5 Curiosities About Being an Au Pair in Finland

5 Curiosities About Being an Au Pair in Finland
If you’ve read my other articles, you’ll know that I’m currently living in Spain. So where did being an au pair in Finland come from?! For this article, I’m diving back to my first experience of living abroad, which has been a catalyst for much of my travelling life since. 

I was an au pair in Raisio, Finland, from September to December 2013. At 18 years old, I had just finished my A levels, and decided to take a gap year before university to experience more of life first. I love children, travelling, and languages, so I figured that au pairing would be a good way to start. And thanks to a Finnish friend who lives in England where I’m from, I’d already learnt a few words of Finnish. I organised my host family through the Au Pair World website, and after an Italian family arrangement fell through, I ended up in Finland with my lovely host family of two parents, three kids aged 5-13, and a cute little dog called Helmi!

Au pairing was an eye-opening experience in many ways, especially as I didn’t know much about Finland before I moved there. In this article I share with you five curiosities I discovered as an au pair in Finland. 

1. Saunas

They’re Everywhere!

The Finns love saunas! Every public swimming pool has a sauna, and most houses and even flats have one. Some houses even have more than one! In fact, the official statistics show that there’s almost one sauna for every two people in Finland! That was pretty shocking to me, coming from a country where I’d maybe seen a sauna once in my life. My host family had two houses (I’ll come back to this later). Their main house had a sauna, albeit they didn’t use it much. The public swimming pool nearby had a sauna. And their second house had two saunas: one in the main house, and one in the small cottage next to it. So I was never stuck for sauna options!

A wood burning sauna with hot stones. Kira in a sauna. One of the children posing in the summer cottage sauna.

My Experiences

The nicest, most rustic sauna was in that small cottage, and most evenings when we were there we would use it. It was on the beach, so it acted as our shower after swimming in the sea, and we’d use buckets to pour water warmed in the sauna over our heads while trying to avoid getting shampoo in our eyes. Or it would be the final part of a relaxing evening spent under the stars. When the kids were involved, it would also be an opportunity for a water fight. The nicest saunas have a kiuas (wood-burning stove) which heats up stones, and then you throw water on the stones to create steam that heats up the room. The water you throw on the stones is cold, which makes it very tempting for young children to throw at each other (or at the au pair!).

You Have to Be Naked

Yes, Finns would definitely argue that a sauna can only be fully enjoyed naked. Whereas in other countries swimwear is mandatory, in Finland it’s the opposite: no swimming costumes allowed! This includes public saunas. They do, however, have separate saunas for each gender. Even so, it was an interesting experience for me. Since I didn’t really know anyone in the area, I ventured into a public sauna with the knowledge that I would never see anyone else there again. But thinking as a future teacher, I can’t imagine going into a naked public sauna that a student might walk into. In our home saunas, the family recognised that as a foreigner I might not be comfortable with naked saunas, so I wore my swimming costume, but I did have the odd naked sauna with the kids.

And the kids didn’t even acknowledge anything was unusual. Nor have little English children I know until they reach a certain age. This highlights how our aversion to nakedness is a cultural creation. In England we learn that it’s not OK, but in Finland they don’t. This is also seen in many bathrooms in Finland which have multiple showerheads together, so more than one family member can shower at a time. A useful function, but I can’t imagine taking a shower next to my mum! If you can get past the initial awkwardness, it’s quite liberating to have a naked sauna experience. And it’s much easier to get changed after swimming when you don’t have to worry about covering yourself in your towel.

2. Summer Cottage

I mentioned that my host family had two houses. This is really common in Finland, and many families have a house in the city and a second house (often just a cottage) by a body of water, like the sea or one of Finland’s numerous lakes. This second house is the mökki, or summer cottage, because the family mainly stays there during the summer holidays. My family’s mökki was only a 30-minute drive away, so we went there on weekends and school holidays. It was on the coast, so its garden included a beach with a hot tub and mini jetty! Next to the original small cottage (which is basically just two rooms, a sauna/toilet, and a bedroom… the Finnish essentials) they built another house with a wall featuring floor-to-ceiling windows to look out over the sea. Beautiful.

The small summer cottage next to the bigger lakehouse. The beach of the summer cottage Kira visited while an au pair in Finland. The small summer cottage Kira visited while an au pair in Finland.

3. Skiing

You probably know that Finland gets pretty cold over the winter (once when I was visiting it was -27º Celsius), so it probably won’t surprise you that they like skiing. But the southern part of the country is fairly flat, so cross-country is the go-to variety. My host family had a cross-country ski loop that was just a five-minute walk from their house (the rest of the year it was a pleasant woodland walk) and spare skis, so I was excited to join them. But cross-country skiing is so hard at first! I was rather embarrassed as I clumsily waddled along and a 3-year-old Finnish girl glided past me much more gracefully! I did gradually improve though, and loved the freedom of skating through the Narnia-esque woodland. It’s a hard workout, both for cardio and every muscle in your body!
Kira posing with her skis while an au pair in Finland. A Finnish man Kira cross-country skiing while an au pair in Finland.

4. Finnish Language

Of course, I knew they spoke a different language, and I knew the basics of that language before I became an au pair in Finland. But it has plenty of its own curiosities. For one, the Finnish language doesn’t have gender. There aren’t even different words for “he” and ”she.” It also has something called “consonant gradation”, which means that when the ending of a word changes (this occurs often as it also has 17 grammatical cases), sometimes the letters in the middle of the word change too. This makes it really hard to know the root word to look up in the dictionary, and online translator tools weren’t great for Finnish when I arrived. But even though it has complications, it also has handy phonetic spelling and a lilting intonation which I love.
Kira's Finnish language class An English to Finnish picture dictionary for children. Kira with her Finnish language teacher, whom she met while an au pair in Finland.

5. Food

As an au pair in Finland I ate with the family, but overall I wasn’t a massive fan of the food. But it did help me expand my tastes! They love their ruisleipä (rye bread) and while I ate it daily, it’s not something I miss. The maksalaatikko, or liver casserole, however, I couldn’t tolerate! But they do have some nice sweet food. You know about cinnamon rolls (korvapuustit), but they’re so much better when freshly made by Finnish grandmas! Blueberry pies were also a staple at cafés, and I always got excited when Finnair offered complimentary blueberry juice. Berries are also the star ingredient of kiisseli (a strange, jelly-like dessert the grandma often made) and the salty liquorice salmiakki was an interesting discovery. I wasn’t there at Easter to eat their notorious rye porridge (mämmi), but I enjoyed their Christmas joulutorttu pastries, and the reindeer sausage!
Rye bread with bread cheese, also known as leipajuusto, which Kira ate while an au pair in Finland. A pot of kiisseli, a Finish sauce. A plate of Christmas joulutorttu, a traditional Finnish baked treat.

32 thoughts on “5 Curiosities About Being an Au Pair in Finland

    1. Yes, it is eye-opening to live in another country. It was a strange experience the naked sauna, but only because of how my culture taught me to view nakedness. It was liberating to try it!

  1. Yay, I’m happy I found your post. I`m Russian, and I lived in Sankt-Petersburg for 34years. So I used to go to Finland for shopping or the weekend. I already miss these saunas!

    1. Hi Olga! Thank for your comment. That’s cool that you were able to go to Finland just for the weekend! The saunas are so good, aren’t they?!

    1. Thanks, it was fun, but it was also the most challenging thing I’ve done in my life! It’s not easy to abruptly adjust to a different culture, especially at a less-experienced time of my life and with no support network in the country! But I learnt so much and had a wonderful time. I was only in Finland for 3 months, but many Au Pairs do stay for a whole year. I wanted to do some other things with the rest of the year, but for me 3 months was plenty.

  2. Your experiences in Finland are truly enriching. I love to read stories and articles about imbibing new cultures.

    1. Thank you! Yes, it was a very enriching experience. When you go as an Au Pair, you really do experience the full cultural differences.

    1. Yes! There were some great things I got to do and learnt when I was in Finland. Although there were also their fair share of challening moments! But that’s what made it so rewarding.

  3. I can only image that being an au pair can really help you see the world. Finland sounds like an incredible place to go visit, with such an incredible way of life.

    1. Yes, being an Au Pair is a great way to see different countries and really understand how different cultures live. In other situations living abroad, true family life can be hard to experience, but with Au Pairing it’s 100% guaranteed! It was refreshing to see the little cultural differences every day in Finland, and to understand much more about the country.

  4. I had heard that about saunas in Finland, but I thought was just a saying. So, it’s a real thing! Good to know. lol. I gotta go read more about your life in Spain now.

    1. It’s definitely a real thing!! One English friend who lived in Finland for years even built her own sauna in her garden in the UK as she had got so used to them! I’d love for you to read about my life in Spain too, it’s been pretty fun and interesting as well! I think if you click on my name it will take you to links to my other articles, and I’ve got more in the pipeline too!

  5. Skiing without the snow was new to me. I did not know that but it looks so fun. You just gave me great reasons to visit Finland.

    1. Yes, it was totally new to me too, and I was so surprised when I first saw it! There are definitely plenty of reasons to visit Finland, I hope you can go some day!

  6. Wow what a wonderful and amazing journey! I really enjoy reading this post thanks for sharing this with us!

    1. Thanks for your comment, I’m really glad you enjoyed reading it 🙂 It was one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my life, but it was such a great experience!

  7. What a cool life traveling abroad and seeing all of themes beautiful spots on the planet,. I so want to go to Spain! I love the pictures an looks like so much fun!

    1. I would 100% recommend Spain! Although I would say that, since I originally only planned to stay for a year and have now been here over 4 years! Working abroad has its fair share of challenges, but it’s an awesome way to experience other cultures while living your life and not just being on holiday!

  8. I think being in a different country and learning the culture and language can be difficult yet fun and exciting at the same time. Good to know your experiences.

    1. I 100% agree. It’s not just being on a long-term holiday like some people seem to think. It is sooo much more than that – more difficult, but also way more rewarding.

  9. Learning about Finland seems to be an awesome experience. The saunas are great, but the birthday suite would make me uncomfortable. But, love the lake houses, skiing and food.

    1. Yes, just writing this article, especially as winter approaches, made me miss saunas so much! Being naked means you can fully enjoy the sauna experience, but if other people are there and you’re not used to it it is strange!

    1. I agree! And every experience is totally different, because every family is different! But you really get to experience the real life of that country, not just the tourist spots!

    1. It definitely is! A very different country compared to Spain, for example, where I live at the moment. Worth visiting if you get the chance.

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