Moving heaven and earth 3: Job and Virginia in Amatrice

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 29 August 2016

Rescuers search for survivors in the rubble in Amatrice.

An earthquake, measuring 6.2, hit central Italy five days ago (24 August 2016) at 03:36:32.

This quake resonates with me, not only because Canadians were among its victims, not only because the quake was felt in cities my wife and I have visited, and not only because of the massive destruction and loss of life.

The quake, according to insurance parliance an “act of God”, was first described by Western media as having occurred “near Norcia”.

And it is these words “near Norcia” that make me think of a little town in Western Australia, 132 km (82 miles) north of Perth, along the Great Northern Highway, by the banks of the Moore River, the only monastic town on the Australian continent, New Norcia, and the 11 monks who allowed me to share their monastic lives for a short time.

It is these words “near Norcia” and “act of God” that make me ponder questions of mortality and religious belief and the enigma of why and how tragedy strikes humanity.

I have a student, one of many I have had the pleasure and privilege to teach, who is a stage actor, playwright and director in St. Gallen, one of the towns I teach in here in eastern Switzerland.

He is rare amongst the student body that I have taught, for in the short time that I have known him, we have become more than teacher and student.

We have become friends – friends who discuss all manner of topics.

Somehow, like explorers into the unknown. the discussion of the day turned to religion.

David asked me what I thought of religion…

A dangerous topic, a sensitive topic…

I had to tread carefully.

I think, like any rational man who has not immersed himself into following any one faith, I must confess I have a hard time with the concept of God or gods, for faith to be faith requires a suspension of belief, the willingness to believe something to be true regardless of whether any evidence exists to support this belief.

And for most of the world’s religions it seems that the strongest proof of the existence of God is the inability to disprove the existence of God.

In a way I am reminded of the movie Harvey starring James Stewart – the story about a man, Elwood P. Dowd, whose best friend is a pooka, a benign but mischievous creature from Celtic mythology who is fond of social outcasts and appears to look like a 6′ 3.5″ tall, invisible rabbit.

Harvey 1950 poster.jpg

Harvey exists because Elwood believes he exists… and yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Virginia O'Hanlon (ca. 1895).jpg

I don´t begrudge people their beliefs if these beliefs give them comfort and strength and cause no harm to others.

In 1897, Dr. Philip O’Hanlon, a coroner’s assistant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, was asked by his 8-year-old daughter, Virginia, whether Santa Claus really existed.

O’Hanlon suggested she write to The New York Sun, assuring her that “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.”

(This reminds me of some fundamentalist Baptists I know who would say that the Bible is the actual word of God, so if God said it, they believed it and that settled it.)

Virginia wrote:

“Dear Editor,

I am 8 years old. 

Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. 

Papa says, “If you see it in the Sun, it’s so.” 

Please tell me the truth. 

Is there a Santa Claus? 

Virginia O’Hanlon”

One of the Sun‘s editors, Francis Church, took the opportunity to rise above the simple question and address the philosophical issues behind it.

“Virginia, your little friends are wrong.

They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age.

They do not believe except they see.

They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.

All minds… are little.

In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

…He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.

(Without)…there would be no…faith, no poetry, no romance to make this existence tolerable.

We would have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight.

The eternal light…which…fills the world would be extinguished.

…Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus.

The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.

Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn?

Of course not, but that´s no proof that they are not there.

Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

…(T)here is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.

Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.

Is it all real?

…(I)n all this world there is nothing else real and abiding….”

Many children take great comfort in the thought of a Santa Claus.

Many adults take great comfort in the thought of a God.

Then how does belief in an unproveable someone, something, beyond our gaze, beyond our existence, helps us to deal with the reality of suffering and pain and injustice?

If God exists I like to think that He is that part of us that strives to be good, that part of us that is the strength we didn´t know we possessed, that part of us that is accessable only when we are quiet, that part of us that feels joy when gathered together with others in celebration of life and contemplation of its wonders and mysteries.

I cannot speak for religions I barely know and hardly understand, so I will neither praise or criticize others´ beliefs, though I think that there is much that each and every religion can teach us if we are willing to learn.

When I consider the tragedy of Amatrice where so many lives were lost, so many loved ones suffering, devastation and loss that are difficult to cope with, I am like others before me who try to comprehend the reason behind such catastrophe.

Did the 300 dead, the 65,000 displaced, deserve their fate?

I cannot believe this.

I will not believe this.

Certainly not all of these folks were saints, but neither were they all sinners.

Now one might argue that living in or visiting one of Italy`s most seismically sensitive areas is asking for trouble, but by that argument then one should abandon California.

People have lived and visited Italy for generations and science has not developed to the point where we can predict the magnitude and location of earthquakes to come.

And even if we could, wouldn’t you find it painful to leave friends and family and traditions that made you who you are today?

No, even if Amatrice could have been predicted, one´s heritage and homeland is important.

So, why do these tragedies happen?

Why believe in a just and fair and liveable world or in the goodness and kindness of a God we are not even certain exists?

Besides natural disasters, the news is filled with senseless murders, accidental deaths, ravaging diseases, violence of every unimaginable sort, young people dying before their parents, wars that never end but simply move to another location.

Where is the love, the justice, the rationale?

Why do people suffer, people who may have never done anything wrong?

I think part of the answer is happening outside my window this morning…

It is raining, undiscriminately on everyone and everything.

Merit has nothing to do whatsoever in this natural occurence or in any natural occurence that happens in the world.

Nature has its own laws, regardless of whether we approve of them or not, whether we understand them or not.

Consider a baby.

Babies must think that the universe revolves around them, for usually they find that when they do something the world reacts.

Cry – people come running to offer you food or comfort or to ease pain.

Pee or poo – people change your diaper.

Hold your arms out – people hold you close.

And though every day is a struggle and a new adventure, you are protected and nurtured and guided and are the centre of the universe you perceive.

Babies grow into adults, but within many of us is the idea that somehow our behaviour affects the world around us, that somehow we have a semblance of control over the fates and that if something bad has happened to us that somehow we are to blame.

If only I had done this, if only I hadn’t done that, then the bad event would not have happened.

Sadness and sorrow and suffering, violence and death and destruction, have existed since time forgotten and will continue to exist til time unimaginable, regardless of who we are or whether we deserve what happens to us.

But as well happiness and joy and pleasure, peace and new life and new hope have also existed and will always exist, regardless of who we are or whether we are deserving or not.

The laws of nature will continue and freedom of choice will cause men to do things that will either hurt others or make others happy.

Such is life.

The rain will fall on good and bad people.

People will act according to their natures and choices they make will be ones that may benefit themselves and others or may not.

Life is random, chaotic, nonsensical and irrational at times.

Life is an adventure, a challenge of high peaks and low valleys, of great benefit and great loss, of great joys and great sorrows.

If God exists I don’t think that He is responsible either for the laws of nature nor the results of the free will of mankind.

If God exists I think He is that strength within you that you thought you didn’t have, that empathy you possess to care about others.

Consider the story of Job, a good man who suffered greatly, for he lived in an unjust world from where fairness cannot always be expected.

His friends suggested that perhaps Job brought his troubles upon himself and Job questioned why he a good person suffered when God was supposed to be goodness and justice in its highest form.

We are angry at the injustice of it all, for we are good people deserving of love and fortune and happiness.

I wonder:

Would we recognize love and fortune and happiness if their opposites did not exist?

It is this duality, and how we deal with it, that makes us human.

I feel deep sadness when I consider Amatrice.

I am angry that this situation came to them.

I feel hope that others feel sorrow and anger at this situation and the world reaches out to Amatrice with compassion.

That hope I feel is as real as Elwood’s Harvey, Virginia’s Santa Claus and Job’s Jehovah.

I can’t see it.

I can’t prove its existence.

It is real nonetheless.


Moving heaven and earth 2: The weekend that wasn´t

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 27 August 2016

View of Corso Umberto I in Amatrice before 2016 earthquake

This was the town of Amatrice before 03:36:32, 24 August 2016.

The town had few claims to fame before Wednesday morning:

  • The museum of Nicola Filoteslo, Italian Renaissance painter and sculptor known for his work on frescoes and facades
  • Above: Dormitio Virginis, Capitolini Museum, Roma
  • Elio Augusto Di Carlo (1918 – 1998), Italian ornithologist, historian and physician
  • Above: Di Carlo is in the centre, Monte Pollino excursion, 1960
  • Sara Pichelli, Italian comic book artist, best known as the first illustrator of the Miles Morales version of Marvel Comics Ultimate Spider-man series, was born here in 1983.
  • 6.15.14SaraPichelliByLuigiNovi1.jpg
  • Above, Sara Pichelli, 2014
  • A pasta sauce known as sugo all´amatriciana, usually served with a long pasta, such as bucatini, spaghetti or vermicelli, and made of cured pork, cheese and tomato
  • Bucatini amatriciana.JPG
  • Above: classico bucatini amatricianaView image on Twitter

At 03:36:32 on 24 August 2016 Amatrice was the epicentre for a 6.4 magnitude earthquake.

Amatrice is no more.

All that remains are ruins haunted by the dead, the injured, the homeless – over 250 dead, hundreds injured, thousands homeless.

 Amatrice's clock tower remains virtually untouched.

It could have been worse.

For this weekend was to have been a festival celebrating the pasta sauce that this town is famous for and as many as 40,000 people had been expected to attend.

“It could have been a tragedy of untold dimensions.”(Amatrice deputy mayor Carloni)

It could have been worse.

Lisboa (Lisbon), Portugal, November 2009

Poster Lisbon.jpg

My wife and I are on vacation.

It is a sunny day and the weather is enticing.

Lisboa is golden houses and sloping streets.

The fragrance of pastry fills the air and the sun germinates the souls of poets and inspires melodies from Fado singers.

There is loud joy in the bars, amused laughter in the theatres and humble curiosity in the museums.

As we embrace the city with open minds and open eyes, Lisboa embraces us with open arms and open hearts.

So much to see and do – castles and convents, coaches and palaces, each cobblestone an invitation, monuments to discover about places Portugal discovered.

Summer has long past and the streets are scented with longing.

One is nostaglic for imaginary roses but gladly anticipates colder weather when roasted chestnuts appear along with steaming hot chocolate and the promise of Christmas.

Love is seen all around us, as soothing as the scent of wild berries hanging in the air or music that drifts through open windows and through the cracks of doors left ajar.

Joy is as crisp as a Granny Smith apple and as comforting as clothes drying from windows.

Music and emotion fill the visitor with life and the only sadness is the realization that this pleasant dream of a city must soon be left behind as one returns to the grey skies of an Alpine country.

That thought even dims the light of the moon, even makes the bright colours of the fishing boats and the tram cars seem diminished.

But this adventure of sensation is a miracle, for on Saturday 1 November 1755, All Saints´ Day, Lisboa almost was… no more.

Lisboa, Portugal, Saturday 1 November 1755 (All Saints´ Day)

The day had dawned crisp and cloudless and white stone Lisboa stretched contently like a cat under the bright sun.

A gentle northeast breeze carried cooking aromas and chimney smoke made spirals in the sky as it emerged from a multitude of warm kitchens.

Flags flew from the battlements of the 10th century Moor Castelo de Sao Jorge, which kept an unwavering watch over Lisboa’s harbour with its formidable fleet of Portuguese men-of-war and frigates with their gun portholes secured and a flotilla of merchant ships from many Atlantic and Mediterranean shores.

Lisboa boasted a population of a quarter million, its port was one of the busiest in Europe, and she stood proudly as capital of an empire that stretched from Brazil to Macau.

It was a city deeply divided between the immensely wealthy – the Crown, the nobility and foreign merchants – and the poorly educated, desperately cramped vast majority.

Palaces of pristine white stone loomed over 20,000 ramshackle hovels built of adobe, brick and wood.

The cobblestone and gravel streets were filled with filth for the streets served as both garbage dump and sewage system.

At nightfall the city gates were sealed and only the desperate would venture out into the unlit, unpoliced streets.

Stifling summers were sandwiched between mild and wholesome seasons filled with fresh produce from the surrounding farms, vineyards and orchards.

Food was plentiful and red wine was cheap.

The rich enjoyed their operas and the poor loved their theatres.

A deeply devout Roman Catholic country, the Portuguese capital duly celebrated a calendar filled with religious feasts and fests that provided a sense of cohesion, community and continuity.

Everyone prospered.

Well everyone except the unpopular Jews and Muslims and the sad throngs of slaves from the colonies.

A Paris guide from 1730 described the residents of Lisboa as large, well-built and robust but rather lazy.

They were said to be extremely jealous, secretive, vengeful, sarcastic, vain, presumptious and rather ignorant, yet could also be the most faithful, generous friends one could ask for.

If the gateway to Heaven is determined by the quantity of holy venues that lie before it, then Lisboa was an earthly City of God, with more than 50 churches, 121 oratories, 90 convents and more than 150 religious brotherhoods and societies.

Take a single step and your foot would encounter a church, a wayside cross, a saintly shrine or a Madonna requesting that one should doff one´s cap upon seeing her image.

Processions of penitents, worship of relics, tales of the divine, prayers publicly recorded, the Church was the oldest institution, the largest land and property owner, the source of education, confessionals, hospitals and tribunals.

Veneration was palpable, inescapable, mandatory, for the Holy Order of the Inquisition dominated over the theocratic kingdom.

Those who did not attend mass, those who disregarded the Sabbath could join the ranks of heretics, dissenters, humanists and those of other faiths who regularly were burned at the stake.

So the intimidated populace crowded the streets by midmorning of All Saints´ Day, bound for their devotions, beckoned by a neverending peal of church bells.

The pews were packed and there was standing room only in the aisles and side chapels and the crowds spilled out of the churches and into the squares.

Everyone was dressed at their best according to their condition and all the women were veiled.

The air was ripe with incense and the collective drone of prayers rose to Heaven.

The priests began their sonorous chant.

Gaudeamus omnes in Domino, diem festum…

At nine-thirty that morning, churches began to pitch and sway like tempest tossed ships at sea, bells rang in violent fits, candles toppled, stained glass shattered, saints fell, priests and parishioners panicked.

Multitudes were crushed by falling timber and a deadly rain of marble.

The streets are enveloped in a cloud of dust as dark as a moonless night.

Houses are rubble, chasms claimed lanes, landslides choked alleys, carriages wrecked, horses scream in agony and the still alive wander dazed, crazed and helpless among the half buried dead and dying.

Cries of terror and sorrow and the wailing of the wounded dominate.

Several minutes later, a second, more deadlier shock strikes.

The sturdy stone and marble palaces, churches and government buildings that had survived the first shock do not withstand the second.

Lisboa falls like a house of cards swept aside maliciously by an angered infant.

There is no escape, nowhere to run to, for the streets are filled with darkness and blocked with mountains of rubble.

A third and final shock strikes only minutes after the second to ensure that the destruction is complete.

The King´s palace is in ruins, as are the banks, the customs exchange, the opera and the headquarters of the Inquisition.

Churches utterly destroyed and gone are convents and monasteries, palaces and townhouses, shops and warehouses, hospices and markets.

The hovels of the working class and the poor have been reduced to dust.

Fallen candles and burst hearths and stoves have created a city of ruins now blazing out of control.

The few who have survived have fallen to their knees and exhort God in His Heaven:

Miserecordia, meu Deos!

Show mercy, sweet Jesus.

Show compassion, my God.

But God could not hear and Jesus could not help.

Ninety minutes after the earthquake began, at approximately 11 am, the ocean became a vast mass, rising, rising, a foaming, roaming mountain of violence, tossing and tumbling all in its wake, swallowing boats and people in a whirlpool into which their disappearance was eternal.

In a span of less than five minutes, three tsunamis slam the Lisboa waterfront.

It is a rare ship that does not sink, while warehouses are washed away, quays collapse, shipyards are ravaged and countless numbers drowned.

For days the surface of the Tagus river ís afloat with wreckage and pale, bloated corpses.

What earth and water did not destroy, fire claimed.

Flames raged for five days.

Earthquake, tsunami and flames claimed the lives of 100,000 people and destroyed 85% of the city, including libraries of untold thousands of volumes and hundreds of works of art lost forever.

The Royal Hospital of All Saints, the largest public hospital at the time, was consumed by fire and hundreds of patients burned to death.

But the horror was still not complete.

Hundreds of criminals, deserters and slaves had escaped the prisons and they soon took to pillaging, raping and murdering.

This continued for days until infantry regiments from other towns converged on Lisboa to enforce a brutal justice where trials and executions were swift.

High gallows were erected in the most conspicous squares and the condemned left to hang for days as an unambiguous example.

Foreigners proved easy scapegoats and met the same grim end.

The royal family had escaped unharmed from the catastrophe as the King´s daughters had wished for a holiday away from Lisboa, but King Joseph I, seeing the catastrophe´s effects upon his return, developed a fear of living within walls from which he never recovered.

Portrait of Joseph Emanuel, King of Portugal (1773) - Miguel António do Amaral.png

The royal court would reside in tents and pavilions until, after the King´s death, his daughter Maria I began building a royal palace on the grounds of the former tent city.

The Prime Minister Sebastiao de Melo, Marquis of Pombal, had also survived the devastation.

Retrato do Marques de Pombal.jpg

When asked what was to be done, Pombal replied, “Bury the dead and heal the living.”

The Great Lisboa earthquake is estimated to have been a magnitude of 9.0 and destruction was rampant not only in Lisboa but as well throughout the south of Portugal and in the Azores.

Shocks from the earthquake were felt throughout Europe as far as Finland and North Africa, even in Greenland and the Caribbean and reaching the coast of Brazil.

The earthquake had an effect on society and philosophy as well.

The earthquake had struck on an important church holiday, causing theologicans and philosophers to ponder on the religious cause and message of this disaster.

The impact of the earthquake would be felt in the writing of Voltaire, Theodor Adorno, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel Kant and Werner Hamacher.

And Prime Minister Pombal would not only deal with the practicalities of reconstruction, he ordered a query sent to all parishes of Portugal regarding the earthquake and its effects.

Pombal was the first to attempt an objective scientific description of the broad causes and consequences of an earthquake and is today regarded as a founding father of modern seismology.

Yes, the events of Amatrice are tragic.

Things could have been worse.

(Sources: The Times, Wikipedia, Nicholas Shrady – The Last Day: Wrath, Ruin and Reason in the Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755)







Moving heaven and earth 1: Amatrice no more

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 26 August 2016


The village of Amatrice is no more.

The villages of Pescara del Tronto and Accumoli lie in ruins.

An earthquake, measuring 6.2, hit central Italy two days ago (24 August 2016) at 03:36:32.

Its epicentre was close to the town of Norcia, the birthplace of St. Benedict, 75 km (47 miles) southeast of Perugia, 45 km (28 miles) north of L’Aquila.

According to Italian authorities, there are estimates of 250 people dead and 360 people injured, and at least 120 bodies have been recovered from the rubble.

Rescue workers in Amatrice, central Italy

The number of missing remains unclear, for there have been seasonal workers from Romania as well as tourists from around the world.

According to Canada´s Global News, at least one Canadian is dead and another seriously injured in this earthquake.

Meanwhile thousands are without shelter.

Of the 3,400 beds provided by the Civil Protection Department, at least 1,200 have been occupied.

Those who could leave Amatrice, have left finding refuge with relatives.

Camps have been set up and tents house 8 to 12 people each.

The area is known for its clean air and pristine scenery and is a base for mountaineering and hiking.

It is the land of the wild boar and it is one of the most seismically sensitive regions on the Italian peninsula.

Sergio Pirozzi, the mayor of Amatrice, stated that “Amatrice is not here anymore, half of the town is destroyed.”

The town centre is nothing but a massive pile of rubble.

Only a few structures still stand on the outskirts.

The facade and the rose window of the church of Sant´Agostino no longer exist.

The museum dedicated to the painter Nicola Filotesio, student and companion of Raphael, has collapsed.

The tremor and the aftershocks that followed were felt across the whole of central Italy from Rimini to Napoli, including in Roma and Firenze.

There are cracks in the Baths of Carcalla in Roma and the authorities worry about the Colosseum.

The West has felt the earthquake, for it has happened in the West, has been relentlessly reported by Western media.

Ground Zero, One World Trade Center, New York City, is lit in the colours of the Italian flag: green, white and red.

And though hope dims for finding survivors in the rubble of this quake, the feeling of community has not been diminished.

Across Amatrice, volunteers have collected clothing, blankets, toiletries and food, donated by individuals and institutions throughout Italy.

“We´ve seen incredible solidarity, closeness, love, help from all of Italy.  It makes me proud to be Italian.“(Amatrice deputy mayor Carloni)

Amid the destruction, there remains glimmers of hope, for though the earth may shake, humanity´s will is not shaken, for the dead will be buried and mourned, homes will be rebuilt and institutions will function once more.

Since reunification in 1861, Italy has seen 35 major earthquakes and 86 smaller ones.

Amatrice is not the first nor the last.

Italy will prevail.

(Sources: CNN, the Independent, the Times)

Above: World Trade Center, New York City

 Amatrice's clock tower remains virtually untouched.

Above: Amatrice, Italy





Burkinis on the beach

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 25 August 2016

As I read the headlines of recent newspapers I can´t help but feel a sense of sadness about how much discussion can be generated over themes of relative unimportance while other themes that should be talked about are often marginalized and ignored.

More headlines are devoted to athletes and Hollywood stars then are devoted to destruction and disease.

Most of us are more aware of Kim Kardashian´s measurements than we are of how serious a problem global warming is, more concerned about fashion than famine, more afraid of phantom menaces than actual threats.

As my wife is quick to remind me, your humble blogger is quite possibly the most unfashionable person she knows, but I know if I wait long enough fashion will catch up to me!

I think I am a typically, old-fashioned kind of a man when I say I can´t understand the fuss and hullabaloo that is made over fashion.

If my clothes match the weather, fit the function I need them to do, are somewhat clean and are not offensive to the eye of the beholder, then I am satisfied.

My wife is right when she suggests I may have too many books that threaten to eat up what little space our apartment possesses, but I can counter her arguments by taking a quick stroll to her side of the bathroom or taking a quick peek inside her wardrobe.

How many bottles and tubes of toiletries and make-up does a woman actually need?

How many shoes are “enough”?

Has she even worn all the clothes she owns?

In fairness, we strange humans judge one another, especially the female of the species, by appearance, even going so far as to falsely believe that appearance is an accurate gauge of character, that a beauty can never be a beast.

We pin our perceptions of self based upon how others judge our appearance and feel flattered and complimented when someone approves of our looks.

We spend fortunes on pharmaceuticals and some even go so far as to have surgery to maintain an image of unreal perfection and ageless youth.

We foolishly separate the ideas of intelligence from beauty, stupidly thinking that beauty and intelligence cannot co-exist within the same bodily frame and many of us believe that being beautiful is superior to being intelligent.

Why do we give so much respect and attention to fashion models and ignore the truly intellectual individuals among us?

We believe that age is incompatible with beauty, so many a woman tilts against the windmills of immovable inevitability by buying into the notion that science in a bottle can stave off the signs of aging.

Many believe that the body itself is insufficient and incomplete, so folks add cosmetics, jewellery of one form or another, and even body art.

So much time, so much energy, so much interest, so much money revolves around fashion and appearance.

The world might end tomorrow, but, damn it, we will look good when the final chimes strike.

Take the case of Bethany Mota.

Bethany Mota by Gage Skidmore.jpg

“Since launching her YouTube channel from the humble clutter of her north California bedroom, Mota has gone on to amass a following of nearly 10 million viewers and earns an estimated $40,000 a month for her videos.

Only 20 years old, Mota has won awards for her tips on recipes for packed lunches, back to school and morning routine tips, make-up and fashion tutorials.

This internet personality has through her videos built up her own media and fashion empire with her own clothing line with Aéroporta, JCPenney and Forever 21.

Testimony to the ever-rising reach of social media influencers, Mota was deemed so influential that she was selected to interview President Barack Obama as part of an initiative to branch out to a wider audience.

Mona’s YouTube channel reaches automatically larger audiences than most politicians’ social media accounts.” (Independent, 7 April 2016)

Think about this for a moment…

A 20-year-old whose “expertise” lies in what lip shade goes with what dress is more influential than a politician whose decisions have impact on a country’s economy and ultimately its future.

A 20-year-old makes more money per month than the President of the United States makes per year.

It’s a mad, mad, mad, mad, mad world.

No matter how one might belittle the world of fashion, there is no denying its impact and influence upon so many of us.

Fashion makes a statement.

With half the population on the planet obsessed with appearance, there is great potential for profit to be made from this obsession.

“Global brands are waking up to the massive opportunities of the worldwide Muslim market – a burgeoning sector that is young, highly educated and collectively has enormous spending power.

"Allah" in Arabic calligraphy

The world´s 1.6 billion Muslims constitute a laregly untapped commercial market, worth $2.1 trillion annually worldwide and increasing by $500 billion every year.

“A huge opportunity is being missed by corporate brands, but the market is being taken by storm by young Muslim start-ups,” said Shelina Janmohamed, vice president of Ogilvy Noor, an Islamic branding agency.

Ogilvy Noor | A full-service Islamic Branding consultancy | A full-service Islamic Branding consultancy

There are recent indications that global brands are beginning to target Muslims.

A decision by Marks & Spencer to sell a range of “burkinis” (full cover swimsuits) in the UK last month prompted heated debate.

MarksAndSpencer1884 logo.svg

H & M, one of the world´s biggest fashion chains, attracted attention with an ad featuring a model in a hijab last year.


But there is still a long way to go.

“One of the complaints we hear is that Muslim consumers feel they are not engaged with, as businesses do not reach out to them.” (Shelina Janmohamed)

Janmohamed´s company´s research has found that more than 90% of Muslim consumers said their faith had some influence on their purchases.

Muslims want food, beverages and personal products to be sharia-compliant, but show more flexibility in products and services, such as finance, insurance and travel.

Although most Muslim consumers want acknowledgement and engagement from global businesses, some worry that corporations are motivated more by the chance to profit from the Muslim market.

According to Janmohamed, Muslim consumers fall broadly into two groups: futurists and traditionalists.

Futurists combine faith and modernity.

“They are proud to express their Muslim identity, but are also brand-conscious and brand-loyal.

They are open to the world, very tech-savvy, and very engaged in social media.”(Shelina Janmohamed)

Futurists, or Generation M, are younger and have influence disproportionate to their numbers.

Navid Akhtar, CEO of the Islamic TV production company Alchemiya calls Janmohamed´s futurists “gummies”(global urban Muslims).

Gummies are hyperdiverse, spiritual rather than Religious with a capital R, educated, transnational, with high disposable incomes and the vast majority are English speakers.

A key subset of gummies are “mipsters” (Muslim hipsters), aged between 16 and 24, obsessed with identity, image, fashion, friendship and education.

Tabish Hasan, CEO of the US-based Muslim Aid Network, compares the failure of major brands to tap into the Muslim market now to a similar disregard of the potential of the Hispanic market in the 1980s.

Muslim Aid Serving Humanity

“Brands can´t afford not to engage with the Muslim market.

The Muslim lifestyle market is moving in the same direction – it´s so big, it has so much spending power.

It´s just a matter of time.”(Tabish Hasan)(Guardian, 8 April 2016)

“France has begun arresting Muslim women for wearing full body swimwear.

What started as a temporary rule brought in by a single resort in France has spread along the French Riviera and beyond and has become a lightning rod for a multitude of divisive issues.

The first city to announce the prohibition was Cannes, where mayor David Lisnard said he wanted to prohibit “beachwear ostentatiously showing a religious affiliation while France and places of religious significance are the target of terror attacks” to avoid “trouble to public order”.

A Cannes bylaw says anyone wearing swimwear deemed not to “respect good customs and secularism” would be barred from visiting the resort´s beaches or swimming.

The second community to announce a burkini ban, Villeneuve-Loubet, was not so direct linking burkinis to terrorism.

V-L´s rule stipulates that only clothing that “is respectful to morality and secular principles, and in compliance with hygiene and safety rules” is allowed.

V-L mayor Lionnel Luca could not give what specific hygiene reasons there were for banning full body swimwear.

A tribunal in Nice ruled that a burkini ban is “necessary, appropriate and proportionate” to prevent public disorder.

Armed police forced a Muslim woman to remove her clothing on the city´s Promenade des Anglais, the location of the lorry attack on 14 July 2016 (Bastille Day) in which 84 people were killed.

Four police officers armed with handguns, batons and pepper spray stood around the woman who was lying on the beach wearing a blue headscarf and matching top and forced her to remove them despite her and her daughter´s crying.

(Think about this for a moment…

Men with guns forcing a woman to undress, with the weight of the law behind them.)

None of the French Riviera orders have directly mentioned burkinis and some people have questioned whether police would enforce the ban for wetsuits, nuns´ habits and other garments.

Dozens of Muslim women have been fined, given warnings, or arrested  for wearing clothing deemed to violate these bans.

Authorities in at least 15 towns and cities have brought in bans, with the most recent being Cagnes sur Mer in Provence.

News of burkini bans has spread around the world, gaining support from right wing politicians.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right Front National, claimed the “soul of France is in question”.

Le Pen, Marine-9586.jpg

“France does not lock away a woman´s body.

France does not hide half its population under the fallacious and hateful pretext that the other half fears it will be tempted.”(Marine Le Pen)

Critics have compared the enforcement of the ban to repression in Saudi Arabia and Iran, arguing that ordering women what to wear (or not to wear) is a violation of human rights in any context.

The bans are widely perceived to be a response to increased tensions and public fears following the Nice attack and the murder of a Catholic priest by ISIS supporters.

Some rights groups have said the new laws amount to the “collective punishment” of Muslims following the terror attacks and amid friction over immigration and the refugee crisis.

And other incidents continue…

Women are being ordered out of the sea, with onlookers shouting racist abuse.

Don´t misunderstand me…

I am very sympathetic to the victims of terrorism and I understand how sad and angry and afraid events of this type make people feel.

But we must not give in to these emotions nor let these emotions be a justification for acting as injustly as those we condemn.

We must not judge entire groups by the actions of a few.

We cannot prevent expression of religion and claim that this prevention is a secular act.

We cannot use the law against someone´s religious beliefs and then claim that we are ensuring that the law is separate from faith.

Nor need we fear that our beliefs are being supplanted by those who have chosen to bring their beliefs among us.

For if our beliefs are strong then they cannot be threatened by change.

And if our beliefs aren´t strong, then maybe change is necessary.

Terror analysts have warned that the dispute will fuel jihadist propaganda as groups like ISIS attempt to portray France and other Western countries as at war with Islam.

If the aim of the terrorists who took so many innocent lives in Paris, Nice and elsewhere was to foment hatred and conflict and to provoke the French state into an overreaction, then the French authorities have more than fulfilled their unsavoury ambitions.

Victimising and bullying Muslim women on holiday is not only bad PR, it is wrong in principle and entirely counterproductive.”(Independent editorial)

Germany is separately considering a nationwide ban on full face veils, which is already enforced in Belgium. (Independent, 25 August 2016)

In regards to face covering, I only consider it necessary when there are security issues where a person would be required to remove a motorcycle helmet, such as places like banks or border crossings.

As for swimwear I lean towards a “live and let live” philosophy.

If a woman is comfortable with being fully covered or uncovered then personal liberty and dignity should be paramount over whether I like seeing that woman in a burkini or a bikini.

And if I am uncomfortable with my environment then I have the choice of leaving it.

Fashion is a statement.

How we choose to respond to it is a question of not only the wearer´s character, but as well our own.

Red Stripe Swimsuit





No sex, please. I’m online!

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 23 August 2016

Perhaps it is a bad idea to watch Cyrano de Bergerac and Bridget Jones’ Diary while drinking copious amounts of alcohol, for the mind may take a funny turn down dark paths that it shouldn`t.

I think of Cyrano…

Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac.JPG

Hercule Savinien Cyrano de Bergerac, a cadet (nobleman serving as a soldier) in the French Army, is a brash, strong-willed man of many talents.

In addition to being a remarkable duelist, he is a gifted, joyful poet and  musician.

However, he has an extremely large nose, which is the reason for his own self-doubt.

This doubt prevents him from expressing his love for his distant cousin, the beautiful and intellectual heiress Roxane, as he believes that his ugliness denies him the “dream of being loved by even an ugly woman.”

I view my middle aged body and wonder: have I become Cyrano?

Have the ravages of middle age and middling neglect changed what once was a temple into an ancient unattractive amusement park?

I think of Bridget Jones, prior to discovering her Mark Darcy…


Solitary, accident-prone and worried…often thought to be a fool and vulgar, verbally incontinent and dresses like a parent…

Have I become Bridget Jones before her luck changed?

I am a married man, but the feelings of Cyrano and Jones lie under the surface.

So even if I had the courage to love, do I have the confidence?

When the embers have grown cold and distant, can the flames ever be rekindled with the one to whom you have pledged yourself?

I often wonder…

How do singletons of this modern age find love and happiness?

Friends console me in my isolation and suggest that I turn to social media for relief, but I wonder if social media helps…

Diagram depicting the many different types of social media (Wikipedia)

“Social media is often blamed for damaging the lives of teenagers and making them grow up too fast, but experts believe that social network sites have contributed to a fall in teenage pregnancy, because they have reduced face-to-face contact and the opportunities for sex.

Although many factors have contributed to the reduction in teenage pregnancies, such as better access to contraception, the availability of the-morning-after pill and education programmes in schools, the advent of social media has fundamentally changed how people communicate with one another.

Young people spend so much time interacting online that they have reduced the opportunities for sexual activity.

If a tablet is providing sufficient entertainment at home then people are less likely to go out and and find themselves in situations that can lead to unwanted pregnancy.

Technology has had a similiar effect on teenage drinking.”(Times, 10 March 2013)

So staying home and not going out protects a person from both the dangers of life as well as its delights.

I again think of Cyrano…

In spite of his heart´s yearnings for Roxane, it was easier to hide behind letters of passionate prose rather than risk rejection directly face-to-face.

And though French poet/dramatist Edmond Rostand (1868 – 1918) would have us believe that Cyrano`s love for Roxane is real, one can´t help wondering if Cyrano was more in love with his idea of who Roxane was rather than the reality of who Roxane was.

Edmond Rostand en habit vert 01.jpg

French playwright Edmond Rostand in the official uniform of the Académie française (Wikipedia)

For some, it is easier to hide behind inanimate communication rather than emerge embarrassed from stumbling about outside in full parade of the person we admire.

I too find myself able to communicate easier and more expressively with my wife in writing than trying to engage her in conversational combat she always manages to win.

So seek solace in conversation with friends of the same gender, your “mates”, your “pals”, I am advised.

Yet I wonder if the modern age we live in hasn´t hampered us even in this.

“Back in the old days, it was card games and endless banter on the numerous coach journeys to away matches.

Now, however, football´s young stars are locked in their own worlds with hoods up and headphones on.

Ronald Koeman, the 53-year-old Dutch manager of the Southampton Premier League football club, decided that his players spent so much time plugged into smartphones and social media that they had forgotten how to talk to each other on the pitch.

(Koeman has been managing Everton since June.)

Ronald Koeman (2014).jpg

Above: Ronald Koeman (Wikipedia)

Young players put on their headphones as soon as training is over.

They spend their time travelling to and from matches wrapped up in social media or playing games on their smartphones, barely talking to their teammates.

This is a far cry from Koeman´s days as a gifted defensive midfielder for the Dutch national team in the 1980s and 1990s when there was no digital entertainment to be had.

“When I was playing, we played cards on the coach when we went to matches, we talked and we had communication with each other. 

Now everyone just puts on his headphones and is in his own world. 

This is maybe one of the reasons they don´t talk any more on the pitch.

Communication on the pitch is so important even if it is just to help your teammates and say “time” or “turn”.

That´s so difficult now.

Now that has all changed.

Now for young players it is all about themselves and less about communications with the rest of the players.

To deal with this we do sessions in training, different exercises every week which are all about focus, communication and concentration.”

To tackle the problem, Koeman required the Southampton squad to take part in a weekly “life kinetics” session, at which players carried out two tasks simultaneously, such as passing a football and catching a tennis ball, while communicating with a teammate.”(Times, 12 April 2016)

I wonder…

Do we, the inheritors of this brave new world, need to be trained in how to interact with one another?

In my experience women generally seem to have little problems with conversing with each other, but men seem more reserved, more reluctant to openly discuss their emotions and inner thoughts with one another.

So perhaps the solution is to hang about venues where only men go?

Not so easy, as there are not so many places where a woman isn´t found.

Women argue that regular interaction between women and men teaches men how to conduct themselves in public and how to treat women privately.


“Charles Storey, graduate board president of Harvard´s Porcellian Club, one of six clubs that still do not admit women, wrote in a letter to Harvard´s student paper The Crimson:

“Forcing single-gender organizations to accept members of the opposite sex could potentially increase, not decrease, the potential for sexual misconduct.”

Massachusetts Democratic Representative Katherine Clark tweeted:

“Or, instead of blaming women, you could focus on teaching members of your club to NOT sexually assault people.”

Data from Harvard´s sexual assault prevention task force has found that of women who attend the all-male events and seniors who are members of female clubs, 47% reported having experienced nonconsensual sexual contact.

Harvard Dean Rakesh Khurana said:

“The College has for many years made it clear that the behaviours and attitudes espoused by single gender social organizations remain at odds with the aspirations of the 21st century society to which the College hopes and expects our students will contribute.” (The Independent, 14 April 2016)

Have we become a society that no longer knows how to interact with reality?

Can we only interact with one another electronically?

How lonely this brave new world has become.

So in our loneliness we fear our individual solitude and immerse ourselves completely in digital divinity, seeking a heaven that demands our focus remain constant upon it.

For many, heaven means to gaze downwards rather than upwards.

For some, even a momentary parting from their electronics is painful, unthinkable, and so we find Pokémon pedestrians drifting into traffic while drivers text.

English Pokémon logo.svg

“Police in New York could soon be equipped with a “textalyser” to test whether erractic drivers have been texting while driving.

Under draft legislation under consideration, officers and troopers interviewing drivers after an accident could do so bearing a device that detects recent texts, calls or internet activity on smartphones.

Just as drivers are asked to blow into a breathalyser, on pain of having their licenses suspended, so officers could demand that motorists hand over their mobile phone for testing with a simple device that is being tested by a mobile phone forensics company.

The plan comes after a spike in deaths that threatens to reverse years of improvements in road safety.

Preliminary figures from the National Safety Council show an 8% rise in motor vehicle deaths in 2015, the largest rise in 50 years.

While the Council suggests that part of the increase is because of cheaper petrol prices, which led to more people on the roads, many have attributed the rise in fatalities to widespread use of smartphones.

The latest figures from the US Department of Transport suggest that “distracted driving” was to blame in less than 10% of accidents, but researchers and safety campaigners argue that the true figure is probably a good deal higher, given the reluctance of drivers to acknowledge that they were using their phone at the time of the accident.

Cell phone use is regulated by local ordinanceduring certain hours in Southside Place, Greater Houston, Texas (Wikipedia)

Research by Virginia Tech, in which drivers were monitored by cameras, suggests that distracted driving causes 70% of crashes.

“No one´s going to admit it after a crash,” said Ben Lieberman, whose 19-year-old son Evan, died in an accident in 2011.

Evan had been in the back of the car, wearing a seat belt.

The driver, his friend, claimed to have fallen asleep, which seemed unlikely to Lieberman, given the busy road they were on.

“I learned that the police rarely look at phone records after a collision,” Lieberman said.

It took Lieberman 6 months and a civil lawsuit to gain the records, which showed that the driver had been using his phone during some of the journey.

Feliz Ortiz, a state assemblyman representing Brooklyn, introduced legislation that would be called “Evan´s Law” and would allow officers to use a textalyser.

The device would not allow officers to read texts or look at photographs.

Nevertheless, civil liberty campaigners have raised concerns.” (Times, 29 April 2016)

It seems our loneliness and our electronic addictions that seek to alleviate this loneliness is literally killing us.

Signboard outside Boise, Indiana (Wikipedia)

Perhaps it is time that modern day Cyranos pick up the courage to speak to the ones we desire and put down our electronic gizmos.

Reality is scary and the risks many, but the rewards are well worth the challenge.

BraveNewWorld FirstEdition.jpg



How to build a railroad

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 22 August 2016

As the few but faithful regular readers of this blog may recall, I am in a marriage wherein my wife is away four days out of seven working in Zürich bringing sick children there the love and professionalism by which she is already known in her particular circles.

So, while she is away with the car I am forced to rely on public transportation when necessity demands I leave this tiny hamlet for purposes other than sleeping.

Today, suffering from extreme toothache, I must once again calculate in my mind the travel time required to reach my destination, in this case a dentist’s chair in Konstanz.

Happily there are moments when taking a train is not connected with work or other necessities, but instead is an adventure and genuine pleasure to do so.

In moments of my recent past I recall the joy I have felt when riding the rails to some undiscovered place as part of another spontaneous exploration.

And there are “before I kick the bucket” travel destinations I would like to visit, which involve boarding a train and seeking out stations that beckon with promise and excitement.

I have even already mapped out in my mind a round-the-world trip that would have me take the train from Paris to Istanbul, then on to Moscow, the Trans-Siberian to Vladivostock, a flight to Alaska, then buses and trains south to British Columbia and down to South America, fly to South Africa then buses and trains back to Europe.

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

It is an imperfect and imprecise plan, but then most grand adventures are.

Here in Switzerland, Swiss chests are swollen with pride not only because Swiss athletes have won medals in the Rio Olympics, but because two months ago, on 1 June 2016, the Gotthard Base Tunnel (Gotthard Basistunnel / Tunnel de base du Saint-Gotthard / Galleria di base del San Gottardo / Tunnel da basa dal Son Gottard in the four official Swiss languages of German, French, Italian and Romansh) was officially opened with dignitaries from across Europe extolling its virtues.

20141120 gotthard-basistunnel02-wikipedia-hannes-ortlieb.jpg

And I might visit this tunnel one day, for as much as it pains me to give the Swiss praise – they praise themselves already too jingoistically as it is – I have to acknowledge that Swiss engineers have truly accomplished something noteworthy here.

With a route length of 57 km (35 miles) and a total of 151 km (94 miles) of tunnels, shafts and passages, it is the world’s longest and deepest traffic tunnel and the first, flat, low level route through the Alps.

The GBT’s depth is approximately 2,300 metres (7,500 feet), which is compareable to that of the deepest mines on Earth.

Without ventilation, the temperature inside the mountain reaches 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Fahrenheit).

The main purpose of the GBT is to increase local transport capacity through the Alpine barrier, especially for freight, notably on the Rotterdam-Basel-Genoa corridor, and more particularly to shift frieght volumes from trucks to freight trains.

Now this is significant, because not only does the GBT reduce the danger of fatal road crashes involving trucks, but it also reduces the environmental damage caused by these trucks.

The GBT bypasses the Gotthardbahn, a winding mountain route opened in 1882 across the Saint Gotthard Massif, which has been operating at full capacity, and establishes a direct route which can be used by both high speed rail and heavy freight trains.

The GBT consists of two single track tunnels, connecting Erstfeld in Canton Uri with Bodio in Canton Ticino, and passing underneath Sedrun in Canton Graubünden.

Passenger trains are now able to travel up to 250 km/h (155 mph) through the GBT, reducing travel times for transalpine train journeys by almost an hour.

And this saving of time and the environment cost the Swiss only 14 billion Swiss francs and nine people´s lives (only one of whom were Swiss).

But these costs in taxpayers´ hard-earned incomes and human life have all been forgiven and forgotten, for a commemoration ceremony – led by a Catholic vicar general, an Evangelical vicar, a Jewish rabbi and a Muslim imam – absolves all guilt… and the massive inauguration – with hundreds of Swiss citizens chosen by lot and dozens of dignitaries, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern, and the resulting publicity –  absolves all remorse.

Throw in dancers and acrobats, singers and musicians, print and media, all united in harmonious orgasm in a celebration of Alpine culture and history…and you have yourselves the making of one hell of a party.

Artists perform during the opening show directed by German director Volker Hesse, on the opening day of the Gotthard rail tunnel - 1 June 2016

Now I recognize the merit of building a 57-km long tunnel but I find myself unmoved by this hullabaloo, for though the GBT might get me from Zürich to Milano a wee bit earlier, I am robbed of seeing much along the way if I am travelling through an underground passage.

For in reaching the destination quicker, we lose the quality of the journey.

I feel the same way about the Channel Tunnel, having crossed the Channel by boat and through the “Chunnel”, I gained time on the train and felt enchantment on the boat.

Course Channeltunnel en.svg

The trainspotter in me, the rail enthusiast within, does not celebrate the GBT.

Now, as suggested above and in previous blog posts, I have travelled by train in Britain.

A flag featuring both cross and saltire in red, white and blue

I have ridden the rails to Cornwall with my wife and have visited friends in Southampton and Oxford and London by train and thoroughly loved riding old steam trains with a former girlfriend when we vacationed in Wales.

For even though rail travel in Britain is expensive, trains are still generally more comfortable than coaches.

Though British trains are still prone to the occasional delay or cancellation, at least most still run close to their scheduled times.

Though about 20 different companies operate train services in Britain and tracks and stations are operated by yet another company, causing confusion for many passengers, information and ticket services are increasingly centralised.

But the days of the best British trains – the slow, sweet branch lines – endangered in the days when train travel writer Paul Theroux in the early 80s wrote The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey around the Coast of Great Britain, may be drawing to a close.

“Twelve groups of companies have made applications to run rail franchises until 2020.

Among them is the East Japan Railway Company (JR East) who has made a bid to run the West Midlands franchise, operated at present by London Midland.

JR East is the operator of Japan’s high-speed bullet trains and manages the 742-mile high-speed network north of Tokyo.” (Times, 8 April 2016)

The Shinkansen, falsely translated by Westerners to mean “bullet train” from the Japanese dangan ressha, the nickname given to the high-speed project in the 1930s, actually refers to the earthquake-and-typhoon-proof track.

There are several types of Shinkasen train, including the 0 series – the front of which actually does resemble a bullet – and the 700 series – the front cab resembling a duck-billed platypus.

These trains reach speeds of up to 300 km per hour, and on average arrive within 6 seconds of their scheduled time.

The Swiss are the most frequent train users in Europe and there is no denying that its network is high quality, comfortable, efficient and scenic.

Swiss Federal Railways – or Schweizerische Bundesbahnen (SBB), Chemins de fer fédéraux suisses (CFF), Ferrovie federal svizzere (FFS) – retains a monopoly on most of the network, but there are some routes, especially alpine lines, which are operated by the companies whch constructed them often a century or more ago.


Still in comparison with other nations, arrival of the railway in Switzerland was relatively late, because each of the country´s Cantons had a say over the routes chosen and they didn´t always agree.

Only after the enactment of the Federal Railways Act of 1852 did the possibility of a nation drawn together by a cohesive rail network become possible.

Zürich´s Main Station (Hauptbahnhof) is the largest railway station in Switzerland.

Heutiger Hauptbahnhof mit allen Anbauten, dahinter die Sihlpost

3,000 trains, carrying over 350,000 passengers, arrive and depart daily on 30 tracks.

The Hauptbahnhof is one of Switzerland´s oldest.

Outside the neo-Renaissance station is a fountain to the memory of Swiss politician and railway entrepreneur Alfred Escher (1819 – 1882) who initiated the construction of the Gotthard Railway and was the founder of Credit Suisse.

(See The Haa Bay and Needle Park of this blog.)

The GBT doesn´t recall the name of Alfred Escher but a Catholic shrine to Saint Barbara, the patron saint of miners, stands inside the tunnel as a memorial to those who built the GBT.

I use the train almost every day, travelling to Konstanz and Zürich for shopping, travelling to St. Gallen, Amriswil, Herisau, Neuhaus and Winterthur for work.

And as much as I enjoy travelling by train, these routes are not my favourite, for I love more intensely the slow, sweet trains, trams and cable cars that climb and descend the hills and mountains of this alpine land.

In a former post, Along the Comedy Circuit, I described how one could travel from the Lake of Constance and the harbour of Rorschach, ride a boat along the lakeshore and up the Rhine River to Rheineck, take a gauge train up the hills to Walzenhausen, walk the Witzweg (Joke Trail) to Heiden, then take another gauge train from Heiden down the hills to Rorschach.

I mentioned how I had made this excursion with my wife.

But as much as I adore and respect my wife, I am very much like Paul Theroux in that I find travel more satisfying, more educational, when I am on my own.

When you travel with someone else your world and your perspective of it is reduced to seeing only one another rather than your isolation compelling you to interact with the world.

I mentioned in A to Z: Adam to Zelg how I taught a family in the village of Zelg in Canton Appenzell.

Zelg is a tiny town in the municipality of Wolfhalden and is reachable by bus from either Heiden or Rheineck and is midpoint by car between Walzenhausen and Rheineck.

On two occasions during my contract with the family Frei I had the opportunity to take these two mountain railways of Rheineck-Walzenhausen (the RhW) and Rorschach-Heiden (the RHB) on my own.

The RhW (Bergbahn Rheineck-Walzenhausen) is a 1.9 km (1.2 mile) long rack railway, that links Rheineck, Canton St. Gallen (SG), with Walzenhausen, Canton Appenzell Ausserrhoden (AR), in operation since 1896.

Strecke der Bergbahn Rheineck–Walzenhausen

Rheineck (Rhine corner) is a Swiss municipality on the Austrian border, where the Rhine River meets and flows into the Bodensee (Lake of Constance).

Rheineck SG Schweiz, Gaißau, Vorarlberg 1.jpg

Rheineck is an old place – by white Canadian, written historical, standards – as it has been around since 1163 when it was known as Castellum Rinegge (Rheineck Castle) – and it is filled with many old structures in its Altstadt.

Rheineck was home to Swiss writer William Wolfensberger (1889 – 1918) and painter Heinrich Herzig (1887 – 1964).

Walzenhausen is a village and a health resort and a starting point of the 8-km long Witzweg walking trail to Heiden.

The RhW starts from platform 1 of Rheineck`s railway station, parallels the SBB’s St. Margrethen – Rorschach railway line for 600 metres (2,000 feet), then makes a sharp right and crosses the highway to reach the Ruderbach stop.

Here the line joins the funicular rack operation and begins to climb at a steep gradient (25%)(272 m / 892 ft) in a straight line to Walzenhausen, passing first through a 315 metre (1,033 foot) long tunnel and then across a 153 metre (502 foot) long iron bridge over the Hexenkirchlitobel (little witches´ church ravine), to finally enter a 70 metre (230 foot) long tunnel under Walzenhausen’s spa house.

The entire journey on the RhW’s single four-wheeled railcar takes only 9 minutes, but despite the discomfort of the car´s wooden benches, one wants to ride the RhW again and again.

The RHB (Rorschach Heiden Bahn) is a standard gauge mountain rack railway, a 7 km (4.3 mile) route that links Rorschach, Canton St. Gallen, with Heiden, Canton Appenzell Ausserrhoden, in operation since 1871, and is a 19-minute journey.

BDeh 2/4 24 mit Velo- und Sommerwagen

Personally I don´t find the RHB as exciting as the RhW, but the places it connects are far more interesting than Rheineck and Walzenhausen for the visiting tourist.

Rorschach, on the south side of the Bodensee, is a very interesting place to visit and not just for its amazing location on the Lake.

One can reach Rorschach by train from either St. Gallen to the south or Romanshorn to the west as well as the RHB up to Heiden.

Highway A1 to the south leads to St. Gallen and St. Margrethen.

Rorschach has a harbour served by passenger ferries that travel to towns on the Swiss, Austrian and German sides of the Lake as well as upstream along the Rhine.

A number of trails begin in Rorschach: the Via Jacobi (one of the routes of the Way of St. James (Jakobsweg) that one can follow to Einsiedeln, Geneva and Santiago de la Compostela in faroff Spain), the Alpenpanoramaweg to Geneva and the Rheintaler Höhenweg (Rhine valley elevated trail) to Sargans.

For the tourist, one can visit the old granary and the Benedictine abbey of Mariaberg, the promenade along the Lake, the St. James Fountain (the starting point of the road to Spain), the bathing hut directly on the Lake, the aviation museum and Hundertwasser House in nearby Altenrhein, as well as the castles of St. Anna, Wartensee, Sulzberg and Wartegg.

Rorschach was the birthplace of Barock fresco painter Johann Melchior Eggmann (1711 – 1756), film actor and 1st Oscar winner Emil Jannings (1884 – 1950), photographer/painter/publisher Ernst Scheidegger (1923 – 2016), Bruno Stanek, space expert and TV moderator (born 1943), and professional racing car driver Neel Jani (born 1983).

(The famous Rorschach inkblot test is named after Hermann Rorschach (1884 – 1922), its Zürich inventor, not the town of Rorschach itself.)

Heiden is also noteworthy as a spa resort, as the birthplace of renowned scientist Hugo Thiemann (1917 – 20112) and footballer Davide Chiumiento (born 1984), and the final residence and resting place of Red Cross founder/Nobel Peace Prize winner Henri Dunant (1828 – 1910).

Dorfansicht von Süd-Osten her

The Henri Dunant Museum is very interesting and well worth a visit.

The RHB is a very comfortable train that ascends 400 metres from Rorschach Main Station (not to be confused with the stations Rorschach Stadt and Rorschach Hafen) and stops upon request at Seebleiche (Pale Lake), Sandbüchel (sandy beeches), Wartensee (waiting lake), Wienacht-Tobel (like night ravine) and Schwendi bei Heiden.

The RHB is a very popular line with both local and international tourists and often the RHB will employ classic train wagons and old steam engines to attract more visitors.

I find myself drawn more towards the RhW and the RHB than the GBT because the old mountain railways embrace the mountains they climb rather than burrow through them.

The RhW and the RHB are symbols of harmony with heritage and nature rather than an avoidance of the environment in the pursuit of speed, in the name of progress.

As I am forced to concede that I do take the fastest trains to work to save time and reach my destination, my heart will always belong to the slow romance of the mountain railways.










The last ride of Vittorio Scarmaglia

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 20 August 2016

As I sit at my desk, up and about far too early on a Saturday morning, I am trying to recapture the enthusiasm and energy by which I am known both as an ESL teacher and a part-time Starbucks barrista for working later today.

I will never claim to be more than a competent teacher/barrista, but I have been told on numerous occasions that generally I am pleasureable to work with.

This kind of remark always make me smile, for when I compare myself to Italians I have known their energy and exuberance on the job seems far superior to my own.

So many adults spend 80% of their adult lives working, yet so few seem truly contented doing these jobs.

Work for many is something that must be endured, that must be survived.

Rare is the person who leaps out of bed and yells “Thank God, it’s Monday!”.

So the moments when I encounter, or read about, someone who truly loves his/her job and brings to it dignity, passion, professionalism and character to that job, then I take notice.

Montréal, Québec, Canada, Summer 1998

It had been years since I had seen her, nearly a decade.

Much had changed in our lives since we had parted.

“Kay” had completed her university studies, had married and divorced, while I remained single and had only memories of many miles travelled.

I lived in Ottawa at the time.

Parlamentshügel von Ottawa

I was between girlfriends, between jobs, between travels, when after years of mutual silence, Kay phoned me.

Would I come to Montréal to visit her?

Skyline von Montreal

Ours had been a passionate relationship that had not ended dramatically, but rather had drifted away by the tides of time and circumstance.

It was summer, a great time to visit Montréal, for the winds are warm and spirits lively and souls relaxed and dancing to Gallic rhythms of romance and impulse.

We met and explored our feelings as we explored the city together.

This city was, and remains, an old friend, for I had not only visited it often during my college days and my travels, but as well I was, for a time, also a Montréalais / a Montrealer.

(Tales to be told for another time…)

Montréal is a seductress of a city, a hypnotic mystical blend of Manhattan and Paris, both cosmopolitan and spirited, a hard-working city by day, an ageless Siren by night.

Montréal is neither North America nor Europe, yet it is both.

We chased one another through a labyrinth of winding cobblestone laneways of stone buildings filled with intimate cafés, eclectic galleries and tempting boutiques, majestic places of worship set amongst green spaces of barely tamed parks.

We played and danced beneath lamplight, the aroma of “wacky tabacky” drifting above streets of grunge and glitz, panache and passion exploding from noisy crowded bars and trendy bistros amongst clubs that quickened heartbeats and record shops that promised auditory bliss.

Montréal on a hot summer night means streets throbbing with life where people of all persuasions wander aimlessly savouring the joie de vivre of the moment.

Old Port of Montreal.jpg

We had known one another as only intimates can, but pride and protocol and the passage of time made us hesitant and sensitive.

We found ourselves as those without vehicles do travelling the streets of Montréal by BMW (bus / Métro / walk).

Montreal STCUM metro bus mosaic.jpg

Bus 55 of the Societé Transports de Montréal runs from the downtown core following the Main (rue St. Laurent) ever northwards to Mount Royal and the cosmopolitan mélange that gives the city character, for Montréal is more than Anglophones to the west of the Island and Francophones to the east, it is also an “Allophone” kaleidoscope of nationalities.

Haitians and Jews and Italians and representatives from every imaginable corner of this planet Earth rub elbows with the locals, sweating with them profusely in the day and celebrating joyfully with them at night.

And if Fortune smiles upon you the driver of Bus 55 might be “Luigi”.

Though there are places like Ottawa and Long Island that have tolerated singing bus drivers, Montréal welcomes them.

Luigi greets everyone with a smile as they board the bus, but once they are seated Luigi breaks into song.

And though we are passengers involuntarily conscripted into a mobile captive audience, no one seems to mind.

For Luigi doesn´t just transport one through the bustling boulevards of Montréal, his voice carries us down into smoky cellars / boites a chansons (“music boxes”) where raspy-voiced folk chansonniers sing of the pride and passion that is “la belle province” and then we find ourselves swept up inside an aria’s dulcet tones and carried upon canals of serenading Venetian gondoliers inspired by the romance of magical moonlight.

Félix Leclerc.jpg

Above: Chansonnier Felix Leclerc, 1957, songwriter of my favourite French Canadian ballad, “Moi, mes souliers sont beaucoup voyagé”

Above: Venezia gondolier

Only souls of stone can resist Luigi´s passion and pleasure and couples restrained by etiquette forget their worries and doubts in the music of the moment.

And though the night would lead to sorrow, tears and anger at the realisation that the past can never be recaptured nor a future built upon its ruins, we shared a final symphony, an ode to joy, sung unashamedly by a humble bus driver.

Vails Gate, New York, USA, 25 March 2016

I am not the only person to be inspired by someone´s passion and pleasure in their work, Will Pavia of the Times of London also succumbed to the charms of another happy Italian labourer:

“The first time Anthony Mancinelli (born 1911) cut someone’s hair, Calvin Coolidge (1872 – 1933, President 1923 – 1929) was beginning his first term in the White House.

Calvin Coolidge cph.3g10777.jpg

Above: Calvin Coolidge

Since then empires have fallen, square fringes have come in and out of fashion, and Mancinelli has become the world´s oldest working barber.

“I just kept going,”, he said on 24 March, his 105th birthday.

Mancinelli works at Fantastic Cuts, a barbershop and tanning salon in Vails Gate in the Hudson River Valley, about 60 miles north of New York City.

For his birthday, someone brought in a cake and a delegation from Gillette arrived to present Mancinelli with a pair of golden scissors.

Mancinelli lives alone, still drives and works five days a week.

In his youth, Mancinelli cut the hair of gangster Jack Diamond (aka “Legs” or “Gentleman Jack”).

The flamboyant Irish American bootlegger from the Prohibition era was renowned in upstate New York for surviving numerous attempts on his life.

Diamond was known as “the clay pigeon of the underworld” until his luck ran out in 1931 when he was shot dead in a rooming house.

Mancinelli still remembers his first haircut.

He was 12 years old and the victim was his father.

A cut and shave then cost 25 cents.

Customers at the time would require additonal services, such as blood letting.

“People used to come in.  They had high blood pressure.  I would give them leeches to put on their arm.  They always felt better.” (Times, 25 March 2016)

Aboard the SBB train from Romanshorn to Winterthur, 27 April 2016

I am travelling to work, enjoying a café creme in the restaurant car, when the salt-and-pepper graying server reveals to a “Stammkunde” (a regular customer) that this day would be his final day as a working man.

“Vittorio Scarmaglia” from Venezia has been resident in Switzerland for 36 years and has worked for the SBB (Swiss National Railways) for 18 years.


He has spent his entire life in the hospitality business.

Though he lacks the exubriance of Luigi and though he no longer is allowed by Swiss law to work as long as he desires or is able to like Mancinelli, his quiet professional manner impresses me.

His story has made me think about my own life.

I think of how we as customers rarely consider the people behind the services we receive or the products we purchase.

I think about how we sacrifice so much of our adult lives to the world of work, most of us working for others who reap the rewards of our labours and begrudingly give us just enough to surive on so our service can continue.

I think about some folks who have left behind their beloved homelands in search of a “better” life only to realise, sometimes too late, that life in a foreign land means you will always be regarded as a foreigner, both in the adopted land and back in your home country because you left it.

A change in environment means a change in perspective.

“Better” is always a question of comparison and contrast.

I think about what I myself will do should I survive until my retirement years.

Will I continue teaching until my students find me lying underneath the classroom desk?

Will I travel with meagre savings until some hiker finds me resting under a shady tree off of some hiking path?

Or without the intellectual and emotional stimuli of work will my mind fade along with my body?

I wonder…

Is Vittorio`s last ride a cause for celebration or a reason for concern?

I wish Signori Scarmaglia “Buono Fortuna” and I hope that my last class taught or my last coffee served will be handled with the same dignity and professionalism as Vittorio’s last ride.