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!)






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