Preparing to Become An Expatriate

passportcurrencyThis post is intended for readers who are about to set out for the first time as an Expatriate.  Although, it is stated from a U.S. citizen’s perspective, similar information should be available in the Consular Section of most embassy websites.

If you are traveling as an employee for an international company you may have already engaged in some sort of orientation process to prepare for your life abroad.  If you are making this step on your own, or you haven’t had the luxury of an orientation, the United States Department of State has already done the homework and you can access most of the information you need here.

The Traveler’s Checklist you will find on this website allows you to research the country  you will be traveling to or living in and provides the following information:

  • Passport Requirements
  • Vaccination Requirements
  • Currency Restrictions
  • Visa Requirements
  • Local Embassy Address & Contact Information
  • Facts About the Country
  • Safety & Security
  • Criminal Activity & Reporting Instructions
  • Health, Medical Care & Facilities
  • Travel & Transportation

Another service offered by the U. S. Department of State is the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP).  Expats and travelers can register for this free service to inform the nearest U.S. Embassy or consulate of your stay in the country.  In return applicants will be informed of safety conditions, natural disasters, and civil unrest within that country.  In addition, the embassy will have a way to contact you in the event of a family emergency.  It is also an easy way for family and friends to contact or find you.

If you are expatriated from another country similar information should be available at your national embassy website.  To list a few:

French http://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/

German http://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/EN/Startseite_node.html

Italian http://embassyrome.com/italian/

Spanish http://www.spanishembassy.net/

United Kingdom http://www.embassy.org/embassies/gb.html

Glögi: Finnish Mulled Wine

glogiTo experience an international treat for the holidays this year consider trying Glögi,  or Finnish mulled wine.  This warm rich drink is enjoyed best served in a mug with orange peels, raisins and almonds with a side of ginger snap cookies.  Share with friends by the fireside, and may it bring smiles and friendly conversation to brighten your holidays.  For the recipe click here.

Helsinki: An Eclectic Wonderland

Of all the cities I have lived or visited, Helsinki, Finland has the most eclectic surroundings within the smallest land area.

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Diversity starts with the quaint atmosphere of a fishing village on the East Harbor Yacht Basin, branching out to the promenade of ferry boats and cruise liners on the South & West Harbors. A traveler can enjoy street markets and the fresh catch of the day, before hopping aboard a short cruise to one of the other Baltic Nations.  Within 1 to 3 days of embarking on your journey from Helsinki, you can visit cities in Estonia, Sweden, Norway, Russia and beyond.

aleksanterinkatu-plazaMoving inland, Helsinki is a bustling metropolis hosting popular shopping venues with contemporary fashion, and the latest in electronics. For its minimalist techniques in fashion, art, and architecture it received distinction as Design Capital of the World in 2012.  Along streets and byways you will find easy access to handmade local crafts in woodwork, leather, linens, woolens, fine glassware, and ceramics.  You will love the winter markets, and the festivals that take place throughout the year.  They host an annual Sardine Festival in the fall, and the Flow Festival of Lights during the winter months to name a few.  Multiple museums are dispersed throughout the city and many of them offer days with free admittance.  Many churches and buildings with historical significance are open for daily tours as well.

There are numerous activities to take in during the spring and summer months also, with Seurasaari Island Open Air Museum, and Suomenlinna Sea Fortress a short distance away which can be reached by water taxi or ferry boat.  Mid-Summer’s night is celebrated in late June with bonfires and merrymaking.

Many people take time out to visit summer cottages, and enjoy saunas, sun bathing and kayaking on the archipelago.  The Finnish take pride in green living and Everyman’s Rights Law which allows access to any property within 100 meters of the primary residence to enjoy what nature has to offer.  They are heavy consumers of herring, salmon, smoked white fish, mushrooms, cherries, and berries of every description.  Reindeer steak is also a staple in the Finnish diet.  My favorite food discoveries in Helsinki were cardamom bread and almond pastries.

helsinki-central-railway-station-14helsinki_central_railway_station_by_emil_wikstrom_-_dsc03428The Central Train Station is a true wonder all its own.  Weekend trips to the interior and the countryside are a short train ride away offering access to Christmas tree farms, dog sledding, sleigh riding, reindeer ranches, and cross country skiing.

If you are up for a longer journey by train, a jaunt to Lapland on the Artic Express might suit your fancy.  There you may visit the Santa Claus village, the Ice Hotel, or the Igloo Villas while spending time with the family enjoying the snow and ice sculptures, and taking in the Northern Lights.  The Laps are known for their fine workmanship in handcrafted knives.

My Personal Experience

My life in Finland as an expat included a daily stroll to work past the very seat of the government including the city hall, the presidential palace, and the senate square before catching a tram along the South Harbor and Olympia Terminal in full view of the comings and goings of cruise ships before reaching my destination on embassy row.  Such is the life of the everyday citizen because Helsinki is a coastal seaport and almost everyone who visits there traverses this route at one time or another.

helsinki-june-202012-004helsinki-june-202012-003I found it easy to maintain a healthy lifestyle with plenty of exercise and a nutritious diet of fresh fruits and vegetables found in markets on almost every street corner.  Helsinki is fairly safe with a population of 629,512.  The overall crime rate is 27.87% with a safety index of 72.13%.  Of course it is always wise to use caution and be alert to your surroundings wherever you travel because crime rates on are the rise worldwide.

Expat Daily Life

As I said previously, green living is a priority so recycling is strongly encouraged.  Grocery stores have recycling stations which pay back the deposit to consumers for plastic and glass bottles.  As most other countries in Europe, stores charge a fee for shopping bags, so it is wise to bring your own or recycle the ones you buy.

For expats with children  International schools in Helsinki are in high demand, and they are prominent in neighborhoods throughout the city.  Parks and recreational facilities abound for families to enjoy natural surroundings and engage in sports of every kind.  The Helsinki Tram System is the only one still in operation in Finland.  It is very reliable and easy to use as are buses and trains, so getting around is no problem.  Since Helsinki is a fairly small city, many places can be reached by walking or biking, which is another popular activity in warmer months.  Dogs are welcome residents in Helsinki and are seen accompanying their masters wherever they go, from the shopping mall, to the grocery store and in restaurants.

Culture

You are likely to see people engaging in many unfamiliar activities when you first arrive only to learn later they are very common occurrences, such as, nudes running from a public sauna to a hole in the ice in the Baltic Sea, Nordic in-line skaters along the quay, or people having a carpet washing picnic on a carpet laundering barge.  The Finnish people are a hardy breed who do not let the weather dictate their movements, and treat the bitter winter weather as just a mild inconvenience.  I’ve heard it said that there is “no wrong weather, just wrong clothing.” If I can relay one piece of helpful advice it would be to prepare yourself for the cold.  Spend the extra money for a good pair of waterproof insulated snow boots preferably with ice tracks, wool socks, long underwear, a warm hat, gloves, and a good parka.  Prepare to dress in layers because you will be in and out of your clothing every time you enter or leave a building.

Finns are taught to speak English starting in the 2nd grade, so usually someone in the vicinity speaks English well enough to help if needed, but don’t neglect to learn some of the basic phrases of the Finnish Language.  They may correct you, but the Finns appreciate your efforts, and often times will help you learn.  Duolingo and Rosetta Stone are good sources for learning Finnish.  Google Translate is also a life saver.

An interesting piece of trivia about Finland is their coffee consumption.  Finns drinks more coffee than anywhere else in the world.  According to BartenderPHD  and “the International Coffee Association, each Finn consumes 12 kilograms, or 608 litres of coffee per year, that means almost one of every 100 coffee beans in the world is imported to Finland.”  Three coffee breaks per day are written into most union labor agreements.

For my Finnish friends who may be reading this I say with all due respect most of them seemed very reserved at first introductions.  If you are a goofy American like me who smiles and says hello to every stranger on the street the Finns may wonder if you have a screw loose.  One man told me it is because I appear amused for no reason in particular, or I may be perceived as laughing at someone rudely.  However, I do believe the Finnish appreciate a genuine personality and once they decide to like you, you are a friend for life.  When that happens their demeanor changes toward you and you are accepted into the fold. Helsinki in winter is dark almost 22 hours of the day, in northern latitudes 24 hours.  The sun barely peeks above the horizon during the daylight hours.  In summer it is daylight around the clock, so blackout blinds are a Godsend unless you can sleep during the day.  Don’t neglect your social life because when the land of the midnight sun goes dark in the winter you will value the connections you’ve made.  This is only a brief introduction to Expat Life in Helsinki.  There is so much more to discover and learn in your life there.  Don’t be afraid to venture out and experience as much as you can.