It was a dark, cold, and rainy morning when I flew out of Finland, the country that had been my home for ten long years.
After living in the far north of the world, I decided to move back to Italy. I moved to Finland in August 2009 to pursue a Ph.D. in Biochemistry at the University of Helsinki. After obtaining a master's degree in biological sciences, I thought that getting a Ph.D., and having an experience abroad was the physiological way to follow in order to become a scientist. And that was it, I packed my bags and left my hometown Rome for Helsinki, a city I knew nothing about except that it was far away in a country called Finland.
I had big dreams and great expectations. I was full of hope but at the same time scared of the unknown ahead of me. How was my future lab going to be? Were my colleagues going to be nice? Would I have enjoyed living in Finland?
As days and months were going by, there was one perfect definition of my life in Finland: cultural shock. A massive cultural shock! We Italians are outgoing, friendly, and chatty people; we don’t mind a quick chat at the bus stop or at the store even if we don’t know each other. I believe this is very important to build a sense of belonging and community that makes your everyday life a bit better. As opposed to this, Finns appear to be very quiet, reserved, and even not welcoming at first glance. Most of them won't say hi, even if you meet them daily at work or in your apartment´s staircase. In a canteen or on the bus, they will sit close to you only if there is no other option, as the first choice will always be a place where no one is sitting close by. Such a striking difference compared to my Italian upbringing! The Finnish language was also a barrier against my social integration. Finnish is one of the most difficult languages in the world and it can easily take years to learn it at a decent level. I was attending several language courses, but the lack of practice made things very difficult; in fact, locals would often speak Finnish when in groups, despite me being there, making me feel more excluded. These were all the reasons that made making friends with locals an insurmountable task.
The first years were indeed very hard. Though I had the support of my Finnish roomie and labmate, I still felt quite isolated and alone, both in and out of work. I was spending most of my time, weekends included, doing research, and attending courses. After a few years, thanks to the courses I was attending, I finally managed to build my small community. They were mostly foreign students like me, struggling with exclusion and isolation from Finnish society; they became my support system and allowed me to spend some time away from work.
Finns appear to be very quiet, reserved, and even not welcoming at first glance. Most of them won't say hi, even if you meet them daily at work or in your apartment´s staircase.
Though work was still taking most of my time, I was now doing more things outside of it. I would regularly meet my friends. I enjoy cooking a lot and that was the perfect excuse to have them over for a plate of lasagna and tiramisu. My friends and I would also go for a few small trips within Finland, in order to get to know a bit more about this unknown land. Finland is one of the world’s most geographically remote countries. It’s densely forested and it’s known as “the land of the thousand lakes” as it’s dotted with 188,000 patches of water. The climate is quite harsh because winter is the longest season in Finland. The nights are cold, dark, and endless; for months you will not see the sun, and this will negatively affect your mental wellbeing. The three months of summer are quite nice though I’ve always suffered the sun almost constantly shining during that time.
As the years were going by, I found myself enjoying the life I was having outside of work. For the first time I was living all alone, a fully independent woman. I had my own apartment and I loved it. Though work was still very demanding and challenging, I liked the lifestyle I had in Helsinki when not at work. The quietness due to obviously smaller population compared to my hometown; the (mostly) functional services such as transportation that in Rome are well-known nightmares; the neatness and cleanliness of the city as opposed to the very dirty surroundings of my hometown. As an introvert, it felt like the perfect place to live where people don't really talk to you, they mind their own business and you do quite the same. I had plenty of nature close by, I could bike everywhere, and the city was mostly safe at any time of the day. The historical touch of Helsinki was nonexistent compared to my millennial Rome, the food offer was also very poor, but I wasn’t bothered too much by those things. And that’s when I remember telling myself: maybe I could live here forever!
Around 2016 my research project, which gave me troubles and no good results since day one, finally took a turn and some interesting data started to come out. Despite my work being still very demanding and affecting my mental health a lot, I was feeling rather ok with my life outside of work. But then, why in the back of my mind I was often thinking something is missing? Why did I never feel this city and its people as fully my own? Why did I start to feel like I should leave?
The language barrier continued to be a reason; though my skills were good enough to engage in daily tasks outside, I wasn’t able but, above all, I lacked the confidence to engage in more complicated conversations. My self-confidence was often pushed down by the locals being still extremely close-up even after years of me living there; as a foreigner, I just never felt truly welcomed and fully integrated. It’s a paradox to me that Finland is the happiest nation in the world for three straight years; quality of life and a strong safety net by the government seem to be enough, though Finns heavily struggle with alcoholism, gambling, and mental health-related issues. I posit that part of their attitude is due to Finland being one of the most racist countries in the EU. In the ten long years I have lived there, I didn’t experience strong racist behavior against me but microaggressions were common, even on campus. Moreover, the lack of a sense of community at work was negatively impacting my wellbeing, throwing more doubts over the few things I felt I was sure of.
2019 was the last straw for me. After a job promise, a PI used me for personal reasons, damaging my work and, above all, my health. Those were extremely hard months for me. I couldn’t go to campus due to his actions, I was under medication and I was seeking help via therapy. In addition to all this, my former university handled everything unsatisfactorily, shattering my trust in an institution I believed to be fair and impartial.
I told him, “my neighbor is seventy years old and she asks me every day if my family and I need anything. Would that happen in Finland?”. He answered, “probably not”.
I first left Finland in August and then went back in December to defend my Ph.D. thesis. To be honest, flying out for good felt like a relief! I’ve always believed that you see the true colors of people when you are at your lowest point; and the Finns around me confirmed this theory of mine by showing me their real nature during my hardship. Honesty, a characteristic I thought was exclusive of Finnish people, turned out to be a people-pleasing facade. Shockingly, and sadly, I realized a Finn will agree with you and with someone with the exact opposite opinion than yours, at the same time! They are not well-known to stand up for things and they passively accept anything that happens and comes along their way. When discussing these characteristics, a friend of mine asked: “When was the last time you saw a Finn on the television for doing something big?”. My answer was “never”. Did I really want to live with people that didn’t help me at my lowest point? Everything that happened and their behavior made all sense to me when a Finnish friend of mine said “we don't help friends because we are discrete”. Mind you, they will help you move, pick up stuff, drop you off somewhere if needed and etc. but they will not speak up for you, they will not stand with you and they will not have your back. This doesn’t obviously apply to every Finn, but I am sure, from my experiences and those of several foreign friends of mine, it describes many of them.
It's now six months since I am back in my home country and honestly, I never regretted it once! The feeling of being home, the feeling of belonging, the feeling of being part of something. Italy was struck hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have gone through several months of full lockdown, but despite that, I never felt alone.
When the pandemic started, a Finnish friend of mine sent me a message saying “you are so unlucky, you just went back to Italy, the worst-hit country”. I replied: “I consider myself lucky and you know why? Because I am living in a country where people care for each other, where people help each other, where people are empathetic and compassionate towards others’ sufferings”. I told him, “my neighbor is seventy years old and she asks me every day if my family and I need anything. Would that happen in Finland?”.
He answered, “probably not”.
I thought for a long time that Finland could become my home, but I guess it was like a dream where the few good things overshadowed the many negative aspects of that country; I believe that the circumstances I was living through affected a lot of my already peculiar personality, making me oversee many negative aspects.
As an introvert, I thought Finland was the perfect place to stay; but an introvert also needs to feel welcomed, needs to find belonging, needs to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Something called a community. A community I only found when my heart told me that I was back home.