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How will I endure another Nordic winter? What I’ve learned after five years

How will I endure another Nordic winter? What I've learned after five years
Life in the Gothenburg archipelago is wonderful, but the winter is hard to get through. Photo: Anne Grietje Franssen
What do I do and who am I when nature goes to rest? The Local's contributor Anne Grietje Franssen writes about life in the Gothenburg archipelago this time of the year, when the Swedish winter makes it feel like there's no end in sight.

Each season seems to erase my memory of the previous one; every year I’m caught off guard by the arrival of winter, of darkness.

During the endless summer days I forget what life was like before and what it will be like after; I forget that there will, again, come a time when I wake up in the dark, breakfast in the dark, work and work out in the dark, cook and eat dinner in the dark.

That the oak trees, birches and apple trees on the island where I live lose both their leaves and their colour. That the hours of relative lightness will be marked by grey: grey skies, a grey sea, the grey skeletons of bare undergrowth.

And every year I have to reinvent myself. What do I do and who am I when nature goes to rest? When Swedes seem to be lulled into hibernation along with nature?

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It might not come as a surprise that I’m not the type who thinks these winter months are first and foremost mysiga (cosy). The type who climbs up to the attic in October to fetch the Christmas decorations, who buys an Advent calendar, who devotedly bakes lussekatter, the typically Swedish saffron buns, for the appropriate holidays. Someone who gladly spends weeks under a blanket on the couch with a steaming cup of tea and the candles around the house ignited.

The autumn is fine, sometimes even preferable to high season: what is more mesmerising than a low autumn sun over the archipelago, when all the trees are on fire, and when the summer’s afterglow is just strong enough to sit outside in the melancholic silence that the off-season brings?

But autumn is also a harbinger of winter – a winter that never ends. A few weeks of winter: sure. A month or two: all right. But winter, or what I think of as winter, usually begins late October, when the trees shed most of their leaves, and lasts until early April, when the world, seemingly overnight, transitions from monochrome to kaleidoscopic, suddenly rises from the dead.

Autumn on the island. Photo: Anne Grietje Franssen

Sometime early December I feel that I am well rested, that I’ve spent enough hours reading, that I’ve eaten enough comfort food and drunk enough glögg, that I’ve watched more than enough mediocre series. While in theory winter hasn’t even arrived yet.

So what to do with all the remaining days of darkness, especially as a migrant, when Sweden is not your home country and most of your relatives and friends are out of reach? If you don’t have a family to hide out with and to play summer with until the first signs of spring?

My time is divided with about fifty percent gloominess, fifty percent finding the courage to get up from the couch and make myself do something. Anything. Many hours are wasted chiding both Sweden and myself – why did I ever move here, why is anyone really living up north, how come there isn’t a massive exodus southward? Why is “winter refugee” not yet a concept?

Then there are the hours of solitude. From Monday to Friday and during daytime hours I cope reasonably well; I work, go to yoga, read newspapers, know how to skillfully distract myself. No, it’s mainly the long evenings and weekends when the demons rear their heads. Too much time to worry, to feel isolated and shiftless, to wonder what I’ve made of my life, why I’m here, why the hell I chose to live abroad, why I have cut myself off from my original community.

But you can’t spend an entire winter ruminating. Or you can, but then you’re likely to be clinically depressed.

Winter on the outskirts of Gothenburg. Photo: Anne Grietje Franssen

It’s probably the reason why many Swedes pass the month of January in Thailand or on the Canary Islands. I understand the urge, although not everyone has the time and money to follow in their footsteps. Or, as in my case, is unable to do so due to the crippling combination of flygskam and klimatångest (ecophobia, or the anxiety felt vis-a-vis the climate crisis).

It does help to take the train home for two or three weeks in the middle of winter and spend so much time with family and friends that I breathe a sigh of relief when I am finally alone again, when I can hear my own thoughts again.

But what is the recipe for getting through the remainder of that perpetual season, if not jubilant, then at least alive? Here’s what I learned during five Swedish winters.

In order to survive I need to go outside within the timespan of the give or take seven hours of daylight that the latitude I live on provides. Every day, never mind downpours and storms, hail showers and snow.

Swedes have a saying that det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder (there’s no such thing as bad weather, only poor clothing). That is, of course, a lie. One that the Nordic people need and repeat like a mantra to make the often intolerable weather slightly more tolerable. “No bad weather, only bad clothing, no bad weather, only bad clothing, no bad…” etc etc.

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Having said that: even if the weather is as bad as can be, it’s still better to brave the elements than to remain indoors. In such conditions a warm, waterproof jacket and ditto shoes do help. Leave any dreary city behind you if you have the chance, and walk with your face against the wind along a coast, through a forest, across a heath. If other living beings – birds, foxes, deer, mice – go about their days in this weather, so can you.

In order to survive I go to the island sauna once, twice, three times a week. You won’t get a tan, but you will get warm, and the required dip in the sea makes me abruptly forget all my predominantly imagined problems. I’m alive! is the primary response, and then: I’m dying, get out!

For someone as cerebral as me, it is essential to punctuate the otherwise constant stream of thoughts and nothing seems to be more effective than that combination of heat and cold, alternating between sweating and shivering. To basta (sauna, verb) regularly supposedly also benefits the immune system, heart, blood circulation and skin. There’s no catch, really, so what are you waiting for?

And, finally, in order to survive I had to find some (international) surrogate families that I can be a part of every now and then. I’m not saying this one is easy – it certainly took me two, three years to find this substitute community – but it was worth the wait.

On and around the island I’ve found (or did they find me?) some friends and families with whom I go for walks, have dinners, whose children I babysit from time to time, with whom I watch movies on a projector by a fireplace. With whom I go dancing in the rare occasion of a party and whose couch I sleep on when I missed the last ferry home.

Ultimately that’s the best medicine – at least for me – against these ruthless winter blues: not always being in the company only of my own racing mind. Finding that there are others in the same boat as me, and that together this boat is easier to steer.

Going for a walk with friends. Photo: Anne Grietje Franssen

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Member comments

  1. Anne, Thanks for writing about your heartfelt emotions. This in itself shows some measure of
    inner peace and acceptance as you contemplate the coming winter, and the loss of light.
    To allow oneself a degree of reflection and melancholy at the approach of the season of rest
    need not be feared, but embraced, as you seek ever greater harmony with the timeless
    rhythms of the natural world.

  2. I have been trying to share articles with my husband and adult children but it does not work even though you have a sharing option at the bottom!?

    1. Hi Jeanette,

      This article is for members which means that they will need to have a paid for account in order to read it, you can try sharing a “free article” like the covid stats to see whether you have an issue with all articles or whether you are only experiencing it with the ones for members.

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