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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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!


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