When I came to Finland I knew the Finnish stereotypes - they like vodka, they go to sauna all the time, and are somehow more cold and distant than Danes. It might be true for the outsiders, but Finland has so much more to offer. My exchange started on a biting cold winter morning in January when I arrived to chilly Helsinki in -10/-15 degrees Celsius, but I soon realized that the cold was just on the outside and not what Finns are like when you get to know them.
My base at the University of Helsinki was the Swedish part called Swedish School of Social Science (Soc&Kom). This part of the university was a completely Swedish speaking part. Finland is a bilingual country with a minority of Fenno-Swedes who have Swedish as their first language. Therefore, everything in the public (more or less) is in Finnish and Swedish. Finland is bilingual as a result of Swedish rule back in the days and it creates sort of a divide between Finns with Finnish or Swedish as their mother tongue.
One thing that struck me as very different from my student life back in Copenhagen was how busy the student life was. All students at the university are somehow connected to student organizations and when they start university they most likely get a representative boiler suit of their study. Going to 'sit sits' - 'academic dinner parties' where you eat, sing Swedish and Finnish drinking songs and where the whole evening is spun in many traditions - once a month was a key part of it; also wearing the student boiler suits. Since we were a few exchange students at Soc&Kom, we got to borrow the suits, and ours were bright yellow.
The boiler suit follows the student (normally) throughout the study time, and every big event is somehow connected to this suit, which you decorate with patches called 'haalarimerkki', which show all student activities you have participated in during the years. It is a good way to socialize with Finns by engaging in student events throughout the semester.
Student life and the student union really cares about its student members. As a student, like in UCPH, students can become part of Unisport - a sports club for students - and get a real meal once a day at the many Unicafés in the city. The thought behind Unicafés is that every student should get at least one nutritious meal a day, as Helsinki can be quite expensive to live in as a student. Life at the University of Helsinki is very much structured by the student. Studying and taking courses were much more flexible than I knew from Denmark and therefore was a good opportunity to try out different approaches to my studies from back home.
Not just a land of saunas
The close proximity to the Baltics and Russia is a great part of Finnish history and culture and makes it possible to go to short trips to explore. For example, Tallinn and St. Petersburg are very close. Plus, as Helsinki lies on the Southern coast of Finland, both countryside with big forests and the archipelago are possible to visit for good day trips.
Take the time to go visit the beauty Finnish nature beholds and use the good location Helsinki has to explore the surroundings. You will see that Finland is not just saunas, vodka and birch trees – it is just a part of it. Go to the saunas as this is an extremely social and meditating activity and where you can get to small talk with Finns which otherwise would not happen often in public!
Do not be confused by the apparent coldness from people in public. When you get to know Finns, you will explore how welcoming and warm they are. Try to learn some Finnish phrases, it will help you and people will appreciate it. Not up for the challenge? Then you can practice your Swedish instead!
In many ways I could recognize a lot from back home, e.g. the love/hate relationship with Sweden, but Finns also have a lot of good things for the soul. Things like going to sauna, seeing the beauty in open land of lakes and forests and using the nature for berries. A land where coffee is a little stronger (I read during my time there that it is normal to use twice as many beans as in Denmark) and you take a little more time to enjoy it. Just because Finland is a country close to Denmark, doesn’t mean that you know the culture beforehand. Be open and curious and you will find how different we can be in Scandinavia alone!
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