The Merry Wives of Olkiluoto
The building of Finland's fifth nuclear reactor has made Rauma into Finland's Little France - at least until the Poles arrive
By Ritva Liisa Snellman in Rauma
The sign on the road leading into Rauma, on Finland's west coast, welcomes the arriving motorist in the local dialect: "Ol niingon gotonas" ("Make yourself at home"), but alongside the scales in the fresh fruit and vegetables department at the Rauma Citymarket is a surprising label in another language - French. It reminds shoppers that the items should be weighed and labelled before proceeding to the check-out.
On the red wine shelves at the Alko off-licence next door, there is a long row of classy French Burgundy and Beaujolais titles. There are even a decent number of brands of calvados to choose from. And after years of living in want, the Rauma Alko has also included pastis in its assortment, that anise-flavoured liqueur and apéritif worshipped by the French ever since absinthe was outlawed in 1915. The counter staff have been on language courses and can now say a polite bonjour and merci when required.
Rauma has become the most Frenchified town in Finland.
It has always been an international sort of place, what with the harbour, the shipyard, and the factories, which have all drawn in foreign contract-workers over the years. In the evenings on the streets and in the shops you can hear Polish, Russian, Hungarian, Estonian, and Latvian spoken, in addition to the ubiquitous English-as-a-second-language.
French joined the language lexicon a couple of years ago.
The reason is the new nuclear reactor going up at the Olkiluoto site in nearby Eurajoki. Olkiluoto III, the first European Pressurized Water Reactor (EPR), is being built by a French-German consortium. Roughly a fifth of the foreign workers on the construction site are French. The majority of them live in Rauma, and some have brought their families along with them. The children naturally go to a French school.
Well there you have it. That is probably enough scene-setting. Now to examine the nature of Gallic life in Finland's Satakunta region!
It is Thursday, just after noon, and the time is completely the wrong one for observations. Rauma is grey with rain and the effects of Finland's unseemly mild December. There are no Satakunta locals to be seen on the streets, let alone any exotic Gallic migrants.
But in Haus Anna on Satamakatu there are some signs of life. Anja Sirviö, who runs a bed & breakfast place here, has invited in the Wives of Olkiluoto. In the hallway, outdoor footwear is exchanged for indoor shoes, and there is a soft smacking of kisses on the cheeks.
Soon Mesdames van Graan, Tomm, Strobel, Heudes, Senac, Bril, Chrétien, Flaig, and Weighill are sitting in Sirviö's dining-room and drinking coffee.
Of course, in this company they are simply René, Uschi, Elvira, Chantal, Claude, Martine, Marie, Ulrike, and Pam.
They come from a variety of countries - South Africa, Switzerland, Germany, Britain, and France - but all the women share in common the place of employment of their respective husbands. Not that this group has come together to talk about the men's business - anything but. They are here for a hen get-togther, once a week and in three languages, and generally in a café in town.
The women's link to Finnish society runs through Anneli Savikurki. Savikurki has been the liaison person for Olkiluoto III since the fall of 2004, when the first French and German workers from Areva and Siemens AG arrived in Finland.
She has no shortage of work on her plate: she advises and guides, organises outings, serves when necessary as an interpreter, and tells people what the notes dropped through their letter-box are asking or demanding or explaining.
There's really only one big item on this week's agenda, and that is Christmas. Savikurki has brought along a copy of the local paper and she tells the ladies what will happen at the formal opening of the Christmas street in Rauma.
There is a surprise number on the programme in the form of a dress show. Merja Raitakari, who sells Danish clothing designs, has spread out her wares in the hall, and the women are going through the garments with a seasoned eye. There is even a certain amount of competition over a cute fake-fur hat that is on offer.
The Frenchwomen are still fussing over the clothes when the others have returned to the table to chat.
And there is no shortage of material for discussion.
For instance the temperature settings in Finnish apartments. The rooms are often awfully hot, aren't they? And what about flour in the shops? There seem to be an astonishing number of different varieties on the shelves - what are the differences and what are they all used for?
The recipe of the sweet buns Anja Sirviö has served up is passed around the table and examined intently.
René van Graan, who hails from South Africa, recalls how during her first weeks in Finland she would prowl unhappily around the supermarket aisles, not knowing what to do. The packages were all strange, and she had no idea of the retailer's internal logic of the place in order to guess what was what, until she flashed on the idea of reading the product descriptions in Swedish. With a bit of educated guessing it was possible to make something out, as the family's first language is Afrikaans.
Even with a smattering of an idea of what she is buying, the entire shopping experience remains strange, for back home the van Graans have got used to only going into a food store once every couple of months. Everything is bought in large quantities, with joints of meat often meaning a whole side of beef at a time. In Finland the joints are cut so small they hardly show up on the counter.
"At first my husband couldn't believe that there was nowhere here where you could buy ice. I told him that in this country you don't need the stuff, you just go outside and collect some snow", laughs van Graan. It is not clear how the current lack of snow - almost anywhere in Finland - has affected this observation.
Pam Weighill, who moved from the Lake District in Northern England, is used to buying her groceries off the Net and having them delivered, but in Rauma she has taught herself to go shopping.
At the other end of the table, the conversation has already gravitated to insects. These women who have seen a good bit of the world on their travels have learned that every country has its special bugs, and it is important to get up to speed on their habits.
Finland's speciality is ants. What time of the year was it when they can be expected to start invading the kitchen and other rooms in the house?
Oh, and does anyone know where you can get ethyl alcohol to use as fuel under a fondue pan? There's no point in going looking for it from the chemist's as you will need a prescription to buy the stuff from there. And nobody would go to see their doctor just to be able to make a cheese fondue in the evening.
The traditional end to the weekly gathering involves everyone poring over their diaries.
On Friday morning at 10, there will be a demonstration of how to make your own candles at the local handcrafts and arts centre.
On Sunday Mme Chantal Heudes will be speaking to the Rauma French Club about her home region, and after that it will soon be time for the wives' annual Little Christmas party.
In no other country have the families of people working on nuclear plant projects had so much programme arranged for them as in Finland.
There are Nordic Walking outings, belly dancing lessons, and language courses. The men play rugby and learn how to skate.
The French women have also over-run the quilting course at the local adult education institute, and an interpreter has been brought in for their needs.
The German-speakers go to an adult handcrafts workshop. Many of the wives are studying English or Finnish during the daytime. Three French women have actually enrolled full-time on polytechnic courses.
But it is only during the mornings and afternoons that there is time for such things.
The evenings are devoted to the family. This is a golden rule of the nomadic ex-pat lifestyle.
Acquaintances come and go every two or three years when the station and the workplace change, but the family lives on and it has to be kept together and nurtured.
"It's nice getting together like this, but none of the talking goes very deep, because everybody knows that before very long we'll be going our separate ways. A lot of people will be leaving in 2008", says Uschi Tomm. She has not lived in her homeland for 29 years.
René van Graan's adult children live in South Africa, but the family's youngest is only 12, and goes to the Finnish school in Rauma. It is best that way, as the family will in any event be spending another six years in Finland. René notes that her husband has been asked to take part in the Olkiluoto IV project.
Whoops! But.. err.. surely that means a decision on a sixth nuclear reactor has already been...
The women have vanished out into the December rain.
At the local adult education institute, noses are buried in Finnish for Foreigners textbooks. There are even some men to be found here among the Olkiluoto wives.
Filippo Basso is an Italian engineer with a Finnish wife. Bruno Duréault is a controller in a French firm, and he has a Finnish girlfriend. Both are working in Olkiluoto, and both already speak passable Finnish - quite a feat in not much more than a year.
Three years ago, when the news broke about who was to build the fifth nuclear reactor, Rauma experienced a veritable French fever.
Clubs were set up to act as a social interface between the locals and the German and French newcomers. Retailers pondered how much money the new arrivals would bring into the town, and what new products they ought to introduce into their assortments in order to tempt them through the door. Restaurateurs lengthened their opening hours to accommodate southern tastes, and they added menus in French.
The city quickly got all its online info pages translated into French, German, and English, and officials sat down to think what sort of services the people coming to Olkiluoto might need and where they might all find apartments from.
In the first wave of enthusiasm the talk was of hundreds of foreign workers, with some estimates even suggesting a couple of thousand would be coming in.
The disappointment was therefore great when the initial French intake proved to be only a handful.
Now there are around 600 people working at the site, of whom around 400 are foreigners from 25 different countries. Thus far there are just 68 from France, and eleven of them have brought their families along with them.
A couple of years hence, when the building work is at its height, the estimate is that there will be roughly 2,500 working at the power plant site. What nationalities they will be is still anyone's guess.
The French families with children live in Rauma, where Areva and the French government opened up a French school for the duration of the construction project. Other families live in Pori, and the kids go to Finnish schools, which have set up special international classes for the purpose.
Hence the "Frenchest" part of Rauma is arguably to be found from Nanu School, where Ecole Areva has been allocated six classrooms. Of the six teachers on staff, four are French nationals.
"It is easy to find teachers, but hard to keep them", says the school's principal Frédéric Girot. "The majority of teachers in project schools such as this are young and unmarried. When the construction job is complete and the school moves on to another country and another project, there is always at least one teacher who has managed to find a partner and who stays behind."
There are 21 pupils. The oldest are in their teens, and the youngest under the age of three. The French begin crèche-style education a good deal earlier than do the Finns.
Girot has spent around twenty years travelling in foreign parts, and he knows the rhythm of nuclear plant construction sites. New pupils will join the classes as the building work progresses.
The Ecole Areva follows the French curriculum, but it works in collaboration with the host Finnish school. Sports, gymnastics, handwork, and music are all taught in joint lessons, and school celebrations and theme-days are held together.
One of the traditional elements of such schools away from home is that they seek out partners from the local community. The French children have been on excursions into the forests, they have made a newspaper, studied Nordic everyman's rights, and have been given a taste of the arts by local artists.
Help was also provided from outside the school itself when the classroom for the smallest children needed a raised loft area for the children to take a daily afternoon nap. The structure was designed by students from a local college.
"The children do not mind the darkness or the cold. Last winter they were out skating in the school yard when it was down to -30°C", recalls Girot.
Even Finnish school lunches started to find a home after a few weeks of suspicious staring at the plates. Now the kids say their favourite day is Friday. It is not only the end of the week - on Fridays they get soup. It's good, and Finnish bread also scores high marks.
But just as things are going so swimmingly, the influence of the French Empire in Rauma is under threat.
There are whispers around the town that in the New Year more than a thousand workers from Poland and the Baltic States will be arriving at the Aker Yards shipyard, to complete the fitting out of a cruise liner that will be floated up here from Turku.
It is improbable that there will be new signs in new languages next to the fruit & veg scales in Rauma's Citymarket, but the Alko sales statistics are quite likely to take off in a new direction.
Polish shipyard workers have traditionally preferred soft vodka over Chablis and St. Emilion.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 10.12.2006
Previously in HS International Edition:
Further delay in construction of Olkiluoto-3 nuclear reactor (5.12.2006)
Areva: Olkiluoto III
Teollisuuden Voima Oy (TVO)
Rauma in English
And in French/En francais
And in German/Auf Deutsch
RITVA LIISA SNELLMAN / Helsingin Sanomat