Warm Canadian Memories on a Bitter Cold Chicago Day

When I was a college junior in the 1970s, I took advantage of a term abroad opportunity, spending January and February in Quebec City, Quebec, at Laval University. Laval is a French language, research university founded in 1852.

Arriving at the Quebec City airport on a sunny cold day, I discovered that my trunk had mistakenly been checked to Warsaw, Poland, and I wouldn’t get it back for four days. Welcome to Canada!

I managed to get a cab using my French language skills from the airport to the home of my French only speaking host family. Explaining in French the best I could why I was arriving at their home without any luggage, my hosts told me that they had a daughter about my age and size and that she would lend me some clothes. Fortunately, their daughter spoke some English and we agreed to work on each other’s foreign language skills.

The following day, I began classes at the university. My trip to Laval involved walking five blocks in weather that was below zero with snow up to my knees to the bus stop and taking the fifteen-minute ride to the campus. Departing the bus at the entrance to the first university parking lot, I noticed several other students walking towards a door within the garage and descending a staircase. I asked one of them where he was going and he responded, ‘to the tunnels.’

I learned that the entire university, including the dorms, and the nearby shopping center were all connected by a very extensive underground tunnel system. The tunnels were obviously designed to keep people warm and safe during bitterly cold winter weather. They were wide enough to allow for security vehicles to traverse them and were well lit with a series of long fluorescent tube lights in rotating blue, green, pink, and yellow colors. Some tunnel walls included painted murals oftentimes depicting the building you were under. The tunnels also included campus maps (all in French, of course) to direct you to the right building.

The tunnels were open and patrolled 24 hours enhancing safety. It was interesting to pass students pouring out of their dorms in lightweight clothing during the cold winter going to class. Without heavy jackets or coats, you knew these students lived on campus.  The tunnel system made it easy for students to basically escape harsh weather as they could attend classes, eat, sleep, play, and shop without ever venturing outside. Amazing.

On the other hand, the townspeople didn’t seem to miss a beat during the cold and snowy winter either. Apparently, most were accustomed to the weather and prepared for it. It was common to see women, men, and children snugly dressed in raccoon coats and hats or other winter apparel. I remember noting that few people I met ever commented on the weather. It was simply winter in Quebec. During my six week stay, the temperature was never above zero and the snow never below my knees.  However, despite the cold, the days were most often sunny when I had to walk to the bus stop which always put me in a good mood.

The weather didn’t interfere with my social life either. There were plenty of scheduled outdoor activities in which students participated, including bobsledding, ice-skating, snowshoeing, and skiing. I took one snowshoe trip through the woods in northernmost Maine, later discovering that we had snowshoed across a lake. Equally interesting was that the university pool, whirlpool, and saunas were always full of students, too. Succinctly, Laval University life proceeded unhampered by harsh winter temperatures.

When the term ended and I returned to the United States, the weather was noticeably warmer but still cold. I remember feeling that after experiencing six weeks of extreme bitter cold winter weather in Canada that I could handle any winter temperatures that Chicago might offer. Moreover, I was pretty fluent in French, too. Finally, I decided there was no better way to test my newly acquired French language skills than to complete the following January and February Winter term in West Africa.

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