When people ask me about where I’m from – Brazil – they expect me to talk about tropical beaches, exciting soccer games, and never-ending Carnaval parties. In other words, they want a glimpse into a magical place where one can escape the “real world,” whatever that means. That ideal place doesn’t exist – or at least it never existed to me. I come from what I deem to be the boring part of Brazil, by which I mean that I come from a normal place. It sounds a bit harsh, I know, but my upbringing took place in a town with no grand natural or historical significance to the world, and no great claim to fame. It’s very much real.
So, when people ask me about where I’m from, instead of going with the clichés of other people’s expectations, the storyteller in me feels like telling them about the snow. As far as I’m concerned, the snow is as close to magic as one can get while still in the “real world,” The fact that I wasn’t alive to witness this event only makes it better – I depend on other people’s stories to create my own. This month, the snow will celebrate its 40th anniversary. I guess if my generation keeps the story going long enough, it might just become the magic stuff of myths.
It snowed in my hometown Curitiba on July 17, 1975. The following day a newspaper would print the headline: “Curitiba, Snow White.” It’s corny, but I love it. Before then, the last snow had fallen on July 31, 1928, a light late-afternoon snowfall, remembered only through old newspaper photographs.
The day of the 1975 snow, my parents went to the movies to see Murder on the Orient Express. They didn’t know each other then; they just happened to be at the same movie showing at the same time on the same day, a little over a year before they met. They know this not because they have prodigious memories, but because the day it snowed was so remarkable that if two people from Curitiba are old enough to have witnessed the snow and start a conversation, they will sooner rather than later reach the topic of: what were you doing the day it snowed?
Curitiba is the coldest state capital in Brazil, but not the coldest city. While many other places further south can count on yearly (or almost yearly) snowfalls, Curitiba has to make do with icy, gray winters full of drizzle. This gloomy state of affairs not only describes the local weather, but the general mood of the population: the city was founded as a resting spot for cattle drovers rather than a place to set down roots. It later became a destination for European immigrants from places such as Poland, Italy and Germany. If the winter wasn’t enough to keep people at a distance from each other, then cultural and linguistic differences, as well as a lack of shared history, did the trick.
_____Question: “What does the Curitibano say when he catches his wife in bed with another man?”
_____Answer: “Nothing. He does not talk to strangers.”
Curitiba’s predisposition to coldness is the main reason why the snow of 1975 was such a big thing. When the city woke up on that Thursday morning and saw front yards covered in white, something akin to magic happened. All the frostiness in the city’s collective consciousness seemed to melt when faced with actual, real life frost. People ran outside in awe, laughing, some still in their pajamas, others dressed in as many layers as they could put on. Neighbors who rarely spoke to each other met on the street with their families, pushed each other in improvised sleds, helped collect enough snow from the gardens so that, together, they could build a snowman, offered to take pictures. Many people skipped work and were not reprimanded, since their bosses had skipped work too. In a few hours there was nowhere left in the city that still had photographic film for sale. For the space of one morning, the snowfall made Curitiba warm in a way never before experienced.
By early afternoon, the snow had melted and things went back to normal – except “normal” was an even duller, colder existence considering what people had just experienced. I guess this is why my parents, who had never seen snow before in their lives, chose to spend the afternoon at the movies; they must have needed some make-believe to make the afternoon seem less banal. When, during the film, the Orient Express gets stuck in a blizzard, I bet they both smiled: “Oh, snow? I know what that’s like!”
I spent my childhood hoping it would snow. I was not alone in my desire: there is not a winter in my memory that was not filled with weather analysis. “Will this be the year?” asked everyone, including the news. Yet, every July 17 marked another anniversary of that magical day and another year without snow. Going to school wearing boots, scarf, gloves, and a balaclava (which for some reason we called a “Joan of Arc”), I would pester my parents: “How can it not snow? It’s below freezing!” while they patiently tried to explain meteorology as best as they could to a six-year-old.
I became obsessed. As I grew older and started travelling with my parents, I began to be afraid that it would snow while I was not in Curitiba to witness it – the simple thought of it was unbearable!
In early 2013, I received the news that I had been accepted to a graduate program in New York. Other than my month in Canada, it would be the longest I would ever be away from home, two years at least. People teased me: “I bet there’ll be enough snow to satisfy even you!” and I would just smile and nod. They didn’t get it. I didn’t care about snow in New York, I cared about snow in Curitiba, and everyone was missing the point.
It was soon time to say my goodbyes to family, friends, city, country. I would be back, of course, but it would all be different – I would be different. I bought plane tickets for August, hoping to arrive early in New York and settle down before the Fall term started. I was glad to be leaving, needing the time, distance, and perspective that being abroad would provide me, but it was a bittersweet feeling. It was as if something was being left unresolved, something that was missing and could never be returned.
Then, three weeks before I left, it snowed in Curitiba.
As I write this, it is my second winter in New York. Last year was one of the coldest, snowiest winters the city had seen in decades. I had snow to last me a lifetime, just as everyone predicted. Living in the US, I feel more Brazilian than ever, which I guess is common for ex-pats. In fact, just the idea of being an ex-pat is enough to mess up the mind of someone like me, who has constructed an identity so closely related to the place where I was born and raised.
The 2013 snowfall was so brief that in the time it took me to make it down to the street from my apartment, it was over. Most curitibanos never got to see it. When people talk about the snow, they still mean 1975. But even though no collective magical moment happened, I still have my memories of watching snowflakes fall from my 14th story window while screaming on the telephone to my friend. I’m no longer the school kid who would pray for snow every winter, but there is still some of that kid in me…
I’ve never voiced this before now, but there is part of me that believes that the snow of 2013 was truly a farewell gift to me – that I conjured it up, somehow. Maybe St. Peter was giving me a break; maybe he thought it might be poetic to make it snow just as I was getting ready to leave my hometown? Or maybe it wasn’t really magic. But it was close enough for me.
Lívia Lakomy is a Brazilian journalist, writer and translator.