Christmas in the Dark

Merry Christmas everyone! Or happy holidays to those of you that don’t celebrate this occasion. Unlike last year when I skipped Christmas, this year I went all out – all the way out to Finland, that is. And Finland is where I’ll be for another four days, until it’s time to celebrate New Years in Tel Aviv. Can’t wait!

The reason why I’m super excited for Israel is very simple – I miss the sun! I’ve barely seen the yellow friend since arriving in the Arctic North about two weeks ago. Somehow in my enthusiasm to spend the holidays with the family I almost forgot that my homeland sucks in December. Big time. There’s no light! Here’s a photo taken around 4 p.m. Could it get any darker?

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I recently found a blog post that describes the Finnish winter down to a T: “November in Finland is murder. It’s just as beautiful as a summer’s day in Mordor, or a day spent in a windowless house without any lights.  You wake up, it’s dark. You come home from work, it’s dark. It’s not the nice and soft kind of darkness. It’s wet and rainy and awful. Pitch black.” Yes, exactly!

You see, a third of Finland is located above the Arctic Circle. That means that a third of the country experiences what is called the Polar Night – a period of about 50 days when the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon. As you can see in this chart taken from Gaisma.com, the number of daily sunlight hours in the city of Utsjoki currently stands exactly at 0:00. ZERO. A month from now the day lasts a whopping 3.5 hours. Yee-haw. :/

(Then again, in six months the day is exactly 24 hours longer! That’s because the Midnight Sun lights up Northern summer nights. Here’s a cool video of the phenomenon. Now THAT is a great time to visit Finland!)

Picture 16I hail from Southern Finland, a good 700 km away from the start of the Arctic Circle (that’s 400+ miles for you Yankees). So things aren’t quite as dire down here in terms of sunlight hours as they are up in Lapland, where this chart is from. But don’t be fooled: they are still pretty bad. Right now the length of the day stands at about five hours in Helsinki and Turku, the two Southern cities I always zig-zag in between. The worst part is that we usually get five hours of cloudy weather, not five hours sunny hours. And then it’s back to darkness again until the next cloudy day. And this goes on for months. Right now it’s been a week since the sun last made an appearance. Our short five-hour days look like this:

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Isn’t it cheerful here, especially since we have no snow to brighten up the scenery? A true Christmas in the dark. Makes me think longingly of the Christmas I spent in the Australian wine country, in the middle of the hottest summer. Ahhh, that was the life!

While nobody likes the lack of sun, most folks in Finland seem to be able to deal with the winter blues somehow (especially since it means we have awesome summers in return). People keep themselves busy with hobbies or look forward to their two weeks of winter holidays in Thailand or the Canary Islands. They go for brisk walks despite needing a flashlight. That’s great for them, but I just want to get out of here! I feel like I’m only a few steps away from being diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – I definitely feel anxious, hungry and sleepy (and the jet lag that keeps on lagging on is not helping). Maybe I have a harder time adjusting to the darkness since I haven’t lived through a full Nordic winter in 13 years. Two weeks is already too much for me! I am a child of the the summer, a major-league beach addict. I feel totally out of my element when I don’t see the yellow blob in the sky for days on end.

We did have one relatively bright and sunny day about 10 days ago. That made all the difference in the world. I went for a walk up a hill in Helsinki with my sleep-loving friend Mira, with whom I traveled around Central America last winter. Without that day I probably would have gotten the first flight out of here even before Christmas had started. 😛

Sunny day

As lovely as it has been to spend quality time with family and friends, I’m happy I only have one more weekend of this doom and gloom and then I’m off to sunnier pastures. If it’s up to me, I’ll continue my life as a climate refugee and avoid the Finnish winter for many years to come!

Have you been to Finland or Scandinavia during the winter? How did you cope with the darkness? What are your tips for surviving the winter blues? 

(PS. If flying off to the tropics isn’t an option for you, there are other ways you can try to alleviate SAD.)

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Five reasons to skip Christmas (every now and then)

Hope everyone had a merry Christmas, Hanukah, Kwanzaa, Festivus and whatnot last month! However it was you spent those leisurely days between Dec. 24 and New Year’s Eve, I trust you had a jolly time.

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Though I’m in the habit of celebrating Christmas, as is typical in my native Finland, this was my “skip-year,” so I did not do much. Instead of being huddled over a mountain of presents or munching on delicious holiday food, I chilled out in New York and spent those December days much like any others in the city: working, catching up with friends, eating in Thai restaurants, going to the gym, etc.

This might sound sad to you if you are a Christmas fanatic, but don’t worry. For me it’s not at all. You see, over the past decade I’ve crafted my own tradition of forgoing traditional family Christmas celebrations every second year for practical reasons (mostly for saving money and time).

Sure, I do miss my family and it would be great to spend time with them during the holidays, but aside from that, skipping the hustle and bustle of Christmas is really not all that bad. In fact, it’s kind of refreshing.

Some of my skip-year Christmases have been quite memorable, like  2008 when I flew to Cancun, Mexico and danced around the bar with a group of Mexican holidaymakers singing “Feliz Navidad.” Or 2006, when my friends and I toured the vineyards around the Margaret River region of Western Australia. (A white Christmas has a strong contender in my mind – a sunny one! Aussies may be onto something…)

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Being someone who loves change and variety, it’s nice for me to spice things up every other year and do something different from the usual “family dinner – Christmas sauna – presents – church” –routine, as warm and comforting as that can be. This year I attended a Panamanian Christmas fiesta in Brooklyn, where we danced Bachata and Merengue until midnight.

So believe it or not, there are plenty of good reasons to follow my lead on this tradition of skipping the holidays every other year (or at least celebrating them super low-key), many of them travel-related.

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Here are some of the biggest benefits:

1) Avoiding expensive flights

Flying to most places in the world between Dec. 18 and early January is prohibitively expensive. A round-trip ticket from the US to Europe or vice versa can easily set you back $1,000-1,300 this time of the year, when you can find flights in non-peak months for $500-700. So why not postpone that trip home by a couple of weeks and save a small fortune in the process? As most festive dates are artificial anyway, who is to say you cannot celebrate Christmas in January, should you feel like it? Or even in the summer! (Well hey, some scientists say Jesus was born on June 17.)

2) Scoring cheap flights

While prices for flights are generally sky-high in the end of December, there are two dates when you might score a deal: Dec. 25 and Dec. 31. Yep, Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve. That’s because most people wouldn’t dream of flying anywhere on these days, preferring to celebrate on the ground. But during my skip-years, I am more than happy to fly whenever, if it saves me hundreds of dollars. This New Year’s Eve I flew from New York to Costa Rica for a mere $195 with Spirit (and still made it to San Jose in time for the party!), while the fare was $100-300 more on the days preceding Dec. 31. You can’t beat that!

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(Our NYE party crew in San Jose – matching checkered shirts provided by our friendly host Luis, second from the right.)

3) No presents – no holiday stress

We all know the feeling: the holidays are just around the corner and we have yet to buy a single present, clean the house from top to bottom, bake cookies and plan a fancy dinner for family and friends. And why is it that the days leading up to Dec. 24 always zoom by so quick?! Streeeessssss!!!

– Well, not for me this year! I didn’t need to care how fast Christmas was approaching as I didn’t have a single thing to prepare (aside from picking up a bottle of wine for the Panamanian fiesta). I didn’t buy any presents and I told my family not to get me anything either. I didn’t even send out a single Christmas card. I did put up a holiday greeting on Facebook, but that’s about it. 😉 While everyone else was freaking out about getting things done on time, I couldn’t have been more relaxed the closer we got THE day. Plus I was able to use my Christmas-time savings towards that Central American holiday (I’m typing this on the beach as we speak… yes, I have a beach problem)!

4) Avoiding holiday weight-gain

I know how some of you are feeling right about now – looking at the newly-formed flab on your belly, you’re thinking “did I have to eat that extra box of chocolates during Christmas?” Well, don’t feel bad – you had to. That’s the spirit of Christmas. I’ve been there a million times too, but luckily I’m not there this year. By skipping Xmas I not only steered clear from fattening traditional foods and goodies, I was also able to spend some extra time working out (plus the gym was nice and empty during the holidays)! So now I’m having a much better time touring Central America without extra pounds holding me down. 🙂

5) Bringing that special holiday feeling back

Remember the days when Christmas was something you looked forward to with joy, not dread? Back when you felt like the holidays couldn’t get here fast enough? Yeah, for most people this excitement has been long ago replaced by feelings of panic as December seems to roll around quicker each year (wasn’t in just Christmas 2011?). Thus my solution is the best: when you skip the festivities every other year, Christmas retrieves its role as a truly special occasion – one that only takes place every 24 months, just often enough for you to start missing it. And during your skip-years you can spend the time and money to travel to that dream destination of yours!

What do you think about my “skip-year” habit? Have any of your tried skipping Christmas  or embraced a low-key version of the holiday? Why or why not?

It’s time to recharge those batteries!

Oopsie, it happened again. As I suspected, I got out of the habit of posting on a daily basis and the longer my writing break grew, the harder it was to get back to it. But no worries, I’m back! At least for now…

So what have I been up to lately? On the outside, it may look like I haven’t done much since the Quality Hunters project ended in the beginning of this month. After all, instead of zooming around the world I’ve now been staying put in Finland, only casually embarking on the two-hour journey between Helsinki (where most of friends live) and Turku (where my family lives). But as unexciting as that may sound, I have to say it’s been pretty nice staying in one time zone for the past three weeks! I’m finally over my two-month jet lag, yee-haw!

And yes it’s true, I definitely haven’t worked all that hard this month. About a week ago I finished writing two long-form articles for the upcoming issue of Expatrium (a magazine for Finnish expats that I regularly write for), but other than that I’ve deliberately been taking it easy this month. That’s because I suddenly realized I have worked non-stop since mid-May! That’s not healthy!

And yes, I realize that the photos above may already look like “a break” to some people, but that’s actually me in work-mode. The fact that I can work from anywhere (like from a Jamaican beach or a mountaintop in Guatemala) doesn’t mean that I never get stressed out or that I don’t work long hours. I definitely do. While I rarely count the actual work hours I put in per week, sometimes I think it must be twice what regular 9-to-5ers put in! Unlike most Monday-to-Friday folks, I am in work mode Monday to Sunday, from morning until the evening. Often times I’ll be walking down a street when a story idea hits me, or I’ll wake up in the morning with a draft of my next lede circling in my head. Sometimes I have to email editors at 4 a.m. just so I won’t forget to do it later. And this is in addition to spending hours per day doing research online and conducting interviews and writing pitches. And oh, writing articles, because they don’t write themselves!

And yes, my job is definitely super cool and fabulous, and I wouldn’t change it for the world. I get to interview interesting people, eat awesome foods while doing food reviews, try out new hobbies and attend interesting travel fairs to scout for story ideas.

But despite how much fun my job is, I’ve decided to really take it easy for the month of December. It’s Christmas, people! Time to recharge those batteries and take care of stuff you have been neglecting all year (such as getting wisdom teeth removed! I’m currently in so much pain, ouch!).

And one such errand is obviously to get this blog up and running…please wish me luck with that! I’m hoping that Christmas laziness won’t entirely overtake me…

What about you guys, are you taking a break from work for Christmas (whether or not you celebrate it) or powering straight through to the new year? Either way, make sure to listen to your inner self and do what feels right to you! Merry Christmas!