The series launched with my own post, the story of how I ended up in Mexico all those years ago. You can read it here: Stories from Life Abroad - guest post series launch. Last month's post was The Wrong Coat by Liberty on the Lighter Side.
Each month there will be a new post by a different contributor. They may or may not be bloggers, they could be from any country, living anywhere in the world as expats, immigrants or nomads. The idea is to tell as wide a variety of stories and experiences of living abroad as possible, from many different viewpoints.
This series will keep running for as long as I continue to get contributions for it, so if you would like to take part, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will be happy to send you the details.
This month’s guest post is by Paola, an Italian expat living in Finland. She is the mother of two toddlers, through birth and international adoption. She is passionate about learning anything new and about parenting. She blogs about her multicultural family at The Elephant Mum, but you can also find her on Twitter, Facebook , and Instagram .
A Song of Ice and... Sun.
Leaving Italy to Start a Life in Finland
I have never felt Italian. Italy is a fantastic place - no wonder it is depicted as a dream destination - but it's not a great country. I never truly belonged there and since I was young, I dreamt of living somewhere else and I worked hard to make that possible. Of all places, I would have never guessed I would end up in Finland.
When my university advisor suggested it as destination for a study year abroad, I didn't know anything about the place. I barely could point to it on a map. I was not able to name anything Finnish and believed Nokia was a Japanese brand. It was quite a jump in the dark but I am glad I made it.
In 2010 I left for Finland with the idea to stay only one year, but I fell in love with it immediately. Two months in and I suggested to my boyfriend, left behind with the promise "I'll be back", that he would leave his job so that we could move there. He also secretly dreamt of leaving Italy and we decided to start our life in Finland.
It was the best choice I've ever made. Finland is a great place to start and have a family. All pieces of the welfare puzzles are in place. Coming from an extremely sexist society, as a woman I felt like a person for the very first time. Our first child was born here and we adopted our youngest from India through the Finnish adoption system. They are now four and two years old, the oldest is fully bilingual.
Cultural integration has been hard and sometimes I feel hopeless. Finland has two official languages: Finnish and Swedish. However, the latter (and easier) is spoken by a minority, so we ended up having to learn the first, which is the most painful thing I ever had to do in my life (and I pushed out a baby). I speak Finnish for most of my daily interactions, but I prefer to speak English in my workplace. I almost gave up the idea that I will ever be a fluent speaker and I don't feel at my best self when I talk in Finnish. Despite the relatively low percentage of immigrants, luckily the work market is quite open to international employment and finding English-speaking companies is becoming easier.
Finnish people have a very well-defined culture and many societal rituals. I was motivated to learn the family-related traditions, as I want my kids to have a typical Finnish childhood. Living here has given me and my family so much in terms of culture. For starters, I discovered the love of nature. No, I'm not jumping from tree to tree in a hippy outfit - it would mean instant freezing here - but I've learned to appreciate harsher weather conditions and the simple pleasures nature can offer. I grew up in a small town, but still had a city life childhood. Here, I literally have wild forest outside my door. When our parents visit us, I can compare how limited their point of view is with respect to the one I developed here. In Italy you can count on good weather most of the time. If a couple of drops fall from the sky, you cancel your plans to go outside playing. Here you do not have this luxury, but I have learned to appreciate and live to fullest under any condition. In practice this means that my kids spend some time outside daily, something we didn't use to do in our childhood. My children pop into the forest and pick berries to eat as an afternoon snack. They catch insects and closely observe wild animals. They walk, run, swim in lakes, and do plenty of physical activity. And there's no air pollution, did I mention that?
My cultural integration strategy is "they'll learn to love me". I appreciate most of the Finnish customs and definitely this is the place where I feel most at home. However, on some things I truly believe that "Italians do it better" and I'm... educating them. I try to bring some positive aspects of my culture into theirs and my personal experience is that they truly appreciate it. It's a delicate balance and a dance I have learned to practice. It is something I value in my children's education as well. I encourage them to learn the local customs, but teach them to value their cultural heritage and unique perspective.
If I stop to think what I miss about Italy... food! Finnish people are growing a palate and a taste for international cuisine, but I miss the Italian food culture, which permeates the whole society. I feel lucky my husband is Italian, as we can feel free to live our culture to the fullest at home and it doesn't feel like a minority culture. Traditional Finnish foods are... peculiar. The underlying idea of their cuisine is proving your endurance. Their top-sellers include a dessert which looks (and tastes, I would add) like poo-poo and a salty liquorice that kills your taste buds.
I miss the sun. Winters in Finland can get really dark. We live in the Southern region and still have to endure weeks with five hours or less of sunlight a day. I realized in time that it does affect your mood. No wonder the most popular Finnish cartoon character tries to kill itself in the very first episode (a taste of Finnish optimism exclusively for you, readers). Also, Finnish winter tries to kill me in many ways and especially with ice. A winter day in here is a lesson in humbleness and the caducity of life, I guess.
Our plan is to grow old here. To be honest, I would like to experience working somewhere else for a short time, but I am afraid my children would lose Finnish language and culture. Maybe I will do short residencies when they are older. Beside that aspect, Finland has grown to be my home and I don't plan to leave it ever again.
Find Paola at The Elephant Mum and on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram .
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Next month I have another fantastic guest post by Prabs of Absolutely Prabulous. Subscribe to my blog or the newsletter to make sure you don't miss it!
Photo credit: Antique globe turned to Mexico by Adolfo Félix on Unsplash