I remember when I was deciding my major for my master’s degree at University. I was going back and forth between business law and international management studies. I chose the latter. During my courses, we went through a lot of topics which touched on living abroad and expatriate life. Those studies discussed a lot of the topics I have gone through in my life now when I have been away from Finland for several years and lived in 3 countries. There are many things I´ve learned, but in this short post I decided to focus on few main takeaways from the past years.
1.Your daily life will change even if you move countries inside Europe
In Finland your daily life goes roughly as follows: you go to work at 8 a.m and you leave from work at 5 p.m at the latest. Home offices are widely accepted as we do not want to waste time in traffic or create pollution (Finns typically are very effective and environmentally aware). After work you have time for gym, hobbies, and friends. You eat dinner and enjoy your home life in your nicely decorated house.
When I moved to Paris, I had no idea how much my life would change. It was a cultural shock. There were no such things as going to work at 8 a.m, eat the 30 minutes lunch, and to have time for home cooked dinner at 6 p.m. The time for commute for the Parisians can take hours a day. It made me really think on how many hours people spend in a metro or in a car in a year, and how much pollution it creates. Answer: too many hours and too much pollution.
It took me a while to understand why the Parisians don’t necessarily have as nicely decorated homes as we do in the Nordics. They simply don’t spend much time in their homes as they commute a lot and enjoy eating out more than we do in the Nordics.
2. Equality does not mean the same in every country
Finland is probably most known from its education system and that the equality is one of the key pillars in the society. The toughest learnings and eyeopeners to me have been to understand that the equality is not widely shared even in Europe. It makes me a little frustrated at times, but I have also learned that the best thing is not always to tell how the things are better back home. The most important things are to understand why the things are like that in the country you live in, and how can you help to improve the conditions in the country you are based at that moment.
3. You are surrounded by more diverse group of people
Back home you have your circle of friends who are very similar or share the same kind of lifestyle or interest. When you live abroad, you get to spend time with the people who are not from your university, neighborhood or coming from a same cultural background than you. Getting to know new cultures while meeting new awesome people has been the biggest gift to me in the past years.
4. Different challenges – different growth
Sometimes I feel my life would be 10 times easier if I would live back in my home country. At the same time, I would not have the challenges – those growth opportunities – I have encoutered. I have learned to take the challenges more like a growth pad than an obstacle. After the challenges you may have faced while you live abroad, you feel extremely grateful for the lessons learned. When I finally learned to speak French spontaneously or drive with my little Fiat 500 in the sometimes a-little-chaotic south of France – these have been little big wins for me.
5. I have become much more culturally aware
Finland has become more international in the past 10 years, but overall the culture, values and everyday life are deeply rooted in the Finnish culture. Living in France, Luxembourg, and Amsterdam has opened a whole new window for me. The understanding of the various cultures, religions and behaviors is a gift. I have learned about specific regions for wines and cheeses in France, understood how city life differs in Paris versus Helsinki, why shops close at 6 p.m in Luxembourg, how everything is made in the context of water in Amsterdam – both flowing on the ground and falling from the sky, and how Nordic families spend more time on their homes than going out.
6. Local language and manners matter
One of the most important lessons I have learned is to speak the local language. Even in a way you can make groceries and get through the simple discussions. When you learn the language, you learn the culture. You get things done much faster and show respect to the locals. I admit that learning Dutch hasn’t been high on my priority list, but after learning my lessons in France and Luxembourg, I decided to give it a go and started learning it two weeks ago.
Getting things done without politics or hierarchies is how I usually describe Finnish culture. Things move fast and as we have high level of trust in the country – we believe the person who has the sign off, will make the decision that benefits everyone. This was not my experience necessarily in France. I felt that in France everything needed to be discussed in so many levels and by the time the decision was made, I had already forgotten the reason why we were discussing about the topic. And I’m not speaking about work-related topics, I refer for example deciding a color for the house and the window frames and how the decision needed to be made by the mayor.
After my first year and couple of frustrated moments, I learned to like the French way of doing things. People are much more involved and the topic is well thought through. I still perefer effiency over hierarchies, but I also admire the more collaborative approcah over the let’s get things done fast approach.
I know expat life is not for everyone. And it shouldn’t be. For us on the other hand, it is the only way to live as we most likely will not live in our home countries in the future. Moving countries, learning new languages, different tax systems – and what not – has been the biggest gift I ever received. I have learned so many things about myself, have learned to love my home country more, and become more aware that there is no one right way to do things or how to think. There are just different ways.