The question I get almost every time I list the countries I lived in is whether it was for work or study. A close favorite one is whether my parents are diplomats (for a check, my parents are scientists). I then say that, in fact, behind most countries on my list there is a school or a job but it is misleading. In reality, my thirst for places has always been much stronger than my thirst for knowledge. I fall in love with cities, cultures, experiences much more than I do with educational institutions. Every time I plunge into a different culture, it expands my reach, I learn something about myself, some new little way of being, and I am constantly amazed by it (even now, after almost a decade of plunging). I believe that travelling – with your heart, absorbing culture and values as well as monuments and food – is the best thing that can happen to anyone. After love.
My story with geography starts in Finland. From the places I lived in, about some I think as cities, and of some as countries. My experience in Finland has always been about the country, even though all the five years I stayed in Helsinki (with some occasional enchanting trips to Porvoo and some job trips, if a 20 something min commute can be called a trip, to Espoo). Staying for five years is an exaggeration, but facts first.
I moved to Helsinki from my native city of St Petersbourg when I was 24. My former colleague and a friend, Vicky, suggested we found a company together. I had started doing commodity trading in parallel with my legal studies when I was 18, working for a Swedish firm with a Russian owner. It was there that I met Vicky. With time, Vicky moved to Finland and I was looking for a change: this commodity trading job was the only thing I knew and after doing it for five years, I started wondering what else was out there. At the time Slava, one of my best friends in St Petersbourg (who is now listed in top 30 influential tech people in Asia and happily resides in Singapore) was considering getting an MBA. He was not sure about his English, and to encourage him, I offered to go for a job I was not qualified for. Like, at all. I applied for the position of the head the international trading department in a company which was exclusively trading shares of Russian listed companies abroad. I knew nothing about the economics of Russian state owned companies and I lacked half of the CV description, but after eight rounds of interviews and generous coaching by my other best friend, a genius in economy T, to my surprise, I got the offer. And then Vicky called me suggesting running a business together.
At 24, I had pretty much everything I wanted to have at 24. A good job and, finally, some free time after my legal studies were over. I was a leading journalist for Geometria, the online heart of St Petersbourg’s life (and as such, a very progressive social channel for its days). I was writing for several magazines, Cosmopolitan among them. Great friends, best private parties (I was in Russia, after all), my first car. Long rides through the night city with Tiesto in the loudspeakers and equally long late night sushi dinners with friends, full of laughters and stories, at Dve Palochki. So, on the one side of the scale, there was all that.
But then it does not happen every day that I am offered to co-found a company. Especially with someone I trust and like working with. Especially in a different country. For me it was all about a new experience, and given that Helsinki is only about 300 km away from St Petersbourg and my parents had already moved to Korea, the decision was an easy one. So I took some stuff I thought I would use and my precious (in every sense of the word) Siberian cat that my parents left me and crossed the border to start a new chapter in Helsinki.
Vicky helped to find me an apartment I wanted: a 16m2 double level studio at Vironkatu, in the very heart of Helsinki, behind the White Cathedral. It was about 1/5 of our family apartment in St Petersbourg. I quickly discovered (to my surprise) that having a car in Helsinki, with its public transport running impeccably on time and very, very expensive parking places, was not convenient at all and I sold it.
I was ecstatic. Before coming to live to Helsinki, I did not travel much. I went to Finland once to The Backstreet Boys concert with my best childhood buddy and her parents. I won a trip to Prague with other gold medalists upon graduating from high school. And I spent one summer learning how to trade commodities in Sweden, when I just started working. That was pretty much it. Now every day was bringing a discovery, life was one constant adventure. My heart was beating happily and fast. My name on the apartment door (which, after Russian fortress doors with multiple layers and locks, looked more like a placard door). Mail under my name coming through an opening in it (mostly local pizza ads and sales catalogs). A trip to the food store, with food that tasted like food. Dairy products to kill for. Tap water you can drink and still live. Pebble streets of the city center, so clean that the shoes never got dirty in a dry weather, strolls through the park Kaivopuisto. Picturesque trams, brunches in Engel café, Ursula and Carousel. Coffee to go in big green paper cups, like in the movies (at the time, there was nothing like that in Russia). I would add some sugar free syrup, trade heels for flats and wander for hours exploring my new city. Movies in English. Shopping, which then felt like a great experience (and took me to Stockmann sales, H&M and Zara). I was surprised not to find brands that my country of origin was obsessing about at the time: Gucci, Dolce&Gabbana, Richmond. Logomania was counter-intuitive to Finns, who were trying, on the opposite, to hide their wealth and to invest it instead to beautiful homes with Scandinavian designs and in equally beautiful boats that can only be used during short Finnish summer. Magic of winter, so quiet that sometimes I could hear snowflakes descending on earth in its first and last dance.
Some things were weird though. Except for summer days (which sometimes can be as many as ten), Helsinki is not exactly a life bursting city, and once the long light days are gone, the streets become empty. People stay at home and blame seasonal depression (which lasts autumn, winter and spring) for the lack of social zeal. Independently of the time of the year, clubs close at 1.30 am (in Russia, 1.30 is the usual arrival time). Now, St Petersbourg is not so far and has exactly the same nature conditions (or worst, standing on a beautiful swamp land). It has its share of short days, when it is still dark when you are going to work and already dark when you are leaving it. Yet, I have never heard about anyone in my city (or my country, for that matter) taking depression seriously. We go out, meet after work, go to the movies, call the car next to us on the radio when we are stuck in a traffic jam. (And we also burn electricity like there is no tomorrow, sitting at the source helps.) Partly, depression does not brush along with Russian character. Partly, it is a luxury you can’t afford when life suggests you daily quests and healthy shakeups. In Finland, depression is a well-recognized disease, and a three months paid sick leave is granted once you show the signs of it.
System of education. It was a big surprise to me that people I met in their late 20s were still at university, thinking about what they want to be when they grow up. In the best case they would be doing their Masters (often after having taken a year off after their Bachelors to explore the world). Their work experience was almost zero, and their dreams had no limit. To me, having worked for six years and running my own company, it was strange. How can you be that relaxed and all zen when you have no work credentials? In the place I came from, no experience during the studies meant no job after. In Finland, life did not circle around career achievement and material possession.
I met people of many different occupations, most I did not even know existed. A therapist for disabled kids, for example. Isn’t it an amazing job? A person doing it was genuinely happy. In Russia I knew (I kept comparing everything I saw to Russia, my only reference point), the only professions to consider were that of a manager (a loose term which in the local context means pretty much any office job), a lawyer (with some sunk costs of first years with a small salary and a huge workload) and, sure, a business owner but this latter one has in Russia has its own specifics. For the first time in my life, I started thinking about job as something to enjoy, not just something to pay bills with.
Vicky and I were working together for four years. It was a great ride. We had fun, we laughed a lot, and we made some money, enough for me to travel to Vienna and Rome to spend time with my two besties, Russian girls my age also living abroad, and splitting the rest of the days between Helsinki and, first, London and, then, Istanbul. After my first year in Finland, there was not much left to discover, and things that used to surprise me became my new habits and way of being (except for depression, which I easily kept at bay by the most amazing expat friends circle I would have in all my vagabond experience).
I loved my job, and to understand it better, I enrolled to Hanken, Swedish School of Economics in Helsinki, for a Master’s Program in International Business. (As a part of this program, I later did an exchange period at Paris Dauphine, and took a few summer courses at LSE, being sure that this is my last academic degree). From all my schools Hanken brings the warmest memories. There were just thirteen of us at this program. The dean would take us to his summer house, a former village school, to discuss economy. Class discussions were very open, it was easy to approach professors (and to challenge them, which we enjoyed). For the first time in my adult life, I enjoyed learning. Also for the first time, a lot of work was done in groups. Working in groups instead of individual sprints, which I was accustomed to (and in which I was very, very good) was one of the most important things I learnt during these five years (as it happens with many great things, I will understand the value of it later, at INSEAD and my job after it). In Finland, the skill of common work can be extended to the culture level. Although largely knows as introverts, Finns function in groups. They compete in groups, and they win in groups. There is no place for a huge ego or vanity in this country.
And all this was for free. Including the semester in Paris, when I only had to cover my living costs.
With time, many of Finnish ways of being became mine. I moved out of the picture perfect historical center to a larger apartment at Castreninkatu in Hakaniemi (mainly because of the cat, which was suffering for a lack of hunting space). For the first time since my childhood, I went back to bike, to discover a carefully planned network of bicycle routes. I enjoyed jogging around the Hakaniemi lake with crowds of rabbits jumping to the bushes from under my feet. And I learnt a dozen ways to cook salmon, probably the most affordable fish in the country.
At some point, Vicky and I closed the business. Russia had changed the laws of commodity trade, ruling out of the game small players like us. We decided to do it when our financial standing was still good. Vicky then moved on to live her dream of being a lawyer, giving life to the degree she had but never used, and I went to INSEAD, to discover what else is there in the world to do. While waiting for my INSEAD year to start, I went to Nokia, to learn about a new business (as it turned out, most of my future classmates went to long vacation trips instead and for the record, this is a much better idea). In Finland, only three companies would hire someone without decent Finnish, and Nokia was one of them. They were drastically cutting the jobs, but said that I am, well, brilliant and would do any kind of work for a symbolic compensation with no ambition of a permanent job. So I spent half a year doing internship which was paid at the level well exceeding an average salary in European countries south of Scandinavia. I had fun. For a change, I was learning about a totally different (and exciting) business. I had some very bold ideas and a green light to implement them. I was working in a multinational company of a huge (then) size, and I was learning to deal with complexity. (By the way, I was offered a permanent job in the end.)
Then I left to INSEAD. Before leaving, I applied for a Finnish permanent residence and then a funny thing happened. I called to check on my status, and the person working on my case asked to prove my current employment. I explained that I was in the business school and for the first time in my life had no employment. The person said that in this case my application would be rejected. And then, after a reflection pause, advised me to “do as if I never made this application”, not to have a bad track of a permit refusal, and to apply again when I come back after my MBA studies. All that in English. I was willing to do as I was told but life had other plans for me. I did not pass my final interview round at McKinsey, and returned to Paris, to later move to Munich, but that is a story of a different chapter.
Living in Finland was easy. Everyone spoke English, even a bus driver and a guy selling groceries at the corner market (the most beautiful glossy strawberries and cherries). All the paper turnover – banks, taxes, immigration services – was automated with everything done online. It was from the Finnish banks that I first learnt about a credit card and a bank account (in Russia these days, our salaries were still paid in cash). French banks still seem slightly Medieval when I think about Finland.
The best thing was of course travel. With Finnish residence permit, I finally did not need a visa to travel in Europe, and when I did need one, like for the US, UK or, at the time, South Korea, I would be almost the only person at a foreign embassy applying for it. With flights everywhere costing half of that in Russia, Helsinki was a perfect travel hub. There is a joke that the main attraction of Helsinki is Stockholm (I am not sure that the joke is Finnish but I agree with it), and I enjoyed day visits to the Swedish capital on board of the overnight ferry. Another popular destination is Tallinn, with its Eastern European charm of affordable spas and comfy boutique hotels, and I spent my share of romantic time there.
My four years in Finland taught me that the world is not flat. Life does not have to run by the same rules, there are different paths to happiness, and these different ways of getting there are great for different people. Finland taught me to be more of a team player, to be humbler about my achievements, to wear flat shoes, not to be afraid of new beginnings and to go for great distances with coffee in a paper green mug. It certainly made me believe in myself and in my dreams. And taught me to dream big. It has also rooted my love to travel. Looking back, I only see the good things. I genuinely love this country. And I certainly hope to come back one day for a husky dogs ride through Lapland.
Visit A Girl with Geography: about that page for other Chapters. 😉
Update May, 16 2016: my photos of Finland were lost in what happened to be an unfortunate attempt on PC formatted memory disk by Mac. One of my best friends and a Helsinki local Bogdana Gamburg generously let me use her gorgeous shots of Helsinki and Lapland to illustrate my chapter of life in Finland.