Friday, 8 January 2010

Cold snap

We are settling into our new home, but we chose to move in at an interesting time, and not just because it was Christmas. Ireland is experiencing something of a national emergency – temperatures have dropped to some of the lowest on record, and it has snowed, sleeted and hailed for weeks now. The roads are iced over, and the cities run out of their salt supply tonight.

At the same time, we moved into our new home, where the underfloor heating was not at first set properly, the hot water was not very warm and the gas kept freezing. We have a fireplace and many piles of wood, but not all are of suitable size, and while we have a hatchet, it is not very sharp. So we stayed well stocked with turf – the main fuel here – and kept well huddled around the fire.

Even worse, I also had to work at my day job the final week of December, when I was one of the only people in the unheated building. This week the buses have been so delayed by the ice and snow that my usual three hours a day on the bus has stretched into more like six hours, and I am spending almost as much time on the bus to and from work as I am at work.

Luckily, our home heating situation has much improved – we boosted the underfloor heating, so it is now more like 13 degrees inside (55 F) rather than five degrees (40 F). I’m all for living on less, but I want to get there in stages.

We are, however, learning that many of the household practices of 19th-century England or America were time-tested to help people live in such temperatures. Tea cosies were not just a quaint affectation of Jane Austen’s time --- they keep your liquids hot in a cold house, and hot liquids keep the body warm. I associate bed-robes with Ebeneezer Scrooge or Sherlock Holmes, and long undergarments with cowboys in old Westerns -- but they conserve the body’s heat. Hot water bottles in bed, poking the fire – all eminently functional details, now dimly remembered from old novels and films made in the foothills of history’s energy needle.

On the evening news in our new home, we watch Irish newscasters and political leaders speak in increasingly strident tones about the urgency of this crisis. Towns have not enough salt reserves and few ploughs, and businesses are not likely to allow for working from home. People do not always know to drive more slowly, keep more distance between their car and the next, or to allow for more time in their schedules for commuting. Thus, the country is slowed to a crawl by weather that would not be unusual by the standards of Minnesota, or even Missouri.

It is not that the Irish are not hardy. When I am coming to work in a coat and scarf, many Irish around me are wearing much less, and a co-worker of mine is perennially wearing a T-shirt. As I mentioned, many people here keep their homes at temperatures Americans would find frigid, or work in long stretches of rain I find oppressive. But they are no more prepared for a Midwestern summer or winter than they are for snakes.

As we face stranger weather, more expensive energy and less money in the future, we would do well to remember this --- that hardship is what we are not accustomed to. Adapting is difficult, especially when it is unexpected – but we can adapt to much more than we imagined.

Photo: a thatched house near us, taken today.


Stacy said...

"we would do well to remember this --- that hardship is what we are not accustomed to. Adapting is difficult, especially when it is unexpected – but we can adapt to much more than we imagined."

So true! Not only can we adapt to the unaccustomed but we learn and appreciate so much from the experience.

From a former suburban American Mom from Florida (!!!) living on a very cold farm in Ireland.

Brian Kaller said...


I've been enjoying your blog -- thanks for writing.