30 Oct 2010

Masquerade

It was a candid admission. "What it really is about", said my local colleague, "is girls getting dressed up in short skirts and tight tops." He grinned. "The guys just go along with ever the same boring sheriff-or-indian look but they have a mighty good time".

I certainly never looked at it, and them, in this way. Last year, I even feigned total ignorance about the custom. And this year, I simply hoped that if I'd have none of it, Halloween would just go away. So should I reconsider? Between the girls and the sugary treats, maybe this could be an event for yours truly?

Or maybe not. Last night in the metro, the kind of institutionalized cheerfulness that I resent became evident, as people felt that simply because they wore a mask, they could now behave in rude and overbearing ways otherwise considered inacceptable. This being said, there were some inspired creations to be seen, from 20ties Charleston dresses to sailors in Canadian arctic naval gear. But what bemused me were the half-creations: That girl with the oversized glasses, duffle coat, neon leggins and woolen socks over them - was she in costume or just an example of Montréal's daring sense of style? And how about that guy with the Tom Ford-ish tailored suit and too much pomade in his hair? Ah, fashion is always walking a tightrope!

So bless the kids - at least they're playing a transparent and straight-forward game. Clowns or cowboys, they'll come ringing my doorbell tonight threatening to play a trick on me, unless I volunteer some of my closely guarded Swiss chocolate supplies. Socially accepted blackmail by minors - fair enough. But some little keeners clearly were going for an early start, or so I thought when the doorbell rang at an ungoodly hour this morning. I grabbed a fistful of candy and trodded downstairs, only to find an upbeat woman without costume, but an equally deceptive radiant smile. She did not want my treats, seemingly preferring the "trick" option: She wanted me to read the English-language version of the Jehovah's witnesses magazine watchtower. Given the time of day, at least the pamphlet's title was fitting: Awake!

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19 Oct 2010

Inspection

If you want to import a motor vehicle to Canada, it will need to be inspected to ensure that it complies with Canadian standards. After all, who knows what the car has been through in whatever shady part of the world it comes from. Is there any rust under the hood? How about oil type and pressure? What exactly comes out of the exhaust pipe? And does it have permanent running lights?

The inspections are not limited to motor vehicles. The same thoroughness also applies should you want to import - yourself. As part of the proceedure to obtain Canadian permanent residence (what they would call a "green card" in the States), applicants have to undergo a medical exam no less rigourous than the one administred by the department of motor vehicles. Yesterday, it was my turn. Armed with the required documents, passport pictures, health card, and a lot of reading material for the anticipated waiting time, I arrived at the clinic at the agreed time. It's the same place I have visited before, so I had expected them to already have a file for me. But that would just make it too easy: The records are not shared between the different departments of the clinic. So, for the first 30 minutes, I filled in essentially the same form three more times - once for the doctor's examination, once for the lab tests, and once for the x-ray. If I had been in any doubts about my own name and date of birth, they would have been quickly dispelled. A number of (certified Canadian?) trees were sacrified for the paper involved in achieving this certainty.

Just 75 minutes after my scheduled appointment, I was called into the doctor's office - where I was welcomed by a calm, gentle and yet assertive woman who strongly reminded my of my childhood orthodontist. To soothing classical music playing from a stereo, she walked me through a questionnaire on my addictions (no questions on chocolate, fortunately), and professionally examined me. In less than 10 minutes, I was done. Form 1 was signed and stamped.

Form 2 was dealt with 30 minutes later in the adjacent lab. For lack of motor oil, I had to volunteer other bodily fluids, vials of which were labelled with my name (I checked!) and will presumably be kept on record in Ottawa for the rest of my life. By late morning, Form 2 was completed.

And that made it time for me to gatecrash the so-called "private lounge", an open waiting room with a small snacks and drinks buffet. I still don't know what distinguished the patients in that section from us outside. It seemed a bit like in the old USSR, where some were created more equal than others. Whatever - that granola bar was exactly what I needed to boost blood sugar levels and tackle the last stop on this tour the force: Exposing myself to an extra dosis of radiation!

Downstairs in radiology, I had to take a number and wait my turn - again. And when it arrived, the receptionist's computer crashed. Eventually, the problem was resolved and I was duly processed in. A nurse quickly rebuffed my notion of posing for the required upper body x-ray with a bare chest, and asked me to change into one of these fashionable, one size fits none blue night gowns they like to dress the seriously ill in. I definitely looked drop dead gorgeous. For all the trouble, the authorities hopefully find this exercise insightful as the rays penetrated my lungs. Just under four hours after I got to the clinic, form 3 was signed, sealed and delivered to Ottawa.

So, dear Canada, you now know me inside out. I hope I comply with your exacting standards. And as for those permanent running lights, are you saying that I am not bright enough?

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12 Oct 2010

Run for power

One of the first scenes, in the first episode of TV's polit-drama "The West Wing", shows the US President's spokeswoman, C.J. Cregg, exercising on a treadmill - at 4 o'clock in the morning. "The hour between 4 and 5 belongs to me alone", she pants while running. "This is when I can focus and be myself".

When I watched the show (highly recommended!) in the months before the last US presidential election, I found this particular scene way over the top. Yes, a president's spokewoman must be busy, but surely she would not be getting up an hour early simply to spend it on a treadmill?

Today, I know that I was wrong and the show's creators were right on the mark. While Canadians have cheerfully stuffed their turkeys, I have once again taken the opportunity to spend a 4 day weekend in the US capital, which positively glowed in the soft autumn sunlight and wonderful temperatures around 25C. Conditions, in other words, that prodded the local population to run.

From dawn till dusk, anywhere I went, people of all ages were running past me. Students in Georgetown, diplomats at Dupont Circle, power brokers on the Mall, dog owners on the path along the Potomac - everybody zipped about in a very respectable pace, and sporting gear that makes you believe that they were serious about running. An impression confirmed by a local friend, who's slender despite being from Berne and therefore going about things at a more leisurely speed.

Clearly, Washingtonians are serious about running. Much like they seem to be serious about most things they do. Despite this being a weekend, people of my generation always made a respectable, purposeful impression. Immaculately dressed (anywhere between preppy and business casual, think Banana Republic meets Club Monaco), tapping away on their smartphones and carrying files and folders instead of Wal-Mart bags. On average, they also appeared to be much healthier and more athletic than the typical American - which made them very easy to distinguish from the throngs of tourists queuing up for security screening at the countless attractions.

"Work hard, play hard" is the tune of the town. After it is done with their rigourous exercise routine and merciless work days, the D.C. crowd (especially the subset with corporate credit cards) likes to eat well and have a good time until the wee hours. After enjoying culinary delights around Dupont Circle, my friend took me to the nightlife areas of Adams Morgan and U Street, where I was treated to great live Jazz.

And when it's time to get away from it all, the capital's residents head out to pittoresque Annapolis in the Cheasapeake Bay, where the well-a-do keep their boats and yachts. My visit coincided with the US Boat Show, an excellent opportunity to transport that D.C. competitive spirit ("mine's bigger than yours") onto the waters - the craftsmanship going into these boats were as exquisit as their price tags.

So while the US economy runs up record deficits, the population of its capital seems to merrily run down the soles of their sneakers. As I head back to socialist, but more laid-back Montréal, I can't help but wonder: Are those people all training to eventually run for office?

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1 Oct 2010

Double Double

Do you know Aryzta Ltd.? Few have ever heard of this Zurich-based company, despite its €3bn in revenues and €305m operating profit. A good chunk of this profit comes from selling Aryzta products to hungy Canadians in a hurry.

Of course, the Canadians have no idea that they are just sending money down Bahnhofstrasse and into Swiss coffers when they choose to accompany their daily caffeine fix with a muffin, a donut or a cream cheese bagel. No, they think that they are supporting one of the most iconic Canadian brands around: Tim Hortons. Founded in 1964 by a Toronto Maple Leaf hockey player, this chain of coffee and bakery outlets quickly expanded across the Great White North, and today operates more stores in Canada than any other restaurant chain. With 3040 locations across the country (one per 11'000 residents!), you are never far away from a quick sugar rush. That's also true should you be on detachment with the Canadian Armed Forces in Afghanistan - there's a Tim Hortons at that base, too!

In a country of perennial cold, Tim Hortons became famous not for the warm atmosphere of its branches (there isn't any), but for its "always fresh" filter coffee. When I first tried it, I immediately realized why the preferred way to order it was "double double" (that's with 2x milk and 2x sugar for you non-Canadians); This way, the muddy water at least tastes like milk and sugar. But this Espresso-loving European was distinctively unimpressed.

And yet I find myself in line at a Timmy's more often than I care to admit. Blame it on the cheap, extremely sticky and incredibly tempting confections on offer. From nut-and-date muffins to triple chocolate cookies and maple-glazed donuts, I dig them all. Not to mention the sweetest invention since the Schoggistängeli: the Timbit. These little dough balls, essentially the holes stamped out of donuts, maximize the glaze-to-dough ratio and are sold by the dozen. They are wonderful crowd pleasers and have already delighted guests at the opening of the first ever CORD Estate in Switzerland in 2006 (overnight airfreight from Toronto, thank you).

Clearly, none of these treats is good for your waistline - but they seem to be excellent for the bottom line. Which is why on August 12th, Aryzta has ponied up CAD475M to buy the 50% stake Tim Hortons had held in their joint bakery operation, which supplies all the baked goods sold at Tim Hortons stores. The Timbits now come from the same home as the Hiestand croissants so abundant in Switzerland - which clearly makes it my patriotic duty to indulge in them. Talk about a sweet deal!

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