I spent my youth in sunbaked in Southern California, in shorts, tee shirt, sandals. It was a cheery time and I was a cheery adolescent, but I had a secret longing. (I mean, aside from aching for Esther Williams.) Snow.
It looked so wonderful on calendars and postcards and in Christmas movies, in contrast to the pathetic spray paint on So.Cal. shop window corners in December. I imagined myself coming in from a whistling blizzard into a cabin where a fire crackled. I’d throw off layers of woolen clothing and approach the warmth, where Esther Williams would offer me an aromatic hot drink. Things would progress from there.
My chance finally came when I was at university and took a year off to go to Germany. Germany had snow, I heard. Quite a lot of it. And lo and behold, one November night while I sat by my window in Frankfurt, it actually began. Awestruck, I ran outside and strolled through it, marveling at the way the flakes wafted sideways and caught the light of the street lamp. It snowed all night, and the next morning, it was deep enough that I could stomp through it, leaving deep footprints in the crunchy whiteness.
The memory held me over after I returned to school in way-too-sunny Santa Barbara, where I majored in Germanic Studies, thus almost guaranteeing that I’d return some day to Northern Europe and Teutonic snow.
That time came in the winter of 1996/97 when I visited Austria, fortuitously, when it was experiencing record snow. Imagine, an entire country snowbound. Thanks be to Freya and Wotan and all the Valkyrie! Salzburg was the first stop, and friends invited me on a night time wandern through the forest, each of us carrying a lantern. It was dreamlike, archetypal, a pristine sparkly Hansel and Gretel adventure without the witch, or rather with a lesbian witch in a woodsy Gasthof who served us hot mulled wine.
The next day I took the train eastward over a serene post-Christmas landscape past towns and villages blanketed in white. In Vienna, where I stayed with another friend it snowed again. I dropped off my luggage and wandered through the frigid city until I was numb, then ventured into the magnificent St. Stephen’s cathedral to warm my hands over the ranks of votive candles. It might have been sacrilege to enter for that reason only, but surely the saint would not begrudge a sinner a bit of warmth. Once I could feel my fingers and toes again, I climbed the tower and gazed over the sugar-coated city that, architecturally, had changed little since Mozart. Making my way back to my friend’s apartment, bent into the snowy wind, I understood the importance of Glühwein.
The next day was New Year’s Eve, and in the evening I could not miss the annual staging of the opera Fledermaus. Impossible to buy tickets for the long sold-out performance, but on New Years Eve, the Wiener Staatsoperprojected it live onto a screen on the side of the opera house. Besotted, I stood ankle deep in the snow, fighting off hypothermia with cup after cup of hot Glühwein from a nearby street vendor, and managed to hold out until the final chorus. Then I more or less lurched on to a New Year’s Eve party to which I’d been invited, though I had only the address on a scrap of paper. Inebriated, I inevitably stumbled into the wrong apartment, but no one seemed to mind. Everyone in Vienna was celebrating, so I partied with strangers for a while before being redirected to the correct party, one floor above. The main guest at the ‘correct’ party was a real Hapsburg princess, and I was intrigued to finally meet Austrian royalty. But she was old, chain-smoked, and was surrounded by admirers who also smoked, so I mostly stayed on the balcony and watched the fireworks over the Danube.
Years followed, when I had to settle for the pathetic snowfalls of New York City, which lasted only until morning traffic reduced the streets to black slush. But craving another big dose in the winter of 2017, I flew with a friend to Finland. We reveled in dog-sled rides, snow hikes, snowmobile trips, and dinner in restaurant made completely of ice. Ice walls, chairs, tables, and hot food eaten quickly before it cooled. On our last day, we traveled to a reindeer farm where we met the little beasties up close and personal, and fed them bundles of lichen. The temperature was minus 20 C, requiring a double snowsuit, padded boots, and full face-covering, though the deer seemed impervious. The sweet, skittish animals, together with the Sami (Laplanders) who managed them, were the inspiration for my novel To Sleep with Reindeer.
The novel, another one of my World War 2 stories, deals with several actual historical missions of the Norwegian resistance. But it is also, in a way, an homage to both the Sami – some of the world’s last ‘people of the ice’ – and to the snow itself.
I hasten to add that it also has two lovers who come in from the snow and fall in love by the fire of a Sami hut. In effect, it is an updated and more sophisticated version of my dream of winter with Esther Williams.
I know the value of a good fantasy.
To Sleep with Reindeer is a World War 2 story set in 1943, when vast reindeer herds still migrated twice a year, and the Sami still followed them, living and sleeping on the tundra. We endure with them the challenges of both the arctic winter and the German invaders. And undertake occasional missions to fight the Nazis and save the world from tyranny.