I have survived an entire Finnish winter. Yay. It was traumatic for me. Not just the winter part but also the autumn before and the spring after. Before the snow comes in Oulu, there is lots and lots of freezing rain, everything is grey, there are very few leaves on the trees, the birds have left and the ground is muddy. The days get shorter and shorter culminating in a month of only 3hours of daylight for a month. It was very difficult to get to my 8am lectures which is two hours before the sunrise and this is the reason why I started drinking coffee. Where I come from we declare “duvet days” if it is rainy and cold for one day and even people who can afford good quality rain coats don’t own one because, well, we do not go out in the rain. Then, it’s very cold and frosty and icy and then, eventually the snow comes to Oulu and every thing is pretty. Yay! But, it is also very very cold and as fun as playing in the snow is, it is flipping cold (yes, even with good clothing on). And for a few months it is actually too cold to build snow men because the snow is so frozen. And then the spring comes which basically means it is still way below freezing but the days are getting longer, which is nice and you see the sun more often which is also heart warming.
So, I only had to live through this once and I was wondering… How do people who live permanently in Oulu survive this kind of winter? I watched a few locals and here’s what they did:
1) Denial: Just deny that winter exists. You see this in the university calendar. The semester from September to mid- December is called the “Autumn Semester” and the semester from early January to mid May is called the “Spring Semester”. It would then appear then that winter happened in the 3 week holiday over Christmas.
2) Leave. Often. And at every chance you can get: It’s not that they don’t like Oulu, they do, they just don’t like to be here all the time, so they leave. They may go South for a bit or go lay on a beach in the Canary Islands or visit a new city or go to Sweden to go shop at Ikea or go north to Lapland. Basically, go anywhere but here.
3) Stay in your room and enter hibernation mode: This is a very common method to surviving the winter and even a very natural reaction. Your body is sensitive to the lack of sunlight light and reacts accordingly. At the extreme end of this continuum, people hardly ever leave their homes during this time. They sleep a lot, read a lot and watch TV a lot. But towards the centre of the continuum, it’s just a time when people take things easy, stay indoors, do crafts, eat soups and do less. Everyone I know in Oulu knows someone who does this. Flip. Even I did it! The truth is, that two weeks of grey skies at a time and only 3 hours of daylight (with no direct sunlight mind you) can really do crazy things to a “sunny” person’s spirit.
4) Drink… a lot: Maybe because of the reasons listed above in number 3, maybe a thousand other reasons…. who knows, but there is a high alcohol consumption in Finland despite it being heavily taxed (R60 for a normal beer at a bar). One thing is for sure, this method is definitely employed by many students, local and foreign, in Oulu.
5) Eat… Salmon and berries. People who live in Finland in the summer and autumn collect kilograms of free berries from the forest. Some berries are eaten straight away but others are made in jams, juices, cakes, little packets which are then kept in freezers to be eaten through the winter. If you were not in Oulu in the summer and autumn and so do not have a cache of berries, make friends with someone who was and hope that they will be kind and share.
6) Exercise, exercise, exercise: There are also other people for whom winter is the best time of year. It actually invigorates them. They throw themselves head long into the winter sports of cross country skiing, ice skating, snow walking, snow hiking, Nordic walking, skiing, trudging up the hill after sledding and making snow angels. But, the sporting life is not limited to outdoor activities. In Oulu there are many indoor sports, dance (it’s the tango capital of Finland) and activity clubs that many locals take full advantage of too.
So, how did I survive?
lots of knitting, blogging, friends, eating, movies, series, crafts and hot chocolate