29 October 2009

Trick and treat

When the bags of bit-sized Coffee Crisp started appearing in the grocery store, I did not think much of it, and in fact bought a few to bring to friends in Switzerland (whom I am converting to the taste bit by bit). When the vendors at Atwater market loaded their stalls with bright, ripe pumpkins, it was mainly soup that came to my mind. When a local friend asked me, last week, if I had any idea of where she could get a nun's costume, I got a bit suspicious (but then again, the Quebecois have a somewhat neurotic relationship with the church so I wasn't too surprised). Only when today, out of nowhere, the little lounge area in our office suddenly looked like a haunted, spider net-clad and pumpkin-adorned mansion, it finally dawned upon me: Halloween is nigh!

Unlike in Switzerland, where I have usually just complained about the imported and commercial nature of this "custom" and duly ignored it in consequence, it would have been very, very difficult to maintain the same argument here. This is, after all, North America. How would I avoid the silly costume parties, and feeding frantic children with individually wrapped (the flu, the flu) candy?

I had to pull a little trick, which at the same time will be a treat - for yours truly, that is. And so today, in a record-breaking 60 minutes, I went from my office desk via train, bus, check-in, security and US immigration to this desk at the AC transborder lounge. This was so unexpectedly fast that I now have time to down a gin & tonic, kick back and start spreading the news... my Halloween weekend will be in the Big Apple!

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24 October 2009

Canada explained

As an addendum to my last post, it seems as if I was not the only one struggling with the particular form of democracy enjoyed in Canada. And although it is "perfectly acceptable to enjoy something without understanding how it works" (I am thinking the public health system here), some kind TV anchor has taken the time to provide a 101 on Canadian politics. Please enjoy responsibly:

22 October 2009


A few days ago, Karim Boulos rang my doorbell, shook my hand and spent a good five minutes talking about himself, the neighborhood and my new hometown. It was only when I told him that I had recently moved from overseas that he became very short-spoken, and quickly said goodbye. Despite never having met Karim before that evening, I had immediately recognized him. This might have had something to do with the fact that his head has been adorning the lampposts and bus shelters in my neighborhood for the past few weeks, promising to "passer à l'action" in order to "get the job done".

Yes, Karim is running for city council in Montréal's election, taking place on November 1st. And unlike in Switzerland, where we tend to vote on everything (minarets, airport approaches, banking secrecy) and anyone all the time, elections still seem to have some novelty value here. Not only to candidates go from door to door personally to talk to voters (but not non-citizens, as it turns out) or send state-funded, multi-page progress reports on their personal achievements in Ottawa. I also received an elaborate, bilingual "instruction manual" on how to cast my vote. Even if I was eligible, this would be a rather cumbersome, manual and physical process involving an on-site visit to join the voters register, followed by another trek to the ballots on actual election day. And all this for a pretty lackluster choice of mayoral candidades, from the incumbent, tainted by a corruption scandal under his watch, to his main séparatiste competitor, who thinks that she need not speak English to head this totally bilingual city.

A funny lot, indeed. And is it really just a coincidence that the election is happening right after Halloween? In any case, my choice of ghoulish costume is clear - I'll go as politician!

16 October 2009

Leaf peepers

If there is one area in which Canada earns unconditional praise, it would be in the consistent and appealing use of a standardized government identity. From coast to coast and at touchpoints as diverse as work permits and national park maps, a uniform appearance of the maple leaf makes it instantly recognizable.

And this time of the year, country branding is put to the extreme: Millions and millions of maple leaves, in a wonderful range of colors from green to yellow, orange and red grace the country, gently swaying in the autumn wind. No wonder then that this spectacle of natural beauty attracts leaf peepers from near and far - as far as Switzerland in fact, from where two friends paid me a visit last weekend. After a rainy and shockingly cold start, Montréal had mercy and presented itself from its most beautiful side as we took in the city's sights and "climbed" Mt. Royal for its magnificient views. Monday's Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, celebrated a month before the American version due to the earlier harvest up north, gave me an extra day off to spend with my guests, and to be thankful for all this country has given me so far. (After dropping off my friends at the airport, I then drove to Wal-Mart. Doh!)

While I gradually become used to the notion of showing people around this new home town of mine, I make myself no illusions about knowing as much as the locals do. Which I why I was extra grateful to meet my friends' other Swiss contact in Montréal, who has lived in the city with her family for several years already. Gracious and helpful, she quickly decked me out with her restaurant recommendations for the city, as well as the addresses of butchers and creameries favored by the Swiss expat community. Even more appreciated though, in anticipation of the inevitably approaching cold season, was an invitation for the three of us to join our host for an after-hours thermal session at her workplace. Whoever said that friendships only warm your soul?

07 October 2009


When do the Québecois have dîner? At exactly the same time as the French do. Except that with the 6 hour time difference between Paris and Montréal, it is really only midday in Québec when dîner comes around (In the evening, we enjoy souper here). And unlike the French, who cherish their long lunch breaks and indulge in multi-course meals, dîner tends to be a rather unglamourous affair over here. For most of my colleagues, it consists of a pre-packaged lunch carried from home in tupperwares and special, insulated lunch bags. I've spotted versions with the Habs logo, or my employer's tangerine insignia. Being the weird European (but no! I shout, I'm Swiss!), and taking advantage of the last warm-ish days, I have so far resisted this icky practice and insist on going out at lunchtime, if only to grab a sandwich at a neighborhood outlet. Over time, I have grown particularly fond of an excellent artisanal bakery not far away, the first visit to which I remember very well: As the smell of fresh bread lured me into the store, I could not help overhearing the shopkeeper having a rather private conversation on the phone, likely with her significant other. Not that she had been indiscreet: The chances of somebody walking into her store and eavesdropping on her conversation held in Swiss German (!) were admittedly slim... but there I was.

Over the last few months, I have become a good customer of Heidi (I'm not making this up) and her colleagues at the bakery, enjoying not only the European style sandwiches, pastries and bread loaves, but also the chit-chat in dialect that reminds me of the family bakery in the village I grew up at. Oh, and did I mention that the prices are just like at home as well?

Which is probably another reason why so many of my colleagues shun the grab-and-go option in favor of lunch brought in from home. Every month or so however, we manage to find the time as a department to sneak out of the office for a while longer, and enjoy a sit down lunch at a local restaurant. And even in the well-heeled neighborhood our office is located in, restaurants will inevitably offer a lunch menu including soup, starter, main course, and a small desert, for $12-15. And that's after tip + tax! As I digest these sizable servings, I continue to be amazed by such outstanding value, and especially the small difference in price to the sandwich option. Maybe I should put up an ad on the corporate blackboard: "WANTED! Ladies Who Lunch" ;-)

01 October 2009


...has got nothing in common with the SAQ, the provincial liquor store. But if you're seeing double, you should not turn up at either. The société de l'assurance automobile du Québec is the government regulator of things on wheels, and thanks to a fellow expats' heads-up, I decided to pay it a visit. Turns out that when taking up residence in Québec, a foreign-issued drivers licence is only valid for the first ninety days, after which a local licence must be obtained. Learning this, I suddenly experienced, ahem, a sense of urgency and so called the SAAQ yesterday for an appointment. The available time slots were starting in November, with one single alternative. And that alternative saw me getting up very early today.

Wonderfully situated for people without wheels, the SAAQ is located in an outer suburb, in the pleasant vicinity of the Prison de Bordeaux, and can only be reached by a lenghty métro and bus ride. Still, all urban boyscout, I braved it and arrived at the office complex five minutes before my scheduled appointment of 08:20, only to be greeted by a large crowd of people and a very official-looking collection of queues, counters, and demoiselles directing innocent applicants through this maze.

After a surprisingly short wait, I was assigned file number K2 and sent on my way to the official looking into my case. Unhurried though as he was, the fonctionnaire was friendly enough and congratulated me on my nationality. Apparently Switzerland was one of the few countries deemed respectable enough to have its licences accepted for conversion without any extra tests, and the fact that my permit was also in French was much appreciated. ("Ah, vous n'êtes pas allemand!") Unfortunately, I did not yet have a case history of speeding tickets, so the good man had to open a fresh file for me. While typing away, he introduced me to the marvellous features of my all-new, credit card-sized drivers licence sporting the fleur de lys. First of all, its validity is limited to four years (unlike the never expiring Swiss version, which often puzzles American car rental agents), after which I can happily repeat my trip to the suburbs. But not enough, it also comes with an annual fee, currently standing at CAD72 and set to rise. This is neatly broken down into mandatory insurance, taxes on the insurance, fees for collecting the taxes, fees for the provincial treasury to administrate the taxes, fees for taking my picture and printing the licence, taxes on the fees for the picture.... you get the idea. Suffice it to say that my Swiss licence cost CHF40 or so when I got it ten years ago. And nothing since.

However, the Québec licence comes with an extra perk in the form of its very own points program. Earning points is easy: Just go too fast on the freeway, park where you're not supposed to, or commit a hit-and-run (instant elite status!). Points can be earned across Canada, and in many US partner states. Rewards for your points include goodies such as 1-3 month breaks from driving, complimentary secured storage of your vehicle, or even a 2 year all-inclusive stay at the above-mentioned penitentiary.

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