Michael Harding: The snow came like a fog, soft and damp, holding my face in chilly attention

Being alone in Warsaw in December is not everyone’s idea of a good holiday, but for me its streets are haunted by the peace that follows terrible suffering

I could watch snow for hours. In Warsaw before Christmas I sat at the window for days watching the red roof tiles across the street to see if they would whiten. They remained bone dry but I wasn’t disappointed. When I walked across the bridge to Praga, to visit the Romanian Orthodox cathedral, the river was unruffled and the air still and the bare trees silent in the grey light of a midwinter morning. But I knew snow was coming. The city was in a state of expectation. It was only a matter of time.

When I arrived at the cathedral the main door was closed, but I noticed a woman heading down steps and entering by a side door, so I followed her.

Down a corridor with a low ceiling, I walked behind her, and beyond the next door was a small oratory where a priest was waiting to welcome her, and so I slipped in without fuss. A scattering of people stood within, all focused on a baby in a christening shawl.

The priest was a big, good-looking man with impeccable white cuffs, a spotless black cassock and a gold watch adorning his wrist.


I presume a child was about to be baptised. I don’t know for sure because I fled the building. I don’t speak Romanian or Polish and I felt like an intruder at a private ceremony. But there was something so beautiful about the warm light illuminating the icons and the smell of candles and incense that it brought me back to times long ago when my own childhood Christmas was a wonderful refuge from the mundane.

My weather app was forecasting snow for the afternoon but there was, as yet, no sign of it. I know that being alone on the streets of Warsaw in the middle of December is not everyone’s idea of a good holiday, but for me the streets of the city are haunted by the ineffable peace that comes in the wake of terrible suffering. I walked along pathways and through parks that were once part of a ghetto, and I stopped at memorials commemorating the Warsaw Uprising, and I paused before buildings that were once administrative offices for the Gestapo. All this is hidden in plain sight and adds a strange poignancy to an otherwise thriving city bustling with families enjoying the Christmas buzz.

I walked through the Christmas market, a long straggling laneway of wooden huts selling mulled wine, sausages, jewellery and fur hats. The crowds squeezed together and held their children’s hands, and took pictures of each other sitting beside Santa Claus. He was so real that I couldn’t resist giving him a wave and indeed he waved back so I knew it was definitely him.

I was hoping to meet some sisters from a monastery in Minsk who used to come to Warsaw regularly for the Christmas market selling icons and soaps and scented candles. An accidental meeting with them on the street seven years ago still seems as close to divine intervention in my life as I’ve ever experienced. But this year I saw no trace of them. So I just dawdled along the promenade of coloured lights and furry hats and handbags, of roasting sausages and mulled wine.

And as I walked towards my apartment, it began to snow. It came without fuss or big flakes. It came like a fog, soft and damp, holding my face in chilly attention and dampening my eyelashes. I could barely see the falling except that I was cold and the salt-like particles stung my face. When I reached the apartment I went to the window and pulled back the lace curtain and sat staring out.

I had excluded myself from someone’s christening and felt a bit sad to have missed out on all that consoling silence that permeates Orthodox churches. And I felt disappointed that I couldn’t find the good sisters from the convent in Minsk on the streets. I would have probably bought another icon from them to mark the joy of just being in their company again.

But as I looked up from my window, I saw that the red tiles on the building across the street were completely white and a soft and thick covering of snow had settled on the streets. If I was a six-year-old child I might accept snow as a miracle and testify to the possibility of angels singing above the white roof. And I suppose in many ways I still am that child.