Life in countries where the weather can be really Baltic

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How do people from colder countries cope with winter weather? HELEN MCGURK asks if we could learn some lessons from our Eastern European and North American neighbours

Winter’s full fury has yet to arrive in Northern Ireland, but it’s probably only a matter of time. Who can forget last year’s snow show and the chaos which ensued; schools were closed, traffic disrupted and duvet days were plentiful as snowed in workers literally took cover from the cold snap.

The shimmering white countryside may look beautiful, but we, like other regions of the UK, are ill-equipped to cope with Jack Frost and a deluge of the white stuff when it arrives.

So how do people manage in other countries where winters are, in general, much harsher and longer than ours? Does daily life grind to a halt?

Russian native Valeria Higgins, now living permanently in Northern Ireland, said: ‘‘I was born, and lived for the first decade of my life, in a place where cold really does mean cold, down to -15 or -20 during the winter.’’

She added: ‘‘Typical winters in St Petersburg are nothing compared to what we experience in Northern Ireland. And St Petersburg’s winter is mild by Russian standards, with an average temperature of -8 in January, compared to Siberia in central Russia, where temperatures can get down to -40, though the January average would be -18.

‘‘Five months of snow and sub-zero temperatures means the local population is well prepared for the wintery conditions in all aspects of life. Though that doesn’t mean that exceptional weather conditions won’t cause disruption.’’

Northern Irish people may foolishly brave the sub-zero temperatures in fashionable, but non-functional clothing, but Valeria said Russians wear much more appropriate attire.

‘‘When it comes to clothing, layers are important, warm woolly jumpers, scarves, hats, gloves or even better mittens (to make sure all fingers are together keeping each other warm), and of course a long, winter coat. The animal rights lobby wouldn’t be big in Russia and real fur is still frequently seen on both coats and hats.’’

She added: ‘‘There are no bare ankles, stomachs or other body parts frequently seen on local streets. Women would often wear tall boots when out and about, going from home to work. The contrasting temperatures between the outdoors and the centrally heated indoors necessitates a change of footwear either at the office or when going to the theatre or ballet.’’

And despite the harsh winters in Russia, transport carries on as normal.

‘‘The underground runs, buses, trains, trams and trolleybuses all go about their daily routes. The city’s streets and roads are not only salted and gritted but regularly cleaned with a snow plough to keep the traffic moving,’’ said Valeria.

‘‘Those motorists who continue to drive all year round, fit winter tyres to their cars for better grip on the snow and ice. And snow falls don’t stop workers from going to their jobs and pupils from going to school. PE lessons in winter may actually involve skiing. Russians are prepared for what winter throws their way, but for them it’s the norm.’’

Lesley Houston, now lives in Northern Ireland, but grew up in Canada - she recalls very harsh winters.

‘‘When a threatened millimetre-deep flurry of snow closed my two children’s schools in Bangor last year I couldn’t help but reminisce about my childhood in Ontario, Canada, when we regularly walked half an hour to school in a foot of snow every winter – for months on end. Only once, up to the age of 13, do I recall a ‘snow day’. That was some time in the ‘70s when a snow drift covering our house, 50 miles outside Toronto, literally froze us in.

‘‘My dad had to use a cigarette lighter to melt the ice sealing the front door, finally letting my sister and I go belly first through a hole in the drift walling-in our porch.’’

Lesley said that the ‘white-out’ didn’t prevent her parents getting to work - even her dad on his 100-mile round trip to the international airport.

‘‘It was easy: the roads had been filled with snow ploughs overnight which left five-feet high banks on the edge of every road, and the winter tyres had been donned as the autumn leaves turned black in the ditches weeks earlier.’’

She added: ‘‘Our neighbour hadn’t been quick enough and his car had been left lodged in a snow bank for at least a week until a slight thaw yielded its extraction. Everything else kept going; copious amounts of salt on roads kept all routes open, save for the odd ‘dirt road’ out in the boonies.’’

And the snowy conditions didn’t keep the hardy Canadians indoors hugging heaters.

‘‘In those days, when we finally arrived home from school on a walk that we stretched to an hour, jumping in deep ditches levelled flat with the white stuff, my dad would have prepared our regular winter treat - our very own ice rink in our back garden, created with the wide driveway snow shovel and our garden hose.

‘‘Cross-country skiing in neighbouring forests every weekend make for very good memories of snow. Now though, I’ve lost that childlike adoration of those crystalline white flakes and feel more like my mum did as she complained, donning her two piece, duvet-like snowsuit that I couldn’t wait to graduate into from my childish one-piece. I was brought to Northern Ireland when I was 13 so I never got that chance.’’

Eva Grosman, co-founder and ceo of the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building, is originally from Poland, but now lives in Northern Ireland.

She said: ‘‘I love winter time in Poland, especially around Christmas. Crisp winter mornings, snow, wrapping up, going for a walk and coming back to a warm cup of hot cocoa. What I don’t like is when it gets slushy, wet and really cold.

‘‘I visited Krakow few years ago when temperature dropped to -25C. It was so bitterly cold! I had to get into a coffee shop quick - I simply couldn’t cope.’’

And Eva said in Poland life continues as normal in winter.

‘‘I really don’t remember school being ever cancelled because of the adverse weather conditions. I do however remember during one particularly bad winter all school kids helping to remove snow outside the school entrance. Now, it would probably not be allowed due to the health and safety regulations.’’

She added: ‘‘I suppose because in Poland we are used to snow and colder winters, there is a degree of planning and infrastructure in place. People just get on with it.

‘‘Just earlier this year I have witnessed a massive snow storm in Andorra where I go skiing every year. It was very serious, but within few hours all roads and pavements were cleared and all went back to normal.’’

So the consensus is clear; in other countries where winters are traditionally long and harsh, people, and those in power, seem much better equipped to fight the cold war than we are in Northern Ireland. And if last year’s temperatures in Ulster are going to be more commonplace in the future, perhaps we should warm to their winter weather response.