When I told my Swiss friends that I'd be in Canada, they glowed at the thought of going to the land of pure white snow, vast forests and pristine lakes, with brown bears, busy beavers and majestic moose roaming about under the watchful eye of handsome, scarlet-uniformed Mounties on horseback.
Once I got there, I was confronted, in turn, with Canadians whose eyes misted over when I mentioned we came from Switzerland. Ahh … that Alpine paradise dotted with rustic chalets, where belled cows munched clover and cheese-makers yodelled mournfully to the accompaniment of Alpine horns on lofty, snow-capped mountains.
These clichéd images, which adorn many a travel poster and brochure and appeal to millions of tourists, hold some truth. But as we left Basel on a dreary, snowless day with the streets choked with traffic and arrived ten hours later in Toronto on an equally dreary, snowless day with the highways hopelessly gridlocked, we didn't feel like we were exchanging one natural paradise for another.
During our two weeks in Canada, I found myself frequently comparing the one country with the other. Taking into account the vast difference in size between the two – Canada has lakes that Switzerland would drown in – I concluded there are many positive and negative aspects about each place. Here are a few of my sweeping generalisations:
Let's start with the glorious Christmas tradition called shopping. Shopping in stores in Canada is a pleasure with patient staff members who always serve you with a smile. In the Swiss service industry, the staff (unless they are Alsatian, German or Italian) are often sullen and standoffish. If you ask Swiss salespeople a question or have a complaint, they act as if you're disturbing them. I recently bought a sophisticated hi-fi system, which didn't work once I got it home and set up. It kept displaying a "Login Failure 24", whatever that means. When I brought it back to the well-known Swiss discount store, they wouldn't give me a refund. They wanted to send it in to be repaired, which I refused on the grounds that the product was obviously a lemon. After some hefty, hot discussion, I finally got a replacement but they treated me as if it was my fault that the hi-fi didn't function.
Out on the street, Canadians win hands down for friendliness. They never try to jump a queue or elbow their way into public transport and invariably excuse themselves should they happen to cross over into your "personal space". Step on a Canadian's foot, as one popular joke goes, and he/she will say, "I'm sorry". But it seems that that Canucks are also very generous. I will never forget two instances where I didn't have the correct amount of change to buy something, first at a kiosk and later at a supermarket. At the kiosk, a young guy wearing a hoodie (the type of apparel one associates with the criminally intended), spontaneously handed me a dime when he saw that I was a tad short of coins. At the supermarket checkout, I was counting out all the heavy coins that had been piling up in my wallet and noticed I was short a "loonie" (that's not a madman but local jargon for a Canadian coin worth 100 cents). I started to pull out a large bill from my wallet when the man behind me gave me a loonie. When I tried to refuse, he said, "No problem. It's Christmas!"
For peace, quiet and respect for people's sanity, though, the Oscar definitely goes to the Swiss. Canada, indeed most of North America, is a twenty-four hour society where an endless array of boring strip malls and shopping centres never seem to close, except possibly on Christmas Day itself. This may be convenient for people who work a night shift, but I still appreciate some downtime. When it comes to Sunday, the seventh day on which the Creator purportedly rested and people should too, towns and cities in Switzerland are as quiet as cemeteries. In Canada, Sundays are made for lawn-mowing and home improvement with loud hammering and buzz-sawing, and it doesn't seem to bother anyone but me. Try that in Switzerland and the cops would instantly come knocking on your door. My partner once watered some plants out on her balcony and was told by a church-going neighbour that working on Sunday was forbidden.
Finally, I would like to comment on how the two countries deal with waste recycling. Here the Canadians are better organised. Actually, they are far better organised. Recyclables are collected weekly from doorsteps in three different boxes: one for paper and newspapers, another for plastic, glass and metal, and a third for organic refuse. Whatever cannot be recycled goes into plastic garbage bags, which do not require expensive stickers to be placed on them. On the other hand, the Swiss seem to generate less garbage and they are probably much slimmer and fi tter because they have to carry their recyclables to the neighbourhood depot. In spite of the many positive things we experienced in Canada, we were glad to come back to Basel. Although its streets are crowded and parking is always a problem, the Old Town is beautiful and the locals have a keen appreciation for music, art, old traditions and culture. And if snarly salespeople become too much for us, there is always a quick escape across the border to France or Germany. Canadians can only head to the US.
Edi Barth, a Swiss/American cartoonist /tattoo artist, will draw a witty cartoon (also in colour) of whatever subject you want for that special occasion. He is the author of "Menue Surprise" (available from the author). His cartoons and illustrations for ad campaigns have been published in many magazines and newspapers.