Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Living in HEL

I am getting just the teensiest bit sick of my expat friends’ new nickname for my newest home city. Their tweets and FB status updates are full of it.

“Our holiday is over, and I’m back in HEL!”

“Made double-choc-fudge brownies. A little slice of heaven here in HEL.”

“8:30 am and it is still pitch black here in HEL.”

And so on, and so on. My teeth are gritted behind my forced smile.

Anywhere as far north as Helsinki is GRIM in November and December, sure. It’s freezing, it’s dark, and it’s the time of year when homesick expats are (quite understandably) thinking longingly of the warmer, brighter cities they left behind them.

All the same, this Helsinki-bashing is really starting to tick me off.

Yes, it’s cold. Yes, daylight is limited to 6+ hours a day, and many of those hours have been dismally cloudy lately. But you know what?


Far from being hell on earth, Helsinki is a seriously great place to live. If you honestly believe this is a shitty place to be, you are a spoiled brat who deserves a stint in some city that truly IS god-forsaken and hellish – somewhere that not only fails to provide you with Crunchy Nut Cornflakes or Hershey’s Kisses, but also forces you to pee into a hole in the ground, drink water that gives you the runs, deny your children the gift of education and put them to work at age 10 instead, and watch as people get sick and die from malaria or cholera.

Things I love about Helsinki:

1. The government takes care of you. Full-time public childcare (staffed by well-trained and competent people) costs 250 euros per month. Medical care is free, or so heavily subsidized that it might as well be free. Recently I had a badly-sliced finger glued miraculously back together at the emergency room. I waited less than 15 minutes to see a doctor. I paid 25 euros.

2. Everything is so easy with kids. If you have a child in a stroller, you and your child can take public transport free of charge. There are parks and kids’ play centres absolutely everywhere. These parks are used heavily by Helsinki families. It was a breeze to make friends when we first moved here.

3. This is the land of educational excellence. School teachers in Finland are required to have the minimum of a Masters’ degree, and Finnish school children are among the best performers world-wide (see HERE for further raving on that subject). Many people speak English to a level of excellence that will blow your mind.

4. Helsinki is not very big, so you can get to know it pretty well in a surprisingly short time. Despite its compact size, it has plenty of decent shopping, Michelin-starred restaurants, and world-class entertainment (U2, Maroon 5 and Britney Spears have all performed here in the past year or so).

5. No matter what people may have told you about Finns being shy/retiring/grumpy/anti-social, it just isn’t true. I have found Finns to be warm and welcoming, with a wry sense of humour. And, despite their (often excellent) fluency in English, they still have endless patience for foreigners’ train-wreck attempts at the Finnish language.

6. In the summer, the sun shines endlessly, and it’s never properly dark, even at 11 pm.

Do I really need to go on?

Helsinki does have a few less-than-lovable sides, but so does every single other fricking city in this world, no exceptions. The longer I live here, though, the more convinced I am that it really might be the world’s most livable city.

To those whining expats among my friends, who apparently have forgotten everything they ever disliked about their home city, and who clearly don’t know when they are onto a good thing, I have only one thing to say:

Stop your whining, or go to hell.

* Since I first posted this, it has been pointed out to me that I was unnecessarily angry/judgmental in my rantings. I tend to agree. See here for something on the same subject, but a tad more thoughtful and empathetic.


  1. I always wondered why expats in the US when I was there, always got together to talk about and celebrate everything Australian. I think thats a great things to do, but it was as though they were so intent on how great "home"was, they were ignoring all the great things about the country they were living in - I think there needs to be a good balance, to stay sane!

  2. I too come from a city that is regularly 'bashed' by others. But it has some really good things about it that others don't see. Well done on defending where you love to live. x

  3. You know, I remember when I lived in Tokyo that every so often I would get into a "grrr....all these things really irritate me about Japan" mode...but I pulled myself out of it because I chose to live there ( I loved it) and also nowhere is perfect. I wonder though if all your friends really mean what they say or if it isn't more a funnel for any frustrations/loneliness/homesickness that they are feeling. It doesn't make the whining right, and hopefully you can use your positive thoughts and comments to make them realise that Helsinki is NOT something to complain about. Then maybe you too can ask them to tell you what it is really about.....they are not really complaining about Helsinki, what is it that is really bothering them?!

  4. Thanks, everyone, for taking the time to post such warm and thoughtful comments.

    Troubles' Mum, it's great to see you here! Thank you so much for dropping in for a read.

    anobservantmind, I agree wholeheartedly that it's really a question of balance, and that it's certainly ok (and very natural) to reflect, wistfully, on the good bits from one's homeland. I certainly do that myself, especially at this time of year when it's warm and sunny in Australia and cold and dark in Finland! Like Sara, I also used to live in Tokyo, and though I too loved my time there, still there were many times I'd sigh in frustration and wish that certain things about Japan/Tokyo were different.

    What I object to is the way some expats idolize their home cities and compare their current cities unfavourably in every respect, forgetting that even their home cities have negative points, and closing their eyes to all the good in their immediate environment. It doesn't do them or those around them any good - in fact, hanging on so tightly and narrow-mindedly to "home" makes it really difficult for them to ever feel comfortable anywhere else!

    Sara, you make an excellent point in suggesting that this kind of adopted-city-bashing is very likely just an outlet for difficult feelings of homesickness and loneliness. I really should reach out more to those poor HEL-bashers around me. After all, who best to help them feel more at home than Helsinki's newest and biggest fan! :)

  5. Jesus, someone needs to pull the stick out from their ass and learn to not take everything so seriously.

    1. What a thoughtful comment. Thanks for the input, Anonymous.