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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12 Jul 2017

Jukebox

In the age of mp3 players and streaming music platforms, few people remember jukeboxes. Once the staple of bars, cafés and bowling alleys, they held a limited selection of popular songs, which users could dial up and play for a dime or two.

Similar to a jukebox of old, individuals seem to cultivate only a limited personal universe of musical tastes. Studies such as this one argue that adolescence is a particularly important time for forming these preferences, and that once the universe has been established, it changes only very gradually over a listener's lifetime.

Granted, these days the gadget in your pocket can hold many more tunes than the best Wurlitzer ever could, and in theory the internet offers infinite selection. But services such as YouTube and Spotify build on users' tastes and offer more of the same, driving us ever deeper into the limited realm we have a predisposition towards. It is not unlike the news selection bias created by social media.

In Montréal, the festival summer is in full swing (well, jazz, actually) and one of its joys is the opportunity to spend warm evenings aimlessly wandering around the Quartier des Spectacles and letting oneself be surprised by whatever performances are going on at the various outdoor scenes. It is a perfect opportunity to invite serendipity and to discover new acoustic worlds.

And so it was last weekend, when a little misunderstanding meant I found myself in front of a different stage than my friends. But onto this stage leaped a woman who had just come back from a lengthy hiatus. In my formative music years, Lee Aaron was Canada's metal queen. Now, two children and three decades later, she has drifted towards solid rock and blues. With her fantastic voice, vivid presence and great tunes, she catapulted herself right into the center of my attention.

That same night, I downloaded her music and made her a headliner in my playlists. Out of nowhere, a new sun had risen in my acoustic universe - and reminded me how enjoyable it can be to look over the horizon.

But while there are new tunes to sing along, has Lee opened up a new genre to me? Not really. I still love Rock 'n' Roll. So put another dime in the jukebox, baby!

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30 Jun 2017

Svalutation

More than ten years ago, I spent a little while living with a host mum in Buenos Aires. Her apartment in the chic Palermo neighborhood exuded an air of faded glory, and in our many conversations over asado and Malbec she reminisced of the times when her family was wealthy.

Then came the currency devaluations. In the tragedy that is Argentine politics, my host saw the value of her savings diminish time and again, as the peso took a plunge, inflation soared and incomes stagnated. Wistfully, she spoke of those friends smart enough to park  dollares in an offshore account across the river Plate.

A typical South American tale of poor government and short-sighted policies, I thought back then. Little did I know that a decade later, I would find myself in a similar predicament.

When I moved to Canada in 2009, one Canadian Dollar bought approximately 0.95 Swiss Francs, a rate that increased to 1.1 by the summer of 2010. Since then, though, it's been a steady decline. Today, that same loonie buys a mere 0.73 Francs. That is a  25% loss of value from 2009 or 34% from 2010.

And it is not just against the Swiss Franc that the Canadian currency has fared poorly. Exchange rates against the greenback and the Euro have similarly declined. (Comfortingly, the value against the Argentine Peso has doubled over the same period.)

It goes without saying that Canadian salaries have not grown proportionately to the decline in exchange rates. And why should they? Compound consumer price inflation in the country since 2009 has been a mere 13%, with an annual average well below 2%. So within their own borders, Canadians are mostly doing okay. If you happen to travel abroad, however...

Visiting Switzerland has never been cheap, but the continuous erosion of Canadian purchasing power really starts to bite now. If it weren't for accommodation and transport provided by friends and family, my current trip would be a true splurge, but without the glamour factor. Or so it felt when I bought a Butterbrezeli the other day and realized that it cost the equivalent of a Montréal sushi lunch.

Will I let this malaise spoil my vacation? Surely not. But it gives me more of an appreciation for what people unlucky enough to earn "soft" currencies have to contend with all the time. Not much they can do (save for that offshore banking account - surely just a coincidence that the Swiss have long excelled at that trade) - they just have to live with devaluation.

And they do: The other day, walking across the lawn at the local Badi, I came by a latino-looking man lying in the sun, flipping through the flyer of a hard discount grocer. Next to him, an old-fashioned FM radio played the classic by Italian singer Adriano Celentano that drove home the point: Svalutation!

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4 Jun 2017

Borderlands

Crossing borders is an integral part of travelling. But how such crossings take place can vary greatly, as last month's trips have illustrated.

First came a visit to a small country in the heart of Europe. No, not that country. But the one that is home to an even smaller village - 500 residents, I am told - which became synonymous with hassle-free border crossings, and whose name now separates airport terminals from Finland to Malta. Tacked on to business meetings in Frankfurt, I took a little side-trip to Schengen.

In doing so, I was able to experience the liberties provided by the eponymous agreement first hand: My flight from Canada arrived in Brussels. There, I pulled out my Swiss ID card and showed it to a Belgian border guard. After that, I was able to take another flight to Germany, drive a car to Luxembourg, walk back and forth between it and Germany, keep driving into France, back into Luxembourg, and eventually back to Frankfurt. All without ever showing any form of ID again. It was only when I boarded a flight back to Toronto that a bored German policeman at Frankfurt airport had another quick glance at my ID.

Ever since the Schengen agreement came into effect, and notwithstanding short interruptions during the recent migrant crisis, this painless mobility is a reality across 26 European countries (and yes, this does include that other small nation). For Europeans, crossing borders without stops or inspections has become the default. But it is anything but.

The second trip in the same month was to another small nation, for which its borders are very much an existential, and contested, subject. Israel has seen its territorial boundaries shift several times since its foundation in 1948, and usually not in a peaceful way.

Consequently, it fortifies and diligently polices its borders, with the crossing procedure differing widely depending on the person in question. Unlike other nations, which at best distinguish between citizens and foreigners, Israel unashamedly applies a much more sophisticated profiling grid, which can make entering and leaving the country a breeze, or a serious pain. Fortunately, I have found myself placed closer to the former end of the spectrum. But the stern looks of the Israeli officials certainly do not let one take that for granted.

And how about the borders I cross most frequently? Canada and the U.S. still don't have any formal exit checks: There are no procedures involved for leaving either of these countries. When entering, though, the process has become more complicated and segregated in the years since 9/11. For non-citizens, visa requirements have been tightened and even visitors from countries without a visa requirement now need to apply for an online "travel authorization" before arrival. The U.S. introduced this paid process in 2008, and coaxed Canada into following suit last year. With every version, the form becomes longer and more intrusive.

Canadian and U.S. citizens remain exempt from these requirements, but they do now need to travel with a passport or "secured" Driver's License. Gone are the days of entire school buses of Canadians driving to the U.S. on the strength of their team football jerseys alone. All of this leads to slower, more cumbersome border crossings.

On the upside, though, there has also been a lot of investment into making the experience smoother for those deemed "trusted travellers". Taking a page out of the Israelis' book, American and Canadian officials have established a joint screening process which allows cleared individuals to obtain a card entitling them to bypass lines and use dedicated kiosks or automated gates to enter either country quickly.

The program is called Nexus, and when I was handed my membership card, the ability to seamlessly weave my way in and out of the country was very much presented as a privilege, not an entitlement. My recent travels certainly drove that point straight home.

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17 May 2017

375

When I was a teenager, my hometown celebrated its 1250th anniversary. A few years prior, Switzerland feted its 700th birthday, based on the nation's mythical founding on an alpine meadow on August 1st, 1291. I recently came upon the commemorative coin we got in school.

1250 years, or even 700 years, that seems like an unfathomable amount of time. Or as Eddie Izzard put it: No one was alive then! But it is far from unusual in Europe, where history comes from.

By and large, the town and the country have aged well. Today, modern conveniences are abundant, the infrastructure is first class, and even if the population is ageing, it can rely on cutting-edge health care to keep adding candles to the birthday cake.

In North America, old has a different meaning, and people here are not willing to wait for millennia to pass until they can throw a party. This year, Canada is turning 150, and the federal government is going all out with events to mark the occasion. It also hopes that Canadians will follow it to the great outdoors, courtesy of free admission to all National Parks.

Montréal, of course, ever uneasy with just waving the Maple Leaf flag, prefers to focus on a celebration of its own. And it has found a reason.

375 years ago today, on May 17, 1642, Paul Chomedey de Maisonneuve put a flag in the ground on the base of Mont Royal and founded Ville-Marie, the nucleus of what grew into Montréal. (He was likely sold on the location when he saw the splendid Boulevard de Maisonneuve running the length of the city, bicycle lanes and all....) This event must be commemorated, and only a sourpuss would point out that Samuel de Champain had already established a first trading post on the island in 1611, not to mention the Iroquois village of Hochelaga, which had existed long before that. 

A website was launched, and even a mobile app found its way on my phone. Tonight, with much fanfare (courtesy of the city's symphony orchestra), a spectacular light show on the Pont Jacques-Cartier was inaugurated. Countless artsy events will follow throughout the summer - your (provincial!) tax dollars at work.

One could use the occasion to take a look at the city's health. Such a checkup would reveal a stagnating economy, crumbling bridges and roads, lacking or endlessly delayed public transit infrastructure, corruption in police and politics, excessive wait times for health care, and the highest tax rates in North America. No surprise, then, that the city prefers to direct citizens' attention to shiny lights.

But don't think that I am just a negative nancy. I don't mean to rain on the parade, not least because I plan on attending it. As the world capital of orange construction cones, Montréal is quite literally work in progress. A bit more modesty and honesty wouldn't hurt, but these are not traits typically associated with grandiose French character.

This does not mean the city has no reason to be proud: 375 years after its foundation, my home town consisted of a few feudal farms and a mill. The residents lived in subservient conditions under the thumb of local aristocrats, before succumbing to the plague or the flu at age 35. By comparison, Montréal is paradise indeed!

So for its birthday, let's cut the city some pork slack. Joyeux anniversaire, Montréal - here's to many more!

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30 Apr 2017

Mani talk

How do you shut up an Italian? - Tie his hands behind his back!

This may be an old joke, but it has not lost any of its wit - or its veracity, as we were able to witness on a recent trip to the bel paese. For a sunny spring week, we enjoyed not just the stunning beauty of Liguria, but also the joy of watching Italians... well, be Italian.

I once tried to explain it like this: The Germanic people north of the alps paint their houses white, because they are reserved and conservative. The Latin people south of the alps plaint their houses in gaudy colors, because they are lively and extroverted. And in Italy, that extroversion starts the moment you leave the airport: We were honked at, and had headlights flashed before we even reached the autostrada.

In Parma, kids in the street were fidgeting with palm fronds their parents had received at mass (Palm Sunday and all that) earlier in the day, while in the piazza outside the cathedral, black-robed priests straight out of Don Camillo were using the branches to underline their points like a conductor would.

In the little osteria in Portovenere, the fat owner behind the bar barely talked at all, but with a combination of gestures and expressive mimics directed his hard-working waiters around, while visibly appraising all entering patrons - blonde Canadian women got a nod of approval.

Just as I started to adapt to the beloved Italian way (surprising how quickly foreign swear words come to you when some Alfa Romeo cuts you off), we came across a restrained and strangely non-manual receptionist at a hotel. But I quickly grew suspicious of the accent in his Italian: Sure enough, he was Swiss-German.

At one little convenience store where we filled our backpacks for the hikes along the Alta Via delle Cinqueterre, a cashier petted and caressed a customer's toddler, while at another, two old ladies in front of the deli counter had their hands so high up in the air that I could barely see the salumi behind them.

Not all the gesticulating is friendly: At a supermarket in Genova, we got into an argument with the staff around the price of cheese (yes, loyalty programs were involved) which led to raised voices and those hand movements that you know from Goodfellas and The Godfather - we did not get our cheese.

By and large, though, the handful of Italianità we got to experience was magnificent. Gorgeous landscapes, impossibly beautiful towns, splendid (if strenuous) hikes and delicious cuisine day after day.

Most enjoyable of all, though, was to simply sit in the sun on a promenade, and watch Italians going by. It was thus that we were treated to the observation that reminded me of the old joke: An elderly, immaculately dressed couple was strolling down the street, the man holding on to his wife with one hand and to a cane with the other. Suddenly, they spotted two friends, rising from a park bench and walking towards them. Hugging and greeting ensued.

And then, the man stepped over to the bench, carefully deposed his walking stick, and turned back around to the rest of the group. After all, how could he have talked with his hands full?

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21 Apr 2017

Mister Proper

I routinely entrust pilots and taxi drivers around the world with my life. I entrust chefs in Vietnamese soup kitchens and American burger joints with my health. I rely on fresh-faced bank tellers and computer algorithms to manage my savings. I even trust in Montréal engineers as I swim below the Olympic Stadium's leaning tower. So why is it so hard to entrust my dirt to a cleaner?

We had debated the issue for a long time. With a larger demeure than in the past, long work days and frequent travel, we often found ourselves dedicating weekend days to the mop and the broom. It did not feel like a good use of a precious resource - free time, in this case.

The solution was as obvious as it was awkward. Neither of us was accustomed to having a paid professional clean the house. We weren't even comfortable with referring to somebody else doing our chores (The Economist sympathizes), much less interacting with such a person.

Not so our friends, colleagues and relatives, most of which habitually outsource housekeeping and showered us with references. Reluctantly, I started calling them up, beginning with the sous la table operators that seem most common in the city.

The initial responses reinforced our hesitation: These folks seemed disorganized, uninterested, unreliable, inflexible ("there is no guaranteed parking?") and pretty pricey. I quickly learned that this is a seller's market. Add to that my general aversion to black labor, and we decided that this was not the route to go.

With the dust bunnies multiplying in the corners and the parquet floors losing their luster, I pressed on and called the last number on my reference list: A cleaning company. And before I knew it, I had an appointment for a comprehensive appraisal of the work to be done.

Precisely at the agreed time, an immaculately dressed gentleman ran my doorbell, and swiftly proceeded with a walk-through of our house, clipboard in hand, assessing the work and explaining the tools and methods he would use. The entire process concluded with a remarkably reasonable quote, presentation of a corporate insurance certificate and the willingness to issue tax receipts - I was floored.

And those floors soon became squeaky clean again, as our new Mr. Clean and his wife started their bi-weekly visits. The awkwardness remains: I am not quite ready yet to hand over the keys and let them home alone, so I hole up in the study while the house gets a makeover. I try to be polite and friendly, while at the same time being unhelpful. After all, me not doing the work is why they are here. When the moment comes to pay, I fork over the cash with the same guilt-ridden feeling as one would have tipping a rickshaw driver before escaping into a five star hotel.

But then I close the door, hear my feet squeak on the shiny floors, smell the bleachy air in the kitchen, look at the spotless bathroom mirror, and realize: Yes, I can get used to this.

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20 Mar 2017

Olympian

Montréal certainly had its share of woes with the Summer Olympics it hosted in 1976. Although the games itself were a success, the brainchild of mayor Jean Drapeau left the city with a stadium capped by a roof that collaped under snow, an unfinished inclined tower, and debt of well over $1bn. It took the province 30 years to pay it off, and by the time the dues were paid, the venues were in need of a comprehensive renovation. They joined most of the other infrastructure from the city's 1967-1976 boom years in the queue, and gradually fell into disrepair.

So far, so familiar. In fact, many more recent host cities for the games have let their stadiums, tracks, velodromes and ski jumps crumble in far less time - not the testament to sustainability the IOC likes to trumpet.

And yet: As our guide pointed out on a recent tour of Montréal's Olympic stadium, this is one of the few venues built for games that has been in continuous athletic use ever since the flame was extinguished. $100M of tax money has just been sunk into an overhaul of the aquatic center, with $300M more to follow for the rest of the grounds in the next 20 years (apply a generous multiplier to future amounts to account for Québec's inevitable cost overruns.) 

I suspect it would have cost less to just build a new pool from scratch, but at least the $100M investment has indeed produced a very nice and modern facility. So much so that, despite its out-of-the-way location in the city's east end, I have just signed up for an annual membership.

This comes at the expense of the YMCA, whose facility maintenance and swim lane availability have steadily declined over the last 3 years. I was generally unimpressed with the Y's business acumen and concern for customer service - perhaps the flipside of it operating as a charity. The final drop in the pool bucket was an announcement that the YMCA closest to my workplace would close because the administrators failed to produce a viable business model to account for rent. By the time they managed to secure a 1-year extension from the building owners, I was already gone.

Now, I am doing my laps where great athletes (and steroid-laden GDR swimmers) have won medals before. Even if I remain faithful to the non-compete clause, seeing the Olympic rings hanging over the pool makes elevates my workout: I am now the Olimpian!

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