This is what I love about Finland, there is something to learn every day! So what have I learned recently?
A couple weeks ago my cousin asked me about a disease that has occurred in our family in Canada and wondered if it was more common in Finland. A quick search turned up an organization called The Finnish Network for Rare Diseases (Harvinaiset-verkosto), which was formed in 1995 to help support to help patients and their families living with a rare disease. The organization brings together NGOs, health care professionals, service providers and the member organizations.
Foreigners in Finland have some serious issues with something as simple as opening a bank account. In this day and age it is nearly impossible to live without a bank card, let alone being without a bank account. My previous entry touched on that and other bureaucracy foreigners run into. I have been here so long that these are things that I don’t really have to deal with anymore. I feel sorry for the folks who do.
The Finnish Book Foundation represents the interests of book publishers in Finland working on common interests such as “publishing, the distribution of literature, reading and freedom to publish in Finland.” There are over 100 members in the Finnish Book Foundation and 14 of Finland’s oldest book publishers were established back in the 1800s! Who knew!?
There are nearly 43,000 people over the age of 90 in Finland! That number is expected to increase dramatically by 2040, when there are expected to be 150,000 people over the age of 90. If we are already experiencing challenges with elder care now, what will it be like to be old in the future? While on the subject of our elders, some 2500 of them still have a valid driver’s licence, although the majority of them do not drive anymore. Two-thirds of this cohort still live in their own homes and 70 percent of the them live alone according to Statistics Finland. Only one-fifth of the over 90s are men. (Helsingin Sanomat featured an article about the over 90s in the November 16, 2014 edition.)
I’ve decided to make this a new category of entries when I report to you, so look for more of this soon!
The Finnish Broadcasting Corporation (YLE) published a news piece yesterday discussing the issues that foreigners face in trying to open a bank account at a Finnish bank. It has caused much consternation and much discussion on social media channels. It seems like getting a bank account is an experience equal to trying to get a work/residence permit (and renewals) – and everyone has a different story to tell.
So is this institutional racism, overbearing bureaucracy or ignorance on the part of bank workers? I think it’s a combination of all those things, and more. A lot of things have changed since 1998, as I responded to someone on my blog’s Facebook page, “…I think a lot has changed since 9/11 and the huge business failures in the US, financial security is an issue.”
I was just musing about this issue with a friend of mine yesterday when she brought it up and so I decided to look back on the obstacles I came up against when I moved here. Getting a bank account was simple, getting a permanent phone contract was another issue. That is what this blog entry is about, what about all the other things you have to deal with in your daily life when you move here. Mind you these experiences are from a few years ago – so I highly suggest you don’t apply these as a metre stick to today’s Finland.
Phone: I managed to work without a phone for about month, then my situation necessitated that I get one. The phone company wouldn’t give me a contract, but sold me air time. I rarely made calls out (because I couldn’t really afford it), but I was able to receive calls. When I changed jobs my boss opened a phone contract in his name and effectively owned my number for just over a year. Then I managed to get it sorted and put the contract in my own name.
Credit card: Flashback to 1999 when I moved into my own apartment. I had no furniture and I needed to go shopping. I managed to get a credit card with no problem, the interest rate is out of this world for Käyttöluotto, but it was better than nothing. In fact I have never had a problem getting a credit card in Finland. I guess I have been here long enough.
Work permits: I have never had the nightmare that some people have reported. Getting a work permit was always a relatively easy and straight forward process. Then again, I don’t live in Helsinki and I understand that getting permits sorted there is nothing short of an ordeal. I wrote about that a few years back.
Apartment: Getting an apartment rental agreement in my own name was not a problem either. My old boss was kind enough to let me live in his home for a couple of months while I got my feet grounded. Then when the opportunity to get my own place came, he even drove me out there to look at the place and get the contract sorted out. I was on my own!
Insurance: At one point I thought it would be a good idea to get some kind of insurance policy. I did, and it covers travel insurance and injury insurance… But truth be told after all these years I still don’t really know what the details of my agreement are. The Mr. needs to be consulted.
Electricity contract: When I moved into my own place, I had no idea I had to call an electricity company and make an agreement. I assumed the costs of water and electricity were covered under my rental agreement. Imagine my surprise when I got a letter in the mail saying my electricity would be cut off if I didn’t make a contract. I called, got it sorted out and as I recall there were no problems.
TV licence: I didn’t have a TV for nearly two years. I did write about that experience in an entry a few years back – have a laugh. These days there is no TV licence fee, but rather a blanket media tax that is paid by everyone in Finland.
Driver’s licence: I got my Finnish driver’s licence back in 2002. Having missed the time period for transferring it over I had to write a couple of tests and do a road test. The whole process cost me about EUR 200. (I have a good background story to go with why I finally decided to get a Finnish driver’s licence, but I’ll have to save that for another time.)
KELA card: I came to work here on a temporary contract so I was never issued with a KELA-card. As I recall I finally got one nearly a year after living here and that too was a relatively painless process.
Bank loan: When it was apparent I was really going to stay here for good I decided to get a bank loan to pay off all my student loans back in Canada in one lump sum. I had been here for nearly three years and I mustered up enough courage to go to Nordea and boldly ask for a loan. I made the application and they called back about 20 minutes later with approval. It was a good move on my part and I was able to pay it off in much less time than it would have taken me in Canada.
Taxes: In 1999 I was going through the horrifying process of trying to file a tax return and upon making a call to the tax office, they told me that I didn’t have to because I was “in the system.” I wrote about it here (see point 1).
Health care: Fortunately I have been healthy since I have lived here and my current employer covers occupational health care. There were a couple of times where I needed to go through the public system for a back injury and a respiratory infection, I had someone call for me. Back then I had no idea what I had to do if I got sick… Although I navigated the public side in getting surgery on my elbow last year and that went fine.
So to sum it I came here without a check list of things I had to do… I feel like I managed those early years through flying by the seat of my pants. If you asked me to do it again, I am not sure how it would turn out.
With regards to the banks of this country: they need to sort out their rules on issuing bank accounts to foreigners. They need to have uniform policies on what kinds of ID are accepted and outline conditions upon which internet banking codes and credit cards will be issued. The fact that many people have had to bring this issue to the Ombudsman for Minorities speaks to a problem that needs solving.
In Finnish there is this word “talkoot.” “Talkootyö” translates to volunteer work.
I have often questioned why we can’t get things done by having more talkoot when government cutbacks affect services and infrastructure maintenance.
Just last week the front page of Metro (the free paper distributed in the capital area) had a photo of dozens of people raking leaves in the city’s main park, Kaiviopuisto as part of a “talkoot” to get the park cleaned up for the fall. If I remember this was an initiative of the City of Helsinki, which offered drinks and small snacks to all of the volunteers as a reward.
My kid’s school needs some fixing, our “home” arena needs some serious renovation and will be out of commission until 2017 (!), so why can’t we help the process along? We can help – we don’t need to build, let’s leave that to the professionals. We can remove materials, bring in the new stuff, do all the little toby jobs that don’t require professional qualifications and the let pros get our infrastructure back into shape.
I have also questioned why more Finnish people don’t voluntarily adopt a park or a stretch of highway to keep it clean. The first services to go in times of austerity are parks and recreation maintenance…
I realize this a larger question of infringing on the rights of unionized workers, but isn’t there something Joe or Jane Public can do to help? Why don’t the municipalities communicate these things? Or am I missing something that is already out there?
A talkoot now and then would reduce the costs of getting things done and bring more of a community spirit, would it not?
I know what will happen if I ask though (in typical bureaucratic fashion in Finland): You can’t do that.
Does anyone else hate this kind of packaging as much as I do? In recent years cartons and TetraPaks have started to appear with these “corks” on them. (Can’t think of the right word in English, so you get the direct Finnish-English translation.) I am not pointing out any specific company or producer in particular because they all seem to be doing it.
The reason why I hate these “corks” on the cartons is because they are not conducive to getting everything out of the carton when it is nearly empty. Plus, it is more plastic, which we don’t need! I might take the opportunity to remind people who are recycling fanatics like I am, that the plastic cap is “energy waste” and can be recycled accordingly.
Sorry, just a minor pet-peeve on the consumer front. Continue as you were.
This is Lim (right) and his wife V and their son H. Originally from Malaysia they have called Finland home for six years, except for the year that they lived in Australia.
I wanted to tell you about Lim and his family because they were immigrants to Finland who left… and came back. Thank you for graciously accepting the challenge of being featured here. This interview took place in May 2014.
A bit about you and your family, where were you born and raised and where did you live prior to moving to Finland?
Lim: We were all born and raised in Malaysia. Our son was born in Malaysia and he was seven years old when we moved to Finland. Prior to that I had studied and worked in America, I was there for eight years.
I grew up in a small town in the southern part of West Malaysia, about 200km from the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. I have a brother and two sisters, all older than me; our parents were both teachers. My childhood memories include cycling all over the town and into rubber or oil palm plantations, making and flying kites, reading comic books from Hong King, and basically enjoying childhood.
I had the opportunity to study in the US, so I attended the University of Oklahoma and studied Computer Science. Soon after graduation, I found a job developing DOS programs and later for Windows and OS/2. After about eight years, I decided to move back to Malaysia to be with my family and I also wanted to do my part to help Malaysia move towards becoming a developed nation.
Why did you move to Finland?
Lim: It was a job offer I couldn’t refuse – to work in the HQ of my employer as an expat. So in 2008 I took the opportunity to move to Finland and work here. My wife and I thought long and hard about it, and the decision was more difficult to make because we had just received permanent residence visas from Australia. Ultimately, we decided to move to Finland, as it was a unique and once in a lifetime opportunity.
V: For me, I was tired of the lifestyle in Malaysia and I thought if I didn’t take the opportunity to move abroad, I knew I would end up in the same cycle that I couldn’t get out of.
One good thing that came out of it was that I learned to cook!
What was the biggest shock for you (back then)?
Lim: It’s so quiet everywhere – in the supermarket, at the bus stops, etc.
You left Finland, why?
Lim: In the summer of 2012, my wife and I decided to move to Australia so that we would be closer to Malaysia and it would be easier to maintain family ties there; plus, our visas were expiring. People from many countries are trying all sorts of ways to move there, legal or otherwise; we had permanent residence visas, so it was something we had to try. Our family and friends said we were brave, they probably thought we were crazy; I called it “brazy”. We had to give it a shot before it was too late and we didn’t want to regret passing up the choice later on.
The move went smoothly… I had some experience with big moves; so we were able to settle down quickly in a suburb of Melbourne. After several months of living there, we realized that we didn’t find what we were looking for. It was then I started talking to my employer here in Finland about the possibility of returning later in the year; it so happened that several positions had opened up and I was given the chance to apply for them. I did, and I came back, ready for new challenges.
V: A few reasons for that:
- I was a bit doubtful about staying in Finland when I’m older or retired. I think the winter here is too harsh for me.
- I thought that it will be nicer to be closer to our families if we stay in Australia, especially that our parents are quite old and in case they need us to be there to take care of them.
- I think it will be easier for my son’s tertiary education since everything in Australia is in English. I was not very confident that he could get into a Finnish university, since the English courses are very limited.
- Our neighbor complained about our piano playing.
- Above all, we were still holding Australian PR (which is hard to get these days), so we still had a choice. But the visa was going to expire soon so we had a make the decision.
And then you came back!? How did you feel when you came back?
Lim: The apartment was one of the main factors, the other was a new opportunity in the company I had worked for for more than 10 years, I wouldn’t have returned to Finland for any job. The job I have now is in a new area and it is an interesting challenge.
In talking to Lim I understand he jumped right back into life here, his family followed a few months later. Many of Lim’s friends commented on how happy he seemed after getting back to Finland. V and H arrived a few months later after ironing out issues related to H’s education. It was almost as they had never left. V got many of her former clients back and H was able to rejoin his former classmates at his school in Helsinki. V called it luck – most definitely!
Lim: I rekindled my childhood passion of cycling after moving to Finland and it became more than a hobby, it’s a lifestyle for me now. (And he jumped right back on his bike in August 2013 when he moved back! The cycling opportunities in Melbourne were apparently not the same.)
V: Well, for me, it felt a little ‘foreign’ on the first day arriving at my own home here in Finland, even though everything looked just the same as before. I suppose maybe it was because I stayed in a different place for one whole year so I was kind of just starting to get used to things there. But then the familiarity came back to me soon after that.
I think the only setback comes from my own perspective. Perhaps I am a pessimist by nature and tend to think more negatively when things don’t work out. I did really feel a big sense of failure even after I returned to Finland and was still pretty upset about it for a while. The financial burn was a cruel reality that I had to accept. I knew it will be worse if I had too much free time. Hence I signed up for intensive Finnish course which began soon in February, so that I had something to occupy myself with and wouldn’t have too much time to think about the bad things. It worked! I met more friends in the course and got some students again, and before I knew it, I was really busy. Now everything seems to be back on track. I managed to pick myself up and look ahead in life. I think it’s still a blessing that I’m able to make a U-turn in life and moved back to Finland.
Lim and V said that the timing was just not good for going to Australia, in spite of meeting helpful people and having a support system on the ground (friends and family from Malaysia).
Is there something you don’t like about living here?
Lim: The bureaucracy, everything is so “by the book” here. The inconvenience of some services is also an issue and the cost – for example car washes and locksmiths. Lim mentioned that he has learned to do a lot of stuff on his own in order to keep the cost down.
Socially it’s so different. Finnish people come across as really cold, but he learned that he just has to ask something and then people open up. Finns really respect other people’s space.
Lim and V: The harsh winter.
I made a joke about cross-country skiing and Lim said that he had already tried it. (I think now that they’re back they should try again! ;))
Tell me about some of your favourite places in Finland.
Lim: Porvoo, Naantali, Nuuksio National Park, Iso Vasikkasaari, Suomenlinna, and the island area between Espoo and Helsinki.
Is there some place you’d like to get to?
Lim: Rovaniemi and Lappeenranta.
What do you miss about Malaysia?
Lim: Family and the food culture.
V: Food, people, convenience of services and a chance at establishing my own career.
What kind of advice would you give to foreigners coming to Finland these days?
Our advice for foreigners coming to Finland is quite simple – just accept the environment (climate, people, system) in Finland as it is and learn to enjoy all the good things Finland has to offer (nature, peace, stability, etc).
Alright – the flurry of travel is now over. I can get back to life in Finland – and Life In Finland. Sorry, it has been awhile!
I washed my sauna on the weekend and realized that I have never discussed sauna elves. There is plenty of folklore and stories about elves in Finland and I actually won’t go into that, you can read this link instead: Elves: General facts. You can also pick up (or borrow) a copy of Mauri Kunnas’ The Book of Finnish Elves for a more thorough overview. I am no expert on elves!
What I did want to share is a picture of our sauna elf, who faithfully sits on the bench cheerfully waiting for us to join her take part in the sauna ritual.
This is Arwen. The Mr. found her at a Christmas market in Germany more than 10 years ago. I have to admit I didn’t take an immediate liking to her at first, she just didn’t fit my image of an elf (think: pointy hat). Time passed, however, and our sauna would just not be the same without her in there.
I have seen other saunas that house small elfish figurines on the benches and in the sauna rocks. While they are more like decorations, I actually think that they add a bit of fun to the sauna.
And while we’re on the subject of sauna, Mark Bosworth, a BBC Correspondent, filed this report about Finnish sauna last fall. He ponders why Finns love saunas: Why wouldn’t we?
Do you have a sauna elf in your sauna?
Update (October 20, 2014): I got a picture from one of this blog’s readers of the sauna elves she has at home. Here is a smattering of the cool things you can buy for your sauna stove!