Who needs a forecast? It's always cold here

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

February 15, 1994|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Untold feet of snow have fallen on Moscow this winter, temperatures dropped below zero in January and never returned, and sidewalks and streets are permanently coated with ice.

You can imagine how often schools have been closed here for bad weather: not once, of course.

This is a small source of sorrow to the Maryland children going to school here, who keep hearing reports from friends at home that schools have been closed once again because the roads are too icy or because it looks as if they may get too icy.

The Marylanders, several dozen of them, are the children of diplomats, businessmen and journalists. Most attend the Anglo-American School, an international school run by the U.S., British and Canadian embassies.

The school is about a half-hour drive from the U.S. Embassy, and the embassy children travel there in two big, American-style school buses that are painted blue.

School here has been called off for inclement circumstances, however. The most recent closing was in October, when Russian tanks were firing at the Russian parliament building.

The parliament is across the street from the U.S. Embassy, and the school bus couldn't safely emerge from the embassy gates. The embassy children spent a couple of days underground in the embassy gym, having a terrific time.

Barring political unrest, the school only closes when the temperature reaches 15 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. While the thermometer already has reached 25 below, this has been at night and on weekends, leaving the children heading off to school in the mornings as usual.

Some of the ice they traverse is spectacular. In some spots on the school road the ice is nearly 2 feet thick. It offers a sort of geological history of the winter: First there is a layer of ice, followed by snow from an October storm that wasn't cleared and began to melt before being pressed into ice -- and so on.

Driving on this street feels like a roller-coaster. The ice has formed huge gullies and swathes, and you drive along, slaloming from side to side through the craters, often scraping bottom along the way.

Every student is required to have ice skates, and those old enough to lace up their skates go out on the ice every day at recess. (Not on the street, but on the playground, which is used as a big rink.) The youngest children skate twice a week during gym, when parents come and help with laces.

Bill Thomas, a frequent visitor from Bethesda, observes that Russians have a particular kinship with ice. Every night, all over Moscow, men and women are out on the sidewalks chopping ice with stout blades attached to sturdy wooden handles.

"In Baltimore they go bowling," Bill says. "Here they chop ice."

Snow falls nearly constantly in Moscow, where it's welcomed rather than feared.

It covers the dirt dumped on the roads to prevent slipperiness -- until more dirt is used to cover the new snowfall.

In Moscow, a foot or two of snow can fall and it's hardly noticed. The weather reports tend to focus on forecasting the temperature rather than the amount of snow.

No one seems terribly concerned with how much snow has fallen this winter.

Yesterday, a call to the government Center for Weather Forecasting produced no information.

A spokesman for the center said it would take at least until tomorrow for someone to calculate how much snow has fallen here this winter -- and it would take so much work they could only figure it out for a payment of 30,000 rubles (about $20).

Until recently, the weather in Moscow was a secret. An enemy who knew that it might snow the next day could do who-knows-what dreadful deed?

Russians, of course, know it will be cold every day all winter, so who needs a forecast?

They have their ways to keep warm. Once, on a trip to a city just below the Arctic Circle, an American visitor complained to a hotel clerk that she was freezing in her room, where an arctic wind was whistling through the poorly fit windows. She expected, perhaps, a few extra blankets or even some tape to seal the window.

The clerk stared at the visitor a moment in exasperation, as if puzzled that anyone could be so dimwitted.

"Drink some vodka," he hissed.

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