It’s Thursday night at the Bar Cosmos and a steady stream of customer queues up to order lonkero, and shots of minttu.
An older gentleman takes hold of the microphone and croons a karaoke version of the Finnish classic Pois Lähtee Maailmain, as a couple takes to the dance floor and waltzes slowly.
Cosmos could be any bar in any town in Finland, but its suntanned clientele gives away the location in Fuengirola on Spain’s Costa del Sol – where as many as 30,000 Finns have choose to live full time, or part of the year.
“We don’t always know who the people are. They might be tourists, or they might be winter residents, and in early in the evening we have lots of old people. But at 11 o’clock they change and it’s much younger” explains Martaa Ylänne, one half of the couple who runs Bar Cosmos.
Martta moved out to Fuengirola a year ago, with Bar Cosmos already a fixture on the scene for a few years before that.
“This is like Finland, because this is a simple city” she says, on a break from serving behind the bar.
“When I came here this was the spot where I met everybody, and get the new friends. It was so easy to get the friends, and if you need help there is always someone you can ask for help. We hang around here and get together” she explains.
Finnish life in Fuengirola
The ‘Little Finland’ neighbourhood of Fuengirola stretches along the Mediterranean beach front, roughly from Los Boliches train station to the end of the line at Fuengirola central station.
There’s Finnish bars, cafes and restaurants with salmon soup and meatballs on the menu; a Finnish radio station and a newspaper that prints 10,000 copies each week. There’s Finnish daycare and a Finnish primary school; Finnish doctors, dentists and a church; shops specialising in Finnish produce, and a Finnish travel agency as well, in the Centro Finlandia building.
Even non-Finnish businesses have signs in Finnish, or Finnish flags to attract customers.
If it wasn’t for the winter sunshine, you might not know this was a foreign country.
But the demographics of Little Finland are changing, and moving rapidly away from being just a retirement community.
“Our perception from the past few years is that it’s not only pensioners, but also more and more young people and families that are coming to the coast, either to work, start their own business or to spend a gap year” says Katja Hytönen from the Finnish Embassy in Madrid.
Ambassador Tiina Jortikka-Laitinen noted in a recent blog the changing dynamics on the coast, with more commercial opportunities and startups for Finns in Spain.
“Almost 400 Finnish companies are already operating on the Costa del Sol, and increasingly a Finnish newcomer is an entrepreneur who moves to Spain for a longer period with his family” she writes.
This new wave of Finnish migrants to the Costa del Sol is even pushing the limits of places at the Finnish primary school, with more children ready to attend than there is space available.
Job opportunities on the Costa
One of Fuengirola’s biggest private employers is the Finnish company Barona, which runs a call centre in the town, where Finnish businesses have outsourced their customer service.
Barona has 250 Finns working in Fuengirola and hires newcomers to the area as well as Finns already living locally.
“If we find local people from here its better because they maybe have their residency and bureaucracy already in order, but there are only so many Finns here looking for jobs, and most people come directly from Finland” explains Barona’s Employee Relations Manager Marja Aulas.
Marja has been living in southern Spain for five years with her Argentinian husband after a decade in Finland before that.
“He got tired of the weather and we needed to figure out another place to live, and this was our compromise” she laughs.
There’s a popular myth that young Finns who move to Spain for work come primarily for the party lifestyle – an image portrayed on Finnish television – but Barona only employs a couple of people under 20, and around 60% of their staff are aged between 26 and 35.
“When they come from Finland we try in the interview to ask questions that make them realise if this is for them or not” says Marja.
“Of course their leisure time can be nicer here because of the sunshine, but when you are at work, you are at work” she states.
The profile of those workers who come from Finland has changed for Barona recently as well, with more young families, who get information from the company on how to navigate Spanish bureaucracy when they arrive.
“You can do everything in Finnish, but my advice is to try to integrate yourself more with the Spanish lifestyle too” says Marja Aulas, who speaks Spanish at home with her family.
“I do sometimes to go Finnish shops to buy my daughter Finnish candy, but I don’t want to surround myself with only the Finnish world, although many people do” she adds.
“People like it and they think it’s the whole package. You get the weather and sun, but you can live like it’s Finland.”