|Illustration: Kristin Ay|
Immigration is rapidly changing the face of Finland’s cities, but it’s also transforming its countryside. For a “New Finn” fitting into the quaint rural lifestyle can be tricky but rewarding.
Beautiful scenery, carefree summers and proper, snowy winters, and a community that values you as an individual – these are the advantages of living in the Finnish countryside, according to Petri Rinne. Rinne is the Managing Director of Joutsenten Reitti, a development agency working with the rural municipalities of Sastamala, Huittinen, Punkalaidun and Hämeenkyrö, and he passionately believes in the power of immigration to transform the Finnish countryside.
“You know, the municipality with the highest percentage of foreigners in Finland is not Helsinki, Vantaa, or one of the big southern cities – it’s Närpes on the west coast,” he exclaims, settling into a speech intended to convince foreigners that Finland’s rural areas are excellent places for them to settle. Närpes is a popular example, with a high percentage of foreigners and very low unemployment, as the Tomato Capital of Finland (as it likes to be known) needs plenty of workers and sources many of them from abroad.
“We have a problem, in that many people leave rural areas in search of education and after that it is not certain they will come back,” continues Rinne. “Depopulation is a massive risk for the countryside, and we need to do what we can to prevent it happening or mitigate the effects.”
To that end, Rinne organised a seminar in Punkalaidun entitled “Immigrants as a strength of the countryside.” At the seminar various municipalities and agencies presented their activities and plans for the future, including quite detailed discussions of terminology – Rinne himself spoke about the terms applied to immigrants, arguing that “New Finns” would be the most positive and appropriate way to describe people who have moved to Finland.
There are also a lot of inducements to move to the countryside, particularly financial subsidies for new businesses, but what is it really like to live a rural life if you are a foreigner? One Bosnian’s story, recounted at the seminar, extolled the human touch – that foreigners are still “special” in the countryside, and are treated as individuals.
In bigger cities, people are already incurious about different cultures, but that attitude is not yet so widespread in rural areas. A repeated theme when canvassing opinion for this article, though, was that there are different types of foreigner, and some of them fit in better than others. Race, culture and religion are still factors. So what are the keys to a happy rural life?
”If you don’t look too different, you try to speak Finnish and you don’t mind being alone, or care what people think about you, it can be alright,” says sheep breeder Jan Sutle, who has retained his dry English humour since moving to Finland from Ilkley in 1984, when a professor at his university let slip that Finns were “so open minded they take their clothes off right in front of you.” Sutle’s interest was piqued, and he secured himself a summer job in Lempäälä.
”When I first arrived things were very different to how they are now. I think one of the keys is to act like Finns do, to demand things you need rather than meekly request what you might like.”
This paid dividends for Sutle, who received a multi-year work permit so he could stay on after the summer in various agricultural jobs without having to re-apply every few months. He asked for the permit against the advice of his fellow foreigners in Finland. The rural gruffness and brass neck involved in such a request stood Sutle in good stead.
Experience the idyll
After a spell as a substitute farmer, allowing smallholders to take time off while Sutle looked after their farms, he decided to go to college to study agronomy. There was one fairly big problem – the language.
”At that time there was little teaching in English, so I had to do everything in Finnish,” Sutle reminisces about his time studying in Seinäjoki. The Southern Ostrobothnian town is not exactly the biggest place in Finland, but it’s the closest thing to a Finnish city Sutle has lived in, and his teachers were very helpful.
”People wanted to help, they would go through the lessons afterwards with me, and even sometimes let me take the exams in English if I messed up the Finnish version.” He graduated and continued his rural life, ending up in Vammala.
The attractions of countryside living are clear, according to Joutsenten Reitti, which is named after the swans that follow the region’s waterways on their migratory paths. ”Fields, forests, swamps and the gently rolling countryside turn the scenery into a kaleidoscopic mosaic,” says their website, and Sutle loves the natural life too.
“I couldn’t live in those concrete boxes, like they have in parts of Tampere,” says the Yorkshireman. “Here I have a house, I am half an hour from the city if I need anything, but I have my own space too – it’s a good balance.”
Illustration: Kristin Ay