I stretch out my hand to catch a snowflake, a big one, fully formed. The time it takes to realise its beauty is finite. Crystals of extraordinary intricacy. Life is finite. When I was a child I used to stand by the window shortly before Christmas not only to watch out for Father Christmas and his helpers’ activities across the sky but to gaze at the lovely designs of snow crystals which formed there on the panes for periods long enough for me to copy them into my sketchbook for my Christmas drawings. A world of fairy tales has been created around the beauty of a snowflake and I literally lived in it. I believed that stars from the Milky Way were coming down to send us greetings from heaven. However, if you are interested in a more technical explanation of the structure and development of a snowflake, then ask Mr. Google, there are many fine answers.
This has been the first chance we have had, after 15 years of living in the Mediterranean, to fully experience a pre-Christmas winter season again. It has been an overwhelming experience: one late November day, the first ever this year with a huge snowfall on the autobahn between Munich and Salzburg where we were caught in a 4 and a half hour traffic jam with heavy lorries across the lanes, sometimes police and security cars and snow ploughs trying to clear the road, with private cars pulling out onto the hard side, and people getting out in a hurry with their backs to us, ignoring the showers of snow coming down on them, carrying out their ‘urgent business’. Ice on the roads, blitz-ice, they warned us in the traffic radio. The house we arrived at was blitz-cold and the family gathered in the small kitchen around the fireplace until our faces were burning hot, our backsides not. Thus the years fell away from the now snow white heads and faces became young with old stories, the hot tea tasted fine with some rum in it and the Christmas cookies made us remember our childhood days when we ran out to try out the first snow of the year until it was dark. When we came back in, our cheeks were glowing red, eyes sparkling, competing with the red apples and the candles around the advent wreath, hands and feet cold but what did it matter? We knew where the cookies were hidden and they tasted better than on Christmas day itself, perhaps they were meant to be discovered. Yes; we looked into each other’s faces, lined now, ripe, I would say, and we saw behind our sad and knowing smiling eyes the children we had once been, the young people which we were with our own children. Winter is for the young ones, the older generation prefers to lean the old bones against a good warm oven and see the winter wonders from inside the house.
In our fairy tales, I remember, winter, snow and ice stood for poverty, misery, unhappiness - a broken heart that turned to ice, to wickedness: the ice queen; but also in other books I later read the most horrible descriptions of war battles lost in bitter winter days, of prisoners of war in Siberia. No, winter is not a very comforting thought for me. We have hardly any real poverty in European countries any more, and thus a good winter with lots of snow represents not misery but luxury, the certainty that we may live on despite the bitter cold across the country, as long as we have something to keep our houses warm.
In front of the family’s house is a lovely lake where the villagers go skating when it is frozen over, and behind it looms the long chain of the Alps. I am tempted to take pictures of this fascinating scenery every time the light changes: the morning light with a red and pink touch, the midday glaring white and the late afternoon with a purple bluish glow; but also when there is a very dense curtain of dancing, tumbling big snowflakes which produces such silence that you have to test your ears if they are not blocked. Noises are muffled even in a busy place, people look as though they are walking on carpets, taking their time, and cars don’t make a sound, everything becomes so unreal.
There are Christmas markets everywhere, the huge over-sized tree proudly carrying snow as decoration besides electric candles and glittering glass balls as big as your head; angels and other biblical figures wearing snow caps and people drinking mulled wine stamping their feet to keep warm while their breath rises in clouds to join the snow flakes. Old fashioned nut crackers laugh at us in Salzburg on the world famous Christkindlmarkt and lead soldiers line up goose-stepping and on the most unusual objects you’ll find Christmas symbols painted or stamped on. Honey soaked cookies are offered next to a stand with spicy sausages.
The stall people are clad in heavy fur coats with fur caps to cover their ears but as I hear they have gas- or paraffin-operated heaters at their feet. In between the stalls, an Italian guitarist, his ears covered, plays his favourite songs of sun and love. Another entertainer – all clad in silver, with his eyes looking very strange in this silver coated face – bows deeply and invites us to leave some money in his silver cap.
There is a small table with two young girls shivering in their coats trying to sell their home-made cookies to the passersby and I do buy one kilo from them and they say they will soon pack up and go home to come back with more freshly baked ones tomorrow to make a little money for Christmas presents. The vanilla covered crescents are most delicious.
And then we enter the church nearby where some elderly people have come to pray for something very important to them, perhaps forgiveness, perhaps something material, or just not to be alone and have somebody to talk to up there. Candles are lit to support the prayers, to lend them some upwind. And there in the middle, we discover something so fantastic that we can hardly believe what we see. An artistic installation. From the highest point of the church, the dome, white threads are stretched, some 70 kilometres of fine silky yarn in approximately 200 working hours between earth and heaven so-to-speak, at the bottom connected to a round carpet creating bumps in a strict and exact pattern and in these threads descending or ascending, the light coming from the side windows is caught between them representing the interrelation between the two cosmic levels, talks made visible. I stand there like a child wondering and the artist stands there in front of her work at a sort of lectern reading a huge bible, and she looks at me but somehow I hesitate to talk to her, although I see that she expects me to. One of those missed opportunities. Instead I took her leaflet. Her name is Elke Maier.
I think that I understand what she wants to say with her work. My childish assumption that the universe tries to contact us via snowflakes is not too far-fetched, is it? Perhaps I will approach her after all, by writing this.
Heidi and Kalle Trautmann