Surviving winter in Astana requires the same mental mindset as surviving nine months of pregnancy and 24+ long days of international travel. You can't think about how much time has passed and you can't think about how much longer you have to go. One has to exist in the eternal now, accepting your unpleasant situation as something that is endless. "I have always been pregnant (or flying, or cold), I will always be flying (or cold, or pregnant), and there is not an existence where I am not cold (or flying, or pregnant)." I've realized that the real pain comes from realizing that it's only been 30 minutes since you last checked on the flight progress and that you still have twelve more hours in the same cramped economy seat next to a restive toddler. If time doesn't exist, the frustration and longing don't exist either.
Winter here is so long that it's more of a geographical location than a season. Four and a half months sounds like a long time, but it's a much, much longer time when you're living through it. At first the snow was a novelty, but now it's just an ordinary part of the landscape, as eternal as sunlight, the blue sky, and the progression of days. In Astana, you don't live through winter, you live in winter.
All the children have been disappointed with the snow here. We've had two or three decent snowstorms this winter, but there is less than 18 inches of snow in the flat places, which isn't enough to make anything fun with. But even if we did have enough snow, there wouldn't be much to do with it as the snow never clumps - instead it has the texture of sand. This is because the snow is too cold to adhere to itself - if you want to make snowballs, you have to wet the snow with water first.
We've discovered this winter that cars won't start when it gets cold enough - usually below zero fahrenheit. Thankfully the temperature usually stays above that most weeks and Brandon doesn't have a problem driving his Fit, which doesn't fit in our very small, heated, one-car garage, to work. However, there are occasionally weeks when it gets really cold and the temperature doesn't get above zero for a week or so. Our last moroz, as the locals call it, got down to -31 one night with a high of -20 the next day. After those weeks are done and the temperature climbs back up to 'reasonable' temperatures, we have to jump his car as the cold has drained the battery.
But even worse than the the cold is when it gets above freezing. This has happened once this winter and we're still paying for it. In an extremely bad sequence of weather, it snowed for a week and half. The city does a good job of clearing the roads, sidewalks, and gutters with an amazing array of bulldozers, snowplows, skid steer loaders, people with shovels, dump trucks, and snow conveyer belt trucks, but they only have so many people and so much equipment, so the snow was still being cleared up when the temperature got above freezing for about 18 hours. All of the piles of snow in the gutters and on the sidewalks and on the sides of the road got slushy. The packed snow on the sidewalks and driveways melted partially. Then the temperature dropped quickly below zero and further into the negative twenties and everything froze into mirror smooth sheets of ice. All of the rutted slushy piles of snow turned into rutted piles of ice. Thankfully I was checking weather, so after church Brandon and the boys spent two hours scraping off all the half-inch thick sheet of ice from our driveway and front walk before it froze solid and we couldn't get the car up the driveway. But we were about the only ones in the entire city who did this, and I've seen videos of people ice skating down sidewalks. Then it didn't snow for weeks and weeks on end, so the ice sheets just stayed ice sheets. Gradually the sheets are being chipped and scraped off the sidewalks and roads, but it's still not all gone yet and everyone has to walk very carefully.
The children are enjoying the winter, which is good as they get kicked outside to play every afternoon. We've had to make a sliding scale of how long they have to stay outside. If the temperature is from zero to twenty degrees, they have to stay out for 90 minutes. If it's below zero, they can go outside for an hour or stay in and run on the treadmill for twenty minutes. If it's below negative fifteen, they don't have to go out at all.
Our neighborhood has constructed a big sledding hill, about fifteen feet tall, complete with steps and wooden railings. The children enjoy sledding down in various formations and doing tricks. There is also a fenced-in soccer area that gets turned into a hockey rink in the winter. To smooth the ice out, the groundskeeping crew just puts a new layer of water on top of the ice and it freezes to a new finish. The children have enjoyed learning to ice skate, and that seems to be more popular than sledding. I never thought that I would own multiple pairs of ice skates, but so far we have four and probably need another pair or two.
Edwin and Joseph's favorite past time is digging in snow piles. Our neighborhood doesn't plow the roads, but every now and then when the line between the road and the sidewalk becomes less distinguishable, the groundskeepers bulldoze the top layer of snow into large piles. This was the snow that they made the sledding hill out of. Some of the snow piles they trucked out of the neighborhood in dump trucks, but some they just left. So Edwin and Joseph enjoy digging snow caves, spending hours tunneling them out.
I still don't like winter, but I'm the one who stays inside for days at a time, so I can survive it. It's like living with a constant, low-level noise in the background that you can ignore if you're focusing on something else. I try not to think of summer or flip-flops or green grass, but instead just accept winter as my current reality. I don't mind the cold so much in the day when it's sunny, but once it gets dark I have no desire to leave the house and will go to extreme lengths to avoid it. I will be happy when the snow starts melting and I don't have to holler at children whenever they go outside and don't shut the door. I'm not regretting having extended to a three-year tour, but I won't be sad to be done with Kazakh winters when we leave. It will be pretty easy to find a post that has less long winters, as the only capitol with colder winters is in Mongolia.
The upside of these winters is that I can live in a great many of the 'colder' places in the US and be perfectly fine. I have no plans to move to North Dakota or Maine or Wisconsin, but it's nice to know that if I had to live there, I could always comfort myself with the fact that the winters aren't as cold, long, or dark as the ones in Astana. It's always good to have a new low to compare things to.
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