17 Mar 2018

Pay As You Go

"I made almost $5000 today!" she exclaimed triumphantly the other day, returning from an afternoon spent with the tax advisor. Spring is tax season, and she had just filed her (two!) declarations with the provincial and federal government.

As I have discovered many years ago, Canada operates a tax-withheld-at-source system, meaning that employers deduct the expected income tax amount from each paycheck and remit it directly to the government. Taxpayers then file their returns and, depending on the various tax breaks, credits, subsidies and exemptions they are entitled too, will get some part of these previously withheld taxes back.

When I first learnt about this system in 2010, I saw how it shifts the balance of power towards the taxman. Essentially, the government gets its money up front and doesn't have to run after it with a laborious collections bureaucracy. The onus to file a tax return is on the individual, who will not get anything back unless he completes the annual paperwork.

The above certainly still holds true, but over the years I've come to realize that there is another reason for the tax collection to work the way it does. And that reason lies in the relative financial immaturity of the typical Canadian.

A recent study found that the average Canadian has over $8500 in consumer debt, i.e. not including any mortgages. However, as 46% of respondents reported no debt, this means that the other 54% each shouldered an average of over $15'000, typically in high-interest vehicles such as revolving credit cards and lines of credit.

Another survey, back in 2012, noted that a third of Canadian households lives paycheck to paycheck, i.e. they don't manage to put any money aside at all. The study found the household savings rate at a paltry 3.8% of income, down from 19.9% in the early 1980s.

These are the kind of numbers that make this debt-averse Swiss author pale. But they are indicative of a culture where basic financial literacy is scarce, and discouraged. Start with the tax example: She didn't "make" $5000 by filing her tax returns, she reclaimed money that she had already earned and her employer had withheld in excess. Consequently, a tax refund shouldn't be any more reason to go on a spending spree than a regular paycheck would be. And yet an entire seasonal custom has formed about "what to spend your tax refund on".

Speaking of paychecks, the law stipulates that these need to be issued no less often than every 16 days. Meanwhile, in Switzerland parents switch from handing out pocket money every week to every month when their kids turn 15 or so, in order to teach them financial responsibility. Many Canadians simply wouldn't manage to spread their salary evenly across a month, even though the amount of money per period wouldn't change at all.

Finally, and most egregiously, the government is complicit in the greatest of all deceits, by allowing retailers to advertise their prices without taxes. Time and again, I hear friends talk about this great sofa or that cool gadget that they were able to snag for "only $999". In reality, they spent $1151 on it, with the 15% difference going to the government. But it's cash out the door just the same, no matter how hard both buyer and seller try to deny it.

Which brings us back to the tax system. I understand now that the other reason for it being pay-as-you-go is that too many people simply would not be able to hold on to the cash for deferred payment if they ever got their hands on it. That's a sad and troubling thought.

If there is one place where the Swiss, and Europeans in general, really love pay-as-you-go, then it is with cheap cell phone plans. As any traveller on a shoestring has found out, the best way to stay connected in Europe, Asia and many other parts of the world is to buy a local SIM card, upload a few dollars' worth of airtime, and then use it up bit by bit. In Canada, the oligopoly of three large telcos and their subsidiaries has entirely prevented this customer-friendly pricing concept from taking hold. In the Great White North, home to some of the highest wireless fees in the developed world, "prepaid" plans simply mean that customers must upload money first, and are then still charged monthly fees of $10 or more, irrespective of usage.

In a nutshell, we have financial immaturity, deceitful and inflated pricing, and soaring household debt. Could there possibly be a connection? Let the penny drop.

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27 Feb 2018

East goes South

15 years it has been since my last proper beach vacation. Then, as now, it took me to Asia. In fact, the beaches in question are a mere 250km apart, although on opposite sides of the Thai / Malaysian border.

While not much has changed for me - a few good books and a deck chair keep me merry for a few days, then I get bored - the tourism market around me certainly isn't the same anymore.

In 2003, I found myself in a four star resort in Thailand, run my Caucasians for an entirely western clientele. We fit right in with the German families, Scandinavian sunseekers, British lobsters and French hippies on their way to the full moon parties. Courtesy of cheap long-haul flights, Asia was no longer an unaffordable, exotic dream destination, but the four season-proof alternative to old European beach playgrounds in Ibiza, Cyprus and the Adriatic Sea.

In 2018, popping my head up in a Malaysian swimming pool and looking at the loungers around it, I stared into mainly Asian faces. The Chinese had arrived in force, edging out the quieter Korean contingent. The Lebanese were easily identified as the ones calling the pool boys habibi, and the Saudis as the guys in shorts and flip-flops holing hands with the gals under a Niqaab. The many local Malay guests directed torrents of instructions in Bahasa Malysia at waiters and probably got far spicier curries than everybody else in return. The Singaporeans sing-sung their English (la!) in designer swimwear. Europeans were few and far in between, and nary an Ozzie or a Yank was to be found.

Clearly, Asia has arrived at its beaches. And while my favorite newspaper has written about the emerging Asian middle class for years now, this was for me the most tangible manifestation to date of that economic shift.

Far from complaining, I noted the change in guest mix with content. Not only does it represent a happy turn in the fortunes of the newly affluent, it also makes this pale-skinned guest feel less like a member of a colonial occupation force. On a more practical level, more Asians translated into better and more varied food offerings at the resort, while fewer Germans meant I didn't have to go reserve a beach chair at the crack of dawn. Speaking of which, the shade-seeking Asians seemed more concerned about their parasols than the sun anyways. And instead of tacky Europop and teutonic oompah-oompah, they listened to K-Pop, where the lyrics blissfully pass me by.

Resort management, also in local hands these days, does a good job at catering to the needs of their new clientele. There were many special deals, decorations and even little red packets given out for Chinese New Year. Wifi coverage was fast, free, unlimited and extended to the farthest reaches of the property. The resort map even suggested the ideal spots for Instagram-worthy selfies. And they were used extensively.

I looked on bemused, and perhaps a bit sad, as old and young guests alike missed out on the gorgeous sunset while they stared at their screens and video-chatted with the folks back in Tianjin and Wuhan (no time difference to deal with!). But I was glad that they were there, for they made this Malaysian resort live up to the slogan the country's tourism board has coined years ago :Truly Asia.

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5 Feb 2018

Need to vent

If there's not a word for it, there is probably not a need for it. And if there is not a need for something in one culture, it makes you wonder: Why is it so important in another culture?

Or so I thought one night, as I once again dodged her bewildered looks and opened the bedroom window, letting in the icy winter air. As any Swiss, I wanted to lüften the room before going to sleep. And as any Canadian, she considered that sheer madness. I tried to explain, but I was quite literally lost for words.

"To air out" or "to ventilate" are the translations the dictionary lists when I look up the German term. But while that may correctly describe the technical process of exchanging the air in an enclosed space, it falls far short of capturing the cultural importance lüften has to the Swiss.

In Switzerland, lüften happens everywhere, and all the time. Those who don't sleep with their bedroom windows ajar will at the very least open them before going to bed and after getting up. Kitchen windows open after cooking. In school, one student per class is inevitably put in charge of opening and closing the windows, just like someone has to clean the blackboard. In the army, we received detailed orders on the proper lüften of our barracks on day one of boot camp (diagonally across the hall, at least three times a day, no less than 5 and no more than 10 minutes). Until the recent advent of air conditioned train sets, even train windows could be opened to ensure adequate ventilation.

And in Canada? Complete incomprehension prevails. In the summer months, windows are cranked open and left that way for weeks on end. And in the winter they are kept shut. "We are paying to heat up the air in our house" she said sternly. "I do not want to contribute to global warming outside!"

Don't they understand? How can they not be concerned about the stale air inside a home, and want to exchange it for the crisp and pure variety outside? Aren't they afraid of.... well, what exactly?

Unsettled, I turned to the handy Xenophobe's Guide to the Swiss for a neutral perspective. And sure enough, a section in the chapter on Obsessions reads
The Swiss are subject to numerous obsessions. One of the strongest is their preoccupation with air. Inside Swiss homes the uncontrolled movement of air in the form of draughts is detested. The Swiss believe that exposure for even a few seconds to a draught will bring on every ill known to mankind. Thus rigorous efforts are made during the construction of Swiss houses and apartments to eliminate the slightest possibility of a draught ever being allowed in. Yet each morning, they seem to put aside their phobia when they fling open their windows to air their bedclothes out.
And suddenly, it all made sense. The Swiss are so fixated on lüften because they are so opposed to any naturally occurring flow of air. Whereas they build their air raid-proof houses with eternity in mind, Canadians take a more relaxed approach to construction: When I sit in our kitchen behind the (closed!) balcony door, I can still feel the cold seeping in. And while we have replaced all the windows recently, the wind blows right through the cracks between their frames and the crooked walls.

I can relax now. There really is no need for a translation of lüften. In Canada, even the oldest buildings do it all by themselves.

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21 Jan 2018


+60 degrees Celsius. That alone was a strong incentive for my recent jaunt down to Santiago. But as it turned out, it was also a trip down memory lane.

Loyal readers of this blog will recall that I spent 6 months in Chile's capital in 2011, managing a project for my employer and using any spare time to discover bits of this diverse country and its people.

This marked my first return to Santiago since, and the first time I experienced the city at the height of the southern hemisphere's summer, which made for the stark contrast in climate to Montréal's icy winter. I eagerly expected the heat, packing my bathing suit and sunglasses.

What I didn't expect was the strange sense of wistfulness that took hold of me pretty much from the moment I got into a taxi at the airport. From the smell in the air (no, not the jet fuel!) to the Chilean accent of the taxista, things seemed so familiar. Later that day, as I strolled down the streets of Providencia, I reacquainted myself with many of the stores and cafés I used to go patronize. Soon, I sat on a shady patio munching away on empanadas de pino and drinking a cold Austral.

Nostalgia didn't cloud my vision enough not to notice that the city has progressed remarkably. There was an gigantic new shopping mall at the foot of South America's tallest tower. The parque metropolitano had a new cable car, and new signage throughout. And the eco-certified office building which just broke ground in 2011 was now the location of my client meetings. Yes, Chile has done well in the meantime.

So what about myself, I inevitably started wondering as I sipped a Pisco Sour in the warm evening light. The boundless enthusiasm and optimism of 2011 have given way to a more cautious realism. I have changed roles twice, but not employer. I am still in Canada, but now as as citizen, rather than a temporary worker. I may have grown a bit wiser, but probably also more cynical (the depressing sight of the former site of our Chilean office, long-since shuttered, didn't help). Much like to the Pisco, there was a touch of bitterness to it.

But bitter goes with sweet, and not just in the chocolate araucano ice cream that rounded off my dinner. I have also found companionship, and the continued privilege of roaming the globe (including a trip to the Chilean-administered Easter Island in 2013).

Still, when I left Santiago after an all-too quick return visit, I did so with a sense that the city had advanced more in the last 6 years than I had.

Sub-zero temperatures awaited me back in Canada, freezing everything solid. But just like I to Santiago, spring will eventually make a comeback to Montréal. And with it, things will start to flow again...

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5 Jan 2018

Try me

It was the Saturday before Chirstmas, and the market in one of Zurich's middle-class neighborhoods was bustling. While most people were busy picking up the last groceries for the coming holiday orgy, we had just arrived in the country and were browsing the stalls only out of curiosity, knowing that the family would feed us well over the next days.

As we ambled past bakers, butchers, fruit vendors and the like, she noticed something: None of the merchants offered any samples! Indeed, the little trays so common at Montréal's Atwater market (and many others around the world) were nowhere to be seen. No Swiss vendor deemed it necessary to tempt the clientele with little bits and bites, and no Swiss customer seemed to expect any.

What a difference when we made it to the back of the market, where an Italian cheesemonger was proudly standing behind big wheels of fontina, provolone and pecorino. The moment he heard us speak English, he chimed in with his thickly accented "Ello! Come try formaggio!", sticking out a plate. And when I responded in Italian, he immediately started cutting thick slices of formagella for us to try... and, unsurprisingly, buy.

Unfortunately, this market is not the only place where the Swiss show their stingy - or is it snotty? - side. I vividly remember leading a group of 20 American visitors into the main branch of Sprüngli, Zurich's flagship chocolate store, many years ago. I sung the praises of their signature macarons, Luxemburgerli, which were sitting pretty in their alluring colors behind the counters. The Americans looked intrigued. The Sprüngli staff was unimpressed. When asked how they taste, their answer was: "Very good." 

Naively, I thought that a cultural misunderstanding was happening, and sprung into action. "I think they'd be curious to try", I advanced in Swiss German. "Certainly", came the response. "What size of box do you want to buy?"

I was dumbstruck. And then I got angry. "Clearly, this store wants you to buy the cat in the bag", I said, loud enough for all the store to hear. "Let's leave." 20 American credit cards disappeared into wallets again, and we stamped out.

Obviously, things did not change since. Time and again since, I witnessed bewildered tourists at Sprüngli's airport stores experiencing the same obnoxious parsimony. "You can also buy single truffles if you want to try them first" was one of the stand-out lines put to a shocked Japanese once. It's revolting.

And yet... I keep buying those damn good chocolates. And the markets are as popular as ever. Like any good Swiss, I roll my eyes, frown in disgust, and then pay up. For as long as I do, vendors are vindicated. When it comes to free samples, they'll have the last laugh as they say "Just try me!"

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15 Dec 2017

Mann spricht Deutsch

I had just finished my evening swim. Exhausted and famished in equal measure, I sprinted up the stairs at Berri metro station to catch my connecting train home. Just as the sliding doors started closing, I squeezed in and plopped myself down on a chair.

As the train set off, my ears perked up. They had caught pieces of a conversation in German. My eyes scanned the metro and settled on two women across from me. "Und was, wenn der Deutsch spricht?" asked one. The other shrugged. "Ach, fast keiner kann hier Deutsch."

I stifled a smile. Very few people in Montréal speak German, indeed. But some do. My curiosity was piqued, not the least because I had noticed that neither of the two people across from me sounded like a native German speaker. Why, then, would they go to the trouble of speaking a foreign language to each other?

Soon, I noticed that the conversion seemed to be about men. And not any men, but one particular specimen, and his particular attributes. This was going to be interesting. I reached for my water bottle, surreptitiously leaning forward to catch more of the chatter over the din of the 50 year old subway cars. 

"He doesn't wear a band or anything" said one. "Don't get too excited now" replied the other, snickering. I paused. It sounded like the man they were talking about was in sight. I looked around the carriage. There were a few mummified creatures in winter parkas with their backs to us, their gender impossible to discern. And to my left, there was a poorly shaven 20-something guy, wearing big headphones and staring at his phone. Other than that, nobody was in sight.

I caught their eyes for a moment, but they flinched and blushed. I turned my gaze to the window and the blackness of the tunnel beyond, noticing my reflection on the glass. They couldn't possibly... no, surely not. And yet, the long-winded German adjectives they used could conceivably be applied to yours truly.

My musings were interrupted by the tinny voice announcing my stop. Just as I got up, I clearly heard "aww... now he's leaving". Now it became almost impossible to contain my laughter. What were the chances?

Before I knew it, the train pulled into the station. And right as I was about to get off, one of the women got up, thrust her business card into my hand and said, in English: "My friend here would like to go on a date with you." At which point I just could not help myself: I smiled before replying in my best Hochdeutsch: "How nice. And I wish you a very pleasant evening."

The doors slid closed behind me, and as I turned around with a massive grin on my face, I was relieved to see that the two friends were almost literally rolling on the floor laughing. They had certainly made my day - and I, presumably, theirs.

Oh, and as for that business card, you wonder? Well, date or not, Sprache verbindet Menschen!

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25 Nov 2017

Hold the line

Waiting in line is not fun. Not at the grocery store, not at the airport, not at the bus stop, and not at the doctor's. And yet, we all do it, time and again, wasting precious moments of our lives to poor organization. Technology helps: When I recently spent an hour waiting for a routine blood test, I was the only one reading a magazine. Everybody else was fidgeting with an electronic gadget.

If only the clinic in question was as technophile as its clients - there must be a smarter way to manage queues. Or is there?

"The line is part of the fun" stipulated none other than Walt Disney, when he set about building his first theme park. He realized that people wouldn't feel the joy of his "happiest place on Earth" if they spent most of their day standing in dull lines, waiting. So his engineers and designers set out to incorporate the zig-zagging line-up areas before any ride into the attraction's theme. Over the years, these pre-ride zones have gotten more and more sophisticated, setting the stage with sounds, sights, videos, props and sometimes even animated characters.

But even basics keep prospective riders entertained: I remember a visit many years ago to the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland, where the inevitable Swiss theme materialized itself in a cantonal coat of arms being affixed to each pillar of the faux-wood roof covering the waiting area. Unfortunately, Switzerland has only 26 cantons, but the roof had more pillars. So the Disney gang simply continued adding made-up coats of arms to the extra pillars. We laughed so hard that we barely noticed the hour or so spent waiting in line.

Sadly, Walt Disney is dead, and greedier managers have taken over running theme parks. These days. waiting in line is for poor schmucks. At most parks, "Quick Access" tickets allow the more free-spending to bypass queues, skipping right to the front of the line.  The price for this privilege is variable: More on busy days, less on slow ones. There are even ticket machines placed outside major rides, letting you buy up from a regular admission once you see the daunting line-up.

This of course means that managers now have different incentives than old Walt did. The less attractive and longer they make the wait, the more likely they are to rake in extra cash from Quick Access tickets. When I last visited a roller coaster park, I endured dull, cattle-like queueing, while giving the evil eye to those rich folks passing by in their dedicated lane - sometimes twice before I got on.

This time, the roles were reversed, for yours truly took the bait and spent the dollars for Quick Access. Sure enough, in a day at Bush Gardens, I got more stomach-turning thrills than ever before. Triple launch coaster, inverted coaster, dive coaster, sit-down coaster, I rode them all. First row, last row, hands in the air. And again.

It was a lot of fun. But something wasn't quite right. It took me a while to put my finger on it, but I finally found the missing ingredient: Anticipation. Not having to wait meant not watching the coaster go by time and again. Not hearing the people scream. Not visualizing every twist and turn. I just ran up the stairs, flashed my Quick Access barcode, and was on. And two minutes later, off again. There just wasn't the time to get anxious and excited, and then to have all that tension release as the train drops from the sky.

Walt Disney was right all along. The wait is part of the fun. It makes you appreciate what you are about to get, and lets you savor it more intensely when it is finally here. So, dear readers, if you thought that the latest post to this blog was a long time coming... you are welcome.

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31 Oct 2017

Social committee

I barely made it home, evading on my way blood-stained nurses, Indiana Jones, a werewolf, Princess Leia, a giant panda, Beelzebub, and even an Air Canada Rouge flight attendant. It was a grizzly sight.

Yes, Halloween is upon us once again. After initial ignorance, my time in Canada has by now made me well-acquainted, but no more enthusiastic, about the North American version of carnival. It remains an asinine, unnecessary, embarrassing and highly commercialized aberration.

Only recently, though, have I started noticing that the dressing up isn't just limited to rugrats and the alcohol-infused university set. Last year, I was irritated when on October 31st, I was served by a bank teller in a fairy queen outfit (good thing she didn't go for the bank robber look). But this year took the institutionalized silliness to new heights.

A few days ago, a company-wide email from the social committee (the first I heard of such a body) arrived in my inbox, alerting me not only to a communal pumpkin carving in the cafeteria and a ghoulish potluck (aren't they all?), but also officially inviting me to wear my costume both on the day before and on Halloween itself. Ever the cynic, I laughed at the hopeless attempt by company cheerleaders to lighten the workplace mood, and promptly deleted the message.

But as it turned out, many colleagues did not: For the past two days, I have worked side-by-side with cowboys, cops, Hotwarts wizards, and random creations with silly wigs. What seemed utterly undignified to me appeared to be great fun to my - normally straitlaced - colleagues.

For marketers and merchandisers, extracting not just kids' pocket money, but adults' hard-earned dollars for Halloween costumes surely is the holy ghoul grail, and they seem to have gotten much better at it in recent years. So much so, in fact, that even the Prime Minister showed up to work in a Superman costume. There must be a House social committee as well.

Fortunately, in Canada the hubbub will be over by tomorrow. South of the border, though, they are not so lucky. There, a serially bankrupted former Reality TV star has been acting as President since January. Who ya gonna call?

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