Moving Abroad – 4. What’s Next?

So, it’s been a little while since the previous three installments about moving abroad (you can read those here, here and here if you like).

This post was originally started while I was sitting in a conference hotel lobby in Kongsberg, Norway, and thawing my half-frozen behind by the fireplace. Then life and moving happened, and I was so sure I had actually posted it. Then more things happened (buying a car and a house, and planning for renovations and the upcoming move), and I went to do some belated blog maintenance, and realized this was never finished, left alone posted, and now it’s half a year later. I am not going to apologize for it being so late, being that I write the blog for no compensation other than the joy of writing, but – here we go.

Today’s post is less a structured point-by-point how-to instruction, and more a series of suggestions which will hopefully help you be better prepared to face the consequences of actually ending up elsewhere (like freezing your behind off at much less severe cold temperatures than I was used to in Finland, because I hadn’t accounted for higher humidity – minor mistake, and not too problematic, but actually preventable).

Snow and sun
A gorgeous sunny winter day in Jyväskylä

Before I go any further, I will regale you with a story-with-a-moral.  I remember one beautiful, sunny, early-January day in Jyväskylä a couple of years ago.  It was -8°C out that day, the snow was sparkling like glitter, and T and I went out to shop for food, because for Central Finland, that’s a not very cold winter temperature. The forecast was for a severe drop in temperature the day after, and we wanted to be able to curl up indoors and have food. We bundled up in long wool coats (It seems self evident to me, but a lot of people don’t seem to realize this about sub-arctic and arctic climates: a long coat keeps your butt warm, not just your shoulders. Now you know and can make informed choices.), thick winter boots, fur hats, wool scarves and proper gloves, and actually quite enjoyed the 2km walk to the shopping centre.  On the way back we took a bus to not haul groceries on foot, and on the bus we encountered a newly-arrived foreign student, chatting to two other students in English. I noticed that he was dressed in ‘winter’ clothing – perfectly adequate winter clothing for a much warmer climate’s winter, and shivering while being indoors on a (heated) bus, and I decided to help. So I told him that hey, you are obviously taking the bus to the city centre, and when you get out, you need to buy winter gloves today (his hands were already dry and red from the cold), “because the warm – for Finland – weather (of -8°C) is about to be done, and the forecast is for a deep freeze tomorrow“. I recommended where to go for inexpensive choices, and the sort to get for the upcoming Arctic blast. I also recommended that he join the Facebook page for students and expats in the town, to be able to ask for help and recommendations (the dude seemed genuinely lost). Then we arrived at our stop, hauled our groceries out, and went home to our warm, triple-glazed and centrally water-heated apartment to nest and eat gingerbread and drink coffee.

The next day, temperature dropped by 10°C. T worked from home, it being before semester start, and we had hot soup and more coffee. The day after, it dropped another 10°C. And the day after, when it dropped another 2°C, all the way down to -30°C (roughly the temperature of the inside of an industrial blast freezer, -22F), I saw a post on the expat Facebook page, by same guy, sobbingly asking what to do, because he needs to buy gloves, and he can’t get outside, because he tried walking to the stores (about 10 minute walk from student housing, entirely unwise without gloves in -30°C), and ‘couldn’t feel his hands after a minute’. Well, no shit, Einstein – I told you to get gloves when it was one hell of a lot warmer and you could actually be outside long enough to buy some.

I contained my snark, and instead kindly told him to call and take a taxi to the nearest shopping centre (which are notoriously expensive in the Nordics if you are used to UK fares), because well, it’s expensive but better than having your hands treated for frostbite. And actually, now that I think of it, a taxi is also cheaper than the Finnish hospital copay, provided you aren’t going to another city for your gloves.

The moral of the story should be self-evident.  Also, I will buy myself more wool socks before next winter.

So, speaking of wool socks, and despite the post title, I would first like to talk about preparation you ought to do before you get there – and by that I mean that in the age of google (and google maps) and the internet, there is neither excuse nor reason to arrive abroad in inappropriate-for-weather clothing, and without the least clue of the lay of the land, the climate, and potential day-of-arrival temperatures and weather conditions, or the typical mode of transportation common in the area. A browser window is your best friend where it comes to this – check the weather report and historical temperature graphs for the region.  Open up the map of the place where you are moving, look at the satellite photos (accounting for the time of year when it may have been taken), take a virtual stroll using Google Street View.  Check paths and distances between where you need to be for school or work and your residence. Find out what the word for ‘supermarket’ is in the local language, and check where those are located in relation to both of the above, because it’s good to know that you can take a detour here or there and pick up that box of milk and dish sponge you need now that you have moved in, or once you do.

Another very important thing to check, which is related to, but not covered by the immigration authorities and the visas or residence permits you need to have acquired to arrive in the place to begin with, is the list of local authorities you need to register with on arrival.  The abbreviated list will typically be the local magistrate and/or tax office, but oftentimes social security (national insurance) is separate from those, and finding a physician/registering with medical services should typically be done as soon as possible after arrival, in advance of actually needing medical care.  In some cases, you will need to visit an ID office (many European countries have mandatory ID and registration laws which is a change from USA/UK, for example – these are mandatory for everyone, not just foreigners), the immigration authorities, or the police station if that is the authority issuing IDs in the country in question.

This last bit is important to know in advance, because you may be obligated to handle the tax and/or ID registration within a specified time (a week, ten days, depends on the country) of arrival there.  Missing this deadline may create problems you do not need when you are trying to find your way through a strange place.  For reference – in Norway and Sweden, the place you need to register at is the regional tax office, while in Finland it’s the Magistrate (Maistraatti) for the area you have moved to (those in addition, not instead of, immigration authorities). Depending on how large a populated centre you are moving to (city vs. town vs. village), the office of the relevant authorities may or may not be in your locale. Most recently, upon arrival to Norway, we had to take a train to a larger city to register with the regional tax authorities, because the tiny tax office in the village doesn’t handle that sort of paperwork.

Furthermore, in some countries (some of the Nordics, certainly), you will need to get a local bank account asap in order to get a bank ID, which also doubles as your online ID, which you may well need to do things like book a doctor’s appointment (the non-emergency kind), sign up for supermarket bonus cards online, or anything in-between. (Oh, and use the internet bank to pay bills, obviously.)

Yet another aspect of moving to an entirely unfamiliar place is that things won’t necessarily be sold or available where you expect them to be, nor may be the brands of things or names of stores be you expect them to be. I am not saying the specific thing you want won’t be available (though sometimes not – I have no idea where I’d look for Pop-tarts here, and yes there’s a story about those and Americans in Finland, and no I don’t care about Pop-tarts), but that often you have no idea which store to look in for what you want. Moreover, while something which fulfills the function you need fulfilled (Peroxide bleach to get your sheets white? Cat litter?) is likely available, it may look different or come in different packaging, and the store down the street may have a generic that’s way cheaper and works just as well as the brand you are used to, which is imported from wherever you are from and comes with an astronomical premium.  Case in point – it took me months to find where to buy terracotta flower pots, and then several more months to find that there was another place to get those, much closer than the places I eventually found them and also cheaper, but they only have them in spring, and once they are sold out of them in spring, they do not have any for the rest of the year. (In Norway, or at least in Telemark, supermarkets do not stock terracotta flower pots that are found in most supermarkets in Sweden next to the flowers year-round. No, I don’t know why.) Asking the locals is the best and most reliable way of finding things you need, because while I can read Norwegian fairly well, googling in a foreign language is hard, even when you have a decent command of said language, because while you know words when you see them, you may not know what words to use as keywords.

The final remark I have on the subject of settling in is non-specific, and yes, I fully realize how condescendingly self-evident this may sound, but – in order to become comfortable in a new place, it is generally a good idea to watch what the locals do, and/or ask them.  I do not say this as a patronizing “when in Rome…” comment, but rather because I have observed that many people do not seem to realize the obvious:  that the usual reason the locals do something or other in a specific manner is that it’s the easiest/most convenient manner appropriate for the locale, and not just because ‘they are weird in this country’.

For example – the last two places we have lived had excellent public transport, and therefore being a pedestrian (if living in the actual city as opposed to outlying suburbs) was entirely fine, while owning a car was a bit of a pain in the head (parking, tolls, etc.).  The place we have moved to now has some public transport (mainly from centre of one village to centre of another, or to the capital city several times a day), but it is largely a car place.  It is too rural for extensive public transport seen in large-to-medium Nordic cities, and many people live beyond the reach of the local bus traffic, many businesses are located outside of it, and the distances make walking everywhere impractical even if you are fit enough because it’d still take time.  Our apartment is located close enough to amenities to make it possible to walk to town, supermarket, and the university college, but we realized that to do anything else – such as sightseeing or shopping for more than food – we need a car, so we bought a car shortly after our move in early March.  It’s not a philosophical or a lifestyle/status choice – it’s the way things are done here because it’s what is appropriate for the locale, which is made up of small valleys with tiny villages and scattered farmsteads throughout.

tl;dr – Don’t bring a dog sled or a pair of running shoes to a camel race.  Bring a camel – or ask the locals where to buy one on arrival.

With this, I conclude the blog post series about international relocations in Europe and otherwise, and, per previous post, will get busy with the house renovations. And since I am not the kind of DIYer who is good with lumber or flooring (I’m the sort of DIYer who knows chemicals and can make household cleaners and soap and such), this mostly means managing several gentlemen who do know how to do such things, and handling the budget, and trying really hard not to go over that.

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