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Perceptions of others can be shocking

Up until I was 7, I spoke only Inuktitut (an Inuit or "Eskimo" language). I sit between modern and pre-colonial worlds now, traveling back and forth between north and south as necessity dictates.

It is a strange thing to hail from an isolated place. It can be shocking to occasionally find out what another culture (believing itself to be normal) thinks of yours.

Let me tell you about one winter in a southern city:

Every time I let the scarf slip downward toward my chin, I was reminded of just how cold the air had become. The woolen barricade over my face sometimes seemed like the wall of a warm but tiny room, a place wherein my heaving breath forced moisture to collect until it at last began to run down my neck.

It was easy to become lulled by the trudging. Wind battered me. My awkward boots struggled for purchase upon fresh drift lying talc-like over compacted snow. I felt like a mite scrambling over hills of salt, balancing against gusts that had grown claws intent upon ripping scarf and jacket away from my face, exposing me as a nutcracker exposes the flesh of a splintered nut.

Sometimes, in my peculiar isolation beneath the multiple layers, I would find myself lost in monotony, walking onward without thought, legs finding their way by reflex alone. In such times, I occasionally forgot the cold, let the scarf slip a little, wind worming suddenly into my private little world. The act of breathing it would make me gasp, its cold and dryness at once savaging the warmth from my lungs.

Past rapid, painful blinking, I sometimes caught images of others. They were darkened shapes wobbling along in their own ways, frequently slipping and arising again.

I wasn't quite sure where these others were going, and did not much care, but I thought about how long I had already been walking, how many landmarks I had passed. I noted to myself, with no small amount of impatient tooth-grinding, that I must be nearing my goal.

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Battling my way over snaking runnels of snow was taking its toll upon me. My back ached. My calves were burning. In only 10 more minutes, I would be forced to sit down for a rest, perhaps upon a pile of snow. I wondered if doing such a thing might chill me. I could warm up only a bit upon attaining my goal, and I knew that I would have to repeat this trek in order to return home again.

How much longer?

At last, the corner of my vision caught the welcoming light ahead, at first a diffused white haze, then gradually a level green injected with bits of red. The sign looming ahead of me, I felt a rush of confidence, knowing that I would soon have the chance to warm myself and wick away the accumulated moisture about my face and neck. Realizing that I had at last attained my goal, I ceased to guard my scarf, and let the wind peel it aside as I ran, half stumbling, across the parking lot and in through the doors of my neighborhood 7-11 store.

It was late evening, and I had been out of milk for my morning coffee, a potential disaster that I could not tolerate. What was with Ottawa, anyway, that it had such cold winters? My teeth were chattering. This was like living in the Arctic.

Soon after warming up, browsing about the store a bit, and acquiring my bagged milk, I stood by the counter while the clerk calculated my total. I had picked up a nearby magazine that mentioned something concerning Nunavut on the cover. I was idly flipping my way through it when I noticed the clerk intently scrutinizing me, sometimes looking, sometimes rapidly averting his gaze as though afraid to be caught.

It was after he had asked for the money, and while I was fishing through my purse for exact change, that he suddenly mumbled, "I ... uh, noticed the magazine. Uh, are you ... Inuit?"

I beamed broadly as always, replying, "Yep!" Still smiling, I waited for the usual barrage of questions concerning the North.

The clerk seemed relieved that I was friendly. Then he gestured toward the outside, saying, "Boy, you must be perfectly comfortable in this weather!"