Dear Friends

Letters home from Prince George.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Dear Friends 17

Written: December 13 2006
Published: December 21 2006

Dear Friends,

So there we were, all smug because we had survived the worst that winter could throw at us. I went out and bought more snow shovels – it turns out that there is no such thing as too many snow shovels - and with the winter tyres on, we felt we were in control of the situation.

Winter tyres have, of course, been an important consideration. On the first real morning of snow, I stared out of my window in amazement at the traffic going past. No-one appeared to have been slowed down in any way by the fact that the road surface was now under a couple of inches of snow. I thought back to the last time it had snowed in London – my 25-minute journey home from work had taken upwards of 3 hours as everything ground to a halt. The same level of snow here might – and I emphasise might – cause one or two people to slow down a little until they got a feel for the conditions. Then it would be business as usual.

But winter wasn’t finished with us yet, and things were about to get a lot more interesting.

The first we knew of it was when we were advised to plug the cars in overnight, even in the garage. We haven’t gone over to electric vehicles – cars here have what are known as block heaters fitted as a matter of course. The outward sign of this is that, once it gets cold enough, most vehicles have a piece of electrical cable dangling from the front. This is then plugged in, whether at home or, if you have a thoughtful enough employer, at work.

Most houses here have several power sockets on the outside walls, which seems very useful – all sorts of things have been plugged into ours, from Christmas lights to the iron (I occasionally did my ironing on the deck in the heat of summer), but now we see the real reason for them. Most houses now have attractive bright orange power cables dangling from the front, so that the various vehicles can be plugged in.

We plugged in, and went to bed. In the morning, the thermometer on the kitchen window was showing 20 degrees below. We stood and stared at it for a while – I even took a picture of it. Then I went out to clear the driveway.

At first, that kind of temperature doesn’t seem so bad – you are well wrapped up, and it is, as promised, a dry kind of cold – I have honestly felt much colder in England when the temperature was above freezing. Then, as I stepped outside, something odd happened to the middle of my face. It took me a moment to identify it – the inside of my nose had frozen. I hadn’t done anything with it to provoke this – I just breathed in, as I generally do, but there was no mistaking it; I was freezing up from the inside.

It is, I can assure you, a most peculiar sensation. I had a scarf over my mouth, and that was soon encrusted with ice crystals, but to cover my nose as well seemed likely to overheat me. So I just accepted it, and got on with the clearing, which I had by now got down to a fine art. Yes, I was cold afterwards, but not excessively so – I reckoned, once again, that we were on top of this winter thing.

However, 20 degrees below is seriously cold – cold enough that the boys had several days in a row at school as ‘in’ days; no playing outside because of the temperature. I discovered why when waiting for them to come out of school that afternoon – as far as I could tell, the temperature had dropped slightly during the day, and was now nearer 25 below. Standing in the playground while my children went through the daily ritual of putting on layer after layer of protective clothing – it was now, finally, cold enough to persuade even them that they needed to wrap up – left me with a serious appreciation for just how cold it is when you are not doing any kind of activity.

And then it got even colder. I have a photograph of the thermometer showing -30, and that was about as warm as it got that particular day. And still it snowed, and still I cleared it, and still my nose froze.

Then it was over – the cold front passed, and we were back to normal – temperatures no lower than ten degrees below, and the children back to sliding around in the playground. But of course, winter wasn't finished with us (indeed, since it’s only December, it’s only just beginning). As the temperatures rose, the snow came back. Day after day of heavy, wet snow, and finally we began to see that even the locals who are used to it can find it hard. There wasn’t really enough of a break in the snowfall to allow for proper road clearing, and even downtown became a risky place to drive around. I now understand why so many intersections have signs on poles pointing to the stop line – under all that snow, there is no chance of seeing the lines on the road.

One day last week, the overnight fall was particularly heavy – I kept hearing people complaining about 17cm of wet snow – and I needed all the available time just to dig out a path so that Zoë could get to work. The crews out clearing the roads were doing their best, but driving around that day was a particular adventure. I went up to get the boys after school, but had to admit defeat after the car became beached – the thickness of the snow was enough that the underside of the car, rather than the wheels, was stuck in it. Once again, I’d like to acknowledge the various people who kept digging me out, and never once complained about this idiot foreigner.

And now? Well, we have been thawing – the pile of snow at the end of the drive was as tall as me last week; now it is only just big enough for the boys to hide behind. We’re not kidding ourselves that winter is over, but we’re a lot more confident that we can handle it. Just another 4 months or so to go, then.