Down and out across Switzerland

Zürich Hauptbahnhof, yesterday.

Clean-shaven, showered, red backpack from Canada on one shoulder, pulling a new suitcase along on its smoothly running wheels and extendable handle, clean white short sleeved shirt, blue jeans, black leather shoes.

Not your image of a homeless man?

I approached the station´s Bahnhofshilfe (train station assistance) office and inquired if the lady on duty this day had a list of homeless shelters and soup kitchens.

Her facial expressions deserved to be captured on film.

I was asking about free lodging?

Why was I doing that?

I feigned embarrassment.

“It´s a long story”, I said.

What to her at first glance seemed just an ordinary traveller now seemed less worthy of her attention and politeness.

She found a brochure from the bowels of her desk, brusquely handed it to me then closed the counter window separating her office from the public.

Her body language was clear:

Be gone from my presence.

In Basel, earlier yesterday morning, at the Hilfe office there, I was handed a booklet filled with addresses and contact information by a woman eager to serve anyone and everyone.

Was the Basel woman truly representative of Basel’s feelings towards the poor?

Was the Zürich woman accurately representing the mind set of Zürich regarding the homeless?

My research has begun.

Looking back at my own travels it has always seemed to me that the richer an area the less compassionate its people.

But am I right to think like this?

Switzerland is one of the richest countries in the world.

Is this lack of compassion true of its citizens?

How does Switzerland view and treat its less fortunate?

Are the poor truly victims of circumstance or is there help available should one so choose?

Are the poor in Switzerland voluntarily poor in a country where they don´t have to be?

Is Switzerland´s attitude different towards its native Swiss poor as opposed to the foreign homeless among them?

Can a person survive moneyless in Switzerland?

Are the poor viewed differently in different cities?

Do attitudes change depending on the language spoken?

More and more I find myself compelled to find out.

My blog, born 5 days short of a month now, a gift from two wonderful friends, has inspired latent desire to write.

I have no illusions.

Just like very few individuals become famous in music or film, I have keen awareness that very few wordwrights become Steven King, George Orwell or Ernest Hemingway.

The vast majority of writers write when they can when not otherwise occupied with other employment.

Few make a living from their writing.

Fewer still become household names.

Then, why bother?

Because it´s the guilt I feel when I don´t write that defines me more than the actual amount of what I have written.

This blog has meant a lot to me as I am exploring what I am passionate about, am learning how to write for an audience not just for myself and the daily discipline is crucial for honing my craft.

Writing about poverty in Switzerland has been inspired by reading that has captivated me (Jack London´s Children of the Abyss, George Orwell´s Down and Out in Paris and London, etc) and two Swiss men, Henri Dunant and Bruno the Bahnhof beggar of St. Gallen.

Henri Dunant is well-known as the founder of the International Red Cross and one of the two winners of the first Nobel Peace Prize.

What is not so well-known is that as a result of being an unsuccessful businessman he was forced to leave Geneva and ended up poor and destitute on the streets of Paris, then various other European cities until he settled in Heiden and lived in a hospital and nursing home the rest of his life.

Despite his accomplishments as a social reformer, he made the unforgivable sin of being a bad businessman and was socially crucified for it.

Bruno the Bahnhof beggar, of whom I have written about in Facebook postings, pre-blog, is one of the gentlest beggars I have ever encountered in my travels.

Rumour has circulated around Starbucks Bahnhof that he once was a wealthy man who, for reasons unknown, was reduced to begging for a living and sleeping rough.

As I type these words, I know that my life by comparison is truly a life of luxury, for which I am grateful, but the need to understand what life is like for people like Bruno drives me.

And maybe by writing about this I might, in my own small way, make others think about poverty amongst ourselves.

A big project perhaps but my curiosity is bigger.


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