From ice swims to knitting: Europeans seek ways to ride out Covid winter

Kate Connolly in Berlin
·4-min read

For Alice Weiss there is no alternative to what the Germans call Flucht nach vorne, or knuckling down, to cope with the challenge of surviving winter during a pandemic. Others are determined to stay warm as the temperature drops, but Weiss has embraced winter swimming, plunging into the chilly lakes on the western edge of Berlin.

“It is invigorating, it takes me out of myself. It makes me stronger, healthier,” she said. “I’ve yet to have the legendary endorphin release that some swimmers talk of, but I expect that to come in winter.”

Winter or “ice” swimming, as it’s known once the water gets cold enough, is just one of the ways Europeans across the continent have been trying to keep up morale while boosting their immune systems. Experts say psychological strain can have a huge impact on physical health, and the pandemic has inspired a boom in everything from knitting to foraging to a surprising craze for ponchos.

Sometimes referred to as the “Estonian vitamin”, ice swimming or jääjumineor is a flourishing trend among young people in the capital of Tallinn, where winter swimmers are organising a festival in a former Soviet submarine shipyard in December. They hope to set a world record for the number of participants in an ice swim.

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For those without an icy lake nearby, cold water immersion of the kind advocated by the Dutch extreme athlete Wim Hof is possible just by taking a cold shower. It is an “alternative way of experiencing its benefits in the comfort of your own home,” says Hof. He has been running workshops during the pandemic to introduce more people to his theories about how to boost the immune system to keep the worst effects of the coronavirus at bay.

“Wim Hof is good at three things in particular,“ according to Andreas Michalsen, the head of natural medicine at the Charité hospital in Berlin. He told the broadcaster DLF: “Cold therapy, breathing exercises and meditation, all of these can help prevent many stress-induced illnesses, from high blood pressure to autoimmune disorders.”

For those looking for less adventure and more cosiness, knitting has found a new lease of life, particularly in Norway. “While not spawned by the pandemic, its fan base has only strengthened in numbers because of it,“ said one member of Strikkesida for Alle, or Knitting for Everyone, a Facebook group based in Norway that has introduced knitting to newcomers as well as encouraged veterans to pick up their needles.

Knitting is particularly popular in Norway
Knitting is particularly popular in Norway. Photograph: Liubov Chuiko/Alamy Stock Photo

In neighbouring Sweden, where there is also an unquenchable thirst for holiday cottages, interior design is receiving a boost, as is ice fishing, a previously somewhat old-fashioned activity now promoted as an antidote to the Covid-19 blues.

Sales of pets and books have both been on the rise across Europe too, ditto Vitamin D and ginger. Ponchos are an even more unusual new craze. They might not be seen as very practical in normal times, says Anita Schmid, a translator who lives in the Belgian countryside, but they are “the next best thing to a blanket and useful for those of us not going out much but needing the nearest thing to a cuddle as we pursue hours on end of home office, possibly in a draught.”

In Barcelona, where the winters are generally sunnier and milder than up north, musicians have been meeting on the city’s roof terraces to practise, inevitably attracting audiences on adjoining terraces. Assuming the weather holds, some have pledged to continue to rehearse there through the winter.

For people who have access to countryside, foraging for everything from sloe berries to funghi has been rediscovered from Scandinavia to Germany. For those who do not, there is always bread making – which has put a strain on yeast and flour supplies - letter writing, sock darning and jam making … as well as pottering, ceramics and night hiking.

A woman picks funghi near Dobieszczyn in Poland
A woman picks funghi near Dobieszczyn in Poland. Photograph: Marcin Bielecki/EPA

In Germany, where most traditional Christmas markets have been cancelled, fans of glühwein, the hot mulled wine widely sold at the markets, have coined their own term for taking a flask of it on a walk in the forest: Adwaspaglüh. Alice Weiss, keen to warm her bones after her lakeside plunges, prefers her new infrared cabin, installed next to her bathroom for around €2,000.

“Infrared light improves my circulation and helps me to sleep better,“ she said. “Like the winter swimming, it’s my way of taking back control at this difficult time.”