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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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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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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