James Meachin pictured in Helsinki by Finland My Home

“I wish my Karelian grandmother was still here so I could practise Finnish with her”


I’m 30 years old. I was born south of Manchester, in England. I left home at 17 when I worked on the railways, then I went back to university and after that I lived around the UK before moving back to south of Manchester, where I had quite a stressful job.

I have dual nationality. My grandmother was Finnish and we celebrated being Finnish as a family. We still have Christmas eve in the traditional Finnish way. As kids we had two Christmas eves, if you like. Because of my grandmother we came to Finland a lot. I came probably 30 times back and forth, so I’ve been all over the place. Up to Lapland, I’ve been in Levi maybe 7 times for holidays. I’m a bit outdoors and that’s why I fell in love with Finland.

I met my girlfriend in a bar in Levi when I was there with my uncle. The thing was that I was not really meant to be there, so it was almost like fate. My grandmother was going to take my uncle and his Indonesian wife. It would have been an experience, but then she got pregnant and it was too far to travel, so my grandmother asked if I wanted to go to Finland in her place.

James: My grandmother got evacuated from Finnish Karelia because of the war.

My grandmother got evacuated from Finnish Karelia because of the war. She used to tell me graphic stories about that time and when I went to visit her old home in Karelia with her it all became a bit too much for her. That area is now owned by Russia. She told us that when she went back the first time everything had been stripped from the houses by Russians. She lived in Finland for a while, studied nursing and then she went to the UK, met my granddad and had three kids. My mother had me and three other kids and we kinda carried on those Finnish traditions.

I see some similarities in my grandfather meeting a Finnish girl and now me meeting a Finnish girl. I don’t know if that was written in the stars or what, but there is just something in me carrying that sort of tradition and wanting to live in Finland. My sister missed out on dual nationality, because you have to be younger than 21 when you apply for nationality. Our mother has not applied for dual nationality, so I’m not really sure how that works. My grandmother was a strong Karelian, she was very tough and she kept up the traditions. She was the driving force, she was a very serious lady and she was a lot harder on the girls. The boys got away easier.

In the UK no one really knows where Finland is. My friends were thinking it was a strange place to be travelling to. Now they appreciate it more and think Helsinki is a cool place. But the concept that people in the UK have of Finland is very strange. When I was leaving my job people were asking me why Finland and telling me the weather is terrible, which was quite ironic coming from people from the north of England – like the wettest place in the world.

James: I see some similarities in my grandfather meeting a Finnish girl and now me meeting a Finnish girl.

I was the only one of the boys who did military service. We are three brothers and one sister. Military service came about because I moved to Finland – I think the rule is that you don’t have to do it if you live abroad – to Levi to work at a ski resort with tourists from the UK.

How it went was that I met my girlfriend in Levi, we had a long distance relationship, she moved to the UK for a year – it didn’t work out – and then she moved back to Finland. I was enjoying my job at the time in the UK but it was stressful and I thought why would I not move to Finland. I had always been intrigued by it and had a girlfriend there. I thought life was too short, so I went for it. I had been in Helsinki many times since my girlfriend had moved there.

The easiest way for me to move here was to get a seasonal job in Levi. It was cool and I enjoyed the season. My grandmother died when I was there, so that was a very sad time, but I knew it was coming because she had been ill for a while. I knew she was proud of me being in Finland. She always wished that her ashes would be taken to Finland, so I did that with my uncle and his family and my mother and my girlfriend. We went up to Koli and sprinkled her ashes. I feel like I somehow keep up the connections to Finland now. I miss her a lot and wish I had the opportunity to practise my Finnish with her.

I moved to Levi at the end of October 2015. My girlfriend also got a job in Levi. It was quite easy to get the job, as it’s not the most sought-after Reps position, because of the very cold weather and short days. A lot of it is about expectation management with these tourists from the UK. People pay a lot for the trips and they want to see amazing Northern lights, Santa and things. The initial guests come November to December and they do three to four days fully packed and leave – it’s not so much about the slopes. After that crazy period, guests come who are more into their skiing and outdoor activities.

James: I thought why would I not move to Finland.

In 2016 April I finished in Levi, and I moved to my girlfriend’s parents’ after that. During the summer months they live in a summer house type of thing with two floors and a separate sauna hut. It was not like an official agreement; we just helped them out with their family business and the motocross track they run.

At the time I couldn’t speak Finnish that much, but now I can have a conversation with them. You can imagine the dinner table discussions at the time, I mean Brits are not used to being silent. The dad is really into sports so it was okay; my girlfriend was translating.

When I moved there I registered my address in Miehikkälä (municipality in Southern Finland) and after two weeks I got an official letter from the military. My girlfriend was actually crying, even if we were expecting it. She said we had been through so much in the relationship and now when we were finally together in one place I had to go to the army for some months.

I called and asked about the letter and said I didn’t really understand what it meant. The guy on the phone said it meant I had to go to the army. I was like, “Well, we have a bit of a problem since I don’t speak any Finnish whatsoever.” The guy said, “No problem, it’s five months and the guys will love speaking to you in English.” It was the end of the conversation.

I remember going to the first meeting when they told me I was going to Vekaranjärvi (Kouvola). I said that it would be difficult because I had just come to Helsinki to live with my girlfriend, so they said I could go to the navy at Kirkkonummi. I agreed, but I had no idea what that was. When I looked up the Finnish Navy the first thing I saw was Dragsvik. I got in a panic, thinking I have not come to Finland for this. I’d been hoping to learn some Finnish during my time in the army, but Dragsvik is Swedish-speaking, but luckily I didn’t go there. On the 2nd of January 2017 I started my military service. I remember it well. I can see the benefits of the military service. My girlfriend gets sick and tired when I talk about it, and it’s something Finnish men talk about when they get drunk. I’m really not an advocate of war, it’s terrible. But in Finland it’s purely for defence and that’s also what they tell you at the time.

James: I am now employed with a Finnish building company and my Finnish is developing rapidly because I’m using it on a daily basis.

I am now employed with a Finnish building company and my Finnish is developing rapidly because I’m using it on a daily basis. I want to break into the Finnish culture and I think that requires me to learn Finnish. I would like to live out in the countryside, but it’s a lot harder than in Helsinki especially if you don’t speak fluent Finnish. In Helsinki, you can also easily get into the comfort zone of everyone speaking English to you. In saying that, my girlfriend’s parents speak only Finnish and with an accent as well – sometimes I feel like asking them to just slow down.

But what has been really great over there and has helped me develop massively is that my girlfriend’s brother has a son and we’ve got an attachment like you wouldn’t believe. I think he finds me really interesting, like thinking who is this guy who does not speak any Finnish. He has even adapted his Finnish for me so I would understand. He is 6 years old.

I feel like Helsinki is almost like Manchester, you get the communal feeling and it’s a bit industrial when you go to some places. People say Helsinki people are a bit rude, but I mean if you have a drink or ask something people answer politely. Sometimes I feel like the monopolies are too big in Finland and I miss the variation. I mean, there are monopolies in the UK too, but the S and K-markets are huge. In Finland everything can seem the same, there is R-kioski, S-market and K-market. In the UK, you get these beautiful little villages, but here in many towns and cities you just get block houses.

Sometimes I also feel that Finns don’t appreciate Finland enough. They might think Helsinki is the Mecca and that they must live in Helsinki. It’s like a dream for Finns. Yes, Helsinki is a great place but you can get a ten-times bigger place to live in next to a lake for the price of one room in Helsinki. I’ve always been into my wilderness and I was big into fishing in the UK, that sort of life. My brothers and sisters travel the world and they are very social, but I don’t mind a week in the forest and being on my own. I think that might be something that brought me here too. I’m social too, but into the wild stuff.

I have dual nationality, but I don’t feel 100 per cent Finnish. I am proud of it, but maybe because I was born in the UK I just don’t feel Finnish. It’s easy to feel British here as well. But I prefer to get to know Finnish people rather than British, I mean just have a few beers and speak Finnish to me.

Other resources: 

Andruta: “Seeing other women were so comfortable with nudity in the sauna made me more willing to embrace my own body”

Amjad: “At the reception center, we had an invitation from the sauna society and nobody wanted to go, except me”

Greg: “I feel alive, instead of being stuck in some really monotonous routine”

Interview by Peter Seenan recorded in Helsinki, Finland in 2017. If you wish to support our work in projecting the voices and achievements of immigrants in Finland please like our Facebook page and share James’s story. 

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