Sunday, January 06, 2008

Seasonably Cold in Chicago

January in Chicago is winter. That can mean a variety of weather even within the span of a week: cold, wet winds off the lake or moderate temperatures under benign skies that let you stroll in a park with just a light jacket. It can also offer the American equivalent of a howling gale as the winds are channeled through the artificial canyons created by the skyscrapers that make lovely picture post cards but play havoc with the workaday people when the wind goes wild.

Today is none of those extremes. Seasonably cold in January on the first day after welcoming in the New Year meant a temperature hovering in the teens but dropping toward zero. It is, however, an insouciant cold. It does not have the urgency of the winds behind it. Although an occasional flake of snow makes its way from the greyness above to the already snowed sidewalk, the air is also dry.

After 6 weeks back in my native Midwest, I marvel at the things I had known so well that I had not had to take particular notice of them, like breathing through a scarf when the temperature plummets.

“I dreamed about Caithness last night,” I say to my husband as I tuck my feet into fleece slippers before they lose the warmth of the bed. After three years in Caithness, I have lost the habit of bare feet on a floor even for a moment.

“Oh,” he says in the conversational code of a married couple. In a single syllable he acknowledges hearing, expresses interest, and indicates the patience to wait for the story to unfold in its own time.

“If we go out today, it will have to be seriously bundled up with scarves over nose and mouth.”

This statement falls unclaimed into the conversational zone and lies there waiting to be collected.

Over breakfast, I try again. “If the temperature is 14 here, what is that in Celsius?”

I can convert it myself. My husband knows that and he knows that this is the follow on to the scarves on the nose sentence, but his curiosity carries him along.

“About -10,” he says and shivers involuntarily.

I remember the world of difference between the text book and my own discovery of cold in Caithness. “The actual temperature,” I explain when Americans ask how cold it is so far north, “is warmer than here because of the nearness to water, but it feels colder than anything I have ever felt in my life.”

Now the roles are reversed. I am trying to explain a lifetime of winters and the difference between the fact and the feeling where the workaday world takes place.


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