If you’ve read my other articles, you’ll know that I’m currently living in Spain. So where did being an au pair in Finland come from?! For this article, I’m diving back to my first experience of living abroad, which has been a catalyst for much of my travelling life since.
I was an au pair in Raisio, Finland, from September to December 2013. At 18 years old, I had just finished my A levels, and decided to take a gap year before university to experience more of life first. I love children, travelling, and languages, so I figured that au pairing would be a good way to start. And thanks to a Finnish friend who lives in England where I’m from, I’d already learnt a few words of Finnish. I organised my host family through the Au Pair World website, and after an Italian family arrangement fell through, I ended up in Finland with my lovely host family of two parents, three kids aged 5-13, and a cute little dog called Helmi!
Au pairing was an eye-opening experience in many ways, especially as I didn’t know much about Finland before I moved there. In this article I share with you five curiosities I discovered as an au pair in Finland.
The Finns love saunas! Every public swimming pool has a sauna, and most houses and even flats have one. Some houses even have more than one! In fact, the official statistics show that there’s almost one sauna for every two people in Finland! That was pretty shocking to me, coming from a country where I’d maybe seen a sauna once in my life. My host family had two houses (I’ll come back to this later). Their main house had a sauna, albeit they didn’t use it much. The public swimming pool nearby had a sauna. And their second house had two saunas: one in the main house, and one in the small cottage next to it. So I was never stuck for sauna options!
The nicest, most rustic sauna was in that small cottage, and most evenings when we were there we would use it. It was on the beach, so it acted as our shower after swimming in the sea, and we’d use buckets to pour water warmed in the sauna over our heads while trying to avoid getting shampoo in our eyes. Or it would be the final part of a relaxing evening spent under the stars. When the kids were involved, it would also be an opportunity for a water fight. The nicest saunas have a kiuas (wood-burning stove) which heats up stones, and then you throw water on the stones to create steam that heats up the room. The water you throw on the stones is cold, which makes it very tempting for young children to throw at each other (or at the au pair!).
You Have to Be Naked
Yes, Finns would definitely argue that a sauna can only be fully enjoyed naked. Whereas in other countries swimwear is mandatory, in Finland it’s the opposite: no swimming costumes allowed! This includes public saunas. They do, however, have separate saunas for each gender. Even so, it was an interesting experience for me. Since I didn’t really know anyone in the area, I ventured into a public sauna with the knowledge that I would never see anyone else there again. But thinking as a future teacher, I can’t imagine going into a naked public sauna that a student might walk into. In our home saunas, the family recognised that as a foreigner I might not be comfortable with naked saunas, so I wore my swimming costume, but I did have the odd naked sauna with the kids.
And the kids didn’t even acknowledge anything was unusual. Nor have little English children I know until they reach a certain age. This highlights how our aversion to nakedness is a cultural creation. In England we learn that it’s not OK, but in Finland they don’t. This is also seen in many bathrooms in Finland which have multiple showerheads together, so more than one family member can shower at a time. A useful function, but I can’t imagine taking a shower next to my mum! If you can get past the initial awkwardness, it’s quite liberating to have a naked sauna experience. And it’s much easier to get changed after swimming when you don’t have to worry about covering yourself in your towel.
2. Summer Cottage
I mentioned that my host family had two houses. This is really common in Finland, and many families have a house in the city and a second house (often just a cottage) by a body of water, like the sea or one of Finland’s numerous lakes. This second house is the mökki, or summer cottage, because the family mainly stays there during the summer holidays. My family’s mökki was only a 30-minute drive away, so we went there on weekends and school holidays. It was on the coast, so its garden included a beach with a hot tub and mini jetty! Next to the original small cottage (which is basically just two rooms, a sauna/toilet, and a bedroom… the Finnish essentials) they built another house with a wall featuring floor-to-ceiling windows to look out over the sea. Beautiful.
There is something really special about the mökki. Being closer to nature – the sea and the woodland – and away from crowds of people and distractions almost takes you back in time. Life is simpler. The kids play outside (they also had a games console which they enjoyed, but with such interesting surroundings they often chose the outdoors). Most things have to be done in town, so they have to wait until Monday. You’re too far from others to arrange to meet up. So the pace of life becomes slower, and while it’s hard to find time for regular saunas while living in the city, you think nothing of heating up the hot tub and sauna every day to relax there. There’s still lots of maintenance for the parents to do, but it’s manual work close to nature rather than the stressors of day-to-day jobs.
You probably know that Finland gets pretty cold over the winter (once when I was visiting it was -27º Celsius), so it probably won’t surprise you that they like skiing. But the southern part of the country is fairly flat, so cross-country is the go-to variety. My host family had a cross-country ski loop that was just a five-minute walk from their house (the rest of the year it was a pleasant woodland walk) and spare skis, so I was excited to join them. But cross-country skiing is so hard at first! I was rather embarrassed as I clumsily waddled along and a 3-year-old Finnish girl glided past me much more gracefully! I did gradually improve though, and loved the freedom of skating through the Narnia-esque woodland. It’s a hard workout, both for cardio and every muscle in your body!
But winter wasn’t the only time I saw people skiing. Since it’s such an important sport and even a way of getting to work in the winter (there are ski tracks cut along snow-covered pavements), you have to practise year round. This resulted in some surprising contraptions, like short skis on wheels, so you can keep in shape even when there is no snow!
4. Finnish Language
Of course, I knew they spoke a different language, and I knew the basics of that language before I became an au pair in Finland. But it has plenty of its own curiosities. For one, the Finnish language doesn’t have gender. There aren’t even different words for “he” and ”she.” It also has something called “consonant gradation”, which means that when the ending of a word changes (this occurs often as it also has 17 grammatical cases), sometimes the letters in the middle of the word change too. This makes it really hard to know the root word to look up in the dictionary, and online translator tools weren’t great for Finnish when I arrived. But even though it has complications, it also has handy phonetic spelling and a lilting intonation which I love.
As an au pair in Finland I ate with the family, but overall I wasn’t a massive fan of the food. But it did help me expand my tastes! They love their ruisleipä (rye bread) and while I ate it daily, it’s not something I miss. The maksalaatikko, or liver casserole, however, I couldn’t tolerate! But they do have some nice sweet food. You know about cinnamon rolls (korvapuustit), but they’re so much better when freshly made by Finnish grandmas! Blueberry pies were also a staple at cafés, and I always got excited when Finnair offered complimentary blueberry juice. Berries are also the star ingredient of kiisseli (a strange, jelly-like dessert the grandma often made) and the salty liquorice salmiakki was an interesting discovery. I wasn’t there at Easter to eat their notorious rye porridge (mämmi), but I enjoyed their Christmas joulutorttu pastries, and the reindeer sausage!
Although being an au pair in Finland was one of the most difficult things I have done, it was also extremely enriching. You get such a deep immersion into a new culture by living with a local family. I now have a strong appreciation for all things Finnish, and I’m excited that I got to share some of them with you through this article.
by Kira Browne