On a pathway to Hell

Boxing Day / 26 December 2015

I decide to go a-walkin´.

Wife at work while I have the day off and a ticket to ride anywhere in Switzerland for as long as 26 December 2015 lasts (0500 – 2400).

Decide to resume walk begun long ago in Bargen (the northernmost point in Switzerland)…

(See Borderline Obsessive of this blog.)

…and have already done bits by bit when time and money have permitted.

So far, over time and in stages, I have walked from Bargen to Bülach.

(See also Alex Supertramp and Canada Slim, Wheels and the Wanderer, Along Trail 34, Chasing Waterfalls, Unloved in Jerusalem, and Down the Rhine/Up the Glatt: The Poet´s Path of this blog.)

Leave Landschlacht at nine in the morning.

As usual, fog dominates everywhere, yet the advantage of fog is that what it doesn´t conceal the remaining details that can be seen are sharp, powerful and unforgettable.

A simple spider´s web upon a street sign is delineated by dewdrops upon its strands and the resulting image is branded on the memory.

Train to Schaffhausen…

(the setting of The Little Shop of Ethics, Tough to Be the Chosen, Sweet Caroline and the Candy Man, Memento mori, Do we need another hero?, Talkin´about a Revolution/Whispers, Oops! Did we do that?, Follow the money, Dennis, Probus Scafasia: Timeless River, Timely Man, The dark side of the red light, Song of the Executioner, The vicar and the vagabond and Five schillings´worth of wood of this blog)

…then train to Bülach.

Walk through Bülach´s attractive town centre with its timber-framed gabled town hall, towering St. Laurentius Church and the popular Sigristen Cellar Gallery, and the beautiful old Parish House and Tithe Barn.

Though I am generally following Swiss National Trail 77 / 7 Via Gottardo from its northern origins at Bargen to its southern end at Chiasso, I like to explore offtrail some of the local sites and attractions while I am in an area.

I make my way to a street leading towards the town of Hochfelden and find myself soon upon a trail called the Mittel Specht Pfad (the Middle Woodpecker Path), with a metre-high upright standing log with carved and painted European woodpecker with distinctive red hood and white striped wings.

The Path leads me back to the Glatt River and the outskirts of the town of Hochfeld, with its uninspiring population of 2, 000 quietly going about their business anonymously invisible.

Follow the Glatt River along its northern banks and suddenly find myself amongst the ruins of the old Jakobstal Spinnerei (Jacob´s Valley Spinning Mill).

See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gXZnKJsIXcE.

Spinnerei Jakobstal Übersicht um 1900

Spinnerei Jakobstal Übersicht um 1900

It is an odd sensation to find oneself unexpectedly in the middle of ruins.

Once this spinning mill employed hundreds of people.

Now it sits abandoned and lost.

Roofs fallen in, yet many of its generators still sitting inside rooms amongst fallen timbers and remnants of former walls.

Since the mill´s demise in 1990 I have not been its only visitor.

Campfire remains and graffiti show evidence of other visitors, including fans of the musical group, the Gorillaz.

I enter the spinning mill property along the River but now find further progress blocked by high wire fencing.

Fences mean private property and I am on the wrong side of the fence.

I hear police sirens.

In a panic I frantically seek escape from the wire enclosure.

I attempt to scale the fence but it seems unable to support my weight without damaging the fence or myself.

I quick-march along the fenced perimeters and find an unlocked gateway and scurry through.

I reach the highway to see the police car speed past intent on capturing some other criminal than myself.

For now, I abandon the Glatt and instead try to locate the Roman ruins of Seeb.

I walk by a horse stable and through a military barracks community and into the forests of Höhragen to reach in a forest clearing the Waldhütte (forest cabin) Höhragen.

Inside, but locked to visitors, is seating for 70 people.

Outside, two tables and four benches are my only companions as I contentedly eat the salad I carried with me.

The sun through the high trees warms me.

Life is good.

I continue through the forest upon paths previously trod by others to reach a parking lot and picnic area.

I cross a road and an Autobahn to find myself at the ruins of an old Roman spa guesthouse complex just outside the village of Seeb.

Villa Rustica Seeb was established in the first century AD and contained a large men´s hall, a bathing house and as yet other unexcavated buildings.

It was re-discovered by locals already mid-19th century and archeological excavation began in 1963.

The men´s hall still shows signs of painted walls and coloured mosaic floors.

I recall reading historical accounts of how former Roman sites had been robbed of their stonework and marble by those residents that followed.

The past, raided then forgotten.

I think of my own present day.

Will there ever be a day when folks will walk through the ruins of St. Gallen and ponder what kind of people worked under the banner of a mermaid with two tails?

Seeb, the village itself and gateway to Winkel Municipality, doesn´t seem to have much to recommend for itself.

You can overnight at the Gasthof Hecht with its hotel rooms, dining hall and restaurant, and pretend that you are much like the Romans a millennium ago who came to this area as guests as well.

There is a bus from Bülach that goes to Kloten, site of the Zürich Airport from 5 am to 11 pm every day.

Reto Hug and Nicola Spirig-Hug, both Swiss Olympian triathletes, live in this area.

As once did Walterio Meyer Rusca (born Walter Leo Meyer), who would leave the area and go on to great feats of engineering and exploring in Chile.

Seeb is home to the Kammerspiele Seeb, a chamber orchestra theatre built in the Jugendstil.

As far as I can tell, there is no connection to this hamlet and the coastal fishing city in Oman, also known as the location of a “beyond top secret” Internet monitoring site.

Just outside the hamlet, a sign showing the hiker that he/she is only 10 minutes´walking distance from Hell.

It is not completely clear what Hell actually is.

My Bülach hiking map simply attaches this name to some fields on the road connecting Seeb to Oberglatt.

(If according to Pat Benatar, “love is a battlefield”, is Hell a cattle field?)

On the outskirts of the Zürich Airport a building is marked Trafostation Hell.

A trafostation is an electrical transformer station.

Can one derive power from Hell?

(If you do seek power from Hell, consult Zürich Dr. Daniel Hell should you be suffering from depression.)

I leave the road to Oberglatt and follow a path through the Buchentaler Marsh, which squeezes between Zürich Airport fence perimeter and the Himmelbach Stream.

It is a long 5 kilometres but seeing jets land and take off as one strolls beside the banks of a stream is very distracting.

As the day draws closer to an end more casual walkers have appeared on the pathway and without a word spoken between folks, every one stops and stares at the jet traffic nearby.

I see Edelweiss Air and Swiss Air and British Airways and private planes and Star Alliance planes.

“Zürich Airport (German: Flughafen Zürich, IATA: ZRH, ICAO: LSZH), also known as Kloten Airport, is the largest international airport of Switzerland and the principal hub of Swiss International Air Lines.

It serves Zürich, Switzerland’s largest city, and, with its surface transport links, much of the rest of the country.

The airport is located 13 kilometres (8 mi) north of central Zürich, in the municipalities of Kloten, Rümlang, Oberglatt, Winkel and Opfikon, all of which are within the canton of Zürich.

The airport is owned by Flughafen Zürich AG, a company quoted on the SIX Swiss Exchange.

Major shareholders include the canton of Zürich, with 33.33% plus one of the shares, and the city of Zürich, with 5% of the shares.

No other shareholder has a holding exceeding 3%.

The first flight abroad from Switzerland was on 21 July 1921.

In the early years of aviation, the Dübendorf Air Base, located some 8 km (5.0 mi) to the south-east of Zürich Airport, also served as the city’s commercial airfield.

The need for a dedicated commercial facility lead to a search for a location for a replacement for Dübendorf.

In 1945, the federal parliament decided that Zürich was to be the site of a major airport, and sold 655 hectares (1,620 acres) of the Kloten-Bülach Artillery Garrison (German: Artillerie-Waffenplatz Kloten-Bülach) to the Canton of Zürich, giving the canton control of the new airport.

The construction of the airport began the next year.

The first flights off the west runway were not until 1948.

The new terminal opened in 1953 with a large air show that ran for three days.

On 18 February 1969, an El Al aircraft was attacked, whilst being prepared for takeoff, by four armed members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The attack was repulsed by the aircraft’s security guard, resulting in the death of one of the terrorists, whilst the Boeing 720‘s co-pilot subsequently died of his injuries.

On 18 January 1971, an inbound Balkan Bulgarian Airlines Il-18D approached Zurich Airport in fog below the glideslope.

It crashed and burst into flames, 0.7 kilometres (0.43 mi) north of the airport, when both left wingtip and landing gear contacted the ground.

Seven crew members and 38 passengers were killed.

The first signs of noise mitigation for the airport were in 1972, when a night-time curfew was enacted, as well as in 1974 when new approach routes were introduced.

On 2 October 2001, a major cash-flow crisis at Swissair, exacerbated by the global downturn in air travel caused by the September 11 attacks, caused the airline to ground all its flights.

Although a government rescue plan permitted some flights to restart a few days later, and the airline’s assets were subsequently sold to become Swiss International Air Lines, the airport lost a lot of traffic.

On 18 October 2001, a treaty was signed between Germany and Switzerland regarding the limitation of flights over Germany.

Under the terms of this treaty, any incoming aircraft after 22:00 had to approach Zürich from the east to land on runway 28, which, unlike the airport’s other runways, was not equipped with an instrument landing system.

A month later, at 22:06 on 24 November, an inbound Crossair Avro RJ100 using this approach in conditions of poor visibility crashed into a range of hills near Bassersdorf and exploded, killing 24 of the 33 people on board.

The flight had originally been scheduled to land on runway 14 before 22:00, but it was subject to delay and was therefore diverted to runway 28.

Zurich Airport handled 25.5 million passengers in 2014.

World Travel Awards, an international jury of hospitality experts and peers decided on awards presented to hotels, airports, airlines and other hospitality companies, has evaluated Zurich airport as the best European airport from 2004 to 2015,[ according to various aspects, such as accuracy, entertainment, friendliness and punctuality.

Zurich Airport has three runways: 16/34 of 3,700 m (12,100 ft) in length, 14/32 of 3,300 m (10,800 ft) in length, and 10/28 of 2,500 m (8,200 ft) in length.

For most of the day and in most conditions, runway 14 is used for landings and runways 16 and 28 are used for takeoffs, although different patterns are used early morning and in the evenings.

Zürich Airport offers scheduled and charter flights to 196 destinations in 62 countries around the world.

The airport has three airside piers, which are known as terminals A, B and E (also signposted as Gates A, B/D and E).

These are linked to a central air-side building called Airside Center, built in 2003.

Alongside the Airside Center, the ground-side terminal complex named Airport Center comprises several buildings, and includes airline check-in areas, a shopping mall, a railway station, car parks, and a bus and tram terminal.

All departing passengers access the same departure level of the Airside Center, which includes duty-free shopping and various bars and restaurants, via airport security.” (Wikipedia)

I have flown from Zürich Airport before and worked for a year teaching business English at SR Technics which services the planes at the Airport.

It is an airport I am intimately acquainted with and it is with positive emotion that I follow the perimeter fence kilometre after kilometre.

How the wild man, the wanderer in me, would love to enter the Airport and buy a ticket to Anywhere and let my fancies take flight.

To walk through Hell to fly in the heavens…

I often contemplate writing a novel like Arthur Hailey´s Airport or Greg Baxter´s Munich Airport or a documentary like Alain de Botton´s A Week at the Airport: A Heathrow Diary.

I am one of the few people in St. Gallen who teaches English for pilots and I have also taught technical English.

I have never enjoyed flying and knowing exactly what can go wrong is not at all comforting!

The nearest town to the Airport is Kloten (population 18,000).

Kloten was home to copper artist / engraver Johann Heinrich Lips, lawyer and Zionist Leo Landau, Olympian hockey left winger Roman Wäger and hockey player and coach Felix Hollenstein.

(In his career, Hollenstein played 650 matches in the NLA and 131 for Switzerland men’s national ice hockey team, where he scored 47 goals.)

Kloten is the home of the Kloten Flyers, who play in the Swiss National Hockey League A.

It has one of the best youth systems in Swiss Ice Hockey as its youth teams have won 19 championships during the last 50 years.

EHC Kloten won four consecutive Swiss championships from 1993 to 1996.

They have never been relegated at any point in the club’s history.

Sixteen Kloten Flyers players would later play in the National Hockey League in North America.

In the centre of town, a monument, a giant hockey puck stands proud of its team.

How Canadian it is to stand beside a hockey puck!

Night has fallen and I have promised to attend an Xmas season party at my friend Augustin´s flat in St. Gallen.

No matter how successful the party may be I still feel that I had a very pleasant day, feeling as if I not only crossed miles but times as well.

I am Mercury and my feet have wings.









The road not taken

Wienachtsdorf am Bellevue, Zürich, 23 December 2015:

The book I bought today, among other books I spoiled myself buying in Zürich before meeting my wife and enjoying the splendor that is Zürich´s Christmas market, is mentally burning a hole in my backpack.

The Mammoth Book of Time Travel Science Fiction ponders the question:

What happens when we meddle with time?

Once we move outside the present day, can we ever return or do we move into an alternate world?

What happens if our meddling with nature leads to time flowing backwards or slowing down or even stopping all together?

Are past and future immutable or might we one day escape the inevitable?

Bedford Falls, New York, Christmas Eve 1945:

George Bailey, a man who has given up his dreams in order to help others, finds himself despondent and contemplates suicide.

Prayers for him reach Heaven.

Clarence Odbody, Angel 2nd Class, is assigned to save George in order to earn his angel wings.

To prepare Clarence, his superior Joseph shows flashbacks of George´s life.

Before George can jump, Clarence jumps into the river and pretends to be drowning.

George rescues him, but does not believe Clarence´s claim to be George´s guardian angel.

When George wishes he had never been born, Clarence shows him what life would have been like without him.

When It´s A Wonderful Life premiered at the Globe Theatre in New York City on 20 December 1946, it received mixed reviews:

Bosley Crowther, New York Times, 23 December 1946:

“The weakness of this picture, from this reviewer´s point of view, is the sentimentality of it – its illusionary concept of life.  Mr. Capra (director / producer / screenplay writer)´s nice people are charming, his small town is a quite beguiling place and his pattern for solving problems is most optimistic and facile, but somehow they all resemble theatrical attitudes rather than average realities.”

FBI memo, 26 May 1947:

“With regard to the picture It´s A Wonderful Life, the film represented rather obvious attempts to discredit bankers…This is a common trick used by Communists…This picture deliberately maligned the upper class, attempting to show people who had money were mean and despicable characters.”

And it still receives mixed reviews:

Wendell Jamieson, New York Times, 18 December 2008:

“It is a terrifying, asphyxiating story about growing up and relinquishing your dreams, of seeing your father driven to the grave before his time, of living among bitter, small-minded people.  It is a story of being trapped, of compromising, of watching others move ahead and away, of becoming so filled with rage that you verbally abuse your children, their teacher and your oppressively perfect wife.”

Richard Cohen, Salon.com, 24 December 2010:

“It is the most terrifying Hollywood film ever made.  In the alternate world sequence of Pottersville, George is not seeing the world that would exist had he never been born, but rather the world as it does exist, in his time and also in our own.”

Britain´s Channel 4 ranked It´s a Wonderful Life as the 7th greatest film ever made.

AFI acknowledged the film as the 3rd best film in the fantasy genre.

It´s a Wonderful Life received five Academy Award nominations.

Seeing this movie this evening and reading the wonderfully diverse collection of 25 mindbending science fiction stories has got me contemplating the importance of existence.

I look at my own life and the path that has led me here to this place, to this moment, and I wonder:

How would the world be had I never been born?

Unlike George Bailey I never saved anyone from drowning or prevented a druggist from potentially poisoning a customer.

Unlike George Bailey I never ran a business that allowed others to finance their own homes.

Though like George Bailey I also married, I don´t believe that my wife with her beauty and brains would have ended up as a timid spinster working at the library as George´s wife Mary Hatch did in the alternate world where George had never been born.

I truly believe she could have married a better man than myself, but I am egotistical enough to be certain that her alternate relationships would not have been as unique as our relationship, for better or worse, is.

I consider the paths I took to reach this time and place and I won´t deny that there are moments when I wonder:

What if?

What if I had done action B instead of action A?

What if I had followed pathway D instead of pathway C?

But like George Bailey needed to be reminded, I sometimes forget the effect that each of us have upon the lives we touch and have touched.

I sometimes forget what makes a man´s death meaningful is remembrance.

Without remembrance, he is just a wind that blew over the world and never left a trace.

As an old year´s embers die down and the spark of a new year awaits, I ask myself:

How would I like to be remembered?

And as I contemplate who might read this blog, I ask each one of you:

How would you like to be remembered?

Carpe diem – Seize the day.

Make it happen.




Unwanted Christmas Presence

“I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.”

(Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, OST The Big Lebowski)

“May you live in interesting times.”

(Ancient Chinese curse)

Landschlacht: Christmas Day 2015

I realize that it has been some time since my last blog post, but, in my defence, it has been a time of great activity and emotional turmoil over the past two weeks.

I worked at Starbucks from 10 to 20 December with only one day off and that day I spent in Vaduz, Liechtenstein, for a job interview, followed by attending the premiere of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in St. Gallen.

On Monday 21 December, I visited a doctor in Kreuzlingen, whose prognosis means a complete overhaul of my eating lifestyle and habits.

What I have is an uncommon autoimmune gluten sensitivity called DH, a cousin to celiac disease and a far distant relative to the dreaded C disease.

DH is not fatal and is treatable with a drug called Dapsone, but it does require a strict lifelong gluten-free diet.

There is an old tired joke where a doctor recites a long list of forbidden foods and drinks that his patient is not allowed to consume.

Growing impatient with the sheer length and complexity of the list, the patient asks the doctor to simplify the list.

He responds:

“If you like it, you can´t have it.”

There is much in my dietary habits that will have to change:

No pizza, no pasta, no bread, no beer, no iodinized salt, nothing that contains gluten.

My regular diet, especially now that my wife lives most of the week in distant Zürich, has not been the healthiest one.

At home, muesli and toast for breakfast, pizza and pasta for lunch and supper, with fruit and vegetables occasionally thrown in for variety.

Away, it is “catch as catch can”, meaning I am a fast food junkie and Ronald McDonald has been a lifelong friend.

And I love the taste of beer.

Though I rarely drink more than one or two glasses of alcohol at one sitting, in every place I have visited I have made it a point to sample the local beer.

Now, no more Labatt’s Blue, no more Leffe Blonde, no more Rochefort. (The first is Canadian, the latter two Belgian)

Still things could be a lot worse.

I have lost a mother to cancer when I was very young and in my 20s both my foster parents succumbed to this fatal merciless disease.

A few members of my high school graduating class are no longer among us due to cancer.

I have known colleagues who are still fighting this plague upon their houses.

So, yes, my life could be far far worse.

Fortunately, here in Switzerland and across the Lake in Germany, eating gluten-free has become, in some circles, almost trendy, with people choosing to eat gluten-free by choice rather than by obligation.

I have already discovered that it is possible to buy gluten-free pasta, gluten-free pizza, gluten-free bread and even gluten-free beer.

I tried a GF beer last night as a Christmas Eve treat to myself.

It is no Labatt´s Blue, but I am consoled with the thought I can pretend it is and maybe my mind will convince my taste buds that it is.

Last night, before the beer, I worked at Starbucks.

Today, I work at Starbucks.

(Apparently, CEO Howard Schulz is a direct descendant of Ebenezer Scrooge.)

My wife, a doctor, worked yesterday and will work today and tomorrow.

So, there is not much of a Christmas spirit in Casa Kerr this year.

We have no Christmas tree, no decorations, no carols played on the stereo.

(At Starbucks, all I hear are the same carols repeated at least thrice every shift.)

We have received Christmas cards and Internet greetings, but we have not iniatated many of our own.

We do have an Advents table centrepiece and we have visited Christmas markets together.

We exchanged Christmas presents last night in the German tradition, as opposed to waiting til this morning in the Canadian tradition.

But as anti-Christmas as our working lives have become, we still see colleagues and friends and families still “rockin´around the Christmas tree” and “simply havin´a wonderful Christmas time”.

Even my Hindu and Muslim friends living abroad in Christian lands seem to have been infected by the Christmas spirit.

I won´t deny that the impulse to watch It´s A Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street, The Grinch, The Sound of Music, or even Skipping Christmas lies within this Canadian like an itch longing to be scratched.

And everything and everyone seem to shout at us:

Be festive, damn it.

But soon Christmas Present will become as spectral as Christmases Past.

There is no White Christmas in Landschlacht.

Skies are blue and there isn´t a snowflake on the ground.

We are far from our families and friends, but we wish them well nonetheless.

I know that for many people Christmas is a difficult time.

It is said that incidents of depression and suicide in the West are at their highest during the holiday season.

Somewhere there are people dying of disease or war.

Somewhere there are people struggling to survive.

For many, it is indeed a blue Christmas.

All I can offer as minor consolation is the thought that consoles Ute and myself:

And this too shall pass.

So, as my wife tries to bring holiday joy to sick children and their saddened parents…

So, as I serve impatient customers, who either gather at Starbucks with family and friends, or come to Starbucks simply to find human contact on this loneliest of days…

We pretend to be festive, for their sakes.

As for me and my house…

Bah, humbug.






Beams, motes and mocassins

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?

Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, “Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye”, and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye, and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.

Matthew 7: 1-5, Holy Bible (King James Version)
Landschlacht, The Ides (15th) of December 2015:
He made the best White Russian cocktail I ever drank, was the friendliest bartender I ever knew and we related on many levels, including a mutual admiration of Jeff Bridges´performance as “the Dude” in the film The Big Lebowski.
The Dude of Konstanz though is not a well man and has wrestled with darker demons in the mind than those I have ever known.
Though we do not have the friendship of regular visits, phone calls or text messages, the Dude and I communicate through Facebook posts, expressing our moods through what we ourselves write or what we forward from others.
The Dude forwarded Tommy Chong´s post:
Things people don´t get to choose:
– sexual orientation
– gender identity
– appearance
– disabilities
– mental illness
– race
Things people get to choose:
– To be an a–hole to people because of things they have no control over
Landschlacht, 16 December 2015:
The sun has yet to rise and rain is coming down on the streets of my tiny town and my conscience bothers me this morning.
St. Gallen, 15 December 2015:
Morning – Debarking from the train, I headed to my main Starbucks employer St. Gallen Bahnhof to grab a cup of Joe and say hi to the morning shift.
Recently I leant a purple binder to a mutual acquaintance who had promised to return it the day after the loan leaving it for me at the Starbucks.
He still has not.
I commented on this to the staff who responded with:
“What did you expect from a Turk?”
Turkey has a population of over 74 million.
Are they all the same?
Evening – Working this day at the Starbucks Marktplatz, I overheard a white Swiss man and a black African man conversing in French at the condiment bar (the Starbucks name for the customers´ source of milk, sugar and napkins).
 As I had to clean the bar, I excused myself in French.
The lobby cleaned and dirty dishes collected and taken back to the kitchen, I was summoned back to the drinks counter to dialogue some more with the pair.
The African asked me, clearly assuming by my age that I must be management rather than simply a humble barista, if work were available at the Marktplatz location.
Uncertain of my Marktplatz manager´s feelings on the matter, without thinking I referred him to the Bahnhof location.
I returned to my duties and didn´t give the matter further thought.
An hour later, my shift completed, I returned back to the Bahnhof to get “one for the road” and say hi to the night staff.
The Bahnhof shift manager was unhappy with me.
How could I do this to him?
 I had gone over the line in referring an African to work there.
And anyway, applications had to be made via the Internet and the Starbucks Switzerland website and never in person.
Is it easier to discriminate from a distance?
Another staff member commented that all Africans are the same: problematic.
Africa spans more than 30 million square kilometres and is home to some 720 million people and almost 1,000 languages.
Has she met all of them?
I was astonished by my Bahnhof coworkers, both immigrants to Switzerland like myself, both educated individuals, folks you would expect to be less prejudiced than the locals, expressing views labelling entire groups with negative stereotypes.
On the train ride home, I find the Dude´s forwarded post and I reflect on my own behaviour past and present.
Quebec City, 1983:
Though only 18, I was already no stranger to discrimination.
I had seen bullies pick on Ricky, a black student, and Dicky, a Chinese Canadian student.
In high school I was the target of unwanted comments due to my appearance and social awkwardness.
At age 13 I already achieved the height of 194 cm / 6´ 5″ and loomed over the heads of my classmates.
And I was, until years of travelling changed this, rather shy, especially around the fairer sex.
I came to Quebec City and college hoping that a new city, as far away from home as I could get yet still be educated in English, would offer me a new start.
One day, somehow, in one class, the subject of sexual orientation came up in a discussion of extending rights and privileges enjoyed by straight people to the gay and lesbian community.
One boor of a boy piped up that they (the homosexuals) should be lined up against a wall.
He shouted: “Ready, aim…”
Wanting to be accepted by the group and desperate to lose the reputation that I was gay because of my shyness with girls, I shouted “Fire!”
Throughout the years I still feel shame at this thoughtless remark and the gods punished me accordingly.
I would learn later that one of my teachers and one of my friends was lesbian and were deeply embarrassed and disappointed in me for my remark.
I would later sob into a Belgian girlfriend´s arms when one of the gentlest souls I ever knew revealed to me he was HIV positive.
And though I am honest enough to admit that I still feel uncomfortable by public displays of affection between same sex couples, my views have changed over the years.
If in this crazy heartbreaking world two consenting adults can find love and companionship then it does not matter to me who they are.
If the rights I enjoy are not equally enjoyed by others then I feel that this is an injustice.
Memphis, 1989:
It would be the start of the most memorable 12 hours I ever spent in an American city.
I was 24.
I had recently discovered information about my biological roots: my mother was American.
With little forethought and even less money, I had set off from Ottawa, Canada, determined to discover my mother´s homeland, and so began a year-long hitchhiking journey that would take me from upperstate New York, down to Key West, across to California, up to Vancouver and back east to Ottawa.
The rides of the day had taken me from the Smoky Mountains to the outskirts of Memphis and night had fallen by the time I found myself trudging down the streets heavy backpack upon my shoulders.
As I have suggested I am a tall man, so generally I am not the target of unwanted violence.
As I walked, once again cursing myself for the 30 kg/50 lbs weight upon my shoulders, I noticed a black man following me.
Despite my size, despite the bulk of weight I carried, despite all this man was doing was coincidently walking down the same street as I was, I panicked and began running, too afraid to even look back.
To my relief a city bus and I arrive at a bus stop at the same time and I use what little money I had to get into the city centre.
I would later spend the night in a Salvation Army flophouse wherein one of the elderly sleepers would die in his sleep and paramedics and fear would keep the rest of us awake the rest of the night til dawn.
Morning found me crossing the Mississippi on foot anxious to put as much distance as I could between Memphis and myself.
(A second journey years later would find me again in Memphis, but this would be a different Memphis experience with discovery of Graceland and Beale Street.)
I hated myself for giving into a prejudice that had absolutely no reason or rationale but rooted in too much exposure to American TV and the stereotypes it perpetuated upon me over the years.
I am honoured and humbled that one of my greatest friends is Reggie of Philadelphia, now resident of Freiburg, who has made me realize how great each and every person is regardless of race or appearance.
St. Gallen to Landschlacht, 15 December 2015:
I thought of my own present behaviour and views.
Do I still possess prejudical views or act in discriminatory ways?
I looked at my reflection in the train windows and thought over recent days.
I do treat women differently than I do men.
I compliment.
I flirt.
But I wonder:
Do I go too far?
Might I be causing discomfort and am unaware of doing so?
Am I being a gentleman or a chauvinist?
My lady friends suggest the former, but I must remain vigilant that my actions do not offend, prejudge or pigeonhole the women I meet.
At Starbucks we have a latte card we stamp for each drink purchased.
Once the card squares are all stamped, the cardholder receives a complimentary drink on the house.
For particularly attractive women I have stamped their cards one more stamp than they have actually purchased.
But, Starbucks profits aside, am I not being sexist by doing so?
Is this not practicing favouritism based on someone´s appearance?
A lady customer orders a chai tea latte.
She is clearly blind in her left eye.
I hate myself for noticing and am determined not to bring any attention to her handicap and act as if she were no different than any other customer.
But my thoughts and behaviour leave me wondering:
Is viewing her differently a sign of latent prejudice within me?
I consider soberly my views of those cursed with psychological illness or burdened by substance addiction.
My ignorance and lack of understanding of the reality of their situations leave me discomfited and distant from them.
I curse myself for my weakness in this regard.
As I consider my coworkers´ prejudices towards Turks and blacks, I have to honestly consider my own prejudices, towards those I do not understand, as well.
The Original Peoples of Canada have a saying:
“Never judge a man until you have walked two moons in his mocassins.”
Clearly there is still much, despite my half century of life experience, I have yet to learn.

Working for a giant

As regular followers of this blog know, I have two jobs: freelance teacher and part-time barista.

I work as a humble part-time barista for the largest coffeehouse company in the world, Starbucks.

And I can´t deny that this results in mixed feelings.

I am older than this upstart of a company.

In fact, I am the oldest Starbucks employee in St. Gallen (3 locations) and possibly Switzerland.

It was founded in 1971.

My mother unleashed me upon the planet in 1965.

I am as Canadian as Neil Young, but working for an American multinational, founded in Seattle, Washington.

I work in two of its 23, 132 locations worldwide.

My homeland of Canada has 1, 416 locations.

The US has 12, 937.

The company has opened an average of two new locations worldwide every day between 1987 and 2007.

If Starbucks has its way, public interest will continue to rise in the coming years.

According to a Time magazine article from 2006, the company aims to open another 25,000 stores in the future, bringing the total number of Starbucks stores worldwide to 40,000.

That’s 9,000 more stores than McDonald’s currently has in operation worldwide.

I sell and serve hot and cold drinks, whole bean coffee, espressos, lattes, full leaf teas, juices, frappuccinos, pastries and snacks.

Being Xmas tis the season for toffeenut lattes, honey and almond hot chocolate, gingerbread lattes and snowball frappuccinos, to name just a few.

I sell and serve hot and cold sandwiches, mugs and tumblers and whatever new product idea that corporate Swiss HQ in Zürich passes on from Seattle.

I take the train to/from work, so even on days when I am not working at the Bahnhof location I still poke my nose inside to say “Hi” to my coworkers there and have a “dirty chai”(chai tea with espresso shots) to go.

I witnessed my first Starbucks Evening last night, accomplished professionally by Bahnhof shift manager Katy, promoting our various coffee blends and offering participants muffin treats.

My Bahnhof store manager Ricardo is proud to work at Starbucks.

He loves that he works for such a global presence.

Starbucks has made a point of being wherever you are.

They have a tremendous, almost inescapable, presence in countless, high-traffic neighborhoods.

Yet they’re also somewhat cutting-edge, not just in how they treat their employees (more on this later) or in their gutsy (if questionable) expansion tactics, but also in their efforts to stay relevant.

This is evidenced in such ventures as adding Wi-Fi connections for customers, building Starbucks Entertainment (film production) and Hear Music (music production) and, most recently, partnering with Apple to allow customers to download songs they hear in a Starbucks from iTunes.

As a rule, Starbucks stores are not franchised to private individuals, and the company has no intention to begin doing so.

The mentality has a lot to do with maintaining high company standards from store to store – standards that would be difficult to enforce if they were franchises.

Their “stores” are everywhere,  populated by coffee snobs on both sides of the counter.

Starbucks is indifferent to and beyond the reach of fluctuating economies.

They are accused of everything:

  • market saturation
  • making war on Christmas
  • deliberately writing customers´names wrongly for the baristas´private amusement
  • tax avoidance
  • questionable anti-environmental practices
  • using GMO (genetically modified) products
  • corporate social irresponsibility
  • opening without planning permission
  • not supporting soldiers in the Iraq War
  • allowing handguns to be brought into their US stores
  • supporting same sex marriage
  • unfairing pricing policies where a cup of coffee in one nation is more expensive than in another
  • promoting discussion about race relations
  • anti-competition.

Yet Starbucks — the world’s biggest coffee peddler — keeps on peddling.

Being only a humble barista I will not comment on these controversies as I do not create corporate policy and am not privy to these details, but of course I do read and am aware of how the world perceives Starbucks, whether positively or not.

I will say in Starbucks´defence, based only on my own personal experiences there, that it is an interesting environment to work in for its international mix of both staff and clientele.

Each working day exposes me to another aspect of that thing called Life and I find myself learning something new every day.

Some of the controversies, policies and practices found in the US are not found here in Switzerland or at least have evolved to a more Swiss-defined implementation.

I have heard nothing about negative market strategy here.

Labour disputes were highly discouraged in Switzerland long before Starbucks made its presence known here.

As Starbucks seems to survive economic difficulties wherever it sprouts up, most employees here are simply happy to have a job, especially in a country where foreign qualifications are often considered inferior by Swiss standards.

Thus every Starbucks I have visited in Switzerland seems sprinkled with a fair share of foreign nationals.

Are we receiving the same benefits as our American counterparts?

I am not sure, but I suspect not.

Starbucks seems to have a perennial spot on Forbes list of the “100 Best Companies to Work For,” but this has little to do with the weekly coffee or tea each “partner” takes home.

Starbucks calls its employees “partners” even though we hardly qualify as such in a true business sense, but the use of such a loaded word is meant to breed our loyalty towards the company.

In America, Starbucks offers an enviable benefits package.

Inspired by the childhood of Chairman Howard Schultz, who, as a boy, watched his father work low-paying jobs and retire with little to show for his life, Schultz wanted something different for employees of his company.

The result is a benefits package given to employees who work a minimum of 20 hours per week that includes health, medical, dental and vision plans, a 401k, and access into Bean Stalk, the company’s employee stock option plan.

If that weren’t already enough, those benefits extend to the opposite and same-sex spouses of these employees.

But either because I am a part-time employee or because Switzerland is not America, I have heard little discussion about these plans.

In St. Gallen no one has complained to us about our red cups and view the “War on Christmas” as much American ado about little.

Yesterday, store managers across Switzerland gathered in Bern, the Swiss capital, and had themselves a Christmas rave ringing handheld bells in the middle of town.

At the Bahnhof we offer a 10% community discount for those organisations that share our train station location, though privately I wish we extended this discount to those folks who in their roles as policemen or soldiers serve their communities on a far deeper level.

I have never seen a handgun inside a store, despite the fact that Switzerland is a heavily armed nation with regular compulsory military service for all Swiss-born males from 18 to 55.

We make no fuss, pro or con, about same sex couples or race relations.

Our general policy towards all:

If you pay, you can stay.

Could our environmental practices be improved at our Swiss stores?


I am no environmentalist, but I do feel we do produce one hell of a lot of trash on a regular basis and the word “recycling” does not seem to pop up much in conversation at work.

But again I may not see all that could be seen because I usually work only 20% of a fulltime work week there.

I do think we could do more towards the homeless in St. Gallen but I have been told that homeless shelters will not accept food beyond its due date, so what could feed the hungry instead is wasted.

My own private war against homelessness is limited to giving Bruno, the local street beggar, coffee whenever I see him.

What I do see is regular stress from management to staff.

Directives arrive from Zürich, as well as semi-irregular store inspections, that are strongly enforced to heavily promote our ever-changing assortment of products.

One week, we must heavily promote tumblers.

The next week, promote the coffee beans.

Ad infinitum.

The regular partners have been brainwashed into believing that their very self-worth hinges upon their sales performance.

And management encourages this.

Starbucks generates profits.

Our coffee is not 50-cent diner coffee, but rather highly expensive beverages of exotic quality.

Staff is constantly under pressure to produce as many sales as possible in the shortest amount of time as possible.

Every week our duties seem to increase but pressure still remains on completing these duties as quickly as possible.

My favourite contradiction I witness is the policy of selling, selling, selling right up to the last moment before door closing, then employees should have all other duties involved with running a cafe completed, exiting the premises ideally mere moments later.

Constant pressure from both management and clientele does not make for a psychologically happy environment despite what Forbes would have you believe.

In both stores where I work we operate on overlapping shifts, which should mean harmonious transfer of duties and responsibilities between the shifts.

The key word is “should”.

Tension and turmoil reign rampant and all is often not well in the relations between the personnel of the shifts.

Which, when the wife asks why I won´t work more hours than I do, is why I am happy to be involved as little as possible in these inter-shift civil war struggles.

Bluntly put, as long as the supplies I need to do my job are available I try to remain neutral to the politics that rage around me.

And will simply say that there is room for improvement…

(In fairness, I could improve as well and become a better barista, if I so desired.)

Starbucks was named for the first mate of the Pequod in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.

Its logo: a bare-breasted mermaid which has, over time, developed a degree of modesty that would please the Pequod’s first mate.

Initially, her hair covered her breasts, then they were cut out of the frame altogether.

The mermaid is the only thing modest about Starbucks.

That, and your humble barista.

(Statistical sources: Wikipedia / Ross Bonander)








Beggars at the banquet

It is nine in the morning here in Landschlacht, Switzerland.

It´s cold, damp and foggy here by the shore of the Lake of Constance.

I have a headache, but have taken medicine from a bathroom stocked with medicines for any type of illness real or imagined, present or potential.

The guest room of our four-bedroom apartment, where the light is best for early morning writing, is cooler than the rest of our flat, but I have the option of putting on more clothes or turning up the heat.

I have a busy work week ahead of me, yet I still have leisure hours I can use as I choose.

Though I spend much of my leisure time alone, I know I am not cut off from the world.

I have access to the world via electronics, though I am aware that what news I receive from the outside is limited by the media who decides what is news and how the news is filtered.

My wife, though distant in Zürich, is happily working away at her job as a children´s doctor and providing the income that makes the partnership with a freelance teacher / part-time barista financially viable.

I am hungry and thirsty, but only a few steps away is a small kitchen with a fully-stocked refridgerator and freezer.

The greatest danger is not the shortage of food, as it is the overabundance of food, meaning some food will go bad before I am quick enough to eat it.

The water from the taps is clean, and though I know I should drink more of it, I will probably make myself some instant coffee and later drink some cola for that additional, teeth-rotting, sugar rush.

All in all, though I would not complain too loudly if I won the Euro Millions lottery, I enjoy a good life.

I examine my life this morning as I think about yesterday.

I met, for the first time, our latest addition to Team Starbucks St. Gallen Bahnhof, brother to my co-worker Vanessa of Macedonia, Samir.

Like most of us in the Team, Samir´s origins are exotic and far superior to the humble position of barista.

In our Team, we have three South Americans, a Macedonian, a Slovenian, two Poles, a Serbian, an Englishman, a Berber, eight Swiss and, yours truly, a Canadian.

Most are married and half of those married have children.

Some of us have educational qualfications far beyond what is needed to work at a Starbucks.

Seven men, twelve women, serving a clientele that is 80% female.

We fight and work together like a typical dysfunctional family.

Our histories are also as exotic as our origins.

Of those foreign-born I know, I count two former beauty queens, two persons fleeing oppression from their homelands, five here in Switzerland for an economically better life than their native lands could provide, two here because their spouses are Swiss or chose Switzerland for their career.

And despite that our histories are strangely different and disconnected to our present employment, we have learned to focus on our present situations and do our job to the best of our individual capacities.

Samir is, of the seven men working here, the quietest of our bunch, but my sympathetic nature has warmed many the heart of introverts, so we did have some snippets of conversation during the course of our demanding workday.

He talked about his life here and back in Slovenia and Macedonia where he once lived and worked.

We both agreed that no matter how imperfect our lives may be, there exist others whose lives are much much worse.

I was reminded of the story of Gloria of Mozambique, as told in Michael Norton´s 365 Ways to Change the World: How to Make a Difference One Day at a Time:

“Gloria is surviving on the edge.

It wouldn´t take much for her life to fall apart.

She lives in Mozambique, where she grows crops on a small plot of land.

The “mashamba” is not much, but most years she can produce enough corn, nuts, eggplant, carrots and kale to feed her three children.

She even owns a few chickens.

Unfortunately Gloria doesn´t earn enough money to send her children to school.

Her oldest, Eduardo, is 9 and desperate to learn how to read and write.

Gloria would do anything to educate him, but she simply can´t afford it.

Besides, this year, she needs his help in the field.

Formerly, her husband gathered the harvest with her, but he died.

People say it could have been AIDS, but she can´t be sure.

She misses her husband – now more than ever.

As she looks forward to the next harvest, she worries about the weather.

The rains were not good this year.

Things could get even tougher.”

Earth produces enough food to feed every woman, man and child on the planet.

The problem is that the food does not reach everybody who needs it.

People go hungry as a result of drought or conflict.

Some folks are just too poor to buy enough food to keep them alive and healthy.

Children are particularly at risk.

Malnutrition stunts their physical and mental development and makes them more prone to disease.

We in Switzerland dine like kings, often enjoying three course meals, often overstuffing ourselves and suffer from obesity.

Yet we complain and curse our fates in life.

In other lands, some sit on chairs and are fortunate enough to dine on rice and beans both delicious and nutritious.

But in much of the world, there are no tables, there are no chairs, and meals are simply rice and water.

Billions of poor people throughout the world are undernourished and will go to bed tonight hungry.

Not all will survive till morning.

My headache is passing as the medicine kicks in and the fog outside is slowly clearing.

As I enjoy the luxury of my place and moment in life, I think about Gloria and Eduardo.

May it be raining in Mozambique.



What´s up, Doc? / Pier Pressure

Like many people, despite there being probably more years of life behind me than ahead, I have always been uncomfortable with the notion of my own mortality.

Many years ago while browsing through a bookshop I came across a book called How We Die, which went to graphic, explicit detail of the exact bodily processes that occur when a body dies.

I lacked the courage to even open up the book.

I remember thinking that if I read the book I would then be accepting my eventual demise.

Accepting my demise then would mean I would eventually die.

But if I didn´t read the book, then I could continue to deny death´s possibility, thus living forever.

Much like the conservative right in America who have convinced themselves, despite all evidence to the contrary, that global warming doesn´t exist because they refuse to believe it exists.

Thinking very similar to an ostrich:

If I stick my head in the ground and I can´t see the advancing lions, then the lions can´t see me!

Now of all the many ways a man can die:

(It is truly frightening just how many ways there are and just how fragile our bodies really are.)

One of these is sleep deprivation –

You die for lack of sleep.

Generally speaking your faithful blogger has usually averaged five to six hours per night without there being any negative side effects.

(Unless you count male pattern balding!).

But the past few weeks there have been changes in my sleeping patterns.

My wife has moved to Zürich for much of the week.

So there are many nights I have fallen asleep on the living room couch watching DVDs, surrendering to sleep at about one in the morning, waking up in the middle of the night to return to my bed, then a few hours later the WC beckons…

And another day begins.

An average of 4 hours of sleep a day.

If that.

As followers of my blog know I have two jobs:

I am a freelance English teacher.

I work part-time for two Starbucks cafes in St. Gallen, Switzerland.

As anyone who serves the public will tell you:

The month of December and the first half of January are insanely busy.

As well, in the field of gastronomy, staff turnover is ever a Problem.

So restaurants and cafes find themselves swamped with too much work to be done by too few people.

So part-time baristas like myself are a Godsend if they are willing to work more hours to help out.

As I rarely say “No”,

To the blue eyes of Corinne, the Bahnhof cafe assistant Manager,

Or the brown eyes of Jackie, the Marktplatz cafe Manager,

I find my time divided between the cafes, a sudden positive reversal of fortune in my teaching career and spending what little time that is left with my wife.

This week my limits have been tested.

Thursday night, late shift at the Bahnhof, home at 10 pm, little sleep overnight, despite all efforts.

Friday morning, up at 4 am, train at 5 am to St. Gallen, start at 0630 at the Marktplatz.

Work till mid-afternoon, take the train home, then prepare myself mentally and physically for that always dreaded annual ritual:

My wife´s staff Xmas Party where spouses are expected to attend.

My wife is German and a doctor, so:

Picture the grand dining room of a restaurant,

(This year, the Pier Restaurant in Uttwil, by the Lake of Constance)

You are in a room of professional doctors all gabbing away in German or Swiss German.

Though over time your German has improved, it is still a Heruclean effort to hold up your end of the conversation with people whose daily job you barely understand.

You are in the middle of a long table, a well-dressed woman to both your left and right engaged in animated conversation with the ladies across and beside them.

And, as every year previous, here you are again sitting across the table from the one person not engaged in conversation with anyone else, your wife´s Boss.

Like yourself the Boss is feeling like an isolated rooster in a very large henhouse, as paediatrics (children´s medicine) is dominated by women.

The Boss looks at you, expecting you as a guest to “sing for your supper” by iniatating clever dialogue and discussion with him.

I have never been a master of small talk, but, of course, in my dual roles as teacher and barista I am no stranger to getting others to talk by showing interest in their lives.

Now the Boss feeling isolated attaches himself to you.

You are a rock in the middle of an ocean.

He is a seagull desperately seeking land.

You talk about his role as Chefarzt (Head Doctor), his responsibilities and challenges, his plans for his eventual retirement.

Conversation, all iniatated by you, now turns to where he lives and the boat he is very proud of owning and operating.

“Where the hell is dinner?”, you think.

You are desperately hoping that the questions you are asking the Boss this year were not questions you asked last year.

Dinner is finally served.

In fairness, doctors do know how to feast grandly.

As ever, I can´t decide whether my frequent requests for more wine and additional servings are prompted by the glutton´s greed of hunger and thirst,

Or fear that if the flow of food and drink stops, then the need to engage in conversation will resume.

Your wife is enjoying herself,

Chatting away merrily with her work colleagues,

Having the time of her life.

And you are happy for her.

Nothing is more wonderful than seeing beautiful women enjoying one another´s company.

Men, unless close friends, are never at ease when forced to converse with one another.

Not much dialogue is needed for North American males, strangers to one another.

“What´s up?”

“Not much. You?”

“Not much.”

Conversation over.

Both parties satisfied.

You have been up since 0400.

You have slept about four hours in the past 48.

The women don´t want the night to end.

Now, for those ladies new to the world of men, a couple of tips from the Owner/Operator´s Guide to Men:

Feed a man immediately when he is hungry.

Let a man sleep when he needs to.

It is close to midnight.

Your “get up and go” has long ago “got up and went”.

Watching your watch has become obsessive.

That gentle “good as gold” gentlemanly behaviour you have maintained up til now has been replaced by an impatient ol´grump.

Rudely you remove your Smart phone from inside your suit jacket and consult the train schedule.

You threaten to leave without her.

She can easily get home with her colleagues who live nearby.

But women are rarely dissuaded by their menfolk.

Basic female psychology:

Tell a woman to do something.

Her goal in life will be to refuse.

Tell her not to do something.

Immediately her every desire is bent upon doing that very thing she is denied.

So, in desperation, or simply in a “don´t give a damn” determination, you pull out the last card in your deck of tricks:

Making a scene.

Nothing is more important to many women than how they are perceived by others.

Too late I realize my mistake.

I no longer wonder where the lions are.

The danger is no longer death by sleep deprivation.

The danger is death by a group of doctors well acquainted with the concept.

“Who brought the Canadian?” becomes the general consensus.

Eventually, you get home.

The sweet embrace of your bed awaits, but she wants to talk about what just happened.

Hang your head like a disciplined dog.

Last thought before consciousness brings a smile to your face:

Perhaps you won´t be invited to next year´s Xmas Party.