Capital Be

Wappen von Bern

Bern: 11 February 2016 / Landschlacht: Easter 2016

A while back, before silence dominated and clouds hung heavy over my head, I began to tell a story about Bern and its people, but much like a cyclist making a sharp turn and crashing onto the ground as his bike slips out from under him on the icy cobblestones, sending things flying in all directions, so have been my thoughts of recent days.

But now I ask that you, gentle readers, follow me to a picturesque city on the River Aare and walk with me between fine buildings lining cobbled streets of one of Europe´s most beautiful and historic towns.

Luftaufnahme der Berner Innenstadt, Juni 2005

Soak in the atmosphere of this town, home to a university, the seat of the Federal Assembly and the headquarters of several international organisations.

The University of Bern

I have always liked Bern, for it values pedestrians and caters to them with pedestrian-only streets and good public transport.

There is much to see and do in this capital that it is hard to know where to begin.

One can shop in department stores or browse in the markets and buy all manner of things: chocolate, shoes and leather goods, music and books, watches and jewellery, crafts and souvenirs, art and antiques.

And let the town entertain you with puppet theatres and zoos, casinos and clubs, cultural centres and live theatre performances, cinemas and festivals.


Where does one begin?

You can choose from the Natural History Museum, the Swiss Rifle Museum, the Bern Historical Museum, the Museum of Communication, the Swiss Alpine Museum, the Kunsthalle (contemporary art gallery), the Albert Einstein Museum, the Bern Collection of Classical Antiquities, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Paul Klee Centre and the Swiss Theatre Museum.

The Paul Klee Centre

Lovers of nature can watch the bears in the Bear Pit, see animals amongst thick lush woods in the Bern Zoo, visit the nurseries and the monastery in Elfenau Park, and explore the acres and acres of greenhouses and greenery in the Botanical Gardens.

The Bear Pits

And, yes, I beg your pardon, Bern even promises you a Rose Garden, with over 223 types of roses, 200 types of irises and 28 different types of rhododendrons, as well as a pond where water lillies flourish.

Wander the streets and be moved by the majesty of magnificent structures to God, including the Holy Spirit Church, the Saints Peter and Paul Church, and St. Vincent´s Cathedral with the highest bell tower and largest bell in Switzerland.

Saints Peter and Paul Church

Stroll the avenue of the arches and see the many many fountains that grace the city.

And in the centre of the old city, the Zytglogge (the clock tower) is as much as the symbol of Bern as its bears.

The Zytglogge is the focal point of public transport and walking routes, the benchmark of official Bern time and the geographical point from which all distances in the Canton are measured.

The Zytlogge´s squat shape, its giant spired roof and its huge gilded clock face brand the image of this tower on your memory for time immemorial.

It is an intricate astronomical and astrological delight, displaying a 24-hour clock, the position of the sun in the zodiac, the day of the week, the date and the month, the phases of the moon and the elevation of the sun above the horizon.

But tourists couldn´t care less, for they gather to watch the display of mechanical movement that is set into motion four minutes before every hour on the clock´s east face.

A rooster crows.

Bears parade.

Chronos demonstrates his hourglass while a jester dances a jig.

Much like the real size of Brussels´ Manneken Pis or Paris´ Louvre exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci´s Mona Lisa, this spectacle of :56 to :00 is underwhelming in its actuality, but yet the throngs still congregate like faithful pilgrims to holy shrines of tourist lore to see the wee figures go through their ritualistic motions.

But step away from the tourist throngs and the shopping arcade and consider those who have chosen to call Bern “home”.

And I don´t mean those ministers and parliamentary folks who serve the Swiss in various governmental capacities but instead ponder the folk who take these cobblestones and fountains and towers for granted.

Artists and rebels have called Bern theirs as have scientists and all types of ordinary sorts.

As a tourist I have met those whose legacy continues to impress long after they themselves have shirk their mortal coils.

The artists: Niklaus Deutsch (1484 – 1530), the naturalist Albert Anker (1831 – 1910), the symbolist Ferdinand Hodler (1853 – 1918), brut artist Adolf Wölfi (1864 – 1930) and abstractionist Paul Klee (1879 – 1940).

The builders: Berthold V of Zähringen, the founder of Bern; Ludwig Zehender, who built an orphange that today serves as the main police station; Anna Seiler, who founded the city´s first hospital; Kaspar Brunner, who built the aforementioned Zytglogge; and Hans Gieng, who built many of the famous fountains that dot the urban landscape.

The rebels: reformers Niklaus Sprüngli and Lorenz Schmidt, anarchists Peter Kropotkin and Mikhail Bakurin, radical leftist squatters of the AJZ Reitschule, and even Lenin himself lived here for a time.

The teachers: Albert Einstein and my old friend Monica Herrmann (who happily is not yet to be listed as deceased!).

All have left their mark on Bern and the world.

All were captivated and shaped by Bern.

It was good to see Monica again.

She had, for a few months, shared a flat with Ute (my wife) and I when we lived in Freiburg im Breisgau, in Germany´s Black Forest.

She amused me then and she amuses me now.

Then she followed a custom that I still see some Bern women do: shave off your eyebrows and paint them on again.

I didn´t understand this then and I still don´t now.

Like many women Monica can be vain.

She liked, and still likes, to display her feminine charms in low cut blouses and high heel shoes, making my wife constantly concerned as to my vulnerability!

But where my vulnerability lies in not in Monica´s sexuality but rather in her strength of character and clear intelligence – the very same attributes that drew me to my wife.

We talk shop (we are both teachers) and share memories and catch up with events that have transpired over the past decade.

It is with great love and affection she talks of her school and her students and her life here in the capital.

And I think to myself that this, right here, is the reason I left Canada to live abroad, why I left the comforts of home to explore the world in my own limited fashion.

Not to peer down a woman´s blouse or admire the posture heels lend a woman´s walk.

Not to cross off a “To do” list places seen and sites visited.

But rather to share a moment in time and space with another person who is so different from oneself.

To see the world not just from my own perspective but through the eyes of those who intimately live in places and know the place´s nuances in a way that would be lost to me otherwise.

For a place is not just its old buildings, its monuments to past glories, its tourist traps or its wonders natural or manufactured, a place is its people who shaped and continue to shape its destiny.

And I think this is something the average tourist, the backpacking bar-hopping type or the hotel/B&B crowd, doesn´t see.

How can they? – for they are restricted by not only limits of time and money but as well their experience and exposure has also been curtailed by their accommodation and choice of itineria.

Though I often suspect the couchsurfing movement to be more of a freeloaders´ thriftiness trend than it is an immersion into a place´s milieu, I still think that at least sleeping in a resident´s spare bed or on their sofa still exposes a traveller to the reality of a place far more than an anonymous hotel room ever can.

And who knows?

That resident file clerk, that mere dabbler in paint, that unknown scribe, that humble teacher of young people, might make a powerful impact on things in the future.

But even this doesn´t matter.

For it is in meeting other people that we affect one another.

And isn´t this, after all is said and done, the reason to walk outside our door?

Not just to see, but rather – to be.



Silence and gold

Landschlacht, Switzerland: 23 March 2016

It has been a time that has tested me both personally and professionally.

It has been a time that has discouraged me, that has made me withdraw silently into myself.

I have written little for over a month.

I have wanted to write, not to say something, but because I had something to say.

But what can I say when so much is so uncertain, so much is felt so deeply, that expression of it feels so revealing, as if writing would open a window to the soul?

As those who know me well, there are times that I find myself fighting periods of depression and, of course, recent events – some personal, some public – have not helped.

Skies seem overcast too often lately.

The newspapers are filled with stories of carnage and suffering.

Site of 13 March 2016 Ankara Bombing.png

Site of Ankara bombing, 13 March 2016


Site of Istanbul bombing, 19 March 2016

People gathering, chalk drawings and flowers for the victims of the Brussels bombings of 21 March 2016.

The largest message says “Brussels is beautiful”, with further inscriptions of “Stop violence”, “Stop war”, “Unity” and “Humanity”.

Of my work life, Starbucks will soon close while the SBB remodels the train station.

Bahnhof St. Gallen bei Nacht, Juli 2014 (2).JPG

After all, taxpayers´ money must be used or next year the same amounts won´t be allocated.

So, to hell with those who might be inconvenienced by it all.

At the end of April, one of my schools closes as the owner has decided to focus on her family´s needs.

At the end of June, another might be closed as the owner died and whose funeral I attended this Monday.

A third and fourth school promise work that never seems to materialise.

Despite being one of the world´s wealthiest countries Switzerland seems to be a difficult place to survive and thrive in unless you came into the country with money or are one of the fortunate few to have landed a job that pays exceedingly well.

It helps if you are Swiss.

Since I moved here in 2010, I have seen three schools fade out of existence.

The local corner grocery in Landschlacht has changed hands three times to finally close its doors forever.

And politically the country remains in the hands of the SVP (Swiss People´s Party) whose sole method of garnering votes is to encourage Swiss nationalism by focusing on those pesky Ausländers who are by their very natures criminal and a threat to the Swiss way of life.


(Sound familiar?)

I find myself intrigued by the thought of escape to another land, another life.

I thought of Turkey, the most accessible Asian country to Switzerland, with similar teaching arrangements as I had enjoyed in South Korea: accommodation, visas, taxes, insurance, flights to and fro, all paid for the school by whom one is employed.

Then bombings in Ankara and Istanbul bring pause…

As for home life, the wife works too much and is stressed out.

We live apart most of the week while she strives for qualifications that only Switzerland recognizes.

Regardless of the threat to marital harmony or the blow to the pocketbook, we follow the scent of security in a land where qualifications mean more than character or experience.

And all is money, money, money.

We must be austere with our money.

And, of course, she is right.

Possessions possess the possessor.

I wonder: what is the going price for one´s soul?

Outside in the world, people have died in attacks in Ankara, Istanbul and Brussels.

Brussels gets the headlines as white Christians are more newsworthy than Turkish Muslims.

And the truth is the first victim.

The mainstream media tells us nothing of what would make young men commit acts of suicidal carnage.

Could it be the bombing of their villages?

Could it be mass starvation and disease caused by sanctions that won´t allow even the most basic of necessities to reach dying families?

Could it be persecution by militia forces, government sponsored and funded, against civilian populations?

It is simpler to label them as criminals, madmen, fanatics.

Meanwhile wars continue in faraway places and remain ignored by the mainstream media.

Folks die in streets and fields faraway.

Without media attention, they go unmourned and forgotten – unpersons.

Children die in faraway places lacking food, clean water, medicine, yet little is reported and nothing is done to assist them.

Infant mortality (under 1 year) rates, 2013

They too are unpersons of little consequence, because they are not in our neighbourhood.

The voices of hate and division seem louder these days and everyone is encouraged to live in a climate of fear and distrust.

But, don´t worry, violence will respond to violence and everyone will be safe and secure.

At least until the next attack…

Donald Trump is only one of many political leaders in the world who use fear and flags to manipulate people.

Yet I presevere.

Yet we must presevere.

In a little village, a stone´s throw away from Heiden, is a 4-year-old boy named Alex who loves his teacher.

In a school devoted to teaching German, I teach an actor how to speak English to qualify as a flight attendant and whose company is more entertaining than an episode of Friends.

In a café where clients are ever impatient and problematic I work with a fine crew of individuals from various ends of the Earth and local yokels who work their hearts out to do the best possible job they can even if it is done in the shadows of obscurity.

They are a damn fine bunch of people.

It is for Alex, it is for the actor, it is for the Starbucks crew, that I find within myself the strength of mind to yet again stumble out my door and face the world.

Yes, the world is not a Utopia.

Yes, it seems that every day the world is becoming more and more of a dystopia.


But it is for them that I presevere.

I live in the moment.

I may distract myself too often electronically, but I always come back to my responsibilities to others and by focusing on them I forget to be depressed.

And this is my message to you who may be reading this:

Focus on others and this love will multiply.

Work on what you can control and leave the rest.

Bad things may happen to good people, but if we stick together we can survive anything.

Refuse to hate those whom you do not understand.

Refuse to live a life in fear of consequence, but simply try to do what´s right.

If anything this past week has taught me is that there are no guarantees in life.

Death can happen to anyone at anytime anywhere.

Poverty or sickness or madness can strike anyone anytime anywhere.

And the bomber will always get through.

We are fools to think that we can truly protect ourselves from the future.

But we have now, this moment.

Love, laugh, celebrate life, help others where and when you can, and speak truth to power when you have the chance, for only our silence gives them power over us.

Otherwise those in the pursuit of power and the greed for gold will make our lives meaningless.

And there is a 4-year-old boy in the tiny hamlet of Zelg who in his innocence shows me that my life does indeed have meaning and purpose.

And there is a woman who has shared my life for 20 years who makes me weak and strong both at the same time.

Every life has meaning.

Our lives touch others.

Make each moment count.