Happy Hallowe’en

Hallowe’en (short for hallowed evening or holy evening, because it is the night before All Saints’ Day, November 1) is a strange thing.

Children go outdoors into the darkening streets which they are normally not encouraged to do.

They go door to door to visit strangers that they are told to normally avoid.

They ask for and receive candy, which they are told they are normally not supposed to take from strangers.

Both children and adults dress up in attire suggesting themes of creatures we are supposed to normally be afraid of or dress in ways we might normally be afraid to do.

Hallowe’en sees folks dressed up as things we fear to be fatal to us: vampires, monsters, witches, ghosts and even symbols of death itself like skeletons and such.

As I said, it is an odd occasion that is meant to be fun and frivolity and for most not at all a commemoration of evil as some religious fundamentalists would have us believe.

Now, I know, per usual, I tend to overthink things, but Hallowe’en for me represents something more, something I think that is often uncontemplated when we consider this occasion.

It is a symbol of people facing their fears with farce and folly.

We fear the dark yet we face it on this night.

We fear violence and vulnerability, yet we dress up in attire that is either violent or makes us more vulnerable.

We fear death and our mortality yet we dress up as those very symbols that represent death and mortality.

It is a great pity that the courage we find for one night to mock what we fear is not found the other 364 days and nights of the year.

Imagine a world where we boldly face our fears and see them for the illusions that they truly are.

Imagine a world where we boldly mock what we fear and nonetheless refuse to permit these fears to overwhelm us but instead learn to love the journey of life and find its joys along the way.

Imagine a world where we forget what was done and cannot be reversed.

Imagine a world where we do what we can when we can and let go of what we cannot control.

Imagine a world where we do what we can to create a better tomorrow in the realisation that the future unwritten can never be predicted or controlled.

I love Hallowe’en for its unconscious demonstration of courage.

I hope it never disappears.

Lingua Helvetica: Language(s) in Switzerland

Buy some medicine in Switzerland (if you can afford it).

(And considering how generally the Swiss worry about life far more than they actually seem to enjoy living may be a great reason to run (not walk) to the nearest Apotheke!)

You will see that the instructions (the message in the bottle, so to speak) are written in, at least three languages.

As you reach into your billfold to pay for the medicine, take a gander at the Swiss banknotes.

You’ll see the banknote’s important information written in four languages.

Take a look at the Swiss government website and you will have the choice between five languages (including English).

The population of Switzerland is made up of 65% German-speakers, 18% French-speakers, 10% Italian-speakers and 1% Romansh-speakers.

The German-speaking Swiss media have coined an expression for the imaginary west-east divide between French-speakers and German-speakers: the Röstigraben – fried potato ditch.

The Rösti is a flat pancake-shaped dish invented by the Bernese and symbolic of the slow, dependable and starchy Swiss-German mentality.

French-speakers refer to this divide as Outre-Sarine – those on the other side of the River Sarine/Saane, the river that roughly marks the ditch’s border, as in those who live over on the other side of the River in German-speaking parts are beyond the pale.

In the five years I have been resident in Switzerland I have heard of no term to delineate the German speakers from the Italian speakers, but no term is needed as the Alps serve as a fine fence between the two language groups.

Coexistence of languages in the public sphere is a fact of daily life, yet somehow Switzerland seems to carry on without the tensions and separatist movements that have haunted Belgium and my own home and native land of Canada.

This coexistence has earned Switzerland a reputation for being a successful example of mulitlingualism, but there is a world of difference between reputation and reality.

In theory, German, French, Italian and Romansh are the four official languages existing on an equal basis.

Romansch, as it is spoken only by a few tens of thousands of people, doesn’t have the same status as the other three, so it is often marginalised and forgotten by most of the Swiss.

All laws are published in German, French and Italian, and no linguistic version is supposed to have greater or lesser value than the others.

How does the federal government function with three languages?

After all, you can’t expect all the civil servants or all the members of parliament to be fluent in all of them.

The Swiss solution is that each person expresses him/herself in his/her own language and the others must somehow simply understand the speaker.

If a French-speaking journalist is speaking to a German-speaking politician, the journalist will ask his questions in French and receive his responses in German.

Does this mean then that the Swiss are accomplished polyglots like the Dutch?

No, for the vast majority of Swiss.

If you want to ask for directions in Lausanne and you don’t speak French, try English rather than German or Italian.

In Zürich, a non German-speaking person should try English rather than French or Italian.

Are the big three languages at least treated on an equal basis?

Not at all.

There is a definite hierarchy between them, though everyone denies it is so.

At the bottom of this stack of three are the Italian speakers.

In French-speaking and German-speaking cantons, Italian is only an optional language in school.

Few people actually speak it.

If a Swiss Italian wants to be understood in the federal administration, he won´t speak Italian, but instead he will speak either French or German, depending on which one he has mastered better.

In the middle is French, which is taught in school in German and Italian cantons.

Many Swiss have at least a basic knowledge of French.

At the top of the heap is German.

Nine out of ten federal laws are written in German before being translated into other languages.

German is the language in which most things are done.

This, of course, creates some degree of frustration amongst the linguistic minorities.

With globalisation, English is taking an increasing important role in this linguistic pile-up.

English is the language the Swiss want to learn rather than rack their brains with nightmarish French spelling, chaotic Italian pronunciation or impossible German grammar.

The Swiss resort increasingly to English when they meet, to the surprise of many foreigners.

My wife, a German, will attend a medical conference in Lausanne and the language of discussion will be English, even though most of the participants speak German and the conference is in French-speaking Romandie (the French name for the French side of Switzerland).

And not only because the French speakers and German speakers can´t or won´t speak their counterparts´language, but as well there is a chance that the German speakers might not be able to understand one another!

(A similar problem exists amongst the Romansch.

More on this later.)

Swiss French and Swiss Italian have very few differences with the French of France and the Italians of Italy, but Swiss Germans speak in regional dialects to which they are VERY attached.

These regional dialects are not comprehensible to someone who speaks only the official High German learnt in school.

Swiss German is not a written language, nor it it uniform.

Each town has its own version.

To Swiss ears, the multitude of Swiss-German dialects range from cute to painful (their own dialect being, of course, perfect).

As a result, a Swiss French or a Swiss Italian will be able to understand what Swiss German colleagues are saying during an official meeting as they will usually speak standard German.

But they won’t understand them or be able to participate in discussions during the break when the German speakers chat informally in their regional dialect groups around cups of coffee.

God knows how important coffee break discussions can be.

Suggesting that French and Italian speakers also learn the many German dialects is a tall order, as not only do they already have to learn one or two other official languages (plus English), not everybody is a cunning linguist.

(For more on Swiss German dialects and resulting difficulties, see Sympathy for the Dialect of this blog.)

The linguistic playing field in Switzerland is not level.

Non German speakers find it difficult to influence the national political decisions that affect their lives.

(As for the Romansh…

Though their language is recognized by the Swiss Constitution and some 35,000 people in Graubünden Canton speak it, much like Swiss German the forms of the Romansh language vary from valley to valley.

Speakers from one village have great difficulty understanding villages just a few kilometres away.

So which dialect does Switzerland and Graubünden consider to be “true” Romansh?

Before 1982, all of them.

School books were published in five different variants of Romansh.

In 1982, after many dismal failed attempts at linguistic unification, the Lia Rumantscha (the Romansh League) hired the German-speaking linguist Heinrich Schmid who created the “standard” Rumantsch Grishun (Graubünden Romansh), which has resulted in laws, school books and signs all set in the new unified language.

But despite the neutrality of this standardisation, Rumantsch Grishun has failed to conquer the hearts of the dialect speakers.

Each municipality continues to use its own local dialect as their first language.)

As a language teacher and a great afficiando of history, I have no doubt that one day when archaeologists unearth the ruins of the Tower of Babel those ruins will be found somewhere in Switzerland.

Impressions of Lausanne

Last week I investigated, in my Tour of Nine, (Switzerland’s nine biggest cities: Geneva, Lausanne, Biel, Bern, Basel, Lucerne, Zurich, Winterthur and St. Gallen), the employment prospects of Lausanne.

A city of hills reminding one of Rome or San Francisco, Lausanne is Switzerland’s 4th largest city. (Lausanne has 130, 000 inhabitants, behind Zurich (380,000), Geneva (189,000) and Basel (165,000).)

The capital of the Canton of Vaud, Lausanne is truly blessed by its location beside Lac Leman.

The old city centre is dominated by Switzerland’s finest gothic place of worship, the Cathedrale de Notre Dame (Cathedral of Our Lady).

She is a lady of elegant refinement with fine proportioned towers, turrets and spires clawing upwards in dramatic stages ever heavenwards.

Her giant rose stained glass window shows that this Gothic shrine has lost none of her grace or poise despite the passage of time, the battling elements of weather or the ravages of the Reformation.

Lausanne was a city of suffering as many a medieval fire threatened to destroy its very existence, so a tradition began that still continues to this day:

Lausanne is the last city in Europe to keep alive the Night Watch (“guet”).

Every night between 2200 hours and 0200 hours, after the bells have struck the hour, you will hear, and maybe even see, a sonorous voice call out from all sides of the Cathedral’s 75-metre tower:

“C’est le guet. Il a sonnee l’heure.” (This is the Night Watch. The hour has struck.)

Lovers and drunks below underneath the canopy of trees know that all is well.

Having fulfilled his civic duty, the Night Watch then retreats to his tiny cosy alcove within the tower for the next 59 minutes.

This is a serious business, for the Guet keeps a look-out over the city for fires and other dangers.

The city begins its ascent from the Lake in the quarter of Ouchy, a place to stroll and enjoy the mountain views and fresh breezes blowing off the water.

Ouchy is officially and proudly its own separate commune from Lausanne and even the building housing the Café de Vieux Ouchy declares itself to be a consulate for the commune, a micronation to itself.

No one fishes despite Ouchy’s fishing heritage but instead palace hotels and waterfront cafes beckon.

Nearby the Olympic Museum, Lausanne’s pride and joy, is a magnet for sports buffs.

It is a grand affair with formal gardens and pomp and ceremony celebrating the International Olympic Committee’s cleverness far more than the sacrifice, struggle and achievement of Olympian athletes.

Banks of video screens, rows of metals, sheets of commemorative stamps, signed swimming trunks, basketballs and Carl Lewis’ old running shoes, fail to fully capture the spirit and glory of the special stories of these amazing athletes.

This is a shame for their stories reveal humanity at its best, but more energy is devoted to merchandise in the gift shop than is given to the athletes who made their nations proud.

The Federal Tribune, Switzerland’s highest court, is based here as well, but, unlike Canada’s Supreme Court in Ottawa, the Tribune does not seek publicity or approval for its activities.

Lausanne has attracted the greatest of creative thinkers the world has ever known: Voltaire, Charles Dickens, Lord Byron, Victor Hugo and T.S. Elliot.

“From the terrace of the Cathedral, I saw the Lake above the roofs, the mountains above the Lake, the clouds above the mountains and the stars above the clouds.

It was like a staircase where my thoughts climbed up step by step and broadened at each new height.” (Victor Hugo)

Lausanne believes that no two hills should go unbridged and bridges tower above the human and automobile traffic below.

Where there’s a bridge in Lausanne, there is a bar.

It is a town that loves to drink and hang about in beer halls or wine bars.

But man or Lausannois cannot live on spirits alone.

Holy Cow! is a Lausanne success story, with branches in Lausanne, Geneva, Zurich and France.

Burgers of beef, chicken or veggie are topped with local ingredients, creative toppings and imaginative names, while fabulous fries arrive in straw baskets.

Hills do not encourage those who don’t like the physical exertion of climbing stairs so two Metro lines travel horizontally and vertically about Lausanne.

In my three visits to Lausanne I never once witnessed the Metro cars being empty or uncrowded but what is unnerving is that these lines are unmanned.

No driver up and down steep hills makes one wonder about just how safe a passenger really is.

The Lausanne Guesthouse, a backpacker’s hostel, is very welcoming and the breakfast at the Blackbird Café both delicious and filling.

Lausanne is a world removed from Geneva and a stone’s throw from Paradise.

I am glad to make her acquaintance.

Frank about the Franc

“In the world of central banking, slow and predictable decisions are the aim.

So on Wednesday 15 January 2015, when the Swiss National Bank (SNB) suddenly announced that it would no longer hold the Swiss Franc at a fixed exchange rate with the Euro, there was panic.

The Franc soared.

On that Wednesday one Euro was worth 1.2 Swiss Francs.

At one point, the next day, Thursday, the Euro’s value had fallen to just 0.85 Francs.

A number of hedge funds across the world made big losses.

The Swiss stock market collapsed.

Why did the SNB provoke such chaos?

The SNB introduced the exchange rate peg in 2011, while financial markets around the world were in turmoil.

Investors considered the Swiss Franc as a “safe haven” asset, along with American government bonds:

Buy them and you know your money will not be at risk.

Investors liked the Franc, because they thought the Swiss government was a safe pair of hands:

It normally runs a balanced budget, for instance.

But as investors flocked to the Franc, they dramatically pushed up its value.

An expensive Franc hurts Switzerland, because the economy is heavily reliant on selling things abroad:

Exports of goods and services are worth over 70% of GDP.(Gross Domestic Product: the value of goods and services produced by a nation)

To bring down the Franc’s value, the SNB created new Francs and used them to buy Euros.

Increasing the supply of Francs relative to Euros on foreign-exchange markets caused the Franc’s value to fall (thereby ensuring a Euro was worth 1.2 Francs).

Thanks to this policy, by 2014 the SNB had amassed about $480 billion worth of foreign currency, a sum equal to about 70% of Swiss GDP.

The SNB suddenly dropped the cap this year for several reasons.

First, many Swiss were angry that the SNB has built up such large foreign exchange reserves.

Printing all those Francs, they said, would eventually lead to hyperinflation.

Those fears were probably unfounded:

Swiss inflation is too low, not too high.

But it was and is a hot political issue.

In November 2014, there was a referendum which, had it passed, would have made it difficult for the SNB to increase its reserves.

Second, the SNB risked irritating its critics even more, thanks to something that happened on Thursday 16 January:

Many expected the European Central Bank to introduce “quantitative easing”.

This meant the creation of money to buy the government debt of Euro-zone countries.

That would have pushed down the value of the Euro, which might have required the SNB to print lots more Francs to maintain the cap.

But there was also a third reason behind the SNB’s decision.

During 2014 the Euro depreciated against other major currencies.

As a result, the Frank (being pegged to the Euro) had depreciated too:

In 2014 it lost about 12% of its value against the US dollar and 10% against the Indian rupee (though it appreciated against both currencies following the SNB’s decision).

A cheaper Franc would, it was believed, boost exports to America and India, which together make up about 20% of Swiss exports.

If the Swiss Franc were not so overvalued, the SNB argued, then there was no reason to continue to try to weaken it.

The big question then was how much the removal of the cap would hurt the Swiss economy.

The stock market fell, because Swiss companies now found it more difficult to sell their wares to European customers.

(High-rolling Europeans still constantly complain about the high price of holidays in Switzerland.)

UBS Bank downgraded its forecast for Swiss growth in 2015 from 1.8% to 0.5%.

Switzerland remains in deflation.

When central banks try to manipulate exchange rates, it almost always ends in tears.” (The Economist, 18 January 2015)

On a personal level, when it comes to dealing with the Swiss Franc a few odd differences become immediately apparent – differences one rarely sees in other countries.

First, one will often see the Swiss buy an inexpensive item, for example, a 2.90CHF cookie at Starbucks, and pay for this cookie with a 100CHF or even a 200CHF banknote/bill.

In fairness to the Swiss, often when one goes to withdraw cash from a Swiss ATM (automatic teller machine) the machine will often spit out only large denominations.

(For example, a 100CHF note instead of five 20CHF notes or two 50CHF notes.)

Try buying a cookie and paying for it with a 100-pound note in Britain or a $100 bill in the US, Canada or Australia, and the transaction will be refused.

Second, the Swiss will often buy that same aforementioned cookie using their debit or credit cards.

Again, most countries would never allow one to pay for such a low amount using a credit or debit card, as each electronic transaction costs the vendor a certain percentage.

Third, as many ATMs only cough up large denominations this can cause a lot of frustration when smaller denominations are needed by other electronic machines.

For example, should one need to buy a train ticket to a destination not too distant and the electronic transfer component on the vending machine is out of order, then you need to have smaller bills, which are not always conveniently at hand at all times when one wishes they were.

Of course, the Swiss defend all of this economic behaviour, whether it be the manipulation of exchange rates or the transfer of large sums for minor amounts or the exorbitant pricing they assign Swiss goods and services as nationalistic and patriotic protection of Switzerland and its economy.

Try, for example, being foreign and attempt to open up a business on Swiss soil.

The bureaucracy and the expense, not to mention rules like a business on Swiss soil must be partially owned by a Swiss native, make Switzerland an unattractive prospect for international investment.

The Swiss claim that high costs are required for the high quality of Swiss products.

As a resident in this land for half a decade, I have found that high quality is true only for some Swiss products and services, certainly not, for all of them.

Some exports remain superior, despite Swiss claims to the contrary.

So, if Switzerland is truly the economic “land of milk and honey”…

Why then do so many Swiss eagerly cross their borders to go shopping or rent homes if they are so intent on national pride and economic protectionism?

On any given Friday night or Saturday, the border crossings from Switzerland to Germany/Austria/France/Italy are insanely active with Swiss clamouring across for bargains.

Witness them DEMAND, loudly and boorishly, for the smallest of purchases, their VAT (value added tax) forms enabling them to profit not only from lower prices but as well be reimbursed a VAT refund from the vendors they frequented.

Yet these same border crossers, often from Cantons bordering on these nations they shop in, will quickly condemn and curse the audacity of these “invaders” living in Switzerland taking away Swiss jobs and corrupting the Swiss way of life with their foreign ways and morals.

The Swiss Folks Party (SVP), a truly xenophobic bunch, remains the most popular political party in the Swiss Parliament, eager to pass legislation curtailing added immigration and making life for resident foreigners increasingly complicated and uncomfortable.

As irony would have it, the Swiss are very sensitive to how the world perceives them…

(After all, reputation affects profits.)

…yet they somehow cannot see why they are perceived by non-Swiss as expensive and unfriendly.

Fortresses are rarely friendly beacons to outsiders.

New Zion vs the Taxman

Thursday 22 October 2015 – Two International NY Times articles capture my eye and imagination:

“The black hole in Starbucks’ tax strategy: Obscure London affliate is focus of EU regulators investigating illicit deals”

“Irwin A. Schiff, fervent opponent of income taxes, dies at 87”

It has been often said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes.

Yet despite these certainties, most of us wish to deny our mortality for as long as possible and many folks will go out of their way to avoid paying taxes.

“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”(Matthew 22:21)

This phrase has become a widely quoted summary of the relationship between religious and secular authority.

The original message, coming in response to a question of whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar, gives rise to multiple possible interpretations about the circumstances under which it is desirable for people to submit to government authority.

Some read the phrase “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” as unambiguous at least to the extent that it commands people to respect state authority and to pay the taxes it demands of them.

Paul the Apostle also states in Romans 13 that we are obliged to obey all government authorities, stating that as they were introduced by God, disobedience to them equates to disobedience to God.” (Wikipedia)

Tax resistance is the refusal to pay tax, because of opposition to the government that is imposing the tax or to government policy or as opposition to the concept of taxation in itself.

Tax resistance is a form of direct action and if in violation of the tax regulations, a form of civil disobedience.

Examples of tax resistance campaigns include those advocating home rule, such as the Salt March led by Mahatma Gandhi, and those promoting women’s suffrage, such as the Women’s Tax Resistance League.

A tax protester is someone who refuses to pay a tax on constitutional or legal grounds, typically because he or she claims that the tax laws are unconstitutional or otherwise invalid.

Tax protesters are different from tax resisters, who refuse to pay taxes as a protest against the government or its policies, not out of a belief that the tax law itself is invalid. Tax protester claims have most prominently been made in the United States, which has a large and organized culture of people who espouse such theories, but have also been observed in some other countries.

Legal commentator Daniel B. Evans has defined tax protesters as people who “refuse to pay taxes or file tax returns out of a mistaken belief that the federal income tax is unconstitutional, invalid, voluntary, or otherwise does not apply to them under one of a number of bizarre arguments.” (Wikipedia)

Irwin A. Schiff was one such tax protester.

“Irwin A. Schiff, who built a national following by arguing that income taxes were unconstitutional and spent more than ten years in prison for evading taxes and for helping others to do the same, died of lung cancer on Friday at a hospital affliated with a Fort Worth federal prison.

He was 87.

At his death, Schiff was an inmate serving his third prison term, a 14-year sentence handed down in 2005.

Schiff sold more than 250,000 copies of six self-published books, including How Anyone Can Stop Paying Income Taxes, The Great Income Tax Hoax and The Federal Mafia: How the Federal Government Illegally Imposes and Unlawfully Collects Federal Income Taxes.

His writings became widely cited in the literature of the tax honesty movement and of right wing organisations challenging the legitimacy of the federal government.

Robert L. Schulz, chairman of We the People Foundation for Constitutional Education, which scrutinizes the constitutionality of government activity:

“Schiff acted on his beliefs and stood for tax honesty.

In a society where there is so much fear of government, and in particular of the IRS (Internal Revenue Service), he was probably the most influential educator regarding the illegal and unconstitutional operation and enforcement of the Internal Revenue Code.” (International NY Times, Thursday 22 October 2015)

Schiff may have spoken Truth to Power, but he paid for his convictions with both his freedom and his life.

So, as Power is difficult to combat without matching or superior force, some may try to avoid taxes by way of tax havens or tax loopholes.

A tax haven is a state, country, or territory where, on a national level, certain taxes are levied at a very low rate or not at all.

Individuals or corporate entities can find it attractive to establish shell subsidiaries or move themselves to areas with reduced or nil taxation levels relative to typical international taxation.

This creates a situation of tax competition among governments.

Different jurisdictions tend to be havens for different types of taxes, and for different categories of people or companies.

A study of 60 large US companies found that they deposited $166 billion in offshore accounts during 2012, sheltering over 40% of their profits from U.S. taxes.

Tax havens have been criticized, because they often result in the accumulation of idle cash, which is expensive and inefficient for companies to repatriate.

The tax shelter benefits result in a tax incidence disadvantaging the poor.

Many tax havens are thought to have connections to fraud, money laundering and terrorism.

While investigations of illegal tax haven abuse have been ongoing, there have been few convictions.

Lobbying pertaining to tax havens and associated transfer pricing has also been criticized.”(Wikipedia)

“When European regulators started digging into the tax practices of Starbucks, they asked a lot of questions…

Starbucks paid the Netherlands €2.6 million in corporate tax on a pre-tax profit of €407 million – less than 1%.

Tax avoidance is a sore point in the US where large companies routinely try to minimize their tax bills.

In Europe, these cases hit a raw nerve, especially in countries where citizens have been squeezed by years of austerity.

This issue stokes friction among member nations jockeying with one another for jobs and investment.”
(International New York Times, Thursday 22 October 2015)

So, should one pay taxes?

If not, how does one avoid paying taxes?

“Money provided by taxation has been used by states and their functional equivalents throughout history to carry out many functions.

Some of these include expenditures on war, the enforcement of law and public order, protection of property, economic infrastructure (roads, legal tender, enforcement of contracts, etc.), public works, social engineering, subsidies, and the operation of government itself.

A portion of taxes also go to pay off the state’s debt and the interest this debt accumulates.

Governments also use taxes to fund welfare and public services.

These services can include education systems, health care systems, pensions for the elderly, unemployment benefits, and public transportation.

Energy, water and waste management systems are also common public utilities.

Colonial and modernizing states have also used cash taxes to draw or force reluctant subsistence producers into cash economies.” (Wikipedia)

As much as I grumble when paying taxes, I want to believe that services I cannot or would not provide for myself or my community are being provided for by my and others’ tax contributions.

I may not always agree with how a government spends our monies, but governments are, in theory, if not always in practice, representative of their citizenry and acting on the citizens’ behalf.

Governments are a necessity unless we ourselves wish to take over what government is responsible for.

Interestingly enough there has been the odd individual who has taken up a banner and declared himself and his property a sovereign state onto its own.

This has been enough of a trend to even inspire Lonely Planet to publish a “travel guide” called Micronations: The Lonely Planet Guide to Homemade Nations.

“According to the 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States, a nation needs only four things to exist:

1) Permanent population
2) Defined territory
3) Government
4) Capacity to enter into relationship with other states

The Convention goes on to claim that statehood is independent of recognition by other nations.

In what is known as the Declarative Theory of Statehood, if you meet the four above-mentioned criteria and say you are a counry, then you are a country, no matter whether anyone else agrees or not.

“Legitimate” nations of the world don’t care much for the Montevideo Convention, rather preferring to work within the rival Declarative Theory of Statehood which posits a nation has to recognized by a global community to be considered legitimate.

So what kind of a person wakes up, spits out bitter pills and decides that they are the self-appointed leaders of their own independent state?

In 1969, concerned about an oversupply of wheat, the government of Australia announced new restrictions for farmers.

Leonard Casley, a farmer from regional Western Australia, was gutted.

With thousands of acres of wheat ready to go, he was informed that he was only permitted to produce about 100 acres.

After a failed campaign to change the policy, Casley believed that there was only one option for him: secession.

According to an old English law, upon which Australian law is based, the government may not threaten a person’s livelihood.

The Hutt River Province officially declared itself a new country on 21 April 1972.” (Lonely Planet, Micronations)

Perhaps here is a solution?

If you are the government then you decide if and how you are to be taxed.

If you abide in a land not your own then the powers that be will feel compelled to tax you.

So, folks, lock your doors, make a flag, declare your independence!

Be prepared for the possibility that secession might not be accepted by the land you wish to secede from, but presevere!

And if you ever find yourself in the hamlet of Landschlacht by the shores of Lake Constance, look for the red and white underwear flag of New Zion (population: 2) on an isolated balcony, declaring that King Adam I is Lord and Master of a proud and sovereign state on what was once Swiss soil.

It’s good to be the King!

Geneva: the good, the bad and the beautiful

As those who’ve been following my posts here or on Facebook know, yours truly has been actively trying to improve my career by looking farther afield from the northeastern Switzerland market where I reside.

Since the end of last month I have been to Geneva almost every week and the city of Geneva has left its impressions on me.

The good:

It is not shy in promoting itself.

There is a wealth of information both online and in hard copy about the wonders of this city at the junction of the Rhone River and Lac Leman.

Three sources of info I can happily recommend:

Secret Geneva, by Christian Vellas (Jonglez Publishing), is “an indispensable guide for those who think they know Geneva well or who want to discover the hidden side of the city.”

Know-It-All Passport: Geneva/Vaud/Neighbouring France, edited and updated regularly by Lisa Cirieco Ohlman (Know It All Publishing) is “an informative guide for those wishing to know more about Geneva Canton, Vaud Canton and neighbouring France areas”, and is, in my opinion worth its weight in gold for those intending to resettle in this region.

http://www.glocals.com is a website by and for expats in Switzerland, with much of its focus on Geneva, and is the first stop for expats searching for contacts, work or accommodation.

As well what is great about Geneva are its sights, both natural and manmade:

Lac Léman, Western Europe’s biggest lake is a giant liquid mirror lined by elegance and beauty from cosmopolitan Geneva to trendy Lausanne to the twee towns along the shore.

Here one finds vineyards spreading from terraces below climbing the steep hills above.

Here there be fairytale chateaux and magnificent mansions and modest beaches.

Then there are the magnificent Vaudoises Alpes where hikers hike and skiers and snowboarders throw caution to the wind.

Here one can contemplate the origins, and possibly the demise, of the universe at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), a lab for research into particle physics.

(Actually more exciting than it sounds: The world’s biggest machine, a 27 km long circular tube, the Hadron Collider, acclerates protons and their collisions create new matter.)

The Palais des Nations, home to some of the United Nations’ organisations since 1966 and the former site of the League of Nations, is surrounded by a large expanse of parkland with ancient trees and resplendent peacocks.

The Musée International de la Croix Rouge et du Croissant Rouge is a multimedia exhibition showing humanitarian efforts coping with the atrocities of humanity’s wars and disasters.

It is a powerful place showing the depths of both the evil and good potential of people on this planet in unforgettable graphic detail that will leave even the most unemotional visitor visibly moved.

And these are only three of the many sights that one can visit in Geneva.


Everyday I have visited Geneva I discovered something new and fascinating for my wondering eyes.

Sometimes it has been natural, like the unfolding quiet beauty of a simple stroll along the Rhone.

Sometimes it has been manmade, like finding a café to call one’s own.

The bad:

Geneva is EXPENSIVE.

It feels Tokyo/Hong Kong expensive and it is amazingly easy to spend a fortune here without really trying.

The costliness of this city is a constant complaint on the lips of both the visitor and the resident.

Residents even darkly boast about taxis in Geneva being twice as expensive than Zürich taxis, which are astronomically costly.

(Think of pirates on wheels.)

This costliness of life is shown especially when it comes to accommodation, so that many people who work in Geneva live over the border in France where rent is said to be half the cost and double the space of a Geneva flat/apartment.

Geneva is BUSY.

Whatever it is you plan to do in Geneva, book ahead.

Hotels are invariably full 365 days a year, so simply arriving in Geneva hoping you will find an inexpensive room easily is an act of the purest folly.

Book at least a week in advance to be certain of having a bed for the night.

As well, sites like CERN, the Palais des Nations or ICT Discovery (an interactive mulitmedia museum showing the evolution of information technology and home to the ITU – the UN’s information and communication technology agency) not only require pre-booking because of their popularity but also demand you bring your passport for security reasons.

Geneva is TOUGH.

It is a city with a shortage of opportunity for many.

Talking to the local residents will reveal many a Genevois remaining in the job he has because he is unable to find other employment.

Because it is an expensive city, affordable accommodation, whether overnight or longterm, is damnably difficult to find.

(Similar to that of New York, London or Tokyo…)

Like NYC, London or Tokyo, though some folks make a reasonable salary, much of what is earned goes into maintaining a roof over one’s head.

Geneva has ATTITUDE.

Those that have wealth are not at all shy about exhibiting that wealth in this town.

In conversation with residents of neighbouring Vaud Canton, Genevois are snob elitists.

Prosperous Genevois view Vaudois as poor backward bumpkins.

The locals view the costliness of Geneva as the fault of the foreigners amongst them, for if foreign companies and organisations did not spend fortunes to maintain the lifestyles of their resident representatives then local businesses would not have the audacity to charge such outrageous prices for their goods and services.

Each racial distinction or linguistic difference is viewed as a diminishment of Geneva’s traditional purity and the resulting competition for jobs and accommodation makes it difficult for the average native-born Genevois.

And much like Thurgau Canton despises its German neighbour and blames it for whatever misfortunes afflicting it, so do many Genevois blame France for its troubles.

The beautiful:


Mere words cannot fully capture how truly at home the heart feels when gazing out upon Lac Léman or meandering beside the Rhone River.

If one could afford it, how delightful a prospect it is to simply sit on the shores and absorb quietly the simple majesty of the waters.


The locals who have affluence dress affluently and are “dedicated followers of fashion”.

I saw many a man in suit and tie and many a woman richly attired.

Many a time I worried about whiplash as my head frequently spun about to view yet another and another cover magazine beauty walking the streets with a be-suited male companion.

In fairness to Genevois, when I compare the ladies of Lausanne to their Geneva counterparts Genevoises do appear more fashionable.

Comparing Genevoises to Lausanoises is like comparing peacocks to dowdy chickens!

(At least, in the minds of Genevoises…)

For myself, with eyes increasingly opening wider and wider with each encounter, Geneva still appeals to me, but whether opportunity will allow me to call Geneva my second Swiss home remains to be seen.

All I know for sure is that Geneva is much more to me than just one of the big nine cities of Switzerland.

For me, Geneva is…an experience.

Interplanetary communication

Events of recent days have made me think about women and how men, including myself from time to time, have difficulty knowing how to peacefully and harmoniously co-exist with that strange and mysterious phenomenon known as Woman.

My good friend Sumit and his wife Varsha are the proud and happy parents of their first child, a boy.

And as I share from a distance their joy at this marvelous miracle of life, I also consider the tumultuous road ahead of them and the awesome responsibilities inherant with raising a child.

There will be wonderous storehouses of love they will discover inside themselves as they protect such a fragile being so totally dependent upon others for everything.

There will be constant worry over this child, for as long as a parent draws breath, regardless of the maturity and development of this child into adulthood.

There will be moments of pain and frustration as the child develops into an independent thinking-and-feeling being.

It is frustrating knowing that you as a parent can’t always be there to prevent moments when the child will stumble and fall, learning how to live independently and to relate to others.

My wife and I, through circumstances beyond our control, are not blessed with a child in our lives.

My mind sometimes goes down the path of “What if?” and I wonder what we might have been like as parents.

I want to believe that we would have been good parents, but history shows us that good parenting is no guarantee that our offspring will develop into the happy and healthy humans we hope they will be.

If I had become a father of a girl I would worry about how difficult this world is for women:

China has 44 million missing women.

As boy babies are preferred, if the foetus is shown to be female some parents will seek an abortion.

Many baby girls are killed in the first few days or weeks of their life.

If the girl survives babyhood, her birth might never be registered – leading to a life where education, healthcare and even adequate food may be denied her.

More than 12,000 women are killed each year in Russia as a result of domestic violence.

7,000,000 American women suffer from an eating disorder.

2,000,000 girls and women are subjected to female genital mutiliation each year.

Some 120,000 women and girls are trafficked into western Europe every year.

As 2 out of every 3 marriages end in divorce, there are many many single parent women raising their children on their own while working to maintain some sort of a safe and stable environment for them.

Worldwide, many women still labour alongside men but receive lower salaries and fewer chances for advancement as compared to their male counterparts.

Women frequently feel “hunted” as their sexuality can make them targets for unwanted male attention that can range from simple creepiness to actual physical danger.

Yet despite all of this, women never cease to amaze me at their strength of character and dimension of emotional preseverance.

I hope that I would be a good role model for a girl when she searches for her potential life partner.

If I had become the father of a boy I would worry about how to teach him to find inner strength and the ability to express his emotions in a healthy and non-threatening way.

How men and women act and react, feel and express themselves is often so vastly different that over the past few decades books with titles like: Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus; Why Women Talk and Men Walk; Why Women Can’t Read Maps and Why Men Can’t Ask for Directions, etc have cropped up in many a Western bookstore.

But by nature of many men coping with their problems solitarily, these books tend to be read more by women than men as many men consider this type of literature as “unmanly”.

So often men have grown up to believe that their masculinity is defined by their might and their sexual prowess and so often fail to realise that, on a planet shared by both genders, behaviour that works in a male environment won’t always succeed in a female environment.

Men so often, we react from our gut (or what hangs below it) rather than our heads (above the shoulders) that in our pursuit of an attractive, personable and intelligent mate we drive away these objects of desire and find ourselves alone and frustrated with ourselves.

Children, in their drive to become self-actualised independent beings, often ignore the lessons their elders try to impart to them and often have to touch the stove to understand why they shouldn’t.

I would hope that had I been blessed with a son that I could teach him the importance and value of thought when seeking the lady of his desire, that “winning her hand” takes more than expression from the heart but as well thoughtfulness from the head.

If only men, in their mad rush to fill the void in their lives through physical and emotional contact with women, would stop and simply consider what it would be like to be on the receiving end of their advances, perhaps then they might begin to understand why women may be wary of them.

Last evening during my shift at Starbucks the lady baristas, chatting away with one another as lady baristas do, surprised me with the comment that they thought I, your humble blogger, was the “last gentleman”.

How does one respond to such a comment?

Perhaps being both the oldest as well as the largest staff member might make them regard me as some sort of an old-fashioned father figure.

I don’t know, for what mind of a man can truly fathom the mind of a woman?

I do know that dealing with members of the opposite gender requires hesitation and thought on my part as it is amazingly easy to be misunderstood.

It is a highwire balancing act between both recognizing and respecting that they are a different gender yet simultaneously pretending that their gender is not a factor when interacting with them.

Finding that middle ground between being strength and support if needed and allowing them the independence to choose to use or reject that strength and support because it might not be needed or desired is a quiet mental playing ground I cautiously move about, occasionally successful.

Take the art of complimenting.

A woman does not need me to compliment her, but on occasion women do acknowledge enjoying compliments, but a compliment needs thoughtfulness or it comes across as a creepy manifestation of a man’s over-obvious desire for physical interaction.

So, for example, if a woman wears something that makes her appear attractive, a simple “I like that dress.” followed by a smile and no further comment is far more welcome to a woman then creepy commentary on her sexiness in the dress unless she is already in an intimate relationship with you.

I guess it boils down to respect.

She is a human being, not a conquest or a piece of flesh.

She is imagination, creativity, passion, compassion, strength, intelligence and beauty both in form and spirit.

If I had ever had a son I hope I could teach him that to win the heart, body and soul of a woman as a companion to his days and nights he needs to be worthy of that woman.

Though he might never quite be able to match all those standards, the thoughtfulness and awareness of how important it is to try and be the best man and companion he can be will go a long way to ensuring that he is a man worthy of a woman’s love and respect.

Lost sheep

As those who know me will attest I am far from being a religious fellow.

That having been said, attempts were made in the past by others eager to save my soul from myself so some of what was taught still remains with me long after Christian fundamentalist friends and family have abandoned all hope for my redemption.

Parts of the Bible still resonate with me from time to time…

“Jesus wept.” (John 11:35)

Shortest verse in the Bible and a masterpiece of powerful simplicity, it shows the divine son of God was so truly human that the death of Lazurus caused him to break down and cry uncontrollably.

“For God so loved the world…”(John 3:16)

I love throwing this verse back at those few who use religion to justify bigotry or hatred, for it illustrates that He loved not just a specifc group of people but the entire world.

And, of course, the Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done on Earth,
As it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us,
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
And the power,
And the glory,
For ever and ever.
Amen. (Matthew 6: 9 -13)

“Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

This part of the Prayer is extremely tricky in nature for it suggests that we cannot be forgiven until we forgive others.

Over the years I have discovered that relationships between any two people can be messy and problematic.

I confess that there have been days when closing the blinds in my bedroom and throwing the bedcovers over my head has seemed more appealing than dealing with the complexity of dealing with others.

Invariably humans, being only human, will either disappoint you or will be disappointed by you.

I recall a moment back in Germany in 2001 just after 9/11 when I found myself caught in a conflict between two teachers with whom I was friends with both.

One teacher was American, the other was Iranian.

The Iranian expressed sympathy to her colleague for the horror that was 9/11, but the American rejected her overtures of comfort and ended the friendship because the Iranian was a Muslim.

The American, in her pain she felt for the victims of this attack, couldn’t see beyond this pain to rationally view her Iranian peer as an individual quite separate in both action and belief from the 9/11 attackers.

I recall an earlier moment back in Montreal when I attended a party, one of very few I have ever attended, where alcohol flowed like a river and common sense was not at all commonplace.

Our shirtless host crashed across a sofa, dead to the world.

I took an ice cube and placed it on the base of his spine and waited for him to awake.

He awoke feeling frozen to his core and bore a grudge he held forever.

When a person feels slighted or disappointed or embarassed it is a burning boiling rage that defies rational discourse or response.

So is forgiveness possible?

Here, I struggle with my feelings.

For the person slighted, even though you know that the other person is only human, and might not have meant to hurt you intentionally, the pain and rage is difficult to overcome, forgive and forget.

You are hurt and mere words will not bandage the wounds.

For the person who did the wrong, it can be difficult to admit to wrong doing and confronting the angry offended person is very difficult to face.

You have acted contrary to the flock and as much as you may desire to be reunited, being alone and apart is less complicated then always being reminded of your transgressions whenever you encounter the wronged victim.

And thus a friendship, a relationship, a marriage, a family is fractured.

When humans stray apart from one another then sometimes only outside forces can mend this distance between them.

And even though we share a crowded planet, we continue to live lonely lives of quiet desperation, desiring love and affection, yet not really knowing how to make these elusive feelings part of our reality.

The only hope that remains is that relationships still await us that won’t disappoint us again.

Forgiveness is said to be divine because forgiving others that might not deserve to be forgiven is often beyond our human capacity.

My hope is that I can truly be worthy for those brave enough to seek love and affection from me.

A union in name only?

“Every person who comes is a human being and has the right to be treated as such.” Angela Merkel, German Chancellor

“As throngs of Africans and Arabs turn Italian and Greek islands and eastern European railway stations into refugee camps, the Chancellor has taken a brave stand.

She has denounced xenophobes, signaled Germany’s readiness to take more Syrian refugees and set out a European solution to a politically explosive problem.

On 31 August Mrs Merkel issued a dramatic call to arms, warning that today’s refugee misery will have graver consequences for the future of the EU than the euro mess.

“If Europe fails on the question of refugees it won’t be the Europe we wished for.”, she said.

The EU was born, after a devastating war, on a promise of solidarity with the persecuted and the downtrodden.

The biggest displacement of people since 1945 is a test of European values and of the ability of member states to work together.

The refugees from civil wars in Syria and Iraq clearly need help.

European countries can provide it only if they share the task.

That means a collective response.

Unfortunately, whereas external border control is, for most EU members, a common problem, migration and asylum policies remain national.

Refugees are supposed to seek asylum in the European country in which they first set foot, usually Italy or Greece, but these countries are overwhelmed.

Most refugees want to head north to Germany, Britain or Scandanavia.

That is not difficult thanks to the dismantling of passport controls at the EU’s internal borders (the Schengen agreement).

Once a symbol of hope, the EU fails to inspire…as the migrant crisis reveals much about European citizens.

The xenophobic reaction of many to the refugees spilling into the countries…and antagonism towards foreigners is a reason for pessimism about Europe.

The fence erected by Hungary’s government along its border with Serbia is an unhappy reminder of Cold War Communism.”
The Economist, 5 – 11 September 2015

“What happens at Europe’s borders often telegraphs momentous change.

The reimposition of border controls to staunch the flow of refugees and migrants is the harbinger of dramatic erosion and possible demise of the Schengen free-travel area, one of the EU’s most striking achievements.

At a meeting of interior ministers on 14 September eastern European countries blocked plans for 120,000 refugees to be resettled across the EU under a system of quotas.

The idea that EU leaders can act in common interest has suffered yet another blow.

If people can no longer travel freely, then what exactly is the point of the EU?

Hungary has sealed its border with Serbia with barbed wire fences and has begun arresting those trying to cross.

Police fire tear gas at them.

Growing numbers of refugees are now trapped in Serbia and started evading the barrier by marching into Romania and Croatia.

Hungary says it will extend the fence to its Romanian border.

Poland and the Czech Republic have joined Hungary in refusing to accommodate migrants, even though they are often young and educated.

Eastern Europe may not like refugees but needs them more than other EU countries.

Labour shortages are common in eastern Europe.

Consruction, manufacturing and technology firms are struggling to find enough workers.

Shortages are likely to get worse as populations age rapidly.

Birth rates are declining and many of the young have left.

2 out of 5 firms in Poland struggle to fill vacancies.

Poland needs 50,000 more IT workers than it can find.

Poland has large shortages of manual workers in agriculture and construction.

In Hungary almost half can not get the staff they need.

Hungary has a large demand for carpenters, shop assistants, gardeners and bakers.

Labour shortfalls decrease the abiltity to produce and sell goods and services and increase pension deficits and leave holes in public finances.

In Hungary 40% of doctors are over 60.

More than 200 medical practices have no doctor at all.

Poland has 5 nurses per 1,000 inhabitants, of which 30% are due to retire in the next seven years.

Syrians are relatively well-educated.

Immigration critics are right that integrating outsiders into countries with difficult languages and fragile public services is hard, but the rewards are obvious.”
The Economist, 19 – 25 September 2015

Xenophobic hatred doesn’t only destroy the lives of those being hated, but it also destroys the future of those doing the hating.

And no birds sing

I hardly knew him.

He was never in my classes in high school.

We never hung around one another.

His brother and I, though the same age and level, never really knew each other, except by recognisable face in the hallway or presence in the classroom.

Until the high school reunion two decades later, I never thought of him or his brother.

Since the reunion, occasional posts on Facebook were seen.

Yesterday his brother informs the world that Geoff is dead.

A man I barely knew, a man barely older than myself, is now… no longer.

We never shared a beer or a joke, only a common history and origin.

I am saddened that only in death do I recall him.

I am saddened to think that as I age, more and more of my peers are… no longer.

Suicide, accident and disease have taken at least a dozen of those who used to fill the halls of my high school.

But for the grace of God, their deaths might have easily been my own.

The skies over Landschlacht are appropriately grey and lifeless.

No birds sing.

Back in Lachute where Geoff remained, and now remains, those who knew and loved him say their final farewells.

It is not right to mourn someone I barely knew but knowing of his death I feel…diminished.

To his family and friends, I pray in this time of great sorrow that you find some measure of comfort in one another.

To anyone else reading these words, take a moment and let the ones you love know how you feel.

Geoff wrestled with depression and finally surrendered.

His fight is a struggle far too many of us endure, but perhaps Geoff’s sudden departure can remind us of the necessity of appreciating life and our loved ones.

We need to learn how to reach out to one another and to recognize when others need love but don’t know how to reach out for it.

As I write these words I am reminded that everyday as thousands die thousands are being born.

But never in the ages that came before or in the ages that will follow will there ever be another person quite like the individuals we are.

Scientifically, we are unique with our own individual DNA, bacteria and fingerprints.

Our backgrounds and histories are unique to our individual selves.

One could say that every person is a unique miracle.

Miracles should be cherished and treasured.

Love yourself.

Love others.

Seize the day to appreciate your life and the lives of others.