How a tropical Korean survives the Estonian winter

Bin Sou, a Tallinn-based South Korean tech professional, shares his five tips to weather through the cold in Estonia.

I am sitting on the couch in the corner of my living room. I am looking out the window. By the allegro tempo of the tree branches waving, I assume it’s windy. I am grateful for a home. Then, I realise this is my fifth winter here in Estonia. How did I, as a Korean from the tropics, survive all these winters? I jot down a few points of learnings acquired from experience. I intend this for those new to this climate.

Fixate on your feet for warmth

My first-word choice was “obsess”. Obsess over your feet for warmth. But, an obsession is always unhealthy and particularly worrisome if it’s over your feet. So I settled with the current word choice, “fixate”. But, my dilemma between the words delivers the point. The warmth of your feet will determine your winter experience. 

From my limited understanding of zoology, the human ability to walk on two feet is unique in the animal kingdom. Many of us rely on these two evolved paws to get around the city. So, our feet play a disproportionate role in our human experience – and in our winter experience.

If you want to feel warm during the winter, keep your feet warm. This applies to both indoor and outdoor settings. When you’re walking around the city, wear a solid pair of boots – waterproof if your budget allows. When you’re at home, wear a pair of slippers – preferably non-slip. You will enjoy your home so much more.

If you want to feel warm during the winter in Estonia, keep your feet warm. Photo by Karl Ander Adami.

For winter gear – learn from babushkas

The babushkas (elderly Slavic women in Estonia – editor) know a lot about the survival in the winter. If you take a moment to think about it, no other sub-section of the Estonian population is a better teacher than the babushkas on this topic. I have two pretty good arguments.

Argument A: They have many years of winter under their belt.

I have survived only four winters. The babushkas in Estonia, on average, have survived 60 to 70 winters. I safely assume they know more than me about weathering through the Estonian chilly days. Not to mention, they stand on the shoulders of giants. They, too, have learned from winter wisdom of foremothers that precede them. Learn from them.

Argument B: You and the babushkas have the same mode of transportation.

When you first get to Estonia, you probably don’t own a car. So, public transportation – trams, trains, buses – is your best bet. Guess who else uses the same public mode of mobility as much as you do? The babushkas.

We must admit our oversight of not noticing the wealth of winter wisdom we come across daily. Again, learn from them. Wear your hat. Wear your gloves. Your coat ideally should come beneath your butt. Find ways to cover your neck.

Warmly dressed Finno-Ugric women from Russia in Abja-Paluoja, Estonia, in 2021. Photo by Taavi Bergmann.

Tell apart the grey skies

It’s grey almost every single day during the Estonian winter. But, not all grey skies are made the same. There are many shades of grey. There is even a whole novel on this. There is ashy grey, charcoal grey, steel grey, silver, platinum. The list goes on.

On a more serious note, I think I have failed to notice its subtle differences amid my somewhat busy days over the last few winters. I have paid more attention this winter.

Behold – I have seen the grey heavens of Estonian winter display patches of faint blue sky from time to time. In all seriousness, I find great encouragement in this – just enough to get by the day.

A cloudy winter’s day in Estonia: photo by Taaniel Malleus.

Learn to appreciate the occasional sunshine

Someone recently asked me whether I had gotten used to the Estonian climate and the greyish sky. My response was that, I haven’t gotten used to the climate and the greyish sky (although I am learning to tell them apart) but I have learned to appreciate the occasional sunshine.

Sunshine during the Estonian winter is somewhere between rare and occasional. It happens. But, not often enough to count on it and plan around it.

When you wake up one day and the sun is shining, it’s a day of grace, an undeserved gift from above. And, you should (yes – moral imperative) make the most out of it. Grab your thick black coat that comes to your ankles. Take your hats and gloves. And, go outside and just walk about the city without a reason. You don’t need to think of a reason, for the sunshine is the reason for this trip.

Winter sunlight in Estonia. Photo by Tõnu Tunnel.

Hope for the spring

One of the deepest joys of having a brutal winter is that spring is so much sweeter. The food tastes better after hunger. Drinking water feels more pleasant after some time of thirst. In the same way, the spring feels so much more triumphant after the seemingly eternal winter.

Even with toasty feet, the babushka-curated winter gear, the ability to tell apart grey skies and a sincere appreciation for sunshine, the winter is tough. The cold seeps through the cracks of the heart to the innermost and chills one’s enthusiasm. Four to five hours of daylight doesn’t help. You almost feel like the darkness is eternal without these clear boundaries between each day.

The winter surely discourages one’s spirit. It takes faith to resonate with the First Book of Genesis. Subconsciously you start asking odd questions: Did God create light? If He did, did he separate it from darkness? And will the Day come after the Night? The only thing that can pause this playlist of questions is the hope for the spring. In my anticipatory mind, I hear the birds that I cannot name, the street drain that starts to flow again and the iconic “Spring” of “The Four Seasons” by Vivaldi.

You haven’t enjoyed the spring until you have lived through the winter.

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