Daniel Brooks

Last winter, we had almost no snow in Moscow. It was a greyish brown and rainy outside when snow would normally have whitened the outdoors. The thermometer dipped below freezing once or twice, a feeble effort. The only thing that saved us was being locked down in early spring, when the leaves turned green. 

This year, as I look outside, I see two feet of snow on top of a picnic table in our backyard. For those who refuse to switch from the metric system to feet and inches, two feet comes to 60 centimeters. The temperature outside is a solid -22 Celcius (-8 Fahrenheit). It is too cold for clouds and the sky is bright blue. There are no contrails across the sky, not because of the cold, but because most of the flights are cancelled. I might as well be somewhere in the Russian countryside, which is a just as well, because it is true. 

This week we had “metel’” twice. Metel’ translates as blizzard. Normal snow is called “sneg” in Russian. To my mind, the crucial differences between the two are snowflake size and the wind. Sneg falls down in big snowflakes, the smaller ones having joined forces. There isn’t much wind and sneg normally doesn’t dump as much snow as a metel’. In a metel’ the wind blows. The snowflakes are smaller, having been separated into individual units, like partisans. A metel’ is the real deal. Snow can be seen blowing off of rooftops and flying in swirls. It piles up snow in drifts and staying home is worth the effort. Hot drinks, or a shot of Jameson, are expected. The snow from a metel’ is usually light and powdery. Shoveling it is a breeze. A snowman cannot be made, but sledding and cross-country skiing are brilliant. 

Sometimes a metel’ cuts visibility, but not always. It is effective, piling up the snow with deceptive speed. Those self-isolating in the middle of nowhere, like me, are smug. In the city, chaos takes over. Cars are backed up in all directions; some of them have run into one another. Normally, everyone is late in Russia. In a metel’ showing up on time takes on real meaning. Many are fortunate to show up at all. 

Moscow has 17,500 machines for removing snow from its 3500 streets. If less than a centimeter of snow hits the pavement, the machines take over as they gradually take care of business. Yesterday, a tractor occupied a sidewalk I was using. I had to stand in a snowdrift to provide him with the right of way. The city blames delays in snow removal on traffic while drivers point fingers at the snow removal department. When a big metel’ hits, these vehicles work 24 hours a day. The drivers have a great time. They wanted to drive a big truck when they were five years old and their dreams have come true. I’ve always wanted to give it a try. The city of Moscow should set up “snow removal” tourism and show civilians how to drive a snowplow in the off season, for hard currency. I’d sign up.

Some snow removal is done by hand with people kept in reserve for the task and given luminescent vests. They remove ice from the rooftops and toss snow from paid parking areas into the middle of the street for cars to run over. One crew I saw near my house were smoking as they shoveled snow. They were tough and the cigarettes proved it. 

The snowfall in Moscow is normally half the level of snow at our dacha, about 200 kilometers to the northwest. One narrow road goes through the village. This year, it has not been plowed and more than a meter of snow has piled up on it. A snowplow needs to be called in. For this purpose, I know a “guy”. He has a small snowplow. The owner is also small, but he’s fast and he works while smoking a cigarette. It comes with the territory. His snowplow was made in Soviet times and he has rebuilt it, using bits from other kinds of vehicles and chicken wire. Snow removal with this machine is show of strength, demonstrating that a Soviet tractor is the way to go. The snow guy drives his snowplow forward and backward at full speed, giving me my money’s worth.  

In years past, snow fell in the Alps during winter. Now, skiing in December cannot be counted upon. It’s best to wait until January or February and make refundable bookings. A few years ago, we went skiing in Italy, in the Dolomites. The slopes had no snow on them at all. Paths of artificial snow had been laid down. We skied between brown fields on all sides. Some had cows standing on them, chewing their cuds. The slopes were without any moguls, designed for knees that had seen better days. The fake snow got the job done but I remember thinking, will all snow be manmade in the future? Someday, perhaps winter will be offered in special buildings, with snow making machines inside. 

For now, I’m enjoying the freezing cold. We had better enjoy it while it lasts. In a week, the thermometer promises to go wrong, taking temperatures just above freezing for two or three days. After that, the BBC promises bitter cold again. Let’s hope so. When you are a glutton for punishment, you can never get enough.  

Daniel Brooks

Copyright, 19 January 2020

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