Ah, kaamos

What does it feel like to study in winter, or, in Finnish “kaamos”? Nordic winter may start snowing in late October and there might be a majority of snowy days until, say, April. That’s also true in other countries, such as Switzerland, or Poland, but in both cases there will be more light than in Finland, or, say, Alaska. Here are reasons to enjoy winter at a higher latitude.

Ah, kaamos: hibernating
Do you feel like hibernating in the long winter of the Nordic countries?

What is kaamos? “Kaamos” is Finnish for days without daylight, basically.  During the kaamos season, around the winter solstice, you will see perhaps a few hours of light, just south of the polar circle, or a few minutes (just north). Places where there is absolute kaamos for a while, i.e. no light at all, are very scarcely populated, at least in Scandinavia. But even a bit south of the polar circle little light might be a bit of a shock if you come from abroad… On the other hand, the actual “kaamos border” is situated 93 kilometers north of the polar circle, where you are at no risk of being studying at a Finnish university… as the northernmost one is found in Rovaniemi. So even if you are enrolled at the Finnish Lapland’s “capital”, the sun will still accompany you year round (in a way).

Ah, kaamos: Tromso
In Tromso, the sun is down all day until January 14. Still, this is a thriving university city, with about 12 000 students, 10% of whom are international.

“Seasonal affective disorder” (SAD), as it is called, is a highly debated concept, which might mean less energy to do stuff, or a general sense of unease as the winter comes or lasts. (This however may not hit you on the very first days of your time near the polar circle, rather this sense of depletion “grows” over time, including in the autumn, a less dark month objectively speaking but one during which the decrease in daylight is the sharpest.) If you find yourself low, do try to ask yourself why. And try to solve that specific problem – additional lighting, or additional exercise if you are feeling lethargic, for instance. Or a more general answer can be found in vitamins, such as vitamin D.

Ah kaamos: vitamins
Vitamins, especially vitamin D, counter the effects of SAD effectively. Usually those living above the 44th parallel might already lack vitamin D in the winter, so this recommendation applies also south of Scandinavia. Vitamin D notably reduces the risk of cancer.

So, you might ask, how much will “kaamos” likely affect your studies? The answer is probably “not so much”, especially if you are a young man (women suffer more from SAD, according to research, and so do older people). But chances are you will be affected one way or another (less energy, unexplained sadness or irritability are among frequent symptoms). While malls in Scandinavia can make up for the daylight you are secretly craving for, by displaying all sorts of entertaining, and highly lit, shopping opportunities, cafés, sports centres, etc. , it is recommended to exercise.

Ah, kaamos: sports
Exercising will, at least, take the lethargy out of you.

You can also stay inside more, at home or in your library, reading, enjoying a cup of coffee, or just watching the snow from the cosy place you are calling your exchange home, but do not let the cold deter you from meeting friends. In fact, many friendships or indeed love stories can be built making a fire in a chalet, on a trip to Lapland, for instance. So if the need to be alone most of the time is one of your own kaamos symptoms, resist it by experiencing the winter to the fullest. Consider for instance:

  • A friendship prone intellectual pursuit: exploring a particular aspect of your subject related to the Northern regions (examples might include geopolitics of the Arctic, the Sami language, or the local fauna) with a friend at your place, with nice candles on;
  • Going to to the sauna (in Finland), skiing (anywhere) or snowshoeing (same)… no need to schedule an expensive trip… skis can be rented, a sauna is usually between 5-6 euros, and many natural wonders are accessible easily from city centres (though you might have to do a bit more planning to go to national parks);
  • Getting to know the local culture, for instance by going to Arktikum in Rovaniemi, the Sami museum in Jokkmokk  (Sweden) or in Inari (Finland), and being inspired by the way locals have adapted to such environments;
  • Finding one thing you would not do at home, and pushing your boundaries to achieve it. It could be avanto (swimming in a frozen lake), camping outside or just, watching a magical aurora borealis/even if it means going BACK outside.
Ah, kaamos: Northern lights
Even if you are not an adventurer, many pleasures of the Arctic winter/spring are on offer, such as watching such lights on your way back home from university…

We once wrote about reverse cultural shock. I wonder if there is such a thing as “surprise to find similarities with home” in culture shock theory. For instance, you might be slightly surprised that Scandinavian/Finnish trains do not always run on time, when the temperatures reach -15°C, 25°C or less. Well, as it is so unusual here, you might as well take it as a way to exercise your patience… read a book, drink hot chocolate… The slower pace of the Scandinavian winter might just be the opportunity your body needs to embrace a pre-clock, pre-Internet, wilderness adventure. For instance, phones might stop working in extreme cold weather, so be prepared to take paper maps 😉 only until you get inside and switch your phone back on, of course!

Useful links to study above or near the Arctic – and Antarctic – circles:

UArctic, a cooperation initiative of higher education institutions and other organizations concerned about Arctic research

Russia

Murmansk Arctic State University, excellently rated for teaching, value for money and security (or their official website)

Finland

University of Lapland (official website here) and its Arctic centre 

Norway

The ‘Arctic University of Norway’: the University of Tromso (be among the first ones to rate!)  Includes campuses notably in Narvik, Hammerfest, and Kirkenes. Official website

University Centre in Svalbard

Iceland

University of Iceland (be among the first ones to rate, or explore the official website).  Studies in English at the university of Iceland. According to the first SA’s review, courses of Icelandic for foreigners seem to be top-notch!

University of Reykjavik on SA and their official website

Sweden

University of Umeå on SA (be among the first ones to rate), official website

Research projects on the Arctic at Stockholm University

Canada

Nunavut Arctic college; Aurora College; Yukon College

United States

University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Study Advisory’s page, official website. Note the relatively low tuition fees for Alaska residents, by US standards, celebrating 100 years old like Finland this year, including an initiative to boost current scholarship schemes.

Meanwhile on the other hemisphere (still a distance away from the Southern pole):

Universidad Nacional de Tierra del Fuego (national university of Tierra del Fuego), Ushuaia, Argentina. Polar sciences page and official website

On dealing with SAD:

Vitamin D foods

Finnish Student Health Service document on kaamos for international students  and summary on bright light therapy

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