Monday, 6 February 2012

Life at twenty below zero

When winters come down hard on Europe, I'm minded of the old Richard Pryor Snake gag, about the white man and black man in the jungle. The white man proceeds cautiously through the bush, then sees a snake, and gets comically hysterical, hollering 'SNAKE! SNAKE!' at the top of his lungs. The black man walking through the jungle with a hip stride, sees a snake, matter-of-factly saying 'snake' as he steps over it.

It's much the same when Britain gets an attack of the minus-twos. The BBC shows stationary cars, their driven wheels spinning furiously, people without hats or gloves trying to push the car free of the inch-high snowdrift, while the Daily Mail wails that the Met Office has issued a Level Three Alert (temperatures are expected to plunge to -2C tomorrow night) and that snowploughs are out in force across the country. Amid the regular stories of teenage stabbings, we read of passengers stranded at airports, drivers trapped for hours on the M40, service on large parts of the London Underground suspended etc.

Here - life goes on pretty much as normal. Many older cars with iffy batteries (especially those parked outside overnight) or those with diesel engines that have not tanked up with the special winter fuel that doesn't turn waxy when it's under -20C, won't start, so there's a noticeably fewer cars in the lava-flow traffic that's ul. Puławska at rush hour*. Some buses won't start, or else their doors jam, but generally public transport has been running well.

Above: from the website of the meteorological station at the physics faculty, Warsaw University of Technology (click to enlarge). As you can see, the temperature has not risen above -7C all week, and has not risen above -12C since last Wednesday. And bear in mind that this weather station in located in downtown Warsaw, where the urban heat island effect increase the temperatures by a degree or two compared to the surrounding areas. And look at that wind chill (perceivable temperature). Which takes the current perceivable temperature outside my window as I write down to -26C.

I recall that in January 2006, I was driving to a conference in Sandomierz; the car thermometer gave the outside temperature as -26C at midday. Outside some small Mazovian village, I saw an old woman bringing home firewood from the forest and I thought to myself "When it's -26C there's no such word as manaña!"

Being able to survive in the cold means proper clothes and proper food. I'm eating like a horse right now. Fried breakfasts of pierogi, or (like today) bubble and squeak. Three hot meals a day. And clothing - two pairs of gloves, the outer pair, mittens from Canada (thank you cousin Teresa!) On my feet stout boots with lambskin lining that can (just about) pass muster with an office suit. A furry lumberjack hat, a US Army M65 parka with huge furry hood - and when I'm due to be outside for any length of time, long-johns with wind-stopping patches on the knees. The house is well-insulated with six inches of expanded polystyrene stuck to the air-brick shell, and triple-glazed windows.

All that and winter tyres too.

* At the proto-Park+Ride at W-wa Jeziorki station (which readers will recall is a muddy verge by the side of ul. Gogolińska) the number of parked cars today was a quarter down on usual.

And there we have it. My się zimy nie boimy! ('We're not scared of winter!').

This time last year:
First intimations of spring

This time two years ago:
From Warsaw to beautiful Dobra

This time four years ago:
Unremitting February gloom


toyah said...

Did I tell you about this lady I happened to board at during one school exchange to London? She told me about this fur coat of hers - so expensive and beautiful - that she could not wear because of the animal activists who might spill some paint on it. But one winter day it got so deadly cold that she ventured out in it in this beautiful coat. And she waited for a bus in this coat at this frozen bus stop, and at one point "will you believe it, my darling? I got so cold that I actually burst out crying. It was minus five!"
And do you remember us at your balcony, straight out of the sauna, with just the towels on, with minus 20 outside?" That was a night, wasn't it?

student SGH said...

I don't know if it's so funny to watch these hapless or helpless people from countries paralysed by two centimetres of snow. They completely don't know how to handle a typical Polish winter.

If a car doesn't start, it's not the weather that is to blame, but its carefree owner. Lots of cars have been forsaken on the streets, including those which haven't withstood a few hours of sitting in double-digit frost and failed to start. Diesel engine has it harder to start, because it takes more power to inject the fuel into the engine. My French depreciating tinstarted without a murmur at -24C, and on Friday morning I could "enjoy" driving on empty streets to work (35 minutes from home to Rondo Daszynskiego).

And no wonder number of cars near the station is lower. Short journeys wear the battery down very quickly in such temperatures. Alternator won't recharge it during a short trip and won't replenish the energy used to start the engine...