20 Jun 2019

Coup de coeur

We sat down for lunch in a small café on Ste-Catherine, like we had so many times in the old days. My friend looked at me, tilted her head and asked: "So, how do you like being back home?"

I thought back to that most perfect day I just had. How could I even verbalize that wonderful, fuzzy, warm sensation? I gave it my best shot. And so I told her.

About starting a sunny and warm June day in Outremont, wandering the leafy boulevards and gazing at the stately mansions, wondering in which Armand Gamache might live. Much like him, enjoying a café au lait and a flaky croissant on Avenue Bernard, reading the morning paper.

About strolling east towards Avenue Parc, past Hassidic students standing outside their Yeshiva, Tora in hand. While they were concentrating on the spiritual teachings the Jews brought to Montréal, having my own mind firmly set on the more earthly pleasures: On Rue St-Viateur, an oven-warm bagel was simply too good to resist, despite firm intentions to save the appetite for another Jewish delicacy: Down along The Main,  just before noon, awaited Schwartz's Delicatessen and a medium smoked meat sandwich.

About the indulgence of sitting in a little park off St-Laurent, enjoying said sandwich while watching the world go by: Street artists, businessmen, mothers with kids in tow, lots of twenty-somethings in activewear and bearded hipsters on their fixed gear bikes.

About the ongoing gentrification - or is that hipsterization? - of the Plateau, as evidenced on continued ambles on Rue Rachel, up St-Denis and to Avenue Mont-Royal, the neighborhood's main artery. Chain outlets and somewhat dodgy boutiques have definitely given way to an ever-growing number of craft breweries, microtorréfacteurs and vegan bistros, catering to what seems to be insatiable demand fuelled by the city's new creative class.

About breaking for a little siesta in the shade of Parc Wilfrid-Laurier, to the calm and meditative views of the small pool slowly filling with water, so that the season can begin on la Saint-Jean.

About the reenergizing Bixi ride on the new bike path up to Little Italy, and the first Québec strawberry samples of the season being proffered by the merchants of Marché Jean-Talon there. Vitamin levels thus replenished, indulging in an equally appealing Cannelé and, yes, a locally roasted espresso shot, acknowledging that it is just the thing for whiling away the afternoon while watching the planes from Europe coming in overhead. (Naturally, the one with the white cross on the red tail was right on time.)

About zipping downtown on the métro, to emerge in the heart of the Quartier des Spéctacles, where the Francofollies filled the summer evenings with countless free shows. Sitting down on the lawn, feeling a light breeze on the skin while listening to a young Québec folk singer sharing her travelling songs from journeys across this epic land, and wishing for summer to never end (a hope shared, presumably, by the rest of the audience who had been through yet another brutal Montréal winter.

About finally heading out to the recently remodelled Parc Jean-Drapeau, where a generous open-air stage abuts a new, wide boulevard linking the métro station to the river, with a panoramic view of this unique city and its Mont Royal rising beyond.

And about the final Bixi ride, across Pont de la Concorde and into the Montréal sunset, elated and grateful for a perfect day in this oh-so-special place.

My friend smiled a warm and compassionate smile. "Well, I think I have my answer", she said. "But you know, when I asked 'How do you like being back home', I had thought of Switzerland...."

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30 Jun 2018

What you leave behind

I have just arrived in Zurich from Montréal. For the second time, that is, since I left the city on a rainy April night after nine years of residence.

Now it was just a vacation trip back - the "new normal" for my encounters with the Great White North. In the past nine years, I had established a tradition of returning home for my birthday, using the occasion to throw a little party and catch up with many friends. The concept has worked so well that I have decided to keep it going, just now the other way round: Hence forth, I will endeavor to be in Montréal for the day, which falls conveniently close to the province's own fête nationale.

The first iteration of the new birthday ritual went swimmingly, and much to my delight, there were even attendants that had previously been regulars at the Swiss event. A reassuring sign that oceans don't necessarily keep people apart. Even if it means turning yet another year older, I am already looking forward to next year.

Over the course of the evening, and of the few days I got to enjoy in Québec again, what struck me most was how much the "new normal" felt like the "old normal", i.e. the life described in these pages since 2009. It's not just because my situation in Switzerland remains a mess filled with all sorts of temporary fixes that I have been aching for familiar grounds, but because I realize more than ever just how much Montréal has become an integral part of me.

There were Bixi rides around orange cones on the way to Adonis. There were reassuringly boring visits to the bank, where I discovered new fees introduced in the two months since I left. There were sunny afternoon swims in Parc Jean Drapeau. There were brunches and new ethnic eats. Not to mention juicy strawberries and blueberries from Québec's fields. There would have even been free musical performances - although a summer rain put paid to that.

Despite my frequent griping about poor politics, high taxes and an overwhelmed health system, this is a place that I have come to love, and to miss. After nine years, Montréal, too, is filled with memories on every street. And with people near and dear to my heart.

So is this the last chapter? Probably, hopefully, not. For it is in returning to Switzerland that I have come to understand what I leave behind: Home.

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21 May 2018

Simple privilege

An appointment was not required. The counter is open five days a week, come anytime. I didn't even have to pick a number and wait my turn. Instead, I simply walked up to the counter at the town hall, plopped down my ID, my Heimatschein and a copy of my lease, and said: "I'd like to register as a resident."

Five minutes later, I was 20 francs poorer, but walked away with a confirmation of being a legal resident of Switzerland once again. From this moment on, all my voting materials, tax documentation, official notifications, social security receipts and so on will come to my new address. I am back.

No questions asked, no need to give reasons for settling, proof of income or employment, no forms to fill - by showing a Swiss ID, I had established my right of abode. Simple as that. The clerk even gave me a welcome pack containing useful information, a map, discount chits, a transit timetable and one official garbage bag for the town (no Canadian has ever heard of Sackgebühr).

Arriving in Canada nine years ago, this same process took much more time, money, visits to several government offices, and lots of paperwork. Part of this was of course due to my status, at the time, of a temporary worker. But it was also at least partly down to Canada not keeping a centralized register of its residents.

These days, I know that in not doing so, Canada is in good company: Amongst liberal democracies, it is Switzerland that it is the outlier. While the Swiss find it perfectly normal that they need to register with the local municipality where they reside, others would be aghast at the prospect of the government tracking their every move. It reeks so much of totalitarian surveillance that Brits don't even have ID cards. And I remember once trying to build a business case around Canadians abroad, only to find that the government has no reliable numbers on just how many Canucks live elsewhere.

Blessed with a history of good governance, the Swiss do not second-guess their system. Even Swiss living abroad are meant to - and do - register with the local embassy or consulate, enabling the government to publish precise statistics on how many citizens live where (26'109 in the Montréal district, moins moi).

Similarly, the Swiss are often puzzled about debates raging in other countries around voter ID requirements and "registration drives" before big elections. Much like the gerrymandering of electoral districts, these concepts simply don't exist in Switzerland. Districts never change, and their weighting is adjusted to the registered population.

If nothing else, having lived abroad offers another perspective on basic processes I have taken for granted. And it lets me better appreciate these simple, but massive privileges I enjoy.

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26 Apr 2018

All good things

The previous post to this blog was about the importance of timing. It was two weeks ago - and timing was indeed of the essence. For two weeks represent my contractual notice period at work.

After nine years, a big chapter of life will come to a close as I have decided to leave Canada and return to Switzerland. As long as it took to reach this decision, as quickly will it be executed. In just a few days from now, I will be on a plane, and most of my belongings in a container on a boat to Europe.

By extension, this will also mark the imminent conclusion of this blog (although Google will preserve its contents for posterity). What had started soon after my arrival in Montréal nine years ago, at the suggestion of a friend, has evolved into a form of personal diary of this big Canadian adventure. Just like the time in the Great White North itself, it has outlasted my wildest dreams.

Any attempt at a summary of the past nine years would be futile - too rich, too varied, too rewarding has the time been. What remains is an overwhelming sense of gratitude towards this country and its habitants for having welcomed and integrated me the way they did. In fact, they did so to the point of irreversibility: They made me one of their own.

And it is therein that lies hope. For while I have concluded that the next chapter will be written in Europe again, close to friends and family but far away from her, that next chapter need not be the final one. I now have the privilege of returning to Canada whenever I choose. Just as I never thought that I had left Switzerland for good, I don't feel I am leaving Canada forever now.

Nonetheless, there is a strong sense of sadness (or is it nostalgia?) taking hold of me. As if to tease me, the first signs of spring just started emerging after what felt like an eternal winter. I took my first Bixi ride of the season, sat with friends in a sunny backyard, saw the signs for the festivals go up.

My final week is filled with farewell lunches, culminating in my own 5à7 tonight. In the absence of a real family here, the colleagues I worked with closely in these years have become a big part of my life. Them too, I will leave behind. And if I don't feel much remorse for leaving the company, I do so for them.

The new opportunity awaiting me in Zurich is exciting, and while I am not looking forward to the logistics of moving and re-settling in Switzerland, I now have the confidence of having been through worse and prevailing. But I am curious as to how it will feel to come back to a country that will have changed since I left it - as have I.

All of this pales, though, in comparison to the challenge of engaging in a long distance relationship for the foreseeable future. What our industry coldly calls "VFR Traffic" (visiting friends and relatives) will become a vital trans-atlantic lifeline.

Of all good things, this is the one that will not end.


10 Apr 2018

It's about time

It was 6:01am this morning, and it was pitch black outside. Not because of the early hour, but because the train was in a tunnel. And that was the problem: According to the schedule of the Swiss Federal Railways, this train was meant to arrive at Zurich Airport at 6:01. Instead, it was standing still in the tunnel leading to the airport.

Not a minute later, messages started appearing on the screens in the train, explaining that there was a delay due to "operational reasons". Simultaneously, the conductor came on the tannoy to explain that our arrival would be delayed by a few minutes since a preceding train was still blocking the track at Zurich Airport.

By that time, a lot of huffing and puffing had already ensued with the bleary-eyed commuters around me, with one lady calling someone to explain that she'd miss her connecting bus because that there were "delays again", and that she'd now have to wait another 30min for the next bus.

As she hung up, our train set into motion again. In the end, we arrived at the airport a full five minutes late. I easily made my flight, from which I am writing this now. But to my compatriots, the event surely confirmed their impression of degrading service reliability, and ruined their day early.

Taking the train has been a recurring feature of my most recent trip. Yesterday, I was travelling from Frankfurt to Zurich, using a deeply discounted Sparpreis ticket that restricts users to specific trains - at least in theory. In practice, my first ICE was running over ten minutes late, and when we got to my planned connecting station, I learned that the other train was over 45 minutes behind schedule. The German conductor shrugged and suggested I continue riding the first train all the way to its terminus in the border city of Basel and figure out a way to Zurich from there. By the time we reached Switzerland, station announcements proclaimed that the connecting train had now been cancelled completely. Gone, disappeared, presumably vanished along the tracks with all hands aboard. Die Bahn kommt not, and it didn't much care, either.

The Swiss Railways, on the other hand, immediately mobilized a replacement train from its stand-by reserve in Basel, in order to keep its famed Taktfahrplan intact. This was taken for granted by my connecting countrymen, and we reached Zurich with a delay of a full three minutes. The Germans, including the ICE train staff, were baffled.

Punctuality, then, is as much a cultural as a chronological concept. That in nine years in Canada I have never taken Via Rail already says a lot. But every time I walk across the lobby of Montréal's Gare Centrale on my way to grab lunch, I glance at the big arrivals and departures board hanging from the ceiling. Not only does it show but a handful of trains running all day, inevitably at least half of them also post a delay. And we're not talking five minutes here: Half an hour or more are the norm, with revised arrival times indicated as "estimates". No one seems to mind. "That's just how it is" my colleagues would say. It probably helps that Via Rail's main competitor is an airline that finished dead last in North American punctuality statistics.

The Swiss, then, are both fussy and spoilt with their trains. Yet there is one country that puts Switzerland to shame with its rail performance. That country, to which I had bought a rail pass for this vacation, is of course Japan. In the land of the rising sun, delayed trains would be considered rude and shameful. And therefore, they simply don't seem to exist.

On my entire trip, not one of the many trains departed even a minute late. Whether it was one of the fabled Shinkansen super expresses, or a simple suburban train, they all left smack on time. The entire system is perfectly calibrated for maximum efficiency and reliability, and the Japanese are masters at lining up in the right spots, letting people off first, getting on quickly, and whoosh... we're off. 

The latest statistics I found indicate that the average delay for a Shinkansen train was 52 seconds, down from a record 17 seconds in 2007. This is in an island nation with anything from typhoons to blizzards happening, with the occasional earthquake thrown in for good measure. It's mind boggling. Throughout my trip, I saw precisely one sign indicating a delay, prompting instant jokes about that train driver committing seppuku at the end of his shift. Speaking of suicide, urban legend has it that it is dishonorable for Japanese to throw themselves in front of a train during rush hour, since the ensuing delay would inconvenience too many others...

Reflecting on the different perceptions of punctuality will hopefully help me putting things into perspective the next time I find myself on a delayed train. And until then, it will give me new found appreciation for doing things just in time. Or, as they say when the Montréal metro is stuck: D'autres messages suiveront.

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17 Mar 2018

Pay As You Go

"I made almost $5000 today!" she exclaimed triumphantly the other day, returning from an afternoon spent with the tax advisor. Spring is tax season, and she had just filed her (two!) declarations with the provincial and federal government.

As I have discovered many years ago, Canada operates a tax-withheld-at-source system, meaning that employers deduct the expected income tax amount from each paycheck and remit it directly to the government. Taxpayers then file their returns and, depending on the various tax breaks, credits, subsidies and exemptions they are entitled to, will get some part of these previously withheld taxes back.

When I first learnt about this system in 2010, I saw how it shifts the balance of power towards the taxman. Essentially, the government gets its money up front and doesn't have to run after it with a laborious collections bureaucracy. The onus to file a tax return is on the individual, who will not get anything back unless he completes the annual paperwork.

The above certainly still holds true, but over the years I've come to realize that there is another reason for the tax collection to work the way it does. And that reason lies in the relative financial immaturity of the typical Canadian.

A recent study found that the average Canadian has over $8500 in consumer debt, i.e. not including any mortgages. However, as 46% of respondents reported no debt, this means that the other 54% each shouldered an average of over $15'000, typically in high-interest vehicles such as revolving credit cards and lines of credit.

Another survey, back in 2012, noted that a third of Canadian households lives paycheck to paycheck, i.e. they don't manage to put any money aside at all. The study found the household savings rate at a paltry 3.8% of income, down from 19.9% in the early 1980s.

These are the kind of numbers that make this debt-averse Swiss author pale. But they are indicative of a culture where basic financial literacy is scarce, and discouraged. Start with the tax example: She didn't "make" $5000 by filing her tax returns, she reclaimed money that she had already earned and her employer had withheld in excess. Consequently, a tax refund shouldn't be any more reason to go on a spending spree than a regular paycheck would be. And yet an entire seasonal custom has formed about "what to spend your tax refund on".

Speaking of paychecks, the law stipulates that these need to be issued no less often than every 16 days. Meanwhile, in Switzerland parents switch from handing out pocket money every week to every month when their kids turn 15 or so, in order to teach them financial responsibility. Many Canadians simply wouldn't manage to spread their salary evenly across a month, even though the amount of money per period wouldn't change at all.

Finally, and most egregiously, the government is complicit in the greatest of all deceits, by allowing retailers to advertise their prices without taxes. Time and again, I hear friends talk about this great sofa or that cool gadget that they were able to snag for "only $999". In reality, they spent $1151 on it, with the 15% difference going to the government. But it's cash out the door just the same, no matter how hard both buyer and seller try to deny it.

Which brings us back to the tax system. I understand now that the other reason for it being pay-as-you-go is that too many people simply would not be able to hold on to the cash for deferred payment if they ever got their hands on it. That's a sad and troubling thought.

If there is one place where the Swiss, and Europeans in general, really love pay-as-you-go, then it is with cheap cell phone plans. As any traveller on a shoestring has found out, the best way to stay connected in Europe, Asia and many other parts of the world is to buy a local SIM card, upload a few dollars' worth of airtime, and then use it up bit by bit. In Canada, the oligopoly of three large telcos and their subsidiaries has entirely prevented this customer-friendly pricing concept from taking hold. In the Great White North, home to some of the highest wireless fees in the developed world, "prepaid" plans simply mean that customers must upload money first, and are then still charged monthly fees of $10 or more, irrespective of usage.

In a nutshell, we have financial immaturity, deceitful and inflated pricing, and soaring household debt. Could there possibly be a connection? Let the penny drop.

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27 Feb 2018

East goes South

15 years it has been since my last proper beach vacation. Then, as now, it took me to Asia. In fact, the beaches in question are a mere 250km apart, although on opposite sides of the Thai / Malaysian border.

While not much has changed for me - a few good books and a deck chair keep me merry for a few days, then I get bored - the tourism market around me certainly isn't the same anymore.

In 2003, I found myself in a four star resort in Thailand, run my Caucasians for an entirely western clientele. We fit right in with the German families, Scandinavian sunseekers, British lobsters and French hippies on their way to the full moon parties. Courtesy of cheap long-haul flights, Asia was no longer an unaffordable, exotic dream destination, but the four season-proof alternative to old European beach playgrounds in Ibiza, Cyprus and the Adriatic Sea.

In 2018, popping my head up in a Malaysian swimming pool and looking at the loungers around it, I stared into mainly Asian faces. The Chinese had arrived in force, edging out the quieter Korean contingent. The Lebanese were easily identified as the ones calling the pool boys habibi, and the Saudis as the guys in shorts and flip-flops holing hands with the gals under a Niqaab. The many local Malay guests directed torrents of instructions in Bahasa Malysia at waiters and probably got far spicier curries than everybody else in return. The Singaporeans sing-sung their English (la!) in designer swimwear. Europeans were few and far in between, and nary an Ozzie or a Yank was to be found.

Clearly, Asia has arrived at its beaches. And while my favorite newspaper has written about the emerging Asian middle class for years now, this was for me the most tangible manifestation to date of that economic shift.

Far from complaining, I noted the change in guest mix with content. Not only does it represent a happy turn in the fortunes of the newly affluent, it also makes this pale-skinned guest feel less like a member of a colonial occupation force. On a more practical level, more Asians translated into better and more varied food offerings at the resort, while fewer Germans meant I didn't have to go reserve a beach chair at the crack of dawn. Speaking of which, the shade-seeking Asians seemed more concerned about their parasols than the sun anyways. And instead of tacky Europop and teutonic oompah-oompah, they listened to K-Pop, where the lyrics blissfully pass me by.

Resort management, also in local hands these days, does a good job at catering to the needs of their new clientele. There were many special deals, decorations and even little red packets given out for Chinese New Year. Wifi coverage was fast, free, unlimited and extended to the farthest reaches of the property. The resort map even suggested the ideal spots for Instagram-worthy selfies. And they were used extensively.

I looked on bemused, and perhaps a bit sad, as old and young guests alike missed out on the gorgeous sunset while they stared at their screens and video-chatted with the folks back in Tianjin and Wuhan (no time difference to deal with!). But I was glad that they were there, for they made this Malaysian resort live up to the slogan the country's tourism board has coined years ago :Truly Asia.

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5 Feb 2018

Need to vent

If there's not a word for it, there is probably not a need for it. And if there is not a need for something in one culture, it makes you wonder: Why is it so important in another culture?

Or so I thought one night, as I once again dodged her bewildered looks and opened the bedroom window, letting in the icy winter air. As any Swiss, I wanted to lüften the room before going to sleep. And as any Canadian, she considered that sheer madness. I tried to explain, but I was quite literally lost for words.

"To air out" or "to ventilate" are the translations the dictionary lists when I look up the German term. But while that may correctly describe the technical process of exchanging the air in an enclosed space, it falls far short of capturing the cultural importance lüften has to the Swiss.

In Switzerland, lüften happens everywhere, and all the time. Those who don't sleep with their bedroom windows ajar will at the very least open them before going to bed and after getting up. Kitchen windows open after cooking. In school, one student per class is inevitably put in charge of opening and closing the windows, just like someone has to clean the blackboard. In the army, we received detailed orders on the proper lüften of our barracks on day one of boot camp (diagonally across the hall, at least three times a day, no less than 5 and no more than 10 minutes). Until the recent advent of air conditioned train sets, even train windows could be opened to ensure adequate ventilation.

And in Canada? Complete incomprehension prevails. In the summer months, windows are cranked open and left that way for weeks on end. And in the winter they are kept shut. "We are paying to heat up the air in our house" she said sternly. "I do not want to contribute to global warming outside!"

Don't they understand? How can they not be concerned about the stale air inside a home, and want to exchange it for the crisp and pure variety outside? Aren't they afraid of.... well, what exactly?

Unsettled, I turned to the handy Xenophobe's Guide to the Swiss for a neutral perspective. And sure enough, a section in the chapter on Obsessions reads
The Swiss are subject to numerous obsessions. One of the strongest is their preoccupation with air. Inside Swiss homes the uncontrolled movement of air in the form of draughts is detested. The Swiss believe that exposure for even a few seconds to a draught will bring on every ill known to mankind. Thus rigorous efforts are made during the construction of Swiss houses and apartments to eliminate the slightest possibility of a draught ever being allowed in. Yet each morning, they seem to put aside their phobia when they fling open their windows to air their bedclothes out.
And suddenly, it all made sense. The Swiss are so fixated on lüften because they are so opposed to any naturally occurring flow of air. Whereas they build their air raid-proof houses with eternity in mind, Canadians take a more relaxed approach to construction: When I sit in our kitchen behind the (closed!) balcony door, I can still feel the cold seeping in. And while we have replaced all the windows recently, the wind blows right through the cracks between their frames and the crooked walls.

I can relax now. There really is no need for a translation of lüften. In Canada, even the oldest buildings do it all by themselves.

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