A little less than a month ago Mark and I moved to Helsinki, Finland. Thanks to an awesome ambassador program his company offers and he was selected for, we’ll be spending all of 2019 in this quirky northern city. A lot has happened since we hopped across the Atlantic on January 4th and while I’ll probably go back and write a couple posts about specific things, consider this a brief introduction.
Nordic, but not Scandinavian
First, a little background on the place we’re calling home for the next year. Nestled between Russia to the East and Sweden to the West (with some water in between) Finland is Nordic, but not Scandinavian. While I considered the two interchangeable, they’re technically a bit different. Scandinavia is a collective term for Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, because of their shared linguistic roots. Nordic, however, goes on to include Finland and Iceland and a handful of islands and territories like Greenland and the Faroe Islands. It’s not really that big of a deal other than Finns don’t consider themselves Scandinavian and might look at you funny if you suggest they are.
Helsinki is at the southern tip of Finland, on a peninsula, and includes 315 islands (!!) It was the 2012 World Design Capital and hosted the 1952 Summer Olympics, amongst other notable achievements that I have yet to find on Wikipedia. And while it does get cold, it doesn’t get AS cold as everyone thinks–right now, we’re hitting the coldest months and the average is 23° F. Coming from Minnesota, that’s downright temperate, almost tropical.
One thing it does do that takes some getting used to though: darkness. When we first got here, “daytime” was really just perpetual dusk. It sneakily messes with your brain convincing you it’s almost dinner time when in fact it is 2pm. Good news though is that the days will only get longer from here until we reach mid-June when we bask in almost 24-hour daylight. Currently searching for a comfortable sleep mask. If you have suggestions, let me know.
St. George Living
For the first two weeks, Mark and I lived at the St. George Hotel. And boy, did we LIVE. A super design-y hotel, the St. George is located in the heart of city center, and is decked out in the latest Finnish and Nordic design. I often saw staff giving tours of the hotel and you can even shop all of the furnishings on the Finnish Design Shop website. Among the amenities, the hotel had a cozy cafe that I spent quite a few days in working remotely. Here, I was able to sample quite a few Finnish pastries (spoiler alert: delicious) and get my ass kicked by Finnish coffee. It took Mark and I a week to figure out that enjoying a second cup any time after 2pm seriously messed with our sleep. Word to the wise: Finnish coffee is not here to mess around.
While the whole hotel was beautiful, quite possibly my favorite part was the spa (read: SAUNA). There’s an estimated 2 million saunas in Finland (population 5 million) and we were super spoiled with this one.
The spa featured a sauna, steam room, and small pool (above) that we quickly acquainted ourselves with. Sauna, as an experience, is legit. It’s both relaxing and invigorating and I love how chill it is. Since this was a mixed gender sauna, bathing suits were required, but usually you go au naturale. You spend about 10 minutes in the dry heat of the sauna and then when you can’t take it anymore you go cool off in the pool. The St. George not only had this small pool to cool off in, they also had a cold tub, which looked like a one-person hot tub, but was absolutely frigid. Talk about a WAKE UP CALL. After cooling down for a bit, you rinse and repeat, usually up to four times. They also had a lounge you could visit in between sessions, with tea and fruit, that made the experience even more luxurious. There’s saunas all over Helsinki, plus we have one in our apartment building, so I’m looking forward to seeing how it’s done elsewhere.
Mark and I have a friend coming to visit in a couple weeks (first visitor!) and we’re planning on going to Allas Sea Pool–one of Helsinki’s saunas located right on the Baltic, where you DO take a dip in the sea to cool down. Stay tuned!
All in all, the St. George Hotel was a great place to stay as we were getting our bearings in our new home. I will say though, after two weeks in a hotel room, I was getting stir crazy and so, so ready to have our own place. That process definitely deserves its own blog post, so until then here’s what else we did in our first month.
Registering, Banking, & Transport, Oh My
This isn’t exactly the sexiest thing to talk about but since it did take a lot of our time, I felt like it would be cool to share. It’s not all coffee and sauna over here!
First, let me start this section off by thanking Mark’s company for providing us with a liaison to help us navigate the registration process here in Finland. If you’ve ever moved abroad or moved to the U.S. from another country on your own, I salute you, because holy cow is there a lot to take care of. Everything needs to be done in a certain order and you need to leave enough time between each matter for things to be processed. For example, in order to get an apartment, we needed a Finnish bank account. And in order to get a Finnish bank account, you need to have the Finnish version of a social security number and have your tax situation in order. Thankfully, our lady, Katariina, had us covered.
She helped us apply for social security and healthcare (Finland is regularly ranked at the top for healthcare in the world!) and figure out what tax percentage to apply for–SUPER important, because if you don’t apply you’re automatically taxed at 60 PERCENT. This is how Finland has nice things.
Katariina also helped us get metro cards, and showed us how to refill them and use them on the trams. And with the amount of snow Helsinki’s had this winter, you best believe I’ll be taking advantage of that tram system.
One more thing Katariina helped us with: banking. Everything here is done electronically so it’s important to get a bank account setup ASAP. For example, for things like utilities, all you do is give the company your address and Finland ID and they set up a direct link with your bank account. To pay rent, you send money from your account to your landlord’s account. No checks. No typing in your number on an online portal. Very direct and efficient. As most Finnish things and people are.
Once we got everything in order we were able to really immerse ourselves in the city for a few days. And while I can’t cover everything right now, I can provide a quick first impression.
Helsinki: First Impression
Helsinki is interestingly and oddly cool. It gives you some traditional European vibes but then hits you with some Finnish design flair that makes you go, “OK, I see you Helsinki.” It’s small in comparison to other European cities, but its location right on the Baltic with hundreds of little islands is second to none, which I feel will be even more enjoyable come summer.
In our first few weeks here, Mark and I did a LOT of walking. A lot of people say the trams are the best “almost free tour bus” in Helsinki, but since we wanted to learn the streets and whatnot we hoofed it.
It doesn’t take long to fall in love with this little city. The buildings are gorgeous, oh so colorful, and quite varied from traditional to modern. Our neighboring apartment building across the street is bright pink and it makes me smile every morning. If you can’t have sun, at least have colorful facades to look at.
Beyond scoping out the architecture in our first few weeks, we also visited a few market halls, the Design Museum, Oodi, the central library, and were able to check out the Lux festival, an annual light show that winds through the Töölö and Kamppi neighborhoods.
It’s been a whirlwind of a month here so far, and this post is only a morsel of everything we’ve done. Stay tuned for the blog posts I mentioned above and ones that cover our trip to Copenhagen, exploring Kallio, and maybe even some helpful ones like, “What I packed and wished I would have packed.” Of course it took me a month to write this one, so who knows when the next one will be. Until then, moi moi!