Tuesday 17 September 2019

Emily Hourican: 'Embrace dark days by the fireside? No thanks, it's not for me'

Summer-loving Emily Hourican is not looking forward to five months in the damp gloom of an Irish winter

WRAPPED UP: Emily gets ready for the cold horrors. Photo: David Conachy
WRAPPED UP: Emily gets ready for the cold horrors. Photo: David Conachy

Emily Hourican

Of all the 'winter stories', the one that makes the most sense to me is Persephone, dragged down to the underworld by gloomy old Hades for six months of every year. She was the daughter of Demetre, goddess of harvest and fertility, and too glorious for her own good. Hades fell in love, and stole her.

Unable to get her back, her mother appealed to Zeus (actually, she threatened that she would never again make the earth fertile and everyone on it would die), so Zeus intervened and cut a deal: Persephone would spend six months above ground with Demetre, six months in the underworld with Hades. When she is with her mother, such is Demetre's joy that the sun shines, things grow, the earth is beautiful. And then Hades demands her back, and the earth goes into mourning.

And that's what winter feels like to me.

Mainly, it's the cold I can't stand. Most years, I am freezing from mid-October through to April, sometimes May if it's a year like last year. I get chilblains on my hands and feet and my lips chap.

The short days depress me - they depress everyone - but they also stress me. I feel I don't have enough time to get done everything I need to do, because the days 'end' so much sooner. I am tired in the mornings, hate getting out of bed and sometimes feel as though I am counting the hours till I can get back into it.

I'm more lethargic, I snap at the kids more because we are all confined indoors more. I overeat - in summer, I eat salads with joy, in winter I crave giant stews (which is fine) and steamed puddings (which is not). But more than that, I am on hiatus, just living through and waiting for better. Which is not a great way to spend five-odd months of the year.

When I first read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, and discovered Narnia under the White Witch, I was horrified - not so much the 'never Christmas' bit, but 'Always winter'. What a terrible place.

In Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, of that whole beautiful story, the bit that gets me most is the very last line, when Gerda saves her brother Kai after a long, long trek through icy and snowy lands: "…and it was summer-time; summer, glorious summer!"

Disliking winter doesn't make me remarkable. I think most of us feel like this. Especially in this country (that said, I have one friend who dislikes summer. She says the long evenings make her feel anxious, as if she should be out doing exciting things, and that winter, with the possibility of closing the curtains and settling down in front of the fire at 5pm, suits her much better).

Maybe it's because we are not good at winter. We have little or no 'winter culture', and while I get that lack of skiing, sledding or skating on frozen canals isn't our fault, surely we could, by now, have evolved something around sea dips followed, instantly, by communal saunas and a bit of heather body-brushing?

Ireland, I have heard from many Russians, Poles and Canadians, has a particularly nasty, damp kind of a cold. A cold that creeps into your bones and cannot be easily withstood, so that what the weather types call 'real-feel' is often way lower than the actual temperature.

This makes perfect sense to me. I once spent Christmas in Budapest, in -16 degrees, and I loved it. Ten days of thick snow drifts and frozen lakes, a dry cold, one held at bay by a decent coat and scarf, and - crucially! - nixed by properly insulated houses with solid, cast iron chest-height radiators and roaring fires. That was a fun kind of cold. Not the kind we get here.

I can bear this bit - November and December - because I have some residual summer-stored energy left, and because I love Christmas. But once the New Year rolls around, I think gloomily of Tsar Nicholas I and his "two generals who will not fail me: Generals January and February". Not to mention March and often April, equally ferocious, and I am miserable.

By then, I have used up whatever summer reserves I had, and I am increasingly exhausted and low-spirited, until finally the warm days arrive and with them, new life.

Frankly, what I want most is to stay in bed for four months. Or at least I think I do. Like many of the things we think we want, this is a false friend. I've tried it - pre-kids, pre-working-for-a-living, obviously - back when I was in college and underemployed, and it doesn't work. It makes everything worse.

The only thing to do with winter is face it down. I have strict winter rules that I stick to. The winter rules go like this: Get up, get outside, get exercise. Preferably do this early in the day in order to set the blood racing and heat flowing before settling down for long stationary periods at the computer.

But, failing an early outing, the outing itself is non-negotiable, regardless of weather. This holds under all circumstances except an actual hurricane. Run, or walk, or swim if you dare, just get out.

Do not eat packets of crisps and chocolate bars to stay warm.

Consume ginger and turmeric in large quantities (I have touching faith in their power to warm from the inside). Do not give in to the steamed puddings. If you can't face salads, eat winter veg like cabbage, beetroot and parsnip.

Book regular infra-red saunas, not as a pleasant indulgence but in a serious, non-negotiable, therapeutic way.

Dress properly. The Norwegians (apparently) say that there's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes, and, grudgingly, I have conceded that they have a point.

Much as I love cutesy Instagram-y winter clothes - fluffy sweaters, cosy knitted scarves - the reality is that for me, they are all style, with insufficient substance. I dress, most days, like an Arctic explorer or Everest base-camper. Layers of thermals containing special heat-generating technology, ski socks, wind and waterproof outer shells. That's if I'm venturing out. Indoors, Johnny Fortycoats is my style icon as I add layer after layer of sweaters, cardigans and wraps as the day progresses.

I am married to a man who loves winter. Actually, he says he loves all seasons and all weathers. Sigh. He also hates central heating. Double sigh. He and I are incompatible in many ways (all really, except the ones that matter), but nowhere is this more obvious than when we inhabit the same house during the winter months, him in a T-shirt, me in my forty coats, neither of us happy with the temperature ('too hot!' says he; 'too cold!' bleat I).

He believes, with John Steinbeck, in the beauty of contrast: "What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness." Well I'm not convinced. When he says how boring the Canary Islands must be, with year-round variations between just 16 and 23 degrees, I fall into a pleasant reverie - mmm, the glorious predictability of endless sunshine…

Right now, even though it is mid-November, we are still in a kind of phoney war. Autumn has been long and slow and beautiful, and I have been lulled into a false sense of security. But not for much longer.

Get ready people. Winter is coming.

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