Josna Rege

234. “Ah, bitter chill it was!”

In 1970s, clothing, Inter/Transnational, places, seasons, Stories, travel on December 2, 2013 at 3:54 pm
Le Château Frontenac (fairmont.com-frontenac-quebec)

Le Château Frontenac (fairmont.com-frontenac-quebec)

It is an incontrovertible fact that if you are cold you will be unable to think of anything besides the fact that you are utterly miserable. (There is only one exception to this truth, but it does not bode well for your survival: If you are intoxicated with alcohol you may feel warmer, but in fact your core body temperature is lowered, making you even more likely to succumb to hypothermia.) I speak of this cold-induced misery from bitter experience, one that I have not forgotten though it happened nearly forty years ago.

It was early February, 1975, I had just moved into the Co-op House at university when a contingent of Co-opers announced that they were about to embark on a road trip up to Québec in Canada for the City’s annual Winter Carnival, or Mardi Gras in the snow. Eager to make friends, I asked to be counted in, and after hastily throwing a nightgown, toothbrush, and change of clothes into a bag, I pulled on my warmest jacket and squeezed into one of the two cars in our caravan up North. I was full of anticipation, since we left in the middle of the night, my favorite time to set out on an adventure, and I had never been to Québec City before. But there was one thing I had not anticipated, and by the time I began to be aware of the scope of the problem, we were well on our way, somewhere in the wilds of Maine.

The problem was the cold. Not just your ordinary kind of cold, the kind you can keep at bay with a woolly scarf and mittens, but the “bitter chill” of Keats’ The Eve of St. Agnes—deep, penetrating, bone-chilling cold—aided by Arctic winds sculpting a frigid snowscape. I first began to realize what I had got myself into when, for a hundred miles or more, it seemed, there had been nothing to be seen to the right or to the left of us but endless banks of ice and snow. I realized that I was colder than I had ever been before, although already wearing every article of warm clothing that I owned, and wedged in a crowded car to boot. Listening to the weather forecast on the radio, someone reported that the temperatures were well into the negative numbers, without even counting the wind chill factor, and that still colder weather was on its way. My feet were already numb, like blocks of ice; what would happen when I had to go outside? Panic started to rise in me, and I wanted to cry out that I had changed my mind and I needed to turn back. But we were already halfway there, and I seemed to be the only one in my predicament. Everyone else was wearing hooded down parkas, thermal gloves and socks, and insulated snow boots; somehow I had managed to get through four New England winters without owning any of these items.

Chateau-Frontenac-Winter

Arriving in Québec we pulled up at Le Château Frontenac, an ultra-grand hotel that looked like a glittering palace, sparkling frostily, not only with lights, but also with ice-crystals. I couldn’t wait to get inside, where I envisioned blazing fires, hot toddies, and curtained four-poster beds piled high with sumptuous eiderdown comforters. My one goal was to dive deep into one of those beds and to remain there, drinking tea, for the duration. Unfortunately, that was not to be. My friends had assured me that we would all pool our resources and wouldn’t need much money at all, and I had taken them at their word. The plan was to muck in 7 or 8 to a room so as to save money on the hotel; but what I hadn’t realized was that the hotel allowed only two to a room—at most, three—and that the two in whose name the room was booked were to go in first, while the rest of us had to lurk in the shadows and sneak in surreptitiously, one at a time, without being noticed. Of course it was those fortunate documented two who got the bed, while the rest of us had to camp out on the floor. Since we were personae non grata, we had to skulk and slink about all weekend, and it goes without saying that there were to be no cozy evenings by a roaring fire, since we had to make ourselves scarce. In any case, there were no evenings indoors, because, as I soon learned to my horror, the entire demonic purpose of the Winter Carnival weekend was to spend as much time as possible out of doors.

In quick succession, we took an excursion on the St. Laurence River on the deck of an ice-breaking ferry, tobogganed down an impossibly steep ice chute adjacent to the hotel, and visited an exhibition of ice sculptures in a nearby park, where, it seemed it was obligatory to go down yet another ice slide, this time on our uncushioned (in my case, anyway) bottoms. And all this time I was utterly miserable, cold, and hungry, since it turned out that I had brought nowhere near the amount of money necessary to keep me in food and drink for the three days.

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I soon learned how the locals kept themselves happy—for they all seemed to having no end of a good time throughout the festivities. First, men, women, and children alike were all wearing head-to-toe quilted body suits, hi-test versions of the all-in-ones that babies wear to bed in the winter, and insulated snow mitts and boots. I had never seen such outfits before, but they clearly did the job. Of course everyone looked like a cross between the Michelin Man and the Apollo-11 astronauts, but they didn’t care, they were warm. Second, and probably more importantly as it turned out, all the Michelin-moon-men and women were wearing gun belts fitted out with long plastic swords looking like the ones we used to play with as children. At frequent intervals they would unsheathe them, twist off the handles, tip their heads back, and raise them to their upturned mouths in an attitude that made them look like sword-swallowers at the circus. At first I was mystified, until it was pointed out to me that, with a nod and a wink, the Québec chamber of commerce was enjoying brisk sales of these swords, and also selling and levying a healthy tax on hard liquor. It turned out that those in the know purchased the hollow plastic swords at the beginning of the carnival, and kept them well-filled with alcohol, with which they kept themselves well-fortified. No wonder they were oblivious to the cold!

(photo: Reuters)

(photo: Reuters)

But though those copious quantities of liquor successfully simulated warmth in the denizens of the city, it didn’t do much for the warmth of our welcome. Upon reaching the top of the first ice slide, I hesitated in sheer terror for a few moments—a few moments too long, it seemed. The people behind me were impatient for their turn, and so I cast off—or more probably, allowed myself to be cast off—well before I had screwed up the requisite courage. By the evening, at the ice-slide in the park, when the drink had gone to the merrymakers’ heads, they were beginning to turn nasty. Being unaware of the contentious struggle for cultural sovereignty for French speakers in Québec I must have made the mistake of speaking to someone in English (my French was fairly good, but it was rusty and I was shy about using it), and this time, when I was teetering at the top of the slide, that someone shoved me from behind, and it was not a friendly shove.

I don’t know how I got through the long weekend without developing hypothermia or frostbite. Every time I was dragged out of the hotel for yet another open-air event, my feet turned to blocks of ice, and every time I sneaked back into the Frontenac and eased off my shoes and socks, my toes began burning painfully. I kept having nightmarish visions of the Everest expedition’s exhibit at Sherpa Tenzing’s Himalayan Mountaineering Institute’ mountaineering museum in Darjeeling, which gruesomely displayed the custom-designed boots of a mountaineer who had lost all his toes to frostbite. Somehow I survived, and got back home to tell the tale, but sadly, there was little to tell, because I had spent 99.99% of the time just being miserable. If I ever summon up the courage to return to the Winter Carnival (and to be honest, if I did it would most likely be the one in New Orleans or Trinidad and Tobago), I will make sure to take plenty of money, book a room in my own name, and above all, dress as the natives do.

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  1. It feels cold just to read this. Brrrr.

    • Oh good, that was the intention. Huddling and shivering through this recent cold snap made me think of still colder times, and am now feeling a little warmer by comparison. Thanks for commenting.

  2. Sorry Josna but I must confess that my wife and I both had i bit of a laugh at your painful misadventure.Myself, because when i first came to Montreal as a student in 1968 I had a few such painful experiences before I realized that winter in Montreal has a definition that is beyond the imagination of people from Asia. Walking 10 blocks in a winter storm to see a movie, in my elegant Aqusqutum coat from London, I spent the first half hour in the theater suffering the pain of thawing ears. I soon learnt the heavy coats, boots and woolen headgear was the only salvation, My wife is French Canadian and they always find some entertainment in sharing their winters with unprepared “anglais” visitors.But the Chateau Frontenac is still an elegant old lady and Quebec City is a lovely city in winter, and a great place to eat……of course for those who are prepared.

    • I’m glad you two found it amusing, Asghar! I’m sure it’s a lovely city. I just could have had so much more fun if only I had been warm. At least the locals have may had a giggle at my expense! I can imagine you in your elegant coat with bare head and ears! When I first arrived in the Boston area from Swinging London in 1970, I had an unlined black vinyl mini-coat that I insisted on wearing on my walk to high school in the winter. My legs would be frozen for the entire first period. Give me a Michelin Man outfit any day!

  3. What a horrible excursion! I lived in the north woods of Michigan for many years and I can’t imagine braving a northern winter outside without long underware, leggins, parkas, hats, scarfs, thermal boots and thick socks etc. etc. I’m sorry your friends didn’t give you the full description of what you were in for!

    • Only after moving out into the country, to Concord, and then to Winchendon, Massachusetts, the coldest town in the state, did I really start to learn how to dress properly for the cold. I can’t say that I ever learned to love it, but at least I knew enough not to freeze to death. My new friends must have assumed that I would know what to expect, and I didn’t know enough to ask!

  4. How chillingly horrible! I feel cold just reading this!
    Your so-called friends must not have had any feeling whatsoever for anyone but themselves! I hope you found some new friends after that!

    • We’ve been going through a too-early cold snap here, and it reminded me of the sheer terror I had felt when I began to realize what I had let myself in for! It really hadn’t occurred to me to place any blame on my fellow coop-house members. I didn’t know them very well at all at that point and it might not have even occurred to me to complain to them. If they had realized how miserably cold I was, I’m sure they could have rustled up some more clothing for me.

  5. It really does sound like hell on earth – a hell that had frozen over !!!!

    • Hah–well put! Your “Days of Wine and Roses” post gave me just the opposite feeling: easing into a long, slow, golden day, enjoying every moment of it, everything and everyone, and above all, basking in the blessed warmth of the spring sun. Wishing you and your dear “old chap” many, many more such halcyon days.

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