What does an expat look for in a city? If you’re lucky enough to have a choice about where you work and invest, what are the criteria for finding a great place? You could do a lot worse than starting with a look at Helsinki, Finland, capital of the world’s happiest country for an astonishing fifth year in a row.
In fact, when it comes to Finland, the superlatives just keep rolling in. Helsinki is the second safest city in the world, has the highest trust rating, is second for press freedom and — wait for it — Finland has been described as Earth’s most peaceful and stable country, which unsurprisingly leads to its unshakeable hold over the number one ranking for the world’s best business environment.
Travel Tomorrow sat down with two expats who have been living in Helsinki for a few years.
Luka Balac, moved to the Finish capital by chance. He was visiting his uncle in 2008, who had already been living there since 1974. Luka was at that stage where people wonder what the next chapter of their lives is, so his uncle proposed him to move to Helsinki. If he didn’t like it, he could always move someplace else. “He gave me an opportunity and then I guess Finland did the rest with the easy way of succeeding when being consistent and persistent in work”, he says. He is now co-owner of the Nolla Restaurant, among other endeavours, as he likes to keep busy.
Victor Rincón moved to the Åland Islands for his Erasmus, but decided to stay in Finland after finishing his programme. About 10 years later, he moved to Helsinki with his family.
1. Public services
The services available to people living in Finland are nothing short of impressive. From the very first moment someone moves there and throughout their stay, they get as much help as they need. One of the things Victor appreciates most in his interaction is that he can use Swedish. Finnish is a lot harder to learn, he says, but since both Swedish and Finnish are official languages in the country, he can use Swedish in every interaction with the authorities, as well as in his daily life, allowing him to integrate and be a part of the community.
The services here are very well organised to help everyone with everything.Luka Balac
Talking about the free counselling the city offers, Luka says it was incredibly useful a few years ago when he was setting up a business. Every question, every document that he needed help with, someone was there to provide him with information. “The services here are very well organised to help everyone with everything. You have to follow the bureaucracy, which is quite heavy, but it’s put in place for a reason.”
Moreover, the city ensures every person is taken care of, regardless of their needs. “Social services are very good, even too good if I can say”, Luka laughs. Unlike many other countries, where you have to rely on friends and family for help if you get sick or old, in Helsinki, the system does that for you. “There is someone to get your groceries for you, if that’s what you need.” And, the responsibility of caring for the elderly does not fall on the family, because there are high quality services that do that.
Many challenges that we are now trying to overcome in Europe have already been addressed here for years.Victor Rincón
“Recycling was already here when I moved, whereas back in Spain I just threw everything in one bin and that got burned. Here we separate the trash in 8-10 different bins”, Victor says. “There is just a different consciousness about how you live”, he adds, giving as an example the housing people choose. Whereas in other places at some point you move into a house and you live there for the rest of your life, in Finland people adapt throughout their lives, scaling back down to a smaller place once the children move out, for example. “People are also very pragmatic about the things they buy.”
“There is a big culture of upcycling and recycling here. We didn’t buy any clothes for our kid until he was about 5 or 6. There were so many friends with children, the clothes just circulated around. That’s totally fine here and there’s nothing weird about it and everyone is doing their part”, Luka says. Moreover, for new parents, a “baby box” that includes toys and clothes and everything the baby needs in the first few months is available from the city. The box itself even doubles as a bed and, if the parents choose not get the baby box, they get about €150 instead so they can get whatever they want for the baby.
Both Luka and Victor experienced the differences between the education system in Finland compared to their own countries, Serbia and Spain respectively. While Luka was no longer a student when he moved to Helsinki, his 7 year old has opportunities that he could never imagine getting back home. Or at least not without taking a fortune out of his own pocket. “Everything is very well organised, healthcare and childcare services. Every time I do something with them I’m speechless at how amazing they are… and free.”
If I would imagine a great place to raise kids, this would be it.Luka Balac
Moving to Finland while he was still a student, Victor was amazed at how practical the education system was, compared to his home country. “In Spain, education is very theoretical”, he explains. “Here is the book about networking, read it and then we have an exam. In Finland it is very practical. This is the networking class, so take these cables and connect them.” This, he says, combined with the internship programmes included in the last year of study, makes it very easy for students to find jobs afterwards.
Then, for his children, one of the things he appreciates the most is that one teacher has the same class throughout multiple years. “From 1st to 5th or 6th grade, they have the same teacher, which is great for getting feedback on how your kid is developing.” On the other hand, he thinks the educational offer is too standard and it would be better if a little more flexibility was shown for children with different learning curves.