29 Jun 2013


Out in the green is where city dwellers long to be on sunny summer days. With temperatures being pleasant, but still far from hot, I seized the opportunity over the last two weeks to lace up my hiking boots, and to take to the trails on both sides of the Atlantic. While the joy was constant, in other aspects differences became obvious.

In Canada, my Dutch friend and I headed to Frontenac Provincial Park, located between Kingston and Ottawa in south-eastern Ontario, where on a balmy Saturday we had picked a pleasant looping trail, said to take about 5 hours to hike. Having paid our park admission, we set off into a pristine landscape of bogs and marshes, accompanied only by the song of a few birds, and the constant hum of countless insects. Fortunately, I'd come prepared with plenty of locally-purchased, DEET-laden insect repellant (I'd found out the scratchy way that the spray I'd brought from Europe was useless), and much to my delight Ontario's bugs seemed much more attracted to Dutch blood anyways. The landscape was surprisingly varied, and fortunately small snakes remained the only wild animals we saw - the bears must have been out at the mall.

Most strinkingly, despite the park being easily accessible and this being a perfect Saturday, we only came across one single other person in all of our hike. Other than that, we had the trail to ourselves and enjoyed the sensation of being truly out in the wild - no human structures could be seen at all.

The same could not be said a week later, when my former flat-mate joined me for a day-trip to Ticino, escaping the chilly rain of northern Switzerland for some southern sun.  We'd picked a panoramic route along a mountain ridge, located precisely over the site of our family cottage, where I'd spent a good part of my childhood holidays raiding my nonna's larder for local specialties. Back then, the trip to Ticino seemed like a long journey into a different world. This week, we zipped down from Zurich in what felt like just another little drive down to Kingston.

Scenic and well-known as it is, I was expecting a few other hikers to join us on the trail, but this being a Monday outside typical vacation period, I wasn't quite ready for the crowds we found. I'd obviosly been away from the tiny country and its 8M inhabitants for too long - there seem to be no unpopulated spots left, hiking trails being no execptions. From the base of the hill to the shuttle bus taking us back to the starting point in the evening, others were constantly in visual (and sometimes olfactory) range.

The views, down both sides of the mountain onto Lago di Lugano as well as Lago Maggiore were stunning, of course. But they too are testimony to just how crowded Switzerland is: Roads, rails, homes, churches, boats, sail planes and even a hydro dam were plainly visble as we made our way along the trail. At no time was one under the impression of being really in the wild. Our vantage point atop the hills revealed just how close to each other the various cities are: The day-long journeys of my childhood to any one of them had become a quick 50km run up or down a valley. On the summit of Monte Tamaro, I realized that my sense of space has most definitely changed.

Leaning back against the summit cross on Monte Lema, the end point on our route, I let my eyes wander over the landscape laid out in front of me, from Lugano all the way into Italy. I spotted the causeway across the lake at Melide, the site of a theme park called Swiss Miniatur. And smilingly, I mused - doesn't this apply to the entire country anyways?

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10 Jun 2013


It's the ultimate luxury problem, and I am certainly glad to have it. I don't mean to brag about it, and I can't think of anything I would have done to deserve this particular predicament. But it is as it is: I am in rude health, and I have been for what must be at least a decade. So long, in fact, that I can't recall the last time I had to see a doctor for an acute condition.

Knock on wood. I have no desire for the above to change.

And yet, the situation finally came to a head. Over the last few years, a growing number of friends and relatives started suggesting that I have a little check-up. Just in case. No harm, you know? I think it was when the analogy was drawn with my old car, which served me faithfully and which I had serviced regularly, that I finally accepted that I should go in for inspection.

My last one, it has to be said, was only two years ago. That examination was particular however in that it took place as part of my application to become a permanent resident of Canada. As such, it was performed by a physician retained by the immigration authorities, and although I was very much the subject at hand, the results were not actually shared with me. It is only by implication (I got my desired permit) that I believe not to carry any mortal condition.

Now, time has come to be sure. So I called the only clinic I have ever visited, and asked for an appointment. Without hesitation, I was told that all the clinic's doctors were fully booked, and no more appointments would be available for new patients. Confused, I hinted at the private health insurance provided by my employer. "Well, in that case", the tone suddenly changed. How would I like the coming week? And that would be $650 please.

Unsettled by the amount, I deemed it wise to check with the health insurer whether they would really pay. And they wouldn't. Why? Because I was healthy. No condition, no payment. However, I could always go see my family doctor, where annual physicals would be covered by the régie de l'assurance maladie. Other than that, it's either pay or wait until you get sick.

Family doctors are a rare breed in Québec, so much so that one of my favorite Canadian movies is about attracting one. Politicians like to claim that they can magically make more of them appear, but a recent study found that 46% of immigrants to la belle province have to survive without one. The fabled Canadian public health system is admittedly excellent at treating emergencies regardless of a patient's origin and financial prowess, but when I filled in the borough's form to go on a waiting list, it didn't lift my spirits. Thanks to my luxury problem, I answered all the questions promising a fast track (chronic conditions? recent accidents? drug abuse? smoking? family illnesses? pregnancy?) in the negative. As one friend succinctly put it, the best way to have a family doctor after four years in Québec is to start looking four years ago.

Imagine my surprise, then, when less than a week later, my phone rang and a friendly nurse from a private clinic down the street was on the line. I was baffled to learn that the government had forwarded my application, and I was kindly invited to come by this week for an interview with the nurse. Whoa!

Less than half an hour after I'd arrived at what seemed to be a bright, modern, well-run establishment, my initial examination was over, and the competent nurse started an apology. Due to the upcoming summer vacations, it would take her a bit longer than usual to get me my family doctor. At worst, it could take up to two months. Would that be acceptable?

Despite all the horror stories I'd heard, Québec for once seems to redeem itself. I'll hold my judgement until after I've actually met my family doctor. But as far as the two month wait is concerned, after a decade without one, I feel confident to say... I'll survive!

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