I was recently asked the question, what was your biggest culture shock going to Finland for the first time?
I arrived in 2011 to settle in Helsinki having lived for almost a year in Finland during my Erasmus exchange in 2004.
Things had changed a lot in 7 years, but looking back this is what I think shocked or surprised me the most when I first arrived and again 7 years later when I came to settle:
Nakedness. I’m naked in public for probably about 3 hours per week in Finland compared to perhaps zero minutes per year back home. For a long time I was a member of Yrjönkatu swimming pool, perhaps one of the most beautiful swim halls in the country – and one with a naked dress code.
A national dish drying system that doesn’t involve sodden cloths and hours of input.
Dishes which are put away only after having been rinsed of soapy water. Simply unheard of madness in the eyes of many a Brit.
That when the dress code to some event says “suit” that can also mean “tracksuit” – and frequently does.
Taps that mix hot and cold water. It’s an unfamiliar feeling to be neither scalded nor instantly frost-bitten while going about the simple business of washing your hands.
Houses and apartments that aren’t cold all year round in all weathers. Under-floor heating was another revelation which pretty much blew my mind and in fact I have spent a lot of time lying on warm floors.
Saunas in apartments.
Saunas in apartment blocks.
Saunas in tents.
Free saunas on public beaches. You get the picture; saunas are everywhere.
Saunas have nothing to do with sex and in many ways they’re holier places than churches for lots of Finns. Certainly better attended.
That there are people who are willing to eat liquorice.
That smashing up bus shelters hasn’t yet caught on with the youth of Finland. They’ll learn.
The fact that you can’t buy paracetamol in a supermarket or any strong alcohol. Makes for a difficult hangover for the unprepared.
That friends get undressed together and go naked to the sauna. It happened last weekend and it reminded me how much I love this country because – and I quote – “literally no one gives a shit what you look like.”
That picking mushrooms and crawling round on the forest floor is a thing here and is also an activity to fill an entire weekend.
That silence is a virtue. Finns don’t care for following global social norms and I think that’s utterly admirable. Knowing how and when to be silent is as much a skill as knowing how to be an entertainer.
That in Finland it hasn’t been necessary to lean on family, friends or connections to survive, like in less meritocratic UK. Far from being a “nanny state” making people lazy, as some would like to see it, I think Finland enables you to get on with the bigger stuff while the state takes care of the basics.
Workplace canteens often serve excellent food.
The sheer number of flag days. The world seems to think Finns are miserable but Finns are always celebrating something with a flag.
That people and services can function when it’s 25 degrees minus. Wet leaves don’t seem to have the same crippling effect on train travel as they have in the UK.
How much contentment there is in very simple things – one reason I came back to live here. Finland feels like the perfect antedote to the modern world.