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Feb 16

A Winter’s Tale: Our First Full Winter in Europe

Having just spent our first full winter in Europe, we thought it was time for some reflections on the last four months of our grand tour.

Having lived in Sydney for many years, it’s fair to say that winter was of little consequence. Sure it gets a little chilly, but you have to drive a few hours from the city to actually see snow – if you’re lucky. Booking a ski holiday in Australia is a gambler’s pastime.

When we moved to Abu Dhabi and then Dubai, winter translated to welcome relief from the relentless heat of the preceding months, as well as being the time of year we took frequent trips to Europe to fill our bellies and drain our bank accounts. And make the dream of a White Christmas a reality.

This year we’ve spent the best part of the northern hemisphere winter in Europe, only leaving last week. “Why would you come to Vienna/Budapest/Krakow/Berlin in December?” was a question we would often get asked.

Well, firstly, our Grand Tour wasn’t about an Endless Summer. Secondly, visiting places ‘off-season’ can be far more rewarding than peak season. Thirdly, we wanted to experience what it was like to live in a place during winter, not just jet in, eat at Michelin restaurants, go to chic ski resorts, and then leave for warmer climes.

So how did we enjoy our winter in Europe? While I love the quote of adventurer and author Sir Rannulph Fiennes “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing”, after a few months of wearing appropriate clothing, putting on several layers to go outside, and then progressively removing them again as you warm up at your destination, it started to get a little tedious.

I’ve also lost count of how many times I’ve started to gently perspire in my winter gear waiting for a certain travel writer to finish getting ready before we went out, even going outside to wait for her in sub-zero temperatures rather than begin shedding layers one more time. By the time we got to Edinburgh in January, I was reduced to quoting Antarctic explorer Captain L. E. G. Oates, who famously said “I am just going outside and may be some time” before wandering off into the cold so I wouldn’t have to peel off those layers and put them back on again.

Dressing and undressing aside, I still love those crisp, clear winter days when the snow squeaks under your feet and the cities look like winter wonderlands, but I’m guessing everyone does – they’re the best part of winter.

In Zell am See, I loved heading up on the ski lift for my first snowboarding run and seeing local guys down a hit of Jägermeister with coffee over lunch. In Berlin, a child being pulled along in a wooden sled never failed to bring a smile to my face. In Budapest, I reflected on the notion that goulash tasted so much better when there was snow gently falling outside. In Vienna, I enjoyed the simplicity of a walk through a park and having a snowball fight before warming up with glühwein at a Christmas Market. In Krakow, the walk through the old town that we did every day was eerily beautiful, with snow on the ground and fog in the air – it was at its most memorable on Christmas Eve when silhouettes filled the streets before midnight.

But it’s with Christmas that we have our first gripe. Some places don’t even get snow until after Santa decides whether he needs wheels or skis on his sled to deliver goodies. Christmas markets should be named winter markets and keep locals happy with a little tipple and some hearty food until the end of January. Some cities are obsessed with getting rid of their snow – creating slippery paths and conditions more dangerous than when the snow was on the ground. In Berlin, we could have ice-skated along the pavements.

But there is more: slushy sidewalks; ice falling from several-storey buildings; sleet; being one layer short of being warm; wearing one layer too many; and heartbreaking single gloves mislaid on pavements.

The only person I’ve ever seen happy to be using a ‘snow thrower’ (those lawnmower-like machines made for removing the by-products of blizzards) was a New Zealand snowboarder in Lech, Austria who said that when he had to use it in the mornings, he knew he was soon going to be knee-deep in fresh powder snow in more vertical conditions than at the front of the hotel.

But, yes, it’s true that a winter wonderland can be mesmerizing and everyone loves the first flakes of the season. But as reality kicks in, locals are soon icing up the windows of travel agents, mournfully checking prices of winter breaks in places like Australia, where there are shrimps on the Barbie and bronzed Aussies on the beach at this time of year.

While I now understand why they’d want to thaw out after a long winter, if I’m not somewhere snowy for Christmas, I still feel like I’m missing something special. Even if I don’t stay for three months…

19 comments

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  1. Sarah Chambers

    Very amusing :) Now you you can understand (as can some Spanish colleagues here in the office) why British people are renowned for, and obsessed with, shedding our clothes and baking ourselves while on holiday, or the minute a bit of sun peeps out from behind a cloud…. Because we’re so damn cold the rest of the year! One of my favourite moments was when an old Spanish colleague (who was half French) that I worked with at Air France and who had lived in London for 3 years came home from Spain having burnt herself to a crisp, obsessed with getting back her tan… My response; “Maintenant tu es un vrai rosbif!”

    1. Terence Carter

      Hi Sarah, that comment of yours on twitter about wearing the right clothing not being enough when it’s miserable all the time had me thinking about writing this.
      In Sydney we used to make jokes about the people of Melbourne getting down to their swimmers at the slightest hint of the sun.
      The nickname ‘roastbeef’ never fails to amuse me!
      T

  2. Keith

    I can commiserate on the topic of waiting for significant others to get ready. I’m sure I’ve spent far too much of life sitting and staring into space as I wait for her, ourselves becoming increasingly late for whatever appointment we’re trying to make. Too funny.

    Here in Wisconsin, a snowthrower is as common as a rake or lawnmower. When 18″ of snow falls, you need to be able to clear your driveway.

    1. Terence Carter

      Hi Keith. When we lived in Sydney, my waiting for the girl routine involved an acoustic guitar and a double vodka and tonic. Wrote plenty of songs over several years during that 15minute window!
      But when you’ve already zipped up a snowboard jacket and put gloves and a scarf on…
      When I was in Lech, the guy getting paid to use the snowthrower was as happy as a pig in swill every day. That place really gets some snow.
      T

  3. mvmaithai

    We used to live in Boston. After we moved away, a certain sister-in-law always brags about the beautiful “winter wonderland” when they get a white Christmas. This year, she is singing a different tune. Since January, even die-hard New Englanders have had enough of the white stuff, and are so ready to move to sunny Florida! As for us, we’ll take the beach anytime.

    1. laradunston

      You must try Christmas in Australia sometime. My childhood memories are of drinking sparkling wine, eating seafood, being beside the beach somewhere, swimming, sunbathing, and dozing. Just lovely.

  4. Ben Alcock

    Lovely post.

    The Fiennes quote is a beauty. I was a travel agent forever ago and often found it very useful when chatting to clients before (and occasionally after) they travelled.

    Lastly, travelling through a real winter with young kids can be gorgeous. But the multiple layer dressing/undressing routine and “Daddy, I need to go to the toilet” chorus as you walk out the door is quite a testing combination.

    My advice: Like most tiresome situations of life on the road, you just have to laugh and get on with it.

    Happy travels.

    1. Terence Carter

      Thanks Ben. I did juts laugh out loud at the “daddy” reference. I can’t imagine what that must be like. Kids look so cute rugged up though and them being puled on a sled on the way home from school could not be more foreign to someone like me.
      Cheers,
      T

  5. TexaGermaNadian

    Hi guys! I was lucky enough to stumble upon your site. I really love it, and can’t wait to have a better look around. Coming from South Texas and now living in Germany for the winter, I don’t think I will ever adjust. It just isn’t made for my bones. Seems like ya’ll had a fun time despite freezing, haha

    1. Lara Dunston

      We had a super time, despite the cold. In fact, a few of our most fun times were using the cold as an excuse to head out to a local bar and down some strong spirits to warm up. On one of those occasions, it was well below zero according to Terence but I didn’t feel it at all. I tweeted that on Twitter and a friend tweeted back “that’s because you had your vodka jacket on!” I loved that!

      We loved Texas – can’t wait to return! Thanks for dropping by. Hope you’re enjoying Germany. Where are you exactly?

  6. wandering educators

    too true – we lived in minnesota for years (-50? yep). now we live in michigan, a bit warmer (still cold for months and months)…it is actually a good thing, the cold. it kills all the bugs. :)

    1. Lara Dunston

      That’s what I love about you – you always find the positive side of things, Jessie, don’t you? ;)

  7. Andrew

    I have been known to run from one door out around the corner into the food hall in the cold just to avoid putting on my jacket. I don’t actually mind the layering and shedding of layers so much as keeping track of all the stuff at the other end. I just stuff it all in my packpack, which I wear empty for the purpose.

    Speaking of winter cold, maybe the Germans would appeal to you. I just wrote on how they insist on airing out the rooms in the middle of winter, requireing layers for inside too. http://www.groundedtraveler.com/2011/02/18/german-obsession-with-fresh-air/

    1. Terence Carter

      Thanks for your comment.
      I actually understand the whole airing out thing. I think a lot of the time we overcompensate wanting 22.5˚C when it’s -10˚C outside. We did air out every place we stayed in, purely because we felt it was getting stuffy (but not hot). We’ve experienced everything in the last twelve months – and I do prefer the cold to 35˚C and humid, because I love the freshness of cold weather.
      Cheers,
      T

  8. Keith

    Hi, folks!

    Re the Berlin pavements … when I lived in Germany, we had a duty to ensure the pavement outside our property was clear of snow and ice, and ashes put down if necessary.

    (In practice, our landlord took care of it … I never found out where he got the ashes from, for our flats were centrally heated.

    Norway and Iceland have long been on my bucket list … usually frustrated be a cry of ‘I want to go somewhere warm!’

  9. Keith

    About the pavements; meant to suggest that it may have been a local by-law, rather than a full-bore LAW.

    1. Terence Carter

      Keith, I think Vienna had a similar law about the depth of snow, as everyone had poles to measure the snow. Problem is, crunchy snow is infinitely better to walk on than than an ice skating rink, which is what happens after a quick freeze when they’ve scraped the snow away…

  10. Camels & Chocolate

    As someone born and raised in the American South, I never had a true winter until I moved to Denmark for grad school. That one year alone was enough winter to last me the rest of my life! And like you, all my travels during that period were to “neighboring” cities–Vienna, Budapest and Romania for my winter break, Sweden or Germany for a long weekend escape, nowhere warm and sunny. But if that year taught me anything it’s that I fare better in warm weather locales with mild winters where the mercury barely dips below freezing.

    1. Lara Dunston

      I’m like you. I love the warmth and blue skies – keeps my mood up. I love the novelty of winter, especially snow, and especially over the Christmas holidays, but it gets me down after a few months unfortunately, and I *never* get down. Thanks for dropping by!

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