Monday, February 21, 2011

Your Body Just Hurts, And Other Cold-Weather Hazards, Part II

 Manhole covers are the worst.”
Scottish Janine

Warsaw sure looks pretty under a blanket of snow.  But I’ll have to admire it looking out the window because it’s 5°F outside, and says it “feels like” -4°F.  Accordingly I’ve struck all nonessential outdoor activities off my Warsaw to-do list. “Get some Polish kielbasa” is the only remaining item. 

In fact I’ve stayed in quite a bit writing, watching DVDs like The Big Lebowski and The Pianist, and surfing the net for things I’ve been wondering about as of late.  Like, what's the difference anyway between the Warsaw Pact and the Warsaw Convention?  

The turn in the weather also inspired me to finish off Part II of Your Body Just Hurts, And Other Cold-Weather Hazards.  Here it is; a list of nine so-called hazards I’ve encountered along the way:

1.  The St. Petersburg Slip-And-Slide

St. Isaac's Cathedral
St. Petersburg has a lot of grand churches and cathedrals, so it seems only fitting that I would walk around praying a lot.  God, I would ask, please don’t let me fall down and shatter a kneecap.  Technically, He did answer that particular prayer because I didn’t fall down and shatter a kneecap, at least not in the conjunctive sense.  But I did fall down—four times—all within the first few days.  This prompted me to create a chart in my journal entitled, simply, “Fall Count.”

The problem was, I couldn’t distinguish between the real slippery, fall-provoking ice and just the regular kind that you can walk on and still stay upright.  I do recall someone in Los Angeles telling me to “watch out for black ice,” but looking back, I feel that was not a particularly helpful warning.  I think the reason black ice is so insidious in the first place is precisely because you can't spot it until it is too late.

The first time I fell was at an intersection where the busy Nevsky and Ligovsky Prospects in St. Petersburg meet.  This is also when I first discovered that flailing one’s arms and shrieking does nothing to help prevent a fall.  But it does get people’s attention, which may be followed by a helping hand, as was the case with the first fall.

The new Galeria in St. Petersburg
On the second fall I wasn’t so fortunate.  I was making my way down to the new Galeria one evening when a patch of ice sent me careening on my right hip like I was sliding into home.  Two approaching teenage boys watched me go down and I just assumed they would stop and help me get up.   Instead they just stepped over me and kept walking.  I think that surprised me more than the fall did.  After they passed by I lay there for a second, taking stock of the situation.  Then I did the only thing I could do, which was to roll over on the frozen ice, crawl on my knees a few inches to a place where I could get some better traction, and pull myself up.  The whole thing left me sore and embarrassed, but at least my bones were still intact.

I suppose the third and fourth stumbles were technically half-falls.  Imagine “taking a knee,” but real hard and unexpectedly, and on the same spot both times.  Thankfully my kneecap didn't shatter either time, and that’s how I know God loves me. 

2.  Manhole Covers Are The Worst  

One day, back at the hostel, I had been complaining to Scottish Janine about the St. Petersburg slips-and-slides.  She assured me that things would get better because with time I would naturally come to recognize where it was safe to step and where it was not.  Then she issued a warning that I'm certain has saved me from disaster on many an occasion.  “Manhole covers are the worst,” I recall her saying, and ever since then I've avoided them like Rain Man sidestepping sidewalk cracks.

I don’t know the science behind it, but apparently manhole covers in wintertime are particularly treacherous.  I myself have taken some unexpected skids across a few, and even though I managed to remain upright, each time I nearly had a heart attack. 

I recently Googled “slippery manhole covers” and discovered that they are, in fact, a longtime, dangerous phenomenon the world over.  Taking just one example, I found this hundred-year old letter to the editor, entitled, aptly, "Slippery Manhole Covers:”

            To the Editor of the New York Times:

Permit me to call attention to the dangers imposed upon pedestrians by the negligence and carelessness of property owners to care for the manhole covers on the sidewalks in front of their premises.  In all instances the covers are of iron and in most cases very well worn, rendering a slippery, smooth surface.  To add to this, most of the covers are of the convex style, with a rounded elevation.  It is rather dangerous to step on such a cover on clear days, but when it comes to snowy weather the snow on the cover is so deceiving as to make a victim of the most careful and cautious.

--Benjamin Schwartz, Brookyln, N.Y., Feb. 26, 1914

I'm guessing Benjamin could never have imagined that his letter to the editor would be reprinted in an internet blog called Travelarity almost one hundred years later, but there it is.

3.  Missing the Sights/A Crick in the Neck

Typical snow-covered sidewalk near my hostel
These two hazards really go together.  Sadly, what I remember most about Russia are not the grand avenues and eye-pleasing onion domes, but the sight of my two feet, moving one in front of the other, on the sludgy-snowy-ice-covered sidewalks directly ahead.  For weeks I walked around with my head down, walking at a turtle's pace, watching for “black ice” and other potential unsafe conditions.  Every so often I would pause to look up at my surroundings, and this would help to alleviate the semi-permanent crick in my neck developed over the days and weeks.  It wasn’t until I got to Kiev—where the weather was warmer and the sidewalks clearer—that I could actually take in the sights while walking upright at a normal pace.  Unfortunately here in Warsaw, the downward gaze is back, and my neck is killing me again.

4.  Icicle Impalement

Example of hanging icicles--and these are small ones.
Before leaving the U.S., I read somewhere that tourists to Russia should look out for falling objects; namely, icicles and old stucco.  I had forgotten all about this until one day I was lingering on a street corner near The Hermitage trying to decipher a tourist information sign when a man approached me and began speaking excitedly in Russian.  I looked at him confusedly and said, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand; I speak only English.”  Then he made a gesture with his hands, like “shoo, shoo,” away from where I was standing.  Still perplexed, I thought, what in the hell is this guy’s problem?  Finally he pointed to something above my head.  I looked up to see a row of icicles suspended dangerously from a ledge above, ready to impale me at any second.  I’ve since learned that last year in St. Petersburg, falling icicles killed five and injured 150 more.  Looking back I realize this man may have saved my life and I don’t even know his name.

5.  Ice Chunks Pushed Off Rooftops

In a related vein, in Russia it is a common sight to see people on top of huge buildings shoveling snow and ice onto the ground far below.  I was told they do this to prevent roofs from caving under the weight of snow, or water seeping into people’s homes.  Of course this creates new and different hazards for the people—like me—walking past below.  Sure, before the workers start their shoveling they first cordon off the sidewalk with plastic tape, but that doesn’t prevent stray chunks of ice from landing elsewhere, as was the case when one such piece of ice landed just inches from my head while I waited at a bus stop, a good distance from the plastic tape, incidentally.

Later I read with interest an article in The St. Petersburg Times (the Russian one, not the Florida one), about a poor Estonian woman studying in St. Petersburg who was hit by falling ice.  She spent nine months in a coma and, at the time of the article, was rehabilitating in a German hospital.  She could only blink, raise her eyebrows, nod, and smile.

She sued for $1.6 million but the jury awarded only 84,000 rubles—or about $2800--which barely even touched her medical expenses.  The court did find the city maintenance worker negligent, but she received only a 6-month suspended sentence and got to keep her job. 

The take-away:  if a large chunk of ice negligently tossed from a tall Russian building happens to land on your head, basically you're screwed.

6.  The Devil Went Down To Georgia

A few weeks back I was walking in the center of L’viv, Ukraine on my way to my morning-writing coffee shop when The Devil Went Down To Georgia popped up on my i-Shuffle.  I don’t know about you, but that’s a song that can really put some extra exuberance in my step, and I just get progressively more animated as it goes along.  That’s what was happening on this day.  I was bouncing along listening to Charlie Daniels sing:

Johnny you rosin up your bow and play your fiddle hard
'Cuz hell's broke loose in Georgia and the Devil deals the cards
And if you win you get this shiny fiddle made of gold
But if you lose the Devil gets your soul

It was at that moment when a slippery patch of ice took my right foot by surprise, and hell broke loose in Ukraine.  I went skidding across the cobblestones right near some very famous Catholic church.  Again, with arms flailing, I couldn't help but scream “Oh my God!”  I didn’t fall that time, thankfully.  But I did look up and think, is this what I get for enjoying a song about the Devil?

7.  Constantly In A Fog

I wear glasses, and have noticed that when I enter a building from being out in the cold, my glasses immediately fog up.  It happens too when I pull my scarf up around my mouth and nose to keep warm—I guess my hot breath rises up and fogs my glasses.  Again, I don't know the science behind it.  But I do know that walking around blind in this way makes it quite difficult to watch for black ice, falling icicles, and errant snow chunks. 

8.  Contact Lenses Sticking To Eyeballs

This is perhaps an irrational hazard that I invented.  Basically—even though it could potentially eliminate Hazard Number 7, above—I was afraid to wear my contacts in Russia because I imagined they might freeze to my eyeballs.  Before leaving Los Angeles I voiced this fear to a colleague at work.  She tried her best to convince me that my body temperature would keep the contacts from freezing on my eyes, and that did make sense to me at the time.  But when I got to Russia I decided not to chance it.  Because really I cannot think of any worse cold-weather hazard than having contact lenses frozen to my eyeballs in a place like Russia where I wouldn't even be able to tell someone what the problem is.

9.  Cold-Weather, Filthy Self-Talk

Technically this isn’t a hazard, but it’s somewhat related and I think worth a mention.  If kids are reading, stop here.

There’s something about traveling solo in freezing cold weather that makes me talk to myself more than usual.  And the colder it is, it seems the more obscenities I use.  Often when I walk outside and get that shocking blast of cold air, I’ll say things out loud to myself like, “Can it be any more f*@king freezing?” or “It’s cold as a bitch out here!”  Sometimes I just mutter an abbreviated, “Ho-ly shit.

I know, it's something I need to work on.  And finally, here's why I don't go ice skating: