On the arrival of winter

Retailers are vying for Academy Awards, the goose is getting fat and the smell from the cabbage putrifying in a vat on the stairwell is seeping into my apartment. It must be December! Up until last second of November, the weather was unseasonably mild, hovering around the 0-5c range. Every walk past the river was a torment, seeing the murky waters trickling gently under the bridge, revelling in their borrowed time. The skies were bluey grey. Apart from one tantalising afternoon three weeks ago, not a snow cloud in sight. Birds chirped in the trees. I was getting a bit worried that winter was going to pass us by this year as I cracked open my windows to let out the stifling heat from the radiator. Sounds dreadful right?

snowyWorry not dear readers, for, on the last night of November, as the hand on the clock struck twelve, Harbin froze. I was greeted at 5.45am on Monday morning by my terrible alarm tune that needs changing and icy lows of around -14c. Snow as fine as flour floated down to the ground as the day wore on, steadily blanketing the city. I’d spent the last four weeks grumbling about the weather – it had been just like Britain but without rain – and now I was pleased to see that last year’s ice age hadn’t just happened in my head as I’d been beginning to suspect.

The city has been gearing more towards winter recently; hanging insulated curtains an inch thick in every doorway (which can result in quite an alarming slap in the face when you walk behind someone who doesn’t hold it open for you – read: everyone), playing questionable Christmas music, selling neon featherdown coats and thermal leggins and wooly masks and hand warmers. But now it’s official. On December 1st I finally allowed myself to watch It’s A Wonderful Life whilst putting up my tree, and managed to stretch out the careful unfolding of branches, tweaking of tinsel and rearranging of baubles on my 18” masterpiece for the entire film, stopping every now and then to drink tea or just stare at the screen. Since then it’s been Christmas pop, Christmas choral arrangements, Christmas films and Christmas scented candles 24/7. It’s only been 5 months since my last Christmas celebration, so I could be accused of going over the top. Indeed, just 7 days into my Christmas bonanza, today I’ve been left feeling a bit flat when I went to the shopping mall to find this breathtaking beast of a display (note the humans in the picture for scale):

santa1  santa2Now, I can’t work out whether whoever signed off on this is making a modernist statement about how sordid and commercialised Christmas has become, how we’ve sold our souls to indulgence and candlelit baths, or whether the manager has simply bought into said commercialisation. I wondered whether I might be a little intoxicated by the fumes that were wafting around the scene (something apparently had gone on fire, no-one cared) so I took a picture to reexamine at a later date. On later revisiting the image, no, I still don’t get it.

mincemeatI’ve also had a go at making some mincemeat for pies. No small amount of willpower went into not sitting in a darkened room with a spoon and the pan of hot sugary brandy-y filling and tucking in, concocting tales of how the whole thing never happened, but I managed it. The mincemeat now sitting in a couple of jars which were sterilised to prevent the contents from coming alive over the next three weeks. An update may or may not follow, depending on how successful the end results are.

Anyway, how cruel of me to tantalise your tastebuds by opening this post by mentioning fermenting vegetables and keep you hanging on until now to elaborate. I might have mentioned a while ago that, when the weather starts to turn, around about October, armies of greens can be seen lined up on footpaths, curbs, hanging from buildings and tucked beneath windowsills. Firstly they’re left outside to dry, until it’s too cold, at which point they’re brought inside to continue their descent into culinary darkness. It’s a time-old practice that helps to preserve the vegetables so that, in the bleak midwinter when nothing grows, people can still eat. It’s logical, essential and part of the annual routine.

By now, the leeks are dried and shriveled, grim looking, but on the whole causing no great offense. CabbagevatCabbages aren’t so discreet in their journey towards decomposition. The owner of our building has a huge iron vat on my staircase, filled with cabbages who’s memories of lush fields and fresh air are nothing but long-forgotten fables. Every time I open my door, the menacing barrel looms down at me from his elevated position ten steps higher. I’m downwind from this beast, and so the slightest draft flushes billows of putrified cabbage under the doorway and into my nostrils. Most days it’s not that bad, and I’ve learned to deal with it using a combination of scented candles and cognitive desensitisation – there are a lot of unspecified smells in China, don’t ask and you won’t be told is the best way. Last night a few of us went out for dinner and one of the dishes we ordered turned out to be preserved cabbage. It wasn’t too bad, and much better than other “turned out to be” episodes, which include a picture of a delicious potato dish that turned out to be animal tongues tossed with green peppers.

So in conclusion, winter is finally here and it’s really really cold. In other news:

My winter coat was negligently left out on the balcony for a whole summer. It turns out that, as ethical as faux fur may be, it doesn’t stand up well to UV rays. My ¾ length grey featherdown coat is now sporting an electric blue fur trim. Since mild social embarrassment is preferable to freezing to death, I’m just walking around wearing it like nothing happened.

I started an Open University fiction writing course, and it turns out I can’t write fiction well, so there’s my life plans out the window. My style, according to one of my fellow students, is too flowery for fiction. I’m not bitter. For now I’ll continue to blog and when I come home I’ll just blog about going to Asda and spotting minor celebrities buying boxed wine.

Plans for my winter holiday are moving steadily along; I’ll let you know when an actual train ticket is booked.

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Metro is a German company. Christmas trees are from Germany. How did they get it so wrong?

Metro is a German company. Christmas trees are from Germany. Where did it all go wrong?




5 thoughts on “On the arrival of winter

  1. I wouldn’t take the opinion of commenters on the Open University course to heart. Was it when you submitted a piece of writing for peer assessment? Some of the peers are Cruella de Vil clones. You must have hit on one of those. Be glad that you took the blow and saved some other new writer from unhelpful comments. You’re still writing. They might have stopped.

    I’ve read comments on some of the FutureLearn courses – and some on the Start Writing Fiction course seem to come from great insecurity, a superiority complex, or a pulsating blend of both. I liked this course better https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/how-to-read-a-mind Very well taught and an intriguing subject. I’d never heard of cognitive poetics before. Now you can get a certificate in it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad I’m not the only one who gets that vibe! Actually I found very little discussion on the comments sections, more of a ‘here’s my opinion go read it’ type thing. I think the organisers were hoping for a little more interaction in that respect. Thanks for the link, I’ve now signed up to that one so I’ll see how it goes! You seem to have scouted out the good courses – do you write also?


      • Yes, you couldn’t actually call much that went on on the Comments section as ‘discussion’. It felt, as you say, like people raising their flags, stating their opinions and ‘knowing’ they were right. It must be a bit depressing for the OU people. You need a moderator really – as you would have in a seminar or debate at university. Otherwise it all ends up a bit Lord of the Flies.

        I have two sons who like writing, and I was looking at the Open University course for them a few months ago. They never threw a piece of writing into the lion’s den, but I saw the lasting hurt and rancour that some of the commenters caused. It all smelt quite unkind.

        I liked the How to Read a Mind course because I’d never heard of cognitive poetics and it sounded fascinating. The professor who presents the course is very cuddly and he obviously loves his subject.

        I’m doing this one https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/understanding-language at the moment but only vaguely. If you’re teaching English abroad it has some interesting ideas about English as a lingua franca. Which struck me as the latest TEFL fashion, rather than a truly useful thing. Good to notice, but nothing you could base a lesson on.

        This course https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/irish-history was fab. (You can always register an interest and they’ll tell you when they’re running it again) Beautiful materials, enthusiastic teachers and a subject that, in Britain certainly, is never truthfully taught.

        This course – about Forensic Psychology and Witness Investigation https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/forensic-psychology was good at the beginning – when they talked about why witnesses are unreliable. But once they set up their ‘investigation’ the female police detective was so perfect and the male one was so hopeless, that it became annoying.

        I think the time is coming soon when they’ll start charging for the FutureLearn courses. Their beta phase won’t last too much longer, I don’t think. But it’s been fun to try while it’s free. Have you done any other courses with them?


        • I agree with you – I think they’ll start charging soon and then provide a certificate automatically at the end. I get the impression the quality of the courses varies wildly depending on the institution and coordinators, so I’m not sure how successful this would be though. I quite like signing up to whichever look interesting, give it a week or two and then either abandon it or persevere – if I’d paid I suppose that would be more of a motivation to stick with it. Coursera also have a good range of free courses, and it’s interesting to learn from different perspectives.


          • Yes, I remember starting one, from King’s College, London I think it was, about The Causes of War. Interesting subject, but the course involved videos of various professors staring at the camera, reading some kind of autocue and looking as if there was a gun, just off-screen, pointing at their head. They all looked terrified. It was too disconcerting to go on with.

            I get the impression that sometimes it’s the department itself that puts the course together – like Trinity College or Nottingham’s wonderful courses, which I feel privileged to have access to. Or it’s the university management that’s told them to create a MOOC, but without giving them the facilities or time to do it well. It must take an awfully long time to plan and put the courses together. some of them are like mini TV series.

            I like Coursera too. I do think that this is a bit of a golden age as far as all these MOOCs go. We’re the guinea pigs, but once they’ve got it all right, it will cost money to do the courses. Which is fair enough – and I think, in some ways, I’d stick at a course more if I’d handed over some money to take it. At the moment I collect them and bury them in my FutureLearn folder, like a squirrel collecting nuts. 🙂


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