A Cold Winter

When we set out for the Old World in the frigid temperatures of an early December morning more than two months, we were as excited as kids on the last day of school term.

With the mercury hovering around 10 below in our little valley and the snow and ice crackled underfoot it felt good to be fleeing the onset of winter and the impending seasonal snowstorms.

Soon, we comforted ourselves, we would be in Europe, basking in more temperate climes. Not exactly the Bahamas, but nevertheless a nirvana of cleared pavements, mornings without shovels and iceless roads.

Of course the main reason we headed off to Europe was not for the weather.

We were keen to catch up with friends, hang out with our families, drink beer in English pubs, walk the banks of the Thames and pig out on the dozens of variety of pork the Magyars serve up.

But fleeing the dark months of snow when we are often engulfed in several feet of the white stuff and it seems that we spend our entire waking lives just shovelling was certainly a bonus.

Imagine our consternation then when we arrived in Europe, jetlagged and worn out by the long series of flights, to find the needle fixed well below zero and the continent in the grips of a deep freeze.

In Hungary we struggled to get to my Dad’s little house in the country through more than a foot of snow and, once there, shivered as the wind howled down at us from the Russian steppes.

Even the UK, that haven of rain and moderation, was blanketed in white, sparking talk of a national emergency, and much of the public transport network had shut down.

At first we responded with our smug “Cold? We have this all the time in Canada” speech. But the temperature kept dropping until it really was cold, even by the standards of the Canucks.

My Mum, who lives among the small folk of west Wales and usually has barely a frosty night in the course of a whole year, was facing temperatures of minus 20, a catastrophe not visited on her village since the English invaded several centuries ago.

In London we watched as office workers came scurrying out of their offices in leather-soled shoes only to slide uncontrollably along the ice-encrusted pavements struggling comically to stay upright.

With the unusual weather, of course, came disruption and delay. The day we left for Hungary our flight from Heathrow was cancelled and we struggled to find an alternative from Gatwick.

Arriving early at the airport we watched as hundreds of easyJet thrill-seekers were told their plane would not be leaving. A riot broke out in the terminal with lots of shouting, swearing and threatening.

What saved us that day was that the flight we had rebooked onto was operated by Malev, the Hungarian airline, and the crew, facing several days holed up in a cheap hotel without their beloved salami or gulyas, were apparently desperate to get home.

In the end I think ours was the last flight out of Gatwick for several days.

All this shivering and discomfort was, however, only a prelude of what was to come. When we arrived in Estonia to visit Kristin’s family the temperature fell below minus 30 and stayed there stubbornly for a week.

In central Russia I heard that they had the highest pressure ever recorded.

I was secretly hoping that the polar temperatures might mean my annual sauna ordeal with Kristin’s family would be postponed for a year.

Not a bit of it. With a wicked gleam in his eye, Kristin’s father, Tiit, stoked the sauna until it was so hot that the roof started to smoulder. When we entered, the tiny wooden cubicle was a searing 122 degrees celsius.

And so began the masochistic ritual of which the Estonians are so fond. Five to 10 minutes in the sauna at 120 degrees followed by a roll in the snow at minus 30. Once, twice, three times, four times and each time I thought my heart was going to burst out of my chest.

Of course the cold weather wasn’t all bad news. I got to try out a new winter jacket I had bought myself.

And one day, on a visit to the island of Muhu in the Baltic Sea, I went for a three-hour walk with Ott, a friend, on the frozen sea ice, a sublime experience I will always remember.

But it seemed that the whole time we were in Europe we were constantly skirting weather-induced disaster. Once Kristin lost control of the Land Cruiser she was driving on ice and ploughed into a snow bank.

In early February in Budapest, after yet another snowfall, clumps of hard snow and ice began crashing off the buildings onto the pavements making even a walk to the local shop a game of frigid Russian roulette.

We watched as one large clump came down on a car parked outside my flat in Budapest. It shattered the windows and left a large dent in the roof.

After much cursing and moaning the owner had the car towed away and then, parking spots in central Budapest being rare, another driver sneaked in to chance his luck. His car too was flatenned within hours.

Finally, after nearly ten weeks away, and deeply homesick for the peace, quiet and beauty of our lonely valley, we headed back to Canada.

“We will be shovelling snow for at least a week when we get back,” I manfully told my European friends. “Perhaps even two or three.”

Imagine our surprise when, as we circled at the closest regional airport, we looked out the window to see not even a patch of white just the gentle greens of early spring.

When we got home three hours later there was barely a foot of snow where we had expected four or five feet. It took us only half an hour to shovel off our front deck.

In Vancouver, where they are holding the winter Olympics, we watched skiers struggle through slush and rain. The temperature one day was 14 degrees.

“It’s been the warmest winter anyone can remember,” a neighbour told us. “I’ve only used the snowplough once since you left.”

As we settle back in, hundreds of birds singing in the yard, there are large bare patches of green grass and our roofs are all bare. This time last year we could barely see out of our windows.

Maybe next year, then, we won’t bother with the European trip at all. We’ll just stay here and bask in the sunshine.

Meanwhile, friends and treasured guests, it’s shaping up to be a glorious one. We still have few spots left for the spring and summer if you are tempted, and one or two in the autumn, but they are filling quickly.

So why not leave freezing Europe behind, take off your big coats and gloves, fish out your swimming gear and plan a spot in the Canadian tropics.

One Response to A Cold Winter

  • Anonymous says:

    Hi Julius and Kristin. We enjoyed your story of winter travels in Europe. Here in central Scotland we still have deep snow in places – a really extended Winter. We will be looking out our tropical gear for a visit to your Ranch in ?October. Hope the Spring sunshine is just around the corner.

    Best Wishes
    Fraser and Dorothy Ireland