This is the second installment of my new series Storytime Saturday, in which I publish a personal essay that was previously shared to subscribers of my newsletter The Wherever Weekly. Some of the essays I write will be shared only to my email list, so if you want to make sure you never miss a story, be sure to sign up for The Wherever Weekly here.
. . .
November 20, 2016. The first snowfall of the season in Toronto.
I am lying on my back in bed about to drift to sleep when I notice something on the skylight above me: a smattering of slush obscuring the glass.
I throw the sheets off and run out my front door in nothing but a Florida T-shirt and shorts. The cold air stings my legs and my bare soles crunch ice on the deck.
“It’s SNOWING!” I whisper yell to the night sky. The waning gibbous moon is a hazy yellow glow.
I pick up some of the fallen snow. It is loose and slushy, not the beautiful snowflakes I was hoping for. Maybe in the morning, when the winds pick up and the temperatures drop even more, there will be better snow. Real snow.
I toss and turn all night in anticipation.
The next morning I rush to get ready. The forecast shows snowfall at 11 a.m., and I don’t want to miss it.
When you are born and raised in Florida, you spend much of your life pining for the white stuff. You harbor romantic notions of what it must be like to fall backward in freshly fallen snow, giggling euphorically as you make snow angels and snowmen. You fantasize about snowball fights and toboggan rides, and believe snowflakes fall in perfect little star-like shapes that are as big as your face, just like in the cartoons.
As I’m getting ready, I glance out the front door window and see specks of white streaking across the deck. I throw on a down jacket and my best winter shoes, which are year-old boots I wore all over Paris that now have holes in the heels and toes.
A hush has fallen over Trinity Bellwoods. The park is normally filled with hipsters sitting on benches reading books, children frolicking in fallen leaves, and hurried bicyclists dodging pedestrians. But now I have the park almost entirely to myself. There isn’t nearly enough snow to play in, so I take my DSLR and seize the opportunity to take photographs without feeling self conscious.
Fifteen minutes later, the park roars to life. I had assumed people were holed up indoors avoiding the snow, but now I realize they were taking their time layering on their winter clothes. They emerge from their homes decked out in hats, mittens, boots, and heavy coats and stroll along like this is all totally normal, while I resist the urge to skip through the park with my mouth open trying to eat snow. The wind picks up, and I feel foolish for not having any gloves or hats to protect my extremities. Water has seeped into the openings of my old boots. My toes have gone numb.
I board the crowded 505 streetcar and head downtown to church. That’s when, for the first time since coming to Toronto more than two months ago, I run into someone I have seen before.
October 2nd around 8 a.m. The morning after Nuit Blanche, an all-night art crawl in Toronto. I was drowsily riding the escalator up from the subway station, headed home after wandering downtown since 2 a.m.
“I like your boots!” someone above me chirped.
I glanced up to see a young woman with a pierced eyebrow and messy hair pulled up into a bun. She lifted her right leg to try to show me her boots, and in the process, nearly fell over.
“Sorry,” she said sheepishly. “I’m still a little tipsy.”
As I walked out of the subway station, I couldn’t help but smile at such a sweet exchange in a place where people try so hard not to meet each other’s gaze.
And here she is again, in a completely different part of the city, boarding the streetcar I am on. I wonder if she will recognize me. I am wearing the same boots.
She stands behind me in silence, and then I hear her coo, “I like your hat!” to the little girl behind her.
The little girl must have said thank you because I hear her say, “You’re welcome!” and then to the mom, “She is so cute. I have a little girl at home. Mine’s 8 going on 18!”
The two mothers laugh. When the little girl disembarks with her mom, the Compliment Lady shouts, “Have a great day!” From the sound of her voice, I can tell she is smiling widely. I feel like smiling too.
When I reach the church, I hurry to the washrooms, strip off my soaked wool socks and boots, and rub my frozen toes back to life. This is my breaking point. I decide it’s time to finally invest in some winter clothes.
After mass, I make my way toward the Eaton Centre, which is, as far as I know, the only place in all of Toronto where you can find anything and everything.
By now the snow falls more frantically, creating a thin veil of white temporarily lifted by passing pedestrians.
Doesn’t anybody realize how beautiful they are when they’re walking around in snowfall? Perfectly symmetrical hexagons made of ice that has fallen from the sky hang off the tips of your eyelashes, gather in the folds of your jacket, and, when they melt, turn into glistening diamonds dripping off your torso. You are shimmering. You are glowing. I can’t stop staring at everyone I pass.
As I walk along, I notice a hoard of people on University Avenue, where police have blocked off the road and are directing a streetcar to slowly squeeze through the crowd.
I have stumbled upon the annual Santa Claus Parade. As if this day could get any better.
Though my hands are cold and the feeling is once again draining from my toes, I take a place in the crowd and crane my neck, trying to spot Santa. Instead, I see Canadian Postal Service workers collecting letters to Santa from the children in the crowd; clowns carrying handmade photo frames, which they place over their heads to pose for parade revelers; the Toronto Police Pipe Band (established 1912) marching proudly, their red kilts peeking out from underneath long black coats; and the mayor of Toronto rocking a red-and-white blazer with Christmas trees and reindeer on it…and a matching tie.
To my right, a woman in a black parka and checkered scarf holds a box of Tim Horton’s Timbits (which are basically donut holes, but I am told by Wikipedia are not really donut holes because they “are, in fact, made with their own cutter.”). Snowflakes speckle her dark hair. The Canadian flag waves proudly behind her.
I don’t think I have ever witnessed a more Canadian scene. I want to stand here forever and soak in the glory of it all—but my toes are numb again.
I continue my journey to the Eaton Centre, where a bookstore cashier recommends a shoe store on the lower floor.
Buying winter boots is particularly thrilling. I feel like I’m being admitted into some secret club or completing a rite of passage. I try on boots for an hour and keep walking to and fro and checking my look in the mirror. An employee keeps asking me how I’m doing, which I take is the nice way of saying, “Why are you still here? Please make a decision and leave.”
When I finally check out, I notice another woman purchasing the same boots I have in hand, which makes me feel strangely proud of my decision, like the whole of Canada is nodding its head in approval. The cashier is telling the woman she should buy special inserts to keep the boots from getting smelly when moist. As I approach the counter, I secretly hope she will make this same suggestion to me. She does. I eagerly buy the inserts because if this is how Canadians do winter things, then I want every part of it.
Before leaving the store, I take off my old shoes and don my new winter boots. They may be the heaviest shoes I’ve ever owned, with thick, fierce grips on the soles and laces that snake all the way up my ankles, where extra padding protects them from the cold.
By now it is 34 degrees outside, and the snow is mixed in with 27 mile-per-hour winds, but I choose to walk home. To miss out on an opportunity like this seems foolish.
When the wind gusts, the snowflakes pelt my face, but my dumb smile remains. When everyone is honking their horns in the bottleneck near Bay and Dundas, I keep smiling and walking.
I observe everyone closely and try to match them. A woman passes by, and I notice the brim of her beanie (in Canada, it’s called a “toque,” which is pronounced something like “tewk”) grazes the tops of her eyebrows, so I pull my newly-bought toque down farther over my forehead. Another woman passes by, and I take note of the legwarmers that peek over the tops of her knee-high black boots, and I tell myself I’ll have to find legwarmers like that.
On the home stretch of my journey, I keep stealing glances of my reflection in shop windows. I hardly recognize the girl! Gray toque hat pulled low over her brow, its oversized pompom bobbing carelessly on the back of her head; large yellow scarf wrapped loosely around her neck, her newly-dyed hair in a ponytail wrapped over it as a second scarf; navy down puffer jacket zipped as high as it will go (which is uncomfortably close to her chin); brand new snow boots with thick brown wool socks folded down over the ankles. Her mouth is slightly agape with a half-smile, and she has this twinkle in her eye that seems to say, “Watch me now.” She looks happy. I like her. I hope she comes around more often.
. . .
This essay first appeared in The Wherever Weekly, my Sunday newsletter, on November 27, 2016. To be the first to access my latest personal essays, blog posts, and travel and creativity tips, subscribe to The Wherever Weekly here.