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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26 Feb 2017

Out & Back

On a sphere, there is only so far you can go before you start getting closer again. The Great Circle Mapper lets you look up the airfield furthest away from any given airport. Feed it Montréal, and it will point to Margaret River in Western Australia.

It may be difficult to believe, but I was really unaware of this when I started planning a trip to precisely that locality almost a year ago. But Australia’s west coast certainly seemed like a good destination to use some frequent flyer miles on. This month, the trip was finally happening.

And quite a trip it was. Not only did I circumnavigate the globe, travelling east across the Atlantic and eventually the Pacific, I also crossed from the northern to the southern hemisphere and back. In doing so, I had hoped to escape the gruelling Canadian winter for some hot and sunny days in a region where sandy beaches seem to outnumber residents 2:1.

Sadly, I arrived in Perth on the eve of what was to be the coldest and wettest February day since records began. Heavy rains and biting breezes were more reminiscent of London than the surfer lifestyle I had come to find. Worse, the cold front was forecast to move south to the vineyards of Margaret River in lockstep with my itinerary.

No, this is not what I had flown this far for. Reluctantly, I jettisoned the planned (and, err, prepaid) excursion and headed north towards sunnier climes instead. This meant a lot of driving – much more than I had expected, and on the wrong side of the road to boot.

Fortunately, both stress and driving rain abated once I cleared greater Perth, and 450km of inland highway now lay between me and Geraldtown, the next major town up the coast. With cruise control set to a comfortable 120 kph, this continent-sized country opened up in front of me, offering first glimpses of its sheer vastness.

Canadians are certainly no strangers to driving long distances, but unless life takes them to the high north, they tend to move inside a relatively densely populated horizontal band along the country’s southern border. Not so in Australia, where outside major urban centers, not much stands in the way of the intrepid traveller.

While I stuck to paved roads, I often came across SUVs four-wheel drives with a spare wheel on the hood and an engine snorkel. Their thick coat of red dirt left no doubt that these features had indeed been used. 36 meter long “road trails”, trucks with multiple trailers, would have posed an entertaining challenge to overtake in an underpowered rental car, had it not been for the empty roads extending straight to the horizon.

Hoping to stay in touch with current events, I tried to tune into local radio stations, which proved virtually impossible in the countryside unless I pushed a button long considered decorative in nature: AM. No satellite radio here, this crackling technology is how the state broadcaster reaches its rural listeners. I half expected the DJ to announce the landing on the moon.

Revealing as the drive was, sitting behind the wheel hour after hour was also tiring. When I finally reached Geraldton, and summery weather with it, the sandy beaches and milky, warm waters provided welcome refreshment. As seems to be the norm down under, the waterfront was lined with cozy bars serving exquisite coffee, and little sun shelters complete with pick-nick tables and barbecues hooked up to city gas. On Friday night, locals pulled up in their pick-up trucks, slung off their flip-flops thongs and paddled their surfboards into the waves, before opening a cool one and flipping a few burgers on the grill.

The next morning, when jetlag brought me back to the beach at an early hour, athletic retirees in their speedos walked past me right into the ocean, where they swum kilometer after kilometer along the shores. Later, teens gathered for a junior triathlon, running right past the finish line to the ice cream stand.

It seemed like an enviable lifestyle to this Süsswasserpirat (no, the Google translation won’t do the term justice) who kept worrying about sharks, jellyfish and dangerous currents on his cautious dips into the water. It felt bucolic, but also isolated: Being a 4,5h drive away from the next, and only, major city, means the people of Geraldton need to be content with what they have.

I, on the other hand, needed to head back before long. For the return, I chose the “scenic tourist drive” winding its way along the shoreline, and it was spectacular. Cruising on an empty road set amidst green hills and sand dunes, with the Indian Ocean a constant companion on the right, made for a lovely summer afternoon. The charms of Australia’s finest AM radio notwithstanding, I opted for my own mp3 collection instead, humming and singing the kilometers away.

Despite stopping for Flat Whites from yet more skilled baristas in yet smaller towns along the way, I made it back to Perth by early evening. On a whim, I headed to the renowned beach of Cottesloe and found a seaside dinner table just in time for sunset.

No, I hadn’t made it to the outback, but I had driven 1000km out and back through this vast country, and I liked it. The waiter suggested a glass of Margaret River white to toast the sunset. And that moment I realized that while I was out this far, I’d have to come back.

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14 Feb 2017

Inflight Entertainment

Seared Fillet of Beef with Garlic Mustard Seed Butter, with mushrooms, baby carrot, green beans and sauteed potatoes. Or maybe Roast Duck Breast with Cherry Sauce, with braised red cabbage, carrot, fine beans and roasted potatoes. Or perhaps you prefer the Braised Snapper Fillet in Black Bean sauce, with seasonal vegetables and egg noodles? Followed by a Serendipity Mango Sorbet or a Black Currant and Cheese Mousse Cake with vanilla ice cream? 

Yes, I am spoiled for choice in this most unusual of restaurants, situated in a pressurized metal tube 11'000 meters above the Australian outback, traveling at 900km/h on my return from the international airport that is the furthest of any from my homebase.

This is a long journey, and I am very fortunate to take it at the pointy end of said metal tube, where the seats are well upholstered and the legroom as ample as the wine list. For airlines need to justify the 5 – 10x premium they charge on those seats over the ones in the back, which arrive at the destination just as fast and safe, albeit less comfortably.

The ability to stretch out and sleep on a flat surface is the main reason why affluent travelers (or those with a stack of frequent flyer miles to burn, wink wink) splurge on Business or even First Class. Above and beyond that, though, there is the spectacle of the in-flight meal service. The more exclusive the airline in question, the more extravagant the catering provided.

On this trip, I have been offered everything from a seasonal Imperial Japanese kaiseki meal to an airborne version of Raclette, to the braised Peking Duck from a separate “Book the Cook” selection of special meals to be ordered in advance. Each airline I have traveled with goes the extra mile to showcase regional specialties, rare wines, exquisite tableware and generally elaborate decorum.

Mother-of-pearl caviar spoons? Check. Sterling silver saucière? Check. Electric candlelight? Check. Cast-iron Japanese tea pots? But of course. If you think the pilots' pre-departure checklist is exhaustive, you have not spoken to the catering company.

No matter how fancy the presentation, it ultimately remains airplane food: Pre-cooked hours or days in advance, shock-frozen, reheated in aluminum containers in a convection oven, plated in a tiny aircraft galley, and consumed at cabin pressure and humidity that essentially numbs your taste buds.

I love every moment of it! On a plane, I am the ultimate captive audience, and what else would I have to do other than to enjoy the spectacle of a multi-course meal? The sheer silliness, from the exalted menu descriptions to the cornucopia of bowls, plates and stemware, makes it so appealing. And observing how various national carriers differ in delivering the same basic item (compare coffee service on American, Austrian and Arab airlines) tells you more about their respective cultures than any travel guide would.

United offered “brown tea”, while Air China has a separate tea menu. Turkish Airlines wheels a mezze cart down the aisle, while Swiss comes around with boxes of chocolate. Asiana's flight attendants prepared a table-side bibimbap for me, British Airways serves (literally) High Tea. Singapore Airlines, which is responsible for the wording at the beginning of this post, gives passengers a choice between Krug and Dom Perignon champagnes. And Air Canada? To put it kindly, its catering is as modest as its home country.

None of this is relevant a few rows further back on an airplane, where the choice, universally and unenviably, is between rubber chicken and overcooked pasta. But for the lucky ones in seat 2A, what better way could there be to pass the time aloft? Perhaps the caterer's logo at the bottom of a recent Turkish Airlines menu says it best. It reads: Gourmet Entertainment.

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21 Jan 2017

Prime Time

I am about to go on a trip, so I needed a travel guide. And I needed it quickly. Which meant that my standard supplier of all things printed, Amazon.com, was asking for a rather ridiculous amount of money for expedited shipping.

Cunningly, though, the e-commerce giant also offered to send the book for free within two days, if I signed up for a free 30 day trial of its Prime subscription service. This will then start costing $99 a year on day 31, should I forget to cancel in time.

Instead of paying for shipping, I signed up for the trial and set myself a reminder to cancel at the end of the month. Little did I know that this would change my daily routine far beyond receiving free shipping.

Immediately after enrolling, an email arrived in my inbox welcoming me to Prime, and highlighting the many features the service has evolved to include. Front and center is a gigantic amount of free digital content to stream, from music to movies to TV shows, the latter including the series that Amazon has started producing exclusively for its subscribers. 

The only time I had previously heard of Amazon's own film studios was at the announcement that the three intrepid Brits behind the BBC's Top Gear were moving over there, putting a new label on their highly successful motoring show. It is now called The Grand Tour and sure enough, was included in my subscription. So perhaps I could watch an episode or two?

Fast (indeed, very fast) forward two weeks, and I have caught up on the 11 episodes made available so far, and am eagerly waiting for the next weekly release. And I haven't stopped there: A friend recommended the dystopian The Man In The High Castle, set in a world in which the Allies had lost World War II and the United States is now split between the two victorious powers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The show is brilliantly adapted from Philip K. Dick's novel, lavishly produced and instantly addictive.

Inevitably, in these cold grey January days, we have become true couch potatoes, curling up every night in front of the tube for a new episode. Or two, for in the days of streaming content, the viewer decides when and how much to watch.

So Amazon is clearly very smart in offering these free trials - the digital content is extremely engaging and boosts customer "stickiness", while data shows that once people are signed up to Prime, they will buy a much wider selection of products at Amazon, and become less price-sensitive.

Will it work for me? The TV shows are a tasty bait. But I will still cancel my membership at the end of the trial month. After all, it started when I bought a travel guide. I need time to read it. And soon, I'll embark on a Grand Tour of my own.

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