Paola, an Italian expat living in Espoo is a full-time working professional with a tech job. She is also a mother and writes on her blog The Elephant Mum about her multicultural family adventure. She talks about adoption, bilingualism and her work-life balance as a working parent. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram to keep up with her life in Finland.
Read more about expat life in our Expat Arrivals Finland country guide.
Q: Where are you originally from?
A: I was born and raised in Italy.
Q: Where are you currently living?
A: I live in Espoo, Finland.
Q: When did you move here?
A: I moved to Finland in 2010.
Q: Is this your first expat experience?
Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse/family?
A: I moved alone and lived here on my own for the first year, after which my partner followed.
Q: Why did you move; what do you do?
A: Initially the idea was for me just to come on an Erasmus scholarship and finish my masters, but I ended up staying.
Living in Espoo
Q: What do you enjoy most about Espoo? How would you rate the quality of life compared to Italy?
A: The quality of life is definitely higher. Espoo is adjacent to Helsinki, the capital city. Despite being the most densely populated area of Finland, spaces are wide, there is no traffic and it’s rare to see crowds. There are spots of forests and nature all over town.
Q: Any negative experiences? What do you miss most about home in Italy?
A: Finland has one of the lowest immigrant presences in Europe and the native population struggles to open to diversity. Discrimination and racism are big issues.
Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?
A: The language was probably the biggest shock. Looking around without having any idea of what was going on. Finnish people are also the opposite of Italians: they are rule-abiding, not sociable and take time to warm up to others.
Q: What’s the cost of living compared to Italy? Is there anything particularly expensive or particularly cheap in Finland?
A: Living in Finland is more expensive than living in Italy, but there is a better welfare system and it’s easier to build a dignified life.
Q: How would you rate the public transport in Espoo? What is your most memorable experience of using Espoo’s transport system?
A: Public transport is very efficient and convenient, to the point that most people living in the capital area do not own a car, many don’t even have a license. My favourite aspect is that public transport is accessible and parents with a pram can travel for free.
Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Espoo? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?
A: I am not satisfied with the local healthcare. The infrastructure is excellent but, while there is universal healthcare on paper, in reality, services are hard to access for foreigners and most doctors lack good bedside manner.
Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Espoo or Finland? Are there any areas expats should avoid?
A: Finland is generally very safe and that is one of the aspects I love the most.
Q: Any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
A: The capital area is definitely the most multicultural and it’s easier to connect with other people.
Meeting people and making friends
Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there obvious discrimination against any particular groups? Have you ever experienced discrimination in Espoo?
A: Unfortunately, discrimination and racism are a big issue here, and Finland has been rated one of the most racist places in Europe. Things have changed during the years I have spent here, but still it’s been too slow to make a difference. While my family hasn’t experienced racist attacks, we have been discriminated against on several occasions, especially in the workplace and in terms of access to services.
Q: Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
A: In the short term, it’s easier to connect with other expats. Making Finnish friends is more of a long-term strategy, but once you’re in, they’re the most loyal.
Q: Have you made friends with locals or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?
A: I have built a diverse network over the years. Finns are very proud of their country. If you want to lure some to become your friends, ask them to guide you through the wonders and traditions of their country. Beware, don’t taste salty liquorice!
Working in Espoo
Q: Was getting a work permit or visa a relatively easy process? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
A: Being an EU citizen and having a job when I moved permanently, I didn’t struggle much, and I cannot advise on this.
Q: What is the economic climate in Espoo like? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job? Which resources did you find most useful?
A: Unemployment among foreigners is huge at 24%, especially if you consider that the rate of unemployed natives is 6.9%. When it comes to finding a job in Finland, networking is everything. Language doesn’t matter, qualifications don’t matter, experience abroad doesn’t matter: what matters is who you know and if you can showcase your skills, and access the hidden job market where most job postings circulate before becoming public. Connect with networks of international professionals and jobseekers (The Shortcut is a great contact point and then look up Facebook groups).
Q: How does the work culture differ from Italy? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Espoo or Finland? Did you have any particularly difficult experiences adapting to local business culture?
A: Work-life balance is great in Finland and many companies have a flat hierarchy. The start-up scene is thriving, especially in the tech field. In the workplace, Finns value skills, adaptability and transparency.
Family and children
Q: How has your spouse or partner adjusted to your new home in Espoo? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?
A: My husband struggled to find his first job and to adapt. Too often trailing spouses end up unemployed and depressed, I saw that unfolding many times over. My tip is: do your best not to fall prey to isolation. Things are enormously different than 10 years ago when I moved here. The expat community has grown and there are many networks to connect with people. Start with online groups. I have collected some tips on my blog for expats about how to build a support network.
Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for them during the move?
A: My children were born and adopted in Finland, so they didn’t struggle to adapt.
Q: What are your favourite family attractions and activities in Espoo?
A: We love to go on nature trails and visit libraries that have many events all year round.
Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?
A: It is close to impossible to get spots in international schools: they are few and far between, competitive and expensive. Parents should consider the possibility of having to enrol their children in Finnish-speaking schools.
Q: Is there any advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals to Espoo or Finland?
A: Never forget you are an asset and a richness for Finland. The system will often threaten this idea and make you feel like you are wrong, missing something, a taker or a liability. Finland needs diversity even if the country tries to resist it. Remind yourself of your worth and create your own opportunities.
►Interviewed May 2020