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first person

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

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I spent most of my teenage years despising winter, viewing it as an aberration, a gross miscalculation by the weather gods when they were fashioning the calendar year. They must have had an off-day, I thought. Or, as it happens, an off-season.

It’s not a surprising sentiment for someone who spent most of her youthful winters in Toronto on the brink of hypothermia. Even in subzero temperatures, my outdoor attire was little more than a thin ski jacket and flimsy leather boots. Between the two were knee socks and a very short uniform kilt. I survived winter virtually bare-legged and spent months cursing the cold while speed-walking home and praying desperately for the first signs of spring. Sound familiar?

Then I moved to even colder Montreal for university and was spellbound at the gusto with which the locals embraced my least favourite season. On frigid January weekends, they gathered on Mont Royal, families in tow, for an afternoon walk. "What on earth?!” I thought. At the Winter Carnival in Quebec City, I stumbled upon an outdoor play – an outdoor play! And it was a full house, with people sitting on snow-covered benches intently watching, children included. Stranger yet, they looked happy. Years later, it’s no surprise Quebec opened the continent’s first, and only, Ice Hotel.

But the Quebeckers I encountered were bundled up warmly in hats, scarves and proper winter boots – there wasn’t a thin jacket in sight. In other words, they were warm. I wasn’t. Time to go shopping.

And just like that, I discovered how tolerable winter could be when you’re dressed for it. For the first time in my life, it was winter and I wasn’t covered in goosebumps. It was a revelation. My walking slowed down, I noticed the views and I was no longer consumed with the thought of reaching the great indoors, counting the minutes it would take to get me there.

Still, I was tickled pink when I set off for Cologne, Germany for a year of study, relishing the thought of a warm-ish, snowless winter, with the temperature staying well above zero. Yes please, I thought, as I put my down-filled parka into storage. See you in a year. What I failed to realize was that Cologne, similar to most of northern Europe, was covered in a thick, lifeless cloud from about October through to March. I de facto traded blazing sunshine and crisp, white snow for endless rain, leafless trees and more shades of grey than I could count (the sexless kind). It was grim.

On the one occasion it did snow – only to melt as soon as it hit the ground – my university class halted mid-lesson and all the students rushed to the window to watch. These were people in their 20s, not toddlers. And just like that it hit me: I missed winter. I missed the snow, the whiteness, the crunch under my feet, and most of all, I missed waking up to a brilliant winter wonderland.

Not long after, I moved to Kyiv, Ukraine for work, and watched enraptured as the stunning, historic city metamorphosed into a Doctor Zhivago-esque landscape every winter. I got a dog and spent hours strolling through its many parks, watching my pooch jump with boundless energy through the snow. I discovered long underwear and expanded my winter wardrobe – if there’s anything that will teach you to dress for the cold, it’s a dog in need of a daily walk. I’d head to the majestic, brightly lit Christmas tree set up on the Maidan, the main square, where everyone would gather to drink, sing songs and, somewhat strangely, eat ice cream. No longer did I just like winter, I loved it.

I wasn’t alone. Since then, I’ve travelled to many wintry destinations where I feel at one with others who, like me, embrace the season, be it in Copenhagen, with its outdoor patios still in full operation in February, woolen blankets folded over chairs and portable heaters dotting the floors, or small, picturesque ski towns at the tip of Italy, where everyone gets decked out in their finest (warmest) gear for the evening passeggiata.

Then I returned to Toronto, the land of chronic winter-weather complainers, where even the weather forecasters join in with their menacing predictions of a heavy “dump.” “Must they compare a brilliant clean snowfall with such an, um, unsanitary activity?” I thought. I was amazed at the overwhelming winter bashing whenever the temperature dipped below zero. So pervasive has this habit become it’s now ritualized, with everyone adding their own knee-jerk response, usually along the lines of, “Only [insert number] more months until spring!” It’s like a wacky weather version of Waiting for Godot. And because misery loves company, there’s a snowball effect (pun very much intended).

Come winter, everyone here talks of wanting to pack their bags and head to Mexico. I want to pack my dog and head to High Park. Embracing winter has become the domain of a tiny few – an outcast group of winter warriors ready to buck the trend and smile at the first snowflake. Whenever I mention my love of winter, all conversation stops. Try it sometime, it’s quite amusing. Then I brace myself for what I know is coming: “You must ski.” Because, of course, only a skier could be crazy enough to enjoy the season. As it happens, I do, but not nearly enough for it to make a dent. Do people in Norway go through this, I wonder.

Even Newfoundlanders, digging themselves out of a record-breaking blizzard, are looking at the bright (or should I say white) side of things. Twitter is teeming with the more comical moments of #Snowmageddon2020, including a young man stepping onto a massive pile of snow in shorts, beach chair under his arm, sitting down to pop open a bottle of beer. “What storm?” he tweets. In another, someone aptly points out that only Newfoundlanders could experience the storm of the century and make the rest of us feel as though we’re missing out on all the fun. So true.

A final word to all the winter kvetchers out there: please stop. It’s tiresome listening to your endless moaning for five months of the year. Go buy a parka instead. Maybe throw in a pair of snowshoes and take a hike … through one of the magnificent trails north of the city. You’d be amazed at how beautiful it is.

It’s tough being a winter-lover in Toronto. It’s also tough still seeing hatless people on the streets, shivering in their thin jackets and likely dreaming of Caribbean vacations, more underground walkways and maybe even – gasp – global warming. Just yesterday, on one of the most bone-chilling days in decades, I saw someone in sneakers. It felt like déjà vu. “It doesn’t have to be this way!” I wanted to yell. “I know. I was once one of you.”

Luckily, I’m not any longer. Haven’t been in decades. Winter in Canada? Bring it on.

Roma Ihnatowycz lives in Toronto.