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December 10, 2002

E-mail from an expat

From: BBC, UK - 10 Dec 2002

Deaf from a young age, Stuart McNaughton found that regaining his hearing at 23 gave him the confidence to live abroad. He explains in our series featuring expatriate readers of BBC News Online.

"I was profoundly deaf for 22 years, then I received a cochlear implant which restored my hearing. I heard music and TV, speech and the telephone for the first time in years.

Within six months, I'd seen a job in Finland on the company intranet and felt confident enough to apply for it.

I now live in Tampere, 170km north of the beautiful capital Helsinki, and work on a global finance project for a paper products company.

What a change in lifestyle. Not only am I getting used to living in a new country, let's face it, how many Brits - let alone someone who used to be profoundly deaf - have managed to learn and speak Finnish? It's a very harsh language, sometimes it hurts to listen to it.

Sound of silence

I got my first hearing aid at the age of three, having lost my hearing at 15 months - I'd been rushed to hospital with suspected meningitis, but the doctors never found anything.

At 21, I was referred to a specialist to get a cochlear implant. I was operated on in February 2000, and the implant was switched on the following month. I could hear again, enabling me to contemplate living abroad.

I made my first unaided phone call at the age of 24; I heard Kylie Minogue - my babe - in concert earlier this year without having to turn a hearing aid up; and now I'm living and working in a foreign country.

The only problem is that I can't always recognise what a certain sound is because I missed the development phase when I was a baby. In June I went to a national park to make the most of the 20-hour days Finland has in summer. I heard a cuckoo for the first time in my life - and I had no idea what it was.

I find that I'm learning all the time - learning a new language, learning sounds. It's exciting but sometimes I just need to chill out and recover.

Priced out of UK

When my contract comes to an end next year, I'd like to stay on not least because the cost of living is considerably less.

Like many 25-year-olds, when I was in the UK I could hardly afford to leave home. In Hertfordshire, I had a tiny flat for £650 a month; here I've got a big apartment - with a private sauna - for about £330 a month. And I can travel 200km for £12; it cost me that to go 50km from Hitchin to London.

Although Finland is far bigger than the UK, just five million people live here so it's true that someone knows someone who knows someone. They do seem to be a shy people, but once the ice is broken you are "friends for life".

The population of Tampere is just 200,000 - and it's Finland's second city. I found it quite disconcerting at first, seeing the same people in the same place each day.

I do prefer Helsinki, it's very international and colourful whereas Tampere is more family-orientated. I'm young and single, so you can see why I go to Helsinki most weekends.

But the atmosphere here is so relaxed, and it's very safe too. I brought my car over and I've left it unlocked many times with no problems. It's a lovely feeling, not having to be so careful.

All in all, I've found integrating in Finland so easy. If you want to live abroad, just leap. "