This Montreal winter is a hard one, mainly because it has the hallmarks of an on-again off-again relationship. Things freeze over and everything seems solid. Then, out of the blue, there is a big thaw and everything melts. Then, reassuringly, it freezes over again. But then, it melts. Repeat. Each freeze is more treacherous than the last as there is an ever growing number of thaws to account for, manifesting as large frozen bodies of water covering the streets and sidewalks.
Three types of footwear are now necessary to make it from morning until dusk, including your ugly winter boots, your cheery rubber ones, as well as flippers – the latter to swim across the icy grey lakes that stand between you and the bus stop during the off-again hours when winter has briefly released its hold.
Some weeks ago, after struggling to make it to the metro along the icy sidewalk and then across a street swamp while getting splashed by passing cars, it suddenly struck me that life was simply too short to be wasted in this sort of climate. Why hadn’t I immigrated to Australia instead? This was no fairy tale winter as I had previously boasted to family in Europe of several winters past (sunny skies, white snows, skaters, and one magnificent White Night). It was Mordor, minus the volcano.
“I’m not growing old here!” I proclaimed to my chum that evening, feeling, for the very first time, some sympathy for the snowbirds flocking down to Florida. I could see myself as a future senior not flocking down to Florida and drowning in an oversized puddle after slipping on an iceberg upon attempting to leave the house one December in 2059.
“Keep calm and get some crampons,” he said.
Crampons, he explained, were the panacea for all the horrors of the Mordor winter. They increased one’s stability as well as mobility, and allowed even the elderly to move about with the agility of 20-year olds. He was now taking regular crampon-equipped walks in Parc Laurier in the evenings and felt like the Lord of the Park, all cramponless citizens having been warded off by the layers of ice covering its paths. It was a frightening but potent image, that - the lone maniac roaming around the park at night - and so I decided to get some crampons of my own in order to reclaim large sections of the city which had been made inaccessible by layers of snow and ice.
This, my tenth winter in Montreal, is my first with crampons. As recently as last year, I laughed at this inelegant accessory, especially when a friend from my part of the world decided to embrace them, claiming that the crampons gave him a certain konfidens (we were speaking in Serbo-Croatian and he inserted the English word with a Slavic accent).
I, too, have since acquired konfidens. Equipped with my crampons like a polar explorer, I recently walked for two hours along the St-Lawrence River in Verdun on a path that was covered with about twelve layers of ice. I did not slip or falter once and kept purposely driving the teeth of my crampons into the ice with crunchy pleasure: Take that, winter!
Other people appeared on the path, jogging in their crampons: at -20! Crunch, crunch, crunch! said the crampons protecting the joggers’ lungs. Meanwhile, I observed a few earnest fishermen drilling holes in the ice on the river - just like in movies of the Arctic regions. They too must be wearing crampons, I thought. With crampons, anything was possible – even walking on water.
My konfidens grew exponentially after I witnessed the crampooned joggers, and I began sprinting to the metro in the mornings, always careful to choose the most dangerous ice-covered bits of asphalt. Sure enough, the crampons delivered the desired stability, further increasing my konfidens. I could picture myself growing old like this, reinforced by crampons, instead of baking under the scorching sun of the Land Down Under.
Not only did the crampons improve my mobility, they also made me about half a centimeter taller. With crampons, it seemed, one could even defend oneself if need be. They were the foot equivalent of brass knuckles.
Soon, the crampons went to my head completely. In order to avoid the inconvenience of removing them on patches of dry land and in transient indoor spaces such as public transport and the grocer, I began to wear my crampons everywhere and at all times. I stood tall on my crampons in the bus and they seemed to add an extra layer of determination to my selection of fruit and vegetables, especially as I crunched my way down the supermarket aisle to the cashier, large leek in hand.
It all seemed to be going well until the inevitable finally happened: stepping into the elevator at work one evening, already crampooned and eager to get outside to crunch, I slipped on the tiles of the elevator floor and fell to the benevolent amusement of several colleagues who immediately warned me about overreliance on crampons.
Walking along Notre Dame Street, still in crampons but konfidens crushed, I was ready to resume my rant against the Montreal winter when I chanced upon a new source of wonder: a man was speeding by on a dog sled pulled by actual dogs as casually as if he were riding a caleche in summertime. Someone ran behind him with an iPhone attempting to capture the scene for the benefit of social media. This really happened.
So did the unicyclist making his way through snow on Wellington street that same evening.
When I get asked now about the Montreal winter, I say it’s mostly ice fishing, dogsledding and jogging in -20, with a touch of circus. They marvel at this Canadian determination and equipment and exclaim that they couldn’t possibly. Well, they could ... if only they had some crampons.