“My name is Sonia, I grew up in Brussels to immigrant parents. My dad is French, of Russian origin, and my mum is Irish. I had a bit of an international upbringing. I went to a European school and I have English and French-speaking friends. I was also exposed to lots of languages when I was growing up, so I was very international in that way. My dad is a translator, he speaks, or understands at least seven languages. And my mum knows 3–4 languages. I owe my curiosity in languages to them. I feel like they have this love for exploring different cultures.
I went to study Russian in London after I finished school, then I spent some time in Russia on and off, because I was really intrigued by Russian culture and wanted to prove to myself that I could work and live there. But I realised after a few months that the lifestyle wasn’t completely me.
During my second time in Russia I got more interested in going to Finland. I’d actually come to Finland as a child on family holidays. I had really fond memories of holidays and the kesämökki (summer cottage). I felt that my future was here, not in Russia. When I went back home after Russia I made a decision to make my way to Finland.
“I mean we can’t fully express ourselves and, for instance, I have a friend who is unemployed now, but felt very successful in her career in her old home”
I came to Finland after I enrolled in a summer university. That was the only thing I had. I had a dorm room at one of the universities and my plan was to learn Finnish, but I didn’t have anything beyond that. I was taking things month by month. This went on for a while and then I thought that I needed a job. I found one in a daycare. It was really lucky. I didn’t have the funds and I could not be a Finnish student forever – there was no end goal. I was not so secure here, I knew I could lose my job and have to give up on my Finnish dream.
I got housing from – what I later found out – was a church fund. They hooked me up with this wonderful Finnish lady who had a spare room. The thing was that this was basically for people in very desperate situations, so it was free. But I had some funds and I agreed that I would pay her some rent. She was about 30 years older than me. We became really good friends and we are still friends now.
I was lucky, she was looking for company and I was looking for somewhere to live. We spoke English together, but she said at the beginning that she would only speak Finnish to me. She is a very resourceful person and if I ever had a bad day she would give me advice and tell me to look out for my rights at work. She was giving me hints and tips.
I think it’s a very Finnish thing to look out for your rights. She was very practical too, and I can see the same in my Finnish boyfriend. If he is not satisfied he will go and find a way to fix it. I really appreciate this in people. I feel inspired by that in him. I think people have a real patience here, and I appreciate that way of life. I think they have patience for everything. I also think it really helps you to have someone from Finland in your life. You can explore the Finnish life much more in depth than just a complete foreigner can, because you need not only the language, but also access to the culture. I’ve gained access to my boyfriend’s friends, family and way of life.
“I realised in London that living in a big city does not suit me at all. I hated commuting in a metro one hour every day and I was getting really down”
With my friends we often compare life here to being a baby. I mean we can’t fully express ourselves and, for instance, I have a friend who is unemployed now, but felt very successful in her career in her old home, in her own country. And I mean my native language is English, so if I was in an English-speaking environment I would probably have a better job, although I have loved working with children.
I’d like to maybe expand my knowledge and maybe specialise in something. I am a translator by education and I love languages and I love the process of translating, but I don’t want to work with that. The problem is that it’s so complex being a translator. Not just getting the message across, but keeping the original. Like rendering the message in its entirety. It’s more than just, ‘this is what they are talking about’. I don’t have the patience for it. As a job it’s just so frustrating.
I truly feel that this is the one place in my adult life that I have felt is a home. As a child, of course my home was Belgium, where I had my home and family. But as an adult I have felt that I don’t want to put down roots anywhere, but Finland. I like this place because it’s so organised and liveable. In a way it’s predictable, which is nice, and even the challenges you face are manageable. You learn the language, even if it’s difficult. And people here are willing to help you. In other countries if you don’t speak the language you are treated as second class. Here they are just so happy that you try. It’s also really nice that there are not too many foreigners, you don’t feel too overwhelmed. You still feel a bit unique.
I call Brussels ‘home’ just because my parents and siblings are still there. I realised in London that living in a big city does not suit me at all. I hated commuting in a metro one hour every day and I was getting really down. I think I’m a mix of identity. In a French setting I feel French, I kinda suck in the vibes a little bit. And when I go to Ireland I feel so Irish. I love going back to Ireland actually, because I feel that people are just really funny. I think the focus is on just having loads more fun than in Finland. I went there for a Christmas holiday and I was just so full of life, doing these crazy things. We were jumping from a sandy cove to the freezing sea. I think me and my boyfriend balance each other, he is calm and rational. I have the ideas and he is the one to execute them.
I think people here are very appropriate and formal and I love to say things to try and make them laugh, that’s something I love in Belgium. Here I feel sometimes that people get really suspicious if you are too happy.”
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Peter Seenan recorded an interview with Sonia in Helsinki in 2017 about her life in Finland. If you wish to support our work in sharing the reflections of immigrants please like our Facebook page and share Sonia’s story.