In the Snow

15 Dec

Until those big, beautiful flakes began falling – a rarity here in the palm of Azerbaijan – I didn’t think I’d miss white mornings and slushy streets.  Unlike my friends from the west coast and the sunny south, snow has lost all novelty status; when you have to walk to work post-blizzard in three feet of snow in -30° temps with wind-chill  in full snowsuit garb at 7pm on a Tuesday because your car hasn’t been plowed out yet and is stuck on the wrong side of street parking which will get you a ticket, no matter how much you argue with the city, the promise of a snow-free winter seemed like a blessing akin to winning the lottery.

But, dammit if the calm of a winter’s evening isn’t perfected by the smooth victory of a million little crystals.  Now in command of my courtyard, instead of a battleground over which to make the freezing trek from the warmth of my casa to the promise of a freezing outhouse, the snow created a winter Eden of calming mounds and fleecy edges. For a full 24 hours until the sun rose again, it was soft and beautiful and insanely comforting; turns out, you can take a lady out of Wisconsin but you can’t take Wisconsin out of the lady.

And while the snow pushed me to the edge of nostalgia, it was the Muppets who really did me in. I can pretend all I want to be confident and at peace away from home during the holidays, but when Kermit croaks as Bob and one Michael Caine darkens an alley in his pajamas, I just about lose it.  There’s something about the way Dickens meets Henson that truly spells out Christmas; more than anything else, it’s just one of those movies my family absolutely positively must watch every holiday season. I’m  truly blessed to have great new friends with whom to enjoy the ridiculousness and cheer of Gonzo and Rizzo this past week, but I was a blubbering baby aching for home by the final chorus of  “Wherever You Find Love it Feels Like Christmas.”

I miss eating monkey bread with my family and downing brandy slushes and topping the Christmas tree with the angel (eternally my turn to do so, no matter what the sticker says); I long to bake cookies with my mother and wander the stores in the mall trying to find what the hell to buy my brother and I want to snuggle with my sister on Christmas eve and build giant snow men together and take Tequila shots with my dad during the week just because we can.

As much as they pretend otherwise, my family members are entirely creatures of habit. For as long as I can remember, our Christmas week unfolds very much the same. Different order, fancier styles and newer recipes, perhaps, but there’s a beautiful predictability with which we celebrate the holidays.

At first, I loved this. Far from home, I could still imagine exactly what my family was doing and it gave me some sort of ease and comfort. But as Christmas day pulls in closer and I’m thousands of miles away, I would kill to be one of the volunteers headed home for the holidays.  Even though I’ve done it 24 times before, I want nothing more than to wake up at 5am, don the Christmas Footies, annoy the crap out of my siblings to wake up and all sit around the tree together and love and giggle and doze and share the beauty of everything while Christmas Vacation plays for the fourth time in the background.

And as I’m feeling homesick in the snow thinking of the ghosts of Christmas and cookies and family, I pull myself out into the morning and meet my site mate. Together, we walk to our resource room near the new school where we teach songs to third formers on Thursday mornings. They rush us as we walk in, shouting “Olivya Teacha!  Cat-tee Teacha!” and hug us and give high fives and on this particular Thursday, because it’s snowing and warm inside and magical all around, we learn “Jingle Bells” and laugh together over  lost translations and goofy gestures.

When our hour is regrettably finished, after the passing out of good-behavior stickers (the coolest things in the world to third-formers), my site mate and I wander the halls of the former school. Up until last week, for over 20 years it was home to over 200 internally displaced persons, now moved into apartments on the outskirts of town. Our city is the temporary residence for thousands of families forced out of their homes in nearby regions due to conflict. This school – one of dozens throughout Barda that serves as both educational center and home to many – will be knocked down soon, our resource room the only quarters to still have some semblance of human touch remaining.

While it has only been empty for a handful of days, the building seems to have been abandoned for  years. Mostly, it is littered with plastic scraps and broken glass; the occasional busted bowl and plastic bag rest on open window frames and near snow drifts forming in corners. Though the move was a blessing for many and temporary as they may have been, the school was still home: babies were born in those rooms; children grew up and got married; loved ones died; traditions were formed and carried on.  And now for the second time, many families are packing up again, moving to a place that still isn’t home but will be until… well, until what no one can really say. Perhaps they will make new traditions; perhaps they will try to carry on with those from their lost places of birth.

As we wandered through the building, we caught glimpses out the windows of the third formers wandering through the field back to school, twirling around and catching snowflakes on their tongues.  Far off as it seems today, I know without doubt two years from now when I’m back in beautiful Wisconsin with my family eating one more crinkle cookie and laughing when Rizzo grabs his jelly beans, when it snows I’ll get lost and miss for Azerbaijan and think of children gliding back to school, snow in their hair and shouting “Jingle Bells” with shiny stickers on their gloveless hands.


 Children’s and women’s tones–rhythm of many a farmer and of flail,
An old man’s garrulous lips among the rest, Think not we give out yet,
Forth from these snowy hairs we keep up yet the lilt.       – Walt Whitman



3 Responses to “In the Snow”

  1. Kathy Fowler LaVista December 15, 2013 at 9:52 am #

    Eloquently written – made me cry…When we walked the empty halls of the refugees’ homes for the past 20 years, we felt happiness, not a sense of despair or of desolation with their moving. These quarters will never be used as the schools they once were, they will be destroyed, but the hopes and dreams will remain with these families until they are at home, no matter where that may be. The angels they created will move with them! We are making new traditions…Christmas cookies and tequila sound wonderful! I am so happy you are in my life….love Cat-tee.

  2. Anonymous December 15, 2013 at 9:55 am #

    Love you so, dear! What a Christmas gift to get to read this. Merry Christmas from all of the Neumann’s! We are wishing for your presence but know you are bringing joy to so many! 😉 – Amy

  3. ruth krueger (@tromtt) December 17, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    love you and miss you so much. We will have many more Christmases together. Make many wonderful memories and bring them home to share with us..

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