Sunday, June 30, 2013

Happy birthday Canada or why you should love Canadians (even more)

Before I moved away from Canada, I hadn't given much thought about what it means to be Canadian nor was I particularly patriotic. When I travelled and responded that I was from Canada when people would ask me where I was from, I got the standard responses "oh, you must like the cold" "do you live in igloos up there?" (from an American)
One thing is clear, people don't know much about Canada, but they seem to like us. The reaction I get when I say that I'm from Canada is always different than when others say they're from the US, Germany, England wherever and they always want to engage me in conversation to hear about what Canada is like, from a Canadian.  People are fascinated with Canada and moreover people seem fascinated that a Canadian would want to leave Canada because anything people have heard about It is good, so why would anyone want to leave that frozen enigma?

Most Europeans love Canada because they think it's this great big wilderness (which 80% of it is) in a continent where everyone is packed in pretty tight, they relish the notion that you can drive 8 hours and not see another soul.  And though our natural beauty is second to none, there's a lot more to like about Canada and Canadians. 
So, if you're going to like us, you may as well have (more)  reasons to and learn a little bit more about us. Herewith, some inspiration:

- we don't like Justin Bieber or Avril Lavigne either.

-no, we don't know your friend Tom from Toronto.

- Canada is not a great white tundra. Well, technically it is, but there's a reason 80% of us live within a 2 hour drive of the American border, we don't like the cold either.

- don't worry, we make fun of Americans too.

-it's taken me two years to accept we say "out" and "about" differently. It's not weird, just different.

- the last letter of the alphabet is "zed" we add the "u" to colour, but it's an elevator, not a lift and a truck not a lorry.

- Not all of us speak French. Only about 10% of us do. Yes, they make us all learn it, but how much Spanish or German or whatever language do you remember from school?

- if there's one complaint I've heard about is that when we ask "how are you?" We don't stick around long enough for an answer. So to clarify, "How are you" is a greeting like "hello". When we say it, we don't want to actually engage you in a conversation of what's wrong in your life, we just want to hear "great, how are you?"

- the biggest insult for most Canadians is calling us Americans. Yes, we have a lot of similarities, watch the same tv shows, go shopping there a lot, but don't confuse us for Americans: our political views are extremely different and we don't shoot people nearly as often. But we do lock our doors contrary to what Michael Moore thinks.

-We're an extremely tolerant nation. It could be because we're so young or because we were built on immigration, but one of the things I'm most proud of is how we embrace multi-culturalism. Whether its Chinese writing on signs in Chinatown, or the fact that no matter what language you speak, the government will provide you with an interpreter, we're accommodating. We accept that multi culturalism is a part of our heritage and how we'll grow in the future. I can't can't say the same about Europe.

-Yes, we say "eh" a lot. But each language has its own version of "eh". Just like Americans have their "uh huh", Germans have their "oder" and Italians have their "Ecco" or "Che". 

-We're funny. I don't know if anyone has been able to confirm we have the most comedians per capita, but most of the comedians you know and love are from Canada: Jim Carey, Dan ackroyd,  Will arnett, John candy, Leslie Nielsen,  mike Meyers and Seth Rogen are just some of our funny Canadians.

- we don't vacation in tepees or igloos. Fun fact, I never saw one tepee or igloo in 37 years of living in Canada. I move to Europe and I've seen and heard of many igloos and tepees that you can stay in.

- our policemen don't really dress like the guy on due south. Well, they do, but that's only for special occasions.

-If it wasn't for Canadians, the White House would have been pink (you're welcome America)

- we have the queen of England on our currency but we don't know really know or care why.

- our national animal is the beaver (proof we have a sense of humor)

- we have the biggest coastline  in the world, but disney world has more submarines than us. But that's ok, because our neighbours to the south like us and will protect us if we ever need it.

- a knit hat is a touque. Not a beanie. 

-The snowmobile, snowblower, trivial pursuit, wonder bra, insulin and basketball were invented by Canadians.

So, happy birthday Canada.  It may have taken me half a lifetime and moving away to fully appreciate you, but I'm damn proud to say that I'm from Canada.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The trusting Swiss

I’ve written before about how much more trusting Europe generally is.  In Germany, my neighbors would leave their expensive winter tires and/or cases of beer in front of their cars in the garage.  If that were Canada (or the US, UK….) the beer would be gone and so would the tires.  If you had a package that was to be delivered to your house, it would often get left with a neighbor (which always proved fun trying to find WHICH neighbor signed for it)

Whereas I found Germany extremely trusting, Switzerland is, unbelievably, more so.

I should start by saying, that one of the things I love about Europe is the ease of financial transactions.  If you owe someone money, it’s a snap to arrange a transfer.  You get a form with a few digits, enter it into your online banking and voila.  North American banking seems like it’s from the dark ages with its use of paper cheques!

Anyways, Switzerland, trusting.  So, here are some of my favorite examples of HOW trusting Switzerland is:

1-    Driver’s license.  It’s a snap to change your drivers license.  All you do is go to the motor vehicle office, show your old license, show some documents and the NEXT day I had my Swiss drivers license in the mailbox.  And a request to pay.  My license showed up in 24 hours, but I had 30 days to pay for it.

2-    Car insurance-  I was dreading signing up for car insurance.  All those options to chose from baffle me.  And my view on insurance is that if you’re offered it and you don’t take it, you need it.  So I got the insurance that covers parking damage and damage against some random animals that can potentially eat my car wires.  Not squirrels, we don’t really have those in Europe.  Once my car passed the Swiss inspection, my insurance was effective.  About two weeks after it passed inspection, I got my policy. And the bill.  30 days to pay.  I could get used to this.

3-    Is by far my favorite example and happened to me yesterday after I went for a hike.  I had no cash on me (I hardly ever do) and went for a longer than planned hike.  There was a quaint mountain hut right near where I parked the car.  I went in and asked if I could pay by card.  I couldn’t.  They asked me where I lived and once they knew it was still in Switzerland, they offered me to pay with a bank transfer.  So I ordered and ate my lunch and my bill came with a bank slip so I could arrange to transfer them the money.  When I got home.  Eat now, pay later. 

I don’t know if it’s because Switzerland is so small or that they operate on a higher moral code than I’m used to or if it’s because money isn’t as valued here.  Maybe because the country has so much money, it’s just not valued as much.  Could it be??? I doubt it.  Whatever it is, I like it.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Only in Switzerland...

Every country has its quirks.  There’s no doubt.  When I lived in Canada, you could only buy alcohol at a liquor store.  In Ontario, they went even further and beer was bought at the beer store (a store which was literally a giant beer cooler) and alcohol at the liquor store.  Liquor stores were never open on Sundays or holidays (they’ve since changed that some in the tourist areas)  When I lived in Germany, it was full of quirks.  Too many to mention actually, and I’ve tried to forget most of them.
The Great Beer walk in cooler that is the Ontario Beer store.
Switzerland is no exception and has it’s own quirks.  For all intents and purposes, I consider Switzerland a collection of small towns.  The entire population of Switzerland is just over 7.5 million people, even by Canadian standards, that’s not a lot of people.  The biggest city is Zurich which has about 500,000 people, or about the size of the German town I lived in which everyone complained was so small.

Yes, Switzerland is efficient and clean and I love it for that.  For the most part, it’s quirks don’t bother me because what I love about living here, far outweighs it’s quirks.  So, what are some of Switzerland’s quirks (or more specifically, Switaly…)

-       laundry day.  I’ve gone on about this before, but the idea of a set laundry day is… quirky (not to mention inconvenient)  I’m “lucky” because my laundry day is Sunday morning: a day I stand a chance to be home.  I’ve heard of friends and colleagues who have their laundry day on a Wednesday afternoon from 1-5pm and have had to take time off to do their laundry until they can negotiate a better time with their landlord or neighbors.
-       Car inspection-  so far, everything about transferring my life to Switzerland has been pretty seamless (couldn’t say the same about Germany…) however, transferring my German car to Switzerland was a pain in the ass.  Majorly.  My favorite part of the ordeal was this:  In order to go thru Swiss inspection, they first needed to have my engine shampooed.  You know, so they could inspect a clean engine.  My car is 2 years old.
-       Quiet time- it’s not weird to have a quiet time at night to not to disturb your neighbor.  What’s weird is to have the activities specifically listed.  For instance, I’m allowed to have a shower in the middle of the night, but only if it’s less than 10 minutes.  And a late night bath? Don’t even think of it!

Not all of Switzerland’s quirks are bad.  For instance, a few months ago, one of my friends called me in a panic.  In her jetlagged state, she dropped some important papers in the garbage.   Would I be so kind to come and help her fish them out.  Now, Swiss garbage, in it’s goal to be neat and clean, drops from street level to a pit below the sidewalk.  Knowing this, I prepared us just the tool for the occasion (thank you 1 year of college mechanical engineering)  The tool I came up with was foolproof.  Almost.  If not for the pouring rain and the wet papers in the garbage and the extra sticky lint roller not being so sticky in the rain, it would have worked.  I suggested calling the city in the morning to see if they had any solutions.  The next day, she gets on the phone to the city and they tell her “well, usually we pick up the garbage on Wednesday, but we’ll be there in an hour to help you”  2 friendly workers came out, unloaded the garbage and helped her pick thru it.  She was really apologetic for calling them out and they would have none of it.  They said they got calls every week of people accidentally dropping keys, passports, you name it.  In what other city in the world would this happen in?  Exactly none, that’s where.  If you dared to that in Vancouver, they’d laugh at you and tell you to dive in.

2 broomsticks taped together for length- extra sticky lint roller at the end so documents could be rescued.  Flawless- almost

 Living overseas is a constant learning experience and putting up with some pretty bizarre rules and customs (most of which you only discover after breaking them).  In Germany, washing your car on a Sunday was verboten.   A lot of the rules don’t make sense especially if you come from North America, where you can pretty much do anything whenever you want.  Yes, I hate that I have to plan my life around errands (most grocery stores close around 6- or the same time I finish work)  but as long as Switzerland keeps it’s quirks to a minimum, I can deal.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Sink or swim or why I should learn self discipline

The "short" version of the race starts near Vallocorine.
 I’ve clearly lost my mind.  One minute I’m training for a 5K run, and then suddenly I’m agreeing to run half a marathon in the alps. Sadly, it’s not the most insane thing I’ve subjected myself to: 3 years ago I backpacked in Northern Canada for 2 weeks with a 45lb pack on my back after never having gone backpacking in my life. You’d think I’d have learned.  And what I’ve learned is that the only way I’m ever going to push myself is if I jump into something  as absurd as possible, with both feet in.  Sink or swim.  And somehow, I figure it out.  You’d think I’d just try and learn self discipline and push myself more gradually, but that theory seems to elude me.

And so now the training starts. I have less than 3 months to go from my half run 5K, to a half marathon in the Alps.  My employer sponsors one of the biggest trail races in the world and last year I had the fortune to be on a support team for one of the athletes we support.  This year, they’re having a special employee 21K edition of the race.  The UTMB is a race where the course passes thru 3 countries (France, Switzerland and Italy)  The  full UTMB course is 170km.  It’s equivalent to about 4 marathons. In a row. Thru the alps.  Thru snow, sleet, night, day, without sleep or rest. To say it’s insane is an understatement.  Most runners take 30 to 40 hours to finish the course.   I’ll be happy to finish my 21k portion in half that time. 

Now, I can walk 21k no problem.  If push came to shove, I could probably jog/walk 21k on a flat surface, but herein lays the problem. Flat does not exist on the UTMB.

The race is broken into 3 sections:
Part 1- 4km and 200m elevation gain
Part 2- 7km and 670m elevation gain
Part 3- 8km and 825m elevation loss

Right now, I’m equipped for Part 1.  “They” have been telling me not to expect to run parts 2 and 3.  My personal theory, is that even if I TRIED to run part 2, I’d get nowhere fast.   You see, if I calculate the grade on part 2, my computer almost explodes.  Most of that grade is accumulated in 4km and is considered extreme.  I expect that I’ll be crawling on all fours to get up that beast.   Part 3 should also be a party.  A downhill party.  I learned one thing backpacking in Yukon and that’s the only thing worse than going up is going down.  Up is all cardio, hip and leg strength.  Downhill is hell on the knees, balance and has the greatest risk of injury.

Backing is out is not an option.  I will conquer it.  It won’t be pretty.  I’m sure there will be moments of blood, sweat and tears and I might cross the finish line well after people have finished the after party, but there’s no way I’m not crossing that finish line.  If only to prove a point to my lack of self discipline.  In the meantime, I’ll be climbing a few mountains as practice…

Monday, June 03, 2013

Why everyone should visit Greece

This isn’t a post on why everyone should visit Greece to save their economy, but rather a post on why Greece is quite possibly, one of the best places to visit.  Of course you have the scenery and history, but that’s not even the best part of it: it’s the people!

Last month, I had the pleasure to go to Greece.  Athens and Santorini was the destination.   Easyjet flies from Milan to Athens for a pittance (130 euro return if you book enough in advance- they also fly to Santorini but only during July & August)  So the itinerary was set: one night in Athens, five nights in Santorini and another night back in Athens.

After having researched Athens, I didn’t have any big expectations.  Sure, the acropolis is there, but everything I read said not to expect much else in terms of beauty or charm.  Fair enough, the city was a big metropolis and wasn’t particularly architecturally distinctive.  That said, the city surprised me in terms of cleanliness.  I was expecting it to be along the lines of Paris with dog shit and graffiti everywhere and non stop traffic.  It wasn’t like that at all (however, apparently it’s cleaned up a lot over the years)   We only had an afternoon in Athens both times but it was pleasant.  Sadly, the acropolis was closed both times so we only got to see it from far (and from our hotel room)

Next stop was Santorini.  Since it wasn’t high season, a direct flight to Santorini wasn’t possible and the flights from Athens to Santorini were more expensive than what we paid from Milan to Santorini.  So, we opted for a ferry.  To figure out Greek ferry times, it seems you need a masters in research.  I had foolishly assumed that ferries to Santorini were frequent and plentiful.  I was wrong.  There are usually only 2 a day and they are more often than not at awkward times like 1am or 4am.   And since I have bad memories of slow ferries from business trips to China, I wanted the fastest one.   The “fastest” one was 4.5 hours. Left Athens at 7:30 and arrived at noon.  Perfect.  Well, apparently “fast” is fast, for the slow ferries take 10 hours, but though the schedule and website advertise 4.5 hours, that’s never happened.  Shortly before 2pm, we arrived in Santorini.

If you’ve ever been to a Greek restaurant, you’ve probably seen pictures of Santorini on the walls.  But let me tell you, it’s even prettier than you’d expect.
Ok, so in short, Greece is beautiful and the food is amazing (my motto of “everything is better with Tsatsiki” was valid in Santorini- although I’m pretty sure I’m oozing garlic out of my pores a month later)

What sets Greece apart though is the people.  Ok, one could argue that Santorini’s major industry is tourism so they better know how to treat tourists, but in Europe, where indifferent service is the norm, it’s greatly appreciated.

The best example of this was the time we missed the bus.  Though Santorini is tiny, it does have a pretty good bus system.  The bus is a story of it’s own (even if you’re standing at a designated bus stop, the bus won’t stop, you have to physically get it to stop as you would hail a cab) 

After a spontaneous decision to get a tattoo by a Hungarian guy who discussed Greek economics, we needed to get back to the hotel and we missed the last bus.  So we thought.  So went to a local restaurant and asked if he could call us a cab.  He said the bus was on the “new” schedule and there would be another bus in 20 minutes.  He indicated for us to have a seat and wait, and when he saw it coming, he would call us to come over.  Though the restaurant wasn’t even close to full, there was no pressure to order anything or to otherwise make money off of us.  The bus arrives, off we go.  In fear of missing it, we stood on the curb frantically waving our hands.  The bus didn’t stop.  Turns out there is a last bus, but it only drops off, doesn’t pick up.  The owner of the restaurant stood outside to make sure we got on the bus.  When he saw it didn’t stop, he was horrified.  He was profusely apologetic and apologized for the state of his country (a bit much, this was just a bus, but still)  So we asked for that cab.  He said that a cab would cost far too much money (20 euros) and that we didn’t need to spend the money, one of his regular patrons would drive us home.  I’ve been a tourist in a lot of countries, and I’ve never experienced a restaurant owner (who I didn’t even give business to) to look out for my well being.

Another example is this amazing local Taverna we ate at.  It was a family owned restaurant nearest to our hotel.  The food was amazing and homemade.  Every dish that they prepared and suggested was incredible.  After every course, the owner would ask with a genuine and caring look and ask “did you enjoy it?”  and when we said he did, he seemed genuinely pleased.  The best part was after every meal, he would bring us something special, some dessert, grappa, appetizer and his wife would come out at the end of every meal to make sure we enjoyed everything she prepared.  The restaurant was never lacking business and again, I’ve stayed at a lot of tourist spots that could care less about food or service for the chances of you returning are slim.

So, if you’re looking for somewhere to vacation that will appreciate your money and get service and value for your money (not to mention incredible scenery, food and history) do it in Greece!
View from the hotel in Santorini

Oia, Santorini

The Acropolis

Fira, Santorini

Seaside dining in Oia