Just the other day, upon noticing die Lüdde was getting cranky in preparation for her first Mittagsschlaf, I bundled her into her pram, and stepped outside for a brisk morning walk. The sky was a startling blue and there was enough crispness to the air to pinken my cheeks and nip at my ears. Our first port of call was the nearby chocolate shop for a large hot chocolate to go, and by the time we reached my favourite book antiquariat, Lüdde was out. I snapped up an old volume of Oscar Wilde’s short stories (I suspect quite strongly that my previous edition disappeared into my father’s library) and pressed on down cobbled streets, wandering aimlessly around our neighbourhood while the baby slept. And I thought as I strolled, well isn’t this lovely, November. Haven’t you been an entirely agreeable month. If this is an inkling of what is to come when winter finally muscles in, I think I can do this.
Since that blue-skied morning, winter has begun to flex a little more muscle, and days are more grouchy and grey than crisp and clear. We’re hovering around 8 degrees as an average daily temperature, and the Germans have cracked out the scarves. (Every German I know has either a gigantic collection of scarves or a gigantic scarf, or a gigantic collection of gigantic scarves, and they throw them about their necks with terrific aplomb.) Afternoons are dark and curmudgeonly, mornings chilly and misty. The water, like always, mimics the sky.
I psych myself up every year for winter. It usually starts around later October, but this year we have had some luck in the weather department, and the sun shone brilliantly well into this month. The first of November was 18 degrees and it seemed the Germans were on track to complain about a potentially too-warm Christmas. And so it is that my psyching up has only had to begin very recently, as indicators of tougher times ahead have only just begun to appear. Accordingly, I have treated myself to new Schnürstiefel, begun buying a pumpkin or two a week at the local markets for vats of soup, and am already into the Christmas biscuits.
However one needs to do more than simply treat oneself in order to survive winter, although treating oneself forms a large part of it. Eating soup and admiring new boots will only get you so far. You need to be proactive. You need to grab winter by its cold, scaly claws and say, ‘have at me, you dark-dayed, grizzly, drizzly season of grey.’ There needs to be a list of things you want to do, that can only be done in the winter, as if winter is special, as if you wait for it all year and enjoy its grinch-like embrace. (Some people actually do, and that is fine… I suppose.) For me, that list largely entails treating myself, and Christmas, however there are plenty of other things people can get excited about like zooming around the snow on large planks strapped to your feet, in an insulated suit, sweating on the inside while your face hardens with cold.
One very effective way of grabbing winter by its cold, scaly claws and daring it to defeat you, is by opening your arms to the notion of Gemütlichkeit. Or, rather, stepping into the warm, soft, furry arms of Gemütlichkeit itself and settling in for a long, cosy stay. Gemütlich is one of those German words that always appears on those irritatingly gleeful ‘Ten Untranslateable Words That Don’t Exist in English but Should’ lists and that’s definition ranges across cosy, comfortable, content, homey, snug, sitting-by-a-roaring-fire-with-a-red-wine-some-ginger-bisuits-and-a-marathon-of-your-favourite-show-on-tv. If you are familiar with the concept of the word Gemüt, which is another ranging word, this time covering the ideas of your soul, mind, innate balance, and general disposition, then imagine that what is gemütlich appeals very much to your Gemüt. When you are gemütlich, your Gemüt is satisfied, content. All is as it should be. Conversely, when your Gemüt is our of sorts, disrupted, unbalanced, one can be said to be feeling wehmütig – weh meaning pain. There is no end to the logic and efficiency of the German language.
Now, the rather excellent news is that, because of a long, hard, entirely disagreeable winter, the Germans have perfected the art of Gemütlichkeit. For the unseasonable months, there exist all manner of opportunities to become the snuggest bug in a rug, face flushed with mulled wine, girth widened by unfathomable amounts of butter. I need only say the word Glühwein, and we are waist-deep in gemütlich territory. Now, Glühwein supped surrounded by fairy light-lit stalls selling roasted, sugared almonds, surrounded by similarly flushed-of-face revellers. A cup of tea, knitted socks, a movie, and a quilt on the couch while it snows outside. Gorging on gingerbread and buttered Stollen. Cinnamon and vanilla scented candles. Advent calendars strung on walls and stuffed with chocolate. Warm cafes (one could say overly warm, they love a good heating system the Germans) and restaurants with plates of hot, cheesy, hearty food, and more glühwein. Rugging up in boots, scarves, and gloves, which begins wearing enormously thin in January, but remains novel right up until Silvester. Visiting the weekly markets and buying soup bundles and bags of apples for crumble and Apfelkuchen. Genuinely using take away coffees as hand warmers. Hot chocolate with shots of liqueur to warm your belly. CHRISTMAS.
And so this winter, I shall focus not on becoming best mates with a miserable season, but rather on feathering my cocoon and settling in for a long, gemütlich hibernation. Of course, I say all this knowing I am an enormous cheat. Lest you think I am well and truly jumping in feet first and rolling up my sleeves to survive months of hideous weather, I should mention I am getting out. We’re in Australia for Christmas and there’s a possible Asia jaunt not long after, which could well wipe a German February from my calendar.
Regardless. Raise your little ceramic boot of mulled wine – here’s to getting gemütlich. May winter be short, the snow thick and white for three days and then blissfully non existent.