They say Inuits have a bottomless vocabulary for ice and snow—and I’m sure they do—but so do we.
Apart from the default snjór, we have hrím, héla, hjarn, fjúk, drífa, mjöll, hagl, él, haglél, hundslappadrífa, snaer, fönn, hríd, púdursnjór and for more casual use jólasnjór and snjóboltasnjór. There are probably many more words for snow that I just can’t think of right now.
Each of these words describes the character or quality of the falling snow and/or the snow covering the ground, though some are just for poetic diversity. Some can double as human names, like Mjöll (f), Drífa (f), Fönn (f – Fannar is the male version) and Snaer (m). Many Icelandic names also have the prefix Snae-, Snjó- and Fann-.
By this you can tell that our lives here on this icy rock are dominated by snow to a great extent—according to the old Icelandic calendar, Iceland has six months of winter—so having many words for the phenomenon was important for conversing, communicating and in some cases, surviving.
Of all the different types of snow, slabb is the worst. The word really says it all: sticky, dirty, treacherous and wet. Slabb or “slush” is created in times of hláka (“thaw”), after a sudden rise in temperature and more so when rain falls into a layer of snow. In a second, that bright and cheerful winter wonderland transforms into a slushy pool filled with ice-cold water.
I realize that slabb is necessary in spring or else there would be eternal winter, but when I have to endure it repeatedly throughout winter—whenever the weather gods feel like having a laugh at our expense—my otherwise positive attitude takes a downturn. As I mentioned in an earlier column, I am committed to cycling or walking to work, so when there is slabb, I just have to deal with it.
You might think wearing the right gear, like rubber boots and a rain suit, might be a good way to fight slabb, and you would be right, but the weather changes so quickly in Iceland that if I were to prepare to every type of weather forecast for one day, I couldn’t possibly carry all the necessary clothing with me in my back pack (which is already filled with my sweat suit and sneakers for the gym).
Also, with the type of slabb and hláka I was faced with while walking home from work last Friday afternoon, rubber boots and rain suits just wouldn’t have cut it.
It was pouring rain. Or “pouring” may not be the right word to describe it, because the rain wasn’t falling straight down from the sky, it was blowing in sideways with an unbelievable force. A full-blown rainstorm it was, with raindrops as cold as ice piercing your skin wherever they found a crack in your outfit.
The previous days had seen a record amount of snowfall, so Reykjavík must have been covered with an almost 0.5-meter-thick blanket of snow—a truly unusual sight in Iceland’s capital—except in places that were cleared of snow. But as the flakes kept falling, such efforts did not rid the sidewalks fully of their wintry blankets.
Mix that with rising temperatures and liters and liters of rainwater and you’ll have the recipe for prime slabb. The snow was melting so fast that small streams of water were flowing down the sidewalks and between them was a wet and slippery layer of ice. If I had walked on the ice I could have stayed drier, but out of two evils I chose the slabb and water (letting out a gasp at every step because the water was so cold) because with the raging storm, every gust of wind would have caused me to lose footing on the ice.
There weren’t many pedestrians around, not a single one in fact, but cars sped by, straight into the giant pools of water by the edge of the road, making sure to give me an icy shower in addition to my frosty foot bath. My mobile rang and while answering I tried to find shelter from the wind and keep it from getting wet. It was my boyfriend. “Where are you?” he said in a worried voice. “They just said on the TV that it is foolhardy being out in this weather.” I assured him that I was fine, and since I was just around the corner from our house, would make it home in one piece.
I prepared for braving the rainstorm once again, when I car stopped beside me. “Would you like a ride?” a smiling Domino’s pizza delivery boy said in an eastern-European accent. An immigrant of course. Probably Polish. Despite the biting cold I felt warm inside. “Thank you for your kind offer, but I’m just around the corner from my house,” I told him. “It just looked like you could use some help,” he said and drove off with his pizza.
When I finally made it home, I noticed that not only my coat (which goes down to my knees), shoes and socks were soaking wet, but also the legs of my trousers, all the way up to my upper thighs. It looked like I had been wading in a river, and come to think of it, wading boots like salmon fishers use would have been the only proper gear on that “slabby” afternoon.
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