I always wanted to write the story about the odyssey that it was for me and my family to move to Ottawa in the middle of the winter, when we were hit with a frigid week of sub-zero weather.
Our tale might help someone thinking of moving to Ottawa but who has worries and second thoughts about the weather. Did you know that Ottawa is among the 10 coldest capital cities in the world? I didn’t know that before moving and I might not have moved to Ottawa if I had known, ha, ha!
It was the last day of 2017 when we (my Canadian husband, three kids and me) arrived in Canada carrying ten big and heavy suitcases. ( See the reasons why we decided to leave Peru. How a Peruvian ended up living in Ottawa ).
We entered the country through Montreal where we were supposed to have a layover lasting two hours, before taking another plane to Ottawa, but the customs and immigration authorities wanted to interview me (the only one in my family using a Peruvian passport) before letting me pass.
So I had to wait in line to be asked a lot of questions, most related to cocaine. It is no coincidence that Peru is one of the biggest producers of coca leaves in the world… (sigh).
By the time I finished with immigration and customs, we were too late for our flight to Ottawa, and were rescheduled on another later flight. We had to wait for five hours, during which time my children found various ways to entertain themselves: going outside the airport through the sliding doors just to feel the coldness, and then running back inside.
It was fun and I did it myself. The Canadian coldness was something mythical for us. My children, who were born in Lima, grew up listening to their dad’s stories about the extreme cold, about cold noses and frozen fingers, about camping in the snow.
So before landing that day in Montreal, we didn’t have any real idea of how it would feel. That explains their excitement. In our hometown, the minimal temperature on a winter’s day is around 15 degrees Celsius.
I was a little worried about the cold though. I remember asking my husband to buy parkas for us when he came to Ottawa a month or two before to find us a home, so we could be properly dressed for the wintery weather.
But he said that it was not going to be necessary, that we were going to be inside airports all the time and that we were even going to get to the plane through a passenger walkway tunnel, so there would be no need to be afraid of the cold.
Fortunately, the very same night of our flight my dad came up with two Columbia winter jackets (one for me and one for my husband) that somebody had given to him years ago for a trip my parents were planing to the mountains. They never used those jackets so they gave them to us.
At least we had some warm clothes, but my kids were wearing light jackets perfect for Lima’s cold but definitely not for Canadian winters.
The moment of truth
After waiting five hours in the airport in Montreal, we went to our boarding gate where our passports and boarding passes were checked. Probably in that moment my husband told me that there was not going to be a covered passenger tunnel, and that we were going to have to walk to the plane parked on the runway.
Everything went so fast. I remember a glass door opening in front of us, and there was nothing but a corridor with another glass door. Before I could take a breath and get ready, that glass door opened and I felt a shock of massive freezing cold wind!
It was like nothing I had experienced in my whole life! It was a horrendous cold!!! I started to run towards the plane as fast as I could to escape those killer cold winds. I don’t remember where my kids were: before me or behind me? Were they walking with their dad? I just felt that I had to run or I would turn into an ice statue!
That night the temperature was -23 degrees Celsius – what a “warm” welcome to Ottawa!! I experienced for the first time the feeling of numbed fingers and a painful nose and toes. Grabbing a taxi and getting our luggage inside (remember I said we carried 10 big suitcases?) was a challenge!
We went to a hotel downtown and after getting our room we decided to look for something to eat. We were starving! We walked a block to a Dunn’s restaurant and it felt like a walk in Antartica. Night had fallen. Besides, the soles on my shoes were very slippery and I was afraid of falling. I was wearing a pair of high leather boots, so I was definitely not dressed for a Canadian winter.
We grabbed a table and a waitress brought us five big glasses of water filled with a lot of ice. Just looking at those glasses made me shiver. Are Canadians out of their minds? I thought. Why would anyone want a glass of cold water if it was freezing cold outside?
Then we wanted to use the restrooms, and they were far from the main dining room on the upper floor. It felt as if we had to climb a long flight of stairs where there was no heating. My four year-old daughter was tired and crying that she didn’t like this cold country!
At least my older ones were okay. It was like a big adventure for them.
The first weeks
The next few days the temperature was in the range of minus 20. Apparently there was a whole week with those temperatures, and the theme of conversation those days was “the cold spell” in Ottawa.
I always say that the night we arrived to Ottawa was like a baptism of fire for us, a big one, a memorable one. And after the cold spell, everything that came later seemed better.
My husband had told me that during our first three months in Ottawa, our kids and I were probably going to fall sick and spend the winter feeling miserable. Even worse, he told me that I was likely going to cry endlesly and want to come back to Lima. That was going to be the shock for us, he thought.
But it was completely the opposite. I never fell ill. Actually I was healthy and strong for two years in a row after moving to Ottawa. I never cried, I never complained, I never said I wanted to move back.
My husband’s friends asked him frequently how I was doing. They had told him that it was probably not a good idea to take his poor family from the nice, sunny and hot Lima to frigid Canada starting January, usually the coldest month of the year.
But we did okay. One trick was that my husband never let us stay at home on weekends. Every single weekend of that winter we went out to skate on the Rideau Canal, or to do tobboganing in Gatineau, or to skate on a rink on Parliament Hill, or to see the activities of Winterlude, which is a very popular winter festival in the Ottawa area.
We never got bored. I think it was a very good strategy. We experienced that time in adjusting to Ottawa and the Canadian winter like the adventure of our lives! And nowadays, after three winters here, we are well adjusted and have adapted so well that it’s not a problem for us at all. We feel like true Canadians now.
I know that many people hate the cold, and never get used to the frigid weather. What about you? Is it difficult for you to put up with the Canadian winter? What are your strategies to get through it? Do you have a story about your first winter in Canada? Please share!. Take care.
5 thoughts on “How a family of newcomers survived their first winter in Ottawa”
Great story. You are smiling on the picture, but with something else that we are not sure it is resignation or regrets :-). And your husband had two good strategies: lowering expectations, and then the weekend adventures! Love your stories.
Hi Marc, I think my face expressed uncertainty on that first day in our new home because I had no idea if I was going to like to live in a country so different from mine. And you’re right, my husband was very clever in his strategies to make us adapt to our new life, and he succeeded! Thanks for comment!