SHAMPA BHATTACHARYA BRUWELEIT reflects on a white winter in Germany
The thought of falling snowflakes in the context of today’s South Australian climate is rather farfetched. Snow in the height of summer?! Nevertheless, I have chosen this antipodal topic with intent. The temperatures are soaring and there have been bushfires across our states. So, for a short while, I escape with my thoughts to the cold climes of the northern hemisphere, and dwell on the memory of my first frozen winter in Europe nearly two decades ago. Perhaps, my musings will act on you like a mental treat of ice cream, helping to chill out from the heat, albeit for a fleeting moment!
As the new year of 1997 approached, I set out in a car with three Germans for a short year-end holiday in the eastern part of Germany. We motored southwards from Dresden, the beautiful capital of the state of Saxony, into the snow-laden terrain of the Erzgebirge. These gentle ranges are known in English as the Ore Mountains. Our destination was a small resort called ‘Schellerhau’ in these mountains, close to the Czech border. It is here that my first encounter with snowflakes took place.
Outside the temperature was minus 17 degrees, and at that late afternoon hour all was quiet and still, except for the cars passing now and then. However, the frozen scenery appealed to my Indian eyes immensely; the lines of tall, snow-ribbed evergreen trees zigzagging with snow-topped mountain slopes, and the neat little houses with snow-covered slanting roofs, their lace-curtained windows twinkling with Christmas lights, presented a picturesque scene straight out of the season’s greeting cards.
It was my first winter in Germany. I was far away from the warm climes of western India which was then our home. My husband and I had spent the earlier part of our vacation in western Germany, in a quaint historic town on the river Rhine. Despite the favourable forecasts for snow, to our utter disappointment, the heavens refused to part with their niveous supply and denied us a white Christmas. The expected snowfall did not materialise in the following days either, even while the thermometer dropped lower in the minus range.
But finally, after hurtling down the Autobahn eastwards across the country for half a day and picking up our two companions enroute, here I was up in the Ore Mountains, with a feast of snow all around for the eyes to behold, the feet to frolic upon and the heart to thrill about. The biting cold could not dampen my spirits we reached our destination and stepped out on a carpet of snow several inches deep, just before nightfall. We lodged in the small but comfortable house of a retired elderly couple who supplemented their income by taking in tourists.
I was even more enchanted when my eyes beheld the pristine white panorama of the mountains the following morning. More snow had fallen during the night, and the translucent sky above promised more to come. The daylight that managed to filter in from above bounced off from every surface, casting an eerie glow. The branches of the evergreen trees stolidly held up their thick white burden, while smaller bushes were completely transformed into funny faceless figures. Overnight, our car acquired the look of a giant frosted cake for a children’s party. This was my first foray into ‘Snowland’, and it felt so good, especially when I could stand in the open and catch some falling flakes!
For the next four days we traversed up and down the white countryside to visit nearby villages, shouting out greetings to travellers who crossed our path, as if we were lost in some remote frozen wilderness and were glad to come across other human faces. These were still early days of the German reunification, and we were deep in erstwhile communist territory, so I was uncertain of local attitudes to a foreign face, but the camaraderie which greeted us was deeply heartening. The slopes that we diligently navigated in thick snowshoes were easy, though slippery sometimes, and we could cover long distances with not too much difficulty. We came upon several restaurants with interiors exuding old world charm, where our stomachs fared very well on the robust German cuisine, washed down with the equally robust local beverages.
The snow underfoot was sometimes soft and crunchy, sometimes hard and icy, so that the mere act of walking became a sport. I could feel every part of my body bracing to cope with the temperature each time we stepped outdoors, and it was a relief to start moving. There was no wind, fortunately, and the mercury dropped no further than minus 20 degrees during our visit. The air had a keen edge to it, with a freshness that acted like tonic upon my body. Any kind of open-air physical activity was invigorating, and you could understand why this relatively unchallenging terrain was dotted with health resorts that tourists flocked to in the height of winter.
We let go of all restraints to enjoy the sheer exhilaration of accelerating down the slopes on sleighs, seated cosily double on the small contraption. We watched the skiers in the distance, marvelling at their swaying, daring movements. Nearer, little children romped happily in the snow, free from their school routine, and sometimes their big pet dogs joined in the fun. There had been no fresh snowfall, and the sky remained clear and blue, letting the weak winter sun warm only our hearts and nothing else.
My first sojourn in the snowy mountains ended all too soon. However, nature’s white blanket was now spread all along our 600 kilometre-long route back home, with only the Autobahn remaining clear through human intervention. At one place we drove through gently falling flakes, much to my fascination, even as my better half cursed from behind the wheel. Reaching home at midnight, we had to shovel off all the accumulated snow from the gravel before we could drive into the garage. An activity that others might consider a boring chore, but brought me much delight even at that hour!
The enchantment of my first encounter with snow has remained firmly etched in my memory even after the passage of many years. I confess there’s something in this soft, white, woolly stuff that appeals to the child in me, as reflected in the lines that crystallised in my mind, shortly after a particularly spectacular downpour in Dresden some years later, when it snowed not in flakes or sheets, but in thick billowing blankets:
The snow falls with such majestic might,
Like cascading folds of stalactite,
Behold this heavenly deluge in white!
I truly missed the snow in the New Year seasons following our landing in Adelaide. Ultimately, I found a degree of consolation by sticking self-made paper snowflakes on my window panes at Christmas. These remain in place during the hot months that follow. It is a heart warming sight, and a cooling one for the eyes as well!