26 Dec 2013

Walk on

6004km in 6 hours and 19 minutes. That is fast. Too fast. When I got off the amazing flying machine, I had crossed an ocean and many time zones, but while my body had arrived in a new place, my mind was still somewhere in transit.

Technology has enabled us to whizz around easily, and overcome distances without much sweat. But sometimes, it seems to me that man was not made for this. Man was made for the oldest, easiest, and sadly underappreciated form of transportation: Walking.

One of the simple pleasures in a trip back to my hometown is the opportunity to go on long, calming walks across the surrounding countryside. Stolling along the trails and paths that I know so well, the roads that I've explored with boyscouts and in the Vélo Ralley, I can let both my body and soul roam. Unlike in the city, out here there is silence, but for the odd cow bell and the distant triad of the postal car. And as I walk, I start developing a sense of truly being in this particular place.

This year has seen me engage in plenty of activity on foot. From running to climbing, my legs were put to good use. But it is the humble walk that is the most stimulating, and intellectually liberating. While being hurled through the skies on my way to Europe, I came upon an article in Intelligent Life magazine that aptly described the feeling:

Many people have remarked on the curious relationship between walking and thinking. The rhythm of the body seems to free the mind, just as the rhythm of a mother's walk (it is imagined) puts at rest her babe-in-arms. Solvitur ambulando, declared the ancients: "it is solved by walking". Wordsworth wrote many of his poems on the move, as did John Clare. Nietzsche claimed to have made all his philosophical discoveries while walking, and Kierkegaard wrote that "I have walked myself into my best thoughts."
It's a quality often underappreciated in North America. When a few months ago, I had the gall to suggest to two colleagues that on a business trip, we could simply walk the 500m between the airport terminal and our client's office, I was heaped with scorn, whereas back in my European days, my boss would frequently join me for "brainstorm walks" out in the open.

Undeterred, I walk on, leaving just footsteps but taking sunlight, energy and random ideas with me. Looking ahead into the new year, there will be highs and lows, I'll tread on green meadows and through muddy waters, and I'll have decisions to make at each junction. I'll take on 2014 in stride. 

But first things first. Right now, I am stumbling from one holiday feast to the next. And I benefit from yet another advantage of going it on foot: It's a great way to walk err... work up an appetite.

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9 Dec 2013

Balance of trade

It has already become a running gag with my friends. At the housewarming party the other night, I was introduced to other guests as "he's the one taking empty suitcases to Switzerland so he can fill them with chocolates on the return".

To my embarassment, this is mostly true - and has caused rather interesting discussions with Montréal check-in agents ("Sir, your bag is only 3kg?") and Zurich customs officers ("Sir, what is in this bag?" - "Err, nothing." - "Yeah right. Open it!" - "..." - "But, but... it's empty? Why do you bring an empty bag?").

Over the years, I have somewhat refined my technique, and now balance my clothing more evenly between my primary suitcase and the bulk carrier. Beyond that, though, it is telling that I have started to bring an increasing amount of stuff eastwards over the Atlantic. As friends and family learn to take a liking to Canadian staples, more orders and gift opportunities present themselves. My next haul will not just include the obvious maple syrup and ice cider, but also lumberjack shirts from Roots, signature items from the Hudson Bay Company, and even Coffee Crisp. This quintessentially Canadian candy bar is the perfect red-white-red symbiosis: Made by Swiss giant Nestlé and sold only in the Great White North, it combines two of my favorite flavors into one confectionery, and is rapidly winning fans amongst the family. Or, as the ads put it: "How do you like your coffee?" - "Crisp!"

Still, Switzerland remains a net exporter in my books. Canadian customs officers are more bemused than irritated when asking that same question about the contents of my bag. "Chocolates", I typically respond. "Oui, d'accord, but you declared $400. So what else?" - "Err, no. Chocolate. Lots. Of. Chocolate." At that point, a glance at my passport usually follows. "Ah, mais vous êtes suisse! Okay, no problem... welcome back!".

Fortunately, there is no regulation on importing goodies other than a generous value cap, leading me to routinely raid Swiss grocery stores before any return. And with fresh meat and dairy products banned, that leaves mostly sweets. For good measure, I also pack my favorite toothpaste, and every now and then a new set of fitted sheets (comes with sleeping on a European-sized mattress in North America).

Most frequent flyers scoff at the notion of ever using their extra baggage allowance, claiming that true road warriors always travel with carry-on bags only.  But when ZRH shows up on my itinerary, I disagree. Others, too, have availed themselves to my hauling services: On my last trip, I ferried my goddaughter's loot from the outlet mall across the ocean.

As if this wasn't enough, I seem to have accustomed her to one other kind of airfreight. One that says Canada like nothing else. One so precious and fragile that it will never go in my suitcase. One that I need to carefully guard as I carry it on the plane, with passengers and crew alike lusting for it. And one that I need to deliver to its merry recipient right after landing. For as its maker promises: It's always fresh.

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