Leon Onderwater in Helsinki, Finland My Home

“I talk with the customers in Finnish, but once they hear I’m not Finnish they switch to English”

Leon, The Netherlands 

I used to live in Kuopio until I moved to Helsinki in 2016. During that time I also broke up with my ex and I had a lot of spare time and I started to really think about why people live here if they feel so miserable? Why do they feel so miserable? Okay, the darkness is one thing, but then again it’s also your attitude towards it and how used you are to live with it. You see children playing outside when it’s like minus 30. They just put on more clothes and do exactly the same as they do in the summer. It’s amazing. I think it’s brilliant.

One other thing that really interested me is drinking. Why do people drink so much? And how does it happen? So I spent the whole of one evening in a bar just looking at people and wondering why. Why do people do stuff and what is their motivation for every step they take?

I originally met my ex when we were doing Erasmus in Spain. I was kind of a late bloomer with girls. I was 20 when we got together and I moved straight away to Finland, which was an absolutely brilliant idea of course… I was just about done with my school, then I started an internship in Finland for ten weeks. After that I was like, “Hey, I’ve got a Finnish girlfriend, do you have a job for me so that I could stay here?” We went for a one-month holiday in France and when we came back I had a job sorted and I was just like “Okay, bye!” That was three years of my life.


LEON: “You see children playing outside when it’s like minus 30. They just put on more clothes and do exactly the same as they do in the summer. It’s amazing. I think it’s brilliant.”


It was quite a funny story, how fast it went. I didn’t even talk with my parents about moving to Finland. Later on I thought about how stupid that was because I was living with them still. I moved out from my parents’ place to another country in the middle of nowhere. Now thinking about it, it sounds a lot more stupid than it actually felt at that point. It was very easy because my ex had a place so I just moved in and that made it a lot easier. My parents didn’t really like it that much at the time, but they’ve been here a few times and they love it. For them, coming here was like completely coming to rest, to peace. They have their own company it’s very chaotic and very busy. So Finland was perfect for them to calm down.

When we broke up I was on the verge of moving away from Finland. The winter came of course – perfect timing. I didn’t see any future in Kuopio and I had a car so I thought, ‘Why not go on a road trip and drive this crappy old Opel home.’ First I would go to the Netherlands, and then from there I would maybe go to Italy or England, Austria or Germany. But then someone asked me, “Why don’t you try Helsinki first?” That made me think, well why not? A very good friend of mine was also about to move and so I just wrote a CV and sent it to every good car shop in Helsinki. To BMW, Porsche, Mercedes, Audi… but none of them replied initially because that’s apparently the thing. Eventually I got a message from Porsche saying that they didn’t have work at the moment, but why don’t you just come by and we can have a little chat.

My Finnish is not great, but I somehow managed to get a job in Finnish. At the interview I was told I would need to know Finnish; there are a few guys who speak only Finnish and the manuals are in Finnish. So it’s a mixture of everything, but also a fast way of learning Finnish. I really needed to learn every step really quickly to know what everything meant. But maybe that’s the beauty of being a car mechanic, we don’t really have to speak any language. You just give us the parts and we change it. That was the same in Spain. Now everything goes in English and it’s a luxury. I need to talk with the customers in Finnish, but once I start they hear I’m not Finnish and they switch to English. It’s amazing.

I think that Dutch people have a certain positive vibe and I think also maybe manners of being very open. That’s one thing I’ve always learned. Being very open does not mean that you have to say everything. You should just be honest. That is one thing; if you’re honest a lot of good things will happen. That’s helping me here I think, and also it seems to be considered somehow charming.


LEON: “My Finnish is not great, but I somehow managed to get a job in Finnish.”


I have a fiancé now. I met her through my best friend who also lives in Helsinki. I was about to move from Kuopio to Helsinki and it turns out that she’s studying in Kuopio. “You gotta be kidding me?!” – I was kind of freaking out. Luckily she was very relaxed, saying she’d visit me in Helsinki every now and then, and I’d visit her, so that’s how it’s been going. I freak out about things way too fast. She’s always laughing at me for that. I was freaking out about finding a table for my house. I overthink stuff and also being quite precise is not the best combination every now and then. I always like to imagine it’s more exhausting for others than it is for me. I think I got it from my dad, but my fiancé has made me more down to earth.

I was always a bit of a silent type. I was the guy who everyone sort of liked, but who was never really with anyone. I didn’t have that many friends, but when I’ve talked with people, old classmates, they’ve all been a bit shocked: “You’re in Finland? Why?!” Most people seem to think it’s very cool – my brothers and my dad especially. To me, Finland sometimes feels a bit like holiday. Like for five years I’ve been on holiday, needing to work sometimes, but it still feels like holidays every now and then.


LEON: “Being very open does not mean that you have to say everything. You should just be honest. That is one thing; if you’re honest a lot of good things will happen. That’s helping me here I think”


Finnish people start to complain when they start drinking a bit. Many might only have been to Sweden. I feel that if they’d gone to France, Germany or England they would realise how well things are here, know it’s not so bad here. In the Netherlands you pay about the same amount of taxes, but then the healthcare… schooling, you need to pay on top of that. Of course the grass is always greener on the other side, but I don’t where the grass is ‘more greener’ than here.

People always say that after 2–3 years you get annoyed by the darkness, but when I was living in Kuopio I went for drives because of the darkness and I loved it. There was this little back road and I would just sit in the car. It was freezing cold, but I packed a lot of clothing and I would lie and look up and there was the whole sky. The longer you were there the more stars you saw. And I was thinking, you know, it’s beautiful. It pretty much couldn’t get more beautiful than that. To see the whole galaxy and everything. One time I struggled a bit, but that time it was more the circumstances and not the darkness itself. But again, it’s your attitude towards it. There is light, you just put on a light. It’s not that bad. Grab a cup of tea and get a book.

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 Leon’s story. 

3 thoughts on ““I talk with the customers in Finnish, but once they hear I’m not Finnish they switch to English”

  1. After reading you post, I started to think that You have met “wrong” people who drink and are miserable. I am happy and do not drink. Maybe this is the question of age, I do not know. In my surroundings people are not drinking, they have hobbies and they are happy. Hobbies are, regardless of whether they are spiritual or bodily, important and they give spice to our life. I am simple man who loves life and all it offers us.

    Have a great start of new week.

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  2. What a fantastic story. My dad did the same except in Sweden he moved to from Canada and just went around and asked for a job. No papers no Swedish speaking skills and he got a job right away.

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  3. Just wondering whether this is a white European experience? I can’t say it’s been easy on the job front for me because I don’t have a familiar name and well it’s not a European name. I have plenty of work experience but it counts for nothing in Finland. It doesn’t mean I don’t like finland but it’s challenging to land an opportunity here. Let’s see how it flows.

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