It’s getting colder here in Beijing, it’s 11 degrees at the moment and over the next week the temperature is expected to drop by 14 degrees, not to, by. That’s Cold.
With each dip of the temperature I shudder at the thought of a “real” winter. In WA, winter means ugg boots, red wine and whinging if it dips to 14 degrees – central heating and goose down jackets don’t really enter the equasion.
It is not, however, my first time living through proper cold weather, and as I haggle over the price of thermal underwear in Beijing, I can’t help but cast my mind back to the last time I had to seriously prepare for The Cold.
*Wavy screen dissolves into image of an awkward looking 17-year old in a school uniform filling out Rotary Exchange forms. It is the year 2000, and Perth, Western Australia, is sweltering though a record hot summer.*
All through high school I begged my parents to let me go on an overseas student exchange. Despite being fairly enthusiastic travellers themselves, the thought of sending their teenage daughter to some far flung place seemed to trigger something in the part of their brains that can only imagine the Worst Case Scenario. I would be stuck in the outskirts of some miserable German industrial town, (“You might as well go to jail for a year”) or South Africa, (“Like Perth but you can’t leave the house”) or America (“You’ll have to go to church!”).
They did not quite know how to react when Denmark was announced as my “host country” at the Rotary orientation weekend. None of us knew much about Denmark, but the first thing we learnt about it was when an elderly Rotarian bounded up to us directly after the announcement and said:
“In Denmark, every household has a book for the daughter of the family to write the names of their one-night-stand in, so the rest of the family knows what to call the new overnight guest at the breakfast table.”
Putting aside that this was a bit (a lot) of a creepy thing to say to a 17-year old girl and her parents, I was fairly encouraged by this news and my parents seemed fairly unconcerned by it. What did worry them, however, was that Denmark was in Scandinavia, and as everybody knows, Scandinavia is COLD.
As true West Aussies, Mum and Dad considered anywhere cold enough to snow as pretty much the North Pole. In their minds, the kid who had a break down when she had to go to school camp in July was basically going to be living in an Igloo.
This concerned them greatly.
“It’s dangerous!” Dad said to me on more than one occasion. “People DIE in cold like that.”
It didn’t help that when the itinerary arrived from Rotary my first stop was a week-long orientation camp in a town called “Kolding”.
“I bloody bet it is too!” Dad said.
As we swelted through a 40 degree summer in the lead up to my departure, my parents became increasingly concerned about, well, everything really. Mum made me pack a bumbag in case of pick pockets (“it’s Europe,” she said) but the real panic was about preparing me for: The Cold.
“What do you do about pants!” Mum fretted. We understood that you wore a jacket, but wouldn’t your legs get cold?
Mum dug out an old pair of 1970s bright red ski pants. Heavens knows where they came from, I suspect the dress-up box, they barely fit me, but it was decided they were essentials. “Stop complaining and just wear them!” Dad insisted, “People DIE in Cold like that!”.
Mum then marched me to the local outdoor adventure shop where we bought thermals, (“she’s going to Scandinavia,” Mum told the shop assistant as if I was going to jail). But now we had a dilemma. How do you fit thermals under your trousers? Ladies jeans were too tight. We solved this problem by buying a pair of baggy boys jeans. “It doesn’t matter what you look like when it’s That Cold,” Mum said, as I skeptically took stock of my new look – navy blue thermal polo top and boys jeans. Perhaps Mum and Dad were more concered about the rumoured one-night stand book than they let on.
As Mum was dragging me around Fremantle dressing me like a oversized grommet with a gender identity disorder, Dad was researching jackets. At the time Dad was working for a outdoor adventure website, and he used this position to conduct some serious jacket research. That Christmas he gave me a jacket which had been ordered from Melbourne (“They know a bit about The Cold in Victoria!”) and was, Dad said: “The warmest jacket you can get in Australia, it’s specially designed to cut down the wind chill factor, and that’s what kills you in The Cold, the wind. People DIE in cold like that”.
The jacket was essentially a polar fleece with an extra tight knit. It was, in fact, woefully inadequate for the Danish weather, a fact that was pointed out to me on more than one occassion when I actually got to Denmark, but I refused to acknowledge it. “This is the warmest jacket in Australia,” I told people through chattering teeth. Luckily, the jacket was quite loose (to fit thermals under, like the jeans) so I would just pile on jumpers underneath.
When I arrived in Denmark it was freezing. In Kolding I was billeted to a family together with an exchange student from Brisbane who was as freaked out about the cold as I was. We went for a walk one day and panicked our CD walkmans (it was 2001!) would stop working.
My first day of school lasted about an hour before we were sent home because of the snow. On the way to the bus stop some students tried to make small talk and I literally couldn’t answer them I was coughing and spluttering so much from the icy air which didn’t seem to bother anyone else.
Everything about The Cold was fascinating. I marveled at the way people would leave food outside if there was no room left in the fridge, and how you were expected to take your shoes off whenever you entered a house so you woudn’t trek snow inside. I also learnt things about cold weather that are common knowledge in cold climates, like how you have to go through the process of taking your jacket off inside, otherwise the cold is twice as bad when you went outside again, and a beanie is really important because you loose so much heat from your head.
I have since suffered through a New York winter which seemed colder than anything I experienced in Denmark. I can’t say I ever really got the hang of the northern winters, but maybe this is the one.
If it doesn’t kill me.
PS: Mum, Dad, your love and concern about my freezing to death in Scandinavia was much appreciated, really. I promise to wear lots of layers in China.
PPS: And in case you’re wondering, I never saw a one-night stand book in Denmark, disappointing huh?