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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23 Oct 2017

Contes des îles

For no more than $600, you could get yourself a round-trip ticket from Montréal to Paris. On such a flight, by about the time you fold down your tray table for the rubber chicken, you'd be soaring over a tiny archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But unfortunately, if this is where you wanted to land, the flight would have cost you nearly twice as much.

The islands in question are the Iles de la Madeleine, a cluster of 7 sandy shoals located half-way between Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton, inhabited by 13'000 Acadians and a handful of anglophone descendants of shipwrecked sailors.

Despite their remote location, the islands are politically part of Québec. And that held the key for us to get there cheaply: The 3-stop flights that link them with Montréal are considered "intra-province" and as such available for only a handful of frequent flyer miles. And so we clambered aboard an ancient Dash 8 aircraft one sunny fall morning, and soon found ourselves on approach over the sandy dunes.

Sand, indeed, is not in short supply: Over 300km of unspoilt beachline meant that we didn't need to leave our cozy Bed & Breakfast early to put down our blankets at the best spot. Not that they would have stayed there for long anyways: The constant wind, which makes the archipelago a mecca for surfers and kite-flyers, would have swiftly swept them away.

Our visit was at the very end of the short summer season, meaning that many attractions and dining choices had already closed for the year and the weather had gotten too cool for any water sports.

Rather than hoards of German tourists, it was seals and migrating birds that kept us company on our long walks along the water, and up onto the crumbly red sandstone cliffs that mark parts of the shore.

Low tide reveals grottos and caves under these cliffs, and it was there that the most magical of events took place one full moon night: As part of the Contes en Iles festival, torches and bonfires were set up, and storytellers from the near and far set out to spin their yarn in their light. The locals were clearly entranced, and we were enchanted, if by nothing else than the colorful local accent, so different from the grande terre, as they call the mainland.

Which, as it happens, is just as expensive to get to for the madelinots as it is the other way round. While this leads to high prices for goods that need to be ferried in (i.e. everything), it also fosters a close-knit, trusting and welcoming attitude: Houses and cars were routinely left unlocked. At our second visit to the local bistro, the staff started gossiping with us. At the farmer's market, villagers loaded their own baskets with produce and paid in a honor system. This, I thought, must be what rural life had been like everywhere in centuries past.

Of course, recent times have brought some changes (for instance mobile phones in 2003, as the tourist guide proudly proclaimed), including the micro-breweries, cheesemakers, and crafts shops that holidaying urbanites look for in their quest for authenticity. A recent surge in visitor arrivals, albeit still very reasonable, rewards the locals' initiatives.

It is not hard to see how word spreads about these mystical islands with their charming inhabitants. The highlight of our tale about the Hawaii of Québec however isn't its delicious food, or its unique madelinot accent, or even the adventurous way to get there. It is the otherworldly beauty and rough charm of a landscape so different that it has to be seen to be believed.

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27 Sep 2017

Mean streets

It was the year 2000, and it was the capital of the self-proclaimed Land of the Free. Our group leader gathered the gaggle of teenage travellers around her, put down a city map and drew a fat red line all the way across it. "Listen up", she said. "Do not venture north of this line. Not ever. It's a no-go area. Understood?"

Since then, similar red lines have been drawn for me in too many cities, from Buenos Aires to  Detroit and from New York to Rio. Never, though, in Montréal.

It wasn't until a recent quality-of-living study that I became conscious of the fact that there aren't really any "no-go areas" in my adopted home city. And that this is probably the exception rather than the rule in North America.

Yes, there may be a few neighborhoods where you'd feel out of place walking in the middle of the night. And there are definitely areas that just feel inherently hostile to pedestrians at any time of day, with roaring traffic, abandoned sidewalks and bland warehouses lining the roads for miles kilometers. But even there, the biggest threat is likely to be run over by a distracted driver not expecting anyone on foot.

The kind of random violence that mars many other big cities is rare in Montréal. CTV has put together a homicide map, which is remarkable not just for its relatively low number of occurrences (26, plus 7 people killed by police in 2016) but also its even distribution over the entire island. There are no "bad places".

Unfortunately, the map doesn't specify each murder's circumstances, but I can't recall any media coverage on random shootings or violent assaults on strangers. It would seem that even Canadian pickpockets - of which there are plenty - are essentially gentle.

All of this serves to illustrate an important aspect of quality of life: The freedom from fear for one's life. Too many urbanites on this planet do not have this luxury, and those who do, including this blogger, often don't value it enough. Canada may not call itself the Land of the Free, but it would arguably have a better claim to it.

With this in mind, I stroll through the city with newfound appreciation for its safety. Which leaves me free to worry about the true dangers of Montréal roads: Collapsing tunnelscrumbling bridges and man-eating potholes!


10 Sep 2017

Nanny state

"A message from the government of Canada" says a friendly voice at the end of many TV and radio commercials. They advertise various projects the government of the day deems worthwhile, from vaccination drives to compost collection and the latest tax credits. There is even a toll-free number for you to call (1 800 O CANADA, if you must try). The campaigns are evidently political, in that they promote the signature policies of the governing party, and are often timed around elections.

Inevitably, the opposition of the day decries such advertising as a colossal waste of public funds for partisan means - until it is their turn to govern, at which moment they do exactly the same. When the Liberals replaced the Tories, the focus of the messages changed radically, but their frequency did not.

Coming from Switzerland, where the tax-funded take-over of the airwaves is both much less prevalent and typically much more technocratic (the health ministry promoting safer sex, the firefighters informing about the proper use of candles on Christmas trees), Canada's government propaganda has always seemed a bit unseemely for a democracy.

But it wasn't until my recent visit to Singapore that I realized just how overbearing even a non-totalitarian government can be. It is an open secret that the political competition in the flourishing city state is, ahem, somewhat limited, and consequently the governing party may feel less of an urge to promote blatantly partisan causes. That doesn't mean the state stays out of your face, though.

Much more so than on any previous visit, I realized how ubiquitous public admonishments were. The buses I rode had no commercial advertising at all, but were plastered with signs telling riders where to sit, how to stand, where not to put their belongings, how to properly pay their fare and so on.

In parks, people were exhorted to pick up and recycle their garbage, not to waste water from the fountains, not to run and play outside of playgrounds, and to limit their use of pick-nick tables on busy days.

And at the signature hawker centers, into which Singapore has organized its street food vendors, nagging public hygene and behavior rules (always wash your hands! return and separate your waste!) left a bit of a sour taste, no matter the sweet cartoon characters used. The few days in this nanny state started to get to me.

Clearly, the tremendous success of the tiny, multicultural, clean and perfectly efficient country speaks to the effects of such campaigns, and its citizens must have internalized all the rules of proper behavior. So much so that when I swam at the public pool, where a broad section was reserved for lap swimming but I was its sole user, the pool attendant stopped me and pointed to a big sign: It explained how to properly swim up on one and down on the other side of the section. My objection of being the only swimmer present was dismissed with a bewildered look: "But these are the rules."

Well then. I for one am glad to be back on my way to Canada, where at least half of the political spectrum seems to mind government publicity at any one time. And the public reacts to it the same way as to any other advertisement: By tuning out.

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23 Aug 2017

Gone with the wind

For a few short years, every Swiss was an expert. In the wake of Alinghi, the Swiss-owned (but mostly Kiwi-crewed) yacht racing to two consecutive victories in the America’sCup, the vernacular and technique of sailing became part of everyday conversation in the land-locked alpine republic.

The Swiss followed every tack of their boat, debated the merits of double-hull designs and whether the spinnaker or the jib ought to have been hoisted at any given moment. The media graciously offered background and strategy lessons, courtesy of telegenic experts from Down Under. And a good many wannabe skippers took to the lakes in pursuit of the odd breeze.

Inevitably, Alinghi’s moment of fame passed, and the enthusiasm for boating quickly ebbed away.

Not so in more maritime nations. Canada, with its national motto of a mari usque ad mari and the Bluenose on its 10cts coin, has a proud sailing tradition and sees the activity practiced regularly, both along its coasts and on the aptly-named Great Lakes. 

It was on one of these, Lake Ontario, where I was recently given the opportunity to set sail courtesy of a thoughtful birthday gift. Captain Andy welcomed us aboard his 34 foot boat (the metric system stays ashore) and we soon set course for the open water.

In the light breeze, our kind skipper explained us some of the basic dynamics of sailing, and it became clear that on the massive lake system at the heart of the American continent, varied conditions and significant distances mean that “freshwater captain” is no insult at all – this man knew his stuff.

The same cannot be said for yours truly, but nonetheless, I was soon asked to take the helm as Andy went below deck. With minimum instructions, a compass and a wind arrow, I found myself at the big wheel. Keeping the boat at the proper angle to the wind and getting used to the inherent inertia which met any steering inputs took a bit of time. But standing there with the sun in my face, the wind in my hair and but the sound of the water in my ears, also felt majestic – even more so given the stark contrast to the garish powerboats of Poker Run which had come to raid the port the previous evening.

As we came out from behind a sheltering island, the wind picked up speed and so did our vessel. With Captain Andy back in charge, we soon made a good 7 knots, the boat leaning into the wind and skimming across the lake at a seemingly precarious angle. I started humming the tune of Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise, and for a brief moment, wondered how different it must have been when the wind was the only propellant for overseas travel.

Eventually, we found shelter in a protected bay, and while I relaxed on the top deck, my first best mate and the stewardess emerged from the galley beneath with a delicious champagne lunch. I was spoiled so much that our captain suggested I should have birthdays more often.

By the time we returned to port, we were a bit sunburned, but relaxed, with our spirits lifted and a new appreciation for a timeless mode of travel. This was definitely a past-time I could get used to, although preferably with a skipper included, for the work going on before, during and after such cruises seems considerable. 

No, Switzerland is not a nation of sailors. But Canada has more shoreline per capita than any other country. And this fresh-off-the-boat immigrant is keen to explore more of them. Ship ahoy!

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31 Jul 2017

Wild Wild West

When Canadians talk about what defines them, cultural diversity often comes up near the top of the list. As the story goes, in Canada arrivals from all over the world don't have to melt into one big American mass, but instead are allowed to retain their distinct heritage in a multi-colored mosaic.

Cultural diversity, though, exists even within the WASP bedrock of Canadian society, as I found on a recent jaunt to Calgary. While the western city was mostly associated with the boom and bust of the oil sands industry (Canada's dirty secret) in recent years, its original claim to fame was as a hub for farming and ranching where the endless prairies meet the Rocky Mountains.

It is to this heritage that the town dedicates 10 days each summer, when it hosts the Calgary Stampede, described with signature modesty as the greatest outdoor show on earth. The festival of everything western had been on my bucket list for many years, and what better year than that of Canada's 150th anniversary to make tick it off?

From the moment I stepped off the plane, it was clear that this wasn't Montréal (or Toronto, for that matter): Cowboy hats abounded, boots and bolo ties were everywhere. Hotels had set out mock saloon doors and horse troughs. Everybody wore checkered shirts.

Things got more intense at the vast Stampede park. Apart from the standard fairground rides, there were large sections dedicated to agricultural exhibits (the maize of Manitoba, the berries of B.C.) and stables where prize artiodactyls were groomed, shoed, paraded and judged. Not much of an expert myself, I was impressed by the wide range of bovine cosmetics available.

The real fun, of course, was to see the beasts in action. Professional riders named Cody, Curtis or Clay competed in Bareback and Saddle Bronc riding, where success is measured in seconds on the back of a ferocious bull. Others preferred the rodeo staples of steer wresting and tie-down roping, their looks and skills putting Lucky Luke to a shame. And the most daring harnessed four thoroughbreds to a chuckwagon and raced them around a dusty track, much to the crowds' delight.

More remarkable still than their skills seemed the cowboys' pedigree, if you pardon the pun. These were not Disney performers in funny costumes, but true farm boys from small prairie towns north and south of the border. After the race, they could be seen smoking cigarettes and drinking Bud Lights by their pick-up trucks.

Of course, not everybody in boots and hats had the same stallgeruch: My Calgarian colleague happily confessed that his cowboy gear comes out exactly one time a year for the Stampede, and then swiftly disappears in the basement again. "This little shin dig is our western Halloween", as he put it.

But dressing the part certainly adds to the atmosphere. As I grabbed a watery beer and joined the crowds at the Nashville North scene, where country bands were playing and people were line-dancing, I suddenly realized that at the very least, I should have worn my Edelweiss shirt and the suspenders embroidered with Appenzell cattle. After all, we Swiss are cowboys as well. Yee-haw!

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