Whenever I speak to immigrants – even Rom – they are always very animated when describing their first winter in Canada. Shock and awe! For those unfamiliar with our climate, I will do a run-down of what we experience.
I pity anyone who arrives in Canada between January 1 and April 15. With no option to acclimate gradually, it will be a miserable and overwhelming few months. Adding insult to injury, our spring slowly defrosts us between April 15 and June 30, including 4 to 8 weeks of cool rain. If I were planning to land in Canada, I’d pick Canada Day (July 1) so I could enjoy the best of the year, and see the good in the place, before ever facing a January!
There are four big things to fear about our winters:
- Feeling perpetually cold
- Getting sick
- Being isolated at home
- Being afraid to drive or walk anywhere
Everyone from a tropical climate says they never “really” get used to the cold. They tolerate it better, but usually don’t take it for granted. There is a way that most Canadians adapt as the weather gets colder, but it may be too hardcore for newcomers. That is to spend some time outdoors each day, allowing us to “harden off” like garden plants, and to wear the minimum needed to be comfortable. I wear my fall jacket until it gets down to about 5, then wear a light winter jacket until it gets below 0, then switch to a heavyweight parka or wool coat only for the “Arctic” season. I can tolerate down to -20 pretty well as long as I keep moving, whether it is walking to work or shovelling snow or skating. But I have stopped attending winter festivals where you just stand around and watch, like New Year’s fireworks.
What newcomers to cold climates may not realize is that in the winter, many of us always feel cold – not just when we’re outdoors. Heating homes is so expensive that hardly anyone sets the temperature above 20. You would think that if it were -5 outside, 20 would feel toasty, but it doesn’t. I think of it this way – it is 20 outdoors on a nice June day. It is pleasant in the sun, but I’d need a jacket in the shade, and I’d get cold quickly in an ocean breeze. So in the winter, I can’t just wear a T-shirt and jeans in my house; I need several layers. If I am lazing around reading, I cover myself with a “TV blanket” and drink cup after cup of tea. For me, that is the reality of winter. Brrr.
There are two schools of thought. Either we get sick because we’re indoors all the time and we trade germs with our co-workers and kids, or the cold/wet weather wears down our immunity and makes us susceptible. No matter which, we’re exposed to one cold and virus and flu after another. We can’t control what others do, such as coming to work infected and coughing over everyone. But we can control what we do, such as eating well and getting enough sleep. Personally, I get a flu shot – and watch my Vitamin D.
An even greater problem is depression caused by short days, low light, tiresome routines, and restricted activity. It takes a lot of personal effort to rise above it. Again, the two usual camps are: Go with it. Hibernate, watch TV, eat chocolate. Or, go against it. Ski, ice fish, geocache. My own approach is a mixture: I read and blog a lot, but I also walk outdoors every day and get lots of light and (very) fresh air.
Being Stuck Indoors
Everyone spends more time inside because of the snow, wind and ice. We say we get “cabin fever” or we need a “spring break” (in February!) If you know what it’s like to spend day after day with young kids and no adult company, you get the idea. But sometimes you’re cooped up with your spouse or your co-workers. Everybody gets on everybody else’s nerves because you spend so much time together and your options seem so limited. You get all these urges – to buy ingredients for a new recipe, or find a book at the library, or meet a friend for coffee – and they are all squashed because of the driving or walking conditions. You start to feel that you have even fewer options than you actually do. And you and your main squeeze have to stay in and watch movies and have sex yet again. Sigh 🙂
Being Afraid to Drive or Even Walk
It’s not too often that we have to walk in deep snow, but we all have to walk across driveways and sidewalks and parking lots that are slick with packed snow or ice. We use copious amount of road salt to melt it, but it is unavoidably treacherous. There are two choices, really. Dress for fashion and be helpless, or dress for conditions. That means boots which are not just warm, but have monster treads. You can even add strap-on cleats! And it requires an extra level of attentiveness as you try to spot ice patches under snow with your x-ray eyes. After a few falls, lots of people give up and stay inside, especially frail seniors. But most of us have no choice about where we have to be. This is where newcomers are at a disadvantage. I’ve walked on ice my whole life and I rarely think twice about it, but otherwise, it is a skill to learn, and fear can be incapacitating (like learning to swim or ride a bike as an adult).
Rom had two big revelations about Canadian winters. He was surprised by all the sunny days with brilliant blue skies. And he realized that the weather can kill you. Accidents abound, whether slipping on the sidewalk or falling through the ice on a lake. You have to learn the difference between cold, tingly, slightly numb fingers and real frostbite. You have to learn how to steer out of a skid with your car, and to always carry a blanket and extra (dry) clothing in the trunk.
I am in Nova Scotia which has moderate, coastal wet winters. Someone from Central Canada, the Prairies or the North can give you better advice.
Have you ever moved from one climate extreme to another? As for myself, I don’t think I could ever get used to summers with temperatures in the 30s or higher for months on end: I can barely manage our two weeks a year of it!