The Nightmare before Christmas: The North American Ice Storm of 2013

Extreme Weather, Toronto and Tokyo


William Gibson wrote that the soul, like lost luggage, needs time to catch up with the long­ distance traveller.

Maybe that’s why I feel… discombobulated as I wake to the scrunch of rain turning to ice outside an unfamiliar window. This is not my bedroom in Tokyo. Then some part of my jet­lagged soul catches up, and I remember: I’m back in Toronto, my first trip “home” for Christmas in 15 years.

Still woozy from the dislocation in time and space, still moving under water, I throw on every stitch of warm clothing I brought, grab a camera, and stumble­tiptoe out the slumbering guesthouse and into the gentrified Cabbagetown neighbourhood downtown.

The scrunch of rain into ice is louder out here. The canopy of maple trees, the park benches, the renovated workers’ cottages, have come alive in a Tim Burton­esque web of freezing branches and power lines dripping with short, sharp little icicles pointy as teeth.

It’s Friday night/Saturday morning, and hipsters in knit caps skid home from the bars artisinal craft beer pubs along Dundas Street West.

“Whatcha taking pictures of, bro?”

This magical, fantastical nightmare before Christmas.

The next few days I trip through the streets of my hometown, the familiar made strange, taking more pictures and waiting for the jet lag to subside enough to make me fit, once more, for human company.

Streetcars, overhead lines frozen solid, stand abandoned in the middle of the road. Bicycles, billboards, movie posters, hand­lettered signs to lose weight or earn $10,000 a month: in my heightened state, all seem preserved in a Pompeii of ice.

Outside a church, I mistake a statue for a real person. Later, on the university campus, I mistake a real person for a statue — until a pair of police officers shake the snow off the frozen figure and bundle… him? her? into the warmth of cruiser.

This is not the Toronto the White Christmas I rhapsodized to my wife back in Japan. That Toronto is a wintery wonderland of sledding — even skiing — in the parks, in the ravines that cut through the city, An urban pastoral, powdery snow transforming the gritty streets into the Christmas dioramas in the windows of the department stores of my childhood.

No, this is the stuff of TV melodrama. Winter is coming. White Walkers approach the gates Rob Ford, Toronto’s crack­smoking mayor, refuses to call a state of emergency. Never mind that, in the near north of the city, above the shore of an ancient lakebed which divides the city north/south, hundreds of thousands of homes, including my family’s, including my friends’, go days without heat and light. Even downtown, where I’m staying, some neighbourhoods have lost power. Mornings, McDonalds and Tim Horton’s are full of these temporary evacuees as they warm themselves after a night in a dark, freezing home.

“Really? Do you REALLY think this is the time to tease your sister? Tommy, I need you to stop being six.”

Speaking of coffee, to show everyone just how cold it is, weathercasters toss cups of boiling water in the air to show how quickly it turns into a fine, icy powder.

“It’s probably, like 10 degrees above zero and sunny in Tokyo right now,” I tell friends and family, and aloof bartenders at those Dundas West hipster joints.

But Tokyo is another hallucinatory trip. (Was that my soul I saw out the airplane window, still playing catch­up over the Pacific?) I return to a city where people on trains, on streets, in Starbucks, go about with white gauze masks over nose and mouth. No, it’s not fear of radiation from the still­leaking Fukushima Dai­ichi nuclear power plant. It’s allergy season, made worse than usual by a cold, record snowy winter.

Still, my neighbour’s plum tree has its first light purple blooms of the season. Soon it will be sakura cherry blossom season, the first real harbinger of spring. Everyone breathes a — pollen­laden — sigh of relief.

Soon enough we’ll be back in Tokyo’s tropical summer, hot and getting hotter. Worse nowadays than Bangkok or Singapore, they say, though perhaps those cities are also heating up along with Tokyo, along with Toronto, along with everywhere else, it seems, and we’ll all wax nostalgic for winter again.

“May you live in interesting times”, goes the legendary curse. Interesting times, indeed.