That winter

That winter, the mildest in a long time, comes back to me now with the clarity of a cloudless sky. Not only was it mild, the winter also began late. In the second half of October, when the temperature finally slid into single digits, Jörg, a colleague at work, observed that the late onset portended a harsh winter. Expect spring to arrive late, he added. A harsh winter, and a late spring. Every following week proved him wrong. Mid-November the sun shone as though we were in the southern hemisphere, T-shirts and short skirts were everywhere on the streets, and people who wore them walked past shopfronts that stubbornly continued to display winter wear, waiting, like Jörg, for that cold wave to cover Europe in an icy blanket. The blanket appeared, grey and cottony, but it brought only rain, a version so mild that in the final of the local football league people sat without umbrellas watching SV Sandhausen beat FC Ingolstadt 2-1. When it snowed, around the 20th of December, there was a collective sigh of relief, on the radio, in the papers, and even from the alte Frau at the bakery who could not suppress an “Endlich!” as she handed me the Mohnbrötchen with one hand and pointed to the snow with the other. It was as though the prayers of an entire nation had been answered. The mood lifted, from despair and talk of a global-warming induced apocalypse, to hope and even a firm belief in a white Christmas that year. The Gods must be punishing us for our arrogance, the neighbour downstairs noted the following day, when it rained so hard that in a few hours the streets were scrubbed clean of all whiteness. Earth’s magnetic poles must be reversing, Jörg said, when I ran into him at the local Penny Markt on the morning of the 24th, before stores closed for the long weekend. He had studied physics in his younger days, even pursued his doctorate in superconductivity before falling prey to a notion — one he still clung to — that the way to explain gravity, the only force still beyond the full grasp of physicists, was through magnetism. The gravity of planets could be measured, he believed, through the interplay between their magnetic fields and the cosmic radiation that filled most of the universe. Following many years of solitary research, spent trying to prove this hypothesis after the scientific community had distanced itself from his ideas, he abandoned the attempt and left physics altogether. I understood little of his theories, and said so, but this did not affect his inclination to speak his mind. The magnetic poles of the earth switch every half a million years, he said, clutching his overloaded grocery bag, and it was almost time for the next reversal. He added that this was scientific fact, not one of his theories, and that no one could predict the effects of the transition, which could last from a few decades to a few centuries. Birds could go crazy finding their way, our compasses would stop working, and the northern lights, aurora borealis, may appear anywhere above the earth. Its effects on weather were the least understood, and what we were witnessing was only the beginning. If we survived this period, he concluded, in a somber tone, we may even find our seasons switched: December would bring with it the height of summer, and it would snow in June and July.

In January the world froze. On the morning of the third I looked out of my window into a town submerged under a frozen sea. A layer of ice, no less than a few inches thick, coated everything, the parked cars, the balconies and sloping roofs of cottages, the trees and their spindly branches, the garbage cans that stood on the footpath. Nothing moved. There was no sound. The light was an arctic blue, the sky clear as glacial water. A cat appeared out of nowhere and walked up the street, digging its claws into the ice and slipping every other step, like a novice climber on a steep cliff. Everyone stayed home that day, the next, and the one after. My refrigerator was loaded but I ran out of toilet paper, and the neighbour downstairs who gave me a few rolls reflected again on God’s wrath. We have forgotten how to speak to God, he said, so now we cannot speak even to each other. He was referring to the communications infrastructure — TV, Radio, Phone, Internet — that had stopped functioning. The town had turned into a sea of solitude. When it thawed, three days later, the patina of ice disappeared and world came to life again, but the image of being submerged in a vast sea remained. Flocks of birds swam like schools of fish, cars and buses crawled on streets like sea turtles in colourful shells, and the houses and trees, distorted perhaps under the heavy influence of ice during the freeze, carried the refracted look of set pieces in a large aquarium. This condition lasted a whole week, and when it ended, abruptly after a particularly warm night, the entire period from the freeze to the extended thaw acquired the quality of a dream. I still had a roll of my neighbour’s toilet paper as proof, but this was not necessary: the European-Freeze was all over the news, and everyone had a claim on this phenomenon no one understood. The Vatican and the religious conservatives claimed this as indisputable proof that God existed, the atheists saw in it the unpredictability of nature and hence the non-existence of God, the liberals called attention to the fact that the freeze had affected everyone regardless of their social and economic status, the climatologists wanted more research funding to extend the boundaries of their science, and since no scientific model had predicted the freeze the climate-skeptics took this as further proof that global-warming was a myth. Only Jörg remained aloof and indifferent. There is no point thinking of what happened, he said, when I sought his opinion, because to understand it you must stop analysing it. Thinking solves nothing, he continued, waving his finger sideways, and the answer can only be found in the absence of thought. Then he returned to the book he was reading, a slim volume on Zen-Buddhism.

5 thoughts on “That winter

  1. This was an experiment, an attempt to follow uncle Gabo’s technique in One Hundred Years of Solitude, a book I’m presently rereading. It’s good to know that it seems to have ‘worked’ for some of you – thank you for the feedback.

    @Patrix: I don’t have an answer to that one (!) but your remark suggests that the character Jörg did leave an impression after you read the piece. Valuable input.

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