The other day, a bit of snow fell in Holland, and for a few hours, it was almost impossible to go home. I was standing on a train platform in one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and barely 10 cm of snow had fallen, but half of the trains had suddenly been cancelled. Despite that, most people assumed that getting home on time was a right – and so they packed themselves into trains until the doors wouldn’t shut, and one woman who didn’t make it banged on the side of the train as it struggled to leave the station under the weight of nearly five times as many passengers than usual. She managed to wrench open a window from the outside, shouting at all of the people inside about how incredibly selfish they were, she had to get home too. inconceivable that a better thing to do might be to wait (wait for the few flakes of snow to stop falling, wait for the rush hour traffic to clear, wait for a better idea). Now, I don’t want to sound all superior, but I come from a time and a place where this kind of weather is commonplace for at least 8 months of the year, and even though 10 cm wouldn’t even make anyone’s head turn there, I’ve been in the situation too often to think that I have a right to anything when snow starts falling. (It should perhaps be said that the woman shouting at the passengers sardined on the train was not Dutch, but either Canadian or American and probably should have known better too.) It was a remarkable display of our inability to see any other option – to not leave work early, or stay until things had settled. I eventually went back to work to sit it out, but noticed that I’d already instinctively begun to mentally (and physically) prepare myself to walk home. I ate an enormous supper, packed chocolate into my bag because I’d already mapped out the walk and knew that most of it would be through a forest or on an exposed polder. I tried to charge my phone but couldn’t find a cord, so I turned it off because I knew it had only enough juice for a couple of calls. Now, this may sound extreme, but that walk through the woods and over the polder to Amsterdam is about 25 km. I craved it (and still do, days later). The snow would have been undisturbed, not already trampled to ice as it was in the city and on the way to the train station. The snow would have absorbed the noise of the traffic on the roads that ring the polder and the soft glow of lights from the insides of houses that sit along the river I’d follow would be my marker.
In the end, I didn’t walk. I don’t know why, but I decided to go back to the train station. The train arrived only a few minutes late, and was nearly empty. And as I walked out of the building I work in, towards the station, as I sat on the train, I regretted that I hadn’t walked. I regretted it because I craved it, the feel of walking a long distance through snow, in silence. Both of these things are impossible in The Netherlands, let alone at the same time. I regretted it because it was something I would have done in a previous life, in my Canadian life, where spending a few hours alone in the snow was not unusual but standard fare, and it was not the small, sharp pang of regreat that quickly fades when the mind is taken over by other things, but a long, insidious one that lingers for a few years, if not a lifetime, seeping and blurring its way into one’s conciousness.
I regretted it because I should have done it, because it was a rare opportunity to do it, and yet I took the train. I sat on it listening to people complain about having to wait in the cold (it was 0°C) and how the only compensation the train company had offered them for disrupted service due to snow (which was now no longer disrupted, and on time) was free coffee. One side of me wanted to shout “It’s snow. It tends to slow things down!” while the other wanted to shout “You’re on your way home! You are not stranded! This is nothing!”
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about survival. Real survival. How fur trappers or explorers in Canada a few hundred years ago had to survive an entire winter of -40° without fixed shelter and on rations of food, no free coffee, carrying everything under their own weight. How glorious it would feel to accomplish that, to survive the misery, to feel the feet begin to thaw in spring – how glorious spring would feel after that too!
But perhaps this is more about how our landscape affects us, shapes our instinct. I watched an episode of Northern Exposure a few days ago, the one where Joel Fleischman, a NY city born, raised and educated doctor who has been sent to a tiny town in Alaska for four years to pay off a student loan, starts to panic because he’s worried he’s losing his edge. It comes to him during a conversation he has about snowshoes with an old-timer, and also when he realizes he’s left his wallet in the town bar. He races back to get it, assuming the worst, and is pretty disappointed to find that it’s still there, money and all. For the viewer, it’s obvious that Joel hasn’t lost his edge – or at least that he has more edge than anyone else in town, that the NYC instinct is still there, but for Joel it’s sheer panic that his identity is changing, that things he’s taken for granted are shifting, and that who he thought he was might turn out to be capable of being someone else.
I used to believe that you always took your country with you, that where you grew up was what stayed with you, for all time. But now I have to work at keeping the Canadian part of me alive, and regret is just a manifestation of that loss. Fortunately the instinct is still there, a reminder that it is work, but still possible.