Winnipeg is a city crisscrossed by two brown and green winding rivers, the Assiniboine and the Red, that slither like lazy snakes through the city. In winter they look like flat white sheets on a clothesline. From November until the end of March, ski- and snow-mobile paths and snow-prints appear and lie frozen like records from another archaeological age.
Winnipeg's Corydon Avenue at dusk.
Winnipeg in winter is a city often bored with itself. The wide downtown streets are desolate on a Monday night except for a few cars. Solitary orange buses marked with clear destinations and a handful of passengers cruise the empty streets. The air is cold; the street lamps glow with a false heat, and scraped brown ice and white snow are piled along the curbs. The wind from the northwest on your face is a bitter song you can feel but cannot see. The wind grabs the gray white exhaust from the cars idling in front of you at the lights and flips it back and forth so that it looks like a mad genie.
Corydon Avenue is a big main artery which runs east to west from "confusion corner" - a tangled intersection where four main streets meet and then diverge ever which way, to the distress of many a motorist. A short city block down from that corner, Piccola Italia begins and continues for ten blocks. Little Italy on Corydon has it roots in the old Fort Rouge. In the late forties and early fifties, many Italian immigrants settled in the area to be close to the Fort Rouge rail yards and shops about half a kilometre east, where many of the men worked.
Today, most of the Italians have moved out of the neighbourhood and dispersed into the suburbs, but many still have their small businesses, restaurants and caffès on the street, or still own the buildings along the Corydon strip. Mamma Mia, Monvisio, Colosseo, Bar Italia and Sophia's are family-run restaurants and caffès. An Italian construction company still has its head offices on Corydon and, further down at the corner of Lilac and Corydon, there is an Italian travel agency. It has been on that corner for over thirty years. There is also an Italian grocery store simply called The Italian Grocery Store.
On a hot summer night Corydon resembles a densely populated Mediterranean beach town. Coloured lights shine brightly in the big elms lining the street, and the air is full of the smells from the many different restaurants. The outdoor caffès fill as people from all over the city gather to dine al fresco. Up and down the street people stroll passeggiatina-style looking at the outdoor diners; they are looked at and admired in return - the seated and the strollers each a mirror for the other. On Corydon Avenue winter is announced at the end of August with the cold air from the north seeping into the night. The light changes from a bright white to a soft golden yellow. By mid-September the shadows are long and dark on the street and the air is cool and crisp in the morning. In the evening light falls fast into a soft dull gray. The outdoor caffès and restaurants thin out; many have already stacked their chairs and tables.
By early November the city has already experienced its first snow fall, and the heavy hand of winter falls hard on Corydon. Everyone has turned outside in and the activity on the street has slowed to a trickle, as any shopkeeper or restaurateur will tell you. They wait with patient eyes on the calendar.
As the holiday season approaches people return to Corydon like migratory birds and once more pack the street despite the cold, only this time with cars. It can be minus 20, with a wind-chill that freezes exposed flesh in one minute, yet no one will miss their Christmas office party.
Panettoni once lined the old Italian caffès signalling Christmas was just around the corner, but now Bar Italia has been transformed into a wanna-be poet hangout. Italians gather at the Bari Sports Club. Throughout the long, cold, dark winter, men gather on Saturday and Sunday to play cards, watch soccer, or sit around and talk. Outside, the wind sweeps down the street like a thin cold wire that cuts you to the quick, but still the men gather for their afternoon respite from family and work. The cold in Winnipeg keeps most people from each other, but not the Italians.
After the holiday season, Corydon resembles an ice station on Baffin Island rather than anything from sunny Italy. The cold makes you private and insular and introverted even if by temperament you are an extrovert. The cold is a scourge for affairs: it feels honest, but encourages sexual fantasies and secret longings that haunt the blood.
Corydon Avenue in Piccola Italia on a Monday night in the middle of January is empty. The Hungry Mind Bookstore closes early. Ciao Caffè's closed by nine. Only a few places stay open late and serve drinks to seemingly bewildered customers. The street is deserted. Everyone it seems has left for the moon.
It is only ten o'clock as I walk to my car. The outdoor speaker at Mamma Mia's Restaurant blasts "O sole mio" into the empty street. The words of the song on this bitter cold night are ironic, but the warm sunshine they evoke suggests that for every winter there is a Mediterranean summer in Winnipeg.
Carmelo Militano is a Winnipeg writer and teacher. He enjoys his espresso on Corydon in summer and winter.