Paola, Helsinki

Who are you?

My name is Paola, I am a IT professional and mother of two toddlers through birth and international adoption.

Where, when and why did you move abroad?

I was born and raised in Italy, but in 2010 I moved to Helsinki, Finland.The original plan was to go and study one year here under the programme Erasmus, but soon enough I decided to stay. My Italian (now) husband joined me one year afterwards. I did not know anything about Finland when I moved here, yet I fell in love with this amazing country in a matter of months!

What challenges did you face during the move?

Moving was fairly easy because I had a job opportunity waiting for me. At first my husband was unemployed and he met a lot of resistance with immigration officials, even though we were EU citizens. We had to work for months with authorities to justify his moving to Finland. For us it was obvious, but since we were not married at the time, it was not for them. After he found employment, everything went smoother. Over the years I would say cultural integration remains a hard and standing challenge.

Are there many other expats in your area?

We are very lucky because the capital area hosts about 2/3 of all immigrants living in Finland. Helsinki and the neighbour towns of Vantaa and Espoo are very multicultural. I know expats living in other areas of Finland and their experience is very different and harsher on many levels. Compared to other EU countries, Finland has a ridiculously low number of people with foreign backgrounds (including people with double citizenship). However, I have witnessed things changing dramatically in the past 8 years and my feeling is that Finland is opening up and becoming more international.

What do you like about life where you are?

I hate to enter in the rhetoric of the grateful immigrant, but I truly feel grateful to Finland and Finnish people, because this society truly allows me to live the life I have always dreamt of as a person, a woman, and a mother. The major positive aspect of living here are the welfare policies, which truly support families with children. In practice it means long parental leaves, cheap childcare, good policies for working parents, great work-life balance, and all services in the right places. Here I truly feel I’m living life to the fullest.

What do you dislike about your expat life?

I often have the feeling I’m not Italian anymore, yet I’m not Finnish. I feel being an expat tastes like never feeling truly at home. I would describe it as an evergreen feeling of discomfort you need to learn to live with. In more practical terms, I would say the language barrier is the aspect that makes me uncomfortable the most. Finnish is a very hard language to learn and even though I am managing it fairly well, I have the feeling I will never be fluent and because of that, my opportunities as a professional and as a citizen will be limited.

What is the biggest cultural difference you have experienced between your new country and life back home?

Oh boy, where do I start. I want to be fair both to my birth and my home country, so I will find one positive aspect in both which I don’t find in the other. In Finland, I discovered a better civic sense towards the community. In Italy everyone looks out for themselves and often this leads to absurd situations where people cannot see beyond their personal immediate gain. In Finland, I see the community coming together to solve the common issues and societal initiatives which point towards an investment in the long term.

On the other hand, sometime I miss the Italian flexibility. Finnish people are very well-organised, but sometimes they stick too closely to their rules and miss a chance to make an exception.

What do you think of the food and drink in your new country? What are your particular likes or dislikes?

Are you sure you want to ask this to an Italian expat?! Mostly we cook Italian food at home, with an Indian twist sometimes. However, I have been learning to use the Finnish seasonal ingredients. You have never truly tasted berries or strawberries until you have eaten the Finnish ones. I think Finnish people cook (excellent) traditional food during special occasions, but their home food is quite sad. For this reason, I love to go to Finnish restaurants but when I cook at home, I stick to Italian.

What advice would you give to anyone following in your footsteps?

Don’t move to Finland without a job. Finland is a great place to live, but moving without a job opportunity waiting for you will likely result in a lot of closed doors. The Finnish immigration system is very utilitarian, only those who can contribute to society can get in.

If you have found an occupation, then my second piece of advice is to learn Finnish. It will be painful, but it will pay off and it will help avoid isolation.

What are your plans for the future?

My plan is to grow old in Finland. I truly enjoy our daily life here and the more time goes by, I feel more and more at home.

You can keep up to date with Paola's adventures on her blog, The Elephant Mum.

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