When I first moved to Montreal from Vancouver, there was a lot I did not understand. I am not talking about the whole language thing; that's been paraded ad nauseum through the media across the country. I found the culture in general was...different, which I had expected in a subconscious way I suppose, but it is safe to say I did not understand it. The real kicker regarding my lack of understanding came with my immersion in winter. This was what was shocking to me, body and mind, and I did not know what winter truly meant until I lived it for the first time.
Shocking is an understatement actually because it was more like experiencing trauma. No joke. Trauma in the form of horror that no, it was not a dangerous chemical spill that had caused my eyes and nostrils to burn and sting when I opened the door, but they had simply frozen from the minus oh-my-f-ing-god temperature of the air. Trauma because I actually needed a hat, scarf and mittens, not for a fashion look, but because otherwise my fingers went blue and both ears would hurt all the way to my skull. Trauma because I had to wear ugly big boots everywhere I went and my feet still froze. Trauma because apparently you are required to shovel snow off your walkway and stairs and not only did I not own a snow shovel but I had never used one. Trauma that the first time I shoveled snow with a gardening spade, I vomited from exhaustion. Trauma because a trip to the store meant 20 minutes of getting ready with a baby. I had a stroller for him but I had never seen a real life sled before and had no idea they existed for a purpose other than as a movie prop. I was single, alone, friendless, frightened, broke and since I knew nobody, I had no one to talk to. With all that cold and snow, venturing out was a very tiring and unpleasant experience and I had nowhere to go anyway. I loved my baby, I loved my cat, I loved my dog but they weren't great conversationalists. They did do a really great job though, of making sure that I clearly saw all 3 pairs of those (beautiful) eyes looking at me for their every need and want. My headspace was a little tattered, cluttered by surprise, incomprehension, pressure, fear, and the growing belief that winter would go on forever. By late February of that first year, I was reduced to sobbing every time I saw a flake in the air. Even worse, that fluffy white shit was still 3 feet deep in April and more was coming. Shocking? Yeah. Coming from a place where 1/4" of snow shuts the city down and lasts a day to a place with conditions like this, was shocking indeed. In the midst of summer, I couldn't hear the word 'snow' or 'winter' without it inducing a genuine anxiety reaction in me. When the first snowfall came the next fall, I cried. Hard. I was completely and utterly miserable and afraid of what was to come.
So what does this have to do with decorating the outside for Christmas? It is one of the weirdnesses of winter here that I just haven't got used to yet. I understand it now but I still feel a sense of surprise about it. I did not decorate the outside for Christmas that first year. I was too preoccupied with feeling like a deer caught in the headlights. Or a cornered rabbit. Whatever. I didn't have the money to put up a tree that year so outdoor decorations were out of the question. The next Christmas though, I was decorating. I am a mom and I'm going to wow my kid and never mind luxury items such as shampoo and tampons, I am buying outdoor decorations. That year I had seen many decorations up for Christmas only a week into November. Pumpkins from Halloween were still being put into next weeks garbage. (Another surprise there...composting is not popular.) Along my street there were a lot of homes done up already. I thought they were overzealous eccentrics. Don't get me wrong, I love Christmas and all the lights and decorations and am one of those people that goes out of their way and makes an event of walking around to see decorations at night, but early November? I had collected a few things to decorate my own place and had ideas for a few more I could make myself when I bought the supplies. It wasn't a big display, but it was going to be done and I had weeks to do it. By the last week of November, it looked like fully 75% of the homes on my street were decorated for Christmas. This was not a small number of homes either. All the buildings were 3 story walk-ups, side attached to side, and most of them were 6 units per building. It was a sea of lights, wreaths and inflatables, a shiny, glittery, twinkling, Christmasy block-long display. I still just thought that it was another Quebec culture weirdness. But getting into the Christmas spirit, the first weekend in December I started to decorate.
My decorations were simple, confined mostly by my lack of funds, but I did have a plan to pull off a display that would make a kid smile and impress a grown-up or two. Lights, wrapping paper, sash, garlands, red organza, and a lot of tape. I created big bows from the organza, I made a sash from cedar branches and decorated it with a bow and some battery operated lights and I set outside to get to work. I thought it would be best to start with the door which I was covering in wrapping paper. With my scissors , blade and tape, I started covering it. Cutting out the hole for the window, I noticed I was having a hard time manipulating my blade. My hands were cold. I couldn't wear mittens while I did this so I had on those little stretchy gloves. I went in and got the second pair to put on. 5 minutes later, my hands were so frozen I had to stop. I went in to warm up. I repeated this process several times and an hour later, the door had wrapping paper on it. My son woke up from his nap and that was that. A couple of hours later, I bundled up my son, stuck him in the stroller on the front porch and continued decorating. For stringing garlands and lights and attaching over-sized bows to the front of an apartment, it took me 4 or 5 hours over 2 days. The cold. The damn cold. I couldn't use my hands inside 10 minutes of being out there so I kept having to come back in to thaw out. It was then that I understood decorating in November. It wasn't a Quebec culture weirdness, it was about preservation of self. I had always been (and still am) regarded by my neighbours as 'different' and was the subject of much curiousity because nobody knew me or anything about me. Even knowing this, I could see people watching me put up my decorations from their windows and wondered why I was so fascinating to them. I think now they just wanted to see how the weird girl was going to fare with this, shaking their heads at my stupidity. I know my 'late' decorating was talked about because people who had ignored my presence for over a year, suddenly felt compelled to make comment to me about my decorations and then ask odd questions such as "did you do it by yourself?" or "how long did that take to do?". Uh huh. You already know, you just want me to know you think I'm an idiot. They did not deny that it looked good though and some of them even made complimentary mention of my creativity. Not many, but some.
It was actually this point in time when the gossip word starting spreading that I was not only "not from here" but was "from B.C.". So what, right? To this day I don't understand this one but I will take it...I get a free pass from the locals on just about everything if they know I am from B.C. It's like it excuses me from all judgements and opinions that are unflattering. My conduct and public behaviours that disturb those in my community are suddenly forgiven. "Oh my god, she's wearing a Batgirl costume to go to the bank!" " Ya, well she's from B.C. you know." "Ahhhhhhh, I see. Well then, that's cute and her son is dressed like Batman." This was an actual event. I say the Habs suck, it's fine because I'm from B.C.. I'm not only permitted to not like the Habs, I'm allowed to insult them. If I was from Ontario, or Boston, I'd have to carry weapons to protect myself. It's as though I am being gently and kindly indulged having their forgiveness and understanding bestowed upon me. Why? Dunno. Even my husband, who is "from here" can't give me an explanation. He understands it but can't explain it.
Being the odd one out in my community again, I am struggling with the decorating outside date. It is now November 11 and I have seen some Christmas decorations up in the neighbourhood. I am still surprised by it when I see it but I get it now. I have this peculiar block in me however, that makes me squirm at putting up decorations in November. I realize I have to or I will suffer the consequences but it bugs me! I leave it for as long as I can. I scrutinize the projected weather reports and look for warmer days late in November and early December. I wiffle-waffle in my head about waiting and suffering through the cold or doing it earlier when it is more hand-friendly. I know I can wait and I will receive kind acceptance from my neighbours because I come from B.C. but in truth, I couldn't care less what they think about how I do things or if my decorating date is kindly accepted. I am working with my own indecisiveness about how much I am willing to hurt to get decorations up. It looks like I have a week or 10 days before it will get finger-numbing cold and I am so very uncomfortable with this time frame. It's too early! So do I wait another week and look for a warmer date in December? Am I willing to suffer through it? Sitting here all comfy and warm I say yes, I will suffer through it. Tonight, when the temperature drops, my head will wander to the other side. My friends will strongly encourage the 'soon' side as will my son, but my husband avoids the subject for some reason and responds succinctly with "thinking about it too long gives me brain-freeze". Like that's helpful. The dogs and the cat have nothing to say about it at all. Dilemmas. When to put up Christmas decorations would not warrant so much thought for most people but given my background story, I'm sure you can see why it does for me. This is a small dilemma in the whole scheme of things but I do have a decision to make soon.