The Day Ottawa Was Colder Than Mars

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It had been a long, cold and tough week and I was craving a feeling of accomplishment. I needed to do something pointless and rewarding. Going to the mall to capture the “magic of Christmas”—or at least the capitalist reading of it by retail—had been on my to-do list for a while. Today was the day. I had to buy the guys their Christmas presents, anyway.

I put work on hold, grabbed my camera and headed to downtown Ottawa.

However, I had conveniently denied the fact that it was cold outside. Like, really cold. Like the weather app on my phone literally said that: “-30ºC and very cold”. I knew it, I had walked to Starbucks in the morning.

Despite the cold warning issued, I thought I could handle the weather because after all, I survived very low temperatures before and fuck it, I’m Canadian. I was prepared too: I was wearing two pairs of knee-high socks, boots, jeans, a sweater, a warm coat, gloves, two scarves (one around my neck under the coat and a larger one to protect my face), a hat and I had a hood on.

But when your Canadian weather app says it’s cold, it’s actually cold. It was unbearable. I had to cover every bit of skin and still, it hurt. It was so bad I didn’t smoke because I couldn’t use my lighter with frozen hands and taking a glove off, even for a few seconds, was unthinkable. My legs were numb, my face was burning.

By the time I reached the mall I had already taken several breaks inside various stores just to warm up and feel my fingers.

Once inside the Rideau Centre, I took my hood and scarf off so that it wouldn’t look like I was about to rob a store. I checked the camera. The battery was almost empty—the cold had drained it.

My initial goal was to take “street photography” pictures in the mall, candid portrait of shoppers during the peak shopping season. Decorations, happy faces, you get the idea. But the mall wasn’t exactly delivering on Christmas magic. There was a massive tree but no ornaments. There was a Santa house but no Santa around. The main decorations were some giant baubles hanging from the ceiling. Meh.

I looked around for happy faces and satisfied shoppers but all I could see were people coming from outside being cold and people about to step out complaining about the cold. A very Canadian moment, sure, but hardly Christmas magic—although there were plenty of noses redder than Rudolph’s, including my own.

I walked to the Disney Store and bought Mark a set of Star Wars figurines.

“Wow, your coins are so cold!” the saleswoman noted.

I almost blurted out something inappropriate, like “if you think that’s cold, you should touch my legs!” but fortunately, I just shrugged. “Yeah, it’s pretty bad outside.”

I snapped a few pictures at the mall but I wasn’t happy with them. Everywhere I looked, it screamed “miserable cold day!” rather than “I’m so happy Santa is coming!

I crossed to The Bay and walked to the Byward Market, where I took pictures of fancy holiday cookies. Then, as I was attempting to light a cigarette outside, I saw six brave souls, all bundled up and clearly freezing, ordering BeaverTails pastries from the iconic kiosk on George Street.

I laughed. This is something you’d do in the summer—order a pastry and stroll around the Byward Market. I snapped the picture, capturing this very Canadian moment.

And then it hit me. This is what I came for. People surviving a tough, cold winter day. A deserted mall because it wasn’t a good day to go out, period, even if it meant eventually ending up in a warm mall. People wearing boots and coats grabbing a last-minute gift.

Cold is hard to capture. When you’re indoors and look out the window, you can’t really appreciate how cold it feels outside. It could be 10ºC, it could be -30ºC. There is no dramatic change of scenery like during a snowstorm, no specific warning that breathing this cold air will make you cough and that your skin will feel the burn.

I took a few more pictures of this strange winter day and headed home, in the cold.

It’s only later in the evening that I learned this piece of trivia: that Thursday, temperatures on Mars had been warmer than in Ottawa.

Suddenly, the set of pictures I had just taken were brag-worthy. I had been out, that day, documenting yet another Canadian winter moment!

You can see more Canadian winter pictures on Flickr.

Giant Christmas Bauble at the Rideau Centre

Ornament in fake tree

Ornament in fake tree

Holidays-themed store window

In doubt, booze (LCBO doesn’t even try to do Christmas, guaranteed customer base)

Holiday-themed store window

Warning up at the mall

Lost glove

Chocolate fountain at the food court

Cupcake fix

Watching the construction on Rideau Street

Warning up at The Bay

The iconic year mittens, 2016 edition

Snow boots at The Bay

Under-dressed mannequin, bundled-up customer

Kid crying because he got socks instead of chocolate

Festive marshmallow and chocolate treats

Holiday-themed cookies

Holiday-themed cookies

Holiday-themed cookies

Six brave souls buying beavertails

Boots and slush on pants


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


  1. The worst thing when it’s that cold is that it hurts my teeth! And your nostrils freeze to the inside of your nose! And no matter how many layers I wear my butt freezes lol
    Did you wear long johns under your jeans? I feel like jeans are not the best choice of fabric since they seem to retain the cold…
    I wanted to slap myself the other day. I left my gym clothes in the car in -30 weather. I’ll let you imagine how pleasant it was to put my sports bra on that day…. 😀

    • I had knee-high socks, I buy them at Ardene. Pretty warm and they are cute.

      Yes, the nose… and runny nose as soon as you go inside a store. Ugh.

  2. This kid in the ad should know better. I’d take socks over chocolate anytime when it’s -30°C!!
    C’est la température réelle ou ressentie ? Je n’ai fait que du -13°C à Lyon et du -18°C à Montréal et je trouvais que ça allait encore ! -30°C c’est hardcore…

    • C’était réellement -25C au thermomètre. J’ai vu des températures très basses à Ottawa, mais cette année je les ressens vraiment :-/ Dès qu’on passe les -10C au thermomètre, c’est dur, je trouve.

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