28 Jan 2014

Chill out

"Great, it's snowing!" are my first thoughts on days like today, when I pull up the blinds in my bedroom and look out into winter wonderland. For when it snows, it isn't cold.

That rule may be scientifically inaccurate, and "not cold" is certainly an impression open to debate. But if you find yourself living in Québec this winter, then "cold" refers to days with the mercury around -24C, and a wind chill factor that removes another ten degrees from that. So when a snowy day raises temperatures to a mild -6C for a while, you too will start to appreciate the shovelling duty as a welcome side-effect of a hot spell.

A week or two of arctic lows are not unusual for Montréal in January, and this journal has reported on them and the associated rituals before. What makes this winter worse was not only the early onset of the deep-freeze conditions in the first half of December, but also their persistence ever since.

I made it out of the Great White North just before a mighty "Polar Vortex" took a hold of much of the American Northeast at Christmas, and when my plane descended into Montréal again after the New Year, I was amazed to see the St. Laurence river and its shipping canal frozen solid - something the strong currents and fleet of icebreakers typically prevent.

Of course, while the Vortex brought much of the U.S. to a stand-still and forced Toronto's Pearson Airport to close, Montréal is much better equipped to handle such events. Hydro-Québec sets its electricity output to max, citizens crank up their cheap baseboard heaters, and everybody stays indoors. The fabulously warm Hudson's Bay Blanket that I found under the Christmas Tree didn't arrive a minute too soon.

Unfortunately, I can't just cuddle up and wait for spring to arrive. The office calls, and if it doesn't snow, the five minute walk to the metro becomes just ridiculously cold. The uninitiated fail to grasp precisely how cold -32C is. As you step outside, it is as if the air had gone. Your lungs are in shock and refuse to breathe for a moment. You set out, and before you've made it to the corner of your street, the cold has infiltrated however many layers you are wearing, and is now creeping down your back. You try not to slip on the layer of fresh slush, which sits atop a glacier-like base of solid ice, formed from past freeze-melt-freeze cycles.

By the time you made it to the first traffic light, you can feel how your metal watch case has cooled down so much under your glove that it now starts chilling your wrist. Your nose goes numb, which at least stops it from running. You protect your face by holding your mittens in front of it, and yet by the time you reach the sanctuary of the subway, you can wipe mini ice flakes from your lips. Your cheeks are so rosy they'd glow in the dark.

I am not exaggerating. And while the odd day like this can be a fun experience (in a dip-into-the-cold-after-sauna kind of way), week after week of it starts wearing me down. Unlike in Switzerland, winter doesn't really take breaks here. When the first snow falls in late November, it stays on the ground until April.

"We had a 55 degree temperature difference", said my colleague who spent a few days in Florida, where her in-laws were horrified to notice that Canadian conditions made the Celsius and Farenheit scales converge. Not in my hottest dreams would I dare asking for a trip to Florida. No, I'd be perfectly happy with a chance to chill out for a few hours in the balmy confines of my grocery store's walk-in beer freezer. It's set to +2C.

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14 Jan 2014


"The hardest part was being escorted out of the building", said the friend who recently found herself in the unenviable position. She was, as her employer put it, "let go" - a cynical euphemism that evokes an image of a boss reluctantly but gallantly giving in to a worker's forlorn wish to finally be freed.

That's not exactly how it was. My friend, with over 25 years of service, had no desire to leave her workplace. And she had done nothing wrong - she was simply the victim of yet another corporate reorganization. The occupant of a box which looked expendable on an org-chart somewhere. How did George Clooney's professional terminator put it in Up in the Air? "The reason we're having this conversation today is your position is no longer available."

Staff reductions happen, and although unfortunate, they are a natural part of business life. It can happen to me tomorrow. What shocked me, however, is the way in which my friend's employer (and many others, from what I've been told) handles such situations. The unlucky employee is called into a meeting, told of the news, and then immediately escorted out of the building. No chance to return to the desk where the majority of the last years' waking hours had been spent. No way to say good-bye to colleagues. Personal belongings to be collected after hours.

In the work culture I am accustomed to, this treatment is reserved for crooks, caught red-handed embezzling money, and for people who have just announced that they've signed with the competition. In North America, it appears to be the norm, sweetened by a severance package and an appointment with an outplacement agency (another euphemism!). 

To the European observer, that feels not only undignified, but also unwise, for it virtually ensures that all the employee's know-how is irretrievably lost. No time to document important processes, teach others the tricks of the trade, ensure a smooth continuation of affairs. Instead, team mates are left to pick up the pieces.

For better or worse, attitudes seem to differ. I remember my own company being amazed when I told them, prior to moving to Canada, that I'd have to give my last Swiss employer 3 months of notice, and stick around to pass on my knowledge. Even with voluntary departures, notice periods in North America are much shorter, and people are frequently released immediately.

At least I now know not to take it personally, should I ever make the experience. And in this part of the world, getting sacked isn't as much of a blemish as it is in Europe. Or, in the ever-so-eloquent words of Up in the Air's pro: "Anybody who ever built an empire, or changed the world, sat where you are now. And it's because they sat there that they were able to do it." The End.


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