Skip to main content

When I moved to Canada four years ago, I didn't expect to have much trouble adapting to my new home.

Having grown up between Britain and New Zealand I knew there would be considerable differences, but I was confident that with a common language and fairly similar culture I would soon feel right at home and settled into my new life.

My first real shock came the moment I stepped out of the airport in Toronto, minutes after arriving in this country for the first time. The date was Jan. 29, and it was freezing. The city was covered with what I thought at the time was a thick blanket of snow, but what I now realize was a modest dusting.

Story continues below advertisement

Now, it wasn't the snow that was new to me, as I had spent much of my childhood in the mountains of North Wales, and skied in New Zealand in my later formative years. So I wasn't shocked by the snow, but rather the lung-numbing cold that hit me the moment I stepped out of the airport's revolving doors. As soon as I found myself outside I began choking. I was barely able to breathe. It was a pathetic sight.

My Canadian husband and I had met while studying in Wales, and decided to move to Canada to be closer to his family once we finished our studies.

He had spent weeks before our departure from Britain trying to prepare me for the Canadian cold, knowing that we would be arriving in midwinter. But someone can describe -15 C to you until they are blue in the face - feeling it for the first time is something else entirely. It's all academic until you take that first breath and feel your saliva begin to thicken and your ears start to ring. "Oh," I rasped with the little breath I had left, "so that's that you meant."

Since that first gasping arrival and our move to Ottawa four years ago, I have encountered winter temperatures well below what I experienced that first day.

One proud moment during my first winter in Canada found me surviving a -42 C wind chill while walking across the Ottawa River. I must add, rather sheepishly, that the walk was not my idea, and I am afraid I was not good company during that excursion. I spent much of the time clutching my ears and cursing into the wind, and later demanded that we take a taxi home.

But it was with a huge sense of pride that I survived my first winter, thinking myself tough indeed and capable of handling anything this country could throw at me.

The one thing I was not expecting, however, was finding myself a short while later battling the other extreme - temperatures over 30 C and humidity levels through the roof.

Story continues below advertisement

There I was, barely four months after surviving that eyeball-freezing walk across the river, sprawled on my living-room floor with two fans pointing directly at me, barely able to lift a glass of iced water to my lips.

I was paralyzed by the heat and humidity. How could one country, one city, subject a poor body to such extremes? No sooner had my lungs thawed out than my sweat glands were pushed into overdrive.

And yet, as I lay in this rather unladylike state, trying to extract some coolness from the wood floor below me, I watched the good people of Ottawa speeding past our apartment on bikes and rollerblades and even noted, with much consternation, a jogger running past the window. (Imagine it! Jogging like this was a regular summer day!) I lay moving as little as possible, quietly perspiring on the floor.

Just a few months before I had been marvelling at the tough Ottawa folk who would hit the cross-country ski trails in -25 C weather and colder. I recall one such trip, struggling to keep up with my companions, surprised that our nighttime ski into the park had not been cancelled with a weather report of -26 C. I was unable to speak because my petrified lungs wouldn't allow it, and too scared to blink in case my eyes froze shut.

I've seen Canadian children playing hockey on frozen ponds in temperatures I never knew existed, people walking to the supermarket down streets lined with five-foot snow banks and hardy women wearing short dresses and high heels for a night out in January. All this, Canadians do, and they also rollerblade in 35 C heat?

I am feeling mighty proud of myself these days, like I am becoming more Canadian with every season that passes. I now own my first pair of cross-country skis, as well as a pair of snowshoes and used ice skates. I don't stay indoors all winter, and I work hard to try to embrace the opportunities that snow and ice offer.

Story continues below advertisement

I also feel quite proud of having survived a recent heat wave that saw temperature records broken - even if I did pass the time hiding in our unfinished basement, parked in front of the biggest fan I could find. Maybe I will truly feel Canadian one day. But I draw the line at rollerblades.

Sally Garden lives in Chelsea, Que.

Report an error
As of December 20, 2017, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this resolved by the end of January 2018. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to