Things That Are Different In Finland (That I Never Expected to be Different)

I can’t think of a better name for this post. I don’t know if there’s a word for “Things that are different that one never anticipated to be different”, but if there is, please let me know. Until then, we’ll just say that this is a blog post about the things that, during my time in Finland, I found to be different, that I never thought could be different. Concise, right?

When you move to a different country, you sort of prepare yourself mentally for the change. When I moved to the States, for example, I prepared myself for people not understanding my accent, people not being able to pronounce my name, for unhealthy food and for really expensive health care. There were a few things that struck me as weird when I finally moved to the US, like the shelf-life of milk and bread and the fact that people still used fax machines, but over all, culturally, there wasn’t a lot that made me say “Hey this is so different”.

However, fast forward a year or so later when I moved to Finland and you’ll find a great disparity in the situation. Here are some things I expected to be different in Finland before I moved: The language, the climate, the food, the people, etc. Normal stuff. (I expected people not to be able to pronounce my name, but that doesn’t fall into the category of ‘different’. It’s different when someone can say it.) I had the advantage of having visited Finland a few times before I even moved so I was fully sure that nothing was going to surprise me there. Oh, how I was wrong.

So lets get to it, the things that are different in Finland that I never expected to be different.

Keys. I have weirdly strong opinions on this and it feeds into the next one in the category of the unexpectedly different, but because I feel so strongly, this is a category in its own. Ok, if you’ve never been to Finland, chances are you’re reading this thinking “How could keys be different?” If you’re from Finland, you’re probably thinking the exact same. Finns have taken the blue pill, they go on living in their little world where Abloy keys are the only keys to open doors and in order to unlock your door, YOU TURN THE KEY CLOCKWISE. For the non-Finns, take a second to digest this. You put your key in the door. You want to get in. So, you turn it in the most ungodly fashion possible, defying all laws of life. Keys, when unlocking doors, should only ever turn anti-clockwise, unless we want to rip the fabric of society and descend into anarchy. You’re unlocking it, it needs to go backwards. Forwards is for locking! Finland, get it together!

Abloy keys are not like keys. They’re like normal keys, on a diet, or the offspring of a normal key and a car key. Additionally, Abloy keys literally all look the same. There is literally no way to tell them apart rather than the process of elimination. This might not seem that difficult, a minor inconvenience, if you will. You’d think so. You’d be wrong. Let us take me for example, coming home from work at 3am. I’m tired, I’ve spent the night cleaning up after drunk people and pretending to be interested in the woes of inebriated men who are yelling about taxes in Finno-English. I get to my apartment and spend 10 bleary-eyed minutes attempting to open my apartment door, systematically trying all 4 keys I own to open the door, instinctively turning anti-clockwise, swearing in a dimly lit hall way, dropping my keys and having to start over again, before eventually making it inside with frustrating ease on the final attempt.


Am I the front door key? Am I the basement key? Who knows!

I told you I have strong opinions on it.

And this reality of difference became extremely clear this summer when my Finnish Other Half and I went of holiday to Croatia. While there, in the vulgar heat and humidity of 35 degrees, unfit for two pale kids like us, we stayed in a guesthouse. That guesthouse had a key for the front door and for our room door. Two keys. Those two keys, you’ve guessed it, were normal keys. I was in my element here, unlocking the doors like a pro. Swiftly inserting keys and turning left and right in a matter of seconds, depending on our necessity. My poor Finnish companion, however, spent the 5 days calling for help as he tried to lock and unlock doors. I ended up being the keeper of keys on our trip. A great responsibility. He was force-fed the red pill and was faced with the reality of life outside Finland, where keys are keys and unlocking, naturally, requires a flick of the wrist to the left.

Doors. I thought of combining this difference with the above section on keys, but I had so much to say about keys that it made sense to split these two up. I lived in Finland for a year and a half. My name is Gearóidín and I don’t know how Finnish doors work.

Why is there a little switch on the doorframe? What does it do? Why can I sometimes open the door after it closes, but other times it locks itself? What are the rules? I developed such a fear of being spontaneously locked out that when at work on my own, I wore my keys around my neck constantly, all 4 of them, because I couldn’t risk only taking one for fear of taking the wrong one (see aforementioned reference to carbon-copy-keys) and being locked out, with a plethora of alcohol for the taking and a nefarious character remaining inside.

What are the rules? Why are doors so unpredictable in your country, people of Finland? Why does the handle open the door sometimes, but not when I’ve left the house without my keys? Is there a door ritual that I was supposed to conduct? What is the switch for? Is that to turn the door’s mind off? Which way is off? You turn things the wrong way and switch them the wrong way so how should I know? I’ve left Finland now, but for my own future reference, it might be a good survival skill to have, like knowing CPR or how to make fire out of wood and stones.


I couldn’t find a picture of a Finnish door, so here’s an old-timey door instead. 

Beds. In the rest of the world, you have one mattress on your bed. You also have one duvet/cover/comforter. Regardless of the size of the bed or the number of people in it, there is only one. In Finland, this is not so. A double bed, let’s take for example, has the following: A mattress. Two single-bed-sized small, thin mini mattresses, one on either side of the bed. Two pillows. Two single-bed-sized duvets with two covers. Non-Finns right now are like, “whaaaat?”


What is this madness??? :O

I spent 30 minutes standing in IKEA negotiating with my previously mentioned Finnish companion about whether or not to buy two of these weird mini-mattress things. In the end, I convinced him that a mattress would suffice, with the caveat that on my next trip to Ireland, I would import a memory foam, double mattress topper from Argos. I wasn’t so successful in trying to convince him about the two duvets. I don’t really get the separate-bed concept in one bed. I’m putting it down to the fact that Finns love being alone and they like their own space. So regardless of whether you’ve been married for 35 years, you get your own space at night. It just happens to be next to your spouse.

And no, before someone tries to tell me that it’s a Nordic thing, it’s not. I used to work on a ferry, among other vile things, making beds. The ferry left Finland everyday for Stockholm, Sweden. When we made the beds in Finland, they were made with two single duvets. When we stripped the beds having returned from Stockholm, they had only one duvet, a double one. So it is not a thing in Sweden. It’s just Finland. And it’s strange. Sure, if you sleep with someone who is a notorious duvet hogger and likes to cocoon themselves into it, while you freeze in the night air next to them, edging closer for a corner or warmth, two duvets are a great idea. Being a duvet-stealer, however, if there are two duvets on the bed, I want both. So the problem for the cold person isn’t really alleviated. Instead, I am burrito-ed in two duvets, rather than one.

Silence: Rest of the world: Silence is awkward. Finland: Silence is good. Silence is comfortable. Silence is golden.

Household layout: Why is the washing machine in the bathroom? I’ll give it that this probably is a Nordic thing, based on a cartoon image in my Swedish-book, teaching us vocab for household items and rooms. So the tvättmaskin in that picture, goes in the badrum. Ok, I get it, there’s water in there, you clean yourself in there so why not clean the clothes? I get it, on paper it makes sense. But that’s not where the washing machine goes. (Source: It’s just not where it goes, ok? I can’t explain it.) It goes in the weird little room that you put plastic bags, sweeping brushes and the vacuum cleaner in. It can, possibly, go in the kitchen, but that’s kinda weird too. It can even go in a basement, a shed or an outside hut. But it absolutely does not go in the bathroom. That’s like putting the dinner table in the bedroom, the sofa in the front hall, any device which has Netflix in the kitchen (one should never have the distraction of House of Cards where one has access to knives or other devices likely to sever a finger when not focused on)

Milk cartons: Finally, the last and most grave of the differences between the world as I know it and Finland. Your milk cartons AKA My One Great Nemesis. I cannot open Finnish milk cartons. When I was a child, cartons of milk were opened by pulling back two cardboard flappy tabs at the top of the carton and sort of squeezing. However, by the time I was old enough to have the responsibility to actually open milk carton unsupervised, our society had moved on to twist-top caps on our cardboard cartons. We left the dark days behind. Finland either never made this transition, or made the transition and decided that the flappy, infuriating and evil tabs were better.



The food-storage method of nightmares


As far as I know, only one brand of milk in Finland has the twisty cap-opening mechanism. That brand also happens to be the most expensive brand of milk. Evidently there is a great cost involved in adding a small, 2cm diameter round cap to milk cartons. As such, being a broke student, I was forced to buy the cheaper brands. There was no taste difference in the milk. But these affordable brands gave rise to The Great Struggle of my Finnish life. I know there’s a knack to it – I’ve seen Finns open milk like a pro: Open tabs, push back, squeeze and pour. They make it look so infuriatingly simple! Well let me tell you, it is not. Opening milk, for me, an unfortunate immigrant in your society, required an array of the following: A fork, a butter knife, a teaspoon and a Fiskars scissors. I needed to open the milk over or in the sink, because loss of product was a given. Occasionally I had to have empty bottles and containers nearby because of the risk of destroying the whole carton and needing to hastily transfer milk from the sinking ship.


An adult or a Finn of any age.

I’ve seen Finns, smug as anything, open cartons of milk with one hand. The speed and professionalism is so hard to take – I am forever jealous of their skill and ability in the field of dairy unboxing. I’ll admit that near the end of my time in Finland, perhaps once a week I opened milk without the aid of tools or a Finnish supervisor. I think that had I put in more training, more practice, then perhaps I would have been far better at opening the milky-goodness. However, undoubtedly I will never reach the Finnish standard of excellence, garnered, presumably, from years of formal training, beginning at the tender age of three in kindergartens across the country. I assume then, that there’s a state exam of milk opening and specific techniques to master in order to become the milk-opening pros that they are.


I love Finland. I loved living there and despite these weird and different aspects of life, I had a wonderful time there. I regularly grumble about aspects of Irish society that I never realised were annoyingly slow or ineffective and compare them with Finland and the rose-tinted Utopia glasses with which I now wear. I love sauna (something I never thought I’d say – it’s a sweaty wooden heat box that you sit naked in with your friends and family and yet I recently found myself pining for it!), I love Cinnamon Buns (but not Salmiakki – you will never take me to the dark, salty side of candy!), I love punctuality, organisation and I love not engaging in small talk. I miss so many aspects of Finnish society. But this morning, as I twisted open the carton of milk and poured it on my musli, or yesterday, as I unlocked the door by turning the normal key anti-clockwise, I remained thankful that certain aspect of Finnish life, the madness of two-duveted-bathroom-laundry that you all live in, has not been exported worldwide, like Nokia or Angry Birds. Send me your Dumle, send me your Geisha, send me your Korvapuusti and your reasonably priced student dental care. But for the love of God, Finland, keep your daemonic milk cartons to yourselves.


Shift and Drift – American Style

My very last night in Missoula was an eventful one. A night that made me think long and hard about an aspect of American culture. That aspect? Dating.

American men are different to Irish men. They seemed to use the gym a bit more. And when they refer to football, it’s far less exciting than a Munster Final in Killarney. The biggest difference I found, however, was dating culture.

Irish men are not romantic.

Yes, that is a blanket statement. Yes, some people may find it offensive. But I have lived here long enough and had enough disappointing experiences to stand by that statement. Irish men don’t do “dates”. They don’t take numbers in bars with the intent of calling her tomorrow and arranging a date for ice cream or pancakes. That sort of craic happens in movies and on episodes of Friends. I had spent my mature life becoming accustomed to men cracking sarcastic comments in an attempt to flirt and desperately trying to avoid that drunk guy in Havana Browns who only plucks up the courage to talk to girls when he’s hammered and insists on trying slobber all over my face once they had acquired the appropriate level of inebriation. I don’t know if he’s attempting to remove all the makeup from the respective faces of Irish women, everywhere, but this guy and his buddies are doing a pretty awesome job.

But to be honest, Irish women aren’t much better.

I confess that I have moaned about the gentlemen of my nation (or lack thereof) on numerous occasions. I have babbled with my friends about how European men and American men are politer, more respectful and more aware of the existence of this thing called romance. But the truth is, if an Irish guy had ever asked me on a date, having just met him, I would have been pretty creeped out.

Who is this weirdo? Why does he want to go on a date with me? He doesn’t even know me. For all he knows, I’m a serial killer. Heck, for all know, he’s a serial killer!! 

I would have lied about my name, given a weird excuse like an allergy to social situations and left the immediate vicinity, my RapeApp on my phone at the ready.

You can imagine my initial confusion then when I moved to the US. At first, I was in denial. I would get talking to the most friendly of strangers. In the University Centre, or outside Child Advocacy Law, no less. We would natter and talk and absentmindedly end up at a coffee shop. Sure when we’re here, we might as well enjoy a nice beverage. What’s the harm? So me and my new friend (let’s call him Kevin) would drink our drinks and talk and then when it was time to go, Kevin would say something casual like, “Hey, this was fun, we should hang out again sometime” and give me his number on a napkin. I’ll admit the number-on-a-napkin thing did make me wonder – classic Hollywood move but I thought nothing of it. That is until I relayed my story to my American friend. When I told her, she laughed. Not with me. At me. “You know that was a date, right?” No, it wasn’t a date! We’re friends! I would have known if it was a da- Oh my God, it was a date! Dammit!! Sneaky American dating culture -1, Gearóidín -0.

After one or two undercover dates, I began to get suspicious. Paranoid to the level of Edgar Hoover, in his later years. I was no longer oblivious to these American’s and their pick up attempts. No, Sir, I know what you’re doing. I know all about you, Man Asking Me The Time. I know your American ways, I know this is you hitting on me. Not today! And instead of answering the gentleman, who probably didn’t want to date me and definitely just wanted to know what time it was, I would simply glare and walk away, determined not to be fooled again.

To any American I may have offended in my time in your country, please note the following:

In Ireland, men try to pick up girls when they are drunk, in a bar or nightclub. They do not try pick up women on the bus, in a library or at a baseball game (more on this later). I am ready to counteract advances in nightclubs. So you will understand my confusion with the American way. You will understand and perhaps forgive my impoliteness. When you, Average Joe Montana, ask me to “hang out” in a public setting, that is not a licensed premises for alcohol consumption, I immediately assume you are trying to kidnap and murder me. This is a legitimate assumption and very possibly correct, in my mind and therefore I am going to say no.

I don’t understand the process of dating someone you’ve just met. Say your name is Jeff. Jeff meets this Irish girl in the Iron Horse Brew Pub in Missoula. He asks for her number. She freaks out, not sure what of the social convention and gives him a fake one. But this is not Jeff’s first rodeo. He calls the number, right  on the spot. Shoot. Irish girl lied to him. She caves and gives him another number, the real one this time. Jeff sends her a text the next day, telling her he’ll pick her up at 8, that he’s bringing her for dinner. Jeff, think about this: You don’t know the first thing about this girl. You know she’s Irish. That’s it. What if you two have nothing in common? What if she’s weird, and loves to talk about grammar, and speaks a language that only about 5,000 people worldwide speak fluently? What if she is actually ginger? What if you can’t pronounce her name or understand a single word she says? Jeff, do you really want to be put in that awkward situation for the duration of a meal plus the drive home? Trust me, Jeff, I did you a favour. Needless to say, Jeff did not pick her up at 8. All hypothetical, of course.

Anyway, back to my last night in Missoula. And baseball. I had never been to a baseball game. Luckily, the Foreign Student Office had organised a trip to the Missoula Ospreys game that took place on my last night. An excellent opportunity to soak up the very last of America before I scampered off home. Alas, pathetic fallacy and the universe conspired and made it rain. A lot. We went to the game, 3 Irish students, 1 Spaniard, 1 Sri Lankan, 1 Malaysian and an American. I wanted a corn dog and some baseball. I got a crappy hotdog and hit on. The guy who hit on me heard my Irish accent and, considering the unique and totally unheard of fact that he had Irish relatives in Dublin, (of all places)  and apparently immediately decided I would be  a good candidate for an Irish wife.

We shall call him Tom. Tom, with whom I conversed for no more than 30 seconds, followed me to the parking lot and awkwardly asked a thoroughly terrified European to “hang out some time”. Tom received an excuse.

“I’m getting on a plane at 4am to fly home forever to Ireland. Bye” Ok, I’ll hand it to Tom. This probably sounded like the worst and most disrespectful lie he had ever heard. But it was the truth and I was sure I had seen the last of Tom as I scrambled into the minivan with my friends, convinced I had just escaped an assassination attempt. But Tom is not a quitter, evidently. And as we tried to drive out of the stadium, Tom stopped our vehicle and proceeded to present us with his name and number on a scrap of paper. You don’t know the half of this guys persistence.

After a thorough discussion of the Tom-Affair in a local bar, the United Nations and I concluded that I needed to text Tom, because Tom thought I had bullshit him. So text him is what I did. I apologised for my bluntness but assured him that I was returning home and I hoped he had a nice life. A text I thought was satisfactory and clear. It was not.

There I stood, cleaning the floor in my apartment, praying that my security deposit would be returned to me when my phone rang. It was Tom. (Ladies and Gentlemen, this is where it gets weird) Tom wanted to know what I was up to for the night. Specifically, Tom wanted to know what time I was flying out at and would it be cool if he showed up at Missoula International Airport at 4am to “chill” with me until I left. Yes. I am serious. Tom saw, in his head, Ross dashing to JFK to catch Rachel before she flew to Paris in the finale of Friends. I saw the opening scene from Scream, with Drew Barrymore. Hiding the cold fear in my voice, I dead bolted my front door and calmly informed Tom that I had a boyfriend and that it would not be cool. Tom’s momma didn’t raise no fool, however, and Tom assured me he would be there, if things didn’t work out with this guy, and that he would totally “hit me up” (what is this? It sounds violent) if he ever came to Ireland.

I don’t know if Tom showed up to MSO at 4am, with a bunch of roses and a stereo blasting Endless Love on account of my terrified race through security. I’d like to think he didn’t, but his subsequent friend request on Facebook hints otherwise.

I’m sure American’s are excellent at romance and courtship. I would never suggest otherwise. I would suggest, however, that when hitting on a non-national try something along the lines of “Hi, my name is Tom and I’ll be asking you on a date in the next half hour. I also intend to follow you out of the country”. This sort of greeting tells your foreign female three three things. 1) Your name is Tom. 2) She’s being hit on. 3) Tom is honest. Tom might also be an axe murderer, but hey, maybe she’s into that?