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.