The whitest thing I ever saw

Outside, it’s snowing heavily. Mostly, in this late stage of winter, it snows in tiny white dots that are almost invisible unless contrasted against a dark surface. But sometimes, like now, the tiny white dots clump together and fall in big, bold clusters. “Like broken pillow”, the Czech girl whose house I’m staying at said today.

From the plane it was such a different landscape from what I’m used to. It was so untouched – just these great areas of perfect blankness. As we were flying over Hungary, I wrote in my notebook, “The raised patches of forest are dusted grey with it, roads carved creases in it, houses stamp neat little squares in it. This is new. Completely new.”

The first time I saw it snow, I was in Berlin at Alex’s house. We were sitting on the floor of his bedroom eating lunch and drinking tea. I had my back to the window. Suddenly, Alex got very excited and started pointing outside. “This is what I really wanted you to see,” he said. We jumped up, left the plates on the floor and hurried through the regular ritual of dressing for the outdoors.

Already I was wearing thermal long underpants under my jeans, an undershirt, thermal t-shirt, sweater vest and jumper but then at the doorway we put on big boots over our two pairs of socks, overcoats, beanies (or apocalypse hat in my case), gloves and scarves. As Alex’s housemate Frazie likes to say, “The only way is the onion way.”

What I find most wonderful about snow is how softly it falls. It is this delicate white decent, drifting to the ground or alighting upon your shoulders, head and back without you even feeling it land. It is such a silent, gentle process, this whiting out of the world.

And when you look at it closely, snowflakes are the way they’re supposed to look. They are the tiny and intricate fractal patterns we tried to imitate around Christmas time in school: cutting triangles out of folded paper in fan-cooled classrooms, while outside 30 degrees bore down on our yellow ovals.

When it it’s new, snow squeaks underfoot like the fine sand at the Queensland beach near my mother’s house. It is powdery stuff and it won’t pack into snowballs – it just falls apart in your gloves. So my first few attempts at pelting Alex with snow were pretty pathetic. But if you leave it overnight, it hardens and packs very well. You can make snowballs, snowmen, snow-most-things.

So the day after, Alex and I went to this giant park near his house. It was hailing but small hail, interspersed with tiny snowflakes. The park is presided over by an old bomb bunker and is the only place Alex has found in Berlin so far where you can actually see the city – everywhere else is flat and you just get lost in the old jungle of five-or-so-story apartment buildings and stores. (There are height restrictions on this flat city, and it was built on a swamp, so it’s difficult to keep anything upright.)

Here we discovered the snowball effect. You just have to gather together a small clump of snow and then roll it along the ground in some more snow, and suddenly you have a really big clump of snow. We disappointingly discovered that you can’t make a snowball and roll it down a hill on its own like in the cartoons, until it is a giant man-sized monster of a snowball out to swallow old ladies and dog-walkers in the park. We tried, but it didn’t work. Lucky for the passers-by anyway.

We did, however, create and then violently dismember a very ugly hunchbacked snowman named Ron. Here are some photos.

– Zoe Barron


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