Interview with a New Zealand expat in Finland

interview with Melanie from New Zealand living in Finland

Today’s interview is with Melanie from New Zealand living in Finland.  Melanie and Jonathan are New Zealanders who moved to Helsinki, Finland in April 2014 with their three-year old son. After a very long journey to the other side of the world they realized just how far from home they were. Although Finland is not so different to NZ in some ways, there are plenty of things that remind them daily how different life is at the top of the world. Melanie writes a blog, Hey Helsinki, as a way to keep in touch with people back home and to share insights into the things that make Finnish life unique.

Where are you originally from?

We are originally from Auckland, New Zealand but have spent 11 of the past 13 years living in Sydney, Australia.


In which country and city are you living now?

We now live in central Helsinki, Finland.


How long have you lived in Finland and how long are you planning to stay?

We moved here in April 2014. We don’t know how long we’ll stay but expats measure the length of time they’ve lived in Finland in winters, so we’ll have to see how many we can handle as we are about to experience our first!


Why did you move to Finland and what do you do?

We moved here when Jonathan landed his dream job with a Finnish company. I am a community worker but it is difficult to find work here in that industry without a thorough knowledge of Finnish. So I do writing and editing from home and go to Finnish class twice a week. I also study Italian and have just started learning how to ice skate.


Did you bring family with you?

Yes, we have a three-year old son, Miko.


How did you find the transition to living in a foreign country?

We arrived at a really good time, namely spring. It was light almost 24 hours of each day which was strange but you could really sense that Finns were loving the sunshine as they would sit outside for hours each day, taking it in. Jonathan’s work helped us a lot with finding somewhere to live and now that Miko is at daycare and I have started my classes I feel we are in a good position to head into our first Nordic winter.


Was it easy making friends and meeting people; do you mainly socialise with other expats?

Finns are known for being reluctant to make small talk but we have found everyone very friendly and helpful. We seem to have met an even amount of Finns and expats due to Jonathan’s work and Miko’s daycare both being English-speaking, but most of our close friends are Finnish which was important to us.


What are the best things to do in the area; anything to recommend to future expats?

Helsinki is a beautiful city and easy to get around. Make the most of using the ferries and outdoor eating areas while the weather is warm as the seasons change rapidly and some things will close for winter. Take a day trip to Suomenlinna, have korvapuusti at Cafe Regatta, visit Hietalahti Market Square, have lunch at Hakaniemi Food Hall and later a cocktail at Liberty or Death and dinner at Farang.


What do you enjoy most about living in Finland?

Helsinki is a small city and you can live in the centre while still having a sense of community. It’s easy to navigate and if you’re travelling with a child under 7 in a stroller, public transport is free. It’s also a beautiful city with seasons that are spectacular. You are always close to nature and there are some great cafes, bars and restaurants as the food scene here grows. There are also lots of public festivals too such as Ravintolapäivä (Restaurant Day) where anyone can open a restaurant in their home or local park for the day.


How does the cost of living in Finland compare to home?

If you are earning euro it almost seems like an even match although things like power, internet and phone plans are much cheaper in Helsinki than New Zealand. We are also enjoying a range of European cheese and wine at cheaper prices here. When you visit other places in Europe though you start to see that things like eating out in Helsinki are fairly expensive compared to somewhere like Berlin.


What negatives, if any, are there to living in Finland?

When you step off the second 12-hour plane ride to get here you realise there’s no popping home for the weekend! We are just about to experience our first winter and many Finns tell us the hardest thing is the darkness, so we are taking Vitamin D now in preparation.


If you could pick one piece of advice to anyone moving to Finland, what would it be?

Do as much as you can in the warmer months, as although life is very well set up for winter some things will close for the colder months. And persevere with finding the places and people you like. Due to the cold weather the shops and cafes are more closed off from the street than places in NZ so you really have to get tips on where to go. When you find a place you enjoy it feels like a really good find. To outsiders Finnish people may seem quite closed off – they say it about themselves – but the people are really great, you just might have to make the first move at conversation.


What has been the hardest aspect to your expat experience so far?

I found it really hard at first that people don’t smile or say hello to strangers on the street. But I’ve learnt that while Finns are different to New Zealanders they are really good and fun people to be with and will respond really warmly if you interact with them first.


When you finally return home, how do you think you’ll cope with repatriation?

We will really miss having Europe on our doorstep and being able to give Miko the chance to immerse himself in another language. However there are things we miss about home and I don’t think I’ll complain about being cold in Auckland once I’ve had a real winter here!


What are your top 5 expat tips for anyone following in your footsteps?

  1. Try to meet as many Finns as you can. They are great people and are really happy to help new arrivals as they know you’ve probably travelled a fair way to come here. Finnish people are described as being very loyal and they say that it might take them a little while to invite you somewhere but once they do you can trust they really mean it.
  2. Learn some Finnish. People will say you don’t need to because everyone speaks English or it’s too hard. But you’re in Finland so it’s the decent thing to do and you learn more about people when you know something of how their language works.
  3. Try as many new experiences as you can and say yes to invitations. It might feel strange to sauna naked with people you hardly know but embrace every opportunity to go outside your comfort zone and see what makes Finns tick.
  4. Look online for tips on things to do. Whether you use FourSquare, Yelp, TripAdvisor or a blog, look for tips on what locals love to do and join them. On first arrival in Helsinki it’s not always obvious what a bar or cafe may be like due to double-doors to keep the cold air out, so be brave, venture in, do some research and you won’t be disappointed.
  5. Have a sauna. It’s part of daily life in Finland and used to be where women gave birth and where the dead were washed. Better yet, if you can take a sauna with friends and then jump in a cool lake afterwards. Sauna is where people connect and, I believe, why Finnish people look so young!


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