I’ve been looking through my old photos lately and discovered many that have never seen the light of Flickr. These were all taken on cold days in January and February 2005. There’s something about the crisp blue skies that makes me yearn for the sharp, dry chill of winter air, but only for about five minutes.
Porte ouverte vers le froid, Outremont
C’est l’hivers, dans un Montréal de vent et de glace. Les fenêtres qui craquent, les portes qui claquent.
D’un souffle brusque, les carreaux qui vascillent maladroitement, menaçant d’éclater. Et par bourrasque, cette folle poudrerie qui vient s’agglutiner sur ma terrasse, au troisième niveau d’une sombre demeure outremontoise.
On attend que le ciel termine sa colère et puis, lorsque le calme renaît, j’ouvre lentement cette vieille porte qui me protège de toi.
Je te retrouve, jouant dans la neige, comme à tes six ans. Une boule de glace et quelques branches qui fouettent le ciel, et voilà un maladroit bonhomme, qui demain se dispersera. Comme une poupée qui prend le large, dans cette barque au large mat.
Et je t’entend crier, dans cet infini destin. Bruit sourd de tes pensées lourdes, enterrées par cet hivers qui efface les rires, comme ces pas dans la neige, et ces sourires dans la nuit.
C’est ainsi que l’hivers t’a vu partir, vers un destin qu’on ne connait pas.
Le passant et la neige, Outremont
Ste. Catherine Street
In the middle of winter, when you wake up, look out the window and see brilliant sunshine, it can mean only one thing: it’s really, really cold outside.
Photos courtesy Le présent du passé.
Sphères polaires at the Place des Festival
By the time February rolls around, Montreal has already been buried in snow for a couple of months and your mental map of the city has changed considerably. Places you’d normally linger — the steps at Place des Arts, the plaza in front of Mont-Royal metro, the giant chess board in Berri Square — have vanished from the landscape, inaccessible under the snow, unpleasant in the sub-zero wind.
Montreal’s seasonal extremes are a challenge to urban planning: how do you create a vibrant place that can function just as well on a frigid January day as on a balmy August night? Some spaces are more adaptable than others. Neighbourhood retail streets will always be lively, since people still need to hit up the supermarket, coffee shop and drug store even when it’s cold. Park lawns make good toboggan slopes and hockey rinks in the winter. But hard-surfaced plazas and squares — those quintessentially urban spaces — have a hard time finding much use between December and April.
For most of the years I lived in Montreal, the only time of the winter when a downtown square came back to life was during February’s Nuit Blanche festival, when performances and light installations take over the snowbound tarmac at Place des Arts. Lately, however, some of the ideas behind that one night of wintertime festivities has been extended throughout the winter. Last year, the recently-built Place des Festivals played host to Champ de pixels, which transformed the square into a giant Lite Brite studded with illuminated “pixels” made from overturned plastic buckets. Each bucket was equipped with motion sensors; when you walked by, the colour of the light shifted from white to red.
“Everyone’s talking about the weather,” runs a loose translation of an old German political poster, “except us.” The slogan was used to parody a period railroad ad that trumpeted the Deutsche Bahn’s storm-resistant resilience, but it also attempted a deeper point: that meaningful politics is serious business, above the fray of such trivial, provincial preoccupations as the latest shower, hail, or frost.
In a recent essay at 3 Quarks Daily, Alyssa Pelish takes the other side of the argument. At first, she wonders whether talking about the three-day forecast might really be a sort of code obscuring some underlying purpose — functioning as a form of empathy, for example. Ultimately, she sees an even greater significance in sharing news about the weather: it provides one of the few “universally shared narratives” available to everyone.
It’s true that everyone experiences weather, full stop. But the way we do seems like it might be more effective at fostering individual communities rather than any single, universal one. Think, for example, of a snowstorm, when the collective, Herculean task of removing tons and tons of heavy, disruptive white stuff requires a city’s residents to work together — and, together, to interact with their government — at the most intimate, personal level.
It started with the new white curtains my girlfriend and I bought for our bedroom in Hong Kong. They’re opaque enough to block any potential embarrassment but shear enough to let light through, because there’s nothing I hate more than waking up in a dark room. After we installed them, they had an unintended effect. Sitting in the living room in the afternoon, my eye would wander to the bedroom, where for a second the slightly transparent curtains would trick me into thinking the window was iced over.
Later, lying in bed one sleepless night, I heard the sound of a shovel being scraped across pavement. My mind drifted to snowy nights in Montreal, when neighbours would get a head start on the falling snow by clearing their steps and front walks before going to bed. It created a peculiar chorus to the muffled hymn of car tires and footsteps trudging through the snow.
Recently, I’ve come to appreciate the seasonality of Canadian weather, which I took for granted until I moved to Hong Kong two and a half years ago. Hong Kong does have distinct seasons — I never realized 12 degrees could feel so cold until I experienced my first winter monsoon, when a chilly, dry wind blows from the north — but the differences between them are subtle. Only a small proportion of trees here lose their leaves in the winter; the best way to tell what season it is is by which tree flowers are blooming.
C’est mon premier hiver. Si j’y survis, je fêterai ma première année passée à Montréal.
22h30. Bus 80, direction Nord. Il est là, je l’attend. Place des Arts. Froid intense : trente-cinq degrés sous zéro, avec un vent qui fouette à faire tomber les larmes.
L’engin reste sur place, adossé à cette promenade des festivals dont je ne comprends ni le sens, ni la dimension. Ses lampadaires galactiques imposent leurs courbatures lourdes sur la ville, éclairant railleusement un tas de neige géant. Un no man’s land. C’est bien. Et puis le MACM, chapeauté par un cube imposant et sombre, qui tiraille les lumières rouges dans un mouvement apaisant.
Houhai is one of three lakes (the others are Qianhai and Xihai) in central Beijing. It dates back to the twelfth century, after which it became the northernmost part of the Grand Canal, linking the northern capital with Hangzhou in the south. Houhai today is surrounded by one of Beijing’s largest remaining collections of ancient hutong neighbourhoods. Some have been aggressively redeveloped as nightlife and tourist destinations, but further from the lake there are still some streets whose gentrification has taken a more gradual path.
Groundhog Day, one of the more bizarre American holidays, is a major industry in the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. This is where the legendary Punxsutawney Phil makes his annual prediction on how much longer winter will last. Every year, ten to forty thousand people crowd the inappropriately named “Gobbler’s Knob” to see men in top hats yank a rodent from a tree stump and share its predictions with the crowd. This scene will be familiar to anyone who has seen the movie Groundhog Day. Although allegedly set in Punxsutawney, most of it was actually filmed in the quaint town of Woodstock, Illinois.
Getting around in winter is a challenge wherever it snows. Montreal, after a few predictable glitches following the first couple of storms, usually does a pretty good job in making walking and, increasingly, biking possible. Skiing, too: the cross country trail on Mount Royal now takes off from the intersection of Pine and Park, and winds up to the carriage road, laid out by Frederick Law Olmsted 130 years ago. That’s part of the skyline in the background, but it doesn’t look to me like the guy on skis is going to work!
Season’s greetings to all from someone who doesn’t ski or bike but who loves to walk.
It was not exactly warm on the afternoon of January 24 as I stood at the corner of University and President Kennedy, waiting for a bus, shivering and sliding back and forth on the icy sidewalk.