Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

I have always loved snow but only when it lies “round about, deep and crisp and even,” hardly surprising given my Scandinavian ancestry.  During my first few winters spent in Finland I stayed with relatives. Consequently deep snow in my ancestral homeland was just something I crossed whilst walking to or from a warm car fitted with snow chains or else traversed across in my swimming costume, en-route to plunging down holes carved into the ice of a lake. (Same Old New Year, Tuesday 22nd December 2009) When I stayed in Helsinki on my own one year, I realised I could only manage 20 minutes or so in the open before I needed to dash back into the warmth of the nearest coffee shop for a restorative coffee and cakes.  I also discovered that the tops of my thighs had developed the equivalent of sunburn as the chill of the weather left its mark upon the delicate and unprotected skin. The moral of the story is always wear tights not stockings in such a cold climate. The temperatures fall so low, Finland needs icebreakers to ensure the coastal waters of the Baltic Sea remain navigable.

Snow is in my blood. Nonetheless, I tried to look suitably impressed when two armed soldiers lead me outside to view snowflakes falling in Moscow. In those far off days before Glasnost, when the Cold War was only just beginning to defrost, I had had a forced stopover in Moscow en-route back to England from Thailand. In the circumstances, I was glad that I had not chosen to wear my US Tank Corps flying suit. I loved that flying suit with its two way zip fastening, the countless pockets and special compartments for a knife, pen and map. I had bought it from Laurence Corner, the army surplus store which sadly closed in 2007 after trading for 60 years, and thought it would be ideal for the solo traveller, allowing me as it did to have my passport and money securely concealed around my person. There was only scheduled to be a wait of an hour between transfer flights in Moscow, but I prudently decided not to risk inadvertently antagonising anyone by parading around the airport in the uniform of their erstwhile enemy.

My plane from Thailand had flown into Moscow early on New Year’s Day. The Russians seemed to have been celebrated the occasion with as much enthusiasm as their counterparts in Scotland, judging by what I took to be a roomful of drunken carousing pilots and cabin staff still in their uniforms, as we were herded along the corridor of the airport to make our way to a hotel for the next 12 hours. When we arrived at the hotel, I realised that the frosted glass partition in the lobby had clear glass at the bottom, through which I could just make out the lower limbs of people walking past. That was when then realised that the hotel had been divided in such a way as to prevent Russian and European passengers coming into direct contact with one another. It was at that point that the two young soldiers, probably conscripts, but armed with automatic rifles, quietly unlocked the side door and beckoned me outside to view for myself the wonder of snowflakes falling from the sky. They must have assumed it was a novel sight for me, which in terms of the English winters of the time probably was.

To fly from Thailand to Russia, I had first to take a flight from Singapore. That was the only time I have ever flown first class and even then it was only because May’s father (One Night in Bangkok 17th November 2009) was able to get procure me cheap airline tickets. I hoped I had the air of an eccentric millionaire, far too wealthy to need to dress up in designer clothes. I kicked myself later when I realised my ticket entitled me to use the first class lounge whereas I had meekly gone along to join other hoi polloi in the general departure lounge. At least I boarded the correct part of the aircraft. I was given a seat with plenty of leg room and served lobster off real china plates and supplied with steel cutlery and drank out of crystal glasses and not from their plastic equivalent. Cocktails were unlimited although as I rarely drink I limited myself to two. It was gratifying to press the overhead button and have a multitude of cabin staff scurry over to deal with my every whim.

As might be imagined, my experience on Aeroflot for the final leg of the journey was somewhat different. I could press the button as long as I liked and was completely ignored. The seats were cramped, the food was dire and there was no in-flight entertainment. The enforced 12 hour stop over in Moscow had added to the general misery.  I had horrendous jetlag back in England. I took to my bed on Tuesday night and did not get up again until Thursday morning, other than to look out of my window and try and determine where I was in the world. Looking at the Chinese silk embroideries hanging on my wall and the facades of the 1930s mock Elizabethan houses across the road, I realised that I must be in some former British colony and promptly went back to sleep again. 

Helsinki and Moscow are well used to heavy snowfalls. London is not and ground to a halt last February when we had the heaviest snowfall in decades. It gave my neighbours the chance to hold a barbecue in the front garden. It was reassuring to know that even if the electricity failed, we could still prepare hot food. I was determined to build a snowman as I did not have a memory of every doing so as a child, and it was an easier childhood ambition to achieve than executing a perfect cartwheel, without needing emergency treatment from an orthopaedic surgeon immediately afterwards.  The construction of the snowman proved more taxing than I had reckoned and I ended up fashioning a snow pyramid instead, the remains of which could still be seen in the garden several weeks after the rest of the snow had long melted away. If there is enough snow tomorrow I might attempt to build another snowman. Let no-one say my life lacks ambition at present.

Although the photographs were taken in February 2009, I am actually wearing the same outfit, minus the leather gloves and red shoulderbag, as I write this now. I had got all ready to venture out into the dark earlier and then decided I would rather hibernate indoors instead.