Friday, November 23, 2012
Memories of slush
When I was about 30 years old I came to Switzerland to attend a conference at the World Council of Churches in Geneva. After the conference, a Swiss protestant pastor generously and spontaneously invited me to stay with him and his family for a few days, an offer which I accepted with enthusiasm. He was the minister in a small Swiss village, in the German part of Switzerland, about an hour or so by train from Zurich. This was my first experience of those gigantic Swiss cowbells, clanking around the necks of the cows in the field, which extended right up to the walls of the presbytery. This was a fascinating and enriching experience for me, and there are several stories I could tell. But the one that I will tell today concerns snow.
I was born in the UK, and until the age of eight I lived in Birmingham, where I eagerly anticipated the appearance of snow each year. But in 1966 my family emigrated to Australia, and memories of snow began to melt. It was not until about nine or ten years later, on a brief trip to the USA with my parents, that I once again encountered snow in Yosemite National Park. It would be another thirteen years before I saw snow again, which brings me to this story.
Knowing that I was from Australia, and knowing that snow remained something of a novelty for me, the pastor’s wife decided one day to drive me up a nearby mountain, where, she hoped, there might still be traces of snow. This was in June, so I imagine we had to reach quite an elevation. We were not alone in the car. There were others staying at the pastor’s home, and altogether there were five of us crammed into her small and rather dilapidated vehicle.
To reach our destination we had to climb quite steeply up a fairly narrow and winding road. I had the distinct impression that the pastor’s wife (whose name, I’m afraid, has long since also melted with the snow) did not drive very often. She tackled the road very slowly and with great care, as a result of which the engine began to overheat. Now, her solution to this problem was not to stop for a while, nor to drive a little more quickly, and in a higher gear, which may have helped cool the engine by decreasing the revs and increasing the air flow. No. Her solution was to turn the heater on full in order to dissipate the heat. Into the interior of the car. Into us. Being at high altitude it was already quite cold outside the car; but in that small car, with five of us crammed cheek to jowl, wearing warm clothing in anticipation of the cold outside, it soon became unpleasantly hot. That, together with the jerky and twisting movements of the car, and the fact that I was in the back seat (never a good thing), caused me to regret the full breakfast I had eaten that morning.
Fortunately, I managed to keep everything in its proper place, and eventually we reached a parking area near a long, sloping expanse of grass – a ski slope during winter, I was informed. We left the car and I breathed air that had not, thankfully, already been breathed by four other people. Together we walked up the slightly muddy slope to where, in shaded dips and gullies, a grey, crystalline substance retreated from the summer encroachment of the sun. This was the decaying corpse of snow. Nevertheless, I dutifully gathered some into my gloved hands and formed a slushball.
Fortunately, the drive down the mountain road was less stressful for the car, the driver and her passengers. Although I think she may have been a little embarrassed at having only been able to present to me these dregs of snow, I was grateful to her for having taken the time and made the effort.
It would be another 22 years before I saw snow again. Its appearance still has the power to evoke those early childhood years. It will be one thing that I miss when I leave Switzerland in a few weeks time, and I am hoping that Mother Nature might oblige me with a display before I go.