27 Dec 2010


They have become much larger, and much more noticable: The increments in which I visit my old home town, my family's house and the people inhabiting both. From the daily commute as a schoolchild, to the forthnightly visits after graduation from university, to a twice annual holiday stay arriving from overseas, the time between visits has increased with the distance from the place.

Inevitably, along with the increments the perception of change also grows. These days, every time I return something is perceivably different from my memory. New furniture in the living room, new houses in the neighborhood, and yet another crafts shop in town turned into a Carphone Warehouse. It's sometimes confusing and irritating to have to reorient yourself in a place you had thought to know like the inside of your pocket. Of course, these changes are just as natural as they are inevitable, and they most certainly have been going on at the same pace when I was living here. Except that then, of couse, I did not notice.

Today, they hit me in the face - and it is a bit painful at times, for it de-romanticizes my static and blurry memory of that near-perfect childhood place. But they also serve as an (apparently much needed) reminder to myself: Even in Zurich, Change happenz, and you can either try to accept and manage it, or deny it until it starts managing you. If there is something I try to learn from the Candians, it is to embrance change as much as they do, and not just in small increments.

Sometimes, though, I wish that the increments of change would be much smaller. Adjusting the belt around my waist, after multiple lavish Christmas feasts with all the parts of a modern family, and all of my friends, would be such a case...

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19 Dec 2010


There is a touch of Hollywood about them. Or of a police interrogation cell, should you have had that particular pleasure before. Either way, two-way mirrors are a clear separator of powers. You either have nothing to see, or nothing to say.

This week, I unexpectedly found myself on the "silent" side of a two way mirror, as work afforded me an opportunity to attend focus groups with some unwitting customers. In both Montréal and Toronto, several groups of ten people were invited to participate in two hours sessions, during which they were exposed to various wild ideas we're playing with, and were asked them to share their views and thoughts on them. Meanwhile, my colleagues and I sat behind the two-way mirror, busily taking notes and exchanging the odd surprised look when one of our trial balloons got shot down by the crowd. (We were also constantly nibbling on the goodies the research company kept putting in front of us, but that's another story.)

Beyond the mere technicalities of what the test subjects like and dislike, however, you inevitably start noticing other things as well. You look at peoples' body language. How they are dressed. How they interact with the group. How frequently they help themselves to the cookie jar in the middle of the table. And, most importantly, how they express what they are thinking.

It was this last aspect, most of all, that showcased the notion of Franco- and Anglophone Canadians really being two different cultures. From an admittedly small sample, I nonetheless got a consistent image of the highly emotionally engaged, mercurial and unconstrained Québecois, contrasted by the friendly, curious, if slightly more detached Ontarians. The latter definitely reflected more of a business sense, the former were all about personal enjoyment and fulfillment.

Sitting there, listening and snickering for hours from my invisible vantage point, the two-way mirror ultimately helped me recognize how much I had grown affected to the people and the languages spoken in the Great White North. From the Anglos' typical "eh?" and the trandemark Canadian raising, to the unique French spoken in la belle province. It is only semi-consciously that I have started adopting le français québecois myself, with the frequent use of tu instead of vous, inverted questions (C'est-tu prêt?) and vocabulary (t'es bienvenue). By now, with colleagues at work starting to mock me for my messed up French, I have reached a point at which the dialect starts producing that fuzzy warm feeling associated with the language of where you belong.

High time, then, for me to switch from looking through a two-way mirror to peering out of an airplane window, down onto a small town, in a small country, where my true mother tongue is spoken - by my mother and the rest of the family gathered around the Christmas tree!

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7 Dec 2010


It's one of the misjudgements I really regret. When Starbucks first announced expansion plans for continental Europe (and chose Zurich as a test market), I toyed with the idea of buying their stock. But then I decided against it, reasoning that Europe had long known truly great coffee and the overpriced, syrupy variety offered by the American giant would inevitably fail.

Obviously, by today Europe is littered with Starbucks branches and the stock has appreciated nicely over the last decade.

What I had underestimated was that Starbucks, in Europe even more so than in the States, doesn't really sell a beverage. They sell a lifestyle, which they themselves call the "in-between place". It's a mix of one's own living room and the office or classroom. It comes with lounge chairs, free Wifi, long opening hours and easy Jazz tunes, and invites to linger. Europe took to the novelty by storm.

All of Europe? Not quite. There is of course one culture which has for centuries had not just great coffee, but a great coffee house culture, thiving exactly on this mix of public and private space. The grandiose ring roads and inner city palazzos of the main Austro-Hungarian cities, all along the Blue Danube, are abounding in old-style coffee houses.

And that very fact, along with the Austrian talent for making "flour meals" (they affectionately call their pastries Mehlspeisen) is one of the main draws which brings me back to Vienna time and again. I prefer visiting in the cold season, and was thrilled to arrive in a city covered by a solid layer of snow. With the winter twilight and the low temperatures, it accentuates the city's imperially morbid charme, and creates exactly the right pretext to spend all day bouncing back and forth between coffee houses, royal museums and schnitzel restaurants. Add to this the satyrical-ironical Austrian national temper, and their ever so endearing accent (which I can't help but imitate after a few hours in town), and yours truly readly basks in a sugar-induced high. It seems only fitting that one of the local coffee houses calls itself a Kurkonditorei - which would roughly translate as a pastry spa. Of all the treatments I can think of, this one is definitely my favorite.

No matter which Kaffeehaus you visit, they all offer a large selection of international newspapers to peruse, and although their tuxedo'ed waiters usually indulge in their trademark grumpiness, they know the coffee menu inside out and can definitely tell their Einspänners from their Franziskaners. Either one will be served on a little silver tray, with the spoon across the top of the accompanying glass of water, and comes with the inherent permission to spend hours sitting, reading and - being Viennese. Just don't ask for a Grande or a Venti!

Ah yes, I am already sentimental (another great Austrian trait, by the way). But it occurs to me that I am, once again, in an in-between place myself. Between home I and home II, that is. There is a menu available, uniformed waiters roam the aisles, a selection of international newspapers is on offer, soothing tunes pipe through my headset and I have a reclining lounge chair to relax in for hours and hours. Never mind Campari Soda - I'll have another melange, bitt'scheen!

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