30 Jun 2017

Svalutation

More than ten years ago, I spent a little while living with a host mum in Buenos Aires. Her apartment in the chic Palermo neighborhood exuded an air of faded glory, and in our many conversations over asado and Malbec she reminisced of the times when her family was wealthy.

Then came the currency devaluations. In the tragedy that is Argentine politics, my host saw the value of her savings diminish time and again, as the peso took a plunge, inflation soared and incomes stagnated. Wistfully, she spoke of those friends smart enough to park  dollares in an offshore account across the river Plate.

A typical South American tale of poor government and short-sighted policies, I thought back then. Little did I know that a decade later, I would find myself in a similar predicament.

When I moved to Canada in 2009, one Canadian Dollar bought approximately 0.95 Swiss Francs, a rate that increased to 1.1 by the summer of 2010. Since then, though, it's been a steady decline. Today, that same loonie buys a mere 0.73 Francs. That is a  25% loss of value from 2009 or 34% from 2010.

And it is not just against the Swiss Franc that the Canadian currency has fared poorly. Exchange rates against the greenback and the Euro have similarly declined. (Comfortingly, the value against the Argentine Peso has doubled over the same period.)

It goes without saying that Canadian salaries have not grown proportionately to the decline in exchange rates. And why should they? Compound consumer price inflation in the country since 2009 has been a mere 13%, with an annual average well below 2%. So within their own borders, Canadians are mostly doing okay. If you happen to travel abroad, however...

Visiting Switzerland has never been cheap, but the continuous erosion of Canadian purchasing power really starts to bite now. If it weren't for accommodation and transport provided by friends and family, my current trip would be a true splurge, but without the glamour factor. Or so it felt when I bought a Butterbrezeli the other day and realized that it cost the equivalent of a Montréal sushi lunch.

Will I let this malaise spoil my vacation? Surely not. But it gives me more of an appreciation for what people unlucky enough to earn "soft" currencies have to contend with all the time. Not much they can do (save for that offshore banking account - surely just a coincidence that the Swiss have long excelled at that trade) - they just have to live with devaluation.

And they do: The other day, walking across the lawn at the local Badi, I came by a latino-looking man lying in the sun, flipping through the flyer of a hard discount grocer. Next to him, an old-fashioned FM radio played the classic by Italian singer Adriano Celentano that drove home the point: Svalutation!

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4 Jun 2017

Borderlands

Crossing borders is an integral part of travelling. But how such crossings take place can vary greatly, as last month's trips have illustrated.

First came a visit to a small country in the heart of Europe. No, not that country. But the one that is home to an even smaller village - 500 residents, I am told - which became synonymous with hassle-free border crossings, and whose name now separates airport terminals from Finland to Malta. Tacked on to business meetings in Frankfurt, I took a little side-trip to Schengen.

In doing so, I was able to experience the liberties provided by the eponymous agreement first hand: My flight from Canada arrived in Brussels. There, I pulled out my Swiss ID card and showed it to a Belgian border guard. After that, I was able to take another flight to Germany, drive a car to Luxembourg, walk back and forth between it and Germany, keep driving into France, back into Luxembourg, and eventually back to Frankfurt. All without ever showing any form of ID again. It was only when I boarded a flight back to Toronto that a bored German policeman at Frankfurt airport had another quick glance at my ID.

Ever since the Schengen agreement came into effect, and notwithstanding short interruptions during the recent migrant crisis, this painless mobility is a reality across 26 European countries (and yes, this does include that other small nation). For Europeans, crossing borders without stops or inspections has become the default. But it is anything but.

The second trip in the same month was to another small nation, for which its borders are very much an existential, and contested, subject. Israel has seen its territorial boundaries shift several times since its foundation in 1948, and usually not in a peaceful way.

Consequently, it fortifies and diligently polices its borders, with the crossing procedure differing widely depending on the person in question. Unlike other nations, which at best distinguish between citizens and foreigners, Israel unashamedly applies a much more sophisticated profiling grid, which can make entering and leaving the country a breeze, or a serious pain. Fortunately, I have found myself placed closer to the former end of the spectrum. But the stern looks of the Israeli officials certainly do not let one take that for granted.

And how about the borders I cross most frequently? Canada and the U.S. still don't have any formal exit checks: There are no procedures involved for leaving either of these countries. When entering, though, the process has become more complicated and segregated in the years since 9/11. For non-citizens, visa requirements have been tightened and even visitors from countries without a visa requirement now need to apply for an online "travel authorization" before arrival. The U.S. introduced this paid process in 2008, and coaxed Canada into following suit last year. With every version, the form becomes longer and more intrusive.

Canadian and U.S. citizens remain exempt from these requirements, but they do now need to travel with a passport or "secured" Driver's License. Gone are the days of entire school buses of Canadians driving to the U.S. on the strength of their team football jerseys alone. All of this leads to slower, more cumbersome border crossings.

On the upside, though, there has also been a lot of investment into making the experience smoother for those deemed "trusted travellers". Taking a page out of the Israelis' book, American and Canadian officials have established a joint screening process which allows cleared individuals to obtain a card entitling them to bypass lines and use dedicated kiosks or automated gates to enter either country quickly.

The program is called Nexus, and when I was handed my membership card, the ability to seamlessly weave my way in and out of the country was very much presented as a privilege, not an entitlement. My recent travels certainly drove that point straight home.

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