Ciara Kenny

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‘To enjoy Canada fully you must find a way to love the winter’

Seasoned expat Patrick McKenna shares his appreciation of the ‘sensuous feast’ winter brings in Montreal

Thu, Jan 9, 2014, 15:05


Patrick McKenna

Last January, as I listened to CBC morning radio, I began to pay attention as Co Meath man Peter spoke of his first winter working in construction in Saskatchewan. “Some days I feel like throwing down the hammer and going home,” he said. The Canadian winter had been a shock. From “Meath of the Pastures” to a Saskatchewan winter is a long way indeed. I commiserated with him from my home in Montreal as I remembered my own first winter in Canada. What a shock that was! Now of course it’s better – I hardly notice.

I have spent 36 of my 39 Canadian winters in Quebec that shares with Kamtchatka, in Western Siberia, the distinction of being the most snowed upon region in the world. So if I have succeeded in getting comfy with that sort of winter I feel slightly proud of myself.

If you are thinking of emigrating here it’s important to know the winter is not as I bad as you might think. I would go so far as to say that the Canadian winter is not really a problem.

What is a problem is that modern means of transport – planes, trains, and automobiles – are not suited to Canadian winter conditions. That problem is further compounded by the commute to work, and if your work involves highway driving or travelling by air, then the situation becomes even worse.

When commuting by public transport, you may take five minutes to “kit up” for the cold, then you plod to the bus shelter. Once on the overheated and overcrowded rush hour bus, you struggle to open your layers of clothing. Then you kit up again before disembarking to walk to the office. If you have to catch another bus, you go through the same process once more. (You can mitigate the hassle with high tech, light, but expensive winter gear.) At the end of the day, you work through this process in reverse.

Commuting by car has its complications too; getting the snow tires on by the required date in December, then on a daily basis warming up the car, brushing off freshly fallen snow, sometimes chipping and scraping ice from the windows, digging the car out of snow banks, the longer commute when there is a storm, or freezing rain, remembering to move the car to make way for snow clearing, and so on.

Winter highway driving can be scary. In a snowstorm, at night, it can be hard to impossible to see the white or yellow lines or the ditch at the side of the highway. In daytime a “whiteout” is a frightening experience. Even in good driving conditions I look out for those big sheets of ice that shear off the top of the 18-wheeler 50 meters ahead. You need the right equipment, snow tires, booster cables, a shovel, two of those serrated metal crampons that you slide under the tires, windshield wiper, perhaps a replacement wiper, a good battery, candles, and blankets.

Air travel in winter can be an ordeal like no other; killing tome in an overcrowded airport terminal because your flight is delayed, or cancelled, then rerouting, perhaps on stand by and arriving at your destination extremely late. I once left Montreal at 11am en route for Omaha, Nebraska. My estimated time of arrival was 4pm local time, but we didn’t get in until 4am. The problem as always, was Chicago’s O’Hare. During a winter storm it becomes a sort of black hole for travelers – so hard to escape from.

But there is much that is good about winter. Once you step outside the constraints of getting to and from work, you will find it a very beautiful season.

To begin with there’s the sunshine. There’s a lot more of it. Montreal, on average, from November, to April, receives about one extra hour per day of sunlight compared with Belfast. Per year, Montreal receives 1,860 hours of sunlight to Belfast’s 1,285 hours. That extra light makes a difference; it is a great morale (and Vitamin D) booster.

It’s not just the light. Winter is a feast for the senses. It is the sound of snow scrunching hard and dry under your boots, while your breath hangs white and frozen behind you in the night air. It is the unique sound of steel on ice as you outdoor skate in the evening; the Christmas lights strung on the trees, the Blue Danube and that hot chocolate that you treat yourself to. It is cross-country skiing under a blue sky, and seeing a big buck deer emerge from the forest, front quarters already airborne, then sailing over the twenty foot wide ski trail and landing somewhere inside the trees, on the opposite side of the trail, without making one single sound (I witnessed this once only). It is walking home through the maze of little streets, in east end Montreal, past the outdoor balconies, and stairways, festooned with their Christmas lights. It is the city falling silent during a big snowstorm. It is the frozen Saint Lawrence River at sunset, moving through all those shades of red from delicate pink to blood red.

To live in Canada is to accept that winter will occupy up to half your life. To spend half your life upset at winter is not an optimal emigration experience. If you are to enjoy Canada fully you must find a way to love the winter. Once you fall in love with winter, you will find that Canada is a breeze, although, at times, it may be a chilly one.

Patrick McKenna is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read his previous articles about feeling lonely at Christmas time, becoming ‘at home’ in Montreal, letting go of his ‘Irish’ identity, getting ‘that call’ when abroad, living with homesickness for 34 years, and 10 things to consider when moving abroad.