The first snowfall in Korea was always heralded with whoops and celebration. Many of my friends – Californians, Australians, South Africans – had so little experience with snow or cold that they found the novelty thrilling. White crystalline shards of joy were falling from the sky! They would run out from their buildings in weather-inappropriate clothing, mouths agape, ready for the cinematic experience of winter. A single snowflake would flutter down and land on their noses, and they would shiver, and then Santa would arrive, and also everyone would be wearing fashionable red sweaters and drinking cocoa.
Within a week the reality of the season would set in like so much semi-frozen street slush. Heavy coats and thick boots, a constant ritual of dressing and undressing as one moved between vastly different temperatures like drifting through biomes on a gale of wind. They grew acquainted with scarves and knitted caps, with bitter chapped lips, with the feel of black ice slamming directly into your face as you topple off your feet. Scores of temperate people were doused in chill, and had to try to understand what longjohns were, why they existed, and how quickly they could acquire as many pairs of them as humanly possible.
Confronted as they were with these bouts of cold, their endurance was tested and they had no available coping skills. They veered directly from plaid shirts and summer shorts into heavy wool sweaters and goose down parkas the second the leaves began to change. They shivered in fur-lined caps and warm mittens, and hugged themselves against mild-to-moderate gusts, the kind that might cause a Canadian or a Norweigian to remark that the weather had finally started to turn pleasant.
A good winter coat is a nuclear weapon, and it must be deployed with care and discretion. Firing it too early leaves one unprepared for the war to come, for the battles still to be fought, for the rising stakes and the falling temperatures. Swaddled completely from head to toe as soon as the thermometres dipped below 10, my friends were completely horrified and utterly shattered as we went below freezing. Wind chipped at their delicate, sun-shaped features, brutalized their hair and their knees, wore their skin open through frigid erosion. With only one coat in their arsenal, they employed their heavy weapons too early, and were left unarmed when the real fight began.
I never feel quite so studly or Viking-like as when I can lord my cold-resistance over my daintier coworkers and acquaintances. While I swelter and melt through-out the summer months, a pool of slovenly sweat-stained dress shirts and damp hair, winter is the time I am allowed to shine.
My childhood in Canada often sounds like a harsh, bitter sort of experience, the way people might describe their arduous training regimens for astoundingly difficult barefoot decathlons. Pounds and pounds of protective gear, bottles stuffed with electrolytes to bolster my fragile young self from the bitterness and difficulty I was to endure. Howling winds carving crenels in my flesh while horrendous cold tunnelled down into my lungs and shredded my alveoli with sickly icicle fingers. Snow monkeys attacking all the while, wolves howling from the deep and the dark. Days with thirty-seven hours of darkness, marked only occasionally by the fires of roving snow bandits, who came to steal your stewed venison and the warm blood from the core of your abdomen.
I wasn’t even from a particularly cold part of Canada, but when I describe the kind of gear necessary to function as a child in Canadian winter, people from elsewhere look horrified. “Snow pants? Parkas? And what exactly is a ‘toque’?” They couldn’t fathom the idea of being subjected to such extremes, for the need of such preventative measures, for the casual, laissez-faire acceptance of the risk of frostbite. Things might just go brittle and fall off of you when it gets cold enough? People live in such places? Do they know that Florida or Thailand exists, and are places you could go instead?
It was hard for them to fathom the joy of a good toboggan, shredding down a wooded hill, the uncontrolled careen and the constant risk of flying into a tree or a patch of brambles. Hours spent constructing a snow fort and chiseling away at its perfect white carapace—the euphoria of sitting inside matched only by the bliss of kicking the structure down with a heavy, rubber-soled boot. Snow angels and dropping an ice puck in the drooping, dangling hood of a childhood friend. Stripping sopping gloves off of your tingling frozen-wet hands and wrapping them around a mug of hot chocolate.
Not that winter is easy or always pleasant. Living in a place with snow or a cold climate means expensive, heavy winter apparatuses to keep the body from freezing. It means getting up to shovel four or five times a day, and cursing the name of the plow driver who piles the inky slush from the road into the end of your drive. It means constantly risking wet socks and trying desperately to step on the parts of the sidewalk that bring the safe, comforting sound of rock salt crunching below your feet. It’s a harsh season, and from a distance, or from the breech of your first real winter, it can be difficult to see through the cold.
But really what winter has always reminded me of is the warmth. The kindled fire in the hearth or the pair of worn slippers waiting just inside the door. Hot cocoa spiked with Irish Crème, or a stout winter beer shared with a friend in a cozy pub. Writing your name across frosted glass, watching the dew form at the tip of your finger, the crystal cracks etching out through the ice. Long journeys in the cold to make it to a warm home, a warm friend, a warm smile. Celebrations that turn the dark and the cold into the light. Most can’t handle winter because they don’t know that the summer and the spring are just a drive away to your mom’s living room, to your best friend’s couch, to two pints or three with a hot bowl of soup, steaming and sweltering in your ungloved palms.