I'm British and therefore my desire to discuss weather at every opportunity remains bubbling merrily under the surface. I can't help myself, it’s simple genetics. I come from a long line of weather dominated conversationalists and it's hard to fight the impulse to suddenly expound on the wonders of weather, or more to the point the exciting differences between the myriad kinds of rain that can be found within my former island home. Even so, I try to keep it under wraps.
Germans do not on the whole go in for small talk, weather or otherwise. Whenever I broach the topic of weather conversations, many of my German friends and colleagues roll their eyes with such viciousness they detach their retinas. However, snowfall does open conversational doors in a way that rain or fog do not. Snow is to be enjoyed, such as when I went for a stroll yesterday and found that the whole city had donned their winter finery and decided to do the same. Each turn seemed to reveal more and more chocolate box scenes of children sledging or throwing snowballs, until I began to wonder whether I was walking through Germany or the set of a forgotten Frank Capra movie.
Snow is also an indicator that the much longed-for skiing period has or is about to begin, which always cheers up the winter sport loving Germans. Skiing, weather depending, begins in earnest around October. I have friends who will regularly watch live webcam feeds from favoured skiing resorts, hoping to see signs that the weather is right to don skis and fluorescent garb to traipse up a mountain, only to slide back down again later.
So, you can imagine their joy with recent heavy snowfall around Southern Germany. Although great news for lovers of winter sport, snowfall for the rest of us is an indicator of how dangerous the morning commute will be. Usually I ignore the morning traffic reports, but today I sat patiently next to the radio as if waiting for an official message from the Queen or the result of a daily Antenna Bayern competition. Thankfully, Germany doesn’t do the hyperbolic news reporting that is a bulwark of most news outlets in the UK whenever there is a slight dusting of snow. There really isn’t a need to scare the hell out of everyone with stories of sleeping in cars due to road closures, if only because it is expected. Advice for drivers in winter always suggests having a spare shovel or some clothing and blankets handy should the worst happen and you are stuck sitting in traffic all night. Granted, not many people heed this advice, but the advice is still there.
Contrast this with the British reaction, where even the smallest snowfall will have live reporters breathlessly telling viewers to hold their loved ones close for fear that Beria, the Gaelic goddess of Winter has returned to wreak a terrible vengeance on us all. When not fearing the wrath ancient deities, British newsreaders busy themselves by giving minute by minute reports on the quantities of salt still available for the roads (spoiler: it’s never enough) or whether it is finally time for a mass emigration to Australia (spoiler: it isn’t).
Preparation, we are told, is key. When learning to drive in Germany, I was frequently reminded to beware the snow, but details were few and far between. My instructor told me about breaking with the gears and the possible ramifications of fish tailing my car, but learning to drive in the summer did not really offer any chance to test out these tips. When it finally came time to drive in the snow, I was convinced that the German winter was trying to kill me. Worryingly, my wife didn’t inspire any level of confidence. Although usually a source of helpful advice, she becomes a terrifying Shakespearian soothsayer when it snows, often saying disconcerting things like 'be really careful, it's incomprehensibly dangerous on the autobahn' or ‘beware the ides of march, the roads have black ice and there are several delays’.
Thankfully, I got through my first baptism of, well, snow without too much incident and the last couple of winters have been relatively free of incident. However, it now appears that this only angered the German Winter gods who insist on testing my driving skills and levels of endurance by crapping snow on me at every turn. This wouldn’t be too much of an issue if everyone drove as normal, but snow seems to make German drivers go a little nuts. So confident are they in the Teutonic engineering of their vehicles, they take winter as some kind of personal affront and put their collective foots down on the accelerator. Captain Audi or Lord Admiral Mercedes will come bombing passed at speeds of such terrifying levels, it activates my fight or flight response and almost sends me barrelling into a ditch. After all, I drive a modest VW and those things ain't built for fighting. They be built for flight-ing, not very quickly it has to be said, but very economically.
If Germany reverts to type when driving, it also thankfully exhibits other more useful stereotypes such as overall organisation. Roads are kept as clear from snow as possible and big orange gritters can be seen zig-zagging around the streets, ensuring in the most part that the main roads are clear. Germany also has a law concerning the clearance of pavements, with home-owners required to clear the front of their house of snow and ice or take personal responsibility for any injuries caused by slipping. This means that walking the streets is possible and compacted snow and ice won’t hinder pedestrians.
Safety on the roads, safety on the pavements and digging my car out are now my primary concerns when it snows. This final realisation is the last nail in the coffin of my childhood. Where I once delighted in the magical atmosphere of a snowy landscape, I now see terrifying disaster and possible broken bones when snow falls. Just this morning, as I attempted to make my car road worthy, I saw several children happily throwing snowballs and laughing. Just you wait, I thought bitterly; one day you will hate the snow and the circle of life will be complete. Slowly but surely, I am becoming a winter curmudgeon.