Today is the day of the autumn equinox: that moment when day and night are equally long. From this day on, days are going to get shorter and colder, the nights longer and darker.
Oh, if you’re an exchange student in Finland, the fun’s just beginning. Rather soon you’ll be waking up in the dark, trudging to your Finnish university (or other school) when it’s still dark, with drifts of snow slowing your every step, and once you get out of the university, it will be dark again. The only signs of any passing warmth and light will be the smooth and treacherous patches of slippery ice covering every step back.
And there will be cold. Oh yes, there will be cold. The cold won’t be Siberian, or even Arctic, but it will be harsh, kissing you with a roughness that quite soon has you running back inside screaming, thinking of nothing but frostbite. Relax. Frostbites are relatively rare in Finland.
Except among foreigners.
Oh, and if you are a foreigner, there is one thing you should know about snow: no matter what tale you hear, and no matter how convincingly your Finnish tutors tell of a nutritious and good-tasting bacterial flower that lives in the snow and makes it veritable candy, no matter how they cajole you to have a taste — don’t eat the yellow snow.
There is one Finnish word you really should know, now when your teeth aren’t yet chattering too loudly to prevent forming words. This word is kaamos.
There is an English equivalent to one meaning of the word, namely, polar night: that period when, north of the Polar Circle, the sun doesn’t rise for a couple of days in the darkest winter. The farther north you go, the longer this period of sunlessness. (In the summer, it is balanced by nightless nights, when the sun never sets.) If this seems improbable or impossible to you, you can use your good deed of the week on buying a physics student a cup of coffee and asking about the tilt of Earth’s axis.
Now, in most of Finland, you don’t have to worry about days without sun, because the Polar Circle divides Finland at Rovaniemi, north of which there is nothing but reindeer and snow. Still, the nights will be long, the days will be gloomy, and snow will cover all, like a silent, cold shroud. This leads to the second meaning of the word kaamos — namely, winter depression.
You might know about autumn depression, that sad feeling when leaves fall from the trees, or spring depression, when everything’s covered with rain and sludge. There might even be summer depression, but as a Finn my observations on summer are too few to comment on that. But winter depression, ah, that’s something!
Every day will seem the same, dull and hard, except that ever so slowly mornings dawn with increasing tardiness, as if they were tired too, and evenings darken sooner, like the sun was too weary to stay in the skies. Every day will be a bit colder, the wind a bit more biting, the rain a bit more like a shower of needles. Then will come the snow, and for a moment everything will be clean and wonderful. Then you’ll notice that it isn’t the white of purity and enchantment, but the color of sterility and lonely death —
Well, anyway, kaamos is a thing that makes me write depressing things like that, and I’m a Finn. It can be even harder for foreigners, because it’s so shocking and seemingly wrong, and because it just lasts and lasts.
It’s a time when demented people get lost outdoors and disappear into the darkness, never to be found again. It is a season of depression, white pills, suicides, drunken fights and exhaustion that seems impossible to shake off or get over. It’s a very Finnish thing. If you wonder why Finns are the way they are — well, the cheery and social ones were ground down and bowled over by endless years of cold kaamos centuries ago.
Please, don’t be alarmed by this. Don’t take a taxi to the airport and demand a ticket back home.
It’s impossible, you see. Too many Finns fleeing the cold dark to Rhodes or the Canary Islands.