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It has now been over two years since I moved to Finland from the Philippines. As an immigrant coming from Asia, I have seen much difference of living a new life abroad. And so I decided to write this article reflecting this two-year milestone based on my experiences over the last 130 weeks. Firstly, I thank you for taking the time to read my blog and I hope it is something useful for someone intending to visit or perhaps considering to make a move here.
It is still vivid in my memory since I was on elementary grade when I have learned about Finland for the first time. It’s clear in my mind the first Nokia phone I had ever used (it was my uncle's) is made in Finland. Since then I am too curious about how useful the letters ä and ö in this mobile phone’s keyboard could be. I realize from history books that this beautiful country belongs to European continent to which I am impressed being a beautiful destination. Ever since, I just dreamed that someday I could visit not necessarily Finland but somewhere in the European countries. It is until in June 2013 when I have learned about Finnish healthcare company Attendo came to our home city hiring for nurses. My dream goal of landing to Europe seemed to me coming into reality as soon as I have submitted my application. Going fast forward, luckily I was able to hurdle the challenging application procedures. Finally we had to take the intensive Basic Finnish Language Training that lasted for almost 6 months conducted by two great Finnish language teachers. It was early in May 2014 when our flight to Finland has been confirmed by this esteemed company and so a month later, summer of 2014 we finally arrived here to Finland...
How an Expat in Finland Feel Finnish People?
Being in a new environment would bring sort of excitements. They could be shocking or somewhat awful especially if norms are totally different in the society you get used with. Whatever these surprising differences, it will help you grow every single day. Along my two-year journey in the Finnish society I have learned slowly how Finnish people are.
Finns are not going to become your best friends overnight, there is much trust and patience involved. You can’t normally say greetings to strangers you meet around. This would be acceptable only if you are playing the role of a customer say paying your purchases at the cashier, you may say Moi! Hei (Hello!) and expect the staff to do the same. Smiling towards them whom you meet randomly in the streets may sound weird to Finns. A big difference in our culture where we happily greet new people even with big smiles. This is especially true for Filipinos working or visiting abroad and saying greetings to fellow Filipinos as if we have met or known each other before.
In my early stay here, I have immediately noticed that Finns are silent and shy people. It may sound puzzling to newbie expat in Finland or to a tourist when one local prefers standing rather than sitting next to you in an almost empty bench at the metro station or standing at the other side of the bus stop while waiting for bus. An approaching local may prefer standing even his destination are few train stops rather than sitting just next to you inside a public transport. In lunch cafeteria you will notice he may sit at the end of the table. This I have asked directly from Finnish workmates and friends during our actual journey by bus. They said, ¨To Finns, Personal space is highly important and we will usually feel uncomfortable or suspicious if others are too close¨. This implies a message that the ones they let to get closer must be somehow special. So congratulate yourself if you’re lucky enough to be allowed to a Finn’s personal zone, you ought to feel at least a bit proud. More than that, you must be luckier if you are able to take a selfie with a willing Finn because in my personal observations they are even shyer towards the camera’s lens. To most of Filipinos, taking photos is very normal way to record quality moments with friends, family and loved ones.
Finns are helpful and collaborative. As you befriend a Finn you would expect them to be like part of your family. They would offer any form of help as much as they can share. Since the beginning of our early immersion at workplace, our Finnish workmates and employer always has showed us support verbally and morally with common goal of enhancing their Filipino workmates' Finnish language skills. Simultaneously they always made us feel very welcomed as member of the working team exemplifying the concept of 'yhteistyö'(collaborative work), a working principle that makes Finland one being best country in the world. During the time we had to move to another apartment, one workmate voluntary helped in making the application for the new apartment. In Finland, there is competition among potential tenants of apartments for rent, usually it would be quite difficult for foreigners to be prioritized. Luckily with our workmate’s help whom we sometimes addressed as ‘suomalainen äiti’ (Finnish mother), we finally got this new apartment. Help has been poured more when other workmate upon learning about our transfer to new place immediately offered help for transport of our things especially furniture. One good friend also has done the same, utilizing their own cars, our things got to our new home. I have learned also that every colleague at workplace is counted as a family member, they offer surprises for every milestone event in a workmate’s life (wedding, birthdays, getting a new child, etc.) Support is most visible off course in times of hardships esp. in case of a death of a family member. However one of the most memorable and surprising event is that, when our workmates had organized a graduation party for three of us Filipinos. Aside from their unsolicited support throughout our schooling days that paved us way to graduate as lähihoitaja.
I have learned in my workplace how Finns put high regard to punctuality. It is very impolite coming late to work or in a meeting but off course it is understandable in emergency occasions. Only that you are expected to call and inform in advance about not making it in time or not at all. I’m thankful for able to adapt this good work ethic which I carry out in all occasions. Meanwhile in the Philippines, tardiness and starting things late have always been part of our culture. So much that this undeniably big problem were even given a brand called Filipino Time, a phrase first coined by Americans in the 1900’s because they were irritated by the lack of punctuality of Filipinos. This huge problem are attributed to the country’s horrible traffic and poor public transportation, and sadly our acceptance of Filipino Time as a brand. It is nearly impossible to eradicate tardiness from our culture and society that rooted from our culture and literature. We cannot blame why we ourselves are always late simply on Filipino Time and must strive to eradicate our tardiness as a brand for us Filipinos. We should acknowledge that it is usually because of our own lack of discipline and lack of respect for other people’s time. These two bad habits are eradicable by making changes in ourselves. Again I’m thankful to have the opportunity of living in the Finnish society where I have learned seriously about punctuality.
The same customary value applies when attending parties or visiting one’s place, never go uninvited is a basic rule in Finnish culture. In contrast to ours in the Philippines, it is appreciated regardless you have not informed the host/s beforehand about your visit, oftentimes the host person/family even thank gratefully the guest for a good surprise visit.
Finns are very honest people. In an article publish by Business Insider (September 24, 2013) The Reader’s Digest has made an experiment dropping wallets in 19 different cities and found out that in capital city of the country, Helsinki 11 out of 12 dropped wallets were returned. Before, I and my Filipino friends had a short walk and we ended up to a thrift shop called Kontti. It has been about 10 minutes since we step into this Finnish Red Cross manned charitable shop that I noticed my wallet was missing. In it were all my important personal identification cards including ATM card. Initially losing my resident permit card was my biggest worry. We just arrived 2 months then. It would be complicated to reapply for new one, firstly because of poor Finnish language skills and not any extra fund for application fee was hugely disturbing my mind. Fortunately about 5 minutes later an unknown mobile number was calling. In the other line was a very calm, friendly voice of a woman with almost perfect English accent. It was a big relief even without hearing any details yet why she was calling me. By surprise she asked me where I could meet her that she can return my wallet. My friends were also puzzled when I swiftly left the portals hurriedly while on the phone. Finally I met that very goodhearted woman waiting in front of a movie theater about 150 meters from our location. She happily handed me my wallet and said that she found it along the street, the same pathway we walked earlier. Without any hesitance I held her right hand very firmly with both of my hands saying confidently with my in-eloquent Finnish accent ‘Kiitos paljon, olette tosi ihana ihminen!’ (Thank you very much you are really great person!). I took some paper bills and hand it to her for her kindness and honesty but immediately this mother of one year old baby lying in a stroller next to her refused to take it. She smilingly said, ¨'No thanks, We’ve got to go and have a nice evening!¨ That moment made me great impression that Finns are very honest people. I have few times witnessed inside buses local people returning lost and found mobiles phones from seats of previous passenger to the driver, which bus drivers would bring to Suomen löytötavarapalvelu, Finland’s Found Property Service. If you happen to lost any items/s inside public transport, it is advisable to contact the office at the earliest after 4pm on the day following the loss of your item. You can contact the office by phone or fax, or by filling in an inquiry form online. The office however charges a fee for the lost and found items.
Finns love much the nature. So much! One would inevitably notice up in the sky before landing to this northernmost European country its dense forests and many lakes. In fact Finland is Europe’s most forested country and the greenest country in the world as cited by the Environmental performance index (EPI) 2016. About 70% of the land is covered with trees. Most forests are coniferous. But this is not a magic as every generation of Finns make sure they themselves protect this country’s rich flora and fauna. For example driving in this country requires you to watch out for elk, deer and reindeer along the road. If you see any of these animals, reduce your speed and, if necessary, stop the vehicle. Sounding the horn is not likely to have any effect. If you collide with any of these animals, you are oblige to notify the police. That is how they respect the life of animals. By the way Finns love dogs that almost every household has this pet and usually not just one but more and they are of different breeds. There is high respect for animals' rights here.The Finnish government had long played a leading role in forestry, regulating tree cutting and establishing long-term plans to ensure that the country's forests would continue to supply the wood-processing industries. Forests played a key role in the country's economy, making it one of the world's leading producers of wood and paper products. So next time you are printing your document, its most probable you are using paper products produced in Finland. It’s quite sad though that while in Philippines being a tropical country, very hot temperature is a perennial problem resulting mainly from forest degradation due to massive irresponsible cutting of trees. Many greedy politicians don’t prioritize about environmental protection instead their commercialization projects and often meant for their own benefits exceed the best interest of nature. Not surprising then my densely populated home country is suffering from the direct effects of continuous global climate change. Extreme weather conditions leading to big loss of agriculture products. Landslides and polluted air because of rampant illegal cutting of trees etc. On the contrary, Finland takes seriously of mother nature’s protection. The report of EPI indicates that Finland has actionable goals and measurable indicators of sustainable development. Finland performed very well in the areas of health impacts, water and sanitation, and biodiversity and habitat. You would notice that in all department stores they have collection points for plastic bottles of soft drinks and beer cans. In Finland, 9 out of 10 plastic bottles are returned for recycling and almost 100% of glass bottles are also recycled. You might also be surprise that every plastic bag you request from the cashier while paying your purchase of grocery items will be charged with few euro cents. Thanks to their strict waste management rules that lead its people to practice the concept of recycling and proper waste segregation. Hence diminishing the amount of daily wastes from every household. As a result, they enjoy clean rivers, lakes and underwater reserves. Finland is known for the easy access to clean drinking water. The cold temperature water coming from any faucet even in the comfort rooms are safe to drink. So if you happen to come here, you will be lucky enough to breath in freely this country’s high quality air, ranked as the third cleanest in the world by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2016.
Finns love the sauna. One indisputable part of the Finnish culture is the traditional Finnish sauna. Historically saunas has been major part of Finn's life from birth to death. Women gave birth in the sauna because its considered as the cleanest room in the house. Saunas were also the place for purification rituals before marriage. The bodies of the dead were washed and prepared for burial on the wooden benches. These however are no longer practice during the modern times. Instead sauna nowadays is mainly use for Finn's well-being. They regard sauna as a place for relaxation, a sacred place. It is therefore no malice to be totally naked while entering the sauna room. No clothes or swimsuits are allowed, for the same reason that you would not wear anything in the bath or shower as every part of the body needs to be properly cleaned. This may be difficult for foreigners to comply but some locals but not all will say it straight for non-compliant individuals the clear signs ‘No underwear please’. Off course there are separated areas for each gender unless they are members of the same family. Admittedly it is difficult for Asians like me coming from quite conservative cultural background where being totally naked in public is not tolerable. During the first times, it was undeniably very uncomfortable for me. Inviting my own Filipino friends together for a sauna would impose a problem, for the same reason, being uncomfortable being totally naked in public. However, I have learned gradually to adhere in respect to this Finnish etiquette.
A traditional Finnish sauna may be too hot for you for the first time as temperature may vary from 70-130 C but as you sit on the lower benches, the temperature gets lower too. Electric sauna are common nowadays in private residences and public saunas. But my favorite is the two wood-burning and three smoke saunas in summer cottages because the steam is very soft and moist. If you happen to sit next to the pail of water, please mind to throw water into the stones and refill it as you leave as an act of courtesy to the rest of people yet in the room. You might now wonder that my statements above about Finns being shy and silent is not true inside the sauna. It has been surprise that some random people in the sauna room tried to initiate conversation with me initially speaking in English where do I come from. It is common for Finns to be chatty inside this steamy room, telling even their own life stories. A Finnish movie entitled Miesten Vuoro will explain much about this claim. Each of the man characters narrated dramatically their own life stories to each other. They may talk about current issues but if you speak, you should not discuss about your job, title or religion. Having lived here for more than two years I have slowly adapted to frequent the sauna room at the public swimming halls usually 2-3x a week. For me it is an effective way of renewing myself after long day at work. I always feel relaxed after each sauna session. In addition to this, sauna has many health benefits proven by a Finnish research suggesting that sauna can help lower the risk of developing dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as well as dying of heart ailments. (Please check our link about sauna) So if you want to experience how to be a Finn, do what people loves here to do, be confident and visit the sauna during your stay in Finland!
In Finland there are two official languages, Finnish and Swedish of which only small portion, 5% of the total population are Swedish-speaking Finns. If you come for visit and you speak English, you should not have any worries as most Finns speak fluently or at least almost locals understand English. Coming here for work however requires Finnish language skills to be able to survive long-term. Actually most employers requires Finnish language skills unless you are working in an atmosphere of international companies whereas other languages is the medium of communication. Working in Finland means a need to study Finnish. Many government- funded organizations are offering free language courses for immigrants. It’s still memorable for me the first 6 months of integrating into Finnish society knowing little of the Finnish language. We had five months Finnish language training in my home country before coming here. I realized at first that knowing written Finnish is not enough if you converse with native Finns as they have spoken language too, which I am pretty sure for all beginners is not just quite but much difficult to comprehend. Words must be pronounced properly otherwise you could be misunderstood. One classic example is Minä tapan sinut ( I’ll kill you) vs. Minä tapaan sinut ( I’ll meet you) and many similar words appearing almost the same but totally different meaning. But don’t worry as you go along, each day you will see yourself improving bit by bit (pikkuhiljaa as Finns call it). One good Finnish friend always imparted to me, Finns will understand you, so don’t mind if you knew you speak in quite wrong grammar. Finnish colleagues always had encouraged us to speak in Finnish (even to fellow Filipinos in Finland or immigrant workmates at workplace) because they just wanted us to learn progressively the Finnish language. I agree so far, practice makes perfect, oh in this context …I rather say, better. In my opinion it takes many decades before one can finally master this one among the world’s most difficult language! (unless you are from Estonia whose language is almost similar to Finnish). I may have sound a little bitter here of the Finnish language. But one thing for sure: As it requires continuous practice to learn it faster, just learn to love the language first and you’ll see yourself improving each time. Nothing is impossible.
Seasons And Best Time To Visit To Finland?
There are four distinctly different seasons in Finland. If you have a choice of when to visit, the best time will depend on the sort of activities you are most interested in doing and which regions you want to visit.
There are quite variations depending on which part of the country you are staying. The snow season in Lapland, the northern region of the country begins in November and last at least until the month of May. I have been there last November and I’ve learned that this is regarded as Finland’s winter wonderland. You can feel the magical spirit of Christmas here all year round. Santa Claus village located in Rovaniemi, the capital city of Lapland is a must-see. Here I had the opportunity to meet the real Santa Claus, and don’t worry if you can’t speak Finnish because he can communicate in English well. If you feel more energetic, you may enjoy thrilling activities such as snowmobiling, husky dog sledding and reindeer rides. A newly opened snow bar in the same spot will give you a totally new winter experience. Also, Lapland is the best region to have a chance to see the Northern Lights more known as the Aurora Borealis. Clear, dark nights are ideal for spotting the Northern Lights. There are available Apps like Aurora forecast that are pretty accurate in predicting when and where this magical sky show is visible. Because of abundant amount of snow and varying terrains in this region, Lapland is most famous as skiing and snowboarding destination.
In Central and Southern Finland, the first snow falls at the beginning of December and melts during late March and April. Winter temperatures may drop as low as -41C in Lapland (coldest temperatures recorded, Jan. 5, 2017), while in the Lakeland (Eastern Finland) and the Western Lakes the temperatures ranges between -5C and -20C. Southern Finland and coastal areas stay warmer and get less snow due to the warming effect of the Baltic Sea. Regardless of the weather outside, Finnish holiday cabins remain warm because they have full central heating, additional under floor heating, a wood burning fireplace and of course a sauna for added warmth! Generally, the invigorating winter days entice you to admire the beautiful frozen trees and lakes in any part of the country. Additionally, ice fishing, ice skating and swimming in frozen lakes are also popular activities during the winter.
Coming from a tropical country, one of the biggest struggle is surviving each day of the winter season. Inside buildings though there aren’t problems as they are well heated. Winters in Finland are at their darkest in the end of December, when the Northern region gets about 0 hours of daylight, while the Southern region gets about 6 hours of daylight. Fortunately when there is much white snow, it reflects the available daylight very efficiently making the outside environment brighter. However, in relation to these dark months, it is highly recommended to wear reflectors for you own safety as car drivers may not notice you or approaching bus drivers for example won’t easily see you at a distant. More importantly, wear enough warm clothes while outside as the temperature can be nerve penetrating! Don't be surprise though if you notice Finns seemingly are not feeling cold at all. They would wear thick clothes and winter accessories usually if the thermometer reading drops -20C :) Finns maybe have adapted to the freezing cold temperatures and this is one unique thing about them:)
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) may afflict anyone during this gloomy season. I for one honestly have once experienced during my first winter here a sudden serious change in my mood related to transition of autumn to winter. Additionally, one may exhibit any of the associated symptoms, such as feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, loss of interest in hobbies/activities, difficulty with concentration and decisions, social withdrawal, appetite and sleep problems, a lack of energy or agitation, decreased sex drive and in worse cases, suicidal thoughts. One must seek professional advice from doctors if you have noticed any of the above symptoms. These prevention methods may help combat the onset of SAD http://www.prevention.com/mind-body/effective-solutions-seasonal-affective-disordera.
It’s great to welcome the springtime sun on the month of April while the nature blossoms all around. The daytime lengthens rapidly and become warmer. Besides Lapland temperatures in the whole country will begin to rise in the end of April to above zero degrees. The spring is a wonderful time to roam and witness the revival of the nature from their slumber. It’s great to enjoy biking around and you will start to see budding leaves in trees and flowers and enjoy a walk through the pristine forests and fields. Hiking particularly is a popular activity at this time of year as the air is fresh and temperatures are moderate. Spring season last until May.
I arrived here on the early start of summer of 2014, at first I wondered why it is raining when it is summer but then I have learned it is just normal for Finnish summer to be at times rainy. In temperate countries like the Philippines it is always sunny and dry during summer. Each year though the Finnish summer varies, Finns will call it as ‘hyvä kesä (good summer) when it is warm enough throughout the summer season ending on August. Temperatures tend to stay around +15C-+25C. The summer is the season of the Midnight Sun whereas nights are bright. In Lapland, for two months from June to July, the sun never sets! The reason why Finland is called the land of the midnight sun. Elsewhere in the country the sun disappears below the horizon only for a few hours.
Finns love much the sun, you can see them sunbathing in any open areas possible to lie down beside beaches and get extra dose of vitamin D. And so it is unacceptable to use umbrella to cover yourself from the sun (as it is only meant for rainy reason, again in tropical countries it is advisable to use umbrella to protect yourself from the strong rays of the sun), here they may think you are crazy .
There are plenty of events during summer. Perhaps one of the most popular is the celebration of the Midsummer Eve. This tradition happens on the first Saturday after June 19. It is a weekend of barbecuing, swimming, drinking, storytelling, singing, and dancing. Last year in Helsinki, I’ve spent Midsummer with locals on Seurasaari, a forested island with an outdoor museum of historic buildings. Here you find old-fashioned craftsmen, customary games like puukävely, musicians playing the kantele (the harp-like national instrument), pancakes and burnt sausages. For the finale, they light a huge bonfire and a newlywed couple is rowed around in an old wooden boat.
In July when days and nights are even warmer and brighter I have usually spend swimming with friends in the freshwater lakes. One of my favorite is Saksijärvi situated in Nurmijärvi, 46 km northwest of Helsinki. According to a study its one among the cleanest lake in Finland with white sands perfect for sunbathing, a claim which I strongly attest having visited there quite often.
Cabin holidays in summer are highly popular in Finland. Many Finns escape to the countryside to spend their summer vacation relaxing with loved ones by the shore of a cool, clean and rejuvenating lake. It’s excellent to retreat to lakeside cottages (kesämökki). Boating, canoeing, fishing, barbecuing, swimming and the inevitable traditional Finnish sauna are just perfect ways to spend summer with friends and families while unwinding at the lake. I have used to have late night barbecues with friends by the lake while watching the beautiful sunset reflecting the scenic view of Finnish nature. Few months from now I am again excited to revisit these lakes away from the hustle and bustle life of the city.
Summer season is also a popular time to do berry picking in the forest, an old Finnish tradition among families. In July I with good friends usually have enjoyed harvesting newly appeared wild blueberries, bilberries, cloud-berries, raspberries, lingonberries, and mushrooms, that all make a large part of a Finnish diet. Finland has universal rights which allow everyone to move freely around the countryside, to pick berries and mushrooms and to fish with a rod and line, without permits (the former I’m yet to try). Any profits made from the sale of this natural produce are exempted from tax.
Next to summer, the autumn is my second favorite season when the leaves of different variety of trees begin to turn into gold, orange and red on the month of September. Autumn begins about one a month earlier in Northern Finland compared to other parts of the country. This is termed by Finns as "ruska" when these changing of color leaves create a colorful spectacle covering almost of Finland’s forest landscape. You can appreciate more the splendid Finnish nature as you travel more North because there are more pristine forests and less villages and towns. The weather in autumn season is difficult to predict as it varies a lot every year, and even from day-to-day. However one thing holds always true, this is the season when it rains the most. Autumn brings also the darkening days and cooling weather when the nature starts preparing for a new snowfall in the forthcoming winter. In autumn the daily mean temperature remains below 10°C. Though it is no stranger to sunnier times either. The moderate temperatures of autumn make this season ideal for exploring the many woodland trails by foot or cycling. You may still have the chance to pick berries and mushrooms in the forests but expect they are scantily available this time.
So from North to south and east and west part of Finland, you will surely enjoy you stay wherever you are as it each place offers various activities and sightseeing unique from each other. Finland has very good transport system. Travelling via public transport is easy in Finland and it is known to be reliable and safe. We have published an article about public transport, you can check it here.
That’s all for now. Thank your time reading and I hope this blog will help you about how to maximize your visit/stay for being new in Finland. On the following series of my blog I would like to discuss more about my explorations in Finland so please stay tune in our page.
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