From an enchanting writer new to Britain: The exquisite joy of my first snowfall!
So that’s what snow looks like. On Saturday night, standing at my window, I did not at once recognise what that white stuff was gathering all over the kerbs and cars.
It looks like the world’s being frosted, I thought. And then I realised — it’s exactly that. I pressed my nose against the pane and saw, through the dark, my first flakes falling.
When I was young and growing up in the tropics, most of the books I read were set in Britain.
Alien environment: Clarissa Tan didn't recognise the 'white stuff' that fell on kerbs and cars over the weekend
Temperate: In Singapore, where Clarissa lived, however, the climate extremely warm all year round
The children on the pages had summer picnics and autumn bonfires; in winter, young sleuths tracked suspicious footprints left in snow.
I found all this deeply exotic, for the reality around me was very different. Nobody went for picnics because the weather was far too hot and humid, lighting a bonfire was unthinkable and ‘snow’ came either in the form of cotton wool or from an aerosol can.
It was only after arriving in Britain half a year ago that I experienced autumn and winter — and the lapsing of one into the other — for the first time.
In Singapore, where I lived, there are no seasons. The climate is extremely warm all year round. Daylight and twilight arrive at the same times every day.
Trees are steadfastly green, and fruit and flowers grow lush and luxuriant from January to December. There, the sun is not something to be courted — if you took a walk outdoors, you’d scurry about from shade to shade, avoiding its powerful rays.
First flow of the seasons: Clarissa watched in wonder, then worry, as the leaves began falling from the trees during autumn
I find the flow of the seasons beautiful and somewhat unsettling. In autumn I watched in awe as trees all over London blazed into reds and yellows.
But my wonder turned into a vague worry when their leaves started falling and the trees’ ‘arms’ showed, shorn of their dressings. How mournful, I thought. Yet —how beautiful it made the ground.
Parks and pavements became carpeted in gold as all around, leaves wafted down.
I was moved by little things: one day I saw a black cab turn the corner at Russell Square in London and I stopped in my tracks, startled by the spiral of amber leaves in its wake.
At a certain moment, it seemed to me, everyone in Britain became alert to an unspoken common call. Out came scarves and boots and long coats, mitts and gloves and woolly hats. Jackets got puffier, jumpers thicker.
London cyclists, in one accord, became bulky figures hunched over flashing metal. Dishes got heartier and soups brighter, tinged by pumpkin and carrot and squash.
Come October everyone, in syncopation, set back their clocks by one hour. A kind of rite of winter was being performed, I realised.
Unspoken common call: All at once, jackets got puffier and jumpers thicker
I was impressed by the sense of national coordination, as well as gripped by new and trivial anxieties.
did not know what to wear. Or, rather, I knew what to wear but not how
to wear it. I come from a land of perpetual sun, where T-shirts, shorts,
sandals and even flip-flops are acceptable all-year-round gear unless
you’re stepping into an office.
wear here in Britain is elegant, but I found it troubling on some
fronts. I understood the concept of layers, but its execution was more
How many times
have I shrugged into my coat and strode out of my home, only to discover
after a few steps that I was shivering because I’d forgotten a crucial
stratum of clothing — the jumper that goes on top of my top but under my
Or risen sleepily and pulled on my pullover, only to realise that I should have struggled into a shirt first
knee-high boots, I have discovered, is useless unless you’ve also
bought knee-high socks. Not used to winter clothes, I don’t feel like
they’re a second skin to me, the way most Brits obviously do.
Luxury: Clarissa says she loves to walk for hours through London in winter, along a route that passes the National Gallery (behind fountain) and St Martin-in-the-Fields church (right)
I feel self-conscious. Why does everyone’s scarf fall so naturally and stylishly while mine looks like a noose
Still, as the weeks pass, I find myself more in step with the weather.
Winter can be great for walks. On weekends I walk for hours, never breaking into a sweat; this for me is luxury. I have no map, no destination — I follow the course of the sun. In the cold months, it gives off a beautiful light but little heat. How strange it feels to be chasing the sun!
I track it towards Charing Cross and watch its beams slide over the church of St Martin-in-the-Fields. When its light falls on the National Gallery, I am there.
I pursue its trail across Trafalgar Square, its long line all the way down the Mall. Then, from a blue bridge in St James’s Park, I see its pink rays disappear behind Buckingham Palace.
It’s when you’re shivering, hobbling along gusty streets at this time of year, that you understand the British pub a little better.
I’ve always felt awkward in pubs and still do, not having been brought up in a beer culture.
Yet it’s just dawned on me that they’re more than places in which to drink: they’re little bulwarks against the cold, especially when there is a carpet of snow outside as there was yesterday.
In a pub you find your friends, sometimes a fire, definitely heat, lots of snug wood. Pubs are cubbyholes where people exchange warmth and hug huge mugs of golden liquid while everything is grey outside.
Bulwarks against the cold: Pubs are cubbyholes where people exchange warmth and hug huge mugs of golden liquid
And curry — of course, the British love curry. It’s spicy and warming and even comes in cheering orangey shades. In fact, I think curries taste better in the UK, due to the comfort factor, than they do in Singapore or even India.
Sometimes I miss the tropics. I miss the predictable warmth, the languid afternoons, the joy of knowing you can dive into a swimming pool at any time, night or day.
Yet there’s something in the passing of the seasons, something that stirs me. It’s grand. It is the whirl of time — a tangible, giant display of the cycle of life.
It makes me feel small in the scheme of things, but in a way that frees me rather than fills me with fear. Nothing is for ever, the seasons turn, and that is liberating. The harshest period, the bleakest hours — could they be any bleaker this year than they were on Saturday night — these, too, shall pass.
I’ve been worrying, too, about growing old. I turned 40 in January and now contemplate the ever-shortening line of my time left.
One day I will wake up to find that I walk slower, stoop lower, can see more of my gums. My hands will be old and gnarled like the branches of a bare tree.
Yet after the initial puzzlement — that first shock of the strange — confronting actual bare, gnarled trees brings relief. It’s my fear materialised, and it’s not so bad.
The trick may be to slide along with the seasons and not resist.
On Saturday night, I watched the fudge of white thickening over everything. It didn’t look like cotton wool at all. I put on my layers and stepped outside.
Children at a nearby park were whooping and lobbing snowballs. Near the steps to my building, a chattering couple was busy fashioning a snowman.
I found myself laughing — my breath fresh steam in black air.
Then I stamped my own footprints, one after another, in the snow and looked up to let the flakes settle lightly on my face.