Sunday, February 16, 2020

Winter Denial

A real fire isn't necessary but otoh, a log fire is comforting.
"We don't really have winter in Israel." People really say that. It has some truth (but only some) in the centre of the country around Tel Aviv, on the coastal plain, and in the southerly Negev Desert. But half the country is in the mountains and we most certainly do have winter.

Granted it's not like winter in Northern Europe and Canada for example. Winter is much shorter here - about three months tops, and our lowest temperatures are around -1 to -3C (maybe a bit more if you include windchill).

I can't speak for the other mountain regions but Jerusalemites are in denial about the very existence of winter. "Ach," they say with an air swipe of the hand, "it's only a few weeks."

They mean that it's not worth investing in insulation for the houses, cold weather clothes, and proper heating. In the same way that the municipality doesn't invest in snow and ice clearing equipment because we only get snow approximately once in three years. If we get 1 mm of snow, school is canceled for the day even if it all melts by 9 am.

But we do get winter every year and it's not for only a few weeks. It's for three months!

The school where I teach is built like a kibbutz or an African school with minimal corridors. There are a number of small buildings which you reach by going outside. Some of the classrooms have their doors directly to the outside, others are in blocks of 4 or five rooms. The sports hall is a trip outside, the library requires some outside, and the offices are another excursion into the elements.

Small groups regularly learn around tables in the big lobby to the teachers'room, where they are exposed to two big outside doors that are mostly left open. In extreme cold we all try to share the library which is cosy, like Little House on the Prairie with all ages working in the same room, but it's not always available.

In the summer the school is lovely. In the spring and autumn it's also very pleasant. In the winter we suffer. Many of us keep our coats on all day. There are heaters in the classrooms but the room I use has some sort of time clock whereby it shuts off for about an hour every time it hits the target temperature. But it's just for a few weeks right? The whole school year is only 10 months long so actually a third of it is winter. FYI.

It's not that nobody cares. It's that despite living through winter every year for decades, they still don't really believe that it's a problem. In their minds it's just for a few weeks of mildly cold weather and a few days of rain.

In the past most apartments had central heating. In the days when the children came home from school at 1.30 for lunch and everyone came home from work at 7 pm, it was relatively easy. The heating came on at 6 am till 7 am, and 4 pm till 10 pm (and then you went to bed), 3 pm if the daytime outside temperature went below 10C, and Saturday mornings from about 8 am (there is no Sunday, people used to work six days a week. Now most adults get Friday off but there is still six day/week school). Every building set their own times but all within similar parameters.

Then a number of things started changing. People started working from home and wanted heat during the day (never mind that retirees had always managed with a fan or bar heater during the day). People started commuting for work and got home late, schools finished later and after school activities became a thing. Tv got cable and was on later with more choices at your own convenience. People no longer wanted to go to bed at 10, they wanted warm apartments until midnight.

Around this time of general discontent about the heating arrangements, the price of the oil to fuel the furnaces for the central heating rocketed. At the same time, because of all sorts of environmental issues, it became usual for apartments to install their own air conditioning units. These doubled as heaters in the winter and was much cheaper than the oil fueled radiators. People with a/c heaters resented paying extra for the communal oil. And whilst they could turn off their radiators ( although why would they?) they could not remove them as they were connected to the central system.

Eventually the central heating was discontinued and we all had our radiators removed. I waited until 2005 to remove mine as I was scared they'd bring back the central heating and I'd have to replace them. There was no announcement or final decision, it just got past the point of no return. Now everyone controls their own heating. So that's inside sorted. Sort of. Having no a/c, we plug in electric radiators and heaters. It's not perfect but we're warm enough and it is easy to control the different rooms.

Outside the rain water runs down the roads with nowhere to drain. On a rainy day, a walk to the shops, or anywhere, involves wading through a river on each side of the road under each curb. In Tel Aviv this year people drowned when flood water was all directed into one neighbourhood and rushed into basements. Apparently there had been plans to address the drainage situation but we don't usually get so much rain so they were ignored. Usually there are not actual deaths, but every few years many people in ground floor apartments have to live through the misery of flooding.

Winter is a term relative to the levels of preparedness. In Canada they're equipped for extreme minus temperatures for half the year. In Tel Aviv people died when it rained for a week. In Jerusalem we just suffer from the cold. We will never be adequately prepared because we live in the Middle East, on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, at the gateway to Africa and Arabia. Half our small country is desert. So we can't possibly need to prepare for a season we don't believe we have.


  1. I enjoyed your blog, well, I always do, but, today's was especially great. I am used to living through winter and all of its difficulties. I remember, one year, going by bus to visit a friend in southern Texas (USA) at Christmas and being stranded by snow on the ground only about 1 cm deep. The bus could not drive through it, the driver said. I was only 20 at the time and I was sure I could do it, if I knew how to drive a bus. Funny how different areas of a country have different problems with weather. I could not deal with tornadoes or hurricanes - not in my realm of understanding. Keep up your entertaining blogs.
    Myra, from Winnipeg, where it is a balmy -15C right now at 8 a.m. (Yes, that is balmy.)

    1. Thanks Myra. I remember my Dad driving us places in the snow in London. You just drove slowly and carefully. You're right, it's what you're used to.

  2. It was interesting to read how you cope (or not) with winter. We were out with some friends yesterday and the conversation turned to life before central heating, in the 1960’s and at boarding school. It became a competition as to which of us had the coldest childhood 😀. I may have had the moral victory as I was at school on the Essex coast and remember the the sea froze one year (the very cold winter of 1962/3 I think). Even so, when our head mistress caught us sitting on a radiator she made us move as otherwise we would develop ‘piles’. Those old cast iron radiators gave out so little heat that plenty of girls had chilblains never mind piles. I’m getting old enough to find myself thinking that youngsters today don’t know how lucky they are 🤣🤣🤣

    1. I remember putting my school clothes on the radiator to warm them up in the morning. I was born in 1962 so I was around for that infamous winter of 62/63 but obviously don't remember it. I do remember having to go outside for the lunch hour even in the snow. I was in socks and wellies - hardly warm if dry at least. I hated it. My feet would freeze and kill as they defrosted.