Through the looking glass

Everyday there are constant reminders of the difference between how we are perceived and how we perceive ouselves, between one´s reputation and one´s self-image.

Yesterday I dropped into St. Gallen for a day of “Adam is good to himself today”.

Chatted with Starbuck´s colleagues, had a meal and a movie with my good friend Adrian, bought things I didn´t need with money I shouldn´t have spent.

Yep, not too shabby a day at all.

Three events within this day have got me thinking…

I spoke with Nathalie, my SB colleague.

Her brother Patrick is a genius in regards to turning electronic ugly ducklings into post-modern beautiful swans…

In other words, he creates on-line “images” that enable a person to present themselves in the best possible light.

This got me thinking:

How different are people´s ideas about me from the way I view myself?

Also at SBs I met, for the first time, my colleague Sonam´s friend Dawa, a very vivacious, intelligent, beautiful young woman.

She candidly gave me her first impressions of myself as being “funny” and “cool”.

This surprised me for my humor tends to be ironic and occasionally self-deprecating, while I always considered myself to be nerdy like the guys on the popular sitcom The Big Bang Theory (minus their genius intellects) rather than “cool” like the Fonz on that very old sitcom Happy Days!

The third moment was seeing the movie Ted 2 at the Scala Kino.

It was my second movie in a cinema in the past two months (the other was Spy seen in Oxford).

Neither movie impresses one with great plot, intelligent dialogue or a positive image of Americans.

This morning, I crawled out of bed and looked at my unshaven, unshowered self and I pondered…

This is how I see myself.

What is it like on the other side of the looking glass?

Ute asked me this morning about last night´s movie.

Without thinking, I responded that it certainly gives a black eye to Americans’ image.

So I wonder…

Are movies like Spy and Ted 2 really how America sees itself or wants to be seen?

What follows is a paraphrase of Mark Hertsgaard’s The Eagle´s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World

“For most people around the world, America is more a mental image than a real place.

America: a place that is very rich and shoots lots of guns –

It´s not the most sophisticated analysis, but it´s a fair shorthand for how the United States is seen by many people around the world.

Friend or foe, rich or poor, foreigners tend to fear America for its awesome military might even as they are dazzled by its shimmering wealth.

Americans see themselves as decent, hard-working people who wish the rest of the world well and do more than their share to help it.

They are proud of their freedom and prosperous way of life and they understand why others would want the same.

They would rather avoid foreign entanglement, but they will use force if necessary to oppose injustice and protect freedom for themselves and others.

They know they have their shortcomings like anyone else, but they believe they live in the greatest country in the world.

Foreigners aren´t always right about America, far from it, but neither are they just embittered fanatics, or jealous of American money, or resentful of US power, or animated by any of the other simple explanations that mainstream American pundits and politicians have advanced as substitutes for honest self-examination.

Most foreigners are sophisticated enough to see both the good and the bad about the United States.

Which is why Americans can learn from their perceptions, if they choose to.

Foreigners can see things about America that natives cannot.

If there ever was a time when Americans needed such perspective, it´s NOW.

To foreigners, there is no contradiction between criticizing the US one minute and praising it the next.

In fact, America´s dialectical qualities are part of what makes it so fascinating.

One way or another, foreigners can hardly avoid forming opinions about the US.

Wherever they look, America is in their face.

American movies, TV, music, fashion and food have captivated us, especially its most important export: its consumer lifestyle and the individualism it promotes.

The Internet, computers and other high-tech gadgets revolutionizing daily life all over the world either originated in the US or find their fullest development there.

America´s nuclear arsenal has held life and death power over humanity since the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

The US economy has been the world´s main engine of growth and innovation and it remains the “buyer of last resort” whose imports spell the difference between recession and prsoperity for rich and poor nations alike.

America receives a disproportate amount of coverage from news media around the world, reinforcing foreigners’ sense of living always in the eagle´s shadow.

Americans not only don´t know much about the rest of the world, they simply don´t care unless terrible events involving them force their attention.

Only 15% of Americans have passports.

Americans lack the sense, so common on other continents, that foreign peoples with different languages, cultures and beliefs live just over the next ridge or river.

Yes, the US shares borders with Mexico and Canada, but many Americans view their neighbours as honarary, junior Americans, welcome as long as they know their place.

(I grew up in French Canada and I rarely met an American tourist who attempted to speak a single word of French.

I remember having breakfast in a cafe in Quebec City and overhearing an American couple who when paying their bill asking the waiter:

“How much is that in REAL money?”.

For many Americans, money has only one colour: green.

For them, multi-coloured currency reminds them of the board game Monopoly.)

Americans have the franchise on pariochialism and self-centredness.

Problem is they are parochial and self-centred at the same time they are the mightest power in the world.

What their political, military, economic, cultural and scientific institutions do has a decisive influence on the lives of people everywhere on Earth, but “with great power comes great responsibility”.

Americans’ indifference to the world bothers me, because it seems wrong to have so much power over others and not care more about how it gets exercised or how this is perceived by the other six billion people who share the planet.

As a people forever fixated on the promise of a better tomorrow, Americans are barely familiar with their own history, much less anyone else´s.

If Americans want a healthy relationship with the rest of the world, they need to understand who these people are, how they live, what they think and why.

45% of humanity lives on less than $2.00 a day.

1 in every 5 human beings subsists on $1.00 a day, a level of poverty which makes hunger and illness frequent companions.

35,600 children die EVERY day from starvation.

With only 5% of the world’s population, Americans are responsible for over 25% of humanity’s environmental footprint.

1 in every 4 humans on the planet is Chinese.

Chinese outnumber Americans more than 5 to 1, but the average American consumes 53 times more goods and services.

In China, there is one car for every 500 people.

In America, there is one car for every two.

America may be protected by two oceans and the mightest military in the world, but as world events continually show they are not untouchable.”

More choices and challenges face us in a world that becomes more uncertain every day.

It is contradictory to be so powerful and yet remain so naive.

It is damaging to be ignorant of the rest of the world yet act in a certainty that you know what´s best for the world.

I am always so amazed when I think of my own travels in America how a country can be so open and generous yet have foreign policies that are so domineering.

Caring about the world is not charity.

It is in America’s self-interest.

Them and us: points of view

Young men and women have been, and will continue to be, fighting and dying in the Middle East, and though they do so in the names of their home nations, I wonder if they really understand WHY they are doing so.

In the Gulf War and the War with Iraq and the War in Afghanistan, did any of the soldiers wonder why other folks were shooting at them?

I have never served as a soldier.

I lacked the ability to willingly follow orders unquestionably in arenas of death and destruction, blood and sweat, tears and terror.

I respect their ability and willingness to do so, but I pray for the day when a peaceful planet makes the job of a soldier obsolete.

What follows is a combination of my own observations, as well as a paraphrasing of Bernard Lewis’ The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror, written in the hopes that those who read these words will keep an open mind and try to see their opinions from other points-of-view.

Former US President George W. Bush, current US President Barack Obama and other Western politicians have taken great pains to make it clear that the war in which we are engaged in a war against terrorism – not a war against Muslims, who are urged to join us in this struggle against our common enemy – the forces of Al Qa’ida and ISIS.

For them, their message is the opposite.

This IS a religious war, a war for Islam against infidels, and against the great powers in the world of the infidels.

In his pronouncements, Osama bin Laden (Remember him?) made frequent references to history.

His historical allusions seem obscure to many Westerners, especially North Americans.

But they were immediately understood by Bin Laden´s intended audience within the context of Middle Eastern perceptions of identity and against the background of Middle Eastern history.

The very concepts of “history” and “identity” require redefinition for the Westerner trying to understand the contemporary Middle East.

In North America, the phrase “that´s history” is commonly used to dismiss something as unimportant, of no relevance to current concerns.

Despite an immense investment in the teaching and writing of history, the general level of historical knowledge in North American society is embarrassingly and abysmally low.

Muslim peoples, like everyone else in the world, are shaped by their history, but unlike us, they are keenly aware of it.

Their awareness dates back to the advent of Islam, in our calendars, the 7th century.

Islamic history, for Muslims, has an important religious and legal significance, since it reflects the working out of Allah´s purpose for His community – those that accept the teachings of Islam and obey its law.

Since the beginnings of Islam, the Muslim peoples have produced a rich and varied historical literature.

But when we talk of “history”, we need to ask “a history of what?”.

In the Western world, the basic unit of human organisation is the nation.

In the Americas and Europe, “nation” is synonymous with “country”.

But what exactly IS a nation?

It is one thing for a people by united consensus to form their own nation over time and struggle.

It is entirely a different matter when superpowers form a nation around you.

For us, we see nations subdivided in various ways, only one of which is religion.

Muslims, however, tend not to see nations subdivided into religions.

Muslims see a religion subdivided into nations.

Osama bin Laden, in his videotape of 7 October 2001, spoke of “the humiliation and disgrace that Islam has suffered for more than 80 years”.

Western journalists scrambled to their history books searching for something that had happened more than 80 years ago and came up with various answers.

Bin Laden´s Muslim listeners – the people he was addressing – understood his allusion immediately and its significance.

In 1918 the Ottoman Sultanate, the last of the great Muslim empires, was finally defeated, its capital Istanbul occupied, its sovereign held captive and much of its territory partitioned between the victorious British and French empires.

The Arabic-speaking former Ottoman provinces of the Fertile Crescent were divided into three new entities, with new names and frontiers.

Two of them, Iraq and Palestine, were under British mandate.

The third, under the name of Syria, was given to the French.

The French subdivided their mandate into Lebanon and Syria.

The British, using the Jordan River as the line between west and east, began calling the east Jordan and the west retaining the name Palestine.

The Arabian peninsula, consisting largely of barren and inaccessible deserts and mountains, was at that time thought not worth the trouble of taking over, so its rulers were allowed to retain a precarious and limited independence.

The Turks, eventually succeeded in liberating their beloved Anatolian homeland, not in the name of Islam, but through a secular nationalist movement led by an Ottoman general called Mustafa Kemal, better known as Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey.

One of Atatürk´s first acts, in November 1922, was to abolish the Sultanate.

Problem is the Ottoman sovereign was not only a Sultan, the ruler of a specific state, he was also widely recognized as the Caliph, the head of all Sunni Islam, and the last in a line of rulers that dated back to the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, and the appointment of a successor to take his place as religious and political head of the entire Muslim state and community.

During Islam’s 13 centuries, the Caliphate had gone through many trials, but it remained a powerful symbol of Muslim unity and identity.

Its disappearance, under the double assault of foreign empires and domestic modernists, was felt throughout the entire Muslim world.

Many Muslims are still painfully conscious of this void, which Al Qa’ida and ISIS seek to fill.

Most of the nation-states that make up the modern Middle East are relatively new creations, left over from the era of Anglo-French imperial domination that followed the defeat of the Ottoman empire.

Even their names reflect their artificiality.

Iraq was a medieval province with borders very different from those of the modern republic.

Syria, Palestine and Libya are names from classical antiquity that hadn´t been used in the region for a 1,000 years or more before they were revived and imposed, with new and different boundaries, by Europeans in the 20th century.

Algeria and Tunisia do not even exist as words in Arabic.

The same names serve as both names for the countries as well as the names for their capital cities.

There is no word in Arabic for Arabia.

Present-day Saudi Arabia is spoken of as “the Saudi kingdom” or “the Arab peninsula”.

Many Arabs simply do not think in terms of combined ethnic and territorial identity.

The Caliph Umar is quoted as saying to the Arabs:

“Learn your genealogies.

Do not be like the local peasants who, when they are asked who they are, reply: “I am from such-and-such a place.” ”

Until the 20th century, when European concepts and categories became dominant, Islamic soldiers, officials and historians almost always referred to their opponents not in territorial or national terms but simply as käfir (infidels).

They never referred to their own side as Arab or Persian or Turkish.

They identified themselves as Muslims.

The Gulf War of 1991, in the common Western perception, was launched by the United States and a coalition of allies to free Kuwait from Iraqi conquest and occupation and to protect Saudi Arabia against Iraqi aggression.

But the perspective of viewing this war as American aggression against Iraq is widely accepted in the Islamic world.

As the memory of Saddam Hussein´s attack on Kuwait fades, attention is focused on the American allied invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, American and British planes patrolling the skies from bases in Arabia, the suffering of the Afghani and Iraqi peoples and the perceived American bias in favour of Israel – a state, in Islamic eyes, imposed and maintained in the Middle East by Western empires since 1949.

The presence of non-Islamic bases in the Islamic Holy Land of Arabia, the site of its holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, is considered by many Muslims to be an abomination.

The invasions of Iraq, the centre of the Islamic world and the scene of its major achievements and its capital Baghdad, the seat of the Caliphate for half a millennium, is also considered to be abominable.

The Qur’an speaks of peace as well as of war.

Hundreds of thousands of traditions and sayings attributed, with varying reliability, to the Prophet and interpreted in very diverse ways, offer a wide range of guidance, of which the militant and violent interpretation of religion is only one among many.

Significant numbers of Muslims approve of this interpretation.

Very few apply this interpretation.

Sadly, terrorism only requires a few.

Make no mistake.

The murder of innocent civilians will never be seen by my eyes as either honourable or justifiable, regardless of the motive behind them.

That being said, I do believe that we in the West need to consider that there are other points-of-view other than our own.

There is a tendency in the West to believe that we are on the side of right and that it is only a matter of time before the rest of the world comes to this same self-evident realization.

We are hurt and confused when others do not react in a heartfelt welcoming way to our banners of good will and democracy.

Imagine if I came into YOUR house and began to impose MY way of thinking, MY values, MY rules upon YOUR household, with no regard for YOUR history, YOUR culture, YOUR needs, YOUR opinions, YOUR feelings, because they are so alien to MY perspective thus I reject them, even though MY intentions are noble and well-meant, exactly how would YOU react to MY invasion of YOUR home?

Would your reaction be one of acceptance and composure?

Or might some members of your household feel royally pissed off?

We in the West can no longer afford to be ignorant and naive.

We need to make an effort to truly become a global community by actively discovering what we can, about ourselves and others, culture and history, as soon as possible.

You can never defeat an enemy if you do not understand him.

You can never unite a world if you do not see perspectives beyond your own experience.

Perhaps the sooner this is learnt, then perhaps fewer people will die as a result of this huge chasm between us.

The need to understand

With rare exception almost every Westerner remembers where they were and what they were doing when the planes struck the World Trade Center in New York City on 11 September 2001.

I remember being at a teaching colleague´s home near Bad Krozingen discussing work when one of her friends called her up and told us to watch TV…


There were, and still are, no words to describe this unspeakable act – over 3,000 people killed by less than a dozen men.

To witness this moment and then return back home to Freiburg im Breisgau to see a small crowd of young Muslims celebrating this horror and burning US flags in the streets and around Bertholdsbrunnen completely mystified me.

For the West, especially the United States, modern history is divided between before 9/11 and after 9/11.

Every American recalls his / her feeling when it was announced that Osama bin Laden had been found and killed.

Before and since 9/11, attacks of a similar nature from around the world, on a far-too-regular basis, continually emerge: the London bombing, the Madrid bombing, the Bali nightclub, the attack of Ottawa’s Parliament Hill, the Tunisia beach attack…

…and the list seems to go on and on and on.

One good friend of mine in St. Gallen half jokingly remarks that America is attacked because its enemies…

“They hate our freedom.”

Is he right?

Is he wrong?

I have been trying to understand what exactly is going on inside the mind of these attackers, why they (Al Qa’ida / ISIS) would do such violent acts and also try to seek some sort of comprehension of just how different their ideas are from ours, how such attackers attract followers, so that perhaps some solution might be proposed to deal judiciously with these attackers and their grievances.

Been reading two books in my collection, I bought after 9/11 during my days in Freiburg, of great interest to me on this subject and that might interest others too:

The Eagle´s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World by Mark Hertsgaard

The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror by Bernard Lewis

I will let you know what I find and eagerly look for an opportunity to discuss things…

Bodies on the beach

Let´s talk about what we struggle to discuss, what we find difficult to comprehend…the Tunisia beach attack.

24-year-old student Serfeddine Rezgui was shot dead by Tunisian police after he attacked a beach of international Western tourists killing, at last count, 39 people.

His bullets did not distinguish between nationalities as unarmed vacationing Brits, Germans, Irish, Belgians and Portuguese fell in his furious slaughter.

There are no words to describe the devastation Rezgui caused to many families and friends connected with the fallen.

For Brits this was the worst attack on British citizens since the 2005 London bombing.

For Tunisians, this 7-minute attack on the beach, outside Souase´s Imperial Marhaba Hotel, on the resort island of Djerba, follows the March memory of the Tunis attack at the National Bardo Museum. 21 tourists and a policeman died as a result.

Tunisia´s livelihood is highly dependent upon tourism.

Since the attack over 2,400 tourists in Tunisia cut their travel plans short and flew home.

By the end of today, another 2,500 will be expected to do the same.

At present, there are 20,000 British tourists presently on vacation in Tunisia.

Since the 2011 uprising of the Tunisian people against the dictator Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali resulted in a more democratic government, Tunisia has found itself increasingly the target of extreme militism and terrorist attacks.

Resorts like Djerba Island are considered legitimate targets because of their open Western lifestyles and tolerance of alcohol.

It seems far too regular a grisly routine to read about yet another attack upon innocent civilians somewhere in the world by some wild-eyed gunman determined to die in a blaze of glory taking as many as he…

(These attackers have tended to be male.)

…possibly can, all in the name of some perverse set of morals and ethics that equate murder as less offensive than the violation of this strange self-imposed code.

It baffles the rational mind how anyone could deliberately murder another person and believe that this murder is justifiable and honourable.

It is very understandable to feel rage and anger towards those that would so deliberately hurt us in such a malicious manner.

It is easy to hate those that hurt us.

In the need for justice (or revenge) there is a tendency to want to lash out and do unto others what was done to us.

Herein lies another dangerous situation, for violence begets violence in an endless cycle that can only be halted by the deliberate decision not to allow the hatemongers to influence our actions.

We cannot consider ourselves to be morally above the fray if we act violently towards those who have done us wrong.

“An eye for an eye” results in all of us staggering around blind.

Karima Benhajj, a young Tunisian woman, part of a wave of protestors against terrorism and violence in the name of religion, said it best:

“The victims of the attack are my brothers and sisters in humanity.”

When a murderer commits a murder and claims he is doing so for God or Allah, or whatever he chooses to call his deity of devotion, he does not truly represent the majority of true practioners of these sacred faiths.

In the vast majority of world religions, the concept of the sanctity of life is one of those precepts that is inviolable.

Individual men make the decision to violate this sacred rule and deliberately manipulate the teachings of holy writ to justify their violation.

Rezgui claimed to represent Islam.

He did not.

He represented the basest beastial nature of “might makes right”, not the teachings of Allah through his prophet Mohammed.

ISIS and Al Qa’ida claim to represent Islam.

They do not.

They represent people intent on acquiring power through violence and terror and use faith to justify their cause.

Most Muslims are not fundamentalists.

Most fundamentalists are not terrorists.

Let us mourn our losses and bury our dead, but let us not give in to terror and fear and hate.

We and they are all brothers and sisters in humanity.

Wheels and the wanderer

Day Two of the Four Points walk, Wednesday 24 June 2015:

Returned back to “Im Kerr” in Merishausen…

(See Alex Supertramp and Canada Slim post of this blog.)

…and once again found myself climbing a steep hill up into an elevated forest heading ever southwards to Schaffhausen.

There are many things about the German language mentality that I like…

There is a tendency to create long words to describe simple concepts:

For example:
“Dampfschifffahrtskapitan”: steam ship captain
“Auslanderbehördeamt”: foreigner registry office

As well, the German language mentality also has the tendency to give one not JUST information, but rather COMPLETE information, whether you sought after it or not.

This is especially evident if you ever have to endure a presentation by one of your German-speaking colleagues.

A North American will spin an idea, then, in some catchy phrase, repeat the idea in this catchphrase again and again until it becomes a mantra in your soul inducing you to buy whatever the idea happens to be.

German speakers will give you a long-winded spiel about the origins of every concept possible in the presentation to the point where the listener has lost any conception of what the presenter´s purpose for speaking originally was.

(Kind of like NOT seeing the trees because of all the forest…)

But, damn it all, you WILL be informed.

Along the Via Gottardo are signs informing the hiker about “Dämmerungszeit” and “Sonnenuntergang” (twilight and sunset) times…

(Great sounding words, eh?)

…as well as “Setzzeit” and “Brutzeit” in the animal kingdom one might perchance encounter.

(My Langenscheidt German-English dictionary stares at me and matter-of-fact says, “Dude, I can´t help you here.”)

I think it refers to the birth and infancy of animals.

As expected, what went up eventually went down.

The path, after leading me behind Redmonds recycling yard and showing me signs that I was entering a “Grundwasser Schutzzone” of the “Trunkwasserung des Stadt Schaffhausen”…

(Sounds official…groundwater preservation zone of the drinking water of the city of Schaffhausen…)

…descended back down to Highway 4 through industrial zonage.

Normally not such a treat for the feet or the imagination, but the one constant I find in my adventures is the tendency to be surprised.

I have never driven anything with a motor in my life…

(I know, I know, damn unusual for a North American male…)

…yet classic cars, what German speakers call “oldtimers”, fascinate me with their shapes and styles they possess.

Garage Germann (a real name, honest) has a old-timer Jaguar collection to make any classic car afficiando salivate.

Somehow Garage Germann has taken upon itself to become a minor Swiss version of the Donington Grand Prix Exhibition (a museum of motor racing cars based at the Donington Park motor racing circuit in Leicestershire, England).

Outside Garage Germann, rows of classic Jaguars recline like cats in the sun, while behind display windows are the true treasures…

– A poster of the 16 May 1948 Grand Prix de Monaco

(Won by Italian Giuseppe Farina in a Maserati;
Swiss driver Emmanuel “Toulo” de Graffenried, also in a Maserati, came 3rd.)

-A Pau roadsign of the 1960 Tour de France

(Though a cycling event, clearly Garage Germann is proud that a Swiss cyclist, Kurt Gummi, won the 11th stage, mountainous terrain between Pau and Luchon, of the race (4, 173 km/2,593 miles).

Gummi completed the Tour de France in 113 hours, 54 minutes and 40 seconds, coming in 22nd place.

Italian Gastone Nencini won at 112 hours, 8 minutes and 42 seconds.)

-A bright blue racecar with the number 88 proudly painted on its doors

(Not certain here whether this represents Dale Eberhardt Jr.´s preferred number #88 for the cars he drives/has driven in NASCAR races…

(Is Eberhardt a name of Swiss origin?)

…or Hal Keck´s #88 Shelby Cobra in the 1964 Greenwood SCAA race near Indianola, Iowa.)

(Is Keck a name of Swiss origin?)

Down the street stands the Durach Sports Centre with its Scorpion Gym…

(Why “Scorpion” for the name of a gym?)

..and the company Helistyle for all your model helicopter needs.

(Gosh, that comes as a relief to know…)

The Via Gottardo then climbed back up a street called Teigecke, through a lovely suburb…

…shared by the local psychiatric centre with its large lawn statue of a scarecrow…

…to finally descend a staircase at Vordersteig 2…

…the birthplace of Carl August Koch (1849-1897), the Swiss inventor of the Sinar professional camera system, (an innovation in photography that created black-and-white photographs of sharper quality and intensity)…

…behind the momentous monument of Johann Conrad Fischer (1773-1854)(the founder of the local Mühlental steel foundry and the first president of Canton Schaffhausen).

It then crosses a busy road, the railroad tracks and meets the Obertorturm (the upper gate tower) to finally embrace the hustle and bustle of the centre of Schaffhausen´s shopping High Street district.

Lunch consumed uncomfortably at the El Sombrero Tex-Mex Restaurant.

The food wasn´t the problem.

Stomach and tastebuds appreciated the taquito, the pollo salsa de mani and a glass of cold aqua de Jamaica, but the waitress…


She: We close at 2.

(It was 1:30.)

Do you know what you want?

Me: I haven´t seen the menu yet, have I?

I felt unwelcome from start to finish.

Ah, it is so good to come back to civilization…

The Last Chance Saloon

The mind loves its little games at times.

It imagines things that cannot be.

It invents ideas that have not been.

It plays and teases with both the conscious and unconscious parts of our self.

Especially when one emerges from the cocoon of slumber the mind still continues to operate in a dreamlike hallucinatory state.

Some psychologists recommend having a pad and pen by your bedside to capture what remnants remain to really find new insight and creativity.

Early-rising first thoughts are pure, uncensored, unfiltered and raw and playfully shake memory and thought together to imagine worlds akin to Wonderland.

To quote Robin Williams: “You´re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn´t lose it.”

It is in this spirit that I now write these words at 0545 in the Landschlacht morning.

My mind shakes several ideas together…

Time and many other magazines every so often produce commemorative issues with titles like “The Year in Pictures”, “Bob Smith: A Life Remembered”, “The Legacy Edition”, etc.

On occasion a special event like a Royal Wedding or an Olympiad will also become excuses to publish special glossy editions of excellent quality rarely shown the rest of the year. (Idea 1)

NASCAR drivers display on their jumpsuits badges that clearly show which companies have sponsored the driver, the car and the assembled team.
(Idea 2)

There exists newspapers for horse racing, for example, the Racing Forum, that analyse the contenders’ chances for winning, using criteria like bloodlines, life history of the horse, previous racing record of both the horse and the jockey, the condition of the track on racing day, and on and on with many miscellaneous details.

These papers have their devotees who follow these minutae with religious intensity. (Idea 3)

Every year the English language acquires another 3,000 to 5,000 new words to itself.

These are words coined by writers, journalists, politicians and celebrities that somehow find their way into ordinary speech and thought.

Sometimes these words previously existed but someone somehow invented a new meaning for them that captures new ideas. (Idea 4)

When travelling on a German Autobahn one encounters signage that indicates how far it is until the next gas station.

Similar signs also exist in North America before driving into isolated areas with cheerful warnings like “Last Gas for 200 miles”.

Gambling cities and frontier towns will often have establishments with names like “Last Chance Saloon” as a reminder that it’s your “last call for alcohol” before entering the desert or wilderness.
(Idea 5)

In Russia the voter is rewarded on Election Day with a flower to both thank and show his/her participation in the voting process. (Idea 6)

In the United States presidental elections take place every 4 years.

The next one is in November 2016, but as early as this year of 2015 potential candidates “throw their hats into the ring” and announce their intention to stand for election for the office of the President.

They will spend the next 12 months seeking to be chosen by their party delegates as the two prime candidates to represent the parties in the final fight for the office. (Idea 7)

Australia fines people who do not vote in their election.
(Idea 8)

Now, let´s mix up these ideas in the spin cycle of the mind…

I propose a special publication we could call the Last Chance Saloon.

It would be a commemorative magazine or book that clearly defines every political candidate´s previous record, his/her special interests and sponsors, his/her bloodline and family connections, a record of how he/she previously voted on issues of importance and an assessment of his/her chances in the upcoming election.

It would be a candid, non-biased, non-partisan publication that would spare no feelings, withhold no criticism, and without prejudice express its opinions.

Saloon would represent the idea of a last chance to render a sober decision.

I also propose as an incentive to vote: free alcohol given to the voters when they appear at the election booth.

It would be great…

a shot of whiskey to bolster the courage to vote…

a shot of bourbon to reward the voter for his/her decision to exercise his/her democratic right to vote.

And if the candidate he/she chose to elect turns out to be a bad choice in retrospect, then the voter could, with clear conscience, blame the alcohol for what was clearly NOT a clear-headed decision.

Am I a genius or what?

Alex Supertramp and Canada Slim

“What´s in a name? That which we call a rose
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…”
(William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet)

“Each thing is the same with itself and different from another.”
(Plato, Theaetetus)

“Like the pine trees linin’ the windin’ road
I’ve got a name. I’ve got a name.
Like the singin’ bird and the croakin’ toad
I’ve got a name. I’ve got a name.

And I carry it with me like my daddy did,
But I’m livin’ the dream that he kept hid.

Movin’ me down the highway
Rollin’ me down the highway
Movin’ ahead so life won’t pass me by…
(Jim Croce, “I’ve got a name”)

“There’s nothing to writing.
All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.”
(US sportswriter Walter Wellesley “Red” Smith (1905-1982))

As the very few who know me well can attest, I can modestly say I have lived the Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times.”.

I have travelled many a mile on thumb and foot, lived in a few places and have had my own share of adventures, some similar in nature to more famous folk than myself, some very unique to my own particular person.

In the rare telling of my tales, some people have said to me that I should commit these memories to print so that others might be both entertained and possibly enlightened.

The problem has been that much of what I have experienced has been felt on an extremely deep and personal level making it difficult to form such feelings into words suitable for others to read.

Both the encounters of Day One of my Four Points walk, as well as Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, have inspired me to finally put to paper (and blog) some of the background to these Chronicles and perhaps give you, the reader, some insight as to who your humble writer is.

Krakauer´s bestseller tells the story of Christopher Johnson McCandless, a young man from a well-to-do family, who hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley.

He gave away $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burnt all the cash and identification in his wallet and invented a new life for himself.

(Into the Wild was later produced by Sean Penn into a movie.)

It is a truly understated but powerful moment when McCandless destroys all documents in his possession showing his existence.

He renamed himself Alexander Supertramp.

There were moments on Tuesday, Day One aforementioned, that made me think of McCandless and my own personal history.

Bargen is the northernmost municipality in Switzerland.

It is a farming village and last stop for cheap gas before Germany.

It is farmland and forest, a few buildings and roads, and a river called the Durach, which begins west of the hamlet and flows down to meet the Rhine at Schaffhausen.

On every second mailbox in town one finds a sticker proudly proclaiming participation in an event where four towns named Bargen came together.

(My own search has revealed a Bargen in Bern Canton, in Germany´s Baden and one in faroff Sweden.)

Why not choose a name more original for your town?

I remember during my walking days in Canada I gave an interview to the Stratford Beacon Herald wondering aloud why so many North American towns named themselves after European places rather than use the native names instead.

I have seen both Stratford, Ontario, and Stratford-upon-Avon, England, and despite both having Shakespearean festivals, the towns couldn´t be more different in character.

As much as it is good to respect your ancestral heritage I think a celebration of what makes you individual and unique is far more important.

But I guess for the 300 souls that choose to live in Bargen this name game is not at all a matter of concern.

Identity and its reality don´t seem to worry the folks of Bargen.

Consider the inn Am Krone in the heart of the hamlet.

Bargen could not be more physically or psychologically removed from the sea, yet Am Krone is most definitively a nautical spot.

Anchors, ships´ models, photos of huge oceangoing vessels and sporty sailors, nets, knots, even the wheelhouse of some great ship, boldly proclaim a love of the sea like Bargen is some displaced Davy Jones´ locker or a marooned landlocked island much like the Swiss character itself.

Am Krone is not some sailor´s watering hole, but it chooses to brand itself accordingly.

I walked out of Bargen, 605 metres above sealevel, and climbed hills steeply upwards along the Via Gottardo. A warm day, but not unpleasant, good cool breeze, ideal hiking conditions. I walked happily with a bottle of Brauerei Falken’s (Falcon brewery out of Schaffhausen) Adam und Eva Apfelbier(apple beer), bought in Bargen, in my backpack.

Signage began to appear for the Merishausen Naturlehrpfad (nature learning path) telling those who cared to read about different types of grass, how many hectares of hay it takes to feed your average cow, etc. Even the sheep chewing contentedly at one of the signs seemed impressed!

I descended into Merishausen, population 850, a town rather than a hamlet, but like Bargen, a farming community surrounded by forested hills.

Its only claim to fame, as far as I can tell, is its Pfarrscheune (parish tithe barn) which is listed as a Swiss heritage site of national significance.

Of interest is a lovely fountain with a tiny watermill marking the intersection of Hangstrasse to the Hauptstrasse (main street).

I stumbled across an animated passionate game of local football then followed the pathsigns to the local store/post office.

There I discovered a delicious treat called a bishop´s mitre (Pfaffenhut / Chapeau de cure) a sweet tri-cornered pastry piece of hazelnut heaven.

The Via Gottardo continues to follow Hauptstrasse past three bus stops. The third bus stop (and the one I used to take me back to Schaffhausen) is called “Im Kerr”, named after Kerrstrasse.

(Of course, one of my next projects will be to find out from who or what this street is named.)

Seeing my first name on a beer bottle and my family name on a street sign has made me consider my origins.

When I turned 18 I had a problem…

I wanted to go beyond high school and get myself some higher education, but to do so required something I lacked: a birth certificate.

Of course, I had a name by which I was known in Argenteuil County, a name I hated, for it was a name not only shared by two other boys in my class, but as well the spelling of it was evocative of a character on a TV show which I hated.

(I learned later from my sister that the name had indeed been inspired by the show.)

At the time of my birth my parents gave me a name, but somehow neglected to register it with any government bureaucrat.

And, as any identity thief will tell you, a birth certificate enables a world of other documentation to be possible.

Without one, other documentation like a insurance card or a health card or a passport are impossible – short of paying a Marseilles mafioso type or a Bangkok computer hacker a wheelbarrow full of cash.

To further complicate my life in high school, I was not raised with my biological family,(long story), but instead by a middle aged spinster/homemaker and a retired bachelor, who shared a chaste relationship wherein he allowed her to stay rentfree as long as she did the domestic duties.

(A practice I have learned is not that uncommon in rural areas)

It was not unlike living with a priest and a nun, minus the Catholic vestments!

So, my surname differed from my “father”‘s, as did my “mother”‘s name differ from my own and his.

Try explaining this complex situation when you´re a kid and barely understand it yourself!

To get a birth certificate, I needed to hire a lawyer.

Here was a golden opportunity to name myself whatsoever I deemed fitting.

I thought about sticking with an old Quebec tradition wherein Catholic-raised families registered as a first name all the boys Joseph and all the girls Marie, though these names wouldn´t normally be used off the record.

I thought Joe Kerr was a wee bit too tongue-in-cheek for my liking.

(Or course, Wayne was definitely out of the question as well!)

At that time I did not know my own heritage or roots, so I thought Adam (Aramaic for “red man”) was fitting for someone who was the start of his own generation, Oliver (as in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist)represented the orphan-like status I found myself in, and Kerr (Scottish for “left-handed”) (which by sheer coincidence I happen to be) the only real remnant I had of my unknown past, being my family name.

(There are castles in Scotland called “Kerr Castles” as the staircases are specially built to be defended by left-handed sword fighters.)

(Years later, a Turkish cabdriver in Ottawa would inform me that “Adam” was Turkish for “man”.)

The name was chosen for its initials as well: AOK.

Everything was all right with me(AOK), and A stood for my “father”‘s surname Allard and O for my “mother”‘s surname O’Brien.

(Later adventures would create my “Canada Slim” moniker.)

(Another story for the future…)

Like McCandless, I creat(ed) my own identity, and like McCandless, I found / find myself in adventures of a quite similar nature.

(SPOILER ALERT: minus his fatal final one)

Like McCandless, I possess a strong case of wanderlust and a love of nature.

Like McCandless, I search(ed) for my own sense of self and identity.

If life has taught me anything…

We are who we choose to be.

Borderline Obsessive

It seems to be my destiny to be obsessed with borderlines, both geographical as well as psychological.

I was raised in Argenteuil County, Quebec, on the border of Ontario´s Prescott-Russell County.

Most Canadians live within 100 km of the US border, because the land north of this tends to be unarable (i.e. can´t be farmed as the ground is more stone than earth), so popping over the border to shop less expensively is almost a rite of passage for Canadians.

The US-Canada border remains the world´s longest “undefended” border, though one can notice quite quickly a vast psychological difference between customs officials working the border posts.

I have visited and lived in countries where borders, past or present, have had a great effect on the psyche of those nations.

Witness the impact of the Berlin Wall on Germany, or the Green Line in Cyprus, or the military zone separating the two Koreas.

I will never forget taking a tunnel tour on the Korean border where one comes to a narrow, neon-bright section to see a South Korean soldier standing with his back to the border.

Less than 50 metres behind him, his back also to the border but facing the opposite direction, a North Korean soldier stands guard.

50 metres apart, both speak the exact same language, but should they speak with one another they will be shot to death for treason.

I have lived in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, close to the French border; in Lörrach, Germany, close to the Swiss border; Osnabrück, Germany, close to the Dutch border; and Landschlacht, Switzerland, close to the German border.

And always these bordering countries acted like irresistable magnets on my soul.

I have spent many a happy day exploring Alsace, Basel, the Netherlands and Konstanz.

Perhaps my brain is directly wired to the mentality of “the grass is always greener on the other side”.

On Tuesday, I exercised this borderline compulsion to full effect as the commencement of my Four Points Switzerland project.

As previously written in this blog, I want to explore Switzerland slowly on foot to discover the land both geographically as well as socially.

The project, constantly a work in progress in both its planning as well as implementation, will have me walk from one extreme geographical point of Switzerland to the three others – the northernmost to the southernmost, etc.

The northernmost point of the Swiss compass is Oberbargen´s Grenzstein (border stone marker) at 47 degrees, 48 minutes, 25 seconds.

From this exact point, it is possible to follow the Swiss National Trail, Via Gottardo, all the way to the southernmost point, Pedrinate, Chiasso, Ticino, on the Italian border, a distance of 330 km or 20 days of walking.

The border between the modern states of Germany and Switzerland extends to 362 km, mostly following the High Rhine River between Lake Constance (Bodensee) and Basel. The Oberbargen Grenzstein stands on the border of the canton of Schaffhausen and the state of Baden-Wurttemburg.

To begin this great project I took a train from Landschlacht to Schaffhausen, Schaffhausen canton capital.

(Of the 26 Swiss cantons, 14 canton names are also the canton capital city names.)

Women, of all ages, fashion types and sizes, dominate Schaffhausen streets in the morning.

Only unemployed or ancient men occasionally make an appearance.

Red helmeted young and fit construction workers unloaded large wooden crates full of metal parts as I dined happily on coffee, orange juice, croissants, nut bread, eggs and fruit.

As Oscar Wilde famously quipped: “I love work. I could watch it all day!”

Tuesday is Market Day in Schaffhausen along Vordergasse.

One stall in particular made me smile with its “Make tea not war.” T-shirts.

A stationery shop´s card rack elicits another grin with a card reading “Shock your parents. Read a book.”.

Bus 23 north to Bargen and the end of the road as public transport goes.

To the border is now all on foot, a 3 km uphill climb to the border and the magic of the Tannbüel Nature Preserve.

Imagine a pine forest interspersed with all sorts of orchids: bright yellow lady-slipper, pink helmut, wild fox, just to name a few of the colourful flora unique to this spot.

Picture a path made of woodchips, and guarded with red and white plastic border tape one might find on a construction site or a crime scene, wending its way through the shadowy forest.

Feel my disappointment in learning that orchid season is a short three-week period in May and long gone by mid-June.

Well, the path did feel nice underfoot but the restrictive trilingual (French/German/Italian) warning tape distracted me from a natural enjoyment of the forest.

Still the path did provoke my imagination and memory…

Don´t stray off the path or you´ll change history.
(“A Sound of Thunder”, a Ray Bradbury sci-fi short story about the Butterfly Effect – kill a butterfly in the past and affect/infect the future.)

Follow the yellow brick road.
(The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum)

Good-bye, yellow brick road.
(Great song by Elton John)

We´re on a road to nowhere.
(Another great song by Talking Heads)

And the fir trees evoke memories of the Second World War…
(Operation Tannenbaum (fir tree or Xmas tree) was the 1940 German plan (never implemented) to invade Switzerland.)

Via Gottardo dances back and forth across the Swiss – German border.

White stone markers delineate each time the border is crossed and recrossed.

I reached the northernmost point of Switzerland at 1415 hours on Tuesday 23 June 2015.

The adventure has begun…

The enemy electronic

Yesterday I wrote a post in this blog asking for feedback, asking for requests as to what should appear in these posts…

Hank Broomfield, an old friend from my youth, (Yes, I had one!), wrote he was satisfied but being the visual guy he is he wanted pictures. (When I figure out how…)

Sumit Panigrahi, another old friend from this Swiss ´hood, now living in my Canadian homeland, suggested that I should cultivate/inculcate the habit of reading books and divert folks away from computer screens, TV, mobile gadgets and electronic books, that I should somehow convince them that bound books are more beneficial than electronic ones and that one should limit one´s use of electronics.

A difficult task, my friend Sumit, and perhaps best tackled by an example from a book itself…

“Since about that time, war had been literally continuous…but to trace out the history of the whole period, to say who was fighting whom at any given moment, would have been utterly impossible, since no written record, and no spoken word, ever made mention of any other alignment than the existing one…

If all records told the same tale – then the lie passed into history and became truth.

“Who controls the past,” ran the Party slogan, “controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”

You could prove nothing.

There was never any evidence.

As soon as all the corrections which happened to be necessary…had been assembled and collated, the original copy was destroyed and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead.

This process of continuous alternation was applied not only to newspapers, but to books, periodicals, pamphlets, posters, leaflets, films, soundtracks, cartoons, photographs – to every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance.

Day by day and almost minute by minute the past was brought up to date.

In this way every prediction made by the Party could be shown by documentary evidence to have been correct.

Nor was there any item of news, or any expression of opinion, which conflicted with the needs of the moment, ever allowed to remain on record.

All history was a palimpsest, scraped clean and reinscribed exactly as often as was necessary.

In no case would it have been possible, once the deed was done, to prove any falsification had taken place…

No other copy existed to contradict it.

Books were recalled and rewritten again and again and were invariably reissued without any admission that any alteration had been made.”
(George Orwell, 1984)

It is far far easier to alter an electronic record than it is to go door to door burning books.(aka Ray Bradbury´s Fahrenheit 451)

A book does not need batteries or a power source.

A book, by its very reality, is far more comforting than a piece of electronica that is only as endurable as its escape from tampering.

But a hard copy once published and printed cannot be altered.

Why look out the window?
Why walk?

Because what is perceived from outside leaves far deeper an impression than anything captured by a screen.

It is as life itself is.

No electronic medium will ever enhance a person to the same degree as the sun upon one´s face, the wind through one´s hair, the perfume of a wild flower.

Electronics might make information gathering faster, but they will never make information gathering as meaningful as a bound book, a view from a window or a walk will.


Lessons from old Europe (and India) to America

Consider the teenager…

Prone to emotion, quick to enrage, quick to find fault, filled with self-doubt, impatient, quick to hate, acting prouder and wiser than actual experience justifies, a dreamer but not much of a thinker, a braggart in victory, overly-sensitive in defeat, a bully who feels might makes right unless it is he being bullied, passionate, excitable, a formidable foe, a fearsome friend…

Now consider the world view of America…

Is there a lot of difference between a teenager and American behaviour?

I cannot fully describe my disappointment in the latest headlines coming out of America of late.

A teenager guns down innocent people inside a Charleston church and rather than the focus of the day being comfort for the loss, or dealing with the insanity of too easy accessibility to weapons, or compassionate discussion of the imbalance that exists between the races on US soil, instead more debate is given to whether the state’s Confederate flag is to blame for this tragedy, or whether the church pastor (also slain) is somehow responsible for this incident because he refused to permit the carrying of firearms inside a House of God.

Almost reminds one of a rape trial where the rape victim is blamed for what she was wearing or for what she said, so this somehow excuses the rapist of his violent attack.

My “favourite” debate to listen to is the argument by the right that this violent attack will compel the government to force legislation taking the guns away from responsible gun owners.

Problem is there seems to be very little sense of responsibility prevalent in America these days.

Cops, who should be the most responsible of all, seem to be repeatedly in the news for gunning down those who encounter them.

British Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling, wrote a poem in 1895, that well-known Indian historian/writer Khushwant Singh claims is the “very essence of the message of the Bhagavad-Gita (Hindu holy book) written in English”:

If (by Rudyard Kipling)

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowances for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don´t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don´t give way to hating,
And yet don´t look too good, nor talk too wise.

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master,
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two imposters just the same,
If you can bear to hear the truth you´ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss,
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds´ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that´s in it,
And – which is more – you´ll be a Man, my son.”

This poem would be a great litmus test for Presidential candidates.

This poem is a great ideal for a country to live up to.

As a man of 50, it often pains me when I see a young person clearly bent on his own self-destruction and know that I am powerless to help him as he is too proud to change his ways.

It saddens the world to see a country as great as what America could be continuing in ways that are destructive to itself and the rest of the world.

America, please grow up, for your own sake.