France was enduring a heat wave. It was in the middle of ‘la canicule’, the dog days of summer. And Australia? We had just had a sudden, extraordinary Antarctic chill!
After the footage on France 2 of people swooning in Paris, not because it’s a place of great beauty but because it was 38 degrees before midday; after the reports of emergency measures for the aged – big supplies of bottled water and advice to check on your elderly neighbours; after the news of fires breaking out in the forests in the south … here was a reminder of what the presenter said it was easy to forget: on the other side of the world ‘it’s Australian winter’.
By the time I saw the French report, the unusual snow had already melted. Because SBS screens France 2’s Treize Heures, the early afternoon news bulletin, at an hour when I’m usually asleep, we record it, and then watch it whenever we have time. I like to imagine that hearing the French language spoken might help a little to keep my familiarity with it alive, and even if that’s a vain hope, the images of French life are a link to the times when we’ve lived in Paris – in 1994 and 2011 – times I still hope to write poems about.
In Lake Macquarie, there was no snow. The nearest falls to us were in the Barrington Tops, just north of Newcastle. Every family with an SUV capable of slithering over icy dirty roads had apparently trekked up there to see the magical white stuff, throw snowballs and build snowmen, and post photos on Facebook.
On television that week, snow footage was everywhere. Even places in subtropical Queensland had frozen vistas, the clotheslines at Stanthorpe dropping icicles and the border crossing at Wallangarra – usually a bare area in the midst of bleached, dry grass – eerily blanketed in white.
I’d already seen so many pictures, so many delighted reports. Days later, watching the by-now ‘Old News’ on France 2, I should have been blasé. Instead, I was taken by surprise.
The little thirty-seven second breath of coolness for everyone in France wilting in the heat began with a small grey kangaroo, standing in a frosted patch of bush. Not a very common sight ‘en Australie’, really, but French people do love ‘les kangarous’. And our own news reports of the snow had loved that image, too.
So here was the shivering creature again, its delicate pointed head glittery with ice. And of course here again were the happy children, still on school holidays, fisting up the cold wet balls and tossing them excitedly at one another.
Why did it all look so fresh and startling? There were crimson and blue rosellas and pink and grey galahs fluttering over the frozen ground as well – not something I remembered any of our own reports capturing – and a charmed softness, as if this really had become some new and different world.
I wondered if it were a report from a French journalist and film crew – foreigners here, relishing both the reminder of European winter weather and the way even snow, which should be the same all over the world, somehow looked different in this different landscape.
When I saw snow in Paris, it was equally magical. And just as different. That was the first time I’d seen snow falling … so even though it began at 1.30 a.m., how could I resist the wonder of getting up in the dark and even putting my head out the window to feel the first feathery flakes against my suddenly snap-frozen face?
There, the snow was all over a city. It blanketed roofs that were normally black and turned the cars parked all along the street into bulky marble sculptures… The Tuileries was no longer a park, but an icing-sugar dusted confection. The only trees near our studio that still had leaves that January were the willows by the Seine, which were weighed down by the sudden shock of white.
Snow in Paris made scenes that certainly looked nothing like the Antarctic chill over the bush in the Blue Mountains or at Barrington Tops – so many fine-leaved shrubs or pale-trunked trees beside red dirt roads, or little wooden houses in gardens usually more threatened by bushfire than heavy dumps of snow.
Watching this report on Treize Heures reminded me of coming home to Australia from my own experience of a July Paris heat wave, actually needing my cashmere and wool French coat as I stepped out of Sydney Airport into an apricot dawn with ice in the air.
Not cold enough that day for this familiar place to be utterly changed under an Antarctic blast. But yes, it was ‘the other side of the world’. And after six months away, it looked both wonderfully like home and strangely different, as surprising as that French vision of snow ‘en Australie’.