Staying close to home: From Russia to Finland

Expat interviews
  • Alexander
Published on 2017-04-27 at 06:52
You don't have to go too far from home to experience a new culture and lifestyle... sometimes your new home can be just a three-and-a-half-hour train ride away. Alexander decided to move to Finland after frequent visits for weekends away. He got the opportunity to further his career, and made the leap. Here, he talks with about life in Finland and just what it takes to make a new start abroad.

Please introduce yourself. Where are you from, what are you doing in Finland, and what were you doing before you arrived?

I'm Alexander and my hometown is St. Petersburg, Russia. Now I live in Vantaa (Bigger Helsinki area). I love my hometown, and I'm glad that I didn't move far away. I am trying to get the best from two different worlds: Finland and Russia. In Russia, I was working in software engineering consulting and completing a degree in mechanical engineering. I was hanging out with expats a lot, and I think it is they who motivated me to try life in another country.

I have always loved Finland. In Russia, I was really busy, and getting to Finland for a weekend was a stress reliever. Besides actual travelling, it felt like moving was the right idea career-wise. I got a call from a friend who told me that he had just recommended me to a Russian-Finnish company and the job was a perfect match to my skills. I took the job offer almost immediately. I've been living in Finland for five years already, and, during that time, I've completed my degree in Aatlo University.

What is the process to move to Finland?

The process was quite extreme for me! First of all, I agreed the transition with my employer. It meant two things: I had to change the office and I had to change the university. About a week before the IELTS exam, someone stole my laptop with all my study materials and left me with a moderate injury. The IELTS administration allowed me to postpone the exam. During these few days I had to try to recover, deal with the police investigation and continue my preparation. I barely made the needed IELTS score.

The second thing was my diploma. At the time I was leaving, my university did not have a bachelor/masters system. It took a while to figure things out, but (I quote): “the diploma of completion of incomplete higher education” was given and it was approved by a Finnish university as bachelor degree equivalent. The university I was applying to had a fee for non-EU citizens, but because I got a working visa via my job, I didn't have to pay this. Upon arrival in Finland I needed to register at the Maistraatti (register office) and the tax office.

What is your favorite thing and least favorite thing about Finland?

Forest by a lake
© Alexander Popkov

The thing I like most is the connection of nature and modernity. You live in a modern country and, at the same time, you don't leave nature. I like seeing trees out of my panoramic window or beautiful farmland when sitting in a train. Least favorite thing, well, people here are not the most communicative, it takes much more time to become friends with someone. 

What has surprised you the most about Finland?

The amount of ridiculous competitions. Finns say: “Life here is sometimes so boring, which is why we have to come up with very creative solutions to entertain ourselves”. You can take part in contests such as mobile throwing, wife carrying, mosquito killing, snow swimming, swamp football, and so on.

What are the year's biggest holidays in Finland? What is some essential etiquette?

In Finland, the biggest one is Christmas. At that time of year, Finnish Lapland becomes a hot spot, people head there to ski resorts, to meet Santa, and take part in other activities offered by the welcoming North. Other big celebrations are Juhannus and Vappu.

In terms of etiquette, Finns are very punctual and like following the schedules. I have to say I had to reconsider some of my habits to fit better.

What is transportation like in Finland?

Tram in Finland
© Alexander Popkov

Public transportation and cycling infrastructure are very good! So good that I haven't exchanged my driving licence since moving from Russia.

The trains are very comfortable and, most of the time, quite empty. I also like the rural views outside. Normally, I do some of my studies or work on the blog while sitting in a train. I carry a foldable bicycle with me, because regular bikes are forbidden during rush hour. I was surprised by how many people ride bicycles in winter. I once saw a man riding one with a bass violin during a snowstorm! In Finland, they heat up tiny stones and drop them onto the roads, so you get a very good grip. It may look complicated, but riding in winter is easy.

What is your opinion on the cost of living in Finland?

The cost of living here is quite high and I end up spending a lot on food and transportation. I live in Vantaa and my work is in Hyvinkää (25 min by train from Helsinki). A season ticket for a month costs about 200 euros. A regular, one-way ticket from Helsinki to Vantaa is about 6 euros. A business lunch is around 9-10 euros, while eating out in a restaurant in the evening costs around 20-30 euros.

When you work in Finland, you have some benefits. For example, because I travel far for work, I get a small tax deduction. From my office I get lunch cards (30% cheaper) and sport/hobby cards to pay for the gym, cinema, etc.

What is something that you would like to do in Finland, but haven't had the opportunity to do yet?

In my blog, I wanted to cover the work of Finnish designers, and for this, visit the beautiful village called Fiskars. I also want to go for some longer hikes in Karelia, and yes, participate in some of the Finnish competitions -- snow swimming would be a good place to start.

Share your most memorable experience in Finland.

Northern Lights
© Alexander Popkov

The Northern Lights, right over my head! The lights were way larger than we expected. Imagine yourself on a completely white hill, seeing nothing, but the colors moving around the sky. People were gathering up, bringing hot glögi and food, and looking into the sky.

If you could do the move to Finland, over, what would you do differently?

I would study the Finnish language differently. My friends are English speaking, my job was in English and so were my studies; I hardly had time to study the Finnish language. I would start with an intensive Finnish language course, and also in my free time I would do some online exercises. The normal Finnish courses take a lot of time and effort, but online courses can be taken at your own pace.

What do you think of the local cuisine? What are your favorite dishes?

Most Finnish cuisine is related to reindeer and salmon. I love traditional salmon soup as well as other salmon dishes. The reindeer meat, I would recommend it in good specialist Lappish restaurants.

What do you miss the most about your home country?

Several things -- my friends, 24-hour restaurants and big parties on small ships. In my homeland people are more open and easy going, which I miss a lot. However, the high-speed train to St. Petersburg takes only 3.5 hours, so when I am missing home I can go there for the weekend.

What motivated you to write your blog 'Engineer on Tour'?

Store front
© Alexander Popkov

I realised that I love photography and I am trying to create visually strong stories, so I decided to try out blogging. I do believe I have something to share about Finland, travelling and engineering. With the blog, I started getting to know people who really appreciate my work and share my points of view. They motivate me to constantly improve my content and skills.

Give us useful tips that soon-to-expatriates in Finland will benefit from.

The Finnish language is difficult to learn and it doesn't come naturally; you have to study a lot before you start picking up words. If you don't plan to stay in Finland for long, it is easy to get by in English.

People may look unfriendly, but this is not the case. Generally, it takes more time to become friends with Finns. I was told that you have to make two steps towards friendship and they will make a half of step. A good idea is to go to the sauna together, or to a bonfire in one of the national parks. At these spots “everyone is equal” and much easier to talk to.

If you had to advise an expat on five items to bring with them in Finland, which would that be?

Bring wine from duty-free as it is expensive here. I personally don't drink, but still take it to bring to a party or as a present. Electronics are normally expensive in Finland, when the difference is significant, I order it from Germany or the UK. The climate can be tough. I usually buy some simple honey-flavoured cough-drops in Russia. Take some ingredients for your local dishes. Last, Finland is known for outdoor activities, so don't forget your favorite gear.

What are your plans for the future?

In around a year I am getting a Finish language certificate and applying for Finnish citizenship. During this time, I will  also be developing my blog. Then, I am thinking of taking a long-term trip around the world.

What is one thing that you will take with you from Finland?

Knive(s). The Lappish knives are a good connection of traditions and modern manufacturing. With their hand-made elements, they look very beautiful and are always useful.

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