If you live in Greece by the sea and still have your bikini in the dirty clothes bin from your last excursion to the beach only a week ago, when it was 20 degrees Celsius, thinking of a snowy winter is quite extraordinary, even if your friends in Madrid, Amsterdam and Chicago send pictures of extreme cold weather on a regular basis. Snow is even more extraordinary if it was so all throughout your life.
The first time I ever saw the snow, I must have been six or seven years old, back in Italy. I remember the joy because everything screeched to a halt and my parents did not have to go to work. Growing up outside Naples, by Mt Vesuvius, we would sometimes see the snow in the distance, around the rim of the volcano. But real snow, the one you can pick up in your hands and make snowballs with, is unusual. My younger brother and I went around the flat banging pots and pans, chanting a made-up snow song, overexcited by the change in the regular programming. We were probably thrilled to have our parents around at home, amazed that there was snow we could touch, just like in the movies!
The snow melted so quickly that we weren’t even capable of building a snowman. It did however manage to freeze time for a bit for our family. I was reminded of this earlier this week, when I found out the plumber would not make it to our house south of Athens, Greece, “because of the weather”. A snowstorm had been announced. As I walked around sleeveless, the possibility of snow made very little sense. I had heard that it does snow in downtown Athens every now and then, but here on the Attica coast snow is not a thing, neighbours said. But as temperatures dropped, and sleet started coming down, I imagined the plumber snuggled up with his kids, looking outside the window instead of risking a drive with tyres that could not take the ice, and that made me very happy. To be fair, I also put what I was doing on hold (i.e. this very newsletter).
I took a break first to enjoy the sleet as it fell against a beautiful sunset over the Aegean Sea, in front of my window. I tried to involve Lorenzo, my son, in my enthusiasm. Lorenzo, look at the snow! But his response was to pick up The Snowman instead. Maybe he knew that what we had in front of our eyes was not proper snow, it was very much unlike the scenery that young James finds in front of his eyes in the classic British book.
Then came the night, and I couldn’t sleep. The shutters outside were banging for the wind, and the sky was beige, going towards orange, the sea had disappeared from the horizon. The snowstorm was coming. I eventually fell asleep, and when I woke up at 6am it was still dark outside. I started writing my morning pages, incredibly impatient for the light to come out to see what had happened overnight. And when it was finally light, there it was! All around us, a few centimetres of snow, our garden was all white, and so were the rooftops all the way down to the sea. I couldn’t handle the emotion, I felt like a baby. I was jumping a little, telling Nacho to look outside, and then look again, and once more, first at the trees, then at the lemons, and finally at the snowflakes that changed direction all the time.
Snow has seemed exotic since I was a young Neapolitan, when even the Alps felt like a whole world away. And to be fair, even rain causes things to halt in Naples. My friend Manuele, who is also Neapolitan, jokes around and says that people must feel thin as paper and be worried that water will be the end of them. I remember that when I moved to Scotland at the age of 17, several friends gifted me umbrellas. It was the Scottish winter that cured me out of my Neapolitan sensitivity for cold weather and rain. I started wearing hoods more, and let go of the umbrellas that would break in a second with the wild wind in St Andrews.
I was ready to move to Bonn, Germany, and later to Montreal, Canada, where -20 degrees Celsius was the regular temperature for many months, with peaks of -30. (By the way, no, I wasn’t ready for that kind of a winter, but that’s another story.) You would think that a winter in Quebec would have at least cured me of the snow excitement, but it didn’t. Snow brings me right back to being a child, to that morning when my brother and I played and messed around and danced and sang.
The thing is that this doesn’t happen to me only. Claudia, one of my friends, and a member of this community, comes from São Paulo, Brazil, and she was well into her thirties when she first saw the snow. I remember the pictures and texts she sent me, with a smile so big and the excitement of having played with the snow for the first time with her daughter.
Marit, another member, wrote to me last week from The Netherlands just after it had snowed. She watched families sliding down a hill. “Then I saw some girls around the age of 20, sliding down on garbage bags. I decided to go for it and asked if I could borrow a bag. They were full of enthusiasm and welcomed me,” she wrote. “I sledded down three times. I loved it! And it felt so good that I allowed myself to play.”
“Snow brings out our inner child,” writes Dr Sandi Mann, a senior psychology lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire in the UK, who researches boredom. She says that snow triggers happy memories of playing in the snow as children, breaks up routines and encourages playfulness too.
Now, let me put a wet blanket on all of this snowy warmth. I was made to think of this by another member of this community, Tassos, a Greek journalist. In Greece, like on the Mexico-US border, the cold weather has been extremely hard on migrants living in tents and other precarious conditions. Many of those are children. How privileged are good memories of snow and play? This is just a reminder of how certain feelings are far from universal.
What I’ve been reading
I found myself laughing in disbelief and disgust at a short story in which a dead, rotting baby leaves her burial ground that is being turned into a swimming pool. She finds a new life in the apartment of a relative who lives by herself and does not want to have children. In The Dangers of Smoking in Bed, a collection of short stories by Argentine writer Mariana Enriquez, sociopolitical commentary goes hand in hand with macabre details and classic elements of horror fiction. What happens to a single woman who wants to be childfree, seems to ask the narrator. Enriquez’s unique, frank, somewhat detached voice managed to surprise me in each one of the stories in this book. The book was published over a decade ago, so it’s not new for Spanish-speakers. The English translation by Megan McDowell is coming out in 2021, so watch out for it.
What I’ve been listening to
Irish poet Pádraig Ó Tuama’s podcast Poetry Unbound is phenomenal. A friend of mine says that it’s like a mini poetry workshop. In each episode, he talks about what a select poem has awakened in him, before rereading it. His picks are phenomenal, and the first episode tackles Brad Aaron Modlin’s poem “What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade”. Trust me and have a listen.
What I’ve been watching
You may have heard of Martha Jane Cannery, better known as Calamity Jane, the US frontierswoman who inspired a slew of movies, TV series and books. I just watched the 2020 animated version of her story directed by France’s Rémi Chayé. I loved the images of the great plains that 12-year-old Martha Jane and her family cross on the family wagon together with members of their community. I loved how she takes care of the family and learns how to ride a horse and use a lasso when her father gets injured. She is depicted, not as pretty, but as full of spirit. She challenges stereotypes and plays with gender expectations. I can imagine it’s a film that can lead to interesting chats with children around the dinner table.
Who’s been inspiring me
I’ve suddenly found myself reading poetry again, after a long break, thanks to recommendations by friends and Adriene Mishler, the online yoga teacher. This poem by Rumi was in one of the emails she sent out. I’d read it many times, but it is inspiring me again this week. The poem is longer, but here is its beginning for some inspiration.
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
What I’m missing out on and would love your help with
What’s your relationship with snow? Does it bring out positive childhood memories? Leave your comments below. You can do so by scrolling to the bottom of this story and filling in the box that says “leave a reply”.
With love and care,
📣 Nabeelah Shabbir, a member of this community and a former colleague, edited and improved this newsletter with lots of love, logging in from Amsterdam. Thanks, Nabeelah!