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The Finnish exodus from Fuengirola

Anna likes to do her shopping locally.
Anna likes to do her shopping locally. / Ñito Salas
  • Los Pacos is home to the biggest overseas community of Finns in the world, although more than half have gone back to Finland now because there are fewer restrictions as a result of the coronavirus crisis

Fuengirola is one of the Spanish towns with the most nationalities among its residents, but in Los Pacos you only hear Spanish (and not much) or Finnish spoken. This district is home to the biggest expat community of Finns in the world, even taking into account only those who are on the population register (the real number is much higher), but since the start of the coronavirus crisis and the subsequent lockdown there has been a massive and very evident exodus, although they have not all left for the same reasons.

For those who have stayed, 'La Leona' is a reminder of home. All the products sold in this shop are Finnish and normally it is very busy. Not now, though. Photographer Miia Marjamaki runs this small supermarket and says there has been a considerable drop in sales.

"Half of the Finnish people here, or maybe even more, went back to our country as soon as the lockdown started," she says. Her turnover has dropped by half. "I know people aren't able to go out and are having to eat at home, and that should be good for food shops, but in our case they just aren't here," she says.

Miia believes the reason they feel more comfortable in Finland than in Spain is because of the lockdown conditions.

Miia runs a supermarket specialising in Finnish foods.

Miia runs a supermarket specialising in Finnish foods. / Ñito Salas

"It's much stricter here. Until recently we couldn't even go out for a walk or exercise, and for a lot of Finnish people that was too much," she says. She has been in Spain for over ten years, but understands that the context isn't the same.

"I don't think any Finnish person would have ignored the rules, but I imagine they just believed they would be happier in their houses in Finland than staying here in Fuengirola."

Rea agrees with that. She is a regular client who has come to the shop to buy some cakes and biscuits "to see me through the weekend".

"We Finns are very obedient. Those of us who haven't gone back are complying with the rules, even though we find it difficult to understand the thinking behind some of them," she says.

As I'm leaving the shop Ángel arrives. He delivers orders from La Leona to Finnish customers in Los Pacos, and confirms what Miia and Rea have said.

"You can see there aren't so many people here now, because they are buying less, but the ones that are here are meticulous about complying with the law and everything in general," he says with a smile. "If they have ordered 20 oranges and there are 19 or 21 in the bag, they immediately let you know it's not right."

A gradual return

Anna, who works in IT for a Finnish company, always prefers to do her shopping in local shops instead of big supermarkets, especially fruit and vegetables. Before the lockdown she used to go to a local greengrocers, but can no longer do so because they are only doing deliveries. She is only expecting to be in Fuengirola for a couple of years, so decided to stay despite the restrictions.

Fuengirola is one of the most cosmopolitan places in Malaga province.

Fuengirola is one of the most cosmopolitan places in Malaga province. / Ñito Salas

"In Finland you can't go to restaurants, but they haven't stopped people going for walks. I understand why many have gone back because they can't cope with a situation which is so different to our philosophy of life, and also because a great many people have died in Spain," she says.

She also points out that many Finnish people went back because population density in Finland is much lower and it is more difficult for contagion to spread. "In Fuengirola the figure is enormously high, more than 7,200 inhabitants per square kilometre, so the precautions have to be stricter," she says.

At Fuengirola town hall, the councillor for Foreign Residents, Rodrigo Romero, confirms that many Finnish residents are no longer here. "According to the population register there are 5,500 Finnish people here but we are convinced that the real figure is at least twice that. I think it is probably an underestimate to say that half of them have left; it is almost certainly more than that," he says.

He agrees that the way of life and philosophy of the Finns would make it very difficult for them to cope with this lockdown. "But that isn't the only thing. You also have to bear in mind that most of them, especially those who haven't been here for very long, speak very little Spanish. Being in a situation like this without understanding what is being said by the authorities is difficult, and the council have been trying to keep in touch with them," he says.

Romero is convinced that the Finnish members of the community who have gone back will return to Fuengirola eventually, "because they live very well here," but says they won't all come back at once. "It will be a gradual process and will take time," he says.