Pynchon Woo: Ten tricks to survive the winter in Estonia

Pynchon Woo, an anthropologist at Tallinn University, gives ten pointers on how to survive the long and frigid Estonian winter.

1. Do not go outside without a thick scarf

I don’t go out without putting on the proper clothing gear, and neither should you. When the outside temperature is -20°C something, you better go out ready or the winter will have you!

If you see me around the town these days during the winter season (that is anywhere between the start of December all the way to the end of April for me), I promise you will not even know that is me under all the fabrics: the ushanka, the scarf, at least one sweater over another one, the double pants I won’t tell anybody about and, finally, the heavy-duty winter boots… That is not too much. Here is the thing, you are right: I might be sweating a bit under all these layers, but at least I can still feel my pinkies, so that is a solid win for me! 

Last year, I got myself a mountaineering face mask from Patagonia, I wondered for quite a while why I was turning significantly more heads on the streets of Tallinn. Until one day, while I was struggling to pull it over my head, my girlfriend poked me on the shoulder and asked: “Are you sure you want to go to the park with that bank-robber mask on? You know you will scare the kids, right?”

This year, I might not walk around scaring kids and pigeons in Kadriorg Park anymore, but I WILL have some respectful looking, warm scarf.

Do not go outside without a thick scarf in Estonia in winter. Photo: A couple at the Tallinn Town Hall Square (the image is illustrative/Shutterstock).

If you are coming from a warmer place on this planet, like I do, and will be staying in Estonia for a while, don’t bother with packing up for the winter. Come over, have a feel of it, observe what the locals wear and go get something similar. You will be fine!

I came here with three white T-shirts and a pullover four years ago; I am still here. So yeah.

2. Take your Omega 3, kids!

You get limited sunshine here in Estonia during the winter months. So, listen up. Please take your vitamins and supplements and prescriptions religiously, because you will feel down otherwise.

Personal experience here: I arrived at Tallinn airport on a sunny autumn day, all jolly and bubbling, expecting the new chapter of my life to bring me adventure and growth. Then came the winter. Then it stayed and it stayed.

Roughly six months later, I had sent out a few university transfer applications to continue my education in either southern Spain or South Africa. Back then, I had all these “legitimate” reasons for moving away, such as, “the atmosphere in Johannesburg seems more fitting for my personal academic pursuit”. Now, looking back, it is surprising to see how winter can really get under your skin, isn’t it? I mean, the second I saw the snow melting away from my balcony, the “academic atmosphere” at Tallinn University seemed just right from me.

I learned from my mistake, you should too. Take the Omega-3 and vitamin D.

3. Have regular gatherings with your friends

This might be the thing that I would have not recommended just a year ago. For someone like me, who was used to urban dwelling in Asia, life before Estonia was constantly filled with people, unsolicited interactions and overall noise. So, I treasured the rare moments of being alone.

But now, walking down the main street, say Narva Maantee, after 7 pm on a normal winter day, I’d be lucky to count five people on my way to the grocery store.

Really, having some sort of human interaction helps my mental health through the dark winter like magic. I know you feel comfortable on your own. And, I thought I was as well.

A wintry forest in Estonia.
A wintry forest in Estonia. Photo by Mariann Liimal.

Just try it. Like really, it is not even that hard. If you are going to binge watch “The Game of Throne” on Netflix, ask your friends to come over and watch it with you; or if you have work to finish or homework to study, go meet up with your buddies and do your things separately next to one another. Just having somebody next to you is already something special to have in the winter days.

4. Try cross-country skiing or winter swimming (I know, it’s crazy!)

I don’t know about other people, but for me, staying physically active makes me happy. I enjoy going to the gym, lifting weights and sweating it all away.

I go to MyFitness, the biggest gym chain in Estonia. It is not cheap for students, but I can always find one location close to where I live, so I have been going there for the past four years. The gym is my passionate choice when it comes to sports in the winter, but I have seen (but more often heard) people doing cross-country skiing or winter swimming.

A wintry swim.
A wintry swim in Estonia. Photo courtesy of Visit Estonia.

5. Sauna, sauna, sauna

The true national sport of the winter in Estonia is the sauna. When my parents came to visit me last time, I put them in a spa hotel in Viimsi. I told them their stay came with complimentary spa access and my mom seemed pretty excited about it. The second day, I picked them up from their hotel lobby. Before I could ask how their breakfast buffet was, my mom told me with great enthusiasm: “You know we didn’t even have to go to the spa last night…” “Oh? But why?” I wasn’t expecting that. “Did you know we had a sauna in our room! Just for two of us!” Mom explained and almost giggled.

Sauna in a hotel room got my mom very happy. Why wouldn’t it!

I had never tried a sauna before I came to Estonia. The closest thing to it I had experienced was probably hot spring aka “Onsen” in Japan. I have to say, there is something special about steaming yourself up in a hot room and then run out, rolling naked in the powdery snow. Then again, and again.

The Estonian smoke sauna.
The Estonian smoke sauna. Photo courtesy of the Estonian Sauna Marathon.

Don’t do the rolling in the snow part at your hotel, please.

6. Have some green in your room

The winter is not the worst season when it comes to outdoor scenery in my opinion. At least when the snow falls; it’s really pretty. Everything will be covered in white, wherever you go. Even more so when you get out of Tallinn and head to the countryside. I even heard the story that the design of the national flag of Estonia was inspired by the winter landscape you witness pretty much everywhere throughout the country: the snow-covered ground, the dark, solemn pine forest guarding the horizon, and then the crystal blue sky hanging over us all.

I like snow. I like green stuff as well. But besides those gigantic pine trees, you won’t see much green here in the winter. I wouldn’t mind getting one of those pine trees, but they are just a tad too tall for my one-bedroom apartment in town and I heard they take a bit of water to raise, too. So, alternatively, I got myself some smaller plants – like a snake plant and Chinese evergreen – in the living room, and they do add some very needed lively vibe to the living space while providing a shade of contrast to the whiteness of the outdoor.

I am also thinking about growing some tomatoes at home. I love tomatoes!

7. Find the right neighbourhood to live in

Tallinn is big. I mean, maybe not population-wise. But it is fairly big in its land size. The city is divided into sub-districts, and they all have quite a few distinctive features. And you probably will have your preference when it comes to where to live in the city. I know I certainly do.

I have only lived in Kesklinn and Pirita up to this point. And I absolutely love both districts. Okay, maybe not the entire Kesklinn, but definitely the part that is next to Kadriorg Park – all that nature and culture without losing any of the conveniences the city centre has to offer. Ahh, the sweet spot to hit!

Tallinn harbour in winter. Photo by Kaupo Kalda.

Finding that comfy and homey neighbourhood to live means so much for me. I would love to have the opportunity to get to the university with a direct bus in the winter without a transfer, and I love to have access to a grocery store in a under 15-minute walk. That way, even if the internet is down in the snowstorm, I can still get some ice cream to calm my nerves. But most importantly, I need a community. I want to feel like I belong to something bigger than myself. And that sense of being a part of something bigger only comes into being when I feel the people in my neighbourhood are radiating a similar type of energy as I do.

8. Stock up on groceries

Food is crucial for making it through the winter. Just ask any bear living in Estonia, they will tell you the same. Most of the grocery stores here do open throughout the year. Even on Sunday, thank God! Like really, thank you.

So, you can go to the grocery even on Christmas Eve. That is if you don’t mind going out on Christmas Eve. I do mind that. I am the kind of individual who enjoys seeing snow falling outside of my window, and swiftly opening up the freezer to double-check if I still have sufficient stock of vanilla ice cream.

9. Have a short vacation to somewhere sunny

I heard this from an Estonian friend of mine. “Pynchon, you know our family never travels in the summer. We only do it in the midle of the winter. Or in the autumn. Or the spring. Just not the summer.” I asked: “Why not in the summer?” He widened his eyes for a second as if the answer to the question was obvious: “It makes no sense to travel in the summer. Why going away from Estonia when it is the only liveable season! You want to run away from the winter! Not the summer… never the summer!”

I guess he is right. I get spammed once in a while by a few Estonian travel agencies about travel packages to go to Tenerife, Thailand or Egypt right before the winter months. I asked around, quite a few people had been to those spots in the winter. I haven’t.

Have a short vacation to somewhere sunny. Photo: Phra Nang Beach, Krabi, Thailand (Sumit Chinchane/Unsplash).

But I did end up buying myself a ticket to Hawaii two winters back and spent a month in New Zealand during the last one! And yeah, they were a nice change from the snow.

10. Just go out!

I understand. I know it’s cold outside. I know that your friends are not that proactive with inviting you out to hang with them in the winter. I know Netflix is always there, so is your nicely cushioned sofa-bed.

But really, if living in Estonia for four years taught me anything, it is: go out more! A happy, fun and meaningful life does not come to you unless you go out and grab onto it. Nothing is going to happen if you stay in your cosy apartment.

I’ve met a man right outside of Viru Keskus who I saw in a documentary the day before. And I wasn’t even going out that day for anything a particular reason – just taking a walk after finishing up some university work. He tabbed me on the arm while we were waiting for the signal light to turn green and asked: “Are you Mongolian?” He asked in Mongolian (I guess), because I tilted my head towards him, looking confused, and he asked again in English. 

It was then I recognised his face and I almost lost my cool when I confirmed that he was the guy in that documentary. What’s the odds?! Like really, he was a television network director from Mongolia, and I saw him on a documentary that only got about 10,000 views on YouTube and the day after we met in downtown Tallinn. Wow! My point being, we ended up chatting a bit on the roadside about the documentary and had a picture together.

Okay, my real point being: just go out and live it, and don’t let the Estonian winter get in your way of enjoying your life. After all, how bad could -20°C really be? Right? Right!

Cover: Pynchon Woo enjoying the Estonian winter.

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