Em­brace dark days by the fire­side? No thanks, it’s not for me

Sum­mer-lov­ing Emily Houri­can is not look­ing for­ward to five months in the damp gloom of an Ir­ish win­ter

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - - Special Feature -

OF all the ‘win­ter sto­ries’, the one that makes the most sense to me is Perse­phone, dragged down to the un­der­world by gloomy old Hades for six months of every year. She was the daugh­ter of Deme­tre, god­dess of har­vest and fer­til­ity, and too glo­ri­ous for her own good. Hades fell in love, and stole her. Un­able to get her back, her mother ap­pealed to Zeus (ac­tu­ally, she threat­ened that she would never again make the earth fer­tile and ev­ery­one on it would die), so Zeus in­ter­vened and cut a deal: Perse­phone would spend six months above ground with Deme­tre, six months in the un­der­world with Hades. When she is with her mother, such is Deme­tre’s joy that the sun shines, things grow, the earth is beau­ti­ful. And then Hades de­mands her back, and the earth goes into mourn­ing.

And that’s what win­ter feels like to me.

Mainly, it’s the cold I can’t stand. Most years, I am freez­ing from mid-Oc­to­ber through to April, some­times May if it’s a year like last year. I get chilblains on my hands and feet and my lips chap.

The short days de­press me — they de­press ev­ery­one — but they also stress me. I feel I don’t have enough time to get done ev­ery­thing I need to do, be­cause the days ‘end’ so much sooner. I am tired in the morn- ings, hate get­ting out of bed and some­times feel as though I am count­ing the hours till I can get back into it.

I’m more lethar­gic, I snap at the kids more be­cause we are all con­fined in­doors more. I overeat — in sum­mer, I eat salads with joy, in win­ter I crave gi­ant stews (which is fine) and steamed pud­dings (which is not). But more than that, I am on hia­tus, just liv­ing through and wait­ing for bet­ter. Which is not a great way to spend five-odd months of the year.

When I first read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and dis­cov­ered Nar­nia un­der the White Witch, I was hor­ri­fied — not so much the ‘never Christ­mas’ bit, but ‘Al­ways win­ter’. What a ter­ri­ble place.

In Hans Chris­tian An­der­sen’s The Snow Queen, of that whole beau­ti­ful story, the bit that gets me most is the very last line, when Gerda saves her brother Kai af­ter a long, long trek through icy and snowy lands: “…and it was sum­mer–time; sum­mer, glo­ri­ous sum­mer!”

Dis­lik­ing win­ter doesn’t make me remarkable. I think most of us feel like this. Es­pe­cially in this coun­try (that said, I have one friend who dis­likes sum­mer. She says the long even­ings make her feel anx­ious, as if she should be out do­ing ex­cit­ing things, and that win­ter, with the pos­si­bil­ity of clos­ing the cur­tains and set­tling down in front of the fire at 5pm, suits her much bet­ter).

Maybe it’s be­cause we are not good at win­ter. We have lit­tle or no ‘win­ter cul­ture’, and while I get that lack of ski­ing, sled­ding or skat­ing on frozen canals isn’t our fault, surely we could, by now, have evolved some­thing around sea dips fol­lowed, in­stantly, by com­mu­nal saunas and a bit of heather body-brush­ing?

Ire­land, I have heard from many Rus­sians, Poles and Cana­di­ans, has a par­tic­u­larly nasty, damp kind of a cold. A cold that creeps into your bones and can­not be eas­ily with­stood, so that what the weather types call ‘real-feel’ is of­ten way lower than the ac­tual tem­per­a­ture.

This makes per­fect sense to me. I once spent Christ­mas in Bu­dapest, in -16 de­grees, and I loved it. Ten days of thick snow drifts and frozen lakes, a dry cold, one held at bay by a de­cent coat and scarf, and — cru­cially! — nixed by prop­erly in­su­lated houses with solid, cast iron chest-height ra­di­a­tors and roar­ing fires. That was a fun kind of cold. Not the kind we get here.

I can bear this bit — November and December — be­cause I have some resid­ual sum­mer-stored en­ergy left, and be­cause I love Christ­mas. But once the New Year rolls around, I think gloomily of Tsar Ni­cholas I and his “two gen­er­als who will not fail me: Gen­er­als Jan­uary and Fe­bru­ary”. Not to men­tion March and of­ten April, equally fe­ro­cious, and I am mis­er­able.

By then, I have used up what­ever sum­mer re­serves I had, and I am in­creas­ingly ex­hausted and low-spir­ited, un­til fi­nally the warm days ar­rive and with them, new life.

Frankly, what I want most is to stay in bed for four months. Or at least I think I do. Like many of the things we think we want, this is a false friend. I’ve tried it — pre-kids, pre­work­ing-for-a-liv­ing, ob­vi­ously — back when I was in col­lege and un­der­em­ployed, and it doesn’t work. It makes ev­ery­thing worse.

The only thing to do with win­ter is face it down. I have strict win­ter rules that I stick to. The win­ter rules go like this: Get up, get out­side, get ex­er­cise. Prefer­ably do this early in the day in or­der to set the blood rac­ing and heat flowing be­fore set­tling down for long sta­tion­ary pe­ri­ods at the com­puter.

But, fail­ing an early out­ing, the out­ing it­self is non-ne­go­tiable, re­gard­less of weather. This holds un­der all cir­cum­stances ex­cept an ac­tual hur­ri­cane. Run, or walk, or swim if you dare, just get out.

Do not eat pack­ets of crisps and cho­co­late bars to stay warm.

Con­sume gin­ger and turmeric in large quan­ti­ties (I have touch­ing faith in their power to warm from the in­side). Do not give in to the steamed pud­dings. If you can’t face salads, eat win­ter veg like cab­bage, beet­root and parsnip.

Book reg­u­lar in­fra-red saunas, not as a pleas­ant in­dul­gence but in a se­ri­ous, non-ne­go­tiable, ther­a­peu­tic way.

Dress prop­erly. The Nor­we­gians (ap­par­ently) say that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes, and, grudg­ingly, I have con­ceded that they have a point.

Much as I love cutesy In­sta­gram-y win­ter clothes — fluffy sweaters, cosy knit­ted scarves — the re­al­ity is that for me, they are all style, with in­suf­fi­cient sub­stance. I dress, most days, like an Arc­tic ex­plorer or Ever­est base-camper. Lay­ers of ther­mals con­tain­ing spe­cial heat-gen­er­at­ing tech­nol­ogy, ski socks, wind and wa­ter­proof outer shells. That’s if I’m ven­tur­ing out. In­doors, Johnny Forty­coats is my style icon as I add layer af­ter layer of sweaters, cardi­gans and wraps as the day pro­gresses.

I am mar­ried to a man who loves win­ter. Ac­tu­ally, he says he loves all sea­sons and all weath­ers. Sigh. He also hates cen­tral heat­ing. Dou­ble sigh. He and I are in­com­pat­i­ble in many ways (all re­ally, ex­cept the ones that mat­ter), but nowhere is this more ob­vi­ous than when we in­habit the same house dur­ing the win­ter months, him in a T-shirt, me in my forty coats, nei­ther of us happy with the tem­per­a­ture (‘too hot!’ says he; ‘too cold!’ bleat I).

He be­lieves, with John Stein­beck, in the beauty of con­trast: “What good is the warmth of sum­mer, with­out the cold of win­ter to give it sweet­ness.” Well I’m not con­vinced. When he says how bor­ing the Ca­nary Is­lands must be, with year-round vari­a­tions be­tween just 16 and 23 de­grees, I fall into a pleas­ant reverie — mmm, the glo­ri­ous pre­dictabil­ity of end­less sunshine…

Right now, even though it is mid-November, we are still in a kind of phoney war. Au­tumn has been long and slow and beau­ti­ful, and I have been lulled into a false sense of se­cu­rity. But not for much longer.

Get ready peo­ple. Win­ter is com­ing.

‘Get ready peo­ple. Win­ter is com­ing’

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