Reflections from Finland

As regular readers know, I moved with my partner from Ireland to Finland last September, to study a Master’s in Music, Mind and Technology at the University of Jyväskylä. We’re really enjoying the adventure; the Finns we’ve met have been lovely and I’ve discovered some surprising similarities between the Finns and the Irish. A shared love of spuds and a similar sense of humour, to name but two. (We’re also discovering a similar sense of humour to the Greeks, the only group to outnumber the Irish in our joint programme. I made Christmas dinner here for my friend Charis, and introduced him to irreverent Irish comedy, Fr Ted. He loved it and now says the Irish f-word frequently, and with gusto.) There are of course many differences too; for example Finns don’t do — or even have a word for — small talk (“small talkia”), whereas we have an actual tourist attraction promising to impart our talent for it. So this week I thought I’d share some of our experiences of Nordic wellbeing with you.RA Grani

Frozen Lake MyllyjärviFinland is a land of lakes and forests; outdoor activities are popular in all seasons. Like many people here, we bike everywhere, having decided against bringing the car because of high insurance rates. Buses are expensive and taxis are extortionate. (There are Facebook groups where people offer cheap rates for lifts/car-sharing within and between cities, to get around the high cost of public transport). Bike racks are everywhere, and biking is a lot safer than in Belfast. Wide pavements are shared with pedestrians and are often well separated from the road. Pavements are gritted and cleared of snow (tho’ at different times of the day; some of my commutes I’ve had to get off the bike because the snow’s too deep to cycle through). It’s about 15-30 minutes from home to uni, depending on whereabouts on campus we’re headed to and weather conditions. Trying to start a cold car in the morning has been replaced by brushing inches of snow off the saddle, blowing into the bicycle lock to defrost it so the key can turn, spraying Vaseline spray on the chain, and being stuck in whatever gear you left the bike in the day before, until the day gets a little warmer. Minor issues!

Snowy bikesMy biggest challenge has been dressing for the commute: at the start I was layering up so that I was warm from the moment I left the door – now I know you should dress to start cold and warm up while you cycle. With -16 temperatures recently, it’s tricky to find a balance between not freezing your face off and not arriving a sweaty mess. But whilst I often rock into uni looking like Compo from Last of the Summer Wine, with eye make-up like Alice Cooper’s (snow blindness is caused by mascara issues, I’ve discovered), I’m glad of the regular exercise in the clean Nordic air. Mind you, apparently we’re like the young Starks of Winterfell, in that we’ve not tasted real winter yet. So there’s still time for that bus pass.

The most common first response I got when I started talking about moving to Finland was, “Finland? But… won’t it be cold?” After pointing out Ireland’s not exactly Gran Canaria, I’d tell people that Nordic homes were maintained at around 21 degrees and therefore we’d be much more comfortable indoors than in typically poorly-insulated homes in Ireland. I’d read this online, but the reality is even better than I expected – it’s not only warm, but dry! I was highly prone to colds and chest/throat infections at home; I’ve had none here! It’s so dry that your clothes dry overnight indoors, or on your balcony, in summer. Air-drying your clothes instead of tumble-drying does also keep the air from being too dry. Between laundry loads, I’ve resorted to a trick I used in Chicago: leaving bowls of water by radiators. I add some moisturising coconut oil and a few drops of refreshing peppermint and rosemary oils for good measure. (Organic coconut oil is a cheap/natural cleanser and body moisturiser too; no nasty chemicals and it smells like summer — great in Nordic winter. I also cook with it, clean wooden surfaces with it; it’s brilliant. The peppermint/rosemary mix is particularly good for getting rid of the old ‘student apartment building’ smell…) I also brought over rose water and organic Argan oil, which is a great, chemical-free moisturiser, protecting against the cold air and central heating — top tip.

DaylightLampWe still love the snow, which is just as well, since it’ll be here for another few months yet. One of the main reasons is because it really brightens an otherwise greyish city. Our first month here was beautifully sunny with blue skies galore; somewhere in October the clouds moved in and pretty much stayed put. The lack of sunlight can massively affect your wellbeing; Vitamin D is added to many food products here. My mum gave me a sizeable stash of Vitamin D and Folic Acid — which you apparently need to absorb the Vitamin D — before we left. Additionally, many people use wake-up lamps or light therapy lamps. Conor’s parents bought us two for Christmas which we’re trying to use regularly (around half an hour a day for a week is the recommended usage). Those of you back home might benefit from these lamps too — Ireland doesn’t get that much more daylight than this part of Finland. Sunrise here in Jyväskylä is an hour later than in Dublin; sunset an hour earlier, and many people are indoors for most of the day during the week.

One thing I really miss about home is growing my own salads and herbs; I’d a great wee window-box going in our last home in Northern Ireland. Basil and lettuce just kept dying on me here in the lack of daylight (I might start experimenting with these daylight lamps tho’). Fresh fruit and veg here is expensive; in our uni cafeterias it’s actually 20c more for the vegetarian option than the meat! We stock up on frozen veg for soups etc, and got about six months’ worth of dried herbs and spices from an open-air market in our first month.
Photo of a 'korvapuusti' ('slapped ear') Finnish bunSpeaking of which… Cardamom! I love it, and the Finns use it everywhere. Finnish buns, pulla, usually contain cinnamon and cardamom — my favourite’s a type called “korvapuusti”, which means “slapped ear”. (You can see why in this pic.) I’m addicted to blueberry and cardamom “Kolme Kaverin Jäätelö” (“3 Friends’ Ice Cream”) — ice cream genius! Watch these Finnish friends hand-making it, and marvel at the Finnish language. It inspired Elvish. Sho they shay.

Finally, the often-misunderstood sauna (pronounced ‘sow-na’, not ‘saw-na’). Whilst some public saunas are mixed-gender and a few are party-themed, most are almost spiritual places where Finns go for all-important physical and mental relaxation, usually once a week. Yes, they sauna naked, and no, they don’t care if you wear a bathing suit, so long as you shower before wearing it in. There are over 3 million saunas for a population of 5 million; they can be found in family homes, corporate headquarters, public buildings, by lakes, on boats and even in the Finnish parliament buildings. Traditionally Finns alternate between high temperatures and dips in cold water or snow, the mad eejits. The day we arrived back at our apartment building with our new-second-hand sofa – kindly transported by Irishman Ian who owns a local tattoo parlour and Lounge coffee-shop — a naked Finn came bursting out the front door swinging a towel around himself, steam rising off him. We looked at each other and chorused “Not in Ireland!” It’s even a tradition for families to sauna together on Christmas Eve. Just imagine an Irish family sauna for a minute…


Where were we? Oh yes. My first Finnish sauna was in the Radisson Blu Royal the weekend we arrived in Helsinki. It was after some complimentary cocktails in the hotel bar, and was, let’s say, a brief visit. Here in our apartment building, we’ve a weekly 9-10pm sauna booking in our building, and our tolerance for the heat is slowly improving. (The first few times we used it, we’d the door open a bit after about half an hour. I can just hear the Finns swearing in shock.) It’s great to have a sauna before bed to get you nicely drowsy for a good night’s sleep — tho’ sometimes I have to stand on the snowy balcony for a few minutes afterwards to recover, which wakes you up a bit.

So, that was a taste of our new Nordic lifestyle! Now, away off and enjoy a cheap, fresh salad, you lucky ducks.


PS I’ve been asked about the small talk thing since posting this — here are two Finns being Finnish in Jimmy Kimmel’s audience:

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(Note Kimmel says “we have these things called syllables” — oh Jimmy, the Finns have them too… Try: lentokonesuihkuturbiinimoottoriapumekaanikkoaliupseerioppilas)

[This article first appeared in my column in the Irish Sunday Mirror, Jan 2015.]

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6 Responses

  1. Antti says:

    Have you tried something like for growing your own vegetables?

    • Terve, I found ZenGrow’s site before we moved out here; I was considering it but ultimately there were more important things to budget for! (Furniture, bikes, etc.) I see it’s come down in price now tho’, so less of a luxury spend than it was – tempting! Have you used it yourself?

  2. grammar says:


    • Hi there, thanks for the comment! That doesn’t really work here; whilst the Finnish ‘u’ is said to be like the English ‘oo’ in ‘book’, that only really applies to “Queen’s English”, rather than regional accents, including Irish and Northern Irish accents. Plus, English-speakers seeing ‘oo’ on its own/without the ‘k’, are most likely to pronounce it as in ‘boo’ rather than ‘book’, which is slightly closer to the Finnish ‘y’, with some accents! And then there’s the ‘oo’ in flood, pontoon… Without resorting to IPA, it’s easier to use words rather than vowel pairs in English, and the word ‘sow’ is a good approximation of the ‘a-u’ sound (in many accents, ‘sow’ comes out as two syllables). All this is one reason why Finnish is in some ways easier than English! 🙂

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