Springtime thaw softens hard edge of the lethal season; MOSCOW DAYS

It has been a restless and fretful winter, and we will all be glad to see it end. Moscow has been seized by an unsettling climatic fever, a cycle of freezing and melting. A month ago it seemed to be spring, but then we were buried anew beneath a carpet of snow. Yesterday, after a weekend in which the heavens dumped four more inches on us, another thaw began.

Russians believe wildly oscillating temperatures are bad for the health because they cause flu, colds, and other nasty bugs to breed, although these seem to flourish no matter what the barometer says. My complaint is of a different kind: for five months, two pairs of second-hand cross- country skis have been sitting in the corner of our hall, the consequences of a brief flurry of determination finally to get fit.

It was going to be a wonderful winter, my wife and I told ourselves last autumn. At weekends we were going to drive out of Moscow to an old and peeling dacha which we share with friends and spend hours gliding effortlessly around the countryside, rejoicing in a fairy-tale landscape covered by powder snow.

After a month or two, we would no longer need to use the rickety lift that conveys us up to the ninth floor of our high-rise Moscow apartment block, but would be bounding up the staircase on our new, lean, skiing legs. Wobbly jaw lines and unconvincing bottoms would vanish like a May frost.

All this must now wait. It took us weeks to equip ourselves, not least because cross-country ski boots proved astonishingly hard to find; in an odd inversion of the laws of supply and demand, these are easily acquired in the summer, but seem to disappear from Moscow's shelves when the snow arrives. What with that, and the erratic weather, we have used the skis only twice.

Russians love cross-country skiing. It is deemed to be one of the pleasures of living in this hostile climate. They will enthuse about it with the same passion that they apply to hunting, ice-fishing and figure skating.

Yet, for all the disappointment at this year's poor conditions, I feel compelled to admit my brief excursions into the snowfields unlocked few of its mysterious delights; on the first, we trudged for about 500 yards into the woods, discovered we were exhausted, and walked home; on the second, I was with a colleague who was so much fitter and more agile than me that he grew tired of being held back and took off into the distance.

After marvelling at the spectacular woodlands - pines and silver birches engulfed by the hush of a fresh fall of snow - I also grew bored. Where's the sport in sliding slowly across a dead flat landscape? The skis seemed far too thin; the snow, too deep; my legs, too fat.

Next year, I have a new plan: amazingly, given that Moscow is mostly flat, you can go downhill skiing in several places in the middle of the city. Just along from Gorky Park, 10 minutes' drive from my home, the land falls down a few hundred yards towards the River Moskva. For a modest fee, downhillers can tootle up and down the hill using a small ski tow.

True, this is not St Moritz or even Aviemore, owing its pleasures more to the commanding view across the river and towards the Kremlin than to speed or exercise. But at least it is a pastime which has the merit of being fairly safe.

That is more than can be said about winter here in general. We have had our crop of routine accidents - this weekend, three fishermen died after they fell into the sea when their ice floe broke up in a storm; this year, 1,066 people in Moscow alone have been treated for frostbite, while countless more have been injured by falling over on ice, and 57 froze to death.

Goodness knows how many road accidents can be blamed on the weather; the roads, which are poorly marked and pot-holed at the best of times, are covered with an icy mucus, a mixture of salt and slush. Moscow does its best to keep the streets cleared. It sends out a snow-clearing lorry known to locals as "the Capitalist" because of its ability to suck up everything around it. But driving outside town is a nightmare.

There are also some particularly nasty unexpected perils. News broke this week of a 22-year-old student who, in a landmark case, is bringing criminal negligence charges against the Moscow city authorities after an enormous icicle came crashing down from a five-storey building, and killed her mother as she was walking in the street.

This will probably not be the last tragedy of its kind. This year the cycle of thaws and freezes has produced a particularly large crop of icicles - there were two six-footers hanging like sharks' teeth from the roof of the dacha yesterday, which occasionally shifted, giving off a loud rumble and providing another reason for us all to wish for an end to this lethal season.

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