Trading Swim Suits & Sunscreen for Snow Boots & Skis

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So, I decided to move from a warm climate to a cold one, now that I’m here, the real impact of the fact that I have traded perpetual sunshine for sunsets that begin at 4 in the afternoon, I’ve traded cotton slacks and T-Shirts for gigantic parkas and thick jeans, I’ve traded layers of sunscreen for layers of thermal clothing, and more than once the thought “what have I done”, has crossed my mind, I take a breath and try to relax as I do my best to convince myself that winter in Switzerland isn’t all bad.  There are lots of fun things about living in a frozen wonderland, like snow, skiing, ice-skating, snow shoeing, cross country skiing, sledding…

The trick is if you can truly wrap your head around the fact that in Switzerland, winter is not a season, it’s an occupation, you’re half way there.  Although nothing quite prepares you for your first sub-zero experience, like the first time your eyelashes freeze together or the first time you spend an hour digging your car out of mountain snow.  With every fibre of my being, I have to fight the overwhelming urge to instinctively bundle up and hibernate under the cocoon of blankets in my bed, I realise that I must get outside, otherwise I know, I’ll be doing myself a disservice – there are a bunch of fun things to do in cold weather.  The faster you learn to love being outdoors in the cold, the easier your transition will be.  I can’t say this enough, go outside!   You’ll be tempted to spend the entire winter holed up inside your home like a hibernating polar bear, but in the long run, you’ll only get depressed.  I’ll say it again, try to get outside, if needs be drive up the mountain, through the clouds and get into the sun as much as you can to soak up that all-important vitamin D.

Having pets has made my life here even more interesting.  Nothing illustrates this more than carrying your 10 kg dog home because his feet have become too cold and he refuses point blank to walk another step, remember, he might be missing his days of perpetual sunshine too.

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So, I’ve decided to put together a few tips that helped to make my first winter in Switzerland just a little bit easier.  Winter may be a cruel mistress, but if you prepare for it, you’ll most likely survive and may even enjoy it.  This doesn’t mean going snowboarding or skiing every weekend.  You can try snow shoeing, sledding, ice skating, making snow angels, building a snow man (heads up, it’s much harder than it looks), having a snowball fight or just plain stomping around in the snow.  It doesn’t have to be torture out there.

The first thing to remember is that Snow is Cold and Wet!  Not this soft white fluffy stuff that falls at the end of cute romantic comedy’s .  Along with that, it’s best to understand that there is no bad weather, just bad clothing.  The secret to dressing for the cold is in the layers.  I like to call it the 3-layer rule:  The first layer is the Base layer which includes thermal socks and a full set of thermal underwear.  The second layer is the Insulating layer which includes a good pair of jeans and a good wool or fleece sweater and the third layer is the shell layer which is a good puffy jacket or waterproof soft shell.  Keep in mind that this list is an every day clothing list and that you will need to buy a whole different set of “shell” clothing when going up into the mountains to actually ski, snowboard or snow-shoe.  Another very handy tip is to only buy your cold weather clothing AFTER you move. The clothing I bought as winter clothing in my hot home country of South Africa just doesn’t cut it here.

If you can, warm yourself first with a hot cup of tea, coffee or hot chocolate. It’s easier to change your body temperature than room temperature, not to mention eco-friendlier.  Instead of turning up the heat, put on another layer of clothing.  Be kind to your extremities, yes, your torso and organs need to stay warm.  But don’t forget about those delicate extremities that are super susceptible to cold.  I’m talking about your hands, feet, neck, ears and FACE (and yes, I might go so far as to suggest a balaclava).

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So, as you try in vain to stop your children from eating handfuls of snow and desperately try to brush your daughters hair as the static electricity coming from her head generates enough to static to power a small town somewhere, here is a list of clothing that are absolute must have’s as you prepare to enjoy this strange new world.

  1. Scarf – This versatile piece of clothing is the ultimate snow accessory. It’s super warm and cosy.  I have found that a soft and snugly snood is better for children as there are no long trailing pieces that can, and do, drag through the snow.
  2. Thermal Bonnet – (In South Africa known as a Beanie) Whatever you call it, just make sure that you wear a hat. Your face and head are more sensitive to changes in temperature than the rest of your body, so it pays to keep them warm.  No one wants cold ears.
  3. Thermal Gloves – I can’t function if my fingers are frozen. Regarding this, I found that for children, thermal mittens in place of conventional finger gloves are even better and if you can get a pair of waterproof thermal mittens, you’ve hit the jackpot.
  4. Thermal Socks – It’s not fun to walk around with frozen toes.
  5. Thermal Underwear – (top and bottom). You will wear these every day – I do.
  6. Puffer Jacket – When it’s cold out, nothing beats a puffer jacket. There is an abundance of styles that will keep you looking cool while keeping warm.
  7. Good Boots – Your regular boots just won’t cut it in the snow. Not only is it wet, but also, snow turns to ice, which turns to slush and then to mud, which is also very slippery.  Be smart and invest in a good pair of snow boots.  They’re built for this kind of weather, and even if they’re not super pretty to look at, hey, it’s the snow – everyone will be wearing them.

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The length of time it takes to get out of the fr door fully dressed for the cold weather will be in direct proportion to how young your children are.  Be prepared, the younger they are, the longer it will take.  Generally, little children despise the layers upon layers of clothing, and you will have to battle them to achieve the desired result.  To add insult to injury, their squeals of delight while throwing snowballs at each other and having fun romping in the snow AFTER you’ve waged and won the ‘Layer Battle’ can wear a bit thin while you shovel the snow from the driveway so that you can get the car out.  And, it’s cold comfort to arrive at school over an hour late and hear a fellow mum exclaiming, “I’ve been bitten by leeches but shovelling snow is much more painful!”

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Ah, but after a long fun day in the snow, when the little angels are tucked up in bed, is there anything better than snuggle time, and what better to complete the picture than a softly covered hot water bottle?   So, as you prepare for a new day as the snow softly falls outside, try not to fret about the fact that when you wake up in the morning you might not even be able to see where the road is, as absolutely everything is covered in a soft and sparkling blanket of white snow, and that you will have to wait for the snow plough to come and clear a path before you can even think of driving to school!  Make yourself a cup of something warm to drink and relax into your favourite chair curled up with a good book and do your best to ignore the niggling and disturbing thought that you might not have ordered enough petrol.  Petrol you ask? Yes, my first house here ran on petrol, well the central heating system that keeps your house warm through the winter ran on petrol.  Back in south Africa, we call that: The Sun! I take a deep breath and remember that tomorrow is another day and I will survive.  The Swiss are ultra-efficient and there will always be someone to call to come and check your petrol levels and thermostat gauges if needs be.  Now, all I have to do is learn how to speak French overnight and I’m sorted.

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Written by Barbara-Anne Puren.  Thanks to the Moms and Dads from warmer countries who happily shared their experiences with me.  Bronwyn from Durban South Africa, Anu from Mumbai India, Maryam from Dubai, Leena from Bangalore and Abu Dhabi, Johnny from Zimbabwe and South Africa.

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