[Through the front door, February 4 2012]
Last week I watched one of the longest tennis matches in history – the longest Grand Slam, the longest in Australian Open history. You feel pleased with yourself after something like that – I was there, I remember that match, it was epic. Then it fades from the news and your sense of belonging to something extraordinary fades even more quickly.
This week, I’m experiencing along with all of Europe what must be the longest cold spell in decades, in my life anyway. After a very mild winter with the thermometer only going below freezing perhaps once, we are suddenly picked up and moved to Russia, with temperatures a balmy minus six during the day and minus twelve at night. Add some native Swiss wind, the dreaded Bise, which is anything but a kiss, rather a cause of headaches, dry eyes and bad temper, and your ambient outdoor temperature is more like minus nineteen. All night long the shutters rattled – something they never do – and the atmosphere was definitely Gothic.
I try to recall other cold winters – did I experience this same feeling of helplessness and defeat? Places I’ve been: Russia in 1969 but when you’re young you’re less sensitive to the cold; you remember the people swimming at the open air pool in Moscow, the clouds of steam. Norway off and on in the 70s and 80s: they’re equipped, it’s a way of life there. But there was one day that it got so cold that a Coca-Cola bottle exploded, and even the locals were surprised. Bulgaria too; a freezing New Year’s Eve where the power went out and it must have been somewhere between five and ten Celsius in the bedroom, not more. But there was champagne, and snow, and friendship; people didn’t need blogs and Facebook in those days to comment on the weather.
My oleander will probably not make it this year, despite being wrapped by two somewhat clueless Albanian gardeners who may not have such cruel winters where they come from (although this year, anything’s possible). There is ice – indoors – around the edges of my skylight. The cat licks the condensation from the wall in the niche by my bed. The front door sticks and I worry about it freezing to the frame altogether. Or maybe I won’t be able to turn the key to let myself out, and will be stuck here until the thaw. I cannot see (through the binoculars) whether the lake has begun to freeze yet, but I worry about the ducks and swans.
These are perfectly ordinary things for many people around the world; they are used to it and know how to deal with it, for the most part. Vodka in the radiators and that sort of thing. I suppose if it goes on long enough I will deal with it in my fashion too, although mopping up the condensation is a major inconvenience, and I suspect that is the architect’s fault, not the weather’s. What is strange and new is the feeling of powerlessness, of looking at the forecast every day and seeing that nothing is about to change, because of a huge high pressure zone: relentless sun with a bit of cloud, temperatures minus thirteen to minus six. Wind 25km an hour. People have it far worse in Ukraine and Poland, in Serbia and Bulgaria. Cut off from the rest of the world, buried under huge drifts of snow. Living in a place like California you become accustomed to a predictable, benign climate. Those summer winds in the Bay Area are nothing in comparison to this, even if they do mean you don’t have any summer to speak of. Earthquakes have no forecast (tomorrow’s outlook on the Richter scale, 4.3, with a balmy 3.2 forecast for Wednesday); they happen and then they’re done and you deal with the aftermath. This cold wave is incremental, and you don’t really know what you can do other than try to stay warm in the present moment and try not to obsess about how much warmer it is in Paris (minus five). The sun is warming my back through the window. I suppose that compensates for wind chill factor when you’re indoors: sun warmth factor?
Last month I was re-reading Dr Zhivago and the most beautiful and moving passages are the chapters set in wintry Yuryatin and Varykino. Poetic and evocative, lovely to read about from your warm bed, your mild winter; be careful what you wish for, poetry notwithstanding. Now I’m translating a book set in the Pyrenees in the middle of winter, a grisly murder mystery with snow and ice everywhere, including on the corpses. And appropriately titled: “Iced.”
I had my groceries delivered two days ago, something I only do in extremes of weather. They made a mistake and brought me five litres of milk! I think the message is: drink lots of hot chocolate.
Wherever you are, keep warm.