My friend and colleague Wendy used to say, on average once a day for about four months of the year: it would freeze the balls off a brass monkey.
I have since learned two things. Well, I’ve learned a lot more than two things, since it’s at least two years since we worked together and an average of one new thing learned per year would be quite poor by any standard, but I mean in relation to the brass monkey thing.
1. She was simply being crude (and trying to confuse me) by adding and the tits off a china doll, as apparently the balls in question do not refer to a statue of a little furry animal, but to cannonballs on a ship, stored on a tray called a “brass monkey”. In cold weather, the tray would contract and the balls would roll off. Hence the expression, you see.
2. She was greatly exaggerating matters, for I have never truly experienced cold weather until today.
While Northern Ireland is certainly warm compared with Estonia, Estonia, it seems, has been practically tropical compared with Latvia. I do not understand why the temperature for each appears to be the same according to my online sources. It is not the same. It is abso-bloody-lutely freezing in this place. Minus seven in Tallinn was mildly refreshing – I even wore my light jacket to go across to the shops! Minus seven here is, in all sincerity, dangerous. It is not so much refreshing as painful.
I set off, somewhat naively, to explore the Old Town this morning, wearing only two layers under my coat, and without gloves. Within half an hour I had purchased gloves and dived into the first free museum I came to in an attempt to save my fingers and toes. I lingered there for much longer than you can linger in a museum without arousing the suspicions of the security people – who, curiously, were all little old ladies with knitting needles. I have not seen this before. I was in the Latvian War Museum, where every exhibition is in its own hall on a separate floor of Powder Tower (the only remaining one of the original 18 towers of the city wall), and just inside the doorway of each one sat a little old lady, knitting and peering crossly over her needles as I entered almost apologetically.
They seem to be very suspicious people, the Latvians. I am unused to this, as in Estonia you’d probably be left alone in an unguarded building with the Crown Jewels, or whatever an Estonian equivalent to Crown Jewels might be. My museum visit this morning has led me to assume that things are very different next door in Latvia. The second you enter the room, the knitting lady jumps to her feet – well, perhaps “shuffles” might be a better word than “jumps” – and follows you cautiously all around the exhibition. You can tell she’s glad to see the back of you when you leave, because, glancing back, you can see that she’s already resumed her knitting in peace and quiet before you’ve even reached the stairs. I’m not entirely sure what the museum people are expecting visitors to do, exactly, nor what they’re expecting the knitting ladies to do in response. Stab us with their needles? Tie us up with pink yarn? The mind boggles.
Not wishing to meet such a disturbing (and, frankly, embarrassing) fate, I reluctantly stepped back outside into the streets where chunks of ice were quite honestly littering the pavements in the way that crisp packets and drinks cans do back home. Baltic! I found myself hissing involuntarily, pulling my Scarf Hat tightly down over my face and wrapping the ends round and round until only my glasses were visible. People in Norn Iron are fond of saying “It’s Baltic out there!” on a cold day. This is why. I urge you to think of me next time you hear those words uttered, and be thankful that you are not currently wrapped up in a duvet, shivering, and worrying about the fact that you still haven’t regained any feeling in your big toe.
The rivers and canals have all frozen over. I would not be at all surprised to hear that the Baltic Sea is now one big mass of ice. It is colder than cold. The ducks have nowhere to swim, and are all sitting around sadly at the edges of ponds and rivers, staring forlornly at the ice. Men are sitting on upturned buckets on the middle of frozen rivers, fishing in holes that they’ve cut out with tools. This is actually kind of cute and picture-postcardy, or at least it would be to someone who was not dying of pneumonia and frostbite.
Tomorrow, I am going to wear all the clothes that I have brought with me on this trip (that means two pairs of trousers, too – for the first time in my life, I wish I owned Long Johns), and stop for coffee approximately once every half hour in order to maintain a vaguely non-life-threatening body temperature.