Thursday, December 31, 2009

A decade of growing-up

I started the Millenium, very drunk, without my shoes, in a silver sparkly dress and almost featherless feather boa. I end the decade 2000km away from my home country, with my own apartment, still a student of sorts and a fabulous person to share it all with. I'm hoping tonight may be slightly more civilised ending to what I started the Millenium with. We'll have to see though - since I now live in a country renowned for celebrating almost everything in life with alcohol.

Early 2000's saw me through my final school years - not excelling quite as many hoped due to my discovery of boys and underage drinking and going out. I somehow made it to Uni, where I promptly got myself a long term boyfriend. If there is anything I have to regret about Uni it would be having a boyfriend - it was a restriction, I had tonnes of fun but I could have had more. But, without him I wouldn't have met some wonderful friends - people I still know, love and keep in touch with.

Just before halfway through the 2000's I came out to Finland for a year's practical training. Life changing does not even come to describe that decision. I lived in student apartments 17m2 with a tiny bathroom and shared kitchen with all the other exchange students. It was fabulous - I had so much fun and met so many other people. I also met my current love - who really opened my eyes - not just to the real Finland but also on attitudes to life. I don't think he meant to alter how I saw things, I think I was just ready for a change. I returned to finish my degree & finish my old relationship - if I hadn't I swear I would be married, middle-age before my time and miserable. I was in danger of following the path that is inbuilt into you by society's expectations and I'm glad I did a u-turn.

I returned to Finland with a view of being here for a couple of years. As all graduates do, I thought I was employable. I hadn't factored on language being such an issue - everyone speaks good English here and science is conducted in English. Sadly, many Finnish companies feel that hiring a foreigner will upset the balance to their workforce even if speaking Finnish is not necessary to perform the job. I also overestimated my degree - what is a good bachelor's degree with a year's solid practical experience in a country where everyone graduates with a Master's?   Due to my being completely unemployable and the job market being incredibly small for Finns and practically invisible for foreigners, I embarked on a PhD. I would never have done it without one of my old professors at my UK university encouraging me. For that I thank him. When I started the PhD I thought I would be finished by now, but sadly I'm not, but in this economic climate, I am perfectly happy where I am. I enjoy my work, the flexibility I have and the many responsibilities I have with it.

When I started this decade - I didn't have a clue that I would end up here. I had great aspirations of having a fabulous job in London or something and moving high up rapidly and making lots of money so I could go traveling and see the world and have lots of nice expensive things. I thought I would look different. I thought my life would be different. What has happened this decade is I have grown up. Life isn't so rosy and sometimes the day to day can be a drag. There's more resposibility as you realise that no-one is going to come to the rescue anymore - that you are responsible for yourself. But on the other hand it can be tremendous fun - that same resposibility means you decide what you do and you are answerable to no one. For that I am glad to consider myself a grown-up (still with very childish tendencies though!)

This decade has been fabulous - mostly thanks to the support of my family who are an amazing bunch and my friends who are always there for me. Some people I have lost along the way, but the ones who have mattered the most are still with me and I have met a number of new ones who are still along tor the ride. I love you all so very much xx

Happy New Year everyone!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Around the World in 80 Blogs - An expat view of Finland

This post comprises part of the Around the World in 80 blogs over at Everyday Stranger.

As you may have guessed this blog has its roots in Finland. I have to say I'm a bit of a cheat since I'm not actually a Finn, although the more I live here the more I feel like I am becoming one. I came here in my early 20's for training and upon finishing my degree I came back for want of something better to do (I was too lazy to find myself a job back home). As with the overwhelming majority of foreigners who choose to make this seemingly hostile land their home I came back because I was in love - a state in which I still am very happily.

You may or may not have heard of Finland and if you have you'll most likely have heard the following... its cold, dark ALL the time, the locals aren't friendly and are alcoholics, they have polar bears and penguins up North, Santa Claus lives here and they eat reindeer. The last two are true, the others less so.

Currently, it is dark, we are approaching the darkest day of the year where if we are lucky we may get 6hrs of sunlight - that is if the clouds clear - otherwise it will just be a murky grey all day. You know what though - all the snow and dark (and perhaps the thought that Santa lives only 12hrs drive away) makes Christmas really feel like Christmas.On the flipside our summers are so incredibly light... we may have only four hours of semi-dark and this means that we sleep less and enjoy the summer sun - it can get over 25C here some days during the summer season. When you go out at 11pm it is still light. Summer is a time of celebration, if you visit in winter you could be forgiven for thinking that Finland has a popluation of 100 -when the sun shines everyone comes out, even the winos from where they've been hiding all winter, and the city where I live comes alive. Midsummer celebrated somewhere around 21st June, the lightest day of the year is cause for a huge celebration. The picture below was taken around 10 or 11pm. Everyone whose family owns one or can rent one goes to spend Midsummer at their mökki (cottage) and usually spends the time eating lots of bbq food, having sauna and getting drunk. I'm fairly certain that Alko, the state-owned liquor store, has its busiest period in the run upto Midsummer. Inevitably following this there are usually stories of people having to be rescued from drowning because they tried to stand up on their rowing boat and pee off the side...The mökki is a central part of Finnish culture, during July the country shuts down, people disappear for 3-4weeks for their summer vacation which is usually spent at their mökki.
From what I understand the Finns love this institution because it enables them to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life (the Finnish idea of hustle and bustle of city life is at worst what the experience of living in Tunbridge Wells would be like) and get back to basics and nature. Indeed there are a number of mökki still without electricity and sometimes running water, often by choice. Visiting these types of mökki usually requires one to get water from a well and use composting toilets - an experience I'm not convinced I'll get used to due to an irrational fear of something leaping up the composting toilet and biting my bum - though usually it's only the mosquitos.
I love this country and it is now very much my home, while the people are hard to get to know, once you do get to know them they make brilliant and loyal friends. They are forever amazed that someone would actually choose to live in their country and are very forgiving and happy when you attempt to speak their language - it is one of the hardest languages in the world to learn and they are fully aware of it. They are pretty well educated, even those who didn't go to Uni can speak English fluently, which sadly means my fluency of Finnish is rather lacking particularly when everyone wants to practice their English on a real live Brit. Admittedly getting to know a Finn properly usually requires one to go out and get drunk with them a few times and alcohol is a part of their culture here. What you don't see though when out on the town is the violence that is commonly associated with drink. I never see the convergance of police in the city centre on Friday and Saturday nights like you would in England and I have only ever seen one fight in the 6 years I have been here. So you could call it a pretty safe country - especially where the most common crime seems to be bicycle theft!

I mentioned sauna earlier in this post and this is a massive finnish tradition, if your own apartment or home does not have one, then the building you live in will have a communal sauna. Life in Finland without sauna... well it just doesn't exist. While many people think Finland is part of Scandinavia (Sweden, Norway and Denmark) it actually isn't and synonymous with Scandinavia, particularly Sweden, is design. Finland also has deep roots in design and architecture. Alvar Aalto is probably the most famous Finnish designer-architect, arguably one of the most influential icons of the modern design movement. Although the vase design above was originally designed in the 1930's it is still massively popular and a common feature in the form of the vase, candle holders and other types of glassware in Finnish homes - I even came across it in the shop of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York about 4 years ago. Finnish design for me is uncomplicated and aesthetically pleasing and designed to feel contemporary even if it is 20 years old. It is exactly the kind of design that appeals and you can see this irom the way they design and build their homes, to the way they decorate them.

Living here can be a challenge, it isn't always easy getting a grasp of the language and the climate but if you make a little effort to get out there and enjoy what this country does have to offer I think you can be very pleasantly surprised.