Tuesday 28 December 2010

The Rare White Christmas in the UK

FRIDAY 2 WEEKS AGO: It's much warmer today than it has been, meaning I don't feel inclined to wrap my scarf three times (or thrice, as the Brits say) around my neck or prance about like a hyperactive goat in order to keep from turning to ice while waiting for the bus. It's still cold, of course, and the nearby park is still a snowy wonderland and cars are still abandoned on the main road. But it is a useful respite when drivers can reunite with their cars and good citizens can dig out their recycling bins to dispose of the bottles, tins, and papers cluttering their kitchen floors. It's supposed to be very cold again in a few days, but one must take advantage of what one can take advantage of when one can -- if one is so inclined, that is. If one happens to be an expert procrastinator then there's always next spring...and other rooms in the house.

Lunch is simple today: the wonderful Wensleydale and cranberry cheese from the West Yorkshire cheese stall in the Christmas market, encased in a chewy seedy grainy Sainsbury breadcake. It's a perfect holiday sandwich. To the left of me in the Winter Garden a man nibbles on what look like leftover holiday snacks, and the man on my right is eating a pasta salad. It's like a party in the Winter Garden, except with no wine or punch or gin and tonics or crisps or music or funny hats.

THE FOLLOWING WEDNESDAY: Lunch on this post-general-anaesthetic blur of a day is Yorkshire Blue Cheese with sun-dried tomatoes and just a hint of cayenne on a white breadcake. The cheese is very much like Stilton, except seeing as how it's from further north I decided to forego my usual Jamaican chutney in favour of a little Euro-izing.

THURSDAY: Snow is threatening again, flakes flurrying in moments between rain and sleet. Much of Scotland is still dealing with the first snow that started in late November. It surprises me that the northernmost chunk of the UK can grind to a halt because of a heavy snowfall, when the northern parts of the USA expect snow and treat it as a part of winter life. Take Chicago, for example. At a latitude of 42 degrees North, which is 9 degrees south of London, Chicago's typical winter involves 38 inches (94 centimetres) of snow falling anywhere from October to May, so the city is well prepared to deal with it. Even the natives of Seattle, only 5 degrees further north, seem to be a snow-hardy lot.

When I first moved to the UK I was expecting snowy winters, especially as London is 4 degrees closer to the North Pole than Seattle -- and my current home of Sheffield is another 2 degrees closer still. So why does Royal Mail come to a grinding halt with a mere 8 inches of snow?

THE NEXT THURSDAY: It's the eve of Christmas Eve, it's 2 days after the Winter Solstice, there are still piles of snow from the November fall that are so frozen and dirty they appear to be petrifying, and the sky is attempting to snow again. For some reason the shoe shops don't have any sensible boots for snow, as if all of us Sheffielders are interested in stumbling and sliding around on the holiday ice on slick and ridiculously altitudinous heels. Sorry if I'm rambling a bit, but the family to one side of me in the Winter Garden are making way too much noise while the mutterings of the man on the other side is increasing in volume.

All I want for Christmas is for everybody to quit talking all the time, all at once. Whatever happened to quiet contemplation? Whatever happened to quiet conversation? Whatever happened to quiet?

I have to admit that even though I've lived in climates with snow for the past 2 decades, this is probably the first white Christmas I can remember. There may well have been others, but this one is already cementing itself in my memory because of all the white-Christmas accoutrements I see everyday: kiosks selling roast chestnuts, jackfrost nipping at my nose, the current year's fashion of furry boots and knit ski caps, and the unbelievably massive fake Christmas tree in Fargate advertising "Santa's Grotto" -- which is surprising to me because Brits usually refer to Santa as "Father Christmas". Nando's, the Caribbean chicken restaurant chain (the UK's more interesting answer to America's El Pollo Loco) is advertising its turkeyless Christmas, yuletide carols are being sung at back doors by tone-deaf young blokes hoping for a tip, and Pakistani taxi drivers are dressed up like Inuit taxi drivers.

Although I don't celebrate Christmas myself, I do have to admit it's all a bit Christmassy. I'm just sad I missed the lunar eclipse on the Winter Solstice.

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Palm Trees In The Snow and Other Surrealities

THURSDAY: I'm eating my lunch while I'm working today. As the snow is over a foot high outside, I am part of the university library's "skeleton staff", one of the handful who could make the long trek from home. I considered not coming, but as one of my huskies needed to return a library book, I hitched up the dogs and sledged my way through the tundra and the drifts, avoiding the drifters along the way no matter how charming they seemed with their denim jackets, cowboy hats, and folksy manners. (Don't worry, it's only snow-related delirium).

As the book sorter churns and chugs away, sucking the books down its conveyor belts and hurling them into bins like a dystopian book-destroying Fordian monster, I'm curled up around my Stilton sandwich, drying my soaked stocking feet in the flames of the hot papaya chutney that garnishes the Stilton. It will be a short day and soon I'll need to start the trek back home. I've got some nuts in my rucksack in case I get stranded along the way. And I can always huddle up with the dogs to stay warm.

FRIDAY: Only in England could I find myself sitting in a giant glass dome, bundled up in fleecy layers, shivering under palm trees and spinning ceiling fans. The tropical plants look charming in that eccentric Victorian-British-Garden sort of way against the backdrop of snow. This is Sheffield's Winter Garden in its intended form.

Lunch is a vegetarian pepperoni and cream cheese sandwich with sun-dried tomatoes, spring onion, and red pepper, and my fruit is slices of apple, satsuma, and blackberries. It's like a cold pizza and a very confused salad.

THE FOLLOWING MONDAY: Today I'm trying not to wolf my sandwich down, as I was very late to work because I spent 45 minutes waiting for a bus that never came. The trampled snow is becoming icy and nothing is guaranteed. My washing machine flooded the kitchen floor this morning, I saw what appeared to be a dead woman on the icy pavement, my staff card has just snapped, and life is becoming very stressed and strange.

But my sandwich is good: Tesco jalapeño and red pepper houmus with a smearing of "quesito" -- a cheese spread surprisingly from Germany and reminiscent of white Velveeta -- on a very fresh brown breadcake. It deserves tasting, so I'm taking my time. The library and the books and the students can all wait.

TUESDAY: Today day started off on a better note. I left the house intending to walk (or crawl, as the trampled snow is turning to black ice). But when I noticed the group of people at the bus stop I learned a bus had been by five minutes earlier, so I decided to wait. And sure enough, another bus came along well before I had turned into an ice queen. And I actually got to work on time.

It was a much more settling experience than yesterday's Blue Velvet-style eeriness. My sandwich today is feta with some Jamie Oliver basil pesto and sun-dried tomato. I must admit I'm disappointed with Jamie, because his prepared pesto just isn't as good as most jarred pestos I've tried. Obviously, freshly-made is far superior, and I'm sure if he had prepared it from scratch in my kitchen it would have been very fine.

I've always though of snow as a silent phenomenon because it makes no sound when it falls, changing a landscape overnight like a stealth weather front. But at this point the snow has become quite noisy, especially when giant chunks of ice decide to jettison themselves down off the angled rooftops of these Yorkshire stone terrace houses. One can only hope that every crash, scrape, and KABOOM! is simply the natural thawing of the ice and snow as opposed to one's house gradually collapsing under the weight.

Or maybe it's small animals scurrying around in the crawl spaces. After all, it is quite cold outside...

Search This Blog