Sunday, December 05, 2004

A winter's tale

I know that winter has descended on London, yet some part of me revolts against the idea.

Winter, you see, comes with a certain smell about it - the smell of real cold.

It's not something I've ever been able to whittle down to its constituent components. If you asked me to be logical about it, I would tell you it smells like wood long burnt and cooled, like smoke, like faint, cool embers, like concrete and bitumen and more than a little like metal if metal were a living thing.

Real cold takes your breath away.

In Warsaw, I would pad down the institutional green-and-grey painted stairs in my apartment block - boots fur-lined, bulky sweater under bulkier coat, gloves and hat and scarf and bag all adding to make my profile more yeti than human. I marched through cloyingly warm centrally heated air into the antechamber of the entrance hall, hurrying to work. Here, the two doors to the outside formed an airlock between the false summer inside and the very real winter waiting beyond.

The first thing I would feel was the mild sting of the suddenly freezing air against any exposed skin. The light, already bright in the cloudless morning, would reflect off the snow covering every surface and dazzle me into a state of clarity and alertness. My first breath would always catch, lungs protesting such a rude and sudden change of atmosphere. That first fight for breath was what marked the start of every winter morning that I knew.

I thought I knew the feeling of real cold until I travelled to a small village on the Russian border where my father grew up and where the bulk of my extended family still lived. Disembarking from the train to a deserted platform, I made my way out of the station laden with a basket of gifts for innumerable and interchangeable cousins that I still can't name with any great accuracy.

I stood in the street, small pricks of cold on my face dissolving the fantasy of gentle, kind snow and I breathed in deeply. Cold. Pure cold. From the moment I had stepped off that train it had been seeping it's way into the cracks between layers of clothing. It whispered against my cheeks, where the skin was taking longer and longer to regenerate warmth between each frigid kiss.

I looked around for some lee that would protect me from the wind without obscuring me from view. I was to be plucked from the snow and delivered to the family by an uncle, there to be gawped at and prodded and asked friendly questions and outright quizzed on any topic that they chose like a sideshow attraction or an oddity of some sort. They didn't get to see many Australians - if any at all - and my function was to be congenial and informative and entertaining for a few days. I was resigned to the time I would spend with them, knowing that what I wanted most was to sate my hunger for new landscapes and experiences.

I found a bus shelter a little way off and sat down to wait. The cold, though, the wretched fascinating cold didn't abate - it just crept up more slowly to chill me in a way I had never thought possible.

It seemed that I was there forever and it seemed for all the world that I was completely alone. No car drove by, no human came into view, no animal stirred and no branch of any tree moved an inch.

Leaves and garbage and the thousand incidental things that usually move to give the landscape some life were preternaturally still. The only thing animated was the snow - falling at a slight angle, at a constant rate and as silent as a rain of cotton wool.

I was trapped in a painting with one perpetually repeating, moving element. So quiet that it seemed I had lost all sense of sound. So cold that only one sense began to matter.

The coat, gloves, scarf and hat that had been perfectly adequate for the metropolis of Warsaw were laughably useless here. The muscles of my arms and legs had locked in a clench that would only move from the shudders emanating from my very core. To blink I drew two chilled sheaths over my eyes.

I waited, playing a game of dare, seeing how long I could stand the discomfort before seeking relief or walking across the town in a blind search for my family. Every minute that I stood there was a miniscule win against an invisible foe.

The car did arrive eventually, as did the apologetic uncle. I thawed gently in the passenger seat, half listening to him, looking out the window with a new appreciation for the power of nature.

In the ensuing days, I would use any excuse to go outside and any tactic for it to be by myself. No errand was too small to run for my grandmother and no distance too large to traverse on foot.

I came to look forward to my encounters with the cold and noticed myself change the moment I stepped outside. I would smile at the frozen landscape, my heart light, triggered by that first raw breath and the smell of winter. It made me feel inexplicably alive, as has real cold every time I've encountered it since.


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