Culture Shocks When Coming to Finland – Round I

It is somewhat presumptuous to talk about things that I find weird about another country’s culture, considering I was born and raised in Britain: an island nation that woke up one day and decided ‘Hey, other countries – that sounds like a good expansion plan’ followed by a controversial vote to leave the European Union because “Britain First”. None the less, in true British fashion, I have ignored this fact. Here I am, throwing caution to the wind to entertain and provide you with an insight into the culture shocks I have faced in Finland.

Culture shocks: Coffee consumption

There is a fact floating around the internet, that on average the Finns drink around 12 kg of coffee per person every year. This firstly begs the question: are you sure they drink it or is it just an IV infusion that is there from birth?

But secondly, coming from London, I was hoping to see streets full of little coffee shops and roasteries like you see in places with less of a caffeine addiction, like Serbia, Italy and Australia. Nope. In Finland, it is a case of ‘Get me my caffeine, I don’t need fancy coffee’. All they have is strong, dark (as their winter nights) filter coffee. So, if you fancy some sort of awesome coffee culture, meh, sucks to be you (as it did for me).

Culture shocks: Ice cream consumption

Ice cream is one of the weirdest things in Finland. As in many nations, there are freezer sections in the supermarkets, but Finland has aisles dedicated to frozen dairy items. And not just three basic flavours plus the overabundance of Ben & Jerry’s imagination. Finland has a plethora of different flavours, perhaps due to years of subsidised dairy farming, or more they are ice cream addicts? Who knows, but I am not going to complain when you can choose flavours like Blueberry & Crumble, Cranberry & Fudge – even the almighty carrot cake flavour gets a chance in Finland.

But then come some pretty obscure ones.

These can be standard flavours mixed with the Finns liquorice called Salmiakki which they worship like a deity and cannot be found anywhere else. For reference, it is liquorice but salty. You will try it because they get every foreign student to try it, and it is their judgement on how long you have been in the country.

However, have you ever wanted to try salty liquorice with raspberry? Or maybe with blue cheese and gingerbread? No? Well, Finland has it just in case you ever do. There is even a salty liquorice and chilli for those who fear only their mothers (surprisingly nice).

For me, the most disappointing moment was when I brought Tiikeri icecream, which I very soon found out had a distinct lack of apex predator and more over was made of just boring oranges.

To compare, when I lived in Australia, a country which is renowned for kangaroo fighting and where the temperatures range between hot and really hot, there was not this wide a selection of ice cream! I think Finns rank 4th in the world for ice cream consumption, behind the USA, New Zealand and Australia, all of which have much more sunlight than Finland.

This conveniently leads to my next point actually…

Culture shocks: ‘In Summer’

Akin to the singing Snowman from Disney’s 2013 classic, the Finns are very much like Olaf and long for summer with “a drink in their hand”. There is this divide between when Autumn ends and Winter Begins that nothing will prepare you for, but when warm weather

arrives you instantly brighten up. And so do all the Finns.

Student jogging in Finnish nature during summer.
Alexander Spicer enjoys the Finnish summer in nature.

Everything in Finland goes from being in hibernation to alive and buzzing. Ice cream shops are open, and everyone is having a great time which is a stark contrast to the winter. In tandem, there is an opportunity to disappear to a cabin by lakes to enjoy this almost sacred period of the year. Regardless of being Finnish or not, sitting by a lake and grilling away with no noise but the movement in the trees and the water and the crackles of the fire, that is just *Italian hand movement* (Google it if unsure what I mean about the Italian hand).

Or if you are someone like me, you try to show off and do some parkour over a branch in the forest only to trip and land on your face. Only happened twice.

Culture shocks: The long night

Summer cannot come fast enough, and you understand why after a Finnish winter. Have you ever wanted to only see the sun for only one hour a day? No? Me either, but this is the reality of the winter and nothing prepares you for it. Many of the Finns act like the Game of Thrones cast awaiting winter and constantly remind you ‘Winter is coming’…

Winter offers some incredibly picturesque moments, you can whack the skates and skis on, and it’s a completely different experience to any many would have had.

In Finland, the blue hour creates incredbly beautiful landscapes.

Still, you will hit a shocking wall of ‘Wow, what is this’. This Wow will come in two forms, one of ‘this is pretty awesome’ followed quickly by you becoming a true “Finn” and discussing nothing more than the good ol’ summer days.

Turku Cathedral and the huge Christmas three light up the pith black city in December.

But there is nothing like you and your best mate sitting by the fire, having steak and a small accompanying glogi (Finnish spiced wine) preparing the fire for a long night of camping while the outside temperature is negative 20 degrees celsuis. Waking up the next day knowing you will traverse 1m of snow it is incredible.

Campfire keeps you warm  in the Finnish forest in winter.
In Finnish wilderness there are shelters for hikers free to use.
The view from a shelter in the woods is calm, with trees covered with snow.

For me though, the pitch black is very nice to sleep in and very much enjoyed this part of the year to get my hibernation in.

Culture shocks: The unique sports

Despite what I have written, there is still more about Finland that is unique, like its sports. Now, I am British. We decided that sports such as cheese rolling, the caber toss and cricket would be interesting to a crowd. But the Finns choose sports like ant-nest sitting, swamp football and wife carrying were all entertainment worthy sports.

However, when the Finns what to collide culutres and feeling a bit Ancient Greek with a discus in hand but also want to let people know they’re white without saying it because that Instagram caption was too basic and having your kids in 150€ winter onesies didn’t say I play golf enough. The Finns made frisbee golf.

A sport where you throw different frisbees at a “goal” a varierying distances away with a variety of Finnish obstacles in the way, including trees, rocks and swamps. I must recommend this though. Get your mates, some frisbees and your bevearage of choice. You have a semi-competitive, semi-silly Sunday afternoon ahead of you.

For those who know, I choose the forehand throw.

Culture shocks: Traversing the conversational barrier

The Finnish language is an almighty beast. If you could put the 12 trials of Hercules into a language, that would be Finnish. But let’s not tackle that – you will have to when coming to Finland, but UTU is well placed to teach you Finnish.

Rather, here goes to the culture of conversation. In English, ‘Hey, how are you’ is a standard greeting which I expect to receive nothing more than a nod of the head and a ‘Good, you?’ in return. The Finns take this as the initiation of conversation which means they must talk to you about their life, person and everything else that happened.

Also remember, unlike me, most people are conversing in their second language so if the Finns or you want to take a pause, feel free. Do not feel like you have to rush into it. Think about what you want to say.

To this as well, words have multiple meanings in different languages. For example, I was offered Capricorn for dinner the other night by a friend. In English, a Capricorn only means the star sign but in Finnish it can mean multiple things including the star sign but also deer. If you are unsure, ask.

Another point, silence is not being rude but being alone with your thoughts with someone is all you need. You do not need to fill this silence. Just enjoy the time with someone else in your company and think about the world.

Culture shocks: Partying and going out

Here is something I find weird because of being British. In England, if a host calls a party, you have a reasonable number of drinks available and then people bring more. In Finland, people bring their own. Even if they know I have drinks in the fridge.

One of my closest and dearest Finnish friends was looking after my house whilst I was away and drank three of my beers, I came back to a six pack and an apology letter. To me, it was insulting that he felt like he couldn’t take a beer from my fridge. For him, it was insulting I wouldn’t accept the six pack. We decided to sauna and drink them all anyway.

A group of international students enjoying a get-together before Covid pandemic.

Further to this, when you go out on a night out, the level of social security is immense. I have seen bags, bikes and coats just left unattended and then you go back to them hours later. AND THEY ARE THERE. That would not happen in the UK, or any other English-speaking nations.

A point for all to know and try. The Finns are praticial people. So in 1952 they decided to make an alcoholic beverage that rejuvantes ones soul. It is called Lonkero meaning long drink or tentacle. If you are feeling upset, find a lonkero and then feel yourself return to life.

PS to anyone who says that they all taste they same, they don’t. You are lying to yourself and me, and you have not taste buds. Hartwalls is the only and best.

Culture shocks: The sauna

Here is a small story about my first sauna. I was invited to stay at my boss’s place, and he invited me to sauna. I am British and we would never see another person except for intimate partners naked. However, in the sauna, everyone is naked.

Being naked in Finland has nothing to do with being sexual but rather you are in a room which is around 80 degrees Celsius, so clothes will get uncomfortable. Further to this, do not run out of water. For a country which is made up primarily of water they get very worried when there is none for the sauna stones.

Remember this room is going to be hot so you should be in charge of the water throwing on to the stones, because it is your first rodeo. You become the sauna guardian, you löylyheittäjä (the thrower of the löyly (the spoon with water)), this is a honoured position in Finnish culture only below the saunamestari. The water thrower controls the temperature so be wise with you löyly, young padawan.

However, if you feel brave and find yourself in a public sauna where some Finnish people like it really hot, do not sit there in pain if you are not enjoying it. The sauna is your time to relax and find some inner tranquillity.

Finland overall

Finland is a constant barrage of different cultural shocks filled with unique people and an even weirder weather system. But if someone said, would you do it all again? I would do it 100 times more over.

A country where you can quickly put your skis on and be trekking through a forest with your best friends is hard to come by but in tandem to sit by the sea to never watch the sun go down is equally impressive.

I hold some really fond memories from my time in the land of trees, rocks and water. Not just the nature but being offered Capricorn for dinner, asked for decking screws for a birthday present and enjoy Salmiakki during summer.

The practicality of Finland in combination with the sheer joy drawn from being in nature is nothing you can experience by reading my blog piece. Take a British guy’s advice and think about Finland and UTU for your personal expansion plan.

Typical Finnish winter scene includes a lot of snow, confiers and clowdy sky.
Green forests and clear blue sky are elements of the Finnish summer scene.

The writer, Alexander Spicer, is an #utuambassador and a student in the Master’s Degree Programme in Biomedical Sciences: Drug Discovery and Development track. See all international degree programmes at the University of Turku!

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