Winter is Coming: Existential Dread and Warm Pants

I couldn’t have foreseen how insane it would be to move to Ottawa, buy everything from shower curtain rings and paperclips to a workdesk and start my life, get to know the city, stay afloat with work, and all of that. It’s been an exhausting whirlwind that is only now beginning to stabilize. It’s been an amazingly complicated and rich experience, and I’ve started/stopped writing about it a dozen or more times, never wanting to take the time to post it up here, because Crazy Times. But I pressed pause on this Saturday afternoon, in between cooking and working, to share a moment with you.


My present life is consumed by money – earning it, having it, spending it; rinse and repeat. There is no variety – just the cycle of chasing money, and week by week, month by month, adding things to this existence of mine. Things like parkas and gloves, shoes and boots, pots and appliances.

The list of things worthy to spend money on never seems to shorten. Part of it is the failure to realize just how expensive that extra season is – real winter. I still need thermal pants and snow pants, more pants, thermal shirts and comfy sweaters, more sweaters, warm socks, tall socks, all the socks. The snow goggles are coming, the crampons are here. Toques! Balaclavas! Gloves! Gators! Scarves! 

Canada's Parliament in fog and fall

The last days of fall colours in a shroud of lifting fog. The Ottawa River and Canada’s Parliament Building.

Temperature is a hard thing to convey in images, but every now and then you see a shot of someone in 44-degree Celsius weather and you nod and say, “yes, that looks hot.” Or you see snow blowing sideways as people angle into the wind, pushing themselves against that Arctic blast of air and snow, one hand keeping their hood drawn over their toque and balaclava, not an inch of skin to be seen, a backdrop of snowbanks and icicles, and you just know, that’s c-c-c-cold.

And that’s the winter you get here, the one you see in movies or photos. It’s easy to wonder if someone maybe got the description of Hell wrong and it’s not some fiery plane of doom but rather a frozen wasteland where a wind cuts you to the bone.

But that’s the winter I signed up for, and it’s right around the corner, nearly knocking. Yesterday: A flurry! It’s coming!

And so we had our first negative temperatures. The trees are denuding. The gorgeous golds and reds muddying down into tones of brown, branches baring as leaves decompose on sidewalks.

But that’s okay. No one comes to Ottawa for the weather. People leave here for the weather.

They come for the history and the people and the food and the culture and the patriotism and, yes, the jobs.

But not the weather. They move to Vancouver for a summer free of humidity and mosquitos and a winter where shovels are unneeded.

Some people, the weird ones we side-eye and distrust, claim to be excited that snowshoe season is back again. Don’t worry, we don’t leave them alone with children. Freaks.

The thing I dig about Ottawa is how truly multi-cultural it is. In Vancouver, the city is dominated by a Chinese and Indian vibe, but here in Ottawa there are so many cultures – African, Caribbean, Asian – and I mean all over Africa. I’ve met folks from Guinea Bissau, Ethiopia, Congo, Sudan and so many other countries. Ditto with the Caribbean – Jamaican, Haitian, Dominican. Then there is a strong Vietnamese demographic here, an old Italian vibe. It’s cool to have so much diversity here. I love it. That’s my Canada.

But I had to laugh yesterday, walking back home from the store in temps of 4 degrees during a light drizzle, when someone – I presume either from the Caribbean or Africa, someplace crazy warm – was so insanely bundled up that all I could see was their eyes. I chuckled, knowing what is yet to come, thinking “Good luck, bro.” It reminded me of my recent conversation with an Uber driver from Gabon, equatorial Africa, and we both laughed as we shared our dread of the impending winter.

“20 degrees is cold weather in Gabon,” he said with a chuckle. “Oh. Nothing could have prepared me for my first Ottawa winter!” Then he laughed harder. He’s been here several years since, now, and somehow loves the city despite the polar hell that grips it by the New Year. 

Me, I might be Canadian, but I haven’t even seen trace amounts of snow accumulate since 2009. The idea of even -10 freaks me out. The most snowfall I’ve ever seen at once is about 15 inches in a day. The Yukon is cold, but it’s a dry climate and snowfall stays all winter, but doesn’t happen frequently. Unlike here, land of Big Dumps and Freezing Rain. There is so much about the winter here in Ottawa that has me concerned.

And yet here I am – for the experience, the novelty.

But, you know, as far as Canadian cities and winter goes, I think Ottawa and Montreal do it best. Winter in Ottawa may have its bad days, but the good ones look amazing. This is the Rideau Canal, what is considered the longest skating rink in the world. Copyright Ottawa Tourism.

Believe me, there’s nothing saying I need to be here for a second winter. I already have a laundry list of places I can disappear to in my second winter. Vietnam, Turkey, Greece, Spain, Mexico – so many options, and since I’m allowed to sublet my apartment, those dreams are not folly.

I’ve learned, though, that some things create community like nothing else can. Fire, flood, other disasters – but so too does your standard brutal winter, because everyone pulls together to survive it. Everyone’s subject to the same miserable hardship, everyone’s struggling to keep a brave face.

I loved that about the Yukon during my winter in the north. There’s a toughness it creates – a hardiness that is earned, never bought. There’s a reason “weather” is a verb, not just a noun. Somehow, we weathered all that came. And while I don’t anticipate being ones of those weirdos who’s thrilled to dress up and hang out in the frigid climes for fun, I suspect that resilience lives in me too.

I come from hardy people – not just Canadian stock, but Maritimes. And before that, from the Highlands and the Hebrides, and coastal Ireland, and France’s Brittany – none being regions anyone associates with pleasant winters. It’s probably why I get all Lieutenant Dan about wind and rainstorms. “You call THIS a storm?”

The Hebrides are the most ridiculously inhospitable islands you’ll ever see, yet somehow my ancestors eked out a life there for decades, centuries. Goretex and Thinsulate? Fuck that. Those people had wool. And PEI, oof, those winters are some kinda somethin’ too.

Surely I can handle a little snow… and howling wind and freezing rains and icy sidewalks and…

I mean, people do this, right?

In the meantime, I’m eyeballing them thermal pants and undershirts and snowsuits, and I’m primed to soon pounce on Sure-We’re-In-Canada-But-Let’s-Pretend-Black-Friday-Is-A-Thing-Because-Money type sales.

Because, as the great Scot comedian Billy Connolly once said, “there’s no bad weather, just the wrong trousers.”

If my friend from the Gabon can handle winter temperatures 50 degrees lower than those he was born into, then surely I can too.  We just need the right trousers, eh?

[And, psst… Concerns aside? I think this will be one of the most memorable winters and Christmases of my life. I’m excited.]

  • Avatar
    Suzanne Fluhr

    The silver lining of the ridiculous Ottawa winters is that you’ll always have an “ice breaker” (as it were) to start any conversation with an Ottawa/Gatineauer: “Is it cold enough for you? Eh?” You won’t even have to talk when you’re outside. You’ll just exchange meaningful glances with passersby through your mutual yellow tinted snow googles—probably the only bit of face of others you’ll be able to see when you’re outside. You’ll also have an endless stream of weather related FB posts that will elicit clucks of sympathy from those of us in the Lower 48—except when our temperatures plunge to well below 0 degrees Celcius during cold snaps which our TV meteorologists always seem to blame on polar vortices from — Canada. Then we’ll sigh and say, “Oh Canada”.

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