How I saved Toronto from a fate worse than blackfly

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THEY had the coldest Boxing Day in Ontario for 75 years. I wouldn't have minded so much, except that I was there at the time. Yes, for the past two weeks, throughout the Christmas period, I have been staying with relatives in the countryside near Toronto, and I can confirm that everything they say about Canada is true.

It's cold here.

I have never before been in a country where the man on the radio chirps happily: 'We expect a high today of about minus 15 degrees.'

I have never worn long johns before for such extended periods, made more extended by the fact that you have to allocate twice as much time to go to the lavatory.

I have never before felt the hairs in my nostrils crackling with ice crystals.

The Canadians have a strong tradition of being friendly to strangers (after all, most of them are recent strangers here as well), and if they sense that you have just arrived in Canada for the coldest Boxing Day in 75 years, they comfort you by saying: 'Well, it could be worse. It could be summer. Then you'd have the mosquitoes and the blackfly. Yep, could be a lot worse.'

Had we arrived in midsummer, they would have said: 'Could be a lot worse. Could be midwinter. Then you'd have the hairs in your nostrils crackling.'

Of course, when two Canadians meet they don't try to comfort each other. Their conversation goes like this.

'Cold.'

'Sure is.'

'Colder than yesterday?'

'I believe it is.'

Pause.

'Think the Blue Jays can do it again this year?'

The Toronto Blue Jays, you should know, have emerged baseball champions in what the Americans quaintly call the World Series for the past two years. That a Canadian team should beat America at its own game may seem unimportant to us, but it is wonderful and hilarious to the Canadians, and the thought of it helps to keep them warm through the winter months.

Another method of keeping warm is setting fire to Toronto Airport. We arrived here on 20 December, and as we stood in the queue which the passport people use to welcome strangers (a good, long welcome, lasting anything up to an hour), I smelt something burning. Nobody else seemed much concerned. After a while, I spotted smoke coming out of a litter bin.

Somewhat daringly, as I had not yet been officially admitted to the country, I went and had a look inside. The large black plastic bag that lined the bin had been set smouldering by a cigarette end which somebody had thoughtfully thrown into it and was about to burst into flames. Unhesitatingly, I climbed into the bin and started trying to stamp the flames out. It was at that point that a motherly air stewardess from our Air Canada flight walked past (all Air Canada air hostesses seem to come from the motherly, rather than the teenage, end of the range).

She recognised me.

'Hi,' she said. 'Having a good time?'

It's hard to muster dignity when stamping out a fire in a litter bin, but I tried.

'Having fun?' I said reproachfully. 'I'm trying to save Toronto]'

'Why bother?' she said, and walked on.

She must have been from Montreal. Canada is full of little rivalries like that. Quebec versus The Rest. East versus West. Fahrenheit versus Celsius . . . .

'They even have rival Christmases out here,' my brother-in- law, Keith, told me. 'You'll find Christmas trees on sale in Toronto way into January.'

'Why's that?'

'Because the Ukrainians don't celebrate Christmas till about January 14th.'

A second Christmas in Canada? My God, this means they'll have another chance to have the coldest Boxing Day for 75 years]

Think I'll be back in England before then.

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