Family Magazine

First Impressions of Winter

By Sherwoods

Winter in Astana is a serious thing.  When we would talk about various places we could live in,  Astana was in my bottom five, along with Nigeria and New Guinea.  Five months of below-freezing temperatures were enough to put it on my 'absolutely not' list.  This is a feeling that is very prevalent with most people in the State Department, as it is very hard to get anyone to come here because of the winters.  

Ever since we accepted the job in fall of 2020, I've been dreading our first winter here.  I hate being cold.  I grew up in North Carolina, where one person described their 'winter' as "running through a freezer naked" - unpleasant but short.  Often mid February would bring several days or even a week of 70 degree weather, and you could usually wear ballet flats all winter long.  It wasn't nice enough to want to be outside all day, but it was bearable.  

And since we've joined the Foreign Service, I've really been able to avoid any kind of real winter.  Cairo's winter was seventy degrees for months on end, and the other places we've lived have only had occasional short-lived snowfalls.  I figure that I've been pretty lucky considering that Brandon speaks Russian, and Russian-speaking countries are generally not known for their mild winters.  Brandon likes winter, so he's been shorted.

But both of us have been dreading our first real winter.  Brandon has been dreading it because of me and I've been dreading it because I hate being cold.  So when temperatures started dropping in mid-October, it was almost a relief to finally get the winter started.  I had been fearing it so long that I just wanted to get the unpleasant anticipation over with and get to the torture already.

We've now been below freezing for almost three weeks straight, with not even a bare possibility of seeing the other side of 32 for months to come.  Last week the temperature was -28 when I woke and I considered myself officially ushered into my very first real Astana winter.  Brandon's car froze up after that -28 night and refused to start for several days until the temperature clawed up to 12 degrees - forty degrees warmer than it had been at the beginning of the week.  Not only is it cold, it's really cold.  I've experienced temperatures that I hoped to never ever see for my entire life.  But that is standard for the Foreign Service - you end up doing so many things you'd hoped to be able to avoid forever (*cough* giardia). 

But we're okay.  Thankfully, Kazakhs take winter very seriously and their buildings are constructed with that in mind.  Our house is so well insulated that it took below-freezing nights to make the house cold enough to need any kind of heating.  Occasionally snow will blow up against the windows and it won't melt - and our house isn't cold inside either.  The water for our radiators comes from a city heating plant, so we have no control over the temperature.  That sounds like a recipe for a cold house, but it actually has the opposite problem - houses that are too warm.  We have both heated floors and radiators, and a lot of the rooms only have floor heat, because the radiator heat makes the rooms stifling.  I took the temperature in the kitchen recently, and it was 81 degrees.  Elizabeth usually runs around in summer sun dresses because the house is so warm.  

I'm the one who is the least affected by winter, as I usually don't leave the house Mondays, Tuesdays, or Wednesdays, which I am perfectly fine with.  The children, however, have to go play outside every day, which I was worried about.  But we've been able to work out how many layers of clothes and gloves to put on - the answer is several - and they've gotten used to the cold pretty rapidly.  On that oh-so-warm twelve degree day, Kathleen admitted rather sheepishly that it felt almost springlike.  

I've outfitted myself locally with winter gear, the kind of gear that can't be found in the US.  Anything but mid-calf length coats are pure foolishness, and mine has a wonderfully soft, warm raccoon fur edged hood that acts as the warmest scarf imaginable when the hood is down and cuts the viciously freezing wind very well when it is up.  I also have a fur hat which makes me look like a character out of Dr. Zhivago, but does a wonderful job of keeping my head warm.  I sourced my snow boots from Canada, and clomp about in them during snow play days looking like someone who's ready for an Antarctic expedition.

I've quickly come to realize that the cold here is something to be taken very, very seriously.  As a friend commented, you worry about sunburn in the summer and you worry about frostbite in the winter.  Any time we go out, I have to think through how long we'll be outside, how long the walk from the car to the building will be, and how cold the car will be when we get back into it.  Our garage is heated, keeping my car a toasty 35 degrees, but it doesn't stay that way when we're parked somewhere else.  Sometimes we'll come back to a car with ice-covered windows inside the car - our breath has frozen and iced over the windows.  Sophia was hot a few days ago, opened a window for half an hour or so, and succeeded in killing several houseplants completely from the cold.  While driving home yesterday with the children, we counted how many people on the street weren't wearing hats.  During the twenty-minute drive home, we saw three.  I learned very quickly never take a deep breath as the cold will make your lungs ache, if it it's cold enough, the bones in your face start to hurt pretty quickly.  I wouldn't mind the cold so much if it didn't hurt and if it didn't hurt so much.  

I keep reminding myself that we have almost four more months left of the cold, and then I also remind myself that there's nothing I can do about so I'd better just not worry about it.  People can get used to a great many things, and winter is something that I am quickly getting used to.  Thankfully the weather usually stays pretty sunny and the reflected snow keeps the house very bright.  When I pray at night, my grateful prayer for a warm house is more sincere than it's ever been before.  And with a warm, cozy house, winter is something that we can make our way through without too much trouble.  But still, I won't be sad at all when spring finally rolls around.  Not sad at all.  

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