I knew for certain that things had veered off-kilter when my brother announced that, because he would soon be spending time outside in the freezing cold, he was buying a battery-heated hoodie. I won’t lie; this shocked me. I’d always thought that the thing that united Renzettis was a loathing of winter. If the universe had intended us to be outside between December and April, it would have covered us in fur – well, more fur.
Now my brother will arrive to all of our outdoor family gatherings both smug and snug, forcing the rest of us to step up our game. I won’t be the only person in my family or this country rummaging around in the bottom drawer for old long johns that smell (if lucky) like mothballs.
The general consensus is that if we’re going to get through the next several months with all our marbles intact, we’re going to have to learn to be outside for stretches of time. Epidemiologists agree that socializing outdoors is a wiser proposition than indoors, in order to combat the spread of COVID-19. But what does that mean for those of us who hate winter? It’s blasphemous for a Canadian to admit, I know, but it’s a widely shared blasphemy; after all, if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t be a nation that migrates south in a great arrow of RVs every winter.
The outdoor-cave preparations have already begun. According to the CBC, patio heaters are “flying off the shelves” and retailers are struggling to keep them in stock. This is confirmed by a friend, who overcame her aversion to Amazon to buy a heating lamp when she couldn’t find one in a shop. Another friend plans to create “a nice, warm little ecosystem” in his backyard with three patio heaters, an electric blanket and a fire pit. It’s all very Dr. Zhivago, if Yuri and Lara had propane torches and extension cords.
But all these little pagan oases of heat and light won’t be enough to banish the winter gloom for everyone. For that, we need community leaders to step up and think outside the (ice)box. A good proportion of city-dwellers don’t have access to any private outdoor space, and those leaders are going to need to provide public places to gather and have some fun.
Winter sports such as hockey and skiing are prohibitively expensive for many, and require a steep learning curve. But what about skating, tobogganing or snowshoeing? Surely cities could set up skate exchanges fairly easily, for people to borrow or trade skates. Skating trails and rinks could be properly maintained and kept open late. Snowshoe trails could be marked through city parks and ravines. Tobogganing – which requires only a sheet of plastic and a willing backside – should be encouraged, instead of sternly frowned upon as it is in many city parks.
“Cities should also invest in places to loiter,” Alexandra Lange writes in a Bloomberg CityLab story about learning to love winter. She suggests cities (and restaurants) learn from après-ski areas to make outdoor spaces more inviting, using everything from patio heaters to hay-bale windbreaks.
She makes another crucial point about how the coming season must be approached with fairness and access in mind. That means keeping sidewalks, paths and bike lanes clear of ice and snow, to ensure that people with mobility issues can access the outdoors without having to worry about their physical safety. This does not happen in the best years, and this is not the best year. But perhaps we can take this worst year and give it one moment of grace.
I’ve lived in two cities besides Toronto that knew how to throw a winter party. In London, even a dusting of snow would send the toughest of black-cab drivers sobbing to the pub, but the British still managed to put bells on the darkest months. The fifth of November – Guy Fawkes Night – is a festival of bonfires, sausage-eating, and the ill-advised mixing of alcohol and fireworks. It is, literally, a blast. In December, all of London descends on the ice rinks set up at historic sites such as the Tower of London to skate badly while northern European expats swoop around them.
In Berlin, where I spent the past year, Christmas is its own season, a month-long, jewel-bright string of markets fuelled by roasted chestnuts and gluhwein. A few weeks before Christmas, I stood in the freezing rain at a medieval market, throwing an axe at a target shaped like a bear (yes, there was gluhwein involved). No one seemed to mind the icy drizzle as they bought candles and chatted with their friends. I thought: We could do this in Canada. We have freezing rain. We have axes. And this winter, we will have time, endless hours, and nothing to fill it.
I’ve been amazed at the way Torontonians have turned to their parks and ravines and beaches this summer, creating a mad, spontaneous stage for music and play and fun. I spent my days walking through those parks and wondering if this unbuttoned hedonist was really the Toronto I’d known all my life.
My favourite escape was the wonderful Ontario Place, where I kayaked and biked and listened to jazz. It’s magical in summer, but what many people might not know is that it’s also magical in winter. In past years there’s been a festival of illuminated sculptures, a skating rink and fire pits blazing against the black lake. Once you’re properly bundled, you can sit there for hours, looking up at the stars and imagining a time – hopefully soon – when we can go back inside again.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.