During this past week, southern Finland has gotten a healthy heaping of snow, breaking a near-75-year record for this time of the year. At our house we got a whopping 24 centimeters (9 inches) in one day, thankfully, all very dry powder, which made clearing it from the sidewalk and driveway fairly painless. We have a full half-meter (foot and a half) of snow standing in our yard, so there’s no doubt we’ll have a white Christmas this year. You might think that Helsinki, at the same latitude as Anchorage would never have to worry about something like that. But you’d be wrong, at least in recent years.
When I first came here in the early 80s the white stuff started falling around the end of November and wouldn’t melt until the end of March. For almost four months, the mercury rarely got above freezing until – with the days rapidly growing longer – winter would finally break and the “big melt off” would begin. Roads and sidewalks turned into broad swaths of sloppy (and very dirty) slush as the snow and ice melted to reveal a winter’s accumulation of road grime, assorted litter, and dog crap. In our neighborhood, lots of dog crap. And then after having to slosh through all that mess for about two weeks, it was over and spring started.
That was then, the good old days. In recent years, that cycle of snowing and melting has played out not just at the beginning and end of winter, but repeatedly throughout the season. We might get a nice blanket of powdery snow, only to see temperatures rise two days later and the whole thing dissolve into a soup of deep slush during the day, which then freezes into treacherous icy terrain during the night. When you suffer through several of these thaw-freeze cycles each winter, you quickly become nostalgic for the hard winters where it never got above freezing for months.
These milder winters have gotten so bad that for three years in a row starting in 2006 Old Man Winter surprised us with the cheerless gift of a snowless Christmas. I never thought that possible here. Happily, the past two winters have switched back to the old style, with wintery scenery on December 25th worthy of Currier and Ives. We had more than enough of snow last year, mountains of it, vast oceans of it in fact, that didn’t finally melt until mid-April.
As you might expect, Finland is well equipped to handle all this snow, usually. A typical winter experience here is waking to the sound of snowplows briskly scraping the streets and sidewalks clear of the previous night’s snowfall. Sometimes that’s the first hint that it’s been snowing during the night. Another typical experience is having to shovel a breach in the wall of snow at the end of your driveway left by the plow in its wake.
In twenty-plus years I’ve lived here, I’ve learned a thing or two about shoveling snow. And driving in slippery weather. Needless to say, these are not skills I brought with me from Georgia, though I did have some experience with snow growing up.
While it’s true that Georgia is nestled in the warm, moist bosom of the South, I come from the mountainous, northern part of the state, where snow in the winter wasn’t exactly rare. When I was a kid, we had a chance every winter to build snowmen, sled in our pasture, and make “snowcream”. I wonder if anyone else made snowcream. In the morning after a typical one-inch (2.5cm) snowfall (and usually after the welcome news that there would be no school that day), we’d scoop up a pan-full of fresh snow, add vanilla extract, sugar, and a bit of milk – voilà “snowcream!”
So, even in Georgia we knew how to have a good time in the snow. Functioning normally, however, was another matter. In 1982, when I was living in the college town of Athens, we had a storm that dumped maybe one inch of snow overnight. The University of Georgia administration promptly closed the university. For three days. My future wife – who as a seven-year-old in Finland had walked alone two and a half kilometers (1.5 miles) to school in temperatures of -30 degree (-22 F) – couldn’t believe it.
The university overreacted, to be sure, but there was a good reason to shut the school down for at least the first day: many, maybe most, students drove to campus. If you’ve watched young people with no experience with snow – hell, for students from Florida hardly any experience even with frost – trying to force their parent’s hand-me-down Pontiac up one of the hills in Athens on bald tires, you would agree that school officials were wise to do whatever they could to keep the kids off the streets. What they couldn’t do, however, was prevent students with a unexpected day off from classes from looting lunch trays from the university cafeterias and turning them into pretty good substitutes for sleds. They sure knew how to enjoy snow. I even remember someone flying down the slippery slope of Baxter Hill in an aluminum canoe.
Finns may know how to live with lots of snow, how to enjoy it, appreciate its beauty, even become blasé about it or completely fed up with the stuff by April. But, when it comes to being truly excited by the wonder of it, they can’t match the reckless joy of some lucky pre-law undergrad from Miami who, during his first ever encounter with a little snow, somehow gets his hands on a canoe.