Mid-February, and the winter doldrums have finally hit. It's been so damn cold up here, for so long, that the throngs of people moving through the transport system feel sullen, withdrawn, silent. At least it doesn't seem like as many people are sick as last year; when you get on a bus everyone isn't hacking away. Swathed in our layers of sweaters and fleece and down and fur, we slog through piles of snow, under which is slippery ice, hard as concrete. All the floors of public passages and entryways are muddy and wet, so you have to be careful not to slip both inside and outside. Today was bright and sunny and I checked the thermometer before leaving home, thinking maybe it was a bit warmer -- but no, it's -23C! (-9.4 F) You've got to be kidding.
Something I love, though, and find hard to describe to people who've never lived in the north: the clarity of the air. On a morning like this, absolutely clear blue and extremely cold, it's as if a sharpening filter has been applied to everything in front of your eyes. The distance has no atmospheric perspective, no haze. And the air doesn't feel like anything except coldness: there's no moisture to give it thickness, just your breath which condenses the minute it leaves your body. It's almost...as if the air isn't there. And yet, what else is it that hits you the minute you walk out the door? So it's quite strange, this double sensation of an invisible wall of coldness, and its utter clarity, so that you feel you can walk through it and see through it and hear through it with perfect transparency.
On the unusual mornings when we leave the island and drive over the Jacques Cartier bridge and the frozen St. Lawrence, and the air has this quality, I love to look at the city: the glass and steel and stone gleaming in the sunlight, every church spire and skyscraper tower a cut-out punctuation against the sky. The far becomes near, and of more equal importance with the close and familiar. Of course, there is steam rising straight up from heating towers, but wood fires have been restricted in recent years, so there is much less smoke.
From the height of the bridge, you can see the monadnocks of the Montérégie above the flat floodplains of the great river, where the productive Quebec farms lie sleeping under their white duvets, and the mountains of Vermont in the far distance. Somehow it is like looking back across my own life with bright dispassionate vision, and a surgical clarity that's so sharp it doesn't hurt at all.