Alexandra Santos in Tampere. Photo Finland My Home

“When I go to Portugal I sometimes feel like a stranger”

Alexandra, 36 

“You come on Erasmus, for a relationship, as a refugee… There are many reasons to end up in Finland. I first came in 2002. It’s a long time ago and I was supposed to be here for half a year only, but I loved it so much that I asked the university if I could extend it for a second semester. When I contacted the university they said that the place was mine because I was the only one to apply out of the whole year.

People in Portugal didn’t really know anything about Finland back then. I was into metal music so I knew Finland because of that. I’d seen metal bands in Portugal. And I knew there were a lot of lakes and Finland was cold. I wanted to go somewhere exotic.

Compared to Portugal it was a lot more advanced. Not Tokyo, but something really modern. The teachers really sold it to me and the facilities at the university were really a lot better than ours in Portugal.  

“They were technical guys and a bit introverted so with a bit of alcohol they started talking, but they didn’t know where the limit was.”

My first month was spent in Helsinki and I took a Finnish course. It was really fun because I had one month to settle and I got to know Helsinki. Helsinki felt like a city and then I took the train to Tampere. Maybe the station still doesn’t look good, but back then I remember I had to ask twice if I was actually in the right place. I was expecting a big city with modern buildings. I got to know people fast because the place was so small. It was funny, I was crying when I arrived when I saw the station, but I was crying for the people when I had to leave.

After I’d gone back to Portugal and finished my master’s thesis I got a call from my friend who was working here. Their company needed a Portuguese-speaking translator. It was around January and I thought to myself that I’m not going back to Finland. I had just finished my thesis and I was looking for jobs in Portugal… you know, the excitement of a first job!  

I’m a translator by profession so I started freelancing; it was the only option in the beginning. I was working from my bedroom at my parents’ place. I did that for half a year. You know, working in my pyjamas. Then my friend called again around the end of July and said they still really needed someone with Portuguese. It was only a four-month contract and they paid for my flight. One week later I came back to Finland. I’ve now been here for twelve and a half years. They tricked me. Tampere tricked me.

My friends couldn’t understand why I would really live so far away, but when I met my ex-husband and we married they understood a bit. I think the crisis, recession, in Portugal really hit hard. Then people started telling me not to come back. Of course they would support me if I went back but we are in big trouble still. The crisis is gone and the economy is going up, there is more hiring happening, but it’s not translating into salaries. So many people earn the minimum wage, 500 euros. I have friends who are still living with their parents because they can’t afford their own place. I have sent some CVs to Portugal and so far I have only got one interview. But the pay was bad, even if my friends said it was really good. The job was in Lisbon, it was to be a manager for 20 people, so a senior position. I started to look at apartment prices in Lisbon, but I could not afford it. I could not live alone there. Here I live alone, I have my own house, a rivitalo.

When I was young I didn’t ever think I would live abroad. We have a lot of people who have migrated from Portugal, like in the 60s and 70s to France, Canada and so on. If you go to Luxembourg there are one million Portuguese. It was the uneducated who moved, if you were a woman you became a cleaner and for men it was construction worker. So that was what I knew about moving.

When I came to Finland I worked for the Irish Embassy and I ended up doing a lot of work for a company that was doing a mobile camera application. My work was to test phones with my mother tongue. Then Nokia had an opening and they contacted me. I suddenly had a lot of responsibilities and I had to manage budgets and a team. Everything happened really fast, I just took the opportunity.

It was a male environment. At the beginning I didn’t think about it that much but then I started attending meetings and I was the only woman. I still remember a comment, “Oh, you’re not just pretty, you have brains.” You have two choices, you can ignore or try to prove that you are really good at what you do. I think I went the second way. Somehow I then had the pressure that I was a woman and I didn’t have a technical background. Soon it reached the point that I thought that I will go crazy if I continue.

It was very male-oriented. We had these sauna nights and they all went naked. We’d start with a workshop because we needed a reason for catering and drinks. After 10pm there was no more towels or anything so I just left. They were technical guys and a bit introverted so with a bit of alcohol they started talking, but they didn’t know where the limit was. There were some very uncomfortable discussions. I never stayed into the night because it got out of hand and they started to get really touchy. I thought that on Mondays I need to look at people’s faces in the meeting rooms and I was the youngest there. I didn’t want to screw it up or be forced to be rude.

We had many changes at work and people were afraid all the time. I lost my job in 2015. You started to see the red flags. I started a cooperation with Microsoft and I was trying to build our teams together. I did a lot of extra hours in case the boat would sink and I could maybe save my team. I went through the stages of anger, relief and everything. The moment I returned my laptop I was not angry anymore.

Here in Tampere we have gatherings with the local Portuguese every now and then. We are quite a big group nowadays. We were discussing the question of where home is. For me home is where my dog is. Tampere feels a bit like home, but it’s not. Portugal is no longer my home. When I go there I sometimes feel like a stranger but I have really been thinking about going back and starting a life there. I found some blogs about that, written by Portuguese expats. People who had careers abroad and then moved back home. Every single line I read I feel, “it’s me, it’s me!” It’s like going to any country, you need to create the networks again. I know people from school and university, but they have created their own thing. We can still meet, but it’s not the same. So you need your own network. It might be hard to get used to your own country. There is no language barrier, but there might be many other barriers.

I think I would like to go back for my parents, they are getting old. They had me in their 40s so they are old. The sweetest couple ever. They have been together for 50-something years. They have been pressuring me to go, especially after my divorce. But if I would only go back for my parents’ sake I would not be happy.”

More like this: 

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Joffrey, France: “A third of my life has been spent in Finland”

Matthew, England: “Sometimes it feels like people think I’m Britain’s Brexit spokesman”

This interview was recorded in 2017 in Tampere by Peter Seenan. If you’d like to be involved in this project please visit our contact page and submit the form. 

2 thoughts on ““When I go to Portugal I sometimes feel like a stranger”

  1. Great post Alexandra! It was a pleasure meeting and getting to know you in my trips to Finland and your trip to San Diego! As an expat myself, this post resonates with me in many aspects.


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