I come from a Asian country where the sun shine 12 hour a day year-round. There, I also spent the first 24 year of my life in the same town, thus the frequency of encountering an acquaintance every time you head out is more than twice a day.
If you are like me, then the difference you gonna experience when you come to Finland, where people like to keep things within themselves and prefer spending their vacation in a cottage in the middle of nowhere, is quite drastic. For me, that means having a lot more time spent with myself on my own, because Finns, or at least the ones I met, are mostly introverts and not quite proactive in getting to know others. Couple that with the fact that winter here last from November to March, with an average of 6 hours of sunlight daily, I guess it would be useful to consider the challenges and rewards of having lots of time, without much sunlight to cheer you up (winter scenery here is breathtaking in daytime, though), and not having too many local friends to hangout.
First, let’s deal with the not-so-bright, both literally and figuratively, side of Finland winter. I remembered two years ago I also interviewed for another university in Oulu, farther up north, and one question was whether I can deal with the lack of sunlight there. Even though Aalto is located in the south with more sunlight, I would say the darkness in the winter here can still affect your mood negatively. To be fair, as a perennial worrier, I am also occasionally disturbed by some existential questions, so it is hard to say which one have a bigger effect on my mood. But you get the point. The consequence of this slight depression on me, luckily, is just some days spent binge watching films and a couple of less-than-optimal grade in my transcript (How I met your mother is the one I watched, in case you ask).
Aalto is well aware of this problem and even hold a special even for newcomers to provide advices on this. Though I did not attend ones to give any further comments.
Apart from that, I personally found the time I spent in solitude here deeply rewarding, and contribute to my development in no less significant ways than the excellent education I received from the school. As mentioned above, I come from a place where almost everyone knows everyone else. That entails a lot of interactions and while those are definitely funny and entertaining, it certainly depletes all the resources that could be better invested in other ways, like, introspectively. I did not realize that until suddenly I had all this free time after schoolwork, in a place where I barely have a close friend to do stupid stuff together.
So how did I spent my free time, especially in the winter? And how does that
help to relieve the downside of the dark winter here and help me become more matured as a person?
- Long walk in the wood: The thing I love the most about Finland is how nature is blended within residential area, and therefore a run or walk is literally right at your doorstep. Here in Otaniemi campus where most of the incoming students will study and a great part of them will find residence, there is even a bioreserve 1-2 km away from the campus for you to run and indulge your eyes and lose yourself in the wilderness. Another great thing is the weather which is almost always suitable for an outdoor walk and cool enough so that you don’t have to bring your water bottle along. There are a lot of wild animals running around also.
- Reading: as any introvert would do.
- Gym + Sauna: there is a big facility right on the campus with gym, ball court, badminton court and a lot of classes in physical activities (yoga, dance, self-defense, HIIT) for you to practice with discount price for students (around 150 Euro/year). I found this a great way to overcome the negative emotion when I am plagued by certain setback at school or overthinking about something. And sauna is just great, also good to relieve your mood.
- Sleep: Well, not sure if I should put this in the benefit part. Anyway, I averaged around 9 hours of sleeping daily because the darkness tend to make me rather lethargic. That might not sound productive for some, but anyway, I would not feel any guilty about mistreating my body :D.
- Do some creative works: Even though it takes a while for me to realize, I start to enjoy creating, like writing this blog post, or draw something. Who know, you might discover some useful insights by spending enough time with yourself that you would never realize otherwise.
A pristine morning behind my apartment – On Finland’s 100th birthday – just to illustrate the point about the beaty of the winter here…
… and my not-so-realistic render of it, just to illustrate another point on how ridiculous a thing you could produce if you spend enough time on your own.
In short, you should not worry too much about the darkside of the winter here, but it is useful to know what to expect beforehand. I found myself improve a lot academically, but more importantly, be more matured as a person with all the time I had here. True, it has a lot to do with me being an introvert. But the beauty of the nature, the mild weather (I find Finland weather much more comfortable than in my tropical hometown, despite temperature here can get below -10 degree Celcius), the kindness of Finns that I encounter around the campus and in my limitted experience around Helsinki area, and especially the winter here, all conspire to create a perfect environment for this development.
Disclaimer: The fox in the picture above is different from the one I did encounter on my way to the campus, so, no human was harmed in the process of producing that selfie, and I would not take any responsibilities should anyone fail to replicate that with a real fox.
Nguyen Hoang Vu