Seasonal Migrations of the Coal-Dependent Kind

My former student Lizhu sent an email in mid-October. This son of northeastern China  friend is now living in Montreal, pursuing a Doctoral degree in something I only vaguely understand. One of his surprised observations was that “the heat is already on here even though it is above ten degrees”. My reply explained that, in Canadian cities, home heating is not administered by local authorities. In China, most homes north of the Yangtze River are heated centrally, mainly by municipal coal-fired plants. (South of that, you’re on your own, and there are occasional runs on electric space-heaters. Walmart be praised.)

A week ago last weekend was our area’s coal-truck Grand Prix. From our apartment’s south windows, we had a clear view, within easy range of the throwing arm I used to have, of the delivery doors of the furnace for our district. Its chimney will soon belch black, but our welcome to winter was the sounds of the dark-humped coal trucks barrelling up the hilly ring-road that serves our apartment complex. A small band of arm-wavers, from the complex’s guard crew and from the central heating department, guided the trucks up the narrow lane and dissuaded the cars that think they live here. The turning radius was small, the incline steep, so there was a lot of gearshift grinding, but these guys know what they’re doing. No Toyotas were crushed, no Benzes were dented, though I’m getting coal grit in my sneakers when I run down the hill, late for school.

Some preliminary whiffs of black have come from the chimney, and not long afterward we heard waterworks in our main radiator most of one day as the building’s hot-water pipes were flushed and tested. In our usual ex-pat ignorance, though, we don’t know what the plan is for when heat will be available in our apartment. Two falls ago, the date was a clearly mandated November 15 1, but the first last two weeks of November October were snappin’ cold, and we were bundling up (even though we’re chauvinists about our Canadian resistance to chill). Parts farther north have had some brutal cold and snow, so I can only hope that their mandarins have seen fit to move up the best-be-warm date.

A cold wind and lashing rain yesterday brought fantasies of hearth and woodstove, but we settled for hoodies. One of my teaching rooms at school was particularly chilly yesterday, so I spent part of the lesson in my parka shell. (Yes, a bitterly shameful pill for Tough Guy Canuck to swallow.) Today, the sun is back and our living room window is giving some warmly passive solar on a 10 degree day. Soon, though, we will have an official, red-stamped governmental confirmation that winter has arrived in Dalian.

[With editorial revision from the Punctuality Princess added after the original post. D’oh.]

37 Centimetres (But How Much is That in American?)

CBC Radio’s local show interviewed the man in charge of keeping Ottawa’s streets clean and passable. He figured that last Sunday’s snowfall – a one-day record 37 centimetres of fluffy dumpage – was going to cost between $4 and $5 million to clean up. We should hear numbers like this more often; among other things, it’s a good reminder that five million bucks, from the collective standpoint, isn’t really a lot of money.  It costs a tremendous amount to run a city, to provide the services that we taxpayers so often take to be automatic rights. (And “free” ones, too! Because when we’re that blisslessly ignorant of what city work costs, it’s easier to whine about how much we pay in municipal taxes.)

Taxes are, for the most part, a considerable bargain. I know how much private schools for my boys would have cost. I should probably know the price of all the pipes and pumping and purification to bring us clean water, too. But to tell the truth, the connection between the ploughing of my streets and my tax bill wasn’t the main thought that snow brought, thankfully.

I walk the street, with cold crunchy snow and the odd patch of black ice, and I remember hockey on Sutherland East, kitty-corner from Edinburgh Square, between the Timsons and the Martindales. When I was a kid, the streets couldn’t have been salted and sanded like they are now, and it’s not just my childhood-days-were-better hindsight to think that the winter temperatures were generally colder. That ideal street-hockey surface – snow packed hard by the passage of maybe a day’s worth of cars – was not always present, I know; we played eight or nine months of the year, anyway, and were as unstoppable as postal carriers (which my little town was too small to have). But winters then were, well, more wintry than they are now. (And no, no global warming rants today, except maybe for this: Walter Gretzky couldn’t build that famous backyard rink in Brantford now. Not enough chillin’.) And that’s one of many reasons for enjoying Ottawa, where I now live. It may still be considered the coldest national capital in the world. It’s the real northern deal here, especially this week.

Even though I don’t do a lot of winter sports, I still love genuine, made-in-some-idealized-Canada-of-the-mind winters, and Ottawa comes through more regularly than southern Ontario does. I was sidelined from most of the shovelling post-Sunday, as my back has been painfully wonky from a high school typing class injury. (No joke, but not even that good as a story.) And I was ticked off – I LOVE shovelling snow! I’m not quite the pitching machine I once was, but it’s a fun workout. I met more neighbours, even with my limited lifting, on Sunday than I have in weeks. Pushing folks out of snowbanks, commiserating, smiles and mitten-shakes, need an extra shovel? and why not just park it in my driveway for the night? Even though basketball dominates my sporting thought in winter, I live in hockey country and get out for an outdoor whirl and some puck-bashing several times a year. There are times when I idly wish that I was a skier. I do remember, though, how my thighs burned as I snow-ploughed down Mt. Tremblant on my second downhill excursion ever, and as for our region’s superb cross-country trails? Bought the equipment (used, archaic). Took the lessons (humiliating, painful). No doubt the snow angels I live with will try to strap me on to those accursed boards again this year, and I will resist with spotty success. (Course, there’s always hope that I won’t spend so much snowbank face-time, and it is a beautiful thing to be out in the hills and trees…) I love skating on the Rideau Canal, but I don’t get on it more often than an eager tourist does. New season, clean slate, and there is the outdoor rink two streets over.

Winter’s great, even if I’m not gliding down hills. I like striding down the middle of snowbound roads when the sidewalks are stuffed. I like watching Sam climb the mountain of snow collecting in the vacant lot down the street, or furiously excavating his front-yard fortress. And one of my ongoing pleasures, ridiculously and quintessentially Canadian, is building and maintaining our tiny townhouse backyard rink. Sam is seven now, and still wanted the rink, even though two hard skating strides necessitate a hard turn, even for him. He’ll have no choice but to learn stopping and turning; he’s been on the ice several times already this year. Perfect conditions, and so much earlier than the last three seasons!

One problem. Thirty-seven centimetres is a lot of snow — in Canadian or American — especially on a fenced-in rink with already maxed-out banks. Every shovel load needs to be pitched over a six-foot barrier into the common ground behind, and I figure it ain’t kosher to fire it into the neighbours’ yards. Although Diana wielded a mighty shovel on the driveway during my lameness, she draws the line at backyard silliness. Sam isn’t strong enough. I’ve had one very careful, old-mannish, bent-kneed session of human Zamboni-ism, and I’m looking at another two slow hours. So far, my back has made only grudging complaints, but I can’t afford the screaming spasms of last week. Slowly, ol’ buddy. Easy does it.

But now my weather report calls for RAIN this weekend! Five degrees! (Nearly 40 for metric deniers in the USA.) What is this, southern Ontario? Indiana? How’s a dad supposed to Gretzky-ize his son and keep his ice hard when spring comes in December?! (And that’s among the most emotionally compelling signals of climate change for Canadians, next to struggling polar bears: the northern migration of the home-made outdoor rink.) Hey, presto! I’ve just found what every Canuck carries as standard equipment: a reason to complain about winter weather. It’s just NOT COLD ENOUGH!

I’ve already spent more time hosing my backyard to flood the rink than I did in watering the tomatoes last summer. It’s looking good, or will when I excavate a few hundred more kilos of snow. Rain, rain, go AWAY / Fall as snow so we can play…