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Greetings From The Great White (Freezing) North

This post comes to you from Edmonton, Alberta, where the outside temperature right now is minus forty degrees Celsius. If you’re wondering what that is in Fahrenheit, the answer is, “It doesn’t matter.” Minus forty is where the two scales match up.

If you add a bit of a breeze to that, you get a windchill factor that makes it feel like minus fifty Celsius (-58° F). The weather lady on the morning news just informed me that at that temperature, exposed flesh freezes in two to five minutes. Yesterday, an emergency alert flashed on my phone warning us that Alberta’s power grid was overloaded and could collapse under the demand, causing rotating power outages.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think anyone should live in a place where winter can kill you. Nothing works as it should when it gets this cold, humans included. And yet, Albertans are toughing it out. I noticed that when it gets this cold, the standard niceties that people say change. Instead of telling me to “have a nice day,” everyone has been encouraging me to “stay warm.”

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There’s a weird sort of bonding that happens when the weather becomes the common enemy. Maybe we all become brothers and sisters in arms, struggling to survive against the elements. It got me to wondering: Is there a different sense of community in places where it’s really cold in the winter?

When I asked Google which countries had the strongest social ties, it gave me a list of nine: Finland, Norway, Canada, Denmark, Switzerland, Australia, Netherlands, Iceland and Italy. Seven of those places have snowy, cold winters. If you look at countries that have strong social democracies -- governments established around the ideal of the common good -- again, you’ll find that most of them are well north (or south, in the case of New Zealand) of the equator.

But let’s leave politics aside. Maybe it’s just the act of constantly transitioning from extreme cold to warm and cozy places where there’s a friendly face sincerely wishing you’ll “stay warm” that builds stronger social bonds. As I mentioned in a previous post, the Danes even have a name for it: hygge. It translates loosely to “coziness.”

There are definitely physical benefits to going from being really cold to being really warm. The Finns discovered this secret thousands of years ago when they created the sauna. The whole idea is to repeatedly go from a little hut where the temperature hovers around 80-90° C (176-194° F) to then jump through a hole you’ve cut in the ice into waters barely above freezing. A paper from the Mayo Clinic lists the health benefits of saunas in a rather lengthy paragraph, touching on everything from reducing inflammation to clearer skin to fighting the flu. 

But the benefits aren’t just physical. Estonia, which is just south of Finland, also has a strong sauna culture. A brilliant documentary by Anna Hints, “Smoke Sauna Sisterhood,” shows that the sauna can be a sacred space. As Estonia’s official submission to the Oscars, it’s in contention for a nomination.

Hints’ documentary shows that saunas can touch us on a deeply spiritual level, healing scars that can build up through our lives. There is something in the cycle of heat and cold that taps into inner truths. As Hints said in a recent interview, “With time, deeper, deeper layers of physical dirt start to come up to the surface, but also emotional dirt starts to come up to the surface."

While I didn’t visit any saunas on my Edmonton trip, every time I ventured outside it was a hot-cold adventure. Everyone turns the thermostat up a little when it gets this cold, so you’re constantly going through doors where the temperature can swing 75 degrees (Celsius, 130 degrees Fahrenheit) in an instant. I don’t know if there’s a health benefit, but I can tell you it feels pretty damned good to get that warm welcome when you’re freezing your butt off.

Stay warm!

2 comments about "Greetings From The Great White (Freezing) North".
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  1. Ben B from Retired, January 16, 2024 at 7:54 p.m.

    Hope that the power gird doesn't go out during that cold. It's cold in Michigan in a windl shield advisiory does start to warm up a little the next few days in the teens and 20s by this weekend and near 40 by next week will feel warm for winter standards. Stay warm Gord.

  2. Douglas Montgomery from Global Connects, January 17, 2024 at 4:15 a.m.

    its my hometown, just curious, why are you there?

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