21 Jan 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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5 Jan 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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