Searching for Montreal’s pink flamingos

We each seek out survival mechanisms to get through this pandemic winter. Baking bread seems to have lost its craze after an initial frenzy during the first wave. My high school friend Greg bought us each inflatable tubes for tubing down the Mont Royal. His is a white unicorn with a rainbow tail and mane, mine is a bright pink flamingo. Both have goggles sensibly painted on to avoid the sting of snow in their eyes. They have to be inflated from a nozzle deliberately placed at the anus of the tube, which makes for quite a sight – two grown men burring their faces and blowing up the backside of fantastic creatures.

After a heavy snowfall in late January, Greg and I carried our inner tubes to the mountain on a winter evening before curfew. The eastern face of the Mont Royal is used for sledding in the winter, with a wall of haybales separating people careening down the hillside from unforgiving Parc Avenue traffic. It was already dark in the early evening, and a light snow was falling.

Lying on our backs in our respective inner tubes, we linked hands and pulled ourselves to the edge of the taboggan run. We each had an open can of Kroonenberg beer in our free hand. At any age in life, there is an undeniable thrill as an inner tube or toboggan inches over the lip before beginning its inevitable decent. One’s inner child cannot help but be released. We laughed, screamed and giggled like schoolboys that evening. It’s one of the best memories of this winter.

While that evening was just one moment, there are thousands like it, in all their variation, taking place across Montreal island during this peculiar winter. We each strive for healthy moments of joy and escapism. We each seek our pink flamingo.

In shuttering indoor social life, the pandemic has compelled us to reconnect with the pleasures of a winter metropolis. There is a steady stream of people on cross-country ski trails, the crack of pucks sound on boards at pickup hockey games while families skate wherever rinks can be found.

The Parc de Lorimier rink at night is a particularly delightful sight. A neighbourhood gem tucked away in the Plateau’s residential east end, the rink winds its way in a circle around trees, with one Maple tree serving as its centre. Dim park lights provide the most romantic and charming setting. Young couples glide along the ice holding hands while children stumble, learning to skate. It is a heart-melting sight – a living reminder of the city’s beauty.

Others prefer a more competitive edge. At night, teams of cross-country skiers attack the mountain at pace. In the darkness with their headlamps, they look like miners trudging up the mountain on a night shift – lights flickering and bobbing up the hillside. A cross-country ski on the Mont Royal at night is a magical experience. Working up Chemin Olmsted, you eventually face south, looking down over the cityscape like a massive shimmering jewel. The city – a living gem – glimmers and hums quietly into the night sky. Continue further up the mountain and the trail splits, offering a majestic route to the summit or a shorter loop with a speedy downhill segment. I always stop at one segment, hoping to see an owl that often perches outside its nest, overseeing passing skiers like a surly factory manager from a Dickens novel. In classic Montreal fashion, it’s rare to enjoy the mountain without seeing a unicyclist trying a technical off-road trail.

Coming down the mountain in any direction, the city’s pickup hockey games are a remarkable feat of community organization. Immediately after work, young men (because it’s almost overwhelmingly young men) begin to appear on streets across the city, converging upon outdoor rinks while wearing standard uniform: hockey gloves with a stick slung over one shoulder and skates dangling behind their backs at the end of the stick. Arriving at the rink, a critical mass is reached, sticks are thrown into centre-rink, someone closes their eyes and shuffles the sticks and then tosses them – evenly, one at a time, in opposing directions – to create two teams. From that point onward, it’s a continuous game of hockey until moments before curfew.

Players come and go, and a natural rhythm finds itself. New arrivals split themselves evenly between the two benches, which sometimes goes eleven players deep on each bench in addition to the ten players on the ice. Boots are usually used for goals. The joy of hockey is that shifts are quick, so there is a constant rotation and playtime. It is remarkable to participate in this simply to witness its organic efficiency.

In mid-January, a heavy snowfall blanketed the city one weekend. This was an atypical snowfall, with warmer weather lending itself to a particularly sticky snow ideal for making snow people and forts. A sense of communal joy was palpable – even dogs seemed to have a bounce in their step.

In a winter metropolis, a magical snowfall like this is a medicine or balm, lifting collective spirits. A euphoria spread across the city and it seemed everyone was outside. In Parc Lafontaine, an octopus made of snow wound its tentacles up a tree while a large snow-snake descended from another branch. A life-size horse with a mane made of sticks, the tail of a diving whale, a snow-couple kissing against a tree, figures sitting on benches, ornate snow forts, a family of penguins – these were just a few of the pieces on exhibit. The city announced a prize for the best creation.

Parks became places of collective creation during the pandemic, to a degree unseen before. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about that weekend was the sudden cold snap that followed. The weekend’s creations were frozen in place, some for over a month. Fictional worlds were fixed in time – the parks, museums with boundless character.

What winter seems to afford us this pandemic is moments of escapism. We can surrender ourselves to the moment, to the joys of snow and play, to sun shining on a fresh white blanket in a quiet forest. The tragedy of the pandemic and the struggles of life can disappear from our minds, however briefly. We allow ourselves to forget, to laugh, to create. We ride the elusive pink flamingo.

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