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OPINION & ANALYSIS

How will I endure another Nordic winter? What I’ve learned after five years

What do I do and who am I when nature goes to rest? The Local's contributor Anne Grietje Franssen writes about life in the Gothenburg archipelago this time of the year, when the Swedish winter makes it feel like there's no end in sight.

How will I endure another Nordic winter? What I've learned after five years
Life in the Gothenburg archipelago is wonderful, but the winter is hard to get through. Photo: Anne Grietje Franssen

Each season seems to erase my memory of the previous one; every year I’m caught off guard by the arrival of winter, of darkness.

During the endless summer days I forget what life was like before and what it will be like after; I forget that there will, again, come a time when I wake up in the dark, breakfast in the dark, work and work out in the dark, cook and eat dinner in the dark.

That the oak trees, birches and apple trees on the island where I live lose both their leaves and their colour. That the hours of relative lightness will be marked by grey: grey skies, a grey sea, the grey skeletons of bare undergrowth.

And every year I have to reinvent myself. What do I do and who am I when nature goes to rest? When Swedes seem to be lulled into hibernation along with nature?

It might not come as a surprise that I’m not the type who thinks these winter months are first and foremost mysiga (cosy). The type who climbs up to the attic in October to fetch the Christmas decorations, who buys an Advent calendar, who devotedly bakes lussekatter, the typically Swedish saffron buns, for the appropriate holidays. Someone who gladly spends weeks under a blanket on the couch with a steaming cup of tea and the candles around the house ignited.

The autumn is fine, sometimes even preferable to high season: what is more mesmerising than a low autumn sun over the archipelago, when all the trees are on fire, and when the summer’s afterglow is just strong enough to sit outside in the melancholic silence that the off-season brings?

But autumn is also a harbinger of winter – a winter that never ends. A few weeks of winter: sure. A month or two: all right. But winter, or what I think of as winter, usually begins late October, when the trees shed most of their leaves, and lasts until early April, when the world, seemingly overnight, transitions from monochrome to kaleidoscopic, suddenly rises from the dead.

Autumn on the island. Photo: Anne Grietje Franssen

Sometime early December I feel that I am well rested, that I’ve spent enough hours reading, that I’ve eaten enough comfort food and drunk enough glögg, that I’ve watched more than enough mediocre series. While in theory winter hasn’t even arrived yet.

So what to do with all the remaining days of darkness, especially as a migrant, when Sweden is not your home country and most of your relatives and friends are out of reach? If you don’t have a family to hide out with and to play summer with until the first signs of spring?

My time is divided with about fifty percent gloominess, fifty percent finding the courage to get up from the couch and make myself do something. Anything. Many hours are wasted chiding both Sweden and myself – why did I ever move here, why is anyone really living up north, how come there isn’t a massive exodus southward? Why is “winter refugee” not yet a concept?

Then there are the hours of solitude. From Monday to Friday and during daytime hours I cope reasonably well; I work, go to yoga, read newspapers, know how to skillfully distract myself. No, it’s mainly the long evenings and weekends when the demons rear their heads. Too much time to worry, to feel isolated and shiftless, to wonder what I’ve made of my life, why I’m here, why the hell I chose to live abroad, why I have cut myself off from my original community.

But you can’t spend an entire winter ruminating. Or you can, but then you’re likely to be clinically depressed.

Winter on the outskirts of Gothenburg. Photo: Anne Grietje Franssen

It’s probably the reason why many Swedes pass the month of January in Thailand or on the Canary Islands. I understand the urge, although not everyone has the time and money to follow in their footsteps. Or, as in my case, is unable to do so due to the crippling combination of flygskam and klimatångest (ecophobia, or the anxiety felt vis-a-vis the climate crisis).

It does help to take the train home for two or three weeks in the middle of winter and spend so much time with family and friends that I breathe a sigh of relief when I am finally alone again, when I can hear my own thoughts again.

But what is the recipe for getting through the remainder of that perpetual season, if not jubilant, then at least alive? Here’s what I learned during five Swedish winters.

In order to survive I need to go outside within the timespan of the give or take seven hours of daylight that the latitude I live on provides. Every day, never mind downpours and storms, hail showers and snow.

Swedes have a saying that det finns inget dåligt väder, bara dåliga kläder (there’s no such thing as bad weather, only poor clothing). That is, of course, a lie. One that the Nordic people need and repeat like a mantra to make the often intolerable weather slightly more tolerable. “No bad weather, only bad clothing, no bad weather, only bad clothing, no bad…” etc etc.

SWEDISH VOCABULARY: How to talk about the weather with Swedes

Having said that: even if the weather is as bad as can be, it’s still better to brave the elements than to remain indoors. In such conditions a warm, waterproof jacket and ditto shoes do help. Leave any dreary city behind you if you have the chance, and walk with your face against the wind along a coast, through a forest, across a heath. If other living beings – birds, foxes, deer, mice – go about their days in this weather, so can you.

In order to survive I go to the island sauna once, twice, three times a week. You won’t get a tan, but you will get warm, and the required dip in the sea makes me abruptly forget all my predominantly imagined problems. I’m alive! is the primary response, and then: I’m dying, get out!

For someone as cerebral as me, it is essential to punctuate the otherwise constant stream of thoughts and nothing seems to be more effective than that combination of heat and cold, alternating between sweating and shivering. To basta (sauna, verb) regularly supposedly also benefits the immune system, heart, blood circulation and skin. There’s no catch, really, so what are you waiting for?

And, finally, in order to survive I had to find some (international) surrogate families that I can be a part of every now and then. I’m not saying this one is easy – it certainly took me two, three years to find this substitute community – but it was worth the wait.

On and around the island I’ve found (or did they find me?) some friends and families with whom I go for walks, have dinners, whose children I babysit from time to time, with whom I watch movies on a projector by a fireplace. With whom I go dancing in the rare occasion of a party and whose couch I sleep on when I missed the last ferry home.

Ultimately that’s the best medicine – at least for me – against these ruthless winter blues: not always being in the company only of my own racing mind. Finding that there are others in the same boat as me, and that together this boat is easier to steer.

Going for a walk with friends. Photo: Anne Grietje Franssen

Did you like this? Read more articles by Anne Grietje Franssen:

Member comments

  1. I have been trying to share articles with my husband and adult children but it does not work even though you have a sharing option at the bottom!?

    1. Hi Jeanette,

      This article is for members which means that they will need to have a paid for account in order to read it, you can try sharing a “free article” like the covid stats to see whether you have an issue with all articles or whether you are only experiencing it with the ones for members.

  2. Anne, Thanks for writing about your heartfelt emotions. This in itself shows some measure of
    inner peace and acceptance as you contemplate the coming winter, and the loss of light.
    To allow oneself a degree of reflection and melancholy at the approach of the season of rest
    need not be feared, but embraced, as you seek ever greater harmony with the timeless
    rhythms of the natural world.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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