Snow Quiet

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Walking home, Ottawa, December 12, 2017

It’s a special kind of quiet when it snows.

Unlike rain, snow doesn’t make a sound as it falls. Snowflakes just dance in the wind and land on the ground lightly, stealthily accumulating hour after hour, until you realize that it did snow quite a bit—and shit, how much snow do we have here, no way it’s “only” the 10–15 centimetres the Weather Channel predicted, outrageous!

Major snowfalls are almost always forecast. We are warned. We know what to expect and plan accordingly.

Well, in theory.

Cars are parked inside, boots are taken out, grocery trips are best made the day before, school buses may be cancelled but whatever happens, you’ll still have to go to work and deal with the snow—shovel it, drive on it, walk in it, shake it off your clothes, clear it. I mean, if Canada took time off every time it snows, we’d be behind Antarctica in terms of productivity.

We deal with snow much like parents deal with a 12-month old eating spaghetti and tomato sauce all by himself—amazed by the fact something mundane like a simple weather phenomenon or dinner can create such a giant mess that now has to be cleaned up.

Buses are late and traffic is backed up. Snowfalls cause transport chaos but it’s overall unusually quiet on the roads and in the streets. Ottawa isn’t a noisy city by world standards—too much space and too few people to make it truly vibrant and lively—but the typical urban soundtrack has changed, replaced by the beep-beep of snow plows, the sound of salt being sprayed on the road, snowblower engines sounds, shovels hitting snow, snow squeaking, crushed under tires or boots. There are more sirens than usual—firefighters, paramedics, the police—probably responding to the many traffic accidents. You’d think Canadians navigate slippery roads effortlessly but in fact, snow is always a challenge, even at reduced speed, even with winter tires on.

At 6 p.m., the supermarket is empty, which is unusual for a weekday. The few rare customers rush from the parking lot to the front door, step in and pause, standing on the soaked mat, shaking off snow, taking off a hat, gloves, a scarf. They blink, blinded by the neon lights, as if they can’t believe they are indoor, safe and dry. Then they walk through the aisles, picking up ingredients forgotten the night before and important enough to justify a trip to the supermarket during a blizzard. At checkout, employees who made it for a minimum-wage shift eye the front door, probably hoping to get home early and trying to figure out how much more snow accumulated since they started working.

It is hard to get around outside. Here you slip on a patch of ice underneath the fresh snow, here you miss the edge of the sidewalk, buried under slush. Not only sidewalks aren’t cleared but they usually get twice the snow—whatever accumulated plus what the snow plow dumped while clearing the road.

Trudging through snow in a full-body workout. It’s exhausting. You use your core for balance, swing your arms to increase momentum, engage your hamstrings and glutes. We all have different technics to make it easier. I try to follow tire tracks, where snow is less deep and somewhat compacted. The guy in front of me is skiing.

Wait. What? Yes, he’s definitely skiing. I try to take a picture of this Canadian moment but obviously, this isn’t the first time he decides to ski home in a blizzard. He is faster than me and I’m fumbling around in my bag for my phone with thick gloves on. You’ll have to trust me on this Canadian moment I couldn’t document.

One last street. Miraculously, the sidewalk has just been cleared. It’s much easier to step on two centimetres of snow than on fifteen and I quicken my pace.

I made it home.


Walking home, Ottawa, December 12, 2017

Walking home, Ottawa, December 12, 2017

Walking home, Ottawa, December 12, 2017


About Author

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


    • Martin Penwald on

      Canadian are curiously not that good at driving on snow or ice. I’ve seen on 50 km around 20 véhicules in the ditch during a snow episode in Québec. Visibility was reduced but far from null, and it was slippery, but not water-over-ice slippery. Keeping a speed between 60 and 70 km/h was relatively easy.

      But removal of snow is generally very efficient so it doesn’t cause too much trouble over time. There was an ice storm that paralysed New-Brunswick last year, and an ice storm that paralysed Québec in 1998 but they are very rare.

      • That said, I can’t compare Canadians to other drivers when it comes to adverse winter conditions. I’m pretty sure more French wouldn’t drive any better (you, of course, are the exception :-)) Are Americans better drivers? Russians?

        • Martin Penwald on

          There is a simple single to do when driving on slippery roads : keeping enough room to anticipate anything that can happen. But when it starts snowing, drivers slow down, which is fine, but they have a strong tendancy to get closer of each other, which is stupid.
          Basically, they don’t keep enough of a safety gap between each véhicule. It is so bad that if they were on perfectly dry road, at the same speed, they would be still too close. It is true that it is no better in France, but France is not a country known for its snow.

          • Yes, I noticed that too: cars are bumper to bumper when traffic is slow because of the snow. Like, you’re not gonna get home any faster…

            I was trying to come up with countries known for tough winters. Russia? Northern US?

          • Martin Penwald on

            Scandinavian countries, Finland, but I’ve never been there so I don’t know how people drive there. But I had a colleague who drove there and he said it could be very bad. He told me that he couldn’t find the exit of a rest area one morning because so much snow felt during the night, in Norway.

          • Gee, totally forgot about them… you’re right, they must have some winter driving experience! That said, population density is also super low, I think.

  1. Tu m’emerveilles toujours, après toutes ces années à te lire, de la simplicité et de la fluidité de tes textes. J’avais l’impression d’être avec toi en te lisant. 🙂

  2. It’s funny because living in a mountain town with a ski resort attached, snow days seem to be the busiest day around here. Everybody gets SUPER stocked!!!! (their words not mine :P)
    And apart from a few exceptions, I find people here well prepared and not too bad at driving in the conditions considering

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