From xenophobia to freezophobia: will I survive the Czech winter?

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panalak snow

After tackling the serious topic of the Czechs and racism, I thought I’d move onto more neutral territory: the weather.

Today it is gloriously sunny in Prague. There has been a distinct lack of cold or rain despite the fact that we’re nearing the end of September; my recent visitors from England first words when I went to pick them up from the metro were, ‘You didn’t warn us it would be this warm!’

Of course, I should be grateful for this late burst of sunshine but instead I can’t stop thinking about the cold days to come. It’s been six months since I made the move to Czechland and so far, things are going well. I haven’t felt particularly homesick and I think I’m managing to settle in reasonably well. However, I’ve never experienced Prague in winter, not even as a visitor. In fact, I’ve never been anywhere in my life where the temperature gets lower than minus two or three and I’m worried that the Czech winter could be the thing that sends me back on the next Easyjet flight home for good.

Winters in England are grey and miserable. There’s rain and mist and cold and ice and sometimes even snow. When the snow does appear, as I was explaining to the amusement of my students recently, everything stops: schools close, trains are cancelled and most people stay at home. Last year, the three or four centimetres of snow stopped London’s buses from running, a feat even Adolf Hitler couldn’t manage during the Blitz.

It never gets to minus 10C though. I’m so anxious about the approaching winter that I’ve already begun buying huge thick wool cardigans even though it’s so warm now that I’m sweating when I try them on. I don’t care. I must be prepared. When I imagine what winter will be like in Prague, I keep thinking about a film about Napoleon where he’s sitting in the Winter Palace in a deserted Moscow covered in a thick carpet of snow with his army in ruins defeated by a freezing winter. Now I am aware that Prague and Moscow have different climates but this is the nightmare scenario I have in my head that makes me shop for sweaters in the blazing sunshine.

I’ve also realised I need a new pair of winter boots. Czechman disagrees, even though the pair I currently own are two years old and have a hole in the front. When I complain that a replacement pair will set me back 3000Kc (I take my mother’s advice and only wear footwear made from leather) Czechman makes the following suggestion.

‘Can’t you just paint over it?’

Am I alone in thinking that this is taking thriftiness just a little bit too far?

Back to the winter. I’ll knit socks. I’ll buy thermal vests and longjohns and for the first time in my life, have a decent excuse to wear them. I’ll sit very close to the radiator when indoors, drink numerous cups of tea and pray this winter, unlike the last, is a mild one.

prague snow

32 Comments

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32 Responses to From xenophobia to freezophobia: will I survive the Czech winter?

  1. larana

    I love your blog. Please keep writing. I have a question. I will be on holiday in Prague for a few days in mid October. I’ve read what the average temperature and weather is suppose to be like.. but could you make any suggestions on what I should pack clothes wise?

  2. girlinczechland

    I just asked Czechman as I have no firsthand experience myself and he suggests packing a raincoat and some jumpers but says it shouldn’t be too cold. Hope that helps!

    GIC

  3. I’ve been here since August last year. Last winter I never felt the need to wear a jumper, a jacket, or indeed anything with long sleeves….

    However, I did drink a lot of vodka, and as I explained to my friends on the few times that it got below minus 10….

    Alcohol doesn’t freeze!….

    Seriously though, as long as you don’t have to spend long periods (more than 15 minutes at a time) outdoors, you should have no problems wearing normal attire.

    Everyone here tends to go for overkill with the heating, so you will literally find yourself going from minus 10 outside to plus 30 as soon as you walk through a door!

    Good luck with your first Czech winter though, as I know very few people treat temperature extremes with the same disdain I manage!

    • girlinczechland

      Thanks for the tips and the words of encouragement. I think I’ll leave the vodka alone though: for a northern lass, I don’t hold my drink terribly well…

      GIC

  4. As a fellow British Expat blogger living in Prague, albeit male rather than female,I’ve been enjoying your blog for some weeks but have never got around to commenting until now. Knowing how much I enjoy receiving comments from those who read my blog, I thought it was about time I reciprocated.

    I’ve lived in Prague since September 2008 so my early weather experience was autumn which rapidly turned to winter! You will find the winter here is cold but dry and therefore in many ways, far more pleasant than the English ones you rightly describe as grey and miserable. Also in Prague, public transport is geared to cope with bad weather. When snow falls, the trams keep running!

    In winter, most Prague women wear jeans or trousers, teamed with leather boots, usually knee-high with the jean/trousers tucked into the boots. Rather than one thick cardigan, you are much better off wearing several thinner layers as heat is trapped between the various layers.

    The latter half of Spawny’s comment is quite accurate. There is a general tendency here in winter, to overheat flats/houses/bars/restaurants etc so that there is a massive contrast between external and internal temperatures. I regularly saw last winter, women arrive in a bar-restaurant and proceed to peel off about four layers leaving them in a strappy top, the kind most younger Prague women are currently walking around in outside at present whilst daytime temperatures remain in excess of +20 celcius. This overheating of buildings seems to be a relict of the Communist era when heating was free. It is also the case, that most buildings here are far better insulated than they are in the UK.

    The other thing you will need is a hat, as it is very easy to lose body heat via your exposed head. This is very much the case for me, a balding older male, than for you as a younger female, presumably with a decent amount of hair. However, there are plenty of hats around for younger women that are both warm and fashionable.

    Yes – you do need to be prepared for cold winter weather here in Prague. However, there is no need to dash back to England when the outside temperature drops below -10 celcius. Just dress as suggested above, (as you will see other women doing), and don’t stay outside too long unless you are thoroughly wrapped up.

  5. girlinczechland

    Hi there Ricky,

    Thanks a lot for your comment, especially all the helpful tips. I’m an avid knitter, so I’m sure I won’t have a problem digging out a pattern for some suitably fetching winter headwear. And the big cardigan was very much intended to form just one part of many, many layers, including perhaps a cashmere thermal vest if funds allow…

    I’m very grateful though to hear that at least two fellow expats have managed to survive the cold though. I suppose I’ll have to find something else to angst about (shouldn’t be too much of a problem given my temperament…)

    GIC

  6. Pavel

    If I may as a male Czech to add few suggestions:

    * Chaplain is right on the spot

    * do not over-wear: I mean, it is really better (more healthy and much comfortable) to feel a bit cold for couple of minutes then sweat heavily in a second in any, as noted previously, heated or rather over-heated interior (including public transport which is heated)

    * freezing temperatures are better then the “just-above-zero” for many reasons (e.g. the flu virus cannot survive freezing, but flourishes in +4C). Also, once you wake up in 4AM and will see the snow-flakes gently falling down, covering everything with tender bright white pillows, you will understand 🙂

    * I know few English expats who are cold/ill all the winter. The pattern of their behaviour is: they underestimate the cold weather as it comes – they wear t-shirts all the time and laugh on locals as “softies” when they start wearing sweaters or pull-overs… then they start panicking as they got cold and wear polar “space-suits” which made then sweat all the time to worse their health even more… Chaplain is right with the “layering”… maybe look into some catalog of a “outdoor accessories” shop – not that you have to wear as if you go to a Siberian tundra expedition in Prague, but there is certain wisdom in the ways they suggest for clothing layers. And some of their winter/autumn underwear is comfortable even in the city if you do not work in an overheated office.

    * it takes few days for everyones (including local) metabolism to adjust when freezing temperatures come and then you do not feel freezing as something extraordinary… in the same way as one needs some time in the beginning of summer when temperatures jump from 20 to 30C range in a week.

    * if you have some say at home ( 🙂 ) do not let it overheated… 22C is the maximum, better wearing light cardigan and warmer socks at home then have 30C inside. Also, heating dries the air and that makes your throat/eyes sensitive and open to infections. Drink a lot, but not too warm (for the same reason) beverages.

    And do not forget letting us know how you cope with the “arctic” conditions 😀

  7. Marek

    Hi girl, that is a “awww” sort of anxiousness 🙂 Super post again reminding me how much apart the west and east really was when Prague is still often perceived as a winter Moscow rather then winter Paris, which is roughly the same latitude (does not sound THAT frightening, does it now?). Funnily enough, you are not the only Brit to spontaneously come up with the image of cold-devastated Napoleon in mind when having to spend a winter in Czechland.

    Anyways – winters are lovely here. If it snows and then is cold enough for the snow to last, all things outside soft and light and cosy. One extra layer of clothing does the trick outside and any Czech interior in winter is usually warmer then most sash windowed brick houses on a late summer night.

    It is a pleasure to walk outside on a winter night. All sounds muffled, just the snow crunching under your painted-over winter boots lined with three layers of knitted socks. You`re gonna love it!

    • Marek

      Btw, I DO acknowledge you are aware that Moscow has a quite different climate 🙂 It`s just that Russian winter is what springs to mind of most Brits stuck here past autumn, instead of thinking along the lines of “hmmm, Prague is actually more south than London”. 🙂
      (Although, the top picture of this post gives a truly demonically-communist-apocalyptic image of Czechland winter.)

  8. RyanG

    I figured England would have harsher winters than Czech Rep. Where I live in the central USA, the nastier winters drop to about -10C or more on average. But it’s not so bad. What always bothers me the most about traveling in freezing weather is keeping my nose and ears warm. A nice thick scarf is a big help. Plus it comes off easy and doesn’t take much space.

    I’ve never even heard of painting over a hole in a shoe. That one made me laugh a bit, it seems so unorthodox. I hope you buy a new pair. Being thrifty is one thing, but when you have holes in your attire it’s time to move on!

  9. Metamorph

    Hi, I’m English and have lived in Brno for 4 years. In my first winter here (don’t get shocked) the temperature dropped to -22 for a week. I went and bought expensive boots, a coat and other things. I’ve never used most of them since. I can only echo the comments about layers, but I would invest in a good pair of waterproof boots. When the snowy pavements are treated to melt the snow, it plays hell with shoes. Otherwise just enjoy the winter- it’s really great, especially when the snow is falling.

  10. At the risk of appearing to want to create a mutual admiration society with Pavel, I have to say that I agree with everything he writes on this topic. However, his suggestion that ‘if you have some say at home’ does present problems for anyone such as me, who lives in a block of flats/appartments.

    We found last winter, that we were knocked sideways by the heat in the communal areas (landings & stairs) of our block, when we walked in from outside. We only used our own radiators during the very cold periods. Otherwise we seemed to gain heat from the overheated flats/appartments of our Czech neighbours. Our block is also less than four years old & does appear to have been built with excellent insulation.

    Why RyanG figured England would have harsher winters than the Czech Republic is beyond my comprehension. I fear he is an American that has never travelled beyond North America. Please forgive me if I’m wrong! England is part of the island of Great Britain and is therefore surrounded by sea. The sea always has a moderating effect on temperatures making summers less hot and winters less cold.

    The reason the Czech Republic has harsh winters (and also warmer summers than the UK) is that it is a landlocked country, a long way from the sea. RyanG says he lives in ‘central USA’ with ‘nastier winters (that) drop to about -10C or more on average’. Central USA is a long way from the sea……

    Where I do agree with him is his comment about painting over a hole in your footwear. However, the thrifty Czechs do still have little back street shoe repair places who can do amazing things at very reasonable prices. Whilst I think you are best advised to buy a new pair of leather boots, do also try getting the old ones repaired so you have a second pair.

  11. RyanG

    No, you’re right on the money, Chaplain. Having never lived near an ocean or sea, I’m not too familiar with the effects they have on the weather. I assumed England would be colder because it was further north. You can chalk that up to lack of experience or American education, either way. In all sincerity, thanks for the explanation.

  12. pedro

    Hi GIRL,
    firstable let me congratulate for your blog and also apologise for my basic english, as I’m an italian living in Brno, too lazy for learn properly both english and czech.
    Actually I’m feeling in the same mood like you, so far my czech experience was great, but with winter coming I’m getting scared.
    I’ve already spent many days here during the cold season and experienced -20 was something shocking for my southern italian blood…
    However I’d say, with all the previous advices you have received, you won’t suffer that much with your new czech experience.
    If I can give you some of mine, using multivitaminic pills and the “domaci slivovice” will help your health and I believe the lovely view of Praha while and after snowing its an other point in your advantage.
    Otherwise I guess it wont be easy face the czech long winter but that will help better celebrating the new spring soon coming…

    Please keep going on with your blog, its a job well done!

  13. jaryba

    As a Czech I agree with Pavel, that freezing weather is better than “above zero”. The freezing temperatures are usually go with clear sky and sunny weather. It´s better than “above zero” weather with grey sky and absence of sunshine. (Winter depression is caused by lack of light not low temperatures).

  14. Marika

    Hey Girl,

    amazing blog. I read it cos I’ll be in a similar situation next year as I’m moving to England to live with my bfriend there so it’ll just be the other way round – a Czech girl in England. Heaven only knows what I’m going to do tho cos I’m a teacher of English too 🙂

    I absolutely agree with all the people here speaking bout temperatures. Three years ago I spent 1 day in Scotland with just above zero and sleet and to be honest I had never had to wear so many layers of clothes before to keep myself warm even with temperatures round -25 here, and I have never had to since then either. Moreover, Prague is one of the warmest places in the CR so no need to worry too much. A winter jacket and good boots are enough.

    And btw my bfriend survived a really cold and windy day spent wandering round Vysehrad last year so I think the English can cope well 😀

  15. Honza

    Especially in the city the freezing days are priceless. I find the melted-snow slops on pavements the most annoying feature of the winter. The salt (often used to prevent black ice) also makes the boots suffer a lot, especially the leather ones.

  16. Miss Merlot

    To be fair the last few winters I’ve been here have been surprisingly mild… My best tip is a balaklava – you may look like a terrorist, but at least your face won’t be freezing!!

  17. Mel

    I’ve only read the first few comments, but my thoughts:
    I spent most of my childhood summer days at the beach wrapped up in all the towels, picnic blankets and jumpers I could get my hands on, while everyone else spent hours happily (and warmly) in the water.
    I’ve had 2 winters here now, and I was almost terrified (and excited!) of my first one. But honestly – I was a little disappointed! I had been warned of possible -20 or even -30… I think the only time I was in less than -10 temperature was in the mountains over New Years. And I was desperate to see snow falling for the first time – I had to wait a looong time for that, and the general amount of snow was a disappointment!

    As for shoes… I live at the top of a steep street, where the footpath is cobbled (Or something like that). I once tried walking down the hill in (nice, warm) boots that have smooth soles. That was almost like downhill ice-skating, only without control! Tread is good…

  18. Mel

    Two more things I’d like to add…
    1) My boyfriend told me that his first winter in Auckland, New Zealand (very, very rarely gets to 0) was the coldest he’d ever been – inside!

    2) My strategy for keeping out the cold was layering, as has been suggested. But more specifically: long aerobics-type shorts (longjohns for really cold days) under jeans, and a merino wool long-sleeved top with 1-2 cotton-type layers (t/shirt or longsleeved t/shirt) and sometimes a jumper on top. Completed by a lovely warm jacket and hat when going outside. The only cold thing was my feet – I need to work on that this year!
    I’ve added this just because ‘layers’ was all the advice I got, and it wasn’t all that helpful on its own…

    • girlinczechland

      I also still have my cake and eat it… but I do feel guilty about it now which I never used to before. Still, I don’t drink, don’t smoke – a girl’s got to get her kicks somehow.

  19. Matt

    I hear it’s been pretty cold over there – good thing you had a supply of thick cardigans!

    How have you been coping?!

  20. Marek

    Hihi, my thought exactly Matt. Long time no hear from Girl. It`s frikkin freezing even for Czech October standards. I had to institute regular sauna visit schedule or I`d be in my bed sick like many of my colleagues.

    How have you been coping Girl?

    • girlinczechland

      Greetings everyone,

      Thanks so much for all your very entertaining and helpful comments. As you’ll see from my latest post, I haven’t been doing too well recently but one advantage of my confinement has been that I have only had to experience winter so far from the warmth and comfort of my bed. Could be worse…

      A

      GIC

  21. Noone told you yet (but you might have figured that by now) that in a dry winter your skin gets dry. When I still lived in my motherland, the skin of my shins would turn into fish scales over the winter. Moisturiser would only irritate the skin. I never solved that problem until I moved to England. The damp weather keeps my skin juicy.

    Czechman’s thriftiness regarding the footwear is indeed extreme and quite unCzech. As far as i remember Czechs are crazy about outdoor clothing and especially boots and are prepared to pay for quality.

  22. Nick

    by far the coldest part of Prague winters occur in the Metro escalator wind tunnels….be prepared

  23. Marek

    After very mild winter so far, it is snowing in Brno today and yesterday was freezing but without snow. Ideal conditions to do some real-life testing for you. 🙂
    Trying to do without various items of clothing for few mins, here are the results:
    – sweater (1 of 5 layers) – could actually do without as long as I was moving
    – having light shoes – without snow no problem, with snow no way (for the shoes – feet were ok)
    – hat with earflaps – subjectively most unbearable discomfort when taken off
    – high warm collar/scarf – second most important for me
    – mittens – could do without but need warm pockets
    – trousers only (one layer without longjohns) – no problem in either conditions (I did not actually try to put longjohns on in the street)

    Interested in your winter survival techniuqes! Good luck! 🙂

  24. girlinczechland

    Hi Marek,

    Well, I’m safely back in England now but the weather conditions here rival those back in Prague in terms of inclemency (ooh, that’s rather a grand sentence!). Anyway, I’ve discovered that wearing knee-high socks – something I haven’t done since I was at primary school – under jeans/trousers helps a lot. When it comes to the snow, my main concern is not keeping warm but remaining upright. I’m terrified of slipping over which meant that I resorted to wearing hiking books to work with smart trousers. Hopefully my students will just think I’m another eccentric university lecturer (as if they don’t already…).

    Thanks for your words of encouragment and Vesele Vanoce!

    GIC

  25. Hi there,
    Brilliant blog, really funny. I am a British male with a Czech girlfriend so can identify with most of your observations, although perhaps not those about C+A!
    One question, did you spell xenophobia incorrectly deliberately as I cannot believe that someone so intelligent and articulate (and an English teacher) would do so. Also, I feel your pain about your Dads political stance, I have to bite my tongue almost every time I return to the UK!
    Keep on blogging!

  26. girlinczechland

    Hi there Allan,

    Thanks for the comments – it’s always nice to hear that my observations have struck a chord with someone.

    Eek! You’re right! I *did* spell xenophobia wrong! Well spotted! Or perhaps I was subconsciously trying to do my bit to make troublesome English spelling more phonetic…

    Take care and good luck with all the snow!

    GIC

  27. Funtomas

    Just recalled this post when looking at Tchibo’s offer for next week (http://www.tchibo.cz/Kompletni-vybava-na-lyze-a-snowboard-t400004429.html?wbdcd=mQx8qQfyCk&linkid=GTJTEMH-1V3BJEC-1V3GIO0-10MD10GX). Hope, you’ll find it handy and your Czechman will be happy too as the prices are reasonable.

    /tom

    • girlinczechland

      Ooh, very exciting! I think I might get laughed at if I went to work in the padded trousers though 😉 I’m seriously considering getting some snow boots this year but Czechman claims I will look either like a grandma or a Russian tourist and neither are the look I’m going for 😉
      GIC

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