Life Below Zero

Once upon a time I lived in Moscow in the winter. It was 15 years ago now, but here are some memories of a life lived below zero.

The day I arrived, Moscow was having a ‘mini heatwave’ which meant temperatures were a toasty -5C. This was pretty cold for me; the UK in general doesn’t get that cold. That was probably the coldest temperature I had ever been in in my life. The second day the temperature dropped to -10C. Now I was the coldest I had ever been in my life. The day after that it was -15C, then -17C, and at night from the warmth of my apartment, I could see the temperature gauge on the building across the road showing -25C. It amused me that for four days in a row I was experiencing the coldest temperature of my life.

Condensation on bus windows. You probably think of it as some kind of thin mist, something that can be wiped away. No. On unheated Moscow buses in the winter the condensation freezes and forms an inside layer of ice, making it harder to see out the window to know if you’ve missed your stop.

At night I listened to the radio for the weather, practising my (rather poor) Russian language skills. I got to know very well the phrase “bolshoi sneg” – heavy snow. I was lucky enough to be in Moscow in one of the snowiest winters on record. I also got to know numbers, and to assume that any temperature reference to twenty-two or eighteen would be minus celsius.

I learnt the importance of good shoes, good hat, good gloves, good scarf, good coat.

Good shoes should be fleecy inside, have a solid sole to keep your foot at some distance from the frozen ground, and have a solid grip to stop you sliding on icy pavements. Although if you’re a native Russian woman you can walk on icy pavements in high heels so you don’t need to compromise on glamour.

A good hat should come down over your ears and keep them warm. It does mean your hair will always look flat but if you’re a native Russian woman you will take the time to re-fluff your hair whenever you arrive somewhere and take off your hat.

Good gloves should also be fleecy lined, and ideally waterproof. Anything cloth will soak up the moisture from snow and your hands will be wet and you don’t want that when it’s below zero. Good thick gloves do make getting things out of your bag difficult but it’s worth it to keep your fingers warm. And if necessary you can possibly whip one glove off for a few seconds to handle something with your bare hand.

A good scarf is important but then so is how you wear it. Tuck it in well around your neck. Don’t leave any gaps. Cold has long fingers and will stick them into any spaces you leave uncovered.

A good coat should be long, down below your knees. I had to buy a new coat on my first weekend in Moscow when it became obvious the hip length one I brought with me would not cut it against below zero temperatures and icy winds. If you’re a native Russian woman you will probably invest in a fur coat in your twenties or thirties and you will wear it for the rest of your life. I invested in a cheap coat stuffed with feathers instead.

Ten degrees below zero can actually be a very nice day to go out. Blue sky, white snow, onion domed churches – it makes a great photograph. Wrap up warm and go out sightseeing. Yes it’s cold but because of the sunshine it feels better than grey, wet London at +2C.

Learn the protocol for coming in out of the cold. Most places have garderobes or coat hanging areas. Use them. It’s not polite to bring your coat into the cafe or museum or restaurant and hang it over your chair and let the snowy residue around the hem melt all over the floor. And please – stamp and wipe your feet when you come in to get the snow and mud off.

Be prepared for a huge difference in temperature – possibly as much as 30C – between being outside and being inside. You may be outside in -15C, rugged up in your coat, your hat, your boots. You come into a cafe to grab a tea or coffee and – bam! – the warmth hits you like a wall. It must be 20 or 25C in there. You have ten seconds to whip off your coat and hat and scarf and gloves before you experience some kind of heat suffocation.

The author in Yaroslavl – note I’m only wearing one glove – I had to take the other one off to operate the camera.

There was a strange magic that took place towards the end of my time in Moscow, when the temperatures started to crawl back towards zero and spring started to make an appearance.

The ‘bolshoi sneg’ started to melt and I realised one day that what I thought was just a heaped up pile of snow outside my apartment building was actually a hedge.

Men appeared on rooftops with brooms, sweeping snow and ice down, onto the footpaths. Usually you would see piles of snow falling as you were walking along and know to take a detour. Sometimes they would have traffic cones marking off the footpath, warning you not to walk there. And a few times there was just a guy on the roof shouting at me in Russian, warning me to stand clear.

Everywhere suddenly was the sound of dripping water, running water, the crackle of ice melting. Temperatures increased to the point where I could take off my hat and sometimes I didn’t need my scarf.

On my last weekend in Moscow, I took a final visit to Red Square. Beside the Kremlin walls, the piles of snow were disintegrating and the sharp green spears of daffodils were poking up through the earth.

This was my sign, that like the daffodils, I had survived life below zero.

4 thoughts on “Life Below Zero”

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