After a year of life in Finland: Part II
I moved to Helsinki in August 2016 and have spent the last 15 months confused, overwhelmed, and in awe. There were so many culture shocks and lifestyle changes that I didn't even consider -- it has taken a while, but I'm finally falling in love with living in Finland, so decided to share some stories and observations during my journey. You can read Part I here and Part III will be posted this weekend!
I knew America was bad with environmental causes, but it’s actually embarrassing
Recycling is EVERYWHERE in Finland. And not just recycling like we are used to in America — in America if you recycle you’re extremely hip and also usually pretty wealthy, since in a lot of cities you have to pay extra for recycling services, but yet, even then, all it is is paper and maybe certain times of cans, combined in one pile, and chucked into the recycling. And if you do this, it’s a big deal. You are single-handedly saving the environment.
If you did this in Finland, not only is it the bare minimum, you would be put on the no-call list for the entire country. Here, we recycle as much as possible. But, you don’t dump it all in a pile, you separate it yourself. For example, in my tiny apartment (40 sq. meters, which is only 430 sq. feet), I have five trash cans. FIVE. One is for bottles (which I return to the store and get money back for), my biowaste (food), cans, glasses, and regular trash. When I have cardboard I just leave it next to the door because I’m running out of secret drawers for mini trashcans.
Not only do I have five trashcans plus an invisible one next to the entrance, I also have biodegradable trash bags (they are cheaper to buy than regular plastic bags), reusable shopping bags (it’s actually normal here to buy someone a reusable bag as a present), and biodegradable toilet paper rolls that turn into fish feed. MIND BLOWING AMAZING. And honestly, this is only getting started. Electricity is not wasted. People do not leave lights on when they aren’t at home — do you even know someone that does that in America? I sure don’t. People car pool or walk as much as possible. Hell, a lot of people don’t have cars and just walk or bike everywhere.
And what Finns are especially good at is not wasting food. Since you have tiny apartments, you have tiny refrigerators. And since you almost always walk to the store, you can’t carry much back anyways to put into your tiny refrigerator. So you end up grocery shopping every couple of days, which is great though, because you get tons of extra exercise, but you also don’t waste food because you can see everything that is in your fridge. If you leave food on your plate, that’s the ultimate shame in Finland. Why did you take more than you needed? Unbutton those pants and stuff yourself, folks. At the university cafes they actually have scales that tell you how much food the student body has wasted so far that day. At some school cafeterias they actually don’t have trash cans, so if you have food left over you have to walk to the kitchen and hand it to the staff and apologize. I’ve become really skilled at cutting back on the eating with my eyes.
Vitamin D deficiency is a serious thing here
This is one of the main factors that makes foreigners leave after 6 months or a year in Finland. You hear about it before moving here and you know Finland is land of the midnight sun and land of the infinite darkness. But, you just don’t realize how dark it is until you live through it. You think in your head, oh dark for a bit at Christmas is no big deal. But it actually means the exclusion of the sun at the 60th parallel for almost half of the year. Starting around the end of October, the sun begins to get lazier and lazier each day, barely creeping over the skyline. When it does decide to come up, it’s hidden behind such a thick wall of grey clouds you don’t actually see the sun, but just witness the colorless sky become a little lighter. This lasts until about May -- in the worst parts, during December-February, it’s jet black all but a few hours in the afternoon.
Everyone takes vitamins to counteract this, but for foreigners, when you aren’t accustomed to this and you accompany it with a complete lack of social life, it becomes extremely depressing, extremely fast. I know at least six people that moved here at the same time as me that have left because it all compounded and became too much. Honestly, I tried to join them multiple times and was a click away from leaving on two occasions, but only stayed because I was already halfway through my degree. (Which, now I’m glad I did because year two has been exponentially better).
Land of lakes and nature
Finland is known as “the Land of a Thousand Lakes”. This is a gross understatement, since there are 187,888 lakes in Finland. Finland is not a large country whatsoever, the US is 29 times the size of Finland, so more or less just a ton of water here. Not only are there a lot of lakes, but there are countless islands. In the archipelago alone there are 40,000 islands. Some, of course, have nothing on them. But almost all of the ones near Helsinki boast nature trails or a sauna or some ice cream shops (they love their ice cream here, even though it’s freezing most of the year!). The most famous island is Suomenlinna, which is the UNESCO World Heritage Site sea fortress and the place to always take tourists when they come visit! There aren’t any high peaks in Finland, but for the 100th year anniversary of independence (which is in a couple of weeks on Dec. 6!!), Norway is actually giving Finland a mountain peak. In the north, the boarders of Finland, Sweden, and Norway all come together, so a few years ago some people started a petition in Norway to pull back their border a bit and give Finland a high point (which is one of the lower ones for mountainous Norway). It got a ton of momentum and support, gained the attention of the Norwegian government, and supposedly it's actually happening!
I already mentioned the freedom to roam law in the first part of this, but didn’t mention just how much Finnish people love nature. It’s astounding, truly, because no matter what season, you always see people out & about. Sometimes they will take extended lunch breaks from work just to go boating or swimming or take a longer walk around an island. A lot of them walk or bike (or ski!) to work, not only to save money and save the environment, but to actually be outside. Even if it’s -5, windy, and ice everywhere, you will still see people outdoors and being active. That’s Finnish sisu* right there.
*Sisu is the world famous Finnish grit and determination, that makes all Finnish people genetically inclined to brave absolutely everything: the cold, ice, bears, silence, loneliness, Russia, mälmi, Tallinn ferry rides.
At the very least, I’m in love with the Finnish language
Even on days when I’m cold and tired and pissed off and lonely, I still get to hear Finnish and it’s absolute music to me. I adore listening to Finnish, which really confuses most Finns. It’s considered a “rougher” sounding language, it has a lot of doubled consonants and all sentences, statements, and questions sound the same: they start at a higher/mid tone and become lower. Most people outside of northern Europe have never heard Finnish and when you get in America most people have never heard of Finnish. If you’re a LoTR fan, you will recognize Finnish because it sounds a lot like Elvish. Well, actually, Elvish sounds a lot like Finnish because it is based off Finnish.
Tolkien was inspired in his story-telling by the Finish epic Kalevala and when he stumbled across a Finnish grammar, he fell in love with the language — primarily for it’s grammatical cases and it’s mood. Finnish has 15 grammatical cases (thankfully no genders!) and consonant gradation. Basically it means the spelling of nouns and adjectives change (either a little or a ton) depending on what the noun or adjective is doing, is it possessive, is it on something, inside something, moving towards something, coming from, etc. And once you think you’ve started understanding the rules, you have to learn all the rules based on negatives. Luckily, for learners, it’s a phonetic language, so you read the words exactly how they are spelled, every single time. Sometimes there might be multiple vowels in a row and you aren’t sure if everyone sounds like a cow when saying the word or if that’s just you, but hey, you can figure it out (or just never use that word like I do :P). At least don't butcher the President's name like Trump did. The other fun part of Finnish is it skips all the small words. Like I’ve mentioned, Finns are direct and keep things to a minimum, so why throw in a bunch of a’s and the’s? Instead, it’s just tacked on to the end of another word, leading to some extremely long words in Finnish!
It’s not related to the large languages of Europe; Finnish is a Finno-Urgic language (that shows you how small this language family is…the name basically has Finnish in it!), making it related only to Karelian, Estonian, Votic, Vepsian and Livonia (points to my fellow linguistic nerds if you know any of those languages! :P) and distantly related to Hungarian. But, these languages aren’t like Spanish and Italian, where if you speak one you can pretty much get along in the other. You might be able to pick up a bit of vocabulary (i.e. when I visit Estonia I can guess some words here and there in Estonian, but can’t put together anything cohesive), but for the most part Finnish is related through the grammar systems. (Some more photos from Very Finnish Problems).
And the poor Finns, the only word that the rest of the world knows in Finnish is “sauna” and, not only do people completely destroy the typical sauna experience (will talk about that in the next part), they also pronounce the word wrong. If you really want to make a Finn happy, say “sow-na”, almost with your lips puckering the middle, not “sah-na”. Finnish is tricky, but it's a very structured language so once you learn the rules, which of course there are a ton of, it’s rare that you come across an exception. Also, it makes for some great youtube videos:
Going back to savviness from my last post, Finns are extremely thrifty
I’ve never seen a culture become more excited over coupons, discounts, and free items. It’s understandable, when your income is smaller (the average Finn actually makes 32% less money than the average American) and you have a high tax rate, plus expensive costs of living, but it’s just something I’m not accustomed to. Americans are stereotyped for being coupon-cutters, but that’s such a small portion of society that just happens to have scored the tv show deals. Most people I know do not cut coupons and actually wouldn’t use them even if they were given them (that’s back to the idea that certain jobs aren’t good enough, using coupons regularly makes you look cheap and we are very concerned in America about upholding our image). In Finland, they could care less. If someone is handing out a free bag of dog treats, they are taking it, even if maybe they don’t have a dog. If there’s a coupon for 1 euro, they’re holding on to it and using it. There are these famous things called “bucket giveaways”. Stores do them sometimes (I think when they first open or something like that). People will stand in line for HOURS — they love lines, so I guess that’s enjoyable (see next section on queueing) for them — to get these buckets. And, from what I’ve heard, the buckets aren’t really anything special. Just a collection of like dollar item goods or something. I don’t know, I could be wrong and maybe I’ve been missing out on the glory of the bucket!
They love to queue, I mean L-O-V-E
And love to take tickets for the queue, reminiscent of the Publix deli counter (ughhh I’m missing some Pubsubs right about now). There is absolutely nowhere in America where we pull a number and wait for our number to be called, except at the deli counter. They do it EVERYWHERE here. And if you forget to grab one, your ass is getting passed. Even if it’s almost an empty store and there’s one person ahead of you and one person behind you and you think, oh, I’ll save a ticket number and just stand in line…nope, think again because you’re getting PASSED. I don’t get it! I take ticket numbers at the bookstore, at the gym, at the bakery, at the doctor. For a country that loves recycling so much, we sure do waste heaps of paper just through all these queueing numbers!
Korvapuusti is the hands down greatest thing on our earth
And we can thank my adopted home Finland for that. Korvapuusti is the equivalent of an American cinnamon bun, except not covered with that horrendous sugary icing and made with cardamon. And shaped quirkier. It basically tastes healthier, fresher, and more cozy, so you can eat a lot more. I fell in love with korvapuusti the first time I came to Helsinki and became so obsessed I actually started this ongoing list on my computer of my rankings of korvapuusti’s around the city (I’m at about 60 different korvapuusti places). I became obsessed. When I moved here, I started eating them daily — thank God for walking everywhere to counteract that! This is literally not an exaggeration. People bring korvapuusti when they are coming over, instead of wine or something, because they know how much I love it. For Christmas last year my friend bought me a korvapuusti necklace and little pearl sugar shaped tears formed in my eyes.
Unfortunately, as of November 1 of this year, I have been in korvapuusti rehab. These are harrowing times. Especially after meeting the bakery sales manager of R-kioski (one of the kiosks I talked about) — R-kioski sells amazing korvapuusti’s for only 1 euro and I am proud to say I single-handedly kept them in business last year. Also, I don’t want to talk about the fact that I probably spent a good 250 euro on korvapuusti just from their store last year. They should make me an honorary shareholder or something.