One of the much-vaunted benefits of travel is that it makes you open to new things. It is supposed to be a growth experience. Spending time with new people, living life in different ways, seeing the beautiful places of the world as well as the desperately sad ones – all of these things are supposed to make me into a wise old crone. By the time I move home, I should be so full of the Wisdom of the Earth that people will run from my smug face at a hundred paces. But today, I have learned a different lesson. Hold on – let me adjust my flowing robes, put on a mysterious smile and gaze into the distance. Ready? I have learned… that I can longer tolerate the cold. Not even a little bit. I know this because I am sitting bundled up in a long-sleeved shirt, blowing on my fingers in Brisbane, Australia. A place that will climb to 30 C today. But, compared to Noumea? I feel like someone has set me out to drift on an ice floe.
I’ve never been a cold weather fan. This is no secret. But this new development does worry me just a little. It is not a good idea for my body to turn tropical. For one thing, my home is back at 43 N. I remember the scritch-scritch of snowpants and wearing two layers of grandma’s knitted mitts. I dread and respect black ice. I know that when half a meter of snow falls overnight, you don’t call in the army – you just trade head-shakes with your neighbours, send someone to Tim Horton’s for a round of double-doubles, and get shovelling.
I know these things, but my body rejects the memories.
Maybe Brisbane was just too much of a shock to my system. Intellectually, I understand that 30 C (86 F) is nice and toasty. And while I am outside, it doesn’t feel so bad. But indoors, Australians air-condition themselves into a polar vortex conditions. At least in the apartment I can crank up the temperature as it suits me, but, out in the world, you get what you get.
And no place – not anywhere – is worse than the supermarket.
As we walked into the store, Indy started rubbing her arms. “Why is it so cold in here?”
I’d forgotten that Aussies like to pretend they are grocery shopping in the Antarctic. “I don’t know, honey. Let’s just be quick.”
As the girls picked out oranges and tomatoes, I felt the goosebumps come out on my arms. I swore quietly to myself. Goosebumps are my early warning system. I didn’t have a lot of time.
“Okay, ladies. Divide and conquer. Stylish: strawberries. Indy, let’s find some ham.”
We strode down the aisles, trying to generate heat, but there was no escape. We paused in a dead-air zone in the bread aisle to regroup. “Ooo, English muffins!” Stylish picked up a pack.
I put it in the cart. “Sure. But if we buy these…” I looked down at the girls. Their lips were turning blue. “We’ll need cream cheese.”
Indy moaned a little. Stylish wiped the frost from her brows and nodded. “I’ll get it.”
“Are you sure? Sweetheart, you’re so young.” I took a deep breath. “Promise me that, if it gets too hairy, you’ll abort the mission.”
She saluted, and was gone.
Indy and I huddled for warmth by the raisin buns. “Is she going to be okay, Mom?” asked Indy. But I was too cold to speak.
The seconds ticked past. I checked my watch. It had been too long. Something had gone wrong.
I flexed my fingers, which were now yellow up to the first knuckle. “We have to go get her.”
Indy gave me a despairing look. But she nodded, the little trooper.
We found Stylish paralysed in front of the sour cream. “I can’t find it! Sour cream, whipping cream, all of the other creams are here.”
I pointed down the aisle. “Cream cheese is usually between the yoghurt and cheese. You couldn’t have known, soldier.” I patted her shoulder. “I’m going in. Stay here and warm up your sister.”
But I was already gone. Leaning forward at a 45 degree angle, I fought my way through the blast of the a/c. Greek yoghurt, low-fat, no-fat, bingo! The silver and blue Philadelphia packaging had never looked so welcome. I snatched a pot of store brand (sorry, Philly: cheap cruiser habits die hard) and backtracked to the girls.
“Shortest line,” I managed. “Hurry.”
Back on the street, the girls and I took a moment to stand in a sunbeam and recharge. As my fingers gradually turned pink again, I gave the kids a hug.
“We’re not going back there again, not ever” said Indy. “Right, Mom?”
“No way,” I said. “Not worth it.”
The girls nodded solemnly. We had enough Mint Slices and bread to get us through.
Soon enough we’ll be back in the face-melting heat of Noumea. No doubt I’ll complain about that, too. And, for now, I’ll try to make peace with the Aussies and their obsessive need to create a winter wonderland.
But I might have to pick up a sweater to take to the museum today.