Here in Toronto, today’s weather is criminally gorgeous. Fourteen degrees celsius, sun glowing benignly, clouds sparse. It’s mid-afternoon as I write this, the sun just past its apex, the sidewalks warm with the morning’s heat. This is the kind of weather that storms your front door and drags you outside.
I live across from a public park, and this morning found it packed full of families: lawn chairs lined the sides of the park’s rink, newly ice-free, where a sponge hockey game was in full swing; kids in ball caps and Blue Jays t-shirts were kicking, tossing, and batting just about every type of ball imaginable. The sidewalks are suddenly difficult to navigate for all the people walking on them. It’s that first really nice day of the year, the first one for which we didn’t have to cock our heads to the side and consider grabbing a coat (just in case) before going outside. The snow is well and truly gone now, or at least we all feel comfortable telling ourselves that—a Canadian’s trust in the weather is such a fragile and frequently abused thing. (It only takes one June snowfall to give you a complex.)
Today, there’s an electricity to the city, as hackneyed as that sentiment is. It’s an energy that travels in bolts and sparks between people as they pass each other, like the circus just swept into town. There’s a palpable sense of relief that blooms in you on a day like today when you live in a climate like ours—winter’s over, finally. It’s as though you’ve woken up in a different place than the one you fell asleep in, and the transformation is magical.
If you didn’t grow up with winter, you probably won’t understand why today is a big deal. And I should clarify: I’m not just talking about winter as the period of time roughly between late October and March. I’m referring to full-on winter-as-survival-test. When I traveled to southern Peru, I remember checking into a hostel and being shocked to find that the building wasn’t insulated. The man at the front desk was wearing what looked like two sweaters and a scarf, shivering away at reception, but the situation wasn’t uncommon—plenty of buildings there, in spite of the fact that temperatures can drop down around freezing, remain insulation-free. The average high in that part of Peru is a practically-balmy fifteen degrees for every month of the year, so I suppose it just isn’t worth it.
At first, I thought it may have been a strictly economic concern, but in telling people about that, I’ve learned that the lack of insulation isn’t necessarily odd. Friends of mine in New Zealand say that it’s a normal thing for Kiwi homes, and an expat pal currently hanging tough in Sydney, Australia, tells me that his apartment literally has holes in the walls for ventilation. I had to get him to explain that to me several times—“You mean, like, someone punched holes in your walls? Does your landlord know?”—but it turns out that it’s just an efficient way to circulate air when the weather is as consistently balmy as it happens to be in Sydney.
Here in Canada, on the other hand (or at least the parts of Canada east of the Rockies), to build a house without insulation would not go over so well. When people ask me how cold it gets here, I like to tell them a story from a friend of my mother’s: a man my mother worked with during her time with the federal government had grown up on a reserve. He had several brothers, and for much of his childhood, he and his brothers shared a bed. The house wasn’t terribly well-insulated, and because of the way their house was built, their bed had to be pushed up against an outside wall. During the depths of winter, it got so cold that the brother who slept closest to the wall literally died. And this happened on two separate occasions.
My own personal temperature low, which is thankfully not as tragic, was a winter morning in the mid-2000s. I remember waiting for the bus in weather that had, inclusive of the windchill, reached minus fifty-three degrees. The tips of my ears haven’t been the same since—they still start to sting as soon as the weather dips below zero. That day was the coldest I remember, but not necessarily all that unusual. I grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, smack-dab in the middle of Canada. For Winnipeggers, cold and snow are just a part of life, as inseparable from childhood as school or Christmas or hazy summer sunsets. A former partner of mine who visited my family over Christmas one year noted with a sort of awe that nobody who spoke about the weather in Winnipeg bothered to add a “minus” to the temperature. We all just assumed, quite rationally, that it would be in the negatives. I was in my teens before it finally hit me that there are places in the world where Christmas does not automatically mean snow. That threw me for a loop.
I used to spend hours outside in the cold, my cheeks a raw red, just throwing myself into the cushion of snowbanks and tossing snowballs at trees. It was by far my favourite season as a kid. It meant snowball fights and warm nights inside by the fire with the hot chocolate my mom made us. We got to build snowmen and go tobogganing, which I loved most of all.
(Later in life, as a young man, my friends and I would buy beer and keep the bottles cold in the snow while we built ramps and obstacle courses for the same sleds we’d used as kids. Sometimes we’d try to build the most outrageous tobogganing implements we could—a couch we’d found on the side of the road with an old pair of downhill skis attached to the bottom stands out as the best example, even if it was a bit of a complete failure.)
As I grew older, winter started to lose its shine. After long enough in this country and its climate, the gulf between fall and spring starts to make itself felt more and more strongly with every passing year. Daylight becomes an increasingly rare commodity, and by the time January rolls around, you can really feel the darkness closing in on either side of your day. Everything contracts. Once the rush of the holidays and the new year wears off, days start to feel like nothing but darkness and an unforgiving cold. You wake up when it’s dark outside, and by the time you’re off work, the night has already fallen. You can go days without ever warding off the chill that settles in your joints, your fingertips cold to the touch.
If your only exposure to a snowbound winter is Christmas movies and Mariah Carey CDs, then you’ll be forgiven for thinking that snow is consistently breathtaking. It is at first, no question. At night, under stars and streetlights, snow can literally sparkle. And when it falls in great heavy flakes, insistent and gentle, it doesn’t feel real—after twenty-six years of that shit, I still find myself struck dumb from time to time. But when you’re deep into the hellhole of a month that is February, the snow gritty, brown, and crumbling with road salt and exhaust? The magic is quickly gone. It’s an interminable march of painful days that just won’t stop coming, one after the other, like an endless string of pinecone anal beads being pulled out as slowly as possible.
That’s why days like today are so important to Canadians. The warmth is freedom. We, like trees, flowers, and houseflies, are ready to return to the lives we left on pause the year before. The world outside is calling us, yelling things like “swimming,” “biking,” and “patio beers” as loudly as it can—and we Canadians are happy to take it up on its offer.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve been sitting in a dim cafe for the past several hours writing about how great it is to be outside on days like today. And even for a man who loves irony as much as I do, that’s a bit much.