It’s the middle of April in Quebec City, the sun is high and the sky is a cool, clear blue. Not that you’d know it was Spring. The city is frozen: framed in snow drifts, carpeted in ice. As I walked around in the early morning, I have to tred carefully, minding each step doesn’t land me on my arse – shuffling, I realised, just like a penguin. (Might penguins, I wondered, actually stride if you put them on a non-slip surface? No. Forget I asked that.)
It was -11 degrees and if my hands emerged from my gloves for even a minute, they would sting and start to go numb. Icicles hung from doorways. Step and bridge access points to Montmorency Park were so buried in snow they’d been barred off. A man in a heavy jacket clambered over the roofs of the shops on Rus du Petit Champlain, shovelling off the snow and ice, letting it hail down on the cobbled avenue below, as his colleague, wearing orange hi-vis, stood sentry in the street and bellowed up a warning when pedestrians passed by.
Presumably the task was to avoid an avalanche on unsuspecting shoppers later in the day. Indeed only yesterday a large sheet of snow had come plummeting down from an office block as I was passing below, and crashed right at my feet. The woman right in front of me had, as far as I was concerned, reacted perfectly – which was to whirl around and exclaim a high-pitched “Mon dieu!”
Thank god indeed that I wasn’t crushed by falling ice, as I’ve only just got to Quebec City and for one, I would have missed out on trying Quebeois ice wine. Looking for an excuse to get out of the cold – and the showers of snow from the roof sweeper – I stepped into a charming little cidrerie, manned by a nice old chap, the sort who smiles with his whole face: eyes a-twinkle and chin a-crinkle. As I tasted a range of ice wines and ciders – made from the region’s apples, which freeze in the cold but in the process become lovely and sweet – he admitted the temperature was not normal for this time of year. “We are maybe… 9 or 10 degrees less than what is usual,” he explained, in his French-Canadian twang. (I liked how he said this with the nonchalance one might use when talking about a 2-degree margin. Buddy, in the UK, 10 degrees is jumping a whole season.)
He asked where I was from and his twinkly eyes widened when I told him. “New Zealand!” he sighed. “Ah it is my dream.” I couldn’t help feeling a sense of strange irony that here I was in Canada because I had similar yearnings. However, I did my duty as a wandering Kiwi and answered his most pressing questions about travel to the other side of the earth, before purchasing a bottle of ice cider. I asked if I might have one more sample – y’know, to warm me up for the road? The man gave a twinkly smile and passed me another cup. In a place where it’s cold enough for apples to freeze on their branches, I kinda think the friendliness of Canadians offers life-giving warmth.
But also, cider.
And gloves. Don’t forget your gloves.