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Northern Exposure: Surviving Winter in the Nordics as an Expat

Updated 18 Nov 2010

By Anna Maria Moore

Most people equate the Nordic countries (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland) with cold weather. Many have heard about the long, harsh winters, but they aren’t necessarily aware of the enveloping darkness that accompanies the autumn and winter months. No matter when you arrive, you can avoid the cold and darkness only for so long. So it's best to be prepared.

"It’s four in the afternoon early in November in Oslo and it’s pitch black outside. That’s one distinctive trait of a Nordic capital."

The darker side of expat life

Living this far north of the equator, Norwegians – and Finns, Danes, Icelandics and Swedes - spend half the year in what feels like perpetual night. The "dark season" can last from October through to late March.

"Being an expat in Norway means, in autumn and winter, darkness fills most waking hours - leaving a mere six hours of daylight at best."

In the northern hemisphere, the amount of sunlight per day decreases daily from the summer solstice in late June, to the winter solstice, usually around December 21st. After the winter solstice, you’re over the hump and on your way out of the darkness.

Once you get past the longest night of the year, there are minute, almost imperceptible increases in the amount of daylight as the days move steadily toward midsummer. In the Nordics, these changes in sunlight happen slowly, but the result is dramatic.

"In the winter months, I’m lucky to ever feel the sun on my face."

In midwinter, the sun rises at nine and sets around three in Oslo. Further north toward the Arctic Circle, there is even less light, and even when the sun is up the gray light resembles dusk.

Darkness can breed depression

Expats will find it’s often dark when leaving for work and dark when heading home. It's not uncommon for energy levels to sink, and for many to have a harder time getting out of bed in the mornings. 

"After work, I retreat to my warm, cozy apartment and light candles, warding off the darkness."

That’s because darkness means that your body may produce too much melatonin, making you tired. Melatonin helps us to relax and fall asleep, but with too much, we don’t fully wake up. A lack of sunlight may leave you feeling lethargic or even depressed.

To counteract this, there are special “sun lamps” that help you wake up in the morning and give you the energy that sunshine normally would. Doctors prescribe this as a treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which affects 10 per cent of the population.

"I have an alarm clock that imitates sunrise, fooling my brain into thinking that it’s time to wake up by gradually turning brighter every few minutes; and there's another in my office."

Snow in Scandinavia

The months of November through March usually bring snow, which lights up the darkness, but also means you have to learn to maneuver - which isn’t always easy.

The Nordic winter landscape can be strikingly beautiful, but that beauty can be deceptive. Icicles large as mammoth tusks hang glittering from the roofs of buildings. The problem is, those icicles eventually fall as the temperature rises and the snow begins to melt.

"I have see one at least nine feet long and try to avoid walking underneath them when I can."

Every year at least one person dies from a falling icicle in Oslo. To avoid more accidents, crews cordon off sidewalks and use cranes to lift men up to the roofs where they knock down snow and ice.

How to deal with darkness and cold

The temperature is normally below freezing and can be as cold as 30 degrees below zero in the Nordic countries. The Norwegians have a saying that is “there is no bad weather, just bad clothing.” Some might argue with that, but it’s true that good-quality winter clothing is crucial to function and comfort in northern climes.

Expats moving to Norway and other Nordic destinations need to learn how to dress in layers – between three and six – depending on the fabrics clothes are made of and the temperature outside. You need warm, thick coats, gloves, scarves and hats. Wool is a must and silk is highly recommended. Dressing for a day outdoors takes time.

When you have to get somewhere by a certain time, it’s a good idea to add in an extra 10 minutes just to get into and out of your boots and extra layers.

What you wear on your feet in the winter months can be a matter of life and death. You need shoes or boots with solid, thick rubber soles. If you've grown up with snow, this may sound obvious, but foreigners who don’t have experience will find that walking in snow and ice takes some getting used to.

You must be deliberately more careful, which means you’re slower. Walking in snow is a bit like walking in sand, and can be difficult and heavy going. It’s good to plan extra time to get anywhere so you're not compelled to rush.

It can be easy to fall on ice if you don’t have shoes with traction. Falling can mean broken bones or concussions, if you’re really unlucky.

The lighter side of dark

Those moving to the Nordics are often encouraged to come in the summer to have time to acclimatise to the changes in temperature and light before winter really hits. The cold weather and darkness can be overwhelming for someone who's just stepped off a plane.

Not to mention, locals can also seem cold; turning inward so that socialising and making friends can be a real challenge. Though they may merely be protecting themselves from the elements, its easy to feel slighted by this reserve as a newly arrived expat.

That being said, the winter also offers a window into the Nordic soul. The love of the outdoors is best experienced in the snowy months of December to March.

Skiing, sledding, ice climbing, snowmobiling and hockey keep Nords active and fit, and spawn some of the region’s biggest heroes – the winners of a plethora of ski races and hockey championships. Expats should try their best to leave their comfort zone and try their hand at one of these sports. Not only will you get outside and stay healthy, but you will also meet others and get past the cold exterior to the warm heart of the Scandinavian native.

So if you’re moving to a Nordic country, pack some warm clothes, sturdy shoes and a sun lamp and get ready for some real northern exposure!

About the author: Based in Oslo, Norway, Anna Maria is an intercultural trainer and consultant, and responsible for Kulturtolk’s Relocation and Integration services.

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