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.”

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