How to dress a child for Finnish winter

People often ask me how I’m coping with the Finnish winter – so far, so good. Frozen days? So novel. Long hours of darkness? So restful. Piles of snow? So magical. Dressing a child? Kill me. Seriously.

Tip sheet from daycare (

Dressing tip sheet from daycare

When the mercury hit zero degrees celcius two months ago I panicked and wondered what on earth to dress Miko in. But with a few tips and pointers along the way I felt quite confident sending him off today, with the forecast sitting at a high of -12°c and a ‘feels like’  of -19°.

Sunny, with a chance of freezing

Sunny, with a chance of freezing

As many of you will know, the secret is: layers. And what I have found even more useful is: all-in-ones. For weeks we’ve been struggling with too many bits and pieces, which leads to Miko flopping around like a non-compliant jellyfish and arguments and grumbling from both of us. I also suspect it might be where he learnt his new favourite word (starts with f ).

Layer one: thermals

Layer one: thermals

Until this morning, a typical outfit for Miko consisted of: undies, singlet, socks, thermal leggings, thermal top, fleece leggings, fleece top, then outer overall pants and jacket + hat and gloves and boots. And if it rains? Rubber overalls and jacket and rubber gloves over that. Because even waterproof gear can’t protect from a child kneeling in puddles and scooping water up with their hands.

Things like socks and thermal underwear come in different wool / polypropylene ratios for when the weather is 0 to -10°c and -10° and below. Gloves come with woollen inners or some people wear a thin woollen glove beneath a padded mitten.

Layer two: 100% wool suit

Layer two: 100% wool suit

After some advice from a teacher I bought Miko an all-in-one wool suit for when it gets below -5° and an all-in-one snow suit. So today he has on: undies, socks, thermal leggings and top, wool suit, snow suit, balaclava and gloves.

The balaclava might seem over the top, but when you’re out in these cold temps and the wind is blowing it doesn’t take long before you find the weak spots in your outfit. All-in-one suits eliminate chill factor down your butt crack and around your kidneys.


Today when I dropped Miko at the park (because they start the day outside every day until it’s below -15°c) the teacher commented that his boots were not the best. I’ve been sending him in fleece-lined gumboots thinking this was the final frontier in winter footwear. She showed me that most kids are wearing warmer, gore-tex boots that are lighter.

What about when it’s cold and wet? I asked (because I ask the stupid questions so you don’t have to). It doesn’t get that cold and wet, she replied. Once it’s below zero, all water freezes and the snow is dry. Of course! Science.

Layer three: snow suit and gloves

Layer three: snow suit and gloves

So I’m off today to buy some better boots and then I think we’re set. Although it’s going to get warmer again tomorrow so unfortunately we’ll be back in a wet world of slush.

I’m obviously still fumbling my way through this winter get-up thing so any tips or comments are welcome. Thankfully I find shop staff incredibly helpful, especially when I say it’s my first winter here.

Made it!

Made it!

My biggest tips to you for dressing a child in winter are: allow at least 15 minutes and always ask if they need to pee first. Any time spent on dressing can be made up on a day like today by delivering them to school via sled.

Baby it’s cold outside


Port of Helsinki, 29th December 2014, -18° celcius (-0.4° F)

I know what cold is. Or so I thought. Once when I was young we left our goldfish bowl outside (long story) and it froze over. The goldfish survived but I have been living off this story for years to show how hardy I am.

The Baltic Sea starting to freeze

The Baltic Sea starting to freeze


And I’ve lived in cold houses. One year I went around declaring that I was experiencing ‘the winter of my discontent’. Which is a bit over the top seen it never dropped below 9° celcius (48°F) during the day.

Port of Helsinki

Port of Helsinki, 29 December 2014, -18° celcius (-0.4° F)

But to quote the great poet Phil Collins – take a look at me now! Baby it is cold outside and I am in it! In fact it’s too warm now because anything above zero means the snow melts and then refreezes, making everything slushy and slippery.


Low maintenance garden, 23rd December 2014

I’m often reminded how easy we have it too when I see elderly people making their way about with walking-frames in the snow. The other day I had to help a woman who was struggling to make any progress as her wheelchair was stuck in heavy slush.

The Bana - December 2014

The Bana – 23rd December 2014

My biggest inconvenience is getting cold fingers while I take photos and then having my phone battery die within ten minutes because it can’t handle sub-zero temperatures.

Christmas Day in Lappeenranta, around -15° celcius (5° F)

Not much to complain about really when I’ve finally started to see the beauty that is around us in the colder months.


Christmas Day, Lappeenranta, about -15 celcius (5° F)

The sunlight when we have it creates a kind of golden glitter in the air and the snow on the ground sparkles as though it’s mixed with granulated sugar.

The only way to get around

The only way to get around

It’s a warm 2° celcius (35°F)  today and I’m really hoping the temperature will drop so we can witness the lakes and sea in full frozen glory.

Sunset reflected on Töölönlahti, 7 January 2015 (-2 celcius, wind chill -8)

Sunset reflected on semi-frozen Töölönlahti, 7 January 2015, -2° celcius, wind chill -8° (28°F)

Because, I’m like, you know, really good at this cold thing and I’m finding for once I’m having a winter where I am quite content. But, to quote another famous poet (Randy Bachman), I actually ‘ain’t seen nothing yet’.

Finland’s oldest public pool – swimsuits optional

In December 1967, a man named Harold Holt went for a swim in rough seas off the coast of Australia. He was never seen again. A tragedy for any family, his disappearance also put the country in an awkward position – because Harold was the Prime Minister of Australia at the time.

Australian PM Harold Holt, 1967 National Archives of Australia

Australian PM Harold Holt, 1967 National Archives of Australia

A huge search failed to find his body and conspiracy theories floated to the surface, including speculation that he had been picked up by a Chinese submarine. The event has been described by one Australian comedian as ‘the swim that needs no towel.’

Yrjönkatu uimihalli Photo credit: Mari Herrala for Cafe Yrjo

I was reminded of this recently when invited by Verena to join her and two American guests for a swim that needs not only no towel but also no swimsuit. Helsinki’s Yrjönkadun uimahalli (swimming hall) opened in 1928 and while swimsuits have been allowed since 2001 they are still optional.

This is Finland’s oldest public swimming pool and men and women swim on separate days.


For our visit we paid a small fee and were given towels, a robe and a key before being shown upstairs to our cubicles. Each cubicle had a bed, a mirror and a lockable drawer – very clean and simple – like something out of a 1940s hospital.


Where I recovered from smallpox in 1910 got changed

Dressed in our robes (no sash or belt provided) we headed downstairs for a compulsory shower before entering the pool. I chose to swim laps but water-jogging is popular, where you run in the water, suspended by a floatation belt.


As I swam I noticed it was time for the changing of the lifeguard. The woman in her 50’s who had watched us from a raised chair was replaced by a young guy, in his early-30s. When it was time to get out I was relieved to see he was no longer at his station and took the opportunity to ascend from the pool –  only for him to appear that moment from behind a beam, right at the top of the ladder. All I could do was greet him with a smile because, honestly, that’s all I had on.


Cubicle with a view

Now it was time for another shower and our first sauna. Our American friends had maintained their modesty until this stage but a sign on the sauna door showing a swimsuit with a big red cross through it made it clear this was a swimsuit-free zone. The sauna was around 80 degrees celsius (176 Fahrenheit) and as we entered we could hear a group of women outside singing Finnish folk songs.

After another shower we tried the steam sauna, which was so foggy we could hardly see a thing. It was an effort to find a space to sit without accidentally sitting on someone’s knee.

Photo credit: Mari Heralla for Cafe Yrjo

Photo credit: Mari Herrala for Cafe Yrjo

Time for another shower before heading upstairs to have a drink at one of the tables on the balcony. We each had some water and a glass of sparkling wine or beer before heading back to try the puu (wood) sauna.

This was by far my favourite – a large room with a big wood-fired oven with the door swung open, something that Hansel and Gretel would have nightmares about. The heat was strong but somehow softer than the other saunas and the roof was black with soot.


Verena threw ladles of water on the fire to create heat and told us about sauna culture in her homeland of Austria. With New Zealand being quite conservative in its attitudes to public nudity (not encouraged) it’s always interesting to hear about how big a part of life sauna culture is. Verena commented that she’d much prefer to sauna with friends than alone, as it is a social experience to be shared.

After a final shower we went upstairs to have something to eat before dressing and being ushered out by the staff as we were the last ones to leave.


Goats cheese salad from Cafe Yrjö

Yrjönkadun uimahalli is open from September – April and occasionally they hold events such as Christmas-time candle-lit swimming. If you’re in Helsinki I strongly recommend paying the hall a visit, as for many visitors to Finland this will be a unique experience.

For those in Australia you may prefer to cool off this summer with your own swim that needs no towel – at the commemorative and ironically named Harold Holt Swim Center in Glen Iris.

Yrjönkadun uimahalli

Cafe Yrjö

Yrjönkatu 21b
00120 Helsinki
09 310 87401

Harold Holt Disappearance

Harold Holt Conspiracy Theories

Fake birds and sun lamps

“I’ve got sunshine, on a cloudy day,” – The Temptations

Number of winters The Temptations spent in Helsinki: zero.

Töölönlahti starting to freeze

Töölönlahti starting to freeze

Getting up before the sun is no big deal in Helsinki these days because the sun doesn’t get up until 9am. And by up, I mean legs over the side of the bed, still in its pyjamas.

Today's forecast - with 3 weeks to go until the shortest day

Today’s forecast – with 3 weeks to go until the shortest day

At mid-day the sun in Helsinki sits just 8 degrees above the horizon. Which means that while we have sunlight, we often have very little sunshine. In fact, November was ‘three times gloomier than average’ with Helsinki having a total of just 12 hours of sunshine in the first 26 days.

A rare November day

A rare November day

So how do we cope with these grey days that seem like constant twilight? Well luckily it’s still quite novel which helps and before heading out we have a hit of Vitamin D spray every morning.


We also bought a sunlamp which wakes us by filling the room with a soft glow. This grows stronger until we wake to what feels like a room full of sunlight – it also has a setting that includes the sound of birds chirping.

Time to wake up! The fake sun has risen & the fake birds are chirping

Time to wake up! The fake sun has risen & the fake birds are chirping

The temperature has been sitting around 2 degrees for a month now, which means any snow we have doesn’t stick around. Last winter was very mild by Finnish standards and no snow means dark days as there’s nothing to reflect the light. So for the first time in my life I’m really hoping it will get much colder!

Perfect number plate for snow

Perfect number plate for snow

But I’ve got a bit to learn yet about snow. I was walking home the other day admiring the flakes as they fell around me and decided to pull my hood on. What a rookie! There’s no better way to spoil a romantic mood than by dumping a whole lot of snow on your own head!

Sun and Moon times in Helsinki

You know you’re in Finland when…

Some days I wake up and it takes me a while to realise I am still in Finland. Voices float up from the street and then it dawns on me, ‘Oh yeah, I’m in Finland. And everyone speaks Finnish.’

I’m also reminded by things around our house, as although ours may not be a typical Finnish home, I’d say it is pretty standard for most Helsinki apartments.

Here’s what is different to our home in New Zealand:

There are two front doors, about five inches apart and the first front door has a slot in it for the mail to be delivered through.


Just inside the apartment are two open wardrobes for hanging jackets and putting shoes. As winter approaches this becomes even more important and now holds gumboots, gloves, hats and scarves too.


There is a thermometer just outside the window near the front door. As winter approaches we check it every day before we go out so we dress for the weather and not our heated apartment.


There are heaters in every room that are turned on by the building manager once the temperature drops below a certain level for a few days in a row.


The washing machine is in the bathroom.


There’s a sauna off the bathroom.


The pipes in the bathroom are exposed.


The windows are triple-glazed and there are two doors out onto our balcony to keep the cold out. In summer we had the balcony open but you can also pull the windows across to make it more like a conservatory.


This photo was taken before we unpacked but is pretty much how our balcony looks again as the plants and armchairs have been brought inside for winter.


We’ve seen dramatic changes in the view from the balcony in the five months we’ve lived in this apartment.











You may notice that every apartment has external ladders too, which I believe is to do with removing snow from the roof. There are not many chimneys either, although Joulupukki (Santa Claus) comes in the front door on Christmas Eve so no worries there.


Oh yes, and there’s always this: the Finnish flag which is raised by each building manager on public holidays and special anniversaries. My brother-in-law also told me the flag will be raised to half-mast if someone in the building has died – a good time, he says, to call in if you are looking for a place to rent!

Update: how could I forget this??

Two Women Practising Everyman’s Right

Nature's supermarket

Nature’s supermarket

I’ve met two talented herbalists in Helsinki lately and their commitment to sourcing herbs that grow wild in Finland is supported by the concept of Everyman’s Right – which is not, as it sounds, some dating manifesto from the Victorian era.



The first herbalist was Justine Cederberg who, among other things, makes a Love Elixir using herbs that grow in the wild. You can read my interview with her here and how she uses the sauna to make her tinctures.


I also had a consultation with Henriette Kress, a herbalist who has created one of the world’s largest online herbal archives. In her consulting room is a large cupboard, full of glass jars. Each jar holds dried herbs she has collected from the wild and from which she made me a tea to take home.


My herbal tea – wild rose, sage root, nettle and (perhaps imported) mandarin peel

To both herbalists it’s important that people are taking herbs that grow around them and Everyman’s Right allows them to do this. It also ensures that Finns can continue to eat according to the seasons as they have traditionally done so.



Basically, Everyman’s Right means that without going into someone’s yard, you can walk, fish, swim, camp and forage on other people’s land in Finland without permission, as long as you don’t disturb protected species.

For those who don't want to get their hands dirty

For those who don’t want to get their hands dirty

It would be really unusual I think for anyone in Australia or New Zealand to be okay with finding someone else on their land, picking their fruit without permission. Being recently colonised countries, land rights and fishing rights can be contentious issues back home.

Although we do have a wonderful culture in NZ of fishing and gathering shellfish, picking wild berries and foraging, I think the main difference here is not needing permission to go onto someone else’s land to do so.



We had a great day out searching for mushrooms and blueberries in the forest during our first trip to Finland four years ago. Although we ate everything we picked, any income people make from selling picked berries or mushrooms is tax-free.


Blueberry bushes (foreground)

Perhaps not this one

Natures way of saying: Do not go there

We used to pick blackberries in New Zealand when I was younger and although I’m sure we had the landowner’s permission, what I remember most is being chased by a big ol’ hairy goat that obviously hadn’t read the memo about our rights at all!


Freedom to Roam

Everyman’s Right – the Finnish Ministry of the Environment

Henriette Kress

Excuse me, do I work here?

New Zealanders love a good DIY ( Do It Yourself ) attitude – build your own fence, concrete your own driveway…but Finns bring it into the everyday as at most cafes you’ll find it’s DIY dishes.

You don’t actually have to wash them but there’s usually a place for you to scrape your dishes, stack them and sort the rubbish from the recycling.


Having grown up with school lunches provided I’d say most Finnish adults are used to this and probably do it without thinking.

It’s great actually – it means the tables are cleared before you sit down, even when the staff are busy.

Used dishes stand & bin at Fafa's

Used dishes stand & rubbish bin at Fafa’s

At Cafe Regatta there are a couple of places for customers to stack their used dishes. You can also have free coffee refills and you get 5c back each time you refill your cup….*

So if times were tough and you were really desperate, you’d probably only have to drink 45 cups of coffee before you started to make your money back and started getting paid to stack that one dirty cup.


Cafe Regatta

 *the beauty of this is no one wants a 5c piece in their wallet so they tend to go straight into the tips jar

The Night of the Dead

I quite like cemeteries. There’s one in Parnell, Auckland that has stories about the early white settlers and their relationships with local Maori. I’ve also been to one in Perth, Western Australia that has cages over the freshly dug graves so that wild kangaroos won’t dig them up. But I didn’t expect to be wandering around in the dark in a Finnish cemetery last night.


Hietaniemi Cemetery is a huge piece of land that contains the graves of some of Finland’s most notable people, including fallen soldiers. We walked past it every day on our way to the beach last summer and I was fascinated by what I saw.

A stall outside sells potted plants for placing on graves. This intrigues me because in NZ we tend to just lay fresh or plastic flowers down. In Finland however they plant the flowers into the gravesite so that they continue to grow.


They also have a bucket of trowels and scissors you can borrow to dig the plants in and tend to the gravesite.


Traditionally burial in Finland has been free for members of the Lutheran Church (attendance not compulsory) and I believe you can pay someone to tend to your loved ones grave if you are unable to do it. Burial plots in NZ and Australia can be quite expensive and there are advertisements on TV to get funeral insurance so you can have the send-off you want.


As we move into the colder months in Helsinki the plants being sold for grave sites are becoming more hardy, things that have more of a chance of surviving winter.


Yesterday was All Saints Day, where Finnish people remember those who have passed away. We don’t mark this day in NZ so were surprised by the public holiday.

Finnish traditions go a long way back, including Joulupukki (the Christmas goat who later became known as Santa Claus), solstice celebrations and children dressing as witches on Palm Sunday. I guess the missionaries who arrived in NZ in the 18th century only brought with them the traditions they wanted to keep and not any they may have considered pagan.


It’s traditional for Finnish people to visit the graves of loved ones on 1 November. The cemetery stalls and markets were selling havu – branches bundled together to lay on graves – and candles. I tentatively headed off to the cemetery by myself last night in the dark to witness this part of Finnish life.


The streets around the cemetery were full of people and cars, as though there was a major event on. The grounds were full of people, including children, lighting candles on graves.


In spite of the crowds, at times I would find myself alone, wandering amongst the headstones. Looking down towards the water I could see thousands of candles, as the bells tolled in the chapel. It was 3 degrees and my breath made white clouds in the night air.


I was amazed that candles had been lit on nearly every grave, even on those of people who had died in the early 1900s – it seems no one is forgotten on this day.


Wandering around the cemetery at night I actually tried to scare myself, narrating a horror movie in my head with me as the lead actor, but it didn’t really work. There was a special kind of stillness about the place. It seemed like a beautiful time to remember those you’ve lost.


I think this is a beautiful tradition that would be good to commemorate in NZ. We are such a multi-cultural country I’m sure there are Maori traditions or newer cultures that have brought with them similar customs. I think a lesson from Finland is that even the things which we’ve buried need not be forgotten.

I’m speaking Spinach

I’ve started Finnish lessons, which I love. The teacher is great and my classmates come from Canada, Spain, Venezuela, England, Nigeria, USA, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Russia, Estonia, Nepal, India, Pakistan….who said Finland is not a diverse country?

Here’s a few things I’ve learnt about studying languages so far:

Finnish is not so difficult

Ha! Well the grammar is and we’re yet to really get into it, but the words are great. Lento (flight) + kone (machine) = lentokone (airplane). Jää (ice) + karhu (bear) = jääkarhu (polar bear). You get the idea. Which is why it wasn’t too difficult and felt so good to be able to answer my teacher when she asked me to say 65,493 (although it did take me a while)*.

It’s all relative

When learning weather words we used a map of the world and next to Sydney, Australia was an icon saying +10 degrees celcius. I of course used the adjective viileä (cool) but the correct answer was lämmin (warm). According to our textbook, “Etelä-Suomessa ei ole talvella aina pakkasta” (South-Finland is not alway freezing in winter). We must save the word pakkasta (freezing) for when it gets below -15.

Ravintola = Restaurant

Ravintola = Restaurant

Cowboys say ‘iii-ha-ha’

Finnish cats say ‘nau’, Finnish people say ‘oh-ho’ instead of ‘oops’ and Finnish cowboys say ‘iii-ha-ha!’

The brain is a filing cabinet

My theory on learning languages is that the brain is like a filing cabinet and each language goes in a different drawer. Somewhere in my brain is a drawer of high-school Japanese that is gathering dust, but if I had to open the drawer I could rifle through it and dust off some of what I learnt.

The thing is I am currently studying Finnish and Italian so when my brain doesn’t know a word in Finnish, it automatically goes down to the next ‘foreign language drawer’ and starts looking in the Italian drawer. Which makes me want to say things like “Minä olen uudesta seelannista ma abbiamo vissuto in Australia per dieci anni.” (I am from New Zealand (FINNISH) but we lived in Australia for ten years (ITALIAN)).


Finnish, Swedish, English

My filing cabinet needs a spring clean

My brain is getting a work out as my Italian class is conducted in Italian and it takes me a while to realise when the teacher has switched to Finnish, which is okay if I know the Finnish words she has used (“For homework do exercise…”).

With all this jumping between languages sometimes I go to tell people ‘I am learning Spanish’ – which is not true – and my mind quickly recalibrates and grabs hold of ‘Finnish’ which has led me at times to tell people ‘I am learning Spinach.’

I think I need to lie down.

* kuusikymmentäviisituhatta neljäsataayhdeksänkymmentäkolme




Nightmares on Ice

IMG_2439There are a few things that get lost in translation as I make my way through life in Finland. Like when I greet people in the street with, ‘Hey, how you going?’ and they think I say ‘Where are you going?’ which makes them uncomfortable as it is quite a nosy question and they start to explain, ‘Well, first I’m going to the post office and then….’

IMG_2438So I shouldn’t have been surprised when I signed up for Adults Beginners Skating Lessons to find that actually, I had signed up for Adults Beginners Figure Skating Lessons. Because even though I emailed first and said I was an absolute beginner, there is no such thing as an absolute beginner on ice in Finland. Only one who hasn’t yet mastered the art of jumps and spins.


I went and bought a pair of skates before my first lesson because people don’t rent them here. In New Zealand it’s a bit like ten-pin bowling shoes – you go to the ice rink and hire a pair there. The first shop I went to had some lovely skates for beginners but unfortunately not in my size (big).

IMG_2436 So I headed north to another skate shop where a lovely woman helped me find a pair that fit.  Although they are not for absolute beginners, she explained, but for slightly advanced beginners. “Like for when you do jumps,” she said.

IMG_2440She showed me how to lace them up, which is quite a skill in itself, and then took my skates out the back to sharpen the blades. She also kitted me out with blade guards that I wear while making my way from the changing room to the ice and soft, furry covers to put on the blades after class to protect them and prevent rust.


It was immediately evident at my first lesson that I was way out of my depth. The only time I have been ice skating in my life was when I was 14 and a 17-year old guy from the butcher shop took me on a date to Paradice Ice Rink. We skated around holding hands to Thunderstruck by ACDC and for some reason I just haven’t recreated the scene since.

I am determined however to not sit at home all winter and read that there will be open-air ice skating rinks in Helsinki, including a big one near Rautatieasema (Central Station). One helpful comment on Trip Advisor was to remember that there are no sides – which for me means nothing to hold on to or to use to stop.

IMG_2447So while two groups of skaters move around me at class, skating backwards and pirouetting, I stick close to the wall and just aim to stand up and move forward. I am so out of my comfort zone. I’m quite tall and have never worn high-heels so balancing on two thin blades is really hard for me.

People glide by with encouraging smiles and give me thumbs up, much like you would if you saw a person of very limited mental capacity riding a bike for the first time. A few different people approached me after my first lesson with kind words and advice (get knee pads) and all of them asked me, with faces full of curiosity, “So, um, where are you from?”

IMG_2448The hardest part for me is managing my ego – it is so embarrassing to be so very bad at something while all around you people are doing it with ease. My main supporter, a man from India in the class, assures me that once I get the knack it will be just like moving over butter. Which would be great as I’m sure it would make for much softer landings.

In the meantime I just have to focus, manage my pride and stop myself from turning up to class in a t-shirt that says “I’m actually very good at swimming!”