Annika Wolff moved to Finland in August 2017 with her partner and daughter.
1) How did you feel on 24th June when you heard about the UK’s vote to leave the EU?
Shock, sadness, disbelief, like the world was spinning. Since the majority of UK voters I knew personally would not have voted that way, it was a really unexpected outcome for me. I also took it slightly personally, as my mother is foreign and on my father’s side there are also German roots and while people will argue it wasn’t a racist or xenophobic vote it really felt that way with the anti-immigrant sentiment that had been pushed by the tabloids. Also, a lot of the posts I saw on social media revealed a latent racism and xenophobia that I was not näive enough to believe didn’t exist -but which was at a far bigger scale than I had realised and this made me really sad.
2) What were the key driving factors that made you decide to leave the UK?
Brexit was one reason – the country felt different, but more than that I work in academia which is a really international working environment and especially, I work with many European researchers, utilising European grant money for research. As a non-permanent researcher I could see that the next few years trying to continue my career in an uncertain environment, with less access to funding and with it becoming more difficult to attract the best researchers to work alongside it, could be become difficult if not impossible. I had already been trying to find alternative jobs outside academia but without being willing to move, that was hard. In the end, my contract was ending, my daughter was due to change schools, my partner was also between work contracts, our house was due to have a huge housing development built on the fields behind causing huge disruption and at the same time I saw the perfect 4 year job advertised in Finland. It felt like not only could we move but we could even move to a different country – at least for a few years – and I could continue my current career at least a little while longer.
3) How/why did you choose your current country of residence?
We chose Finland because my mother is Finnish. We had been visiting with my daughter each year to make sure she felt some connection with the country, so we were quite familiar already with Finland and the Finnish way of life. I have quite a lot of family here. My mother has always talked fondly about a couple of years she lived in Lappeenranta in her late teens, it was her first taste of independence and she really liked the town, so seeing a great job advertised there made me take notice. It was in a job listing email that I had never even subscribed to, it came regularly and I always skimmed for fun but never seriously. The decision to apply and come was really spontaneous and like all really important decisions I think it is best to just go for them without thinking, rather than over-think and talk yourself out of something.
4) Do you have citizenship for your current country? Do you still have EU citizenship? If no, are you hoping to obtain it?
Luckily, although dual nationality was not allowed when I was born and I was originally only a British citizen, the rules were changed and there was a small window where those who had lost nationality could reclaim it. For some reason, it seemed important that I do it. As I did this before my pregnancy, I was able to register my daughter as Finnish and get her a passport. This was long before Brexit or our move! My partner has recently got his Irish passport (with two Irish parents, he was Irish but only ever had UK passport before). We are all extremely lucky in this regard.
5) Do you plan to return to the UK or hope to move to another country in the future?
As we didn’t exactly plan the move here as such, it’s hard to say what could happen in the future. But I don’t feel that I want to return to the UK and I don’t have such strong connections elsewhere. We feel very settled and I would not want to remove my daughter from school. But who knows!
6) What was the most difficult aspect/greatest you challenge you faced in moving?
My daughter was in a great school, she had a very close group of friends. She is also the only grandchild to both sets of grandparents and we would make sure she would see them all the time. Making a decision to take her away from that was extremely difficult. But everything else – the practicalities – we just got on with. We did find that despite having just paid off our UK mortgage it was impossible to get any type of new mortgage through the UK to provide money for property in Finland. Renting in Finland was almost impossible as it was mainly apartments on offer and with a dog and two cats coming that was impractical. By some miracle, I was offered a home loan after less than two months in Finland and only a 1 year initial contract, so we were able to buy a small house.
7) What do you miss most about the UK?
Family, friends, food. In that order. I have all three here, of course, but it doesn’t mean I don’t miss what was left behind. I don’t miss queueing, traffic jams, UK supermarkets, crowds.
8) What do you love most about your current country of residence?
I live near a lake, I can swim in summer and everything is covered by snow in Winter and looks really pretty. There is a nicer work-life balance. Although the academic environment is as busy as it was in the UK and same amount of hours, it is more relaxed outside of work. There is more freedom for children and they learn independence earlier and don’t need to be constantly ferried around and watched over – there is some of that, of course, but it does not take up all the free time. They also have more flexible and shorter school hours and less homework so they have time to think for themselves. Finland is definitely friendly to children and dogs. People are generally kind and straightforward.
9) Do you consider yourself to have a “European identity” and what that does that mean to you?
I definitely consider myself European, especially coming from such a hybrid family. It means that I can feel at home wherever I travel around Europe. Each country has its own cultural identity but as a European you are able to appreciate the difference without feeling like a stranger. It is feeling an affinity to other Europeans, but not necessarily a lack of affinity for other cultures outside of Europe. I still feel more at home in Finland or UK, though.
10) Do you still consider yourself to have a “British identity” and how do you feel about it?
I will always be first and foremost British. I was born and brought up in the UK and lived most of my life there. But my feelings about it are a little complicated and always have been. Growing up, I was taught to repress my Finnish side, as if I mentioned it I would often be told to stop trying to be different – I was British, not Finnish, I was born here after all. Contrast that with the experience of some non-white British friends, being told to go back to where they came from…. I always found both these viewpoints problematic as they clashed with my own view of what it meant to be British. Now, in Finland, I am effectively an immigrant since I was not brought up here and do not have the language very well, so people expect me to be British. So essentially being British is something I have felt pressure to be, rather than something I am, or have chosen. But the reality is, I have always been something in between and I think this is a feeling shared by many others in my situation. But in a strange way it is easier to talk about my Britishness now that I am in Finland. It is fun to drink tea.. with milk! Or obsess over where to get good fish and chips in Finland. But in other respects, I have come to feel a little ashamed of Britishness, too, which is really sad.
Additional Questions (relating to Corona Virus)
11) How has the Covid19 pandemic affected your life?
Most of my work travel was cancelled and doing work remotely, whilst fortunately possible, was also harder and more stressful. But I was really lucky not to feel more impact. But the worst thing has been not being able to more easily visit my family in the UK as my mother is seriously ill. I did go, but it was a huge worry about making sure I didn’t pick up the virus on the way there and take it to my family home or on the way back and bring it back to Finland. I was in quarantine the entire time in the UK and for two weeks when I returned. But this was not a big problem for me. My daughter missed a lot of school, or at least she did some remote learning but not so much. But this is being treated in quite a relaxed manner here. Things are slowly returning to normal but it is not clear if that will be able to continue.
12) How do you feel about your country’s response to the Covid19 pandemic compared to the UK government & media?
If I go by what I read and also hear from friends and family in the UK, it is clear that Finland has done a lot better. There is a huge advantage here of a lower population density and less mingling, touching, use of cash etc. but at the same time we took measures very early and while they were not so strictly enforced, most people were sensible and followed the guidance which seemed to be much clearer than what was given in the UK. To be honest, the UK handling of it looks like a farce from my perspective, as honesty and integrity seem to have taken a back seat when it comes to the government, the entire Dominic Cummings episode reads like something you couldn’t make up and the resulting track record in terms of cases and deaths speaks for itself. Despite this, I know that most people in the UK – at least the ones I know – are treating the official guidance with a pinch of salt and just trying to work it out for themselves and use common sense. But for the faction that just want to be deliberately obstructive and use the inconsistent guidance as an excuse to be selfish.. I despair.