Listening to RTÉ Radio One’s Sunday Miscellany that had ‘snow’ as a theme lead me to ramble back through my own snow memories. If recall could be total, then I would start with the famous snow of 1947. But apart from causing a panic by being born in the midst of that, the only trace was a recollection on occasions by my mother of the event. I really don’t think it was my fault to be born at that time.
As a youngster in Sligo, I recall the rare occasions of snow and ice and slides on Pearse Road, that would have been a nice Blue Slope if Sligo ever became a ski station (with Benbulbin a great Black Slope) if climate change dictates it. Years in Galway and Leicester are full of wet rain and umbrellas inverted. But a first real appreciation of snow came when I moved to Madison, Wisconsin in the mid-west of the USA. Arriving there in October, the flame-coloured tree leaves of ‘Fall’ at Picnic Point beside Lake Mendoza did not explain why the lab had a ‘Pool’ where you could place bets on the date that the extremely large lake would freeze over. And freeze it did, and not too long afterwards in November. For some, it was a great time with ice-skating, fishing through a hole drilled in the ice or doing outlandish things like placing on the horizon of the lake a papier mache version of the top of the Statue of Liberty, as if we were all going under water. For me, the snow meant a rapid demonstration that the woolly Aran ‘Clancy brother-type’ jumpers I had were a complete waste as the wind did not respect them. Better clad, and having added a beard for protection, I soon came to like the crispness and cleanliness associated with the white world. I recall being awed when I stood waiting for a bus to get to the lab and snow fell on my Parka as perfect complex designer flakes. It was great to have real seasons and the cold lasted for 3-4 months. Occasionally, it was so cold that with the wind-chill factor that there were warnings not to leave fingers exposed for more than 13 seconds. I wondered how they calculated such things with such precision but did not ignore the message! We learnt to drive in snow and that is a skill that helps throughout life. I learnt also that warmth should always trump fashion when the weather was in the minuses.
Back in Europe, in France, it was a case of looking for snow for recreation in the nearby hills and then many years back in Ireland was more of the standard occasional day of chaos.
But moving to and living in Germany brought snow back to the forefront of routine life. It came every year and all cars switch to winter tyres ready for winter – it is a rule. This year, I was back in Heidelberg at Christmas time and it was a little cameo of snow in Germany. When the snow came, the first responsibility was to clear the pathways outside houses before 9am. But it was easy to be equipped for that when it was an annual event. Shovels and brushes were at the ready. As was a supply of grit (available with or without salt, depending on the balance you felt was needed between the environment and efficacy) readily available at the local supermarket. And as it was Christmas time, the outdoor market (Weinachtsmarkt) was enriched by a light fall of diamante snow flakes. Standing in the happy local crowd that downed Gluhwine and sought out sausages or steaks in the multiple stands that interspersed the craft stalls, I could only mop up the feel-good feeling. Being outdoors, prepared for the elements, the snow was the essential extra element.
And now, we have had our own mini Siberian moment in Ireland. But applying the lessons of the past is difficult; no gear in the house to clear away the snow and ice outside the door, lack of clarity if it was a potential crime to interfere with the deposits of nature, the resulting hazard for all who walk to work (and I did have a slow-motion fall), no real change in the style of clothes that are worn to work, in particular for formal meetings, and of course the travel chaos all over the place. Soon it will pass, and we will face the problems of flooding and water shortages (an incredible combination!) again. There will be also the calculated cost of lost productivity and the health toll taken on those that were not warm, dry and fed.
Nonetheless, when you start to think of the wet that will return, doesn’t it seem that snow is a better option if we were ready for it? So let us see it for what it is a very welcome distraction from normality. Anything that can remove NAMA and the recession from the front pages is a boon to the country’s mood.