How to survive winter in Finland
Let’s talk about Finnish winter, the season that brings out the whiny, annoying inner child in people, and when everyone acts as if their day-to-day life was a matter of mere survival. I’m here to tell you that Finnish winter isn’t meant to be survived, but, rather, enjoyed. So next time the temperature starts to drop in the middle of September, just be chill and maybe read a book about hygge if you’re desperately out of ideas. This isn’t Game of Thrones. There’s absolutely no reason to worry about the fact that winter is coming, and here’s why:
1. Cold weather
Buildings in Finland are built to stay warm thanks to central heating and efficient isolation. It might be -20 °C outside, but your house will always stay warm. Even though it’s freezing outside, which shouldn’t be an issue if you’re dressed appropriately, you know you’ll soon get to a warm place. Knowing that cold is temporary makes extreme temperatures manageable. In fact, the only place where I’ve suffered from cold weather is Spain, even though it never gets anywhere near as cold as in Finland. Even when it’s just chilly, the air is so humid that it gets to your bones and it makes you shiver. Then, you know that there’s no warm place awaiting for you, and you’ll have to endure until the next morning in a cold bed. Temporary cold, no matter how intense, is not perceived as a negative sensation.
I actually enjoy taking the piss out of my relatives and acquaintances every time they ask me about Finnish weather. I’ve been in Finland for eight years and I visit my home country only once a year for Christmas. In every get-together with people I hardly know, someone has to ask me, as if they had suddenly realised I’m also in the room: “Oye, y por allí arriba debe de hacer mucho frío, ¿no?”, which roughly translates to “Hey, it’s quite cold up there, isn’t it?”. Honestly, if all you have to ask about Finland has to do with how cold it gets, you might as well say nothing. Some of them ask this every single year, as if they had forgotten that it does indeed get cold in winter. I love answering things like “I’ve never felt as cold as in Spain”. Sometimes, I like to exaggerate and say it doesn’t get above -30 °C for six months straight. Other times I like to mess with them and say that what people think of winter in the Nordic countries is just a myth and it’s actually quite warm year-round. On the other hand, and I’m digressing here, this question is much better than the recent “Well, it’s probably not that hard to study Swedish philology (Finland’s second national language) since you already know Finnish so well. They’re quite similar, right?”.
No matter how much snow there is, roads and railroads always stay clear, and sidewalks are covered in gravel to make walking safer. Even the airport stays open: watch this video to see how the staff at Helsinki Airport keeps the runways safe. The world doesn’t stop just because frozen vapor is falling from the sky.
Walking on icy sidewalks is probably the only thing you need to worry about. Helsinki isn’t always below zero, so sometimes the snow melts to turn back into ice when the temperature hits the freezing mark again. The gravel keeps people from falling over, but it helps to be careful. A good thing to keep in mind is that university lectures or work are not more important than your own health, so don’t run to the bus stop. It doesn’t matter if you’re late to uni: most lectures are completely useless anyway. It doesn’t matter if you’re late to work: unless you’re a surgeon, they can probably do without you for half an hour.
3. Lack of sunlight
You can buy a lamp that radiates artificial sunlight and take vitamin D supplements. I don’t personally use any of those since I don’t get the winter blues anymore, but I admire the human capacity to compensate for the lack of sun during autumn and winter.
So, we’ve tackled the cold weather, the sometimes-overwhelming amount of snow, and the lack of sun, which are the three things people complain about during winter, both Finns and foreigners alike. Funnily enough, all of those three things are already taken care of. Our ancestors had to survive winter, but today all we’ve got left to do is enjoy it. As an example on how to do it, see the picture below:
Image by Lauri Kinnunen, edited by me
Let’s overlook the fact that I’m holding that tree as if it were my friend, although I do like it way more than I like some people, and let’s focus on the matter at hand. This blog post’s title is “How to survive the Finnish winter”, but we’ve already established that there’s nothing to survive. Instead, I’m going to give you some tools to make the most of this underrated season. This picture was taken on the island of Iso Vasikkasaari in March 2018, and I got there by walking 1.5 km on water.
It was my eighth winter in Finland and my first time walking on the frozen sea. Why? Because I didn’t know it was safe, or even possible. Sometimes my boyfriend would go for a walk and then tell me he had arrived at this café by sliding on the frozen water. I thought he was insane. It turns out it’s perfectly safe: the thickness of the ice is measured and updated on weather databases, walking routes are indicated by snow removal machines, and further from the coastline roads are opened for car traffic. If the ice is thick enough to support heavy machines, walking on it is perfectly fine. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t be careful. Look out for caution areas on the internet and the news (they usually advise against walking on specific areas if the ice is not thick enough) and do not leave the ground if there is no one on the sea. In the picture above, there is an entire family behind me walking on the ice, but there are other activities that can be done on frozen water: I’ve seen people skiing, skating, kitesurfing, windsurfing, pulling a sleigh with kids on top, etc.
This should teach us that not knowing or understanding something doesn’t mean it’s dangerous or bad. Our ignorance is not an excuse to deem the unknown as intrinsically bad.
Everyone in Finland lives near nature. Usually, small forests are at a walking distance, but bigger nature areas are within only a half hour drive. For example, Oittaa is an area in Espoo located on the shore of the lake Bodom. Its outdoor centre is known for renting gear for winter activities such as snowshoeing and cross-country skiing, which can be done both on the lake or in the forest surrounding it.
I didn’t particularly enjoy cross-country skiing. I already tried it in 2010 in Oulu and this time around wasn’t much better. I used to downhill ski in the Pyrenees every winter during my childhood and teenage years, and while some people might think they are similar styles, they have nothing to do with each other. As someone who is used to hard ski boots, putting on soft fabric ski boots that attach to the ski only by their tip felt quite unsafe. I fell backwards twice and I was extremely afraid of taking the short and gentle hills. I really admire people who have the ability to cross-country ski at very high speeds. Even if this style of skiing wasn’t my thing, I’m still glad I tried it. I spent a nice day outdoors and because the rental shop also had snowshoes, I got the idea of going back the following week and try snowshoeing, which I thoroughly enjoyed.
After being outside in the cold nothing feels more comforting than taking a sauna bath. Most buildings in Finland have a sauna, but these are not as fun as they are in nature, where you can step out of the smoke sauna and go for a skinny dip at the lake, or if you’re not brave enough, you can wash with buckets of water.
Helsinki has some public saunas next to the sea that, in the winter, offer the possibility of swimming in an ice hole (called avanto in Finnish). The only downside to public saunas is that it is sometimes mandatory to wear a bathing suit. The newest place I know of is Löyly. Löyly literally means the steam that rises from the sauna stove after throwing some water to it, which is something other countries attempting to do Finnish sauna do not understand. Water has to be thrown to the stove to create steam. Otherwise, sauna becomes a dry, unappealing experience. Another place near Helsinki with a public sauna is at the lake Kuusijärvi.
After sauna, it is typical to eat grilled sausage with honey mustard, but this is only possible when there’s a fireplace available. If you’re at home, the best you can do is prepare some soup beforehand and eat it after sauna, if you manage not to fall asleep on the plate. My winter favorites are borscht soup, a sweet and savory dish with beetroot as the main ingredient; burbot soup, which is similar to the typical salmon soup eaten in the Nordic countries; and reindeer soup. You can find other soup recipes in my website Paleo Spoon.
I hope this blog post gave you a new appreciation for winter, or that at least it made you understand a bit better those who enjoy it. So, next time you’re at uni or work complaining about the weather and someone decides to open up their heart and share their unpopular opinion, please don’t look at them like their native planet is Neptune. I understand someone could think that about me, but not on the grounds that I have a preference for autumn and winter over summer.