Greetings from Amsterdam! I’m here for the Storytelling Festival, which takes place every year in the hospitable and welcoming month of November. I write to you wearing long johns, trousers, two pairs of socks, a T shirt, roll neck jumper, long wool cardigan, cashmere wrist-warmers, woolly hat, and a cotton blanket wrapped around my lower half. I am indoors. You’d think after living here for almost six years, two of those without central heating, I would have known. But the mind is a funny thing. It thinks it remembers, but it doesn’t really. Like childbirth (I have heard), I have banished the reality of the Amsterdam cold in order to fool myself into thinking that I can handle it again.
It certainly doesn’t help that I have transposed my outdoor swimming habit into the Amsterdam canals. This is something I started doing fairly seriously only this year. I have always loved swimming outside. I’ve tried to persuade myself that I enjoy swimming indoors too, but the stench of chlorine, cramped lanes, and close-up encounters with strangers’ veruca feet crush all the joy out of it for me. What I haven’t historically embraced is cold water, but I began swimming more regularly during the semi-locked-down months of the swim and summer, and as the seasons started to turn towards autumn I realised that I didn’t want to stop. And it turns out that I love cold water - I really do. Nothing invigorates like it. If you are a habitual swimmer you don’t get that awful full-body cringe as you get in, and the cold water tingles, then burns, and then - and really this is where I am doing myself no favours, Amsterdam-wise - your core body temperature lowers and you become one with the water, bobbing along like a penguin or an ice cube and trying to time it just right so that you remember to get out again before you get hypothermia. I can tell I am really selling this.
Despite what non-swimmers might imagine, getting out is actually worse than getting in. Somehow in the water the cold is delicious. Maybe it’s because it all blends together with the pleasure of gliding along, the sun (if you’re lucky) glinting on the surface, watching the aquatic birds and taking in the peace and the beauty of the surroundings. My canal of choice here is lined by houseboats along one side, with a row of tall red brick warehouses peering over the top, while on the other side, exotically, is the zoo. The other day my swim was accompanied by the sound of trumpeting elephants, though they were both sensible and enclosed enough not to join me. Once you get out, though, with that core body temperature that only minutes ago it felt like a great idea to lower, you’re just skin and bone and inadequate layers of fat (compared to, say, a walrus), a stupid bare human by the side of the road in your knickers and bra, icy wind whistling past you, trying to get dressed as quickly as possible with numb fingers that simply will not cooperate. And when I say stupid, I do mean stupid. I think all the blood leaves my brain in order to keep my body warm (or “warm”), and simple things like remembering which items of clothing go on first become beyond me. All I can think is hot shower hot shower hot shower, and the seven-minute cycle ride home may as well be a marathon.
The bathroom where I am staying has underfloor heating, an invention that is up there with the wheel, and it’s tempting just to lie on the ground and refuse to move for the rest of the day. Suddenly I understand why every Finnish home has a sauna. Sadly my bedroom, where my desk is also located, is converted from one of the storage rooms found at the top of every Amsterdam building and is not as well insulated as the flat downstairs, where the thermostat is located. I am staying with a kind but ascetic yoga enthusiast who works in sustainability, has plastic wrap over his windows (but not, alas, over mine) and habitually keeps the temperature at 18 degrees - in his warmer part of the apartment. I don’t have my own thermostat so after a day or two I had to have a gentle word, and he has nudged it up a little, though with every degree I can see his heart breaking as the planet burns. This is why, while I would love to write more, I need to go now, and add a third pair of socks instead.