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.
I’ve been waiting for spring for a while now. If one was to believe the radio, everyone in this region has been waiting for spring for a while now. Two months ago when I returned from India, I assumed, based on the experience of nine winters, that I had escaped the most severe part. But Nature mocks our confident notions of having understood her, overturns what we take for granted: I soon learned I had landed in the middle of a harsh and extended winter. Eight weeks hence there are traces of snow on the sidewalks, the car windscreens need to scraped free of ice each morning, and the grey countryside feels like a frame from a science fiction movie portraying an apocalyptic landscape.