Helsinki, Finland Report of what it's like to live there - 05/09/10

Personal Experiences from Helsinki, Finland

Helsinki, Finland 05/09/10

Background:

1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?

No. Kampala, Uganda. Santiago, Chile. Antananarivo, Madagascar. And Mexico City.

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2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?

Washington, DC. About 12 hours with one stop in Europe.

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3. How long have you lived here?

Almost 3 years.

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4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, military, teaching, retirement, etc.)?

With the US Embassy.

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Housing, Groceries & Food:

1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?

Nice apartments downtown and single-family homes 10-20 minutes out. Commute times aren't too bad compared to other places, but traffic does occur.

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2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?

You can get almost everything here. Even tortillas and tofu at the corner market. But like I said before, everything costs more -- although they did just lower the food tax from 17% & 22% to 12%.

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3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?

Most of the rice here is parboiled, so I order rice from the US. But other that that, ship anything you feel partial towards and don't want to spend a lot of money on.

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4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?

McDonald's, Pizza Hut, Subway are the American chains here, and their Finnish equivalents would be Hesburger, Carrols and Scan Burger. There are several decent restaurants, although almost everything here is expensive. A burger meal at McDs is $9-10.

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5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?

Virtually none down south, but the north is known for having very large mosquitoes in the summertime.

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Daily Life:

1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?

Through the embassy.

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2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?

Very few people have hired help. The ones I know of charge about 20 euros an hour.

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3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?

There are quite a few to choose from.

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4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?

ATMs are readily available, and I have had no problems.

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5. What English-language religious services are available locally?

Anglican, Catholic, Evangelical and Lutheran are available in English.

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6. English-language newspapers and TV available? Cost?

The Helsinki Times is a weekly English-language newspaper, and there is a lot of programming in English. Cable TV runs from 16 euros on up, depending on what programming you want.

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7. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?

Not too much. Words to go shopping are helpful, as sometimes you can't always figure out what's in the package. Also basic numbers, months and days, and greetings.

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8. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?

In my 3 years here I have never seen a wheelchair on a tram, bus or train. A wheelchair with small wheels in front will constantly get stuck in the rain gutters that run across sidewalks, and you will have to go backwards to get over them. Plus there are a lot of cobblestones downtown and not many sidewalks in the suburban areas.

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Transportation:

1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?

Public transportation is excellent, safe and fairly affordable. We have managed to get around fine without owning a car. Taxis are a bit pricey

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2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?

I would go with a smaller car, as the streets are narrow and the parking garages can be quite difficult to get into if you have a big American car or truck.

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Phone & Internet:

1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?

Excellent high-speed internet. Cost is from 30-60 euros a month depending on speed. I have 40MB for 36 euros.

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2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?

I have not heard of anyone having a problem, whether they brought their American phone with them or bought one here. Although if you bring one here, it needs to be unlocked.

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Pets:

1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?

No.

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2. Quality pet care available (vets & kennels)?

Excellent pet care. Not a lot of kennels, though.

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Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:

1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?

Jobs can be found, but it is very difficult unless you know Finnish.

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2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?

Business dress at work and casual otherwise.

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Health & Safety:

1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.

Almost none. Some purse and phone snatchings if you are in the wrong place and not paying attention. Sometimes the drunks on the trams can be a bit aggressive.

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2. Are there any particular health concerns? What is the quality of available medical care? What medical conditions typically require medical evacuation?

No health concerns and excellent health care.

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3. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?

Excellent.

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4. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?

Long dark winter days and long sunny summer days with very short bursts of autumn and spring.

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Schools & Children:

1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?

I do not have children at post at this time, but I have heard mostly good things about the International School of Helsinki.

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2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?

One of the reasons I do not have a child in school here is that I did not think the school here would have proper help for the special-needs of my high-school-aged child. I hear they have minimal help for very minor needs.

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3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?

There are English-speaking preschools available.

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4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?

There are some, but those in English are limited. There are of course several options in Finnish, and I know children who have gone that route and have had a great experience.

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Expat Life:

1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?

Not sure, but I would guess several thousand.

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2. Morale among expats:

Very high except during the winter months, but that's when there are the most people here.

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3. What are some typical ways to socialize, either with local people or with other expatriates? Are there groups or clubs that you can recommend?

There is some entertaining, but most people do their own thing.

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4. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?

Great for both. Although families sometime find it difficult due to the cost of living.

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5. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?

It's not too bad as long as they don't flaunt it and keep a low profile. In Helsinki it's much more accepted than outside the city. They have a gay pride parade in June every year now.

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6. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?

Not much with religion or gender prejudices. But there are definitely some racial tensions with African and recent Roma immigrants. There are also still issues with the Romas that have lived here for generations. I have also seen clubs not allow anyone with darker skin in. They will just make up reasons that they can't come in. But this is not common. I have also personally seen someone asked if they were an illegal immigrant. There are definitely underlying tensions here.

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7. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?

Friendly people, although you might have to make the first move. Beautiful seaside scenery. Reindeer and Santa Claus

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8. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?

There are many, many museums here, fantastic architecture -- both old and new, islands and fortresses to visit, opera, ballet, music.

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9. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?

Marimekko fashions and wooden mugs.

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10. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?

Clean and safe. Most people speak English. Long summer days. Easy access to other countries.

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11. Can you save money?

Not very easily. Maybe if you never go out for dinner or to the movies.

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Words of Wisdom:

1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?

Absolutely!

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2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:

mosquito repellent.

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3. But don't forget your:

long johns and snow boots.

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4. Do you recommend any books or movies about this city/country for those who are interested in learning more?

Helsinki Bradt Guide.

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5. Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:

"Tuntematon Soltilas" -- about the Finnish Winter War.

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6. Do you have any other comments?

This is not the most exciting place for tourists, but it is a wonderful place to live. Once you make a Finnish friend, they are a friend for life.

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