And Winter Begins

The first major snow of the season has fallen over the past three days, and it looks as though there is no sign of it letting up … at least not today. It is good to see the flakes starting to fall in mid-November, especially considering how bad the last winter season was in terms of snow. And contrary to many many others here in Kraków, I love the snow.

My love for the cool whiteness has nothing to do with the frighteningly obsessive desire of many in this region to strap planks of wood to their feet and zig-zag carelessly and with apparent ease down powdery slopes. When I was working at a primary / secondary school in Czech, they used to take classes of kids to the hills for two or three days instead of furthering their education without the batting of an eye. See what I mean by obsession? I suck at skiing. I’ll be the first to admit this. There is probably no hope of me ever being able to master or even get by at this so-called sport, but I figure this lack of talent saves me from broken limbs or having my teeth knocked out by random trees that never have the common courtesy to politely step out of the way as I careen downhill screaming for the brakes. Well, actually, there is no real careening involved. I usually fall flat on my ass every 10 metres or so, meaning that it takes me two hours to reach the bottom of a relatively small hill, whilst others more proficient zip by multiple times laughing at me with my face buried in the ice and legs sticking in the air twisted in unnatural positions. Hey, at least I save money on ski passes by only having to purchase one for an entire day!

I grew up in the Deep South of the US in the states of Georgia, Florida and Mississippi. These are not places readily associated with heavy snowfall or winter sport. In any given winter, this area receives, maybe, if we are lucky, a weeks worth of the chilly, white powder, though this usually just turns into a hard, glass-like surface of black ice that most southerners could not navigate in their monster trucks and SUVs for all the money in the world. I’m not saying that southerners can’t drive; they are actually less frightening than many drivers I have come across from the north-eastern states of the US. This is just solely due to the fact that they are much more relaxed on the roads. Southerners have that sense of being lackadaisical and laid back when it comes to most things … driving included. What I am saying is that it doesn’t snow so much in the South, so those born and bred there typically have no clue as to how to drive in the stuff. Whilst living in Leesburg, Georgia from the age of 10 until I was 14, I recall the day when a single flake of glistening snow drifted to the ground. This was enough to cause all the schools in town to panic and shut their doors for fear of long yellow buses full of screaming kids skidding off bridges and sinking into the depths of icy rivers. I didn’t really mind having these days off as I was never really enthusiastic about having to sit through the tediousness of shop class, where we built nothing more exciting than wooden footstools, or going to the gym for physical education and being told by the coach that we would be playing football outside in sub-zero temperatures … in shorts. There was actually something worse that bothered me about attending PE and that was one of the coaches. Mr Reed was a stocky, middle-aged black man of short stature with a voice so booming that he never needed a megaphone to make announcements, even in the noisiest of environments. I’m quite certain he must have been a drill sergeant at some point in his life. Mr Reed had a thing about wanting all of us boys to wear jockstraps (a type of undergarment with a pouch up front for the testicles but nothing to cover the ass, originally designed to give extra support to men riding bikes on the cobbled streets of Boston in ages past) during every lesson with him. Not only was this supposed to be obligatory, but he would inspected the locker rooms regularly, and a little too enthusiastically if you ask me, to make sure we all had them on in the correct manner. I constantly refused to wear one of these, which caused me a lot of grief and possible hearing loss from being shouted at, but I never saw the point of a ten-year-old boy needing extra support for his under-developed genitalia. It was just too weird for me. Needless to say, I never got as good of marks in PE as some of the other boys that happily obliged our overly zealous sports instructor. Though we did get to escape from this hell for a few days, it always caught up with us at the start of summer when they tacked all those days missed onto the end of the school year. Here you were, sweating to death in a classroom, surrounded by gnats that seem to have nothing better to do than fly straight up your nose whilst kids from the neighbouring county, where they weren’t cursed by that now evil snowflake, where out swimming in the lakes and rivers and enjoying their summer holidays. This always brought about more rivalry during the inter-school football matches when the next school year started and quite a few fights under the audience stands as well.

The point being was that I never grew up around that much snow. I knew what it was and experienced it yearly in small amounts, but never had I been exposed to drifts so high that cars were lost for weeks under blankets of the stuff as I have seen here in southern Poland! It is truly a beautiful sight to behold in all its shimmering whiteness and untouched purity. I, of course, am referring to newly fallen snow or the lingering snow that graces mountains, hilltops and remote villages for months on end, not the grubby slush that you see in the city after it has been driven through or trudged through by thousands of vehicles and grumpy city-dwellers who curse the stuff for making the roads slippery and their trouser legs wet. When a city receives a heavy powdering of snow, it is a magical place for the first few hours. All the lights glimmering off the icy surfaces and rooftops and crystal-like icicles dangling from gutters … these things cover all the blemishes of a city. Rubbish bins with their rotting banana peels, broken beer bottles and used sanitary pads are hidden beneath a sheet of elegance, and the uneven side walks normally splattered with the vomit of drunks or heaped with dog crap are smoothed over to look positively inviting for a stroll. The only problem is that when the temperatures rise and the thaw comes, all of these unsightly traits are exposed again, except this time they are sickeningly waterlogged and look worse than ever before. The rubbish has been turned into some type of toxic-looking sludge, and all the dog shit has melted into reeking puddles of a substance that can only be compared to the contents of a baby’s diaper after having been fed a dinner of peas and mashed turkey followed by a generous dose of hot sauce and prune juice.

Let’s get back to the more pleasant aspects, shall we?

As I mentioned before, I had been exposed to snow before on numerous occasions, but it wasn’t until moving to Scotland that I actually got to live in this type of winter environment. It took some getting used to, I must say. Not only did I have to learn my footing in this new world, but I was also fresh from the US, and my American sense of dress (or lack thereof) still had me in white high-top trainers with matching white sweat socks. After a few near cases of frostbite due to my shoes soaked through and socks frozen to my feet so that the only means of removal were a welders torch and a chisel, I decided that boots and woollen socks (of a darker colour than white) were more practical. I also discovered the true meaning of a winter coat with some sort of waterproof lining as well as the layering of clothes to keep you warmer. Again, this is not to say that it never got cold where I was from, it could be quite bitter at times, but it just didn’t seem to last that long. What was the point of purchasing an expensive pair of boots or a thick jacket you’ll only wear one or two weeks out of the year? It just made no economical sense in a place where there was only enough snow during the year to build a snow dwarf with a baby carrot for a nose. Most years I had seen more frost in my parents’ freezer than on the ground.

I also have to give my heartfelt thanks to snow for practically saving my life one evening. One winter I had made my way back to Central Europe to visit some friends and do a bit more touring around places I had either not been to or had not explored at length. The latter was the case with Budapest, and after a few days of fulfilling my desires there (I can tell you now in all honesty, there is no better way to beat a cold spell than by slowly boiling your body at an outdoor geothermal spa whilst flakes of snow fall all around your head, which is the only extremity of your body you dare have sticking out of the toasty water for fear of extreme hypothermia), I took a friend’s advice and set out on a night train for Kraków, Poland. The train was relatively clean and comfy, but the heaters in the cabins seemed to be stuck on one temperature – dehydrate! Try as I might and with the help of various others that shared my cabin that evening, there was no way to open the window and allow some cool, refreshing icy air in to make the place less of an oven. To make matters worse, I had overindulged in a few of the local Hungarian brews the night before and had not thought of bringing a bottle of water for the trip north as I mistakenly assumed the night train would have an all-night dining car or bar. After about two hours of having the little remaining moisture evaporated out of my system and my flesh beginning to crackle like dried leaves, I could take no more. I positioned myself close to one of the exits of the train and waited as patiently as possible for the next station so that I could make a dash for any type of vending machine that might dispense some form of liquid beverage to quench my heinous thirst. Unfortunately, luck was not on my side.

The route the train took seemed to only stop at small Slovakian villages and towns where, if you didn’t know any better, “abandoned” and “village of the damned” were the best descriptive words for their appearance. I guess there must have been some life lurking somewhere in these places, otherwise there would be no reason for the train to make a stop, but the one or two flickering florescent lights that barely illuminated the derelict platforms could not confirm anything. I was at wit’s end by this point and on the verge of either ripping open the veins of one of my fellow passengers and lapping at their gaping wounds as blood gushed forth like a fountain or heading into the toilet and taking my chances at the sink that was surrounded by signs in two or three languages warning you “Do NOT drink the water. Really. We aren’t just having you on. This stuff would kill your dog if you let them have it. Even boiled, this stuff could eat through the hull of an armoured vehicle.”

Suddenly, for no apparent reason, the train stopped in the middle of a stretch of woods somewhere in the heart of Slovakia. I really don’t know why many trains do this. I guess it has something to do with other trains on the line or something technical. Or maybe the driver just wanted to get out a bit, stretch his legs and take a leak … maybe a herd of deer had been hit (though I doubt any train would stop for that; more likely than not you would just hear shouts of “Yeeeeeehaaaaaawwwwww!!” coming from the front of the train) … or maybe Mexican banditos had blocked the track and were at that very moment pointing pistols at the gringos and telling them to hand over all the loot. I really didn’t care at that moment in time. It was my chance, so I took it. The exit door was forcefully flung open, and I leapt head-first into the drifts of snow beside the tracks. Handfuls of the cold, white goodness were shovelled down my dust-dry throat, and I smiled and laughed hysterically under the clear night sky as I realised I would live.

After rehydrating and trying to save some snow for later by stuffing it into any empty plastic bottle or beer tin I could find in the rubbish bin of the carriage, I scrambled back aboard the train just as it began its journey anew. My only guess as to why the train was finally setting off again was that the line was once again free of obstacles or the bandits must have come to the conclusion that the exchange rate at that time made Slovakian currency not worth their effort, so they let us all pass with no more than a few stern looks and one or two virtues taken.

Morning came as we pulled into Kraków, and I soon discarded all my makeshift canteens as a few open shops displaying bottles of various liquid refreshments came into view. Unbeknownst to me at that particular moment, this city that I was about to enter into was about to become my new home and where I would meet my wife and where our daughter would be born many years later. Each winter, the snow has kept falling, some years heavier than others, but it never seems to lose its charm when it graces us. Well, at least not until the thaw comes and those hidden canine treasures resurface.