Ever wondered what it would be like to raise a family in another country? In our regular series following the lives of expats, we find out. This season: Finland.
With vast tracts of unspoilt forest and thousands of lakes; the now famous baby boxes which are given to every expecting couple by the government; a population of wild reindeer; and even, rumour has it, a home to Santa Claus himself, Finland seems like a veritable utopia for families. But does it live up to its idyllic reputation?
Annabelle Dalby met her Finnish husband when they were both studying at Goldsmiths University in London. 15 years later, the couple, who are both artists and have two young children, were firmly settled in North London when the opportunity to move to Finland presented itself. “My husband was offered a residency for three years,” says Annabelle, “it was an opportunity to live and work in a nature reserve in Ekenäs, in Southern Finland.”
A house in a Scandinavian nature reserve might sound like a fairytale, but the couple thought long and hard before making the move. “It was a difficult decision, definitely. We’d just bought a house, and we had our peer group, close friends, and family to leave, as well as our work.”
Despite the anticipated wrench of leaving London, they decided to take the leap. “We felt that it would allow us both to have time to focus on our art and develop our work, and that it would also give the children the opportunity to experience Finland and learn Swedish – my husband’s mother tongue.” Finland has two national languages, Finnish and Swedish, and Ekenäs is a predominantly Swedish-speaking area.
The family moved to Finland on 30 December 2012, when their sons, Albin and Oliver, were five and two. Despite arriving in the dark days of the Finnish winter, the couple did not find the move too difficult. “The biggest challenge was organising the logistics, and telling people that we were going. After a few months we felt very much settled – seeing the season change from winter to spring helped. Also, going back to London and having family come and visit us here made us realise that we could keep up our friendships, and stay in good contact with loved ones.”
Though it’s less than three hours on a plane from Heathrow, Finland is a different world. It’s the most sparsely populated country in the EU, and 75% of the land is covered in forest. Not surprisingly, Annabelle and her family are making the most of the natural resources. “It’s great for the children to experience living in nature – they’re learning to ski, sail, canoe, and do everything else that comes with the outdoor life. We love being surrounded by nature – we’re right by the sea and the woods. We also enjoy seeing the seasons change so clearly, and the extremes of weather.”
Indoors, as well as out, it seems that Finland caters particularly well for people of Albin and Oliver’s age. “It’s very child-centric, generally. Everywhere you go, there seems to have been thought given to how children can operate in the environment. There are playrooms on trains, at the doctors, and in every shop or amenity you might need to go into. Most restaurants, cinemas and doctors’ surgeries also have places where you can take off your shoes and hang up your coats before you go in.”
The Finnish government, too, has a family-friendly reputation. There are, of course, the boxes full of baby essentials – including clothes, toiletries, and even a mattress, so the newborn can sleep in the box itself – which they provide for every child before it’s born, but state help for parents doesn’t stop there.
According to Annabelle, there is little need to use private schools or medical care. “Finland has one of the best education systems in the EU. The nurseries are state run, too, and one month’s nursery fee is the same as paying for two days of daycare in London. Maternity care is also provided by the state, and from what I’ve been told it’s excellent.”
“Women get up to three years off work when they have children, and they still have their job to go back to afterwards. They get benefits to stay at home, and the fathers also get support from their work to take longer paternity leave. I’ve heard of women who’ve had three children, and taken ten years off, with their job still waiting for them.”
The Finnish approach to education is also quite different from the British approach – children don’t start school until they’re seven in Finland, and even then the hours are limited. “The school day runs from 8.30am until approximately 1pm,” says Annabelle. “Children study for no longer than 45 minutes at a time, and play outside for 15 minutes after every 45 minutes studying. They try to take the children outside as much as possible – they go into the woods and explore the forest and nature on a weekly basis. The older children have to cross country ski three times a week in winter, which was quite a challenge for Albin. They also have a much more hands off approach with the younger children – allowing them to explore and play with each other. Singing is a big part of the day.”
Life with children in Finland does indeed sound pretty idyllic, but there are things about London that Annabelle misses. “I miss the food, mostly – being able to pop out and get a great meal from any part of the world. I also miss the richness of the different cultures in London, being around like-minded people, and all the cultural events for us and the children that are on the doorstep there. And, of course, I miss the good friends that I can be myself around.”
Though she feels settled in her current home, Annabelle notes that you need patience when making friends amongst the locals. “People in Finland are very private, quiet and shy. I think you can easily offend someone by being confrontational, or even outwardly friendly. Things take time here, and it’s a much slower process to meet and to get to know the Finnish people and their ways. They can be too shy to speak English, so I have to get better with my Swedish!”
Annabelle’s positive outlook, though, means that the family are determined to make the most of their Finnish adventure, whatever the challenges. “We want to focus on the riches that we have here, the things that we didn’t have in London: time and space. We want to soak up all the experiences of this residency – we don’t know what the future will bring.” ✿
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