Winter and I haven’t been on speaking terms since I was 11.
That was the year my hometown of Harrisburg, PA, got more than 6 feet of snow and the temperature dropped as low as -22 F. I shoveled more than 7 tons of snow that year.* Afterward, every grownup I knew swore up and down that it was a once-in-a-lifetime winter and I’d never see anything like it if I lived to be 100.
So of course, 2 years later we got a winter every bit as bad — only this time the snow all melted at once and the town flooded, knocking out a pedestrian bridge** in the process. It was like getting a horse head in the bed from God himself. I was perfectly willing to take the hint. I wanted to move to Santa Fe and never touch the white stuff again.
But I can never be truly free of winter’s grasp. You see, after 15 years of cursing the North Wind and praying for global warming, I met the girl of my dreams. She turned out to be Canadian. Somewhere, God laughed.
Blair is an American citizen now and her Canadian roots barely show, even if she is unfailingly polite. She doesn’t have an accent. She’s not afraid of the dark. She doesn’t watch hockey or drink Molson or own a moose. But she was born in the North and the North will have her. It’s in her blood and nothing will change that. Even her children will be of the North, even if they are born and raised outside their frozen homeland. Whenever they feel a chill in the air, they will turn to face Polaris in the night sky and cry maple-flavored tears of longing for the true North, strong and free. At least, that’s what Blair tells me will happen.
At about this time every year, my northern bride starts to get an itch — a yen for brisk wind and hot drinks and wool clothing and snow, snow, snow. And that is how I ended up in Copenhagen last weekend, quietly praying for a swift, warm death.
To be fair, Copenhagen might be the most wonderful city in the world. I really couldn’t tell you. I was somewhat distracted by the creeping numbness working its way up from my feet. The trouble is that my style of travel is very walking-centric. Other forms of travel may be faster, but none teach you the details of a place like walking. Normally, I’d gladly trade an extra hour of travel time for the chance to really know a city — but sleet has a way of eroding my value system. The next time I visit a chilly place, I’m paying someone to drive me around town and slow down and point when we pass something interesting.
The trip wasn’t a total waste though. There was brief moment, toward the end of our tour of the Tivoli Gardens,*** when I think I might have managed to see winter the way my wife does. Or at least, I managed to hate it a little bit less.
We were sitting at a table in a miniature wooden version of St. Basil’s Cathedral, enjoying baked goods and hot drinks and showing vast amounts of appreciation for how gloriously Not Outside our table was. For a minute, it felt as though the world had shrunk down to that table: just me and her out of the weather and enjoying a small snack and I couldn’t for the life of me remember what I had been so upset about earlier.
It wasn’t a big song-and-dance number with fireworks. It was one of those quiet diorama moments you mount on a shelf in your mind as proof that all of this is real. This is your life and, somehow, you really are that happy.
When we got back home, I tried to recall as many utterly content moments as I could. It’s amazing how many of them follow on the heels of something unpleasant. You have a problem, you deal with it and then you step back from whatever was upsetting you — really take in the view. Then all the good stuff about life hits you all at once and you remember for a breathe what it is to be grateful.
You don’t get those moments without the jolt that comes before them. You can’t have your cocoa until you come in from the cold.
*Based on the square footage of my family’s driveway and sidewalk (plus those of two neighbors) and assuming that a cubic foot of snow weighs an average of six pounds.
**The city didn’t tear down what was left of the bridge afterwards. They just put up pylons right before the collapsed section, along with a sign that said, ‘Hey dummy! There’s no more bridge! Stop walking! Certain death ahead!’ But warnings like this are of little consequence to anyone living in America’s most despondent state capital. Go to Harrisburg today and I’m sure you’ll still see figures out there on the edge of the bridge, staring into the void of the Susquehanna and pondering the infinite. Or maybe taking a leak.
*** The Tivoli Gardens aren’t really gardens. They’re one of the oldest amusement parks in the world. The decor is a weird mix of faux-pagodas, Russian onion domes and twinkling lights, with animatronic gnomes and bears thrown in for good measure. On one hand, it’s the kitschiest thing I’ve seen in Europe. On the other, you have to admire the spirit of a people who show up in droves to ride roller coasters at night in the dead of winter.