“What good is the warmth of summer without the cold of winter to give it sweetness?”
~ John Steinbeck ~
Before I embarked on my journey abroad, there was one aspect of my exchange that potentially scared me as much as it excited me, and that was the prospect of winter. It is well-known that Canada is cold, and I got my first hint of just how much so by the fact that my university here has only two terms: a Fall one and a Winter one. There is no spring. Saying that, don’t be fooled into thinking that Canadians spend all their time bundled up indoors – when I first arrived in Montréal at the end of summer, the average temperature was around 30˚C! Unfortunately, that didn’t last long. By the end of November, there was enough snow on the ground to have warranted a week off school and work had we been in the UK. But this is Montréal, and everyone here is somewhat more resilient in the face of a few snowflakes.
However, since coming back from Christmas, ready for the fresh start of a new semester, I’ve realised that there is a lot more to winter in Canada than just snow and ice. People don’t hide from the cold or the wet here, they embrace it. Right now, there is so much going on in Montréal – possibly more than there was during the summer! Winter fairs, festivals, ice rinks, cross-country skiing… the list is endless and as I reach the halfway point of my exchange, I want to experience as much as possible. And so, the other week, a friend and I decided to head over to Lac Aux Castors (or Beaver Lake for all you Anglophones) on the other side of Mont Royal, which has been transformed into a mystical winter wonderland for the season. Every Friday night, skaters can have the pleasure of gliding along beneath a canopy of coloured lights whilst fittingly seasonal music is played in the background, turning the whole lake into a scene straight out of a Hallmark Christmas film.
The first stage of our escapade, however, revolved around just getting there. Beaver Lake is roughly a half hour walk away if you choose to go around the mountain, possibly less if you feel athletic enough to go over it. However, that estimate usually refers to the journey being made when the route taken is not covered in about a foot of snow that has, over the Christmas holidays, frozen literally into solid ice. I kid you not: at one point, my friend and I were forced to pretty much climb up at steep slope of solid ice (hiding under which there were allegedly some stairs), using the handrail as leverage and making sure we wedged our feet against the ice to stop us from sliding back down. And all of this in the pitch black because, it being winter, the sun sets at 4pm and neither of us could spare a hand to use our phones as torches. Frodo’s journey into Mordor probably required less effort, and by the time we made it to the top both of us were laughing too hard to feel too cold.
Eventually, we made it to the lake and, after having to slide down the hill on our backpacks because it too was frozen over, we were ready to (literally) get our skates on. I think the last time I went skating was possibly about five years ago, and even then I’ve only been twice in my whole life. Amazingly, however, I managed somehow not to fall over, apart from the first time I tried to stand up of course (tip: it helps if you remember to straighten your legs instead of just sliding straight from the bench to the ground… at least I did it gracefully). Skating beneath the stars, in -10˚C temperatures whilst the ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ played in the background (no song has ever epitomised my skating style more) is definitely something I have never experienced before, and in short, it was amazing. It’s moments like this one that characterise study abroad, making it something you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
It’s crazy to think that this time last year, I was only just starting to fill out my application for McGill, and at times hardly daring to believe that I had been lucky enough to get assigned my first choice of destination. Sometimes I find myself wondering how things might have turned out if I had either stayed at Lancaster for my second year, or perhaps gone somewhere else, such as Australia or Hong Kong. Needless to say, however, I am grateful that I was given the opportunity to come to Montréal, as there are things I’ve experienced here I wouldn’t have got the chance to anywhere else – such as clambering over enormous snow drifts that have frozen solid. With only half of the year left before I return to the UK, I’m excited to see what Canada has in store for me next…