A Siberian Spell in Europe

Feb 15, 2012 by

After experiencing real Siberian cold, and I mean way, way, way below zero, one tends to think that it can’t get cold in Europe. That it just isn’t the place where below-zero temperatures even happen. Why? Because Siberia is somewhat of an exception, and it’s the place people most often mention or joke about when talking of extremely cold weather that makes it hard for people to be out and about. OK, make those thoughts about most of Western Europe. After all, Finland and Norway are known for very cold spells during the winter. So not expecting freezing weather everywhere in Europe would be a tad uneducated. In the places where one doesn’t expect it one might be prepared for 5 degrees below zero. Maybe. Occasionally. Rarely. Isn’t this the place where most people run around without warm hats on during the year? And if they do wear them, these are light, skimpy things bought for reasons of fashion?

For me cold weather becomes cold when it’s felt despite all the layers of clothing you cover yourself with, when you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning not because you’re sleepy, but because the bed is warm and the outside isn’t. When I know that if I take off my scarf even inside, I’ll start shivering. And that is what Europe is experiencing right now.

So when real, tangible cold hits here, it seems as sudden as an explosion. Particularly in the places where, on a day-to-day basis, you don’t expect it to happen. See above. Yes, it may rain. It may snow, a little. That’s how people perceive local weather standards, despite there actually being previous examples of heavy winter snowfalls during the last three years in various parts of Europe. Maybe it’s because we Europeans are so used to life in the EU, with so many countries being within close reach, travel being easy to plan, visa-free entry and things generally working. Especially in Germany. Because if there is something Germany and Germans are known for, it’s this: order, punctuality and being prepared. And the latter exceeds being organized.

In the second week of February temperatures hit as low as 20 degrees Celsius below zero in some parts of Germany. Ice covered the pavements in the mornings and snow fell periodically from the sky. Hamburg, one of Germany’s most northern cities, has also had its fair share of problems in dealing with the onslaught of the cold weather. The months leading up to Christmas were snow-free and rainy, causing many to grumble about the lack of Christmas atmosphere. A month later they got their wish. The city’s maintenance departments have been constantly working to prevent casualties, foremost people falling and injuring themselves on the ice-covered ground. The early morning rush to work so becomes a small exercise in survival, with thousands of people getting on the warm subway with relief and still many more shivering at bus stops. The port of Hamburg, which is the largest in Germany and one of the busiest in Europe, has also been hit hard by the cold weather. The Elbe river, where the port is situatiated, has mostly frozen, stopping or slowing down a large part of the ship traffic. Ships can get through only with the help of tugboats or icebreakers.

The Deutsche Welle, Germany’s leading international broadcaster, reported on the cold weather across Germany with an impressive photo gallery on its website. One picture in particular stands out. The city of Leipzig after a night when temperatures dropped to 20 degrees Celsius below zero. The photo is a beautiful thing, with a view of the city’s rooftops and old streets, a domed building rising in the distance, everything bathed in bluish light and the pink glow of the sky above. Yet the reality behind this picture is staggering, as it clearly depicts the amount of houses being heated to protect people from the frost, with smoke rising from their chimneys.

Germany’s leading news magazine, Spiegel, ran a story in its online English issue on February 7 under the dramatic headline “Deadly Cold Snap. European Deep Freeze Refuses to Relent.” Is it that serious? Yes, it is. The article reports on 135 people dying in the Ukraine as a result of the cold. The cold front made its way to Europe from Siberia. Where people experienced 49 degrees Celsius below zero at the end of January. They might expect such temperatures, but that doesn’t make dealing with them any easier for them too.

Hamburg has turned its attention to a positive consequence of the cold. The city waited with baited breath as experts measured the thickness of the ice covering the frozen Alster river, which runs throughout Hamburg and offers some of the most picturesque walking routes in the city. The measuring was conducted in order to determine whether it would be safe to walk on the ice and set up booths with food and drink – a kind of winter street fair called “Alstereisvergnügen”. To the delight of all the hopeful, the verdict is in: we shall walk on the ice. And not around the river, but across it.

Now that’s a Siberian spell.

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