29 Dec 2015

On every street

"It's just past Avenue Christophe Colomb, between Mont-Royal and St-Joseph", said my colleague of his newly bought home. I tried to evoke a mental map of Montréal's Plateau neighborhood to get a sense for where exactly this house was located, but had limited success: Despite nearly 7 years in Canada's second-largest city, my sense of place remains pretty superficial. (So much so that I had to consult a map to accurately reproduce the above example.)

While I no longer get lost in the city, and have a reasonably accurate sense for which way to turn upon emerging from a metro station, the specifics remain vague. Often, I suddenly find myself at a street corner that I had believed to be elsewhere, or I struggle to recall at what intersection a particular store of coffee shop is located. Not driving regularly means that while the city's streets are not completely foreign to me, the best way to get from A to B behind the wheel remains obscure. Throw in the usual construction and road blocks, and I am mazed.

This lack of on-the-ground knowledge became particularly obvious over the last few days, which saw me return, as usual for the holiday season, to Switzerland. Stepping off the bus in the village where I have lived for 20 years, I noticed a young woman looking lost. She had only just moved to the town, and had accidentally gotten off at the wrong stop. Without thinking, I was able to direct her through a maze of alleys and walkways to her destination - something that I'd be hard-pressed to do in Montréal.

The following days, with their exceptionally mild and sunny winter weather, saw me going for walks rather frequently. One of the nice features of the Swiss countryside is that, unlike Canada,  it is lined with hiking trails. Not that I would have needed the yellow signposts: Every path, junction, trail and road is intimately familiar.

Effortlessly finding my way through neighborhoods, fields and forests, I came to realize that the region was covered by more than just landmarks. Every street was overlaid with memories, making it unique and unmistakable: This is where we once lit a fire with the boys. Here, the farm dog always ran after my bike. Down there is where we used to hang out after school. And in that orchard stood the apple tree of seasonal temptation. While change is inevitable and indeed visible, it is this intangible layer of memories that makes this particular area so cozily familiar, and walks through it so enjoyable.

Others agree: In recent years, a childhood friend, who has long since moved away as well, has joined me in a tradition of Christmas Day walks through the village, taking advantage of our both's return to the old stomping grounds for the holidays. She too, commented to the fuzzy warm feeling of walking through this terrain des souvenirs.

Will a stroll through Montréal ever feel the same? Maybe - after all, I'm less than 7 years in, compared to the 20+ lived in the tiny Swiss town, so there is still time. Or maybe not - perhaps only the experience of growing up and gradually exploring one's surroundings can create such a tapestry of memories. Which is probably for the better, since nostalgia is best enjoyed in small doses. Unlike the other thing I indulge in these days, upon returning from every walk: Swiss chocolate!

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9 Dec 2015

Question period

Which is Canada's only officially bilingual province?
a) Nunavut
b) New Brunswick
c) Québec
d) Ontario
Do you know the answer? If you want to become a Canadian citizen, you should. For you need to answer 20 multiple-choice questions like this one in your citizenship exam, one of the steps on the path between permanent residence and naturalization. Helpfully, the government provides an official study guide for free. And yes, there's also an app for that.

The test, while admittedly not particularly hard, still is a sign of a political willingness in this country to demand a good level of integration from prospective new citizens. Not only is it exclusively available in French and English (and thus tests command of these languages as well as knowledge of the country), but it forces applicants to show at least some interest in the nation. While producing documents and filling in forms can be delegated to a cornucopia of immigration advisors, taking the test cannot.

Many European nations would shy away from such requirements, but Canada's entire immigration system is highly selective and overtly tailored to the nation's own best interests. Young, well-educated, healthy, employable candidates with command of at least one of the official languages are clearly favored in a points-based system that is transparent and objective. In applying it, the Great White North welcomes about 250'000 new citizens every year, a very respectable number on a population of 35 million. And it applies none of the implicit origin, racial or religious biases that often trump the agenda in other nations.

While the former Conservative government did tweak with the citizenship act to tighten some requirements (causing much headache for this frequent traveller), the criteria remained fair and equally applied. Neither end of the political spectrum in this country is fundamentally opposed to new arrivals, but there is also a consensus that immigration should be attuned to the country's needs and not a free-for-all.

Favorable geography makes it possible to pick suitable newcomers. Sharing a land border only with the US, Canada is largely spared uncontrolled waves of refugees showing up on its doorstep. The current government makes much hay of its decision to fly 25'000 (carefully screened) Syrian refugees here this year. Countries such from Turkey to Germany do not have the luxury to pick and choose like that.

This notwithstanding, even the newly welcomed refugees will presumably have to pass thei citizenship test should they ever wish to upgrade their status from permanent resident to citizen. They will then find themselves in the same stuffy classroom that yours truly sat in earlier this week, taking a stab at the 20 questions under the watchful gaze, from the picture frame on the opposite wall, of Canada's Head of State. Who is, of course,

a) Stephen Harper
b) Queen Elizabeth II
c) Tim Horton
d) Justin Trudeau

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