How I learned to stop worrying and love the Estonian winter

Adam Rang, an Estonian born in the UK, now living in Tallinn, gives several tips on how to embrace and enjoy the Estonian winter – instead of “fearing the apocalypse”.

It’s that time of year again in Estonia. The leaves are falling, the mercury is dropping and the sky is getting darker.

Look up and you can occasionally spot birds in formation flying south from their Arctic breeding grounds. The geese make the most noise, but there are, actually, hundreds of species and tens of millions of birds currently on the move in the great highway above Estonia.

To them, the lush Estonian wilderness is like a giant service station where they can stop off to rest and refuel before continuing their arduous annual journey to their winter home.

People living below have watched this process repeat itself over thousands of years, knowing it heralds the start of winter. Interestingly, the Finno-Ugric peoples have a particular fascination with the Milky Way, which is referred to as the pathway of birds. It’s only recently that scientists confirmed that this is fairly close to the truth. Those migratory birds really are steering by the stars.

Early winter in Estonia.

Not long after these birds have left Estonia, the ponds and lakes they used along the way will freeze over, followed eventually by the Baltic sea coastline.

Fearing the “apocalypse”

At this time of year, a lot of humans in Estonia start to wonder if they, too, should be travelling south to warmer climes.

This is particularly true for our newly arrived international residents. Some arrive slightly unprepared in “winter clothing” and “winter shoes” from brands based in countries with a very different definition of winter. Others fear their first Estonian winter like it’s the apocalypse coming.

In one Facebook group for expats in Estonia, I recently saw someone seeking advice about the “scary and depressing” winter. “Trying to get an idea of how bad it is in practice,” he wrote, before asking about exactly how dark it gets and whether people even go outside during this time. He wasn’t the first and won’t be the last to post his worries on this topic.

Our aversion to winter is so strong that it shapes our language, at least in English, which in turn reinforces those negative feelings. The cold, rain and other forms of winter weather are universally described as “bad weather” or even more emotionally as “miserable” and “gloomy”.

In reality, there is nothing objectively bad about the winter weather – and it certainly doesn’t have feelings. There’s also no obligation for us to feel that way in response to it.

Winter landscape in Estonia. Photo by Kaupo Kalda.

Unfortunately, most of the advice given to people who worry about winter has a reoccurring theme: take your vitamin D tablets, look for cheap flights for a weekend away and invest in special SAD lights designed to replicate the sun’s natural lighting.

I’m not saying any of these are bad ideas, but they are all based on the assumption that you should try to endure winter by replicating what you miss about summer.

It’s a bit like becoming a vegetarian and then filling your grocery basket with those highly processed meat substitute products instead of just exploring which vegetables you like and how to make nice dishes out of them.

Don’t ask the wrong question

A few years ago, a US psychology student, Kari Leibowitz, wanted to find out how people could endure winter in order to help those afflicted with seasonal affective disorder (SAD) or seasonal depression. For her research, she chose to spend a year in the Norwegian town of Tromsø, which is located at latitude 69 (ten degrees higher than Tallinn), yet has very lower rates of SAD according to past research – even when compared with places with much warmer and brighter winters. There are various theories for why Tromsø residents cope so well, ranging from the use of cod liver oil to SAD lights, yet Leibowitz soon discovered that asking people how they endure winter was the wrong question.

People hadn’t figured out how to “cope” with winter. They were too busy enjoying it.

This was a problem for her research because all previous studies of SAD were based on the assumption that winter could only affect people negatively, so she had to create a new measurement scale to assess people’s “winter mindset”.

I should pause here to point out that the usual caveats still apply. Mental health is a complicated issue with no quick fixes or easy answers. It’s ok not to be ok at any time of the year.

A gloomier winter day in Estonia. Photo by Taaniel Malleus.

As Leibowitz discovered though, there is a positive correlation between cultural perceptions of winter and overall emotional well-being, including far lower rates of seasonal depression.

Get out there and discover the joys

I’m a British-Estonian who previously lived in South Africa for five years and that is definitely where I’ve experienced the most miserable winters. The problem is that South Africans have designed their homes, their clothes and their entire lifestyles around hot weather, so they find difficult to cope with the brief winter period. I’ve never felt the cold more deeply than in Africa, even though it lasts two months and the temperature doesn’t drop below Estonia’s average annual temperature. People would spend more time alone without their usual hobbies and in clothes that don’t match their identity.

However, the right mindset can improve our quality of life in many ways, including in the deepest and darkest of winters. Like most things in life, the best advice is to lean in. If you are here for the winter anyway then don’t spend too much time home alone with your SAD lamp waiting for the summer to return. Get out there and discover the joys of the Estonian winter.

A winter swim after smoked sauna in Toosikannu, central Estonia. Photo by Liina Notta.

Growing up in the UK, I only used to visit Estonia on summer holidays, so I saw this country as the land of perpetual sunshine and only experienced my first Estonian winter when I moved here four years ago. This was challenging at first, but I eventually learned to love the Estonian winter with help from the new friends I made here.

Tips to fire up winter mindset

Here’s a few of my tips to fire up your winter mindset.

Update your wardrobe with proper winter clothing so that you can enjoy the crisp air while feeling snug in your own winter style. Proper winter boots make a big difference too. 

Explore how Estonian neighbourhoods are transformed by the winter weather and stop off somewhere cosy along the way for coffee or glögi (mulled wine). Tallinn’s Old Town is picture-perfect in winter, but there are plenty more places to explore. Make your home cosy, too, so you can fully enjoy the howling wind, snow and rain outside. A wood fire is ideal, but you can also give your home an easy winter makeover by buying candles and low-level lights. 

Learn to cook with seasonal and preserved Estonian ingredients, like fatty pork and fish or blood sausages served with sauerkraut, pickled beetroot or pickled pumpkin. 

Venture out to a bog and trek across the frozen landscape. If you live in Tallinn, you can even reach one, Pääsküla raba, by public transport. Attend indoor events (like Estonishing Evenings) or perfect your indoor skills. There’s even a new indoor axe throwing range in Tallinn. 

Some winter activity in Estonia.

Try winter sports, such as cross-country skiing or winter swimming, for a seriously exhilarating and healthy workout. If you’re not too sporty, sledging is still a good option; or just watch winter sports on TV in your cosy home or a bar.

Again, for Tallinners: the Nõmme Sports Centre has just reopened its unheated pool next to its cross-country ski tracks, but don’t worry too much as there are hot tubs and a sauna there, too. Speaking of which, go to the sauna regularly and remember that cooling down is just as important as warming up. This is a joy that you can only truly experience in winter.

As far as I’m concerned, the invention of the sauna is what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom. I’m only half joking. The control of fire is what helped early humans settle new lands and there’s evidence to suggest that humans brought the sauna tradition with them when they first settled here after the end of the last glacial period. That’s what enabled Estonians to survive the first few thousand winters and is still helping us today. What’s special about the sauna in our part of the world isn’t necessarily that it was invented here, but that it survived here.

Perhaps those birds wouldn’t have to leave each year if they could just figure out how to build saunas.

The sauna is the best social network

There’s one other factor that’s important to mention here about these ways to embrace winter: you should do all these things with other people as much as possible.

Leibowitz herself discovered many things she loved about life during the polar nights, but the crucial reoccurring factor across many of them is that they were shared experiences with her new friends and the rest of the community.

Take the sauna, again, for example. Elsewhere in the world, people too often think the sauna is a luxury activity designed for “detoxing” and best enjoyed alone or in silence. The founder of the social network, Twitter, recently revealed he went alone to the sauna each morning and this was reported in the press around the world as an example of his lavish billionaire lifestyle. Here in Estonia, we just felt sorry for him.

Estonians using an old sauna in winter (the image is illustrative).

Estonians use their saunas for many purposes, but perhaps the most important has always been social networking with family and friends. And after thousands of years, I think the sauna is still the best social network ever built. There are no arguments (by Estonian tradition), no algorithms to ensure you mostly hear from people who are like you, and conversations don’t get overwhelmed by anonymous trolls with talking points that are suspiciously similar to those of authoritarian regimes. Of all people, the founder of Twitter could learn a lot if he invited other people to his sauna this winter.

The Estonian sauna culture is best enjoyed at home, so find a place to live with a sauna and invite people over. Even when I lived in a small apartment with no balcony and on a busy street in Tallinn, my friends and I used to run out the front door to jump in the snow before returning to the leiliruum (the sauna hot room).

Get together with others and take photos

I know Estonia is not a particularly easy place to make friends as an outsider, but there are many people looking to do the same and the opportunities are out there. In fact, I think it’s actually easier to make friends here in winter. During the summer, people are away with the friends they already have, but the winter is when the real networking takes place.

A seaside in Estonia in winter.

Attend public events and find communities around things that interest you. For one, Estonia is small enough that you can easily reach out to people in your professional industry and they are often happy to meet up. My partner and I are exporting Estonian saunas (along with the Estonian winter mindset), but we regularly find ways to bring people together in and out of the sauna here in Estonia too. For example, we have a weekly entrepreneur meetup and sauna every Wednesday at Heldeke in Tallinn and have even organised a special cinema and sauna night that anyone can attend there later this month.

Also, don’t forget to shovel the pavement outside your home. It isn’t just your civic duty (and good exercise), but will also help you get to know your neighbours.

My final advice is to reject the cult of misery that insists wintry weather is bad weather. People are free to grumble if they don’t like it, but it’s also good for them and everyone else if they understood that their perception is not the objective truth for everyone.

I now pity the people living in countries without a proper winter. Make sure you take plenty of photos to capture the beauty of the Estonian winter and prove it to your friends back home by posting them on social media.

The winter is coming here in Estonia and I can’t wait.

This is a lightly edited version of the article originally published by Adam Rang in Medium. You can follow Adam’s take on Estonian sauna culture also on InstagramFacebook or Twitter.

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