Canada Slim and the Forgotten

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 30 May 2017

Marriage ain’t easy.

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“My successful marriage is built on mistakes.

It may be founded on love, trust and a shared sense of purpose, but it runs on cowardice, impatience, ill-advised remarks and low cunning.

But also: apologies, belated expressions of gratitude and frequent appeals for calm.

Every day is a lesson in what I am doing wrong.”

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“Twenty years ago my wife and I embarked on a project so foolhardy, the prsopect of which seemed to us both so weary, stale and flat that even thinking about it made us shudder….

We simply agreed – we’ll get married – with the resigned determination of two people plotting to bury a body in the woods.”

(Guardian columnist Tim Dowling, How to Be a Husband)

Since autumn of 2016 I have been teaching technical English to a company in two locations: Amriswil in Canton Thurgau (the Canton where I reside) and in Neuhaus in Canton St. Gallen (the Canton where I mostly work) on the border of Canton Zürich.

From Neuhaus it is closer to visit Zürich than it is for me to return back to Landschlacht, so when my schedule as a freelance English teacher finds me with a free afternoon after the company class I take myself down to Zürich.

Zürich possesses many temptations for me: museums, bookshops, the Limmat River, the Lake of Zürich, restaurants and cafés.

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And as well Zürich is where my wife resides from Sunday afternoon to Thursday evening every week.

And somewhere buried deep within our marriage contract in words only my wife can read is a clause that insists that I occasionally be nice and visit the Wife, aka my own personal She Who Must Be Obeyed.

Upon my arrival in Zürich yesterday a bus ride and a train journey later, I still had a few hours to myself with which I had the illusion of freedom to do what I wished before my wife, the doctor, finished work at her hospital.

I foolishly forgot that most museums in Switzerland are closed on Mondays and I had this explained to me politely by a security guard at the Swiss National Museum.

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But like every bibliophile bookworm I never travel without literature for such situations, so with Duncan Smith’s Only in Zürich: A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Ununsual Objects in hand I once again set out to discover Zürich before meeting the wife who would then set my agenda for me.

All guidebooks to Zürich mention the fact that Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) spent time in the city during the years leading up to the First World War.

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Seven years and eight months (1896 – 1900 / 1909 – 1911 / 1912 – 1914 / 1919), to be precise, at six different addresses (Unionstrasse 4 / Klosbachstrasse 87 / Dolderstrasse 17 / Moussonstrasse 12 / Hofstrasse 116 / Hochstrasse 37).

Albert Einstein’s name is now synonymous with genius and his face has become a 20th century icon.

But what about his wife during this time, the gifted mathematician Mileva Maric (1875 – 1948)?

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Few books mention her name and even fewer mention that she was buried in an unmarked grave in Zürich.

Albert Einstein arrived in Zürich in October 1896 to study at the Federal Polytechnic Institute (Eidgenössisches Polytechnikum) – today the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule)(ETH).

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A wall plaque at Unionstrasse 4 marks one of the addresses where Albert lived during this period.

In the same year Mileva attended the same institution and the two soon became close friends.

Born to wealthy parents in Titel (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, today a part of Serbia), Mileva was the first and favourite child of an ambitious pesant who had joined the army, married into money and then dedicated himself to making sure his brilliant daughter was able to prevail in the male world of mathematics and physics.

Mileva spent most of her childhood in Novi Sad and attended a variety of ever more demanding schools, at each of which she was at the top of her class, culminating when her father convinced the all-male Classical Gymnasium in Zagreb to let her enroll.

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Above: St. Mark’s Church, Zagreb, Croatia

After graduating there with the top grades in physics and math, Mileva made her way to Zürich, where she became, just before she turned 21, the only woman in Albert’s section of the Polytechnic.

More than three years older than Albert, she was afflicted with a congenital hip dislocation that cause her to limp.

She was prone to bouts of tuberculosis and despondency.

Mileva was known for neither her books nor her personality.

One of her female friends in Zürich described her as “very smart and serious, small, delicate, brunette, ugly”.

But she had qualities that Albert, in his romantic scholar years, found attractive: a passion for math and science, a brooding depth and a beguiling soul.

Her deepset eyes had a haunting intensity, her face an enticing touch of melancholy.

Mileva would become, over time, Albert’s muse, partner, lover, wife, bête noire and antagonist and she would create an emotional field more powerful than that of anyone else in Albert’s life.

Mileva would alternately attract and repulse Albert, with a force so strong that a mere scientist, a mere man, like himself would never be able to fathom it.

Mileva and Albert met when they both entered the Polytechnic in October 1896, but their relationship took a while to develop.

They were nothing more than classmates that first academic year, but they did, however, decide to go hiking together in the summer of 1897.

“Frightened by the new feelings she was experiencing” because of Albert, Mileva decided to leave the Polytechnic temporarily and instead audit classes at Heidelberg University.

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Mileva and Albert corresponded, her letters a mix of playfulness and seriousness, of lightheartednes and intensity, of intimacy and detachment.

Albert urged her to return to Zürich.

By February 1898, Mileva made up her mind to do so.

By April she was back, in a boarding house a few blocks from him and now they were a couple.

They shared books, intellectual enthusiasms, intimacies and access to each other’s apartments.

Friends were surprised that a sensuous and handsome man such as Albert, who could have almost any woman fall for him, would find himself with a short and plain Serbian who had a limp and exuded an air of melancholy.

But it is easy to see why Albert felt such an affinity for Mileva.

They were kindred spirits who perceived themselves as aloof scholars and outsiders, rebellious toward others’ expectations, intellectuals who sought as lovers someone who would also be a partner, a colleague and collaborator.

Above all else, Albert loved Mileva for her mind.

She would eventually gain the same score in physics as Albert.

In 1900 Albert presented his first published scientific paper to the Annalen der Physik, Europe’s leading physics journal, in which his unified physical law of relativity was already apparent.

In February 1901, Switzerland made Albert a citizen, but his parents insisted that he go with them to Milan and live there if he could not find work in Zürich.

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Both in Zürich and in Milan, Albert was unsuccessful at attaining fulltime employment.

He spent most of 1901 juggling temporary teaching assignments and some tutoring.

Waiting for a decent post to materialise, Albert accepted a temporary post at a technical school in Winterthur for two months, filling in for a teacher on military leave, while Mileva remained in Zürich.

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To make up for his absences, Albert proposed that they have a romantic getaway by Lake Como.

It was early Sunday morning, 5 May 1901, Albert waited for Mileva at the train station in the village of Como, “with open arms and a pounding heart”.

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Mileva became pregnant by Albert.

Back in Zürich preparing to take her exams and hoping to go on to get a doctorate and become a physicist, she decided instead that she wanted Albert’s child – even though he was not yet ready or willing to marry her.

Perhaps as a consequence of her pregnancy or her dissatisfaction that Albert went on summer vacation with his parents and sister in the Alps instead of finding employment after Winterthur as he had promised her, Mileva failed her exams and gave up her dream of being a scientific scholar.

In the fall of 1901, Einstein took on a job as a tutor of a rich English schoolboy at a little private academy in Schaffhausen.

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Mileva was eager to be with Albert, but her pregnancy made it impossible for them to be together in public, so she stayed at a small hotel in a neighbouring village.

Their relationship became strained, as Albert came only infrequently to visit her claiming he did not have the spare money.

Albert was desperately unhappy with his job in Schaffhausen so it was with some relief that his friend Marcel Grossmann told him that a job as a Bern patent office clerk would soon be his.

Albert moved to Bern in late January 1902, while Mileva returned to her parents’ home in Novi Sad to have their baby, a girl they called Lieserl.

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Above: Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

Though Albert wrote to Mileva asking about Lieserl, his love for the child was mainly abstract.

Albert did not tell his friends or family about his daughter and never once publicly speak of her or even acknowledge she existed.

Albert found a large room in Bern but Mileva would not be sharing it.

They were not married and an aspiring Swiss civil servant could not be seen cohabitating in such a way.

After a few months Mileva moved back to Zürich to wait for Albert to marry her as he had promised.

She did not bring Lieserl with her.

Albert and Lieserl never laid eyes on each other.

Lieserl was left back in Novi Sad with relatives and friends, so that Albert could maintain both his unencumbered lifestyle and respectability he needed to become a Swiss official.

The fate of Lieserl remains unknown.

Albert finally was rewarded the position on 16 June 1902.

Albert married Mileva at a tiny civil ceremony in Bern’s registry office on 6 January 1903.

Their son Hans Albert Einstein was born on 14 May 1904.

After gaining his doctorate in 1905 while working in the Swiss Patent Office, assessing the worth of electromagnetic devices, Albert wrote four groundbreaking articles: one concerning the photoelectric effect (for which he received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921) and another containing his now famous mass-energy equivalence equation: E=mc squared.

In 1909 Albert and Mileva along with Hans moved back to Zürich, where Albert was made Associate Professor of Physics at the University of Zürich.

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The Einstein family lived on the second floor at Moussonstrasse 12, where in 1910 their second son Eduard “Tete” Einstein was born.

In March 1911 the family relocated to Prague, where Albert became full professor at Charles University.

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Einstein’s fame would lead him to wander around Europe giving speeches and basking in his renown, while Mileva stayed behind in Prague, a city she hated.

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She brooded about not being part of his scientific circles that she had once struggled to join.

She became even more gloomy and depressed than her natural disposition had often led her to before.

So it was in this instability between them that Albert travelled alone to Berlin during the Easter holidays of 1912 and became reacquainted with a cousin, three years older, whom he had known as a child, Elsa.

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Elsa Einstein had been married, divorced and now at age 36 was living with her two daughters in the same apartment buildings as her parents.

Albert was looking for new companionship and thus began secret romantic correspondence between them.

But after returning to Prague from Berlin, Albert began to develop qualms about his affair with his cousin.

What remained between Mileva and Albert was a feeling that living among the middle class German community in Prague had become wearisome, so they decided to return to the one place they thought could restore their relationship: Zürich.

In July 1912 the Einsteins returned once more to Zürich, where Albert took up a professorship at the Polytechnikum.

Life should have been glorious.

They were able to afford a modern six-room apartment with good views.

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Above: Hofstrasse  116, Zurich

They were reunited with old friends.

But Mileva’s depression continued to deepen and and her health to decline.

After a year of silence, Elsa wrote to Albert.

So, when a few months later, Einstein received an offer to work in Berlin and be with Elsa, he was quite receptive.

This time they lived at Hofstrasse 116 where they remained until February 1914, when Albert became professor at Berlin’s Humboldt University.

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Mileva was unhappy in Berlin and their marriage was dissolving.

She had become more depressed, dark and jealous.

He had become emotionally withdrawn.

Mileva became involved with Zagreb mathematics professor Vladimir Varicak who challenged Einstein’s theories.

In July Mileva moved out with the two boys into the house of her only friend Clara Haber and her husband the chemist Fritz.

Albert was prepared to take her back if she agreed to a brutal ultimatum of her duties and responsibilites.

He was prepared to live with Mileva again because he didn’t want to lose his children but it was out of the question that they would resume a friendly relationship but he aimed for a businesslike arrangement.

Mileva and the two boys left for Zürich on 29 July 1914.

She filled her time giving private lessons in mathematics, physics and piano playing.

Einstein returned to Zürich once more in January/February 1919 to lecture on his Theory of Relativity, staying at Hochstrasse 37.

That same year Albert divorced Mileva, giving her the proceeds from his Nobel Prize for her and their children’s support.

Mileva invested the money in three properties in Zürich, occupying one of them herself at Huttenstrasse 62, which has been identified by a memorial plaque since 2005.

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Hans Einstein (1904 – 1973) would go on to study engineering at Zürich Polytechnic, get married, become a father to two sons and a daughter with his first wife Frieda, move to the United States becoming a professor of hydraulic engineering at Berkeley, remarry after Frieda’s death, father two more children.

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Above: Hans Einstein’s final resting place, Woods Hole, Massachusetts, USA

Eduard Einstein (1910 – 1965) was smart and artistic.

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Obsessed about Freud, Eduard hoped to be a psychiatrist, but he succumbed to his own schizophrenia and was institutionalised in Switzerland for much of the rest of his life at Zürich University Psychiatric Hospital.

Albert would go on to access even greater fame and award, eventually marrying his cousin Elsa.

And what of Mileva?

By the 1930s, the costs of treating Eduard for schizophrenia had overwhelmed her.

She was forced to sell her two investment properties and to transfer the rights to Huttenstrasse to Albert so as not to lose it.

Although he made regular payments to her Mileva died penniless in 1948.

She is buried in an unmarked grave in Zürich’s Nordheim Cemetery and mostly forgotten.

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It was not until 2009 that a memorial gravestone was erected by the Serbian Diaspora Ministry, just inside the cemetery entrance on Käferholzstrasse.

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I visited the places Mileva had known in reverse order from the cemetery to the first apartment she had shared with Albert.

And I found parallels with my own past…

I too had been left behind by my parents like Lieserl.

My mother lies buried in an unmarked grave, but unlike Mileva there is no society to put a plaque on Fort Lauderdale´s cemetery.

Like Mileva I have married a partner more successful professionally than myself, though unlike Mileva I have no illusions about my ever having the same aptitudes as my wife possesses, nor do I feel jealousy or resentment for her success.

Mileva’s partner required that she uproot her life several times to different locations in Zürich and to other cities like Prague and Berlin.

As my wife´s career is more stable than mine, I have moved with/for her from the Black Forest to the Rhine River border near Basel up to Osnabruck and then to this wee village by the Lake of Constance here in Switzerland.

I, like Mileva, am less attractive and outgoing than my spouse.

I, like Mileva, have my own quiet struggles with depression, but, so far, these bouts seem far less serious than those she suffered.

I came from work at the company in Neuhaus dressed for executive type work.

The temperature in Zürich yesterday was 32°, hot and humid.

Elves could have taken a bath in the pools of sweat gathered under my armpits.

Zürich like Rome is built upon hills so seeing the former abodes of the late Mrs. E demanded energy.

Happily if one gets thirsty in Zürich there is no need to find a café or a supermarket because it is quite acceptable to drink from a public fountain.

One never has to travel far to find a fountain because there are few cities with more fountains than Zürich, again compareable to Rome.

At last count, this city boasts a total of around twelve hundred fountains.

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Above: The Napfbrunnen Fountain

With portable Starbucks cup in hand, I drank deeply and often.

Albert, with his great intelligence, achieved great fame and fortune.

Mileva, also possessing great intelligence, gave up fame and fortune for her family.

If Albert was a bad husband and father, history has no record in Mileva’s handwriting.

Her secrets and potential lie buried somewhere beneath the earth of the sprawling necropolis in the metropolis she chose to call home.

Daughter of Serbia, wife of a genius, mother to an abandoned daughter, sons becoming a wandering engineer and an ill schizophrenic, a victim of depression, genetics and passion, Mileva Maric Einstein was many things.

Now she is just a historical footnote lost in the shadows of an uncommunicative cemetery visited by a sweaty Canadian with too much time on his hands.

Mileva had her flaws and made her mistakes, but in the end analysis I am glad I found out about her.

I meet the wife later for a quick bite after her work and before her tango dance lesson and as I watch her speak with drama and passion, and as I consider both are good and bad times I can quietly smile and know that I have met my match, muse, partner, lover, wife, bête noire and antagonist.

I don’t know what the future holds, but I will say that she has made my past quite interesting.

Being a husband ain’t easy, but it sure isn’t boring.

Sources:

Tim Dowling, How to Be a Husband

Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe

Duncan J.D. Smith, Only in Zürich

Wikipedia

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Deserving democracy?

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 9 March 2017

As a Canadian who grew up exposed to American culture, and now as an expat with a fair number of American friends, the US remains for me what Allan Fotheringham called “the Excited States of America”.
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Above: Allan Fotheringham and his wife Anne
For Americans always seem overly agitated by everything.
 Flag of the United States
What always surprises me is the deep-seated belief held by so many Americans that the US is approaching the eve of its destruction.
The surprise factor is that this deep-seated belief is not new.
In the 50s the most oft quoted book?
The Age of Anxiety.
 
Yet here is a land that leads the world economically, politically and militarily.
As a teacher of both teenagers and adults, I see parallels between the US and a teenager.
A teenager is a mix of overconfidence and insecurity.
The US is a land of both bravado and despair.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, the US has never not been at war, and it is always afraid of any other nation that might conceivable challenge the US, despite the fact it spends more money on its military than many other nations combined.
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Yet countries that can barely support themselves, like Iran and North Korea, are just waiting to attack the US.
 Flag of Iran
Above: The flag of Iran
Flag of North KoreaAbove: The flag of North Korea
The US is a land driven by fear, of enemies both domestic and foreign.
Like a teenager, the US is clumsy, direct, at times brutal, and torn by deep internal conflict and absolutely certain that its values are best.
Two World Wars devastated Europe making it lose its world dominance.
Communism, despite Russian posturing, could never support itself.
Above: The flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1922 – 1991)
China, despite its huge population and its coastal cities, remains mostly a backward poverty stricken land.
Flag of the People's Republic of ChinaAbove: Flag of the People’s Republic of China
Here is a list of some sobering facts that I wish US politicians would address:
The US has the highest teen pregnancy rates in the developed world – over 1,100 teenagers, mostly age 18 or 19, give birth every day in the US.
 File:Preventing Teen Pregnancy in the US-CDC Vital Signs-April 2011.pdf
80% of the world’s executions take place in just three countries: the US is one of them.
 
Above: Red (still practising capital punishment), brown (not outlawed but not practiced), green (practiced under exceptional circumstances), blue (abolished).
1 out of 5 of the world’s people live on less than 1 US dollar a day.
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More than 7 million US women and 1 million US men suffer from an eating disorder.
There are 67,000 people employed in the lobbying industry in DC – 125 for each elected member of Congress.
 
Above: K Street NW at 19th Street in Washington DC, part of DC’s maze of high-powered lobbyists and lawyers
Black men born in the US today stand a 1 in 3 chance of going to jail.
 
Every week, an average of 88 children are expelled from US schools for bringing a gun to class.
 
The US spends more money on porn than on foreign aid.
The US spends on its military more than 33 times the combined military spending of the seven “rogue states”.
Perhaps rather than creating wars against countries that are far weaker than the US, perhaps its politicians could focus on some of the above-mentioned problems.

I am just a simple man trying to understand a complicated world.

Does my/your voice matter?
Does my/your opinion matter?
Within these two questions lies the heart of our existence as people, as citizens.
Now there are many things negative that can be said about President Donald J. Trump, but, for a moment, cast aside all these legitimate complaints (and there are many) and consider this question:
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What has Donald Trump taught us?
Trevor Noah, on his 15 December 2016 broadcast of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, brilliantly illustrated the disparity between the image and the reality of American democracy, by simply showing Donald Trump speaking at his most candid in speeches he gave to the Republican Party after he won the nomination to represent the Party in the US election and after he won the Presidency by Electoral College vote:
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Charleston, West Virginia, 5 May 2016
“You have been hearing me saying that it’s a rigged system, but now I don`t say it anymore because I won.
Now I don’t care.”
Des Moines, Iowa, 8 December 2016
(In reference to his campaign promise of taking away the power of lobbyists and Wall Street money and giving DC back to the people)
We’re going to drain the swamp of corruption.
Funny how that term caught on, isn’t it?
“Drain the swamp.”
I tell everyone I hated it.
Somebody said, “Drain the swamp.”
And I said, “That’s so hokey.
That’s so terrible.”
I said, “Alright. I’ll try it.”
So, like a month ago, I said, “Drain the swamp.” and the place went crazy.
I said, “Whoa! What’s this?”
So I said it again.
Then I started saying it like I meant it.
Then I started loving it.
It’s true.
Drain the swamp.”
Grand Rapids, Michigan, 9 December 2016
(In response to chants of “Lock her up.” – jail Hillary Clinton:)
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“That plays great before the election but now we don’t care.”
West Allis, Wisconsin, 14 December 2016
“Speaker Paul Ryan is like a fine wine.
…If he ever goes against me, I won’t say that.”
 A portrait shot of Paul Ryan, looking straight ahead. He has short brown hair, and is wearing a dark navy blazer with a red and blue striped tie over a light blue collared shirt. In the background is the American flag.
Now there are a couple of things these excerpts show that express for me a kernel of both what is wrong with Donald Trump, but more importantly what is wrong with the state of American democracy.
Donald would say anything to get himself elected.
As a salesman, he said whatever he thought would sell.
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He has shown that he will act however he wishes, whether this is according to the wishes of the people or not.
He believes that he should do as he chooses and as long as you do not contradict him then things will be fine.
But aside from Donald Trump acting like salesman, acting like a politician, we need to look at two things these speeches show:
– What his voters thought they were getting and why they get it
– Where these speeches were made
Understanding the US system of government and the system that turns citizens into the people’s representatives is not easily understood by those who were not raised American nor easily understood by all Americans themselves.
But because of the enormous military and economic power that the United States presently wields, I believe it is important that we all understand what America is and isn’t and what it could be.
What is democracy?
If one believed Abraham Lincoln, it is government of the people, for the people, by the people.
An iconic photograph of a bearded Abraham Lincoln showing his head and shoulders.
Above: Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865)(16th US President, 1861 – 1865)
(And who can’t trust Lincoln?)
So, by extension, do the world’s democracies get the leaders they deserve?
It depends on what is meant by “the people”.
If you believe that a democracy means “one person, one vote”…
If you believe that “every vote counts”…
Then nowhere can one find a true democracy.
Granted there are nations freer than others but a perfect democracy is hard to find.
So let us look at America…
Does America deserve Donald Trump?
Who elected him?
Americans?
Yes and No.
It would seem logical and comforting to assume that all those Americans who actually voted made votes that counted.
“America is essentially a dream.
The substance of the dream is expressed in these sublime words, words lifted to cosmic proportion that all are created equal.” (Martin Luther King Jr.)
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Above: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929 – 1968)
But not all voters are equal nor are all votes equal.
As well, Americans may vote, but it is the Electoral College that decides who will sit in the President’s chair.
The United States Electoral College is the mechanism established by the US Constitution for the indirect election of the US President and the US Vice President.
Why is there an Electoral College?
The framers of the US Constitution felt that there were few options available for consideration at the time of drafting this important document to which the President is sworn to defend:
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Above: Page 1 of the United States Constitution
Election by popular vote was considered an unsatisfactory option, for it was believed that too many people were too ill-informed to make intelligent choices.
Direct election by Congress was rejected because it was felt that the President should be independent of Congress, so he was not beholden to them for his re-election.
So Americans choose Electors, who then choose independently who will fill the roles of President and Vice President.
Who are these Electors?
They are the 100 Senators and 435 Representatives of both Houses of Congress, plus the three Electors the District of Columbia is provided by the 23rd Amendment of the US Constitution.
Coat of arms or logo
So out of 350 million Americans only 538 “votes” count, only 270 “votes” needed to win the White House.
The US is comprised of 50 states, yet only 10 states actually matter, only ten states – Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin –  get visited by those who would be President.
Because it is determined by the number of Senators and Representatives in the states legislatures whether a state is a swing state or a safe/spectator state.
Blue represents the Democratic states, red represents the Republican states, the grey are the swing states where the election could swing either Democrat or Republican.
This status is decided by ZIP code: where you live determines your expected vote.
Certain neighbourhoods are expected to vote in certain ways.
Depending on the way the electoral map is drawn some states can guarantee that one party dominates the state in a process called gerrymandering.
Gerrymandering is a practice intended to establish a political advantage for a particular party or group by manipulating district boundaries.
So if you reside in a spectator state then your vote doesn’t really matter, because the results in those states are pretty much sewn up and this assumption reduces voter turnout in those states ensuring the predetermined result.
Only 25% of Americans have a vote that matters.
So even if the popular vote is less proportional than the Electoral College vote, the College chooses.
Donald Trump is not an exception.
In the past half century at least 5 Presidents came into the Oval Office despite losing the popular vote.
Election Day in the US is the culmination of a long, grueling process that tests those who seek the highest office in the land.
Most Americans pay attention to the campaign for a matter of weeks, but the process is more than two years in the making.
Mere days after a newly elected/re-elected President takes office, the media turns its attention to the next campaign, pontificating about what the next campaign will look like.
Familiar names are mentioned and leading critics of the President will give speeches and interviews in which they try to assume the leadership of the opposition.
Two years into a President’s term, the presidential race comes into clearer focus.
Following the midterm elections – which occur every two years and in which members of both Houses of Congress as well as governors and state legislatures are elected – presidential hopefuls form what are called “exploratory committees”.
Exploratory committees allow candidates to test the political climate for a national campaign by hiring pollsters who gauge their popularity and meet with local elected officials and political activists around the country.
And how do the Democrats and the Republicans choose their presidential candidates?
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Through primaries and caucuses.
The first are voting by delegates (folks chosen by the parties) and the latter are committee meetings. (party officials chosen by other party officials)
Depending on the archaic system each state uses, the parties can choose their candidates through a caucus or a primary.
In a couple of states both caucus and primary are used, with the primary results ignored should they differ from the concensus of the caucus.
There are two types of delegates:
Pledged delegates are elected or chosen during the primaries with the understanding that they will vote for a certain candidate at the national convention.
Superdelegates – members of the House of Representatives, senators, governors, former Presidents and other party leaders – are unpledged and are free to support whomever they wish.
The Democrats have superdelegates, while the Republicans have automatic delegates which serve a similar purpose.
The early part of the campaign is the primary season.
During the primaries, each state holds its own election and political activists assemble to openly lobby for candidates and garner support.
Early “straw pools” shape perceptions of the strength of the various candidates.
By campaigning during the primaries, candidates compete against each other to win delegates from each state.
Then the political parties hold their own conventions, in which the winners of the primaries are nominated for president.
The winners of their conventions compete against each other for the job of president.
Confused yet?
And how many Americans actually get to decide who will lead either the DNC or the GOP?
 
57, 874 out of a population of over 350 million Americans.
0.2% of the population decides which two Americans will compete for the job of President.
What convinces them to choose whom they choose?
Money.
Election campaigns are expensive.
Campaigns are privately funded.
A typical Congressman is said to spend 30 to 70% of his time in office raising money for his next re-election campaign.
How much does it cost to buy yourself a Congressman?
A donor is considered worthy of respect and relevance by a Congressman at a minimum of $5,200.
The top 100 funders of Trump’s campaign gave as much campaign funding as the rest of the 4.75 million other funders combined.
Only 400 families in America contribute over half the campaign donations for each party during each Presidential race.
So, Congressmen have developed a sixth sense and have learned how what they do affects their ability to raise money.
Democracy held hostage to the financial contributions of the elite and special interests groups.
The voters?
Their opinion has no significant impact upon public policy.
They make noise, but no one is listening.
And the problems that need to be addressed in America cannot be resolved to the satisfaction of Americans if Americans don’t have a voice.
In America all Americans are equal, but some Americans are more equal than others.
Voters are alienated and their elected officials couldn’t care less.
It is abundantly clear to every thinking American that the system is corrupt, broken, rigged.
“America would be better served with a presidential election process that treated citizens across the country equally.” (Newt Gingrich)
Newt Gingrich by Gage Skidmore 6.jpg
Could Americans be persuaded to approve and ratify a constitutional amendment, creating a single constituency (the US) in which the President would be elected by a national popular vote, with every citizen’s vote counting equally?
Those who can fix it, won’t.
Especially if they benefit from the system.
And the multitude of problems that affect Americans will not be resolved until Americans have a voice in the decisions that affect them.
At present, President Trump is finding himself increasingly uncomfortable.
The United States Intelligence Community has officially concluded that the Russian government interfered with the 2016 elections.
File:ODNI Statement on Declassified Intelligence Community Assessment of Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent U.S. Elections.pdf
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence, representing 17 intelligence agencies, and the Department of Homeland Security jointly stated that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and leaked its documents to WikiLeaks.
Graphic of hourglass, coloured in blue and grey; a circular map of the eastern hemisphere of the world drips from the top to bottom chamber of the hourglass.
In early January 2017, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before a Senate committee that Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election went beyond hacking and including disinformation and the dissemination of fake news often promoted on social media.
James R. Clapper official portrait.jpg
US intelligence agencies assessed that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election, with the intent to undermine public faith in the democratic process, denigrate Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and harm her electabilitiy and potential presidency, with a clear preference for Donald Trump as President.
Putin with flag of Russia.jpg
Russian officials have repeatedly denied involvement in any DNC leaks or hacks.
Flag of Russia
Above: The present flag of Russia
But it is my opinion that even if the Russians were not responsible for interfering in the results of the US election, the result would probably have been the same.
For as much as the hacks of the DNC computers showed manipulation of the Democrat rejection of Bernie Sanders as Democratic Party presidential nominee (23 July 2016), the payment of significant amounts of money by Wall Street to Hillary Clinton for making speeches (7 October 2016), and new evidence presented to the FBI suggesting Secretary Clinton’s private emails posed a threat to national security (28 October 2016, later rejected 6 November 2016), certainly damaged Clinton’s reputation with the American public, I believe that the Electoral College still would have chosen for Donald Trump for the sole reason of discomfort of having a woman as President of the United States.
So for the rest of the world who condemns Americans for foisting the Donald onto the world.
Don’t.
Most of them had little choice in the matter.
“It’s coming to America first,
The cradle of the best and of the worst.
It’s here they got the range
And the machinery for change
And it’s here they got the spiritual thirst.
It’s here the family’s broken
And it’s here the lonely say
That the heart has got to open
In a fundamental way:
Democracy is coming to the USA.”
“Democracy”, The Future, Leonard Cohen
Sources: Wikipedia
Eleanor Clift and Matthew Spieler, Selecting A President
The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, 15 December 2016
“Voting”, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, 14 February 2016
“Primaries and Caucuses”, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, 22 May 2016
“The Electoral College”, Jack Rakove, TED Talks, 20 June 2013
“Unrepresentative Democracy”, Larry Lessing, TED Talks, 20 October 2015
“One Person, One Vote”, Justin Curtis, TED Talks, 1 November 2016
Below: World Power Politics
(Blue: Presidential republics; Light green: Parliamentary presidential republics; Red: Parliamentary constitutional monarchies; Black: Absolute monarchies; Dark green: Countries with suspended constitutions; Yellow: Semi-presidential republics; Orange: Parliamentary republics; Pink: Constitutional monarchies with power residing with the monarchies; Brown: One party states; Grey: Countries not fitting the aforementioned categories)

Bleeding Beautiful

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 28 February 2017

There are friends and stories that remain in the back of your mind that sometimes require some dramatic moment to have their memory come rushing to your forethoughts.

Such is the case of my Indian friend Sumit, originally of Orissa Province, India, and now Canadian resident of Ontario.

I have known him only for three years, but his friendship is such that constant communication between us is unnecessary, for ours is a friendship that does not need to be constantly voiced to be assured of its constancy.

We met while we were both seeking to improve our German in evening courses across the lake in Konstanz and have remained friends ever since.

Rheintorturm, a section of the former city wall of Konstanz at Lake Constance

I have watched him struggle and succeed against racial profiling, unequal employment opportunities, uncertain prospects and unhappy losses in his family.

Last contact with him a while ago, he spoke with joy about his newborn son, his satisfaction with his Canadian employer and his hopes for the future.

As with all those who have chosen to call me “friend” it is with the greatest pleasure that I greet his communications and listen with rapt attention to his tales of my home and native land from his non-native perspective.

It is a rare moment when a bus ride from Landschlacht through Kreuzlingen to Konstanz does not bring back to me recollections of Sumit riding his bicycle along the same route.

His friendship is such that he will be the sole reason that I will include Toronto in my itinerary when I return again to Canada for a visit.

From top left: Downtown Toronto featuring the CN Tower and Financial District from the Toronto Harbour, City Hall, the Ontario Legislative Building, Casa Loma, Prince Edward Viaduct, and the Scarborough Bluffs

His laugh, his humor, his unique perspective on issues, all are missed.

He is missed.

Sumit dominates my thoughts this week when I read of recent events in Kansas.

Olathe, Kansas, USA, 22 February 2017

In my own personal travels in America I have visited at least 40 States.

Flag of the United States

By happenstance, and like most tourists American or foreign, Kansas is one of those States that somehow seems to get overlooked, which is a shame.

Flag of Kansas

For Kansas is surprising.

The vast, rolling prairies of Kansas, blanketed by wheat, battered by tornadoes, ignored by many, is said to be the Home on the Range (the state song) of some of the friendliest folks you could possibly hope to meet.

The Sunflower State, 32nd in population, 15th in area, the 34th to join the Union, birthplace of avatrix Amelia Earhart (1897 – 1937), jazzman Charlie Parker (1920 – 1955), actress Annette Bening (born 1958), songstress Melissa Etheridge (born 1961) and silent film legend Joseph Frank “Buster” Keaton (1895 – 1966), Kansas is famous for Turkey Red wheat, being the first State to start prohibition, and the fictional residence of Dorothy and Toto (of The Wizard of Oz (1939) fame).

Earhart.jpg

Portrait of Charlie Parker in 1947.jpg

The American President (movie poster).jpg

MelissaEtheridgeHWOFSept2011.jpg

Kansas has historically been a place people pass through – Spanish conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coranado (1510 – 1554) seeking the rich civilization of the Quivira, cowboys driving cattle, pioneers following the Santa Fe Trail, the Pony Express delivering mail, railroads transporting goods and people, carloads of college kids heading to Colorado ski slopes…

The buffalo are gone, as are the native Kansa tribe who were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma in 1873.

One might argue that it was in Kansas that the US Civil War really began, for the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which allowed settlers to vote for or against slavery, triggered Bleeding Kansas – a term coined by Republican New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley – violent political confrontations that gave a glimpse of how impossible compromise without conflict would be, how inevitable Civil War would become.

Reynolds's Political Map of the United States 1856.jpg

Above: Reynold’s 1856 map showing free and slave states, Kansas in white in the middle

In October 1855, abolitionist John Brown (1800 – 1857) came to Kansas to fight slavery.

John Brown by Levin Handy, 1890-1910.jpg

On 21 November 1855, the Wakarusa War began when abolitionist/Free-Stater Charles Dow was shot by a pro-slavery settler.

On 6 December Free Stater Thomas Barber is shot and killed near Lawrence.

On 21 May 1856, Missourians invade Lawrence and burn down the Free State Hotel, destroy two newspaper offices and ransack homes and stores.

In response, Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts took to the floor of the US Senate in Washington DC to denounce the threat of slavery in Kansas and humiliate its supporters.

Sumner had devoted his enormous energies to the destruction of the Slave Power – the efforts of slave owners to take control of the federal government and ensure the survival and expansion of slavery.

In his The Crime against Kansas speech, Sumner ridiculed the honour of elderly South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, portraying Butler’s pro-slavery agenda towards Kansas with the raping of a virgin and characterizing his affection for it in sexual and graphic terms.

The next day Butler’s cousin, the South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, nearly killed Sumner on the Senate floor of the Senate with a heavy cane, deepening the North-South split.

Violence continued to increase.

Ohio abolitionist John Brown led his sons and followers to plan the murder of settlers who spoke in favour of slavery.

On the night of 24 May, at the proslavery settlement of Pottawatomie Creek, Brown’s group seized five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords.

Brown and his men escaped and began plotting a full scale slave insurrection to take place at Harpers Ferry, Virginia.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had created from unorganised native lands the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, permitted residency by US citizens who would decide the region’s slavery status and seek admission to the Union as States.

Immigrants supporting both sides of the question arrived in Kansas to establish residency and gain the right to vote.

Kansas Territory officials were appointed by the pro-slavery administration of US President Franklin Pierce (1804 – 1869)(14th US President 1853 – 1857) and thousands of non-resident pro-slavery Missourians entered Kansas with the goal of winning elections, sometimes capturing them by fraud and intimidation.

Portrait of Franklin Pierce by Mathew Brady

In response, Northern abolitionist elements flooded Kansas with free-soilers. 

Anti-slavery Kansas residents wrote the first Kansas Constitution and elected the Free State legislature in Topeka, in direct opposition to the pro-slavery government in Lecompton.

In April 1856, a Congressional committee arrived in Lecompton to investigate voting fraud and found the elections had been improperly elected by non-residents.

President Pierce refused recognition of the committee’s findings and continue to authorise the pro-slavery legislature, which the Free State people called the Bogus Legislature.

On 4 July 1856, proclamations of President Pierce led to 500 US Army troops arriving in Topeka from Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley.

With cannons pointed at Constitution Hall, they ordered the disperal of the Free State Legislature.

In August 1856, thousands of pro-slavery men formed into armies and marched into Kansas.

That same month, Brown and his followers engaged 400 pro-slavery soldiers in the Battle of Osawatomie.

Hostilities raged for another two months until Brown departed Kansas and a new territorial governor John Geary took office and managed to prevail upon both sides for peace.

This fragile peace was often broken by intermittent violent outbreaks for two more years.

By 1859 approximately 56 people would die violently in Bleeding Kansas.

The American Civil War commenced in 1861.

Over time, the rip-roaring open range would evolve to become some of the most productive wheatlands in the world, while aviation industries would become big moneymakers for the State as well.

For the tourist, there are some tourist attractions in the State.

In northwest Kansas on route 24 is Nicodemus – the oldest African American settlement west of the Mississippi.

Founded in 1877 by black American settlers seeking the promised land, this lonely but friendly village of 25 souls has five historic buildings and a single isolated parking meter.

Nearby Hays has the Fort Hays Historical Site and the domed Sternberg Museum of Natural History with an unusual fish-within-a-fish fossil and animated dinosaurs.

Old Fort Hays HABS cover sheet KS1.jpg

To the south between Dodge City and Wichita, Hutchinson‘s Cosmosphere and Space Center is an out-of-this-world collection of rockets, space gear and warheads.

Kansas Cosmosphere 2003.jpg

Here visitors can see the original Apollo 13, a nuclear warhead that had been found rotting in an Alabama warehouse and cool Soviet cosmonaut outfits.

In Wichita, the birthplace of both Pizza Hut and the Coleman lantern, the visitor can touch a tornado, visit a traditional Wichita grass house and revisit the Wild West in Old Cowtown.

The Exploration Place-Wichita, Kansas-June 2013.jpg

Above: Wichita’s Exploration Place

Lawrence, the nicest city in Kansas, has America’s only intertribal university (where Olympian athlete Jim Thorpe studied) and Teller’s Restaurant, transformed from a bank, offers bathrooms inside a vault.

Lawrence is famous for the University of Kansas and the many famous folks who once resided here (ex: activist Erin Brokovich, author William S. Burroughs (Naked Lunch), basketballer Wilt Chamberlain, Senator Bob Dole, author Frank Harris (My Life and Loves), scientist/diet pioneer Elmer “Mr. Vitamin” McCollum, Canadian-born basketball inventor James Naismith, author Sara Paretsky (V.I. Warshawski crime series), actor Paul Rudd (Ant-Man), just to name a few…)

Official seal of Lawrence, Kansas

Topeka, the state capital, has the unassuming Brown vs Board of Education Historic Site (which shows the story of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case which banned segration in US schools), the impressively domed State Capitol (housing a famous mural of John Brown) and the Menninger Foundation (a leader in mental health treatment which displays a collection of old mechanical restraints).

Dodge City revels in its infamous Wild West past with its Boot Hill Museum and Front Street cemetery, jail and saloon, where enactments regularly held invoke the memory of Wyatt Earp (1848 – 1929) and Bat Masterson (1853 – 1921), gunslingers, buffalo hunters, card sharks and brothel keepers.

Above: Wyatt Earp (seated) and Bat Masterson (standing)

Abilene, where once cussin’ cowboys and huge herds of Texas longhorns ended their trip up the Chisholm Trail, the visitor can now find the boyhood home of former President Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower (1890 – 1969)(34th US President, 1953 – 1961) and the Greyhound (the dogs not the buses) Hall of Fame.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, White House photo portrait, February 1959.jpg

Lindsborg flaunts its Swedish roots, while the large Mennonite communities around Hillsboro are descendants of Russian immigrants who brought the Turkey Red strain of wheat to the Great Plains where it thrived despite harsh conditions.

But Olathe in northeastern Kansas, a stone’s throw away from both Lawrence and the twin cities of Kansas City on the Kansas-Missouri border, seems to escape the notice of most folks.

Flag of Olathe, Kansas

In the spring of 1857, Dr. John T. Barton rode to the centre of Johnson County and staked two quarter sections of land.

Barton later described his ride to friends:

“…the prairie was covered with verbena and other wild flowers.

I kept thinking the land was beautiful and that I should name the place Beautiful.”

Barton asked a Shawnee interpreter how to say beautiful in his native tongue.

The interpreter responded, “Olathe”.

Olathe saw violence during the days of Bleeding Kansas and much conflict during the American Civil War.

On 7 September 1862, Confederate guerrillas from Missouri led by William Quantrill surprised the military post (located on the public square where a company of more than 125 Union troops, most of them recruits) and the residents of Olathe, killing a half dozen men, robbed numerous businesses and homes, forced the Union troops to surrender and compelling them to swear an oath forbidding them to take up arms against the Confederacy, and destroying most of the city.

Quantrill would again raid the city on 21 August 1863, en route to Lawrence (where he would massacre over 164 civilians) and later Olathe would suffer a third raid by Confederate Major General Sterling Price and his force of 10,000 men as they retreated south on 25 October 1864 just before the Battle of Marais des Cygnes.

Kansas militia would occupy Olathe until August 1865.

Olathe served as a stop on the Oregon Trail, the California Trail and the Santa Fe Trail, so catering to travellers was the main source of income for local stores and businesses.

The Mahaffie House, a popular resupply point of wagons headed westward, is today a registered historical site maintained by the City of Olathe.

1100 Kansas City Rd., Olathe, KS J.B. Mahaffie House.jpg

The staff wears period costumes, while stagecoach rides and farm animals make the site a favourite attraction for young and old.

Visitors can participate in Civil War enactments, Wild West Days and other activities.

In the 1950s, the construction of the Interstate Highway System, the I-35 linked Olathe with nearby Kansas City, resulting in tremendous commercial and residential growth that still continues.

In 2008, the US Census Bureau ranked Olathe as the 24th fastest-growing city in America, while CNN/Money and Money magazine ranked Olathe #11 in its list of the 100 Best Cities to Live in the United States.

Winters are cold, summers hot and humid in Olathe.

Folks in Olathe are fairly well educated with 35 elementary schools, 9 middle schools, 4 high schools, the MidAmerica Nazarene University and the Kansas State School for the Deaf.

Olathe is home to many companies, including Honeywell, Husqvarna, Aldi, Garmin, Grundfos and the Farmers Insurance Group (this latter though based in LA has more Farmers employees here than anywhere else in the US).

Olathe has also produced a few notable people like Hollywood actor Charles Buddy Rogers (lead actor in Wings – the first picture to win an Academy Award – America’s boyfriend and 3rd/final husband of America’s Sweetheart, Canadian-born Mary Pickford), actor Willie Ames (of TV’s Eight is Enough and Charles in Charge), NFL footballers Jonathan Quinn and Darren Sproles, as well as prominent Communist leader and 1936/1940 US Presidential candidate Earl Browder.

Olathe is now famous for four other names: Adam Purinton, 51, and his victims – Srinivas Kuchibhotla, 32, who died; his friend Alok Madasani who was injured; and Ian Grillot, 24, who had tried to stop Purinton’s violence, also injured.

Adam Purinton

Above: Adam Purinton, suspected shooter

From left: Srinivas Kuchibhotla, who died; Alok Madasani, who was injured; and Ian Grillot, also injured

From left: Srinivas Kuchibhotia, who died; Alok Madasani, who was injured; Ian Grillot, also injured

Last Wednesday night at 2103 East 151st Street in South Olathe – one of  three chain locations – Austins Bar and Grill“serving up great food and spirits since 1987”, known for its “world famous chicken tenders”, “sports, spirits, steaks”, smoked pulled pork. BBQ sauce, Napa slaw (cole slaw from the Napa Valley?) and baked beans, was offering its Wednesday night $7.00 special: chicken fried steak smothered in gravy and served with garlic mashed potatoes and sweet corn.

Austins Bar and Grill

Austins Bar & Grill in Olathe

The place was packed, as folks were watching the University of Kansas (Lawrence) Jayhawks basketball team, coached by Bill Self, play at home against Fort Worth’s TCU (Texas Christian University) Horned Frogs.

Logo

Kansasans were hoping that the Jayhawks continue their 13-game winning streak.

(Final score: U of K – 87, TCU – 68)

Kuchibhotia and Madasani both worked at the US technology company Garmin.

Logo von Garmin

Garmin is a multinational, founded by Gary Burrell and Min Kao in 1989 from Lenexa, Kansas, with its international HQ in Schaffhausen, Switzerland and its American HQ right there in Olathe.

Garmin is known for its specialization in GPS tech development for its wearable use in automotive, marine, outdoor and sports activities.

Kuchibhotia and Madasani were regulars at Austin’s Bar and Grill where they enjoyed sharing a drink after work.

Purinton, another customer, began shouting racial slurs and told the two men that they did not belong in America.

Madasani told the BBC:

“This guy just randomly comes up and starts pointing fingers.

We knew something was wrong.

He said, ‘Which country are you from? Are you here illegally?’ “

Purinton was thrown out, but, according to Olathe Police, he returned with a gun.

A bystander told the Kansas City Star that Puriton shouted: “Get out of my country.” just before opening fire, killing Kuchibhota and wounding Madasani.

Grillot hid under a table when the shooting began, counted the gunman’s shots, then pursued Purinton, mistaking thinking he was out of bullets.

Grillot was shot in the hand and the chest.

Grillot, speaking from his hospital bed to local KMBC TV news, brushed aside any suggestions that he was a hero:

“It wasn’t right and I didn’t want the gentleman to potentially go after somebody else.

I was just doing what anyone should have done for another human being.

It’s not about where he’s from or his ethnicity.

We’re all humans.

So I just felt I did what was naturally right to do.”

Madasani later visited Grillot to thank him.

Purinton fled on foot.

Thousands of Indian tech workers have come to the United States under the H1-B program, which grants skilled foreign workers temporary visas.

Kuchibhota’s wife, Sunayana Dumala, had grown anxious about racial hatred after the election of Donald Trump, but she said Srinivas was dedicated to their life in the United States and to his job as an engineer.

In this undated photo provided by Kranti Shalia, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, right, poses for photo with his wife Sunayana Dumala in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Sunayana began to lose sleep after the election in November, fearful that the couple would suffer hate crimes in the country they called home.

“I was so worried I just couldn’t sleep.”, Sunayana told the BBC.

“I was talking to Srini and I was like, ‘Will we be safe in this country?’

He would say ‘Nani, Nani, don’t worry. We will be OK. We will be OK.’ “

They discussed whether they should return to India but, in the end, she decided that if they minded their own business, nobody would harm them.

Many immigrants in the US have been voicing anxiety since the rise of President Trump, who has ordered restrictions on immigration and a sped-up deportation process for undocumented immigrants.

A potential tightening of the H1-B program has raised concerns in India where many young people dream of studying or working in the United States.

Sunayana last saw her husband that morning when he left for work.

“I was still taking my shower as he was passing from the hall and he said goodbye.”

Srinivas had worked late two nights already that week and so she texted him to ask if he would bring some work home so they could have tea together.

He said yes and told her he would be home at 7 pm.

At 8 pm Sunayana began to get worried and started calling friends, including Madasani’s wife.

Sunayana heard something about a shooting at a bar and she phoned her husband over and over again.

A friend came to the house with news.

Sunayana wanted to rush to the hospital but collapsed in the garage.

She waited at the house until two policemen arrived.

“They asked me my name, Srini’s name, his date of birth.

Then they told me those words and they just said it so simply.

They said they were sorry.”

Srini was from the Indian city of Hyderabad, where his parents still live.

A montage of images related to Hyderabad city

Sunayana said her husband “loved America” and came to the country “full of dreams”.

Sunayana described how her husband had recently bought a car for his father.

“He was so happy and so proud about it.”

Srini had worked at Rockwell Collins, an avionics and IT systems company in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, before joining Garmin in 2014.

“Just last week we drove to Iowa to see our friends and their new baby.

When we came back, he was working in the car while I was driving.

That’s how much he loved working.

He personally wanted to do so much for this country.”

Purinton was arrested five hours later at an Applebee’s restaurant just over the state border, 80 miles / 130 km away in Clinton, Missouri.

He told a staff member at the dining chain that he needed a place to hide because he had killed two Middle Eastern men.

A barman there tipped off police that he had a customer who had admitted shooting two men.

Police officers arrived to detain the suspect.

Purinton has been charged with premeditated first degree murder and two counts of attempted first degree murder.

Olathe Police Chef Steve Menke has declined to comment on the reports of racial abuse, but said his force was working with the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) “to investigate any and all aspects of this horrific crime”.

The FBI have reported a rise in hate crimes in the US since Trump’s nomination as Republican candidate for the US Presidency.

Last October, two men were charged with hate crimes in Richmond, California, after being accused of beating a Sikh man and using a knife to cut his hair, which was unshorn by religious mandate.

The Olathe killing has dominated news bulletins and social media  in India.

Horizontal tricolor flag bearing, from top to bottom, deep saffron, white, and green horizontal bands. In the centre of the white band is a navy-blue wheel with 24 spokes.

Above: The flag of India

Indian actor Siddharth Narayan tweeted to his 2.6 million followers:

SiddharthNarayan.jpg

“Don’t be shocked!

Be angry!

Trump is spreading hate. 

This is a hate crime.

RIP Srinivas Kuchibhotia.”

Shashi Tharoor, an Indian lawmaker and former diplomat, tweeted:

“The vicious racism unleashed in some quarters in the US claims more innocent victims, who happen to be Indian.”

Back in Hyderabad, Madasani’s father, also an engineer, Jaganmohan Reddy, called the Olethe shooting a hate crime and said that his family was “in a state of shock.”

Reddy said he did not know whether he would ask Madasani and another son living in the States to leave the country.

“We have to think it over.

My sons are not new to America.

They have been staying there for the last 10 to 12 years.

This is a new situation, and they are the best judges.”

Srini’s parents, Madhusuhan and Vardhini Rao, were too stunned by news of his death to comment, the Associated Press reported.

The Indian External Affairs Ministry sent two Indian consulate officials from Houston and Dallas to meet Madasani in Olethe and to arrange the repatriation of Srini’s body back to Hyderabad.

Dhruva Jaishankar, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings India in New Delhi, said that an isolated incident like Olethe would not affect the relationship between America and India, but if there were more attacks against Indians, or if the US is perceived to not be taking such cases seriously, there could be a problem.

Jay Kansara, Director of Government Relations at the Hindu American Foundation, an advocacy group in Washington, called for the shooting to be investigated as a hate crime.

“Anything less will be an injustice to the victims and their families.”

The US Embassy in New Delhi condemned the shooting.

“The United States is a nation of immigrants and welcomes people from across the world to visit, work, study, and live.”, said Charge d’Affaires Mary Kay Carlson.

“US authorities will investigate thoroughly and prosecute the case, though we recognise that justice is small consolation to families in grief.”

Nani flew to India to be with her husband’s family.

She is “devastated” by Srini’s death.

She plans to return to the US, but she said her husband would be “everywhere”.

“His clothes, his side of the sink, the way he used to brush, shower.

His daily prayers in that room, preparing his favourite food.

It will be tough eating without him.”

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 27 February 2017

As I learn more about the shooting in Olethe, I feel fear for my friend Sumit and his family in Canada.

Flag of Canada

For as liberal and welcoming as Canada appears by comparison with the United States at present, hate crimes also exist and continue to rise there as well.

For reasons that escape me there are a minority of Canadians who agree with the fear and paranoia that has managed to seep across the border from Trump´s America.

Peacearchuscanadaborder.JPG

Sumit is a faithful husband, good father, true friend and hard dedicated worker.

I pray for his and his family’s safety and am almost confident that my worries have little basis in reality.

Almost.

Statue of Liberty 7.jpg

Above: Liberty Enlightening the World, New York City, USA

Sources: “Olathe shooting: Murder charge after Indian man killed in bar”, BBC News, 24 February 2017

“Olathe shooting: My husband loved America, says widow”, BBC News, 25 February 2017

“Indian foreign minister shocked by Kansas shooting”, New York Times, 25-26 February 2017

Lonely Planet USA / Wikipedia / http://www.austinsbarandgrill.com

 

Snowbirds

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 22 February 2017

In pauper’s fields the daisies grow

There are no crosses, sadly, no

To mark the place beneath the sky

There is no singing from up high

Scarce heard beneath the ground below

These pauper’s fields.

We are the dead, some time ago

We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow

Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In pauper´s fields.

I have no quarrel with a foe.

To you from me: I failed, I know.

No time, no longer heads held high

Faith is broken, hope gone by

Memory won’t sleep, though daisies grow
In pauper’s fields.

(With apologies to John Mccrae)

Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 22 February 2017

“Ah, we’re drinking and we’re dancing and the band is really happening and the Johnny Walker wisdom running high…”

(Leonard Cohen, “Closing Time”)

Downtown Fort Lauderdale

For many, this city of nearly 175,000 represents Life.

Until the late 1980s, Fort Lauderdale was the college Spring Break destination.

Where the Boys Are '84.jpg

However the college crowd has been replaced by a wealthier group of people.

Today it is known as an international yachting centre, although there is still plenty of partying in its clubs, bars and pubs by straights and the LGBT crowd.

(The gay community is thriving here with many gay-friendly hotels and guesthouses, their own library and archives, community centre and the World AIDS Museum and Educational Center.)

(AIDS does not discriminate, though some folks still make the erroneous connection between sexual orientation and this uncompromising disease.)

Fort Lauderdale is 28 miles / 45 km north of Miami and enjoys a tropical rainforest climate with little seasonal variation.

Flag of Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Most days the temperature remains above 24°C / 75° F with over 3,000 hours of sunshine per year.

(Though it must be said that the ideal time of the year to visit the Fort is from October to May.)

And this endless summer attracts over 12 million visitors a year, a 1/4 of them from other countries.

To serve all these visitors, Fort Lauderdale has over 130 nightclubs, 16 museums, 12 shopping malls, 63 golf courses, 4,000 restaurants, 46 cruise ships dock here regularly, over 560 hotels offer over 35,000 rooms, with 278 campsites when the rooms are filled (regularly a 72% occupancy rate), 100 marinas shelter over 45,000 resident yachts and the convention centre serves over 30% of the city’s annual visitors.

Like South Florida in general, Fort Lauderdale has many residents who can speak a language other than English, but English predominates.

Residents not serving visitors are probably engaged in making or maintaining boats as Fort Lauderdale is a major centre for yachts.

Nicknamed the Venice of America, Fort Lauderdale, with its many canals – 165 miles / 266 km extensive network of canals – and its proximity to the Bahamas and the Caribbean, the city serves as a popular yachting vacation spot and home port and its annual International Boat Show attracts over 125,000 people to the city each year.

For the nomad, Fort Lauderdale means a chance to find work as a deckhand or cook in exchange for exotic winds.

To beaches and palm trees of distant islands filled with folks dreaming distant dreams of escape from a hell of service to wealthy visitors for whom their islands whisper Paradise…

Few nomads see the Fort as the locals do.

As they search for work amongst the throngs of tourists, the locals work in firms with names uninspiring, such as AutoNation, Citrix Systems, DHL Express, Spirit Airlines, the National Beverage Corporation, Tenet Healthcare, American Express, the Continental Group, Motorola, Maxim Integrated Products, Gulfstream International Airlines, the Online Trading Academy…

Surrounded by wealth, the average worker grits his teeth and sweats his life away for the scraps these firms reluctantly relinquish.

He sends his children to one of 23 public schools and, if he can afford it, later to one of the 9 institutions of higher learning the Fort has to offer.

Getting around, for the rare person without a car, means hopping on a BCT (Broward County Transit) bus.

Getting away means the railroad or the airport.

Only the wealthy dock in Port Everglades, the nation’s 3rd busiest cruise port, Florida’s deepest port.

Only the wealthy use the international passenger ferry service to Freeport on Grand Bahama Island.

But baby you can drive my car out of the Fort upon one of the three major interstate highways leading into the city.

Akin to other US cities, the Fort has fire and police services, hospitals and ambulances, churches and cemeteries, serving the city´s 13 municipalities divided into 90 distinct neighbourhoods.

Do not mistake the Fort for Paradise.

Despite its many attractions, despite its tropical climate, despite the wealthy who come to play, summer is hot and humid rife with folks collapsing with heat exhaustion and concerned by wayward hurricanes, winter is dry with the threat of brushfires and heavy afternoon thunderstorms.

And the Fort has had hard environmental lessons to learn.

Off the coast the Osborne Reef was an artificial reef made of discarded tires intended to provide a habitat for fish while simultaneously disposing of trash from the mainland.

A lengthy bed of old, skummy tires rests piled upon the ocean's floor at Osborne Reef; a small yellow fish swims by the left of the photo.

But the ocean decides for itself how it is to be governed.

The nylon straps used to secure the tires wore out, cables rusted, tires broke free.

The tires then migrated shoreward and ran into a living reef, killing many things in their path.

Thousands of tires continue to wash up on nearby beaches during hurricane season, though local authorities along with the Army, Navy and Coast Guard may have removed the 700,000 tires by the time these words are read.

Yet folks still decide to come here, still decide to live here.

Depending on the season the demographic picture changes.

Winter and early spring in Florida, a land of gentle breezes where the peaceful waters flow, attracts the snowbirds – tourists from the northern United States, Canada and Europe.

This Venice of America used to be dubbed Fort Liquordale because its beaches, bars and nightclubs back in the 1960s and 1970s attracted tens of thousands of college students for Spring Break.

But the city has actively discouraged college students from visiting the area since the mid-1980s passing strict laws aimed at preventing the mayhem and madness that regularly occured every year during Spring Break.

Where over 350,000 students used to party, now only 10,000 do so.

The Fort wants to be known as a resort town, a host city, a hub of arts and entertainment, of sports and culture.

Fort Lauderdale is home to the Riverwalk Arts and Entertainment District (that runs from the beach to the heart of downtown, from the Broward Center for the Performing Arts to the Elbo Room Bar on Fort Lauderdale Beach) and the Langerado Music Festival.

Lockhart Stadium is the home of the Strikers soccer team and the Florida University Owls football team.

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The New York Yankees, the Baltimore Orioles and the Kansas City Royals all once conducted baseball spring training at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

Inside Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

Fort Lauderdale is home to the Aquatic Complex, part of the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

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The Complex open to Fort Lauderdale residents has also been the venue for many different national and international swimming competitions since 1965.

Ten world records have been set there, the latest being Michael Phelps’ 400-metre individual medley of 2002.

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Above: Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps (born 1985)

Fort Lauderdale is a place where a visitor finds it hard to be bored.

Here one can find the Swap Shop, a large indoor/outdoor flea market and the site of the world’s largest drive-in movie theatre with 13 screens.

The Hugh Taylor Birch State Park offers nature trails, camping, canoeing and picnicking.

The Museum of Art has works from the Cobra art movement (Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam) as well as collections of Cuban, African and South American art.

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The Museum of Discovery and Science has amazing exhibits, including an IMAX theatre.

Museum of Discovery and Science, Fort Lauderdale

Ten miles west and the #2 tourist destination in Florida is Sawgrass Mills Mall with more than two miles of outlets for such stores as Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Disney, Kenneth Cole, Tommy Hilfinger, Gap and Polo Ralph Lauren.

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(Perhaps even Ivana Trump?)

And for the history buff, Fort Lauderdale offers the Old Fort Lauderdale Museum of History (that covers the history of Fort Lauderdale and Broward County, including exhibits of native Seminole folk art and baseball)…

Stranahan House (the oldest building in the city, originally built as a trading post)…

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…the Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel House, the residence of the infamous gangster (1906 – 1947)….

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…and Bonnet House (a beautiful historic estate near the beach with a nature trail, tours and tropical plants both native and imported).

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Life: throbbing, authentic, vibrant, day and night.

Such is Fort Lauderdale.

But for me, Fort Lauderdale represents death.

This was the site where the native Tequesta tribe failed to stop the encroachment of white settlers who brought with them diseases to which the native population possessed no resistance.

This was the site of a massacre at the beginning of the Second Seminole War where Anglo settlement had pushed the Seminole tribes south from Alabama and threatened to push them out of their new homeland by the establishment of the New River Settlement (present day Fort Lauderdale).

During this War, Major William Lauderdale led his Tennessee Volunteers into the area and erected a fort on the New River in 1838.

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Above: Statue of Major William Lauderdale in Davie, Florida, the site of the Battle of Pine Island Ridge, 22 March 1838

Lauderdale left after a month, his fort was destroyed by the Seminoles a few months later, his name remained.

After the end of the Seminole War in 1842, the remaining Seminoles withdrew to Pine Island and only a handful of settlers lived in what would become known as Broward County.

The hurricane of 1926, with the highest sustained winds ever recorded in the state of Florida, killed 50 people and destroyed over 3,500 structures in the city.

Just as the city was beginning to recover, in 1928 another devastating hurricane struck Florida and though Fort Lauderdale was only slightly damaged, the enormous death toll to the north in Palm Beach County, contributed to the perception that Florida was not real estate development heaven.

When the Great Depression struck in 1929, Fort Lauderdale never knew it, for it was already in a depression from the real estate bubble burst caused by the two hurricanes.

The United States didn´t enter World War II until 1941, but Fort Lauderdale felt the effect of the War sooner than most of the country.

In December 1939 a British cruiser chased the German freighter Arauca into Port Everglades, where she remained until 1941 when Germany declared war on the US and the US seized the vessel.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour and the US entry into the War had immediate effects on the city.

Blackouts were imposed and several Allied vessels were torpedoed by German U-boats, including one ship within sight of the shoreline.

The first Medal of Honor recipient in World War II was a graduate of Fort Lauderdale High School.

By mid-1942, Fort Lauderdale would find itself with the US Navy Air Station Fort Lauderdale.

By the end of the War, the Station had trained thousands of Navy pilots, including the first President Bush.

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Above: George H. W. Bush, 41st US President (1989-1993)(born 1924)

On 5 December 1945, the five planes of Flight 19 departed on a routine training mission from NAS Fort Lauderdale.

They were never seen again.

No wreckage was ever found.

The strange disappearance of Flight 19 and the coincedental explosion which destroyed Training 49, a plane involved in a search for the missing squadron, have contributed to the Bermuda Triange myth.

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NAS Fort Lauderdale closed in 1946, becoming Broward County International Airport.

Commercial flights to Nassau began in 1953 and domestic flights began in 1958.

In 1959 the airport opened its first permanent terminal building and renamed itself the Fort Lauderdale – Hollywood International Airport.

Today the Airport (FLL) has five terminals, serving 31 passenger airlines and four cargo air services flying to a multitude of domestic and international locations.

Death has been felt here as well.

On 7 July 1983, Air Florida Flight 8, with 47 people on board, en route from Fort Lauderdale to Tampa was hijacked.

One of the passengers handed a note to one of the flight attendants, saying he had a bomb, and telling them to fly the plane to Havana.

He revealed a small athletic bag, which he opened to reveal an explosive device.

The plane was diverted to Havana’s José Marti International Airport.

The hijacker was taken into custody by Cuban authorities.

On 19 November 2013, an Air Evac International Learjet 35 crashed shortly after take-off en route to Cozumel, Mexico, leaving four people dead.

Fort Lauderdale – Hollywood International Airport, 6 January 2017

“And everybody knows that you’re in trouble.  Everybody knows what you’ve been through, from the bloody cross on top of Calvary to the beach of Malibu. Everybody knows it’s coming apart. Take one look at this sacred heart before it blows. And everybody knows.” (Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows”)

Terminal 2, known as the Delta Terminal or the red terminal, has one concourse and nine gates, the Delta Airlines Sky Club (one of only six in Florida) and is used by Delta Airlines and Air Canada.

A shooter opened fire with a Walther PPS 9-mm semi-automatic pistol in Terminal 2’s baggage claim area at about 12:55 pm.

Travellers rushed out of the airport and hundreds of people waited on the tarmac as numerous law enforcement officers rushed to the scene.

Former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer tweeted from the Airport:

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“Shots have been fired.  Everyone is running.”

The shooting lasted about 70 to 80 seconds.

The shooter lay down on the ground after he stopped shooting, having run out of ammunition.

Law enforcement officers did not fire shots.

The gunman was arrested without incident.

Five people died in the attack, all of whom were passing through Fort Lauderdale to begin cruises with their spouses.

Six people were injured by the shooting, three admitted to intensive care units.

40 people were injured in the panic to escape from the shooting.

The American Red Cross assisted 10,000 passengers, bussing them to Port Everglades for food, shelter and transportation connections.

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The Airport closed for the rest of the day.

Following the shooting, more than 20,000 pieces of luggage were left at the Airport amid the choas.

Flags of the United States and Florida were flown at half-mast throughout the state on the following two days to honour the fallen.

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Esteban Santiago-Ruiz (born 1990), a 26-year-old resident of Anchorage, Alaska and a military veteran of the Iraq War, was arrested immediately after the shooting.

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According to investigators, Santiago flew from Anchorage on a Delta flight through Minneapolis.

He checked a declared 9-mm pistol in his baggage before retrieving it in Fort Lauderdale and loaded the gun in an airport bathroom just before the attack.

It remains unclear why the attack occurred.

Though the proliferation of guns in America makes incidents of this kind sadly not surprising.

Federal officials are seeking the death penalty against Santiago and he has been charged with 22 federal law violations.

No links with terrorism have been proven.

According to his family members, Private Santiago had become mentally ill by seeing a bomb explode near two of his friends while he was in service in Iraq.

A man who had seen death up close brought death with him to Fort Lauderdale.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 19 January 1971

“Oh, the sisters of mercy, they are not departed or gone.  They were waiting for me when I thought that I just can’t go on.  And they brought me their comfort and later they brought me this song.  Oh, I hope you run into them, you who’ve been travelling so long.  Yes, you who must leave everything that you cannot control.  It begins with your family, but soon it comes round to your soul.  Well, I’ve been where you’re hanging. I think I can see how you’re pinned.  When you’re not feeling holy, your loneliness says that you’ve sinned.”

(Leonard Cohen, “The Sisters of Mercy”)

For four long years, a waitress battled cancer.

She too was a snowbird, born in Manhattan, raised, married and divorced in Montreal, Genevieve – “Jenny” to her friends and family and preferred by herself – was only 34.

Yet those had been a full 34 years, for she had given life to six children – four boys and two girls.

Her youngest, a boy, would have been six years old in four months’ time.

Jenny had dreams of being a singer and still smiled when she remembered performing on local stages with her family band before she married the man who had changed her life for better and for worse.

But the secrets of her heart she did not reveal to the staff of the Holy Cross Hospital, run by the Sisters of Mercy.

Holy Cross Hospital

She did not give the name of her divorced husband nor mention her children to the staff of the hospital or to her social worker.

Perhaps good Catholic girls confess only to their priests.

She was just a patient among hundreds.

Since migrating down to Florida, Jenny had taken work as a waitress.

But health care in America, then as now, was expensive, and the salary of a waitress, then as now, was insufficient.

Social assistance was needed which entailed a social worker.

Jenny was admitted into the hospital just before New Year´s Eve.

She slipped into a coma and died at 05:30 just before dawn.

She was buried four days later in Sunset Memorial Garden Cemetery.

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Buried in an open field, which in spring is covered by daisies and dandilions, designated paupers’ field reserved for those without anyone to pay for a burial plot or headstone, it appears that Jenny died alone.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida, 31 December 1988

“Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free.” (Leonard Cohen, “Bird on a Wire”)

It had been a long journey of many miles and many years, but I would finally be “reunited” with a mother I no longer remembered.

For years I had known nothing about my origins, save that my family name differed from the surnames of the foster parents who had raised me for a decade.

I had, through painstaking effort, retraced the documents that detailed my life prior to my stewardship with my foster parents, and the paper trail would find me travelling from Ottawa to New Brunswick to Montreal to Manhattan to Fort Lauderdale.

I, like my mother before me, did not possess great wealth, so much of my journey was done by thumbing rides and obtaining shelter and food through charity.

I was not reluctant to work, but what work I was qualified to do would have required many months, possibly years, before I could afford to travel without assistance.

And questions too long gone unanswered now drove me impatiently to the road.

Two days ago in Jacksonville, I received my mother’s death certificate from the Florida Office of Vital Statistics.

Now I stand in the cemetery´s caretaker office enquiring where my mother´s remains rest.

He informs me that there is no headstone, that she is buried in an unmarked grave in a pauper’s plot.

The ground is dusty and barren.

The tufts of grass that remain are yellow and brown.

Is this how I am to remember the woman who gave me life?

A few faded black-and-white photographs given reluctantly by the man whose surname I bear and a dry abandoned corner of a faraway cemetery?

According to him, Jenny had left husband and children behind as she was desperately unhappy, but she clung to her newborn son.

For this they never forgave her nor, I would learn later, me.

Out of sight, out of mind.

Now she is only a name on scattered certificates in registeries in Montreal, New York City and Jacksonville.

Unloved, unmourned, forgotten.

Is this the sum of a person’s life?

I stare at the ground which remains stubbornly mute and unresponsive.

Moments feel like eternity.

I look up in frustration at my inability to reconcile this empty field with the years of searching, both within myself and across the breadth of two countries.

I feel cold despite a Floridan winter warm by comparison to Canada.

A chain link fence surrounds the cemetery.

On the other side of the fence stands a factory.

Upon its back wall a painting of a mother holding a laughing baby beneath the words “Baby Love”, a producer of baby food and disposable diapers sold worldwide.

Sustainable Baby

I find myself upon my knees in the dirt of this plot of land rarely visited and tears flow down without warning, without rationale.

There is no comfort to be found in this field.

There are no answers to be found here.

The dead below lack a voice, lack awareness, lack even identity itself.

I dry my eyes, return back to the caretaker to thank him for his assistance and keep my sorrow hidden even from myself.

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 22 February 2017

Years have passed since I said goodbye to Fort Lauderdale.

Weeks have passed since the airport shooting that reminded me of death in Fort Lauderdale.

I realise that it has been these recollections that made me quiet and reflective in my expression of thought and feeling these past few weeks.

Perhaps it is in coming to terms with mortality that we begin to discover the meaning of life.

Not that it ends, but that it is precious and should not be wasted.

I hope I can return one day to Fort Lauderdale and see the city through the eyes of a tourist and sample life there in all of its richness and fullness.

I hope to return to pauper’s field of Sunset Memorial one day and whisper into the tropical breeze a “thank you” to the remains of a woman who gave me birth, knowing she cannot hear the words but knowing I need to say those words to give a meaning to her life, a meaning to my life.

I hope that the families and friends of those that fell to the gunfire of an ill man in an airport baggage claim can find solace in the memory of how those departed made a difference to their lives.

And I hope that in my own humble way that I too will leave this world one day remembered for the way I made a difference in the lives of others.

Maybe if there is an afterlife I will wake to find Heaven resembles Fort Lauderdale.

As a snowbird Canuck, I think I would like that.

“Beneath this snowy mantle cold and clean, the unborn grass lies waiting for its coat to turn to green. The snowbird sings the song he always sings
and speaks to me of flowers that will bloom again in spring. When I was young, my heart was young then, too. Anything that it would tell me,
that’s the thing that I would do. But now I feel such emptiness within,
for the thing that I want most in life’s the thing that I can’t win.”

(Anne Murray, “Snowbird”)

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Half the sky: the wonder of Woman

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 6 February 2017

“We the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful.

We have done so much, with so little, for so long, we are now qualified to do anything, with nothing.” (Konstantin Josef Jirecek)

Could this statement be strangely appropo if we viewed it from the perspective of women?

There is a scene in Back to the Future, Part 2 that has remained with me many years after the film.

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Doctor Emmett Brown, after discovering that their arch-enemy Biff has somehow disturbed the timeline and has turned the Hill Valley they once knew into a dystopia, says to his youthful companion Marty McFly:

“Time-traveling is just too dangerous.

Better that I devote myself to study the other great mystery of the universe: women!”

In my humble opinion…the study of women is a far more dangerous endeavour!

And it is in this spirit of danger and caution that I discuss this humble man´s opinion about the other half of humanity that, in the words of Mao Zedong, “hold up half the sky”.

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Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976)

Sometimes our thinking is clouded by false assumptions…

A father and son are driving home.

They are involved in a bad car accident and are rushed to hospital.

Both are in critical condition.

A surgeon comes to the Emergency Room to try to save the boy, takes one look at the patient and says:

“I can´t operate on this boy.

He´s my son.”

But the boy´s father is lying on a trolley next to him.

What is the surgeon talking about?

Depending on the country, the surgeon is probably the boy´s mother.

There are moments, when I consider these modern times, that I am happy at the progress humanity has made.

More and more women are thought of as not just wives and mothers, but as leaders, activists, experts, major contributors to society and not only as passive onlookers to history or merely victims.

Women not only have a huge influence within the community.

Women create the community.

It was the women of South Sudan who organised the 1999 Wunlit Dinka-Nuer Peace and Reconciliation Conference to bring to an end seven years of hostilities between the Dinka and Nuer peoples.

Flag of South Sudan

Above: The flag of South Sudan

They began by sharing with each other their stories of the pain and suffering that both peoples had inflicted upon each other.

Determined to help their people find a way to make peace, they laboured for months to build an entire village of 150 houses, a large meeting hall and a well for water and the provision of food for 1,500 people.

A living community, a village of peace…Wunlit.

The Dinka-Nuer Covenant guaranteed peace between the tribes who agreed to share rights in water, fishing and grazing land.

In spite of the ongoing violence, it is Israeli and Palestinian women who are working together through Jerusalem Link to convey a join vision of a just and lasting peace.

Jerusalem Link is the coordinating body of two independent women’s centres: Bat Shalom (The Jerusalem Women’s Centre in West Jerusalem) and Marcaz al-Quds al-Nissah (The Jerusalem Centre for Women in East Jerusalem).

From upper left: Jerusalem skyline looking north from St. Elijah Monastery, a souq in the Old City, Mamilla Mall, the Knesset, the Dome of the Rock dominating the Old City, the citadel (known as the Tower of David) and the Old City walls, and the Western Wall.

Above: Pictures of Jerusalem

Though each organisation is autonomous and takes its own national constituency as its primary responsibility, Jerusalem Link promotes a joint vision of peace, democracy, human rights and women’s leadership.

Vandana Shiva is a leading Indian researcher and activist on biodiversity, conservation and the protection of people’s rights from threat to their livelihoods and the environment.

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Above: Dr. Vandana Shiva (b. 1952)

Her father a conservator of forests and her mother a farmer with a love for nature, Vandana has a bachelor and master of science from Punjab University in Chandigarh, a master of arts in the philosophy of science from the University of Guelph and a PhD from London, Ontario’s University of Western Ontario.

Dr. Shiva later went on to interdiscplinary research in science, technology and environmental policy at the Indian Institute of Science and the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore.

Dr. Shiva has spent much of her life in the defence and celebration of biodiversity and indigenous knowledge, working to promote agricultural productivity, nutrition and fair incomes for farmers.

Dr. Shiva has her share of critics, and I confess that I need more information regarding the legitimacy of some of her claims, but there is no denying the impact she has had.

Her first book, Staying Alive, helped redefine perceptions on Third World women and she has founded and has actively participated in women’s rights, environmental development and anti-genetic engineering protests.

Dr. Shiva continues to play a major role in the global ecofeminist movement and she suggests a more sustainable and productive approach to agriculture can be achieved through reinstating a system of farming in India that is more centred on engaging women.

Dr. Shiva believes that ecological destruction and industrial catastrophes threaten daily life and that the maintenance of these problems has become the responsibility of women.

Recognition of the rights and the contributions of women has come relatively late in humanity´s history.

In 1910, the Socialist International meeting in Copenhagen established an International Women’s Day to honour the movement for women’s rights and to assist in achieving universal suffrage for women.

The first International Women’s Day was held on 19 March 1911.

In 1913, as part of the peace movement on the eve of World War I, Russian women observed their first International Women’s Day on the last Sunday of February 1913.

In 1917, with 2,000,000 Russian soldiers dead in the War, Russian women again chose the last Sunday in February to strike for “bread and peace”.

Four days later, the Czar was forced to abdicate and the new Provisional Government granted women the right to vote.

That Sunday fell on 23 February on the Julian calendar then used in Russia, which was 8 March on the Gregorian calendar used elsewhere.

International Women’s Day (8 March) has become a global opportunity to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women in the advancement of women’s rights.

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Above: German poster for International Women’s Day, 8 March 1914

If you want to know how women’s lives are changing around the world, then visit the Global Sisterhood Network. (http://www.global-sisterhood-network.org)

global-sisterhood-network.org

This organisation monitors electronic and print media for developments likely to have a direct impact on women’s lives, including developments in agriculture, economics, employment, environment, health, law, militarism, politics, technology, trade and science.

How does the Global Sisterhood Network describe itself?

“The GSN provides regularly updated information including critical comment and displays of newspaper and journal articles that reinforce patriarchy / misogny, but have attracted sparse attention and / or comment as the world moves closer to un-democracy.”

Florynce Rae Kennedy, prominent civil rights activist and pro-choice campaigner, once famously said:

“If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”

In response, Maurice and Charles Saatchi, advertising gurus, sprang to public attention with a poster of a pregnant man, saying:

“If this could happen to you, you’d be more careful.”

The world looks different from male and female perspectives, especially when it comes to aggression and warfare.

The architects of the Iraq War on both sides were all men.

Would the War had even happened had they all been women?

Since 1985 the Guerilla Girls have been reinventing feminism. (http://www.guerillagirls.com)

Guerrilla Girls

They produce posters, stickers, books, printed projects and public demonstrations to expose sexism and racism in politics, the art world, film and culture at large.

Dubbing themselves “the conscience of culture”, the Guerilla Girls “believe feminism is a fundamental way of looking at the world and recognising that half of us are female and all of us should be equal.”

“It’s a fact of history that for centuries women have not had the rights and privileges of men.

It’s time for that to end.

Despite the tremendous gains of women over the last hundred years, misogyny – the hatred or hostility towards women as a whole – is still rampant throughout our culture and in the larger world.

We think that is the number one reason women need feminism.”

Above: International Women’s Day rally, Dhaka, Bangladesh, 8 March 2005

And how are women treated unequally?

Women have not achieved total equality with men in any country.

More than 866 million women live below the poverty line.

Women make up 2/3 of all poor people.

More than 20,000,000 women are refugees.

Women make up more than 75% of the world’s total of refugees.

More than 86,000,000 girls are not in school, 2/3 of all those in the world denied education.

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Above: Women’s rights advocate for equality in education and 2014 Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai (born: 1997)

Women worldwide earn about 3/4 of the pay of men for the same work.

In the 20th century only 24 women were elected heads of state or government.

In the United Nations less than 10% of the highest-ranking diplomats are women.

Flag of United Nations Arabic: الأمم المتحدةSimplified Chinese: 联合国French: Organisation des Nations uniesRussian: Организация Объединённых НацийSpanish: Naciones Unidas

Since the Nobel Prizes were founded in 1901, only 12 women have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.

A golden medallion with an embossed image of Alfred Nobel facing left in profile. To the left of the man is the text "ALFR•" then "NOBEL", and on the right, the text (smaller) "NAT•" then "MDCCCXXXIII" above, followed by (smaller) "OB•" then "MDCCCXCVI" below.

Above: Medallion picturing Alfred Nobel

Of the 204 Nobel laureates in physics, only two have been women.

The first and best-known, Marie Curie, was included only because her husband, Pierre, insisted that she, too, be awarded for their joint work.

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Above: Marie Sklodowska Curie (1867 – 1934)

When women are included on any list of hires, speakers or awardees, the people responsible often point with pride to their generosity as if including women on a list is indicative of performing a charitable service rather than that the women are deserving of recognition for their achievements.

Yet, women contribute more than $15,000,000,000 worth of unpaid work in homes and communities around the world.

Throughout the world women find themselves struggling between the biological imperative of producing and raising children and their desires to become more than simply wives and mothers.

Let´s look at a country in which I once lived…

A low birthrate is one of South Korea’s most urgent socio-economic challenges.

Centered taegeuk on a white rectangle inclusive of four black trigrams

Above: The flag of South Korea

Amid rising costs of living and education, women are increasingly moving into the job market, but they often find it all but impossible to keep their careers and raise children.

Many women still feel pressure to quit their jobs once they become pregnant.

For many women working in the private sector, especially those employed at smaller businesses, an extended parental leave with the option of returning to work remains a dream.

Even if a woman returns to work, finding affordable day care centres can be difficult.

At home, looking after a child is still largely considered a woman’s job even when she works outside the home.

So with so many pressures at work and at home, many women choose to remain single or marry late and have, at most, only one child.

South Korea’s fertility rate, one of the world’s lowest, is well below the “replacement level” that allows a society to maintain its population without immigration.

Some folks predict that South Korea will become extinct if it continues to maintain its current birthrate.

For years, local officials in South Korea have tried ever more inventive plans to encourage women to have babies.

They have offered generous maternity leave policies, cash allowances and boxes of beef and baby clothes to families with newborns.

On Thursday 29 December 2016, the South Korean Ministry of the Interior published an online birth map that uses shades of pink to rank towns and cities by the number of women of childbearing age.

The birth map was intended to “promote competition” among towns to produce more babies.

The reaction to this map was so overwhelmingly negative, especially among women, that the website was shut down within hours of its introduction.

An angry blogger wrote:

“Are women livestock?

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Above: Swiss Braunvieh cow with cowbell

The Ministry counted fertile women like they counted the number of livestock.

Did the Ministry think that men would flock to a town with more childbearing age women?”

Han Chang-min, spokesman for the opposition Justice Party:

“It’s truly deplorable, because the map shows that the government considers women as nothing but baby producing machines.

It shows the government sees birthrates just as a woman’s problem.”

According to Marie Stopes International, an organisation that promotes safe motherhood across the world:

Every minute of every hour of every day, more than 380 women become pregnant.

PregnantWoman.jpg

Half of these pregnancies are unplanned or unwanted.

“Abortions happen, every day.

Making them illegal doesn’t stop women needing, or wanting them, or inflicting abortions on themselves.

Even if you don’t agree with abortion, it is not morally acceptable to force your views upon others.” (Leslie Spillane, Cork, Ireland)

Every year, more than 600,000 women die from complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

That is the equivalent of a ship the size of the Titanic sinking every day with no survivors.

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Above: RMS Titanic leaving Southampton, 10 April 1912

Maternal deaths account for 30% of all deaths among women of reproductive age.

And women worldwide remain in all sorts of situations where they are in physical danger of attack.

In the US alone, women and girls represent 86% of all victims of sexual violence.

Datei:Flag of the United States.svg

Bangalore, India, 1 January 2017

Horizontal tricolor flag bearing, from top to bottom, deep saffron, white, and green horizontal bands. In the centre of the white band is a navy-blue wheel with 24 spokes.

Above: The flag of India

Thousands of people have gathered on two roads in the city centre to celebrate the New Year.

The police on the scene – more than 1,500 officers – are quickly overwhelmed as men begin molesting women and shouting lewd remarks.

The crowd becomes a stampede as men take their chance to grope and fondle any nearby women they can find in a mass frenzy of molestation and unwelcome physical contact.

Rajnath Singh, India’s Home Minister, told reporters that “protecting the modesty of women is the duty of state government”.

But some elected officials reacted to the events in Bangalore by pointing the finger at Westernising customs rather than the assailants.

Abu Azmi, an assemblyman from Maharashtra State, complained that “the more nude the woman looks, the more fashionable and modern she is called.”

The government official responsible for keeping order on Indian streets, the Home Minister for the state of Karnataka, Mr. Parameshwara said that the women were to blame because of the way they looked and acted.

“Youngsters were almost like Westerners.

They tried to copy the Westerner, not only in their mindset but even in their dress.

So some disturbance, some girls are harassed, these kind of things do happen.”

Once again, the victims are blamed for their assaults, rather than the assailants.

Kabul, Afghanistan, July 2016

Flag of Afghanistan

Above: The flag of Afghanistan

An unproven accusation of adultery sends a mob chasing after a girl and the young man she had been linked to.

The crowd sets fire to the car in which the couple are found.

They barely escape, but the police are more concerned about the mob’s accusation.

The police chase her down and arrest her hours later.

The teenage girl had barely survived an attempted mob lynching.

“Since there was suspicion of sexual relationship, the police sent the girl to forensic medical for virginity testing.” (Fraidoon Obaidi, chief of the Kabul Police Investigation Department)

Virginity testing is an extremely invasive examination to check whether a woman’s hymen is intact.

A study by Afghanistan’s human rights commission found the justice system still regularly orders female victims of domestic abuse who had sought protection in women’s shelters to go through the procedure.

The Commission calls the examinations “violence against women”.

“The circumstances of virginity testing are never humane.

In conducting virginity tests, no one asks for the consent of the victim.

99% of the virginity tests are conducted by force.” (Soraya Sobrang, Commissioner, Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission)

And as I look back at the news events of just the first month of 2017, I remain dismayed and saddened at the ongoing plight of women around the world:

  • In recent months, the Myanmar military has entered villages in the northern state of Rakhine shooting at random, setting houses on fire with rocket launchers and systematically raping girls and women.
  • Flagge Myanmars
  • Above: The flag of Myanmar
  • A film about sex trafficking, I Am Jane Doe, opens in US theatres next month and shines a light on the website Backpage, “the Walmart of human trafficking”, that dominates the online sex trade and is implicated in 3/4 of the reports of child trafficking in the US.
  • The MTV series Sweet / Vicious is one of several productions currently prevading US pop culture with tales of rape victims exacting revenge upon their attackers, but do these shows truly reveal rape’s social and psychological consequences or do they trivialise an “eye for an eye” retribution?
  • Sweet Vicious Key Art.jpg
  • In democracies from Australia to North America and Europe, the pipeline of women ready to step up to the top in politics and business remains thin and is a major topic at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

  • Police Now, a diversity initiative financed by the British Home Office and started in 2015, now has more than 150 officers spread out over England, 49% of them women, 18% minorities, as British police seek to diverse a corps often derided as “male, pale and stale”.
  • To be a woman in the US is to feel unequal, despite great strides in gender equality, according to National Opinion Research Center about gender in Trump’s America.  Being a woman in America means catcalls on the street, disrespect at work and unbalanced responsibilities at home.  Girls are taught to aspire to marriage while watching positions of power go to men.  American men, however, don’t see things the same way.

  • The corporate governance of seven of America’s ten largest institutional investors in stocks are now women.  Though concern remains that women are less likely to push greater gender diversity as an issue in discussions with management out of concern they will be perceived to have a feminist agenda, there still exists tremendous potential for women in corporate goverance to make a bigger difference.
  • On 21 January, the day after what many had assumed would be the inaugration of Hillary Clinton as America’s first female President, hundreds of thousands of women flooded the streets of Washington DC and in cities across the United States and in a number of cities abroad, in defiance against Donald Trump the man who defeated her.  The organisers of the “counter-inaugration” hoped the marches were the kick-off of a sustained campaign of protest and determination to protect women’s rights that Trump threatens.  In a show of outrage and despair, the marches brought attention to issues such as abortion, equal pay, sexual assault, police brutality, mass incarceration, voter suppression and environmental protection.  The marchers were confronting a President who has appointed only a handful of women in his Cabinet and inner circle, who has pledged to nominate a Supreme Court justice who oppose abortion rights, who has pledged to dismantle the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that covers contraception. Total attendance, just in the US, alone easily surpassed one million.

Alyssa Klein's photo.

As I look back at the first month of 2017, as I review the research I made for this blogpost, as I reflect on the wonder that is woman from a simple husband’s perspective, I am left with a number of feelings and impressions.

Much like Jack Nicholson’s character in As Good As It Gets, I feel that women have made me want to become a better man more deserving of them.

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Above: Film poster for As Good As It Gets (1997)

I am breathless with admiration at the courage, strength, preseverance, passion, compassion, wisdom and beauty inside and out that women possess.

And it astonishes me how unequally and unfairly my gender has been and continues to be towards women.

Why are we this way to the very beings who gave us life itself?

Why this sense of insecurity so many of my gender possesses when it comes to granting the same rights and privileges so many men take for granted?

Are we afraid that the empowerment of women drains the power of men?

Why do so many men assume that a woman’s ability to attract gives them some sort of right to possess and ravage a woman’s body?

When did we forget that knowing a woman is a privilege?

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Above: Film poster for Scent of a Woman (1992)

Why do so many men jealously try to dictate to women what their roles should be, how they should dress, who they should have sex with, or whether they should procreate or not?

Why do we force upon women structures and taboos that we would revolt against if they were forced upon us?

Men should not think themselves superior to women, but rather we should consider ourselves complimentary to each other and embrace equality as we cherish our differences.

As difficult as communication can be between men and women, as frustrating as it can be when those we choose to love don’t always do what we would prefer they would do, the freedom and privilege we enjoy for ourselves is also the right of women as well.

Without women sharing our strength and passion in equal but different proportion, the sky above is truly falling.

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

Above: Apollo 17 photo of Earth from space, 7 December 1972

Sources: Michael Norton, 365 Ways to Change the World: How to Make a Difference…One Day at a Time / Choe Sang-Hun, “South Korea’s effort to promote fertility backfires”, New York Times, 3 January 2017 / Nida Najar, “India official faults dress for attacks on women”, New York Times, 5 January 2017 / Liza Randall, “Why Vera Rubin deserved a Nobel”, New York Times, 5 January 2017 / Zahra Nader and Mujib Mashal, “Virginity tests in Afghanistan defy a ban”, New York Times, 7 January 2017 / Sinead O’Shea, “Ireland is revisiting its stringent ban on abortion”, New York Times, 11 January 2017 / Ellen Barry, “There are no homes left”, New York Times, 12 January 2017 / Nicholas Kristof, “A website peddling girls for sex”, New York Times, 13 January 2017 / Amanda Hess, “Rape, revenge and how we watch”, New York Times, 14 January 2017 / Alison Smale, “Putting more women on a path to power”, New York Times, 17 January 2017 / Prashant S. Rao, “British police look to shed a pale-male image”, New York Times, 18 January 2017 / Claire Cain Miller, “Gender-driven views on equality”, New York Times, 19 January 2017 / Alexandra Stevenson and Leslie Picker, “Wielding power quietly”, New York Times, 19 January 2017 / Susan Chira and Yamiche Alcindor, “Women’s anti-Trump rallies go worldwide“, New York Times, 23 January 2017 / Wikipedia

Wonder Woman (DC Rebirth).jpg

 

That which survives 3: The promised land

New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, 21 January 1858

“I am astonished more and more at the stupid extravagance…

Fashion rules so absolutely…

The people in the house would lend me any amount of flower garden bonnets if I would but go out in them.

This is so like the Americans…

They are generous and kind but will not let you go your own way.”

Datei:Flag of the United States.svg

(Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon, An American Diary: 1857 – 1858)

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 25 January 2017

There is something quite attractive at times about cutting oneself apart from all contact with the media, for catching up on the latest news in a newspaper or online often upsets me.

Reading Monday’s International New York Times:

“No, I’m not over it.

On Election Day I felt as though I had awakened in America and gone to sleep in Ecuador, or maybe Belgium.

Flag of Ecuador

Above: The flag of Ecuador

Or Thailand, or Zambia, or any other perfectly nice country that endures the usual ups and downs of history as the years pass, headed towards no particular destiny.

Flag of Thailand

Above: The flag of Thailand

Flag of Zambia

Above: The flag of Zambia

It´s different here, or at least it was.

America was supposed to be something, as much a vision as a physical reality, from the moment that John Winthrop, evoking Jerusalem, urged the Massachusetts Bay Colony to “be a city upon a hill”.

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Above: John Wintrop (1587 – 1649), Massachusetts Bay Colony Governor

To be an American writer meant being able to share that sense of purpose, those expectations, and to flatter yourself that you were helping to shape it.

Nobody expects anything out of Belgium.”

Flag of Belgium

Above: The flag of Belgium

(Kevin Baker, “The America we lost when Trump won”, International New York Times, 23 January 2017)

Now this opinion piece annoyed me on many levels…

The suggestion that America has shaped history rather than being affected by it like everyone else…

That there is nothing to be expected of value outside of America…

That its present domination of the world means that only America has a claim to the concept of exceptionalism…

And though I understood Baker’s disappointed feeling that the spirit of America has indeed changed with the arrival of Donald Trump on the political landscape, his opinion piece, albeit perhaps unintentionally, comes across as arrogant and prejudiced.

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Above: Donald Trump (b. 1946), 45th President of the United States

Baker clearly needs to travel more beyond the shores of America, to see America through road-experienced eyes, to explore the world beyond the Holiday Inn and the B & B, longer than a two-week vacation or a weekend getaway.

For as much as it is admirable and understandable to celebrate one´s country…

As much as it is necessary to pick critically through one´s homeland´s history, even to the point of scourging the nation for its faults by exposing the worst of its contradictions and betrayals…

One´s love for one´s country should not blind us to the reality that our love for a country, our disappointments, expectations and dreams are not exclusive to us alone.

Our barometer of measurement, our claims to the possession of a moral compass when comparing ourselves with others, should not be based solely on a life only lived within our borders.

Though nations are individual, no one nation is exceptional.

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act One, Scene 5, Lines 167 – 168)

Shakespeare.jpg

Above: William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

What I have had to learn, what time and experience have taught me, is that we need to learn to appreciate what is where we are.

And that requires exploration and comparison and interaction, whether those discoveries are made at home or abroad.

When I once again read my journals from past travels, I am struck by how much I really didn´t know or understand, for my observations were restricted by my discomfort in exploring viewpoints other than my own.

Wherever I went, there I was.

I was not seeing Brussels as it was.

A collage with several views of Brussels, Top: View of the Northern Quarter business district, 2nd left: Floral carpet event in the Grand Place, 2nd right: Brussels City Hall and Mont des Arts area, 3rd: Cinquantenaire Park, 4th left: Manneken Pis, 4th middle: St. Michael and St. Gudula Cathedral, 4th right: Congress Column, Bottom: Royal Palace of Brussels

I saw Brussels as I was.

And in this I find myself drawn once more to Charlotte Bronte’s experience in Brussels.

She saw Brussels as she was, not as it was.

(For the back story and background of both the Brontes and your humble blogger, please see:

That Which Survives

1: Wooden soldiers and little books;

2a: Teachers’ Travels: Welcome;

2b: Teachers’ Travels: Days Confused;

2c: Past Tents and Last Year’s Man;

2d: A Matter of Perspective.)

Brussels, Belgium, 15 February 1842

It was a dull grey day.

The avenues were almost deserted.

The branches of the trees bare against an overcast sky.

Three weary travellers – a tall white-haired clergyman and his two daughters, young women in their twenties – could be seen walking down the Rue Royale.

The younger and taller sister had a dreamy look, as if she found her own thoughts as interesting as the sights of this strange city.

Above: The Bronte sisters, Anne, Emily and Charlotte (Anne remained in England.)

The elder, plainer and smaller sister noticed everything, storing it up for future use.

They walked to a little square opposite a park where a statue with the name “General Belliard” stood at the top of a long, steep and dark stairway.

Below was a quiet street at a much lower level and parallel to the Rue Royale, the Rue d’Isabelle – narrow with neat symmetrical rows of modest houses.

The trio stopped at a large building with tall windows.

A brass plate on the door announced “Pensionnat de Demoiselles Heger – Parent”.

Reverend Jenkins, the British Chaplain in Brussels, presented the trio to the directoress Madame Heger.

“Madame Heger, this is Mr. Bronte and his daughters Charlotte and Emily.”

Charlotte felt that “Brussels is my promised land”, “a beautiful city”.

CBRichmond.png

Above: Charlotte Bronte (1816 – 1855)

Charlotte wrote to Emily after the younger sister returned back to Haworth:

“I have tramped about a great deal and tried to get a clearer acquaintance with the streets of Bruxelles…

I go out and traverse them sometimes for hours together.”

Brussels, Belgium, 9 November 1996

Day Six in Europe, Day Four in Brussels and Belgium

A “grand bataille” with “Zoé”.

I dislike being ordered about, yelled at and being called “stupide” when I don´t respond to all her wishes immediately.

(Only years later would I realise that her “stupide” meant “silly”, not “lacking in intelligence”…or put another way I was stupid about “stupide”.)

During the visit to a brewery exhibit, tensions erupt.

No automatic alt text available.

I quickly vacate the premises, enraged, irrational, seeking escape.

At the SNCB (Belgian Railways) Bruxelles Centrale station I enquire about trains to Oostende – two every hour, journey of 1 hour, 45 minutes.

IMG 6001 Brussel-Centraal B.JPG

The train seems to be the best option to get to Oostende and a ferry to England and much preferred to Zoé’s chauffeuring me to the sea.

For reasons I don´t fully understand myself, I hesitate and don´t buy this ticket, this final gesture of farewell to her and her city.

I wander the streets, self-righteous in my fury, blind to my surroundings.

Brussels, Belgium, 15 February 1842

So, what brought the Brontes to Brussels?

Charlotte was 25, Emily 23.

A few years later they would write two of the world´s best-selling novels, Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, and they had since childhood always been compulsive writers, but they knew they had to earn a living and contribute to the family finances as their father was a poor clergyman and their brother could not be relied upon as he was never able to hold down a job for long.

The title page to the original publication of Jane Eyre, including Brontë's pseudonym "Currer Bell".

Above: First edition of Jane Eyre by Currer Bell (Charlotte Bronte)

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Above: First edition of Wuthering Heights by Ellis Bell (Emily Bronte)

Charlotte and Emily dreamed of being published writers, but the only paid work open to the girls was teaching or as governesses.

They had tried the latter, but they had not enjoyed the experience.

They were unhappy with the former for they became homesick whenever separated and away from their home in Haworth.

Above: Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth, Yorkshire, England

Charlotte saw a possible solution.

They could open their own boarding school in Haworth.

While working as a governess in September 1841, Charlotte wrote home to her aunt about this project and about an idea suggested to her by the experience of her friends Mary and Martha Taylor who were improving their languages at a Brussels boarding school.

And Charlotte had another reason for seeing Brussels as her promised land.

After years confined to schoolrooms doing a job she hated, Charlotte was restless.

Her youth was going by and she had seen nothing of Life or the world.

Charlotte longed to experience the culture of a European city as Mary and Martha were doing.

She felt “such an urgent thirst to see – to know – to learn”. (Letter to Ellen Nussey, 7 August 1841)

Charlotte dreamed of romance…of a real life hero to take the place of the ones that had so far existed only in her imagination – in the books she read and the stories she wrote.

From the start Charlotte planned to take Emily with her, for even though Emily was always the most homesick of sisters when away from Haworth, she was still Charlotte’s favourite sister.

They would board at Madame Heger’s Pensionnat de demoiselles, attending classes with other students, receiving special instruction in French.

A deal was later struck with the Pensionnat that the sisters would receive tuition and board in exchange for teaching some lessons.

Brussels, Belgium, 9 November 1996

I wander the city asking myself why am I in Brussels.

I had searched for employment as a teacher in the Belgian capital, but was told that I was unemployable as I lacked the ability to converse in both Flemish and French and I lacked employment documents.

So I would be forced to be financially dependent upon Zoé.

At 30, I too felt my youth was going by, but unlike Charlotte I had already experienced much of Life and had explored much of Canada and the United States, but I too still possessed an urgent thirst to see more of the world outside an Anglo North America, a hunger to know things outside of my own experience, an itch to learn so much more than books and previous travels had taught me.

Image may contain: 1 person

It was my very first time in Europe and I had only briefly visited Paris before coming here to Brussels.

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Above: Tour Eiffel, Paris, France

I had enjoyed my romance with Zoé when she had lingered in Ottawa, Canada, the previous year.

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Above: Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

We were exotic to one another, she a Belgian in Canada, I an adventurer whose tales of past exploits excited her passions.

She represented a continent I had always longed to see.

I was a strange but wonderful souvenir she had discovered in a foreign land during an extended vacation.

When Zoé met me I was living and working in a youth hostel, simultaneously a part of normal Canadian life yet living the life of an international traveller.

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Above: Ottawa International Hostel (formerly the Carleton County Gaol)

In Brussels Zoé struggled to find her footing and romance needed to be tempered with the grim realities of earning a living.

But a romance a year past and an ocean away had transformed Zoé and I from intimate strangers to awkward companions whose differences now seemed more pronounced and unsettling.

Zoé had successfully drawn me to her and her home city and was determined to hold me within her grasp.

But I had just escaped my homeland and wanted to explore more of Europe than just the inside of a Brussels apartment.

Zoé saw me as a romance finally realised.

I saw her as a well-intentioned jailer, albeit with benefits.

And leaving her side felt more of a relief than a heartache.

I find my feet have wandered where they should not tread.

Without intending to, I am in a red light district, an area with lots of bars, sex shops and window display girls waiting for their customers in tantalizing postures wearing little to no fabric.

What the hell am I doing here?

Brussels, Belgium, July 1842

“I don’t deny that I sometimes wish to be in England or that I have brief attacks of homesickness, but I have been happy in Brussels because I have been happy in Brussels because I have always been fully occupied with the employments that I like.” (Letter to Ellen Nussey, July 1842)

In the Pensionnat, Charlotte and Emily studied diligently, attending lessons with 90 other girls and writing homework assignments and essays for Constantin Heger, the headmistress’s husband, who taught literature and French.

The Brontes were much older than the other students and though they were always together they felt “isolated in the midst of numbers” although they were not the only foreigners studying there.

Like expats and immigrants today who have trouble integrating in the host culture, Charlotte and Emily suffered from a fair amount of culture shock.

They in fact made no attempt to integrate.

They sought friends only among their English connections in the city.

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

The other girls found them odd.

They were particularly struck by the strange appearance of Emily who never followed the fashions.

Emily left no written record of how she felt about her stay in Belgium, but writing after her sister´s death, Charlotte said that Emily failed to adjust to Brussels.

“Emily was never happy till she carried her hard-won knowledge back to the remote English village, the old parsonage house and desolate Yorkshire hills.”

If Emily left no record of what she thought of the Pensionnat, Charlotte recorded her own feelings about it all too thoroughly.

In her letters and novels Charlotte hardly had a good word to say about anyone in the school.

She was dismissive of Belgians but did not spare other nationalities either.

Charlotte found both the girls and teachers lacking in principle, feeling and intelligence, insincere, frivolous and dull.

Charlotte’s analysis was simple.

They were foreigners.

Brussels, Belgium, 9 November 1996

With the notable exception of Zoé I confess to knowing little of the sexual life of the Belgians.

I had not seen the 1994 film La vie sexuelle des Belges, so much like famed Flemish director Jan Bucquoy’s autobiographical film, despite my travels I have remained mostly a clueless young bumpkin who tries to keep up with the times but always manages to be a few frustrating steps behind and I find myself far too often in decidedly dark and unglamourous settings in whichever country I am in.

Life can be at times far too anti-climatic and at times the life of my imagination is fuller with fantasy than my reality is.

And though many an opportunity has arisen when I could have freely sampled the fruits of the forbidden, I have often remained a passive outsider.

I claim neither to be a great lover nor a passionate person, but nonetheless I have always found meaning to life to help me cope during the mundane moments of reality.

But forbidden fruit does not appeal.

The only thing alluring and forbidding that I want to experience in Brussels is a magnum of Belgian beer out of over 800 types to choose from… and a huge dish of moules et frites (mussels and fries).

I pass a number of establishments advertising peep shows.

But I don´t go in, yet I wonder who does go into these places?

Foreign businesspeople?

Students on EU work placements?

Circle of 12 gold stars on a blue background

Members of the European Parliament?

Would someone like “the Muscles from Brussels”, JCVD (Jean-Claude van Damme) have frequented such places?

Jean-Claude Van Damme 2012.jpg

Above: Jean-Claude Van Damme (b. 1960)

Wordplay flits through my thoughts.

Brussels…where one can find sax and violins…

(Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone, came from here.)

Adolphe Sax

Above: Adolphe Sax (1814 – 1894)

Saksofon altowy Serie III GP firmy Selmer.jpg

Above: A modern saxophone

(At the time of my 1997 visit, violins seemed the buskers’ instruments of choice.)

…as well as sex and violence (its districts and JCVD).

I return back to Zoé’s apartment inspired by the day´s wanderings, but I soon feel ill at ease afterwards.

I miss the independence and solitude of travel.

I hate my physical and financial dependence upon Zoé.

I ask myself if I feel this way now, how would this feeling improve if I remain longer, or if I return back to her after visiting England as I had planned?

Zoé offers me security, love, stability and European citizenship.

And yet all I want to do is flee in panic and haste…

Brussels, Belgium, Spring and Summer 1842

Emily pines for home and Haworth, but Charlotte feels contented.

Charlotte loves the French language and enjoys being a student again rather than trying to be a teacher.

She has fun watching the city´s people and their customs.

Charlotte loves the odd but pleasant foreign sauces, slices of tartines or tasty pistolets at breakfast, pears from the Pensionnat garden stewed in white wine, couques / koeks from the cake shops.

And the religious fêtes filled with bouquets of flowers…

And taking exercise in the Pensionnat’s walled garden with its berceaux covered in vines, row of pear trees and the Allée Défendue – the path that was out of bounds to the demoiselles because on the other side of the garden wall is a boys’ school, the Athénée Royal…

Everywhere Charlotte wanders, there are offerings of new sensations and impressions.

And although Charlotte’s comments often sound like those of any grumpy foreigner abroad, convinced that everything is better back home, Charlotte’s stay has changed her forever.

Though she regards everyone in the Pensionnat as despicable, with the exception of herself and Emily and some of the other English students, she makes an exception of Constantin Heger, the sole man in residence.

Above: Constantin Héger (1809 – 1896)

Constantin made a strong impression on Charlotte right from the start.

Belgians seemed to her to be phlegmatic, emotionless and pedantic, more considered about appearances than passions, unthinkingly obedient rather than individualistically expressive, “with blood too gluey to boil” (Letter to her brother Branwell Bronte, 1 May 1843).

The Pensionnat had been started by Mme Heger and by the time the Brontes arrived, she had been married to Constantin for five years and had three children.

Madame was 37.  Monsieur was 33.

Charlotte envied Madame, for she had everything Charlotte desired: beauty, employment that gave her fulfillment and a happy personal life married to an inspirational schoolmaster.

To Charlotte, Constantin “fumed like a bottled storm”, whose “bark was worse than his bite”…

“Well might we like him, with all his passions and hurricanes, when he could be so benignant and docile at times…” (Charlotte Bronte, Villette)

Constantin would be the inspiration for the moody Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre and Villette‘s Monsieur Paul.

Villette-Page n8.jpg

Above: First edition of Villette by Currer Bell (Charlotte Bronte)

Heger was a talented teacher who worked on his students’ emotions to make them more receptive to the beauties of literature and Charlotte enjoyed being tutored by him.

Charismatic Constantin had a huge love of language and literature and could engage with Charlotte intellectually.

Equally attractive for Charlotte was his personality, for like many inspirational teachers Constantin was eccentric and temperamental.

Yet despite his eccentricities Constantin was still quite conventional – a family man, a man of social distinction, a devout Catholic, highly respected.

Charlotte was none of these things, and though Constantin cared for her as any good teacher would for those under his tutelage, a chance for romance reciprocal was impossible.

But without having felt the promise love, could Charlotte have been able to write of love?

Her first year in Brussels, with Emily by her side, had been for Charlotte a remarkable and inspirational year.

The death of their aunt Elizabeth Branwell in October 1842 forced them to return to Haworth.

Charlotte and Emily were asked to return to Brussels as they were regarded as being competent and needed as English (Charlotte) and music (Emily) teachers.

Emily chose to remain in Haworth.

Charlotte returned alone to Belgium in January 1843.

This would be a decision both the Pensionnat and Charlotte would regret…

Brussels, Belgium, 10 November 1996

“Belgium remained a battlefield, with tension growing, which would eventually lead to a partition dividing the country.”(Lonely Planet)

Much like Charlotte Bronte, Zoé uses immoderate language about people who have intrigued and attracted her.

But like any recipient of said language an understanding of this hidden intrigue and attraction by the offender is not immediately evident.

This evening I have made a difficult decision.

Tomorrow I will leave this slug-infested apartment behind.

Even though Zoé is a woman of many virtues, her nature is simply incompatible with my own.

And the day had started out so well…

(To be continued…)

Sources: Irene and Alan Taylor, The Assassin’s Cloak: An Anthology of the World’s Greatest Diarists / The International New York Times / Wikipedia / Helen MacEwan, The Brontes in Brussels / Charlotte Bronte, Villette / John Sutherland, The Brontesaurus: An A – Z of Charlotte, Emily and Anne Bronte

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That which survives 2d: A matter of perspective

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 30 December 2016

There are many things that are unpleasant about getting older: diminishing senses, unflattering changes to one´s body, memory lapses, acquisition of a world-weariness…

But for myself, especially in 2016, it has been the loss of one´s heroes.

Yet another musical legend passed away over Christmas: George Michael, age 53.

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Famous for many songs, including “Last Christmas I gave you my heart”, George died from a sudden heart attack.

In a truly crappy year of celebrity deaths (Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Carrie Fisher…to name only a few) George Michael´s demise has affected me more than the rest as his age at death is disturbingly near my own at present.

Prince´s death was pharmaceutically linked, Bowie had cancer, Cohen was not a young man…all tragic but somehow not so bone-chillingly uncommon to my own life status.

If a man only two years my senior can suddenly be no more, can I truly take for granted the time left to me?

Barring accident or lingering disease, how much time do I truly have left?

What follows is not so much resolutions I intend to pursue as they are affirmations of what I have come to realise.

Many a friend has commented to me that it is important that I write.

They have said that my past is somewhat unique, that I can on occasion string words together, that I have my moments when I have written something of significance.

I am also reminded of something that David Bowie once said in an interview: “Don´t play to the gallery.”

Bowie smiling

I have taken this to mean that I should write what matters to me.

If others love it, great.

If not, I must still continue to write what matters to me.

This blog, The Chronicles of Canada Slim, is written to express my ongoing feelings and to represent my memories and emotions that led me here to this time and place.

My other blog, much neglected, Building Everest, is meant to tell stories outside of myself.

It is my hope that those who read this particular post will feel the excitement of travel, the thrill of discovery and an appreciation of the past that I felt as I wrote what follows:

Brussels, the capital of Belgium, but now also the capital of Europe, buzzes with economic, financial and political activity.

And as I recall time spent there in 1993 and 1997 I think of Brussels as I would Ottawa, the capital of Canada, as I would have others think of me, perhaps boring at first glance, but a closer look reveals continuous momentum, regular heroics, relatable villainy, spectacular moments and a vulnerability to capture both the imagination and interest.

In reading Charlotte Bronte´s The Professor one senses that she never really liked the Belgians, especially the Flemish, but did she like Brussels itself?

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The Professor was based on her own experiences in Brussels, a story of love and doubt, of a teacher seeking fortune and love while being severely tested by beguiling sensuality and manipulation.

If a city could be compared to a woman, could our assessment be affected by our experiences?

“Our likings are regulated by our circumstances.

The artist prefers a hilly country because it is picturesque, the engineer a flat one because it is convenient.

The fashionable young gentleman admires the fashionable young lady – she is of his kind.

The toilworn, exhausted, probably irritable teacher, blind almost to beauty, insensible to airs and graces, glories chiefly in certain mental qualities: application, love of knowledge, natural capacity, docility, truthfulness, gratitude are the charms that attract his notice and win his regard.

These he seeks, but seldom meets.

These if by chance he finds, he would fain retain forever.

And when separation deprives him of them he feels as if some ruthless hand had snatched from him his only ewe lamb.” (Charlotte Bronte, The Professor)

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These I seek, but seldom meet.

“Zoé” had many positive aspects, but what had been felt the year previous seemed lacking within myself.

I told myself “Act as if what is wished is reality until the wish becomes reality.”.

Though she could hardly afford it, Zoé was determined to show me Brussels in the hopes that I would transfer my love for the city with similar feelings towards her.

Zoé was a maniac driver, but no more than many Europeans I would encounter in the following decades.

Breathlessly, my heart a-pounding furiously, we arrived at Bruparck.

Bruparck is close to Metro Station Heysel and is part of Heysel Park.

The Heysel / Heizel is in the north of Brussels where the Brussels International Exposition of 1935 and Expo ´58 took place.

The Brussels International Exposition of 1935 was held between 27 April and 6 November 1935.

Officially sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions, 25 countries officially participated and a further 5 were unofficially represented.

The theme was colonisation, on the 50th anniversary of the establishmnet of the Congo.

The fair attracted some 20 million visitors.

Belgian architect Joseph van Neck was the principal architect of the fair and of the Art Deco Palais des Expositions with its interior concrete parabolic arches and four heroic bronze statues on piers.

Among many other contributors, Le Corbusier designed part of the French exhibit.

Belgian modernist architect Victor Bourgeois designed the Grand Palace, Restaurant Leopold II and the Pavilion Soprocol.

The Belgian art exposition prominently displayed the work of contemporary Belgian artists, including Paul Delvaux, René Magritte and Louis Van Lint, boosting their careers.

Expo ´58 (the Brussels World´s Fair) was held from 17 April to 19 October 1958, the first major World´s Fair after World War II.

Nearly 15,000 workers spent three years building the two square kilometre site on the Heysel plateau, using many of the buildings from the Brussels International Exposition of 1935.

Expo ´58 was the 11th World´s Fair hosted by Belgium and the 5th in Brussels, following the fairs in 1888, 1897, 1910 and 1935.

Since 1958 Belgium has not arranged any more world fairs.

This huge event was a showcase for Belgium and 40 other countries.

More than 41 million visitors visited the Expo, which was opened with a call for world peace and social and economic progress, issued by King Badouin.

Three million visitors travelled in the cable car which soared above the Expo.

Eight babies were born on site.

With the slogan “Building a world for the modern man”, Expo ´58 sent out a message of boundless optimism, confident and enthusiastic about the future of humanity.

In spite of its message of peace and friendship between nations, Expo ´58 was not immune from the tensions of the Cold War.

Beneath the Atomium, the United States and the Soviet Union defied each other in symbolic confrontation.

The Soviet pavilion was a large impressive building, which they folded up and took back to Russia when the Expo ended.

Within the pavilion the Soviets displayed a facisimile of Sputnik, the world´s first artifical satellite, and a model of the Lenin, the world´s first nuclear icebreaker, representing the success of a Communist society.

The icebreaker Lenin, former St. Alexander Nevsky

The Sputnik copy mysteriously disappeared and the US was accused of stealing it.

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The American pavilion was quite spacious and vaunted the American Dream – the consumer society and the comforts of modern life.

The US pavilion included a fashion show with models walking down a large spiral staircase, an electronic computer that demonstrated a knowledge of history, and a colour TV studio behind glass.

The Philips pavilion played the Poeme électronique from 425 loudspeakers placed throughout the park.

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The Austrian pavilion included a model Austrian Kindergarten which doubled as a daycare for the employees, the Vienna (Wien) Philharmonic playing behind glass and a model nuclear fusion reactor that fired every five minutes.

An original manuscript of Mozart´s Requiem was placed on display.

Someone somehow gained access to the manuscript and tore off the bottom right corner of one of the pages containing the words “Quam olim d:C” in Mozart´s handwriting, possibly the last words Mozart wrote before he died.

During the six months of the Expo, 300 friendly, multilingual and devoted young ladies welcomed and guided millions of visitors who flocked to the site.

Dressed in red jackets and blue hats, disciplined and flirtatious at the same time, the Expo ´58 hostesses were considered the epitome of the modern woman of those times.

Joyful Belgium, a reconstitution of a village from olden times, was a place of entertainment with a festive atmosphere, constantly bursting with crowds of visitors eating, drinking and having fun.

20,000 workers, including 500 gardeners, served 20,000 meals every day in the 70 restaurants on the Expo site.

Belgian beer flowed copiously bringing joy to many who staggered on cobblestones filled with spirit and memories.

But every event has its dark side which the Art of Design Atomium Museum (ADAM) will not seek to draw the visitor´s attention to…

Inside the Belgian pavilion was the Congolese village, a human zoo, showing exotic humans living in their natural state, to emphasise the cultural differences between Europeans and those people they regarded as primitive in a display that was highly degrading and racist.

Congolese in cages in a nude or semi-nude state forced to work on typical village tasks pretending that the gawking visitors did not exist.

Belgian King Baudouin visited the fair in the company of actress Gina Lollobrigida.

Expo ´58 remains a part of the Bruxellois psyche as its best known site still remains a symbol of the city of Brussels.

The Atomium is a giant model of a unit cell of an iron crystal, expanded 165 billion times, with each of its nine spheres representing an atom.

Designed by the engineer André Waterkeyn and architects André and Jean Polak, it stands 102 metres / 335 feet tall.

Its nine 18 metre / 60 foot diameter stainless steel clad spheres are connected by tubes of 3 metre / 10 foot diameter.

These tubes enclose stairs, escalators and a lift in the central, vertical tube allowing access to the five habitable spheres containing exhibit halls and other public spaces.

The top sphere contains a restaurant with a panoramic view of Brussels.

Jessica Canepa of CNN in her 24 January 2013 report “11 of Europe´s most bizarre buildings” named it Europe´s most bizarre building.

When Zoé and I visited the Atomium in 1993, the Atomium´s spheres were clad with aluminum.

Following renovations in 2007, the aluminum was replaced with stainless steel.

The aluminum was sold to the public as souvenirs to pay for the renovations.

A triangular piece about 2 metres / 7 foot long sold for €1,000 in 2006.

Three of the four top spheres lack vertical support and are therefore not open to the public for safety reasons, although the sphere at the pinnacle is.

Waterkeyn´s original design called for no supports.

The sphere was simply to rest on the spheres.

Wind tunnel tests proved that the Atomium would have toppled in an 80 km/h wind.

(140 km/h winds have been recorded in Belgium.)

Support columns were added in 2006 to achieve enough resistance against overturning.

(Though a building weighing 2,500 tonnes will take one hell of a gust to topple it…)

The Atomium is open every day of the year from 10 am to 6 pm and receives 2,300 individual visitors every day or 600,000 visitors per year.

The record number of visitors in one day: 4,700 on 17 August 2008.

Each year on average the Atomium is visited by 10 heads of state, privately or officially.

Visitors are provided audioguides in 28 languages.

There are 873,000 references to the Atomium on the Internet with more than 13,000 Facebook fans.

In addition to its unique architecture, the Atomium already boasted the fastest lift in Europe in 1958, with a speed of 5 metres per second / 18 kph.

What breath had been regained from Zoé´s driving was once again swept from me by this heady ascent as the entrails of the central tube sped by at a pace hummingbirds would have been impressed by.

And the view…

It has been boasted that on a clear day one can see Antwerp to the north or the Atlantic to the west, but on 8 November 1993 I recall only seeing the Palais des Expositions, the Planetarium and Mini-Europe, the Grand Place, the Royal Palace and the EU district.

For Expo ´58 a new airport terminal was added to the Melsbroek National Airport, on the west side of the Airport, on the grounds of the municipality of Zaventem, which has since become the name of the International Airport.

(Zaventem Airport might register in the minds of today´s readers as it was the first target of the 22 March 2016 Brussels bombings.

At 07:55 Ibrahim El Bakraoui (29), Najim Laachraoui (24) and Mohamed Abrini (b. 1984) arrived at Zaventem in a taxi.

At 07:58, in check-in row 11 and check-in row 2 of Zaventem´s departure hall, Bakraoui and Laachraoui committed suicide by exploding nail bombs in their suitcases nine seconds apart.

Abrini failed to detonate his bomb due to the force of Laachraoui´s explosion.

At 09:11 Khalid El Bakraoui and Osama Krayem committed suicide in the middle carriage of a three-carriage train at the Maalbeek metro station.

The bombings killed 32 civilians and injured more than 300 people.

The bombings were the deadliest act of terrorism in Belgium´s history.)

(Heysel Park also brings to mind another tragedy of a different sort:

On 29 May 1985, Liverpool were the defending European Champions Cup winners facing Juventus –  both this English club and their Italian competitor club were considered the best two teams in Europe at the time.

Despite Heysel Stadium´s status as Belgium´s national stadium, it was in a poor state of repair by the time of the 1985 European Final.

The 55-year-old Stadium had not been sufficiently maintained for several years and large parts of the Stadium were literally crumbling.

A few years before Arsenal fans called Heysel “a dump” when Arsenal had played there.

Both Juventus and Liverpool had urged the UEFA to choose another venue, claiming that Heysel was not in any condition to host a European Final, but UEFA refused to consider a move.

The Stadium was crammed with 60,000 supporters, with more than 25,000 for each team, between them a neutral area reserved for neutral Belgian fans.

Brussels has a large Italian community and many Juventus fans were in the neutral zone, causing Liverpool fans to perceive that Juventus fans had been accorded more seating rights than they had.

At 7 pm, an hour before kick-off, trouble began.

Liverpool and Juventus supporters were mere metres apart – the boundary between them was marked by a temporary chain link fence and a central thinly policed no-man´s land.

Fans began to throw stones across the divide, using the crumbling terraces under their feet.

As kick-off approached, the throwing became more intense.

Several groups of Liverpool fans broke through the boundary separating them from the Juventus fans, overpowered the police and charged the Juventus fans.

Juventus fans began to flee toward the perimeter wall.

The wall could not withstand the force of the fleeing Juventus supporters and a lower portion collapsed.

The collapse allowed fans to escape, but 39 fans died and 600 fans were injured by suffocation or from being crushed against the wall before its collapse.

Bodies were carried out from the Stadium on sections of iron fencing and laid outside, covered with giant football club flags.

In retaliation for the neutral zone attack, Juventus fans in their end of the Stadium then rioted, fighting the police with rocks and bottles for two hours.

Despite the scale of the disaster, UEFA officials, the Belgian Prime Minister, the Brussels mayor and the city´s police force felt that cancelling the match would incite further trouble and violence.

The match eventually kicked off after the captains of both teams spoke to the crowd and appealed for calm.

Juventus won the match 1 – 0.

29 Liverpool fans were charged with manslaughter, 14 of them convicted.

On 29 May 2005, a sundial sculpture was unveiled at the new Heysel Stadium to commemorate the disaster.

Thirty-nine lights shine, one for each who died that night.)

At the foot of the Atomium, Mini-Europe is a miniature park with reproductions of monuments in the European Union on show, at a scale of 1:25.

Image illustrative de l'article Mini-Europe

Roughly 80 cities and 350 buildings are represented.

The park contains live action models, such as trains, mills, an erupting Mount Vesuvius…

(There is something just wrong about trivialising one of the most volcanic eruptions in European history.

Mount Vesuvius spewed a deadly cloud of gas, stones and ash to a height of 33 kilometres (21 mi), ejecting molten rock and pulverized pumice at the rate of 1.5 million tons per second, a hundred thousand times the thermal energy of the Hiroshima bombing.

Two aerial photos of atomic bomb mushroom clouds, over two Japanese cities in 1945.

Several Roman settlements were obliterated and buried, the most well known being Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The remains of about 1,500 people have been found at Pompeii and Herculaneum, but the overall death toll is still unknown.)

…and cable cars.

A guidebook gives the details on all the monuments.

At the end of the visit, the Spirit of Europe exhibition gives an interactive overview of the European Union in the form of multimedia games.

As fascinating as it is to play the role of Lemeul Gulliver among the Lilliputians, I wanted to experience these wonders of Europe first hand without a sneak peek so I chose not to visit Mini-Europe.

As I type these words there remains much I have yet to see of Europe, but my feelings have not changed in this respect.

In Bruparck there stands an aquatic park – It was winter when we visited. –  slated to close on 1 October 2018, Océade offers 14 waterslides, a wave pool, a rope bridge, interactive video games, an aquatic playground, three saunas (a hammam, a jacuzzi and a Finnish ice bath) – all with a Pirates of the Caribbean feel.

It is said to be the best-equipped aquatic park in Belgium.

Zoé reminded me that Océade was still trying to rebuild its reputation from the July 1992 incident when two children, ages 5 and 7, drowned in the park.

Thierry Den Doncker, the director of Océade, was found guilty of involuntary homicide by default in December 1996.

Still Océade has maintained its reputation as a fun place, receiving 230,000 visitors to the park every year.

The waters are subtropical at a temperature of 29° Celcius, just perfect on a winter´s day.

Nearby the giantic Kinepolis offers 27 cinemas and IMAX.

As enjoyable as exploring Brussels with Zoé was, and I was extremely grateful to her for spending time and money to be my guide to the city, part of me wanted to discover the city for myself.

Seeing a place through a local´s eyes gives one a perspective that a tourist rarely experiences.

Stubbornly I wanted to make Brussels my experience rather than simply sharing Zoé´s experience of it.

I wanted to get lost and discover the city serendipitiously.

Zoé took this as a rejection of her.

It took an infinite amount of long discussions, debates, persuasion and patience to get Zoé to grant me a few hours of liberty from her side.

Granted liberty, I headed for the downtown core of Brussels to do the mundane activities that a tourist does when abroad: mailing postcards, checking e-mail in an Internet café and finding a café or tavern one can call one´s own.

Over cafés au lait, political discussion at the Café Arcadi with two Belgians and another Canadian (a young lady from Lake Nipissing)…

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Belgium is not a country, the two young Bruxellois university students informed us, but rather a political creation.

Unity between the Flemish and Walloons remains fleeting, a mere whisper in the wind barely heard but desperately sought.

But it is this ability for Belgians to have two diametrically opposed peoples share one country that convinces our local drinking companions that it was the Belgians that created “civilisation”.

To talk to a Belgian is to talk with the world-weary, for Belgium is more than chocolate and diamonds, medieval buildings and comic books, it is a land riddled with corruption, seediness, tension and scandal.

Belgium remains in a mind a country that is a breath away from coming undone.

And to listen to a Belgian speak is to court depression, for there seems to be a litany of problems to worry one´s self sick over in Belgium.

Milk causing cancer, arms deals with greased palms, the constant hiss of secessionism, the spectre of paedophilia, bizarre murders and crimes that would have challenged Agatha Christie´s Hercule Poirot, the sale of passports to criminals, reunions of Nazis, a history of colonial genocide…what topic do you wish to talk about first?

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Above: David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

And living with your neighbour does not mean loving your neighbour.

The Flemish and the Walloons are locked in a marriage of convenience but not comfort.

In the port city of Antwerp, Belgium´s second-largest metropolis, the world´s biggest distributor of diamonds, one finds a hotbed of tension.

Known as the Jerusalem of the West, Antwerp is home to 20,000 Jews, most of which live in the old Jewish quarter.

Right next door is the Arab quarter, home to the city´s 30,000 Moroccans and Turks.

Thrown into this volatile mix Antwerp is also the headquarters of the anti-immigrant party Vlaams Blok, whose main objective is for Flanders to secede.

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Both past and present Belgium is a battlefield.

A strange battlefield of baroque buildings, thick forests, fantastic restaurants, swan-filled canals, crumbling housing, dodgy areas, port crime, war cemeteries, blood-soaked battle grounds, ethnic turmoil, language barriers, racist graffiti, corruption so common it´s casual, a lack of planning and it no longer seems strange that Belgians like to drink.

Happily drinking is one of the best things to do in Belgium, as the country has over 400 beers of amazing flavours.

But to this casual observer, Belgium feels like it was thrown together without any vision, without any rhyme or reason.

The young Bruxellois lads were, of course, curious about Canada, for it too is a land that remains sharply divided along linguistic lines: English vs French.

But as visiting Anglophone Canadians to Brussels we held fast to a unity that we cherish, but as complex as English-French relations are in Canada the difficulties of Ottawa pale by comparison to politics in Belgium.

In Canada, Canadians have one national Parliament and each province has its own legislature.

In Belgium there are six individual Parliaments with each national party split in two – one representing Flanders in the north and one representing Wallonia in the south.

60% of Belgians speak Flemish, but in Brussels 80% of the population speaks French.

In 2001, I would later read that a train crash in Belgium that killed 8 people was caused because the signalmen – one Walloon, one Flemish – spoke different languages and couldn´t communicate.

But for all their problems it must be admitted that Belgians are interesting.

Take a few examples:

King Albert II (reigned from 1993 to 2013) loves motorcycles and riding them fast, to judge by the number of times he has been pulled over.

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Jean-Michel Nihoul, Brussels businessman and self-proclaimed “Monster of Belgium”, suspected for numerous crimes, won´t be prosecuted because he can name too many government officials involved in his sex parties.

King Leopold II (1835 – 1909), responsible for opening up the Congo to Belgian development and genocide and making a fortune in the process, loved nothing more than riding around on an oversized tricycle and sneaking off to court his teenage French lover.

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Georges Simenon (1903 – 1989), celebrated for his Inspector Maigret stories, was unique:

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Simenon wrote at least 4 books a year – totalling more than 500 by the time he died – in between having sex three times a day.

Known as “the man of 10,000 women”, Simenon still managed to write 80 pages a day, typically meeting his goal of finishing a book within two weeks.

(“Francois”, Zoé´s father, with two mistresses, clearly found his role model.)

René Magritte (1898 – 1967) brought the absurd to the commonplace and the everyday to the bizarre in precise frozen images that always contained a snippet of logic and the whisper of a joke, but Belgians didn´t appreciate him.

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In 1927, Belgian art critics so demonized his first show of reality-questioning, surrealistic paintings that Magritte moved to France.

It took Magritte another two decades for his work to be acclaimed as innovative.

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525 – 1569) is worth mentioning for several reasons:

Pieter Bruegel the Elder - The Painter and the Buyer, 1565 - Google Art Project.jpg

Above: Pieter Brueghel the Elder´s The Painter and the Buyer (1565)

Brueghel, unlike his 16th century contemporaries, dared to paint other themes outside of religion or portraits of the wealthy.

His landscapes weren´t just Biblical backdrops, but vibrant village life captured in all its bawdy detail and glory.

No detail is insignificant in a Brueghal picture, for each minutae is a vignette that tells a tale of life in the 16th century more dramatically than a library of historical tomes ever could.

And in a sense Brueghal captures the essence of Brussels, not just in illustrating life then but as well a message about life now.

When I recall my conversation in Café Arcadi, the drownings at the Océade, the Heysel Stadium tragedy, the bombings of Brussels, the paintings of Brueghal and the recent death of George Michael, I am left with one final impression:

Seize the moment.

Appreciate the moment.

Capture and keep that moment close.

For God only knows how many more moments are left to us.

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Sources: Wikipedia / Charlotte Bronte, The Professor / Melissa Rossi, The Armchair Diplomat on Europe