The winter’s first cold front took hold of Joburg this weekend. The sky is bright and clear and a constant, bone-chilling wind is blowing. The current temperature, at 11:39 a.m., is 7° C (45° F). The predicted low tonight is 0° C.

During the months of June and July, Joburgers whine about the cold. We whine constantly and without shame. We sleep more because our beds are the only places we can achieve a modicum of warmth, huddled under duvets in flannel pajamas, sweaters, and two pairs of socks. We don’t go out after dark unless it is absolutely necessary. We wear gloves indoors. We shiver and curse.

Even the Melville Cat has surrendered to the cold. He’s hardly left the couch all weekend, and hasn’t brought me a single dead rat. Probably because the rats are hibernating.

Like everyone else in Joburg, Smokey is depressed about the weather change.

I know what you northerners are thinking — that two years in Africa have turned me into a cold-weather wimp. I used to think like you. Jon would complain to me about the Joburg cold and I would say, “Come on, 40° is nothing. Come to D.C. in February sometime, then you’ll feel what REAL winter is like.”

Then I moved here. I arrived on the 6th of August, at the end of Joburg’s winter. I learned quickly.

August 10, 2010. My first cold night in Jozi.

You see, it’s not really the cold that’s the problem here. It’s the heat. Or lack thereof. South African houses aren’t heated. The words “heat pump” and “thermostat” mean nothing to the average Joburger. Neither do the words “storm window” or “double-glazing”.

For those of you living in the American Northeast: To get a sense of what winter feels like here, imagine the first cold day of autumn. A cold front has just blown in. You come home after work to a cold, dark house. It’s freezing inside, so you scurry around shutting windows, and then you switch on the thermostat. You hear a satisfying whoosh of air. You sit down, shivering, and wait to warm up.

Now imagine that same scenario, except you aren’t able to shut the windows and there is no thermostat to turn on. All you can do is plug in the “panel heater” — a one-meter-square metal panel affixed to the wall, which emits such a scant amount of warmth that it’s almost laughable. You can turn on your electric space heater or your portable gas heater, but those are temporary fixes. You’ll have to turn them off again before you go to sleep. So you shiver, curse, put on all the clothes you own, and go to bed.

Now imagine living this way, day-in day-out, for two-and-a-half months. That’s winter in Joburg.

There is one redeeming thing about the first Jozi cold front of the year: the sky. The last two evenings — as the freezing temperatures blew in on the backs of scattered clouds — we’ve been treated to glorious sunsets. I took a few photos from my back yard on Friday evening.

I’m not a meteorologist so I won’t try to explain what is happening with these clouds. I just know they are really really beautiful, and the weather they brought with them is really really cold.

Pink sky and pink magnolias. For some reason, the magnolia tree at the Lucky 5 Star likes to bloom in winter. The tree is hemispherically challenged.

The sky was most dramatic 20 minutes after the sun set (which happens at about 5:30 this time of year). A few minutes later it was pitch-dark and cold.

At least we have pretty sunsets to look at in winter, and at least Joburg winters are short. The weather is spectacular for nine-and-a-half months a year — it’s worth ten weeks of relative misery. And then there is the most redeeming feature of winter in Joburg: It never rains, and it’s almost always sunny. The afternoons are even warm sometimes. And it doesn’t snow.

One must try to think positively at times like this.

A plea to my friends back home: This summer, as you sweat and complain about the D.C. heat and humidity, please think warm thoughts for me. I’ll be huddling next to my pathetic panel heater, shivering and cursing, praying for mid-August to come quickly.

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