Canada Slim and the Holiday Chronicles

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 16 November 2017

I hate November: shorter days (dawn still incomplete after 6 am, dusk already started at 1600), grey clouds ever threatening rain, blocking the sun by day and the stars by night.

November with its month flower, the chrysanthemum, a symbol of adversity, grief and death.

And I miss seeing the Lake under blue skies by day and the stars beyond my grasp overhead above the lamplightless-after-midnight streets that usually makes life for me in Landschlacht worthwhile.

I like slipping outside onto our balcony, sprawl upon a deck chair and gaze out upon a sky full of stars.

(See Thus one journeys to the stars of this blog regarding star spotting in Landschlacht and Zürich.)

I wish it were August again and we were once again exploring Italy….

(For a description of the journey through Switzerland and Italy leading to Como, please see Canada Slim and the Evil Road, …..and the Apostle of Violence, …..and the Road to the Open,……and the Quest for George Clooney, …..and the Injured Queen, …..and the Isle of Silence, …..and the Inappropriate Statues, …..and the Life Electric, …..and the Distant Bench, …..and the Smarter Woman, of this blog.)

 

Lake Como, Italy, 3 August 2017

It was the kind of road my wife both loved and hated: curvy with high vistas of great scenery, but demanding constant alertness for traffic and pedestrians with no more sense than God gave a cantalope.

There are three big lakes in Italy which reach a depth of more than 300 metres and cover an area of hundreds of square kilometres.

The most west is Lago Maggiore, the most east is Lago di Garda, the central one is Lago di Como.

Lago di Como is distinguishable from its charateristic shape of an upside-down “Y”.

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(The Lake of Constance is distinguishable as an eastwardly swimming fish.)

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The triangle formed by the two branches of the Lago is named the Triangolo lariano. (the Larius Triangle)(Larius is the Latin name for the Lago.)

The eastern shore of Lago di Como, stretching from flat marshes in the north to the lake´s right leg, Lago Lecco, overshadowed by the sawlike ridge of Monte Resegone, is often as sunless as November on the southern shore of the Lake of Constance (Bodensee) is.

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This lack of direct sunlight consequently means that the eastern shore is less visited than the western.

There are few places to stay and and these are not easily accessible scattered among and between the quiet villages that line the shore from Como to Bellagio.

The S5340 feels like an old military road, less concerned with tourist infrastructure as it is with the simple linkage of the lakeside communities.

We left Como after a stay of three glorious days and nights, from the Sant´ Agostino quarter, passed the funicular that runs to Brunate, ascending away from the city.

We reached Blevio with its Villa Taglioni, which once belonged to the Swedish ballet dancer Marie Taglioni (1804 – 1884), the daughter of an Italian choreographer father and a Swedish ballerina mother.

Above: Marie Taglioni

Taglioni was a central figure in the history of European dance and she is credited with being the first ballerina to truly dance en pointe.

Taglioni was married to Comte Auguste Gilbert de Voisins in 1832, but separated in 1836.

She later fell in love with Eugene Desmares, a loyal fan, who had defended her honour in a duel.

He later died in a hunting accident.

When her father Filippo was appointed the ballet master at the court opera in Vienna, there was a decision that Marie would debut her dancing career in the Habsburg capital.

Her father created a rigourous six-month training program where she would hold positions for 100 counts.

Her training was conducted daily and consisted of two hours in the morning with difficult exercises focusing on her legs and two hours in the afternoon focusing on adagio movements that would help her refine poses in ballet.

She focused her energy on her shape and form and less on bravura tricks and pirouettes.

Taglioni would dance in her father´s court opera ballet as well as in Munich and Stuttgart before joining the Paris Opéra, where she would rise to fame.

She would later dance in St. Petersburg, where “the cult of the ballerina” was so strong that a pair of her pointe shoes were sold for 200 rubles, cooked, served with a sauce and eaten by a group of her fans.

She would even perform for Queen Victoria.

Taglioni retired from performing in 1847 after been active since 1824 and began to chereograph and judge other ballet dancers´  performances.

Her only choreographic work was Le Papillon, wherein her student Emma Livry died when her costume was set alight by a gas lamp used for stage lighting.

Taglioni died in Marseille, the day before her 80th birthday.

Her body was moved to Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.

Above: Montmartre Cemetery with the rue Coulaincourt viaduct passing through it

Local dancers began leaving their worn toe shoes on her grave as a tribute and thanks to the first toe dancer.

In the local Blevio cemetery of the Ferranti chapel lies buried the Italian soprano opera singer Giuditta Pasta (née Negri)(1797 – 1865), the Maria Callas of the 19th century.

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Above: Giuditta Pasta

From 1823 to 1854, Pasta would perform in Milan, Naples, Venice, Paris and London.

Her voice was such that composers, like Stendhal and Bellini, would create roles specifically for her to sing.

Her voice was said to be clear and powerful, encompassing tones that ranged from fine and full-bodied to husky and harsh.

Her voice was said to resonate with a magnetic vibration that exercised an instantaneous and hypnotic effect upon the soul of the spectator, a voice directed towards expressing the most intense passions accompanied by physical movements unknown and unseen before in lyrical theatre.

Her voice is silent now.

There are beautiful Villas near the lakeside square at the boat wharf: Cademartori, Da Riva and Pozzi.

Through the tunnel, the provincial road continues on towards the town of Torno.

Before Torno, there is a cartway branching off to Piazzaga`s famous ancient tombs and Monte Piatto with its Pietra Pendula (pendulum stone) near the small church which honours Mary´s visit to Elisabeth.

Up the mountain above Torno is the church of San Giovanni, characterised by a magnificent Renaissance marble portal and said to preserve a sacred nail from the Cross of Jesus.

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Above: The town of Torno, Lombardy, Italy

Near San Giovanni, a path leads to the Villa Pliniana near an awe-inspiring cascade praised by both Pliny the Elder and Pliny the Younger as well as Leonardo da Vinci.

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Above: Villa Pliniana

(Please see Canada Slim and the Inappropriate Statues for discussion about the Plinys, uncle and nephew.)

Pliniana rises above the lake, embraced by greenery.

Built in 1500 by Giovanni Anguissola, the Villa Pliniana – named after Pliny the Younger´s whose estate this once was – has hosted writer Ugo Foscolo (1778 – 1827), opera composer Gioschino Rossini (1792 – 1868), poet Giovanni Berchet, writer Marie-Henri Beyle aka Stendhal (1783 – 1842), the poet Percy Shelley (1792 – 1822), and writer Cristina Belgioioso (1808 – 1871), but the Villa did not welcome us as it remains closed to the hoi polloi such as my wife and I.

Torno is situated in an ideal position above a promontory and stands out as a typical medieval village, which is surprising when one considers the Spanish razed it to the ground in 1522.

Some of the houses are gathered around the church of Santa Tecla and the beautiful little square on the pier by the lake.

Above: The Church of Santa Tecla, Torno, Italy

Remaining suspended high above the shore of the lake, the S5340 passes through the hamlet of Palanza with its, still in working condition, big wooden press from the 1500s.

Heading onwards towards Bellagio, the traveller soon comes to the hamlet of Careno, stone houses clinging to the mountain along steep pathways that can only be accessed on foot.

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Above: Careno

At the top of the town there is the Masera Grotto with a pond and a large hall that displays numerous ammonite fossils.

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Above: The Masera Grotto, Careno, Italy

But it is Nesso that most people want to see, easily the most photographed town on the Lago di Como.

Above: Nesso

Situated at the mouth of the Tuf and Nosse Valleys, streams descend to create a picturesque haven of rocks forming a perfect canyon and cascade of water.

Above: L´Orrido Nesso

Descend the tiny streets and stairways to the lake and stand upon the old bridge that joins the two shores of these streams and view the simple lovely majesty of this cascade.

Above: Nesso

Just beyond the northern entry of the S5340 into Nesso there is a road on the right that climbs above the lake to Vico with its small Romanesque church of Santa Maria filled with precious frescoes, passes through Erno that has been making metal nets for generations, rises to the Colma di Sormano and the space observatory of Brianza, then descends to Valassina and the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Ghisallo where souvenirs of the greatest champions that ever rode a bicycle are preserved on the walls and ceilings.

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But we forego this pleasure and continue upon the cliff clinging road, hellbent to reach Bellagio.

Everything is a blur of trees and cliffs and moments of close calls of we hitting someone/something or the reverse scenario.

Places and placenames are barely registered: Crotto, Pescau, Bagnana, Rozzo, Sossana, Villa and the town of Lezzeno.

Cars have stopped upon the Punta della cappelletta to catch a lovely look upon the lake and Comacina Island.

The road remains panoramic as we see Tremezzina and the Villa Carlotta on the oppposite shore.

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Above: Villa Trotti

And Villas never stop appearing: Villa Trotti, determinedly exotic with neo-Gothic mixed with Moorish design surrounded by Chinese and Japanese plants, the Villa Trivulzio with its grand English garden, and finally the Villa Melzi.

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Above: Villa Trivulzio

Every traveller soon discovers that there are names of famous individuals that are repeatedly stubled upon as they too were travellers.

For us, we constantly seem to run into the ghosts of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and composer Franz Liszt in our travels in Switzerland and Italy.

(For a description of Mary Shelley´s travels, see Canada Slim and the Evil Road, and Canada Slim and the Road into the Open of this blog, as well as Mary Shelley`s Rambles in Germany and Italy.)

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Above: Mary Shelley (1797 – 1851)

Villa Melzi, Bellagio, Italy, 6 August 1840

“This evening we crossed again to visit…..the opposite bank.

Villa Melzi is a very pleasant country house.

Its marble halls and stuccoed drawing rooms are the picture of Italian comfort – cool, shady and airy. 

The garden has had pains taken with it. 

There are some superb magnolias and other flowering trees, but one longs for English gardening here. 

What would not some friends of mine make of a flower garden in Italy: how it would abound and run over with sweets – no potting and greenhouses to check, no frost to decimate. 

The Italians here know not what flowers and a flower garden are.”

(Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Rambles in Germany and Italy)

 

Villa Melzi, Bellagio, Italy, 3 August 2017

I am not so certain if Fulco Gallarati Scotti, the present owner of the Villa Melzi d´Eril (to give its full name) would agree or approve of Mary Shelley´s opinion.

Above: Villa Melzi d´Eril

The Melzi Villa and gardens have belonged to the Scotti family for more than 90 years and I am certain that Fulco is proud that every year tens of thousands of tourists descend upon the d´Eril property.

As early as 1821, Davide Bertolotti (1784 – 1860) in his Viaggio al lago di Como (Journey to Lake Como) praised the sight of the Villa and its wonderful gardens.

In 1831, Cesare Cantu (1804 – 1895) in his Guida al Lago di Como consolidated the Villa´s fame by mentioning how magnificent Melzi was with an annexed “very elegant oratory”, surrounded by “a garden made delightful by its location and its variety of plants and flowers”.

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Above: Cesare Cantu

In 1912, the Villa and the gardens Melzi d´Eril of Bellagio, designed and built between 1808 and 1831, were declared to be an Italian National Monument and thus came to be officially considered as part of the historic and artistic heritage that remains guarded by the State.

The beauty began on a bloody battlefield.

Early 19th century European history is marked by the great Napoleonic campaign between 1796 and 1814, when the Austrians were chased out of northern Italy to be replaced by the French.

Though French occupation was a period less than twenty years long, it was characterised by a rapid succession of military and political events and intense cultural changes, of which Francesco Melzi d´Eril (1753 – 1816) would play a significant role.

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Above: Francesco Melzi d´Eril

Francesco was born in Milan into a family of ancient nobility known since the 14th century.

His father was Count of Magenta; his mother was a Spanish noblewoman.

Francesco completed his education in Milan and also travelled extensively to England, Spain and France widening his cultural experiences.

As a member of Milan´s Consiglio die Sessanta Decuroni, the city´s administrative representatives, Francesco met Napoleon (1769 – 1821) on the battlefield of Lodi in 1796 and presented him with the symbolic keys to the city.

Above: The Battle of Lodi, 10 May 1796

Napoleon appreciated Melzi since this first meeting, considering him a cultivated and balanced man, so he entrusted him with political and diplomatic duties over the newly-created Cisalpina Republic in the turbulent years from 1797 to 1802.

When the first Italian Republic was founded in 1802 with Napoleon as President, Melzi was appointed Vice President, responsible for managing the complex political and administrative organisation of a nation in dire need of reforms in almost all sectors of civil life.

Melzi´s personal dedication was so intense that it took him only three years to successfully create a national army, to balance the books and to reform the educational and judicial systems of the new Italian nation.

Of great relevance was also his contribution to Italian arts and crafts through his support of the Academy of Fine Arts in Milan and his commitment to protect and restore the inheritance let behind by the Austrians, including the Royal Palace in Milan and the Royal Villa in Monza.

In spite of his poor health, fatigue for his government duties and his disillusionment caused by Napoleon´s turning to authoritarianism – when Napoleon became self-proclaimed Emperor, he named himself King of Italy in 1805 – Melzi continued to play a role in government though with not as much influence as he had previously.

Colored painting depicting Napoleon crowning his wife inside of a cathedral

Above: Coronation of Napoleon, Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, 2 December 1804

During the Kingdom of Italy (1805 – 1814), Melzi was appointed Grand Chancellor and Minister of Justice, supporting (and occasionally replacing) Viceroy Eugenio of Beauharnais in governing the royal domains.

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Above: Eugenio de Beauharnais (1781 – 1824)

Though Melzi remained on good and constant terms with Napoleon, Melzi longed for a more intimate and less demanding life.

When Melzi would visit the Villa Loppia of his friend Paolo Taverna, Melzi regarded Bellagio as a place desireable for both physical and spiritual recovery, owing to its peacefulness, climate, landscape beauty, the spontaneity of its people and their unaffected way of life.

Though he was of high aristocratic rank, Melzi was not rich, so it wasn´t until December 1807 that his wish for his own Villa was realised when Napoleon named him the Duke of Lodi and granted him a large annual income as an award for “his accomplishments in the field of public administration” and in memory of their encounter in Lodi ten years before.

The 20 December 1807 decree reads:

“Melzi was the first Italian to bring us on the battlefield of Lodi the keys and the confidence” of the city of Milan.

Work began on the Villa Melzi.

Bellagio has attracted people since ancient times for its location for military and commercial purposes and its attractiveness for leisure.

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Above: Bellagio, Lombardy, Italy

According to tradition, Pliny the Younger (61 – 113 AD) testified to the region´s attractiveness when he wrote his friend Voconius Romanus in 104 AD, explaining why he was setting his Villa Tragedia here.

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Above: Statue of Pliny the Younger, Santa Maria Maggiore Duomo, Como

Located at the tip of the peninsula that separates the two branches of the Lago di Como, Bellagio enjoys a privilieged fame as compared to the many admirable places elsewhere along the lake, for it possesses a unique multifaceted landscape of everchanging light nuances and a kaleidoscope of perspectives and sights,

Such qualities were written about by Sigismondo Boldoni in his work Larius (1606), when the Spanish dominated Bellagio.

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Above: Sigismondo Boldoni

This trend never reversed.

On the contrary, it increased in the 18th century after the Spanish left Lombardy to be replaced by the Austrians, who would build many residences in Bellagio and wherever they could on the shores of Lago di Como to spend their holidays.

As remarked by Carlo Amoretti in his Viaggio da Milano ai tre laghi Maggiore, di Lugano e di Como (1824), they shaped a delightful surrounding, enjoyed shelter from hot summers to their Villas that were accessible not only by boat but as well by the Valsassina road of ancient Roman origin.

Above: Carlo Amoretti (1741 – 1816)

By the advent of Melzi, Bellagio was the most populated town of the lake, surpassed only by Como and Lecco.

According to the anonymous manuscript Cronachette della villaggiatura (Holiday Chronicles), Melzi considered Bellagio as a “buen retiro”, a place of relaxation, far from political duties, where the mind and body could recover.

Sadly, the Duke of Lodi enjoyed his wonderful retreat for only a short time.

In the last three years of his life, Melzi stayed in his Villa 27 days in 1813, two months in 1814 and another two months in 1815.

Despite these short periods of time, the Villa began to acquire fame as a distinguished house of hospitality.

Among Melzi´s guests were the Viceroy of Italy and his wife Augusta Amalia of Baveria, and the painter Giuseppi Bossi.

Above: Self Portrait, Giuseppe Bossi (1777 – 1815)

The typical day of the Duke began at 9 am when he attended church services officiated by his personal chaplain, followed by breakfast and then work began on his various charitable activities for local people in need.

According to the Holiday Chronicles, Melzi showed great concern both for the single destinies of the individuals he met as well as the general progress of the community.

In spite of his poor health – the Duke suffered from gout – Melzi liked to spend his time walking slowly and meditating in his garden, cheered by the luxuriant vegetation and the magnificent lake landscape that could be admired from his property.

Tiny and slender, Melzi nevertheless inspired respect.

He used to wear simple country clothes but in a refined way: long trousers with a large, well-shaped white hat and a thin cane stick to support him during his walks.

Melzi used to have lunch at 3 pm, eating with other guests in enjoyment of conversation in the absence of servants.

At 10 pm he would retire for the night.

The unknown author of the Holiday Chronicles writes in dismay that Duke Francesco left Bellagio and moved to Milan in October 1815 never to return.

Melzi died on 16 January 1816.

His mortal remains were brought back to the Villa two years after his death to be buried in the Oratory.

The estate has remained in the hands of the Melzi family, though the owner surname would change through the course of time.

The Villa passed on to Francesco´s nephew Giovanni (1788 – 1832).

Stendhal visited Villa Melzi in July 1817, where he enjoyed the gardens and the scenery and gazed upon the bust of Francesco in the oratory, as we can read in Stendhal´s travel journal Rome, Naples et Florence en 1817.

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Above: Stendhal

In 1825, the Villa Melzi received a visit by the Austrian Emperor Francis II.

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Above: Francis II (1768 – 1835)

The third Duke, Ludovico (1820 – 1886) entertained Austrian Emperor Ferdinand I and his wife Maria Anna of Savoy in 1838.

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Above: Ferdinand I of Austria (1793 – 1875)

Thanks to the diffusion of travel literature, the Villa came to be popular not only among a narrow circle of the Duke´s friends, but among a larger number of people as a result of the article “Le lac de Come”, published in 1838 in the Revue et Gazette Musicale de Paris, wherein we learn that musician Franz Liszt stayed in Bellagio with his lover Marie d´Agoult in the autumn of 1837.

Above: Franz Liszt (1811 – 1886)

The lovers used to go “to the gardens of Villa Melzi to relax beneath the plane trees in the hottest hours of the day” to read Dante´s Divina Commedia before the garden Monument dedicated to Dante and his beloved Beatrice, which inspired Franz to write his subsequent famous Dante Sonatas.

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Above: Dante degli Alighieri (1265 – 1321)

Franz and Marie were not among the guests of the family Melzi, but, like other travellers then and now, they could enjoy the gardens which, even then though private property, were almost always open to visitors.

By 1856, strangers were allowed to visit the Melzi gardens with money collected by the gardener.

Among the guests who visited the Villa before the world was engulfed in the wars of the 20th century were Russian Tsarina Maria Fyodorovna (1847 – 1928), Princess Marie von Radzwill, King Albert of Saxony (1828 – 1902) and his consort Carola of Sweden in May 1885.

We are told of their enthusiastic admiration for the beauty of the place, their pleasant walks among the plane tree path, the wonderful flower arrangements offered by the Duke Lodovico and Duchess Josephine.

In October 1890 the Villa received King Umberto I of Italy and his entourage, who, though only staying one day, were said to deeply admire the place and declared it one of the most “beautiful of the Como basin”.

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Above: Umberto I of Italy (1844 – 1902)

By the start of the first decade of the 20th century, access to the gardens by visitors was regulated by entrance tickets.

In 1923, on the death of Duchess Josephine, Villa Melzi passed on to her daughter from a previous marriage, Luisa (1854 – 1937), who had in 1878 married the Prince of Molfetta, Giancarlo Scotti (1854 – 1927).

Their firstborn son, Tommaso (1878 – 1966), an intellectual, writer and Ambassador to Madrid and London, inherited the Villa from his mother.

Anti-Facist from the beginning, Tommaso had to seek refuge in Switzerland in 1943.

Soon after the Scotti family was officially expelled from Italy and their property was requisitioned by the Italian Social Republic, headed by Mussolini, to house the Aviation Ministry and the diplomatic seats of the countries that had acknowledged the new Fascist state.

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Above: Benito Mussolini (1883 – 1945)

(See Canada Slim and the Apostle of Violence for more about Mussolini.)

At the conclusion of the Second World War, Villa Melzi was restored back into the hands of the Scotti family.

Wandering about the gardens of Tommaso´s grandson, we explored the grounds of the Villa Melzi.

Learning of the property´s history I felt like a pauper who had stumbled into a prince´s gardens.

My wife and I, despite my wife´s profession, can, at best, be described as “middle class”.

My own origins are far humbler than my wife´s and can be quite generously described as “lower class” by Canadian standards.

Yet here we were wandering in gardens that had seen writers and musicians, kings and queens, admiring the same types of flora and the same majestic views of the lake that they had enjoyed.

Here there be stone plaques, grotesque masks and mythological statues.

Within these gardens stands an oddity called the Infamous Column, a memorial stone built in 1364 for the sole purpose of disgracing the memory of the Venetian nobleman Bajamonte Tiepolo who had conspired against the Venetian Republic ruled by Doge Pietro Gradenigo.

The Infamous Column originally stood upon the ruins of the Tiepolo house – destroyed by the Gradenigo government – then it was relocated near the Sant´Agostino Church to make it more visible as a warning to the citizens of Venice to remain loyal to their city.

The Column´s epigraph – now eroded owing to the passage of time – accuses Tiepolo of “wicked treason” to the Republic:

“This land belonged to Bajamonte Tiepolo and it is now public as a consequence of his wicked treason and may be shown forever as a warning to everyone.”

The disgracing monument remained in Venice until 1785.

Here in the garden, one sees the small pink and grey granite statue of Rahotep, a high dignitary during the reign of Pharoah Ramses II, as well as a statue of the Egyptian goddess Pakhet with her lion´s head upon a woman´s body.

Overlooking the lake is the Moorish Pavilion with sculptures dedicated to Ferdinand I and his consort Maria Anna and Duke Lodovico and Duchess Josephine.

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Outside the Pavilion stands the Monument to Dante and Beatrice, showing Beatrice consoling Dante after it was prophised that he would be exiled but her promising him that there is a superior divine justice that will sustain him.

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Visited by Henry Wardsworth Longfellow, the Monument´s inscription was translated into English and reads:

 

“And the lady who to God was leading me said:

“Change thy thought.

Consider that I am near unto Him who every wrong disburdens.”

Unto the loving accents of my comfort I turned me around.”

Here on the grounds of Villa Melzi,  Apollo looks at the sun while Meleagro kills a wild boar.

Sea monsters rise from the water lily fountain and lion-sphinxes guard the Villa staircase.

Wander through the grotto, stroll by the leisure gondola and beyond the stone bridge jetty and view the bronze bell that hangs by the western wall.

Here there be Japanese cedars casting shade upon a Japanese pond and Canadian giant thuja – wood once used to make totems and canoes.

Here there be imposing Florida bald cypress trees, the thick wood of Japanese camillias and maples, holm oaks and mighty California redwoods, Oriental spruce and gingko maidenhair, dwarf palms and Italian cypress, holly olive and cleyera shrubs, cinnamon camphora and Mexican pine, Mediterranean heath and Montezuma pine, azaleas beneath plane trees, red beech and elm trees, bamboo fodder for pandas and black Chinese conifers, Himalyan and Lebanese cedar, the giant dogwood and the North American cedar, cork oak and crape myrtles, cork oak and fragrant olive, Chilean wine palm and Scots pine, weeping beech and strawberry fields, common box and Austrian pine, southern magnolia and Rhododendron, mimosa and tulip.

No, Mary Shelley, the Italians here do know what flowers and a flower garden are.

Lunch time delayed, the wife realises that the husband needs to be fed before maritial strife emerges.

We cast ourselves out of this Garden of Eden, these gardens of Melzi, simply two more anonymous names in a yet-to-be-written Holiday Chronicles.

We must dance and sing while we can.

Winter is coming….

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Canada Slim and the Street Walked Too Often

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 1 November 2017

Within a week, last week, spent in London we crossed Praed Street at least a dozen times, a street “not at any time one of London´s brighter thoroughfares”. (John Rhode, The Murders in Praed Street)

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Above: Praed Street, Paddington district, London

“I´ve walked this street in far too many towns….

Same scraps of paper blown, same windows full of girlie mags, the cheap gold lettering on doors: Suits altered. Come in and browse….

You live this road forever and no love comes by….

I´ve walked this street in lots of towns, always foreign weather at my throat.

Same paper blown, same broken man begging me for money and I overgive.”

(Richard Hugo, “Walking Praed Street“, The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir)

Another American like Hugo, August Derleth had his 1920s successor to Sherlock Holmes, Solar Pons, with offices based at 7B Praed Street.

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Above: August Derleth (1909 – 1971)

Yet another American compared Bramford House in New York City where the principal characters live to “a house in London, on Praed Street, in which five separate murders took place within sixty years”.

(Ira Levin, Rosemary´s Baby)

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Above: Ira Levin (1929 – 2007)

Praed Street appeared in the BBC drama series House of Cards, as an accommodation address set up by main protagonist Francis Urquhart as part of a plot to force the resignation of the sitting Prime Minister.

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In Lawrence Durrell´s The Dark Labyrinth, a character complains he “could not be carried away by fairy tales of the Second Coming written in the Praed Street vein”.

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Above: Lawrence Durrell (1912 – 1990)

Praed Street runs straight in a southwesterly direction from Edgware Road to Eastbourne Terrace in London´s Paddington district.

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Above: London Paddington Station

Besides the mentions in literature, Praed Road is known for only five things: Paddington Station, the Hilton London Metropole Hotel (formerly the Great Western Hotel), the Royal Mail western depot, the Moroccan Consulate (only known by Moroccan expats or travellers to Morocco) and St. Mary´s Hospital.

Above: The Hilton Hotel on Praed Street, London

Praed Street is named after William Praed (1747-1833), chairman of the company which built the Grand Union Canal basin which lies just to the north of Paddington Station.

Crossing Praed Street, my wife and I, much like Richard Hugo, mused and mulled over each day what we could do while we were in London:

“I could sound cultured in the drab East End, or sweet in Soho, or in Barclays Limited (so limited they don´t cash Barclays checks) gracious as I compliment the Tube.

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I´m learning manners.  Thank you very much.

The money stops me.  What is 8 and 6?….

Tonight I´ll hear the jazz in Golders Green.

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Above: Golders Green Clock Tower, London

Tomorrow the Hampstead literary scene.

Above: Poet John Keats´ House, Hampstead, London

Next day, up river to the park at Kew and next day, you.

Above: The Great Pagoda, Kew Gardens, London

Ah, love, to feed the ravens in St. James, and that frightfully stuffy, hopelessly dignified, brazenly British, somewhat mangy lion in the Zoo….”

Above: St. James Park Lake with Buckingham Palace in the background

(Richard Hugo, “Walking Praed Street”, The Lady in Kicking Horse Reservoir)

Where precisely is the East End of London?

I remain unsure.

Time spent in Soho, a district to the southeast of Paddington, was indeed sweet.

Above: A typical Soho backstreet scene

And money did confuse us.

Not only had the pound coins we had from previous visits to Britain lost their validity a fortnight before, but as well every country´s small change uses different coin sizes for varying coin values, so while a half franc/50 rappen coin is Switzerland´s smallest silver coin, in Britain a half pound/50 pence coin is Britain´s biggest silver coin.

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Barclays directed us to the Royal Mail or the Bank of England if we desired to exchange old pound coins for new.

The Union Flag: a red cross over combined red and white saltires, all with white borders, over a dark blue background.

We didn´t bother, but instead gave away the coins at museum donation boxes when we could.

We never got to Golders Green, but we did hear jazz at the Montreux Jazz Café in Zürich Airport.

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Above: The Montreux Jazz Cafe, Zürich Airport

We visited Hampstead and thought about Iain Fleming, Goldfinger and John Keats.

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Kew, we did not do, but St. James we did see, not ravens but Canada geese and many ducks.

Above: Duck Island Cottage, St. James Park, London

There was no time for the Zoo nor the Wetlands, and, alas!, no time to explore the parks or walkways that run through this great metropolis.

As for the Tube, London´s Underground, I feel towards it as I feel towards the City that spawned it – decidedly undecided as to whether to love or loathe it.

London Underground logo, known as the roundel, is made of a red circle with a horizontal blue bar.

Travelling with my wife inevitably leads to a hospital and a graveyard.

She likes to peek at other hospitals outside the ones she works at and into graveyards as She finds them peaceful and artistic havens within a city.

St. Mary´s Hospital, of course, was tempting, for it was here where both heroin and pencillin were discovered.

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Here is a kind of Royal baby factory where Princess Charles and Princess Diana´s sons William (1982) and Harry (1984) were born, followed two decades later by Prince William and Duchess Kate´s children George (2013) and Charlotte (2015).

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Above: The British Royal Coat of Arms

The Hospital has seen other notable births like Olivia Robertson (1917 – 2013), author, co-founder and High Priestess of the Fellowship of Isis; British musician Elvis Costello (1954), and Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland (1966).

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Above: Kiefer Sutherland

And the Hospital has had notable people on staff like Nobel Prize winners Alexander Fleming and Rodney Porter; Augustus Waller, whose research led to the invention of the electrocardiogram (ECG); Wu Lien-teh, the Plague fighter of China; and Neurology Professor Roger Bannister, the first man to run a mile in four minutes.

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Above: Roger Bannister

I like the story of Charles Wright (1844-1894), who while searching for a non-addictive alternative to morphine discovered heroin.

Above: Charles Wright (1844 – 1894)

Heinrich Dreser, a chemist at Bayer Laboratories, would continue to test heroin and Bayer would market it as a sedative for coughs in 1888.

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When heroin´s addictive potential was recognised, Bayer ceased its production in 1913.

Wu Lien-teh (1879 – 1960) spent his undergraduate clinical years at St. Mary´s before returning to Malaysia in 1903.

Above: Wu Lien-teh

Wu was very vocal in the social issues of his time and founded the Anti-Opium Association, which attracted the attention of the powerful forces involved in the lucrative trade in opium.

This led to a search and subsequent discovery of a mere ounce of opium in Dr. Wu´s dispensary, which was considered illegal, even though he was a fully qualified doctor who had purchased this to treat opium patients.

His prosecution and appeal rejection attracted worldwide publicity.

In the winter of 1910, Dr. Wu was given instructions by Peking to travel to Harbin, China, to investigate an unknown disease which killed 99.9% of its victims, the beginning of a large plague across Manchuria and Mongolia which ultimately claimed 60,000 victims.

Dr. Wu would be remembered for his role in asking for imperial sanction to cremate plague victims, as cremation of these infected victims turned out to be the turning point of the epidemic.

The suppression of this plague changed medical progress in China.

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A blue plaque outside St. Mary´s alerts passers-by that Alexander Fleming (1881-1955) discovered penicillin in the second-storey room above the Hospital´s dingy Norfolk Place entrance.

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Above: Alexander Fleming

When Fleming was born, antibiotics did not exist.

Minor infections often proved fatal and a quarter of all hospital patients died of gangrene after surgery.

When Fleming enrolled as a medical student at St. Mary´s in 1900, he dreamed of becoming a surgeon, but he was given a position in the Inoculation Department, where he remained until his death.

The poky laboratory where he worked between 1919 and 1933 is today a Museum.

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Inside, the wooden counter is cluttered with vials and test tubes containing mysterious fluids, tattered leather-bound tomes, a couple of antique microscopes and glass culture dishes.

One day in 1922, Fleming was hunched over his bacteria cultures as usual, despite suffering from a nasty cold.

A drop of snot landed on his petri dish, which led to his discovery of the antiseptic qualities of mucus, saliva and tears.

In September 1928, Fleming made other chance discovery that changed the course of medical history.

When one of his cultures was contaminated with mould from a lab downstairs, Fleming hit on the healing properties of fungus, effectively inventing penicillin.

Fleming´s assistant, Stuart Craddock, ate some of this “mould juice” to prove it was not poisonous.

Craddock claimed that it tasted like Stilton cheese, prompting a flurry of sensational headlines about mouldy cheese being a miracle cure for disease.

“It couldn´t have happened anywhere but this musty, dusty lab, as the mould would not have grown in a more hygienic environment.”

(Kevin Brown, Alexander Fleming Laboratory Museum curator)

This street containing a Hospital with record-breaking runners, plague fighters and medical discoverers ends in the southwest at Eastbourne Terrace.

But should the curious pedestrian wish to continue to follow the now-named Craven Road which is renamed yet again as Craven Hill to Leinster Gardens in the Bayswater district….

When London´s first Tube line was extended westwards, inevitably some houses had to be demolished.

The owners of 23/24 Leinster Gardens sold up, but local residents demanded that the facade of these five-storey terraces be rebuilt to keep up appearances.

At first glance, the fake facades are indistinguishable from their neighbours.

Above: 22 Leinster Gardens (left) and 23 Leinster Gardens (right)

But look closer and you will see that all 18 windows are blacked out with grey paint.

Although there are no letterboxes, the address is predictably common with conmen.

Above: Behind the facade of 23/24 Leinster Gardens

In the 1930s, unsuspecting guests turned up to a charity ball at 23 Leinster Gardens in full evening dress.

They never got their money back.

And in a way the fake houses of Leinster Gardens, the accidental discoveries, the trust of royalty and celebrity, and the unexpected heroes of St. Mary´s all seem to say one thing.

There may be more than meets the eye to a place or to a person.

There is more than scraps of paper or windows full of girlie magazines or lettering on doors.

Wherever you are, who is to know who will fail and not fail?

Who is to know the banging storm within these hearts or the returning winds that stir these souls?

We must not only see.

We must observe.

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Above: Praed Street, London

Sources: Wikipedia / Google / Rachel Howard and Bill Nash, Secret London: An Unusual Guide

Canada Slim and the Life Electric

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 17 October 2017

We live in such modern times that sometimes it is hard to imagine that there were times before that weren´t so modern.

Perhaps in a thousand years, folks will think that the manner of measuring time using the abbreviations BC and AD (before Christ and Anno Dominiin the Year of Our Lord) later modified to signify religious equality or a lack of religion BCE and CE (before the Common Era and Common Era) might later be interpreted to mean Before Computers (BC) and the Age of Digital (AD)!

We measure electric current in amperes and conveniently forget that amperes are named after the French physicist André Marie Ampere (1775-1836).

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Above. André-Marie Ampere

We measure energy in joules, named after English physicist James Prescott Joule (1818-1889).

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Above: James Prescott Joule

Force is measured in newtons, because of English mathematician Isaac Newton (1642-1726).

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Above: Isaac Newton

The Standard Internationale unit for frequency is the hertz, named after German physicist Heinrich Rudolph Hertz (1857-1894).

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Above. Heinrich Rudolph Hertz

Power is measured in watts, thanks to Scottish engineer James Watt (1736-1819).

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Above. James Watt

The unit for resistance is the ohm, because of German physicist Georg Simon Ohm (1789-1854).

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Above: Georg Simon Ohm

We use kelvin, fahrenheit and celcius to measure temperature, named after Scottish physicist William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin (1824-1907), Polish physicist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686-1736) and Swedish astronomer Anders Celcius (1701-1744)

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Above: William Thomson, Baron Kelvin

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Above: Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit

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Above: Anders Celsius

We have Napoléon Bonaparte and revolutionary France to thank for the metric system.

But the Italians of Como would be very cross if you forgot their native son, father of the volt that measures electric force, Alessandro Giuseppe Antonio Anastasio Volta (1745-1827).

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Above: Alessandro Volta

Italy´s smaller contributions to everyday life are so numerous as to go unnoticed.

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Above: The flag of Italy

There would be no pistols but for the city of Pistoia, no savon in France but for the city of Savona; no faience anywhere but for the city of Faenza; no millinery but for the city of Milano; no blue jeans but for the city of Genoa (Gênes in French); no Neapolitan ice cream without Napoli; no Roman candles without Roma; no Venetian blinds without Venezia; no bologna without Bologna; no Parmesan cheese without Parma;

Italian Cristoforo Colombo discovered America for the Americans, albeit after the Original Peoples, the Vikings and Atlantic fishermen.

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Above: Italian Explorer Cristoforo Columbo (in English, Christopher Columbus)(1451 – 1506)

Italians taught poetry, statesmanship and the ruses of trade to the English, military art to the Germans, cuisine to the French, acting and ballet dancing to the Russians, and music to everybody.

The list of famous Italians is awe-inspiring and far too many to list conclusively.

Suffice to say, Italy has produced some of the world´s finest saints and sinners, political thinkers and military leaders, admirals and scientists, navigators and philosophers, poets, painters and musicians.

Italians have always respected and admired great scientists, especially if their discoveries and theories were abstract and incomprehensible.

Nowhere is this mix of respect and admiration combined with the abstract and incomprehensible more evident than it is in Como with their native born son Italian physicist and chemist Alessandro Volta.

 

Como, Italia, 2 August 2017

From the modern hotels and banks of Piazza Cavour, the main square overlooking the Lago di Como, the wife and I walked south along arcaded Via Caio Plinio to Como´s marble-faced Duomo.

Above: Duomo di Como (Como Cathedral)

The Duomo is considered to be Italy´s best example of Gothic-Renaissance fusion.

Fairytale pinnacles, rose windows and clownish gargoyles combine with rounded arch portals.

Inside the Gothic aisles are hung with dark rich tapestries woven with biblical scenes, including a sleepy Madonna, an adoration by the Magi and a leisurely flight to Egypt of Joseph and Mary avoiding Herod´s planned execution of the Christ child.

(See Canada Slim and the Inappropriate Statues of this blog regarding the Duomo.)

Next to it the polychromatic town hall, the Broletto, is an elegant construction with a tricolour facade of gentle pink, white and grey, with a 15th century balcony deliberately designed for municipal orators.

Above: Il Broletto di Como (Como Assembly Hall)

The Broletto is also known as the Palazzo della Ragione – the Palace of Reason.

Behind the Duomo the neoclassical facade of the Teatro Sociale built on the remains of the castle of the Torre Rotunda – the Round Tower – stands out with its Corinthian columns.

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Above: Torre Rotunda, Como

Beyond the railway there is the Piazza del Popolo with the famous Casa del Fascio – the House of Fascism – erected in the 1930s as the headquarters of the local Fascist party and designed by Comoese architect Giuseppe Terrigni – it is universally considered to be a masterpiece of the architectural style known as Rationalism.

Above: Casa del Fascio, Como

In the heart of the old town we encountered the medieval square Piazza San Fedele, (formerly called the Piazza del mercato del grano – Grain Market Square), which owes its name to the basilica situated here named after the saint who brought Christianity to the Como region.

Above: Piazza San Fedele, Como

The basilica´s unusual layout is noteworthy, as it is a circular building with three naves and three apses, looking very much like a three-leaf clover.

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Above: La Basilica di San Fedele, Como

At the end of the old town is the imposing Porta Torre, the ancient entrance to the walled city built in the 12th century along with the surrounding walls that, to this day, protect the historic town centre.

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Above: Porta Torre, Como

Not far from the Porta Torre there is the Piazza Medaglie d´Oro Comasche.

In this square are two distinct buildings: the Palazzo Giovio – home to the Museo Civico e Archeologico Paolo Giovio– and the Palazzo Olginati – home to a museum dedicated to Giuseppe Garibaldi.

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Above: Museo Civico e Archeologico, Como

(Garibaldi is worth a blog post by himself.)

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Above: Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807 – 1882)

Back toward the Lago, almost directly on the water, sits the Tempio Voltiano – a museum dedicated to Alessandro Volta and hosting a collection of scientific instruments used or designed by the famous scientist – from where one can look out onto the Lago itself and see in the middle of the harbour the contemporary sculpture by Daniel Libeskind dedicated to Volta, the Life Electric.

Above: Tempio Voltiano (Volta Temple), Como

 Life Electric, opera di Daniel Libeskind in omaggio allo scienziato comasco Alessandro Volta (2015)

Above: The Life Electric, Como

Walk northeast along the waterfront, past Piazza Matteotti and the train Station, and take the Funicolare Como-Brunate – a cable car built in 1894 – walk through hilltop Brunate with its Chiesa di San Andrea, up to San Maurizio and then climb 143 steps to the top of the lighthouse Faro Volta, built in 1927 to mark the centenary of Volta´s death.

Above: Funicolare Como-Brunate Station, Como

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Above: Faro Volta / Volta Lighthouse

Then you, Como visitor, have had a full day of things Volta.

There are a number of problems with the manner in which Volta is remembered, primarily making the man interesting, making the science for which he is honoured meaningful to today´s generation who take what has evolved since his day for granted,

I climbed up from Brunante with my wife and saw the view from Faro Volta.

We admired the Life Electric sculpture from the boat cruise we took the day before.

But on this day, after much marching about town – we also visited the Museo didattico della Seta (worth a blog post on its own) – my wife needed a break, to simply sunbathe and dip her toes in the waters of Lago di Como.

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Above: Museo didattico della Seta (The Educational Museum of Silk), Como

So she left an exploration of the Tempiano Volta solely to myself.

The Tempio Voltiano is a lakeside neoclassical temple built in 1927.

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Above: Lakeside view of Tempio Voltiano, Como

Inside is an exhibition on the life of Como-born electric-battery inventor Alessandro Volta, after whom the electric unit, the volt, is named.

Above: Alessandro Volta

Some of the instruments he used to conduct his experiments are displayed inside.

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But the lack of friendliness by the sole guard assigned to both sell tickets and secure the place against unwanted activity and the lack of interactive and explanatory descriptions leave the modern visitor numb.

And this is a shame, for it is important for the visitor to understand how dependent modern civilisation is on Volta´s discoveries and inventions, to truly appreciate this man and this temple that once graced the front and back of the 10,000 lire Italian banknote (1984-2001).

Those who honour Volta seem to forget that God did not make all visitors alike – some enjoy and embrace science, while others feel intimidated and bewildered by its seeming complexity and unapproachability.

I would love to see how Bill Nye, the Science Guy, or The Big Bang Theory´s Professor Proton, would bring this museum and the man it honours to reach an audience today that scorns intelligence and has a very limited attention span.

I am not these men.

It would be great if a character like the BBC´s Doctor Who actually existed and we could transport ourselves back in time to see the inventor himself.

But sadly we do not possess 1950s police phone box TARDIS machines.

 

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 17 October 2017

To get an understanding of what Volta did, we need to comprehend what electricity is and what happened before Volta came along.

In 1850, British Prime Minister William Gladstone asked the scientist Michael Faraday why electricity was valuable.

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Above: English scientist Michael Faraday (1791 – 1867), inventor of the first electric generator. The SI unit of capacitance (how much electricity can be created) the Farad is named after him.

Faraday answered: “One day, Sir, you may tax it.”

In the 19th and early 20th century, electricity was not part of the everyday life of most people, even in the industrialised Western world.

The popular culture of the time depicts electricity as a mysterious, quasi-magical force that could slay the living, revive the dead or bend the laws of nature.

Long before any knowledge of electricity existed, people were aware of shocks from electric eels.

Ancient Egyptian texts dating from 2750 BC referred to these fish as the “Thunderer of the Nile” and described them as the protector of all other fish.

Electric fish were again reported millennia later by ancient Greek, Roman and Arabic naturalists and physicians.

Several ancient writers, such as Pliny the Elder and Scribinious Largus, attested to the numbing effects of electric shocks delivered by catfish and electric rays, and knew that such shocks could travel along conducting objects.

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Above: Roman author Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD)

Patients suffering from ailments such as gout or headache were directed to touch electric fish in the hope that the powerful jolt might cure them.

Possibly the earliest and nearest approach to the discovery of the identity of lightning and electricity, is to be attributed to the Arabs.

Ancient cultures around the Mediterranean knew that certain objects, such as rods of amber, could be rubbed with cat´s fur to attract light objects like feathers.

Thales of Miletus made a series of observations on static electricity around 600 BC, from which he believed that friction rendered amber magnetic, in contrast to minerals such as magnetite, which needed no rubbing.

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Above: Greek philosopher Thales of Miletus (624 – 576 BC)

Thales was incorrect in believing that the attraction was due to a magnetic effect, but later science would prove a link between magnetism and electricity.

(The Parthians may have had knowledge of electroplating, based on the 1936 discovery of the Baghdad Battery, which resembles a galvanic cell, though it is uncertain whether the artifact was electrical in nature.)

Above: “The Baghdad Battery”, found in Khuyat Rabu, Iraq, near the ancient site of Ctesiphon, capital of the Parthian empire (150 BC – 223 AD)

Above: An example of a galvic cell, named after Luigi Galvani by Alessandro Volta; also called a voltaic cell.

Electricity would remain little more than an intellectual curiosity for millennia until 1600, when the English scientist William Gilbert made a careful study of electricity and magnetism, distinguishing the lodestone effect from static electricity produced by rubbing amber.

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Above: English scientist William Gilbert (1544 – 1603), the “Father of Electricity”

He coined the new Latin word electricus (“of amber”, from the Greek word elektron) to refer to the property of attracting small objects after being rubbed.

This association gave rise to the English words “electric” and “electricity”, which made their first appearance in print in Thomas Browne´s Pseudodoxia Epidemica (1646).

Further work on electricity was conducted by German scientist Otto von Guericke (1602-1686), Irish chemist Robert Boyle (1627-1691), English scientist Stephen Gray (1666-1736) and French chemist Charles Francois du Fay (1698-1739).

In the 18th century, American polymath Benjamin Franklin conducted extensive research in electricity, selling his possessions to fund his work.

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Above: Benjamin Franklin (1706 – 1790)

In June 1752, he is reported to have attached a metal key to the bottom of a dampened kite string and flown the kite in a stormy sky.

A succession of sparks jumping from the key to the back of his hand showed that lightning was indeed electrical in nature.

Franklin also explained the apparently paradoxical behaviour of the Leyden jar as a device for storing large amounts of electrical charge in terms of electricity consisting of both positive and negative charges.

Above: Typical construction of a Leyden jar

In 1791, Italian physicist Luigi Galvani published his discovery of bioelectromagnetics demonstrating that electricity was the medium by which neurons passed signals to the muscles.

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Above: Luigi Galvani (1737 – 1798)

(Could electricity be the key to increasing our longevity?

Is the movie Crank 2 completely far-fetched to suggest that a man could extend his life by juicing himself up with electricity?

Could it be possible to extract human bioelectricity and thermal energy to power machines as suggested in the dystopian film The Matrix?)

Alessandro Volta´s battery, or voltaic pile, of 1800, made from alternating layers of zinc and copper, provided scientists with a more reliable source of electrical energy than the electrostatic machines previously used.

Above: A voltaic pile on display in the Tempio Voltiano

Following Volta, mankind would begin to recognise the concept of electromagnetism as the unity of electric and magnetic phenomena.

This would be followed by the invention of the electric motor (1821), the mathematical analysis of the electric circuit (1827), and the linking of electricity, magnetism and light (1862).

While the early 19th century had seen rapid progress in electrical science, the late 19th century would see the greatest progress in electrical engineering.

Electricity turned from a scientific curiosity into an essential tool for modern life, becoming a driving force of the Second Industrial Revolution.

Later mankind would learn that electrodes illuminated with ultraviolet light cause electric sparks more easily, and that the photelectric effect is the result of light energy being carried in energising electrons.

German physicist Albert Einstein´s 1905 discovery of the latter would lead to the Quantum Revolution.

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Above: Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955)

This photoelectric effect is now employed in photocells that can be found in solar panels and is frequently used to make electricity commercially.

This understanding of electrons would lead to the detection of radio waves and mankind´s present ability to switch and amplify these waves.

Current flow which we now understand as negatively charged electrons and positively charged electron deficiencies (charges and holes) have led to the development of Quantum Physics and the development of crystalline semiconductors.

Wires connected to crystals would lead to the invention of the transistor (1947), and later the vacuum tube, semiconductor diodes, integrated circuits, light-emitting diodes (LEDs), microprocessor chips and the concept of RAM (random access memory).

Mankind has learned how to generate, store and transmit electricity, but it wasn´t until Volta´s battery that a viable source of electricity became available – the ability to store energy chemically and make it available upon demand in the form of electrical energy.

Above: A voltaic pile

Through Volta´s inspiration and invention, mankind had learned to generate electricity from fossil fuel combustion, nuclear reaction, wind or flowing water.

Electricity´s ability to transfer energy has led to the light bulb, electric heating, electric refrigeration, and the telegraph.

Though optical fibres and satellite communication make our modern communication systems possible, electricity remains an essential part of the process.

I look at my own life and realise how utterly dependent I am upon electricity.

Without electricity, I could not operate this computer or use the printer that sits beside it.

Without electricity, my food supply would not be cool in the fridge or cold in the freezer, nor could I prepare this food in the microwave, the oven or on the stove.

My coffee would not be hot without our electric kettle.

My room would not be warm without the electrical heating nor would I be able to navigate through my apartment without electric lighting.

My cellphone would soon cease to function and there would be no electricity to power my television set nor could I listen to music on my stereo.

Without the basic knowledge of how to generate, store and retrieve electricity when needed, our planet would be very different than it is today.

Electricity has become such a necessity of modern life that we pay attention to it only when it stops flowing for us, an event that usually signals disaster.

The people who keep it flowing are still often cast as heroic, wizard-like figures.

So, let´s look at Alessandro Volta.

Alessandro Volta was born in Como on 18 February 1745, to Filippo and Maddalena Volta.

The Volta family had risen to nobility and wealth from commercial origins and intermarriage, but by the time Alessandro was born the Volta family had lost much of its wealth and Alessandro was raised in a humble one-storey building on Contrada Porta Nuova (today called Via Volta).

“Till his 4th year of age, Alessandro had not enough strength to articulate words.

In his 7th year, he started to show clear signs of propensity to study, and he was born to make good use of it.”  (Maurizio Monti)

After the death of Filippo in 1752, the young Alessandro, as well as his mother and his younger sisters Marianna, Cecilia and Chiara, lived with his uncle, Canon Alessandro Volta, while his older brothers were taken care of by his other uncle, Archdeacon Antonio Volta.

“Alessandro started at the age of 12 to be extremely curious about the secrets of nature, and I still keep an extraordinary text on this subject written by him at this time.

He almost drowned in a water spring at Monteverde to inspect a mineral vein that, according to local peasants, released small gold straws, but in fact turned out to be plain yellow mica.” (Giulio Cesare Gattoni)

By age 14, Alessandro made up his mind to become a physicist.

In his 17th year of age, Volta began to analyse throughly works on natural and artificial electricity, on his own, without any instruments whatsoever.

In his 18th year, he had already entered into correspondence with renowned physicists.

In 1769, Volta officially made his scientifc debut with his dissertation, De vi attractiva ignis electrici, ac phaenomenis inde pendentibus.

In 1774, Volta became a professor of physics at the Royal School in Como.

By October, he is appointed head of the public schools in Como, so he takes advantage of his post to insist that Como should have its own physics laboratory.

The following year, Volta obtained the Chair of Experimental Physics at the Royal Grammar School of Como, and began to improve and popularise the electrophorus, a device that produced static electricity.

His promotion of the electrophorus was so extensive that he is often credited with its invention, even though a machine operating on the same principle was described in 1762 by the Swedish experimenter Johan Wilcke (1732 – 1796).

Above: An electrophorus, a manual machine used to generate static electricity

In 1776, Volta made considerable efforts to establish a central public library in Como.

It would take 20 years to pass before the founding of Como´s Municipal Library.

This same year, Volta studied the chemistry of gases, researching and discovering methane after reading a paper by Benjamin Franklin on “flammable air”.

In November, he found methane at Lago Maggiore.

In September 1777, Volta set out on a long study tour that, via the Gotthard Pass, led him to visit Bern, Basel and Zürich.

On 16 September 1777, Volta showed his experiments with the pistol to the members of the Zürich Physics Society.

After a sojourn in Strasbourg and Alsace, Volta returned to Como via Geneva and the Savoy.

Volta carried out barometrical and geological surveys at high altitude.

Among the personalities Volta met during this journey, he met the BernouillisDaniel (1700-1782), Johann II (1710-1790), Jean (1744-1807) of the family of physicists and mathematicians – in Basel, and Swiss physicist Horace Bénédict De Saussure (1740-1799) in Geneva, but above all, his visit to the elderly Voltaire in Fernet should be mentioned.

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Above: French philosopher Francois Marie Arouet, aka Voltaire (1694-1778)

From Aiguebelle in the Savoy, Volta brought home potatoes and made great contributions to the diffusion of this North American vegetable to Lombardy and Italy.

By 1778, Volta managed to isolate methane and devised experiments such as the ignition of methane by an electric spark in a closed vessel.

By virtue of a bill promoting outstanding professors, Volta was invited to take on the Chair of Experimental Physics at the University of Pavia.

“He banned the old methods of teaching physics and chose a textbook that was one of the most authoritative advocates of experimental science.

His lectures were attended by an extremely large number of students.

He was admired because of his great fame, because his discourse was clear, lucid and often lively, his accent agreeable, and because his manner was self-effacing but at the same time imposing.” (Maurizio Monti)

Volta also studied what we call “electrical capacitance”, developing separate means to study both electrical potential and electrical charge and discovered for any given object, they are proportional.

This is called Volta´s Law of Capacitance, and it was for this work that the unit of electric potential has been named the volt.

Volta would remain the Chair of Experimental Physics for almost 40 years.

Luigi Galvani, another Italian physicist, had discovered something he named “animal electricity”, when two different metals were connected in series with a frog´s leg and to one another.

Volta realised that the frog´s leg served as both a conductor of electricity (what we would now call an “electrolyte”) and as a detector of electricity.

He replaced the frog´s leg with brine-soaked paper and detected the flow of electricity by other means familar to him from his previous studies.

In this way Volta discovered the electrochemical series, and the law that the electromotive force (emf) of a galvanic cell, consisting of a pair of metal electrodes separated by electrolyte, is the difference between their two electrode potentials.

This is called Volta´s Law of the Electrochemical Series.

In 1781, Austrian Governor Count Firmian – Austria ruled Como at this time. – decided that Volta´s request of a long journey through Europe “in order to get to know renowned men and useful factories” deserved to be accepted.

Volta´s journey lasted from September 1781 until October 1782.

Starting from Torino, Volta headed to Lyons and Geneva, spent a week in Strasbourg, crossed the Rhine to the palaces of Radstadt and Karlsruhe, lingered in Mannheim, Mainz, Frankfurt and Düsseldorf.

In 1782, in Paris, Volta showed French chemist Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794) his experiences with the eudiometer, from which the scientist drew a conclusive proof of the composition of water.

Above: An eudiometer, a laboratory device that measures the change in the volume of a gas mixture following a physical or chemical change

He then went to the Netherlands, Flanders and finally England, where he stayed for a few weeks.

In June, Volta visited Birmingham and Oxford, accompanied by Joao Magellan, a Portuguese scientist and a direct descendant of the famous explorer.

His return trip took him across France and finally back home via Genoa.

In July 1784, travelling through Tyrol, Volta reached Wien (Vienna), where, on the 27th, he was received by Emperor Joseph II.

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Above: Joseph II (1741-1790), Holy Roman Emperor (1764-1790)

Volta´s journey then continued towards Bohemia and Germany and ended in November.

In 1785, at the beginning of the new academic year, the students of Pavia University, elected Volta as Chancellor of the University.

In 1794, Volta married an aristocratic Comoese lady, Teresa Peregrini (1794-1841), with whom he will raise three sons: Zanino, Flaminio and Luigi.

In 1800, as the result of a professional disagreement over the galvanic response advocated by Luigi Galvani, Volta invented the voltaic pile, an early electric battery, which produced a steady electric current.

Volta determined that the most effective pair of dissimilar metals to produce electricity was zinc and copper.

In announcing his discovery of the voltaic pile, Volta paid tribute to the influences of English chemist William Nicholson (1753-1815), Italian physicist Tiberius Cavallo (1749-1809) and English physicist Abraham Bennet (1749-1799).

The battery made by Volta is credited as one of the first electrochemical cells.

It consists of two electrodes: one of zinc, the other of copper.

The electrolyte is either sulfuric acid mixed with water, or saltwater brine, existing in the form of hydrogen and sulfate.

The zinc, which is higher in the electrochemical series than both copper and hydrogen, reacts with the negatively charged sulfate.

The positively charged hydrogen ions (protons) capture electrons from the copper, forming bubbles of hydrogen gas.

This makes the zinc rod the negative electrode and the copper rod the positive electrode.

Thus, there are two terminals, and an electric current will flow if they are connected.

The copper does not react, but rather functions as an electrode for the electrc current.

However, this cell also has some disadvantages:

It is unsafe to handle, since sulfuric acid, even if diluted, can be hazardous.

Also, the power of the cell diminishes over time, because the hydrogen gas is not released.

Instead, it accumulates on the surface of the copper electrode and forms a barrier between the metal and the electrolyte solution.

In March 1800, Volta reported his results in a long letter to Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society in Britain.

The letter was entitled “On the electricity excited by the mere contact of conducting substances of different kinds”.

Without a buzzer or a semiconductor to detect voltage, Volta used his body as a detector and did not seem to mind getting electric shocks!

In 1801, during the autumn, Volta left for Paris, on behalf of the University of Paris.

Volta paid his respects to Napoléon – Como is now governed by the French. – and triumphally displays his battery to the Institute of France.

Above: Volta explains the principle of “the electric column” to Napoléon, 1801

Volta enjoyed a certain amount of closeness with Napoléon throughout his life and would be conferred numerous honours by him.

Portrait of Napoleon in his forties, in high-ranking white and dark blue military dress uniform. In the original image He stands amid rich 18th-century furniture laden with papers, and gazes at the viewer. His hair is Brutus style, cropped close but with a short fringe in front, and his right hand is tucked in his waistcoat.

Above: Napoléon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821)

By 1804, Volta has repeatedly asked to be relieved from his University commitments.

Despite his professional success, Volta tended to be a person inclined towards domestic life and he preferred to live secluded from public life for the sake of his family.

But, in 1806, Napoléon, during his visit to Pavia in May, pleaded with Volta to remain in his position.

Volta then accepted the nomination as Professor Emeritus.

Persistent requests led Volta to resume, at least in part, his physics lectures.

From 1806 to 1809, Volta organised 40 experimental lessons, carried out over two months.

After the defeat of Napoléon and the return of the Austrians, Volta is appointed the Dean of the School of Philosophy, a position he holds until 1819.

Towards the end of his life, Volta pioneered the remotely operated pistol, whereby an electric current travelled 50 km / 30 miles from Como to Milano and fired a pistol.

This was the forerunner of the telegraph, which uses electricity to communicate.

In 1814, the death of Volta´s son Flamino strengthen Alessandro´s resolve to give up his academic commitments.

Volta retired in 1819 to his estate in Camnago, now named Camnago Volta, in his honour.

Volta died there on 5 March 1827, just after his 82nd birthday.

Volta´s remains rest in Camnago Volta.

In 1927, Francesco Somaini, a local Como cotton industrialist and Member of Parliament, promoted the idea of establishing the idea of establishing a musuem dedicated to Volta, the Tempio Voltiano, and financed its construction on the occasion of the first centenary of the scientist´s death.

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Above: The Tempio Voltiano, Como

The opening ceremony of the Tempio Voltiano was held on 15 July 1928.

In the main hall of the Tempio, the visitor encounters relics and scientific instruments for experiments with inflammable gases and thermal phenomena, devices to sudy electrical phenomena, an exhibit on Volta´s dispute with Luigi Galvani regarding electricity and animals, a display of Volta´s famous battery and a collection of other scientific instruments either used by or invented by Volta.

The mezzanine tells the story of Alessandro Volta as a man and as a scientist and the times in which he lived in.

In addition, the scenic lighthouse, the Faro Volta, dedicated in his honour by the city´s telegraph and telephone workers, was inaugurated on 8 September on the top of Mount San Maurizio which dominates Como.

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Above: Faro Volta, Como

The contemporary steel sculpture, the Life Electric, in Como´s harbour, also dedicated to Volta, was completed in 2015 by the artist Daniel Libeskind.

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Above: The Life Electric, Como

The sculpture is 13.75 metres tall and weighs 11,000 kilograms.

The Life Electric takes inspiration from the electric tension existing between the two poles of a battery.

Above: The design of The Life Electric

The Life Electric is meant to act as a third pole, located mid-distance from the Faro Volta and the Tempio Voltiano, and is meant to show the connections among the natural elements of light, wind and water, the geometry that connects the sky, the lake and the mountains.

And this interplay between light, wind and water….

This interplay between the remote past, the touristic present and the unimaginable future….

This harmony of sky, lake and mountains makes Como feel electric.

Multiple lightning strikes on a city at night

Sources: Wikipedia / Google / Rough Guide Italy / Lonely Planet Italy / David Clarke, Technical English at Work / Georgina Palffy (editor), The Science Book / Robert Winston (editor), Science Year by Year: The Ultimate Visual Guide to the Discoveries that Changed the World / Alberto Longatti (editor), The Volta Temple in Como: A Guide

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Hofstrasse 116, Hofburg, Zürich-Hottingen 1936

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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Canada Slim and the Great Expedition

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 25 May 2017

We live in an age where we take for granted many things and we only seem to question things when they don’t happen as we think they should.

We live in an age where we casually accept what is, without questioning how it came to be.

The older I get, the more I am convinced that there is no such thing as coincidence.

We may not understand why things happen, but I believe that things happen (or don’t happen) for a reason, even if we don’t know what that reason is.

“God only knows.

God makes His plans.

The information is unavailable to the mortal man.

We work at our jobs.

Collect our pay.

Believe we’re gliding down the highway, when in fact we’re slip-sliding away.”

(Paul Simon, “Slip-Sliding Away”)

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I recently discovered a book called Literaturführer Thurgau, which has me looking anew at the region where I live, through the eyes of writers who have experienced this region.

(See Dreams of Dragonflies of this blog for the start of my walking adventures tracing the literary figures of Canton Thurgau.)

Reading this book and as well about recent events have led me to consider the topic of flying.

I am very much like the John McClane character, portrayed by Bruce Willis, in the Die Hard movie series….

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I hate flying.

Or, put another way, I am the composite antithesis of the Ryan Bingham character, portrayed by George Clooney, in the film Up In the Air, whereas Bingham lives to fly, I will fly only when I truly feel I have no other choice.

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I am an English teacher who has found himself, much to my own surprise, teaching aircraft technicians and engineers, pilots and cabin crew, the necessary English they need to do their jobs more professionally.

So, ignorance is bliss…

For knowing what keeps a plane functioning, what allows it to fly, land and take off safely, and what passengers know and don’t know about the flight happening around them…

This knowledge does not comfort me.

I know what can go wrong.

I like to travel and to do so I have flown across continents and oceans.

I have been buffeted by winds that have caused my pants to get stained by coffee.

I have been bumped up to first class and have been bumped off flights that had been overbooked.

I have missed flights due to changes in either the airline schedule or my inability to meet the airline schedule.

All part of the experience…

Overbooking, also known as overselling, is the sale of a good or service in excess of the actual supply,  or ability to supply, that good or service.

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It is a common practice in the travel industry, because it is expected that some people will cancel or miss their flights.

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By overselling, the supplier is ensured that 100% of the available supply will be used, resulting in the maximum return on the supplier’s investment.

But if most customers do wish to purchase or use the good or service, this practice of overselling leaves some customers lacking the good or service they paid for and expected to receive.

Overselling is regulated, but rarely prohibited.

Companies that practice overbooking are usually required to offer large amounts of compensation to customers as an incentive for them to not claim their purchase.

An alternative to overbooking is discouraging customers from buying services they don’t actually intend to use by making reservations non-refundable or requiring them to pay a termination fee.

An airline can book more customers onto a flight than can actually be accommodated by the aircraft, allowing the airline to have a full aircraft on most flights, even if some customers are denied their flight.

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Airlines may ask for volunteers to give away their seats or refuse boarding to certain passengers in exchange for a compensation that may include an additional free ticket or an upgrade on a later flight.

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Airlines can do this and still make more money than if they booked only to the plane’s capacity and had taken off with empty seats.

Some airlines do not overbook as a policy that provides incentive and avoids customer disappointment.

By making their tickets non-refundable, these airlines lower the chances of passengers missing their flights.

A few airline frequent flier programs allow a customer the privilege of flying an already overbooked flight, requiring other customers being asked to deplane.

Often it is only Economy Class that is overbooked, while higher classes are not, allowing the airlines to upgrade some passengers to otherwise unused seats while providing assurance to higher paying customers.

Chicago O’Hare Airport, 9 April 2017

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Early April 2017 saw severe weather on the east coast of the United States, causing many flight cancellations.

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Due to the large number of stranded passengers trying to board flights, many flights were far too overbooked.

On this date of 9 April 2017, United Airlines Express Flight 3411 was scheduled to leave O’Hare at 5:19 pm/1719 hours.

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After passengers were seated in the aircraft, bound for Louisville, Kentucky, but while the plane was still at the gate, the flight crew announced that they needed to remove four passengers to accommodate four staff members who had to cover an unstaffed flight at another location.

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Passengers were initially offered $400 US in vouchers for future travel, a hotel stay and a seat on a plane leaving more than 21 hours later, if they voluntarily deplaned.

No volunteers.

The offer was increased to $800 in vouchers.

Still no volunteers.

A manager boarded and informed the flight that four people would be chosen by computer (based on specific factors such as priority to remain aboard for frequent fliers and those who had paid higher fares).

Three of the computer-selected customers agreed to deplane.

The 4th selected passenger, Asian American 69-year-old Dr. David Dao of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, refused, saying he needed to see patients the next day at his clinic.

 Dr David Dao has been revealed as the man who was dragged from a United flight in Chicago on Sunday. He is pictured with his wife, Teresa, and one of their grandchildren. It was his wife who alerted authorities to his inappropriate relationship with a patient

Above: Dr. David Dao (on the left) with his family

United Airlines decided it required assistance from Chicago Department of Aviation Security officers.

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A security officer threw the Doctor against the armrest of his seat, causing injuries to the physician’s head and mouth (a broken nose, the loss of two front teeth, sinus injuries and a concussion), before dragging Dao down the aisle by his arms unconscious.

Other passengers on the flight recorded the incident on video using their Smartphone cameras and the incident was quickly and widely circulated on social media and was picked up by the mainstream media agencies.

The violent methods used by the security personnel distressed a number of passengers who voluntarily left the aircraft along with the three passengers who had been selected for deplaning.

Four United Airlines staff promptly sat in the now vacated seats.

The flight departed at 1921 hours – two hours and two minutes behind schedule – and arrived at Louisville at 2101 hours – two hours behind schedule.

Back in Chicago, Dao was taken to hospital and would require reconstructive surgery.

No one has been fired as a result of this incident, which could have been avoided had United simply had the computer choose another passenger when Dao had refused to leave.

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 25 May 2017

Imagine how differently things might have been had the effects of overbooking and a methodology had been practiced to deal with dissatisfied customers by United.

In fairness, running an airline is not an easy task.

So far we have considered ourselves only with the issue of assigning and seating the passengers, but now let’s think about the men and women who actually pilot these aircraft.

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What must they plan for?

Part of a pilot’s job is straightforward and traditional: inspecting the aircraft about to be piloted.

The pilot looks at the external surfaces of the aircraft for signs of damage, then he/she checks the nose undercarriage for excessive wear and the tires for any cuts.

The leading edges of the wings are inspected for damage, the fastenings on the engine cowling are checked and the visible fan blades on the engine are examined.

Moving along the fuselage to the tail, the pilot does the same visual checks over all surfaces before ensuring that all cargo doors and access hatches are securely fastened.

All pretty standard operating procedure….

But not only must the pilot be concerned as to whether the craft can fly, but as well thought must be brought to bear on the actual flight itself.

In the very early days of powered flight, pilots were contented with simply getting airborne and flying short distances.

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Navigational aids did not exist and the basic technique followed was pilotage – flights were at low altitudes and the pilot simply looked out the window and navigated with reference to known landmarks.

In some cases, it was just a question of the pilot following a road, river or railway to the desired destination.

Planes nowadays fly further, so they need a method to find their way safely and efficiently to their final flight arrival.

As well an airplace can only carry a limited amount of fuel.

Failure to reach a destination before the fuel runs out might have fatal consequences.

In modern times all flights operate under VFR (visual flight rules) or IFR (instrument flight rules).

A VFR pilot is qualified and authorised to fly only in good weather conditions and is responsible for maintaining separation from other aircraft and obstructions based on what can be seen.

An IFR pilot is permitted to fly in all weather conditions, including when visibility may be low, relying on flight instruments and navigational aids to follow a safe course.

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While an IFR pilot may still use VFR pilotage techniques, it is advisable for all pilots that their flights be planned careful before taking off, using detailed navigational charts.

Pilots plan their routes, taking into consideration natural obstacles and airspace which may be restricted, which they then mark on their charts.

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Planning a flight is dependent upon a number of factors: topographical, geographical and meteorological.

An area needs to have been mapped out, navigational beacons established, geographical features noted and the weather conditions monitored.

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But in the pioneering days of public air transportation, there were few maps, few beacons, few airports and few refuelling locations.

Before satellites, there was only one way to ascertain what route lay ahead, someone had to go there first.

As well, as any reader of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War can tell you, one cannot defeat a potential enemy if one is unprepared for the terrain upon which one might be forced to battle.

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So geographical knowledge is not only an exercise in exploration, it is crucial for the planning of strategy, both politically and militarily.

Konstanz, Germany, 4 January 1927

It was a time of great change.

Germany was still the Weimar Republic and to reduce the state’s cost of funding two airlines, Deutsch Aero Lloyd and Junkers Luftverkehr, a merger of the two under the composite name of Deutsche Luft Hansa (German Air Hanseatic) was born on 6 January 1926.

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British and Belgian troops had left German soil and many of the restrictions imposed by the Treaty of Versailles, that marked Germany’s World War One defeat, had been lifted, enabling Deutsche Luft Hansa to expand its routes beyond the borders of Germany worldwide.

Luft Hansa planned an airline connection between Berlin and Beijing and needed to know the meteorological conditions of the land over which it planned to fly – Mongolia, the Gobi Desert and the Chinese province of Xinjian (then known as East Turkestan) – as well as possible locations for landing, weather monitoring and refuelling.

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The top man for such an expedition, the only man capable of leading such an expedition, was someone who had experience in such matters.

Swedish geographer, topographer, explorer, photographer, travel writer and illustrator Sven Anders Hedin (1865 – 1952) was the man chosen to lead this Sino-Swedish Expedition of 1927 – 1928.

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Already Hedin had made four expeditions to Central Asia, explored the Himalayas, located the sources of the rivers Brahmaputra, Indus and Sutlej, mapped the “wandering lake” Lop Nur and discovered the remains of cities, grave sites and the Great Wall of China in the deserts of the Tarim Basin.

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Hedin had visited Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Kyrgyzstan, India, China, Russia and Japan, in an age where air travel was not common, trains were not everywhere and where the automobile had yet to be developed to a point of affordable utility.

Hedin would enter uncharted territory and literally put these places on the map, filling the “white spaces” up with his discoveries.

On the Sino-Swedish Expedition, Hedin, age 62, would be accompanied by a multinational team of 29 men, among them a humble bookkeeper who would serve as the Expedition’s logistics manager.

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This bookkeeper, the son of a Konstanz pharmacist, would later write about his adventures in Mongolia (and his explorations of the Lake of Constance upon his return home), which would be published by a small Lengwil publisher.

Fritz Mühlenweg (1898 – 1961), educated as a chemist in Bielefeld and taking over his family’s business when his father died, left Konstanz for Berlin and began to work for Deutsche Luft Hansa.

On this day of 4 January 1927, Mühlenweg said his final farewells to his family in Konstanz and boarded a train bound for Berlin where the Expedition would begin, not knowing when or if he would ever return.

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Landschlacht, Switzerland, 25 May 2017

Through Mühlenweg’s youthful eyes – he was 29 at the start of the Expedition –  and masterful writing, not only is the reader exposed firsthand to countries that, even today, few Westerners visit, but as well the reader is given the common man’s perspective of travelling with a legendary explorer.

 Fritz Muehlenweg, Drei Mal Mongolei

 

 

 

I have been inspired by the writing of Fritz Mühlenweg, for he sought not just to see the places he visited but to understand what he saw, to see the romance in the commonplace, the exotic in the familiar and the familiar in the exotic.

Like Mühlenweg, I intend to expose my readers to both the exotic and familiar in the hopes that they too will see the wonder of the world as I do.

Men like Mühlenweg and Hedin have been mostly forgotten and our ability to traverse oceans and continents taken for granted.

Journeys that once took months now take only hours.

Journeys that once demanded much time and money are now expected to be quick and affordable.

We now move through and over landscapes that once meant something, that have now been reduced to simply spaces of transit, where everything is temporary and everyone is just passing through.

The wonder of the distinctiveness of a place has been replaced with a disdain for the local and an indifference to the uniqueness of every locality.

Human progress is now measured out in air miles, while communities find their common ground in cyberspace rather than terra firma.

We live in an age where we wish the world to be fully codified and collated, a world where ambiguity and ambivalence have been so sponged away that we know exactly and objectively where everything is and what it is called.

We want to arrive, instead of travel.

The case of Dr. Dao and United Airlines is a malaise particular to our modern age.

We conveniently forget that for every gain there is a loss.

Completeness removes the possibility of exploration, escape and hope.

We need the unnamed and the unexplored.

We need to examine our discarded sense of place and explore places both distant and at our doorstep.

For romance needs place and in a world “fully” discovered exploration must never stop.

The idea of exploration now needs to be reinvented.

We must not only see a place but as well observe it for its uniqueness and romance.

Let’s go on a journey – to the ends of the Earth and the other side of the street, as far or as close as we need to go to get away from the familiar and the routine prisons we have built for ourselves.

Whether they be good or bad, scary or wonderful, we need unruly and unexplored places that defy our expectations and make us question our preconceptions.

Love of place can never and should never be extinguished or sated.

Utopia (from the Greek for “no place”) is a happy land.

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Sometimes the most fascinating places are often also the most disturbing, entrapping and appalling and often temporary.

In ten years’ time, most places will look very different.

Some will no longer exist, because nature is often horrible and life is transitory.

Love of place is not finding a place that is cute and cuddly, but rather love of place is a fierce love, a dark enchantment, that runs deep and demands our attention.

As Herman Melville wrote, in Moby Dick, when the first mate of the Pequod was describing his home:

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“It is not down in any map. 

True places never are.”

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Sources:

Alastair Bonnett, Off the Map: Lost Spaces, Invisible Cities, Forgotten Islands, Feral Places and What They Tell Us About the World

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Scandal in Bohemia

Albert M. Debrunner, Literaturführer Thurgau

Herman Melville, Moby Dick

Fritz Mühlenweg, Drei Mal Mongolei

Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

Slave to the Machine / One Flew Over the Internet

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 12 March 2017

I like Facebook.

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There I said it.

I like the variety of news items that appear, the exchange of ideas, the casual contact with friends and family close or far away, and I find Facebook gives me a forum to share my thoughts.

But a few days ago I began to notice a problem and I wrote about it in Facebook:

“Oh, Father Facebook, forgive me for I have sinned.

It has only been mere moments since I was online posting things that caught my eye and looking up from my phone screen I was embarrassed to realise that a morning went by without my noticing it.

I have become like those I once mocked and ridiculed for their electronic addiction.

I find myself spending too much time reading about life, instead of living life.

A to-do list goes undone.

Walking weather goes unused, literature unread, music unappreciated.

On Monday evening, Switzerland experienced a 4.5 on the Richter scale earthquake and I cannot honestly say whether it was felt here by the Lake of Constance and I was distracted by electronics, or whether there were no tremors this far north of its epicentre.

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And this is just….sad.

So, Father Facebook, we need to re-evaluate our relationship.

I value what I have read and am always intrigued by the new items that keep appearing.

But you are creating bad habits in me by capturing my curiosity.

You show me life while I am neglecting my own.

So, Father Facebook, we need to spend less time with one another.

So, one hour a day, six days a week is my new belated New Year’s resolution.

There is life out beyond the flat screen.

I will report in on what I find.

In the name of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and the Ghost in the Machine.

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Above: Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011)

Amen

Problematic Internet use, also called compulsive Internet use (CIU), Internet overuse, problematic computer use, pathological computer use, problematic Internet use (PIU) or Internet addiction disorder (IAD), all refer to excessive Internet use that interferes with daily life.

Above: The Internet Messenger, Buky Schwartz, Holon, Israel

IAD began as a joke.

Dr. Ivan Goldberg found the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to be overly complex and rigid, so as a combination hoax and parody he invented IAD, describing its symptoms: “important social or occupational activities that are given up or reduced because of Internet use”, “fantasies or dreams about the Internet” and “voluntary or involuntary typing movements of the fingers”.

Goldberg felt that to receive medical attention or support for every single human behaviour by giving each one a psychiatric name was ridiculous.

He felt that if every overdose behaviour can be labelled an addiction then this could lead us to have support groups for individuals that consistently cough or are addicted to books.

Goldberg took pathological gambling, as diagnosed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, as his model for the description of IAD.

To Goldberg’s surprise, IAD receives coverage in the press.

The possible future classification of IAD as a psychological disorder continues to be debated and researched in the psychiatric community.

Online habits, such as reading, playing computer games, or watching very large numbers of Internet videos, are troubling only to the extent that these activities interfere with normal life.

IAD is often divided into subtypes by activity, such as gaming, online social networking, blogging, emailing, Internet pornography, or Internet shopping.

Internet addiction is a subset of the broader category of technology addiction.

Mankind’s widespread obsession with technology goes back to radio in the 1930s and television in the 1960s, but this obsession has exploded in importance during the digital age.

Above: Bakelite radio, Bakelite Museum, Orchard Hill, England

A study published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking has suggested that the prevalence of Internet addiction varies considerably among countries and is inversely related to quality of life.

(Cecilia Chang and Li Angel Yee-Lam, “Internet Addiction Prevalence and Quality of Real Life: A Meta-Analysis of 31 Nations Across Seven World Regions”, Cyberpsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking, Issue 17, December 2014)

A conceptual model of IAD has been developed based on primary data collected from addiction researchers, psychologists and health care providers as well as older adolescents themselves.

(Moreno/Jelenchik/Christakis, “Problematic internet use among older adolescents: A conceptual framework”, Computers and Human Behaviour, Issue 29, 2013)

(Kim/Byrne, “Conceptualizing personal web usage in work contexts: A preliminary framework”, Computers and Human Behaviour, Issue 27, June 2011)

These studies have identified seven concepts that make up IAD: psychological risk factors, physical impairment, emotional impairment, social and functional impairment, risky Internet use, impulsive Internet use, and Internet use dependence.

It is not just the amount of time spent on the Internet that puts people at risk, but how the time is spent is also important.

There is a problem if you are unable to maintain a balance or control over your Internet use in relation to everyday life.

It is difficult to detect and diagnose someone with IAD as the Internet is a highly promoted tool.

Addiction to cyber sex, cyber relationships, Internet compulsions, information and research and computer gaming are often considered to be related to IAD, but this variety of rewarding and reinforcing stimuli online might not be addictions to the Internet itself but rather the Internet is the fuel to other addictions.

A 1999 study discovered that over half the people considered to be Internet dependent were new users of the Internet and are therefore more inclined to use the Internet regularly.

Non-dependent users had been using the Internet for more than a year, suggesting that overuse of the Internet could wear off over time.

(Yellowlees/Marks, “Problematic Internet use or Internet addiction?”, Computers in Human Behaviour, Issue 23, March 2005)

What creates in some these compulsive behaviours?

Accessibility: Because of the convenience of the Internet, users now have easy and intermediate access to gambling, gaming and shopping at any time of the day, without the hassles of everyday life, like travelling or queues.

Control: Internet users are in control of their own online activity.  With the use of the latest technology, such as tablet computers and smartphones, users can go to the bathroom or another private place to engage with the Internet, without others knowing about it.

Excitement: Internet users often get an excited feeling of a rush or a buzz when they win an online auction, a video game or online gambling.  This positive feedback can result in addictive behaviour.  Some users use the Internet as a way of gaining this emotion.

The Centre for Online Addiction claims that IAD is a broad term that covers a wide variety of behaviours and impulse control problems, and categorises IAD into five specific subtypes:

Center for Online Addiction

  1. Cybersexual addiction: The compulsive use of adult websites for cybersex and cyberporn.  Internet pornography use is increasingly common in Western cultures and the mental health community has witnessed a dramatic rise in problematic Internet pornography use.  At present there is no widely accepted means of defining or assessing problematic Internet pornography use and the notion of Internet pornography addiction is still highly controversial.
  2. Cyber-relationship addiction: Overinvolvement in online relationships. A cyber-relationship addiction has been described as the addiction to social networking in all forms.  Social networking, such as Facebook, and online dating services, along with many other communication platforms create a place to communicate with new people.  Virtual online friends start to gain more communication and importance over time to the person becoming more important than real life family and friends.  Some people are attracted to the silent, less visually stimulating, non-tactile quality of text relationships, especially those who are struggling to contain the overstimulation of past trauma.  Text communication is a paradoxical blend of people being honest and close while simultaneously keeping their distance.  People suffering with social anxiety or who have issues of shame and guilt may be drawn to text relationships because people cannot be seen.  Text enables them to avoid the issue of physical appearance which they find distracting or irrelevant to the relationship.  Without the distraction of in-person cues, they feel they can connect more directly to the mind and soul of the other person. Cyber-relationships can often be more intense than real life relationships, causing addiction to the relationship.  With the ability to create whole new personas, people can often deceive the person they are communicating with.  Everyone is looking for the perfect companion, but the perfect companion online is not always the perfect companion in real life.  Although two people can commit to a cyber-relationship, while offline one of them could possibly not be the person they are claiming to be online.  There are people who deliberately create fake personal profiles online with the intention of tricking an unsuspecting person into falling in love with them.  These people are known as “catfish”. (The term “catfish” is derived from the title of a documentary film released in 2010, in which New York photographer Nev Schulman discovers the woman he had been continuing a cyber-relationship with had not been honest whilst describing herself.)Catfish film.jpg
  3. Net compulsions: Obsessive online gambling, shopping or day-trading. According to David Hodgins, Professor of Psychology at the University of Calgary, online gambling is considered to be as serious as pathological gambling.  The online gambler prefers to separate himself from interruptions and distractions. Online, the problem gambler can indulge in gambling without social influences swaying his decisions.  Online stock trading, like online gambling, gives the participant an addictive rush.  Traders have ownership towards when and how they trade stocks and distribute their money.  There are no second parties, no bosses, no schedules, so the trader feels a sense of empowerment in his own little world outside reality.LogoAbove: Logo of the University of Calgary
  4. Information overload: Compulsive web surfing or database searches
  5. Computer addiction: Obsessive computer game playing.  Video game addiction is a problem around the world.

IAD is usually linked with existing health issues, most commonly depression, and effects the addict socially, psychologically and occupationally.

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Above: Belgian singer Jonathan Vandenbroeck aka Milow, known for his hit single cover, Ayo Technology

Pathological use of the Internet can result in negative life consequences, such as job loss, marriage breakdown, financial debt and academic failure.

70% of Internet users in South Korea are reported to play online games, 18% of these are diagnosed as game addicts.

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Above: The flag of South Korea

The majority of those afflicted with IAD suffer from interpersonal difficulties and stress, while those addicted to online games specifically hope to avoid reality.

A major reason why the Internet is so appealing is the lack of limits and the absence of accountability.

“There were lots of reasons why we pulled the plug on our electronic media…My children don’t use media. They inhabit media…as fish inhabit a pond.  Gracefully and without consciousness or curiosity as to how they got there.  They don’t remember a time before email, instant messaging or Google.

The letters of "Google" are each purely colored (from left to right) with blue, red, yellow, blue, green, and red.

They download movies and TV shows and when I remind them piracy is a crime, they look at one another and laugh.  These are children who shrug indifferently when they lose their iPods, with all 5,000 tunes plus video clips, feature films and TV shows….

(Who watches TV on a television anymore?)

…”There’s plenty more where that came from.”, their attitude says.

And the most infuriating thing of all?

They’re right.

The digital content that powers their world can never truly be destroyed.

…I had always been an enthusiastic user of information technology, but I was also beginning to have doubts about the power of media to improve our lives – let alone make them “easier”.

I had noticed that the more we seemed to communicate as individuals, the less we seemed to function together as a family.

And on a broader scale, the more facts we have at our fingerprints, the less we seem to know.

The “convenience” of messaging media (email, SMS, IM) consumes ever larger amounts of our time.

As a culture we are practically swimming in entertainment, yet remain more depressed than any people who have ever lived.

We began “The Experiment”, a six-month period during which we stopped using much of our electronic media, such as computers, televisions, game consoles and mobile phones.

Our family’s self-imposed exile from the Information Age changed our lives infinitely for the better.

I watched as my children became more focused, logical thinkers.  I watched as their attention spans increased, allowing them to read for hours at a time.  I watched as they began to hold longer and more complex conversations with adults and among themselves.  I watched as they began to improve their capacity to think beyond the present moment.

They took the opportunity to go out more, to notice food more, to sleep more.”

(Susan Maushart, The Winter of Our Disconnect)

“And so it came to pass that in the winter of 2016 the world hit a tipping point…the moment when we realised that a critical mass of our lives and work had shifted away from the terrestrial world to a realm known as “cyberspace”… a critical mass of our interactions had moved to a realm “where we are all connected but no one is in charge.”

After all, there are no stoplights in cyberspace, no police officers walking the beat, no courts, no judges, no God who smites evil and rewards good…

If someone slimes you on Twitter or Facebook, well, unless it is a death threat, good luck getting it removed, especially if it is done anonymously, which in cyberspace is quite common.

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Above: Company logo for Twitter

Yet this realm is where we now spend increasing hours of our day.

Cyberspace is now where we do more of our shopping, more of our dating, more of our friendship making and sustaining, more of our learning, more of our commerce, more of our teaching, more of our communicating, more of our news broadcasting and news seeking and more of our selling of goods, services and ideas.

It’s where both the US President and the leader of ISIS can communicate with equal ease with tens of millions of their respective followers through Twitter – without editors, fact checkers, libel lawyers or other filters.

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Black Standard[1]

Even President Barack Obama was taken aback by the speed at which this tipping point tipped:

Obama standing with his arms folded and smiling

“I think that I underestimated the degree to which, in this new information age, it is possible for misinformation, for cyberhacking and so forth, to have an impact on our open societies.”, Obama told ABC News This Week.

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Alan Cohen, chief commercial officer of the cybersecurity firm Illumio, noted in an interview on siliconAngle.com that the reason this tipping point tipped now was because so many companies, governments, universities, political parties and individuals have concentrated a critical mass of their data in computers.

Illumio - Security That Works Anywhere

Work has to start with every school teaching children digital civics, that the Internet is an open sewer of untreated, unfiltered information, where they need to bring skepticism and critical thinking to everything they read and basic civic decency to everything they write.

A Stanford Graduate School of Education study published in November 2016 found…

…”a dismaying inability by students to reason about information they see on the Internet

Students had a hard time distinguishing advertisements from news articles or identifying where information came from.”

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Professor Sam Wineburg, the lead author of the Stanford report, said:

“Many people assume that because young people are fluent in social media they are equally perceptive about what they find there.

Our work shows the opposite to be true.”

In an era when more and more of our lives have moved to this digital realm, that is downright scary.”

(Thomas Friedman, “Our lives are digital. Be careful.”, New York Times, 12 January 2017)

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“Many men, women and children spend their days glued to their smartphones and their social media accounts.

No doubt you have seen the following scenarios many times:

  • Young couples out to dinner pull out their smartphones to check messages, emails and social networks before scanning the menu and check their phones repeatedly during the meal.
  • Shoppers and commuters standing in line, people crossing busy streets, even cyclists and drivers, have their eyes on their phones instead of their surroundings.
  • Toddlers in strollers playing with a digital device instead of observing and learning from the world around them.
  • People walking down the street with eyes on their phones, bumping into others, tripping over or crashing into obstacles.

Observations like these have prompted a New York psychotherapist to ask: “What really matters?” in life.

In her enlightening new book, The Power of Off, Nancy Colier observes that:

“We are spending far too much of our time doing things that don’t really matter to us.”

“We have become disconnected from what really matters, from what makes us feel nourished and grounded as human beings.”

The near universal access to digital technology, starting at ever younger ages, is transforming modern society in ways that can have negative effects on physical and mental health, neurological development and personal relationships, not to mention safety on our roads and sidewalks.

As with so much in life, moderation in our digital world should be the hallmark of a healthy relationship with technology.

Too many of us have become slaves to the devices that were supposed to free us and give us more time to experience life and the people we love.

Ms. Colier, a licensed clinical social worker, said:

“The only difference between digital addiction and other addictions is that this is a socially condoned behaviour.”

While Colier’s book contains a 30-day digital detox program, she offers three steps to help curb one’s digital dependence:

  1. Start by recognising how much digital use is really needed and what is merely a habit of responding, posting and self-distraction.
  2. Make little changes.  Refrain from using your device while eating or spending time with your friends.  Add one thing a day that is done without your phone.
  3. Become very conscious of what is important to you, what really nourishes you and devote more time and attention to it.The Power of Off: The Mindful Way to Stay Sane in a Virtual World

Linyi, Shandong Province, China, 17 January 2017

Flag of the People's Republic of China

Above: The flag of the People’s Republic of China

Shandong Province is known for many things.

Map showing the location of Shandong Province

This stumpy peninsula jutting into the Yellow Sea, Shandong has a history that can be traced back to the origins of China itself.

Confucius, China’s great social philosopher, was born here and lived out his days here.

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Above: Confucius (551 BC – 479 BC)

His ideas were championed by the great Confucian philosopher Mencius who also hailed from here.

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Above: Mencius (372 BC – 289 BC)

Other local heroes include Wang Xizhi, China’s most famous calligrapher, and Zhuge Liang, a great military strategist.

Above: Wang Xizhi (265 – 420)

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Above: Zhuge Liang (181 – 234)

Film star Gong Li, who set new benchmarks for Chinese beauty, grew up in this province.

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Shandong has a firm foothold in China’s martial arts history: Wang Lang, the founder of Praying Mantis Fist –  one of the most distinctive of the Chinese boxing arts, emulating the movements of the stick-like insect famed for its ferocity and speed – called Shandong home.

Shandong is home to one of China’s four major schools of cooking.

It is here that the Yellow River, the massive waterway that began in the mud of Tibet and exists as part of the myths that form this mighty land, exits China.

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Above: Hukou Waterfall of the Yellow River (Huang He), 2nd longest in Asia, 6th longest in the world

Shandong is one of China’s wealthiest and most populous provinces, with much to attract the tourist.

Southern Chinese claim to have myriad mountains, rivers and geniuses, but Shandong citizens smugly boast they have one mountain (Tai Shan), one river (the Yellow River) and one saint (Confucius) – all that is needed.

Tai Shan is not only the most revered of China’s five holy Taoist peaks, it is the most climbed mountain on Earth.

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It is said that if you climb Tai Shan you will live to be 100.

In ancient Chinese tradition, the sun began its westward journey from Tai Shan.

Tai’an is the gateway town to the sacred Tai Shan and the hometown of Jiang Qing, Mao’s 4th wife, ex-actress and the leader of the Gang of Four, on whom all of China’s ills are often blamed.

Above: Jiang Qing (1914 – 1991)

The Dai Temple is in the centre of town.

The Temple is a magnificent structure with yellow tiled roofs, red walls and ancient towering trees.

It is one of the largest and most celebrated temples in China.

100 km south is the dusty rural town of Qufu, the birthplace, residence and final resting place of Confucius – a teacher largely unappreciated in his lifetime.

Apricot Platform in the Confucius Temple

Above: The Apricot Platform, Confucius Temple, Qufu, Shandong Province, China

Qufu is a harmony of carved stone, timber and imperial architecture, of airy courtyards, cypress trees and green grass, of twisted pines and mighty steles, singing birds serenade the seated souls upon quiet benches, unpolluted streets with little traffic, dusty, musty, home to the Confucius Temple, Confucius Mansions, the Confucian Forest…

To the south of the peninsula, the picture perfect town of Qingdao (also called Tsingtao)(Green Island) is called China’s Switzerland, which is surprising as its appearance is more reminiscent of a kind of Bavaria by the sea: cool sea breezes, balmy summer evenings, excellent seafood from dried fish shops, a Lutheran church, a German palace, and beaches of coarse sand covered in seaweed and bordered by concrete huts and stone statues of dolphins.

Clockwise from top left: Qingdao skyline, St. Michael's Cathedral, Qingdao harbour by night, a temple at the base of Mount Lao, and May Fourth Square

Above: Pictures of Qingdao

Jinan, the provincial capital is for most travellers a transit point on the road to other destinations, a city more famous for the celebrities it produced than for any virtues the city itself may possess: the film star Gong Li; Bian Que, the founder of traditional Chinese medicine; Zou Yan, the founder of the Yin and Yang five element school; Zhou Yongnian, the founder of China’s public libraries; and a number of nationally and internationally recognised writers.

Clockwise from top: Jinan's Skyline, Quancheng Square, Daming Lake, Furong Street, and Five Dragon Pool

Above: Pictures of Jinan

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Above: Bian Que (or Qin Yueren)(died 310 BC)

Among these writers is the Song Poet.

Above: Statue of Li Qingzhao (1084 – 1155), Li Qingzhao Memorial, Jinan

Li Qingzhao is famed for her elegant language, strong imagery and her ability to remain unpretentious in her poetry:

Above: Li Qingzhao Memorial, Baotu Spring Garden, Jinan, Shandong Province, China

“Alone in the night, the warm rain and pure wind have just freed the willows from the ice.

As I watch the peach trees, spring rises from my heart and blooms on my cheeks.

My mind is unsteady, as if I were drunk.

I try to write a poem in which my tears will flow together with your tears.

My rouge is stale.

My hairpins are too heavy.

I throw myself across my gold cushions, wrapped in my lonely doubled quilt and crush the phoenixes in my headdress.

Alone, deep in bitter loneliness, without even a good dream, I lie, trimming the lamp in the passing night.”

As I type these words I wonder whether 16-year-old Chen Xin ever read these words of the Song Poet and felt herself identify with this poem, when she was growing up 1,000 km north of Shandong in the sub-Siberian wilderness of Heilongjiang Province, or when she was involuntary a resident of Linyi, or later when she returned to Heilongjiang traumatised from her Linyi experience.

Linyi (“close to the Yi River”) is a city in the south of Shandong Province and though it is not far from Yellow Sea ports and it sits astride the G2 Beijing-Shanghai Expressway, and though it has a history of over 2,400 years and possesses an attractive Confucian temple, Linyi’s claim to fame lies in it being a major centre of human rights abuses in China.

Linyi Confucius Temple

Above: Lin Yi Confucius Temple

Though Linyi has been home to many historical figures, notably Zhuge Liang (former Prime Minister and considered to be the most accomplished strategist of his era akin to Sun Tzu, the author of The Art of War) and Wang Xizhi (considered to be the greatest master of Chinese calligraphy that ever lived), most modern Chinese might recall the names of Chen Guangcheng (the barefoot lawyer) and Yang Yongxin (the brain waker) and, as a result, feel some compassion for the sad tale of Chen Xin.

Chen Guangcheng is the youngest of five brothers of a peasant family from the village of Dongshigu, Yinan County, Shandong Province.

Chen Guangcheng at the US Embassy in Beijing on 1 May 2012

When Chen was about six months old, he lost his sight due to a fever that destroyed his optic nerves.

His village was poor, with many families living at a subsistence level.

Chen’s father worked as an instructor at a Communist Party school.

When Chen was a child, his father would read literary works aloud to him and helped impart to his son an appreciation of the values of democracy and freedom.

In 1989, at the age of 18, Chen began attending school at the Elementary School for the Blind in Linyi.

In 1991, Chen’s father gave him a copy of The Law Protecting the Disabled, which elaborated on the legal rights and protections in place for disabled people in China.

In 1994, he enrolled at the Qingdao High School for the Blind where he remained until 1998, where he began developing an interest in law and would often ask his brothers to read legal texts to him.

Chen first petitioned authorities in 1996, when he travelled to Beijing to complain about taxes that were incorrectly being levied on his family.

(People with disabilities, such as Chen, are supposed to be exempt from taxation and fees.)

The complaint was successful and Chen began petitioning for other individuals with disabilities.

Chen became an outspoken activist for disability rights within the China Law Society.

His reputation as a disability rights advocate was solidified when he agreed to defend an elderly blind couple whose grandchildren sufered from paralysis.  The family had been paying all of the regular taxes and fees, but Chen believed that, under the law, the family should have received government assistance and exemption from taxation.  When the case went to court, blind citizens from surrounding counties were in attendance as a show of solidarity.  The case was successful and the outcome became well-known.

Chen studied at the Nanjing University of Traditional Chinese Medicine from 1998 to 2001, specializing in acupuncture and massage – the only progrms available to the blind.  He also audited legal courses, gaining a sufficient understanding of the law to allow him to aid his fellow villagers when they sought his assistance.

While studying in Nanjing, Chen learned that a program the leaders of Chen’s home village – implementing a land use plan that gave the authorities control over 60% of the land, which they then rented out at high cost to the villages – was illegal, he petitioned central authorities in Beijing to end the system.

In 2000, Chen returned from his studies in Nanjing to his village of Dongshigu in an effort to confront environmental pollution.

A paper mill constructed in 1988 had been dumping toxic wastewater into the Meng River, destroying crops and harming wildlife, as well as causing skin and digestive problems among villagers living downstream from the mill.

Chen organised villagers in his hometown and 78 other villages to petition against the mill.  The effort was successful and resulted in the suspension of the paper mill.

In addition, Chen contacted the British Embassy in Beijing, informing them of the situation and requesting funding for a well to supply clean water to locals. The British government responded by providing funds towards a deep water well, irrigation systems and water pipelines.

After graduation from Nanjing, Chen returned to his home region and found a job as a masseur in Yinan County Hospital.

Chen met his wife, Yuan Weijing, in 2001, after listening to a radio show.  Yuan had called into the show to discuss her difficulties in landing a job after graduating from the foreign language department of Shandong Chemistry Institute.  Chen, who listened to the program, contacted Yuan and relayed his own story of hardship as a blind man.  Moved by the exchange, Yuan travelled to Chen’s village to meet him.

The couple eloped in 2003.  Yuan, who had been working as an English teacher, left her job in order to assist Chen in his legal work. Their son, Chen Kerui, was born later that year.

In March 2004, more than 300 residents from Chen’s village filed a petition to the village government demanding that they release the village accounts – which hadn’t been made public for 10 years – and address the issue of illegal land requisitions.  When Dongshigu authorities failed to respond and villagers escalated their appeals to the township, county and municipal governments without response, village authorities began to threaten the villagers.

In November 2004, Chen acted on behalf of the villagers.

In 2005, Chen spent several months surveying residents of Shandong Province, collecting accounts of forced, late term abortions and forced sterilization of women who stood in violation of China’s one-child policy.

(In 2005, Chen and Yuan had a second child, a daughter named Chen Kesi, in violation of this one-child policy.)

Though Chinese central authorities have sought to curb the coercive enforcement of the one-child policy since 1990 by replacing measures such as forced abortions and sterilisations with a system of financial incentives and fines, Chen found that coercive practices remained widespread, documenting numerous cases of abuse.

Chen’s survey, based in Linyi, found an estimated 130,000 residents in the city had been forced into “study sessions” for refusing abortions or violating the one-child policy, imprisoned for days or weeks and beaten.

The case garnered international media attention.

The local authorities in Linyi retailiated against Chen, placing him under house arrest and embarking on a campaign to undermine his reputation, portraying him as working for “foreign anti-China forces”.  The authorities threatened to levy criminal charges against Chen for providing state secrets or intelligence to foreign organisations.

Xinhua, the news agency of the Chinese government, stated that on 5 February 2006, Chen instigated others to damage and smash cars belonging to the Shuanghou Police Station and the Linyi government as well as attack local government officials.

Xinhua Logo.png

Time reported that witnesses disputed the government’s version of events and Chen’s lawyers argued that he couldn’t have committed the crimes as he was already on house arrest and under constant surveillance by the police.

Time Magazine logo.svg

On the eve of Chen’s 18 August 2006 trial, all three of his lawyers were detained by Yinan police.

Neither Chen’s lawyers nor his wife were allowed in the courtroom for the trial.

Chen was sentenced to four years and three months for “damaging property and organising a mob to disturb traffic”.

Frank Ching, Globe and Mail (Toronto, Canada) columnist criticised the verdict:

“Even assuming Chen did damage doors and windows, as well as cars, and interrupt traffic for three hours, it is difficult to argue that a four-year prison sentence is somehow proportionate to the offence.”

Amnesty International declared Chen to be a prisoner of conscience, “jailed solely for his peaceful activities in defence of human rights.”

AmnestyInternationalLogo.jpg

Above: The logo of Amnesty International

After his release in 2010, Chen was placed under house arrest against Chinese law and was closely monitored by security forces.  Legally, he was proclaimed by the government to be a free man, but in reality the local government offered no explanation for the hundreds of unidentified agents monitoring his house and preventing visitors or escape.

Chen and Yuan attempted to communicate with the outside world via video tape and letters, describing beatings they were subjected to, seizure of documents and communication devices, cutting off of electric power to their residence, placing metal sheets over their windows, harassing Chen’s daughter by banning her from attending school and confiscating her toys, harassing Chen’s mother while she was working in the fields…

In 2011, the New York Times reported that a number of Chen’s supporters and admirers had attempted to penetrate the security monitoring Chen’s home, but were unsuccessful and subsequently pummeled, beaten and robbed by security forces.  US Congressman Chris Smith attempted to visit Chen but was denied permission.  Actor Christian Bale (Batman Begins) attempted to visit Chen along with a CNN crew, but was punched, shoved and denied access by Chinese security guards.  Video footage showed Bale and the CNN crew having stones thrown at them and being pursued in their minivan for more than 40 minutes.

Day2 chris smith.jpg

Above: Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey

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Above: Actor Christian Bale

On 22 April 2012, Chen escaped from house arrest.  Under cover of darkness and with the help of his wife, Chen climbed over the wall around his house, breaking his foot in the process.

When he came upon the Meng River, Chen found it to be guarded, but he crossed anyway and was not stopped.  He fell more than 200 times during his escape, but reached a pre-determined rendezvous point where He Peirong, an English teacher and activist, was waiting for him.  Human rights activists then escorted him to Beijing.

Chen was given refuge at the US Embassy in Beijing.  On 4 May, Chen made clear his desire to leave China for the United States.  On 19 May, Chen, Yuan and their two children, having been granted US visas, departed Beijing for Newark, New Jersey.

Following his arrival in the US, the Chen family settled in a housing complex of New York University, in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

On 16 October 2013, Chen made his first public appearance, delivering a lecture at Princeton University.

Chen reminded the audience that even small actions undertaken in defense of human rights can have a large impact, because…

“Every person has infinite strength. Every action has an important impact.  We must believe in the value of our own actions.”

Chen’s memoir, The Barefoot Lawyer, was published in 2015.

In February 2016, a young girl, Chen Xin, was forcibly taken away from her home in northern Heilongijang Province by two strange men in a car and driven to Linyi.

At the Internet Addiction Treatment Center, a boot camp at Linyi Mental Hospital, more than 6,000 Internet addicts – most of them teenagers – not only have their web access taken away, they are also treated with electro-shock therapy.

The boot camp is run by the “brain-waker” Yang Yongxin.

Yang, born in Linyi, graduated from Yishui Medical School, with a degree in Clinical Medicine in 1982.  After graduation, Yang was aasigned by the state to the Linyi Mental Hospital, where he specialises in treating schizophrenia, depression, anxiety disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Yang started to investigate Internet addiction in 1999, when his teenage son began to show “addictive behaviour”.  He began practicing electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) in 2006.

Initially the Chinese media viewed Yang’s work with great enthusiasm, publishing a book called Fighting the Internet Demon and producing a documentary film of the same name.

Yang was awarded as one of 2007’s Top Ten Outstanding Citizens of Shandong Province “for protecting the minors of Shandong”.

Yang caused widespread controversy in China when China’s most viewed TV channel, state-run CCTV, aired a special coverage of Yang’s treatment centre in July 2008.  The program, Fighting the Internet Demon Who Turned Our Geniuses into Beasts, reported positively on Yang’s ECT and sharply criticised the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, Irvine, California), then popular in China, blaming the game for many teenagers’ Internet addiction.  The program caused an uproar in China’s World of Warcraft community, spreading to most of China’s Internet community.  Yang’s critics revealed Yang’s controversial practices…

WoW Box Art1.jpg

Yang claimed that patients with Internet addiction suffered from cognitive and personality disorders and he promoted electroconvulsive therapy as a means to remedy such disorders.

Yang’s patients ranged from 12 to 30 years old, most of whom were abducted by their parents or by “the Special Operation”, a branch of the treatment centre that would reward more senior patients to abduct new patients.  The parents (even those of adult patients) would then sign a contract with the treatment centre, in which the parents would place the patients into foster care by the treatment centre.

Qu Xinjiu, a law professor at China University of Political Science and Law in Beijing said that the belief that parents have supreme jurisdiction over their children, and that even police officers have no right to intervene in family affairs, is widespread in China.

“That’s why there are so many parents sending their kids for electroshock therapy, even when outsiders think it’s wrong to do so.”, Professor Qu said.

After they were admitted, Yang’s patients were placed into a prisonlike environment, where they were forced to give away all online accounts and passwords.  Yang managed his patients in a military style, where he encouraged the patients to act as informants and threatened resisting patients with ECT, as a means of torture.

In addition to electroconvulsive therapy, Yang used psychotropic drugs without the consent of the patients or their parents, claiming that the drugs were dietary supplements.  The centre also has mandatory sessions with psychiatric counselors, where patients were taught absolute obedience to Yang and forced to call him “Uncle Yang”. He also warned the patients against asking their parents to take them home, another offense punishable by electroconvulsive therapy.

(All of this reminds me of the movie, starring Jack Nicholson, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest poster.jpg

In 2009 China Youth Daily published the news of a patient who had escaped Yang’s treatment centre.  The escaped patient jumped out from a second floor window at the treatment centre.  Yang’s ECT / psychotropic medication treatment, which Yang dubbed xingnao (brain-waking), triggered cardiac arrhythmia (uneven heart palpitations or irregular heartbeats) in the escaped patient, questioning the safety of Yang`s treatment.

Also the same year, a 15-year-old boy from southern Guangxi Province died after being beaten by staff two days after arriving at a camp treating Internet addiction.

Yang claimed that 96% of the patients treated by his electric therapy had shown improvement.

In 2009, the Chinese Health Ministry issued guidelines against using electroshock therapy for Internet addicts, but despite the Health Ministry’s policy, “punitive practices continue to victimise China’s youth” in Internet detox camps”, said Dr. Bax, assistant professor of sociology at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea.

In 2014, researchers from universities in Chian, Taiwan and Germany wrote in the journal Asia-Pacific Psychiatry that the highest prevalence of “problematic Internet use” had been observed in Asia.

A series of scandals have erupted in previous years over the treatment of patients at similar camps in China.

In 2014, a 19-year-old woman died at a treatment centre in Henan Province after being given treatment that involved being lifted off the ground and then dropped, the South China Morning Post reported, while another suffered head and neck injuries.  Staff suspected the woman was feigning injury and continued to kick her on the ground, according to a China National Radio report.

Chen Xin’s parents had become concerned about her behaviour after she dropped out of school.  On the suggestion of an aunt, the Chen family decided to send Xin to the camp, which had claimed to have cured 7,000 children of Internet addiction in the past two decades. The camp had become a last resort as they had become exasperated by their child’s habit of playing online games for hours.

Xin escaped the Internet Addiction Centre four months later.

In an online journal Xin complained that the centre’s trainers had beaten patients for no reason and ordered those who did not behave to eat in front of the pit latrine (sewer).

Thepaper.cn said it had received calls from several patients at the camp since they ran Chen’s story.  They complained of being beaten, cursed at and insulted, of being watched even when using the toilet.

One former patient told Thepaper.cn:

“When the toilets clogged up, we were asked to empty the toilets with our hands.  You get beaten up in the toilet and get beaten up again if you dare say no.  You get beaten up if you are found to be in a relationship.”

In a journal post published 25 August 2016, Xin wrote:

“When you mentioned it to your relatives, they all said: ‘Isn’t it all in the past?  We love you.  You should forget all those things.’

I am angry.  People point at my nose and call me unfilial (unloving daughter) and worse than a beast. 

It was them who sent me there.  It was them who cursed me and beat me.  It was them who sabotaged my life and libelled my character, but it was also them who said they loved me.

My friends here, if it were you, what would you do?

I will use their money to practice boxing and martial arts and ambush them later.  I will make them disabled, if not die.”

On 16 September 2016, Xin stabbed her father with a knife after they argued.  He was hospitalised.

She tied her mother to a chair, shot photographs and a video of her mother, demanding money from her aunt to release her so Xin could go to a physics school in Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province.

The money was sent the following week, but by then Xin discovered her starving mother was already dying.  She called an ambulance, but it arrived too late.

Xin’s mother died on 23 September 2016.

In January 2017, the Chinese government drafted a law that will crack down on the camps’ worst excesses.

Medical specialists welcomed the law.

“It’s a very important move for protecting young children.”, said Dr. Tao Ran, director of the Internet Addiction Clinic at Beijing Military General Hospital.

Dr. Tao has seen several Chinese teenagers return from Internet addiction boot camps showing signs of lasting psychological trauma:

“They didn’t talk, were afraid to meet people and refused to leave their homes.  They were panicked even to hear the word ‘hospital’ or ‘doctor’.”

The legislation also limits how much time each day that minors can play online games at home or in Internet cafés.  Providers of the games are obliged to take measures to monitor and restrict use.

Many users of Sina Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, were even more critical, saying policing teenage behaviour online is impractical and ill-informed.

Sina Weibo.svg

Above: The logo for Sina Weibo

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 12 March 2017

As I read over what I have written I am struck by a memory of Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451, published in 1953.

Cover shows a drawing of a man, who appears to be made of newspaper and is engulfed in flames, standing on top of some books. His right arm is down and holding what appears to be a paper fireman's hat while his left arm is wiping sweat from the brow of his bowed head. Beside the title and author's name in large text, there is a small caption in the upper left-hand corner that reads, "Wonderful stories by the author of The Golden Apples of the Sun".

The novel presents a future American society where books are outlawed and “firemen” burn any that are found.  Bradbury described the book as a commentary on how mass media reduces interest in reading literature.

In Part One of the book, my mind’s eye can still recall Guy Montag, the book’s protagonist, and the other firemen ransacking the book-filled house of an old woman.  She refuses to leave her house and her books, choosing instead to burn herself alive.  Like Montag I am discomfited by the woman’s suicide.

Montag’s boss, Captain Beatty, personally visits Montag to see how he is doing.  Sensing Montag’s concerns, Beatty recounts how books lost their value, how over the course of several decades people embraced new media and sports and a faster pace of life.  Books were ruthlessly abridged or degraded to accommodate a short attention span.  Books were burned in the name of public happiness.

In Part Two, I recall Montag telling his wife that maybe the books of the past have messages that can save society from its own destruction. But Mildred is only interested in their large screen television.  She invites her friends over to watch TV with her. Montag tries to engage them in meaningful conversation, but they are indifferent to all but the trivial.

And I wonder:

Is this the future?

Above: A visualisation of a portion of the routes on the Internet

Have we become a society that has become addicted to distraction?

A society oblivious to everything, everyone, unconnected, disconnected to flat screens or headphones?

It is easy to condemn the acts of the Chinese state for attempting to gain control over its citizens seduced by technology and mass media, or for using technology or mass media to control its populace, but perhaps, both in the Orient as well as the West, it is the people, us, who are as much culpable as the state.

Perhaps the enemy we seek lies in the reflection cast by our flat screens?

Sources:

Wikipedia / Thomas L. Friedman, “Our lives are digital. Be careful.”, 12 January 2017, New York Times / Mike Ives, “China seeks to curb Internet addiction camps”, 17 January 2017, New York Times / Rough Guides China / Lonely Planet China

 

 

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:

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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