I don't often do retrospectives, but this year has been an unusual one for me, as I moved to Finland almost six months ago.
The topic has come up in conversation a lot over the past few months, so when people ask me what I think I can give some simple answers without too much thought. Here's a brief summary.
There are some obvious changes:
- The Traffic
The traffic drives on the right-hand side of the roads, which took a bit of getting used to, but isn't a huge surprise as I've travelled in Europe in the past. There aren't so many countries that drive on the left after all so most people probably wouldn't even notice this as odd.
When it comes to traffic one thing nice about Helsinki is that most junctions are "zebra crossings". Sure they don't have flashing lights, but they have shaded areas, and pedestrians have right of way.
As for transport the city of Helsinki has local trains, trams, buses and taxis. The trams and buses all use the same card for payment so transport is integrated very well. I buy a time-based card, spending about €50 for a month of unlimited travel. If you prefer you may add euros to your card and pay for distinct journeys - but that works out more expensive if you travel twice, or more, a day.
- The Money
Finland uses the Euro these days, having switched from the Finnish markka in 2002.
Costs are largely in line with what I'd expect: Cigarettes are cheap, beer is expensive. Some things are very expensive, some things are very cheap. Largely the expensive things are those that are imported. It is a very small country after all.
- The Language
Finnish is .. complex.
But I've not struggled too much. Mostly I can buy what I want without difficulty. There are weird exceptions though for example I went out to buy soup one day and had to return carrying only shame and disappointment: I can't read the language on the tins and what I thought was soup turned out to be a can of chopped tomatoes.
Food is good though, and available easily (!!). The only significant surprise when it comes to shopping is that loose goods must be weighed yourself. You pick up a bunch of bananas, take it to the scales, press the button that has a picture of a banana on it, and it prints out a label you attach to them - at the till the cashier will scan the label and charge you. If you forget, or don't know how to do it they'll tut and complain.
In daily life I use two phrases frequently and they are sufficient for communcation:
- "minua haluan ... kahvi|kakku|olut"
- "I want ... coffee|cake|beer".
Usually people speak to me in English, which is a little annoying as it means I'm not learning as much as I could. But that said over the past few months I've had proper conversations entirely in Finnish with shop-keepers, and similar. So I'm getting better.
- "minua haluan ... kahvi|kakku|olut"
- The Culture
Finnish people are friendly, but terse. That's the reputation.
The Finnish people are alcoholics, and have high rates of suicide. Also the reputation.
Finally we know that the Finnish people consume more coffee than the rest of the world.
All those things are true, but they're not enough by far to describe the people. Obviously they're all different, and we have a lot of people from other parts of the world here too - Russians, Asians, Somalians. So culture is complex .. but markedly different than in the UK.
I could write more about this, but I think for the moment I'll just draw a line under culture and say that I'm enjoying the interactions with people here, and while many things are slightly "off", it's not bad. Just different.
Also saunas are fun. I've never had any qualms about being naked with strangers, so I don't really understand why Americans, and others, find this so difficult/surprising. But yeah, saunas are great.
Things that Finland is known for internationally: The invention of the molotov cocktail, rally-driving, hockey, world's strongest man, Moomins, Tom of Finland, Salmiakki.
- The Weather
Not too hot. Not too cold. But that's largely because I'm one of those "hot" people who doesn't really get cold even at the best of times.
My ideal temperatures are about 13°C. My wife prefers 15°C, or more. We don't fight any more. Mostly.
Winter is apparently full of snow, but this year has been poor. We had the first snowfall yesterday, here in Helsinki, and we woke this morning a blanket of snow about two inches high. It looks pretty.
The biggest thing about weather in Finland is the constant darkness in winter, and the constant sun in Summer. In Summer there were like 22 hours of sunlight a day which made sleeping hard when we moved into our flat - with no curtains.
In winter it feels like there is 20 minutes of sunlight a day. It's not that bad here in the south, although I think it is something like five hours and less in the north. I've never had any real issues with depression, or similar: People have good days and bad days, I'd generally be "OK" or "great". In the darkness? I've been grumpy at colleagues, I've made bad choices, I've lapsed attention. I'm not sure I can blame it on the weather, or my reaction to the weather, but I know I've not been as "happy" as I "should".
It requires effort to be enthusiastic in a way I've never experienced before. Thankfully once I (slowly) realized this I took action and I think I'm good now.
Unlike the UK the buildings here are relatively modern. I think that's the biggest contributing factor to how houses are "warm". Houses have all been built in the last 50-100 years, so you have proper insulation. Even though it might be very very cold outdoors indoors you can be naked without heating. Try that in the UK and you might freeze in some of the older leakier houses!
You do have to laugh, though, when people point out "the oldest pub" in the city though. Where I come from if I pub isn't 500+ years old you wouldn't give it a seconds thought - places like The Golden Fleece, etc.
I could write more. I probably should. But it has been an interesting year, and although there are things I miss about the UK, and Edinburgh specifically, I have no regrets. I'm glad I came.
What triggered this post? I said "Some things are universal" to my wife, when I saw a child riding a bicycle they'd obviously just received for Christmas. Her reaction "No Finnish person would buy a bicycle at Christmas - they'd expect too much snow!". So perhaps it was another immigrant family.
Christmas bicycles universal, or not, it doesn't really matter.