While the polar vortex spun around northern North America, snow settled in Europe, including Finland. These photos are from late December and a week ago, in early February, my mother described that the heaps of snow blowing against the house now reach half-way up the wall. Imagine that. I am trying. (Helsinki, Finland; December 2018)
Winter days in Finland are short. Down South in Helsinki day length is 5 hours 50 minutes at its shortest, in deep December. After all, different from Copenhagen which is geographically not really Nordic at all, Helsinki is on the same latitude as Oslo, Kamchatka, Quebec, and Shetland Islands.
I thought of this when I took a walk on Boxing Day at 2 pm and the sun was nearing the horizon. In Copenhagen the length of day never goes below 7 hours and it is noticeable: there is always light or near-light at 8 am. And the cold; do not speak of the cold. I firmly believe it physically wears me out as my muscles involuntarily contract and shiver to keep me warm. Proper outdoor wear or not.
You may wonder why I write about this year after year (or you may already have stopped reading, bored). But I truly feel I was born unequipped to handle the darkness and the coldness that surrounds this part of the world 2/3 of the year. While Denmark is not exactly central Europe, I still feel a significant difference in my energy levels throughout this winter. Just like I did when I lived in the UK and in the Netherlands.
The ayurveda doctor I once consulted on Bali let me in on two secrets: firstly, I am physically an early riser. I found it difficult to believe as I could easily sleep until 11 am, but he was right: I went to bed too late, missed out on the optimal time of night to obtain deep sleep, and woke up too late and too tired to ever consider myself a morning lark. Secondly, he told me I sleep too much. “Eight hours of sleep time is enough. Eight and a half if you are stressed. Absolutely never more than nine”. The trick was, he told me, to “sleep less and rest awake more”.
After spending some time resisting this counter-intuitive advice, I decided to try it out. I began to go to bed by 9.30 pm and 10 pm the latest, instead of my usual 11-11.30 pm. And I set my alarm exactly 9 hours later, to allow for 8+ hours of sleep time. BOOM. What a difference. I began to spend my early mornings and time before bed writing, reading, crafting, meditating. Suddenly there was also time to rest while awake.
This was not just an experiment. Two and a half years later I am still continuing my new ways: going to bed by 10 pm on those nights when I do not travel late, waking up before 8 am (also in the weekends!), and spending more calm time. But the most significant difference is still Danish daylight.
(Helsinki and Brande; December 2018 and February 2019)
Christmastime in Copenhagen means lots of mulled wine, strange sweet pasties and candies, and people still sitting outside (under gas heating). Yes, outside, because after all Denmark is not really geographically Nordic. It is on the same latitude as Edinburgh, Klaipeda, and Moscow.
Christmas isn’t traditionally a time for sushi, but we thought it could be. And if one eats too much, one can always rock one’s full belly in the swing provided by the restaurant. So did we, and so did a random couple who seemed to have a good time doing it.
(Copenhagen, Denmark; December 2018)
Last work trip of the year calls for celebration. Unfortunately my date for the night called in sick and I enjoyed dinner over London all by myself. It is quite a sight to see St Paul’s cathedral far down below.
Someone had the bright idea to turn the Sky Gardens bar into a live music venue, without considering the absolutely awful acoustics of a glass-domed rooftop. I was glad to be behind another set of glass, in the terraced restaurant. The Sky Gardens would be a great location for studies on how noise affects the health and growth of plants.(Sky Gardens, London, United Kingdom; December 2018)
Somewhere along the way, months ago, Helsinki grew dark. In early December it remains dark even on a reasonably clear day. This is the time for salmon soup lunches, served hot with toasted rye bread. For mulled wine made in the Nordic way with berry juice blended in wine, with or without spirits, with raisins and sweet almonds covering the bottom of the mug. And this is also the time of frantic christmas shopping, for most people.
This year Helsinki was especially beautifully dressed. And good it was, because I belong to those (few) who do not like christmas. I used to love it: the traditions, the food, the warmth inside, the candlelight, the mulled wine, the togetherness. But for quite a while christmas has been a stark reminder of a sense of completeness now lost forever. I do not mourn the loss of childhood christmas as such, but the loss of the christmases of my twenties. There have been multiple changes in our family and connections, and the christmas dinner guest setups of the past are, indeed, of the past.
Each year I try to tell myself that this is a first-world problem: a problem of a privileged mind, mourning the loss of perfection, of “having-it-all”. I try to turn it around as a reminder of the constant change in this world and my own existence. I try to find beauty in imperfection. And I try to smile, to participate in the coziness of my family’s christmas. Because after all, it was a considerable effort on their behalf to send me postal invites to a “midwinter dinner celebration” the first years after my divorce, which was perhaps the most impactful in a row of family changes. When I was seriously considering spending each forthcoming christmas in a Jewish or Muslim country, or with a tribe who never heard of Jesus.
It does not get easier with time. But each christmas is different. This year I thought it would be easier, as we spent it in the countryside for the first time. It turned out to be more difficult than in years. Even if there was snow and candles and family and coziness. Living in the present is not an easy trick to pull off. (Helsinki, Finland; December 2018)
The only light of day here in Denmark may not be longer than five minutes. The sun only shows itself provided that the ever-ruling clouds give way. Sometimes weeks pass without direct sunlight. And I am struggling to remember that the sun has never left us. It is shining just as brightly, if only we fly a few kilometers upward in search of it.
(Billund airport, Denmark; December 2018)
My favorite spot and one that brings me back to Thoreau’s philosophy, every time. Winter swept all green grass away. But there are still fish, snatching the last surviving bugs from the surface and blowing little bubbles underneath it.(Brande, Denmark; December 2018)