I see on the news that the UK is in for another bout of what they are calling “extreme weather conditions“, by which they mean the sort of weather which is absolutely normal anywhere from about Berlin eastwards. Since that’s where I live, I thought it would be a good service to the British people to give you at this time my observations on how Poles, Russians and others in a climate that seems to be causing a lot of ructions as it moves across the Britain. It seems that these colder winters are not going to go away as far as the UK is concerned and so you may as well get used to them. I have about 20 East European winters on my climatic CV, so my experience is something which may be of use to you.
- The first item is dress. There’s a Russian saying “Нет плохой погоды, есть только плохая одежда” – that means “There’s no such thing as bad weather, there is only bad dress”. And the thing to go for is many layers of clothing rather than a few layers of what appear to be warm clothing. If you’re going to work in an office which may be well heated, you do not want to be sweaty all day long so you don’t need to have anything more money that you can’t take off when you get there. That’s the disadvantage of thermal vests. A jumper on the other hand can be taken off quite easily. The scarf is very important because that protects the throat which can be an Achilles heel. It is better than a beard as the beard will make a person feel too warm in a heated location. A decent hat is critical as 30% of heat loss goes from the head. A hat with flaps that can be brought down to cover the ears is particularly useful as you will not want to walk around with your ears uncovered once the temperature goes below about -6°C. Really big headphones can also be helpful to keep the ears warm, but in extremes of cold you can also damage the headphones, although I will say that I haven’t yet. On that note digital cameras need to be used sparingly when its cold, as I have ruined one that way, on stocktakes.
- The extremities need to be protected if you’re out in the cold for any length of time. Simply having your hands in your pockets is not good, especially as you need the extra balance on slippery pavements. Therefore you need a pair of gloves, preferably with separately identifiable fingers, good socks – and again the layers principle means that two pairs of thinner socks is more practical than a single pair of thick socks. Above all you need decent shoes, ones that won’t let in the water when the snow turned to slush, which are high enough not to have snow falling into the tops of them the whole time, and with a nice soft rubber sole with a decent profile that will give you a grip on ice. Frostbite first affects the toes and fingers, and in Napoleon’s campaign on Russia in 1812 many soldiers found that their fingers and toes were coming off when they removed their gloves and socks because they were not adequately catered for and stayed in the cold too long. If you stop feeling part of your body, it’s not good. You also need to avoid going to places like forests on your own with no mobile phone, and you need to refrain from getting inebriated and as a result going to sleep outside. Alcohol may make you feel warm, but if better for use once you are indoors from the cold rather than while you are still out in it. In the spring in Russia it’s not just fossilised dog eggs, it’s also dead tramps that emerge from the melting drifts in the Spring. To avoid slipping even in good shoes, remember to take shorter steps where it’s slippery, and don’t hurry.
- You should not just stay indoors, unless very sick, but should aim to spend up to about 1 1/2 hours if it’s below zero anything down to about -12°C, only one hour if it’s between -12°C and -20°C, and only half an hour if it’s deeper than -20°C. If you are properly dressed, then there should be no health risk from being out and about for those time periods. Some people think that you can get a cold by becoming exposed to cold weather, however many viruses and bacteria actually are killed by the cold weather or become less active. Spending much longer times in these in the cold could result in overexposure and be weakening of your resistance to some of the bacteria and viruses already in your system. Vitamin C, D and Omega 3 need to be taken. Forget the flu jab, rather expect to catch flu some years, but fight it well and naturally.
- You’ll probably find you need to eat a little more, and of course the best things are the slow-burn carbohydrates like porridge for breakfast, pasta etc. On the bright side, winter’s a better time for losing weight than the summer, when you need to drink more and the daily recommended amount of calories can easily pass the lips in fruit juice alone, before we come onto the food that makes you feel full. Christmas and New Year can cause the weight losing potential of winter to be a little offset, but you should eat something highly calorific, only not too much! There is on exercise I found to be most helpful in controlling weight, it is called the table push. When you have eaten some of your plateful, not enough to stop the feeling of hunger but enough for you to know in theory it should have filled the stomach and adequately nourished you, you place both hands on the edge of the table by the plate and push yourself back from the table, taking care not to turn the table over as this will inconvenience the other diners. This uses the triceps and dorsals and various other groups I haven’t even heard about and only requires one ‘rep’, as you then stand up and walk away from the table, saying “sorry to leave you, but I am a fat bastard, and must save myself from my gluttony”. They will understand.
- Your lips will probably chap a little bit when the first exposed to subzero temperatures but then they will remain with a slightly thickened epidermis for as long as it is needed. A similar thing may occur with the rim of your nostrils. Don’t worry about it and don’t pick at it.
- Moving to your car, clearly it’s important that you have all the modern conveniences such as ABS, and the four-wheel drive comes with snowy conditions a lot better than the usual car. In very snowy countries you need to have studded tyres, however these are not legal in most of the EU, and so instead you can get chains for driving over snow in hilly areas, but for most people the key improvements to make to the car for the winter time is to ensure you have a long handled snow remover, like a brush with a scraper on the back, that you have made sure there’s enough antifreeze in your system, and most overlooked of all in the UK is to get winter tyres. They make an awful lot of difference. I’m not talking about studded tyres here – they are simply a softer rubber. There are about 10% less economical than summer tyres, so you’ll need to change them back in the spring. They are actually compulsory in some countries now, such as most recently Germany, so if you want to drive on the continent you must have them.
- Even with all of these preparations are your chances of having an accident than just depend on you are on the preparations made by the other drivers on the road and therefore even if you’ve done everything in point 6 perfectly you’re still at risk. Your car may be involved in a crash, and also if you have a warm garage to keep it in why bring it out on the road? The UK seems underequipped with snow ploughs, and this is something that people talk about on UK fora as if it were a big investment. This is a timely reminder that a snow plough is not a specialist vehicle, it is a big shovel attached to the front of a multi purpose vehicle that does other jobs at other times of the year. Even if snow ploughs have been out in force, this is still one time of the year when you might actually want to work from home if you can, or walk to work, subject to being able to do so in the times which I gave in point 3, or use public transport, which we now come on to.
- On the subject of public transport, unless there are bus lanes, buses and taxis seize up as quickly as the rest of traffic does. Trams on the other hand come into their own in very cold weather. They, and the underground – of which there is not much – are probably the best way of getting around in Warsaw once the snow starts to fall, but even they are not immune to stoppage. Ice starts to fill in the rails which means that the tram can be physically lifted up and out of its rail. Doesn’t seem to happen that much though.
- Trains are a bit more moody, but far more reliable on the continent than in the UK. The reason for this is that the UK doesn’t heat the points but the continent does. So even a “poor” country like Poland has more infrastructure in this area than the “rich” UK. And I don’t need to tell you that the tickets travel in Poland are about a quarter of the cost of the UK. You need to do something about that.
- Then when we come on to airplanes, that has to be said it’s the least reliable and most inconvenient part of public transport when it comes to dealing with the winter. This may surprise you, given that planes function all year round in places like Russia, and that they routine fly up into parts of the atmosphere where the outside temperature is in the -50’s C. The problem is invariably not the plane itself, but the state of the runways, and the fact that some airport authorities clear them with toothbrushes. Recently I flew to a conference in the UK where 30% of the delegates failed to turn up because of issues with flights, and both Gatwick and City airport were closed for days. Inexplicably. So were some of the Dutch airports, still some Netherlands delegates made it, but a minority. Some of the flights back were also cancelled, and some people also may not have attended for fear of not being able to get back again afterwards, and what they did was probably wise, but it did make the conference less valuable for colleagues who did brave the weather and attend, so their prudence was not necessarily appreciated. I tend to risk it with flights myself, I don’t want anyone thinking of me as a pussy, but you need to be ready for all eventualities.
- Coming on to your home now, that starts on the outside – you may have some less hardy plants that need covering or additional mulching over winter, or even bringing indoors. Don’t forget about that, or you’ll be looking at them glumly in April.
- Some people feed the birds in winter, I don’t recommend doing at other times, as it makes them welfare dependent and we have quite enough of that among the human population without nature getting in on the act, but a bit of help for them in the most tough weeks is probably a good thing – only make sure your feeder is cat proof.
- You might find that if your garden paths have been made to the traditional English mix that cracks might emerge between the paving slabs after a particular cold snap. In Poland the garden path is laid with concrete first, and after that there is a layer of sand in the paving slabs are placed on that in the gaps filled in with sand. The concrete underlay stops that sand from mixing with soil and becoming full of weeds. That is the reason why your patio might get very cracked up in the winter, while Polish patios do not.
- If you haven’t yet got double glazing, you should probably invest in it. Please consciously avoid anyone who has been cold calling you to sell double glazing, though, as any success for them will only encourage them to continue.
- You still need to ventilate your rooms regardless of how cold is outside. That means that even if you have very good insulation, you still need to heat your premises. Don’t stint on it. Don’t leave any premises which are not occupied totally unheated. Pipes will crack, and they will be flooded. Your home is at risk if you do not keep up paying for the heat coming out of the radiators or other heating installed in it.
- As a general rule, you need to keep places were people are heated at about 22-23 degrees, and keep other places heated to at least 10 degrees. This is a comfortable and safe level. It’s not the area where I’d advise you to save money. Even if you invite granny to stay for three months in the winter, she either needs to keep some heating on in the place she’s leaving or risk coming back to ruptured pipes. For some people’s homes it may be enough to switch off the stopcock, but if in doubt ask a plumber – preferably a Polish one.
Dealing with accumulations of snow
- Now some words on the clearing of snow. When snow falls continually on top of old snow without the old snow getting the chance to melt first, (a meteoroloical scenario which the poet Christina Rosetti aptly summarised as “snow on snow”) then what is on the bottom will compact into ice. There is more water in that lower level than there is at the top level. Eventually quite sizeable volumes of this solidified (for the time being) water can gather on streets, taking away the space you would normally park your car in, or walk in, and at this point it starts to appear that everything is rather crowded. On the one hand you can see further – you can see buildings on the other side of the square which are blocking the rest of the year by foliage, but still there is less usable space. People can’t park so easily because they are fitting in around snow drifts or snow cleared off to make a walkway and dumped where somebody else wants to park their car. Careful clearance of the snow by the municipal authorities is key. It needs to be taken right away from such places where, if it all melts at once (which can easily happen if you go from minus to a warm snap in a day – not unheard of at all), it will not all fit down the drain but instead will go into someone’s cellar. If there’s a lot of it then trucks need to take it to the river, downstream from the city. When you look at any accumulations of snow try and foresee where it will drain off to, and make sure that drain can cope if the thaw is a rapid one. In Moscow you don’t just see snow ploughs moving the snow into roadside piles, you also see other trucks coming and scooping up the snow ridges and taking them out of the city.
- By the same token, you need to clear large accumulations of snow away from near the walls of your house to the best drained part of your garden.
- The biggest issue is roofs. Not only does the weight of accumulated snow from several occasions cause them to fall in, often killing people, but also the thaw will result in flooding of the premises and falling ice and snow, which also can kill and injure people. The roofs need to be cleared off regularly in winter, and you need to know whose responsibility that is for where you live and work and make sure they are doing it. I’ve seen a tiny icicle fall on someone from an 11th floor and draw blood on someone, and you can easily get your neck broken if you don’t bear in mind what’s over your head during a thaw.
- However, the worst case I saw of something fall was actually an old window held in by putty. The window pane shrank in the -40 cold in Moscow’s Sokolniki area and the whole paneful of glass came slicing down from a fifth floor apartment and shattered on the pavement. It would have sliced anyone in half who had been under it, which is a very “paneful” way to go. Luckily it didn’t hit anyone.
- The walkable part of any pavement seems to reduce to about 40% of what it usually is, and that the size of people seems to increase by about 20% because they’re so packed up for the weather, so people get in each other’s way more. Tempers can fray. They say that on hot days people get hot-blooded and short tempered, but I’ve seen people get very impatient in the snow. That’s why you need to show manners and not push people – they can fall over and injure themselves more easily, and also try to get more eye contact and smile a bit and be a bit extra polite.
Fossils in the Spring
- When the snow does melt after a long winter, unsanitary things start to appear – in Poland we suddenly get to look at half a year’s worth of unrotted-away dogs’ dirt in March or April. So you need if you’re in charge of a municipal budget to get this cleared up fast then, before it becomes a health hazard. It may not be mammoths that are emerging from our Polish melts, but it certainly is a mammoth task to scoop the poop before it gets everywhere.
- Finally, remember that even if the Gulfstream does seize up as some are predicting and Britain goes back to the freezing winters it has had in some of the Middle Ages, winter is still not all the year. At the most is is going to be for 4 or 5 months of the year, and you still have the summer to look forward to. We are coming up to the shortest days of the year now, they will get longer every week after that and Spring will come again, even if it seems very late. The winter clears out a lot of pests, giving real advantages to thise who don’t want to soak their food with pesticides. It also helps us appreciate the summer more. Just hang on in there, with plenty of fresh air and Vitamin C and D and Omega 3 and you’ll learn to love it as an important season you were missing out on before, and remember what Nietzsche said about “what doesn’t kill me, makes me strong”!
So that’s most of what I have to say to my fellow English people after surviving 20 continental winters. Please forward and share this with as many people as possible and give it maximum exposure, as it will save people who know these things a lot of money and hassle and might even save some lives.
- Cold Weather Boosts 2011 British Travel Sales (prweb.com)
- Bridgestone tyres offer advice to ‘fearful’ motorists heading out on hazardous roads (etyres.co.uk)
- Snow tyres now mandatory in Germany (hgvuk.com)
- Council chief urges motorists to fit snow tyres this winter (etyres.co.uk)
- Is the UK uniquely bad at coping with snow? (bbc.co.uk)