In early November, Munich’s heat wave peaked at 19C/66F. I enjoyed it, suspiciously.
Two days later, I relaxed. Life was back to the way it should be in Germany on the downhill slide toward Christmas: it snowed.
The snow didn’t stick, but it forecast the storms to come, one upon another with hardly a pause. By the end of the month, airports across the UK and Western Europe were snowed in and record low temperatures were being reported in the East.
I got caught up in that weather on my way back from festive Thanksgiving in rainy Rome, which for once was happy not to be the epicenter of European excitement.
Over yet another cappuccino in the airport café after yet another rebooking, part of me was wondering what kind of bad karma might put me in Zurich for a free evening?
…and it snowed and snowed and snowed some more, as Christmas markets opened up all around Europe anyway, saving intrepid shoppers and merrymakers from themselves with glühwein and chocolat chaud.
The last winter I remember like this in Europe, my friends and I were in Austria, getting saved from ourselves with peach schnapps.
…and staying in a charmingly spare guesthouse with a perfectly shaped, cake icing-like snowcap on the roof, where in warmer weather Little Red Riding Hood undoubtedly visited her grandmother. The place had clearly been around for many generations and the owners, a wrinkled lot, stooping deeply but smiling broadly, had personally welcomed every one of them.
After some vigorous trekking and cross-country skiing, a winter picnic, and deep breaths of mountain air, which we needed a lot more than we realized, we headed back and en route drove past a luxury hotel.
Backing up… First, a dark Mercedes luxury coupe with darkly-tinted windows ‒ which are pretty much illegal, in Germany at least, so these were out-of-towners pretty much screaming, “We’re filthy rich and from somewhere we don’t have silly rules like that!” ‒ blew by us at a high rate of speed.
On a whim, we decided to follow it.
…and found ourselves pulling into this palatial hotel drive, breezily giving the keys to our modest dark Mercedes wagon to the valet, just as if we owned the place and our penthouse suite was awaiting us, vielen dank.
The hotel was all we anticipated, the lobby lushly decorated for Christmas, as only hotel lobbies with red velvet curtains the rest of the year can really pull off.
To avoid blowing our cover, we kept our rave reviews mostly to ourselves and, with eyes open wide, smiled, which you can get away with in Europe more so at Christmastime, but any other time of year marks you as an over-eager American tourist who’s had too much to drink.
But we couldn’t hide our excitement about the…PIANO. In the middle of the salon was a Bösendorfer concert grand, blinding us with its black shiny-ness, sitting in the shadow of an enormous Christmas tree decorated subtlety in white.
Christkindle, please say you brought that gift all the way from the North Pole for one of us!
Behind the piano was a wall of 10-meter windows and behind them was an utterly magical snowy forest I thought only Hans Christian Andersen knew about, minus the trolls.
What kind of place was this anyway?
We inquired and were further convinced by the answer: this very forest had been the inspiration, so the story went, for Franz Gruber’s carol Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht (“Silent Night, Holy Night”), which the St. Nikolaus Kirche choir first sang on Christmas Eve 1818 in nearby Oberndorf.
Snow on snow had fallen in that forest the winter before and the stillness that remains only after snows like that resulted in the #1 Christmas carol in the world, of all time (according to Gallup polls).
In the non-magical hospitality business, we never would’ve gotten away with impersonating hotel guests except that black European après-ski attire all looks about the same and cars with foreign plates and ski racks all look about the same, too.
It’s all about confidence. If you act like you belong there, you do…until somebody asks you for your room number, at which time you make one up, along with a logical-sounding surname. German would be good and how convenient that I have one of those already!
So that’s how some foreign interlopers speaking something between passable and no German, but between us a few other European languages proficiently, ended up sipping hot drinks in the salon of a hotel we couldn’t remotely afford, listening to our concert pianist friend play classical Christmas melodies on a piano we could remotely afford, either ‒ with kind permission of the chef d’hôtel, who was quite pleased at the large beverage-buying audience that gathered as the night went on.
Looking out the windows as snow continued to fall steadily, steadily all evening on that silent night.
But snow falling on snow can transform, in a moment, from magic to tragic.
Ever seen the show The Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel, about the hazards of commercial crab fishing in Alaska? Ever think about what kind of cowboys ‒ or nut cases ‒ would fly the helicopters mere inches above the angry Bering Sea (or it sure looks that way), on which some of those TV cameras are mounted?
Those guys are from Egli Air Haul in King Salmon, Alaska, my Christmas destination.
Sam Egli is a legend in these parts. He’s been flying fearlessly for over half a century. Nobody knows the terrain in this part of Alaska better than him.
So, if you’ve crashed your white plane in a snowstorm, say, you’d want Sam out there looking for you.
One year, one afternoon right before Christmas, a government plane conducting a routine survey was reported missing. Since it was a secret, we assumed everybody in town already knew about it.
We also knew that no-one in town would be waiting for the FAA to do ‒ or not ‒ something about it.
There was this instantaneous shift from reverie to rescue that can only happen in a small town. Anyone who owned anything that flew ‒ and those scheduled to depart on commercial flights for the holidays that day cancelled their tickets, knowing full well they might not be able to rebook before Christmas ‒ met in the school parking lot in the dark. They spread out aerial maps and by flashlight divided up the areas to search.
By then, night had fallen, more snow had fallen, and ominously there was no news.
The next morning, the moment it was light, they were all in the air, looking for their friends, colleagues, relatives…because in a small town in bush Alaska it’s really all the same anyway.
The first day of the search, nothing. Then night, with temperatures again below freezing.
Everyone knew that even if the guys on the plane had survived the crash, they wouldn’t survive much longer in that weather. And the more it snowed, the harder they would be to find, in millions of square acres of tundra, air swirling white.
The second day of the search began much the same, with worry and frustration. Until, on a hunch, Sam decided to fly over a certain area he knew, which had been flown over more than once already.
There he found the plane, and in it he found someone alive.
The pilot had died on impact, but his passenger had survived. Badly injured, unable to rescue himself and getting weaker by the minute, but lucid.
Then the community had to accept that, while the search had been successful for one family, a member of another would never be coming home for Christmas.
The day the crash site was found, the pilot’s family’s Christmas cards – their kids’ school pictures pasted on the front – arrived in mailboxes all over town.
The same kids who’d performed earlier that week in the school holiday program, singing with their classmates “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…” to a standing-room-only audience, while outside snow fell on biggest snowfall of the winter.
On the last truly happy night of their lives.
“Snow had fallen, snow on snow…” is from a poem by English poet Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), set to music after her death as the lovely Christmas carol In the Bleak Midwinter. It’s track #6 on my favorite Christmas album of all time, Christmas Night: Carols of the Nativity (The Cambridge Singers and The City of London Sinfonia).