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Is Scandinavia really the coolest place on the planet to start a new life abroad?

CLEAN air, safe cities, fabulous welfare... but is there a downside to the Nordic dream? Arlene Harris speaks to two families

Scandinavia has long been hailed as a utopian place to live – clean northern air, vast landscapes coupled with efficient cities and internationally recognised social welfare systems. Our Nordic neighbours have always seemed to have the perfect working model for life.

In recent years, it has also become uber chic, with the rest of us vying for everything from their clever design and simple furniture to their clothes and gripping crime novels.

But is life really better up north or, like here, does it depend on where you live and how you earn a crust? We spoke to a Dublin family who have moved to Helsinki in Finland, and a Norwegian man living in Cabinteely, to compare the differences.

Philip Breen from South County Dublin is 42 years old and lives in Borga, Finland with his partner Linda (whose father is Irish) and their children Shane, Cian and Eireann. He says there are many benefits to living in Finland, but he still misses home and would advise people to think carefully before heading northwards.

"I have been living in Finland for about eight years. I moved for many reasons, including the environment for bringing up children, the education and safety in general. I also have a son in Ireland, who I have asked many times to move over with us, so he could obtain all of this, too.

"Finland is a much safer country to bring up children –the childcare is great. The creches open at 6am and close at 6pm and if you do shift work there is also 24-hour childcare. The cost is subsidised by the government no matter what income you are on, so the maximum you pay each month is €200 per child – or less is you are on a low income.

"At school or creche, the children are served a wholesome breakfast, hot lunch, snack and dinner during the day. Excursions are also part of the package. They are also given free bus rides to and from school until the age of 18. And if you live more than 5km from school, they are picked up by school taxi in the first school years.

"Books are provided by the schools and no uniforms are used. After that, university and college is free and hot lunches are also served there for free.

"The health care is also very good here – it's same price for everyone (€13 per visit and if you visit more than three times a year, it is free) and health centres are run by local authorities. The doctors and nurses there deal with everything from common colds, blood tests, minor surgery and stitching – which means the hospitals are kept free for real emergencies.

"The tax money is spent wisely here, and you can see where your tax is going. Even people on social welfare pay 20pc tax on benefits.


"But there are also lots of negatives. The winters are miserable and are about six months long. If you don't ski, it's tough – every day shovelling snow and digging the car out before going to work, and the same again in the evening.

"Also, the Finnish people do not generally have good social skills. They seem to be the most anti-social people on the planet, with the exception of Swedish-speaking-Finns (a minority of 6pc), and Finns who have lived outside of Finland.

"It is hard to make new friends. The difference between the Finns and the Irish is that the Irish see the pub as a socialising point to have a laugh with friends – Finns see it just as a place to get drunk.

"When you walk into a Finnish pub, nobody is talking, only grunting and you know it's time to go home when they fall or start a fight.

"Nobody greets anyone on the streets. If I say hello to anyone I make eye contact with, they think I am mad or that I might have escaped from a mental home.


"Even after eight years I still struggle here a bit, I still don't speak much Finnish as it's very difficult (comparable with Chinese Mandarin in difficulty level). And Finns don't see past their language, they think it is the only language on the face of the earth.

"I say this because when foreigners look for work, even as an international truck driver, they are expected to speak fluent Finnish, even when the international language in European transport is English.

"If anyone is thinking of moving here for a better life, think again, unless you already have a job to go to.

"However, having said all that, moving to Finland was the best choice I have ever made. Everyone is treated equally here and everyone has the same educational opportunities. There isn't a class system here and it's quite common for plumbers and lawyers to be good friends and live beside each other."

J Bernard O'Sullivan (32) has a Norwegian father and an Irish mother (his Norwegian name is Jan Bernard Kvilaas. In Ireland he uses his mother's maiden name, O'Sullivan). He is the youngest of five sons and was born in northern Norway but decided to move to Ireland 14 years ago. He is now the director of Bos Photography Studio in Dun Laoghaire where, together with his partner Lynn, they specialise in wedding and corporate photography. He says that while the standard of living is better in Norway, it is a much more expensive place to live.

"Originally, my father was from the north of Norway in a small town called Royrvik, north of Trondheim. He worked on a tanker that docked in Cork City, where he met my mum at a dance. So this is where it all started. They married and had a house in Myrtleville, Co Cork, and had three sons before moving to Norway full time. They then had another boy and finally had me.

"I have been in Ireland for 14 years. From a young age I travelled between Kragero, Norway and Cork a lot, due to having family in both countries. At the age of 17, I made up my mind to move permanently to Ireland as I felt that my home was here.

"I studied in St John's Central College as a photographer and, in 2006, met my partner Lynn while I was working as a photographer on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, where Lynn was working in the ship's spa. So when my contract was finished at sea, I ended up moving to Dublin.

"There are a lot of positives about Norway, including the fact that it is not in a recession, so they have free healthcare, dental care, schools, good roads. It's a safe country to live in and most things run smoothly.

"There are really good employment benefits – annual leave is generally five weeks and there are good maternity/paternity benefits. Also, the employment market is stable because people don't chop and change jobs.

"Public transport runs smoothly and is really well organised. To buy a house is generally way cheaper. Most houses are really well built and the regulations are quite strict.

"If you are into wildlife, swimming, boating, fishing and outdoors or winter sports, Norway is a mecca for such activities both in the summer and winter. Summers usually are warmer at around 25-30C and in the sea water by the fjords or lakes the summer temperature reaches 20-25C – which is lovely to swim in.

"On the downside, it is expensive to rent in Norway. Cars are costly to buy new. Motor tax and insurance are also higher and fuel is one of the most expensive in the world.

"Taxis are really hard to come by and also really expensive – minimum journeys cost the equivalent of €30. Train journeys and car hire are also expensive. Socially, people drink at home because it's dear and food and clothing is more costly but the quality is good. Winter can get really cold (-30c) with lots of snow.

"In Ireland, I love the landscape, the people, history, pub scene and the craic. Rates, insurance, commercial and residential rent is cheaper. Also, universities are cheaper as is public transport. Groceries are generally cheaper because we have so many different brands and cheap clothing stores here.

"But the cons of Ireland include the weather, expensive schooling and unbalanced taxes versus income. Minimum wage is too low versus the cost of living. There is also poor enforcement of employment law and a high percentage of crime. And kids spend more time indoors due to weather, so Ireland has a higher obesity level and more health problems.

"So I guess on paper the standard of living would be greater in Norway."