*I asked Google Translate to find me the German word for marshmallow, and it offered Mäusespeck. However, my German friend says that this word translates to “Mouse Bacon”, not marshmallow. Even better.
It is 6:15pm and I have just returned from a long walk up and around the snowy hills of Bruderholz, the ritzy suburbs of Basel that also happen to be my backyard. Back in my Freon-frigid high rise in Manila, I dreamed of a day when I could lace up some furry boots and go for a stroll in a world where my breath came to life in chilly air, where snow-covered boughs leaned and loafed against a lavender sky.
Basel is spoiling me. My weather app, which has a poor track record for accuracy, again promised me snow earlier this week. I’ve taken to loathing the app in recent days, as I prepare excitedly to wake up to a snow-filled wonderland and instead wake up to rain. But not this time!
On Thursday morning, I awoke to the first flurries of the day. I tempered my expectations. The snow would let up by 10. It wouldn’t stick. But by noon, it was still pouring down, big fluffy flakes tumbling unceasingly from the sky.
I know what you might be thinking. Nicole, you live in Switzerland. Of course it’s going to snow. And I thought that, too, but it turns out that snow often bypasses Basel. Basel gets the churning waters of the Rhine, the fields of cows, a raclette section in the grocery store – but it is sadly spared snowfall. In fact, depending on who you talk to, snow has not stuck in Basel in anywhere from 2 years to 10 years.
So while I was thrilled at the snowy drifts that were slowly accumulating outside my window, I was also skeptical that they would last. By my lunch break, I was determined to pry myself off my computer screen and venture outside to savor what I could of this winter miracle.
A quick sidenote: We returned to school this week after 3 glorious, languorous weeks of break. However, due to the new strain of COVID and the fact that people had been traveling over the break, the school (wisely) decided to nix Face-to-Face learning and begin the year with one week on Distance Learning. I was over the moon already, having a quiet place to safely work sans mask, but add a snowy morning to the mix and I was puppy-mailman level excited.
With 45 minutes before my next class, I whipped up some hot chocolate, Swiss style. (Well, sort of. The chocolate was melting or cooking chocolate I bought from Läderach, so uber Swiss, but the milk was oat milk, not so Swiss. Vegan hot chocolate is possible, folks, and it is still delish.) Then, I bundled up and tromped down my slushy street to Dan’s house, where we sipped hot chocolate in the park area behind his apartment. Snowballs were thrown (I believe it was a tie) before children began descending on the basketball court to build a snowman and I had to return home and teach a class.
Every time I turned to look out the window, it was still snowing. Snow. Much. So. Wow. I feel like one of those little figurines inside a snowglobe, and I LOVE IT.
Less enjoyable was walking my bicycle to the repair shop, but hey. It all worked out in the end because Dan and I went for a nighttime walk, found ourselves in the park we’d passed through on New Year’s Eve, and commenced another snowball fight. This is why I love the snow. You rarely pair the words “adult” and “play”, and that’s a damn shame. I may be long in the tooth, but I have a lot of play left in me, and snow is the epitome of play.
The park is huge, so there was plenty of space to fling icy snowballs, to build a little snowman, to climb on abandoned and snow-covered playground equipment. And it was still. Snowing. Kids sledded down a nearby hill. A parent threw a snowball at their child from atop some playground equipment. A pram sat parked under a streetlight, quietly gathering snow.
We walked back, red-nosed, snow in our (er, my) hair. (It was unclear who won this round.)
Today, when the sky began to lighten, it was – oh yes – STILL SNOWING. And being on DL, working from home, all of it had the magic of an endless snow day. When we picked up my bike around 4, it had finally stopped snowing, but the world was transformed. Along slushy sidewalks, I wheeled my bike and avoided unfair snowballs hurled by someone who is used to pitching baseballs at a person whose hands are busy steering a bike. We ran into multiple people from work, out for a stroll.
“You know, it hasn’t snowed here like this in ten years!” said one.
There are times I feel lucky in the choices I’ve made, like moving to Basel amid a pandemic, and this was one of them. After parking Merle (the appropriate name for my trusty velo) in my bike room, my work day done, my reports written, I decided to take a walk.
To you, this may not sound momentous. But I cannot squeeze into mere letters, words, spaces, exclamation points, the marvel that is taking a long walk through snowy lands. Growing up in New Jersey, there were snowy walks a-plenty, but as a gal who’s been trapped in the tropics for the past five years and lived four more in the cold but snowless desert of Cairo, the idea of strolling through snow is still, always, wonderfully dazzling.
First, I bundled up. Oh, the novelty! Farewell to shorts and rompers and dresses blanched by sweat and Jeepney fumes! Essential to life in Switzerland: a warm wardrobe. My toes all nestled in wool socks, plunged into fur-lined and oh-so-warm Decathlon boots; my legs doubly warm in leggings and hiking pants; my arms and upper body terrifically toasty in a sweater, my blue Patagonia coat, AND my grey Patagonia coat; my pathetic, icy, tropics-spoiled fingers all cozy in thick mittens. A hat. A scarf. A portable phone charger because my phone is also spoiled by balmy temperatures and dies at the faintest trace of a cold breeze.
I was ready.
I shuffled up the icy sidewalk behind my apartment, and the farther away from the “city” I got, the more difficult it became to glimpse a wide patch of sky. Instead, there were scores upon scores of tree branches, all bowed by snow and ice, leaning into each other and knitting together until the sky only peered through in grey patches. As I walked alongside a particularly woody spot, I heard a loud crack and turned to see a tree collapse under the weight of the snow, disappearing into a cloud of powder.
Icicles were already beginning to form on inky branches, traffic lights, bus stops. Couples walked mitten-in-mitten, apple-cheeked and clad in bright winterwear. The fluffiest dogs, like little mammoths, tugged at leashes and poked their noses in the snow. Intrepid runners and cyclists cruised by, undeterred by the slush underfoot. Everyone seemed friendlier, softer somehow, quick to smile and say, “Grüetzi.”
I followed the road up to where the tram deposits you if you want to wander up to the water tower without walking the whole way. The tracks were snowed under, tram stops bright but abandoned, and the path continued on through trees whose branches looked less like twigs and more like lace.
It was the best walk ever: snow crunching under my boots; the roar around every corner that sounded like a plow but turned out to be parents pulling children on wooden sleds; the sharp scent of pine; the soft glow of street lamps; the empty benches piled with snow; the way the sky faded from lavender to rose to the amber glow of from city lights; warm kitchen windows; a woman holding her baby, in a striped onesie, at the window and the baby pointing at snowy bushes outside; two older woman carrying skis twice their size to who-knows-where; a child hauling a sled up a hill by himself, cruising down the promenade where we normally ride our bikes home from school; children shrieking and throwing snowballs until one of them starts crying; a snowman in an apartment complex courtyard with a little straw hat and a scarf; another snowman in another complex with brooms for arms, draped in battery-powered white Christmas lights; a woman pushing her mummified little baby along the sidewalk, the baby doing that thing where you hum as you go over bumps.
Life here is not always easy, especially in light of everything going on the world these days, but for an hour or so, it was perfect.
The poet Wendell Berry wrote, “When despair for the world grows in me…I come into the peace of wild things.” Berry might have found his peace with the wood drake and the heron, but I’ve found mine with hot chocolate and snowball fights in near-empty parks and in quietly walking through the wonder that is Basel in winter.
And I, like Berry, can say with certainty that “For a time, I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”