It was a warm Friday evening in August. I was happily sitting outside an old beat-up pub on the outskirts of Helsinki waiting for a friend. It was quiet and peaceful – the way I like it.
The friend arrived and before I could even say hello a rowdy crowd of drunk Finns burst out of the pub and gathered round us to have a smoke.
They noticed we weren’t regulars. “Where are you from?” they shouted, “What brought you to Finland?” – all the usual questions I did not feel like answering.
“Andy is from Australia and has been here almost 15 years” my friend replied. The interrogation continued. I longed for the melancholic Finns that quietly sat in the pub in winter and talked to no one. As my friend talked to them I sat there quietly enjoying the distant twilight.
“Why doesn’t your friend speak better Finnish?” one asked, “He must be really lazy”. My moment of bliss turned to internal rage. Out of politeness, I kept it together and just smiled. If only he knew – even to get the interest to learn as much Finnish as I spoke had been a long and difficult journey.
Flashback 10 years
The novelty of living in Finland had worn off – I was sick of the dark and cold days and the seemingly endless winters. I missed my home and friends.
The two years I had promised to stay in Finland had dragged out to 5. I had done everything to persuade my Finnish wife to make the move back to Australia with our 2 kids. Her family had fought relentlessly against the idea.
Finally out of desperation I gave an ultimatum, “either come with me or I go alone” – she called my bluff. I still remember her words. “We aren’t moving to Australia, I will stay here with my family”. They were the hardest words I ever heard. I felt the prison door slam shut. I was devastated but wasn’t going to abandon my kids.
The hardest part of settling into Finland was behind me, I had a few friends on the inside and knew now how to survive.
Still, I couldn’t kick the feeling of betrayal. She had chosen her family over me. Our relationship sadly never recovered and within a few years, we were divorced.
There were some very dark times around the divorce. It was easy to feel helpless and alone. Uncertainty around the legal process which was conducted in Finnish and the financial implications caused a lot of stress and anxiety. I got through the legal stuff but I was still mentally in a bad place.
The turning point
After some good advice from a friend, Ken, I made two choices that changed the way I thought about my situation. I realized that the door was open and staying in Finland was I choice I could make. Secondly, I could also choose to be happy regardless of my situation.
These two relatively simple choices changed the way I saw the world. Regardless of the situation, I could choose how I responded to it. With time I stopped feeling angry towards my ex-wife. She had made her choices based on the cards she had.
My new positive energy attracted some great new people into my life (including my lovely Tania). I slowly started to enjoy living in Finland.
Learning to love Finland
Where a person grows up in the world gets into their blood. They get to love the smells, sounds, and sights without even realizing it. To make that happen in another country can take some effort.
To fall in love with Finland I started spending a lot of time doing the things that Finns do; swimming in lakes, Sauna, hiking in the forest, picking berries, cross country skiing, skating. Soon enough I created a lot of good memories and started to look forward to these activities.
Next, I forced myself to make Finnish friends. This might sound strange but it is actually quite hard to make Finnish friends. They make their friends at school or in the army and don’t see much of a need to make new friends.
You have to pester them until they finally give up and make you their friends. Then you will have a friend for life.
I found a great way to do this was through hobbies. It’s a bit harder with work as most Finns like to separate work and pleasure.
Yes, the clock has ticked on 15 years and it will be 20 years before I finally leave Finland. As the years go by I find myself becoming more and more Finnish. I will learn the language and get citizenship because this place is now part of my identity.
At the pub, the guy who made the comment about my Finnish did hit a sore point. I felt he like many lacked the understanding of the sometimes slow and painful journey an individual goes on as they integrate into a new country.
It took some time to get to the point where I am ready to learn Finnish and become a Finn.
We ended up spending the evening playing pool and talking with our new acquaintances at the bar. They were very nice people and who knows, they might even become friends over time.