When Finland won six medals in the Olympic Games in Montreal and Lasse Artturi Viren became, in 1976, the first athlete in history to win the 5,000 and 10,000 metres on flat ground in two consecutive Olympics (he had won two gold medals in Munich in 1972), a large part of the country started looking towards Spain. Specifically, to Los Pacos, a small area on the outskirts of the town of Fuengirola, in Malaga province. There, Teuvo Raivo Hakulinen found the climate and conditions to be ideal for training top level Finnish athletes, especially in the winter months, when Finland was practically covered in snow and the days were very short and dark.
In 1974, he set up the Permanent Training Centre for Athletes and since then Fuengirola has become increasingly popular with Finnish people. An exceptional climate, with an average temperature of 18 degrees and more than 3,000 hours of sunshine a year, and the quality of life, have made it a mini-Finland.
It is now home to 5,213 Finns, the second largest Finnish community outside Finland in the world after Sweden, and is the second most numerous foreign nationality after the British (6,722). These are the official figures, but the true number is much higher because there is a floating population. It could be over 25,000. “Most of those are tourists who come here for a short holiday,” say sources at the Finnish embassy.
“Fuengirola is now known as Finland's most southerly town,” says Rodrigo Romero, the councillor for Foreign Residents. This town, which has a population of 85,346, accounts for 96 per cent of Finns who have come to live in the province. Minna Kantola is now one of them; four years ago she threw up a comfortable life and stable job in the Finnish town of Tampere, where she taught Marketing and Languages (she speaks German and Swedish) at a local school. She had been happily doing that for five years, but she had always wanted to travel abroad and, after deciding against France and Germany, she came to the Costa del Sol for the first time in 2003.
It only took two months for her to make the decision which would change her life; she returned home to tell her employers that she was leaving for ever.
She had nothing here: no home, no work, no family or friends, but even so, in October that year she started from scratch in Fuengirola. One month later she had a job in a bank, attending to Finnish clients, although the salary came as a bit of a shock: it was only half that in her own country, where she had been earning about 2,000 euros a month, gross. “I knew the salaries were lower here, but the taxes are as well, so that made up for it,” says Minna, who now runs the Sofía Opisto Institute. She set up this cultural project after seeing an advert in a local Finnish newspaper in 2015, placed by the Ministry of Education in Finland, looking for someone to set up and coordinate it.
“In Finland, learning is for life and the government wanted to offer classes for adults here in Fuengirola (they include Spanish language, music, computer studies, gastronomy, history of Spain and keep fit). Today, we are a cultural association, registered in Finland, which receives half as much grant as previously, but that is compensated by the fees from the 2,600 students who come here every year,” she explains.
Enduring the darkness
Despite the “excessive bureaucracy, low salaries and long working days,” Minna says she has no wish to return to Finland. “I love my country and miss my family, but the darkness there is very hard to cope with. In winter, it is already night-time at 3pm. Maybe when I retire I'll spend the warmer months there, between April and October,” she says.
Suvi Kauranen is another Finn with no plans to return home. She came to Andalucía on a sabbatical year with her family and ended up putting down roots in Fuengirola.
This is possible in Finland, where the government pays part of the salary (between 70 and 80 per cent) during the year and covers their job temporarily with somebody who is unemployed. Many people in Spain would consider this a dream come true, but even in Finland it is not possible for everyone. The conditions are that you have to be working a full day (or 75 per cent), have worked for less than 20 years and been with the same company for at least 13 years.
Suvi decided to do this after several close friends died suddenly. “We woke up to reality and thought that people don't always live long enough to enjoy their retirement. Also, my husband and I thought it would be good for our marriage to get away from the stress which was causing us problems.”
She says that year, 1988, was a turning point and although they went back to Finland, things were not the same. In fact, it was a mistake. “My relationship wasn't going well, my two children kept reminding me about Spain and in March 1992, when it was snowing heavily, I decided I needed to make a change. I gave myself six months to prepare for the move, and so that my three and four-year-olds could learn Spanish. By the October, I was opening a restaurant in Los Boliches,” she says.
She now owns a golfing business, organising package holidays for Finnish tourists, and an estate agency, which is beginning to pick up again after the crisis. However, Suvi thought that her role of entrepreneur, mother and even councillor (she was in charge of the Foreign Residents department in Fuengirola from 2007 to 2010, when Esperanza Oña was mayor) was not enough, and decided to give something back to the community which had given her so much by setting up the SOS Costa del Sol group. This is a non-profit-making association, run by volunteers, with a 24-hour telephone hotline, open 365 days a year to help out in emergency situations by providing Finnish-Spanish interpreters.
Nowadays, Suvi has no doubts. “If I had to choose, Spain would be my country,” she says, despite the fact that she thinks the Spanish are noisy, doesn't like the fact that they all speak at the same time and, especially, that they don't respect other people's time. “When the Spanish say 'tomorrow', it's just a manner of speech. If you arrange something with them for the next day, they might turn up the following week,” she says.
Katia Westerdahl's was only a girl when she came to live in Fuengirola. Her father, a marketing director, set up the magazine 'Olé' in 1985. “He was a visionary; he realised that many retired people would come here and that they would need information,” she explains. She now publishes the magazine, which prints 15,000 copies a month, maintaining her father's original idea: the magazine informs her compatriates about the realities of Spain, and covers subjects such as taxes, social security and health care. Although Finnish by birth, she says she feels Spanish, “and so do my children, who were born here.”
However, like her neighbours in the residential community in which she lives, her home has a sauna. It's in the DNA of natives of this Scandinavian country. “For us it is essential. It's somewhere to go and think about things when there are problems,” says Katia.
However, this woman's heart is divided. She can't have dual nationality (Spain has no agreement with Finland) and “I can't give up my own because my two grandfathers fought for the independence of my country. It would be a betrayal of my origins,” she explains.
The Finnish dream
The dream of many of Katia's fellow Finns is to sunbathe on the beach: “I live five minutes away, and it's like being on holiday all year round,” says Sami Lindperg. He came to Fuengirola in 2002 after hearing about it from friends, after living in Denmark for 15 years. He had recently been divorced from his husband and couldn't continue working as a hairdresser because he had developed allergic reactions to some of the cosmetic products.
“I was feeling really depressed,” he says. Now, he works in a herbalist shop and says his quality of life has improved greatly, especially with regard to his homosexuality. “In Finland, we have our place, but people don't really approve of us,” he says. Sami feels that “Finnish people have forgotten how to live,” and he admires the ability of Spaniards to enjoy life while they work. He also admires the way people treat others here, although it came as a surprise at first. “We Finns are very distant, and there is hardly any physical contact when we greet each other,” he explains.
Many of the Finnish people in Fuengirola live in the area of Los Pacos: 1,847 have settled in this small district of single-storey houses, which has its own church, grocery stores with signs in Finnish (and they stock different varieties of the liquorice they like so much) and which is reached via the road called 'Avenida Finlandia'. One of the reasons for this is that in 1991 the Finnish School was created there, and it now has 317 students, 27 teachers and 49 employees. Of the six Finnish schools outside that country, this is the only one offering the Baccalaureate, given the large number of families who have moved there permanently or are spending a sabbatical year there, says one of the teachers, Minttu Alonen, who after meeting her Spanish partner on the Erasmus programme at Tampere university looked for work in Spain. “The Finnish School needed a maths teacher and I was lucky enough to get the job,” she says. She says the Finnish children in Fuengirola are more open, but they follow the same educational programme as they would in their own country. The educational system in Finland is one of the best in the world, although Minttu says there are no secrets to this: pupils work in groups, classes are participatory and exams are designed so that they can show what they have learned.
This area lacks nothing. It even has a call centre, which has been run by the Barona company since 2015, to handle claims against fines which are issued in Finland and to assist clients of some Finnish phone and electricity companies. The 230 staff are all Finnish, but they earn Spanish salaries says Paula Manso, the office manager. It is also the headquarters of the XChange Programme, a type of “working Erasmus”, whereby its facilities are used by employees of other Finnish companies (earning their normal salaries), but at a distance of 4,000 kilometres from home. “They do it to reward the workers, or to motivate them,” says Paula. There is a problem, however: after a year in Fuengirola, they don't want to go home.