A Survival Guide to Finland - Tips for American Fulbrighters and Exchange Students!

Long time no speak! I've been back to Finland for almost two weeks now, and it's gone surprisingly well - work's the same; I have a lot more free time than in America (it feels great, but I miss the USA a lot as well - very bittersweet!); and I've even already had the chance to do my first training on my Fulbright project, thanks to my amazing colleague Tove! I've had to ignore the blog for a while, first because of our travels in the USA and then because of work, but now that I'm getting back into the swing of things, I figured it's finally time to write my survival guide for exchange students in Finland.

This post is especially dedicated to all the American Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching grantees that have just arrived in Finland for their fabulous exchange period. I hope you'll enjoy your stay!


Mannerheimintie in Helsinki.



Welcome to Finland!



Grocery Shopping
The cheapest option for grocery shopping is definitely Lidl. Prisma and City-Market are bigger supermarkets in the style of Kroger in the US, while K-Market, S-Market and Sale are smaller shops you can find closer to your home. Lidl doesn't have a bonus card, but Prisma/S-Market/Sale has S-Etukortti and City-Market/K-Market has Plussa-kortti.

Random Shopping
For any random bits and bobs, check out Tokmanni. If you're into anything Moomin, you can find things such as dishes and towels there for a cheaper price. They also have a lot of sauna products in case you get excited about that aspect of Finnish life.

Second Hand Shops
If you need any pots and pans, extra dishes, rugs, curtains etc. for your apartment but don't really want to pay a lot of money for them, check out second hand places like Fida and UFF. A useful word to learn is kirpputori (flea market, second hand market).

Money and Paying
Bank checks are no longer used in Finland so you won't be able to pay with them. Credit cards are fine, though, as is cash. If you need an ATM, try to spot the word "Otto". The best place for you to exchange any currency is at Forex. You'll find them in most bigger cities.

Prices and Tipping
In Finland, what you see is what you pay. In other words, no extra tax or service fee is added to your check at a restaurant or a shop. Also, tipping is not necessary - it's just a nice bonus to make restaurant workers happy :). However, tipping is not expected, and people in the service industry's livelihood doesn't depend on tips. (I never tip unless it's my sister...:D)

Public Transport
Public transport is well available in Finland and it's perfectly okay to use. Usually, you can get a monthly bus pass for the city buses (in Helsinki, also trams, regional trains and the metro) where you live, or you can pay cash to the driver. Prices vary, so check out your local bus company for more information.

If you want to travel around in Finland, the main ways to do so are VR for trains (also, check out their Saver tickets!), and Matkahuolto and Onnibus for long-distance buses. It's a good idea to book in advance as the prices are usually cheaper the earlier you book.

Cruises to Stockholm, Sweden; Tallinn, Estonia; and the Åland Islands, Finland
Cruising to Sweden and Estonia is a big thing here. If you choose to do this, you'll need to know a couple of things:
1) The main ferry lines are Viking LineTallink/Silja Line and Eckerö Line. C cabins are below the car deck, and Q cabins are saver cabins where you need to make your own bed and the showers and bathrooms are in the corridor. A and B cabins are fine.
2) Go for the buffet, and maybe book it in advance if you're travelling during a holiday week!
3) A lot of Finns go on these cruises to get drunk, so don't be surprised if you see weirdly behaving people. There are taxfree shops on the ferries where you can buy alcohol for a cheaper price.

Flying
If you want to do some small trips to other countries in Europe, I recommend using Norwegian. These days, though, even Finnair has quite affordable flights.

Hotels/Accommodation
A good tip is definitely Omena Hotel. It's a kind of self-service hotel where you're texted your room number and a code that functions as your key to the building, the elevator and your room. The rooms are usually cheaper than what other hotels offer. For an interesting experience, try Hotel Katajanokka in the harbour in Helsinki - it used to be a prison!

Alcohol
You'll find beer, cider and long drinks in grocery shops, but for anything stronger than that you'll need to head to Alko. Grocery shops sell alcohol until 9 pm every day while Alkos are open until 8 pm during the week, 6 pm on Saturdays, and on Sundays they are closed.

Post Offices
Posti is the Finnish word for a post office. Nowadays some post offices are located adjacent to supermarkets, which means they'll be open until quite late and also at weekends. Small letters, magazines and such will be delivered to your home, but for anything that's too big for your mailbox or mail slot, you'll get a notification to go and pick it up at your nearest post office. The notification should have the address to where you'll need to go.

Dress Codes
Finland doesn't really have strict dress codes in the style of the USA (business casual, business professional etc.), though obviously if you're going to meet someone very important such as an ambassador or something, you might need to wear something a bit better. However, if you're a Fulbright teacher about to do a school visit in Finland, you don't need to worry about dress codes. Jeans are fine, T-shirts with cartoon characters are fine, sneakers are fine, pretty much anything is fine. Well, maybe don't go in your pyjamas. But yes, we're not that strict when it comes to these things.

Personal Space
You might have read about Finns really loving and needing their personal space and seen funny pictures of people waiting for a bus, leaving at least 1 m between themselves and the next person. This is all true, though not necessarily a conscious decision. But yes, Finnish people might seem a little bit distant and reluctant at first, they might not want to sit next to anyone on a bus, or talk to the person sitting next to them. There are exceptions, though - for some reason, the elevator in our house is the chattiest place I've ever been to! Also, while we don't do kisses on the cheek, we do hug each other a lot, so if you're a hugger, you can keep up the good work in Finland as well.

Winter
The Finnish winter is long, and at some point, it might start to feel never-ending, miserable and completely hopeless. Before Christmas, it's usually dark and grey, and from January onwards, you're likely to experience snow, freezing cold weather, and grey skies. This might last until April, or even May in one form or another.

Even if Finland is a cold winter country, we haven't really managed to take advantage of it properly, so while in Lapland, you can do all kinds of fun activities to keep yourself busy and entertained, in the rest of the country, there might not be as many options. Try to keep yourself warm, do things that you enjoy, and take Vitamin D - 20 µg/day is the general recommendation to compensate for not getting enough natural sunlight. And give the Finnish sauna a go!

Winter Sports
If you're into winter sports, you should be able to try many of them regardless of where in Finland you're staying. There are public skiing tracks and skating rinks everywhere and they're completely free for anyone to use; you can google your nearest downhill skiing slope and go there for a fast ride down (I've only ever gone twice, and let's just say I had a speedy experience + I fell off the lift up the hill...); you can do husky rides even in the southern part of the country (check out Gegwen Getaways); you can have an icy dip in a frozen lake and then warm up in the sauna - this is known as ice swimming, avantouinti; and you can go and watch icehockey matches in many cities, as well as for example ski jumping and Nordic combined at the Lahti Ski Festival, Salpausselän kisat. Winter sports will also be conquering your TV screen so if you're not that into venturing out into the cold, you can learn more about all these things in the comfort of your own home just as well.

Places of Interest
Regardless of where you're staying, I'd recommend visiting at least some of these places during your exchange period. I might be somewhat biased since I'm from Tampere, so I'm hoping people from other parts of the country will give you some more tips in the comments!

Tampere - My hometown, known as the Manchester of Finland because of the many old red-brick factory buildings. Check out Pispala, Pyynikki, the only Moomin Museum in the whole world, and an adorable coffee shop called Vohvelikahvila on Ojakatu.
Helsinki - Our lovely capital city has a lot to offer! Google will help you find your preferred things to do there.
Turku - The old capital of Finland with a medieval castle and a lovely, European atmosphere!
Porvoo - Easily reachable from Helsinki with a gorgeous Old Town!
Pori - A beautiful coastal town not far from Tampere. Hosts a fantastic jazz festival in the summer!
Rovaniemi - This is the place if you want to meet Santa Claus, reindeer and huskies!
The Åland Islands - A ferry ride from Turku takes around 5 hours. The Åland Islands are an autonomous, Swedish-speaking part of Finland in the Finnish archipelago between Finland and Sweden. Absolutely lovely!
Kemi - For the massive snow castle they build there every winter!
Oulu - Only ever visited Oulu once, but it has a really nice vibe to it. They have a famous statue called The Bobby at the Market Place that you might want to meet!

Cultural Differences
What kind of cultural differences you spot will obviously depend on where you come from, but I would say that one of the biggest differences for me between the USA and Finland has to do with time management. In the USA, I was NOT prepared for how much people work there, and now that I'm back, I feel like I have a lot more time to myself again. So, I'd say you'll have more time in Finland than in the USA, if you're American. Also, small talk doesn't really exist in Finland - Finns will talk when they have something to say, and when they say something, they mean it. If you ask someone "How are you?", you might receive a longer response than you would've expected.

Free Time
You might end up with a lot more free time in Finland than what you're used to. If you're bringing a family member with you, they might have even more free time than you do. Depending on where you live, chances are there's a cinema there (Finnkino or something else), theatres, a swimming hall, gyms, libraries...Talking about libraries, you'll get a library card for free to any library in the country (different regions have their own library cards, though), and you'll be able to check out books, DVDs, and board games, among other things. Some libraries have music rooms you can book free of charge with a piano or other instruments. Find out what your hometown has to offer!

Phones
It's really easy to get a prepaid phone/sim card in Finland. You can for example go to any R-Kioski and they'll be able to help you.

TV 
There are not as many channels available as in the US, but the good news is that TV shows have Finnish subtitles and nothing is dubbed into Finnish, other than cartoons. This means that you'll be able to watch TV shows in English, or any other language you might speak such as Swedish or German.

Emergency Medical Care
The emergency number is 112 and they'll speak English, too. If your medical issue is not that urgent, you should google the emergency medical care unit in your town. Usually it's available either at the local hospital or at a local health centre.

Finnish Food
I've heard from a lot of people from different countries that Finnish food doesn't really taste like anything. Also, don't be surprised to encounter a lot of salmon - it's kind of what Finns always serve to foreign visitors. Some other typical foods would be macaroni casserole, meatballs and mashed potatoes, grated carrots, lingonberry jam with many different foods such as spinach pancakes, black sausage or meat...Food from other countries is widely available, but it might not taste the way you'd expect it to. Finnish food, or food from other countries in Finland, isn't particularly spicy. However, Finnish food is quite healthy, and Finns themselves usually like it, so don't insult the food too much :).

Tap Water
Tap water everywhere in Finland is among the cleanest in the whole world. There is no need to buy water, ever.

Recycling 
It's pretty much the norm to sort your trash in Finland. Apartment complexes will have a place for sorting different things into separate containers. Some of the more common categories are general trash, newspapers, cartons, glass jars, tin cans, organic waste, and sometimes plastic. There might be other categories available, too. In addition, you get money back for returning empty bottles and beer/soft drink cans to the grocery store. You'll see how much the deposit is on the bottle - usually it's either 10 or 20 cents. At the shop, look for "pullonpalautus" (bottle return), which is where you'll insert the empty bottles into a machine. When you're done, you'll press a button to get a receipt that you can cash at the check out.

Top Finnish Words to Learn
Moi = Hi, and it's used in all situations with everyone
Kiitos = Thank you
Ole hyvä = Here you are & my pleasure/not at all
Anteeksi = I'm sorry/excuse me
Mitä kuuluu? = How are you?
Sauna = sauna...I know, I know, I'm pushing it a bit too much...:D

So, there you have it! If you have any other questions, leave them down below for me, and I'll get back to you as soon as I can! Once again, welcome to Finland - I hope you'll have an experience of a lifetime!

Hämeenlinna in January.

Comments

  1. Thank you for taking the time to write this! Really appreciated. I was pleasantly surprised at how efficient my apartment was designed. Efficient is a word that keeps coming up in my description of Finland.

    I was wondering about laundry. I've noticed in the two apartments ice stayed in there are no dryers after washing clothes, just a wire table to hang dry everything. Is this the norm?

    Also, the trash has to be separated into different recycling categories.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Some laundry rooms do have dryers, too, so I guess it depends on the building. Also, sometimes there are more laundry rooms than one in a building complex, and it might be that only one of them has dryers. People usually buy racks to hang their laundry at home because it might disappear from the general laundry room if you leave it there.

      And yes, it's pretty much the norm to sort your trash here. Usually they have the signs in English, too, but if it's only in Finnish, you can take a picture and I'll translate it for you. Some of the more common categories are general trash, newspapers, cartons, glass jars, tin cans, organic waste, sometimes plastic. Oh, and you also get money back for returning empty bottles back to the grocery store. You'll see how much the deposit is on the bottle (usually 20 cents). At the shop, look for "pullonpalautus" (bottle return) where you'll insert the empty bottles into a machine and when you're done, you'll press a button to get a receipt that you can cash at the check out.

      Delete
  2. Great guide! I will definitely make one when I return to the US!

    ReplyDelete

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