First Snow

Der Erste Schnee
Snow transforms the landscape and life. - <em>by SL Wong</em>

Snow transforms the landscape and life.

I was inordinately excited at my first Berlin snowfall.

Perhaps because it happened in November when we were told it doesn’t normally snow till January.

Perhaps it was because November was a mere month after we had relocated and it provided delightful relief from the stress of adjustment.

Perhaps because I hadn’t before lived in a country where it properly snowed.

Whatever the case, that first snowfall didn’t last beyond an hour but it was magical.

And for five Winters in Berlin, the first-snow-magic never diminished.


FIRST WINTER 2008/9

The first of our magical first snows. - <em> by SL Wong</em>

The first of our magical first snows.

Diary Entry: 19 Oct

I breathed in Winter today walking to German class. Literally, a whiff. The cold air in my nose was like an unknown intrusive shaft of molecules.

My nose did not quite know what to do with it, and probably would have rejected it, if not for the fact that it contained oxygen that my body needed.

A few days later, Kit said, “It might snow next Thursday.” I looked out of the window, and even the final Autumn leaves clinging tenaciously to branches seemed to know that and had given up. They were gone.

The announcement was like a jolt through my system. Snow. Yet another new thing in our new life.

When I lived in Australia decades ago, I had to go in pursuit of snow at the Snowy Mountains. Each time, it was a day out of fun, tobogganing and exhausting laughter. I remember my first sighting of snow then – I made a snowball and held it till it soaked my gloves. When my impatient friends moved on, I had to reluctantly relinquish it.

Diary Entry: 21 Nov

The wonderful experience this morning was over an hour of SNOW!

At 10.45am, the rain turned into snow. With pure white, feathery kisses, my first Berlin snow-fall dispelled the gloom and gray, transforming the landscape into a fairytale land.

It snowed for over an hour and now in the afterwards, the world has brightened.

I called home to Malaysia excitedly, like a child. But the response from family and friends was lukewarm at best, the heartless creatures.

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Cold has been redefined.

The forecast showed the temperature like a heart-rate machine with the horizontal line at zero and the red heartbeat a wishy-washy zig-zag, fearful of moving very far from it.

This was the temperature you set in the fridge to ensure your lettuce stays crisp, the butter doesn’t melt and the oyster sauce doesn’t get mouldy.

Soon, it was getting to be temperatures at which one kept chicken frozen. My fingers felt like they were going to fall off.

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It has been a tough move and the snow makes it all seem alright. Of course, it’s gone now, but the city has lighted up prettily for X’mas and X’mas trees are out in full force. The X’mas markets are also out in full force all over the city, complete with fun fairs, something I hadn’t experienced since I was a child ..


Diary Entry: 23 Nov

Our first snowball fight. S and I had just had dinner with Fritz in Rixdorf and we spontaneously started chucking snowballs at each other. Not wise. Fritz was definitely superior in his snowball-making and aiming skills.

I must say, being hit by a snowball hurts. After awhile, I was left gasping for breath from laughing and ducking and my fingers wet and frozen from handling the snow, a cold that seeped into my core despite my Winter clothing.

Diary Entry: Jan Overview
Minus twenty degrees and we were playing tourist. - <em> by SL Wong</em>

Minus twenty degrees and we were playing tourist.

After two days of gloomy weather when we didn’t even step out of the house, the sun shone today. So out we trooped, deciding to visit Tiergarten, and specifically the Rosa Luxemburg Memorial which I had spotted on our Knick Mich! map.

We were wrapped up like mummies and yet the remarkable cold pierced through. The trains and streets were quite empty. It was only when we got back home that we realised that it had been minus 20 degrees Celcius.

No wonder the Germans had stayed in. While we, the inexperienced tropical fools, were out there behaving like tourists.

But an amazing snow-coated Winter Wonderland awaited us. I removed my gloves to take photos only to realise quickly I would need to learn to operate the camera with my gloves on.

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Minus 16 degrees: Tonight on my way home, I really thought my fingers and toes would break off, one by one. Even the Berliners looked cold.

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Today, the sun shone beautifully, and so out I went and walked by a river of patchwork ice and was amused by the sight of flocks of seagulls and ducks sitting ON the river.


SECOND WINTER 2009/10

Inside looking out. - <em> by SL Wong</em>

Inside looking out.

Diary Entry: 4 Nov

At 1pm, the first snow of .. Autumn?!

Diary Entry: 2 Dec

The temperatures have fallen again and it’s funny to see Berliners looking cold. Some are defintely not adequately clothed for this weather.

Thank God for my Lake District-purchased ski trousers, my woolen trousers from Eddie Bauer, my trusty Fjall Raven jacket and my newest acquisition, the Mutze (woolen cap).

I have definitely acclimatised, proudly desisting from wearing my gloves till this temperature drop. I also remember last year, when I first breathed in the cold air and my lungs almost rejected it. Well, they didn’t like it any better this year.

And now, the cold air is starting to get me coughing at night.

Diary Entry: 12 Dec

What a splendid day. Snow in the daytime. Watching the flakes drift down from our large windows is magical enough but walking out into a snow flurry is even more wonderful.

Diary Entry: 17 Dec

Snow again!

It floats gently down and stays, switching between large fluffy flakes and polka dots dancing crazily in the wind. It was definitely not as cold last year, methinks. Or was it in early December that Fritz and us got into a snowball-fight?

Diary Entry: 18 Dec

.. and again!

I wake up and the world is white. Terrible night of battling flu, but this view is magical and makes me feel better. I must take my camera and take some shots. Then the sun comes out, and bathes all in a golden hue, tinting the white clouds rosy and the sky a pale blue.

I look up das Wetter and it is minus ten – both the maximum and the minimum temperatures for the day and it is expected to snow all day and night.

I realise I actually did not know what snow was and spend a little time looking it up. Found beautiful snowflakes photographed by Wilson ‘The Snowflake Man’ Bentley.

Diary Entry: 31 Dec

.. in Körnerpark

It hasn’t stopped snowing since we arrived home on the 27th. Every day, fresh snow. It is wonderful and magical. The snow piles higher and higher on our balcony, today, six inches, reckons S.

I decide we should go out to Körnerpark to photograph our beloved park in the snow. And what a delight it is. New Year’s Eve firecrackers and fireworks have already been going off throughout the day. I get a scare when a young couple lets one off in the street as I attempt to photograph a car.

Down in the park, as I photograph the statue ‘Winter’, some kids who are playing in the middle of the field run towards me, shouting “Entshuldigung” and “Bitte, photo”. It ends up being a pretty special photo session.

As we continue our walk in the park, we enjoy watching a family building a snowman and kids sleighing down the slopes behind the fountain. The park is lovely, snow-covered, and magical.

En route home, we treat ourselves to a load of sweets from our Arab confectionery. There are loads of pre-packed beribboned boxes of sweets and Happy New Year cakes – this must be a big thing for the Arab and Turkish communities.


Diary Entry: 9 Jan

Last year’s Winter was supposed to be one of the worst in years, but they’re calling this year’s the worst in a generation (officially, the worst in 30 years). From heavy snowfalls and icy roads to disrupted transport systems and even deaths, it is a tough season.

Firemen clearing the lethal icicles hanging from rooftops. - <em> by SL Wong</em>

Firemen clearing the lethal icicles hanging from rooftops.

In early January, Daisy, code-name for a low pressure front, even threatens to overwhelm Germany with blizzards and between 10 and 40cm of snow.

Authorities are warning the public to minimise driving, prepare for the disruption of train services and power, and stock up on food, candles and batteries.

I look at my husband, my husband at me. If there were a power cut, he suggests, we should seek refuge at our buddy Ali’s pizza shop opposite us (food being a typical Malaysian response to disaster).

Meanwhile, we watch in amazement as the snow continues to pile up on our balcony and windows – Berlin apparently got 27cm that day.

We go out to take photos, risking frostbite as it is impossible to operate the camera using gloves, but enjoying the snowflakes fall on our faces and sinking our boots into the powdery-soft snow.

We walk on water – the canals and lakes are wonderfully frozen over.

And of course, we build snowmen.

Another snow-related fact: in this brilliant piece, I learn that the phrase “Eskimos have numerous words for snow” is a hoax.

The three main reasons for this are: (1) There is no single language “Eskimo”; (2) How do you define “word”? and (3) What is meant by “snow”?

Diary Entry: 17 Jan

Tubau and I head to Treptower Park for a photoshoot of a white natural landscape and the interesting cracked mosaic that is the frozen Spree. I am happy to finally shoot images I’ve been meaning to for a while – the geometric water designs, ducks on the ice floes, berries in snow ..

But it is so cold we have to seek sanctuary at Burger King.

When we leave to check out the Soviet Memorial, it is snowing and quite heavily too. It is wonderful to feel the snowflakes on our faces. And our feet sink calf-deep into powdery soft snow – wonderful! Tubau decides to make a snow angel.

The landscape is utterly changed, wonderfully so. And I am almost high with glee and the good fortune that allows me to experience this.

Tubau shares something he found out – there are such things as ‘good’ snowflakes, where each design is actually visible to the naked eye – phenomenal! Snowflake Bentley got it right – they are a miracle that can keep an old soldier-farmer occupied for the rest of his life.


Diary Entry: 25 Jan

The Sun! After a record 18 days of cloudy days, the sun shines at last yesterday. Feels longer because the days have been shorter. But today, the orb is bright and the light streams in wonderfully. And I stand at the window and soak in the sunshine.

But it is bitterly cold. Even hardy Fritz, whom we meet for lunch at Via He, is shivering. This year is the fifth or sixth year that Berlin is getting hit hard by Winter.

Perfect snowman-making conditions. - <em> by SL Wong</em>

Perfect snowman-making conditions.

Imagine opening the freezer door and sticking your face in it, then imagine it colder than that. Once it goes close to zero degrees, the cold makes me weep – the tears idle tears must perforce rise to the eyes from the depth of some divine sinus gland (apologies to Tennyson).

But with this cold – the minus tens – the face is just numb, and truly, you stop caring whether or not the temperature drops because it is impossible to feel the difference any more.

Tonight, walking to my tandem session with Romy in Friedenau, my fingers feel absolutely frozen. When I take my gloves off, the fingers and hands are a deep red – almost frostbite?!

Berliners are looking miserable. Hoods are up. Underneath, sometimes another cap. Thick scarves wind around necks or woolen shawls draped on shoulders. It is suicidal to walk around without gloves.

Fur or faux-fur is out in full force this year, some coordinated with hats with ear flaps. Strange outfits also appear, fully body outfits that look astronaut gear or fat suits.

The snow on the pavements has hardened into ice, which Fritz reckons will not be cleared but allowed to melt in Spring. I remember a troop of burly workmen using hoes and spades and other long-handled implements, hacking at the ice outside C\O Berlin, clearing a pathway to make the pavement safe enough on which to walk.

However, on many pavements, a neat pathway has been cleared by a little one-person-driven boxy machine. I remember Sofia telling me that these machines were a DDR invention – how cool that they are now deployed all over the place, post-Cold War.

Diary Entry: 27 Jan

The day of giant snowflakes: We had thought the time of snowing was over, but we emerge from shopping at Karstadt to find heavy snow, a wonderful flurry with the snowflakes tap-tapping at our faces.

And then the flakes seem to slow down but come down even harder, and boy are they large – gigantic in fact – and beautiful in their good-snowflake formations!

I hurry home to photograph them but it is too late and the slow, stately descent has changed into a whirling flurry of tiny, untidy ice crystals.

Last night, Emilio reported that it was minus twenty five degrees at midnight. Whew ..

Diary Entry: 1 Feb

Longest snowy period in 30 years! S says we’re lucky to have experienced something special like this .. According to the Local, “the snowy crust has remained on the ground without melting for some five weeks.”

Diary Entry: 2 Feb

Really heavy snowfall yesterday, beginning in the afternoon and not stopping till night-time; it is the heaviest we’ve seen, as the snow thickly coats the branches. It is unfortunately too dark to photograph these, but I try anyway, and the results are murky shapes and a strange sepia tone over the whole.

As I walked to Pilates last night, the snow flurry was wonderful to experience. The sound, a soft patting of snowflakes against my hood, the flakes soft against my face. I accidentally breathed it in and it went into my nostrils, temporarily stopping breath, like cotton-wool.

I stuck my tongue out to catch the snowflakes, looking like a fool. But the flakes were so small, I couldn’t really taste them. Instead, they were like the smallest caress on the tongue and then they were gone.


THIRD WINTER 2010/11

Diary Entry: 5 Sept
The leaves haven't even completely dropped yet. - <em> by SL Wong</em>

The leaves haven’t even completely dropped yet.

Elf Grad!! We got an unwanted Winter knock on the door this morning. It was 11 degrees IN SEPTEMBER!

We haven’t even gone through Autumn yet! Luckily, the sun came out and it’s turned out to be a beautiful day, but the days, they are a-shortening, and the leaves are a-browning ..

Diary Entry: 26 Nov

Snow! Woke up to a snowy landscape. Snow on boughs, on cars, on roofs, and the ton of maple leaves yet to drop, are ‘caught’ and frozen in the white.

It all brought a smile to my face, as this has now become recognisable, familiar, this sign of the changing of seasons.

And my delight at the sight of first snow remains unabated, the dance of the softly falling flakes as magical as ever. I walk out into it and let the snow fall onto my face and into my nostrils.

Diary Entry: 1 Dec

That old familiar feeling of walking in a freezer is back .. this year, record cold temperatures for Berlin for 1 December beating the 1931 record. To be honest, I have had enough of record breaking ..

Diary Entry: 2 Dec

Wake up to a full six inches of snow on the balcony and unceasing snow flurries. S calls from work and is thrilled and awed by it. It is wonderful to see it from inside, like being inside a snow globe .. and everything so bright and pristine .. Still, it is rather too early for this kind of snow..

Diary Entry: 19 Dec

It has been snowing virtually every day. Phenomenal. It was like this last year, only it happened in January – what will this January be like?! In fact, it is snowing so much, I, who love snow, am thinking, “Enough already!” Some snow is nice, but this is really tiring!

Diary Entry: 26 Dec

Got back from England and the height of the snowbanks was astonishing. It looked as if it had not stopped snowing at all in the time we were away. Freezing too – one night, it was about minus 18 degrees. We had family with us and of course, everyone wanted to go out and see Berlin and so we wrapped up and trudged out dutifully every day into the cold and slush ..

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With record snowfalls, Berlin has turned into a Winter wonderland. We’ve been out so much in the snow, but the best way to enjoy it, I’ve found, is watching the snowflakes while snug in the warm apartment, with a hot cup of tea in hand.

Diary Entry: 3 Jan

After a hiatus, it snowed again, and I was actually able to enjoy it quietly, in the apartment, sans visitors. It was a real pleasure.


FOURTH WINTER 2011/12

Diary Entry: 8 Oct
Unusually foggy in Berlin. - <em> by SL Wong</em>

Unusually foggy in Berlin.

The first snow on the Brocken in the highlands last night .. third heavy October snowfall since the 1950s. We seem to have had nothing but unusual weather since coming to Berlin in 2008.

Still, feeling lucky that in Berlin, Autumn has been so sunny and even warm. But yesterday the chill was very much in evidence, and I was glad I had my Winter jacket on when the train was delayed coming back from Pilates. I went to bed with my nose cold.

I have come to appreciate, however, the gorgeousness of the sun shining even though it is cold. Give me the sun anytime and I accept the gift gratefully.

Diary Entry: 9 Oct

Finally, the heating came on in the afternoon while we were out. It has been cold since Friday and we had been leaving the heaters turned on for a day now (yes, in Berlin, the building owners have the right to NOT turn on heating unless we have had three consecutive days of freezing our butts off!)

It is so good to return to a warm apartment. The lack of heating would have been outrageous in the UK and Canada, I reckon.

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The leaves outside our bedroom are definitely thinning. A cute robin hops on the branches of the trees outside the office – delightful!

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It is cold now, the type of cold that whips out the tears in your eyes and makes your sinuses hurt.

Still, it is good that the Festival of Lights is on, when the city’s monuments and large buildings are bathed in colourful and creative lights. So out I go to enjoy and photograph them. Last night, I nearly froze. My fingers were an intense red when I arrived home.

Diary Entry: 10 Nov

So now, this is our fourth Winter here and we’ve become quite hardened. The sun’s gone, the fog’s in and Berliners have put on their miserable expressions. It’s about 4 degrees in the day and I surprise myself that I can go round without gloves – in my first year, I was wearing gloves at 10 degrees!

But still, it is the season of perpetually cold noses and cold hands.

Two days ago, I woke to a fog-filled landscape rather than the fog just staying close to the ground as it is wont to do. Yoggi said it was a rare ‘hoch Nebel’ (literally, ‘high fog’), with the fog occurring everywhere beneath the clouds.

It lingered the whole day and the sun was nowhere to be seen. A proper Winter’s day. It reminded me immediately of Canberra.

But now, the sun has come back, which is lovely, even if the temperatures are right freezing, dipping below zero degrees at night.

The leaves have gone from our Spizahorn and the clumps of seeds are slowly going too. One morning as I am waking up, I hear little taps on our window panes. I see what look like moths beating against the windows.

Putting on my glasses, I see they are the dipterocarp seeds whirling furiously, each an energy ball designed to take advantage of the wind to disperse as far away from the mother tree as possible to find new and hopefully fertile soil in which to propagate. Fascinating.

Diary Entry: 14 Nov

It is now definitely Winter, with daytime temperatures well below 10 degrees, and the temperatures will be dropping even further. But the sun has been shining so it has been quite a lovely start to the season. Soon the Christmas markets will begin and the city will be decked out in festive colours. The supermarkets already have all the Christmas stuff on sale!


FIFTH WINTER 2012/13

Diary Entry: 29 Oct
Our last first snow. - <em> by SL Wong</em>

Our last first snow.

It snowed in central Germany over the weekend! Unbelievable, first time in 30 years, and a temperature drop of 20 degrees!

Reminds me of when we were in Hohenschwangau in 2009 and it had snowed in November, an unusual mix of white snow and Autumn colours that we were delighted to experience.

Luckily, Berlin remains nicely transitioning to Winter – fingers crossed it doesn’t suddenly become Arctic ..

Diary Entry: 16 Nov

Back to a truly wintery Berlin and Berliners looking cold. The yellow leaves in our hof (backyard) have turned into carpet-cover, our breaths are coming out in puffs and our heaters are up, but still not maxed as the temperature will drop some more.. hmm .. better bring my plants in soon.

My poor body having had to cope with it for five years – reptilian skin, crumbling feet, nose-bleeds, dry eyes ..

Diary Entry: 1 Dec

Our last first snow: Nine a.m. and looking out of the kitchen window, I suddenly notice snow! Fat blobs of snow coming down slowly. A layer of white powder is already coating the ground. I look up into the pale sky and there is a busy swirling going on there.

It is a wonder, the first snow of the season. And this year, it is the last first snow for us, the fifth in a row. We have been so lucky to experience all of them.

The flakes become smaller, more furious, and the trees, laid bare for just this, accept them, till the dark branches are striped white, Winter postcard perfect.

I go to the office, and spot diagonally opposite me in the Dachwohnung (attic apartment), a mother holding up her pink-clad and heavily swaddled baby of perhaps two years of age. The window is open and she is stood on the sill, taking in the wonder of this magic. She points and the mother is smiling and talking to her, her mouth lovingly at her neck.

I cannot take my eyes off the little pink figure. I feel a twitch inside me, a reminder not to lose my ability to feel awe at the wonder of small things.

In ninety minutes, it is over, and soon, the snow on the branches and ground will be melted by the incipient earthly and urban heat.

Diary Entry: 6 Dec

It’s been snowing a little virtually every day or night, and today, I woke up to a steady snowing, and it’s going to snow all day! Amazing, what a white Winter! Yesterday was freezing cold which should have been an indication of all-day snowfall.

But it was so cold, it raised in my mind the question again about what I was doing living in a climate where it gets colder than the freezer.

>> We left Berlin to relocate back to Malaysia in January 2013. ω

Experienced: 19.10.2008 || Recounted: 25.02.2016 Click here for bigger map
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