Retire In Finland

making the move of a lifetime

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We Are In Tampere!

Tampere– Koskipuisto Park

We have arrived and have been here for six months already. I can’t believe how time has just flown by! So much has happened and there is so much to write about  I’m just going to have to start somewhere, so I might as well start out by telling you about the city we landed in.

We are in the city of Tampere. Tampere is the third largest city in Finland, the first two being Helsinki and Espoo (a suburb of Helsinki). According to Wikipedia it had a population of 223,292 in 2011. For comparison, it’s about the size of Reno, Nevada– so not such a large city, but for a tiny country like Finland it is a major city. It is located about 2 hours by car north of Helsinki. The city is located between two large lakes so water and shoreline are quite important to the city, although it is inland. Many of the local people tell me that Tampere is the perfect Finnish city. it is just the right size. It is large enough to have interesting things to do and see and yet it is small enough to get around easily. Some say it is like a very large village. By way of introduction I’m including a link here for a video introduction to the city.

One of the first things I noticed– and loved– about this city is the charm of all the old brick factory buildings that have been repurposed to create a lovely backdrop to a vibrant little city.  It has an industrial heritage much like many of the cities of the American Northeast. On some level it reminds me of Lowell, MA– but without the grime. The factory buildings today are museums, office buildings, shops, and restaurants.The Tammerkoski rapids divide the centre of the city. Where once they powered the factories, they now give charm to the city with the beautiful Koskipuisto Park lining the banks.

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Vapriiki Museum Center

Tampere is was once a manufacturing centre but now is looking more towards technology for its future. The town of Nokia, famous for cellphones and tires, is only a few kilometres away. The Tampere University of Technology is a research centre that drives several startups. Tampere actually has two universities. The University of Tampere also supports a great deal of research.

In the summer we spent a lot of our free time exploring our new city.  One of my favorite things about Tampere (which is also true for other Finnish cities) is all the outdoor markets.

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They are available every day, unlike American farmers’ markets that operate on very limited schedules. It’s possible to buy berries, wild mushrooms, flowers, veggies, and other products in season. There are several of these stands in Tampere. with their offering changing along with the changing season. Strawberries, while in season were offered by the flat as well as in smaller quantities. These were delicious, juicy, sweet strawberries– they didn’t keep well but there was no need to worry about it. They were all eaten!

What is the absolute best thing about Tampere? it is that it has everything necessary for living a good life. For me, that means access to services and opportunities for learning new things and being active. When we first arrived we spent a couple of weeks searching for language schools for both of us. There were several choices once we started looking. My husband started out in a private language school called Didaskalos where he spent the summer immersed in an intensive course that met 5 days a week. I found a course at the Summer University or Kesäyliopisto which met my needs nicely. I already spoke some Finnish when we arrived and didn’t think I needed to start at the very beginning with the language course. Both courses kept us pretty busy and working hard for the entire summer. We are continuing now in the fall in slower courses, at a more relaxed pace. We are in  no big hurry to be fluent in Finnish (although it would be nice!).

We found the health centre that serves our part of the city and made appointments to see doctors and fill our prescriptions. The appointments were made over the phone with hardly any wait time at all. The day we arrived at the health center we had minimal paperwork to complete (none!). We showed our id’s (hadn’t yet received our Kela cards) and were seated in the waiting area. We were called in to see the doctor within a couple of minutes of our appointed times. We both received scripts for our maintenance meds and follow up appointments as necessary. It was all incredibly easy. The health service uses computerised records so our prescriptions were easily picked up at a nearby apteeki  and we were on our way! We now seem to be in the “system” as we have both received letters with appointment times and locations for regular screening appointments. It’s nice that the “system” now schedules us and we no longer have to keep track of these things ourselves.

One of my dreams in retirement was to finally find time to really learn to play the cello. I brought mine with me with that in mind. It turns out that even this is going to be possible here. I discovered that Tampere has two wonderful adult education programs with hundreds of courses and seminars in all sorts things that people may want to learn. The programs are Ahjola  and Tampereen Seudun Työväenopisto and (It probably has something to do with long, dark winters.) For example,  there are courses in foreign languages, arts and crafts, music, nature, sciences, writing, among other things. I found a course called “Sellot soimaan rhymässä” or Playing Cellos in a Group– in the comments it said it was OK if one was a beginner, but nothing more. I decided to take a chance on it. All I can say is Wow! I’m so glad I did! There is something magical about sitting in a circle with cellos playing musical parts, like in a choir. The music is not challenging, but it is fun! Besides the group, I have found a private teacher for lessons once a week. I’ll have to keep you posted on my progress.

One more great thing about living here is the transportation network. We made a conscious decision when moving to Finland to live without a car. In Tampere it is entirely possible without any loss to quality of life. The busses run pretty frequently and are pretty good about staying on time according to their schedules. The city is investing in a new tram system that is now under construction which I plan to write more about in a future post. Not having a car also forces us to walk a lot more than we have for years. Even without dieting I have been losing weight and feeling better just because I’m getting more exercise.

This is just a little about our new home. I have many things I would love to write about in these pages. I’d also like to know what you are curious about. Leave a comment. Please.

It’s Really Happening

https://flickr.com/photos/juhotee/8167410691 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Until just a couple of weeks ago all my thinking and talking about moving to Finland did not have the sense of reality it suddenly does today.  Recently we’ve had a confluence of events that really got things moving. We sold one of my husbands properties that he inherited from his mom. After six years and lots of aggravation we suddenly had a cash buyer which was going to give us cash to put towards a property. On a suggestion, I started looking for homes in Tampere after long searching Etuovi and Vuokraovi for properties in the greater Helsinki area. I came across a 3 room apartment in the Härmälänranta area that just popped off the screen at me. I sent a message to Skanska, the developer and received a message back that it was not only available, but the financial details were very acceptable. We put our house on the market and we had a buyer the first day. Now we are on our way!

I asked may daughter- in-law who is studying in Helsinki to take a trip to Tampere to check out the apartment I had chosen online. She took a day trip to Tampere, met with Skanska and reported back that I probably wouldn’t be satisfied with the apartment because the area was being built very densely, but there was a much nicer apartment close to the lake that might be better suited to us. This second apartment is a bit more expensive and almost completed. If we were to take it we’d have to be ready to take it over on April 27th. Of course it was a great apartment with a good view of Pyhäjärvi so we reserved it. Now our timeline is super-compressed. We needed to put everything suddenly into high gear.

If something looks complicated, sometimes it’s really even more complicated when you actually get involved. That’s how the purchase of the apartment is going. In order to secure the apartment I need to make a deposit of around 20,000 euros paid to their bank in Tampere. That seems easy, I just gather the funds into my bank account and wire them to the other bank account, right? No… the money has to come from a Finnish bank account. I don’t have a Finnish bank account. I looked around in Finland looking for a bank that would open an online account for me. I thought it should be possible. I have online accounts here in the US at banks I have never been to. But not in Finland. I am required to appear in person at the bank with my passport and Finnish social security number. I booked a short trip to Finland and last week I opened a Finnish Bank account.

We are living in a house about twice the size of the new apartment and we have a basement full of stuff. it’s pretty clear that our things were not going to fit into this new place. We have a lot of things. My husband has been a fisherman for most of his life and has collected tackle. I have no idea how much he has. I like sewing and quilting and have an entire room devoted to my crafts in our present house. These things won’t fit into the new place even if we wanted to bring them along. I’m in a big hurry to get rid of them, along with furniture, books, CD’s old clothes, and the things that one collects just by living. We will ship some things by container to Finland sometime soon.  The space in the container is reserved for really precious things we don’t want to get rid of. Everything else be sold or tossed in the next 5 weeks.

 

 

 

 

Why Are We Leaving the US?

It’s a almost a month after the Trump inauguration and every day I feel I recognize this country I’m living in–my country– less and less. Lately I’ve been thinking about my earlier life, remembering how nearly 40 years ago while I was in graduate school in electrical engineering at a pretty good public university in California I was very optimistic about my future. My world had been rapidly changing. It was the late 70’s–feminism had had a huge impact on my life.  Women were entering the workforce and there had been huge changes in attitudes towards women like me, pursuing a career that had pretty much been the stronghold of men.

I was born in the 50’s to immigrant parents. They had both arrived in the US from Finland around 1948 with nothing. They had no money, no education, no property and no English. They met and married in Michigan, my father selling door to door for the Fuller Brush Co. to make ends meet. My first language was Finnish, learning English outside the house, on the streets. From this beginning, my father moved his family to California, got a job driving heavy equipment, working the build the roads, freeways and parking lots of a fast growing California infrastructure. He was able to buy a house soon after arriving in California and continued to provide a comfortable middle-class existence for his wife and  four children until a fatal work injury killed him. My mother was left as a single mother with four children. She went to work as a clerk-typist, working for the federal government and receiving social security benefits that helped support her children. We stayed on the house they had bought, but my mother, working in her clerical job was able to support a family of  five on only her salary and the dependents’ benefits from social security. I won’t say we lived lavishly, but it was a solid middle-class existence for us.

Eventually I went on to college. It was not a huge financial deal as it would be today. I applied, got accepted and submitted my financial aid application. I was accepted and given  grants and scholarships that, along with my social security dependents’ benefits paid my tuition and fees and left enough for me to live on. I never had to take out loans. The cost of attending the University of California was a little over $600 per year at the time. For that, I got free access to the student health center and a free transit pass on the local bus system. After college I got a job in the defense industry as an engineer. I got married and had two kids. I bought a house and did all the things a hopeful young person did in those days.   Until that point, life had just sort of moved in an upward trajectory. Why wouldn’t it continue?

There is a parable about a frog in hot water. It says that if you put a frog in very hot water he will quickly jump out, but if you put him in cold water and turn up the heat he will sit happily in the water until he’s cooked to death. In my story, someone turned up the heat about the time I graduated. Something happened. Things never got better.

I didn’t notice how things were changing until they had gotten much worse. I juggled the needs of a growing family with a career on my own without complaining. I was just too busy to notice. Along the way my health care was slowly eroding. In the 1980’s when I was in my 20s having children my health insurance was very comprehensive and free. My employer paid for it in full. Slowly, over time, I was required to pay more and more and while getting poorer and poorer coverage. When I first started working, my employer provided a defined benefit retirement plan. Somewhere along the way, i became responsible for retirement saving and my defined benefit plan disappeared. Around 2000 my children went off to college where the tuition bill instead of being hundreds of dollars and year was costing thousands per year and the banks were less than transparent about the terms of loans. I kept on living, got divorced, remarried, moved, sold and bought houses until I came to live in the house I live in now. I don’t know how it happened, perhaps I was too trusting but somehow I got involved with a mortgage that wasn’t what the initial paperwork said it would be. A man had come out to the house and pushed us through the documentation so fast I couldn’t take time to read it carefully. I’m not sure it matters. But I find myself holding a mortgage that feels less than honest. The payments are higher than expected and the interest rate is also higher.

So here I am, my healthcare is uncertain, my retirement is uncertain, my housing is uncertain and it seems that the younger generation will never find themselves free of college debt. As I look around it seems that it’s just not me who has had bad luck; Americans are angry about the changes. If the world wonders how we elected Donald Trump it’s not hard to see if you live here. I worry about the future. I try to extrapolate the trend line and I can’t imagine where it’s going. I haven’t, however, seen anything yet that might reverse the trend.

 

Why am I moving to that dark, cold, miserable corner of the world? Because it feels safe.

 

 

 

A Quick Visit to Finland in Winter

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I was in Finland for only a little over a week in December at absolutely the darkest part of the year just to see how it feels to be there when it’s cold and there isn’t much light.  I’ll admit I had other motives too (my son lives in Helsinki for the time being), but mostly I needed to see for myself if the darkness was something I thought I could live with. If you are reading this from somewhere far away from the north pole you probably are not aware of how dark it can get so far north. On the shortest day of the year, around December 21, a Helsinki day is about 5 hours, 49 minutes long. In Boston, close to where I live now, by contrast it is 9 hours, 5 minutes long. The difference is a little over 3 hours. You can check your own location here. I don’t know if it makes a big difference. What I discovered on this trip is that Helsinki is a really great city for me.

It was interesting  how the cold, dark winter made me feel like slowing down.  I don’ know if its true, but it seemed just much more quiet than it ever does during a summer visit. The darkness is like a blanket that shrouds the country and puts it to bed. I’ve always loved getting up in the morning before the sun to drink coffee and read the newspaper. I wouldn’t even have to get up early to do that in the winter. It might be dark and slow in the winter, but there are still plenty of things to do for someone who wants to go out.

One of the most memorable things we did was to attend a hockey game.

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According to the Hockey Writers the Finnish SM-Liiga or the Finnish Elite League is the fourth best league in the world after the NHL, KHL, and the Swedish Elite League. In any case, both teams played really well–it was great fun to watch. The night we went HIFK, the Helsinki team, played Vaasa Sport.  For Americans like us there were a few differences between their game and the NHL games we’ve been to. Most obvious to us was the fact that the ice is larger. There were some differences in the rules, but interesting to me was the seriousness of the crowd. These people had come to watch hockey! Alcohol was not allowed in the stands so no drunken rowdiness that I could see from where I sat. No kiss-cam or mugging for the Jumbotron cameras. No distractions, I loved it! Best of all the game went into a shoot-out. HIFK won on a shot from Joonas Rask, the brother of my favorite Boston Bruins goalie, Tuukka Rask.

One night we went out to a public sauna, more specifically we went to Kultuurisauna in the Hakaniemi section of Helsinki.  How do I begin to explain this experience to someone who has never tried real Finnish sauna? Men and women were separated into separate facilities for the actual sauna experience. I set on a wooden bench, buck naked, cheek-to-cheek with several young women in a hot steamy room, somewhere between 80 and 90 degrees C (176 to 194F) for as long as I could stand it. When I needed a break to catch my breath I wrapped my thin, rented towel  around me and went outdoors into the cool evening to cool off. It was possible to take a dip in the ocean which was 2 degrees C (about 36F). Several people were actually doing so but house rules were that it required a swimsuit and I didn’t have one with me.  Many people, both men and women were trekking down the path from the sauna to the water do it was a popular thing to do.

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The view from the bench outside of the sauna was beautiful with the lights of a power plant twinkling in the distance. The air was hovering around the freezing point but after the sauna it was no problem to sit outdoors in my towel enjoying the peaceful, dark, chilly evening.

 

As you see, I did some touristy things while I was there– but mostly I was trying to figure out if this was a place I could really live. I did some normal, everyday things too, as much as one can while only visiting…I shopped. I shopped for food several times, as I was staying mostly at my son’s apartment, and we were cooking at home.

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In general, I didn’t find the food prices to be as high as I had been warned. I live in Massachusetts and food prices in our stores are higher than what I found in Finland. The stores I saw were clean, well-organized and had more diversity than what I remembered from previous visits.

While there are now many more foreign foods available, I think I am going to have to learn a whole new way of cooking and eating there. Finnish markets have a wonderful diversity of breads, flours, dairy products, and cold-cuts. The things that were missing, from my point of view were beans, greens, and non-Finnish cheeses.  I like cooking with black beans or garbanzos and am used to finding them both canned and dried. It is going to be a bit of a challenge unless we end up living in an urban area– and even then, maybe. Finnish cheeses are not as diverse as what I’m used to either. Being a lover of aged cheddar I’m just going to have to look for an acceptable substitute.

As one of the reasons for the trip was to see if Finland was going to be a no-go because of the winter, the verdict seems to be a resounding NO. The darkness is temporary and as long as we are living near an urban center we will be able to find things to keep us occupied.

 

 

 

 

Let’s Talk Taxes

It comes up numerous time when I visit Finland; everyone wants to talk about taxes. It’s a conversation I find really difficult because the two systems are so very different. I have to admit that I don’t understand the Finnish tax system very well but I understand that in Finland, income taxes pay for a variety of services such as education, health care and child care, which we pay for through local taxes and insurance premiums. It’s not effective therefore to compare only income taxes because they don’t really tell the whole story. (There is a good discussion of this topic in Anu Partanen’s new book, The Nordic Theory of Everything: In Search of a Better Life, available at Amazon. You can buy it here).

Finnish income taxes can be calculated using an online tax calculator. The median wage in 2011 was 2,776 euros per month according to YLE, or 33,312 euros per year ($36165.17).  If I use the calculator with the median income for a person my age living in Hyvinkää, not belonging to a church and with no other benefits, I get a total tax bill of 6521,85€ ($7,080.45). The marginal tax rate is 39.5. The effective rate is 18.38. This seems pretty low to me. If you are reading this in Finland, leave me a comment and tell me what I’m missing.

In the United States, federal income tax on a salary of $36,165 for a single taxpayer without deductions would be $3,410 (3140.98€). In Massachusetts, where I live, the state income tax would be $1,620 (1492.19€) for a single taxpayer. Social Security would take another $2,767 (2548.70€).  Property taxes would take, on average, another $1,916 (1764.84€) for a total $9713 (8496.71€) in taxes for an effective rate of 26.86.  I’m including property taxes in this total because in the US, education through secondary school is funded through property taxes, as are all local services such as police, libraries, and fire department.

In Finland, health care is funded primarily through income taxes. I understand that there is also a network of private insurers and physicians,  but I am not in a position to discuss that with any authority. Here in the US we have the ACA, the Affordable Care Act– affectionately (or not!) known as Obamacare. Until this became the law of the land, Americans were either insured by their employers (sharing the cost of the insurance with the employer in a multitude of different schemes), buying insurance individually (paying the entire premiums out of pocket) or taking their chances (uninsured, hoping to not get sick). Now under Obamacare, American taxpayers are required by federal law to have health insurance. Being uninsured brings an additional hit of $700 to the federal tax bill. Being required to carry health insurance, then, can be considered in some way to be an additional tax, especially so when comparing to other countries such as Finland where healthcare is funded through income taxes.

So how much does health insurance cost in America? The cost varies widely. That said, the average health insurance premium in the US reached $17,545 (16,161€) this year. The average worker pays $4,955 (4564€) for that insurance according to the Kaiser Family Foundation/Health & Education Trust (Sept. 22, 2015). I’ll tell you about our situation: My husband is a state employee and buys health insurance through his employer that covers both of us in a family plan. He pays only 25% of the cost of his insurance and his employer pays 75%. There are several different plans available to each employee ranging in price up to around $500 per month (employee share).  We have chosen the cheapest family plan for which we pay $295 (272€) per month, or $3,540 (3261€) per year. On top of this we have a $600 (553€) family deductible which means that insurance benefits start to pay once we have ourselves paid for the first $600 of medical expenses. There are copays and coinsurance that also are also paid out during the year as we go along that during a typical year is probably a few hundred more. Keep in mind that what I’m writing about here is a family plan. A single person working for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would pay roughly half which I’m estimating here to be $2025 if he/she actually uses the medical system and pays out a deductible.

So how much would this median wage Finnish worker be paying in the US for roughly the same services he receives in Finland (assuming he doesn’t need unemployment, disability, parental leave, housing subsidy, college tuition, etc.)? Adding up the taxes and the medical insurance he would pay $11,738 (10,812€). That’s an effective rate of 32.5%. It’s about 4,290€ or $4,658 more than in Finland and he wouldn’t get the same level of services as in Finland!

To tell you the truth, these numbers surprised me. Before I started this post I expected to find that Americans pay more for services than Finns when it’s all taken into account but I did not expect to find the spread to be so large. I haven’t even taken into consideration that Americans generally pay much more for college tuition, telecommunications, housing and childcare than Finns do. I’ve got to be missing something pretty big. Now I’m going to ask you, my reader, to consider these numbers and tell me if I’m wrong or right. Leave a comment, PLEASE.

The US Election– The Morning After

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three-flags[/flickr photo by s.yume https://flickr.com/photos/syume/4394636194 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license]

 

I woke up this morning to the news that Donald J. Trump won the election. beating out Hillary Clinton in the electoral college, despite what all the pundits, polls, data and every statistical analysis I had read in the weeks and months leading up to the election. The most interesting bit of news, however, was the fact the the Canadian immigration website had crashed last night because of all the traffic from Americans looking to relocate up there.  There are a lot of Americans who are nervous about what is going to happen in the US under a Trump administration. Many people are making plans to leave. They think that Canada, or Ireland or Australia might be more to their liking. The subject of this blog is my impending move to Finland–  I’m exploring if it will truly be a better place to live.

It’s hard to know the real reasons for an election like this so I’ll just go out on a limb and say that what I believe drove Trumps election was mostly anger. Americans are angry at a system that has failed them. Income inequality is at it’s greatest since the great depression. Real incomes have decreased. We read in the news that jobs are being created and unemployment is down but we don’t know where those jobs are. They certainly are not the kind we used to get with wages that allowed us to support families.  Healthcare costs are out of control–despite Obamacare. Families are paying thousands for health insurance that is getting increasingly difficult to obtain as insurers are moving out of the marketplace. The middle class got screwed in the housing crash when so many homes were foreclosed. Now rents in many urban locations are rising astronomically where working people can no longer afford to live. I could go on but there’s no need to list all the problems.  If you’re American, you’re living it.

Who do we blame? Obama is a pretty good target. He’s the father of the affordable care act, after all. He’s also the face of the “liberal elite.” You know, all his fat cat buddies in Hollywood and the tech industry. They’re the ones responsible for sending our jobs overseas. We’re angry at all those illegal immigrants who come here and claim all the benefits of living here for free.  They get free welfare, housing, healthcare and education while the rest of us are struggling to support them. We’re angry about being lied to by the “liberal media” (substitute CNN, NBC, the New York Times). We’re angry at Hillary Clinton who has used her access to power to enrich herself and get cozy with wall street. We’re angry at liberals who want us to give up our guns, and with gays who are demanding rights while our own self-respect is being trampled. A vote for Trump is like a big middle-finger salute at the whole system.

So now Trump is going to be president. Is it really time to move? Is it better in Canada, or in Finland for that matter? Canada may well be Utopia, I wouldn’t know. But Finland is also going through its own share of hard times. Almost every day when I read the news in Finland some employer is letting workers go. It’s clear the jobs are becoming scarcer  and unemployment is headed upwards. As part of the EU, Finland is dealing with an influx of foreigners like they have never seen before in modern times. In 2015 tens of thousands of refugees arrived and were housed in reception centers all over Finland. In times like these rumors drown out facts and it was being said that all these refugees were being given houses and cash and cars, all at taxpayer expense. The right-leaning government is setting austerity measures in place, asking working Finns to give up holidays and work longer hours. They are cutting education and charging tuition to non-Finns. In the Helsinki region housing prices have risen steeply as the construction industry fails to keep up with demand. It appears that hate crimes are on the rise in Finland as well.

So does it make sense to move to Finland? I think it does, despite the problems. Finland is a small country that has a functioning government. The government operates by forming coalitions and cooperating rather than resorting to the kinds of grandstanding that is become all too familiar in American government. The United Nations listed Finland as the fifth happiest country in the world in 2016 compared to 14th for the United States. In my personal experience in recent trips to Finland it’s not hard to get Finns to talk about what a great country they live in. So I guess, it it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.

 

 

Taking a Preview Trip in December

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flickr photo by Jori Samonen https://flickr.com/photos/rowanhill/26716576184 shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

We have decided to take a quick preview trip to see Finland in the darkest time of year. I found some really cheap tickets on Icelandair (did I tell you they were cheap?) in December. We’ll be flying out of Boston with one stop in Reykjavik for less than the price of a trip to California. It’s a red-eye but the layover is only an hour. I am so excited!

At this point I should  tell you that my son is living in Helsinki so I have another incentive to go. He is there because his girlfriend is attending Aalto University for a master’s degree in entrepreneurship. The program is in English and the tuition is free. This is probably a topic for a whole separate post– and I’m in danger of digressing– but it is an example of one of the cool possibilities that living in Finland offers. We will be visiting them while we check out what life is like so far north just around the time of the winter solstice.

Unfortunately I don’t have unlimited vacation time at my job so I will have to turn this into an express trip; we will be gone only 10 days. In that time I hope to get a look at some of the communities we have thought of living in like Hyvinkää, Vaasa and Seinäjoki. It’s a very short time but hopefully I’ll get a chance to see a tiny bit of what it might be like to live in these places in the winter, to see how people spend their time when it’s cold and dark outside most of the day.

I probably won’t get more than a quick impression of each of these cities, but what I hope to do is get a feel for each one. Every city in the world has its own vibe and that’s what I’ll be looking for here. I’ll be doing plenty of people-watching, looking to see how they get around in the city, how they shop, what’s available in the stores, what the housing stock looks like and how convenient public transportation is. You can be sure I’ll be posting photos of what I find.

I’m also looking for suggestions. What do you think I should be looking for? Are there any great cities that I should be considering that I haven’t listed here? Write comments. Please.

Nuts and Bolts–Getting the Paperwork Done

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A lot of people seem to think it is possible to get up and move to any part of the world they want to live in. While it may be true to some extent, some countries are easier than others. Finland probably is one of the more difficult countries in which to take up residence. There is an ongoing discussion about moving to Finland over in the Finland Forum. (Just warning you– it’s depressing. Folks on this forum are very discouraging). I was fortunate to find out recently that I am a dual citizen and was able to claim my Finnish citizenship. If this had not happened it would be pretty darned difficult to think about moving to Finland at this point in my life. The office that handles all immigration issues is the Maahanmuutovirasto, often called Migri. Essentially, if you are not a citizen of the EU, unless you have very close family ties or are claiming asylum, the only way to get permission to live in Finland is to study or to work. Being in my sixties I’m not a great candidate for either situation. There are no provisions for residency by investing in property or even for most kinds of family ties. You cannot move there to be with grown children, siblings, parents or many other kinds of relations.

I had occasionally wondered if it were possible that I was a Finnish citizen but never actually enquired until one day a few years ago I found myself in the lobby of the Finnish consulate in Los Angeles having given someone else a ride there. I decided on a whim to ask the woman sitting at the desk if I might be a Finnish citizen. She asked me a few questions about my parents and my year of birth and quickly determined that I had been a Finnish citizen at birth based on my father’s citizenship and had not lost it at age 22– as would happen today. The problem was that my birth was not registered in Finland so I was going to have to submit a form with accompanying documents. That form KAN_9 can be found here.

Along with the form I had to submit my birth certificate, my parents’ marriage certificate and my own marriage certificate with apostile. The form asks for clarification of my parents’ citizenship status at the time of my birth. I was pretty sure my father was a Finnish citizen when I was born but he passed away 50 years ago and I had nothing more than a hunch that he had acquired US citizenship after my birth so I went looking for proof. My mother wasn’t sure and didn’t have any of the old documents. I wrote to the Naturalization and Immigration Service under the Freedom of Information Act looking for the date he was naturalized. Many months later I received a CD with copies of his naturalization documentation from the National Archives. He was naturalized as a US citizen seven years after my birth. I thought that would be proof enough. I mailed my documentation to the consulate in New York. It should have been easy to confirm my citizenship except that my father was not listed in the Finnish population registry. But my mother was! She had insisted that she was not a Finnish citizen and it never occurred to me to claim citizenship through her. A short time later I received a document from Finland, “Extract from the population information system in Finland,” with my new personal identity code.

My husband and I traveled to Finland in 2015 to visit Family. During that visit I made an appointment with Poliisi in Seinäjoki to apply for a passport. That’s me at the top of this post on the day I picked it up at R-Kioski. It feels pretty cool to be recognized as a Finn after a lifelong relationship with the country.

So now I can move to Finland to live if I want to, but I’m only half of a family team and my husband would need a residence permit based on family ties. He has a right to live and work in Finland if he is either married to a Finn, in a long-term relationship with a Finn (at least 2 years). In some cases, the residence permit application can be made online but in our case, applying under family ties we needed to apply in person at the consulate in New York. In June we took a day off and drove to New York, documentation and forms in hand to the United Nations Plaza to apply. We Finally heard back in late October. I received an email asking for more clarification of our situation. They want to know exactly when we plan to move, where we plan to live and if we plan to work in Finland. I was given two weeks to reply. My letter with my response is in the mail…..

Culture Shock


flickr photo shared by G Travels under a Creative Commons ( BY-NC ) license

“Living here is not the same as being on summer vacation.” My cousin’s words stay with me while I think about moving to a country I think I know pretty well. After all, I’ve had close ties with Finland most of my life. Moving abroad always has its share of surprises and discomforts but when she said this I really felt that I have a pretty good handle on what to expect with a move to Finland.  For many, the obvious issues with living in Finland will be the long, dark, cold winters and the crazy language that is difficult to learn in the best of circumstances. The things that are hard to anticipate are the cultural or social aspects of living in a new country.

Winter is the one thing that everybody asks me about, or comments on when I mention that I’m moving to Finland. For the record, the winter in Finland is long–lasting 100 days in southwestern Finland and 200 days in Lapland, according to the Finnish Meteorological Institute. It’s not only about cold weather but also darkness. In the far north, polar night, when the sun never appears, lasts for 51 days. In southern Finland the shortest day lasts for 6 hours, roughly from 9 am to 3 pm at the winter solstice. It will also be cold. The mean high temperature in January and February hover around 0 degrees C  (32 degree F) in the warmest parts of Finland, compared to 2 degrees C  (36 degrees F) in Boston during January where I live now. So I will be getting used to a winter that is a little colder, a little darker, and a little longer than where I live now.

The Finnish language is another story. If you are completely unfamiliar with it take a look here at YLE, the national news service. Except for the fact that most of the letters are familiar it is nothing like English.  Vowels and consonants look to an English speaker to be randomly strung together in impossibly long sequences. Fortunately for me it was my first language as a small child and I have had quite a bit of contact with it during my life to where I can hold a simple conversation about everyday things. When the topic gets technical, though, I get lost. I know there will be times I can get by using English with my imperfect Finnish, but to really integrate I will have to improve my speaking and reading ability. My husband will be starting from zero with a New England accent that will make learning to roll his r’s and stringing certain vowel sounds together (yo, for example) challenging at the least.

The thing that worries me the most is the social pressure to conform to a very Finnish way of being that sometimes perplexes me and sometimes makes me anxious.  There is a cultural uniformity in Finland, when you pay attention, that doesn’t exist in the United States. This Finnishness is like an invisible meter-stick that I have often felt I was being measured against as in “you’re almost like a real Finn” (good), or “you’re not very Finnish at all” (bad). I was once told I walk like an American, which I interpreted to mean I carry my foreignness around with me like a beacon and any real Finn can tell from a distance that I am not one of them, although my pedigree is as Finnish as it can possibly be.

Fear of the unknown is a natural part of any change but keeping a positive attitude is essential for a successful outcome. These issues can be addressed when we get there as long as we are prepared for them and don’t get emotionally broadsided during a long, dark winter. Undoubtedly there will be also be positive experiences as we learn to make our way in this new place. In fact, there are many great reasons to be moving to Finland which I plan to discuss in a future post.

 

 

 

 

Finland, Why Finland?

cropped-2013-06-20-14.03.31.jpgWhenever I tell anyone that I plan to retire to Finland within the coming year I always get “the look” in response. You know that surprised look, the raised eyebrows, the furrowed brow. It’s not what anyone in America expects to hear as a retirement plan. If you do an online search for retirement destinations abroad you can read about warm, exotic places like Panama, Belize, Costa Rica, France, Italy and Mexico. Finland is never on the list. Yet, I think that Finland is an entirely reasonable choice for me and my husband. I hope to explain the decision and to log our progress over these pages for the next several months.

First, a little about us: I am an adult educator in an addiction treatment center outside of Boston, Massachusetts. My husband is a public defender in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Although he is an attorney, he is a salaried state employee. We are not wealthy and have had our share of financial issues over the last several years and have not been able to save a lot of money for retirement. The work we do is hard and we both commute long distances to our jobs and would like to stop working so hard and retire soon, but we don’t see any possible way to do so unless we go someplace much less expensive than where we live right now.

It also happens that I am a dual citizen of Finland and the USA. I learned a few years ago that I was a Finnish citizen at birth although I never knew it. I had to register in the Finnish Population Registry after proving my claim with several documents. I now have both a blue US passport and a reddish EU/ Finnish passport. This is definitely going to make our move easier as it is difficult to move to Finland as a non-EU citizen without a job. It also helps that I speak Finnish– sort of. I am by no means fluent, but I can manage a normal conversation and have some ability to read the language. This is actually huge because it is a really difficult language to learn from scratch and while there are many people in the south of Finland who speak English, I won’t be able to count on everyone speaking English just to make me comfortable.

Our plan is to move sometime after the beginning of 2017. I don’t really want to talk about our specific moving date more right now because it is so unclear. I just want to put it out there that this is something that we expect to accomplish quite soon.

So if you’re interested, you’re welcome to follow along on this adventure. Over the next months I want to explore more about our expectations for Finland and our reasons for leaving the USA. I also plan to document our progress through the paperwork and the mechanics of such a big move. Tervetuloa blogiin!

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