Archive for the 'culture' Category


Germanised Canadian in reverse culture shock

After 16 years living in Germany, you start to pick up a few German habits.  You don’t cross the intersection when the light is red – it sets a bad example for kids.  You greet colleagues around lunchtime not with hello, but with a cheery Mealtime!  You say hello to everyone waiting already when you walk into the doctor’s waiting room. And whenever you’re at the supermarket checkout counter, or picking up stuff at the cleaners, or dealing with a teller at the bank, you do NOT make idle chit-chat.  In and out with sometimes barely a nod to civility is how it’s done.

So after eight weeks travelling through this great land we call Canada we arrive in the unusually parched Wet Coast west-coast town of Squamish, and it’s time to go to the bank.  I’m out of cash – not an unusual state this time around considering the incredible jump in prices we’ve seen for everything from fish to fowl – so the first morning after we get in I head to the bank, stride up to the teller and ask for my daily withdrawal limit.

After keying in my PIN number she informs me that acquiring the cash will take a minute as the cash must be dispensed from a machine back around a corner, and it’s in need of some sort of re-boot or whatever, and I say that’s OK, and then she asks me, So, do you have any plans for the rest of the day?

I look at her and hesitate that telling half-second which gives me away as someone with as much social savvy as a deer staring at headlights.Canada Osoyoos wildlife deer on trail

As I said, I’m kind of out of practice at this sort of thing, and after 16 years of dealing with German checkout counter ladies and bank tellers, it hits me as if she’s asked me if I’ve tried out that crazy new brand of multicolour condoms with the spiral ticklers.

“Yes, well, uh, I’ve got lots of plans lined up,” and I see out of the corner of my eye that the teller to her right has turned her head to look at me as if to ask herself, gee, he looks like a regular white guy and he’s got no accent, so what’s his problem?

I instantly switch to Canuck mode and try to come back with the breezy-bantery reply you’re supposed to, but it falls flat.

“Well, uh, we’re doing laundry at the moment, actually, it’s the fourth load already.  We let it pile up as we’ve not had a chance to get any done since Canmore and since then we’ve been through the Kootenays and well, you know how it is.

“Well, at least you’ve got a nice sunny day to do it,” she replies, the cash finally having been delivered to her wicket and I can count on the ordeal being over that much sooner.

It’s a good thing the cash came when it did as I was going to add, “and later on I’m taking my Mom to a funeral, well it’s not an actual burial, more of a memorial service for my former principal who passed away, and I was very saddened to hear it and I want to be there.”

I hope October is here soon so we can all start talking about hockey again.


I’m so ashamed of the BlackBerry I don’t own

I love reading articles about tech gear I don’t have and probably won’t be in the market for any time soon.

There’s this howler right now in the New York Times / International Herald Tribune about how BlackBerry owners are so embarrassed and ashamed of their devices because of the many things they can’t do in comparison to an iPhone or other Android device.

BlackBerry outcasts say that they increasingly endure shame and public humiliation as they watch their counterparts use social networking apps that are not available to them, take higher-resolution photos, and effortlessly navigate streets – and the Internet – with better GPS and faster browsing.

In the next sentence we discover how these luckless BlackBerry-owning wretches are forced to do things that most everyone did about five years ago:

This means that they have to request assistance to get directions, book travel, make restaurant reservations or look up sports scores.

God, what a horrible life they must lead.

Imagine having to contact another human being to find out a piece of information, even if it is only to ask another human being with a better device to gather said information from the Internet.

And what about that shame?  Unless you’re psychopathic, shame happens to us all.  We feel shame and even public humiliation when we realise that everyone knows we’ve done something most consider to be wrong.   So should I feel ashamed because I freely admit to my readers that I do not own a BlackBerry, or an iPhone, or an Androgizmoid?  That all I need is a Nokia cellphone and that no, I don’t have an app for whatever it is you’re looking for?  Is it humiliating to do as I’ve always done and look up the sports scores in a newspaper?

And what about holders of older iPhones?  Will they start having to hide them under a book or buy camouflage because their version doesn’t have the fastest connection technology?  Where is this obsession with tech taking us when our measure of our place in society is how many bazillagigabytes of information we can stream while eating ice cream and crossing the street?

I don’t know, maybe living in Germany for 15 years has atrophied my sense of irony, but the tone of the article was pretty straight-forward.  And its message is simple, updated for today: keep up with the Joneses, or feel the shame.  It’s been the same since people first started to wear clothing and seek warm shelter.

I do know that smartphones are capable of transforming the way we live our lives, and maybe mine would change for the better if I got one. The fact that most everyone I know has or wants one makes me wonder how it is I keep missing the point.   I’m tempted sometimes, but for now – just for now – no thanks.  I want to hold on to a bit of my old ways a little longer.  Maybe like the vinyl I listened to while writing this, cellphones will one day come back into fashion and I won’t have to feels like such a schmuck all the time.


Paris day 2: watch the gang of thieves in action

I may just be one of tens of millions of tourists who’ll visit Paris this year, but maybe if enough of them complain about the gangs of thieves roving the popular spots of this great city, something will finally get done.

Day 2.

I went back to Montmartre by myself the morning of my second day to catch the views now that the sky had cleared to an impossible blue.  I also went there to try to film the gang of thieves that had harassed us the day before.  My camera doesn’t take the greatest video, but the clip below will give you a good impression about what tourists have to deal with here.  Not just at Montmartre, but in front of Notre Dame cathedral and the Tuileries gardens to name just two places my friend has been forced to yell at them this trip just to keep the herd at bay.

Watch how they swarm around these Asian tourists, who are forced to flee in fear:

They carry these clipboards they thrust under your nose to distract you while the rest of them – having failed the courses in the finer arts of pick-pocketing – start patting you down like some TSA officer on too much coffee.

I hung around a bit hoping to get a closer shot of them, but by that time three of Paris’ finest flics ambled past and the gang had disappeared.

As the police trio strolled toward the grand staircase leading up to Sacré-Coeur, I approached one of them and said, “Bonjour Messieurs, I’m sure you’re aware of that gang of young women accosting tourists up here.”

Ah, oui,” said the tallest one.  “You mean the Romanians.”

“Yeah, the Romanians,” I said.  “They are SO AGGRESSIVE!  Yesterday I had to yell at them in English to get their paws off me.”

“That’s what you have to do,” he replied.  “You have to get rid of them.”

“That’s what you have to do on the street,” I said, “but don’t you think that’s trying to take care of the problem at the wrong end?  It’s like drug trafficking.  Can’t something be done to stop them before they even get out here?”

He gave me a Gallic shrug, sighed, turned toward the stairs and said, “Yeah, well, you know….”


Soak, rinse, repeat! How to get rid of those brown stains

It’s great to be back in Germany.

Best thing I’ve seen in the two weeks since our trip to Canada is this great T-shirt idea.

A man gave away 250 T-shirts at a recent gathering of neo-Nazis in eastern Germany.

The message on it was the usual crap you’d expect to see them wearing, so the sluggos lapped it up.

Problem for them is that a different message appears once you put the shirts through the laundry.

The message tells them to drop their Nazi ways with the help of an organisation of those who’ve already left. 

What your t-shirt can do, so can you.

This is such a brilliantly executed idea, but there’s only one problem: the assumption that the people wearing them actually wash.


Talking to a 14-year-old about Canadians and Americans

Girl: There’s this boy in my class. He’s SUCH a jerk!  All he talks about it how great it is in America and how lousy Canada is.  He even said he was going to do a class report on how much better the USA is than Canada.

Me: He must have been joking about that part.

I guess so.

–Does he know you’re also Canadian?

Of course!

–He’s just trying to get a rise out of you.

I know.

–Has he even been to the States?

Probably.  Yeah, I think they went to Florida on vacation.

–Florida!  They probably saw more Canadians there than Americans.  They all come down to escape the winter.

Girl laughs.

–You know, when I was a kid in Britannia Beach we had American families living among us.  The mine was owned by Americans.  Some of their kids would brag to us all the time about how great it was down in the States.  We used to roll our eyes every time and then talk about them later.

Laughs again.

–Americans are always shooting their mouths off about something, but Canadians don’t like it when people brag.  Actually, it used to be that way, but now I’m not so sure.  Last time I was in British Columbia I noticed how they now put The Best Place on Earth as a slogan on their license plates.   Canadians always used to be so modest, and now they’re trying to tell everyone that BC’s the best place on earth?   I mean, when you know you’ve got something special, you don’t go around bragging about it.  That’s the way we grew up, anyway.


How I got to know a neighbour, stole his music, and gave it back again

Bert lives in my neighbourhood one street up and one street over in a small apartment one floor up.

I didn’t know Bert before a couple of weeks ago, but even before I met him, I knew a lot about him.

I knew, for example, that he was a fan of the Bielefeld German Football League team and had recently been to one of their games.  I knew that he was a fan of the Beatles, old Dr. Hook, and the German one-hit-wonder Nena, that he collected old magazines and 45 vinyl records, and that he buys books and CDs on

How did I get to know so much about a stranger before even meeting him?  By stumbling upon the contents of his softcover suitcase, which lay strewn in a jumble in the lane behind our place.  It was 6:30 in the morning and as I looked over the rain-dampened disarray I thought, this guy probably left his bag in his car, someone saw it and smashed the window, brought it over here, rifled through everything, took what they thought was good for re-sale, and took off.

I gathered up the lot and brought it upstairs to our apartment.

Now what?

I go through the bag and discover a receipt from for some books he’s recently bought.  I look up his name on an online phone book but he isn’t in it, so I write a note to the guy, then walk over to his place thinking I’ll just leave the bad news for him in his mailbox.

I ring the bell just in case, and he’s home.  Half-way into explaining who I am he buzzes me in and I walk up the stairs.

A slim man with short hair in his early 30s is at the door to meet me, curiosity and suspicion on his face.

“Uhhh… I think you’ve been the victim of a theft,” I tell him.  “I found this along with a lot of your clothes and stuff in a suitcase behind our place this morning.”

“Ohhhh, shit! he says, raising his hands to his head, his face clouding to shock.  “Oh my God.  I got home so late last night and had to park a few streets away, and I didn’t feel like carrying home my luggage in the rain.  Shit, shit shit!”

I let him know he can come and pick up what’s left of his stuff back at my place, so he throws on a jacket and we start to go over.

We fill the time walking down the street and waiting for the crosswalk lights with the kind of talk you have when you’re forced to be with someone until it’s over.  Like riding an elevator for 20 floors with a colleague you vaguely know, so you feel compelled to make small-talk.  But in this little vignette there’s an element of accidental intimacy.  He knows that I’ve had a look into his private life, however indirectly.  But does he know that I’ve looked through everything?   I guess the thieves overlooked the selection of  um…adult entertainment DVDs I found tucked in a side pocket.  In the whirl of activity since discovering he’s a crime victim, does he even think of it?  If so, does he even care if I know or not?  Is porn now part of the travel checklist along with toothbrush and wallet?

I’m not going to mention it, but in the conversation’s pauses I get to thinking about what airport security people get to paw through and what they find, only with them it’s different.  They rarely get a chance to put a face to a name, and if they do, it’s all in a day’s work.

We get to my door and I show him in.  I gesture to the floor and his bag and its jumble of contents I’ve put back in as orderly a fashion as I can.

“I guess you should be checking on your car now,” I tell him as a way to say good-bye as he’s on his way out again.

The story doesn’t end there.

I’d told my wife about the find as she was heading out the door that morning, so she had a look around the same spot, too.  She comes home that afternoon with three CD boxes, one of which is “Time Flies” a beautifully crafted and obviously expensive 4-disc boxed set of Oasis music and videos.


“I guess I’d better head back over there,” I tell her.

First though, I fire up iTunes and proceed to copy the three Oasis CDs, contemplating as the discs are spinning how I’ve come to be stealing a great collection of music from a famous British band thanks entirely to the misdeeds of some anonymous smash-and-grab thief.  I start to wonder if what I’m doing is actually theft twice over, because neither Bert nor the band has said I’m free to rip it into iTunes.  But then again, does my giving it all back to him – the same day and no questions asked – absolve me?  Does copyright theft even compare to original theft of the actual goods?  And should I tell him that I copied the disks before giving them back to him?  Would that taint his enjoyment of them forever?

I pack up the boxes and head for the second time that day to the home of someone who 12 hours before was a complete stranger to me.  He answers the buzzer right away and again, I walk up the stairs.

“You were right about the car,” he tells me as I approach the door.  “The back window was smashed in and my blue overnight bag is missing.”

“My wife found these near where I found your suitcase,” I tell him, holding up the CDs.

He takes the Oasis box and holds it between his fingers as delicately as if it were made of fine crystal.

“My God,” he says. “I thought it was gone forever.  This album is almost like a holy relic to me…. Uhh…wait here.”

He disappears into his apartment and I can hear him rummaging around.

“I’m not much of a connoisseur, but if this is anything it’s to say thanks for all that you’ve done for me today.”

I laugh a little awkwardly and take the bottle of wine, telling him it’s nothing, really, and that I’d hope that if something like that ever happened to me, that someone out there would do the same.

And that was that.  Haven’t seen him since.


Hamburg construction site to be a world-class landmark

At least that’s what the city of Hamburg is hoping its new concert hall will be: an iconic structure to rival the Sydney Opera House in sweep and grandeur.

For now, the immense brick and concrete mass jutting out into the harbour of this northern German city at the mouth of the Elbe is a tangled mess of scaffolding, cranes, support beams and butt cracks – nothing unusual as concrete gets poured and sets the same way all over the world.

Nothing unusual about the tangled mess of financing it has become, either.  We taxpayers are going to be on the hook for upwards of a half-billion euros by the time the first violin string is heard in 2013, a cost explosion that’s pissing off Hamburg citizens no end as we ride along crumbling streets dodging the potholes, witness cutbacks at daycare centres, schools and other social services, and on and on.

But there’s no turning back.  It’s going to be there, it’s going to be stunning, and it’s a must-see – not just for the architecture itself but for the new vantage point upon what Germans call Germany’s most beautiful city.  Especially when compared to Frankfurt.

I got a look behind the scenes at the work in progress on a tour with 25 colleagues the other day.   After signing papers saying we knew we were entering a construction zone and the dangers involved, and agreeing not to make any audio or video recordings or pee in any corners, we donned gumboots and hard hats and set off for the walk along the quay to the site.

The first thing you see is the first rows of what will be nearly 1,100 huge one-tonne glass panels, each one individually curved in a random pattern to give the impression of choppy seascapes, and shaded with patterns of miniscule round dots for protection from the sun.

It’s so huge, it took nearly three hours to see it all, but it may have been because we lingered so long at the midpoint: a wide, open space several storeys above ground that anyone will be able to enter without so much as a ticket.  You’ll get there by stepping at ground level upon a long, sloping escalator similar to those long causeways we now take for granted at airports.  At the top of the escalator you’ll step out at the west end, where the building juts out to its narrowest point.

From there you can hang out and enjoy the view in any direction, go to a restaurant, check into the hotel, settle into a seat at one of the three concert halls, or simply head home –  if you’ve got the bucks to already put a down payment on one of about 45 flats that will be selling for about €17,500 a square metre in what will be the city’s highest living spaces.

What will make the huge public space unique is that it will be a wide-open sandwich slice half-way up the building.   The lower half is actually a reinforced refurbishment of an old brick warehouse.  As you walk around the open public space – for now a stark jumble of dangling wires, stacks of insulation, piping and cement mix – you will be able to walk under and around what looks from below like a concrete soup kettle to feed 1.5 million – with leftovers.  That’s the underside of the main concert hall, and it’s going to remain bare and white, a stark reminder of the building’s main function.

The open middle space is quite windy, though, and on stormy days I wouldn’t be surprised if they have to close it off.  Either that or have ropes along pathways so you can keep from getting swept away into the river. 🙂

Err, umm, speaking of which, I should mention that when one of our group asked if they’ll let just anyone go up there to hang around if they’re worried about terrorism, our guide said they’re already thinking not of terrorism, but that because it’s such an open space – with very little in the way of barriers and with such a huge drop-off to the water below – that it will become a magnet for jumpers much as the Golden Gate Bridge has sadly become.

Moving right along…

Up and around, through a wide doorway, suddenly you’re standing on stage – or the area that will be the concert hall’s stage.  Though you’re looking right now at its raw concrete and metal skeleton,  your jaw drops – it took my breath away – just looking at the scale of the 2,160-seat main hall.

Pulling ourselves away from the open space we walked the steps up another dozen or so floors – where the apartments will be – to the highest point.  For the first time I saw the entire sweep of the lower Elbe from the harbour all the way down to Wedel, my usual cycling target about 20km away.  It’s an amazing sight and one I won’t forget soon.

Anyone can take tours if they book far enough in advance.   Hint-hint, people! You don’t reeeeaaaallly want to meet up this year in Frankensteinfurt, do you?


This story smells like the south end of a bull facing north

When someone tells a story that just reeks of urban legend, I want to call bullshit.  Problem is, it was a colleague, and she told it as an aside in front of a half-dozen people at a meeting, so I didn’t want to put her on the spot.  She swears it’s true, though like all urban legends, it sounds vaguely familiar.

A man and a woman are at a party in Winterhude, a wealthy area of Hamburg.

They get up to leave and the woman notices that her purse has been stolen.

They go home.  Two days later, they get a phone call from a man who introduces himself as Dr. So-and-so, who apologises profusely for his wife.  “She’s a kleptomaniac, you see.  This has happened before, and she’s getting psychiatric treatment, but sometimes she falls back.”

He then invites the man and his wife to come pick up the handbag and have a glass or two of champagne with him at a restaurant as a small gesture of goodwill.

The couple accept the invitation, but upon returning home with the handbag discover that in their absence, their house has been robbed clean.

Maybe it IS true.   Con artists are pretty good at what they do, and even the police have tricked fugitive criminals into showing up to receive contest prizes, but you can pick so many holes in this story.

A case for


What is this crap?

Well, on second thought, never mind…


10 more facts and opinions about Canada

Today, July 1, 2009 is the 142nd birthday of the world’s second-largest nation. As a follow-up to last year’s wildly successful Canada Day post in which 10 facts and opinions about Canada were displayed for your elucidation, delectation, dissection and desecration, we bring you:

10 more facts and opinions about Canada.


  1. Lyin’ Brian Mulroney, much-detested former Prime Minister who took six years to declare to tax authorities that he took nearly a quarter-million dollars in cash in secret hotel meetings from a businessman now awaiting extradition from Canada to Germany to face charges of fraud, bribery and tax evasion, comes by his nickname honestly.
  2. Canola, another name for rapeseed, is a Canadian invention. I always thought it meant “because in the late 70s we became too politically correct to refer to something by its real name, so had to invent something stupid to replace it” but now I hear it actually means CANadian Oil, Low Acid.
  3. Two Canadians are whalin’ the tar out of each over over a bottle of beer. That’s MY brewski, eh? says the first Canuck. No way, eh? That’s MY brewski, says the second, but now ya got yer backwash on it, ya can have it. The first one takes and hauls off and pounds tha livin’ be-jeesus out of the second, the second grabs a chair and wings it half-ways ta breakfast across the bar but hits a moose mounted on the far wall instead. Moose wakes up and says: hey you guys, knock it off, eh? The hockey game’s on in five minutes. They turn to each other and say, gee, sorry. You OK? Yeah, I’m all right.
  4. That also passes for humour in Edmonton, Alberta.
  5. The Canadian Flag depicts the Maple Leaf in the centre flanked by two red rectangles. The rectangles are the exact size and shape of a case of 12 Molson’s stubby bottles when observed from the side.
  6. Manitoba, a province many are happy to say they no longer inhabit, used to have the following road sign every 10 miles: Keep heading west until you hit BC. Nothing to see here.
  7. In the other direction it said: Turn around! BC’s the other way!
  8. I’ve been to Winnipeg.
  9. Way too often.
  10. Last year’s list was better.

This post was not sponsored by VIA Rail, Canada’s national passenger rail service. Choose VILE. You’ll wish you’d flown.

The banner photograph shows the town of Britannia Beach, BC, Canada, where I grew up. It's home. But I don't live there anymore.

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