Coming back from the tropics reminded me how harsh winter in Canada can be, and how hard it can be to adapt to this unique challenge. Yet, because I’ve been living there for a few years, I’m prepared and within a few minutes of landing in Ottawa, I was wearing my full winter armour, complete with gloves and a hat.
Whenever I’m abroad and I mention that I’m from Canada, I always get the same reaction: “oh, wow, it must be cold up there!” People are always curious to know how we deal with our famous Canadian winters and how we survive these subzero temperatures.
Indeed, as soon as you step out of the airport or whatever warm place you were in, you will notice it’s cold—walking in the street in February may feel like wandering into a giant freezer. And note that there are different levels of cold: windy cold, dry cold and fucking cold. Any Canadian you stop in the street will happily volunteer to give you the exact temperature as well as the current wind-chill—we love bragging about how cold it is.
But the good news is, cold is surprisingly manageable.
When I first came to Canada, my parents were surprised to learn that under my big winter coat, my clothes were pretty ordinary: socks, pants, a t-shirt and a sweater, that’s it. Nobody wears two or three sweaters! The most important when going outside is to cover the exposed skin and to trap the body heat.
All you need is good winter gear, such as a thick waterproof coat, gloves, a hat and a scarf. Good shoes are also important for three reasons: first, you do walk in the snow and the slush a lot during the winter months and your feet can get wet easily. Second, ice can be slippery. Finally, salt really damages shoes and can leave stains on leather or suede. Most Canadians have a pair of winter boots for outside and switch to a pair of “office shoes” at work. Gloves prevent frostbites and hats protect your ears. A lot of Canadians bought the funky $10 Olympics red mittens last year, and the hot item was relaunched this year with a slightly different design.
Oh and please, just don’t imitate Canadians who can sometimes be seen outside wearing shorts and a t-shirt when it’s – 20°C. Seriously, only stupid college kids or Canadian who lost a bet can pull out that one.
Most newcomers will find the air is very dry in the winter. I noticed it whenever I go abroad and come back to Canada: within a few days, my feet and my hands are dry and itchy, my lips are cracked and my skin feels rough. The only solution is to moisturize. I always carry lip balm with me (I love Burt’s Bees’ and Blistex) as well as hand cream (my favourite are The Body Shop’s Hemp Hand Protector and Glysomed). And don’t forget to drink a lot of water!
The good side of dry cold is that it’s easier to warm up once you are indoors. In Brittany where I’m from, the temperature rarely go below 0°C/- 5°C but it’s very humid and it rains a lot. The cold gets to your bone and I remember taking a lot of baths in a desperate attempt to warm up. In Canada, the cold bites you strong when you go outside but anywhere indoors is very well heated and houses are built for winter—they trap the heat in.
Finally, be kind to yourself in the winter. The cold really drains energy and walking in the snow or on a tricky patch of black ice is as tiring as walking in the sand. Remember that you don’t catch a cold from being exposed to cold—this is an old myth. Do go out though, or you will get cabin-fever pretty fast. Some of the coldest days are gorgeous and very sunny with a clear blue sky!
And finally, remember: every winter ends one day.