This time last year I received a letter from the hospital informing me that I had Coeliac Disease – a lifelong autoimmune disease caused by the reaction to gluten. When I consume gluten it causes damage to the lining of my gut, meaning my body can’t properly absorb nutrients from food.
Before I even started my blog I vowed to never write anything about life as a Coeliac. But when I had a tearful breakdown after asking a waitress whether their ice-cream was gluten free, I realised I needed to do some reflections…
It all started a few years back when my sister was diagnosed with Coeliac Disease. It was suggested that close family members should also be tested for this condition but I pushed back going to the doctors because I didn’t have any symptoms and the thought of life without readily available pizza was not appealing. However, my sister persuaded me to ‘be on the safe side’ before travelling. So a few trips to the doctor and one endoscopy later, I was labelled a Coeliac just a few weeks before leaving for Finland. Although I had some knowledge about how my diet was going to change, I had no idea about how this condition would affect my confidence and social interactions.
Those who know me well will know I love food. I always say an enthusiastic yes to snacks and you’ll often hear the phrase ‘Charis needs feeding again’ coming from our family household. I was brought up to value the fact that I’m not a fussy eater. Therefore unsurprisingly, it has taken me months to accept that I can no longer be the person in the group who is free and easy going about where and what we eat. I still struggle to look people in the eye when I explain that I can’t join their spontaneous takeaway night or eat their left over stir-fry. I can’t pop into the first good-looking restaurant we pass or try a cookie their kids have made me. I’ve felt embarrassed of my condition not because of anyone else’s reaction, but because I hate the thought of being ‘difficult’ and feeling misunderstood.
One example is when my parents and I visited one of our favourite cafes in Norfolk. I skimmed the menu and came to the conclusion that ice-cream was my best bet. I asked the waitress if it was gluten-free and she said she’d go and check with the chef. The waitress headed off to the kitchen and I felt awful. Tears welled. The feeling of guilt was overwhelming. Thoughts about the waitress needing to go out of her way because of me consumed my mind; I felt like the fussy eater cafes dread due to the inconvenience caused. → I was being ridiculous right?! My mum lovingly took my hand in this moment, nodded towards the waitress and quite rightly said, ‘Charis, that’s her job’.
The intention of me writing this blog post is not for people to feel bad or sorry for me – it is by no means a sob story because I have learnt so much about myself during my first year as a Coeliac. God has gently, lovingly revealed my unhealthy desire to be liked and accepted by everyone. In moments like the ice-cream one, I was feeling guilty for something that cannot be changed. Now I’m learning in these moments to swallow my pride. God’s taught me that to be fully comfortable with who I am requires me to humbly and honestly present myself and be fearless of judgement (which rarely comes anyway).
More to this, being gluten-free has led me to experience a new way of feeling loved by others. When friends and family go out their way to produce Coeliac friendly food for me, my heart practically bursts! I feel so touched when I see loved-ones making a huge effort to ensure I’m not glutened or left hungry (no one wants to meet hangry Charis). Thank you to everyone who has blessed me abundantly!
I’m interested to see what I learn from my second year of gluten-free life – hopefully more yummy recipes and stepping out in confidence to ensure the food I consume does not damage my body. One thing’s for certain though – you’ll still find me walking past the bakery aisle in Tescos saying ‘I can’t wait to taste these again in heaven!’.
After nearly ten months of living in Finland I’ve observed, experienced and reflected on this wonderful culture. As well as noticing how Finns talk about the weather just as much as Brits do, I’ve enjoyed discovering the delights of this beautiful country and recognised some attributes our British culture could possibly learn from. [Please know my intentions are not to stereotype but simply reflect on what I’ve witnessed from the places I’ve been to and the people I’ve met.]
1. Love your birthday suit – From the age of dot, Finns are using saunas with their families in the buff and loving it. Having experienced the joys of same-sex public saunas with Finnish friends, I’ve noticed how no comments of comparison, judgement or self-criticism are shared. It’s sad how surprised I’ve been to see women genuinely comfortable in their own skin. It’s been a personal journey for me to visit swimming pools, saunas and changing rooms in the gym and be comfortable baring all in the presence of other women. Body image is a huge issue amongst young people in Britain. Over-edited photos and social media are usually blamed. But having spent time in Finnish culture, I’ve started to question whether body confidence is actually influenced by attitudes at home more than we think.
2. Coffee coffee coffee – Finland consumes more coffee per person than anywhere else in the world. Although they drink lots of it, the quality is not (usually) compromised. Dark roast or light roast, almond or oat milk, filter, espresso or aeropress, there is choice a plenty. Cafe culture is booming in Helsinki so one of my favourite past times whilst living here has been to settle down in one of the many hipster coffee spots and enjoy the nation’s favourite drink.
3. Time keeping gurus – You are rare to find any Finn to turn up late. Time keeping is a social norm here so when you agree to meeting at two o’clock, ten past two just won’t cut it. Relying on public transport, which is normally on time too, has meant I’ve been forced to always think ahead and be prepared – a contrast to back at home when I could easily jump in the car and not worry about the bus timetable. I’ve found that in typical British culture, being five or ten minutes late is usual which makes me wonder…perhaps the underlying reason for lateness in Britain is due to busyness from over-packed schedules and a lack of awareness about other people’s priorities.
4. Appreciating nature – If you’ve seen any of my updates, you’ll understand when I say that Finland is a truly beautiful part of the world. From snowy forests and frozen lakes, to sandy beaches and red squirrels, the nature here is inspiring. I love how Finns seem to appreciate and prioritise time spent in untouched places. There is an unspoken respect for nature. You often hear the question ‘are you a country or city person?’ in Britain but I’ve got the impression that in Finland, there is a resounding agreement of the benefits spending time outdoors brings.
5. Gluten-free joy – This appreciation may only resonate with fellow Coeliacs but regardless of which cafe or restaurant you walk into in Helsinki, you are guaranteed that a gluten-free option will be available. I’ve enjoyed not having to be the awkward person requesting to visit a particular cafe because I know it’s one of the few places that provide gluten-free options. Finns take food allergies seriously and understand that not everyone who is gluten or dairy free is just being fussy or following the latest food fad. British food establishments, please take a leaf out of the Finnish book (or menu in this case)!
6. Quality not quantity – The Nordic and Scandinavian area of Europe is renowned for it’s design. Apartments and cafes in Helsinki often choose a minimalist interior design, proving that less is more. Many of my Finnish friend’s choose to invest in high quality items instead of filling their homes with unnecessary clutter. It’s made me want to be ruthless with my own ever-accumulating ‘stuff’.
7. Honesty is the best policy – I’ve found that Finnish people are very conscientious. People look out for each other so if you drop something in the street, strangers will go out of their way to let you know. I’ve also felt comfortable leaving my belongings in cafes to go to the restroom. It was only when I visited London last week and was warned to keep my purse secure that I realised how I’ve totally taken for granted the safe nature of Helsinki.
8. No time like the summer – because the winter is so dark and long here, Finns take full advantage of the summer months. Ice cream kiosks pop up everywhere, obsolete cycle lanes are filled with turning wheels and when the sun is out, you’ll find the green parks packed with people sporting swimwear and soaking up the rays. Adding to that, there are also dozens of islands to visit via boat and roof terraces to enjoy a glass of wine. I appreciate how many of my Finnish friends prioritise spending time with family during summer and stay by one of the many lakes in Finland to enjoy grilling food and relaxing in the sauna with relatives.
9. Peaceful. Quiet. Bliss. – If you ever meet a typical Finn, you’ll find it hard to do small talk. I would be lying if I said I didn’t miss the causal chats I can have in Tescos and on the streets in my village back home, but there is something very intentional about the Finns way of communicating and their appreciation of silence. Silent moments in social situations aren’t branded as awkward but pleasant pauses before meaningful and intentional chat begins again. Whilst living in Finland I’ve learnt to seek out peace and quiet in my day to realign my thoughts and take time out of the bustle of busy life.
10. Cross-Country Skiing – Finns hold a high regard for fitness, health and..
From glimpsing the northern lights shine over our cabin, drinking gloggi under the moonlight and rolling in the snow mid-sauna session – Lapland was a magical experience. After struggling through day to day life in the cold during the long months of winter in South Finland, it was such a joy to go on holiday and enjoy the beautiful experiences this climate is best for.
After hours of trawling through Air B and B options, Mum found an absolute gem! The cabin was surrounded by forest and situated next to a snow covered lake. The peace we experienced waking up to snowy, sunny, crisp mornings and ending the day gazing at the uncountable stars in the silence of night was something I have never experienced. In a typical Finnish manner, the cabin was consistently warm and cosy; a luxurious contrast to the minus temperatures outside.
The myth that Santa Claus only works in December was disproven when we went to his village and explored the Arctic Circle post office, the reindeer farm (couldn’t spot Rudolph unfortunately) and met the REAL Santa Claus in his living room. He was his naturally plump self yet had a suspicious looking beard. Santa Claus asking Dad ‘have you been a good boy?’ was one of the stranger moments during our holiday. If you just imagine a snowy, eary ghost town blasting out Christmas tunes – you’ll be picturing our experience of Santa Claus Village in April.
One of my Lapland highlights has got to be visiting an authentic Reindeer farm. The reindeer were so friendly and happily ate from our hands, munching away and head butting each other to get their fair share of snacks. They seemed to have a gentle temperament and it was lovely to see how much room the reindeer had to roam about in a climate so natural for them.
Since being in Finland I’ve been out cross-country skiing numerous times and absolutely love it. Having had no skiing experience, it’s been fun to learn a new skill and be humbled by the many face plants that have occurred! Cross-country skiing was beautiful in Lapland as we were surrounded by serene, white mountains and the weather was so kind to us. I found myself envying the down-hill skiers as we gazed up to watch them during our well-earned coffee break…maybe that’s the next winter sport to attempt.
So if you have the chance, head to Lapland to experience a beautifully peaceful, quiet, natural part of the world that has learnt to embrace the harsh climate and bring to life the joys of living on the Arctic Circle. I’m so thankful to my family for providing the opportunity to go and explore Lapland. Till next time…
I came to Finland to be part of and support a small church plant here which has been running for four or so years. The church, called Risen Light, started in someone’s living room but as numbers grew, they decided to move into a rented room in the centre of Helsinki. We believe that ‘church’ is represented by the people who belong to it, regardless of what building they gather in. We currently have twenty to thirty people coming through our doors on Sunday mornings and we are greeting new visitors every week.
From growing up in a church, I have always been aware of people who move to different nations to plant churches. They often go with the aspiration to grow a community which is dedicated to encourage and equip current believers, as well as outreach to people who are yet to hear the good news about Jesus. I am aware of how church planting can be romanticised as this ‘exciting adventure’ so it has been great to experience the everyday struggles and triumphs being part of a new church brings.
One obvious blessing I have witnessed is the close-knit community that’s been nurtured within Risen Light Church. Due to the small size, people know not just everyone’s name but also what’s happening in their lives. In bigger churches it is hard to keep up with everyone which often leads to people spending time with the same crowd. Although this allows deep friendships to form, people are naturally drawn to people who are similar to themselves. Contrastingly, being part of a church plant has meant I’ve got to know mums, the ‘older generation’, students and a wonderful bunch of kids who are just as much part of the church family as everybody else. I’ve built friendships with people who I wouldn’t normally cross paths with and they’ve been an amazing blessing to me, speaking into my life in ways which someone my age could perhaps not.
There’s a real ‘all in it together’ kind of attitude at Risen Light. You’ll always find someone different helping make the coffee on Sunday morning and chipping in wherever needed. I can only presume this is because people feel valued in the church and understand that we’re all there to worship Jesus and bless each other equally. Church planting comes with the reality that people need to serve more regularly than usual which requires a lot of time commitment, hard work and it can be exhausting. However, people at Risen Light are fantastic at encouraging each other through thanking others for their efforts. Moreover, the fruit from our labour is noticeable as we’ve seen more people join the church, children’s enthusiasm for Jesus grow and different people stepping out to serve the church in various ways.
Welcoming new visitors each week has been a joy and encouraging to members of the church who have been praying faithfully for the church to grow. Many visitors have commented on how welcoming and at home they’ve felt at Risen Light. Due to the wide range of cultures represented at our meetings, diversity is naturally celebrated. Helsinki is a city which attracts people from all walks of life so my aim is to be part of shaping a church fit for anyone to walk into and feel welcomed and valued.
I always look forward to seeing everyone on Sunday and worshiping altogether. Our worship times are uplifting and often intimate as people feel free to share prophetic words and testimonies of God’s faithfulness. Sunday mornings are I time for us to stand together as a church family and worship our Father, keen to support each other as we declare God’s goodness over our lives regardless of personal circumstances.
Being part of the Risen Light community has been an unforgettable, beautiful, heart-warming experience. Moving countries for a year wasn’t easy but I have felt so loved, supported and encouraged by my church family here. I have never experienced the kind of generosity I’ve received here and I have learnt so much about doing life with others in a selfless, God centred way. I’m looking forward to spending the next few months enjoying being part of Risen Light and see how God continues to shape this amazing church.
During the Finnish winter break I ventured out to Nuuksio Finnish National Park with friends to go walking. Although it was minus twelve degrees, the sun was shining beautifully. I would definitely recommend a visit if you ever find yourself in Finland! Below are some snaps of the day…
It was such an adventure to trek through the forest and walk on the frozen lakes. The combination of snow, forest trees and sun-rays were breathtaking.
The day of finished off with a hot chocolate on the cafe balcony overlooking the white valley.
I’ve found that January and February are months in England when people use the time of year to explain their low moods. Christmas festivities and twinkly lights seem like a distant memory and Spring is yet to come. In recent years I’ve been defiant against this excuse for a dullness of life and planned in fun past times to brighten the short days.
However this year has been quite different. I came back to Finland after a wonderful time at home with family and was hit by snowstorms and minus temperatures. The weather through my instagram may look idyllic but trying to do everyday life in this climate has been a challenge for me. I found myself struggling to stay positive and my emotional well-being was at an all time low.
One evening I sat down to have a quiet moment with Jesus before sleeping. I had a sudden realisation that I hadn’t been thankful for days. The resentment I felt towards the weather had put blinkers over my eyes so I could only see the negatives in my daily life. I truly believe that thankfulness can change our hearts and as I showed my gratitude I felt a growing courage to simply keep doing life here in Finland, even when it’s tough. God spoke to me about claiming the joy that is rightfully mine. Through the Holy Spirit, God puts joy in our hearts which does not waver, regardless of our situation.
Over the past week, the weather has changed dramatically and we have seen glorious sunshine. Since learning to claim joy, I’ve also embraced winter living here in Finland. I’ve felt more energised and up for a sauna, cross-country skiing and forest walks. My thinking has shifted and I now recognise that my emotional state can change with the weather. It’s okay to recognise this, but it’s what you do with this realisation that matters; whether you choose to claim God’s joy and carry on or let the weather get the better of you.
Last February as they were celebrating their anniversary on holiday in Finland, Danny knelt down on one need in front of Josie and popped the question. Having loved the scenery and idyllic atmosphere of this snowy country, they decided to tie the knot a few weeks back in the same location. Josie is a super lovely friend of mine from university and it was a privilege to celebrate their special day with them alongside other friends from Canterbury.
The ceremony was held outside and although it was cloudy, the snowy backdrop complimented the sky and of course Josie’s stunning dress. She held a beautiful bouquet intertwined with roses and a long ribbon that danced in the wind. As she walked down the aisle she really did take my breath away, not just because of the minus temperatures!
The view from the Golf Club where the wedding was held was a vision of snow and forest, with not another building in site. It was a secluded, intimate location and they had decorated the interior beautifully. A combination of fairy lights, blush-coloured flowers and candles set the ambiance as we celebrated over prosecco and many, many photos!
Dinner was a buffet full of Finnish delights including salmon salad, karelian pastries and slow cooked beef. After the heart-felt speeches the cake was cut and dancing ensued. For the adventurous guests (or those with a hefty alcohol jacket, you can decide), sledging commenced outside. Never have my hands been so cold but whizzing down a snowy bank, at night time, in wedding attire, was thrilling and so much fun. It was a moment to pause and think ‘this is what happiness feels like’.
The day was filled with memories to treasure for a lifetime. I pray blessings over Josie and Danny as they begin a very happy, long life together and wish them all the best as they plan their honeymoon to somewhere a little more tropical.
This year Finland celebrated 100 years of independence. The official day of independence was a public holiday held on the 6th December where many people gathered in different locations up and down the country to celebrate together. I spotted many people in white-tie attire on the metro and thousands of us braved the cold weather to watch the fireworks display off the coast of Helsinki.
In recent months I’ve witnessed the news being being splattered with coverage of communities campaigning against something or expressing their dislike for someone in the public eye. Although there is a time and place for this, it was a refreshing experience to be part of a community uniting together to simply celebrate what this Nation achieved 100 years ago; freedom, independence and equality.
As a church, we spent our prayer meeting the Sunday before the Independence Day thanking God for this precious country and we shared with one another what we love about Finland. When a bunch of assorted cultures come together, it’s wonderful to hear how we experience the same country we live in differently. Following our time of thanksgiving we prayed and prophesied over the future of Finland.
During the Independence Day, the worship choir I’m part of (called Kingdom Singers) felt very honoured to sing in Helsinki’s white Cathedral. The service was a celebration for all that Finland is and we praised God for the blessings he has brought about in this nation.
Following this, in the evening a group of us from church got together over food and did what most Finns do on Independence Day (apparently). We watched the president shake hands with the VIPs of Finland including diplomats, pop stars and fashion designers. I had under-estimated how fun this could be as we drank glögi whilst judging the various classy and eccentric dresses worn.
It has been such a privilege to be part of this country’s community as we celebrated 100 years of Finnish independence.
Below is an edited version of some thoughts I shared at our church thanksgiving service.
Since the first week of living in Finland, I have been warned about November being the hardest month as the days grow shorter and colder and now November is finally upon us, I cannot deny I’ve been affected when the sun doesn’t show up till half eight and becomes sleepy by three. We’re gearing up for the winter here, so does that mean we’re also gearing up for a seasonal mood change?
I’m ready for winter (just) but I’m not prepared to live through it with a dulled outlook on life in Helsinki. Unfortunately, my solution for this is not to relocate to Málaga. I’m not planning to change what I see, but change the way I see it. God’s challenged me to step into a season of daily thankfulness; fighting for gratitude in a place filled with hidden beauty. It say in 1 Thessalonians (5.18) to be ‘thankful in everything, in all circumstances’. Opportunities to show gratitude sometimes requires a little more reflection in order to see it.
Studies have shown that dedicating five minutes a day to writing down what you are thankful for increases your well-being just as much as doubling your annual salary would! If thankfulness is possible, then joy is possible. Tap beneath the surface of the everyday and you’ll find it scattered with delights to rejoice in. Put simply: daily thankfulness produces positive thoughts which improves your mood level.
But I’m not just saying this as a self-help suggestion to replace the benefits exposure to sunlight brings. If you know God as creator, then you have an extra gem of joy to benefit from during times of gratitude. We can direct all our thankfulness to our Father! Thanking God for the seemingly insignificant brings opportunity to discover the beautiful details God has created and weaved into our lives.
‘A life contemplating the blessings of Christ becomes a life acting the love of Christ.’ Ann Voskamp.
As we show our gratitude to our Father for the things we see and experience, we’ll unwrap more of God’s love for us. Our wonder blossoms and a desire to find beauty in the everyday evolves. Since being in Finland, I’ve felt challenged to simply be with Jesus. Spend time with Him. Be friends with Him. This includes not always having an agenda but instead, reflecting on life and enjoying his company. As we grow our relationship with God through gratitude, more of God’s glory will be revealed.
God is so worthy of taking the credit for our blessings! James (1.17) teaches us that ‘every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of the heavenly lights. Who does not change like shifting shadows’. Seasons change, circumstances change, but God is constant and his overflow of blessings never cease, we just need to delve deeper to find them sometimes.
Since being here I haven’t ventured outside of Helsinki so with my new friend and fellow newbie to Finland, Jana, we headed east on a cheap-as-chips Onnibus to a small town called Porvoo.
We enjoyed exploring the old city which was full of quaint design shops and wonky buildings splashed with colour. The weather was glorious so we enjoyed strolling along the river Porvoonjoki and wondering through cobbled streets and green parks.
‘Gratitude for the seemingly insignificant, a seed, this plants the giant miracle.’ Voskamp
Cups of earl grey tea and cappuccinos were drank to accompany liquorice cheesecake and handmade chocolates in a few cosy cafes we discovered. Tuesday was a day well spent.