Mon pays, ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver - Gilles Vigneault's famous lyrics beautifully describe Québec. When it comes to stereotypes, everyone has heard horror stories about the merciless Canadian winter: temperatures drop far below -30 °C as the snow buries cities under its coat. So how does it feel, and moreover - how to survive it? Is there a way to get the most out of the Great White North in winter without freezing?
My Finnish friends have been extremely curious about winter in Canada. As on many other aspects, comparison (and at times, competition) between Finland and Canada reaches the weather conditions too. Finns are proud of their reputation as tough Nordics not being afraid of snow and cold (I'm not even going to mention Winter War here...), but the same frosty heritage runs in the veins of Canadians. Winter in Finland is cold, dark and seems never-ending, and same features apply to the Canadian equivalent.
Personally I have never enjoyed winter, and the idea of living through this very famous one scared me a little at first. I was not really afraid of the winter itself - I can handle the snow, the cold, the darkness too - but what baffled me in the beginning is the dryness of Canada. Finland, especially Helsinki, is extremely humid even during winter, and the cold is the kind of cold that gets into your bones and won't leave no matter how many layers of wool you wrap yourself into. No wonder I was slightly terrified of the upcoming winter after experiencing two extremely hot and dry Canadian summers. The Finnish humid winter is indeed cold, -20 °C at best, but the dry, crushing and insanely cold Canadian winter is something completely else.
The thing is, in Finland you cannot escape the cold, since the humidity brings the cold through all of
|Everything freezes in Canada - even windows.|
your layers. In Canada, however, you can survive very far by just attempting to get the looks of the Michelin man and wearing 3 pairs of woollen socks inside your boots. But there is a limit. No matter how many shirts you're able to stuff yourself into, there will be a point where the cold becomes so devastating it makes the little exposed skin on your face feel like it's cracking. In Finland we psych ourselves up before leaving our flat, knowing that the minute we step outside the cold will reach our chest. This won't help you in Canada, since the first 15 minutes spent outside you feel comfortable, energetic and overall ready to conquer the cold in your Canada Goose coat. But slowly, steady, the cold creeps in, and after half an hour in the crispy -40 °C winter air everything starts to sting, then it becomes numb, and then you find yourself desperately running in the streets in order to reach your destination even half a minute faster.
There is more of everything in Canadian winter compared to Finland. More snow, more cold, more chaos in the traffic, more clothes to protect you from frostbite, more windows so frozen that you have stopped to try and open them before spring. Many southern Finns will know what I mean when I say that the winter in here really IS a winter: the landscape gets covered in real snow and not in that slushy grey thing like in Helsinki. The cold is intense, but a very well welcomed change to those oddly warm winter days during the last few years in Finland. And most important of all: unlike in Finland, Canada is located remotely south and is not suffering from the never-ending darkness as badly as my home country. In other words, Canada makes me want to spend time outside, even in winter!
|Parc du Bois-de-Coulonge in Québec City|
MY WINTER ACTIVITIES IN QUÉBEC
Spending time outside during winter is made much more enjoyable in Canada that it has in Finland. Where Finns choose to hibernate over the depressingly dark winter months, Canadians have become to accept their fate and found ways to enjoy themselves. I have often been positively surprised to notice how active Canadians seem to be, and how eagerly everyone participates in different kinds of winter sports or recreational activities. I have had time to get my fair share of some of these activities here in Québec, the most special and definitely my favourite one being the amazing Domaine de la Forêt Perdue.
1. Ice skating in the forest in Domaine de la Forêt Perdue
Website: Domaine de la Forêt Perdue
Skating is fun, but it's even more fun when you can do it on little icy roads in a forest maze. This domain offers over 12 kilometres of roads to skate, and skates are included in the 26$ entry fee. It was my first time on hockey skates, so it took me a while to get to fully enjoy the experience, but in the end we ended up spending the whole day trying to see everything there was to see in the forest.
The place is actually a farm, so there are many animals to greet as you skate on, from emus to goats and alpacas. Here is one:
Quebeckers seem to be extremely good at skating though, so be prepared to be outrun by 7-year old kids. Seriously, are they born with hockey skates on? Or is there something in the water?
2. Actually, ice skating pretty much anywhere - while watching hockey
Canada is all about hockey, but I'm brave enough to cheer for my home team and say that especially quebeckers seem to have born with the blood of Maurice Richard running in their veins. That is how I at least feel like as I paddle on in the snow around the city: there are ice rinks everywhere, and they're crowded with people from toddlers to elders.
Hockey is shown everywhere in Québec, so do not count on being able to escape it into a fancy restaurant - if there's a TV anywhere close, there will be ice hockey on it.
3. Evacuating yourself indoors in Old Québec's shops and cafés
|La Boutique de Noël de Québec|
Winter in Québec surely is fascinating, but sometimes enough is enough. When all the fuss about Carnaval de Québec, Canada's biggest winter carnival, starts to get on your nerve, Old Québec has some very nice locations to try and escape the cold. One of the very special shops that fit the winter theme is the Christmas shop La Boutique de Noël de Québec: this shop is a dream for any Christmas fan, and a nightmare for a colourblind. The shop offers Christmas decorations to fit every taste, from traditional decorations to popular culture icons, such as Star Wars and Doctor Who -themed decorations to hang on your tree. They even sell Christmas socks, which are nothing but a rare exception in Finnish Christmas. Judging from the Christmas decorations in this shop, everything really seems to be bigger in North America.
Quebeckers are the masters of maple syrup, 80% of Canada's maple syrup being produced in the province of Québec. That's why you can be sure to find all kinds of hot drinks from hot chocolates to lattes flavoured with maple syrup, and you won't even have to look for it - they will come for you. Old Québec has a few very picturesque cafés, my favourite one being La Maison Smith. The staff also seems to speak excellent English, since most customers around always seem to be English-speakers. And since we're in Québec, do not forget bars and microbreweries. I have personally spent more than enough time in La Korrigane drinking delicious but treacherously strong dark beers to save myself from the frost.
Keeping your beanie on indoors is a funny fashion trend I've observed while spending time in various bars and cafés of Québec. Especially girls seem to be keen on wearing a hat, possibly to avoid getting their hair all messed up. The static in Canada feels far worse that in Finland due to dry air (yours truly gets an electric shock from a fridge at work approximately 3 times a day), so no wonder local ladies prefer to save themselves from the trouble.
4. Just going outside and enjoying the chaos
When I use the word chaos, I don't necessarily refer to the classic Finnish situation brought to the public's attention with the famous newspaper headline "Talvi yllätti autoilijat" ('Winter surprised the commuters'). This chaos is caused by the sudden element of snow finally falling around December, like every single winter before - but not in Canada. Canadians are prepared, and they have their shovels, trucks and salts ready since mid-October. Our car was stuck in the snow the first time we were about to use it after a heavy snow fall, but worry not - our neighbour was there, in his stereotypically Canadian beard and even more stereotypically quebecker Montréal Canadiens hockey beanie, shoveling the snow and ready to lend us a hand. People in here always seem to know what to do with this awful amount of snow.
The chaos in Canada is brought by the amount of snow, since there can easily be a meter of it. At this point I don't even bother to use my energy to curse the heavy nightly snowfalls and the lack of respect North Americans seem to have for pedestrians, but instead paddle onwards on the pedestrians walk at 7am each morning, my legs knee-deep in the snow, desperately trying to reach the bus stop in time.
Quebeckers also seem to know how to dress for the occasion, since unlike the stereotypes might make you think, Canadians don't run around wearing shorts and plaid shirts during winter. Everyone has a quality waterproof winter coat and furred hoods to come with it. Being able to enjoy the local winter to the fullest really asks for appropriate clothes.
|Boulevard René-Lévesque on a -40 °C Saturday morning|
As quoted above from Gilles Vigneault, this country is not a country, it's a winter. There is something quite magical about the winter in the Great White North, whether it's the locals' peaceful coexistence with their endless snow piles, or the drops of frost on your eyelashes 5 minutes after stepping into the cold winter morning. It's freezing like nothing else, and you definitely haven't experienced Canada before you have seen it survive one of its devastating winters. A word of encouragement for my proud Finnish people though: so far I have survived all those -40 °C days with a smile on my face, enjoying the crispy air, while my quebecker companions have been the ones running ahead of me trying desperately to save their faces from a frostbite. Maybe the arctic blond hair really comes with an ability to bear extreme temperatures?