How to survive winter as an expat

For a person that comes from a tropical country like me, where the temperature is the same most of the year, moving to a country that knows seasons can be both exciting and challenging. I wish I could tell you that “it all depends on the way you look at things”, but beyond thinking that this expression is such a clichê, in fact, I do not think that’s the only truth. Let me tell you why.



Yesterday, December 22, was officially the first day of winter here in Germany. I guess that if you don’t come from a northern country, you are probably one of those that complain about the constant gray sky, the freezing wind, the lack of desire to put your feet outside of the door, and how hard it is to get up of bed when it’s so dark outside. Let’s add to that the impulse to eat every food that comes to your sight. Welcome to the team! You’re not alone. Those things hit me hard on winter, together with a slight sadness that comes from the lack of light - and possibly some lack of vitamin D. But there is actually more to this story.


The topic of cold weather and the fear of being away from home or “alone” on winter comes up in most conversations I have with migrants and expats. From small talks in the elevator to deep conversation among friends. Some years ago within a group of friends from Brazil living here in Berlin, I’ve heard something that stick to my mind to this day. The phrase was something like this: “You either make an effort to make friends during the summer or you are doomed to be alone on winter, that said, Christmas and New Years”. No pressure, right?


That’s unfortunately the reality of us who moved to a new country without knowing anyone here yet. But the reason why this stick to my mind is not because of the truth (or negativity) behind it, but because it helped me to understand something very deep. 


Not long ago I had a mind opening conversation with a lovely German woman about winter, which connects with the phrase from this Brazilian friend. She told me how her boyfriend, that comes from South America, did not like winter at all and how different they felt about this season. For him, winter is connected to all these things we mentioned before: cold, darkness, lack of motivation, not going out as much, loneliness and the clear realization that you are indeed far from home, from family, from what is familiar. For her, winter is connected to family memories during the holidays, playing in the snow, eating delicious homemade food and cozy drinks, visits to Christmas Markets with her loved ones. Do you also see what I see?


Resisting to accept the winter season is not only the physical discomfort of the weather change, but related to something much deeper: memories. That’s why I say that your perspective (or looking at things positively) is not the only element here. People who are born and raised in countries with different seasons have their own beautiful and loving memories of winter, whereas a migrant or expat needs to create those memories, and that my friend takes time. Enjoying the winter is not as simple as adapting. It has to deal with creating memories in this new place, and the emotions and feelings connected to living the transformation that the cold seasons can bring.


Learning how to find happiness even on harsh winters requires openness to live this transformational process of undressing the old and planning the new. To accept that there are things and ways of living that we don’t know and that it’s okay to learn again. To create new memories and rituals in this new country and stop comparing “back home” with the here and now, after all, you choose to be here (or most of you).

This can be as simple as creating your own rituals in these seasons. When I lived in Norway and now living in Germany, I can see how kids learn since a very young age at school about the seasons rituals, the little celebrations for the change of seasons that come from centuries ago due to agriculture and harvesting metaphors. They also learn to value the winter holidays and the small traditions every year. Kids are taught to play outside even on very cold conditions because there is no other option when you live in a country that is cold 6 months a year. They also learn about the benefits of the cold air, or Frischluft as my German boyfriend says opening the windows of our bedroom every morning as soon as we stand up when it’s 3 degrees outside. We don’t need to learn to love the same rituals, but we can invent our own winter traditions and with that, give a new meaning to the cold seasons.



Coming from a Latin country, where life happens most of the time outside of us, the cold seasons can be hard. In general we live in a more extroverted way and as the weather also allows, we are constantly doing something “outside”. That said, in a new country the process of internalization that the cold seasons brings to an expat can be mixed up with depression, sadness, solitude. But that’s because most of us are not used to look deep inside for self-reflections on attitudes, behaviors, life purpose, how the year went. These questions are exposed not only by moving abroad, but also by the cold seasons which invite us to look within.


Learning how to find happiness even on harsh winters requires openness to live this transformational process of undressing the old and planning the new. To accept that there are things and ways of living that we don’t know and that it’s okay to learn again. To create new memories and rituals in this new country and stop comparing “back home” with the here and now, after all, you choose to be here (or most of you).


The winter offers us the opportunity of getting to know ourselves a little better, to grow, and to be the actor of our life seasons. Are you ready for that? I certainly am. And if this text doesn't help you, remember: from now on, everyday will be longer, with more day light, and takes you closer to the summer!

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