Canada Slim in the Capital

Bern, Switzerland: 11 February 2016

Wappen von Bern

13,000 people move to Bern, Switzerland´s capital, annually.

Some tens of thousands commute to the city every day.

Approximately 17, 000 students are enrolled at the University.

Above: The main building of the University of Bern

The Bern Tourist Office registered 686,967 overnight stays in 2012.

Hundreds more tourists come for day visits every day.

I am here for practical and pleasureable reasons.

Above: The Hauptbahnhof (Grand Central Station)

My Canadian passport has run out so I need to visit the Canadian Embassy here.

I will see an old roommate for the first time in a decade.

“This is the most beautiful place we have ever seen”, wrote German playwright and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832) in a letter to a friend during his stay in Bern in 1779.

Indeed few capital cities are as picturesque – or as tiny – as Bern.

Wandering through the picture-postcard Altstadt, with its provincial laidback air, it´s hard to believe that this town is the capital of a nation, though it isn´t difficult to understand why it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Flags fly everywhere and streets are cobblestoned.

Grey-green sandstone covered arcades over shops and bars above ground and in cellars beneath sidewalks dominate downtown.

Folk figures frolic on old time fountains and the Aare River runs through.

Museums delight, nightlife excites and bears do not feel fright at the thousands of tourists that peer down into the park for a site.

Bern is Switzerland´s political and educational hub and the base of major industries.

Above: the Federal Palace of Switzerland (Parliament)

Every Swiss values his/her home Canton above all the others, but the Bernese are particularly proud.

They´re famous for their slow deliberate manner and lethargic sing-song Swiss German dialect.

The population is static and self-possessed with only 130,000 people and a small town easy approach to life.

It is a town to sit down in or fall asleep in, beautiful and relaxing.

Bern stretches herself across a steep sided peninsula in a crook of the fast-flowing Aare River as undisturbed today as it has been over hundreds of years.

A castle once stood at Nydegg on the tip of Bern´s peninsula, from the 11th century, before Zähringen Duke Berchtold V chose this site to found Bern in 1191.

Berchtold named it after his first hunting kill in the area, a bear (Bär in German).

Albert Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity in Bern in 1905.

Hermann Hesse spent the World War I years in Bern, a city already known as a hotbed of politically progressive ideas, hosting the anarchists Peter Kropotkin (1842 – 1921) and Mikhail Bakunin (1814 – 1876).

Hermann Hesse 2.jpg

Above: Hermann Hesse, author of Damian, Steppenwolf, Siddharta, and The Glass Bead Game among many other works

Peter Kropotkin circa 1900.jpg

Above: Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin


Above: Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin

This morning I am anything but an anarchist.

After early rising at 0400, train rides begun at 0509 and arrival in Bern some three hours later, I walk through town to cross the Aare River.

Tired and sleepy my mind takes the pirate sound of the river´s name and the breadth of the river´s body and suddenly I am lost in the parody tune of the Arrogant Worms´song, “The Last Saskatchewan Pirate” which I hum all the way to the Embassy.

I am not the only Canuck trying his luck at passport hunting at first opening of the Embassy´s gates.

Vertical triband (red, white, red) with a red maple leaf in the centre

We are three in the small cramped waiting room of the Embassy reception area: I from Argenteuil County, a younger man from Montreal, a young lady from Ottawa.

What a surprise to sit with people who know your hometown whilst you all are strangers to one another sitting in an antechamber thousands of kilometres removed from your homeland.

Cue the mind music: “It´s A Small World After All.”, Walt Disney´s cursed earworm tune he thrust upon the planet.

The trilingual woman behind the triple-thick bulletproof glass is of the bureaucratic no-nonsense mind set.

Humour just bounces off.

How tragic that the diplomatic corps rarely produces afficiandoes of comedy.

She reminds me of Will Smith´s alien teacher in the movie Men in Black and I highly suspect a similarity!

Three normally rational adults squirm nervously in our seats, chattering amongst ourselves like incoherate chimpanzees and obsessing over whether we met the minutae requirements of our passport documentation and instructions.

Singly we enter a closet-sized enclosure and face a clerk who asks each candidate about the veracity of our statements, assures each person in the vaguest of terms of the arrival of our passports at our Swiss addresses and then dismisses us as fleas unwanted upon the dog flesh of pomp and ceremony.

Our humble cases will never cross Ambassador Macintyre´s desk nor shall we ever press flesh with the honourable stateswoman, for we represent neither fame nor fortune, neither power nor principality, but are mere citizens far removed from our homelands and tolerated in antechambers on diplomatic soil that is neither Canadian nor Swiss and yet both.

I hate the feeling of having to beg my homeland for recognition of my kinship to Canada, though I recognize the inherant arrogance in myself of expecting a government to respect my claims to citizenship by simple virtue that I am Canadian by mere accident of birth.

I wander the streets exhausted, no clear destinations in mind beyond bodily functions.

Despite the tension of the Embassy, the time within its walls was surprisingly brief and I find myself in a place where what is worthwhile for tourists to see cannot be seen yet for hours.

Somehow, after a fruitless quest for a glutenfree breakfast, I find myself back at the Bahnhof.

The sun is warm though the winds are cold.

I find a place in the sun beside a church and soon I am fast asleep.

Canvassers for the upcoming federal elections later this month, the hustle and bustle of commuters dashing about, nothing disturbs my slumber.

If my snoring disrupts the public peace, no officer of the law has seen fit to wake the tall Canadian bear on holy grounds.

In a few hours I will meet Monica, my former roommate, and we will talk of times past and travails presents and exchange tales of what has happened since we last parted.

For now I am a stateless person just lying in the sun while his jukebox mind struggles to remember the lyrics to John Lennon´s song “I´m So Tired”.

And slowly fade to black…

(Next blog: The trails and tribulations of teaching in Switzerland, more about Bern and another glimpse into the mysterious past of Canada Slim…Stay tuned!)





Festival of Fools: The Endless Silly Season

Landschlacht, 11 February 2016

Let us now praise the introverts amongst us and may the meek truly inherit the Earth.

Every year, every damn year, my wife notes that every February I remark that we have entered “the silly season” once I spy the first celebrants of Carnival with their ringing bells and odd costumes and painted faces and grotesque masks.

But what she fails to notice is that this festival of fools never really ends, but like a travelling circus or a non-academic Chatauqua it simply moves onwards to another place to infect others with its insanity.

My wife, being a woman and less introverted than myself, longs for regular contact with others, but festivals and parties are not how I wish to make contact.

My wife, 11 years my junior, complains that I am already a grumpy old man.

A former fiancée of mine once commented that I was a strange combination of school boy and grandfather in character, that I was born old, much like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.


My younger colleagues tell me that there´s nothing like the life-affirming buzz of a major festival, whether it is toasting the arrival of a season, soaking one´s liver in alcohol or electrifying one´s senses in an orgy of sound and light, frenzy and fury, pulse and beat.

I have travelled enough of the world to realise that every country in the world has its own festivals and celebrations.

Travel guides encourage me to mingle with the mob for these world parties are the key to unlocking local culture and make for a fantastic travel experience.

Run with the bulls, join the procession, burn something, drink till you drop, life is a party.

Sanfermines Vaquillas Pamplona 08.jpg

Yet introverts know better.

Prices of everything skyrocket.

You are surrounded by huge crowds of folks who are in varying degrees of intoxication and diminshing realisation of self-control.


Eat, drink and be merry, damn it.

Life´s too short.

Live for the moment.

And sometimes a moment doesn´t last long.

Hospitals are filled with the injured and graveyards increase their numbers every festival time.

And all the freaks come out, as do the pickpockets, as do the inherantly violent.

And innocents are swept away and peer pressured into swigging that vodka in a cocktail mixed with drugs in the middle of a crowd in equally rough shape.

And then, if you´re lucky, morning arrives and you are broken and broke.

You wake up in unfamiliar surroundings, perhaps with strange bed companions or bathed in the scent of vomit and sweat and maybe even livestock.

Are we having fun yet?

Carnival, carnaval, carnevale, Fasching, Fastnacht, Mardi Gras, wasn´t that a party?

Now all of this takes place just before Easter, but as the Church follows a lunar calendar and moves Easter every year, Carnival can take place anytime between the first week of February and the first week of March depending on where you live in the Christian world or whether your land is Catholic or Orthodox.

Yet Carnival which is supposed to precede 40 days of fasting for Lent bears little resemblance to religious solemnity.

So, Christians are the only party animals?

Not at all.

Hinduism and its legends are the basis of thousands of festivals every year with huge pilgrimages to holy sites and riotous noise and colour over everyone and everything.

Diwali fireworks and lighting celebrations India 2012.jpg

Buddhists also party.

Baby Siddarhtha.JPG

After all, it is in their Karma to do so.

Muslims depending on their devotion save the eating and drinking and smoking and sexual contact until after Ramadan is over but then they feast, feast, feast and party, party, party with a release of emotion more powerful than an exploding locomotive.

I spent the first three decades of my life in North America, have lived in Europe for nearly two decades and have spent time in Asia.

I have experienced Carnival by many different names in many different places.

And what remains is not a feeling of lingering joy but rather the feeling of isolation, alone in a crowd I didn´t understand, a thinker surrounded by the thoughtless, clean amongst dirt and depravity, a seagull surrounded by an ocean wave of desperate people determined to have a good time even if it kills them.

I remember with stark vividness being trapped on a train travelling through southwestern Germany´s Black Forest, heading to Breisach on the French border, with wagonloads of Carnival celebrants.

Drunk as skunks, loud as lords, they sang and shouted off-key and off-colour.

I couldn´t run, couldn´t hide, couldn´t escape.

To this day I cannot think of the Smokie song “Living Next Door to Alice” without remembering the insertion of the line “Who the f— is Alice?” screamed into my ears in heavily accented English by wobbling Germans who could not expel vocabulary without the threat of vomiting.

Are we having fun yet?

Growing up in the countryside and raised by extremely introverted foster parents, partying was not something I was familiar with until I left home for a higher education.

Our idea of celebrating New Year´s Eve was to drive out into the middle of open fields far away from any town and stare up into the wonders of a star-filled sky.

On my own as a young adult their ways remained mostly with me.

I can count on the fingers of one hand the few times I have drank heavily and I lacked the courage (because I lacked the knowledge) to experiment with exotic substances stronger than alcohol or caffeine.

This does not make me superior in any way whatsoever, but I have come to realize not only who I am but more importantly who I am not.

So dance till dawn, drink on the beach in the pale moonlight and live like there is no tomorrow.

And if you are looking for me I´ll be outside hiking in the woods, sleeping under the stars or curled up beside a fireplace reading a good book.

To each his own.


Canada Slim and the City of Broken Promises

Konstanz, Germany: 10 February 2016

I am angry this day.

Promises made to me that one of my favourite backpacks would be repaired by now has not only gone unfulfilled but the repair shop wanted me to pay more money for repairs they are not sure they can actually accomplish.

In my mind´s eye I picture the wretched repair shop being consumed by flames.

I leave the shop in a huff and try a clothing repair shop.

They can´t help, but they direct me to a leather repair shop near Schutzentor (the guard tower) and the Hus House Museum.

The museum reminds me of other broken promises.

1913: It was the year before the storm that would start in Sarajevo would sweep across Europe and across the globe, a world before the First World War.

Louis Armstrong is learning to play the trumpet.

Franz Kafka is in love and writing endlessly beautiful letters to Felice Bauer.

Charlie Chaplin signs his first movie contract.

Rainer Maria Rilke and Sigmund Freud discuss beauty and transience.

Marcel Proust sets out in search of lost time.

While Igor Stravinsky celebrates The Rite of Spring with industrial cacophony, an Austrian postcard painter by the name of Adolf Hitler tries to sell his conventional cityscapes of Munich.

And in the city of Konstanz excitement is building, despite the premonition of ruinous days ahead, the following year marks the 500th anniversary of the Council of Konstanz (1414 – 1418), the biggest congress of the European Middle Ages.

A Renaissance print depicting the Council of Trent

People from all over the then-known world poured to Lake Constance to participate in this unique event.

The Church and the entirety of Christianity had to deal with urgent issues: three Popes and the need for Church reform.

Constance city planners were geared up and ready.

But the winds of war began to blow.

A century passes.

And despite a world still beset with problems, Konstanz is determined that the Council´s 600th anniversary would not go unheralded this time.

2014 marked the beginning of the anniversary and Konstanz remains in full tourist mode.

The Council House which is normally used as a concert venue became an exhibition hall.

The main museums of Konstanz all focused their attention on the Council and life during those days.

Much ado is made of the presence of kings and queens, cardinals and priests present at the Council.

But there remains dark shadows on the celebration of the Council – the stain of blood and the smell of burnt flesh fill the senses of remembrance.

It is the second part of 1414.

The days are cold and the nights are long and fog covers the town as Christendom´s greatest leaders gather to discuss the problems that torment the Church.

The presence of three Popes in Rome, Avignon and Pisa encourage the critics of the Church to speak out, some with furious overeagerness.

One of the most influential Church critics was the English scholar John Wyclif, who criticized the power of popes over political affairs as well as the idea of celibacy in the priesthood and ranks above it.

It can truly be said Wyclif was most hated, but before the Council could convene, Wyclif, at age 30, had a stroke and died.

But Wyclif´s ideas went far afield and a Czech reformer named Jan Hus preached the message of reform.

Jan Hus 2.jpg

The son of a wagon-maker, Hus attracted attention due to his excellent intelligence and his ability to inject excitement and enthusiasm into whole crowds of people with the power of his words and the conviction of his beliefs.

Being a professor of philosophy and theology, Hus was aware of Wyclif´s ideas and made them his own.

Jan Hus was dangerous.

The Council decided to send for him and deal conclusively with “this Bohemian nuisance”.

The patron of the Council, King Sigismund assured Hus of safe conduct both to and from Prague if he would come to Konstanz to present his proposals for Church reform.

Pisanello 024b.jpg

On 3 November 1414 Hus arrived in Konstanz two days before the official opening of the Council.

One of the three Popes, Pope John XXIII was in town as well hoping to promote his legitimacy as Vicar of Christ in person.

Johannes XXIII Gegenpapst.jpg

John also promised Hus protection.

Unmolested for three weeks, Hus lived and preached in town.

But then the reformer was arrested and imprisoned in the dungeon of the Dominician monastery on Constance Island.

Links im Bild die Dominikanerinsel mit dem Steigenberger Inselhotel, dahinter die Alte Rheinbrücke

Sigismund was out of town and could not interfere.

John, hoping to be chosen the sole Pope, remained silent.

Jan Hus experienced terrible weeks.

His cell was located beneath the latrine of the monks, so soon Hus was in poor health.

Hus would be sentenced and burned as a heretic outside the city gates.

Though the Council had proven its power over popes and kings and silenced the voice of its loudest critic…

Though the Council would go on to eliminate the three Popes contesting for power and establish a fourth candidate as the sole pontiff…

After his execution in 1415, the followers of Hus’s religious teachings (known as Hussites) rebelled against their Roman Catholic rulers and defeated five consecutive papal crusades between 1420 and 1431 in what became known as the Hussite Wars.

A century later, as many as 90% of inhabitants of the Czech lands were non-Catholic.

Some still follow the teachings of Hus and his successors.

The Jan Hus House Museum is quite possibly the least heralded museum in Konstanz, yet it is by far my favourite one, for the story of Jan Hus is a fascinating one.

Hus spoke truth to power and preached reason to faith.

He was a powerful thinker in a dangerous time.

He died as he had lived – with courage and conviction.

The house where he lived when he was allowed to preach his message to the people of Konstanz stands as a reminder of how religion can both inspire as well as destroy lives.

If you ever find yourself in Konstanz, pay a visit to the Museum.

All printed matter is translated into various languages, including Czech, and the staff is quite friendly.

The monument in Konstanz where reformer Jan Hus was executed

Let Jan Hus remind us that we should never underestimate the power of one individual to make a change in the world.

(Sources: Florian Illies, 1913: The Year Before the Storm, Ulrich Buttner/Egon Schwär, Histories of the Council of Constance, Wikipedia)




A to Z: Adam to Zelg

Zelg, Appenzell, Switzerland: 9 February 2016

There are brief moments when I envy some of my peers in the academic world.

They have what I call “the Holy Grail for freelance teachers”: a permanent contract with one school that provides all the benefits an employee could wish for – pension, sick leave, unemployment insurance, written notices of changes to status, health insurance, etc.

I foot the bill for any future benefits I may need.

I have no real job security.

I travel.

A lot.

Yet despite these disadvantages I cannot imagine any other life like it.

The endless variety of experiences offered by a ever-changing roll call of students wanting a constantly changing curriculum makes me feel that every day as a teacher is a brand new adventure.

It is only the second month of the year and I have bankers and a legal clerk who want BEC Vantage (Business English Certificate)(Cambridge University), an IT engineer who wants technical English, two housewives and an artist who wants conversational English, a CEO who wants a combination of legal and business English, and a medical clerk who wants BEC Preliminary.

In the past I have taught a prison guard, a sailboat purchaser, pilots, aircraft mechanics, a driving school instructor, lawyers, doctors, people in pharmaceuticals from the manufacturing level to the pharmacy level, accountants and insurance agents, actors and stage designers, chemists and electricians, professors and tourists, secretaries and executives.

I have taught in private and public schools, in high schools and universities, in Europe and Asia and Canada.

And like any other profession there have been moments when I have encountered either difficult clients or unexemplary employers.

But generally no other profession has thrilled me as much as freelance teaching.

Part and parcel of this thrill is the ever-repeating butterflies-in-the-stomach anxiety of Day One: meeting the student(s) for the very first time.

Day One – today- has not begun well.

I made a rookie´s mistake.

I confused the name of the canton´s capital with the canton itself.

Two thirds of Switzerland´s canton capitals share the same name as the canton over which they dominate, so when the school manager told me that the family I will be teaching lived relatively close to St. Gallen I assumed that she meant that the family lived close to the city of St. Gallen.

Not only does the family Frei not live within St. Gallen city limits, they do not even live within canton limits.

From my apartment in Landschlacht to the family house in Zelg requires a three-hour journey involving a train and two buses or a bus and three trains depending on the time of day and the route chosen.

Now every country has one: a region that is the butt of everyone´s else jokes, a region that is considered parochial, backwards, barely civilised.

Southern England laughs at northern England, the US laughs at Appalachia, Canada pokes fun of “goofy Newfies”, France of its north, Italy of its south and Switzerland of the two half-cantons of Appenzell.

Wappen Appenzell Innerrhoden matt.svg

Appenzell is a special place…

First, it is not one canton, but rather two half-cantons: Appenzell Innerrhoden (AI) and Appenzell Ausserrhoden (AR).

Being half-cantons translates to having only half-votes during elections within the Swiss Parliament, the Federal Assembly.

Once a year they gather together in town squares, some dressed in traditional costumes, to cast their votes publicly by raising their hands. If each citzen over the age of 20 does not show up to vote then they are forced to pay a large financial penalty.

Twice a year Appenzeller farmers and their families in their finest traditional clothes will lead their livestock to higher or lower slopes.

Appenzellers once went to war over a dead man´s clothes.

Following increasing conflicts between the Appenzellers and the Abbot of St. Gallen’s agents, including the bailiff of Appenzell demanding that a dead body be dug up because he wanted the man’s clothes, the Appenzellers planned an uprising.

On a certain day, throughout the Abbot’s lands, they attacked the bailiffs and drove them out of the land.

Appenzell. after achieving independence from St. Gallen control and after joining the Swiss Confederation, was split in half by religion during the Reformation, with AI remaining staunchly Catholic and AR defiantly Protestant.

AI and AR both have their own half-cantonal capitals: Appenzell and Trogen.

Appenzell is an alpine region, particularly in the south, where the Alpstein limestone range (culminating in Säntis mountain (8,216 feet or 2,504 metres) is found, though towards the north the surface is composed rather of green hills, separating green hollows in which nestle neat villages and small towns.

It is mainly watered by two streams that descend from the Säntis, the Urnasch joining the Sitter (on which is the capital, Appenzell), which later flows into the Thur.

There are trains from Appenzell to St. Gallen either through Gais or through Herisau, as well as lines from St Gallen to Trogen and from Rorschach to Heiden.

Appenzell still uses the Julian calendar to determine when New Year´s Day festivities will take place.

Appenzell has its own type of chickens: the Spitzhauben (pointed hat)(pictured below) and the Barthuhner (bearded chicken).

Appenzell also has its own type of Sennenhund (“cattle dog”):

Appenzeller Sennenhund.JPG

I finally arrive in Zelg, after a train to St. Gallen, a bus to Heiden and another bus and a 1/2 hour walk (the driver forgot to let me know where to disembark despite my requesting her to do so when I boarded).

I find myself in the middle of a U2 video.

The streets of Zelg are unnamed.

The house numbers lack any logical progression and seem to be determined by some mystical system known only to the locals.

I visit the only public establishment I could find in Zelg – the local butcher/grocery store.

The cashier, toothless and humourless, directs me to go “up the road” to “the new house”.

The two customers, good ol´ boys of indeterminate age or profession, are already swilling their beer and claim total ignorance as to who my client family is and open-mouthed astonishment that a Canadian is not only in their town but he is able to speak German.

I go “up the road” and climb the hills above the road without finding the house number listed on my client´s business card given to me by my school.

By European standards all the houses in this town look “new”.

Time to resort to modern tech.

I call my client´s mobile phone and tell him to meet me at the store, but until the meeting I decide to go “down the road” and see if I can find the desired household anyway.

Ten minutes remain until I am supposed to teach.

I meet a short hairy man driving a fancy car on the road.

It is my client, Noel.

His house is only 500 metres down the hill from the store, directly across the road from a prominent landmark, a manufacturing firm called Bopp.

I meet his wife Sabine and their son Alex.

Their English is non-existent, yet they plan to move to Canada sometime later this year.

I ask myself what I have gotten myself into.

I smile.

Welcome to Appenzell.




Eternal Bliss and the Edge of Madness: Gaga over Dada

Zürich, 8 February 2016

“When the going gets tough, the great ones party.” (Bill Murray, Garfield 2)

Granted this is an unusual source for a quote to try and sum up the phenomenon that was born in Zürich, spread around the world, inspired future cultural movements and is once again commemorated obsessively this year back in Zürich again.

But as history as shown over and over repeatedly, it has often been in the most troubling and dark days of humanity that the spark of art has been lit and inspired changes of momentous occasion.

Just as the Greeks were at their most inspirational during the Peloponesian Wars, or the Romans during the dying days of the Republic, or later how the Vietnam conflict would lead to the counterculture sixties in the States, so did the carnage and suffering of the First World War lead to Dadaism.

In Only imbeciles and Spanish professors: Heidi and Dada, I explained how the War lead many artists and scientists to neutral Switzerland and how the War made them question the current “wisdom” of the day and long for a better world.

“Escapees, dissidents and artists have always gravitated towards Zürich since the early 16th century.

As a major centre of intellectual life and international socialist activity, Zürich has drawn the likes of Rosa Luxemburg, James Joyce and Vladimir Lenin.

But undoubtedly the most creative arrivals have been the band of émigré artists calling themselves Dada.

Dada or Dadaism was an informal international cultural movement that began in Zürich at the outbreak of the First World War and peaked between 1916 and 1922.

Its founders were expatriates primarily from Europe who came to Zürich in search of political and artistic freedom.

Dada embraced visual arts, literature, theatre, music, dance and graphic design in its mission to oppose war through the rejection of prevailing art standards.

Dadaists expressed their disgust with the modern world by the creation of anarchic works of anti-art.

Even the name Dada was an act of anti-rationalism, a childish and nonsensical word said to have been selected by inserting a knife randomly into a dictionary.

Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, Hannah Hoch, 1919

For Dadaists the root cause of the War lay in prevailing capitalist, nationalist and colonial interests, which were reflected in a cultural and intellectual conformity in art and society.

Dada sought through anti-art to oppose war by rejecting traditional culture and aesthetics.

As Hugo Ball described it, Dadaism was:


“an opportunity for the true perception and criticism of the times we live in.” “(Only in Zürich, Duncan J.D. Smith)

So, what did the Dadaists want?

First, let´s be clear.

The Dadaists were not opposed to art or religion per se, but instead wanted to penetrate them and be inspired by them.

They wanted to add a magical explanation of the world to the scientific one.

They wanted to see and emulate the beautiful that lies within the commonplace – not as a copy of the exterior surface, but instead a reflection of the imaginative interior.

They didn´t want to speak their mind as much as they desired to scream out that the mind is not only order but as well choas.

Driven by a desire to disband hierarchies and overturn the established values of economic fatalism and rationality that had created the First World War as a monstrous project of madness, Dadaists declared reason and Immanuel Kant to be their arch enemies.

Immanuel Kant (painted portrait).jpg

“Kant is the arch enemy, responsible for everything.  With his theory of knowledge, he subjected all objects of the visible world to reason and domination.”

(Hugo Ball, Flight Out of Time)

The myth of Dada was created in Zürich.

Every night, Dada´s seven founders – Hugo Ball, Emmy Hennings, Tristan Tzara, Marcel Janco, Richard Huelsenbeck, Hans Arp and Sophie Taeuber – pushed themselves to the edge of madness, to a state of unconsciousness.

The venue was a nightclub called Cabaret Voltaire in an upstairs room at Spiegelgasse 1 (Mirror Alley).

“In this house, on 5 February 1916, the Cabaret Voltaire was opened and Dadaism founded.”

According to Marcel Janco:

Marcel Janco.jpg

“Everything had to be demolished.  We would begin again after the tabula rasa (clean slate).  At the Cabaret Voltaire we began by shocking common sense, public opinion, education, institutions, museums, good taste, in short, the whole prevailing order.”

They began staging Dada art performances in Russian and Swiss German.

What started as purely a meeting place for artistic entertainment and intellectual exchange became an experimental stage with long-lasting effects.

The performances, like the War they were mirroring, were often raucous and chaotic.

“The people around us were shouting, laughing and gesticulating.  Our replies are sighs of love, volleys of hiccups, poems, moos and meowing of medieval Bruitists.

Tzara is wiggling his behind like the belly of an oriental dancer. (Below right: Tristan Tzara)

Janco is playing an invisible violin and bowing and scraping.

Madame Hennings, with a Madonna face, is doing the splits.


Above: Emmy Hennings

Huelsenbeck is banging away nonstop on the great drum,


Above: Richard Huelsenbeck

with Ball accompanying him on the piano, pale as a chalky ghost.” (Hans Arp, Dadaland)

The term Dada is first used in April 1916, a good two months after the Cabaret Voltaire opened.

There are many legends and explanations regarding the term.

A magical climax takes place on 23 June 1916, when Hugo Ball, dressed as a magical bishop in a Cubist costume, reads his Verses without Words.

Hugo Ball´s poem Karawane

After having recited his first two sound poems, Ball wondered how he should end his performance:

“Then I noticed that my voice had no choice but to take on the ancient cadence of priestly lamentation, that style of liturgical singing that wails in all the Catholic churches of East and West.  For a moment it seemed as if there were a pale, bewildered face in my Cubist mask, that half-frightened, half-curious face of a ten-year-old boy, trembling and hanging avidly on the priest´s words in the requiems and high masses in his home parish.  Then the lights went out, as I had ordered, and bathed in sweat, I was carried down off the stage like a magical bishop.”

(Hugo Ball)

Three weeks later, on 14 July 1916, Ball presented the first Dada manifesto containing three ideas that spelled out Dada´s strategy:

“How does one achieve eternal bliss?  By saying Dada.  How does one become famous?  By saying Dada.  With a noble gesture and delicate propriety.  Till one goes crazy.  Till one loses consciousness.”

(Hugo Ball, Opening Manifesto, 1st Dada Soirée, Zürich, 14 July 1916)

“How does one achieve eternal bliss?

By reaching down into the sources of human consciousness to plumb the depths of the magical world.

How does one become famous?

By reaching out across the globe and eliminating all values and hierarchies encountered.”

(Dada Handbook, Cabaret Voltaire)

A noble gesture and delicate propriety?

“Self-assertion suggests the art of self-metamorphosis.  Magic is the last refuge of individual self-assertion.”

(Hugo Ball, Flight out of Time)

Dare to be different.

Explore the individual that you are.

Sounds familiar?

The next year, in 1917, Dada attained respectability in the Galerie Dada on Zürich´s elegant Paradeplatz.

The Galerie offered new music, expressionist dance, literature and entertainment: puppet shows, raffles, sibylline exotica of a Cabinet of Curiosities featuring artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.

The best acts from the Cabaret Voltaire are performed again.

“The gallery has three faces.  During the day it is a kind of faculty for boarding schools and higher women.  In the evening, the Kandinsky room is a candlelit club for the most remote philosophies.  During the soirées here the festivals are celebrated in such a way that Zürich has not yet seen.” (Hugo Ball, Flight out of Time)

The last Dada soirée in Zürich is held in the Saal zur Kaufleuten on 9 April 1919.

1,500 people were reported to have been present in the auditorium.

After that, Emmy Hennings, the bon vivante of the Cabaret Voltaire, and Hugo Ball, the mystic of Dadaism, turned their back on Zürich and increasingly devoted their interests to their new-found Catholicism.

After Ball left for Bern, Tzara emerged as the new Dada leader.

He began a tireless campaign to spread the movement´s ideals, publishing several issues of the Dada review in the process.

With the end of the War, the original excitement generated at the Cabaret Voltaire fizzled out.

Some of the Dadaists returned to their homelands, but others continued Dadaist activities in other cities like New York, Berlin and Paris.

The Cabaret Voltaire still courts controversy.


It was saved from closure in 2002 by a group of neo-Dadaists who occupied the building illegally.

Despite police eviction and an attempt by the Swiss People´s Party (SVP) to cut funding, the Cabaret Voltaire still functions as an alterative arts space with a cosy duDA bar and a well-stocked Dada giftshop.

Alongside the fireplace in the original upstairs room can be seen a small black and white picture depicting the Cabaret Voltaire in full swing, with Hugo Ball and his friends on stage, and an enthusiastic Vladimir Lenin in the audience, his arm outstretched in support.

Throughout Zürich celebration of the centennial of Dada has begun in the Kunstmuseum Zürich, the Landesmuseum, the Migros Museum, the Altertümer Magazin, the ETH Zürich Focusterra, the Friedrich Forum, the Helmhaus, the Museum Strauhof, the Völkerkundemuseum, the Zunftstadt Zürich, the Mühlerama, the Muséé Visionnaire, the Museum für Gestaltung and the Museum Rietburg.

Zürich is now Dada City, a city on the edge of madness.

(Sources: Wikipedia;

Dada City Zürich Hiking Map, Cabaret Voltaire;

Dada Handbook, Cabaret Voltaire;

Only in Zürich, Duncan J. D. Smith)







Only imbeciles and Spanish professors: Heidi and Dada

Zürich, 8 February 2016

A series of upcoming new classes has necessitated new books, and as St. Gallen and Konstanz (the cities closest to where I live) have limited options in regards to English language teaching materials, I am here to go shopping.

It is a rare opportunity, for normally after Vaduz I would rush to Winterthur to teach technical English, but my private student cancelled this week´s lesson.

So, Carpe diem, seize the day, or at least what remains of it.

The two stores I want to visit – Stäheli Buchhandlung (for textbooks and teaching materials) and The Travel Bookshop (for travel books) – are both located in my favourite Zürich neighbourhood, Altstadt Niederdorf, on the East Bank of the Limmat River.

Today I meet Heidi and ponder the remains of Dada.

At Rosengasse 10, near the Rathaus (city hall) tram stop is a remarkable place, the Hotel Adler (the Eagle Hotel).

Feel at home in Zurich: In the Hotel Adler you can spend the night in the centre of the old town.

Although it may not look particularly special from the outside it has several unusual features:

  • a rainwater toilet-flushing system
  • murals of Altstadt scenes in each of the rooms
  • environmentally friendly minibars
  • a cast iron water fountain for dogs commemorating Zürich animal painter Rudolf Koller (1828 – 1905)
  • (Koller spent the first ten years of his life in the Hotel. His father was innkeeper. Koller observed the animals of the waggoners, which were kept in the stables of the Adler. He scribbled his first sketches on the walls of the house and later became a famous Swiss animal and landscape painter. He would later paint the stray dogs wandering about the Niederdorf.)

Above: Koller´s most famous work, Gotthardpost – Switzerland´s “Pony Express” through the Gotthard Pass

  • one of the city´s oldest and best fondue restaurants

Raclette, one of the swiss' favourite specialities.

  • a full-size fibreglass cow peering out from one of the balconies

Four-legged friends will enjoy Zurich's only stand-up bar for dogs (a fountain for dogs), with constant fresh water.

This building was mentioned in documents for the first time in 1357, as part of Fraumünster Abbey´s obligation to keep horses for the military.

The building would later be inhabited by the town clerk and judges, goldsmiths and tailors.

In 1455, the building is first mentioned as a public house / hotel.

Over 560 years old, it is the oldest public house in the old town of Zurich.

In 1590, the City Council donated a painted glass window to the Adler – probably as a sign of the close link between the nobility and the government.

This meant that it could not be seen from outside how gentlemen conducted themselves while playing at cup and dice in a public house.

By 1900, Hotel Adler had become a drinking dive with a flophouse in the attic – a hostel for riff-raff and vagrants.

In 1953, the Adler was renovated and the Rosenhof inner courtyard created.

The Adler is mentioned for the first time as being a fondue parlour.

Over 60 years old, it is the oldest fondue restaurant in the old town of Zurich.

In 1997, the Adler again undergoes a complete renovation.

The fondue parlour becomes the Swiss Chuchi restaurant with Swiss specialities.

Artist Heinz Blum brings the history of the Zurich old town to all of the 52 hotel rooms and paints the atmospheric Adler courtyard, an imaginary Zurich inner courtyard, on the inner walls over several floors.

In 1998, Heidi, the hotel cow, moves to the balcony on the 1st floor and becomes a well-loved photo subject.

Heidi, the Adler cow, may look a little out of place today, but back in 1998 she was just one of a herd of around 800 cows roaming the streets of Zürich.

Known as Land in Sicht (“the countryside in view”) this unusual public art exhibit was the brainchild of artist Walter Knapp, who commissioned his son Pascal to create clay sculptues of cows standing, grazing and lying down across the city.

They were everywhere, including train stations, shops, restaurants, parks, squares…

The paintwork on each cow was unique in reflecting a specific aspect of life and culture in Zürich.

The cows preceded to conquer the world under the trademark CowParade.

CowParade is an international public art exhibit that has been featured in major world cities.

Fiberglass sculptures of cows are decorated by local artists, and distributed over the city centre, in public places, such as train stations, important avenues, and parks.

They often feature artwork and designs specific to local culture, as well as city life and other relevant themes.

After the exhibition in the city, which may last many months, the statues are auctioned off and the proceeds donated to charity.


Buenos Aires


In the case of the Adler cow, Heidi was commissioned as an advertising gimmick and has remained on the balcony ever since.

The cows of Zürich have prompted many copycat projects around the world, including camels in Dubai, elephants in Hannover, penguins in Liverpool, pigs in Seattle…

But Heidi and the CowParade is not the first art movement that Zürich has initiated…

As I wander the streets of Zürich today there is signage everywhere advertising the centennial of the birth of Dadaism and exhibits across the city celebrating it.

Welcome to the Cabaret Voltaire at Spiegelgasse 1, the birthplace of Dada.



It was here that Dada came into being on 5 February 1916.

So, what was and is Dada?

Hans Arp (1886 – 1966), Alsatian painter, poet and sculpturer, was one of the founders of Dadaism:

“I am convinced that this word is entirely insignificant and that only imbeciles and Spanish professors will be interested in exact dates.”

No one has ever been able to answer that question conclusively.

Johannes Baader (1875 – 1955) was a writer and artist associated with Dada in Berlin:

portrait Baader/Hausmann

Baader is the bearded one.

“Not even the Dadaists know what Dada is.  Only the Ober-Dada does and he tells no one.”

Dada got its name in Zürich and by the 1920s emerged as a Zeitgeist (spirit of the times) that spread throughout the world.

The myth of Dada began with soirées, sound poems, African drums and the name “Dada”.

It spread to New York and became the “Readymade” Dada with machine drawings and the “I am Art” concept.

In Berlin, Dada was propaganda, with collages, photo montages, poster poems and anti-political rheotric.

Paris was provocation, with soirées and scandals, excursions, trials and stage plays, the “cannibalisation and death” of Dada.

Dada would bring into being Surrealism, Letterism, the Beat Generation, Fluxus, performance art, creative actionism and political art.

Branches of the movement would be found in places as far afield as Barcelona, Cologne, Japan and the Tyrol.

Dada is a statement, rather than a style.

Dada took in all the avant garde movements that existed at the time, like Expressionism, Futurism and Cubism, and spit them out in unique forms.

Dada, also called “anti-art”, is a radical negation of art – the first real revolutionary movement in Modernism.

Tristan Tzara (1896 – 1963), Romanian/French poet, essayist and performance artist, was another founder of the Dada movement:

Retrato de Tristan Tzara (Robert Delaunay).jpg

Portrait of Tristan Tzara by Robert Delaunay

“Dada does not signify anything.  It would be futile and a waste of time for a word that signifies nothing.”

In order to understand Dada better, one has to consider the circumstances under which it was born: the world a century ago, the turmoil of the First World War.


Hugo Ball, one of the Cabaret Voltaire´s founders, in his diary Flight Out of Time:


“The world and society in 1913 looked like this: Life is completely confined and shackled.  A kind of economic fatalism prevails.  Each individual, whether he resists or not, is assigned a specific role and with it his interests and his character.  Is there anywhere a force that is strong enough and, above all, vital enough to put an end to this state of affairs?”

This “economic fatalism” is one of the many factors that lead to the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, a devastating war of attrition lasting four years.

A whole generation wasted away in trenches of damp, filth, rats and lice.

Thousands torn to shreds by grenades and tanks, gassed by phosgene, burned by mustard gas.

“By contrast, neutral Switzerland is a birdcage, surrounded by roaring lions.  Switzerland becomes a haven for intellectuals, scientists, poets and artists from all the belligerent nations.  In that haven they sing, paint, make collages, compose poetry and dance, searching for an elementary art and a new order that can heal human beings from the folly of the era and create a balance between Heaven and Hell.”

It was an exciting time.

The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche declared and lamented the death of God, the artist Vassily Kandinsky philosophised about the spiritual in art, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung created psychoanalysis, Albert Einstein discovered the theory of relativity and Vladimir Lenin, residing not far away from the Cabaret Voltaire, worked on the concepts of the Russian Revolution.


“Strange incidents: When we had the Cabaret Voltaire in Zürich at Spiegelgasse 1, there lived at Spiegelgasse 6, opposite us, Lenin.  When we were opening the gallery in Bahnhofstrasse, the Russians went to Petersburg to launch the Revolution.  Is Dadaism a sign and gesture the opposite of Bolshevism?  It will be interesting to observe.”

In my next blog, Gaga about Dada, I will tell you of the adventure of my discovery of Dada and the fuss that Zürich is making over this centennial.

It will be interesting to observe.

(Sources: Wikipedia;

Dada City Zürich Hiking Map, Cabaret Voltaire;

Dada Handbook, Cabaret Voltaire;

Only in Zürich, Duncan J. D. Smith)









Not from my neighbourhood

Landschlacht, Switzerland: 13 February 2016

“I often have to remind people I’m from the New World and all the old rules and formalized hierarchies that stifle and overwhelm others don’t necessarily apply to me. Tell me I can’t do something– are you sure, Dude? Let’s see…”

The above statement was posted by an American Facebook friend of mine yesterday.

A few moments later, someone else responded:

“Some Americans R arrogant.”

I think I might have some sort of an understanding as to where both sides are coming from:

I think there are many things about America that Americans can be justifiably proud of.

They see themselves as decent, hardworking folk who wish the rest of the world well and feel that they do more than their share to help others.

They believe themselves to be free – freer than many others at least – and prosperous – depending how you define prosperity – and they believe that the world truly envies and is in awe of America.

Despite America´s shortcomings – of which there are many – there are many Americans who honestly believe that theirs is the greatest country in the world.

And they site as an example of their awesomeness their lack of “old rules and formalized hierarchies”.

Horse hockey, I say.

An even casual examination of American politics and cultural mores shows that there are definitely old parochial ideas that still dominate popular discussion and hierarchies of power and privilege are as much a part of American life as might be found anywhere else in the world.

As a Canadian ex-pat in Switzerland, I do understand the Dude´s point-of-view to a certain degree:

Vertical triband (red, white, red) with a red maple leaf in the centre

There is a sort of liberating feeling in knowing that as a foreigner you will never completely fit into the landscape you´ve chosen to be in, so why try?

As long as one stays off the radar of those who disappove of your differences, as long as one does not blantantly upset the local mores or break the laws of the land, then you can be, for the most part, whomever you wish to be.

You are a stranger in a strange land with carte blanche to be as weird as you want to be, even to the extent that this strangeness that would be considered odd even back in your homeland is simply considered part-and-parcel of your being a foreigner.

If Landschlacht has encountered only you as a representative of Canada, then your strangeness can simply be written off as:

“Oh, he´s from Canada. He´s odd because he´s foreign.”

But the Dude´s opponent does raise a point worth considering:

Isn´t the Dude´s opinion a demonstration of how he feels his nationality is superior to the ones he has lived and travelled amongst?

Their cultures are adaptable to his life in so far as they do not contradict with his own, for the culture that has worked for him clearly must be superior to others that are outside his experience.

Xenophobia these days has become more popular an international sport than football/soccer.

As far as the Swiss/Americans/English/insert a nationality here are concerned, all of life´s greatest problems can be summed up in one word – foreigners.

Some nations don´t just believe themselves superior to all other nations.

They are convinced to their core that all other nations secretly know they are.

Why do some nationalities and races feel superior to others?

Is there any basis in reality for this feeling?

In the present run-up to the presidential elections in the US, the world constantly hears how the candidates are proud to be citizens of their country, how their vision will make the country great again.

Bernie Sanders.jpg

But what exactly does one take pride in when one means they love their country?

Hillary Clinton speaking at an event in Des Moines, Iowa

By accident of birth most of us are considered citizens of somewhere.

Front of a UN laissez-passer

By choice or circumstance some may leave their birthlands and find themselves residents in an other land.

Is a person more American because his father´s sperm bore fruit in a woman who gave birth on American soil?

Or might it argued that those who live in America by choice have an equal or even more valid claim to patriotism because they chose to reside there?

Are there virtues or failings unique to a nationality?

Or might it argued that we are all human and it is those with power who determine the nation´s character and reputation?

Remove Putin from Moscow and Obama from Washington.

Putin with flag of Russia.jpg

Remove government and you will find that people globally are possessed of both the same virtues and the same failings.

President Barack Obama.jpg

Do the Russians love their children less than the Americans?

Politics divides us and nations are defined by politics.

Are national / racial stereotypes valid in any way whatsoever or they merely misleading reasons for those that choose to hate to have a target for their hate?

Discrimination happens everywhere, even in nations that profess themselves to be enlightened.

Discrimination is based on many factors of difference: race, religion, gender, sexuality, income, language, age.

Demagogues, like Donald Trump, use this fear of the unknown, this distrust of what is different, as a political weapon.

Donald August 19 (cropped).jpg

All of humanity struggles to get, maintain or improve food, housing and safety, but some would go so far as to suggest that this struggle means denying to others that which should be afforded to all by the pure, unspoken laws of morality.

I have been reading an excellent novel about North Korea called The Limits of the World by Andrew Raymond Drennan and I was struck by the following excerpt:


“It had taken hundreds of hours for Han to understand the language of the Internet. 

There were opinions everywhere on every possible topic. 

People abused and swore at perfect strangers for no reason other than they didn´t see the world in the same way. 

Was this what was going on in people´s heads in the Real World? 

Were they all really this mean and bitter and angry and selfish and devoted purely to their own pleasure?

Han couldn´t understand it: they had so much freedom, so why were they so unhappy?”

I do not claim to be more enlightened than anyone else, but I will say that travelling across my own home and native land and exploring other countries and living as a foreigner in foreign lands, has taught me one truism:

I am superior to every man and every man is superior to myself.

I choose to believe that my existence has meaning and that my life touches others.

Their lives touch me and give my existence meaning.

Any fool can hate.

Only the wise make the choice to love.

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 lunar mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the bottom.