(originally written in 2015, edited in 2019)
I moved to Germany in January 2014, in the middle of winter. Having come from summer in South Africa, I was wholly unprepared for the mind-numbing freezing-ness of January. As the plane descended, I caught a glimpse of an expansive white and brown landscape – beautiful, and utterly foreign. I got off the plane and gasped at the sheer impact of the cold as I walked briskly to the transit bus. My boyfriend (now husband!) was waiting for me at arrivals, and we shared an excited embrace after being apart for almost 4 months. Our trying long distance relationship was almost instantly a distant memory as I went outside to see snow up close for the very first time.
He laughed at me as I jumped in the snow, giggling and exclaiming that it was “so crunchy!”. After around 3 minutes I had to go back inside as my eyes were watering and I could no longer feel my nose. I was filled with wonder on our train trip home, as I saw a completely different world go by. It was as if the childhood stories of snowy forests and towns had suddenly awoken and come to life, just for me. I sat there in awe, whilst the rest of the commuters stared around, looking bored or preoccupied. It struck me that this beautiful, white-dusted landscape was so normal to them that it had become mundane.
Culture Shock and First Times
I had lived my whole life in Cape Town, South Africa, and snowy winters were but a dream to me. My Christmases were sunny and often spent on the beach, and year-round, anything under 18 degrees was considered pretty cold. My previous trips to Europe had been in summer, so I had no experience of below zero weather. And yet here I was, bundled up in thermal underwear, layers of jerseys, scarves, hat, and gloves, ready to face the wrath of the Northern Hemisphere in winter.
My first week in German winter was a week of First Times – my first time seeing a frozen lake, drinking mulled wine, using central heating, slipping on icy walkways. I was at once excited and cautious, feeling like a total stranger in a foreign land. It didn’t help that my German was basic at best, so I felt like an unintelligible “auslander” (literally, “outlander” or “alien”) ill equipped to deal with the cold. I was that awkward person on the bus always getting my gloves stuck and trying to unwind my scarf gracefully whilst finding a seat. The only way I could express my experience of the snowy outdoors to my family back home was that it was “like being in an ice-rink, only all the time”. They certainly couldn’t imagine it, suffering from heat in excess of 35 degrees.
Over time, and currently experiencing my second European winter, I’ve come to enjoy the little pleasures of winter. Coffee and divine German cake in a sidewalk cafe with a blanket over my knees, comforting cuddles with my husband, brisk walks outdoors among sleeping trees in the weak sunshine, and lying in bed when it’s cold and rainy out. I’m still a bit apprehensive about trying out skiing for the first time – to say I’m clumsy would be an understatement – but I’d still love to spend the weekend in a log cabin with a log fire and several bottles of red wine.
However, I do get homesick at times. I miss wearing nothing but shorts and a t-shirt, spending lazy days on the beach or in the wine-lands. I miss the intense sunshine and laid back life on the coast. Most of all, I miss the familiarity of my comfort zone. Yet, I know that I would be restless at home. I always long for new experiences, and to see the world through the eyes of a First Timer. When life starts to get monotonous, or I feel that I’m taking my life and surroundings for granted, I try to do something new. I find that a new, fresh perspective on life, no matter how small, always sates my curiosity and restlessness.
I will never forget those First Time moments; the joy of experiencing something completely new. First Times are a special delight that keep life interesting – times when you can experience childlike wonder, and sometimes even change your world view. The snow has since melted in my town, but my desire for new, exciting experiences lingers on.