Winter in Canada helped me quit smoking.
I had already quit my pack-a-day habit about five or six times by that point, and I even once managed to relapse after three months without a cigarette. Then the first snowstorm happened, and the next, and getting out on the balcony for a smoke became an immense ordeal – the bulky parka, the wind chill, the frostbite, the coldness of a breath that burns your lungs.
It was entirely too much trouble, too undignified to bring the cigarette up to my mouth with a shaking hand just to get the little nicotine infusion out in the cold.
We are now in the midst of our second winter in Canada. My wife and I arrived here in the autumn of 2018 but this year we have a nine-month-old little Arab-Canadian who was born in the interim and who has made the winters a little bit warmer.
If you arrive in Canada outside the five-month window from November to March, you will hear plenty of stories about winter, often in hushed tones accentuated by worried frowns from fellow immigrants. Their advice often boils down to finding ways to not be in town during the peak cold of January and February. Canadians are often apologetic about the whole thing.
Everyone I knew seemed to have a story about their first injury from slipping on the ice, or the pain after rushing home and trying to warm their freezing hands by running hot water all over them (never do that), or waiting for half an hour in piercing cold for a bus that never arrives.
It was quite depressing, that first cold snap. Autumn quickly turned into winter as though wanting to just hurry up and get it over with. We had not yet made friends or explored the city, and getting used to being indoors felt suffocating after years in the Middle East. Our last stop had been Istanbul, where we were a 10-minute walk from a commuter ferry that sails over the glittering waters of the Bosphorus, while taking in the magnificent view of the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace.
Winter here felt like a prison by contrast. You could go out if you dressed up in enough layers but it was not particularly appetising to wade through the slush and penguin-walk over the ice on your way to an indoor space. The novelty of falling snow wore off every time I had to lug out heavy winter boots or my phone’s battery died in the chill, or when I contemplated the barren trees in a nearby park. I could not wait for the snow to melt, for the verdant green to take hold again.
But what I realised this year was this – what I had really missed was the warmth of family and friendship. As a new immigrant, everything is just a little colder, a little more bittersweet. Often when I was walking in downtown Montreal, or catching a ride on a crowded subway and saw two star-crossed lovers or a multi-generational family exchanging soft-spoken words I wondered to myself – did they have to give up another life to be here? Was it all worth it in the end, to raise a child so far from all that we know?
This year, our little one is nine months old, and everything is softer, bathed in inner warmth. The falling snow blanketing the streets twinkles a bright white instead of a sludgy gray. The breeze is refreshing, rather than frigid, the cold seeping through a chance for a tighter hug.
The cynicism and pessimism melt away when we are both pressed up against the window, watching the fresh snowfall, the lights flickering on and off in the windows across the street. It still takes a long time to get everybody ready to go out for a walk. Us, him, the stroller lining, the poncho that keeps him warm, the cover that shields him from the freezing rain. But it is all worth the look of wonder in his eyes as he takes it all in.
I wonder how different his childhood will be from mine. Will he like ice hockey and skating or play football like I did? Will he want to throw snowballs around or settle in my lap with a blanket as I read him a story?
For now, it does not matter. It does not feel like it is below zero when I step outside.
Kareem Shaheen is a former Middle East correspondent based in Canada