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Missing “Old Man” Winter

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When it became apparent back in December that we wouldn’t be blessed with a “white” Christmas in Prague this year, my children weren’t the only ones disappointed. Stoically, I reassured them (and myself) that long before spring came, we’d undoubtedly have more than enough of our share of snowy, wintery weather. Memories from last winter, shoveling snow from the driveway, traversing snow-covered country roads to get to and from school and tiptoeing around the treacherous icicles dangling from the city’s rooftops, are etched firmly in my mind. But Czech winters are supposed to be tough.

I remember pushing Anna Lee’s stroller in frustration on the sidewalks of our Žižkov neighborhood the first winter after we’d moved back to Prague. I’d get the wheels hung up on the ice and snow crossing the tram tracks, and before the end of the walk I’d be sweating. Sometimes it seemed easier to carry the stroller over the snowdrifts rather than push it along the haphazardly scraped paths. Yet long, snowy Czech winters make spring’s eventual arrival all the more of a celebration. Prague is truly magical when covered with a dusting of snow; the hushed noise of the streets, the picturesque contrast of white snow on dark statues, that perfect postcard look at the Charles Bridge is the one of the joys to behold after a fresh snow fall.

This year, with two weeks to go before Prague schoolchildren begin their “spring” breaks at the first of February, děda Mráz or “Old Man” winter has yet to show his whiskery face. Apart from a few recent snow flurries that melted away as quickly as they appeared and a week of industrial “snow” in late November, we haven’t seen much that reminds us of winter, at least not in Prague. In contrast from recent winters, the village ponds aren’t frozen, resulting in super-crowded man-made rinks and indoor hockey stadiums. When we tried to skate at the downtown rink Na Františku, we found the place packed with skaters, young and old. It was too crowded to do much quality skating, but I was impressed by the number of Czech families who brought their children (and often the grandparents too) out to do some sport over the weekend.

Prague isn’t the only part of the country affected by the above-average temperatures and lack of snowfall this winter. Ski resorts across the Czech Republic have been left to desperately make artificial snow on days the temperatures are low enough to allow. While skiing in the Krkonoše Mountains for a few days at the beginning of January, we experienced the barely-covered ski slopes and warm, slushy conditions first-hand. Despite the poor conditions, the slopes were still packed with skiers, and I was reminded once again, how passionate Czechs are about heading to the mountains to get fresh air and outdoor exercise at all times of the year.

In spite of, or perhaps due to less than ideal winter conditions, Czechs have been out in abundance in the woods near our house, trading their skis and ice skates for hiking shoes and bikes. On the past two weekends, I’ve seen scores of people walking along the path that leads from our village through the woods for several kilometers where it eventually connects with the paved paths along the Vltava River. Instead of the young, stroller-pushing crowd that I usually meet along the path, most of the hikers have been couples in their 50s and beyond, with Nordic walking sticks and daypacks, dressed for a day outdoors. On his way to the airport, Radek saw them first trekking through fields in the nearby villages of Horoměřice and Nebušice before they reached our woods. We think they belonged to a Czech trekking club who’d taken advantage of the milder, snowless weather to initiate some winter day hikes. Being in the fresh-air, seeing nature and sharing the day with friends, plus frequent stops for hot beverages or a refreshing beer at a local pub seemed to be the hikers’ key motivation. The excursion looked like fun, and I wished our children were older so we could join the ranks.

Instead, we joined the multitudes of amateur ice skaters, vying for space on the crowded hockey rink during the weekend free skate in nearby Kralupy nad Vltavou. For the first time in my life, I invested in a pair of ice skates, mostly to keep up with the rest of my family, since Radek and Anna Lee both skate and Oliver got skates for Christmas and is now learning. Growing up in Virginia, ice skating wasn’t a normal winter sports activity, and I could probably count the times I’d had a chance to try it, usually during a winter ski trip to a colder destination. On my first lap around the rink, my legs were wobbly, and I wondered if I’d be able to keep up with Anna Lee, who was grinning up at me expectantly. But after several laps, I began to enjoy myself and wondered where I’d ever find a less-crowded rink to practice turns or skating backwards.

Hikers weren’t the only ones enjoying the less-harsh winter weather. When I talked to an older gentleman running the local tire service, he commented on how lucky we were not to have so much snow to contend with this year. Getting around and doing daily errands was considerably easier for him when Prague wasn’t snow-covered, he confessed, and I heartily agreed. For those living with a physical handicap or for those displaced or without a home, wintertime can be the most difficult season to maintain a decent quality of life. While beautiful in theory, dealing with the reality of a harsh, snowy winter is no fairytale.

If winter keeps going the way it’s been, then Czech farmers who predicted a mild one back on St. Martin’s Day in November based on their inspection of the not-so-thick geese skin might just be right. Although my kids are still doing a “snow dance” hoping for fresh snow in time for their spring break in the mountains, I’ve become content with the milder weather, at least for this winter. With temperatures hovering just above freezing, rain pounding on the rooftop and the wind gusting outdoors, I can’t say it really feels like spring weather, but I know it could be a lot colder.

We may have to save the Build-A-Snowman Kit we got for Christmas for next winter, but in the meantime we’ll try to enjoy the benefits of the milder weather to do some winter hiking and biking. If the wind keeps up, we might just get our spring kites out and give them a practice whirl.

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