In the Warm Shade of Winter
In ten days, winter will officially be upon us: that dreaded season of sidewalk salt and slush that no elegant shoe has been invented for, which is why many young Montreal women continue to wear open-toe pumps in -10 degrees Celsius in late December whilst awaiting entry into clubs on St-Laurent. Soon, folks will start to pull on the hoods of their winter coats over their hats, which, as I noticed during my first winter here, are rather deep and tubular. This shelters the wearer’s face from wind, but precludes vision to the left and right, and so people go about like horses, also half-deaf because their hoods’ warm insulation interferes with hearing somewhat. It is then best to walk in silence if accompanied, unless you don’t mind yelling like a peasant. I always marvel at the fact that more pedestrians are not killed by passing cars this time of year, and give thanks for my own survival because the hood of my coat also unpleasantly rustles in my ear.
The wonders of the Montreal winter were immortalized (albeit only locally) by Robert Charlebois’ 1976 hit Je reviendrai à Montréal (“I Shall Return to Montreal”) in which Mr. Charlebois croons of his intention to return to this city for no other reason than its winter, and even declares: "[Je vais me] briser comme un grand cheval sur les remparts blancs de l’hiver…” (“I will shatter like a great big horse against the white walls of winter...”) alluding to the fact that the aforementioned tunnel vision is worth it.
The marvels of winter here are many, indeed. I personally delight in the sensation of having the little hairs in my nostrils freeze upon inhalation (this happens at -20 and below only, though), and also in the flurry of Christmas concerts which lift the local churches out of their stupor, the outdoor temperature-denial party which is the Igloofest, the musical skating rinks of the Bonsecours basin, Beaver Lake and Parc Lafontaine, and the Montréal en lumière festival with its Nuit blanche (White Night) which has become so popular that attendees spend all of it just waiting in line.
But most wonderfully of all, the Montreal winter boasts many a sunny day when it is especially pleasant to take one’s dog for a walk in the Cimetière Mont-Royal (which has its own app, by the way) and to let him leap around the snow-capped tombstones while one strolls in contemplation by many a Beloved Mother and Beloved Father as well as some Beloved Husbands and Beloved Wives. In the Jewish portion of the cemetery bordering on Outremont, the epitaph of one Andrew Lighter speaks to the significance of time spent in the beloved’s company: “It is the time spent with your rose that makes your rose so special. The Little Prince.”
The winter has other qualities, as I learned from a friend who returned one January to Montreal after spending 11 years in Guatemala. She wasn’t deliberately choosing to make her transition difficult, she said. Rather, winter would be her protective cape: a time to go within, to grow and self-nurture. Winter would be the cocoon that would deliver her whole to the threshold of the warmer seasons when one is expected to emerge in full splendour like a butterfly.
And after she said it, I saw it: that in the seemingly dead branches of the trees lining the avenues, the buds of next year’s blossoms were already teeming. That underneath the salty pavements, flip-flops were already flopping. That on empty winter streets, sidewalk sales were already shopping. That underneath the frozen ponds, ducklings were already quacking. That all was still here and breathing. And winter became less frightening, more inviting.
And if you cannot take heart from all this, then there is also a comforting mathematical reality: at this point in the year, spring is practically around the corner. As soon as winter is officially upon us, the days will begin to get longer. And then, only three months later, it will officially be springtime.
Never mind if the reality does not match the calendar: the calendar is as palpable a fact as any blizzard. Once we are there, once it's March 21st, 2018, we’ve officially made it, no matter what the temperature. Then, we can begin to believe that any day now, the air will melt with warmth and burst in birdsong. Maybe already today. Maybe Tomorrow.