It was the hardness that surprised me. That something so light and fleeting could pack down into a dense lump of ice, hard enough to get a yelp out of whoever you threw it at. I noticed that my gloves were getting wet. The dry-looking snow was deceitful in its appearance, and the coldness seeped into my hands as I eagerly scraped the bonnet of the car, rolling the powder between my hands. I stared into the middle of the ball, past the billion crystals glittering at me, trying to divine some hidden meaning ... as a snowball sailed past my right ear. Maëlstrom was creeping forward into my territory, pushing a wheely bin in front of him as the first line of defence. Laughing, I pegged my newly formed missile at his exposed elbow and completely missed, showering the wall behind him in a spray of white ice. Two seconds later I cracked up again as Joris nailed me on my right side with a well-aimed throw. I couldn't complain, I'd started it.
We'd come tumbling out of the gym after training to find that the snow had just started, unexpected and unannounced. "Il neige! Il neige!" I cried, cackling with uncontrollable laughter and clapping my hands. "Aaaah il neige!" I hopped around between my friends as they looked up to the sky unhappily; declaring "Its snowing!" over and over again, my face a description of rapture.
My enthusiasm drew smiles from the girls, and puzzled expressions from some of the guys. Players on the newly formed men's league, our adopted brothers, they knew I was foreign but didn't know just how. "She's not used to the snow" the girls explained fondly. I tipped my head back with my mouth wide open to catch the enormous snowflakes that with time were not falling, but hurling themselves down onto the Earth. In the space of minutes the landscape was covered in white, the hoods of our jackets full, our ill-chosen footwear becoming soaked. While everyone else was hunkering down, wrapping scarves ever-tighter, and muttering swear-words, I was wide open: dancing around with my arms stretched out to catch as much as I could, letting the flakes patter like tiny rabbit footsteps on my hair, my face, my shoes.
I hope I never get used to the snow. It's strangeness thrills me so deeply.
Last week I stood mesmerised, mid-task, with a steaming cup of tea in my hand to watch a thousand million tiny flakes dancing around outside the window of my soon-to-be vacated room. I would follow a flake, watch it prance and spin in an unpredictable wind-blown pattern, between and around a thousand of its sisters. It would hit a pocket of dead air and begin to fall, fall, fall, before being caught in a new gust of wind and thrown sky-ward again, like a swing dancer doing aerials. Less organised than a flock of startling, or a shoal of silver pin-like fish, these flakes seemed to follow uncountable different paths and dance-steps, swooping this way and that, tricking my eye and eluding my gaze over and over again. Some flakes seemed destined to float forever, lighter than the air around them, never landing.
I share my incredible discovery at a late night soirée, and my dark-eyed friend agrees "Yes, sometimes it's like... how do you say...." he moves his hand through the air sensually, like a conductor "plumes... feathers". I imagine someone ripping open a goose-down doona way up on high, shaking it out over us all.
My northern-hemisphere friends marvel at my snow-innocence. That picture from the top? That's me, taken the moment I saw it fall for the first time. It was 2011. I'd rushed outside after thrusting a birthday gift upon my friend, my words falling over each other as I apologised for my haste "I've gotta go back outside, it's snowing!". Banana, as seasoned at snow as any German, came as spectator, capturing that immortal photograph. The face I've got on then: astonished glee, is the same one have worn every time since.
I've learned so much.
I have learned how snow crackles like popcorn underfoot, and makes your feet unsteady, forcing you to walk ponderously, every step an question. How it forms layers thick enough to take the sharp edges out of an entire city. How sometimes it is light and powdery and wants to rest on your eyelashes, and sometimes it arrives with rain, from every direction at once. How it will cover every single leaf of a tree and then days later, when the air is warmer and the rest of the snow is melting, suddenly descend with a 'whumpf' that surprises passing dogs. How when it is there everything is white, even the sky. How that winter blanket has a strangely egalitarian effect: rending even the worst neighbourhoods beautiful in a muted, secret way. Freshly fallen snow forgives all, and promises everything.
I've got so much to learn.
Last Tuesday, the day after my first snowball was flung, I was ushered in to my new apartment by that same, utterly unexpected March snowfall which kept people from getting home at the weekend and caused 160 kilometres of traffic jam for three whole days in the north.
Marcel, Antlers, Papillion and I lugged my possessions out of the car and up four flights of stairs, bringing in lightly-dusted boxes and damp hair. Earlier that day I'd worriedly texted Antlers, wondering if we'd be able to do the move. Pfft. Dude I've driven in way worse than this. she wrote. I read between the lines: I'm Canadian, this ain't nothin'. She tells me about driving to parking lots in the snow as a teenager and doing wheelies for thrills, and I think back to growing up in semi-rural Western Australia and going to bonfire parties where I'd do reverse-doughnuts in my front-wheel Excel, kicking up clouds of dust in some dry paddock. The closest we ever got to snow was when it hailed furiously in winter, rock-hard pellets of ice battering cars and plants and people, leaving a whitish tint on everything, which looked a bit like snow if you squinted hard enough.
I love snow completely, unconditionally and uncritically, but I suspect I'm only one. My students complain that the City of Paris seems to be taken by surprise by every winter, caught unprepared and unaware. It's true that for a city that experiences around 11cm of snowfall a year on average, Paris is unusually bad at dealing with it. Metro lines and buses stutter and stop, the RER is a long-forgotten dream and no-one thinks to salt the roads until days after. P1 tells me in impassioned tones "It revolts me! It is giving a bad image to France!" after relating the story of a friend who was forced to sleep in her car overnight. Yet seconds later she and P2 are cooing in harmony over pictures of P1's most recent skiing holiday "Yes, it's so beautiful, so pretty". It seems that snow can get away with a lot.
Alas, I'll probably have to wait another whole year for more of the magic. Spring is just around the corner, bringing with it the wild flourish of greenery and flowers that makes Paris so darn pretty. I'm relishing the fact that I don't have to wear eight layers of clothes in order to venture outside, and am looking towards warmer weather.
But it was only last week that I was walking down the street talking to a colleague, lost focus mid-sentence and deviated away from the path to put my footprint on a patch of virgin snow, just to get that Neil Armstrong feeling, to hear that fascinating white crunch.
A year is a long time. But I'm in love, and my love is pure. I can wait.