Magic of a winter in Canada


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Category: Travel Date: 27 Jan 00

As I write this I am wearing the following: long johns and top with long sleeves, two sweaters, heavy cardigan, oversize winter coat (ballooning out like those life jackets they show you on the plane), jeans, two pairs of socks and huge boots. I have on two woolly hats, ear muffs and two pairs of gloves. I’m sure there are seasoned Canadians who can walk around in jeans and trainers in this weather, but at this point I definitely feel like a cold West Indian. I look like I’m pregnant with twins. I have chapped lips and numbed hands. I can’t feel my feet, they must have fallen off. Perhaps they are thawing. Why, I ask myself (listening to the whistling wind outside, the crunch of feet on snow, the slide and slip of tyres on ice) am I in Toronto where it is below 18 degrees in late January?


The answer: a perverse curiosity, a mixture of  relentless desire for experience with nostalgia, which defies good judgment. In planning this trip, I was thinking university in a beautiful town called Peterborough, all gently rolling hills and blue wide frozen lakes upon which free-spirited students skated. I was thinking walks in the woods, moonlight setting jagged icicles ablaze like giant six-carat diamonds on trees. I was thinking roads paved with gold and rust autumn leaves. I was thinking ‘slippin’n’slidin’ across a frozen quad in the middle of student housing. I was thinking being 17 again. I was thinking The Fairie Queen, the Ice Maiden magic. I was not thinking Toronto.


Toronto, as a friend working for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation tells me, is - after her 10-year stint in London - like being in a winter cottage. Even downtown Toronto has a suburban feel to it. On working days, the streets and subways have that bare, Sunday look. It’s boring to shop in the large malls because, after peeling off eight layers and many tights and stockings and heavy boots to try on a T-shirt or a dress, you are exhausted and need a fattening calorie-infested meal to fortify yourself before venturing out into the cold again. Not being able to shop, as every woman knows, is depressing enough to put you on Prozac.


Which is not to say Toronto doesn’t have all the big city trappings. Cinemas with ten screens, all-night Internet centres, coffee shops, clubs, theatre, enormous bookshops where you can spend all day reading with your feet up and drinking coffee in between, old period type buildings in the University of Toronto colleges, classical music in stone buildings in the evening and smoky jazzy clubs by night.


You can find Chinatown here, “Little China” they call it, and “Little India” and “Little Italy” and many other pockets of immigrant culture. There is still a big influx of Russian Jews. Toronto is still very much the land of promise. Still, looking back at our moment of landing, I am definitely baffled at why all the passengers on the BWIA flight had to go through the humiliating experience of having our passports checked before we got off the plane. I was told it was because so many Guyanese and Trinis rip their passports to shreds and flush them down the already clogged airport toilets in order to seek “refugee” status here, without papers. They are generally farmed out to their families and then go underground. OK, there not coming here to be tourists. They’re coming here to make money. But why leave the sunshine and freeze your buns off in a dingy apartment when you can be warm in a dingy one at home? Now I know why Trinis in the diaspora, even if they haven’t eaten cascadura, always want to come home, and never completely assimilate.


Magic. We were talking about magic. Despite it all, it’s here. I found pools of magic. Walking across Queen’s Park (there must be one like that in every colonial city in the world) in the snow, with squirrels in every tree, in crisp bright sunshine was one such time. There’s magic in remembering that this dreary city is not representative of Canada - that this is a vast country with jagged Rockies, and miles of lakes, and breathtaking beauty, in miles of white water and still lakes.


But the magic of Canada is mostly in her people. Many people say Canadians and Americans split hairs over identity. That they are actually the same people. Well they’re not. I found in Canadians (and this is a vast generalisation, a sketchy cameo) a kind of innocence which I fell in love with so many years ago. You see it in the way they dance, a frenetic (almost comic to a Trini, I’m sure) movement of arms and legs and, unlike our liquid Trini wine (which can be anything from a sensuous easy celebration of one’s body to a raucous longing for sex in public), it is unsophisticated and does not involve the loins. It’s a kind of alive and energetic movement of a child. It’s not sexy but endearing; a tender, unselfconscious embrace of life.


There’s magic in the people I met here. People who I knew as students and who now represent the average middle class Canadian young adult. They have, all of them, a strong sense of justice. They express concern that, although the economy is doing well, wealth is being increasingly put in the hands of a few; gradually erasing the middle class and creating an enormous underclass; that social benefits are being increasingly cut back, that a kind of ruthless capitalism has tarred their generally middle of the road government. But that’s in their serious moments, when they reveal their souls. Apart from that, there is a huge curiosity: an open mind about the world, about other cultures, and an abundance of laughter and generosity and sincerity.


Which goes to show - you never find magic when you set out to look for it. You find it in unexpected corners. And it always has the added dimension of surprise.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur