Does going the distance make the heart grow fonder?

ARRIVING to a new country to live, as many of us know, is an often confusing cocktail containing one pinch of excitement mixed with a splash of uncertainty and a generous portion of conflicting emotions. Having packed up your old life back home and bid a tearful farewell to loved ones, it’s not long before life has turned itself on its ear, as you soon become acquainted with a multitude of cultural differences on offer here in Finland.

Why is it getting dark at 3 pm? Why do people wait on empty streets for the green man before crossing the road? Why do waiters here often wear sandals and socks? Just what is a name day? Why don’t people talk on the bus? Is there ever a space between Finnish words, or are all sentences constructed with blocks of impenetrable compound words?

Approximately 3,000 Finnish citizens marry foreigners each year, with more than one in four marriages in Helsinki between a Finn and a foreign partner. Furthermore, approximately 60,000 foreign nationals living in Finland have moved here due to marriage. While Finnish men predominantly marry women from Thailand, Russia and Estonia, statistically Finnish women marry men from Britain, the United States and Turkey.

SixDegrees spoke with four people who have moved here for love, hearing their stories of following their heart to this land of the ice and snow, and crucially, just what insight they have when you find yourself stuck in a conversation involving your partner’s friends or family and everyone is speaking in Finnish, except you.

Roger, Sweden
How did you meet your partner?

I travelled to Finland many times over the years. Then I was invited here as an international guest at a music trade fair in 2007. There I met a woman, and we got involved, and after going back and forth for some time between the two countries, I decided to stay here in Finland.

Was it difficult to settle here?

From the beginning it was pretty tough moving here because of a lack of work. For two years I was doing a lot of different things, but not really not my real work. Then all of a sudden I received an offer from a Vaasa company. I am based in Helsinki even though I am a co-owner of a Vaasa company, working in music production and music publishing.

How did you manage with the language, for example, if you were seated at a table where everyone was speaking Finnish except you?

If you are going out and there is a whole gang and after some time people start to speak their mother tongue, then you are totally gone [laughs]. You are really out of the situation. You have to change the language yourself. You have to be very active yourself, and never give up.

In one way, I have been lazy in learning Finnish, as I already speak one of the official languages here. I can receive my healthcare in Swedish and all the paperwork. In that sense it is easier for a Swede to move to Finland because I can demand service in Swedish.

What advice do you have for people wanting to move here for love?

It depends on what country they come from. I would say learn the language as much as you can, be prepared that the weather here in the winter time is not very nice. Be open-minded. Sometime Finnish people can be silent and not very open, but if you have a Finnish friend, you will have a friend forever.

Does love conquer all?

In the end it does. You have to believe. You have to go all in when you decide to do something. You have to be open-minded when you come, try to accept the culture, learn the language. If everything fails, your home country will also still be there

When I decided to move here I lost a job that I had as an international A&R man for a German company. In that sense it was tough to do. You throw yourself out into the great unknown. But it has been worth it. I would do it again.

Grace, Australia
How did you meet your partner?

I was living in England, doing some teaching and whatnot. Then I went on holiday to Berlin where I met a Finnish boy who was also on holiday there. He was friendly, albeit a little quiet, and his accent when he spoke English was quite monotonous, almost like the voice produced by a speech synthesizer. We decided to stay in touch, and then it turned into a long distance relationship. After about a year, back in January, we were sick of going back and forth back and forth, so I moved here.

Was it difficult to move to Finland?

It wasn’t so much of a big deal as I had already moved from Australia to Manchester. I had already done one across the world move. I knew what’s involved in getting set up in another country.

At first it was really exciting, it was January and there was snow everywhere. I hadn’t really experienced playing in the snow, sledding, cross-country skiing and walking on the ice. But, after a while, I started to become frustrated with the long winter.

I managed to find a job within four days, and I was working within ten days. I was lucky. I have about three years of teaching experience in the UK and in Australia; I applied to an ad at an English-speaking kindergarten. Though, I’m aware that if I ever wanted to leave this job, or if something happens, I may have difficulties finding another.

Have you found that there are there many cultural differences with your partner’s family?

Not that I’ve noticed. There’s a language barrier, definitely. The conversation often goes on, I sit there and I understand parts of it, but not enough that I can engage, yet. I find that if we’re at the dinner table, then I’ll eat more, or eat faster. ‘Oh, what do I do now…I’ll have another portion!’ [laughs] I might watch the television, or take a book.

I don’t feel uncomfortable, though. It’s Finland and they are Finns, and everyone is kind of used to people being silent. So I don’t feel awkward, like I might feel in a similar situation at home. I just bear in mind that it’s okay, it’s normal.

Advice for those thinking about moving here for love?

Even though you hear a lot of negative stories about how hard it is here and how you’ll never find a job and there’s so much bureaucracy and all that, I would say to still give it a go and come here. There are still positive stories. Also, Finns are quite willing to help out.

Does love conquer all?

I’m quite cynical, so I would have to say no. But in my case, so far, it has worked out quite well!

Antoine, America
How did you meet your partner?

Back in 2001 when I was in high school in Cincinnati, Ohio, there was a foreign exchange student from Helsinki. Her name was Marja. We became good friends. She was only there for a year. She moved back and we kept in touch throughout the years. In 2009 she came back to visit me in California and brought her friend Minna with her.

We spent a week together; we hit it off pretty well. My first impression of her was ‘wow’. She was beautiful. She had style, class and ass [laughs]. We had got along well and liked a lot of the same things. Then, as I got to know her more she was like the yin to my yang. She had all the qualities I wanted in a woman. It felt real natural being with her.

We kept in touch with Yahoo Messenger and Skype. We spoke almost every day. Then I took a trip out here for two-and-a-half weeks, for my first time abroad, for Christmas 2009. That was a nice experience, although it was extremely cold [laughs].

Minna and I have been in this long distance relationship for two years, and before we decided to marry we lived together in the States for six months. I made the decision to move to Finland, to get married. I wanted to become familiar with her culture, and travel the world together.

How have you found life in Finland?

Well, I’ve only been here for two weeks. I like the country; it’s beautiful. I haven’t seen the summer as yet. As I’m a self-employed artist, hopefully I will be able to find avenues to get some artworks displayed. Minna has some friends who work in the arts, as well as a friend who works in a shoe store. I’m a sneaker head, I love shoes. Possibly there could be some part time job work there.

I’m planning on going to school and taking lessons to learn Finnish. It’s all about learning the language so I can communicate and become more adapted to the culture.

Do you have any advice when you are surrounded by a group of people who are all speaking Finnish and you don’t understand what they are saying?

I would recommend just to listen. Just try to pay attention and catch a few words. It’s kinda hard as the Finns speak so fast. I just listen and try to relate to the body language. Maybe find out about what they are talking about, or how they feel when they are talking. A lot of times when people speak Finnish around me. I just sit there and look and listen, and in the middle for the conversation I’ll go “niin” and everyone will just laugh. At least just to make myself part of the conversation. Try to stay known, make them know that you’re there; you want to know what they are talking about.

Any advice for those thinking about moving here for love?

Follow your heart. If you definitely have feelings for someone, don’t let a language barrier, or a country barrier hold you back from that, as everything can be overcome. You just have to have the willingness to learn and be a part of something different. There’s more to it than the neighbourhood that you grew up in, there’s a lot more in the world that you can be a part of.

Also be prepared and do research, it takes a lot to become a part of another country. To become married you need to take a lot of steps and have a lot of information, so if you can save anything that you have dealing with the relationship, it will help in the progression of being with one another. We have just put in my paperwork for my residency. We put in plane tickets, Skype conversations, everything we’ve had with each other that we have kept. Either for memories, or for this purpose, it helps.

I think it’s important for people to know who exactly the other person is before they get married and move to another country. Try living together if possible before making the ultimate step.

Does love conquer all?

Definitely. There are always hardships in everything that you do. But if you love them and they love you, it can make it easier to overcome obstacles.

Lluvia, Mexico
How did you meet?

Basically we met at a club in Cancun. Not really the place where you meet the love of your life [laughs]. It was Independence Day in Mexico, and I was celebrating, it was noisy and I actually thought he was from England. I thought his name was Adam, but it turns out he was Erkki from Finland. I only discovered it the next day when I asked him how to spell his name!

I felt like I had known him all my life. We were the same age and studying the same thing and liked the same music. It was really nice coming from two different worlds.

The next day he asked to meet me and I was three hours late! Fortunately for a Finn, he was really interested because he actually waited for three hours for me.

We exchanged emails and after three months I came to visit him in England, where he was studying. I remember being at the airport wondering if this is going to work, but it was really nice. We came here to Finland to spend Christmas; it was the first of eleven that I have spent in Finland.

Finally, after he came to visit my family five months later in Mexico, and I finished my studies, I moved to Holland as an au pair, as he had started to study there. Then he moved back to England. After he graduated we had been together for 2-3 years. We moved to Finland in December 2004.

What was your first impression of Finland?

There was a lot of snow. I liked it, it was really exotic and the people were really nice. I like cold weather; I prefer it to the extreme heat.

I noticed some cultural differences. We celebrate Christmas at midnight in Mexico. But in Finland when it was ten to six and Erkki came to knock on my door, to say we’re ready to eat, I was so surprised. It was a small party. In Mexico you are with your family, around 80 people, and you’re up all night. Here it was only five people. By midnight people were sleeping, in Mexico the party is just starting.

How did you handle yourself in a group of friends who were all speaking Finnish?

It is hard. I was fascinated at first, I didn’t understand a word; I just liked hearing the language. At certain events it got really bad, but my husband has always been considerate. I think you should be honest and say if you don’t understand. It’s hard. It isolates you a lot.

Advice for those thinking about moving here for love?

Learn to compromise. Otherwise it just won’t work. I have met failed multicultural couples. It mainly failed because the other couldn’t give up certain things. They thought life would be the same as back home.

Does love conquer all.

In my case I think it did! It’s not that it’s just there – you have to work at it.

Text James O’Sullivan, illustration Hans Eiskonen.