Visiting Finland: a word (?page) of advice

Based on experiences from 1996 to date

Sangita Kulathinal and Bijoy Joseph

(Published: June 30, 2009)


Background

This guide is written by two Indians who have lived in Finland for over a decade. The practical issues described here were originally meant for Indians planning to stay in Finland for a month or more, but should be useful to visitors from other countries as well. We hope that this guide will help you to settle down in Finland rather quickly. Remember, this is exactly what it says it is - a guide. So, postpone reading this until after you leave, and enjoy your stay in this great country inhabited by taciturn, intelligent people with a reluctance to wear anything but black.

Being part of a diverse country like India, Finland might initially seem rather homogeneous. You will observe some similarity in people's habits and manners throughout the country (like speaking in low pitch, smiling but not laughing, punctuality). You may like to read more on the comparison between India and Finland with regard to some specific themes within a sociological framework. Even though it may not appear so on the surface, social ties do flourish in this industrialised country.

The language of Finland is Finnish and it belongs to the Finno-Ugric group of languages. Though there are some alphabets which are new to us, fortunately Finnish words are pronouced just the way they are written. Keep in mind that "j" is pronounced as "i" and "y" is pronounced as "u". There are good books available if you are interested in learning Finnish. South Indians should find Finnish rather easy to learn since Finnish grammar is quite similar to that of the Dravidian languages.

Preparing to visit Finland

Indians require a visa to enter Finland which is a signatory to the Schengen agreement. A Schengen visa enables you to travel to other Schengen states without additional travel permits or visas (the name comes from the town of the same name, where the agreement was signed). Details regarding visa types and applications can be found on the website of the Embassy of Finland, New Delhi (http://www.finland.org.in/). If you are coming to Finland to study for less than two years then you will have to arrange for a health insurance too (this is necessary for the visa application!). If you intent to stay and work for at least two years then you can register with the Finnish social security system (KELA) and you can avail of the health services. Also, most companies and institutions usually provide private healthcare facilities. We recommend that you enquire about the social security system (and your eligibility for it) when visiting the embassy for the visa.

Getting started

Greetings and addressing: It is polite to wish your colleagues in the morning (hyvää huomenta), and every Friday afternoon (hyvää viikonloppua). It is also expected that you thank people for everything (well, almost) by saying kiitos! Finns are great believers in equality and dignity. Irrespective of the age (or position) of a person the first name is used to address him or her (try using 'madam' on your office secretary, and see how far it gets you).

Keys, garbage and sundry items: If you live in an apartment and if you happen to lose your house key, the contact number of the janitor or the company that provides janitorial services can usually be found on the main door to the building. Try not to lose your keys since it will cost you money to get your apartment opened and to get another key. It will cost more to get your apartment opened at night!

Garbage segregation at source is practised in Finland, and a large part of the garbage generated in Finland is recycled (more than 55%). Find out about garbage segregation and sort your household garbage accordingly.

Household items: If you are staying at students' apartments then you will have to use shared laundry. Alternatively, you could rent a washing machine, or buy a used one. Almost all household items (winter clothing included) can be bought from second-hand stores such as UFF, recycling centres (kierrätyskeskus) and other places with the sign 'Kirppis' or 'Kirpputori'. Buying used items is not considered infra dig since you are really contributing to the idea of recycling. You may like to read about "On an outing" from YTV web pages.

Getting around: Cities in Finland have an excellent network of public transportation, and a variety of travel passes are available to suit your needs (monthly, daily, single use etc.). If you plan to live in Helsinki, visit http://www.ytv.fi/FIN/ and if in Tampere then visit http://www.tampere.fi/english/publictransport/ to learn more. Arrange for a suitable travel pass since public transport is the cheapest way to get around.

Every street n Finland is well-marked so it is easy to get around if you have a map. Pick up maps and find your way around yourself, rather than stopping passersby to ask for directions. You can use journey planners from the pulbic transportation website to find out suitable transportation to your destination. The telephone directories also contain maps and an index of street names. If you have access to the internet, then try the service from http://kartat.eniro.fi for the whole country, or from http://kartta.hel.fi for Helsinki.

Indian driving licences (four-wheelers only) are valid in Finland during the first year of your stay. You can hand in your Indian licence and get a EU driving licence within a year of arrival in Finland provided two people with Finnish driving licences can certify that you are a reasonably good driver and that they have seen you driving in Finland. Keeping a car is rather expensive in Finland especially if you plan to buy an old car and are not a DIY-enthusiast. The car insurance premiums are quite high. In any case you probably do not need a car to get to work. Depending on your work contract, you might be entitled to a leased company car, which is perhaps the best option. Those who do not have this option could join a car club where you get to rent cars rather cheaply. Traffic in Finland is well-regulated, so remember to drive carefully, and not Indian-style (keep in mind that honking the horn is considered rude). An explanation of the Finnish road signs are available from the transport ministry's web site. It is mandatory to use winter tyres during winter months. If you plan to drive in snowy conditions, have a look at the online weather cameras from various parts of the country. For more information, visit http://www.tiehallinto.fi/. If you are caught speeding, you will have to pay a fine, the amount of which will depend upon your annual earnings (and perhaps also on how many people are dependent upon that). Follow this link for BBC's take on the traffic fines in Finland.

Banks and tax cards: You will need a local bank account for salaries, fellowships etc. It is a common practice to use a debit card for payments, so there is not so much need to carry cash with you. In Finland, tax is deducted at source and the salary is deposited in your bank account. So, you need to get a tax card if you have salaried work, otherwise nearly 50% of your salary will be deducted as tax. Check this out as soon as you sign the work contract after your arrival in Finland.

Social life: Having friends or a social circle here is as difficult or as easy as in India. The difference here is that you may not get to know your neighbours even after staying in the same building for several years. Try to mix with the locals and learn more about the life in Finland. Adopt some local ways so that you do not feel an outsider (try not to limit this to sauna, sausages and beer!). In Finland, it is a common practice to call ahead to visit or meet someone. If you are invited to visit then you usually return the invitation and at least send a thank-you note soon after the visit. Take a small gift like flowers (not white lily though), ice-cream, wine or some Indian speciality and keep time. The Finnish custom is to take your shoes off when you enter the house. The lady of the house may not like it at all if the visitor walks in with shoes on.

Finns are considered masters of silence, and have perfected this to a fine art. Since they do not speak much (except of an evening, when they have had a bit too much beer!), take care not to interrupt when they are speaking. Most importantly, your word is legally binding! Be careful with your words and talk to the point!

Keeping fit, and occupied: Finland has excellent sports facilities, and the municipalities provide quite many services. There are also private sports centres which are slightly more expensive. If you are not careful you might end up putting on a lot of kilos especially in winter. You can take part in sports and make visits to the sports centre a part of your routine, which will also keep you occupied. If you like cycling then you get yourself a bicycle for the summer (you can try cycling in winter, too, but at your own risk). Finland also has good city libraries so visit one in your area and become a member. The service is free! The municipal libraries also have internet access, and rent out DVDs and CDs, too.

For those who are interested in trying their hand at farming on a kitchen-garden scale, the municipalities of Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa rent out small plots (approx. 10x10 sq. m.) of land for a small sum (25-40 EUR per year) where you can grow vegetables and berries. Besides being out in the sun in the spring and summer, the exercise of digging up the half-frozen ground will bring colour to your cheeks (and a bit of muscle on your back!). The vegetables that you grow yourself will taste much better than store-bought ones, we assure you!

Surviving: A healthy breakfast and lunch are the main meals of the day. All institutions (and business houses) have special lunch places with special lunch prices. The lunches are reasonably priced and you can enjoy salad and bread with the main course. If you are a vegetarian, and are not used to cream and cheese, you will have to put in extra efforts to enjoy the food. You can also buy ready-to-eat items from the shops. If you plan to eat outside, there are also plenty of restaurants to choose from. Indian and Nepalese restaurants have grown in number in the recent years.

You will be able to find spices, grains, vegetables etc. from ethnic shops. So, no worries! You can start cooking if you do not like local food. However, remember that your clothes may smell of oily food, curry powder or other masalas, which is kind of unpleasant. We do not realise this since the houses in India are well ventilated or may be we smell the masalas everywhere so it is in the air all the time. When you cook Indian-style food then keep windows open or close the kitchen door (if there is one). Never cook in clothes that you plan to wear outside. Take particular care of jackets and coats since the oil and masala smell will stick to them - keep jackets and other clothes in closed cupboards. People might be reluctant to sit next to you in a bus if your clothes smell of food (they usually are, even otherwise :-) ).

Dress code: You might hear people say that Finland enjoys the freedom of no dress code. Certainly, you can go in sports clothes to any place except possibly to the opera (and to family gatherings). On the other hand, you need different kinds of clothing and footwear for different seasons. You also need indoor shoes if you use indoor sports facilities. You can always dress formally in an Indian style dress, and believe us it is much liked and appreciated.

Working life: Finland has a 5-day working week. Working life in Finland is not too hectic, but of course, it depends on the individual. You will not have any help with household work (unless you are prepared to shell out most of your salary) so learn to do that efficiently. Though, it is possible to get help in cleaning the house for a reasonable sum of money (approx. 30 EUR/hour) If you are a couple and both are working then you both must share the household work as well. A single-worker household is a rarity in Finland, since it is not easy to make ends meet on a single salary. To be able to do the least housework, adopt the Finnish routine and eat your (subsidised) lunch outside, and keep dinner simple, e.g. salad, sandwich etc.

Holidays in Finland

Once you have got started in Finland and have put in enough work, it will be time for some holidays. Indians tend to save the holidays for the later years and wait till retirement to take them in bulk. Fortunately, you will not be able to do that here! Holidays are as important as work. Experience life in the country-side, walk in the forest, collect berries and mushrooms (eat at your own risk), walk on the sea in winter (be another Jesus), go grilling, swimming or hiking and so on. Find out more from the locals. Explore other Schengen states if you are going to be here for some time. Take a ferry to Tallin, Stockholm or Rostock, drive to Denmark, Norway or the Baltic states, take a package tour to St. Petersburg, go cycling through the archipelago etc. Go look for bears in Eastern Finland, cross the Arctic Circle and experience the wilderness of Lapland. You might not find a bear there, but you will at least be able to see reindeer (a.k.a. caribou). If you get to like Lapland, you may think that Helsinki is crowded, and Bombay or Delhi will seem suffocatingly over-crowded!

Remember: Remember that Finnish people are very helpful, but only if you ask (meaning, they are not intrusive)! They strongly believe in doing things themselves so put in some efforts to find things out before asking.

More information

The international edition of Helsingin Sanomat maintains a page of useful links on its web site.


Photographs from Finland

Click to enlarge!

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Imatra rapids
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Kerimäki church
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Russian Orthodox
church, Ilomantsi
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Oulu
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Vaasa market square
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Autumn colours
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Santa's office, Rovaniemi
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Arctic circle, Rovaniemi
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Tyrvään kirkko, Vammala
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Car carrier (car-go?),
Helsinki Railway station
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Kilpisjärvi
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Border between Norway,
Finland and Sweden
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Kilpisjärvi to Tromsø
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Snow-laden mountains,
Norway
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Tromsø, Norway
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Tromsø
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Tromsø
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Picnic spot
by the fjord
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Lapland
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Reindeer, Lapland
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Panning for gold,
Tankavaara
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Pyhätunturi
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Hostel in Vaasa
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Church village,
Lövånger, Sweden
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Pint-sized cattle,
Sweden
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Artic circle,
Jäkkvik, Sweden
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Road from Arvidsjaur
to Bodø, mid-June
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Mountain pass, Sweden
to Norway, mid-June
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Saltstraumen Maelstrom,
near Bodø, Norway
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Back to Luleå
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Abisko, Sweden
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Trailer camp, Abisko
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Kiruna, Sweden
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Gällivare, Sweden
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Mosquito museum
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Swamp, Lapland
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To Kirkenes
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Grense Jakobselv,
Norway-Russia border
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Stone church,
Grense Jakobselv
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Gutter pipe art
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Utsjoki
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Yläpostojoki
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Ruokolahti, near Imatra
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New church, Sipoo
viewed from the old
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Colourful street
lamps, Ilomantsi
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Ilomantsi
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Dry toilet, Hattuvaara,
E. Finland
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Angeli forest
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Inari
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Lappish hut (Kota)
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Inarinjärvi
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Road through the
fells, Lapland
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Reindeer
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Ripple marks,
Pyhätunturi
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Ski lift, Pyhä
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Pieni Karhunkierros,
Kuusamo
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Rapids, Kuusamo
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Karhunkierros
trail, Kuusamo
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Jyrävä, Kuusamo
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Kemijoki river,
Pelkosenniemi, Lapland
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Kuusamonkirkko
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Julma Ölkky, Hossa
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Helsinki,
mid-November
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Helsinki
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Garbage segregation
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Auttiköngas,
near Kemijärvi
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Backroads
in Kuusamo
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Near Juma, Kuusamo
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Eastern Border,
south of Kuhmo
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Hamina town

2009.06.30
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