Fifty Shades of Snow
(Part I – The Four Ages of Snow)
For the last three winters of my life I have been surrounded by snow and frigid weather. A completely new experience for me. Before coming to Boston three years ago, I had spent all my life in no-snow zones. In zones where you sometimes get fed up with too much sun: in Lushnje (a small town in central Albania) and Athens, Greece. Even in my mum’s bedtimes stories the presence of snow was scarce. The only “snow characters” I remember from childhood are snowman and Snow White. The first didn’t figure among my toys. As for the latter I never fell in love with her (maybe because I couldn’t dream of myself as a Prince; I felt closer to the Seven Dwarfs).
In the songs that I hum time after time, snow is almost never mentioned (except for Adamo's "Tombe La Neige"). The first time I came face to face with snow was when I was 13. It happened at a town in Southeastern Albania, called Librazhd. As I was visiting my uncle there, during the winter-break, a thin white layer of snow peppered the sidewalks and the streets of the town. Just enough to allow me to make the first snowball of my life. The snow melted in few hours and I continued the rest of my life without it.
When I grew up, my meetings with snow were few, casual and relatively short-lived. The longest period I ever co-existed with snow - before coming to Boston - was in Berlin in 2007. We stayed together there, me and the snow, for a few weeks. Then I went back to Athens and I quickly forgot about it.
The last three winters of my life here in Boston the word “snow” has settled for good in my everyday vocabulary. Apart from the word “snow” other words have become an integral part of my vocabulary: boots, winter jacket, thermal T-shirts, thermal underwear, parka, hood etc.
It took me a few months to accept the fact that Bostonian winters were going to be really different from the previous winters of my life. My friends from Northern Europe came then to mind; I remembered when they would visit me in Athens, they would sigh and say “lucky you, living under such a mild winter.” I had never seriously paid attention to their lament. Furthermore these kind of exchanges between Northern and Southern Europeans have become kind of routine. The Southerners brag about their climate and ancient ruins (while envying, sometimes, the bureaucratic efficacy of the Northerners and their modern achievements). Vice versa the Northerners brag about their modern achievements (while envying, sometimes, the sun and ancient ruins of the Southerners). I belong to those Southerners who would like the Northerners to envy us for something we have invented and crafted with our own minds and hands in the present (apart from the food of course). I want them to admire us for something that was not offered to us for free by nature; or was left to us as a heritage by ancestors that we never knew.
But let’s go back to my Boston winter. As I said, the word “snow” didn’t come alone. So it was that in my first snowy Bostonian winter I learned that my worst enemy in the streets lay invisible; its name is “black ice”. Woe to those who underestimate it. Fortunately I am not someone who underestimates “enemies”.
My neck adjusted to the new wintry reality. It lost the carefreeness of the Southern European winter; it gained a kind of alerted rigidity, like that of a hunter when looking for the prey. While walking on snow I caught myself whispering words like: “watch your step!”.
Once I learned about the different shapes and shades of black ice, slush-puddles and snowbanks, I started to pay attention to the soles of the shoes I was about to buy. I had to be careful and pick those that would be able to protect me against sliding. It’s a matter of a broken or non-broken neck; in few words, a matter of life and death. Inadvertently other words became an integral part of my everyday vocabulary. Words like “blizzard,” “snowstorm warning,” “shoveling,” “snow blower,” and “snow plow.”
But words never come alone. Behind the snow-words there is a new landscape that my eyes behold for three to four months every year. During these months I know that everything will be covered by snow: sidewalks, trash bins, mailboxes, fences, roofs, cars, bushes, train tracks, barren tree branches, power wires, bikes, benches, bridges, river water, ocean water, taxis, trucks, buses, sex- shop signboards.
During my second winter here in Boston, I began classifying the ages of the snow. I called it something like “The Four Ages of the Bostonian Snow.”
“The Age of Innocence” corresponds to the snow that falls during the first month (December or January). The landscape around you takes on a fairytale-like aspect. “The Age of Innocence” usually triggers joy and brings me internal harmony. It invites me to reach out to the snow, to touch it, to gather it in my palms, to rub it on my face. It is soft and light, like a dream, like a wonderful illusion.
After the first month, it becomes “The Age of Mature Snow.” You understand then that you have to get used to it (and the snow has to get used to you). Gradually you begin losing interest for each other, in the same way it happens sometimes with married couples, when marriage becomes kind of habit and routine. (Then you are together because that’s what it is). Even if you don’t confess it out loud you start asking questions – why has the snow suddenly lost its previous beauty?
After “The Age of Mature Snow” comes “The Age of Melancholy.” At this stage, deep inside, you start hating the snow. You feel it as an oppressor and an occupier. You feel colonized and sometimes excluded by it. To go along with it you might even pretend that the snow doesn’t exist. It’s like your defying denial will contribute to melting it away sooner.
At the end comes the “Age of Mourning.” The snow becomes filthy. There is something lugubrious and corpse-like about it. It looks like a dead man, waiting for the funeral ceremony to take place. It’s the most melancholic moment of the coexistence with snow. At that point everything and everyone looks exhausted and dull: the snow, the people, the trees, the reflexes, the bikes, the mailboxes, the taxis, the sex-shop signboards. It’s the moment that nature is preparing in silence its come-back, like someone buried deep in memory who suddenly pops up, resuscitated, in front of you. By then it’s April, “the cruellest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain” (T.S. Eliot).
To be continued...