It is very cold in Berlin; that sort of startlingly cold that seeps into your bones immediately on being outside and stays there for hours. This being my fourth winter in Berlin, I half-expected on that first frost glistening morning to be acclimatised – not so. For North Americans and many Continental Europeans, my complaints will fall on unsympathetic ears. It’s only minus 6C, they will say mockingly. But being a sensitive English rose, I find the cold makes going outside feel like an arctic mission rather than a free and easy, pleasurable way to break up the day, and this troubles me each year.
Of course, we had snow in my childhood, but it was that mild, wet, English snow which stays only fleetingly on the ground for no more than a day or so – and falls biannually at most. Instead those English winters consisted of short, dark, grey days, smattered with chilly rain and the odd early morning frost. A woollen jacket and closed shoes were guaranteed to see you through winter’s mildest and chilliest moments. And though I do miss those days, for all my chilblains and chapped lips, these real Berlin winters have been an educational experience, making me both wiser, and in a funny way, possibly a more considerate mother.
First of all, I have learned for the first time in my life, how to dress for the cold properly, and to take pleasure in its certain hardy style. I have the proper gear – the down jacket; the thick-soled, fleece-lined boots; the thermal jogging leggings and wind-proofed jacket – and can proudly say that even at minus 10C, I’m joining the most robust of them running 10km round our local park, sliding on black ice and traipsing through snow. And, I am more patient at the prospect of spending much of the day indoors, with only the odd dash through flurries of snow for vital supplies. In previous years, I felt terribly holed up and claustrophobic in stuffy heated buildings. This year, though perhaps only through force of habit, our days do not feel quite so stifling – indeed, at times I honestly enjoy their cosiness.
As for the lesson in mothering, it has been one of creativity. Little children simply cannot play outside for any length of time when it is really cold. Even the best mittens and most expensive snowsuits cannot prevent them quickly becoming unhappy. They do not know that they must keep running to stop the cold creeping in, and cannot understand why, after 10 minutes, their fingers ache, cheeks sting and noses run. But they still need to move, even if we cannot spend our daily two hours at the playground as in warmer days. So we turn to homemade assault courses and hallways come racing tracks. And finally, when we all flop over exhausted, on goes the oven to bake something hearty or out come the colouring pencils to draw a splendid winter sledging scene.
Berlin has two faces. In summer, it smiles broadly, inviting everyone and anyone to sip cool beers or iced coffees (depending on your preference) in its leafy pavement cafes, a novel propped in their hands. In winter, I used to think it frowned and grimaced, all life retreating indoors away from the dirty grit and grey ice that lined its streets. Now, when I’ve got the right coat on, I can see past winter’s challenges to rosy cheeks, invigorated by the cold, still traipsing round the park, wonderful museums which are warm and purposefully dimly lit whatever the season and lively, grog-fuelled parties going on behind closed doors. In England, at the first snowfall life comes to a complete standstill. In Berlin, where they understand true winters, life goes merrily on.