenland], so I could be really open to the culture and life and everything and just go with it. Whereas if I had known more, I think it would [have been] harder. And obviously I wouldn’t be here a second year if I didn’t love it.
I have to ask… how do you handle the cold?
Honestly, it doesn’t get as cold as Minnesota can get in the winter! In Nuuk, it is colder for longer – the snowdrifts are up to my shoulder right now – but I think it’s [milder] because of the ocean effect, whereas Minnesota’s so far inland. Minnesota can get -30, -40 degree weather [-34 to -40 ˚C] and Nuuk is usually between 10 and 20 degrees [-12 to -6 ˚C] in the winter. If you go farther north, or if you go into the ice sheet, it’s going to be really really cold, but it’s bearable. But it’s true I’m from Minnesota!
What have been some memorable teaching moments so far?
The Institute of Learning is a bizarre setting to work in, since it’s a teaching program for mostly future primary school teachers. You’re working with all these adults to learn these really childish things like children’s songs or writing children’s stories and playing children’s games. And everyone’s really hyped and receptive. They’re not acting like it’s dumb or anything!
A lot of American children’s songs have either a version in Danish or Greenlandic, so I’ll start singing it in English and teaching it to them and then they’ll start singing it back in Greenlandic. It’s just great. They have a Greenlandic version of “Itsy Bitsy Spider”. And also – you know the hand game, “Double double this this, double double that that, double this, double that”? They have a Greenlandic version, where they say “Chocolate”. It goes “sukku sukku laa laa, sukku sukku ti ti, sukku la, sukku ti, sukkulaati” and that’s how you say chocolate [in Greenlandic]. It’s really cute that it’s exactly the same, almost the same hand movements too.[This year] I had the option of either going back to the Institute of Learning or the high school, and I said “I’m going back to the Institute of Learning!” I love it. It’s a much more diverse group of people in terms of age range [than in the U.S.]. Here, people usually they wait a few years to go to university, so you’ll have people who are starting when they’re 18 at the earliest, but maybe 20, and then people who are 50, and all in the same classroom. It’s a fun group.
What do you think people should know about Greenland?
Greenland has such a rich culture, history and environmental context around it. I think all places are like this, but Greenland even more so. There are so many layers that I keep peeling back the longer I’m here.
You go into the mountains and it’s the quietest you’ll ever hear. The nature is beautiful and it’s so peaceful. This is usually the first thing people know about Greenland, especially [given] climate change.
Greenland has colonial history with Denmark, and so there are different aspects to society because of that.
And then there’s also the Inuit population [the majority of the Greenlandic population is Inuit].
There’s this really interesting modern-day traditional Inuit context, they’re bridging the gap between cultural/traditional backgrounds and modernism.
Sometimes on the weekends there are music jams, and you have people playing modern-day Greenlandic music, but then in the same place, sometimes in the same night, you have a traditional Inuit drumming group where people go up and do that.
There’s also a swimming pool where they do kayak polo, which is water polo but with kayaks! For that, they use regular plastic kayaks. But then if you go to kayak club, and they’re building these traditional Greenlandic kayaks. I’m building one right now and I’m very excited about it!
Wait, you’re building a kayak?! How did this happen?
Well, I heard about it last year, but they only do kayak-building in the winter, and I was about to go home for the summer. So I thought OK, maybe next year.
I forgot about it, and then I ran into this friend of mine, and he said ‘Oh, I made this new kayak, you should come see it!’ So I came, and he told me ‘OK, you’re going to start building a kayak now!’ He introduced me to everyone and helped me get the wood to build it. You have to [get the wood, then] walk the wood across town into this little kayak shop.
What kind of wood do you use?
There’s mostly pine, and then there’s another type of wood that I haven’t translated yet.
I am so amazed by the idea of building a kayak… That is not a skill that many people have!
I would highly recommend it! A fun fact is that apparently there are more traditional Greenlandic kayak builders in the U.S. than there are in Greenland. But I mean to be fair, there are only 57,000 people in Greenland…
Anything else we should know about Greenland?
Greenlanders are some of the most cozy people on the planet! They just – like, if you get in a group of Greenlanders and they’re all speaking Greenlandic together, but also just in a group with friends and family, they’ll just sit around, someone will usually pull out a guitar and start singing, and maybe they’ll pass the guitar – because it seems like every single Greenlander knows how to play a few songs on the guitar – and then at the end of the night, people sit around and tell ghost stories.
OK, so now my image of a Greenlander is building kayaks, playing the guitar and swapping ghost stories.
And loving their families.
Augusta Finzel is a 2018-2020 Fulbright ETA to Nuuk, Greenland. She assists with English classes at the Institute of Learning, a teacher-training program at the University of Greenland (Ilisimatusarfik). Augusta is a graduate of Lawrence University (Appleton, WI), where she double-majored in Russian and Biology. She was born and raised on an old farmstead in the small rural community of Morris, Minnesota.