Following on from my last blog post about starting my Erasmus+ adventure, which you can read here, in this post I talk about when I arrived in Helsinki.
There is something thrilling about setting off on a journey completely on your own – and this is a key part of the Erasmus+ experience. You notice far more what is happening around you and your time is your own, you can move around at your own speed, doing exactly what you want. Including browsing the duty free shops at the airport for as long as you like.
The journey was pretty straightforward. I left work, jumped on train to Manchester Airport and boarded my evening flight to Helsinki. My in-flight magazine had a helpful page introducing me to Finland and all things Finnish, including stats such as, the fact they have 2 million saunas and 75% of the country is woodland.
Finland impressed me from the moment I landed – I was met with a kind of pop-up Finnish Lakeland retreat, complete with log cabin, sun loungers and lake image. It gave the airport a zen-like feeling, which was also apparent in the birdsong and whistling wind noises they played in the toilets. What a country!
Around midnight (Finland is two hours ahead) I arrived at my apartment in central Helsinki – which looked like an Ikea display apartment, including surround lighting of every shape and size and scandi-design bedding in contemporary colour palettes. This was my home for just over a week.
Although I was excited to be there and was already planning my weekend of sightseeing, I was suddenly overcome by a bout of loneliness and isolation. Here I was, just me, in a strange new place where I knew no one and wouldn’t be meeting anyone the whole weekend. Weekends are the hardest time to be alone in a big city, at work I’d have colleagues to chat to. So I did a quick search of expat groups in Helsinki to see if I could meet some people to have fun with. I messaged a group that had a Saturday evening meet up, and then went to bed.
What’s the first thing you do when you arrive in a Scandinavian/Nordic country? You get coffee and a ‘pulla’ (cinnamon/ cardamom bun). There’s something very luxurious about treating yourself to a Saturday morning coffee in a cool, edgy café in the design area of Helsinki, whilst planning your two days of sightseeing. I had already received a response from the expat group so my evening was planned, that left time for me to explore the design quarter and drop into a few museums.
One of the best ways I always think to get a feel for a new place, is to simply wander its streets and take in the buildings, shops and developments around you. Helsinki is a good place to do this. They have fabulous art nouveau design everywhere you look above eye-level, and there are interesting shops and cafes to peer into and explore if you want.
Helsinki is not as immediately beautiful or as exciting as some European cities. It’s not Paris nor Copenhagen or Stockholm. It needs a little more perseverance and delving below the surface. It also felt pretty quiet – there are simply less people who live here – only 1.4 million people live in the capital compared with almost 9 million who live in London. Finland’s population is only 5.5 million. It’s also only been a capital for just over 200 years, with Finland just recently celebrating its centenary of independence. It also felt like it was just waking up from a harsh winter – apparently the snow had only melted a few weeks ago, the spring had not properly arrived, the trees were bare and an icy Baltic wind blew through the streets. Initially, it didn’t wow me, but there was something relaxing and liveable about it. By the end of the week I loved it.
I spent an afternoon visiting some wonderful museums. They do museums really well over here, lots of imagination and interactive elements – I visited a street in 1950s Helsinki, with a newspaper from the time and listened to retro hits on the jukebox in a café, including a version of Penny Lane in Finnish. I had a salmon soup with fresh dill and rye bread for dinner at the harbour-side market and wondered back to my apartment.
My evening turned out to be tremendous fun. I got lost trying to find the location of the expat meet-up, which is fair enough as it ended up being a bonfire on the beach of a lake! It was a beautiful evening with a golden sun in the sky – given it’s two hours ahead and further north even in April it doesn’t get late here until 10pm or later. It was only around 10 degrees so we huddled around the bonfire cooking sausages and whatever random items people had bought, drinking cider.
My new friends were from all over the world, and the scheme was run by a Finnish NGO Miitti – which gets state-funding to put on events and classes to make newcomers to the country feel welcome. I felt a million miles away from the “hostile environment” with which the British Government “welcomes” migrants.
Miitti put on Finnish classes but also creative and sports classes, and then social events such as the one I was attending. The NGO employs former asylum seekers, the man who ran our event was a refugee from Pakistan who had had to flee after it was discovered he was an atheist, which can result in the death penalty. Before arriving in Finland, he had fled overland through Russia and been detained in inhumane conditions and sub-zero temperatures, trapped in a barrel in the Arctic Circle. I also met refugees from Iraq and Iran as well as fellow Europeans and an American Professor working at Aalto University.
I chatted with French speakers, a great chance to refresh my language, and even met an English woman who was also doing an Erasmus+ placement working in an environmental charity for a year. It was really great to hear all about her experiences of living in Helsinki since January, including the fact she was now losing her way in the city having used shortcuts across the frozen sea up until a few weeks ago. A woman from the Netherlands was doing an Erasmus+ teaching programme in a primary school, getting tips to take back from the best education system in the world. Again, it reminded me that Erasmus+ isn’t just a programme that benefits universities, it gives individuals the opportunity to work abroad and do placements including in vocational roles. We need to raise awareness around the wider remit of Erasmus+ and how it can benefit individuals and communities, as we fight to stay in this amazing programme.
It was a surreal experience gathering around a bonfire on the side of a lake at the end of the Finnish winter. When it got too chilly, we carried on socialising and ended up in a naval-themed bar where we danced and drank cocktails and did shots. I then walked home with the English woman, and despite the fact it was around 2 am in the morning we both felt completely safe – there’s hardly any crime here, so it’s a liberating experience for women to be able to walk home without a worry.
I then encountered the worst experience of my trip – I couldn’t open my apartment building! Finnish keys are weirdly different; I am not a great key person anyway especially when tipsy, so I started panicking that I would have to sleep outdoors. Luckily, a woman appeared at the next door apartment and I solicited her help. She opened my door without a hitch. People are really friendly in Finland in a kind of relaxed, laid-back way, she didn’t judge me at all or think I was a total idiot, she just helped me get in, and I was incredibly grateful.
Sunday started with a leisurely brunch and then more delightful museums and art galleries. I think it’s really important to take in as much as you can about a country by visiting its cultural venues. At the national art gallery – the Ateneum, I found out about the Finnish saga and legends – the Kalevala, which had inspired a flourishing in art and culture during the 19th century as the nationalist spirit in Finland grew in passion under rule of the Russian empire. At the national history museum, I learnt all about the history of saunas – a Finnish obsession that for many, forms a part of their weekly rituals. I also actually learnt something about Finnish history – I think most can safely say that they don’t know the slightest bit. I found out that Finland experienced a short but bloody civil war following the end of the First World War. They also had to maintain neutrality during the Cold War, given that they share a border with Russia, and had to play a careful game to avoid being invaded by the Red Army.
I made sure to get an early night before heading to my new workplace the next day, and gave ample time for the journey, factoring in that I would probably get lost.
Read more the final instalment of my blog detailing my experience at the partner university.