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2018-08-21 00:12 - Around the world

One year in Finland

Today was my finniversary. Exactly 1 year since I landed at the small airport of Tampere, on August 20th, 2017, in a country which I knew nothing about. And in a few days I’ll take off for France, not knowing if I’ll ever see Finland again. Everything around me wants to make me feel melancholic, like this street musician who was playing Auld Lang Syne this morning.

One year. One year during which I met more people, made more discoveries than ever before. Through immersion in another culture, through life in an international student community from all around Europe and the world, and through my travels.

I don’t want to make here a summary of this year (how could I?), neither do I want to make a “Finland for dummies” guide. But what I want to do is a report of my experience living here for one year: everything that I want to say, and deserves to be said. I apologize for all the generalizations I will make, a country is made of very different individuals but there are some trends that I noticed.

Context

For my engineering studies, I am supposed to have at least a semester or an internship abroad. So I had… 2 semesters and an internship abroad. Indeed, I believe that one semester, which is actually only 4 months, is too short to immerse myself in the culture of a country. And concerning the internship, it was not planned initially, I was supposed to come back in May but I lenghtened my stay until the end of August.

For my studies, I had a lot of choice of partner universities all around the world. It’s kinda fortuitously that I went to a presentation about Nordic Countries, and I couldn’t resist the fascination and curiosity. I chose Tampere University of Technology. What I liked about this university when I chose it was that it was a campus surrounded by lakes and forests, not far from a middle-sized city, and still a very important technology center, nicknamed the “Silicon Valley of Finland” (it’s, amongst other things, the place where was made the first GSM phone call in the world).

Erasmus Students in TUT
(Erasmus Students in TUT, photo by Petr Olišar)

For my internship, after being hired at Nvidia, I moved to Helsinki for 3 months and a half.

I took advantage of my location to travel: a student cruise to Stockholm, a touristic trip in the Baltic Countries, a road trip in Lapland, a hitchhiking and couchsurfing adventure in the Norwegian fjords, weekends in the deep countryside, etc. And even when I wasn’t traveling my everyday life was nicely busy.

Living in Finland

A different relationship to nature

Finland has a population density 6.5 times lower than in France, and most of this population is located in the south and along the Gulf of Bothnia, leaving most of the interior quite empty, and specially the northern part and the eastern part along the Russian border. The land is 70% covered by taiga (nordic conifer forests), and 10% covered by about 188,000 lakes.

Finnish cities are very enjoyable to live in because nature is never too far. Tampere is located between two huge lakes and Helsinki is built on a peninsula on the Gulf of Finland. The cities breathe thanks to their multiple parks and bike lanes.

Maps of Tampere and Helsinki
(Tampere and Helsinki on OpenStreetMap)

But between Finns and nature, it’s much more than that. It’s in their blood. The weekends and holidays of many Finns consist in going for a few days in a wooden cottage, called mökki, often close to a lake. I tried multiple times the experience of mökkielämä, the cottage life, and I can tell it’s a wonderful way to recharge your batteries. You break away from your daily routine, you fish, read, swim, grill sausages, play mölkky and kykkä, and enjoy the sauna.

Mökki
(mökki in Lauttasaari)

The sauna is a pillar of Finnish culture. This very hot steam bath is shared with your family, friends, fellow students or colleagues. Naked, everybody is equal, there is no social barrier, one can talk to strangers, or silently relax. Ideally, the sauna is near a lake or the sea, and you can swim while taking breaks from the hot steam bath. In winter, you can also bathe in the snow.

Sauna break
(a break after sauna at Hervantajärvi)

Many Finns are quite sporty, and practise a lot of outdoor sports, whatever the season: running, kayak, cycling in summer, cross-country skiing, ice skating in winter, etc. Whenever I took a walk in winter, I would see people skiing, and I could myself learn cross-country skiing (thanks Mikko) and improve my ice skating skills : the ice hall was open for free one hour every day, and from time to time we would go on lake Näsijärvi where snow is removed from a long track (3-4 km).

Ski
(cross-country skiing in Kauppi)

A different relationship to time

As I said before, Finns know how to break away when they have holidays, practise sport or go to sauna. When it’s compatible with their job, it seems to me that many stop work quite early, around 16:00, to have time for sport and family. When I come back home and go through the parks of the city by bike, I see people running, walking along the sea, or dancing in front of the opera house.

Suomenlinna
(in Suomenlinna ; thanks Oliver for the picture)

The contrast that surprised me the most was the difference between meetings with my colleagues in California and meetings with only colleagues from Helsinki. The former are timed ; there is one hour, not more, even if it’s not enough to finish. And if you have something to say, you don’t wait for people to let you say it, you make it clear you want to say something. The latter are longer and more relaxed, everybody has the occasion to tell their opinion, you call it a meeting when all the topics that had to be solved have been discussed. Also it’s ok to open a few parentheses that wouldn’t have their place in an American-like meeting.

By the way, during conversations with Finns, you don’t rush to speak: on the contrary you often have moments of silence in a conversation, that would seem embarassing to a stranger (in France we say that we hear the flies fly). But for a Finn, it’s time spent together, even if you say nothing. And it’s time you can use to really think about what you want to say, instead of just trying to show that you are an interesting person. So I had to learn how to, when I speak with Finns, take breaks in the conversation (even if I want to say something). Which is not easy for a word mill like me.

I don’t know if this is specific to my company or a general principle in Finland but I didn’t feel any stress or pressure at work. I could choose my work schedule, take breaks, rest in the library, or in the nap room. All that sounds very human and quite logical to me. Work, indeed, is not a matter of time but of state of mind.

Coffee break Näsijärvi
(coffee break during a walk around Tampere)

Still, I have to say that the experience of time is very different in winter and in summer. The long days of summer (it’s never really the night even during the few hours when the sun sets) are very motivating and let a lot of time to do a lot of things, whereas the long nights of winter drain your energy. I didn’t lose all my energy during the winter but I was definitely sleeping more than in summer. At the deepest moments of winter the night was falling shortly after 15:00.

Also, something very different as a French guy, that I regret: we French people are used to eat with a group, sit around a table and take our time. But here, students eat quickly between two lectures, often alone. And also at work, many of my colleagues bring food in a box and eat it in about 15 minutes.

A modern country

Finland is a modern country on several aspects. A country open to progress, with a good culture of asking for feedback, and a conscience of common good.

First, concerning town planning: the numerous parks, the efficient public transportation (good network, comfortable, rarely late, possibilty to purchase tickets on an app), the numerous bike lanes everywhere, the good city bikes system, almost free (30€ per year), etc. It also seems important to me to mention the accessibility of public transportations (and in the architecture of many buildings too): all the metro stations are accessible to disabled people, for example.

City bikes
(I used the bikes all summer to go to work)

The country is very internationally-minded, everybody speaks a very good English, many websites have an English version (from State services to e-commerce), and Helsinki is a very cosmopolitan city. Some municipalities like Espoo translate all their documents in English in addition to Finnish and Swedish, and many others will follow. Finland is a small country which doesn’t have a huge translation and dubbing industry like France of Germany, which explains partly why they’re much better than us on average at speaking English. Here it’s possible to be understood absolutely everywhere without knowing a word of Finnish.

Concerning education, I was really impressed by my experience of TUT and the few times I’ve been at Aalto University. It’s a good cocktail of:

  • good investments in research, teacher that are renowned in the field they teach
  • presence of companies on the compus which is a major technology center
  • quality equipments accessible 24/24h, 7/7d: in TUT this includes: the library, computer rooms, a robots room, a fablab, a VR room, 3D printers, etc
  • a clever pedagogy that includes both theoretical and practical approaches, with interesting group works

Tietotalo
(Tietotalo, the building where I had most of my lectures)

On a social point of view, the country seems to have less inequalities than France, which itself is a welfare state too (immigration suburbs v the 16th arrondissement in Paris), and Finland is even experimenting basic income guarantee.

I’ll not dive into the details of all these aspects but this modernity can be seen in many other aspects like architecture and technology. An example that comes to my mind is Finnish museums, that I find really well done: audio guid in 3 languages with children and adult version, interactive exhibitions, immersive rooms, VR demos, cross-media, etc.

Trust, honesty, respect

Something that I really liked here was the value of trust, and the honesty of Finns. It even happened that I let my smartphone and my wallet in a cloakroom for a whole afternoon while going skiing, or my laptop on a table at the university to go home to eat something. Things I would never have done in France, where the sports teacher has to lock our valuables in a locker since things have been stolen in the cloakrooms.

Honesty is not just about not stealing, it’s much more than that: most of the Finns won’t lie to you even to please you. In some countries there are lots of superficial manners, but that’s not a thing here. Here, when you say something, you mean it.

Finns are often seen as cold and solitary. That’s a lack of understanding of how they are. In fact, it’s mostly a matter of respect and personal space. If a Finn doesn’t talk to you in the elevator, it’s probably just that they don’t want to risk disturbing you. It’s hard to break the ice with Finns, but once you manage to do it they are really trustworthy friends.

Bonus: 12 months, 12 pictures

Before I put an end to this article, here’s a little bonus: it was difficult but I chose one picture per month to show here, from september 2017 to august 2018 (like a calendar of my year). Here it is:

12 months, 12 pictures

Now is the time to finish this article. Huge thanks to all the people who made this year such an wonderful moment!


Cover picture made with AndreaMosaic from pictures taken by my friends and myself during this last year.

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