Things I Wish My Family and Friends Knew About Expat Life

The most common question I get from people is “So how do you like living in Europe?” I’ve come to realize that, most of the time, they only want to hear the expected “It’s great!” But in reality, the answer is so much more complicated than that.

Don’t get me wrong, I really do enjoy living in Helsinki. The good definitely outweighs the bad. But somedays…life is just harder. So here are some things I’d really like non-expats to understand:

I’m not on an extended vacation 

Yes, I live in Finland. Yes, that’s in Europe. Yes, it sounds exotic and lovely and super exciting. But this is my life. My every day, I have to do chores and pay rent and plan my day around the toddlers nap time, life. Whatever you do during the day to keep your life going is exactly what I’m doing, only in a different country. Where I don’t speak the language. It’s not as glamorous as you might think. Sure, I pass swans on daily walks (seriously), but I can’t have a simple conversation with a stranger on the metro (not that most Finns would have a conversation with a stranger, anyway).

“You must meet some really interesting people!”

Haha. Sure! If by “interesting” you mean that French guy on the metro who started quacking at my son for a reason I was unable to grasp, then yes. Very interesting. (True story.) In all honesty though, having my miniature sidekick to force me to get out (if for his sake more than mine) has been the best thing. More than meeting women who are also mums, I’m meeting women who are also in a foreign land, who know the true meaning of being “homesick”, many of whom know the difficulties of not speaking Finnish. We’re all quite different, yet we have so many things in common, not simply the fact that we’re mothers. It creates a bond I can’t imagine happening any other way.

“You have a sauna in your apartment? Do you use it ALL the time?!”

Yep, practically daily. To help dry the laundry. I no longer have the luxury of tumble drying our clothing, so anything that speeds up that process is welcome. Besides, this summer (at least, I *think* it was summer) was incredibly humid, and the last thing I want to do after feeling like I was sweating all day, is get into a hot box and throw some steam around. No thank you. It’ll be great in the coming winter on those days when I just can’t shake the chill from my bones, but right now, no.

“Isn’t Finnish food gross? What do they even eat?”

*Cue the eye roll* Food, people. They eat food. And it’s quite delicious, in my opinion. I haven’t had a lot of “traditional” Finnish food, but what I have had is mouthwatering. (Maybe I just like food.) Most cafes offer lunch buffets, and a lot of office buildings have restaurants on the ground floor with lunch buffets as well. Salmon soup is a favorite in the colder months, meatballs and mashed potatoes can be found year round, and just about everything in the summer is topped with one berry or another. Everything is very fresh, which definitely enhances the flavor. Reindeer meat is also available and, while most Americans balk at the thought of eating Rudolf, I highly recommend it in all its varieties. 

“Isn’t it constantly dark in Finland?”

Only in the winter. Finland is also referred to as “the land of the midnight sun” because in Lapland (northern Finland), the sun doesn’t fully dip below the horizon in the summer. In Helsinki, June has the longest day of the year with sunrise at 3:54 am and sunset at 10:49 pm. That means we never see astronomical twilight, or “true darkness”. This is why blackout curtains are a must. Conversely, winter is incredibly dark. December 21st will be the shortest day of this year with sunrise at 9:23 am and sunset at 3:12 pm. (You can wake up at three in the morning or eight in the morning and honestly not know the difference.) That gives us just under six hours of daylight. Yeah, that’s gonna be fun with a toddler.

I don’t really know where “home” is anymore
It may sound strange, but “coming home” refers both to visiting family in the US, and to returning to Helsinki. “Home” is where my life is, my things are, and where I’m most comfortable. When I walk in the door after a long getaway and think to myself, “I’m home”. That would be Helsinki. But “home” is also where I can read all the signs, talk to cashiers, and know what to expect in a restaurant without having to think about it. That would be the US. It’s conflicting at times. 

Knowing that our time in Helsinki has an expiration date adds a whole other level of unsettledness. I’m determined not to accumulate unnecessary “things” here because I don’t want to have to move them in three years. Our walls are embarrassingly bare, thanks in part to the fact they’re mostly concrete, but also because we left our artwork “at home”. I think twice before buying anything for the kitchen (except coffee mugs) because most kitchen items are bulky and don’t pack well. The thing I miss the most is my books. I finally realized that we don’t have any shelves in our apartment, but even if we did, there’s no way we were going to ship my library-in-the-making. 

So there you have it. Some truths about living abroad. It’s challenging, frustrating, sometimes tear-inducing, but ultimately (I hope) incredibly rewarding. Hopefully I answered all of your questions, but if not, please let me know. If you’re an expat, is there anything I missed? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


12 thoughts on “Things I Wish My Family and Friends Knew About Expat Life

  1. Interesting to hear your thoughts on living in Finland as an expat! Thanks for sharing πŸ™‚ I got a bit worried about you drying your laundry in the sauna though, it’s very dangerous and can easily cause a fire – also good to know: insurance won’t cover any damages that are caused by drying clothes in a sauna. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If she’s anything like me, she doesn’t mean turning it on. Just hanging items in the sauna. Our sauna had a vent in it and was often time much warmer and had great airflow than the rest of the apartment.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. What?! That’s crazy! How does it start a fire? The clothes are hung on a drying rack which I put in the sauna. The sauna itself is electric and I don’t put anything on the stones. I do worry about curtains or clothing near the radiators, which is probably not an issue. It must’ve happened quite a bit if that’s a specific article in the insurance. πŸ˜‚ Thank you for letting me know!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I guess people warm the sauna first, then turn it off to dry their stuff. And even tho the sauna is not on, fires have started if the stones are still hot and clothes have fallen on top of the stove. Also there have been incidents where people have dried their clothes in a sauna that is on and it has caused fires. Sounds like you are being careful, so no worries! ❀️

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting point that you made about knowing you won’t be permanently in Finland – I guess that would make it harder to really settle and let yourself feel at home there. I wonder if you will have homesickness for Finland when you do move away!

    Also good points that a lot of people take for granted the little daily things that are so effortless when in your own language and culture, but can be a real source of stress in a foreign country. But that’s where the personal growth comes from, right? Out of your comfort zone πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There’s always room for personal growth! Sometimes it does seem a bit needlessly painful though.

      Good point on being homesick for Finland. I know I still miss Denmark after visiting there three years ago, but that holds the magic of a vacation, not home. I’m interested to see how you feel about Australia after you relocate. My eyes have certainly been opened to so many failings about the U.S. since moving.


      1. That’s true, sometimes you just don’t have the energy πŸ˜€

        I get what you mean about seeing your home country differently after living away – even though I have been back in Australia for almost 8 years I still feel like I’m looking in from the outside. And that was after just 1 year in Finland – I’m sure I will feel even more of an outsider after many years!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank You Emily.

    Interesting reading. I read this: “I can’t have a simple conversation with a stranger on the metro (not that most Finns would have a conversation with a stranger, anyway).”

    Well, nobody ever had tried to start a conversation with us when in Metro. Maybe people think that we are so old and stupid and do not know nothing! πŸ™‚

    Have a good day!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Matti,
      I don’t think that’s the case. I’ve often found older people to be the most understanding. The few times someone has spoken to me, it’s usually a grandparent type, and even if that person doesn’t speak English, she will attempt to continue a conversation. It’s heartwarming to find people who do this as a lot of Finns will switch to English since my Finnish is so poor.

      Honestly, on the metro, I find most people don’t talk, unless it’s a group or someone asking for directions. I like the quiet time this offers me. Maybe it’s the time of day. During rush hour, it’s definitely noisier.

      Have a lovely week!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I would have never thought about the dilemma on whether to decorate the apartment of not. I loathe moving and also wouldn’t want to have to deal with extra stuff down the road, but I think it would be hard to feel at home with none of those “homey” touches.

    The food part made me laugh πŸ˜‚ I hear people say that about a lot of places and I always have the same thought, they obviously eat food LOL

    Great read, thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would seriously LOVE to decorate the walls. We have some truly amazing wall space. Unfortunately, most of our walls are made of concrete as they’re adjacent to the outside and very difficult to hang anything on. The other walls are just stupid complicated. It’s too hard to explain, but we have four pictures hung total. It’s better than nothing!

      Liked by 1 person

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