2014 has blasted in with extreme cold weather here in Ontario, Canada. Windchill is in the minus thirties/forties and you risk frostbite if you’re out for any length of time with skin exposed.
This is our fourth winter in Canada and we’re better equipped to endure it now than ever. The children all have snowpants, snowboots and frost-protective coats and gloves – a far cry from our first year here when we scraped by with no car and the bare minimum.
Our First Canadian Winter
I remember how the snow began falling in earnest on the first of December, cleaving to some indiscernible timetable, and we didn’t see the ground again until April.The novelty of this meteorological test of endurance thrilled us. We marveled at the efficiency of snow-plows, especially the mini ones that cleared the footpaths. We loved them all the more when we discovered it’s near impossible to push a stroller through snow.
And so began the heroic quests that live on as cherished family memories, tales of our ‘pioneer period’ told with a wistful smile and knowing glances when someone asks “What’s winter like in Canada?”
Things are tight for a while when you emigrate. It takes time to find your financial feet when you’re still maintaining a home back home. Though rich in bricks and mortar, on foreign soil we couldn’t afford any of the gear most Canadians have – sturdy walking boots and extra pairs of socks were our only winter armor until the heart-wrenching kindness of new friends brought snowpants for the two eldest and a balaclava for my son who cried in pain and bewilderment when the windchill bit his babyfat cheeks.
Each weekend we made the elemental trek into town for supplies; two adults, a five-year-old and a stroller whose raincover protected a tender two-year-old and his baby sister from the worst lashes of the bitter wind.
The snowflakes showed up as flecks of shadow against the creamy half-light of a sky so dense with matter no room was left for brightness, just a smothering heaviness pressing down on the snow-muted landscape below.
Heads down and chins tucked in, we leaned into blizzards, pressing on to town – the need for milk, bread and the best deal on nappies left us no other option.
The Road Less Travelled
To our left a steady stream of traffic schlepped wetly through the slush, the dirty dark road a stark contrast to the expanse of virgin snow on the sports field stretching serenely down to the marina on our right. The best and worst of the weather all in one tableau, a reflection of the odd contradiction of our existence; “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Manhandling the stroller over plow-generated snowbanks at intersections we struck out on the long road to town, shoulders hunched against the icy stabs of gusts that dashed spiky snowflakes into our eyes whenever we dared look up from the ground, and grew more malicious as the narrow footpath climbed to crest a bridge over the expressway below.
After the noise of the traffic and the battering wind, coming down the other side into the icy stillness of a residential street usually made the rest of the journey seem benign – but not so in a blizzard. Bitter wind and driving snow limited communication to emphatic looks and reassuring glances. No cosy chats to pass the time.
Solidarity Born Of Struggle
Sitting in a warm kitchen typing this, with a car parked outside, it seems a world away but the memories remain, preserved in the pack-ice of the past, resurfacing in the recollective gush of a stream of consciousness that spreads warmth despite the chilly subject matter.
Like the rubberized ‘scrunch’ of snow underfoot and the numbing burn of the wind as it flayed any inch of exposed skin, the needling pain in fingers and toes and the sting of my thighs, cold as meat in a chiller. The baby slept in insulated oblivion in the stroller, but when my son got out to walk he wept tears that froze on his thick, dark lashes – his cheeks red and stinging as if from a slap. We learned not to go out without his balaclava.
My eldest was five and took after her father, warmed by an inner furnace that, even in temperatures of twenty below, made her the certain source of a warm handclasp. Skinny legs weighted by sturdy boots, she trudged uncomplainingly beside the stroller or leapt ahead footprinting drifts and gathering ice chunks from shattered puddles with her brother.
Seeing Things Differently
Throughout our arduous quest we each employed personal tricks to sustain the spirit. Seeing others travel with ease and speed in cars was disillusioning, pushing us into a negative ‘us and them’ mindset. Casting ourselves as the Have Nots wasn’t a healthy outlook so fantasy provided a distraction from our tough reality – we were polar explorers, record-breakers, thrill-seekers – anything other than unfortunate.
After all, we weren’t (technically) poor, we had one another to rely on and most important of all, we were together.
Although they were tough times they gave us the chance to talk and be together without distraction or interruption. We shared the picturesque beauty of nature and that curious solidarity born of struggle. We’re a closer, tighter family for it and that’ll keep us warm through many a Canadian winter to come.
by Aisha Ashraf.
Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a freelance writer and author of the popular blog EXPATLOG – a collection of irreverent observations from her experiences as a "cultural chameleon". It's where you'll find her, strung out on caffeine, humorously dissecting the peculiarities of expat life for her own amusement and the benefit of future generations."
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