I wasn’t always Canadian. I wasn’t born here; I don’t have any Canadian blood in me. Maybe that’s why I hate winter so much: the English/Irish blood I inherited from my parents isn’t thick enough to protect me from the cold. Even as a child, when all the other kids were shrieking with excitement at the first snowfall of the season, I was glumly anticipating six agonizing months of wet mittens, frozen toes, and nostrils that stick together with every inhale. I do believe it was only copious amounts of hot chocolate that got me through those early winters.
(Here’s where my Canadian brethren who hail from more northerly aspects of this great country will chime in with “Cold? You think that’s cold?” One-upmanship about the weather is a common pastime in Canada; there’s a clear pecking order when it comes to surviving the harshness of winter. We have it relatively easy in southern Ontario, but I once spent the week after Christmas visiting my brother in Winnipeg. When he told me he was plugging the car engine into a heater overnight so it wouldn’t freeze solid, I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t.)
But I digress.
Last night we had our first big snow of the year. Not as thrilling to me as the first robin of spring, as you’ve no doubt surmised, but an occasion to be marked nonetheless. Mostly because it reminds me of one of the strangest experiences I had in Singapore: The Snow.
My parents, along with my brother and sister-in-law, came to spend Christmas with us at the end of our first year in Singapore. We heard about an event called The Snow being held at Tanglin Mall. This should be good for a laugh, I thought. I couldn’t wait to see how the Singaporeans would interpret winter.
There was quite a crowd at the mall, mostly local, when we arrived. We admired the Christmas decorations — the Merchants’ Association along Orchard Road does a fabulous job every year — and waited for the fun to begin.
At exactly 7:30, something white and frothy started to shoot out of the crevices in the fake winter wonderland. I did one of those classic cartoon double-takes; I believe I let slip a surprised “what the hell?” I don’t know exactly what I’d been expecting, but it sure wasn’t this.
We were being showered with soap bubbles.
Have you ever watched a movie in which a character shoots a gun, and a flag pops out of the barrel with the word “BANG” written on it? There’s that nanosecond of disorientation before your brain can process the joke. That’s exactly the sensation I had. My brother and I looked at each other, incredulous, as the bubbles began spewing out faster and faster. This is so lame, I said to him. He gave me a wry smile and a shrug.
And suddenly, without even noticing it, we were in the middle of a snowstorm. The white stuff swirled around us relentlessly, burying us in foam. People were screaming with laughter. Kids ran around throwing bubbles at each other, playing with them, fashioning them into shapes. Adults tried, in vain, to shake the bubbles from their clothing. It reminded me of something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. And then it hit me.
Damned if it didn’t remind me of playing in the snow.
I’m not saying it didn’t require a certain suspension of disbelief. For one thing, the temperature was 32 degrees Celsius, and we were wearing t-shirts and sandals. For another, I don’t remember ever having a bubble bath and a shampoo on the street in wintertime before. And the age-old custom of catching snowflakes on your tongue? Not recommended.
But as a simulation, it was fantastic. There was a childlike joy in giving ourselves over to the mayhem that I vaguely remembered from my days as a brand-new Canadian, when we used to go tobogganing and build snowmen and make angels in the freshly fallen snow.
Expat Canadian Lloyd Parlee captures the magic of snow beautifully in his post, Ode to a Snowstorm. I never thought I’d share his sense of wistful nostalgia for my old nemesis. But standing there as the stream of bubbles sputtered to a halt and a collective sigh of disappointment rose up from the soapy crowd, I was almost knocked over by a sudden wave of homesickness. I felt — and I truly cannot believe I’m saying this — I felt an inexplicable yearning for the real thing.
Expats often idealize their home countries when they’re away, and I’ve no doubt that’s what brought on my longing for this quintessential symbol of Canada. Our first winter back home was the coldest in fifteen years, so I got over it pretty darned fast. But today, watching soap-free flakes floating lazily to earth, I’m thinking of a different sort of snowfall. And I’m feeling a different sort of homesickness.
[Edited to add: A year and a half after writing this post, it got me a gig on CBC radio, telling the story of how The Snow made me homesick.]