Canada Slim behind bars 1: Voyeurs of tragedy

Dorchester Prison, Dorset, England, Saturday 9 August 1856

A day of drizzle, a crowd of 4, 000 people of all ages gathered to watch a woman swing from a prison scaffold.

Before the gallows, Martha was counselled by the Reverend Clementson, the prison chaplain, so she faced her death composed.

Elizabeth Martha Brown had been convicted of the wilful murder of her husband.

Brown smashed her husband´s skull with an axe, after finding him in bed with another woman and after arguing he returned drunk and attacked her. (5 July 1856)

She did not shed a tear.

She was resigned to her fate, walking with firm steps up the flight of 11 steps.

She wore a long black silk dress.

Her arms were pinioned behind her back.

A white cloth was placed over her face, but as it began to rain, her face became visible, her features visible beneath the hood.

Photo:The end is nigh for Martha Brown in Angel Exit Theatre's production

“I remember what a fine figure she showed against the sky as she hung in the misty rain and how the tight black silk gown set off her shape as she wheeled half-round and back.” 

(Thomas Hardy, 16, witness / architect´s apprentice)

For Brown, convicted of killing her husband after he attacked her with a whip, it was the end.

Hardy was deeply affected by the death of Brown.

“Witnessing the sentence being carried out gave a tinge of bitterness and gloom to Thomas´ life´s work.” (Florence Hardy, widow)

Later he would write of his shame at the behaviour of his younger self.

“My only excuse was that I was but a youth and had to be in town at that time for other reasons.” (Thomas Hardy, 1926)

40 years after the execution, Hardy would give Brown new life as the tragic heroine of his novel, Tess of the d´ Ubervilles.

In the novel, Tess murders her violent partner so she can be with the man she loves, but is caught and executed in a manner inspired by Brown.

Now, beneath the grounds of the old Victorian prison in Dorchester that housed Brown for her final days, archaeologists say they may have found her body.

Dorchester Prison closed in 2013 and was sold to developers who are building 190 homes on its site.

As part of the construction work, archaeologists were brought in to search for anything of historical significance.

While digging a trench they came across human remains, at a place that coincides with the marked burial place for executed prisoners.

Since records show that only 8 prisoners ended up in the plot and only one of them was a woman, Brown should be easy to identify.

(The Times, 20 February 2016)

17 July 1967, Newport Folk Festival

Singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie performs his talking blues, folk music, satirical, first-person account, Alice´s Restaurant Massacree, based on a true incident from his life that began on Thanksgiving Day 1965 with a citation for littering and ended with the refusal of the US Army to draft him because of his conviction for that crime.

“Now, friends, there was only one or two things that Obie (Stockbridge Chief of Police William Obanhein) could have done at the police station.

The first was he could have given us a medal for being so brave and honest on the telephone (Guthrie confessed on the phone that he had dumped a load of garbage over a cliff off the side of a road.), which wasn´t very likely and we didn´t expect it.

And the other thing was he could have bawled us out and told us never to be seen driving garbage around the vicinity again, which is what we expected.

But when we got to the police station, there was a third possibility that we hadn´t even counted upon, and we was both immediately arrested, handcuffed.”

The ironic punchline of the story is that…

I went over to the Sargeant and said:

“Sargeant, you got a lot of damn gall to ask me if I´ve rehabilitated myself.  I mean I´m sitting here on the bench, here on the Group W bench, because you want to know if I´m moral enough to join the Army, burn women, kids, houses and villages, after bein´ a litterbug.”

For me, Guthrie´s following words I can relate to:

“And the only reason I´m singing this song now is because you may know somebody in a similar situation, or you may be in a similar situation, and if you´re in a situation like that, there´s only one thing you can do…”

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 25 June 2016

Now I, like many folks, have a fascination and a curiosity about prisons and prison life.

At first, like most folks, my interest was detached, distant.

I preferred to read literature or see films about the prison experience.

I have seen and collected films about life in prison, some memorable, others not so much.

To name some of the few I have collected: Brubaker, Escape from Alcatraz, Con Air, Faceoff, Get the Gringo, Goodfellas, The Green Mile, Papillon, The Rock, Shawshank Redemption

It is a rare TV series that doesn´t have its main characters briefly incarcerated.

And TV series have developed about prison life: Arrested Development, Maximum Security, Orange Is the New Black, Prison Break

And reality TV has evolved beyond this concrete jungle behind bars…

Clark County Jail, Indiana, 15 March 2016

When Jamie Noel became Sheriff, he promised to reform the local jail.

“The inmates were running the facility.  People were getting arrested just because drugs were cheaper in jail.”

Noel´s solution?

He decided to stage a reality TV show, 60 Days In.

The jail´s cameras were upgraded to allow for broadcast worthy footage.

Prisoners were told that a “documentary” was being filmed which would explain the camera crew ranging through the jail.

A & E Networks, a channel that delights in staging reality TV shows, was promised an entertaining series about life on the inside.

Noel looked forward to a fully funded undercover operation to expose corruption and drug trafficking in his prison.

Seven civilian contestants were brought in, all supposedly serving three months´ hard time.

Among them was a primary school teacher (He hoped to bring back important life lessons for his students.), a housewife (concerned that jail was “too cushy”), a Marine named Zac (who felt that jail would be easier than his time in Afghanistan where “if you woke up in the morning and you went to sleep at night with the same number of fingers and toes you had a good day” and hoped to work for the DEA), and a social worker / the eldest daughter of Muhammed Ali (interested in understanding why recidivism – repeat offenders – rates are so high).

Only Sheriff Noel and two senior staff members knew who were and who were not real inmates.

Other undercover operations failed because the undercover officers did not like to “rat on other officers” and “inmates won´t snitch on each other”, but seven civilians, from all walks of life, would be free to offer the unvarnished truth.

Noel thought thal the contestants could help to expose what was wrong with his jail.

“I felt I needed to see things from a different perspective.  It´s almost impossible to get an unbiased look at what´s working and what´s not.”

At least one piece of intelligence from the show is said to have led to criminal charges.

(The Times, 15 March 2016)

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 25 June 2016

I have read and collected accounts of prison life from Jeffrey Archer (A Prison Diary), Mikhail Khodorkovsky (My Fellow Prisoners), Leonard Peltier (Prison Writings), Jacobo Timerman (Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number), and Mary Tyler (My Years in an Indian Prison).

In fact incarceration and literature are so intertwined with one another that it even has its own literary genre called “prison literature” which is defined as “literature that is written while the author is confined in a location against his will”.

“The literature can be about prison, informed or inspired by it, or simply coincidentally written while in prison.

It can be a memoir, non-fiction or fiction.” (Wikipedia)

The list of prison writers is quite extensive.

Just to name a few: Boethius, Marco Polo, Miguel de Cervantes, Sir Walter Raleigh, John Bunyan, Martin Luther, Marquis de Sade, Napoleon Bonaparte, Fyodor Doestoevsky, Oscar Wilde, e.e. cummings, Adolf Hitler, Jean Genet, William Stanley Porter (better known as O. Henry), Nelson Mandela, Donald Lowrie, Malcolm X, Jack London…

Prison literature reveals the brutality of life behind bars, and, for many, a glimpse into a world of the unknown, the fascinating.

Now much like the seven civilians of 60 Days In or actors who have portrayed prisoners in their career roles, I realised there existed a streak in my character of curiosity about life in the inside – a case of wanting to do the time without committing a crime.

And I discovered that this fascination was not unique to myself.

At the start of the 21st century, the United States had an incarceration rate of 2,000,000 people, taking the lead with the highest imprisonment rate worldwide. (Wikipedia)

One in ten Russian men pass through prison at some point in their lives. (Mikhail Khodorkovsky, My Fellow Prisoners)

Russia has never really been perceived as a bastion of freedom, but can these things really happen in prosperous freedom-loving America?

This America, this democratic haven, this land of liberty, its incarceration rate is a challenge to everything the nation was founded on, to everything it claims to represent.

Prison is a nasty, brutish life – a life the authorities would rather we not know about, a life so far from conventional existence that the accounts seem unbelievable.

We tend to forget that what happens inside prison walls inevitably reflects the society outside.

Or put another way: Wherever we go, there we are.

So, if prison reflects who we really are, under the skin of civilisation and conformity and proper etiquette, then prison helps us discover our hidden selves, our dark natures.

But, for the grace of God, we could be criminals, prisoners, ourselves.

At the Landschlacht train station last week, a neighbour commented to me on how the extremes of nature bring out the voyeurs who wanted to see firsthand the damages that nature can wrought.

Many people, including my neighbour and my wife, have walked along the shore of Lake Constance to witness the flooding that the recent neverending rainy weather has caused.

And notice how people will gather and gawk at a traffic accident…not to offer assistance or get involved but rather to stare at this unexpected incident as if being in its presence will somehow enhance our own life experiences.

My neighbour labelled this phenomenon “disaster tourism“.

Under this disaster tourism theme one can also find the concept of prison tourism.

In the posts that follow I will relate my experiences as prison tourist, prison tour guide and prisoner…






When the last Luddites walk away…

Nottingham, England, 1811

They move about in bands at night, masked and sworn to secrecy, smashing up the new machinery which is taking over the textile industry.

Their leader is a mysterious man named Ned Ludd of Sherwood Forest, who has been likened to the legendary Robin Hood as a friend of the poor and the discontented.

The hardships caused by England´s long war with France have been greatly increased by the new technology, which is displacing the old handicraft methods of producing stockings and lace.

The high levels of productivity achieved by the new knitting frames have reduced the demand for labour, so even those craftsmen who keep their jobs suffer wage cuts.

The Luddites are well-organised and have public opinion on their side.

They have been reported in action as far north as Yorkshire and Lancashire.  (Chronicle of the World)


They said Ned Ludd was an idiot boy,
That all he could do was wreck and destroy,
He turned to his workmates and said: “Death to Machines
They tread on our future and they stamp on our dreams.”

Robert Calvert, “Ned Ludd”, Freq

Plymouth, England, 27 January 2016

“A child-sized robot, L2TOR, (“El Tutor”) is taking over from teachers to help children learn foreign languages.

The robot, programmed by British academics and designed to look friendly, has been piloted in UK schools and is being rolled out in Europe.

El Tutor can react to children´s moods and personalities and pick up on non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions.

Experts found that children learnt more easily from a robot than from a computer because a robot activates the social part of children´s brains.

The robots were initially used to teach maths and history but will now become language teachers to help Turkish children moving to the Netherlands and Germany.

El Tutor is a programme funded by the European Union to develop artifically intelligent teachers for preschool children.

(The Times, 27 January 2016)

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 22 June 2016

To my delight and surprise I have had a three-day break from teaching as all my students are away on vacation this week.

Two days spent walking the Camino de Santiago – the Appenzeller Way section in Switzerland – has made me think yet again about what walking means to me and just how anti-technological this makes me.

As is often the case with movie buffs and rabid reading fans such as myself, I am reminded of two events in TV and movies that seem to fit my sentiments this evening:

2 February 1967 or Stardate 2947.3

Star Trek TOS logo.svg

“During an ion storm the Enterprise takes a severe buffeting and Records Officer Ben Finney (Richard Webb) enters the starship´s ion pod to take important readings.

When the storm makes it necessary to jettison the pod, Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) follows normal procedures and warns Finney to evacuate.

The pod is jettisoned with Finney apparently inside.

At Starbase 12 Commodore L. T. Stone (Percy Rodrigues) institutes a court martial against Kirk after discovering that Enterprise computer records show that the Captain did not give Finney an adequate chance to escape from the pod.

Lieutenant Areel Shaw (Joan Marshall), the prosecuting attorney and an old girlfriend of Kirk´s, retains the brilliant but eccentric lawyer Samuel T. Cogley (Elisha Cook Jr.) to defend the Captain.

Although all the evidence is against Kirk, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) refuses to believe that his Captain did not go by the rules.

The Vulcan decides that the Enterprise computer´s evidence is wrong.

Spock plays chess with the computer, winning several games and thereby discovers the machine´s programming has been altered.

Finney is actually alive and hiding abroad the Enterprise.

Due to an old grudge, Finney had hoped to fake his own death to discredit Captain Kirk.” (Allan Asherman, The Star Trek Compendium)

This episode impressed me for two reasons:

First, the chess playing with the computer – Spock expected to be beaten by the computer.

I will never forget the rage and consternation and angst many people felt when the computer Deep Blue outplayed world chess champion Gary Kasparov on 11 May 1997.

(Above: Deep Blue)

“For millenia, mastery of chess had indicated the highest, most refined intelligence – and now a computer could play better than the very best human…

…The attribution of intelligence to machines…obscures more than it illuminates.

When people are told that a computer is intelligent, they become prone to changing themselves in order to make the computer appear to work better, instead of demanding that the computer be changed to become more useful.

People already tend to defer to computers, blaming themselves when a digital gadget or online service is hard to use.”

(Jaron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget)

Secondly I was impressed with Cogley´s defence of Kirk against the Enterprise computers:

Cogley: Don´t you like books?

Kirk: I like them fine, but a computer takes less space.

Cogley: A computer.  I´ve got one of these in my office.  Contains all the precedents.  The synthesis of all the great legal decisions written throughout time….I never use it.

Kirk:  Why not?

Cogley: I´ve got my own system.  Books, young man.  Thousands of them.  If time wasn´t so important, I´d show you something.  My library.  Thousands of books.

Kirk: What´s the point?

Cogley: This is where the law is.  Not in that homogenized, pasteurized synthesizer.  Do you want to know the law?  The ancient concepts in their own language?  Learn the intent of the men who wrote them?  Books.

Kirk: You are either a crackpot who has escaped from his keeper or Samuel T. Cogley, attorney at law.

Cogley: Right on both counts.

Later in the courtroom:

Cogley:  Human rights, sir.  Human rights. 

The Bible, the Code of Hammurabi and Justinian, the Magna Carta, the Constitution of the United States….

Gentlemen, these documents speak of rights. 

Rights of the accused to a trial of his peers, to be represented by counsel, the rights of cross-examination, but, most importantly, the right to be confronted by the witnesses against him.

The most devastating witness against my client is not human.

It´s a machine, an information system, the computer log of the Enterprise.

I speak of rights.

A machine has none. 

A man must.

My client has the right to face his accuser.

If you do not grant him that right, you have brought us down to the machine´s level.

Indeed you have elevated that machine above us.

I ask that my motion be granted and more than that, gentlemen…

In the name of a humanity fading in the shadow of the machine…

I demand it!  I demand it!”

I am also reminded of the 1995 film Sabrina starring Harrison Ford, Julia Ormond and Greg Kinnear.

Sabrina movie.jpg

Ford plays Linus Larabee, a busy tycoon who has no room for love in his appointment book, but when a romance between his playboy brother David (Kinnear) and Sabrina (Ormond), the chauffeur´s daughter, threatens one of Linus´ business deals, the CEO clears his schedule for some ruthlessness.  He courts Sabrina, intending to drop her when the deal closes.

The scene that sticks in my mind is when Linus is flying Sabrina to Martha´s Vineyard:

They exit a helicopter and walk towards a private jet:

Linus: (The helicopter) Saves all that time fighting traffic.

Later abroad the jet:

Sabrina: Don´t you ever look out the window?

Linus: When do I have time?

Sabrina: What happened to all that time we saved taking the helicopter?

Linus: I´m storing it up.

Sabrina: No, you´re not.

The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximise the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between.

New timesaving technologies make most workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be acclerating around them.

The rheotric of efficiency around those technologies suggests that what cannot be quantified cannot be valued – that the vast array of pleasures which fall into the category of doing nothing in particular, of woolgathering, cloudgazing, wandering, window shopping, are nothing but voids to be filled by something more definite, more productive, faster paced.

The indeterminacy of a ramble, on which much may be discovered, is being replaced by the determinate shortest distance to be traversed with all possible speed, as well as by the electronic transmissions that make real travel less necessary.

…these things have their uses, … but I fear their false urgency, their call to speed, their insistence that travel is less important than arrival.

I like walking because it is slow, and…the mind, like the feet, works at about 3 mph.

Modern life is moving faster than the speed of thought, of thoughtfulness.

Walking is about being outside, in public space.

Public space is being abandoned and eroded, eclipsed by technologies and services that don´t require leaving home….

Cars function best as exclusionary devices, as mobile private space.

Even driven as slowly as possible, cars still don´t allow for the directness of encounter, for the fluidity of contact, that walking does….

Television, telephones, home computers and the Internet along with cars make complete the privatization of everyday life, making it less necessary to go out into the world and thus accommodate retreat from, rather than resistance to, the deterioration of public space and social conditions.” (Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking)

Perhaps my professional days as a teacher of English as a foreign language are numbered.

Perhaps we have gone too far ahead technologically to ever attempt to turn back the hands of time and return to an era before Smartphones, the Internet, the computer, the automobile.

I too like many of my generation have become overly dependent upon machines to regulate and dominate my daily life.

But while birds sing, while winds blow through the fields and forests, while the sun can shine upon my face or the raindrops fall upon my head, I take every opportunity I can to go for a walk outside.

It takes me hours to cover distances that cars and trains can conquer in minutes, but outside in nature, alone on a path, with only my thoughts as companions, I have something that technology has yet to take away from me: freedom.

While others think I waste my time, I taste time as sweet as honey, as aromatic as a rose, as gentle as drizzle, as warm as an afternoon windowsill, as profitable to my spirits as a lottery win to a bank account.

I live my life at my own pace, my heartbeat the only drumbeat I march to, I live in the moment, now is Nature´s present.

I must sign off for now.

I am going for another walk today.


Shakespeare in the original Klingon

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 20 June 2016


“All the world´s a stage and all the men and women merely players.  They have their exits and their entrances and one man in his time plays many parts.” (William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act 2, Scene 7)

“You have not experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon.”

(Klingon Chancellor Gorkon, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country)

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and movement, how express and admirable! In action, how like an angel! In apprehension, how like a god!”

(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2)

I am an English-as-a-second-language teacher, both by profession and by preference.

And as such, having lived and taught in countries like Canada, South Korea, Germany and Switzerland, I have found myself mostly teaching English grammar and vocabulary to students whose goals were functional and practical in regards to applying English for their future in business.

As the chief goals of English language learning in capitalist countries tend to be focused on acquiring more capital, it is sadly rare to find myself discussing literature and culture in my classes.

Happily, at present, I find myself teaching a conversation course in Winterthur every Friday morning that allows me to bring into discussions these oft neglected ESL themes.

My modus operandi (m.o) is as follows:

Every two weeks the students are given works of literature, in easy reader editions, to read and to be prepared to discuss.

So far this year I have had them read Nick Hornby´s About a Boy, Eric Emmanuel Schmitt´s Monsieur Ibrahim and the Flowers of the Qur´an, Agatha Christie´s Murder on the Orient Express, Johann Wyss´s The Swiss Family Robinson, Jojo Moyes´s Honeymoon in Paris and Nevil Shute´s On the Beach.

My choices of literature have been rather serendipitious and randomly haphazard and I have longed to have them attempt more powerful works, but I have shied away from the works of William Shakespeare with my conversation ladies.

Shakespeare is not an easy author for readers whose English is still in formation.

In the weeks between their receipt of books to read and their discussion of them, I bring in newspaper articles for them to discuss.

I am particularly fond of a publication from Sprachzeitungen called World and Press, which takes articles from various British and American newspapers and combines them into a small compendium newspaper with the potentially difficult words translated into German below the articles.

Three recent articles in particular caught my eye and have made me think about how language is invented and how language has affected my life:

“William Shakespeare may have fancied himself as a playwright of infinite jest, but dozens of his jokes fall flat with modern readers because of changes in English pronunciation over the past 400 years.

Modern audiences experience several jarring moments in each of his plays because his puns no longer work.

David Crystal, author of the Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation, spent 12 years combing through the plays to create versions that Elizabethean audiences would have understood.

Cover for The Oxford Dictionary of Original Shakespearean Pronunciation

Crystal´s work is designed to enable theatre companies to put on plays spoken in their original pronunciation.

In Hamlet, the title character tells the audience:

“Frailty, thy name is woman.”

A pun of the period was to pronounce woman, with a long vowel so that it sounded like “woe-man“.

When a scurrilous Greek named Thersites insults the warrior Ajax, in Troilus and Cressida, merely by saying his name, one thinks:

“Why is that an insult?”

You have to know that Ajax was pronounced “a jakes“, which was an Elizabethean word for “shithouse“.” (The Times, 16 February 2016)

Back in high school, I found myself often surprised and shocked by how rude and ribald Shakespeare could be, when I was not distracted by our English teacher Miss Duke´s tendency to wear short skirts as she taught!

“For centuries theories have swirled about whether Shakespeare´s heart – as well as his muse – resided in Stratford-upon-Avon rather than London.

Now those in charge of excavating his final home believe that they have established that instead of merely retiring to Stratford after a glittering career in the capital, Shakespeare based himself there, with only the occasional commute to London.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has been charged with reimagining Shakespeare´s final home, New Place, which he bought in Stratford in 1597, but which was destroyed in the years after his death in 1616.

Archaeological excavations at the site – a five-million-pound project for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare´s death – have unearthed what they believe is a pleasure palace that nobody would want to leave for lodgings in London.

There were up to 30 rooms, 10 hearths, a beer-brewing room, the only house in town with a courtyard, and a Long Gallery – in short, a good house for parties.

“This is not a house you would want to stay away from if you owned it.” 

(Dr. Paul Edmondson, head of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust)

Beyond the charms of the family home, there was also the presence of a London courier, William Greenway, across the road from New House, who could have brought the playwright books and messages from the capital, reducing Shakespeare´s own need to undertake the three-day journey.

Shakespeare, as far as it is known, only ever lodged in London, which was unusual for actors of the day who often bought properties.

Shakespeare is known to have bought one London property – at Blackfriars Gatehouse – which he immediately rented out to tenants.

There is in fact little evidence of Shakespeare being in the capital at all, although there is little doubt he would have attended performances of his plays at court and theatres.

The Trust is convinced that the playwright would not have hung around in London if he had a country place to go to.

Stratford-upon-Avon offered the inspirations Shakespeare needed to write his timeless works.

“A picture emerges of Shakespeare being nothing more than an intermittent lodger in London.  New Place is part of how Shakespeare had a rhythm to his writing.  He was writing two to three plays a year.  He had to produce blockbusters.  He needed time, focus and energy to do that.”(Edmondson)”

(The Times, 6 February 2016)

Stratford would have great effect upon my life as well.

St. Thomas, Ontario, Canada, February 1991

“Hitting the open road with a open mind to match is the agenda for Adam Kerr (25) during the next five years…completing his adventure – a “walkabout” across Canada…

…the backpack-laden Mr. Kerr wandered into Stratford for a brief stay…

“The reason to travel is to meet people – people are what make a country.”

But in as much as his journey is an adventure, it is also a learning experience and a test of resilience.

“I don´t take being told “No” personally anymore.”

But “no” is what he sometimes hears when he knocks on farmhouse doors looking for someplace warm to sleep on cold winter nights.

Although he carries a “supposedly” four-season two-man tent and down-filled sleeping bag, he said nights can get really cold.

The other night in Shakespeare, Kerr got turned down everywhere he went, prejudicing his opinion against the hamlet.

“If you didn´t know who William Shakespeare was and you walked into Shakespeare, Ontario, you´d think he was a truck-driving antique dealer.”

As for Stratford, Kerr frankly said he was disappointed.

Kerr compared the East End up to Romeo Street to suburban Scarborough in Toronto.

Things improve after that, with Ontario Street conjuring up images of Shakespeare´s The Winter´s Tale.

The county courthouse and the city hall also drew high praise.

Above: City Hall, Stratford, Ontario, Canada

“If the OMB (Ontario Municipal Board) gods looked down, they´d say “Bravo”.”

But Kerr´s overall impression of Stratford trying to imitate its namesake in England has turned out more like “Tweed-upon-the-river-Nith”…

(St. Thomas Times-Journal, 28 February 1991)

To say that my remarks annoyed the locals of Stratford and Shakespeare would be an understatement!

But I felt then, as I still feel today, that Canada should have an identity of its own rather than be a copy of the colonial powers that usurped the land from the native populations already residing there and whose names for places were both original and beautiful.

I don´t want London, Ontario to be a pale awkward imitation of London, England, but instead I want it to have an identity separate and proud.

As much as I admire Stratford´s dedication to the heritage of William Shakespeare, and have had nothing but the highest of praise for its excellent Shakespeare Festival Theatre and its performances, Stratford should celebrate its uniqueness as Canadian and not a namesake of a far distant city in England.

(Above: Shakespeare Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario, Canada)

And what was wrong with the first name, Little Thomas, that the colonists chose before Thomas Mercer Jones, of the British land development company, Canada Company, dubbed the place Stratford?

I have always felt it rather arrogant and historically disrespectful of folks to rename a place with little regard to the name it first had.

History and the names we give places are truly written by the conquerors.

Stratford-upon-Avon, England, 27 July 1996

After my walkabout and after a time of working and saving money in Ottawa, I decided I wanted to follow another dream of mine: to explore Europe.

And it would be in Stratford-upon-Avon where a new chapter of my life would begin:

“I had everything planned for travelling about Europe.

I had bought an open-ended airline ticket valid for a year.

I had work waiting for me in Oxford.

I was footloose and fancy-free, no ties, no commitments.

That year, my 31st, I worked in Oxford, Leicester, Nottingham and Cardiff at various “McJobs” I could find: in factories, in old age homes, on the street, in a youth hostel, for the University.

SHE meanwhile was studying medicine in Freiburg im Breisgau in the Black Forest of Germany and was doing an apprenticeship in Liverpool.

I was working in Leicester at this time.

One long weekend, I impulsively decided to visit Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare’s birthplace.

(Above: John Shakespeare’s house, William Shakespeare´s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, England)

SHE, having completed her apprenticeship period, was travelling around England.

We met that evening of 27 July 1996 at the youth hostel in Stratford.

(Above: YHA hostel, Stratford-upon-Avon, England)

It was love at first sight.

I thought she was HOT.

SHE thought my guidebooks were terrific.

For five years, we lived on separate continents: SHE remaining in Freiburg, I in Canada, then in South Korea.

For another five years, we lived together in Freiburg.

We’ve been married for ten years.”

(“How SHE came to be”, The Chronicles of Canada Slim, 6 August 2015)

Ute and I explored Stratford-upon-Avon together, not only learning about one another, Stratford-upon-Avon taught us many things about Shakespeare we had never known:

  • Shakespeare invented many new words in the English word, including the word “assassination”.
  • The English language owes a great debt to Shakespeare: He invented over 1,700 of our common words by changing nouns into verbs, changing verbs into adjectives, connecting words never before used together, adding prefixes and suffixes, and devising words wholly original.
  • Shakespeare willed his fortune to his daughter and only a bed to his wife.
  • Shakespeare wrote a total of 154 sonnets and 36 plays.
  • There have been more than 500 film and TV adaptations of Shakespeare´s dramas.
  • Shakespeare was said to have had a huge vocabulary:  His works contained some 30,000 words compared to just 3,000 used by the average adult today.
  • Shakespeare is generally acknowledged to be the greatest imaginative writer in the English language and his works have been translated into most of the world´s languages and are read, taught and performed all over the globe.

Suwon, South Korea, 1999 – 2000

To ensure myself an easier time finding work in Germany, to join my German girlfriend living in Freiburg im Breisgau, I decided I needed to work / teach overseas / out of Canada.

I worked in Suwon, a 30-minute train ride south of Seoul, teaching English to children ages 4 to 14 at a hogwan (private school) and conversational / medical English to doctors at a hospital.

As impressive as Shakespeare was in regards to inventing new words into the English language, I learned that a note of respect must also be extended to Korean King Sejong the Great (1397 – 1450), who took a spoken language that had been considered only to be a Chinese dialect and created a written language that forged a nationality that only the Second World War could sever.

조선의 제4대 국왕 (Korean for King Sejong the Great)

The Korean language, hangul in Korean, like its cousins Chinese and Japanese, is a very tonal language where a slip of the tongue could find yourself calling your mother-in-law bountiful (as in overweight) rather than beautiful (!), but it is surprisingly a relatively easy language to learn to read as it possesses only 14 consonant symbols and 6 vowel symbols, so within a short time I was able to read bus and train signs.

Korean is spoken by 63 million people in North and South Korea and by 80 million people worldwide.

Not bad for an invented language…

Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, 2000 – 2004

After South Korea I moved to Germany to be with my girlfriend, who would later become my wife, and there would I learn that here too Shakespeare´s magic wound through German culture.

“Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe were, and still are, revered across Europe, but even they were indebted to the English.

Goethe´s mentor Johann Gottfried Herder was convinced that in order to find their proper voice, German writers had to first look to the British Isles: Schäkespear was destined to create us Germans.

For the generation who laid the foundations of German culture, there was no way around the English playwright.

Wieland and Schlegel were considerably more famous for their Shakespeare translations than for their own writing in their lifetime.

Schiller adored Othello at school and died trying to write his own version of the play.

Goethe felt a deep inferiority complex when faced with Shakespeare:

“I am often ashamed before Shakespeare, for it often happens that at first glance I think: I would have done that differently, but soon I realise that I am a poor sinner, that nature prophesies through Shakespeare and that my characters are soap bubbles from romantic fancies….

Hamlet and his monologues are ghosts that haunt all young German souls.  Everyone knows them by heart and everybody believes that they can be as melancholic as the prince of Denmark.””

(Philip Oltermann, Keeping Up with the Germans: A History of Anglo-German Encounters)

In downtown Freiburg, in a bookshop devoted to science fiction, I would learn of Shakespeare´s effect on one of my favourite TV and movie franchises: Star Trek.

In Star Trek “historical” canon:

1986: A painting of William Shakespeare is on sale at an antique store in San Francisco. (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home)

2153: Shakespeare´s works are among the examples of Earth literature provided to the Vissians. Vissian Captain Drennik quotes from Hamlet and expresses admiration for Macbeth.  Captain Archer advises them to take their time in reading the plays. (Enterprise: Cogenitor)

2155: In the mirror universe Phlox commented that Shakespeare´s work is similar in both unvierses. (Enterprise: In a Mirror Darkly)

2266: The Enterprise hosts the Karidian Company of Players, a travelling Shakespearean acting troupe.  While on board they put on a performance of Hamlet. (Star Trek: The Conscience of the King)

2269: At the Elba II asylum, Marta cites Shakespeare´s Sonnet XVIII and claims that she wrote it. but Garth corrects her. (Star Trek: Whom Gods Destroy)

2293: The works of Shakespeare are already well-known to Klingons, such as Chancellor Gorkon and General Chang, with Gorkon stating that Shakespeare could only be understood in the original Klingon and Chang quoting liberally from Shakespeare´s plays. (Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country)

Shakespeare is mentioned and often quoted in many episodes of Star Trek, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Star Trek: Voyager, showing not only an ongoing love of Shakespeare in our time of the TV production of these series but a suggestion that in the imagined future Shakespeare´s works will continue to hold sway.

But it is in the suggestion of “Shakespeare in the original Klingon” that members of the Klingon Language Institute (an independent organisation based in Flourtown, Pennsylvania) translated the text of Hamlet into Klingon.

Klingons are a fictional extraterrestrial humanoid species in the Star Trek franchise.


The key word here is fictional.

But for the sake of a sense of realism and to create empathy for aliens Star Trek manufactured alien cultural attributes akin to humanity.

As originally developed by screenwriter Gene L. Coon, Klingons were swarthy humanoids characterized mainly by prideful ruthlessness and brutality.

Totalitarian, and with a martial society relying on slave labour, they reflected analogies with both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Although Cold War tensions are apparent in the characterization, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry did not intend any explicit political parallels.

With a greatly expanded budget for makeup and effects, the Klingons were completely redesigned in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979), acquiring ridged foreheads that created a continuity error not explained until 2005.

In later films and in the spin-off series Star Trek: The Next Generation, the militaristic traits of the Klingons were bolstered by an increased sense of honour and strict warrior code similar to those of the Japanese warrior code of bushido.

Among the elements created for the revised Klingons was a complete Klingon language, developed by American linguist Marc Okrand, from gibberish suggested by Canadian actor James Doohan.

Spoken Klingon has entered popular culture, even to the extent that the works of William Shakespeare and the Bible have been translated into it.

A dictionary, a book of sayings, and a cultural guide to the language have been published.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Klingon is the world’s most popular fictional language as measured by number of speakers. (Wikipedia)

Which finally leads me to the article which inspired this post:

“A dispute over the ownership of the Klingon language is boldly going where no legal row has gone before after two major Hollywood studios cited their copyright of the fictional Star Trek tongue to block the production of a fan-funded film.

Paramount Pictures and CBS Studios are locked in a battle with the production team behind Star Trek: Axanar, an independent Star Trek prequel, amid claims that the fan film infringes copyright.

The use of the Klingon language was first spoken in the first Star Trek film in 1979 and has been used by the franchise ever since.

Estimates vary, but there are thought to be just 20 to 30 fluent Klingon speakers worldwide, though the independent Klingon Language Institute in Flourtown, Pennsylvania, is attempting to boost numbers through a scholarship programme.

However linguistic experts say the cumbersome language is struggling to attract new speakers as it is useful for discussing intergalactic warfare and blood feuds but with just 3,000 words lacks everyday vocabulary.”

(The Independent, 15 March 2016)

It is believed that 90% of the 7,000 languages currently spoken in the world will have become extinct by 2050, as the world’s language system has reached a crisis and is dramatically restructuring. (Wikipedia)

Despite the popularity of the Star Trek franchise I can´t help but wonder if this battle over a 3,000-word, 30-speaker invented language of a fictional alien species is nothing more than Much Ado about Nothing.

I remain ever grateful for the ways that William Shakespeare has woven his way through the thread of my life, but I wonder what William Shakespeare would have thought about this strange modern age we live in.

Would he say…

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.

Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more.

It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.” ?

Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

I wonder.























Shame denied

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 16 June 2016

“You can judge a nation by the way it treats its most vulnerable members.” (Aristotle)

“…the best test of a nation´s righteousness is how it treats the poorest and most vulnerable in its midst.” (Jim Wallis)

In St. Gallen stands a man, a beggar named Bruno, who hangs around outside the McDonald´s near the main train station.

No one is certain why he is there, day after day, regardless of the season or the weather.

Some say that he came from money and chose to be homeless, but it is easier to blame the poor for their poverty, then holding the rich accountable for a society´s inequality and unfairness in wealth distribution.

24, 000 people die every day from hunger.

3/4 of the deaths are children under the age of 5.

Is it somehow the children´s fault that they are poor?

Over one billion people have to survive on less than $1.00 US a day.

842, 000, 000 people across the world will go to bed hungry tonight.

Is this somehow their fault for their condition?

If so, then being poor is a choice?

If a choice, then shouldn´t it be outlawed?

Some communities seem to think so…

“Sussex Police has been accused of needlessly criminalising rough sleepers by using plain clothes officers to catch people begging on the streets.

They have arrested more than 60 people in Brighton for begging last year.

Critis argue that fines routinely imposed for begging offences simply increase the financial burden on rough sleepers, many of whom may have drug or alcohol abuse isses.

“People are effectively being victimized for sleeping rough.  We have a ridiculous situation where homeless people are being arrested for asking for a few pennies, fined by the courts and then put back out on the street.  These are vulnerable individuals being criminalised…” (Jason Knight, Brighton social worker / businessman)

“It is difficult to see why it is in the public interest to pursue these cases.  I am not talking about aggressive begging or harassment but situations where people have asked for a few pence.” (Ray Pape, defence lawyer)”

(The Independent, 9 February 2016)

“According to the Economic Innovation Group, a nonprofit research and advocacacy organisation, the gap between the richest and poorest American communities has widened since the Great Recession ended and distressed areas are faring worse just as the recovery is gaining traction across much of the country.

From 2010 to 2013, employment in the most prosperous neighbourhoods in the US increased by more than 20%, but in bottom-ranked neighbourhoods, the number of jobs fell sharply.  One in ten businesses closed down.

“The most prosperous areas have enjoyed rocket ship growth.  There you are very unlikely to run into someone without a high school diploma, a person living below the poverty line or a vacant house.  That is just not part of your experience.” (John Lettieri, Senior Director for Policy and Strategy, Economic Innovation Group)

By contrast, in places where the recovery has passed by, things look very different.

In America´s most distressed communities, the average house dates to 1959, population growth is flat or falling, more than 1/2 of adults don´t have a job and nearly a 1/4 lack a high school diploma.”

(New York Times, 24 February 2016)

So, for those in the ghettoes of America, is this poverty, this unemployment, this lack of education, really a choice that they made?

Here in Switzerland, in St. Gallen where much of my work occurs, Bruno is a quiet beggar who doesn´t say much, but, much like a street performing mime, he will suddenly explode into expression for what little charity he receives.

I am no Bruno.

I have a comfortable apartment, plenty of food in my kitchen, a warm, dry comfortable bed to sleep in, clean and undamaged clothing, access to regular hot showers and I can afford to amass collections of books, music and films which crowd our walls and floors much to my wife´s ever-growing dismay.

Unlike Bruno, I can afford to take the train and bus to the various places where I teach and I can afford to fly away somewhere for my vacations.

By comparison to Bruno, I am rich.

By comparison to poverty in the Third World, Bruno is rich.

Yet I probably don´t appreciate what I do have and could probably give Bruno far more than I do.

I see Bruno and I feel ashamed.

Not of Bruno, but of a community that is unable or unwilling to offer him a better life.

Not of Bruno, but of myself for the discomfort I feel when I interact with him.

Bruno is a man who, but for the grace of God, I could easily have become.

Heaven only knows how Bruno got here.

I can only guess that there is a world of experience and pain behind the rags and beard and unpleasant body odour.

It is easier to ignore Bruno and pretend he just isn´t there than to acknowledge why he is there.

I curse my inability to understand what he says to me, for though I have a working knowledge of High German, Swiss German is often as incomprehensible to me as Cantonese or Greek.

But some ideas filter through Bruno´s babble…

I know he sleeps rough, camping just outside the city limits, and trudges back into town every morning to visit soup kitchens and return to his post outside the Bahnhof McDonald´s.

I can only imagine what it must be like to be him.

For the educated, there are books written by brave souls who tried for themselves living homeless in lands of milk and honey.

Jack London, better known for his best seller The Call of the Wild and other adventure stories, was also a skilled political writer and social critic.

Posing as an American sailor stranded in the East End of London in 1902, he slept in charity houses and lived with the destitute and starving.

While other writers were celebrating the glories of the British Empire at its peak, Jack asked why such misery was to be found in the heart of a capital city of immense wealth and reported on his experiences in The People of the Abyss.

Eric Blair, better known by his pen name George Orwell, spent time in the 1930s amongst the desperately poor and destitute in London and Paris, documenting a world of unrelenting drudgery and squalor, sleeping in bug-infested hostels and flophouses, working in a vile Parisian hotel, surviving on scraps and cigarette butts, and wrote the powerful memoir Down and Out in Paris and London.

I am no Orwell nor Jack London, though I have seen some of this underworld for myself.

I have been homeless in the past as well as a drifter.

I have slept in charity houses in various cities in Canada and the States, in Britain and in France.

I have stood in line at soup kitchens and visited food banks.

I have never begged on street corners but never refused charity if offered an opportunity by kind drivers who gave me lifts in my hitchhiking travels in the States.

I have slept in places one would never imagine sleeping in or on: ditches, forests, fields, river banks and mountain tops, under stairwells and bridges, in tents and hostels, barns and stables, in prison cells and churches, on rooftops and in gutters, in shipholds and under parked vehicles, wherever sleep demanded.

But for me it was more adventure than adversity.

I hungered to see the world, but I knew I could never afford to do so, unless I simply set out without money and trusted fickle Fate to sustain me.

My story was more Jack Kerouac´s On the Road or Patrick Fermor´s A Time of Gifts than it was Orwellian Down and Out.

And somehow my overworked guardian angel protected me.

(I sometimes wonder had I not been white, would my story have been different?)

Of course, I have my tales to tell, but the despair, the anger, the hopelessness I have encountered in “places only ragged people know” (Simon and Garfunkel, “The Boxer”) remained somehow separate from my experience, much like living as a foreignor in a foreign land as I do now.

And in my travels outside North America and Europe, both literal and literary, poverty was encountered in more horrific ways than anything witnessed in the rich West.

Legless beggars wheel themselves on makeshift skateboards in the streets of Seoul and Delhi.

Flies gather round starving children in Africa whose mothers lacking nourishment for themselves cannot produce milk to sustain their babies nor even the energy to brush away the flies from eyes and mouths.


Nightfall finds street gangs gather and fight at knifepoint round the garbage dump outside Manila finding treasure in wealthy men´s trash.

(And these are the ravages of poverty…

I have never been to war nor spent time in a war zone so the horror and fear and terror and sorrow felt by soldier and civilian enmeshed in this nightmare scenario has been alien to my experience.

Though I have felt fear and anger in potentially violent scenarios encountered in my travels, my experience pales in comparison to what many folks experience daily worldwide.)

So when I see Bruno I feel both compassion and shame.

Yet somehow Bruno lives, and though his presence remains invisible to most of St. Gallen´s urbane citizens scurrying to and fro, I see him both as a reminder of what was and what could have been.

I count my blessings as Bruno blesses me for the change he counts as blessings.

Folks more fortunate look at Bruno, if they see him at all, seem him as a blight on the urban landscape.

“Why doesn´t he work?”, they ask.

But would they hire him?

And if they did, what would they have him do?

What could he do?

And would he want to do it?

For the working man´s lot, as much as we tell ourselves is better than Bruno´s condition, is for many not a pleasureable means to avert poverty.

For what dignity is preserved preventing us from begging, much pride is swallowed in dealing with those empowered to tell us what to do.

As profits fill the coffers of the wealthy, earned by the sweat and blood and toil and tears of others, few workers are shown the respect for their labour they are due.

The working man must seek his solace in wages begrudingly given.

And the harder the labour, the lower the wage and the compliments rarer.

Might some folks be wary of these conditions?

Bruno prefers to sleep in the woods covered by a tarpaulin rather than in a men´s shelter, for though he is exposed to the elements of unforgiving nature, and though his unwashed unshaven condition brings fear and disgust to some and makes him more celibate than a hermetic monk, at least in the woods there is freedom of thought and action.

In the woods there are no registration forms, no lectures and endless questions regarding the “purposelessness” of his life, no religious zealots to convince him to find Jesus, no litany of rules, no curfews, no rooms filled with snoring, wheezing, sneezing, burping, farting men, no dealing with self-important helpers who feel that giving charity makes them superior to those receiving charity and who wonder why the poor are not more grateful for their efforts.

Bruno is a man apart, alone by both circumstance and choice.

He may no longer believe that he can rise above his station in life, but it is a life that is his own.

He has denied shame and those that would wish to shame him.

His penury has made him both slave and free man.

And I don´t take his presence for granted, for I know should someone famous or something important show up in St. Gallen, Bruno will be strongly compelled by the powers that rule this city to move onwards.

Rio tries to hide its poverty just as Atlanta and Vancouver did before them.

But the poor return to the only lives they know and understand.

Let us not judge a man until we have walked many a moon in his mocassins.






Back on the Underground again

1852, Chatham, Ontario, Canada

“Many a time I have looked out in the moonlight and seen my little children, just able to walk in the fields, carrying buckets of water.  They used to carry the buckets on their heads.  They would wear off their hair and I used to make pads to protect the sore places.  Where I was raised, my children were often whipped till the blood ran.” (Mary Younger, ex-slave)

1852, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

“There is a great difference in the modes of treating slaves, according to the character of the owners….I saw a man in Savannah who had been whipped severely and thrust into a dark hole or dungeon in a cellar.  Maggots got into his flesh and he was offensive to the senses….I saw a Methodist minister who had a colored woman for a cook.  Something which her mistress told her to cook did not suit.  The mistress complained to the minister.  He shut up the cook in a stable and beat her having first tied something over her mouth.” (Patrick Snead, ex-slave)

1852, London, Ontario, Canada

“I was longer on the road than I should have been with my burden: one child was 9 months old, one 2 years old, and one 4.  The weather was cold and my feet were frostbitten as I gave my wife my socks to pull on over her shoes. With all the sufferings of the frost and the fatigues of travel, it still was not as bad as slavery.” (Henry Morehead, fugitive / ex-slave)

Ignorance is as strong a weapon as the whip in keeping slaves in bondage.  I was told before I left Virginia – heard it as common talk – that the wild geese were so numerous in Canada and so bad that they would scratch a man´s eyes out.  Corn wouldn´t grow there nor anything else but rice.  Everything else had to be imported.” (Dan Josiah Lockhart, fugitive slave)

1858, St. Catherines, Ontario, Canada

Harriet Tubman moved back to Bucktown, Maryland, after an illustrious career as a “conductor” on the Underground Railway, bringing escaped slaves from the American south to Canada.

The Underground Railway was a route fugitive slaves used to flee from former masters.

The “tracks” were lined with abolutionists who sheltered slaves from the clutches of authorities trying to return them to bondage.

“I wouldn´t trust Uncle Sam with my people no longer….I brought them all clear off to Canada.” (Harriet Tubman)

By 1860 about 75,000 fugitive American slaves were living in Ontario.

Canada was Canaan the Promised Land, the northern star.

International Underground Railroad Memorial in Windsor, Ontario, Canada

During wartime Canada sheltered millions.

The American Revolution saw Loyalists come to Canada in droves.

Draft dodgers flocked to Canada refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.

“In November 2004, Pam and David Drucker heard the news that would change their lives:

George W. Bush had been re-elected as President of the United States.


A year later, they were on their way to Vancouver to start their new lives.

The Druckers were not alone.

On Election Day 2004, a record-setting 179,000 people visited Canada´s official immigration website, the majority of them Americans.

As Election Day 2016 approaches and anxiety about its outcome grows, many Americans again contemplate fleeing to Canada.

In September 2015, the digital analytics firm Luminoso found that 4% of 4.5 million Donald Trump-related tweets contained threats to leave the country if the billionaire became President.

Trump at lectern before backdrop with elements of logo "TRUMP"

Of those, 250,000 identified Canada as their intended destination.

Talking about relocating to Canada is very trendy at the moment, but actually relocating there…

Not so much.

According to the Canadian government, the number of US immigrants arriving in Canada has remained stable – 9,000 annually – from 2005 to 2014.

It might not be the northern Utopia of their dreams, but those who have made the move say they have never regretted it.

“If Americans want to live in a country where there is an investment in public education, where people aren´t afraid of going bankrupt because they get sick, and where democracry is taken seriously, they should move, because an alternative exists. (Tom Kertes, US immigrant to Canada)

“Leaving behind America´s penchant for authoritarianism, war and inequality was the right call.

I miss the scale and ambition of America´s tech industry, but I wouldn´t trade my life in Vancouver to return to it. 

We integrated easily into Canadian society. 

We learned how to be less arrogant and a bit more gentle and we have even picked up local etiquette and speech patterns. 

Canadians say “Sorry” a lot more than people in the States do. 

They thank the bus driver as they get off the bus. 

In the US if someone says “Thank you” a typical response might be “Sure”. 

That seems awfully brusque in Canada. 

A better response is “No worries”. 

There´s little things like that and if you get those things right you blend in on a day-to-day level.” (Jim DeLaHunt, US engineer / immigrant to Canada)

“When Allan and I moved to Canada from New York City in 2005, we had lost hope in an America plagued by civil liberties crackdowns and endless wars. 

Although I still have my US citizenship, I don´t vote anymore in US elections. 

And whenever I come back to Canada after visiting my family or friends in the States, I breathe a sigh of relief. 

Every time I say, I´m so glad to be out of that crazy country.”

(Laura Kaminker, US immigrant to Canada)

Photo from the TV series Due South

(The Guardian, 1 February 2016)

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 15 June 2016

Your humble blogger, a Canadian resident in Switzerland, is a child of a 4th generation Scottish Canadian and a US immigrant from Manhattan.

I have often been told that I could become an American citizen should I so choose.

And as much as I have enjoyed my travels in the US…

As much as I have met many decent Americans and count some of them as close friends…

I have no desire to immigrate to the States.

Especially now.

America is a land where “slavery” continues – many Americans struggle unsuccessfully to improve their economic conditions and remain heavily in debt.

America is a land of bondage – the US has more prisons and prisoners per capita than any other nation on Earth.

America is a land of inequality – 1% of Americans own much of US wealth while entire neighbourhoods remain blighted and whole generations of Americans are needlessly sacrificed in wars that only profit the 1%.

Most Americans are just ordinary people dealing with limited choices.

America is a land of fear – afraid of others, both domestic and foreign.

I left Canada not because I no longer believed in my home and native land.

I left for the love of a woman who has since become my wife – a choice I seldom regret.

To any Americans reading this blog, let me say I feel for you.

Though it would be painful to leave the US, to leave home…

Remember, an alternative exists.

Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty, Brooklyn Museum




Once upon a time, once upon an Alp

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 14 June 2016

“Once upon a time, high upon a Swiss Alp…

It is a placid existence, this Alpine life.

There are no neuroses, no anxiety, just flowers and sunshine.

Most people know that there are a lot of mountains in Switzerland.

In point of fact, there is at least one peak for each inhabitant of the country, with as many shapes and sizes as can be imagined.

This means that everyone can have his private mountain, just as people in other countries have their private islands.

Mountains are, of course, larger than people, so that they are able to accommodate more than one person at a time.

Consequently, one can choose almost any mountain – anywhere in the country – and proceed to sit on it, look at it, climb it or get inspired by it.

Since it is difficult to move mountains in the literal sense, they also offer a high degree of security to the harried city-dweller caught up in the complexities of modern living.

Because each mountain has its own distinct appearance – its own Alpine personality – it has been given its own special name – a name frequently inspired by the shape of the peak or by the emotions it produces….

I have never met anyone in all my years in Switzerland who wasn´t an expert on the country…

Everybody is an expert here…

That´s one of the risks of living in Switzerland.

Everybody expects us to know everything about the country – its history, its weather, its culture and philosophical thought, its train schedules, plane schedules, its voltage, boats and ski lifts.

We must know its museums and cinemas and restaurants….

We are constantly boning up on facts and figures about Switzerland in anticipation of an avalanche of tourists who will drop in on us both regularly and unexpectedly.” (Eugene Epstein, Once Upon An Alp)

“Switzerland is simply a large, humpy, solid rock with a thin skin of grass stretched over it…

…I was groping, without knowing it, toward an understanding of what the spell is which people find in the Alps…

…In no other mountains can that strange, deep, nameless influence, which once felt cannot be forgotten, once felt leaves behind it a restless longing to feel it again, a longing which is like homesickness – a grieving, haunting yearning that pleads, implores and persecutes till it has had its will.

…People, imaginative and unimaginative, cultivated and uncultivated, come from faraway countries and roam through the Swiss Alps year after year and can not explain why they do so.” (Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad)

Ebenalp, Appenzellerland, Swizerland, 2 April 2016

We lowlanders, we the civilized and urbane, never seem to learn.

Nature has its own calendar, especially in regards to altitude.

We thought we knew what we were doing.

Spring had sprung.

Birds filled the sky by the Lake of Constance.

Green grass grew and flowers blossomed.

Surely what is down in the valley must be up in the mountains.

We are prepared, all geared up.

We drive our car along the Lake of Constance to the outskirts of the village of Buch where one must leave lakeside highway 13 to connect to the Autobahn leading towards Zürich and Chur.

The wife now remembers her hiking boots are still sitting in the living room of our apartment.

We drive all the way back.

An hour has been lost, but NOW we are prepared, but NOW we are all geared up.

We arrive early afternoon, park in the car in a gravel parking lot, change from casual urban to casual wanderers.

The Ebenalp, at 1,640 metres / 5, 390 feet, is the northernmost summit of the Appenzell Alps.

It is a popular hiking destination and has been accessible by cable car from the town of Wasseraun since 1955.

Ebenalp attracts up to 200,000 visitors each year.

From the high plateau (Eben) of the cable car station visitors have a panoramic view of the rolling hills of Appenzell.

Impressive trails start at the station and lead to a network of mountain huts, the holy mountain of Säntis, the mountain hut Aescher, the little wilderness chapel of Wildkirchli and the quiet remarkable Seealpsee Lake.

We disembark from the Wasseraun-Ebenalp cable car to find ourselves at the Berggasthaus where we enjoy a hot Appenzell lunch and buy some souvenirs.

NOW we are ready, NOW we are fully geared up.

Nothing´s going to stop us now, for how hard can it be?

Prehistoric man managed, for the Wildkirchli caves contain traces of Neanderthal habitation, at an altitude of 4, 770 feet, just below Ebenalp.

In the distance, Säntis tantalises us with the optical illusion of being simultaneously close yet far, beckoning us with its Swisscom radio and television tower.

We can almost touch it, yet would need crampons and a two hour upward trek to do so.

We walk nearly half an hour and remark how it is colder than we thought it would be.

And snow…

Where did all this snow come from?

It´s spring in the valley.

Why is there snow up here?

We reach an impasse.

Walking further means being up to our waists in snow and neither of us has gear appropriate for walking in snow.

We return to the Berggasthaus, feeling frustrated and grumpy.

But the wife will not be discouraged for she remembers seeing ski poles and snowshoes leaning against the lodge.

We attach the snowshoes to our hiking boots and grasp ski poles in our hands.

Signs suggest a short panoramic winter walk around the lodge.

A SHORT panoramic walk…

Now snowshoeing is an ancient sport that has been practiced by Canadian, Alaskan, Scandanavian and Russian Inuit peoples for centuries, so I, a prime example of modern man well-connected to information on how to do anything, should have no difficulty with this.

You strap odd looking things to your boots and simply walk, right?

And walking is one of those activities I have been doing for nearly half a century.

I have walked thousands of kilometres in my home and native land of Canada and as well in parts of Asia and Europe in all sorts of weather and all sorts of terrain.

So how hard can snowshoeing possible be?

I am at an age where I have done it all, seen it all, knew it all, but just can´t remember it all.

I had forgotten the only other time I had tried snowshoeing…

About 20 years ago, in the early years of my courtship with my wife (She Who Must Be Obeyed), I took her for a weekend getaway to Gatineau Park, in the lower Laurentian mountains, across the border from Canada´s capital of Ottawa (where I lived the lonesome life of a single man), on the Quebec side of the Ottawa River, to a youth hostel where they offered snowshoes for their guests to try out during their stay.

Now I had done everything right that weekend…

Candlelit evenings at home, eating out in fancy restaurants, serenading her to sleep on the bus ride north…

But I had never made her laugh so hard that she wanted to pee herself…

Now I stand impressively graceful at a height of 194 cm / 6 foot 5.

So at first glance one might expect my movements to be strong manly strides as giants would demonstrate, akin to Gulliver in Lilliput, Goliath of Gath, Paul Bunyan of Minnesota, the CBC´s Friendly Giant, or even the Jolly Green Giant.

A stride of pride and purpose, of might and muscle, of competence and confidence…

But when it comes to sports, where my cousin (the Olympian) is fit, I am fat.

I wheeze like an overweight bear, walk ungainly like a constipated moose, and on snow and ice I am as uncoordinated as an elephant.

(How Carthaginian General Hannibal managed to cross the Alps with elephants still remains a miracle of history in my mind.)

Before Ebenalp I had blocked out the memory of my first experiment with snowshoeing in Gatineau Park – the falling down, the struggle up and down the tiniest of hills, wet feet and dampened spirits, and She laughing her ass off at my valiant hopeless attempts to impress her.

With snowshoes attached She and I begin to follow the signposts of the Ebenalp panoramic Rundweg (circle trail).

Mountain goats would have been impressed and Arctic seals would have clapped to see She striding impatiently, unhesitatingly onwards.

But as I begin to walk, all nature holds its breath.

Squirrels stop their foraging and birds halt midflight, for they know on the side of this Alp stands (and falls)… a Lowlander.

I glance upwards to the mountain restaurant balcony and see the local yokels watching us struggle below them, the glint of the sun upon their binoculars unsteadily shaking with laughter.


This is better entertainment than cable TV, more amusing than Bambi on ice.

This is Survivor, the Alpine version, aka Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton.

I try to ascend and my shoes want to slide down the mountain like skis on a suicide mission.

I try to descend and stumble face forward into the snow, creating an impression in the snow similar to a plummeted parachutist whose chute failed to open from thousands of feet above.

I try to walk upon flatland, glorious non-threatening flatland similiar to Saskatchewan prairie, and I sink up to my waist in snow.

I thought the whole idea of snowshoes was to keep me atop of the snow, but my snowshoes are perversely against me.

Walk west?

My snowshoes respond.

Westwards, no.

Walk up and suddenly I am Po the Kung Fu panda, and I don´t do “Up”.

Walk down and fall down to avoid freefalling off the mountain.

And the prairie plateau promenade then finds me buried to my waist with head below and outstretched legs above craning out of the snow.

My wife captures all the glory and spectacle of my pilgrim´s progress through this snowy Slough of Despond with her mobile phone´s camera.

It takes many an argument to dissuade her from making me a viral video phenomenon on Twitter or Facebook.

I am soaked in sweat and snow has managed to find its way everywhere – down my shoes, into my socks, down the back of my shirt, down into my trousers into regions where snow was never meant to go.

I curse the Inuit and their foul invention of evil, the snowshoe, as soaken and shamed, seemingly centuries later, I ride the cable car with She back down the mountain.

My only consolation is the idea that today a legend was born here in Switzerland amongst tales of William Tell, Heidi and Roger Federer – the tale of the clumsy Canadian that began…

Once upon a time, once upon an Alp.

Rotsteinpass, Foto Roland Gerth