Kris à Genève

A Canadian living in Switzerland

Siberia attacks!

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As most of you have likely seen on the news, a Siberian front has crossed the Ural Mountains and invaded western Europe. As in previous continental crises, the Ukraine and Poland have suffered the most: of the nearly 300 deaths attributed to the Siberian front, 130 were Ukrainians and 53 were Poles, mostly homeless people who could not protect themselves. But the front has reached unlikely places as well: deaths were reported as far away as Algeria, and Romans are stockpiling food and locking themselves indoors (see article).

The Siberian front has also besieged Geneva, albeit without the fatal impact felt elsewhere in Europe. I do not know the explanation for the weather system that gripped much of Europe. But given that yesterday was Eileen’s birthday and that she has a molecular disagreement with cold weather, is it possible that Eileen behaved poorly last year and that this weather is her punishment?

Indeed, since late last week, the weather in Geneva has been inhuman. I normally don’t object to a little cold, but it has hurt to be outside over the last few days. Daytime temperatures were approximately -11 degrees Celsius from Friday to Sunday. Numerically this does not sound that cold, but Geneva’s humid lakeside air makes it feel much colder. A Russian colleague of mine returned to Moscow this weekend and said that -27 degrees in that city’s dry air felt warmer than -11 degrees in Geneva.

But as always in Geneva, it is “the kiss” that leaves you in agony. La Bise is the Arctic wind that blows down the valley from the north, whipping the lake into a frenzy and subtracting 10-15 degrees from the air temperature. Prior to last week, Geneva had had a mild winter and we had not suffered much from la Bise. But at some point during his approach, the Siberian front recruited la Bise and she reached full howl on Saturday at 40kph+.

Below are a few photos from the snowstorm that preceded the deep freeze. First is a photo of Eileen on our walk to work one morning:

The next photo shows a statue of Gandhi on the grounds of United Nations:

Here is a view from my ninth-floor office in the E Building of the Palais des Nations. The original Palais, built for the League of Nations, is on the right.

After the snow stopped, la Bise swept into the city and the deep freeze began. Here is a bike rack cluttered with windswept snow, leaves and garbage:

Eileen and I braved the bitter cold on both Saturday and Sunday to see the havoc of the wind and cold unleashed on Geneva’s lakeside. Here is Eileen on Quai Wilson – you can recognise her by the bridge of her nose:

Here is la Bise on the lake. As you can see on the wands extending from the buoys, the air temperature was cold enough to freeze the spray from the disturbed water:

Here is a boat in the most protected part of the harbour, its waterline decorated with a skirt of ice:

Next is a photo that says “cold”:

During cold, windy storms, waves crash over Geneva’s breakwaters, quays, railings and walkways and freeze before they reach the ground, leaving erratic, somewhat violent ice formations. The outermost marina breakwater was thick with these ice formations:

Behind the breakwater, ice sank all of the boats within the splash zone:

Oddly, no one wanted to go for a stroll on the breakwater:

Nor did anyone disobey the “no swimming” signs:

Not much to see through the binoculars:

Where the waves were not crashing over the wall, Quai Wilson was a skating rink:

Les Bains des Pâquis is a lakeside institution in Geneva. It offers saunas, a restaurant and stony beaches and is situated on the main jetty that guards Geneva’s harbour. Much of it was encased in ice when we visited on Sunday:

The children’s slide on the beach:

Sunbathers often lie here in the summer:

Scenes from along the beach:

Ice formations like these along Lac Léman are not new with this storm. We have had them in both of our previous winters in Geneva, although the ice is thicker this year. There are thousands of images online of similar formations: from this storm and previous ones; in Geneva and along the lake in nearby towns such as Versoix and Nyons. This year, there is a station wagon with roof racks in Versoix that has appeared in a number of news articles about the storm – you can find it a few times in this Google Images search.

As some of the above photos show, many Genevans came to the lakeside to see the storm’s icy effects. But this was rare entertainment in the otherwise striking effect the deep freeze has had on Geneva.

From a social perspective, the weather now dominates most discussions. Swiss colleagues remark at the extreme cold and compare it to past winters. International colleagues compare it to the weather in their home countries. Parents talk about trying to find enough indoor activities for their children. Friends complain about not having enough clothing to venture outside. And everyone wonders at the few lycra lunatics who continue to cycle despite the cold.

From a practical perspective, the disruptive effects of the cold are mounting. As one of the photos above shows, pleasure boats are in danger of sinking under ice and all water traffic has stopped on the lake. The cold caused a key water main on the east bank of the lake to burst, closing the Quai du Général-Guisan, a main road and one of the approaches to the city’s already overburdened Mont Blanc Bridge. Several colleagues who live in the area are now without water. And everyone in Geneva has endured city-wide traffic and public transit gridlock since the closure of Quai Guisan. Eileen and I are lucky that we can walk from our apartment to work.

The severity of the storm has even scratched at my survival instincts. I can afford enough shelter, clothing and food so that severe weather normally elicits from me no more than temporary discomfort and a few grumbling complaints. Even during this exceptional deep freeze, we and most Genevans remain physically safe.

But the degree of cold over the last few days has caused me moments of acute physical discomfort that were sharp enough to illustrate how dangerous the cold could be without all of my comforts.

A common topic of discussion here is the growing number of cold-related deaths in the Ukraine and Poland. Indeed, even when I am well clothed against the cold, after a short time outside, the web of veins in my exposed cheeks begin to burn, my teeth ache when I open my mouth and the strong gusts of wind make it difficult to draw breath. As I rush into my next heated destination, it is easy to imagine how those brief discomforts could become life threatening with fewer clothes and a prolonged exposure.

This realisation leads me to pity those people I see whose work exposes them to the cold. For example, every day I pass the Canadian mission on my walk to work and see the mission’s solitary, young security guard standing at the gate with no shelter. Already on rainy days, when the guard is huddled under an umbrella, I think this is strange, but I walk on. On the first day of this cold snap, when I passed the poor security guard, standing in a wool coat and a headband, I wanted to call the mission and demand they bring the guard inside. Today I was glad to see that there was no guard standing outside.

Of course, those who suffer the most from this deep freeze are also the most invisible to those of us who live in the comfortable parts of society. The homeless constitute the majority of the deaths this cold front has caused in Europe.

There are some homeless in wealthy Geneva, but I rarely see them, even in good weather. Often I just see their camps in the bushes along the river or in green belts away from the city centre. I assume that they have found shelter somewhere during the cold, as I have thankfully not read any reports of cold-related deaths in Geneva.

But in the eastern parts of Europe, generally colder and poorer than Geneva, the sudden need to shelter large, hidden homeless populations seems an overwhelming task. After all, if my body is any indication, such a sheltering drive would need to sweep up everyone, because when my limbs are numbed through my clothes after 20 minutes in the wind, I can not conceive how I would survive any more than one or two nights with minimal shelter from this degree of cold.

All of these reflections reinforce how lucky I am that my experience with this Siberian front is limited to having cold cheeks and fingers as I shoot a few photos, and then writing a blog entry about it as I warm myself in my apartment.

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Written by Kris Terauds

February 7, 2012 at 19:07

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