The polar nights; visiting dark Northern Norway


The sun doesn’t rise above the horizon all day long. A phenomenon that can only be seen south of the Antarctic Circle and north of the Arctic Circle, and the latter area I visited for a piece about winter depression.

Tromsø lies 350 kilometers above the polar circle and has 60 (depending on the definition) consecutive polar nights: 60 nights where the sun does not rise above the horizon. 61 days of darkness! Your whole biological clock is disrupted, I can tell. The stinging cold and the small pebbles on the sidewalks do not help to go for an evening walk, so you stay inside, for long. Where in the Netherlands we are debating whether or not we should stop the time change between winter and summer time, the hour difference is really peanuts if you compare it to what these people have to deal with. I never suffered from a disrupted feeling anyway when the clock was set one hour forward or backward in the Netherlands: we still have normal daylight. And yes, in the winter I also find it a bit less annoying to go to work in the dark and come home again in the dark, but luckily there is still some sunshine in between. Here you get up in the dark, you go to work in the dark, you lunch in the dark and you come home in the dark. And that has consequences; winter depression (or SAD, seasonal affect disorder) really exists. Yet the Norwegians remain pretty sober: “We are used to it here,” the guide of a local Saami family – the name of the indigenous inhabitants of, among other regions up north, Northern Norway – tells me.


Fish smell

I think the Norwegians are a bit special. Every house is decorated with lights, both inside and outside. The language is surprisingly easy to read for me as a Dutch person with a background in German and English. Readable indeed, because as soon as they open their kissers, I don’t understand anything anymore. They’d better keep ‘m closed anyway because of the special fish odor that then gets a chance to spread. Raw fish for breakfast, smoked fish for lunch and baked fish for dinner. A complete fish buffet greets me when I enter the breakfast room in the morning. You either love it or you hate it, I guess.


The best tips against depression

Back to life in the dark. Stick to a continuous sleep rhythm. This applies to both summer and winter. So go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time. The differences in summer and winter are huge. The 60 polar nights also mean there’s another side of the coin: 60 polar days in the summer when the sun does not disappear and it therefore remaining light at night.

Exercise also helps against depressive feelings. So exercising is really a thing here: there are gyms everywhere, giant gyms. And the cold doesn’t hold the Norwegians back. That does not only apply to adults. Kids play outside here between the piles of snow. In ski suits that is. So snow angels can still happen, what a relief. And many people here have a light therapy lamp at home to escape the darkness for a bit. Actually, it is a misunderstanding that it is pitch dark here. The moon does provide some light and the city is of course illuminated by artificial light sources. But the affect of artificial light is really different from natural light. And then there is of course the happy feeling of seeing the Northern Lights, of which Tromsø is known as one of the best places to see it. To ease the pain of the lack of sun during the day, let’s say. Because what a breathtakingly beautiful phenomenon and well, you really see that best when it is completely dark.

Appreciate what you normally take for granted

It is now freezing -4 degrees Celsius outside. Typing this story from my (luckily well-heated) hotel room where, through my window, I see the snow flakes falling. It makes me think. After just 3 days I know for sure: I would never handle this for 60 days. You wake up in the dark and it just doesn’t stop. At 3:30 pm you feel ready to go to bed. Sometimes you give in to that and then you wake up at 8 p.m., after which you cannot sleep again when you are supposed to sleep. Just like a jet lag. But on a positive note: when I’m back in the Netherlands, I will appreciate something extra that I normally don’t even think about: that the sun just rises there every morning (whether that’s at 6:00 AM or 7:00 AM: I couldn’t care less) and every day I can enjoy some hours of real daylight. Simple, but priceless.



“Merry Christmas”

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