Helsinki – Jessica Powell & Helsinki Expats

I “met” Jessica via EuroCircle Helsinki Facebook group – and then I saw her also at the Americans in Finland group so I got really curious…I have both nationalities as of today and have had American friends living in Finland. I wondered what she thought about it. One of my friends did not do well, he never bothered to learn any Finnish though I think he did better in Finland professionally than he would have done in the USA. The others did extremely well and learned to speak Finnish as well. SO…let’s find out what Jessica thinks.

Could you tell us about yourself? (who are you, where are you from, what did you study, possibly your age, all the usual stuff that one wants to know to get a little elevator speech about you)

My name is Jessica Powell. I’m a traditional Southern girl from the Carolinas. I packed up my life and moved to Finland six years ago. I had never even left the country before that, but chose to make a decision that has proved time and time again to be a wonderful one. I love Finland and my goal is to help others love it too.

IF you are a student/work – both situations are interestingly different in many countries. USA is more expensive, style of colleges is different etc. Write something about it. Work/entrepreneur/unemployed/home, environment…what’s different. Basically..what is your typical day like.

I’ve studied here and received a Bachelor’s degree in Social and Health care, and it didn’t cost me anything. It was a luxury I never thought I could afford while living in the States. Turns out free is very affordable! I was offered a job immediately upon graduation and have been very happy in my work. Although the taxes are quite high here, the amount that is returned to the citizens is quite a lot.

What challenges did you face when you first moved to Helsinki and how did you resolve them?

Getting from place to place, appointment times, shop hours and no one-stop shops were my biggest challenges.

In the States, one could take a personal vehicle to wherever you needed to go, and destinations are very clearly marked. However, in Finland, street signs are small and don’t occur so often, a doctor’s office may look like the building of an apartment and it is possible there are no signs! Six years ago, I didn’t have the luxury of a GPS on my phone, so I was continually lost or late. Now with the availability of 3g (or higher) on a standard phone, life is easier. And I have learned how to use all manner of public transport with no difficulty!

I also had to learn that if I had an appointment, anywhere, I needed to reserve the whole day! Places like Kela, the police station or the job office can have massive queues. Now I know to bring a good book and a patient demeanor!

Shop hours were confusing, being closed early or closed on holidays that seemed to happen far too often for my comfort! The ability to go into one shop to get everything I needed was not an option anymore. I would need to set aside a day to get something from the pharmacy, on to the Alko, then the grocery store, etc. Now I just manage my time and buy the things I need from those shops as I am near them.

It has taken some adjusting, but now I accept it and make it work. It is just part of the daily life.

Has your experience being in a Finnish/Swedish speaking country been vastly different from your prior experiences ?

In the States, Spanish was quickly becoming the unofficial second language before I moved away, but the aversion to it was quite strong in many people. It had always been difficult for me to listen to the complaints. However, moving to Finland, I have found people to be quite open to speak English, and discovered most to be helpful and forgiving of my lack of Finnish. I am sure there are many here who have complaints about foreigners learning the language, but I have not experienced very much of that personally. If anything, this experience has given me a greater appreciation for the foreigners living in the States that tolerate language prejudices on a daily basis.

Did you experience ‘culture shock’ in Finland. How different is it from your USA? (even religion is different)

For me, the most difficult thing to adjust to was the lack of take-away options and readymade food and meals. In the States, I was working full-time and often would pick up something quick in the drive thru, or pop into the local shop to grab a full meal for the family. It was quick, easy and affordable. Here, I had to learn all about how to make meals from scratch, and if I wanted a particular type of food or desert that was not available here, I had to learn to make it for myself. The plus side of this is that we eat far healthier here than we ever did in the States, and I can prepare almost any meal that one would desire!

How has your life as an expat influenced your personal and work life?

Living in Finland, being an Expat for the first time, I quickly saw the need for someone to step up and organize something for the Expats and foreigners living here. Those away from their home country, their friends and family, their lifestyles, and their language. While one can essentially get a job, or a study place, and live a relatively normal life, the need to get out and socialize with people in similar situations is quite strong. To be able to discuss in person the challenges, the dilemmas, the ups and downs of being an Expat; to make new friends, to start a new life here in Finland. I had no trouble walking up to strangers to ask questions or to make friends as I am a naturally social person with little fear of embarrassment or rejection. But the more people I spoke to, the more I realized how difficult it can be for other people. I tried to help where I could, helping those in my University and later joining several volunteer organizations such as The 501st Legion (a Star Wars charity organization), the Red Cross, visiting detainees at the detention center, and then becoming a full time organizer and host for the Helsinki Expat Meetup.

What have you learned from being an expat? Positive/negative (WHY?)

I have learned that being an Expat can be both the most challenging experience of your life, but also the most rewarding and wonderful. The opportunity to be able to become familiar with another country’s way of life, to immerse oneself in the culture, the people, the lifestyle…it can be equally frightening and momentously joyful. To be able to take things how they come, to roll with the experience, to make a mark on the people around you, those are the important things to me. I have found that there are far more positive memories, than negative ones, but it could be all how you choose to handle your experiences.

Have you done anything since moving to Finland that you never would have expected?

Everything! I’ve traveled to places I never would have dreamed, eaten all types of food, went on almost every adventure that has come my way. Living in Finland has given me a zeal for life and everything in it!

However, as an American, there were certain differences that I had to acclimate to. My first ‘real’ Finnish sauna experience was during Juhannus. I had only been living in Finland for a few months when I was invited by a Finnish family to join them for Juhannus. We headed out to their summer cottage up North. It was a lively group, full of different types of Finns, and my family was the only foreigners. However, the group was large and most of the Finns were very welcoming and willing to talk in English. Food grilled over an open fire pit, warm beers, and Finnish pancakes were all nice experiences and the enormous Juhannus bonfire was a breathtaking site.

The pinnacle of the weekend was the Finnish sauna. I had only experienced sauna in a completely sterile environment, the local US gym, wrapped in a towel, avoiding the eye contact of others. A big group of women invited me to sauna, and I quickly realized the nudity. A proud Southern girl, I dared not show my fear and stripped down to enter the sauna. My heart raced, I was so fearful of others noticing my flaws, my less than perfect body, perhaps laughing, judging. What I experienced was so far different than what I had envisioned.

Many types of women sat in that sauna, and they were all beautiful. Not in this classic ‘what-people-expect-Scandinavian-women-to-look-like’ media portrayal way, but in the way that they were comfortable with who they were, comfortable to sit and chat, to share stories, to make a little Southern girl from a small town feel relaxed in this new and foreign environment. They were all lovely and beautiful, with real bodies, real women who had experienced life. And they were beautifully flawed, like me. And suddenly Finland was my home.

What was the biggest misconception you had about Finland when you moved there? (good/bad)

To be honest, I knew nothing about Finland before I moved here! I deliberately avoided doing a lot of research to prevent having assumptions. I prefer to learn about things during the experience rather than what people have told me, or what is considered ‘common knowledge’. I was happy with my decision! Learning about each thing along the way and personally experiencing has made my life more rich here.

What do you miss from USA”?

My family, friends and some foods. I know how difficult it is for Americans to affordably travel outside of the States, and how rare it happens. However, I love to have visits and if they bring some of my favorite non-perishable foods, even better!

What’s the best thing and worst thing that has happened to you as an expat?

My life on a daily basis probably tops the list of the best thing!

But the worst thing was when I was late for a dentist appointment. I had trouble finding the building (due to the lack of street signs and building markers!) and was seven minutes late to the appointment. Normally, in the States, it is possible you are waiting quite a long time past your appointment time.

While the dentist gave my teeth a thorough examination, she lectured me as one would a small child. She advised that being late in Finland was one of the more rude things a person could do. That I had now set back the appointment times of everyone waiting by those seven minutes. That if there was anything serious with my exam, that they would have to reschedule. And on and on. I was mortified, embarrassed, nearly in tears by the time I left.

I returned to my vehicle and vowed to never be late again. It probably wasn’t the best way to learn a lesson, but it sure has stuck with me!

What do you like more in this country than in your own country? Or less…WHY???

Finnish people often ask me, “why?”, in an astounded kind of way; a direct result of my passionate declaration of love for Finland. I usually say that it is easier for me to name the few things I do not like than to try to explain all of the wonderful reasons Finland has such a special place in my heart.
But, to name a few:
People. I love the directness of Finns, the natural way to trust ones word as truth, the lack of clutter in a conversation, the honesty, goodness and wholesomeness, the everlasting true friendship of a Finn.
Nature. I find Finland to be pure, the ability to be able to walk for five minutes and get a chance to sit in a park, to be able to head out to Nuuksio to be able to enjoy an unmolested area of the world, to be able to pick berries and eat them.
Seasons. The capability to appreciate the vast differences in the weather; the long lazy Summer days, the cozy dark and cold Winters, the birth of a green Spring, the end of Summer in a brilliant display of colors that is Autumn. Each one is magnificent.=

What is best about the area where you live…any other cities you would like to live in?? (cost of living, security, transportation, people, culture, housing, food)

Finland is so safe, so comfortable. I’ve only visited a few areas of the country so far, and want to travel all over, especially Lapland.

Where do you see yourself in the future? WHY?

I would like to keep working with Expats and foreigners in Finland. I would like to continue helping with such groups as The Expat project to improve all areas of the lives of people moving to Finland.

Tell us about the international group you are involved with in Helsinki.

I took over the Helsinki Expat Meetup group to take on the challenges expats moving to Finland face. The group was started by a Canadian who lived in Helsinki some years ago. Now, all of the events are organized by me. Under my management, the group has tripled to almost 2000 members.

Helsinki Expat Meetup is a non-profit group designed as a way to meet new people, make friends and share experiences. We usually have a meetup once per week somewhere in Helsinki.

We are NOT competing with any other groups or organizations, but rather trying to join forces to give people great choices for things to do in Finland. Finns, tourists and visitors are also most welcome!

About 70% of the people that come to the meetups are new for the first time, and don’t know anyone else there. The others that come regularly really want to get to know new people, so we don’t have any issues with cliques. The goal of each meetup is to get to meet new people.

We don’t have a program for the event, everyone just shows up as their time allows, and can talk to whomever they please. Some people try to say hello to everyone, but others might only talk to two or three people for the whole event.

We pick different places, times and days, so everyone can find something to suit their interests, and guests are welcome to stay for as long or as little as they would like at each event.

Anything else you really think we should understand or know about you and Finland?

I am always looking for people willing to donate their time or energy into helping with any of the groups I am working with! There is no monetary pay but the rewards are great! Anyone interested can contact me to find out more.

Connect with JESSICA POWELL at Facebook