Abolissons les Tropiques: An Ethnography of Becoming with Sensoria 

Abolissons les tropiques is an experimental auto-ethnographic piece written in three blog entries. In this third and final entry, I present how paying attention to snow sensoria is helping me to find my place both in a new city and in my “tropical” upbringing.

By Melina Campos Ortiz

Snowstorm (Montreal, Quebec). Photo by Author.

As winter made its way through Montreal in December, and the city was starting to be covered in white, I was getting ready to spend Christmas in Costa Rica. At the time, the most common comment I got from my Canadian counterparts was: “wow, an exotic Christmas!” or,”Christmas in the tropics, is that a real Christmas?” 

Those comments reminded me of an exchange I witnessed on social media years ago. A former Costa Rican colleague posted a photo with her two kids building a snowman somewhere in Canada, to which a European colleague commented: “I am so glad that your kids could experience a white Christmas at least once in their lives.” As I was returning home for the holidays, I wondered, is the white Christmas the ultimate Christmas? Are non-white Christmases Christmas-cheating?

Tamales in Brussels?

I have never experienced a “white” Christmas, or at least I don’t think so, but once I spent a Christmas in Brussels. After a couple of Tripel Karmeliet, my Costa Rican friend and I decided we would make vegan tamales for our Christmas dinner. We made a list. We made a plan. The next morning we would go to the African quarter to get the plantain leaves. We would use supermarket corn flour for the masa and canned chickpeas. It all seemed doable until we realized we were ill-equipped for the task: none of us had a clue how to make tamales from scratch. We made a vegan pie instead.

The truth is I don’t like eating tamales as much as I like tamales as an event. Every December, when Christmas approaches, families get together to make tamales. For some of them, tamaleadas are even more memorable than their Christmas dinners. But the work starts before those gatherings, and the social significance of tamales lives longer than them. 

The last time someone made tamales in my family was probably in the 90s. I can still recall how my late grandmother, who could not leave the house due to a heart condition, would make sure to get the best maíz cascado in town and make an appointment at the local mill to get it ground. She would pay Pin, who I remember as a very old, yet healthy farmer, to cut and clean fresh leaves from plantain trees from our family coffee estate a few kilometers away. Then Nina, my beloved Nanny, would cut the leaves out into squares while listening to the radio. My grandma would cook the chicken, the rice and the chickpeas in advance and ensure she got the best olives and prunes to give the tamales her final touch. Her daughter-in-law, my tia, would come over and help. While my sisters and I played around with our cousins, they would turn the maiz cascado into masa. I can visualize them stirring it up with a giant wooden spoon. Then they would pour a spoonful of masa into a set of plantain leaves and start assembling the tamales on the hardwood kitchen table. We kids were only allowed to do simple stuff, like adding the olives at the end. They would wrap them up in pairs and cook in a massive pot on the electric stove for hours. The aroma of cooked plantain leaves would perfume our house for days afterwards.

Every time someone would come over – no matter who, and no matter the time of the day – they would get offered a tamal. We would also offer tamales to the neighbours and get some in exchange that my grandfather would refuse to eat (because no one would ever beat my grandma’s tamales). When people give away tamales, they don’t always expect tamales back. In fact, more tamales are the last thing one would want in most cases. A simple comment like: “these are the best tamales I ate this December ” or “your tamales only get better with the years” will be more than enough to make all the hard work worth it. 

Christmas in Brussels (Brussels, Belgium). Photo by Author.

A Non-White Christmas

This past Christmas Eve, I went to San José ’s downtown to deposit some Canadian dollars into my local account. As I was queuing, a musician was playing the sax, and a ballet dancer whimsically moved along to his christmas-y tunes in the foyer of the art deco building that was once the tallest in the city. I felt like I was in New York City 70 years ago, in a sort of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel episode. It seemed like the bank was trying to live up to its past glory and showcase how money can make everything possible. 

I left the bank and walked up the Avenida Central. I bought a lotería navideña. I like buying lottery tickets, not so much because I want to become a billionaire – although, with every pedacito I get, I secretly long to get rid of my student loan – as I like to be part of a national tradition. I don’t choose lottery vendors according to any winning possibility criteria, I am not even attached to any particular number. I just enjoy hearing their stories: of their friend who once sold el gordo navideño, of the time someone got lucky and gave them part of the prize, of the time the president of the republic had bought a lottery ticket from them… I love how they perceive themselves as good luck wizards and know that they don’t sell pieces of paper but hope in the midst of economic hardship.

Then, I entered La Universal, the department store with the first electric escalator in the country. Another symbol of progress in a city center now in decay. It made me think of an exhibit I saw at the McCord Museum before leaving Canada. They were recreating the Bavarian scenes that used to display every Christmas at Ogilvy, a famous department store in Montreal. An ode to capitalism. A form of capitalism that I never lived and now I somehow miss. At least at the time, they devoted time to converting a window into a piece of art. (Maybe that is why I was intrigued by the performance at the bank. In the age of electronic transactions and cryptocurrencies, it is nice that someone acknowledges that people queue for hours to get some money in their bank accounts before the holidays). 

As I walked through the Christmas decorations featuring snowmen and snowflakes – by then,  on sale – I wondered if that refrigeration company still displayed a big piece of ice where middle-class kids would go and play with snow every December as if they were somewhere in Minnesota. As a child, I never knew about such a thing – our very lefty grandparents would never let us engage in such a “Yankee tradition”— but apparently it was a thing. And we missed out. As we missed out on wearing matching Christmas pyjamas, or writing letters to Santa Claus. But that never made our Christmases less worth living. 

This past December, as in the last 20 years, no one made tamales in my family. But that did not prevent me from practicing my “non-white” Christmas traditions. Like getting offered tamales as soon as I enter any house, listening to lottery vendors’ stories at the Avenida Central, or gathering with my dear ones under the beautiful and crisp December light. 

Calypso Band playing at La Avenida Central (San José, Costa Rica). Photo by Author.

Epilogue: Becoming with snow 

I came back to Montreal on an almost glacial, cold weekend in mid-January. The next morning, I woke up to a big snowstorm. As the snow was falling, my dad was going through surgery. I was not alone. The snow was my companion through the process. 

As time passed and I saw the snow piling up in my building’s backyard, I thought I might finally be able to make the snow Totoro for my nephew Martin. I don’t imagine him saying “Toto, Toto” on a choppy video call anymore. I am sure now he will say something like: “yo también puedo hacer uno así, en la arena, verdá, en la playa, con Tití?” 

My first winter in Montreal passed by me quickly. Maybe I cheated because I ended up spending one month in the tropics. Nonetheless, that did not prevent me from having to buy a space heater to stay warm, paying incredibly high hydro bills, and dealing with frozen pipes. Or from falling in love with the sunlight reflected by snow into my basement apartment and the silence during a snowstorm. I also discovered that the best way not to think about the cold, or the papers I had to mark, or the infamous “Freedom Convoy” was ice-skating. Nothing made me happier this winter. Even if it involved getting used to ignoring the comments of those surprised by the fact that I could ice skate. 

Many days, I cried, knowing the highest temperature would be minus 20 for an entire week. Many days I wore the wrong boots and got my feet wet with the slush. And yet, sometimes, while ice skating at Parc Jarry or walking back from campus on the snow-covered paths on Mount Royal, I secretly wished winter would never be over. 

I finally felt calm in Montreal. 

Ice skating rink at Parc Jarry (Montreal, Quebec). Photo by Author.

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