Czech Culture & Adaptation Travel Winter

Wrapped in white

November 18, 2011
Smog weather

A winter wonderland or a serious pollution crisis?

When I looked out our bedroom window Monday morning into the pre-dawn darkness, I was surprised to see whiteness everywhere. Although it was still dark, I could make out a low-hanging sheet of fog so thick I couldn’t see beyond our neighbor’s house. The lawns were filled with white-covered grass, ice-laden trees and frosty bushes. As the sun rose, our garden exploded into icy prisms of reflected color. It was beautiful.

Afraid that the fairytale would soon disappear, I called the children down to look. As they oohed and aahed, I didn’t stop to think much about the significance of the pervasive fog that seeped toward the house. Instead, I bundled Anna into her winter gear and sent her out the door to school. Oliver asked me if he could go outside and lick the frost off the swing set slide. He’d tried it before and thought it tasted good. Since he was recovering from a simultaneous case of tonsillitis and the chicken pox, my answer was a decisive no. Except for Radek and Anna, none of us left the house that day. It felt like winter, with below zero temperatures and whiteness around. Although I’d expected the fog to burn off as the day got underway, it didn’t. It was still there the following morning and the one after that, which seemed strange. It wasn’t until I took a break from playing nursemaid and read the news that I realized my “winter wonderland” was smog-induced.

The news was disappointing and more than slightly worrisome. Although I’ve long-known that the air in Prague isn’t top quality, this fact becomes most visible when temperatures drop. Industrial and transportation pollution as well as coal sourced winter-heating make the months from November to March the city’s least appealing. Gray, overcast skies are a winter-staple and inverze (inversion) is commonly believed to account for a variety of health-related complaints from headaches to asthma and respiratory illnesses. Winter weekend excursions out of the smog-infested city air to the mountains are common respites for Czechs, who incidentally, excel at a variety of winter sports. Getting out of the city seems to be the method of recourse for many Czechs, regardless of the season.

When I lived in Prague’s Vinohrady and Žižkov districts, I remember feeling a particular burn in my throat on certain foggy winter mornings that I walked from my apartment through the city to my language school near Karlovo náměstí. Little did I know, it was a thick wall of smog I was walking through. I did think that walking past lines of trams, buses and ordinary cars stalled in traffic was probably doing more harm to my lungs by extending them in the polluted air than the benefits I might gain from getting a dose of aerobic activity. Still, most mornings I walked. The alternative, riding public transportation where heating vents blew hot air onto warmly-dressed passengers creating an environment akin to a public sweathouse, wasn’t appealing either. Once we moved back to Prague with our infant daughter, I began to think more carefully about where and when I walked in the winter months. Although I still preferred walking over taking public transportation, when I saw the black exhaust pipes blowing fumes right at stroller level, I opted to confine my walking to the city’s parks and its quieter, neighborhood streets. When we visited Radek’s family in Jablonec, the air, at least in the nearby Jizerské mountains seemed notably clearer.

Now, after several years of living outside the city, I perceive the air my family breathes as relatively clean. We live near several ponds and forest paths and it’s common to see wildlife, large rabbits, pheasants and scores of smaller birds living in the fields near our house. On the same morning that I first noticed the fog, I watched a pheasant walk straight down the middle of our neighborhood street before turning and heading for the field. He didn’t seem to notice the frost. Despite my sense that we’re living healthier lives spending plenty of time exploring the outdoors, during the winter months when I exercise outside, I still experience the same, sharp burning in my lungs that I used to when I lived in the city. Although most of our neighbors use electric or wood to heat, there are still enough homes in the older part of the village heated by coal that it’s impossible to avoid the odor.

One of my neighbors, originally from Ostrava, reminded me that the pollution situation in many villages throughout the country, including his heavily-industrial hometown, is even worse than in Prague. He’d taken his son for a visit to his hometown the weekend before the smog hit the city. Within a few minutes of the child’s arrival, he’d begun coughing. After two days, they realized that the boy had contracted pneumonia. Although it was difficult to prove, they believed the poor quality air he’d breathed in Ostrava had directly contributed to the illness. There is evidence to believe that they are right. Current research indicates that children who grow up in environments where coal is used for heating tend to be shorter than their peers. Shorter children have more health problems than their taller peers.

After spending an active weekend, running and walking outdoors in brisk, sunny weather, I hadn’t given much thought to the drastic weather change on Monday morning. Living in Prague for several years, I’ve gotten used to the fact that most of the time, the weather is unpredictable. My mother’s mantra on her visits, usually in October and March, is: “When you see the sun shine in Prague, go outside and enjoy it.” She believes the sun doesn’t shine as much in Prague as it should, so whenever we’re inside on a nice day, she shoos us out the door.

When I finally had a chance to sit down and read the news, however, meteorological experts cautioned against spending time outdoors during this smog-filled week. Children and the elderly were warned to stay indoors. Up to four times the regular pollution levels have been recorded, and the smog, which has been concentrated in industrial regions of the country as well as the capital city is expected to continue for several more days.

Although it was the children’s illnesses and not the dangers of the smog that kept us inside for most of the past week, I was relieved in retrospect that we hadn’t ventured out, for our own health and from the environmental perspective of keeping at least one extra car off the road. It was a quiet week at home, and not all together bad. Focusing my efforts on keeping the children warm, fed and entertained gave a simple rhythm to my days that is often missing when I rush from one place to the next without taking the time to slow down. This weekend, we are heading for the Jizerské mountains and hoping to hike and catch a glimpse of sunshine. The pollution problem in Prague isn’t going away anytime soon, and it will be up to the city’s residents to recognize the gravity of the situation and react accordingly. Otherwise, sunny days in winter may become even more of a rarity than they already are.

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