I first met my wife in Brussels where we were living at the time. We got to know each other because we both worked at Nespresso. A lot of the big international companies used to have these communication centres in Brussels – until Ireland stole all the corporation taxes – because it’s a guaranteed spot to get a convergence of languages. Nespresso had a European communication centre there serving the UK and Ireland. My wife was on the Swedish and Nordic team.
After about a year and a half I decided I’d had enough of Brussels and I was going back home. I was getting a bit homesick – which was weird – and so I quit. I had about a month between quitting my job and leaving Brussels and it was then that I ended up getting together with my – now – wife. She was pretty much fed up of Brussels, as well, so she followed me. At the same time the company decided to start sending the teams to their respective countries and many people got fired. Me and my now wife started working in the same team.
After that we lived in Ireland for a year, but she wasn’t so keen on that because of the weather, and the work–life balance was not great. We decided to move back to Brussels and we ended up getting married there. Brussels is a bit chaotic and then there was the terrorist thing in Paris at the time. You know, you could really feel a change in the air. So we asked ourselves, where’s a good place to go?
BARRY: “Brussels is a bit chaotic and then there was the terrorist thing in Paris at the time. You know, you could really feel a change in the air. So we asked ourselves, where’s a good place to go?”
I’d always loved coming up to Helsinki and here to Joensuu and when we had our honeymoon we spent the month just going around the Baltic. We had a couple of weeks here in Finland, travelling the country as much as we could. It was a great summer and we came here to Joensuu for the Ilosaarirock festival. I was sold. There was such a great ambience in the city, and the people were so friendly. And I liked that it was small, you could walk around. So we said, screw it, let’s just go to Finland and see where we get from there.
When we arrived we moved into an old school that one of my wife’s friends owned. She had converted it into a yoga centre and apartments. Finland became real to me the January we arrived. About two days after we got there the temperature dropped down to –33C. I’d never seen so much snow in my life! I had a lot of winter gear because I was prepared for it.
My wife had been to university in Joensuu, so she knew it and had a lot of friends still here. We weren’t coming to just some random Finnish city. My wife is from the other side of the country, she’s from Kankaanpää over near Pori, but she didn’t want to move there because she loves North Karelia.
BARRY: “Our next door neighbour, in the old school, owns a farm up in Sotkamo. I got on really well with him and he said he occasionally needed someone to go with him to the farm and help out with different things.”
Our next door neighbour, in the old school, owns a farm up in Sotkamo. I got on really well with him and he said he occasionally needed someone to go with him to the farm and help out with different things. We nicknamed it ‘man camp’. He’s got strawberries for instance now. All organic, it’s an incredible set-up he has there and he does his own slaughtering as well. This kind of thing. This is a million miles away from working in an office in Brussels.
When I arrived I was also doing a project for Joensuu city, with a theatre practitioner. It was these education workshops about racism. We went to different schools all over the Joensuu city district. We’d do these workshops all day in the school’s theatre or we’d have the kids doing various exercises and games and then writing their own plays and performing. It was all about making them more aware about different types of racism and where you experience it, getting their feedback and letting them create their own little plays about how to prevent racism.
The purpose of having an immigrant like me do it was that when people in this day and age hear “immigrant” the first thing they think about is the immigrant crisis in Europe. They’re thinking of people from Syria, from Iraq, North Africa. And then I come in and they say, “yeah, but you’re Irish”. Yes, but I’m still not Finnish therefore I’m an immigrant. You know, it’s to kind of make them realise an immigrant might look exactly like them. Okay, I’m an EU citizen but at the same time I’m not from here, this is a different language, different culture, but people don’t treat me negatively, they are very very friendly to me.
The other person there with me is a Finn and she and I work really well together. Her name is Maria and she’s a theatre director and an actress herself. She’s very funny, very bubbly. Usually when I meet the kids, I introduce myself in Finnish and then I say, “Okay, from now on I’m speaking English. Who understands English?” All the hands go up and then one kid will go, “I don’t”. By answering in English, I say, I know that you speak English! It’s usually really funny. It gets the ball rolling, we play some games, we have some fun, but as soon as there’s a free moment, straight away the kids will be asking, “where are you from?”
BARRY: “In many ways there’s lots of similarities to Ireland. If you put yourself out there people will take you in. They love, they do genuinely love.”
I think I was 15 when I started a theatre company in Ireland called Shakespeare. I’ve always been involved in film and acting and theatre and so on. Even in Brussels I ended up doing a little spot in a Belgium TV series and another one was a French film that was shooting in Belgium and they needed someone who could do an American accent. When I came up here, I found a sort of volunteer cafe in the town which I’d describe as a vegan-friendly, discrimination-free zone collective. I went in for a coffee one day when I was waiting for a train, and I said to my wife it would be nice to volunteer here. I spoke to the waitress and she said anyone can volunteer to come and help.
I’ve also thought about summer theatre because it’s such a big thing, but so far I haven’t had a chance really. One day I might try and produce a show and on top of that I’ve considered doing some acting in Finland. Why not? It’s something that’s fun to do and it’s one of those things that if you’ve done it before you know the drill, you know what’s required. People think film is very glamorous, but it’s really not. It’s quite a long slog, and long hours, but it’s one of those things that if you’re passionate about, you don’t think about that.
We made the decision to get out of the rat race by coming here. What I’ve found is that North Karelia is not the easiest place to get work, so you have to make work. You have to put yourself out there and be part of society, and if you put yourself out there it’s a very welcoming part of Finland. In many ways there’s lots of similarities to Ireland. If you put yourself out there people will take you in. They love, they do genuinely love. Finns are known for being reticent, very standoffish, but not so much in North Karelia. Here, I’ve had strangers come up and go “you’re new”! There was this one old man once. I was sitting in a cafe and I guess he’d seen me two or three times. He came up to me and just sat down and he goes, “you’re not from here where are you from?” – in English. I told him a bit about myself and then he just got up, shook my hand and said, “Welcome. Welcome to North Karelia”. And off he went. He was a really, really nice guy, it was just so funny though. “You’re new”!
Interview by Peter Seenan recorded in Joensuu, 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 Barry’s story.