Christmas lights decorating the Northern Esplanade in Helsinki. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

The first December I spent in Finland I got excited and depressed at the same time. Excited because I had never had a “real” Christmas experience with snow and freezing temperatures. Depressed because I didn’t understand how people could go about their days in complete darkness. “I can’t go out this afternoon, it’s already dark,” I would answer to any invitation.

Sometimes, I would skip class and stay in bed all day, watching shows on Netflix. I would crave endless amounts of chocolate and venture out only when my desire for a Fazer winter edition bar was bigger than everything else. Hat, gloves, snow boots, scarf, layers of jackets and I was ready to go.

A blue-eyed cashier at the corner store would greet me cheerfully, which only confused me more. Why was she happy when I could barely get out of bed? Had I missed a memo about how to survive a Finnish winter?

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Why was she happy when I could barely get out of bed? Had I missed a memo about how to survive a Finnish winter?

Not every day was bad. Some days, I would wake up and look out my student flat window at piles of snow that had accumulated overnight. I would see toddlers in winter suits being pulled on sleighs by their mothers. I would go window shopping and look at Christmas decorations. I would wear cozy socks and eat Finnish pastries. Mostly though, I spent the days being alone for the first time in my life in a situation that I did not quite know how to handle.

Snowy Esplanade. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

One December weekend I did the unimaginable. I got out of bed and planned an express trip to Helsinki. “The city air will do you good,” I said to myself as I got on the train from Joensuu to Helsinki. The train gained speed and I knew that behind the blurred dark landscape lay frozen lakes and snow-covered trees, which after a few months would come to life again. I wondered if it would be the same for me. Perhaps, after surviving my first winter in Finland I, too, would come out of it stronger and full of life.

Helsinki boasted strings of light over busy streets and an Esplanadi with happy families. It was during that trip when I met a friend who later became my partner. We held hands awkwardly as our gloves prevented our fingers from interlocking properly.

We held hands awkwardly as our gloves prevented our fingers from interlocking properly.

We took pictures at the Uspenski Cathedral and the Havis Amanda statue. I marveled at how different life seemed in the Finnish capital, compared to life in a small Eastern town. We visited the Kauppatori, and I insisted on getting us some glögi.

Umm….kaksi….glögi?” I stammered.

As they served our drinks, we struggled to find our wallets. A tall Finnish man standing behind us said something that we didn’t understand. He handed the seller money, smiled and walked away. “Your drinks are already paid for by that man,” the seller told us.

We looked at each other, perplexed, and unable to grasp what had happened. Just like that, a random act of kindness blew me away and, for a brief moment, I forgot about the darkness and the cold and the layers of clothes. Right there, overlooking the Baltic Sea, I felt connected to a land that wasn’t my own, to a man that I would never see again and to the person who would hold my hand during winters to come.

When I got on the train back to Joensuu, the snow seemed to be infinite and I felt like the luckiest person on earth because, against all odds, I was living my own Nordic winter.

As I now write my story from halfway around the world, overlooking the Pacific Ocean instead of the Baltic Sea, and still holding that same hand I held in Helsinki, I secretly wish that I get to see those breathtaking snowy landscapes once again.