20 June 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 June 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 April 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 April 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 March 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 February 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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05 February 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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21 January 2018


+60 degrees Celsius. That alone was a strong incentive for my recent jaunt down to Santiago. But as it turned out, it was also a trip down memory lane.

Loyal readers of this blog will recall that I spent 6 months in Chile's capital in 2011, managing a project for my employer and using any spare time to discover bits of this diverse country and its people.

This marked my first return to Santiago since, and the first time I experienced the city at the height of the southern hemisphere's summer, which made for the stark contrast in climate to Montréal's icy winter. I eagerly expected the heat, packing my bathing suit and sunglasses.

What I didn't expect was the strange sense of wistfulness that took hold of me pretty much from the moment I got into a taxi at the airport. From the smell in the air (no, not the jet fuel!) to the Chilean accent of the taxista, things seemed so familiar. Later that day, as I strolled down the streets of Providencia, I reacquainted myself with many of the stores and cafés I used to go patronize. Soon, I sat on a shady patio munching away on empanadas de pino and drinking a cold Austral.

Nostalgia didn't cloud my vision enough not to notice that the city has progressed remarkably. There was an gigantic new shopping mall at the foot of South America's tallest tower. The parque metropolitano had a new cable car, and new signage throughout. And the eco-certified office building which just broke ground in 2011 was now the location of my client meetings. Yes, Chile has done well in the meantime.

So what about myself, I inevitably started wondering as I sipped a Pisco Sour in the warm evening light. The boundless enthusiasm and optimism of 2011 have given way to a more cautious realism. I have changed roles twice, but not employer. I am still in Canada, but now as as citizen, rather than a temporary worker. I may have grown a bit wiser, but probably also more cynical (the depressing sight of the former site of our Chilean office, long-since shuttered, didn't help). Much like to the Pisco, there was a touch of bitterness to it.

But bitter goes with sweet, and not just in the chocolate araucano ice cream that rounded off my dinner. I have also found companionship, and the continued privilege of roaming the globe (including a trip to the Chilean-administered Easter Island in 2013).

Still, when I left Santiago after an all-too quick return visit, I did so with a sense that the city had advanced more in the last 6 years than I had.

Sub-zero temperatures awaited me back in Canada, freezing everything solid. But just like I to Santiago, spring will eventually make a comeback to Montréal. And with it, things will start to flow again...

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05 January 2018

Try me

It was the Saturday before Chirstmas, and the market in one of Zurich's middle-class neighborhoods was bustling. While most people were busy picking up the last groceries for the coming holiday orgy, we had just arrived in the country and were browsing the stalls only out of curiosity, knowing that the family would feed us well over the next days.

As we ambled past bakers, butchers, fruit vendors and the like, she noticed something: None of the merchants offered any samples! Indeed, the little trays so common at Montréal's Atwater market (and many others around the world) were nowhere to be seen. No Swiss vendor deemed it necessary to tempt the clientele with little bits and bites, and no Swiss customer seemed to expect any.

What a difference when we made it to the back of the market, where an Italian cheesemonger was proudly standing behind big wheels of fontina, provolone and pecorino. The moment he heard us speak English, he chimed in with his thickly accented "Ello! Come try formaggio!", sticking out a plate. And when I responded in Italian, he immediately started cutting thick slices of formagella for us to try... and, unsurprisingly, buy.

Unfortunately, this market is not the only place where the Swiss show their stingy - or is it snotty? - side. I vividly remember leading a group of 20 American visitors into the main branch of Sprüngli, Zurich's flagship chocolate store, many years ago. I sung the praises of their signature macarons, Luxemburgerli, which were sitting pretty in their alluring colors behind the counters. The Americans looked intrigued. The Sprüngli staff was unimpressed. When asked how they taste, their answer was: "Very good." 

Naively, I thought that a cultural misunderstanding was happening, and sprung into action. "I think they'd be curious to try", I advanced in Swiss German. "Certainly", came the response. "What size of box do you want to buy?"

I was dumbstruck. And then I got angry. "Clearly, this store wants you to buy the cat in the bag", I said, loud enough for all the store to hear. "Let's leave." 20 American credit cards disappeared into wallets again, and we stamped out.

Obviously, things did not change since. Time and again since, I witnessed bewildered tourists at Sprüngli's airport stores experiencing the same obnoxious parsimony. "You can also buy single truffles if you want to try them first" was one of the stand-out lines put to a shocked Japanese once. It's revolting.

And yet... I keep buying those damn good chocolates. And the markets are as popular as ever. Like any good Swiss, I roll my eyes, frown in disgust, and then pay up. For as long as I do, vendors are vindicated. When it comes to free samples, they'll have the last laugh as they say "Just try me!"

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15 December 2017

Mann spricht Deutsch

I had just finished my evening swim. Exhausted and famished in equal measure, I sprinted up the stairs at Berri metro station to catch my connecting train home. Just as the sliding doors started closing, I squeezed in and plopped myself down on a chair.

As the train set off, my ears perked up. They had caught pieces of a conversation in German. My eyes scanned the metro and settled on two women across from me. "Und was, wenn der Deutsch spricht?" asked one. The other shrugged. "Ach, fast keiner kann hier Deutsch."

I stifled a smile. Very few people in Montréal speak German, indeed. But some do. My curiosity was piqued, not the least because I had noticed that neither of the two people across from me sounded like a native German speaker. Why, then, would they go to the trouble of speaking a foreign language to each other?

Soon, I noticed that the conversion seemed to be about men. And not any men, but one particular specimen, and his particular attributes. This was going to be interesting. I reached for my water bottle, surreptitiously leaning forward to catch more of the chatter over the din of the 50 year old subway cars. 

"He doesn't wear a band or anything" said one. "Don't get too excited now" replied the other, snickering. I paused. It sounded like the man they were talking about was in sight. I looked around the carriage. There were a few mummified creatures in winter parkas with their backs to us, their gender impossible to discern. And to my left, there was a poorly shaven 20-something guy, wearing big headphones and staring at his phone. Other than that, nobody was in sight.

I caught their eyes for a moment, but they flinched and blushed. I turned my gaze to the window and the blackness of the tunnel beyond, noticing my reflection on the glass. They couldn't possibly... no, surely not. And yet, the long-winded German adjectives they used could conceivably be applied to yours truly.

My musings were interrupted by the tinny voice announcing my stop. Just as I got up, I clearly heard "aww... now he's leaving". Now it became almost impossible to contain my laughter. What were the chances?

Before I knew it, the train pulled into the station. And right as I was about to get off, one of the women got up, thrust her business card into my hand and said, in English: "My friend here would like to go on a date with you." At which point I just could not help myself: I smiled before replying in my best Hochdeutsch: "How nice. And I wish you a very pleasant evening."

The doors slid closed behind me, and as I turned around with a massive grin on my face, I was relieved to see that the two friends were almost literally rolling on the floor laughing. They had certainly made my day - and I, presumably, theirs.

Oh, and as for that business card, you wonder? Well, date or not, Sprache verbindet Menschen!

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25 November 2017

Hold the line

Waiting in line is not fun. Not at the grocery store, not at the airport, not at the bus stop, and not at the doctor's. And yet, we all do it, time and again, wasting precious moments of our lives to poor organization. Technology helps: When I recently spent an hour waiting for a routine blood test, I was the only one reading a magazine. Everybody else was fidgeting with an electronic gadget.

If only the clinic in question was as technophile as its clients - there must be a smarter way to manage queues. Or is there?

"The line is part of the fun" stipulated none other than Walt Disney, when he set about building his first theme park. He realized that people wouldn't feel the joy of his "happiest place on Earth" if they spent most of their day standing in dull lines, waiting. So his engineers and designers set out to incorporate the zig-zagging line-up areas before any ride into the attraction's theme. Over the years, these pre-ride zones have gotten more and more sophisticated, setting the stage with sounds, sights, videos, props and sometimes even animated characters.

But even basics keep prospective riders entertained: I remember a visit many years ago to the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland, where the inevitable Swiss theme materialized itself in a cantonal coat of arms being affixed to each pillar of the faux-wood roof covering the waiting area. Unfortunately, Switzerland has only 26 cantons, but the roof had more pillars. So the Disney gang simply continued adding made-up coats of arms to the extra pillars. We laughed so hard that we barely noticed the hour or so spent waiting in line.

Sadly, Walt Disney is dead, and greedier managers have taken over running theme parks. These days. waiting in line is for poor schmucks. At most parks, "Quick Access" tickets allow the more free-spending to bypass queues, skipping right to the front of the line.  The price for this privilege is variable: More on busy days, less on slow ones. There are even ticket machines placed outside major rides, letting you buy up from a regular admission once you see the daunting line-up.

This of course means that managers now have different incentives than old Walt did. The less attractive and longer they make the wait, the more likely they are to rake in extra cash from Quick Access tickets. When I last visited a roller coaster park, I endured dull, cattle-like queueing, while giving the evil eye to those rich folks passing by in their dedicated lane - sometimes twice before I got on.

This time, the roles were reversed, for yours truly took the bait and spent the dollars for Quick Access. Sure enough, in a day at Bush Gardens, I got more stomach-turning thrills than ever before. Triple launch coaster, inverted coaster, dive coaster, sit-down coaster, I rode them all. First row, last row, hands in the air. And again.

It was a lot of fun. But something wasn't quite right. It took me a while to put my finger on it, but I finally found the missing ingredient: Anticipation. Not having to wait meant not watching the coaster go by time and again. Not hearing the people scream. Not visualizing every twist and turn. I just ran up the stairs, flashed my Quick Access barcode, and was on. And two minutes later, off again. There just wasn't the time to get anxious and excited, and then to have all that tension release as the train drops from the sky.

Walt Disney was right all along. The wait is part of the fun. It makes you appreciate what you are about to get, and lets you savor it more intensely when it is finally here. So, dear readers, if you thought that the latest post to this blog was a long time coming... you are welcome.

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31 October 2017

Social committee

I barely made it home, evading on my way blood-stained nurses, Indiana Jones, a werewolf, Princess Leia, a giant panda, Beelzebub, and even an Air Canada Rouge flight attendant. It was a grizzly sight.

Yes, Halloween is upon us once again. After initial ignorance, my time in Canada has by now made me well-acquainted, but no more enthusiastic, about the North American version of carnival. It remains an asinine, unnecessary, embarrassing and highly commercialized aberration.

Only recently, though, have I started noticing that the dressing up isn't just limited to rugrats and the alcohol-infused university set. Last year, I was irritated when on October 31st, I was served by a bank teller in a fairy queen outfit (good thing she didn't go for the bank robber look). But this year took the institutionalized silliness to new heights.

A few days ago, a company-wide email from the social committee (the first I heard of such a body) arrived in my inbox, alerting me not only to a communal pumpkin carving in the cafeteria and a ghoulish potluck (aren't they all?), but also officially inviting me to wear my costume both on the day before and on Halloween itself. Ever the cynic, I laughed at the hopeless attempt by company cheerleaders to lighten the workplace mood, and promptly deleted the message.

But as it turned out, many colleagues did not: For the past two days, I have worked side-by-side with cowboys, cops, Hotwarts wizards, and random creations with silly wigs. What seemed utterly undignified to me appeared to be great fun to my - normally straitlaced - colleagues.

For marketers and merchandisers, extracting not just kids' pocket money, but adults' hard-earned dollars for Halloween costumes surely is the holy ghoul grail, and they seem to have gotten much better at it in recent years. So much so, in fact, that even the Prime Minister showed up to work in a Superman costume. There must be a House social committee as well.

Fortunately, in Canada the hubbub will be over by tomorrow. South of the border, though, they are not so lucky. There, a serially bankrupted former Reality TV star has been acting as President since January. Who ya gonna call?

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23 October 2017

Contes des îles

For no more than $600, you could get yourself a round-trip ticket from Montréal to Paris. On such a flight, by about the time you fold down your tray table for the rubber chicken, you'd be soaring over a tiny archipelago in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. But unfortunately, if this is where you wanted to land, the flight would have cost you nearly twice as much.

The islands in question are the Iles de la Madeleine, a cluster of 7 sandy shoals located half-way between Prince Edward Island and Cape Breton, inhabited by 13'000 Acadians and a handful of anglophone descendants of shipwrecked sailors.

Despite their remote location, the islands are politically part of Québec. And that held the key for us to get there cheaply: The 3-stop flights that link them with Montréal are considered "intra-province" and as such available for only a handful of frequent flyer miles. And so we clambered aboard an ancient Dash 8 aircraft one sunny fall morning, and soon found ourselves on approach over the sandy dunes.

Sand, indeed, is not in short supply: Over 300km of unspoilt beachline meant that we didn't need to leave our cozy Bed & Breakfast early to put down our blankets at the best spot. Not that they would have stayed there for long anyways: The constant wind, which makes the archipelago a mecca for surfers and kite-flyers, would have swiftly swept them away.

Our visit was at the very end of the short summer season, meaning that many attractions and dining choices had already closed for the year and the weather had gotten too cool for any water sports.

Rather than hoards of German tourists, it was seals and migrating birds that kept us company on our long walks along the water, and up onto the crumbly red sandstone cliffs that mark parts of the shore.

Low tide reveals grottos and caves under these cliffs, and it was there that the most magical of events took place one full moon night: As part of the Contes en Iles festival, torches and bonfires were set up, and storytellers from the near and far set out to spin their yarn in their light. The locals were clearly entranced, and we were enchanted, if by nothing else than the colorful local accent, so different from the grande terre, as they call the mainland.

Which, as it happens, is just as expensive to get to for the madelinots as it is the other way round. While this leads to high prices for goods that need to be ferried in (i.e. everything), it also fosters a close-knit, trusting and welcoming attitude: Houses and cars were routinely left unlocked. At our second visit to the local bistro, the staff started gossiping with us. At the farmer's market, villagers loaded their own baskets with produce and paid in a honor system. This, I thought, must be what rural life had been like everywhere in centuries past.

Of course, recent times have brought some changes (for instance mobile phones in 2003, as the tourist guide proudly proclaimed), including the micro-breweries, cheesemakers, and crafts shops that holidaying urbanites look for in their quest for authenticity. A recent surge in visitor arrivals, albeit still very reasonable, rewards the locals' initiatives.

It is not hard to see how word spreads about these mystical islands with their charming inhabitants. The highlight of our tale about the Hawaii of Québec however isn't its delicious food, or its unique madelinot accent, or even the adventurous way to get there. It is the otherworldly beauty and rough charm of a landscape so different that it has to be seen to be believed.

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27 September 2017

Mean streets

It was the year 2000, and it was the capital of the self-proclaimed Land of the Free. Our group leader gathered the gaggle of teenage travellers around her, put down a city map and drew a fat red line all the way across it. "Listen up", she said. "Do not venture north of this line. Not ever. It's a no-go area. Understood?"

Since then, similar red lines have been drawn for me in too many cities, from Buenos Aires to  Detroit and from New York to Rio. Never, though, in Montréal.

It wasn't until a recent quality-of-living study that I became conscious of the fact that there aren't really any "no-go areas" in my adopted home city. And that this is probably the exception rather than the rule in North America.

Yes, there may be a few neighborhoods where you'd feel out of place walking in the middle of the night. And there are definitely areas that just feel inherently hostile to pedestrians at any time of day, with roaring traffic, abandoned sidewalks and bland warehouses lining the roads for miles kilometers. But even there, the biggest threat is likely to be run over by a distracted driver not expecting anyone on foot.

The kind of random violence that mars many other big cities is rare in Montréal. CTV has put together a homicide map, which is remarkable not just for its relatively low number of occurrences (26, plus 7 people killed by police in 2016) but also its even distribution over the entire island. There are no "bad places".

Unfortunately, the map doesn't specify each murder's circumstances, but I can't recall any media coverage on random shootings or violent assaults on strangers. It would seem that even Canadian pickpockets - of which there are plenty - are essentially gentle.

All of this serves to illustrate an important aspect of quality of life: The freedom from fear for one's life. Too many urbanites on this planet do not have this luxury, and those who do, including this blogger, often don't value it enough. Canada may not call itself the Land of the Free, but it would arguably have a better claim to it.

With this in mind, I stroll through the city with newfound appreciation for its safety. Which leaves me free to worry about the true dangers of Montréal roads: Collapsing tunnelscrumbling bridges and man-eating potholes!


10 September 2017

Nanny state

"A message from the government of Canada" says a friendly voice at the end of many TV and radio commercials. They advertise various projects the government of the day deems worthwhile, from vaccination drives to compost collection and the latest tax credits. There is even a toll-free number for you to call (1 800 O CANADA, if you must try). The campaigns are evidently political, in that they promote the signature policies of the governing party, and are often timed around elections.

Inevitably, the opposition of the day decries such advertising as a colossal waste of public funds for partisan means - until it is their turn to govern, at which moment they do exactly the same. When the Liberals replaced the Tories, the focus of the messages changed radically, but their frequency did not.

Coming from Switzerland, where the tax-funded take-over of the airwaves is both much less prevalent and typically much more technocratic (the health ministry promoting safer sex, the firefighters informing about the proper use of candles on Christmas trees), Canada's government propaganda has always seemed a bit unseemely for a democracy.

But it wasn't until my recent visit to Singapore that I realized just how overbearing even a non-totalitarian government can be. It is an open secret that the political competition in the flourishing city state is, ahem, somewhat limited, and consequently the governing party may feel less of an urge to promote blatantly partisan causes. That doesn't mean the state stays out of your face, though.

Much more so than on any previous visit, I realized how ubiquitous public admonishments were. The buses I rode had no commercial advertising at all, but were plastered with signs telling riders where to sit, how to stand, where not to put their belongings, how to properly pay their fare and so on.

In parks, people were exhorted to pick up and recycle their garbage, not to waste water from the fountains, not to run and play outside of playgrounds, and to limit their use of pick-nick tables on busy days.

And at the signature hawker centers, into which Singapore has organized its street food vendors, nagging public hygene and behavior rules (always wash your hands! return and separate your waste!) left a bit of a sour taste, no matter the sweet cartoon characters used. The few days in this nanny state started to get to me.

Clearly, the tremendous success of the tiny, multicultural, clean and perfectly efficient country speaks to the effects of such campaigns, and its citizens must have internalized all the rules of proper behavior. So much so that when I swam at the public pool, where a broad section was reserved for lap swimming but I was its sole user, the pool attendant stopped me and pointed to a big sign: It explained how to properly swim up on one and down on the other side of the section. My objection of being the only swimmer present was dismissed with a bewildered look: "But these are the rules."

Well then. I for one am glad to be back on my way to Canada, where at least half of the political spectrum seems to mind government publicity at any one time. And the public reacts to it the same way as to any other advertisement: By tuning out.

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23 August 2017

Gone with the wind

For a few short years, every Swiss was an expert. In the wake of Alinghi, the Swiss-owned (but mostly Kiwi-crewed) yacht racing to two consecutive victories in the America’sCup, the vernacular and technique of sailing became part of everyday conversation in the land-locked alpine republic.

The Swiss followed every tack of their boat, debated the merits of double-hull designs and whether the spinnaker or the jib ought to have been hoisted at any given moment. The media graciously offered background and strategy lessons, courtesy of telegenic experts from Down Under. And a good many wannabe skippers took to the lakes in pursuit of the odd breeze.

Inevitably, Alinghi’s moment of fame passed, and the enthusiasm for boating quickly ebbed away.

Not so in more maritime nations. Canada, with its national motto of a mari usque ad mari and the Bluenose on its 10cts coin, has a proud sailing tradition and sees the activity practiced regularly, both along its coasts and on the aptly-named Great Lakes. 

It was on one of these, Lake Ontario, where I was recently given the opportunity to set sail courtesy of a thoughtful birthday gift. Captain Andy welcomed us aboard his 34 foot boat (the metric system stays ashore) and we soon set course for the open water.

In the light breeze, our kind skipper explained us some of the basic dynamics of sailing, and it became clear that on the massive lake system at the heart of the American continent, varied conditions and significant distances mean that “freshwater captain” is no insult at all – this man knew his stuff.

The same cannot be said for yours truly, but nonetheless, I was soon asked to take the helm as Andy went below deck. With minimum instructions, a compass and a wind arrow, I found myself at the big wheel. Keeping the boat at the proper angle to the wind and getting used to the inherent inertia which met any steering inputs took a bit of time. But standing there with the sun in my face, the wind in my hair and but the sound of the water in my ears, also felt majestic – even more so given the stark contrast to the garish powerboats of Poker Run which had come to raid the port the previous evening.

As we came out from behind a sheltering island, the wind picked up speed and so did our vessel. With Captain Andy back in charge, we soon made a good 7 knots, the boat leaning into the wind and skimming across the lake at a seemingly precarious angle. I started humming the tune of Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise, and for a brief moment, wondered how different it must have been when the wind was the only propellant for overseas travel.

Eventually, we found shelter in a protected bay, and while I relaxed on the top deck, my first best mate and the stewardess emerged from the galley beneath with a delicious champagne lunch. I was spoiled so much that our captain suggested I should have birthdays more often.

By the time we returned to port, we were a bit sunburned, but relaxed, with our spirits lifted and a new appreciation for a timeless mode of travel. This was definitely a past-time I could get used to, although preferably with a skipper included, for the work going on before, during and after such cruises seems considerable. 

No, Switzerland is not a nation of sailors. But Canada has more shoreline per capita than any other country. And this fresh-off-the-boat immigrant is keen to explore more of them. Ship ahoy!

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