After a year of life in Finland

I moved a bit over a year ago (August 2016) to Helsinki, the capital of Finland. I had been here once before, not too long prior, in January of 2016. I went to Lapland for a few days where I attempted to snowboard and then stayed in Helsinki for a bit. I was enraptured by the snow: I felt I could stare at it forever (I was a naïve tourist back then...). 

So when deciding where to move, I just thought, “hmm…why not”. I figured it was different enough from America to give me some culture shocks, but similar enough for me to easily find my way in, and it's a beautiful country to boot. 

Finns are quiet

This is the one thing that always makes the list and comes up in conversation when talking about Finland. But it’s completely true. As an American that comes from the south, I’m naturally a friendly, hugging, share-all-personal-stories-as-soon-as-I-meet-you type of person. I know my basic social rules though: I never spoke loudly on buses (well, that’s also in part because we don’t take public buses in America…) and I never yelled at people across a store or road. I’ve travelled a lot and have lived in other countries, so I’ve learned through my friends over the past few years how to tone it down — so I thought. That all came to a crashing halt when I moved to Finland. I arrived with stars and snow in my eyes, full of ideas of where I was going to meet all my new friends. I remember the first time I got on a bus after I moved here; I was so nervous because I didn’t want to stick out, would I press the buttons correctly? Would my transport card work? Should I say hello when I get on? I boarded the bus, everything went smoothly, until I had to choose my seat. Now, there are rules on choosing bus seats in Finland. The buses are lined with two seats next to each other on each side. You are absolutely, unequivocally, no-room to argue, allowed to sit next to someone on the bus until every pair of seats has one seat already taken. What kind of unspoken rule is this?! A rule of a quiet, personal space loving society. So, unbeknownst to me, I completely gave away my foreignness when I sat down next to a woman, who appeared to be in her mid-30s, and said “hey, how’s it going?”, in an attempt to make a cool friend. At the next stop when someone exited the bus, she got up and took their seat. 

Their quietness isn’t just regarding weariness of making friends with smiling foreigners, it holds true in all areas. Coffee shop interactions can be reduced to 5 words. “Coffee.” “Milk, Sugar?” “No” “3.40”. The end. You have your coffee. The same at the grocery store, except when you check out you can get by without saying anything whatsoever. “Rewards card?” Nod head no. “45 euro”. Swipes card. “Bye”. Nods head. It’s actually an art form, I’ve come to believe. 

My first year of living here I couldn’t crack the shell, I just thought all Finns were anti-social and not friendly (as many ex-pats think). But it’s not true, whatsoever. Once you become friends, they love you for life. It’s just switching your approach to meeting them and learning that words are valued differently here. 

Talking about love…

One thing they could never be blamed for here is throwing around “I love you’s”. There’s this old Finnish joke always going around that is so funny because it’s dead-on. This man and this woman have been married for a long time and one day she says to him, “You never tell me you love me”. He responds, “Yes I do, I told you when we said our vows”. “Well that was 40 years ago!”. He quips back, “Yeah, I know, and if it changes I’ll let you know!” 

Finnish people will never tell you if they like you or love you, and if you try to tell them, they usually clam up and become really uncomfortable. You know how they feel about you through their actions. If they answer your calls, they like talking to you. If they answer your invitations to sauna, they like being with you. In America we are so obsessed with words. You can be the worst partner in the world, but if you constantly tell your significant other “I love you baby”, it’s all okay. The same with all relationships. In Finland, they actually do something about it and show how they care for you, rather than throwing some verbs around. 

Love and dating are just completely different in general

Now, I know Americans do things weirdly, but I am so confused how dating operates in Finland. Where do you meet people? How does someone ask you on a date? I don’t think I’ve ever seen two strangers meet at a bar/in a public place since I’ve lived in Finland. I’m sure it’s happened, but…’s definitely not MTV over here. 

Case in point: I met this guy, completely platonic, that I became friends with. We hung out off and on for a couple of months; I was traveling a lot at the time, but whenever I was in town we would do something together. Nothing stood out to me, he didn’t ever offer to pay for meals, he never seemed to ask me on a date. I mean yeah, a few times he sat next to me on the tram, but that was as close as he ever got to me (except when I forced American hugs upon him…love doing that to Finnish people! :P) But I found out when we went out with his friends one night that the entire time he thought we were dating. I’m from the south, which means that even though I’m an equal-pay, free the nipple, love yourself feminist, I still believe in men holding open doors (actually, I just believe in doing that for everyone) and paying for first dates. So I cannot begin to explain how confused I was. It was one of those rare moments in life where my jaw actually dropped open. 

But even serious relationships are quite different, they seem much more relaxed and much less pressure to get married, have children, be a perfect family. 

They’re extremely humble

You won’t often hear a Finn bragging or telling you about their accomplishments, you won’t see them showing off or telling you how you could’ve done something better. This shows a lot in their language skills. Finns are notorious for being embarrassed by their language skills, they’re so concerned that they will mess something up/that they are not good enough, so they just remain silent. (Yes, they get even more quiet when they’re not speaking Finnish!) 

The funny part about it is that Finns speak AMAZING English. Most are also decent or really good in Swedish and a lot know some other languages too. 

Their schooling system is more focused on the child

They all speak such great English because they have a schooling system which works. Primary school through high school is set up to operate around the child, not around standardization and regional competition. (Tim Walker is an American that moved to Finland and has some great blog posts on the differences between teaching). And it’s of course been reported on so many times: how can America learn from Finland’s education system?

I’m not a teacher, anywhere in the world, but I have sat in on some classes in primary and high school and can compare to my experience growing up in America. First of all, kids aren’t pushed to learn together. Children aren’t forced to start reading or writing when they’re 4, they learn at their own pace. I was sitting with this little girl one time, she was about 6, and I asked her to write her name for me and she couldn’t. She didn’t even know where to start. I was shocked at the time, why does she not know how to spell her name? Have her parents taken her to see a doctor or a specialist? This is quite normal here and my friends assured me that the little girl was learning at her own pace and some of them, too, didn’t learn to read or write until they were 6 or 7. If a child doesn’t feel like doing something in class, maybe they’re really tired or just losing their concentration, teachers will give them something else to work on and let them come back to it later. There is never forced learning, which makes the child appreciate it more. 

And besides the differences within the classroom, there are tons of differences outside of the classroom. The main one being, the kids actually go outside. All the time. When I was young we had about 30 minutes of playtime and that was it. My friend, who is currently a teacher in America, told me that at her last school they had zero playtime. In Finland, classrooms go outside daily. I don’t know how long playtime is, but it’s at least an hour (I’m sure it varies between schools). Kids take nature hikes through the woods, learn to pick berries and build fires, walk through the city and shop at the fish market, all while at school. This all starts from an extremely young age. (And, if you’re wondering, there are few things cuter in this world then a little classroom of Finnish children, in pairs of two holding hands, bundled up so much in their winter gear that they all look like mini-Michelin men, bopping through the city together). 

It’s one of the safest countries in the world

Which is quite apparent when you walk through the city and you see little pre-school classrooms of 4-year olds walking around. And when you see children riding the buses by themselves. A lot of Finnish kids start taking the bus to and from school when they are around 7 years old, completely by themselves. The doors open and you look up and wonder why the bus is just just sitting there wasting time since no one is getting on, then you look down and you see this small child reaching up on their tippy-toes to touch their transport card. It still amazes me to this day. 

If you’re a woman, Finland is the anomaly. Men don’t try to grope you, they really don’t even look at you since they can be so shy. In the 15 months I’ve lived here, I’ve never once been touched, called to, followed, eye-screwed, cornered, forced into awkward conversation because someone bought me a drink. My friends here don’t believe me when I tell them the stories of America: how my girlfriends and I all carry pepper spray on our keychains, how it’s almost impossible to go out at night and not have one, or multiple, of the things above occur. It’s just completely inconceivable here. 

A lot of that is due to, once again, how Finns are raised. Nudity is not censored here, pornography is legal. Hell, one of the main figures of Finland, the modern day mascot, is Tom of Finland, a gay, extremely erotic cartoon character. Kids grow up around nudity, in a very non-sexualized way. Saunas, which are the staple of Finnish life, are fully naked and attended by everyone. Friends go together, co-workers go together, neighbors, families. All genders and all ages. So growing up in a society where sexuality and nudity is not hidden, makes for adult men who are respectful and ambivalent to whether or not your shirt is a turtleneck or a v-neck. 

You can do everything at a kiosk

Since a lot of people don’t drive, there are these little kiosks all around Finland. They’re like the equivalent of our gas stations, minus the gas, just the little shop inside. But you can solve all the worlds problems in these kiosks. First of all, you can pay your phone bill and load your transit card, saving the hassle of having to wait in long lines. You can also gamble in these kiosks on slot machines. Gambling is THE way to pass time in Finland, just a notch below drinking beer & going to the sauna. But casinos aren’t popular here, nor are playing cards, they just love slot machines. All throughout the day you walk by a kiosk and you will see people standing there, throwing in their spare change before picking up their rye sandwich to-go. People in athletic clothes that have just finished their runs, grandma’s pulling their shopping cart behind them, lawyers on their lunch break. EVERYONE has gambling fever here. And the cool thing about it is that all the money the machines make go straight to charity. 

Finns are efficient, but not…at the same time

I truly can’t figure this one out. E-mails? Hardly ever answered. Sometimes you have to send people e-mails multiple times to get a response, sometimes you just give up. This got me in quite a bit of trouble last year when my Finnish ID card never arrived in the mail. (Long story, but it’s illegal to not have one on you, even if you have been granted residency, so I got in tons of trouble trying to fly out of the EU for “overstaying” my 90-days). And I don’t know anyone that uses a voicemail box. Supposedly you have the option to set one up, but everyone opts out. It can make it extremely difficult to get in contact with people and have questions answered. 

Finns say a lot that they are a punctual country, and maybe I’m just too OCD, but I do not see it! I have actually learned to start arriving a bit late since moving to Finland, in fear of having to sit there alone, fighting off Finnish questions from employees, in fear of giving away my lack of Finnish, for 10 minutes until whoever I’m meeting arrives. At the university, classes will say online that they are from 2-4pm, but I was told during my orientation that that actually means 2:15-3:45, always take away 15 minutes. They said it was to ensure everyone got there in time. Why not just write 2:15? Are Finns just structured to always be 15 minutes late?

Their banking system though is the shining beacon of efficiency in Finland. Everything is done online. In Finland, you don’t hide your bank account number. If you need to send a friend money, they give you their code, you send it over on your phone. It’s in their account within seconds. Now that’s efficient. Everything is paid with online banking: house insurance, gym memberships, large IKEA bills. You can even file your taxes and pay them online, and — my fellow Americans will not believe this, I’m still amazed — it only takes a few minutes!! 

For a quiet bunch, they love their social activities

I feel like the “quietness” of Finland cannot be stressed enough. Only in Finland could you sit on a bus for 15 minutes and not even hear someone breathe. But it’s hilarious how completely different Finns become when there is a social event, the true definition of a 180. The saunas here are world famous and the prime example of where Finns instantly light up and become bubbly. But, there is so much more than that. Juhannus is the famous mid-summer night where all of Finland shuts down and people go into the countryside for multi-day bonfires and celebrations. They love stag nights and hen-do’s — the equivalent of a bachelor & bachelorette party, except usually they’re only one night and absolutely insane, complete with costumes and embarrassing challenges. 

My absolutely favorite absurd Finnish social activity is a sitsit. A sitsit, which is also celebrated in Sweden, is a student dinner set over a course of a few hours. It’s a fancy gathering: women wear gowns, men wear tuxes, and there’s usually a large-number of courses. About a month after I first moved here, I was invited by my teacher to attend a sitsit that weekend, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the department. I had absolutely no idea what it was, but a Finnish dinner with an excuse to dress up sounded like a good way to fraternize with my new fellowmen! I was, yet again, completely unprepared for what would happen.

When I signed up for the sitsit, my professor told me to wear a gown and to bring some cash for the open bar, in case I wanted an extra drink. He told me some drinks would be provided, but just the basics. I arrive in my gown and as soon as I get there I’m handed a glass of champagne, then soon after another glass of champagne. Everyone starts talking and I attempt my hand at socializing once again — I actually met one of my best friends that night, so I guess a socialization attempt worked! We get called to our seats, there are a lot of toasts, and me, sitting in the corner staring with a smile on my face because I have absolutely no idea what the hell is going on. I think at this point all I can say is “hello/thanks/my name is” in Finnish, but I’m an American, so I have my fake smile down pat! I’m quickly awoken from my daydreaming with everyone around me clambering onto the top of their seats. Uhh…okay? Do I take my heels off for this or what’s the protocol? By the time I figure out what’s going on and climb on my seat to join in the knife banging on the glasses and the singing (you can already imagine my “blahhehuu hhelkkkh kkikoooskiii akookiikei” attempts at following along), they are all getting off the seats and getting down on the floor to crawl under the table. This happens for hours throughout the night, in between toasts and courses. 

In the midst of all the singing and crawling and climbing over the tables, we still continue to be served drinks. I don't remember what all was given to us that night (for fairly obvious reasons), but I do remember it was a minimum of the two glasses of champagne, a few glasses of wine, some shots, and an after dinner drink. Maybe there was more in there, but it's been long forgotten about. I had no earthly idea why my teacher told me to bring cash if I wanted an extra drink -- this was my first introduction to the heavy drinking culture! The food takes quite a while to eat because there’s a rule that you can’t eat when someone is toasting and when there is singing — and it’s fair game to start it up whenever you want!

 (Me being awkward at the sitsit). 

(Me being awkward at the sitsit). 

A job is a job

My friends and I were talking about this recently and it’s one of the largest differences between American culture and Finnish. In America, we have ideas set on what is a good job and what is a bad job. There are certain jobs that you’re supposed to feel embarrassed about having when you’re in your 30s. Or often times when you tell a story and share the person’s job, someone will respond, “oh, that’s all they do?”. This never, never happens in Finland — I don’t even think it’s a thought that passes through their heads! In Finland, a job is a job. There is no need for embarrassment because you have a job and you work hard and that in itself is respectable. A lot of people in their 30s and 40s work at coffee shops or are cashiers at kiosks and that’s how they make their living, and that’s perfectly fine. 

My American friend, who moved here the same time as me, started working in a coffee shop to support herself while she’s doing her master’s degree. Before she moved here, she was a teacher in America and so she felt this sense of shame, having to tell her friends and family back home that that’s the job she found, that she wasn’t working in her field while she is in school.

But she’s working. And she works hard. And she makes good money. So why is it, to us Americans, that this isn’t something to be proud of?

Finns are extremely savvy

There’s this belief in the U.S. that everyone in the Nordics is extremely rich. And this isn’t true at all. Pretty much everyone here makes a livable income if they have a job — thanks to their political system and what the constitution provides to the citizens — but there is a strong focus on ensuring that the gap between the richest and the poorest stays as small as possible. Incomes are actually published, so you can see what your neighbor earns each year. If you earn “too much”, there’s a really good chance your salary will be lowered so it can be split between other employees or moved to charity. The average income here is 3-3.5k euro/month, but when you’re taxed at extremely high levels, the take home pay isn’t much at all.

The belief that all Finns are rich and they all make great money stems from the fact that they are all good with their money. They learn how to save and they learn to invest (they have money in stocks, in bitcoins, in money markets) from a young age. Almost every working Finn also has a side business…or two or three. You constantly meet people and they tell you their daytime job, then start telling you about this online business they run or this warehouse they own or this app they’re creating. They’re very savvy people and understand how to save for the future. 

Freedom to roam

Finns appreciate nature and they love to be outdoors as much as possible (more on that in part 2 of this post!). Freedom to roam is this law unique to the Nordic countries: known as ‘Everyman’s Rights’, it allows everyone to enjoy the forests, lakes, fields, and parks anywhere in Finland, completely free of charge. You can bike where you want, pick mushrooms and berries where you want (big pastimes here!), hike, set up a tent where you want. You can’t bike or hike on someone’s garden or crops (in case there was any confusion on that one…), but even if there is a barrier or a private road, you’re allowed to walk through it. The berries and mushrooms you pick are completely tax-free, so you can spend a day collecting, then go down to a square (tori) and sell what you gathered! 

(Sweden actually collaborated with Airbnb and listed the entire country on Airbnb, in honor of their equivalent freedom to roam law. So basically just scroll through all the photos and look at the beauty of Sweden!) 

I have so much more to say, but just realized how extremely long this post is becoming, so splitting it up into a few parts! Will post part 2 this upcoming week :)