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The differences in Finland start at home.

30 July 2015 21:50

So we're in Finland, and the differences start out immediately.

We're renting a flat, in building ten, on a street. You'd think "10 Streetname" was a single building, but no. It is a pair of buildings: 10A, and 10B.

Both of the buildings have 12 flats in them, with 10A having 1-12, and 10B having 13-24.

There's a keypad at the main entrance, which I assumed was to let you press a button and talk to the people inside "Hello I'm the postmaster", but no. There is no intercom system, instead you type in a magic number and the door opens.

The magic number? Sounds like you want to keep that secret, since it lets people into the common-area? No. Everybody has it. The postman, the cleaners, the DHL delivery man, and all the ex-tenants. We invited somebody over recently and gave it out in advance so that they could knock on our flat-door.

Talking of cleaners: In the UK I lived in a flat and once a fortnight somebody would come and sweep the stair-well, since we didn't ever agree to do it ourselves. Here somebody turns up every day, be it to cut the grass, polish the hand-rail, clean the glass on the front-door, or mop the floors of the common area. Sounds awesome. But they cut the grass, right outside our window, at 7:30AM. On the dot. (Or use a leaf-blower, or something equally noisy.)

All this communal-care is paid for by the building-association, of which all flat-owners own shares. Sounds like something we see in England, or even like Americas idea of a Home-Owners-Association. (In Scotland you own your own flat, you don't own shares of an entity which owns the complete building. I guess there are pros and cons to both approaches.)

Moving onwards other things are often the same, but the differences when you spot them are odd. I'm struggling to think of them right now, somebody woke me up by cutting our grass for the second time this week (!)

Anyway I'm registered now with the Finnish government, and have a citizen-number, which will be useful, I've got an appointment booked to register with the police - which is something I had to do as a foreigner within the first three months - and today I've got an appointment with a local bank so that I can have a euro-bank-account.

Happily I did find a gym to join, the owner came over one Sunday to give me a tiny-tour, and then gave me a list of other gyms to try if his wasn't good enough - which was a nice touch - I joined a couple of days later, his gym is awesome.

(I'm getting paid in UK-pounds, to a UK-bank, so right now I'm getting local money by transferring to my wifes account here, but I want to do that to my own, and open a shared account for paying for rent, electricity, internet, water, & etc).

My flat back home is still not rented, because the nice property management company lost my keys. Yeah you can't make that up can you? With a bit of luck the second set of keys I mailed them will arrive soon and the damn thing can be occupied, while I'm not relying on that income I do wish to have it.

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Some things are universal?

27 December 2015 21:50

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.

Enough said.

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".
  • "kiitos"
    • "Thanks"

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.

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.

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Restoring my system .. worked

2 January 2016 21:50

A while back I wrote about some issues with converting a two-disk RAID system to a one-disk system, but just to recap:

  • We knew were were moving to Finland.
  • The shared/main computer we used in the UK was old and slow.
  • A new computer in Finland would be more expensive than it should be.
  • Equally transporting a big computer from the UK would also be silly.

In the end we bought a small form-factor PC, with only a single drive and I moved one of the two drives from the old machine into it. Then converted it to run happily with only a single drive, and not email every day to say "device missing".

So there things stood, we had a desktop with a single drive, and I ensured that I took full daily backup via attic.

Over Chrismas the two-year old drive failed. To the extent I couldn't even get it to be recognized by the BIOS, and thus couldn't pull data off it. Time to test my backups in anger! I bought a new drive, installed a minimal installation of the Jessie release of Debian onto the system, and then ran:

 cd /
 .. restore latest backup ..

Two days later I'd pulled 1.3Tb over the network, and once I fixed up grub, /etc/fstab, and a couple of niggles it all just worked. Rebooted to make sure the temporary.home hostname, etc, was all gone and life was good.

Restored backup! No errors! No data-loss! Perfect!

The backup-script I use every day was very very good at making sure nothing was missed:

attic create --stats --checkpoint-interval=7200 attic@${remote}:/attic/storage::${host}-$(date +%Y-%m-%d-%H)
  --exclude=/proc      \
  --exclude=/sys       \
  --exclude=/run       \
  --exclude=/dev       \
  --exclude=/tmp       \
  --exclude=/var/tmp   \
  --exclude=/var/log   \
  /

In other news I published my module for controlling the new smart lights I've bought

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So I've been busy.

30 June 2016 21:50

The past few days I've been working on my mail client which has resulted in a lot of improvements to drawing, display and correctness.

Since then I've been working on adding GPG-support. My naive attempt was to extract the signature, and the appropriate body-part from the message. Write them both to disk then I could validate via:

gpg --verify msg.sig msg

However that failed, and it took me a long to work out why. I downloaded the source to mutt, which can correctly verify an attached-signature, then hacked lib.c to neuter the mutt_unlink function. That left me with a bunch of files inside $TEMPFILE one of which provided the epiphany.

A message which is to be validated is indeed written out to disk, just as I would have done, as is the signature. Ignoring the signature the message is interesting:

Content-Type: text/plain; charset=UTF-8
Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable

On Mon, 27 Jun 2016 08:08:14 +0200

...

--=20
Bob Smith

The reason I'd failed to validate my message-body was because I'd already decoded the text of the MIME-part, and I'd also lost the prefixed two lines "Content-type:.." and Content-Transfer:.... I'm currently trying to work out if it is possible to get access to the RAW MIME-part-text in GMIME.

Anyway that learning aside I've made a sleazy hack which just shells out to mimegpg, and this allows me to validate GPG signatures! That's not the solution I'd prefer, but that said it does work, and it works with inline-signed messages as well as messages with application/pgp-signature MIME-parts.

Changing the subject now. I wonder how many people read to the end anyway?

I've been in Finland for almost a year now. Recently I was looking over websites and I saw that the domain steve.fi was going to expire in a few weeks. So I started obsessively watching it. Today I claimed it.

So I'll be slowly moving things from beneath steve.org.uk to use the new home steve.fi.

I also setup a mini-portfolio/reference site at http://steve.kemp.fi/ - which was a domain I registered while I was unsure if I could get steve.fi.

Finally now is a good time to share more interesting news:

  • I've been reinstated as a Debian developer.
  • We're having a baby.
    • Interesting times.

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How we care for our child

19 February 2018 13:00

This post is a departure from the regular content, which is supposed to be "Debian and Free Software", but has accidentally turned into a hardware blog recently!

Anyway, we have a child who is now about 14 months old. The way that my wife and I care for him seems logical to us, but often amuses local people. So in the spirit of sharing this is what we do:

  • We divide the day into chunks of time.
  • At any given time one of us is solely responsible for him.
    • The other parent might be nearby, and might help a little.
    • But there is always a designated person who will be changing nappies, feeding, and playing at any given point in the day.
  • The end.

So our weekend routine, covering Saturday and Sunday, looks like this:

  • 07:00-08:00: Husband
  • 08:01-13:00: Wife
  • 13:01-17:00: Husband
  • 17:01-18:00: Wife
  • 18:01-19:30: Husband

Our child, Oiva, seems happy enough with this and he sometimes starts walking from one parent to the other at the appropriate time. But the real benefit is that each of us gets some time off - in my case I get "the morning" off, and my wife gets the afternoon off. We can hide in our bedroom, go shopping, eat cake, or do anything we like.

Week-days are similar, but with the caveat that we both have jobs. I take the morning, and the evenings, and in exchange if he wakes up overnight my wife helps him sleep and settle between 8PM-5AM, and if he wakes up later than 5AM I deal with him.

Most of the time our child sleeps through the night, but if he does wake up it tends to be in the 4:30AM/5AM timeframe. I'm "happy" to wake up at 5AM and stay up until I go to work because I'm a morning person and I tend to go to bed early these days.

Day-care is currently a complex process. There are three families with small children, and ourselves. Each day of the week one family hosts all the children, and the baby-sitter arrives there too (all the families live within a few blocks of each other).

All of the parents go to work, leaving one carer in charge of 4 babies for the day, from 08:15-16:15. On the days when we're hosting the children I greet the carer then go to work - on the days the children are at a different families house I take him there in the morning, on my way to work, and then my wife collects him in the evening.

At the moment things are a bit terrible because most of the children have been a bit sick, and the carer too. When a single child is sick it's mostly OK, unless that is the child which is supposed to be host-venue. If that child is sick we have to panic and pick another house for that day.

Unfortunately if the child-carer is sick then everybody is screwed, and one parent has to stay home from each family. I guess this is the downside compared to sending the children to public-daycare.

This is private day-care, Finnish-style. The social-services (kela) will reimburse each family €700/month if you're in such a scheme, and carers are limited to a maximum of 4 children. The net result is that prices are stable, averaging €900-€1000 per-child, per month.

(The €700 is refunded after a month or two, so in real-terms people like us pay €200-€300/month for Monday-Friday day-care. Plus a bit of beaurocracy over deciding which family is hosting, and which parents are providing food. With the size being capped, and the fees being pretty standard the carers earn €3600-€4000/month, which is a good amount. To be a school-teacher you need to be very qualified, but to do this caring is much simpler. It turns out that being an English-speaker can be a bonus too, for some families ;)

Currently our carer has a sick-note for three days, so I'm staying home today, and will likely stay tomorrow too. Then my wife will skip work on Wednesday. (We usually take it in turns but sometimes that can't happen easily.)

But all of this is due to change in the near future, because we've had too many sick days, and both of us have missed too much work.

More news on that in the future, unless I forget.

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A change of direction ..

9 March 2018 13:00

In my previous post I talked about how our child-care works here in wintery Finland, and suggested there might be a change in the near future.

So here is the predictable update; I've resigned from my job and I'm going to be taking over childcare/daycare. Ideally this will last indefinitely, but it is definitely going to continue until November. (Which is the earliest any child could be moved into public day-care if there problems.)

I've loved my job, twice, but even though it makes me happy (in a way that several other positions didn't) there is no comparison. Child-care makes me happier-still. Sure there are days when your child just wants to scream, refuse to eat, and nothing works. But on average everything is awesome.

It's a hard decision, a "brave" decision too apparently (which I read negatively!), but also an easy one to make.

It'll be hard. I'll have no free time from 7AM-5PM, except during nap-time (11AM-1PM, give or take). But it will be worth it.

And who knows, maybe I'll even get to rant at people who ask "Where's his mother?" I live for those moments. Truly.

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Brexit has come

5 January 2021 13:00

Nothing too much has happened recently, largely as a result of the pandemic killing a lot of daily interests and habits.

However as a result of Brexit I'm having to do some paperwork, apparently I now need to register for permanent residency under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, and that will supersede the permanent residency I previously obtained.

Of course as a UK citizen I've now lost the previously-available freedom of movement. I can continue to reside here in Helsinki, Finland, indefinitely, but I cannot now move to any other random EU country.

It has crossed my mind, more than a few times, that I should attempt to achieve Finnish citizenship. As a legal resident of Finland the process is pretty simple, I just need two things:

  • Prove I've lived here for the requisite number of years.
  • Pass a language test.

Of course the latter requirement is hard, I can understand a lot of spoken and written Finnish, but writing myself, and speaking a lot is currently beyond me. I need to sit down and make the required effort to increase my fluency. There is the alternative option of learning Swedish, which is a hack a lot of immigrants use:

  • Learning Swedish is significantly easier for a native English-speaker.
  • But the downside is that it would be learning a language solely to "cheat" the test, it wouldn't actually be useful in my daily life.

Finland has two official languages, and so the banks, the medical world, the tax-office, etc, are obliged to provide service in both. However daily life, ordering food at restaurants, talking to parents in the local neighborhood? Finnish, or English are the only real options. So if I went this route I'd end up in a weird situation where I had to learn a language to pass a test, but then would continue to need to learn more Finnish to live my life. That seems crazy, unless I were desperate for a second citizenship which I don't think I am.

Learning Finnish has not yet been a priority, largely because I work in English in the IT-world, and of course when I first moved here I was working (remotely) for a UK company, and didn't have the time to attend lessons (because they were scheduled during daytime, on the basis that many immigrants are unemployed). Later we had a child, which meant that early-evening classes weren't a realistic option either.

(Of course I learned a lot of the obvious things immediately upon moving, things like numbers, names for food, days of the week were essential. Without those I couldn't have bought stuff in shops and would have starved!)

On the topic of languages a lot of people talk about how easy it is for children to pick up new languages, and while that is broadly true it is also worth remembering just how many years of correction and repetition they have to endure as part of the process.

For example we have a child, as noted already, he is spoken to by everybody in Finnish. I speak to him in English, and he hears his mother and myself speaking English. But basically he's 100% Finnish with the exception of:

  • Me, speaking English to him.
  • His mother and I speaking English in his hearing.
  • Watching Paw Patrol.

If he speaks Finnish to me I pretend to not understand him, even when I do, just for consistency. As a result of that I've heard him tell strangers "Daddy doesn't speak Finnish" (in Finnish) when we've been stopped and asked for directions. He also translates what some other children have said into English for my benefit which is adorable

Anyway he's four, and he's pretty amazing at speaking to everybody in the correct language - he's outgrown the phase where he'd mix different languages in the same sentence ("more leipä", "saisinko milk") - when I took him to the UK he surprised and impressed me by being able to understand a lot of the heavy/thick accents he'd never heard before. (I'll still need to train him on Rab C. Nesbitt when he's a wee bit older, but so far no worries.)

So children learn languages, easily and happily? Yes and no. I've spent nearly two years correcting his English and he still makes the same mistake with gender. It's not a big deal, at all, but it's a reminder that while children learn this stuff, they still don't do it as easily as people imagine. I'm trying to learn and if I'd been corrected for two years over the same basic point you'd rightly think I was "slow", but actually that's just how it works. Learning languages requires a hell of a lot of practice, a lot of effort, and a lot of feedback/corrections.

Specifically Finnish doesn't have gendered pronouns, the same word is used for "he" and "she". This leads to a lot of Finnish people, adults and children, getting the pronouns wrong in English. In the case of our child he'll say "Mommy is sleeping, when he wake up?" In the case of adults I've heard people say "My girlfriend is a doctor, he works in a hospital", or "My dad is an accountant, she works for a big firm". As I say I've spent around two years making this correction to the child, and he's still nowhere near getting it right. Kinda adorable actually:

  • "Mommy is a woman we say "when she wakes up"..."
  • "Adriana is a girl we say "her bike".."

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