My First Six Months Living in Helsinki

by Audrey

It has been about half a year now since I’ve moved to Helsinki. It’s my first time living somewhere with actual seasons, and the leaves turning is truly a beautiful thing to see during the autumn. Although I get super homesick and I miss the LA weather, it hasn’t been as hard to adjust as I had imagined. But then again, winter hasn’t come yet, so ask me again in a couple of months.

I think a few reasons why it hasn’t been terribly hard to adjust is because the architecture of Helsinki is really modern, it’s a small city that’s easy to get to know, everything works well, the quality of life here is really high, and most people speak English, so it doesn’t feel like such a foreign country. But don’t get me wrong, it hasn’t been a walk in the park either. I miss my friends and family immensely and it took some time to make my own friends here. Also, just because people speak English, doesn’t mean anything is written or spoken in English. So let’s just say I have to rely on copying movements in gym classes and my grocery runs take extremely long, since I’m constantly using the Google translate app camera function. By the way, Google translate for Finnish – 60% of the time, it works every time.

But in all seriousness, I feel so lucky to have the chance to live in another country and continent, actually. I’m learning so much and just trying to soak it all in and appreciate every new experience and learning. All I’ve ever known is my LA and Orange County bubble. The rest of the world is doing things differently but here’s what I’ve learned about Helsinki so far…

Top 10 Reasons I Enjoy Living in Helsinki

  1. Free Healthcare – Basic healthcare is free, and even covers dental work. Most companies also provide additional private healthcare insurance at no cost to the employee. If health is wealth, then I’m set for life here.
  2. Free Education – Meanwhile, I’m still paying for my grad school loan while Finns can get their PhD for FREE 99!
  3. So Damn Safe – People even leave their €1000+ Bugaboo strollers outside WITH the baby inside, because apparently the cold air is good for babies and can often help them sleep. But more importantly, people don’t fear their children getting kidnapped. I couldn’t even walk home alone from school, which was only a few blocks away. Here you see elementary school kids on public transportation alone, it’s wild! Oh wait, I guess that’s the opposite of wild.
  4. Public Transportation – Speaking of public transportation, there is no need to have a car in Helsinki. The public transportation here consists of trams, subways (called the Metro here), and busses. It costs €60/month for an unlimited pass, which my work paid for. So basically my transportation costs are €0, except the occasional Uber, taxi, or electric scooter. In LA with a car payment, gas, auto insurance, and tons of Ubers whenever I was having drinks, I’m sure I easily spent $1000/month just on transportation alone!
  5. 5 Weeks of Holiday (vacation) – It’s the law to get five weeks of vacation in Finland, no matter what company you work for. In California, an employer is not required to provide paid-time-off under California vacation law, although most companies provide at least 2 weeks as a job benefit. 2 weeks sounds like a joke to me now. No wonder Americans are so stressed and get burnt out easily.
  6. Work Life Balance & Benefits – The generous vacation speaks to this, but in addition, I don’t often see Finns work overtime. At the company I worked for, they paid for my cell phone which can be used for personal use as well, but it wasn’t mandatory to answer any work related emails or calls outside of work hours. Most companies also provide a lunch card, where they cover 25% of your lunch (up to €10.50) which encourages employees to go out for lunch, especially with colleagues. Lastly, most companies also provide a sports and culture benefit of up to €400/year, which can be used for gym memberships, movie tickets, concerts, etc. So far I’ve used mine for an annual museum pass (€60), rock climbing, and pilates classes.
  7. People are Smart – Everyone knows at least two languages. And the water cooler talk here is rarely about TV, the latest fashion trends, or celebrity gossip. Instead they’re about things like the “Third Industrial Revolution”. Sometimes I feel like Finns are more in tune with what’s going on politically in the US than the average American.
  8. The Library is Cool – Finland is the most literate country in the world and publishes more books per capita than any other country, except Iceland. On average, every Finn buys 4 books and borrows a dozen from the library each year. So, yup it’s definitely cool to read and hang out at the library. I’ve started reading way more and have read about 1-2 books per month since I moved here. Also, how could you not want to hang out at Oodi, our central library? Besides the beautiful architecture of the building, this library holds concerts, has music studios and instruments that you can book, an urban workshop for the DIYers like me (soldering station, laser cutter, and sewing machines included) and even digital gaming rooms. It was also voted as 2019 World’s Best New Library.
  9. Nature & Foraging – Finland has a concept called ‘Everyman’s right’. It allows everyone to roam freely in nature, eat, and pick berries and mushrooms anywhere in forests. Our fridge always has a supply of homemade berry juice, berry jelly, frozen berries & chanterelle mushrooms from Kimmo’s family forest. Also, you can camp out overnight in a tent, vehicle, or boat, as long as this causes no damage or disturbance to the landowner.
  10. Island Hopping – I love that Finland is like one big forest surrounded by the Baltic Sea. Our apartment is along a canal, and I walk Rambo by the ocean every day. There’s something so calming about just staring into the waters and feeling that ocean breeze. Finland has over 180,000 lakes and almost as many islands! I can take a 10 minute ferry or cross a bridge and be on a new island. There’s even a Dog Island for Rambo and a Zoo on an island. It’s such a nice way to get out of the city, hike in a forest, have a picnic, and even go foraging!
Oodi Library

Top 5 Favorite Finnish Home Things

  1. Magic Cupboard – In every kitchen, there’s a specific drying cupboard above the sink where you put clean dishes to dry. The water drops down to the sink. Ok so it’s not magical but it’s freaking genius!
  2. Sauna – If you didn’t know, Finns invented the sauna, so it’s a big part of the culture here. We have one in our bathroom. Until I came to Finland, I always thought a sauna was basically an electrically heated wooden room. I was wrong! A real sauna should have stones (heated by a wood fire or electrically) that you throw water on to create steam. The more water you throw on the stones, the more steamy and intense it gets. I was on the fence about it at first, but now we have “Sauna Sundays” at home. There are so many benefits to the sauna. It helps you recover from an intense workout, flush out toxins, relieve stress, and get a good night’s sleep.
  3. Butt Washers – Ok, they’re not called that, I made that up. I’m actually not sure what they’re really called, but I love them, and Americans need them! No more using baby wipes or wetting toilet paper, only so they can rip into shreds in your butt as you wipe.
  4. Heating – Every time I step into our apartment, it always seems to be the perfect temperature, except on the rare occasion it gets really hot, because we don’t have AC, like most homes in Finland. Over 90% of Finnish apartments are connected to a district heating network, which is part of the rental agreement as a fixed cost. District heating supplies heat from a combined heat and power (CHP) plant directly to buildings through a network of pipes carrying hot water. This means the buildings do not need to generate their own heat on site. With CHP, Helsinki saves so much energy compared with separate property-specific heating produced by condensing electricity that it would heat up to 500,000 detached homes each year.
  5. Own Blankets – I’m a little on the fence about this one because I love snuggling and playing footsies. But… not fighting over the blanket, not waking up to the blanket being pulled off of you, and Kimmo’s favorite, being able to wrap yourself like a burrito, are reasons why this one made the list.

Finnish Things I’m still Getting Used to

  • Light (too much & too little) – During the longest summer nights, the sun doesn’t go down until almost midnight. But during the winter, there might only be a couple hours of daylight. Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is definitely a thing here, so I’m loading up on Vitamin D pills and having coffee in front of my happy (aka SAD) light. If you’ve never heard of one, these therapy lamps mimic sunlight to enhance mood, energy, sleep, and focus – but without the UV rays
  • No tipping – Since I’ve worked in the food service business, it has always been ingrained in me to tip. In Finland, and most of Europe, it’s not customary to tip, unless you get exceptional service, and even then it’s not required.
  • How small it is – Although Helsinki is the capital and biggest city in Finland, it’s still pretty small. The population is about 630k (LA is 4 million) so even though I only know a handful of people here, I still run into people all the time. To give you some context, the day I moved here, I ran into 2 people I knew during the train and tram ride from the airport to the apartment. And at that time I knew like 10 people! Back home in LA, I could meet someone, and never see them again for the rest of my life.
  • The language – Like I mentioned earlier, everything is written in Finnish. The second official language of the country is actually Swedish. So most signs are in Finnish and Swedish, which doesn’t help me either way. I started taking a Finnish course twice a week, and boy is it hard. Besides the words being ridiculously long, and there being a hundred different ways to say something, I find it confusing that there is no intonation. The language sounds pretty monotone, since your tone should always go down at the end of a sentence, even if it’s a question or has an exclamation point at the end. You can imagine how hard this is for an animated speaker like myself.
  • No small talk – Finns don’t like small talk and I actually appreciate this. Meetings tend to start and end on time since you don’t spend the first 10 minutes small talking. And if you ask a Finn how they are, be careful because they might actually tell you.
My current fall & winter morning routine with a happy light, vitamin D pills, and my Finnish language course textbook.

So that’s what I’ve learned during my first six months living here. I’m not sure I agree that Finland is the happiest country in the world (more about Finns in a future post) but it probably has the highest quality of life. Stay tuned for the next six months…

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Hanna November 14, 2019 - 7:12 am

Reading your thoughts was a nice, refreshing start for this morning, thanks. To look at the bright side of Finland really is needed at wethers like the ones we are having now. Keep up the good work !

Audrey November 14, 2019 - 11:13 am

Hi Hanna! Thank you so much for your kind words about the article. I’m so touched that it was well received. Hope you’ll enjoy reading future posts.

Kielo November 14, 2019 - 12:25 pm

I am so happy to hear that your experiences in my home city have been this positive! We are lucky to have you here, dear. <3

Are there Finnish things you would like to experience you have not yet tried out? Fishing Baltic herrings from the Lauttasaari bridge? Ice fishing? Making snow lanterns and ice lanterns? Perhaps we other Finns beside Kimmo could offer you something more.

Audrey November 14, 2019 - 4:08 pm

Thank you so much for your positive feedback! 🙂

Yes there are so many things I don’t know about and want to try! This is my first winter here, so I wanted to make a winter bucket list! Would love to hear all huge suggestions. Kiitos!

Kaisa November 14, 2019 - 1:02 pm

I enjoyed reading your blog! It’s nice to hear that you’ve enjoyed your time here – we Finns don’t tell the good things about our country to others often enough.

I have to agree with the (missing of) light. Seems to get harder when getting older 🙁

Audrey November 14, 2019 - 4:22 pm

I’m so glad you enjoyed reading my blog! I’ll share all the great things about Finland if Finns won’t 🙂

I’ve been loading up on Vitamin D and plan a few trips to get some sun. Hope you can do the same <3

Aleksi November 15, 2019 - 4:19 am

Yeah the thing about Finland being the happiest country in the world has nothing to do with how happy we actually feel. The study was basically all about quality of life and society; what kind of chances people with different backgrounds have at life, access to education and healthcare and so on. Our suicide rate is the second highest in the world, Japan being the questionable winner in that category.
But hey, thanks for the very positive blog post, it was interesting to read what an “outsider” thinks of our country. And welcome to Finland!
Oh, and winters in Helsinki are miserable since there’s rarely any snow on the ground. All you get there is endless amounts of wet slush and general grayness. Winters get a lot more beautiful the more inland and North you go, although at the same time the amount of daylight goes down even more. But the white snow compensates for that quite well. This is turning out to be way longer a comment than it was supposed to be, so just enjoy Finland and have a great winter =)

Audrey November 17, 2019 - 5:27 pm

Hi Aleksi! Thank you for taking the time to check out my blog and thank you for the warm welcome! I am definitely trying to mentally prepare myself for the cold and dark winters but I’m also excited to try some winter activities that I was never exposed to in LA. I’m slowly learning that the happiest country means more the highest quality of life, and I’m grateful to get the chance to experience life here!

Gigi November 20, 2019 - 3:37 pm

Hello Audrey, a fellow Filipina here! I just applied for my residence permit and it’s still being processed *fingers crossed and hoping for the best..* I really enjoyed reading your blog, it is beautiful! It is making me really excited about exploring Finland very soon!

Audrey November 20, 2019 - 4:14 pm

Hi Gigi! Thanks for taking the time to read my blog. I’m so glad you enjoyed it! What is making you move to Finland? I’m crossing my fingers and toes for you that it gets approved! If you have any questions about the process or Helsinki (not that I’m an expert), please feel free to reach out.

Kelly B November 26, 2019 - 6:09 am

I’m sorry I didn’t read this sooner! What an incredible recap. I love hearing about all of your experiences. You are so observant and have offered great insights. I’m going to see how I can install magic cupboards of my own!

Audrey November 26, 2019 - 11:31 am

Haha, it’s seriously the best! Asians use the dishwasher as a dryer instead of a washer, probably because they don’t have a place for dry dishes haha! Thanks for reading Kell, missing you mucho!!!!

Virpi December 6, 2019 - 3:58 pm

Welcome and enjoy! I hope to hear much more… Because of this miserable winter now, black, no snow, our family is going to travel to Mexico for almost 3 weeks to spend Xmas there for a change 😉 Happy Xmas to You <3 One day I would like to see LA, haven't been in USA.

Audrey December 6, 2019 - 7:14 pm

Thank you so much! I’m actually heading to LA for 2 weeks for the holidays. Looking forward to getting a bit of sun. Which part of Mexico are you going to? You will enjoy, it’s on of my favorite countries! If you happen to be going to Tulum, I wrote a previous blog post on there with some tips. And when you make your way to LA, I will have lots of tips for you! Safe travels!

Roy Smith August 4, 2020 - 10:26 pm

Love reading your blog and keeping tabs on you girl. Sounds so cool, and I enjoy your perspective on it all.

Audrey October 26, 2020 - 10:35 am

Roy, so nice to hear from you! Thanks for taking the time to read and hope you’re doing well!

Timothy Hennig October 16, 2020 - 8:33 pm

Thank you for writing about Helsinki. I am very interested myself of relocating to Northern Europe and appreciate your thoughts. How was that first winter? How is the freedom to move around town with Covid? What are your favorite nature spots to visit so far?

You should do a live discussion on LinkedIn sometime, I bet people would be interested to learn about the possibilities of your experience.

Audrey October 20, 2020 - 6:28 pm

Hi Timothy! Thanks for checking out my blog! My first winter actually wasn’t so bad, but it was an unusual winter last year because we didn’t really get any snow that stayed in Helsinki and it was warmer than usual. Let’s see how this 2nd winter comes along, but so far not so bad. I’ve actually went to Lapland in northern Finland twice now in the last couple of weeks to work remotely from here, and it’s snowing here and beautiful!

I’ve only ever lived in LA, so it’s a nice change to have all 4 seasons. The summer this year was so amazing with the long sunny days/nights and the city is so alive during the summer so I kind of forgot about the dreaded winter, but now that it’s fall and I must admit I’m starting to feel less energetic and a bit more tired than usual with the days getting shorter and colder. I’m starting to pop those vitamin D pills and will need to bring out my happy/bright light soon.

In regards to COVID, we had a lockdown during March-April but starting in June they started to open things up, and by July all restrictions were pretty much lifted so it felt like we were in this bubble living life normally. This October though cases have started to rise again, so they’ve started to suggest we wear masks and also just started requiring bars and restaurants to close by 11pm. It has only been 1 week of this so far. I actually wrote about my experience with Corona on this post:

Nature is everywhere here which is amazing. When the weather is nice in Helsinki, I love going to different islands like Suomenlinna and Mustikkamaa. Also there are a couple of national parks nearby like Nuuksio and Sipoonkorpi. For a truly Nordic experience, I would head to Lapland. There are many cities within Lapland to explore like Rovaniemi, Levi, Ylläs.

That’s a good idea about LinkedIn Live or even Instagram Live. I haven’t used that feature yet but would totally do it if there was enough interest.

Timo October 28, 2020 - 6:26 am

I just found your blog and already read a couple of posts. Very interesting – keep it up!

“There are many cities within Lapland to explore like Rovaniemi, Levi, Ylläs.”

As a notorious nit-picker I couldn’t help noticing that.

There are no cities in Lapland by European definition. The town of Rovaniemi as the capitol of Lapland might be considered as one in the British sense, if stretched.

Ylläs is an area, which consists of several fells and two villages and two resorts.

Levi is a resort, which includes a fell and a village.

Nevertheless all those – and many other – places are well worth visiting.

Audrey October 28, 2020 - 11:03 am

Hi Timo,

Thanks for stopping by and thanks for that clarification. I’ve actually never used the term fell, so definitely learned something new today. In LA, Los Angeles is a city and also a county, so there are tons of cities within LA so that’s how I was comparing it since Lapland is so massive. I want to explore it even more now!

Timo October 28, 2020 - 6:08 am

“Our suicide rate is the second highest in the world, Japan being the questionable winner in that category.”

I wonder if that myth ever was true, but most definitely it is not anymore. The Finnish suicide rate has been diminishing for years.

According to the WHO (2016) the Finnish suicide rate ranked 51st highest in World – the same as in Australia. E.g. these countries had higher rates:
– Japan 30th
– Sweden 32nd
– the USA 34th
– France 48th

It is also worth remembering, that while the suicide rate of e.g. Finland is pretty accurate, in many countries the rates are nothing but. The reasons vary from suicides being illegal to them being culturally and/or religiously unacceptable.

In reality many countries have much higher suicide rates than what the official figures show.

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