28 November 2010


Car commercials on TV typically show scenic drives through fantastic landscapes, with the vehicle in question being driven swiftly and fluidly by a happy and relaxed driver. With what seems like no other purpose than the drive itself, these lucky owners pilot their machines for the sheer Freude am Fahren.

When yours truly gets behind the wheel, at least in his hometown, the driving experience is usually very different. No matter how cool, sporty or luxurious the rental company's car of the moment may be (most often, it is none of the above), and regardless of the ulterior motive for hiring it, the first order of the day is always very prosaic: I'll go shopping. Living the car-free life that I do, I usually carry my groceries back home from the store. Simultaneously, I add to a list all the "heavy" goods which I need to replenish. From washing powder to wine, from potatoes to printing paper, it all has to go into the trunk as I complete my typical circuit of grandes surfaces in the banlieue. The rental cars typically get throughly stuffed.

Stuffing of a different kind was the reason this weekend for me to get myself wheels in the first place, for at last did I have a chance to experience a quintessential American tradition: My friends south of the border extended an invitation to celebrate Thanksgiving with them. Much like Halloween or Independence Day, the holiday has been popularized in Europe by TV series and movies featuring it, and yet it always remained a bit foreign. That is, until the moment when I saw a gigantic bird being taken out of my friends' oven, the rich stuffing malking it look even more plump than it normally would be, and being put in the middle of a festively adorned table. The traditional (or so I'm told) garnishes were already waiting: mashed potatoes, gravy, waldorf salad, cranberries, corn bread muffins... the list goes on. The meal was rich and delicious, and we toasted to the memory of the Indians Native Americans, who so kindly shared food with the Plymouth pilgrims in 1621 - before their tribes got slaughtered or put into reservations.

By the time the bottles were empty and the feasting had ended, after a series of three different home-made pies (including one made with Maple Syrup that was not from Québec, ostie!), we all felt merry and saturated, if somewhat lethargic. At night, as I fell asleep laying on my back, my dreams turned into flurry of turkeys, trunks and digestive tracts - all of them completely stuffed!

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19 November 2010


That's it. Season's definitely over, see you next year. Or so I felt as I rolled up my favorite pair of shorts yesterday and tucked them away in my suitcase. As I am writing this, I am heading north and east, leaving the balmy climates of Arizona behind me and heading into the northern winter.

To be fair, the shorts got to see a fair bit of use this year, much more in fact than they usually would. This is largely due to my new home and the travel pattern extending across the southern border from there. My knee-longs were first deployed to the flowery fields of Tennessee in early April. Leisurely walks along Ottawa's Rideau Canal in May prepared them for more strenuous exercise to come: Hikes in the Swiss mountains in June, the green hills of Vermont in July and the national parks of Québec in August and September. They would have very much enjoyed the warm autumn sun of October in D.C., had their owner not left them at home after poorly researching destination temperatures. But they got another chance to bask under the desert sun this week, once more taking in some fresh air before it is finally time to go into bottom-closet hibernation.

Life is easy in shorts, and while Asians are rarely observed wearing them and Europeans usually confine them to casual environments, North Americans (along with Ozzies, from what I can tell) have no inhibitions to flaunt them in every context and setting. Although I still frown upon that "bermudas + white socks + sneakers" look, I start to appreciate its benefits more as my perception of the United States changes to the one of an essentially southern country. New York lies on the same latitude as Naples, and the rest of the nation extends to the south of that. Summers are long, hot and in some places humid, and the growth of the southern states in recent decades is a testimony to the advance of air condition. That leisurely relaxed look may have something to do with American values (and silhouettes!), but climate has got to play a far larger role than I had previously assumed.

Canada, naturally, is a different story. But from the many cheerful encounters with Canadian snowbirds joining me on hikes among the red rocks of Sedona, and in the malls of Scottsdale, Canucks are eager to blend in the moment they head south. With blending in being a Swiss virtue as well, my white socks saw almost as much sun this year as the shorts did (although I stopped short of committing this fashion crime on my European jaunt, for fear of serious social punishment).

Still feeling the sun's tingle on my sand-blasted skin, it is hard to believe that snow may waiting for me in Montréal, and the hockey season is in full swing. And yet, even these fleece-lined thermal pants can be a harbinger of joy: A steaming cup of tea after a walk through winter wonderland, a cozy night tucked away under a blanket in a countryside cabin, skiing the powdery slopes under bright blue skies - there is clearly more to winter than just dark depressing days spent adding and removing layers of fabric.

One of the things I am most excited about, however, is an upcoming trip to get my ritual treatment against winter depression. With the exception of last year, I've been exposing my body and soul to this comprehensively nourishing cure at the same reputed institution for over 10 years, and its impact usually remains visible until well after it's time to put shorts on again. Intrigued? Watch this space - and European airports near you!

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06 November 2010


International political summits always have a comical side to them - mostly involuntary, of course. Generally speaking, the more pomp and circumstances, the more potential for things to look funny. So when the not overly modest Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie gathered recently for their summit (don't look for the English version of their website) in the Swiss city of Montreux, non-francophone commentators struggled to keep a straight face. Much like FIFA claims to better the world through soccer, the OIF has decided that the cure to many of the world's ailments is the promotion of francophone language, culture and values.

Switzerland was chosen to host the summit primarily thanks to its initiative of the agile and extrovert foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey from Geneva. Unfortunately, by the time the summit actually came to be, it was no longer her holding the Swiss presidency under the annually rotating system. The job is currently held by Doris Leuthard, from the distinctively less international, and germanophone, Wohlen, Canton Argovia. Thus, the dubious honor of welcoming the delegates from French-speaking countries around the world, and to entertain them in the language of Molière, fell on her. With equally dubious results.

But what a wonderful example of a multilingual country, where people learn French and then use it on the diplomatic parquet! Uh-hum. There was of course also a certain other bilingual country attending. And it, too, was represented by a prime minister of questionable French parlance. Which led to the wonderfully absurd situation of Doris Leuthard and Stephen Harper holding press conferences in French, both visually uncomfortable while pretending to the contrary.

One wonders, then, if at least the private meetings between the parties, which took place as part of Mr. Harper's state visit to Switzerland, were held in a language mastered by everybody at the table. Or was it due to a misunderstanding that the Swiss signed away their coveted bank secrecy laws in a new agreement with Canada? Either way, Mrs. Leuthard's attempt to keep up appearances in this diplomatic defeat was more sad than funny.

So let's quickly return to the realm of laughs. If anything, the Swiss trump the Canadians in a light-hearted, and uncomplicated attitude towards the multilingualism in their country. The German and the French speakers wind each other up all the time, but separatism is not in the cards. Instead, the little rivaleries provide ample fodder for comedians. Have fun and a good weekend with those two clips - one from each side of the Röschtigrabe.

Frölein Da Capo - Röschtigrabö
Giacobbo / Müller vom 24.10.2010

Marie-Thérèse Porchet - Leçon de géographie

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