How Oulu beca­me a must-go place for a for­mer BBC jour­na­list? Eri­ka Benke’s sto­ry

Woman smiling next to the trees

Right now, Eri­ka Ben­ke is wor­king as a cont­ri­bu­tor to BBC News and as a free­lance jour­na­list. Befo­re moving to Oulu, she lived in Lon­don for 23 years. She found here the qua­li­ty of life she was loo­king for. “After two years of wor­king in Oulu, I’m still as relaxed as if I was on holi­day”, she says.

“I’m a jour­na­list. I moved to Oulu from Lon­don in August 2020, after I left my BBC job on a one-year career break.

I had been with the BBC for 25 years at that point and I felt like I nee­ded a chan­ge.

So why did I switch from the BBC in Lon­don to the city of Oulu?

Between 2017 and 2019, I tra­vel­led in Fin­land qui­te exten­si­ve­ly, pro­ducing docu­men­ta­ries for BBC News on cli­ma­te chan­ge, the basic inco­me expe­ri­ment and Sámi cul­tu­re — and I fell in love with the count­ry.

I was suf­foca­ting in Lon­don, a bust­ling city of nine mil­lion, whe­reas I felt free in Fin­land, with so much more space and more air to breat­he. So I star­ted loo­king for somet­hing to do in Fin­land during a career break.

Things began to fall into place when I was fil­ming for the BBC in Ii, a small com­mu­ni­ty just north of Oulu, in Novem­ber 2019, and I heard that Oulu was bid­ding to beco­me Euro­pean Union Cul­tu­re Capi­tal in 2026.

I got in touch with the Oulu2026 team and I found out that they nee­ded some­bo­dy like me to help them: an out­si­der with a fresh pair of eyes to pro­duce sto­ries about Oulu that cap­tu­red the ima­gi­na­tion of inter­na­tio­nal audiences and set Oulu apart from the other two Fin­nish cities com­pe­ting for the 2026 EU cul­tu­re capi­tal tit­le.

In short, it soun­ded like my dream job – so I pac­ked my bags and came to live in Oulu long-term.

Woman on the river
Pho­to by Mar­ko Kero­la, Lap­pis

What I love about Oulu in a pro­fes­sio­nal sen­se

Very simply, I love what I’m doing.

Fin­land is under­re­por­ted in the inter­na­tio­nal media, which is not right: the count­ry has amazing sto­ries that the who­le world could learn from.

I find it very rewar­ding to dig out sto­ries that rai­se the pro­fi­le of Oulu abroad – and it’s so much fun wor­king on them as well.

Take the sto­ry of win­ter cycling: in Oulu, it’s not­hing special. After all, life in win­ter goes on as nor­mal, inclu­ding cycling. We have 900 kms of bike paths with excel­lent main­te­nance that enables resi­dents to safe­ly cycle during five or six months of snow on the ground.

It may be not­hing out of ordi­na­ry in Oulu but for people out­si­de Fin­land, it’s a fasci­na­ting sto­ry. In the rest of Euro­pe even the tiniest amount of snow rou­ti­ne­ly causes tra­vel chaos.

With snow and ice beco­ming inc­rea­singly rare elsew­he­re in the world, I rea­li­sed the win­ter was a unique – and beau­ti­ful – visual sel­ling point of Oulu and pro­duced seve­ral other sto­ries using that the­me.

I inter­viewed Mat­ti Lat­va-aho, the lea­der Finland’s 6G pro­ject, whi­le he was ice-fis­hing on the frozen sea. I used the ima­ges of fis­hing nets to explain the futu­re of mobi­le com­mu­nica­tion networks. The net-network sym­bo­lism, lin­king ancient fis­hing tra­di­tions to sta­te-of-the-art tech­no­lo­gy, has hel­ped crea­te a huge­ly sym­bo­lic and total­ly stun­ning video.

In addi­tion to sup­por­ting the Oulu 2026 bid, I’ve also enjo­yed pro­ducing videos for rec­ruit­ment cam­paigns run by Business­Oulu.

Oulu, just like the rest of Fin­land, needs to att­ract inter­na­tio­nal talent. There’s a shor­ta­ge of labour in gene­ral, and in Oulu, a shor­ta­ge of IT specia­lists in par­ticu­lar.

I’ve made plen­ty of videos to encou­ra­ge foreig­ners to take up jobs in Oulu.

I inter­viewed Indian, Brazi­lian, Mexican and Polish softwa­re engi­neers and researc­hers who’ve moved to Oulu for work. Many of them work for Nokia, many others are researc­hers at the uni­ver­si­ty.

They told me what they loved about living and wor­king in Oulu. Many of the things they said coinci­ded with my own expe­rience, with equa­li­ty and work-life balance coming on top of the “best of Oulu” list.

A young Brazi­lian woman made it a point that being a foreign woman is not an obs­tacle to achie­ving anyt­hing in Oulu. I think it’s very true: Fin­land is very dif­fe­rent from many other count­ries in the world whe­re balancing work and fami­ly life can be dif­ficult and women are paid less than male coun­ter­parts.

Woman smiling by the sea

What I love per­so­nal­ly in Oulu

I had always felt a bond when I visi­ted Oulu befo­re I moved here – but after living here per­ma­nent­ly for about a month, I was sure that I’d found my spi­ri­tual home.

Most of all, I love having beau­ti­ful uns­poilt natu­re on my doors­tep. I step out­si­de my flat, which is a ten-minu­te bike ride from the city cent­re, and in two minu­tes’ walk I’m in the forest. If I go the other way, I get to the sea­si­de.

I love being out­doors and I love win­ter. It’s so easy to run, ski and swim in Oulu – whe­re­ver you are, it only takes a few minu­tes to get to a breath­ta­kingly beau­ti­ful spot to exerci­se.

I live a peace­ful, qui­et and healt­hy life in Oulu and I’m very hap­py here. So the­re was no way I could say “no” to an offer of exten­sion when my first year was up: after two years of wor­king in Oulu, I’m still as relaxed as if I was on holi­day.”

Talent sto­ries you may be inte­res­ted in:

The inc­re­dible jour­ney of Chia­ra Boset­ti

Vik­tors Sobo­levs: “If you want to work in Oulu, belie­ve in your­self and push hard”

Débo­ra Oli­vei­ra: “During my first walks in Oulu, I felt like I was in a fai­ry tale”

Doris Yue belie­ves her dreams will come true in Oulu

Jun­naid Iqbal: ”You must come to Oulu with an open mind and a big smi­le”

Tama­ra Louis: “Oulu is a per­fect envi­ron­ment for fami­lies”

Shar­min Farah: “Nort­hern Lights – the best thing to expe­rience whi­le living in Oulu”