A Different World: Ronan Rochford

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THE GREAT OUTDOORS Ronan Rochford is pictured during a ‘bikepacking’ trip in Finland.

Ronan Rochford from Crossmolina lives and works in Helsinki

I MOVED to Finland six years ago to do a postdoctoral degree in Aalto University in Helsinki. They were doing plasma fusion physics and I worked on that project for three years.
I liked the country quite a lot at that stage so I decided to try and get a job here.
I started working with a company called ‘Varian’ [now Varian Siemens Healthineers] — we produce radiotherapy solutions, machines for radiotherapy and the software.
I work mainly in the radiation physics algorithms.
When I moved here first I joined a Gaelic football team, the Helsinki Harps, to meet some people. Then I joined up with Helsinki rugby club and got to see quite a bit of Finland by travelling around playing games. I also made a lot of friends through both clubs.
I ended up playing a few games with the Finnish national rugby team as well.
My life pre-Covid was very normal. Going to work, going to the gym, meeting some friends on a Wednesday evening for a meal and a few pints, and maybe going to watch a rugby match and having a few pints on a Saturday.
The first thing that happened when Covid hit was that the offices shut down so I was working from home in a very small studio apartment for more than a year.
Finnish people can be hard to meet up spontaneously, it’s a very ‘plan in advance’ type of culture. There’s no such thing as randomly calling to somebody for a visit.
So Covid made it hard to just meet up with people, especially as a foreign national living here, so it was very isolationist to an extent around that time.
I also used to go home five or six times a year between weddings and everything, now I seem to be lucky to get home at Christmas in the last few years.
At the start of the pandemic, the Government here for some reason also decided that bars could stay open until 6pm but you weren’t allowed to be served after 5pm. So that ruled out going to bars during the week.
The Finns are very good at following rules as well so there’s no so thing as breaking rules.
Last year the vaccination rates were quite high here so bars and night-clubs were allowed to open, but all team sports were cancelled and gyms were closed.
At the moment offices and gyms are closed again and working from home is back.
A lot of Finns are annoyed that the bars are still open and the gyms are closed.
But a lot of people are taking a slightly different approach to the restrictions at this stage.
For example, before Christmas I took the option of doing some remote working and headed up to Lapland, in north Finland, and went snowboarding and ski-ing after work each day.
This week I took another remote working week. I’m up in a place called Tahko, in a cabin with my girlfriend and some of her friends.
I also moved into a larger apartment so at least I don’t have to be in the same room as my work desk all the time.
Covid seems to be rampant around Helsinki at the moment.
The restrictions were increased around Christmas and New Year and have been extended out to mid-February now. A law has also been brought in that people have to be vaccinated if they are working in health care settings.
Like Ireland, there was a big uptake on the first two vaccines, there was a lot of confidence in the Government. But now the Finns seem to be asking more questions.
But the vaccine uptake overall was very high initially, around 71 percent, I think, have got the first two vaccines. And they’re just rolling out the booster now so Finland are lagging behind Ireland a bit at the moment in that regard.
In their own culture, the Finns would be used to social distancing anyway. The country is huge and in the summer or winter they would go off to cabins on their own and have nobody around them for ages.
So a lot of people would do remote working and head off to their cabins.
The joke among a lot of people here when the WHO came out and said, ‘We’ll need people to keep two metres apart at all times’ was, ‘Why so close?’
Even before Covid people here would be standing very far apart in queues and at bus stops anyway.  
But people who don’t have the option of going to a a summer or winter cabin are stuck in the city and you can see how it has affected some of them.
Some of our rugby team would send out messages regularly asking about everyone’s mental health, making sure everyone is okay.
The Finns are very quiet, but when you get to know them they’re extremely friendly.
They like to listen before they speak. Some of them are very funny too, especially in their own language, which I am still struggling with!

In conversation with Mike Finnerty

Just briefly. . .

What’s the best thing about living abroad?
Experiencing a new culture is eye-opening. I found I started to see and dismantle the boundaries I had formed while living at home.

Name the one thing you’d like to export from there to Mayo?
Guinness. It’s just not the same here. Not poured enough.

What do you miss most about home?
The family, for sure, and seeing my nephews grow up.

What’s your favourite place to visit in Mayo?
The Crossmolina football pitch. I always visit when I’m home, so many memories.

Which three Mayo people would you pick on your Zoom quiz team?
Well if I wanted to try win, Mike Finnerty, my brother Stephen and John Maughan. But for the craic, Ian Rowland, Sean Kelly and Seamie Hayes.

What’s your most prized possession at the moment?
I just bought some new furniture for my apartment, including a extendable table with an oak tabletop. Normally not one for that, but this one felt different.

Where is your ‘happy place’ in Helsinki?
The Woolshed Restaurant and bar, they serve Irish steak and the staff are very social. They also sponsor the GAA and Rugby team.

What’s the first thing you’ll do when this pandemic ends?
Been waiting to see the new Spiderman. Either that or club gathering at the shed.

What do you miss about life pre-Covid?
I miss the rugby trainings, gym, and casual meet-ups with the lads. Also miss going to the office and the chats there. Or going home to see friends and family without worrying you could kill them with a virus.

What’s the strangest thing you’ve done to pass the time during lockdown?
When Covid hit first, the rugby team set up online servers to host FPS tournaments and we even did our own TedX talks. You’d be amazed in the diversity in the team.

Sum up Coronavirus in three words?
Fear, separation, priorities.