Friday, 15 January 2016

Living in Finland

Five months ago I moved to a city called Tampere in Finland to live with my girlfriend Maria and study a Master's Degree Programme in Global and Transnational Studies at the University of Tampere (UTA). Maria and I are finally living in the same country after being in a long distance relationship for over three years.

Some have asked whether I will be keeping a specific blog during my time in Finland as I did during my time in Spain/Morocco. I have decided not to do this for several reasons. This isn't the first time that I have been to Finland and I have been to Tampere once before, which was three years ago. Therefore my experience isn’t as new as it was in Spain, because when I moved to Spain it was the first time I had ever been there and I experienced a lot more culture shock there than I did here! I also don't intend to travel around as much as I did whilst living in Spain and the primary reason I kept a blog during that time was to share advice for other travellers because I struggled to find information myself. I also don't want to put myself under extra pressure during my studies and because of my studies I don’t have as many interesting things to write about as I did in Spain! However, I will update my blog with new posts from time to time if I find something worthwhile to write about.

When I arrived in Finland in August I participated in the two-week Summer School course called ‘Making sense of globalisation - Theorising beyond the nation-state’. There were a few social events throughout the week so I could get to know the city and other students, including trips to a few bars and a sightseeing bus tour. The week after I had the Orientation Course, which was an introduction to the higher education system in Finland, academic and study-related practices, studying and student counselling at UTA, the city of Tampere, Finnish customs and way of life, and livelihood and social security of a degree student in Finland. My Master’s Degree began the following week, the first week of September. I feel like I settled in well as it didn’t take me long to find my way around the city. I live west of the city centre and the university is in the east so I can cycle twenty minutes there and twenty minutes back. It’s good for my health and saves on bus fares! For the first week I took a different route each day so I could get to know the city, see some nice landmarks, and decide on the best route. It was also Maria’s birthday the week I arrived so during my first weekend here we went out for a meal at Pizzeria Napoli and then to a Moro Sky Bar, which is at the top of the Sokos Hotel Torni that has 25 floors! We each had a cocktail and enjoyed the sunset. The following weekend we went to Maria’s friend’s house party which was in quite a rural area called Ruovesi. They live next to a beautiful lake and at the party they had a ‘palju’, which is sort of like a Jacuzzi without the bubbles. 

View from Moro Sky Bar


The flat is looking nice now that we’ve finally finished decorating. Näsinneula tower, which is the tallest observation tower in the Nordic countries, is nearby and can be seen clearly from our window. It’s inside Särkänniemi theme park and sometimes when we have the windows open we can hear distant screams! At least it isn’t too loud and the park is closed during the winter. In September, shortly before the park closed, Särkänniemi released balloons each containing a free wristband. I chased them on my bike to Pyynikki forest and found two – one for Maria and one for myself. It’s possible to enter the park for free and then pay for each ride, which is good for people like my Mum who don’t like rides but don’t mind holding the bags whilst others go on the rides! Otherwise it’s probably cheaper to get a wristband for €40-50 if you want to go on lots of rides, because each ride costs about €10. We can also see the lake from the window and it only takes five minutes to cycle to the Näsijärvi lake ‘beach’. During the summer we went swimming in the lake which was really nice because the water is so clean and clear, although there were quite a few fish!

Sauna boat

Summer view from Näsinneula

Swimming in Näsijärvi

On 29th November, I attended the Climate March in Tampere to show leaders at the UN Climate Conference in Paris that we want ambitious commitments to cut down greenhouse gas emissions. On 6th December, it was the celebration of Finland’s 98th year of independence. My university had a celebratory reception with speeches, a choir, a play, cakes and a fun photo booth. It would be nice for me to be in Finland in 2017 when it will be the celebration of 100 years of independence! Maria and I entered a competition on Facebook by sharing a Facebook post and we won a trip to a place called Mänttä from 12th to 13th December. It was in the middle of nowhere, but it was a very relaxing trip at a stressful time. We visited the two Serlachius museums called Gustaf and Gösta. Serlachius is a Finnish family, which is known primarily for its economic influence from 1800 to present. We stayed in a manor called Mäntän Klubi, which we later found out was where the Serlachius family had lived. The hotel doesn’t have many rooms, so we checked ourselves in and didn’t see anybody there until later that night, which was pretty creepy. In the hotel brochure it actually said that the hotel is haunted and we were sleeping in Gösta Serlachius’ old room! It was a very fancy hotel, apparently a former Finnish president has stayed in the room we slept in. Initially we were sceptical about the trip because it seemed too good to be true, but it was actually really lovely. Unfortunately I had to rush the last of my coursework when I returned, but I didn’t want to miss out on the trip.

Independence day celebratory reception

Shortly before Christmas I went to two carol concerts, one in English at the old church in the central square and one in Finnish at the cathedral. The Finnish one was quite challenging, although some of the songs had the same melody as the English songs I know but with Finnish lyrics. It was a shame that I wasn’t able to come back to the UK for Christmas, but I really enjoyed my short time back in the UK in November for my graduation. It was really nice to finally receive recognition for my achievements over the past four years, spend time with family and friends and go out for some nice meals. Still, it was lovely to spend time with Maria’s family at Christmas and practice my Finnish. It was nice not being the only foreigner at their Christmas for once because Maria’s sister Johanna and her French boyfriend Colin was also there! Maria has a younger sister and brother who are 11 and 14 and an older sister who is 28. Her older sister has just moved to Oxford where her French boyfriend has found a job and she hopes to find an internship there. It’s nice to have them so close to Reading. My best Christmas present was a surprise trip to Tallinn in Estonia from Maria. It’s quite cheap there compared to Finland so we were able to stay in a nice hotel and do some sightseeing and shopping at little expense.

Unfortunately I didn’t have a white or particularly cold Christmas. Perhaps the lack of snow had something to do with climate change, as apparently the Finnish winters haven’t been as harsh as they were some years ago. When I came here in December 2012 it reached -25 °C. Many people complain when it rains here but it’s normal for me as a Brit! It also doesn’t rain as much here as the climate is much drier. At the moment the snow here is so dry that it can’t be made into snowballs or snowmen. Apparently a certain type of snow is required for that, which is here when it’s slightly warmer! I’m surprised that many Finns want the snow to come. They say that the snow makes the city lighter when the daylight hours gradually get shorter in December, but now they are slowly getting longer. In December the sun rose at about 09:45 and set at about 15:00. At the moment it rises at about 09:30 and sets at about 15:45. On 23rd October there was an opening ceremony with fireworks for the Tampere Illuminations. They look a little like Christmas lights, although I think their main purpose is to brighten the winter’s darkest times for three months. On 15th November there was a Christmas parade with dogs and the lights on the big Christmas tree in the central square were turned on. In a way the lack of snow was a relief because I struggle with the cold, especially when I’m cycling to and from the university. It’s very convenient because there are lots of bike lanes and places to park my bike at the university and many people cycle, although I have noticed that there are less bikes outside our flat now, probably because people have put them into storage for the winter. I think cycling when there’s only a little bit of snow isn’t so bad, but when it’s melting and the streets are icy I have to take the bus! I’ve also joined the gym because it was very cheap for one year’s membership and I can go before, in-between or after lectures.

It was shame about the lack of snow because I was hoping to do some snow sports during Christmas. I’ve been cross-country skiing but never downhill skiing and it’s something I really want to try whilst I’m here. Two weeks ago we went ice skating on an underground ice rink. I looked a bit stupid because I can’t skate very well as I haven’t been ice skating very often before. Here the children learn from a young age so even the toddlers were better than me! It was still nice because Maria bought me a pair of ice skates from a second hand shop and going to the ice rink is free. People seem to be a lot more interested in sport here than in the UK, perhaps because it’s cheap or even free. It’s also easy to eat healthily here. Unhealthy food is more heavily taxed than in the UK so healthy food is much cheaper. The student cafeteria often offers healthy foods. As a student it only costs €2.60 for some bread, a main meal, a side salad and two drinks, which I think is very reasonable. It serves ‘home made ale’ which tastes a bit like ale but sweeter and non-alcoholic. I sometimes eat my lunch there with my new friends. It’s very interesting to have classes with so many different nationalities, particularly in the Finnish course. When I first arrived here I was surprised at the internationality evident at UTA and the support and facilities provided for international students. I think studying here is a fantastic opportunity because I am meeting people of nationalities that I have never encountered before and learning about their countries and cultures.

We have also had some visitors. Our friends Julia and Jess have come to visit, as well as Maria’s older sister Johanna with her boyfriend Colin. Jess’ visit last week was interesting, because the temperature suddenly dropped to as low as -28°C and we had some snow. I don’t think Jess has experienced such cold temperatures before! Anyway, hopefully she enjoyed the experience. We went up Näsinneula and Pyynikki observation towers (and enjoyed doughnuts at Pyynikki’s legendary café), went sledging and ice skating outside, walked on the frozen lake, went in our sauna, ate out at some cafes and restaurants including Pizzeria Napoli (my favourite), and visited the Spy Museum and the Vapriikki museum centre. Some of these activities, namely walking on the frozen lake, frighten my Mum. I am also hoping to go swimming in the frozen lake soon, which she also considers dangerous. Over the last week since Jess left we’ve had a lot of snow.

Walking on frozen lake Pyhäjärvi

Frozen  Mustalahti port

Winter view from Näsinneula

My classes began again this week. Even though last year I had lots of coursework and exams to do, I enjoyed participating in a ‘course’ where many nationalities can meet and share aspects of their own cultures. I was invited to a Finn’s house with other international students for some Finnish food and later to make some Chinese dumplings together. Then I invited a Finn and Chinese girl to our flat for an English tea party. They seemed to enjoy it and the Chinese girl asked if we have that kind of tea party every day! I said that it would be too much effort and we normally only have these tea parties on special occasions. Before I moved here I was hoping to participate in a Finnish language course, but I thought I would have to pay for evening classes. However, I discovered that international students are able to participate in the Finnish language elementary courses offered by UTA for no extra cost and incorporate the credits we gain from them into our studies. I’ve completed the Finnish elementary courses 1 & 2 exams and this week I moved on to the Finnish elementary course 3. I think my vocabulary has improved a lot, but the grammar is so complicated that I find it difficult to form sentences and have conversations. I think it will take a long time before I reach a decent level.

English tea party

Here it is also possible to take online courses, which I’ve never come across before. For example, I took one course about United Nations and Human Rights at a university in Turku (another city Finland) called Åbo Akademi. For this course there were no physical lectures, it comprised online lectures and readings, and some essays. It was good because I could do the work whenever I wanted, but bad because it was easier and more tempting to leave everything until the last minute! The course selection system is very flexible, so I can broaden my knowledge by taking courses from other programmes. This was not possible in the UK as most people did similar courses because the choices are so limited. On the contrary, there are so many choices here that it can be overwhelming. The flexibility in selecting courses can also lead to choosing to few or even too many. Last year I took too many courses and it was quite demanding, so this year I’m taking less! I’ve also received much better treatment here than at my university in the UK, which is crazy because I am in £28,000 debt for my British Bachelor's degree, yet my Master’s degree here is completely free. The relationship between lecturers and students is also much less hierarchical. I was so surprised when one lecturer said something like ‘We look forward to learning from you as well as you learning from us.’ in one of my first lectures. In the UK I often felt like some lecturers treated me like I was stupid and made me feel like a waste of their time and expertise.

I have always thought that Finland seems more aware about environmental and sustainability issues than the UK. The university offers many courses in sustainability and international development. It also has a sustainability coordinator who organised a campus tour of the sustainable facilities and a recycling room where you can bring and take unwanted clothes, shoes and items. There are also various bookshelves around campus which serve the same purpose with books and stationery.

The health services also seem to be better quality here, including those exclusively for students. For example, in the UK I went to the doctor’s with a health issue. I waited for around an hour to go in and basically be told that it isn’t a big problem. Maria told me I should try the doctor here and so I did. I waited for about ten minutes and when I went in they examined the problem thoroughly. I was then diagnosed with the health issue that the English doctor’s practice previously disregarded and was given a prescription. I had a similar experience with the dentist. Last spring I went to the dentist in the UK, which costs £18.80 (although students are exempt) for an examination, diagnosis and advice. If necessary, it also includes X-rays, a scale and polish and planning for further treatment. I was with the dentist for less than five minutes and all they really did was say everything is fine. I didn’t get a scale and polish, which was worrying because I hadn’t been to the dentist for some time because I didn’t dare go the dentist when I lived in Spain/Morocco! In Finland you pay for your dental treatment per hour regardless of the type of treatment, which makes a lot more sense to me than the UK charges. The first time at the dentist is also free for students. I was in there for about twenty minutes and I received a thorough examination, which included my jaw and ears, which was new and weird to me. They then gave me a separate appointment for having a scale and polish, which lasted almost an hour! Their precision shocked me and made me feel that they actually care about their patients. They seemed shocked when I told them about my experience at the dentist in the UK.

Although the cost of living, particularly food, is fairly expensive, I don’t actually think Finland is expensive as everyone makes out, at least not where I’ve been shopping! Maybe it’s because the UK is pretty expensive itself, especially in the south, compared to the countries that some of my friends are from. Maybe it’s also because I can get student discounts. Anyway, although I don’t live in a student residence, which are especially cheap, I still think rent prices are fair and maybe even lower than the UK. If you book far enough in advance, long distance trains and buses can also be cheap compared to the UK. For local buses I have a student bus pass, so each journey costs €1.30. One trip lasts for one hour so that people can changes buses for free. Technically people probably aren’t allowed to do this, but if you go on a really short trip, you can take the bus back for free. People with prams can also use the bus for free, although apparently some people take advantage of that and push empty prams around! Now that there’s some snow I got an unlimited monthly pass so hopefully each trip is even cheaper. I actually sometimes walk home from the university because I love the snowy views, even though it takes about half an hour. I also love the dogs that wear jackets and little shoes to keep them warm, it looks so cute! Since the snow the buses haven’t really followed the timetable, which is understandable. Unfortunately this often means running for the bus or waiting for a while in the cold. Unfortunately people don't seem as good at queuing here as they are in the UK and don't always understand the concept of first come, first served! I don’t really check the timetable at the moment because it seems pointless. There also seems to have been a few traffic accidents. I’m usually fine walking on the pavement because there’s grit and gravel, but the roads are very slippery. Thankfully cars must have winter tyres by law. I think bikes can also have winter tyres, but not by law. I think I wouldn’t risk cycling in lots of snow even with winter tyres, and apparently they’re quite expensive anyway.

I haven’t found a job yet because even jobs such as cleaning require fluent Finnish and I can only speak basic Finnish but it’s improving. I won’t give up because I’ve heard that maybe I could get a job working in a kitchen with limited Finnish because I have experience in that area. Teaching English is also a possibility because I think there are people who would like to learn English from a native with a British accent and I have teaching experience from Spain.

I’ve also been trying to get involved in some other activities inside and outside university. I was chosen Student Ambassador, which gives me the opportunity to share my experiences with applicants and answer their questions. I am also part of the Erasmus in Schools project, through which I visit Finnish schools to talk to students about English language and culture and answer their questions in order to learn more about the Finnish culture and schooling system. I have also recently joined the Tampere – All Bright! Ambassador network, which connects internationally and business oriented people and enhances the international image of Tampere. This enables me to help the Tampere region become more international and more open for international people, participate in the internationalisation of the region, promote Tampere internationally, meet other internationally oriented people from Tampere region, connect Tampere with my contacts from abroad, develop my professional networking, and open new business and career opportunities.

For the most part I feel that Finland is welcoming to foreigners. However, I’ve heard about refugee shelters being set on fire and I even heard about an old man pushing a mixed race child over in Helsinki because he believes the streets are only for Finns. It’s not only scary that people have this attitude towards their fellow human beings, but very ignorant as they have no idea what these poor refugees have probably been through. I’m sure offering asylum and welcoming foreigners promotes the image of Finland and even has some long-term economic benefits. Foreigners are spending money and having people visit here, which boosts the economy and increases tourism. I'm disappointed with the Finnish government's introduction of tuition fees for non-EU students as of next year because I think this will impact the internationalisation of Finland and its subsequent benefits.

It is interesting to listen to lectures by Finns or foreigners from so many different places. It’s quite a new experience for me because I haven’t really been in many lectures by non-natives in the UK. I think UK universities should incorporate foreigners more. Here I’ve been in lectures where the lecturers apologise in advance for their ‘poor’ English and then proceed to speak fluent and near-perfect English, which really baffles me. A basic rule I was taught about doing presentations is to try not to think that you are wasting people’s time, or say that it is boring, although admittedly that is easier said than done. Finnish lecturers also tend to read aloud directly from their notes, which is also something I’ve been taught not to do, but again, is easier said than done. I understand how scary it is to present in a language that is not your native language! I think this behaviour relates to the Finnish stereotype of being reserved and modest. Whilst job searching I am also trying to bear in mind that people here tend to be more modest. It can be challenging as I have been taught to really emphasise my assets through my CV and during interviews.

A Finnish stereotype is also being honest. This is evident in mundane things such as bikes that lock at the wheel so you can park them anywhere. Although it is possible to steal them, the person just won’t be able to ride it unless they break the lock, in which case they won’t be able to park it somewhere themselves. At the post office and university stationery is left unattended and is free for everyone to use. In some shops there are stations with wrapping paper where people can wrap their own presents. If the same happened in the UK, I’m sure it wouldn’t take long for them to be stolen!

As English is the lingua franca and it is my native language, I am lucky enough to be able to use my native language whilst travelling to many other countries. Whilst it is useful, I think that the widespread use of English or other languages such as Mandarin and Spanish discourage their native or fluent speakers from learning other languages. Therefore I want to make the most of the opportunity I have to learn Finnish whilst I am here. Sometimes I feel that people are shy to speak to me because I’m a native speaker and maybe they think that I might judge them, but actually through studying languages and living abroad I feel that I have at least some understanding of the struggles they involve. I often make mistakes in English myself and don't always notice the mistakes of others! I’ve had next to no contact with native speakers since I’ve been here (other than visiting home and calling my family) and Maria is not a native English speaker, so communicating with non-native speakers is my everyday reality now. I actually think I’ve met many people who aren’t native speakers but speak a similar level of English as myself. I’ve even met some people who seem to have a wider range of vocabulary than me!

I am not sure whether I will stay in Finland after my studies to continue living with Maria, or whether we will move to the UK together. Admittedly, although Finnish is not such a widely spoken language I can see the benefit of using it personally, for example to improve communication with Maria’s family and hopefully to teach it to our future family. For those who are surely only staying in Finland temporarily, perhaps it can be difficult to see the benefits of learning Finnish. However, I think many long-term benefits exist, such as something to add to your CV to show that you’re engaged, enthusiastic, motivated, and perseverant. In my opinion, I would like to take the opportunity to learn as many languages as possible, regardless of how widely used they are.

On the other hand, sometimes it is easy to feel segregated within the university due to language barriers and cultural differences. Studying at a university whose primary language I cannot speak fluently is not without its challenges and sometimes it feels that Finnish and international students are separate. For example, I saw a sign outside a computer room in Finnish but I did not fully understand what it said. After I went into the computer room, I was told that the sign said that there was an exam in progress and the computer room was not available to be freely used. Therefore it is evident that learning some Finnish can avoid making mistakes such as these and enrich my cultural experience here.

I also think the participation of international students in student associations can be limited by their use of Finnish, but of course they cannot be expected to always use English. Last year I participated in Tamy's (UTA’s student union) Representative Elections, in which 40 students were elected to Tamy's Council of Representatives by student votes. These Representative Elections take place every second year. All Tamy members (including international degree students and exchange students) have the right to vote in the elections and can also stand as candidates. Even though international and exchange students are a relatively large group within the university, we can sometimes be forgotten about. I have felt encouraged after seeing events advertised in both Finnish and English, but when I attended some of them I realised that they were only in Finnish and I couldn’t understand much. Of course is it understandable that some events will only be held in Finnish (we are living in Finland, after all!), but it is very disappointing when they are only in Finnish after also being advertised in English. I was told that there would be a translator at the election panel, but there was not, so I could not participate. It may be considered demanding, time-consuming and expensive to expect the university to provide information in English all the time and of course it is very important that the university continues to speak Finnish. However, as well as being encouraged to participate we should be provided with resources that enable us to participate. The university accepted us as international students and we have just as much right to participate as other students. I think that the situation is improving and can be developed further by more international students who try to break the barriers and who embrace these challenges.


  1. Finland has been on my to-do list for a long time now. How incredible that you have just up and moved there. I do not know if I could handle to long and very very cold winter up there though. I would at least enjoy going for a few months to see how different it is than where I live.

    Ronni Casillas @ JNH Life Styles

  2. Moving somewhere new feels so exciting for me! I think you could. I was also concerned about the cold at first but its fine as long as you have a decent coat. Sadly the temperature hasn't been that cold and there hasn't been much snow recently though, maybe due to climate change. If you come in the autumn or early spring it shouldn't be that cold, but it doesn't look so nice. It is also beautiful in the summer but of course then you don't get the wintery experience!

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  4. What an exciting journey! Finland is an amazing country. It sounds like you are adjusting well to the different culture. I have always found Finnish people to be very warm and kind, even if they are a little too honest. HA! I am sure as time progresses, your Finnish will improve and you will feel more comfortable and find the perfect job.

    Marci Deegan @ Twin Pine

    1. Finland is amazing! I'm still getting used to the honesty. Since I published this blog post I have managed to improve my Finnish and find a job.