Is That a Tauntaun? How Germany Survives the Snow
Christmas 2009: a year into my relationship with my then girlfriend (now wife) I stepped off a plane in Munich ready to celebrate my first Christmas and New Year in Germany. The weeks leading up to my visit, I had been thoroughly prepared for what to expect through a series of lengthy Skype conversations. Of all the things I was told, the most repeated was that it would be cold, really cold. This was not a surprise, given that winter is usually when you find the coldest weather of the year, so I came prepared. Among my luggage I had various hoodies and jackets that I was confident could protect me from whatever weather conditions Bavaria could throw at me. As I strode out of arrivals I was met by my girlfriend, who’s initial beaming face changed to shock when she realised what I considered winter attire. “Where is your winter coat?” she asked in disbelief “I told you it was cold”. I laughed dismissively “Come on man, how cold can it be?”. “I’m from Newcastle, Geordies know how to deal with the cold” I reminded her. It is a well-known fact that the residents of the North East’s largest city have a reputation for laughing off the coldest of weather, with even the worst conditions still considered “T-shirt weather”. Confident of my genetic heritage, I stepped out of the Airport.
I was suddenly aware that I had made a terrible error of judgment as my body went into full hypothermic shock. It wasn’t just cold, it was sub-zero. Throwing all pretences of hardy nothernness aside, I quickly unpacked my bag and began applying layers and layers of hoodies. Over the next two weeks I would learn several important lessons:
- Cool trainers are cool, that’s a given, but they are useless as footwear when it’s -10.
- Scarves are not an admission of failure.
- Gloves are people too.
- It is better to look like a tit and be warm than it is to look fashionable and die in a snow drift.
- Long-Johns are not just for grizzled cowpokes.
These are lessons I still live by today.
My wife and I have often joked about my lack of winter preparation all those years ago and I attributed my blasé attitude to my being an ignorant twenty-something student. Imagine how relieved I was to realise that lack of preparation for winter is actually a British cultural trait. The British, it turns out, cannot handle the weather or at least that is what social media and news channels have taught me over the last few weeks. As Siberian weather conditions created a mini-ice-age around Europe, I watched as Britain ground to a halt, the only acceptable forms of transport being snow shoes, sleds or a Tauntaun. Roads were shutdown, public transport ground to a halt and precious reserves of bread milk were rationed.
Britain’s brush with “The Beast from the East” played out on my social media timelines, the UK was so preoccupied with the weather, that news of the end times filtered into German media. My wife, as you can imagine, had little sympathy for my snow-covered compatriots. Co-workers began to ask me to explain why snow appeared to be like kryptonite to the British. Why so little preparation? Had the British forgotten what winter was?
At first this may appear to be typical European elitism, the type that believes British people have shit beer, shit food and shit weather. As someone who has eaten Findus Crispy Pancakes, drank Carling and walked though more than one torrential downpour I admit that there is some truth in that, however, if you see Germany in winter you begin to understand why my wife and most Germans see the British as winter illiterates. Take Sunday morning as an example: It snowed quite heavily overnight, enough to make it difficult to walk or drive. At 7 AM on Sunday morning, I looked out the window and what did I see? Some of the white stuff still remained, but all the roads around me had been cleared, as had all the paths. Everywhere was salt and grit, which crunched reliably underfoot as I went for a walk later that day.
Was Germany more prepared, well possibly. Once the threat of winter begins, it is not uncommon to see private vehicles with snow ploughs attached. Whether one of these had cleared the roads around my flat or whether it was the local council I cannot say, but I would be unsurprised if it was both. Preparedness is one thing, but Germany has another powerful weapon against the on coming tide of White Walkers…the law. It is a legal requirement in most, if not all, of Germany that homeowners have a duty to clear the paths in front of their homes. Should a citizen fail to meet this basic requirement, they become legally responsible for anyone who might injure themselves. That means I can take a private homeowner to court and most likely win damages should I hurt myself on a pavement that should have been cleared. With significant sums of money at stake, it is sensible to comply. If I clear my section and my neighbours do the same, the whole street can be cleared. Older residents are often supported by neighbours and there is a community aspect throughout the path clearing process. Winter tyres are also mandated by law, which in practice means I must change my tyres before a defined point in November or face more blood curdling fines. Winter tyres are not necessarily going to protect against heavy snowfall, but buying tyre chains is a relatively easy process too.
What Germans tend to forget is that Britain is not really designed for extreme snowfall. If I think of Newcastle, with its uneven pavement, small residential roads and penchant for cul-de-sacs it is easy to see how several feet of snow can render whole areas impassable. With no winter tyres, non-requirement for private path clearing and streets too small to be ploughed or gritted, the British can easily be snowed in.
This doesn’t explain the media’s fascination with snow, but if you think about it, snow obsession does make sense. For almost three weeks, the British could take a break from hearing about Brexit and go make a nice snowman, take a quick photo and send it to the BBC to be shown by grinning Breakfast TV hosts. Instead of lambasting each other over support or derision for Brexit, everyone could simply point at the grey snow filled skies and shout “You bastard!” in unison, while exaggeratingly shaking their fists at the heavens. For a few days, Britain was as unified as it might ever be, doing what it does best, complaining about the weather. Perhaps that is what will save the UK from total social collapse.
With the “The Beast from the East” finally leaving Europe alone, things are beginning to calm down and snow-covered streets and blizzard conditions being resigned to the dustbin of weather history. This doesn’t mean weather hysteria is entirely over, all it takes is a unseasonal warm snap and the UK can once again unite as they point to the sun and ask each other “What fresh hell is this?”.