Ann George goes for a walk in the snow


The temperature had dropped suddenly during the previous evening, so I had left a bar of my tiny heater on overnight. My barrel-vaulted room had held in the heat and I was comfortable in bed, resisting getting up at 5:30 a.m. in order to get to school at about 7 o’clock. Finally, I forced myself up to greet a new January day in Jerusalem, and had the surprise of my life when I opened my door to a courtyard full of a strange blue light and blurred with the relentless falling of huge snowflakes. I took a big breath, stuffed my feet into my boots and grabbed my umbrella, then stumbled across the courtyard in order to have a wash and eat my breakfast.

I had just come out of my small shower-room when I heard the phone ring in Auntie’s house: very unusual and particularly so at such an early hour. A few minutes later Auntie appeared at my kitchen door, wearing a coat over her pink-flowered housecoat and with her greying hair still in its nightly plait and glistening with snowflakes. ‘They say no school’, she announced, ignoring my morning greeting. ‘You no go. Is good. Jerusalem very danger with snow. I open door’.

I understood the sense of the last remark when I returned to my room. The door linking my room to Auntie’s house, set in the middle of the passage through the immense Crusader wall, was slightly ajar. Auntie obviously didn’t want me to cross the courtyard to my bathroom and kitchen during the snowstorm.

After having made the effort of getting up the morning seemed anti-climactic and I viewed with some disgust the ever-present pile of marking that is the teacher’s lot in life. The morning passed quite slowly, even when I put on the tape that everyone living around the courtyard agreed was my best one: The Salvation Army Band Plays Popular Hymns, but soon after coffee-time a beautiful aroma arose from Auntie’s house, and I went in search of it, following my nose.

Set out on the floor of Auntie’s kitchen was her pride and joy: a custom-made stand-alone oven, constructed from 2 huge metal pans (more commonly seen in the market filled with baklava) which had been joined with a hinge to create a base and a lid. An electric element had then been fitted under the bottom pan, hopefully by an electrician. It was a lethal object, and probably illegal, but Auntie managed it with consummate skill and probably inherited knowledge. The food that came out of this oven was unbelievably glorious, and today she had raided her store cupboards and her deep freezer (she was no tyro either when it came to modern kitchen technology) in order to cook a melt-in-the-mouth joint of roast Bethlehem lamb for her courtyard relatives and tenants.

The meal was definitely the high point of the day as the snow continued to fall heavily. This was very unusual, as snow in Jerusalem is quite rare, happening about every 5 years or so, and it almost never settles for long. Because of the steep gradients, however, and also the fact that most of the population live high up in the surrounding hills, not just public transport but all transport stops and all businesses close when snow happens; by nightfall, however, I was told that everything would be back running as normal.

Not this year: the next morning I peered through my little window to see the snow still lying, blue-white in the early morning. By afternoon I had run out of marking and I had all the symptoms of cabin fever. There had been no new snow falls but it was lying very deep underfoot. Although Auntie scolded and forecast a dreadful fate for me I was determined to go out. In my long warm winter coat, hat, scarf, gloves and long boots I ventured across the deserted square by the Tower of David, down the ramp by the Jaffa Gate and crossed the main road outside the walls. Looking back at the Old City perhaps the oddest sight were the date palms, disorientated and disconsolate-looking with their fronds weighed down with snow, parading beside the main road devoid of cars and buses and totally silent. Walking with care along the deserted main street, I came to the Town Hall and decided to walk through the Russian Compound and perhaps look inside the Russian Cathedral. This route was a daily one for me, and I had rarely passed by the cathedral without hearing the monks singing the Office.

They did not fail me. I slipped into the cathedral and listened to their rich, dark voices for a long time. Their oriental cadences fell around me, totally free of the usual arbitrary city interruptions, but instead they were underpinned by a profound, deeply satisfying silence.