Sunday, August 19, 2012

Do Finns trust foreigners?

Writing an expat blog has been generally a rewarding and thought provoking experience.   Every once in a while, it is good to explore more sensitive and perhaps even controversial topics.  My thoughts I write in this blog are based on observations, not stereotypes or rumors.  The subject of trust and rules will be the topic of this post.  Do you believe Finns fully trust foreigners living in their country?  See my examples below.

The first example would be applying for, an receiving, a debit/credit card from a Finnish bank, called S-Pankki.  I have tried and have been rejected in regards to my first application for a credit card.  First of all, I was initially not even eligible to apply for this card, because the bank felt that the identifications I provided were not sufficient.  I provided 3 different methods of identification:  my US passport, my biometric police department issued Finnish residency card and my Kela card (Finnish social security card).  All three of these cards were deemed insufficient to even begin the credit card application process, according to S-Pankki.  Two of these IDs provide a photo and the biometric card has fingerprints, both issued by the police department.  The bank told me that rules say, I need a valid Finnish driver's license.  :)  Well, first of all I think those rules are just plain ridiculous and quite odd, but whatever.  Finally after living in Finland long enough, I managed to get a Finnish driver's license which can be obtained after one has lived in the country for 6 months.  So, I went back to S-Pankki with the new driver's license as proof of my identity.  The S-Pankki representative was fine with this ID now, so he helped fill out my application and told me to wait approximately 3 weeks for the card and PIN numbers to arrive in the mail.  So, I waited patiently and felt good knowing that I had finally provided the correct identification that S-Pankki requested.  A few weeks later a letter from S-Pankki arrived in the mail.  Would this be my PIN number before my actual card arrived?  I opened the letter and to my complete disbelief, it was a rejection letter from S-Pankki.  I had been denied a credit card and there was no explanation.  All that trouble to finally provide the correct identification and then they reject me?  My background includes a solid work history, sufficient monthly steady income, and excellent credit history, including several credit cards (with never actually having used the cards for anything other than monthly convenience (i.e. not using them for the rolling "credit" function)).  I had just been rejected with no reason for a credit card with a 5,000 Euro limit?  I do not have any debts in Finland and I have a job, why was I rejected?  I guess we will never really know as my wife tried to call the bank and request information and all we received was "we do not have an obligation to tell you the reason".  So, you will not help me figure out what to do to get approved, including not being able to confirm if there was some information that the bank perhaps did not have that they needed, so then what I am supposed to do?  I am really at a loss for words.  I am not a student trying to get his first credit card, I have a long work and an excellent credit history and have been rejected.  Could this be that I am trying as a foreigner in Finland?  My wife had no trouble getting her card.  What could possible be different between the two of us, other than our citizenship.  You be the judge.

The next mistrust example comes when simply trying to verify my identity in regards to a potential house loan  application at Nordea bank in Finland.  We didn't get any customer service from S-Pankki in regards to the credit card fiasco, so how would Nordea bank respond when trying to confirm my identify for a loan?  So, I met up with my wife at the Nordea branch in Kamppi in Helsinki.  This time I brought my brand new Finnish driver's license, Finnish (biometric, police issued) residence card and Kela card.  So, would the Finnish driver's license which was lacking at S-Pankki be enough to simply verify myself?  Well, I presented my card and also the other ID's just in case.  The representative went to some back room with my driver's license and then came back and said "We cannot identify you with this, this driver's license was exchanged from a California license, so we now need your US passport as well to verify who you are."  Ha  ha ha, so in S-Pankki the passport was not good enough and they need a Finnish driver's license, now in Nordea the driver's license is not good enough and they need my passport.  This was becoming so ridiculous, and again the customer service person said, "sorry, there is nothing I can do".  So, I guess again, 2 valid ID cards with my picture and both issued by the Finnish police station is not good enough to identify who I am?  What gives?  I am still trying to figure out how to deal with banks in Finland.  Let me know if you have any tips, other than changing my citizenship ;)

The Finns, at least in banks simply have no customer service and do not trust.  Honestly, I don't think these ridiculous rules would be the same in the United States.  Were these simply their arcane rules, or other examples of mistrust of foreigners?  I just don't really appreciate that when I am simply trying to verify my identity or apply for a credit card that I am treated like a small child and have to jump through 5 hoops in order to take care of something so simple.  Hopefully, this will be my last example, as I wait patiently for my re-application for a credit card via S-Pankki.  Maybe the 3rd time is a charm?   :)

Update 23.8.2012 - I was just rejected a second time by S-Pankki again.  This 2nd application only carried a 3,000 Euro credit limit and I attached a full US work history and current employment to the application.  Considering I have worked for the previous 17 years and have solid credit history, this is definitely a case of this bank discriminating based on race or nationality.  If you looking for a bank in Finland, please do not support S-Pankki.

Update 19.9.2012 - Sampo Pankki granted my wife and myself credit cards, lines of credit and a home loan. The customer service rep was very friendly and it was an ease applying for the loans/cards.  Good to know that not every bank in Finland discriminates.  :)

*** Hint - If you are moving to Finland anytime soon and would like to establish a loan or credit card, try Sampo Pankki (recently purchased by the Danske Bank group).  ***

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

One year anniversary living in Finland

With nervous anticipation I left San Francisco with my son and a one way ticket on August 15, 2011 to join the rest of my family in Finland.  Today marks the one year anniversary of my move from San Francisco, California to Finland. What a year it has been!  I cannot even imagine all that has happened during the last year, it feels like 5 years were packed into one.

When I left San Francisco, I had ditched most of my material possessions, except for a few of my favorite items including my trusty road and mountain bikes.  Would Finland wait for me with open arms?  It would be a year of many adventures, ups, downs and cultural learnings.  It is definitely a year that I will cherish for the rest of my life and will never forget.  When I arrived in mid August, I was still working for a US company and worked remotely from home.  This "work from home" job situation would last till the end of the year.  During the later months of 2011 as the rain started to pour down and darkness reared it's ugly head, I was officially introduced to my first Finnish winter.  Would I survive having heard so many horror stories about the cold, ice and darkness?  I used several survival tactics which I wrote about in an earlier article on my blog.  I took the winter head on, by spending time outside the house cross country skiing, swimming and working out in the city gyms and writing my blog.  I absolutely was not going to spend my time locked up in the house, depressed, staring outside into the darkness. 

Trips were plentiful this year and first one included a visit to Stuttgart, Germany to see a friend and the Alsace region in France.  Later in 2011 a family trip to see Santa Claus in Rovaniemi, Finland.  Then in 2012 we went on several more trips taking full advantage of the convenience of living in Europe.  Trips included a beautiful "kids-free" weekend getaway to Paris, France in the Spring.  Later when the summer finally arrived, trips included St. Petersburg, Russia, Sweden, Norway and Barcelona, Spain.   I have stated in my blog before, even though it has been a wonderful and rewarding year in Finland, it is nice to take advantage of the convenient flights and go on some adventures elsewhere.   I hope to continue to be able to see more of Europe and the world using Helsinki as a base.  

The summer, even though a bit cooler than previous Finnish summers, (so I was told by many people) was still magical.  People were relaxed and the downtown work life was much slower than normal.  The BBQs started to pop up and everyone just had a better outlook on life it seemed. I even recall one night riding my mountain bike home at 3:00am and it was kind of bright outside because of the midnight sun and while riding through the forest,  I had  reached a total peace of mind.  The summers are great, just wish they were a bit longer and less wet. It seems that when August rolls around people are already talking about autumn season.  In California, August and September are clearly summer months and October kicks off the autumn season.  I am keeping my fingers crossed because it looks like the summer has returned to Finland during this mid-August week.

The past year has been a transition from working for a US based corporate company to working for a Finnish start up company.  I have been very enthused about the opportunity to work for a Finnish company, because I think to fully absorb and integrate into the society it is better to work for a local company.  I am still learning how the Finns do things and there are some slight cultural nuances that are different in Finnish leadership and management style.   I am here to observe and learn from the differences, not complain about them.  Though I do feel that it does definitely take a long time to gain full trust from a Finn,  once that trust is gained, you will probably have a friend for life (so they say).  That applies to co-workers and friends.

I have already written many entries in my blog about the differences between living in the United States versus living in Finland.   Of course there is no perfect society and I have some complaints about how Finns do things and how they never seem to want to bend rules, but I also respect their policies and the secure and safe society.  The key to learning to live in a new country is to acknowledge the differences and accept them for what they are.  Basically, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.  You should never move to a foreign country and live inside a little "bubble".  Try to practice the local customs, get involved, and try your best to assimilate into the society.  Even learn the language if you feel it is necessary, but good luck with that if you live in Finland.  :)   The first year in Finland has been highly rewarding, I have no regrets and can only hope the next year abroad goes as well as the last.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Sun seeking in Spain and the Costa Brava

La Sagrada Familia Cathedral Barcelona
The final leg of our summer travels had our family journeying off to Spain to enjoy the sunshine in Barcelona and the Costa Brava.  We visited my wife's law school friend who is a native Catalan and currently lives in Barcelona and has a summer house on the Costa Brava.   The Catalans are very proud of their heritage and wish to become a sovereign nation as they once were 300 years ago. The heat and humidity hit us like a great wall of steam as we left the airport and headed by taxi to the apartment we were renting in the Gracia neighborhood.  This wonderful neighborhood was not located in the city center, but was very charming and full of lively squares and unique shops.  In my opinion, there is no better way to get the feeling of a city then staying near the locals in a residential neighborhood versus the standard downtown tourist centric area.

Casa Batllo by Gaudi in Barcelona

Barcelona is quite large in my opinion and there are many interesting sights to see.  However, in addition to all the wonderful sights and sounds of Barcelona, there is the amazing food. And if you are coming from Scandinavia like me, then you can appreciate all the assortments of tapas, paella, seafood and other culinary treats from this area.  This area of Catalonia is especially renowned for their chefs and Catalan cooking.  During our 4 day stay in the area we feasted on much of the food I mentioned and usually washed it down with a 3 euro glass of Spanish wine.  Yes, that is correct, you can get a glass of wine in a restaurant for 3 euros in Spain, which is about the same cost as a glass of juice.  In Finland you are lucky to be able to get a glass of wine on the menu for less than 10 Euros.  Several mornings jogs up the hill from our neighborhood to Parc Guell helped me burn off the meals and make room for more Catalan gastranomic treats.

Dali Museum in Figueres, Costa Brava

The top tourist areas in Barcelona are the church La Sagrada Famila, Gaudi's famous architectural buildings which include Parc Guelll and Casa Battlo, and the Ramblas and Gothic Quarters.  This is just a few of the main highlights as there is much to see in this great city.  It is hard for me to admit, but we actually paid for one of those double decker tour buses and zoomed around the city soaking in the sun and the sights.  I am not one to typically pay for a tourist bus, however with 2 kids in tow, this seemed like a reasonable option.  The subway is actually very good in Barcelona as well, so we also used it for many of our longer destinations.  We really enjoyed all that Barcelona offered, but suffered a bit in the heat and humidity.  Even though I am a native of California, having lived in Finland for the last year means that I have adjusted to cooler weather patterns.  Barcelona is an amazing city in many ways and I would highly recommend a visit, but think twice if coming in the middle of the summer.  It is hot, extremely popular, crowded and you might be fighting your way through the tourist center.

So, after 4 days in sunny Barcelona, we made the journey via rental car to the Costa Brava.  We drove to the idyllic seaside village of Llanca while stopping at Figueres en route.  Figueres was Salvador Dali's home city and prominently features the Dali museum.  It actually seems that Figueres has built tourism around the Dali museum, which dominates several blocks of the downtown.  We have always been fascinated by Dali's work and thought since we were passing through that this would be a perfect opportunity to see the museum.  We waited in line for over 30 minutes just to get in the door to this extremely popular museum.  Once inside were delighted by his extraordinary collection of paintings, drawings and other bits and pieces.  Dali was the ultimate surrealist artist in my opinion.  Then after a few hours we ventured back to the road that would eventually land us in the coastal city of Llanca.  Llanca is our Catalan host Eva's summer home and they have a very large castle like summer house that has passed many generations in her family.   This was the most amazing building that I have ever stayed in and the construction dated back approximately 1,000 years.  You could almost feel the spirits roaming around as you passed through each room in this amazing building.  The "guest home" portion of the building had a kitchen, family room and 3 bedrooms and the main section was about twice as large.  Downstairs in the courtyard featured an old and very deep water well and also an ancient dungeon.  The dungeon door was an original with old but thick wood and iron bars to keep it shut.  When Eva opened the door for us, you could actually see the scratch marks from former prisoners kept there during the 14 century.  Very cool and a bit spooky at the same time.  I felt as if I was in a time warp as Eva gave us a tour of the entire place.  Every nook and cranny of the building had something unique and interesting to offer dating back into the Middle Ages.

Hilltop castle in Costa Brava -similar construction to Eva's home

In addition to staying at her summer home, we explored the coast a bit which included a death defying drive up the coastal mountains to an old castle that Eva claims is built by the same folks who created her family's summer home.  We also spent a half day at the beach soaking in the rays and the children loved exploring the sea life which included sea urchins and octopus.  Everything about the Costa Brava and the cute villages were just amazing.  You here stories about many sun seekers from Northern Europe going down to the Costa Del Sol for vacation, but I think they have overlooked this gem of a place.  I absolutely loved Catalonia and the Costa Brava and would return in a heartbeat.  Living in Finland is nice, but an escape to the amazing Costa Brava should rank high on everyone's European wish list.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Norway adventure

The 2nd leg of our summer travels started with a trip to Norway via boat and ferry.  I have always wanted to visit Norway and now that we are living in Finland, we finally decided to take the family via the ferry from Helsinki.   I have a good American friend who married a Norwegian man and they have been raising their family in Norway for the last decade.  We took the car on the ferry that left from Helsinki to Stockholm, Sweden.  The route was to drive across Sweden to their city just South of Oslo.  It took about 7 hours to navigate across the heart of Sweden before finally crossing the border into Norway.  We have never driven across Sweden before and to be honest it isn't all that exciting, but easy driving.  It is a mix of farms, forests and some large lakes and is pretty much flat the entire way. Once the border of Norway is reached, the mountains and hills seem to pop out from nowhere.  Norway is definitely a geographically diverse country and has a great mix of mountains, sea and forests.

That night, after the long drive we finally reached our friend's home in Asgardstrand which is a small village about 1 hour south of Oslo.  We actually had to take the car ferry across the bay to get to their home city and that 30 minute ferry ride cost approximately 35 Euros.  Welcome to Norway, probably the most expensive country in Europe.  We actually ate out a few times and I won't even mention in this blog the prices, because they were exorbitantly high.  Their little town was very picturesque and located right on the water.  This small village is also home to Edvard Munch who is famous for "The Scream" painting.  During our stay, our host treated the children to several boat rides in the harbor with his little speed boat.  My daughter had a complete blast driving and gassing the boat.  He also took us to a tiny island where we docked and then jumped off the boat and let the children climb up the little lighthouse.

After two nights at their home, we traveled up north to visit some of the famous fjords.  We made the 5 hour ride to Flam, which is famous for the Flam train ride.  Several times during our drive we were stopped in the road by sheep just hanging out.  It made the Netflix series "Lilyhammer" (based on Lilehammer, Norway) seem more realistic as once the main character Steven Van Zandt had to stop his car in the middle of the road to let sheep cross. This railroad takes you on an hour journey past many wonderful waterfalls, streams and other marvels of nature.  We really enjoyed the journey in this famous train which supposedly at one point climbs up to a 55% gradient, however it didn't really feel that steep.  We spent one night in Flam and the next morning, I made a quick solo hike up towards one of the numerous waterfalls.  The views were just amazing every way you looked.  A bit later we said good bye to Flam and made the journey back to Sweden via Oslo.  During the drive back we passed many mountain tunnels, including a killer 24.5 kilometer tunnel (Lardal tunnel)!  Yes, that is right, over 24 kilometers of tunnel in a car, enough to make one claustrophobic since it took approximately 20 minutes or so to get through.  It is known as the longest road tunnel in the world according to Wiki.

We reached Oslo that afternoon and parked the car to walk around the capital.  We went to their new Opera house, which features a roof that is very interesting and quite large.  The children had a great time walking all around the roof.  The roof had great views of the city and harbor.  I was pleasantly surprised by the ethnic diversity in Oslo.  They seem to have a more diverse population than Helsinki.  We had lunch in Oslo at a restaurant which was extremely expensive, continuing the high cost theme in Norway.  Soon enough we were ready to make the journey back to Stockholm in order to get back to our ferry with the car.  Since the drive from Flam all the way to Stockholm was approximately 10 hours, we decided to break the drive into 2 days. We drove about half way through Sweden to a city called Karlstad which is situated right on the large Lake Vanern.  We spent the night at the hotel before making the final 3.5 hour drive to Stockholm.  Since my father had never visited Stockholm before, we decided to drop my parents off in the Gamla Stan (old town) while the family visited the Vasa War ship museum.  The children had a nice time walking around this museum and it was our 3rd trip there.  This museum which features a perfectly preserved 17th century ship should not be missed when in Stockholm.  Finally, in the afternoon we picked up my parents and headed back to the ferry for the trip back to Helsinki.  Even though we drove approximately 2,000 kilometers during the 6 day trip, we really enjoyed the journey, visiting good friends and taking in the scenic beauty of Norway.