The other side of Wonderland

US Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump proposes a wall along the US-Mexico border, funded by Mexico, to keep illegal immigrants out of the US.

Greece is uneasy about the recent flood of refugees from the civil unrest happening in neighbouring Macedonia.

Syrian and Iraqi borders are porous and leaking escapees from the ISIS caliphate conquest and Syrian civil war, causing fragile service infrastructures to be on the verge of collapse.

Switzerland’s government and many of the Swiss themselves are unsettled about refugees and foreigners, feeling they threaten the very Alpine air, pure Swiss values and culture, and are a burden upon the economy.

As I read the recent headlines, I am reminded of two movies – one recent and one some time ago – where peoples who are traditionally anti-immigration and xenophobic in nature find themselves in the unexpected role of being refugees themselves.

2004’s The Day After Tomorrow , starring Dennis Quaid and Jake Gyllenhaal, suddenly plunges the US into a climatic disaster.

In the aftermath of flooding, hailstones, hurricanes and an endless Ice Age, American refugees struggle across the Mexican border seeking a better environment for themselves and their children.

This month’s Locarno Film Festival has amongst its contenders, the Swiss film Wonderland.

Switzerland has declared a state of emergency.

A mysterious cloud has appeared out of nowhere and is looming over the country.

It is only a question of time before a hurricane of Biblical devastation breaks out, with catastrophic consequences.

A natural catastrophe?

The great black blot stops at the borders.

Only Switzerland is affected – or rather, punished.

The cloud threatening Swiss security and peace does not come from abroad, but from deepest and most conservative Switzerland.

Switzerland suddenly finds itself on the other side of the barricades as those Swiss who choose to leave their homes seek refuge in a neigbouring country.

The European Union, faced with an exodus of more than a million Swiss, decides to close its borders.

In 2014, 50.3% of Swiss voters accepted the reintroduction of curbs and quotas on immigration.

Switzerland is a country that is increasingly isolated on the European scene and increasingly distrustful of anything different – immigrants above all.

A recent poll, reported upon in 20 Minuten , as well as other media sources, shows that Switzerland is increasingly unpopular amongst ex-pats who view Switzerland as “unfriendly and expensive”.

Wonderland was born of a desire of introspection and reflection on what we Swiss are experiencing…we are part of the problem.

We have lost the ability to forge ties with our neighbours.

By isolating ourselves, by seeing ourselves as a model country and by denying the existence of a problem, we are heading for a collision.”

(Jan Gassmann / Lionel Rapp, Wonderland directors)

Sealing off your homeland is not the solution.

Economically, no land is an island, as most countries cannot survive without trade and commerce beyond national boundaries.

And it is the immigrants who tend to do the jobs the locals will not or cannot do themselves.

Culturally, a land without immigrants is a dry desert void bereft of new ideas and imagination.

We tend to forget that whilst we barricade ourselves from those we don’t understand so thus fear, we also barricade ourselves in with those whose xenophobic right-wing attitudes do us the most harm.

Walls work in both directions.

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Sunshine Sketches of the Wild, Wild East

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?

The Shadow knows.”

This was the catchphrase for the 1930s US radio show, “The Shadow“, as well for the 1994 film of the same name, starring Alec Baldwin and Penelope Ann Miller.

I was reminded of this phrase when driving back to Landschlacht yesterday after hiking in the Pizol mountain region with Ute.

We drove from Wangs, the terminus of the Pizol cablecars, detouring to follow the Lake of Constance from Rorschach westwards to Landschlacht.

To my surprise, Ute related some previously unknown, at least to me, tidbits about the lakeside towns we were passing through.

She had garnered these nuggets of sordidness from the free weekdaily newspapers, 20 Minuten and Blick that I pick up for her whenever I take the trains to/from my places of work.

(I rarely read them myself as a tabloid’s enjoyment tends to be spoiled if one has to constantly check an English-German dictionary for translations.)

Much like, one of my favourite Canadian writers, Stephen Leacock observed, in his Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, there is much under the surface of even the most pristine and boring landscapes.

When one thinks of eastern Switzerland, IF one ever thinks of eastern Switzerland, one tends to view the area as undeveloped, unexciting and uninspiring.

But stroll along the Swiss shore of the Lake using the Shadow’s perspective…

Rorschach: birthplace of Emil Jannings (23 July 1884 – 2 January 1950), the first Oscar recipient and the only German-speaking actor ever honoured with the Academy Award for Best Actor, at the 1929 ceremony.

Best known for his collaborations with F. W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg (including 1930’s The Blue Angel, with Marlene Dietrich), Jannings later also starred in a number of Nazi propaganda films.

(The name of Rorschach is more well-known for Hermann Rorschach’s famous ink-blot psychological test and later the character of the anti-hero Rorschach of Watchmen fame.

Hermann was born in the nearby village of Arbon.

There is no record whether he even visited the town of Rorschach.)

Horn: See that burnt factory over there?

It was the cherished site of many erotic photographs.

Arbon: birthplace of Hermann Rorschach and the place where Irish Saint Gallus who, while preaching here, wrestled with the devil in the form of a bear.

It is also host to an FKK beach (Freikörperkultur)(nudist beach), as well as sex clubs, nightclubs, contact bars and working girls.

Egnach: With its flagpost banners “Egnach!” is supposedly the gang bang capital of Switzerland, according to the tabloids.

Romanshorn: birthplace of Paul Ott, better known as Paul Lascaux, author of the Müller detective series and the founder of the Swiss Crime and Murder Festival.

Kesswil: birthplace of Carl Jung, psychiatrist, psychotherapist and founder of analytical psychology.

One would never guess that beneath the surface of tranquil lakeside hamlets, apple orchards, pastures of cattle and sheep, beneath these quiet communities of solid citizenry lies a shadowy world of great complexity and many shades of grey.

Stephen Leacock would have been greatly amused.

An artistic temperament?

It seems at times that all kinds of odd characteristics and behaviour go with the job of being an artist…

French Impressionist painter Claude Monet (1840 – 1926) was working on a group of winter landscapes.

The pictures were set in very beautiful and spectacular mountainous countryside and featured an oak tree and a river.

Things were not going well at all…

Claude had fallen behind with his painting schedule.

While he was struggling with the changes in the weather, spring had crept up on him and covered the oak tree with leaves.

The bare tree was to have been the main feature in many of the winter landscapes.

So, Claude went to see the local mayor and asked permission to remove the leaves from the tree…

Two men from the local village came with ladders and spent the next two days removing all the leaves from the tree.

A 98-year-old man described seeing Dutch artist Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890) when the artist came to paint in the countryside around his home:

“I used to see him on his knees, holding his hands up to his eyes.

Then he would sway from side to side, tilting his head from one side to the other.”

Vincent would work on a picture, wearing only his underwear and a straw hat and smoking a pipe.

He would sit staring at the picture for a bit, then leap at it, as if he were going to attack it.

Then he would paint two or three quick strokes and sit down again.

Vincent lived and worked in the middle of one huge disgusting and chaotic grotty mess.

He often borrowed his brother Theo’s best clothes then leave them lying around his studio all jumbled up with dirty brushes and wet canvases.

He used Theo’s clean socks to wipe his brushes on.

Sir Stanley Spencer (1891 – 1959) was a British artist who painted lots of scenes from the Bible set in his home village of Cookham and portraying the ordinary people of his own time as the main characters.

He used toilet rolls as sketch pads.

He was fond of pushing a pram (baby buggy) around, containing his bouncing brushes and colours and easel and canvases, which he was transporting to his favourite painting spots.

Stan found the pram’s folding hood particularly useful for protecting his precious paintings from sudden showers of rain.

18th century portrait painter, Thomas Gainsborough painted with brushes that were six feet long, as he liked to stand at the same distance from his canvases as he was standing from his model to ensure absolute accuracy in perspective and proportion.

When he wasn’t doing portraits, Thomas painted marvellous landscapes, but rather than go out to Nature, he brought Nature into his studio – sometimes bringing whole tree branches or farm animals into his workroom.

Forget about a community spirit amongst artists…

Paul Cezanne (1839 – 1906): “A thousand artists should be killed every year!”

Polish artist Tamara de Lempicka (1898 – 1980) thought it quite a good idea to burn down the Louvre to get rid of all the old art in the world.

Tamara and her group of fellow Futurists gathered in a cafe to plot the destruction of the Louvre and only the disaster of having their car, intended for use in the arson, towed away for being illegally parked, saved the Louvre for posterity.

Francis Bacon was very fond of black hair and white teeth, so he regularly coloured his hair with black boot polish and whitened his teeth with toilet cleaner.

The English landscape painter, Joseph Turner, would put in bids for his own pictures at auctions in order to bump up the price.

If anyone tried to watch him when he was painting, he immediately covered up his work so that his techniques could not be copied.

He once had himself lashed to a mast of a ship during a really fierce storm at sea, so that he could carry on sketching the terrible weather conditions without being swept overboard.

Artists have strong ideas about what they wish to achieve and the way they will set about it.

Being a free spirit – sticking to your ideas, come what may – and not following the crowd, even if it means that you are thought of as odd or different by the rest of society, is perhaps an essential part of being an artist.

But where is the line between madness and genius to be drawn?

The Emperor’s New Culture

Fort Worth, Texas, 1989:

We are driving at a furious pace on the interstate.

Another argument ensues between ex-fiancee sculptress Susan and I over artistic responsibility.

I express disgust that one painting, American Barnett Newman’s Voice of Fire, an abstract painting of three vertical stripes – the outer two blue, the inner one red – was purchased by Ottawa’s National Gallery of Canada at the cost of $1.8 million(Canadian).

I argue that if tax dollars are going to be spent on art then the art should at least come with written explanations as to what the artist was trying to achieve and why the Gallery thought it a worthwhile investment.

The Gallery was neither apologetic nor forthcoming.

The Gallery would buy and display what it liked, as it liked, whether taxpayers, who funded the Gallery, liked it or not.

Susan argued that art was art for art’s sake and that the artist need not explain or defend her work.

I argued that if I am paying for something then I am owed an explanation.

Our different philosophies are among the reasons the marriage never takes place.

Ljubljana, Slovenia, 1995:

A packed darkened auditorium, a barefoot man in dressing gown appears on the empty stage and disrobes.

He is the Illustrated Man, covered in tattoos from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet.

While thematic music throbs, lights play upon his body section by section until – crescendo – the audience focuses on the man’s anus within the centre of a bright orb of sunshine.

He is given a standing ovation.

I remain in my seat, confused and bored.

This is art?

Granted the performance was for the raising of AIDS awareness, but is it art?

Oristano, Sardinia, 2015:

A local theatre group gives a post-modern (post-mortem?) Italian-language performance of Dante Alghieri’s Purgatorio (Purgatory) in the garden of the Agri-Turismo B & B, where Ute and I are guests, so, after dinner, we are, of course, expected to attend.

The audience, on lawn chairs or sitting on the grass, is then guided through the seven terraces of Purgatory with a combination of obscure sound-and-light displays, emotional ill-timed monologues, dry ice smoke effects along with laptops and tablets showing flames and other images being held by the actors as part of the performance.

Though I am not conversant in Italian, I am familiar with all three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy, and at no point did I feel a connection or comprehension of what was unfolding before my bewildered eyes.

The audience, including She, rewards the performers with a standing ovation.

I watch astonished and wonder: why am I not sharing their emotion?

Granted these performers acted out their hearts and souls in front of a live audience and should be appreciated for their efforts, but isn’t the point of a performance to capture thought and imagination, feeling and fervor in the minds of its audience?

Smoke and mirrors are shoddy substitute for lost communication.

I am reminded of The Emperor’s New Clothes, a short tale, by Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, about two weavers who promise an Emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid or incompetent.

When the Emperor parades before his subjects in his new clothes, no one dares to say that he doesn’t see any suit of clothes until a child cries out, “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!”

I often think of this tale when I consider modern culture and art.

I wonder if I am simply stupid, or is art less an expression of communication today than it is a clever deception by marketers who make us call something “art” that is unworthy of that description?

Is everything produced by an “artist” worthy of being called “art”?

Does this mean this blog could be called “literature”?

For me, “art”, whether it be literary, musical, theatrical or on display in a museum or gallery, should elicit a response from me, communicate a feeling.

Three stripes on a canvas, colourful though they may be, don’t speak to me, except to impress me with the audacity of being able to generate millions for such simplistic expression.

By confessing I cannot see the clothes for myself, I may appear unfit to comment, or perhaps I remain, at least mentally, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up a pretense.

Poor, naive me…

Sadly believing that sight becomes insight prompting action.

Public dis-service

It never ceases to amaze me just how many people serve the public who are inappropriate for their jobs.

They act as the front lines for their organizations yet represent these organizations in the worst possible light.

They clearly find customers to be annoyances at best and best avoided when possible.

And one sees this in almost every profession where interaction with others is a necessity, whether it be in gastronomy or tourism, government or private sectors, business or entertainment, or in any profession where the good graces and regular custom of others is crucial to the survival of the enterprise.

Granted in the West there is a mindset that exists where the rich expect to be favoured more than the poor because their money makes the servant’s sustenance more possible, but even at these rarified heights can one still find “attitude” amongst those that serve.

It is this “attitude” I have never quite understood, for it is most illogical to “bite the hand that feeds you”.

But visit any government office, for example, and you are treated like horse droppings on a white tablecloth…most unwelcome.

An argument often given to explain this “attitude” is: there is no incentive for the servant to be courteous, as the profits his labor creates don’t benefit him directly.

Even in my home and native land of Canada, one of the most polite societies on the planet, customer service just ain’t what it used to be.

“Please” and “thank you”?

What strange words you utilise!

In Quebec, for the past few decades, tipping is automatically included and expected in a restaurant, regardless of the quality of the service.

Now I know working with customers is not always easy.

I recognize these problems in both my money-generating professions of teacher and barrista, but I firmly believe if the job description entails “public” service, then, as a person who takes pride in how he presents himself to the world, the service person should do his best to give the best possible service he can, a “doing unto others what he would like done to himself”.

He should do this, not because there may be immediate gain from doing so, but rather as a professional whose reputation as a valued member of society is important.

And that is the key word: value.

If I am going to spend time and money, both scarce commodities in limited supply, then I want to know that you are doing your best to earn this time, money and faith in your abilities.

We spend 80% of our adult lives working, yet so many people give less than 20% of their energy and enthusiasm into their jobs.

If you are doing a job you hate, then why are you wasting your time?

At the earliest opportunity, do yourself and everyone a favor and find a job you love instead.

Of the half-dozen tours we took in Sardinia, for example, only one guide showed any real enthusiasm for her job.

When you do what you love, your passion shines through and almost instinctively you produce – quality – , which leads to success, however you define it.

If you are not in your dream job at this moment, then leave behind a reputation of good solid work that you can point to with pride.

Just a dishwasher?

Then be the best dishwasher you can be.

Take pride in everything you do.

For myself, living as an ex-pat in Switzerland, I constantly tell myself that as the sole Canadian my co-workers know or my customers meet, I, in my own humble condition, am a walking embassy, an ambassador for my home and native land.

If the only Canadian people meet is me, then I don’t want to let my fellow Canadians down.

Your folks gave you a name.

Bring pride to that name, both for their sake and your own.

Want respect and love and reward?

Deserve it.

Not as a matter of course for your mere existence, but because you earned it.

Now I know that there are some folks in their present positions because of not WHAT they know but rather WHO they know.

But now that you got the job through networking rather than talent or qualifications, can you then prove yourself as a person who is worthy of that job?

So, you say you are worthy?

Prove it.

The Last Castle

There is an old story, a rumor really, that spread during the 1980s that was meant to discourage promiscuity / slutty behaviour by young ladies.

A young American lady on her last night in Rome decided, in a state of increased intoxication, to allow herself to be seduced by a pair of handsome Italian men, twin brothers, for a night of unforgettable passion and titillation.

After a good time was had by the trio, the brothers graciously drove the young lady to the airport.

Before leaving her at the boarding gate, (Remember those days?) they gave her an envelope and told her not to open it until she was on board the plane.

As the plane’s engines were warming up, she unsealed the envelope to read the message inside:

“Welcome to the wonderful world of AIDS.”

No one ever relates what happened next in the story.

I was reminded of this story when visiting Sanluri with my wife Ute, aka She Who Must Be Obeyed, on our vacation in Sardinia.

One of the biggest towns in the Medio Campidano province, Sanluri is said to be a bustling agricultural centre, but when She and I visited the town of 8,000, it seemed the place had been abandoned.

No one was on the streets.

Cars were parked along both sides of the main street but none moved whilst we were there.

The squat, brooding Castle of Sanluri is situated on Sardinia’s main arterial road – the Carlo Felice – halfway between Cagliari and Oristano (at 30 miles distance from each).

It is the only fully-furnished, habitable medieval Sardinian castle of the eighty-eight castles built on the island.

It was lived in by kings and queens, been silent witness to bitter royal power struggles, ill-kept truces, enervating excesses, rebellions and tragic ends.

It has stored hand weapons, firearms and nuclear armaments, including medieval swords, blunderbusts, Italian Army rifles and airborne torpedoes – a truly eclectic collection of assorted military paraphernalia.

Outside in the garden is a medieval catapult.

Its fabulous collection of wax miniatures is the largest and one of the finest in Europe.

It holds a unique collection of correspondence between a general and a poet, along with a small precious collection of Napoleonic family mementoes, the Italian tricolor which fluttered over Trieste on 3 November 1918, the original Italian Declaration of Victory signed by General Diaz, and mementoes of Italian colonial campaigns.

One event brings the above-mentioned story to mind.

Eleonora of Arborea, the great defender of Sardinian independence, died in 1404. (See Eleanor of Arborea.)

On 30 June 1409, the Infante of Aragon, King Martin I, “the Younger”, of Sicily, landed in Sardinia at the head of an army of 8,000 foot soldiers and 3,000 cavalrymen.

The independent Giudicato (Royal Judgeship) of Arborea was led by Giudice (Judge-King) William III of Narbonne, Viscount of Narbonia.

The Sardinian army of 15,000 infantry and 3,000 horsemen was composed mostly of mercenaries, including the renowned Genoese crossbowmen and other units from France and northern Italy.

There are few details about the Battle of Sanluri.

Martin’s forces, though less numerous, were better trained and managed to divide William’s army into two parts which were then destroyed separately.

The engagement ended at S’Occidroxia (Slaughter Hill) with 5,000 Sardinians slain and 4,000 taken prisoner.

William, deprived of his Standard during the inglorious retreat, took refuge in the neighbouring Castle of Monreal at San Gavino.

The 500 soldiers of the Sanluri garrison who had managed to escape with William to Monreal were slaughtered there.

Inside the fortified village of Sanluri itself much of the population was exterminated by Martin’s conquering troops.

The victorious Martin, though married to Blanche of Navarre, decided to celebrate his victory through a conquest of another kind, the amorous attentions of the Bella of Sanluri.

From 30 June to the wedding of his natural son Frederick to Violante De Perdes on 9 July, Martin spent much of his time carousing with the Bella.

Smitten by malaria and weakened by the Bella’s amorous lethal attention, Martin was transported to Cagliari on 12 July.

Despite the services of four physicians, Martin died there on 25 July.

He is buried in Cagliari Cathedral.

History does not record if the Bella survived, but one woman succeeded at felling a man that 18,000 soldiers could not.

Of the many weapons used in warfare, sex remains one of the most powerful.

An enlightened age?

Perhaps doing a double shift outside alone in the Starbucks Kiosk is not a good thing for me, because it leads me to thinking about things and the way perhaps they should or could be.

I confess the older I get, the more confused I become.

Now while some folks suggest that this is the beginning of the onslaught of senility or dementia, I prefer to think of my point-of-view as a combination of thinking and experience.

This morning I had to clean up the Kiosk terrasse in the wake of a Saturday evening in a big city at the train station.

Alcohol bottles, cigarette butts, leftover fast food and other unmentionable / unimaginable / unidentifiable remnants of the ruins of a night out.

The public trash can is only mere metres away.

Why is it so difficult to transport trash into a litter bin?

I wonder: do these same folks treat their own homes in a similar manner?

The argument has raged for almost an millennium that people should have the right to consume alcohol.

Fair enough.

But does this right then give the drinker the “green light” to drink irresponsibly?

I get that it is a negative notion to control another person’s behaviour, but does this give people “carte blanche” to behave in ways harmful to both themselves and often others?

Stan Lee, the creator of such Marvel Comics classic characters such as Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four, coined the phrase: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

I have seen warhawks in the States proclaim that war is necessary because “freedom isn’t free.”

But where is the code that governs personal behaviour if individuals themselves are lacking of such a code of self-control?

Take smoking, for another example.

How many nations print in bold letters health warnings on cigarette packages?

Yet smoking continues universally, even with higher taxes upon tobacco and higher insurance rates for smokers’ policies.

Certainly legislation has been introduced to reduce non-smokers’ exposure to second-hand smoke, but what about the effects upon the environment?

All of us in westernized countries have become so inured to seeing cigarette butts on the ground that we no longer notice them.

To our jaded eyes, they blend almost seamlessly into the urban landscape, as an expected part of the surroundings.

Cigarette butts are the most common form of litter in westernised nations.

Every second piece of trash, 50% of all that is disposed, is a cigarette butt.

Each year over 4.5 trillion cigarettes end up as litter (over 550 billion in the US alone).

Add cigarette packaging and their cellophane wrappers to the stew and the situation becomes even worse.

It takes a full year for a butt to biodegrade, while the filter component made of cellulose acetate, a form of plastic, never dies.

Butts get into the water supply.

Animals and fish poison themselves on them.

Kids unattended can actually kill themselves by eating them.

Fires are often caused by fling lit butts.

Yet imagine the outcry that would ensue if one tried to ban tobacco.

The public outcry would be heard screamed out to faraway planets!

To be fair I get that for some alcohol and tobacco are addictions, chemically damnably difficult to break.

But I have to ask: where do we draw the line between unthinking destruction of ourselves and our world with the liberty of self-expression?

(Of course, I am not blameless in my own actions.

I do enjoy fast food, but I am not ignorant of the damage done by companies like McDonalds or my own employer.

My only pitiful excuse is that fast food is fast when I have little time to sit down for a properly prepared one.

I also enjoy an occasional beer or glass of wine, but, for some odd reason, seem to be able to walk away after only a glass or two.)

How can we encourage people to actively want to modify their own behaviour without liberty-hampering legislation?

Financial incentives?

More money given to centres that help smokers and drinkers break themselves of their addictions?

Penalties that litterers be fined and forced to clean up their own litter?

I see the value of the right to liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but how can we ensure that some people’s rights are not trampling over others’ rights to a clean environment and an unpolluted future?

My own Starbucks crew, at least half of them are smokers.

Do I want to see them punished for their pleasures?

Of course not.

But do I want to clean up after them?

That is an entirely different question.