I had a dream the other night that was so vivid it had me waking up gasping for air. I dreamt that I had moved back to Germany, and was looking at houses, a refugee from the US, running back to safety. I have had dreams about being back in Germany, and also the UK, over the years, but never before did I experience such an urgent desire for safety. In previous dreams, moving back had always happened for other reasons. This time, it felt different. And then it dawned on me: of course, our governor had just made this insane announcement the previous day.
Texans have been through a lot over the last couple of weeks. But Tuesday’s news felt like the icing on the cake. Which is totally the wrong idiom for this, but I can’t come up with another one, as my brain still seems to be a little frozen from the Snowpocalypse. Which also appears to be the case with the brain of our governor, Greg Abbott, who announced in a dramatic tweet that from 10th March, Texas was to be 100% open for business, and that the mask mandate was to be lifted. No more masks! What?! Masks weren’t going to disappear for a while, even once everybody has been vaccinated, or had I missed something? When I first saw the tweet, I though it was a joke, that somebody had hacked his account, probably a 10-year-old boy, judging by the weirdly childlike, simplistic phrasing (which isn’t fair to 10-year-old boys; I apologise). But of course it wasn’t a joke. Texans are tough. And Texans will tell everybody who does or doesn’t want to know that they are tough.
It seems that the extreme weather, our “snomageddon” that recently crushed this state hasn’t been kind to our already dubious Texas politicians. First, there was our senator, Ted Cruz, swanning off to Cancun with his family, amidst utter chaos and despair in his state, and then, instead of accepting this idiotic decision and apologizing, he blamed it on his kids “who he needed to take care of, as a father”. Give me a break.
Texas is still reeling from the impact of the winter storm, and it will take months for the damage to be repaired. We were “lucky”, with only one burst water pipe, directly located above our garage, with no further damage to our house (a plumber is working on fixing everything properly as I type this), but there were numerous people who didn’t fare so well.
It all started out as a fun, never-before-experienced couple of days, with walks through knee deep powder around the neighbourhood, bright sunshine and blue skies, our dog deliriously happy without a lead, running alongside me, as I joined others in sledding down hills on plastic bags. We tired ourselves out, returned home for some hot drinks. And then the power went and didn’t come back. The city had announced they were doing “rolling blackouts”, turning every household’s power off for an hour here or there, in order to preserve enough power to keep Austin going. And abysmally failed.
It’s not an experience I’m in a rush to repeat, but on a primal level, it was also interesting. At first I thought I’d be doing some exercise, some yoga stretches and push ups, to stay warm. But my body didn’t agree – and my mind was unable to persuade it to comply. My body was clearly telling me to conserve my energy, that all energy was needed to stay warm, and it was perfectly capable of doing so without additional stress such as exercise, thank you very much. At its lowest point, the temperature inside our house dropped to 4° Celsius (39° F), and only the fact that we have a gas stove in the kitchen so we could make hot tea and cook the (almost unaffected but still slowly melting) items from the fridge and freezer saved us from utter despair. I even made my favourite Northern German/Danish dessert, Rote Grütze, which I enjoyed with large quantities of homemade vanilla ice cream and Basque cheesecake, and our dinners huddled by candlelight, surrounded by the pets in front of our bijou fireplace will definitely be remembered. Yes, after five years in this house, we finally braved the wonky flue and lit a fire. Luckily, we had a couple of logs left over from making pizza the other day, but it wasn’t going to last very long. That’s when the neighbourhood community spirit was summoned, and I asked on Next Door if somebody close by had any firewood going. They did, and I grabbed a couple of carrier bags and embarked on a crunchy, slippery three-mile trek through ice and snow, feeling rather pioneer-ish. Unfortunately, I returned home to a burst water pipe, and my hopes of being celebrated as the heroine of the day were squashed amidst gushing water and rising panic that the ceiling would cave in and crash down onto our car. Of course, that meant no water, and by day four, we were so cold and miserable that we spent most of the day taking turns sitting in the car to warm up. S was literally working in his car for most of the time anyway, but coming back into a freezing house for cups of tea (now made from melted snow) wasn’t exactly a pick-me-up. We still couldn’t get out of our drive, which was more than frustrating, as the main roads were slowly looking a bit clearer.
Day five was a very slow start. We were cold. Any sense of stoicism and ability to see the humorous side was slowly dissipating, but with the ice having melted enough outside, we managed to escape and take a blissful hot shower at a friend’s house. We then decided to drown our sorrow in Margaritas at our local Mexican restaurant, and as we drove back home, we saw lights in various neighbourhood windows. And indeed, as we turned the corner into our drive, our house was greeting us with light, warmth and very happy pets. The power was back. Miraculously, a plumber was able to put a temporary cap on our pipe, and so we had water again, too.
I was blown away by the strong sense of community spirit – Americans doing what they do best. There was a woman about to go into labour, who was rescued by a kind soul with a 4×4, who braved the roads and took her to hospital, only to spend the rest of the day running errands, picking up food, and carting elderly residents to safety. Police were out knocking on people’s doors to check they were alright, and the number of people who had their power come back on early opened their homes to those still without. No questions asked. Volunteers rescued frozen turtles from the lakes, and motels were turned into emergency shelters for Austin’s huge homeless population. People completely unaffected by the cold started cooking meals for those in need, neighbours helped neighbours fix pipes, lending power tools and muscle power to remove fallen trees, and the general sense of “we can do this together” was palpable. A few stories made it into the press, such as this couple taking in a stranded delivery driver. Americans are used to the authorities failing them. And Texans are tough.
And now that stupid, shocking tweet, amidst all the chaos. Though in true Austin style, fury soon turned into pragmatic rebelliousness, and more and more businesses and leaders in our town are proclaiming they will continue to adhere to the CDC’s guidelines and require masks on their premises. The Austin community remains a force to be reckoned with.
Texans are tough.