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

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Route 66 revisited

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 20 September 2016

Fifty years.

Half a century has gone by since the Sixties, the decade of my birth, a truly Dickensian “best of times”/”worst of times” decade.

What had been sowed, both good and evil, from the previous decade bore bittersweet harvest: apartheid produces the Sharpeville Massacre, Castro´s revolution leads to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, JFK becomes US President and plays nuclear roulette with the Russians, racial tensions explode with the assassination of Martin Luther King and Black Power is the response, the British government falls in the Profumo scandal, Nelson Mandela is jailed, the Greeks depose their King.

Above: Painting of the Sharpeville Massacre, 21 March 1960

Above: Che Guevara and Fidel Castro

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Above: US President John Fitzgerald Kennedy

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Above: Soviet missiles displayed in Red Square, Moscow

Above: Martin Luther King Jr.- organised March on Washington, 28 August 1963

Above: Black Power demonstration at Mexico City Olympics 1968

Above: Robben Island Prison where Nelson Mandela was jailed

Good-bye Che Guevara, Adolf Eichmann, the villagers of My Lai, the miners of Aberfan, Jayne Mansfield, Norma Jean Baker (Marilyn Monroe), Judy Garland, JFK and brother Bobby…the day the music died.

Above: Jayne Mansfield

Monroe c. 1953

Above: Norma Jean Baker (aka Marilyn Monroe)

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Above: Robert Kennedy just after he was shot 0n 5 June 1968

It was a time of Flower Power and peace, when “all you need is love” in the land of Camelot, at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.

It was a time of riots, protests and revolution, anarchy on campus and Reds scaring us everywhere.

The Berlin Wall goes up, the Apollo Mission ends in tragedy, Firenze flooded, Skopje wrecked by earthquake, the jumbo jet and the Concorde first fly, man in space and on the moon, Nureyev dances, Bob Dylan believes “the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind”, while women put all their faith in the Pill and US election campaigners tout Nixon with signs that read “I like Dick.”

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Above: The Berlin Wall

Above: Apollo 11 moon landing, 20 July 1969

Dylan with his guitar onstage, laughing and looking downwards.

Above: Bob Dylan, 1963

Vietnam, a conflict which America couldn´t lose, but did.

Above: US tank convoy, Vietnam War

Algeria, Kenya, Cyprus, Aden and Nigeria struggle for freedom.

The casbah is rocked.

The Six Day War, a conflict which Israel couldn´t win, yet did.

Biafra: 2.5 year war, a million innocent people starve to death.

Hope and terror in Prague as Soviet tanks roll down the streets of spring.

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The rise to stardom of Camille Javal (Brigitte Bardot) causing male temperatures to rise to stellar heights.

Above: Brigitte Bardot, 1961

The age of the epic film: Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra, The Sound of Music, 2001: A Space Odyssey (which everyone loved but no one understood), Psycho, The Birds, Planet of the Apes, La Dolce Vita.

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Charles Manson commits unspeakable acts.

The Rat Pack sing, George Lazenby is unloved On Her Majesty´s Secret Service, prompting Sean Connery to remind movie goers that he´s still  “Bond. James Bond.”

Above: Sean Connery as James Bond 007

It is the rise of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol, One Flew over the Cuckoo´s Nest, the high priests of hippiedom: Leary, Hoffman and Rubin, Arthur Miller and Norman Mailer, Samuel Becket and Dave Brubeck, Pavarotti and Edith Piaf, Stravinsky and Shostakovich.

Above: “Wham!”, Roy Liechtenstein, 1963

Above: “Campbell´s Soup I”, Andy Warhol, 1968

And pop culture was pop music: Elvis, the Beatles, Ike and Tina Turner, Sonny and Cher, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Doors, the Supremes, the Bee Gees, the Who, the Everley Brothers, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Joe Cocker…the list goes on.

Presley, wearing a tight black leather jacket with Napoleonic standing collar, black leather wristbands, and black leather pants, holds a microphone with a long cord. His hair, which looks black as well, falls across his forehead. In front of him is an empty microphone stand. Behind, beginning below stage level and rising up, audience members watch him. A young woman with long black hair in the front row gazes up ecstatically.

Above: Elvis Presley, 28 June 1968

A square quartered into four head shots of young men with moptop haircuts. All four wear white shirts and dark coats.

Above: The Beatles, 1964

Above: The Rolling Stones, 1965

John and Yoko in beds in Amsterdam, Toronto and Montreal hotels and all they are saying is “give peace a chance” and uninhibitedly naked in a picture that remains shocking.

Above: John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Montreal, 1969

Yves St-Laurent, Twiggy, “boots made for walking”, pork pie hats and mini macs, paper dresses and mini skirts, allowing the ladies to “twist again like we did last summer” to the Top of the Pops and pirate radio.

Above: Lesley Hornby, aka Twiggy, 1967

Squatters and “jacking up” and Woodstock.

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The Greatest floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, whether his name is Cassius Clay or Muhammed Ali.

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Above: Muhammad Ali, 1967

…and Adam West is Batman and Hugh Hefner redefines the word “bunny” and folks wonder if Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is psychedelic or was caused by something psychedelic…

All of this remembering makes me want to go to London…

“You Say You Want a Revolution?: Records and Rebels (1966 – 70)” is a new exhibition that started ten days ago and will continue to 26 February 2017 at the Victoria and Albert (V & A) Museum that explores how a flourishing counterculture of rebellion, expressed through music, fashion, art and political protest, challenged existing power structures in the late 1960s.

Acid test

Here one can find the suits worn by John Lennon and George Harrison on the cover of Sgt. Pepper´s Lonely Hearts Club Band, shards from a Jimi Hendrix guitar and copies of the underground magazines Oz and International Times.

The Beatles, holding marching band instruments and wearing colourful uniforms, stand near a grave covered with flowers that spell "Beatles". Standing behind the band are several dozen famous people.

Imagine looking at LSD as a positive influence – not just used for recreational purposes but used to push boundaries and open the doors of perception.

Experience Pink Floyd playing in a backdrop of dazzling lights and avant garde films and feel the impact of Hendrix´s solo performance at Woodstock of the Star Spangled Banner.

(Even Colin Kaepernick would stand up for this!).

A black and white photograph of a man playing an electric guitar.

Above: Jimi Hendrix, 1967

Get high with a little help from the V & A.

Dress

Sources: Wikipedia; The Independent, 27 February 2016; V & A Museum.

 

Shining through

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 18 August 2016

As those who read this blog regularly know, I enjoy hiking in nature: fresh air, surprising encounters with flora and fauna, the solitude that allows me the freedom to simultaneously think as well as forget about the problems of Life for a while.

But I have another addiction, another obsession, I enjoy: shopping for books.

And when moments present themselves when I can combine both these passions, when I can find books during one of my hikes, well, this is what I call a good day.

I have recently begun a small walking project – as part of a larger ambition to walk and explore Switzerland as much as I can…

After having seen the Linth River three times previous to this project – in Benken (See Yesterday’s Children of this blog.), in Glarus (See Glarus: Every person a genius of this blog.) and flowing into the Obersee of the Lake of Zürich (to be discussed in a future post) – I have decided to follow the length of the Linth from Linthal in Glarus back to the Zürichsee.

Linth Reichenburg.jpg

As my walks are done on days when I am not working or otherwise committed to some other activity, I find myself walking on odd days and in separate stages.

On Monday I walked from Linthal to Luchsingen, with a visit to Klausenpass and Braunwald.

Yesterday I walked from Luchsingen to Glarus.

I thoroughly enjoyed these hikes for they led me not only beside a majestic flowing river through forest and field, but as well they led me to book donation boxes and a second-hand thrift shop.

I love serendipitiously finding these sorts of book collections, for not only are the books free or inexpensive but often one can find books that are out of print and are no longer published.

In the Braunwald book donation basket I found Racing through the Dark: The Fall and Rise of David Millar, the autobiography of a professional cyclist and how he got into doping.

David millar london 2014.JPG

In the Schwanden Bröcki (a Swiss Salvation Army type thrift shop) I found Edmund White’s City Boy: My Life in New York during the 1960s and 1970s.

Also an autobiography, it is the story of a young LGBT writer who mingled with people like Bob Dylan, Susan Sontag and Mama Cass in a time when being LGBT was more hidden than celebrated.

Though not being LGBT myself, I can relate to the struggles White describes in trying to be successful while remaining true to himself.

I also found an 1908 Guide Joanne Suisse (Think of Baedeker but in French.), which fascinates me with a time travelling glimpse of the familiar a century ago.

David Millar’s story has made me think of substance use and abuse and what an athlete’s life is really like.

Houston hosted the world weightlifting championships last year.

The sport’s greatest athletes, many Olympians among them, hoisted staggering amounts of weight above their heads, their feats looking superhuman.

Seventeen of the weightlifters who competed in Houston – including many medal winners – tested positive for banned drugs, so what the fans saw wasn’t a credible sport at its best, but instead they saw a lot of cheating.

This applies to Olympic sports more broadly now, in the wake of extraordinary claims by the former director of Russia’s antidoping laboratory, who said that a state-run doping program assisted dozens of Russian athletes during the 2014 Sochi Games.

2014 Winter Olympics logo.svg

These claims have driven antidoping officials to reexamine urine samples from previous Olympics and there have been 31 new positive tests from the 2008 Beijing Games so far.

The official logo for the 2008 Summer Olympics, featuring a depiction of the Chinese pictogram "Jing", representing a dancing human figure. Below are the words "Beijing 2008" in stylised print, and the Olympic rings.

We know this from experience.

The Olympics have survived scandals like this before: East Germany’s doping machine, Ben Johnson’s failed drug test, the Balco steroids case that ensnared some of the biggest names in track and field – including multiple Olympic gold medal winner Marion Jones.

Marion Jones Sydney 2000.JPEG

Cycling is one sport that shows lasting damage from doping.

Drug scandals over the past two decades have knocked the sport to its knees.

Nearly every top rider has been implicated, Tour de France jerseys stripped, sponsors fleeing, teams folding, the public’s confidence shaken.

In 2007, two German public TV networks pulled their broadcasts of the Tour de France because they didn’t want to televise a sport fueled by pharmacology.

In 2012, when Lance Armstrong was exposed as an unrepentant doper, even casual observers considered the sport to be a complete fraud.

Jonathan Vaughn, one of Armstrong’s teammates who helped reveal Armstrong’s sophisticated doping program, said he was exasperated.

The truth had come out about doping, which was good for clean athletes, but there was a painful downside.

“The first people you hurt if you stop watching a sport because of doping are the clean athletes in it.  You are literally pointing a gun at those athletes and are shooting them in the head, when they don’t deserve it.”

The Olympic sport hit hardest so far by investigations into Russia’s doping program is track and field, but it’s not alone.

Athletes in bobsledding, weightlifting and cross-country skiing have also been implicated.

The former Russian lab director said the entire women’s ice hockey team was part of the state-run doping program in Sochi.

The list goes on and on.

Jim Scherr, former chief executive of the US Olympic Committee, said the public must understand that most athletes are clean, and that the Olympics stand apart.

“We’re different than a league founded for entertainment, to make money.  The Olympics were founded to make the world a better place.”(New York Times, 19 May 2016)

Olympic Rings

So why do athletes dope?

Before discussing this we need to be clear about separating athletic performance-enhancing drugs from other drugs, and permissible drugs from banned drugs.

Do you, gentle reader, take drugs?

Chances are strong that you do, for even easily-purchased and easily-obtainable substances like sugar and coffee and variations on this theme are substances you consume to keep you awake or to give you more energy and so by the strictest of definitions could be considered drugs.

Alcohol and nicotine are also quite common in Western society and no one questions that these substances are not used as fuel to sustain our bodies but rather are used to affect our body chemistry.

And addiction is everywhere ever present.

Kingsport, Tennessee, where the Appalachian mountains cross into eastern Tennessee, this factory town of train lines and hills and shopping centres full of franchises, seen on a map listing drug overdoses, is the town with the most deaths in the United States.

A Fun Fest balloon floats over Kingsport, Tennessee

The area has become overrun by the demand for illegal drugs, tranquilisers and opoids, such as heroin, morphine and codeine.

Kingsport is a town overrun with pain, lives upturned, dying from addiction.

Drugs enter as hope exits.

A Hyperdermic needle

Appalachia is awash in despair and hopelessness.

With the closing of coal mines and management laying off many workers, folks have little to sustain them and simply wish to forget their emotional pain. (The Guardian, 10 May 2016)

So why do the folks of Kingsport do this damage to themselves?

Granted we are a society where self-image is often tied to our ability to work, living in a world filled with disposable goods and discouraging in its bland ordinariness.

But as well I think that, despite technology enabling us to communicate with others faster than ever before, we have over the past two generations lost our integration with our communities.

Many of us have lost the sense of a place’s uniqueness, of belonging to a place.

We have lost our enthusiasm for the future, expecting it simply to be an extension of an imperfect present and a repetition of an undesireable past, an endless highway of tears stretching out to a bleak horizon empty of promise.

Despair is everywhere, and no longer relegated to large urban cities and ghetto alleyways.

It can be found in a Kingsport bar or in a First Nations reservation.

Since last September, over 100 people in the Attawapiskat First Nation around James Bay, have attempted suicide.

Their culture eroded and belittled, living in poverty and lacking proper housing and proper health care or access to clean drinking water, men and women, young and old, have tried to kill themselves. (New York Times, 12 April 2016)

For some, religion, Karl Marx’s “opiate of the masses”, brings comfort.

And though the greatest proof of the existence of divinity is the inability to disprove its existence, faith sustains the believer.

But is it despair that drives an athlete to take banned performance-enhancing drugs?

Partially.

To train your body for so long, to discipline your life so intensely, all in the hopes that your efforts will be rewarded by victory over your competition and recognition by the many, and then not to receive reward and recognition for your regimen is a depth of discouragement that even non-athletes can understand.

And those few who do get the adulation and awards feel such an intense joy and excitement that they do not want this feeling to disappear.

Both the successful and the unsuccessful crave an edge, an advantage, something to sustain and improve their abilities.

And this pressure to excel not only comes from within, but as well from without.

For as the athlete has invested his time and energy in his quest for excellence, others have invested vast amounts of money and hope in the athlete as well.

The wonder is not that so few athletes seem clean these days.

The wonder is that there aren´t more that are dirty.

When I think of fallen heroes like Ben Johnson and Lance Armstrong, I do not feel angry.

White pills

I feel only sadness and pity, for they have lost everything that once gave them happiness.

Long gone are the days when athletes simply did a sport for its enjoyment, unconcerned with outcome, just playing for fun’s sake.

We, the non-athletic masses, idolize our sports figures, little knowing or caring how much our heroes have sacrificed for our adulation.

We view these mere mortals as more than mortals, as superhumans among us.

We think that their success as athletes means our superiority as nations.

We cannot fathom how it feels to have an entire nation’s hopes pinned on our achievements.

We have forgotten that athletes are prone to the same fears, doubts and pressure ordinary humans feel.

We tend to forget that athletes are often more frail than us, that their unique situation has made them not as human as us, but more human than us.

Super human.

SupermanRoss.png

 

Shadows on the stadium

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 17 August 2016

In less than a week the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics will be a thing of the past and to no one’s surprise the United States leads the medal standing, with 28 gold, 28 silver and 28 bronze, with swimming being the leading sport that the Americans are excelling at.

A green, gold and blue coloured design, featuring three people joining hands in a circular formation, sits above the words "Rio 2016", written in a stylistic font. The Olympic rings are placed underneath.

American swimmer Michael Phelps has single-handedly won the most Olympic medals so far: 5 gold and 1 silver, while US swimmer Katie Lededy is in second place with 4 gold and 1 silver.

Michael Phelps 2012.jpg

My homeland of Canada has won 2 gold, 2 silver and 0 bronze, excelling in swimming and gymnastics.

My country of residence Switzerland has won 2 gold, 1 silver and 2 bronze, excelling in cycling and rowing.

But let’s look at how many athletes each country sent…

America dominates the Olympics having sent 554 athletes, as compared to Canada’s 314 and Switzerland’s 104.

Now if I were a gambling man it would seem logical to place my bets on the team with the most players in the game.

I wonder what the founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, would have said about the unequal distribution of athletes.

I wonder if he would even recognize the Games he envisioned as being present today in Rio.

On a positive note, the Olympic Games, every two years with its media exposure, provide unknown athletes with the chance to attain national and international fame.

Olympic Rings

Over 13,000 athletes from more than 200 nations compete at the Summer and Winter Olympics in 33 different sports and nearly 400 events.

The Games offer an opportunity for the host city and country to showcase themselves to the world.

But much has changed since the first modern Olympic Games in Athens in 1896.

The world now has Winter Olympics, Paralympic Games and Youth Olympics.

The Games have had to adapt to changes in economics, politics and technology.

Games that were once restricted to amateur athletes now allow the participation of professional athletes, allowing athletes like Usain Bolt to dominate the sporting events they participate in.

The growing importance of mass media has created issues of corporate sponsorship and vast commercialisation of the Games.

Someone profits from these Games.

World wars led to the cancellation of the 1916, 1940 and 1944 Games.

Boycotts have limited athletic participation in the 1980 and 1984 Games.

And the Olympics deals with challenges and controversies of the type that Coubertin could never have imagined: doping, bribery and terrorism.

So, let’s look at Rio 2016.

Cristo Redentor - Rio de Janeiro, Brasil.jpg

The 31st Olympiad is the first Olympics in South America, the first Olympics in a Portuguese-speaking country, the first Summer Olympics to be held in winter.

This is the first Olympics to include golf and rugby.

This is the first Olympics in which Kosovo and South Sudan are eligible to compete.

Due to the European migrant crisis and other reasons, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) now allows athletes to compete as independent Olympians under the Olympic flag, because they otherwise would be unable to compete due to their inability to represent their home National Olympic Committees.(NOCs)

Bulgarian and Russian weightlifters are banned from Rio for numerous anti-doping violations.

Kuwait is banned for the second time in five years over its government’s interference in Kuwait’s NOC.

At first glance, everything seems bleak.

The Brazilian federal government is unstable.

Operation Car Wash, a 2014 investigation by the Federal Police of Brazil, uncovered unprecedented money laundering and corruption in the state-controlled oil company Petrobras, while Brazil faces its worst economic recession since the 1990s.

In November 2015, Russia’s track and field team was suspended from all competitions by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) following a World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report into a doping program in Russia, but the IOC decided against completely banning Russian participation and instead set stricter requirements for all Russian athletes entered into the Games.

Of the original list of Russian athletes, 278 out of 389 were cleared for competition.

On 12 May, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was stripped of her powers and duties for 180 days and is waiting to be impeached, so Vice President Michel Temer is President during the Games.

Official portrait of Dilma Rousseff

Yet Brazil’s infrastructure continues to crumble and corruption remains rampant, while the Rio state government is almost bankrupt and hospitals and schools are in complete chaos as schools strike and hospitals can’t afford to handle anything that isn’t an emergency.

There are health and safety concerns surrounding the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

Mosquito 2007-2.jpg

Puddles of stagnant water, a common problem, allow mosquitoes to breed, while trash goes uncollected and lies rotting in the streets.

There is significant pollution in Rio’s Guanabara Bay.

Only 17% of Rio’s sewage is treated.

The rest of the raw sewage flows into the Bay.

Rio has always had crime problems, but these problems are now under an intense international spotlight.

Severe poverty in slums controlled by armed gangsters are only a short stroll away from luxurious beachside apartments.

There are more than 300 street robberies a day.

On 21 April 2016 – the day that the Olympic torch was lit – a 50 metre/164 foot section of the Tim Maia bike path was hit by a giant wave and collapsed causing the death of three pedestrians and injuring three more.

On 27 June, protesting police fly at a banner at the international airport that reads “WELCOME TO HELL” alongside a placard “49” – the number of Rio police killed this year.

brazil-protest.jpg

The police patrol without paychecks.

On 21 July 2016, just two weeks before the Games started, Brazilian Federal Police broke up an Islamic jihadist terrorist ring.

The athlete’s village, the largest in history, was described as unliveable and unsafe, because of major plumbing and electrical hazards, like blocked toilets, leaking pipes, exposed wiring, darkened stairwells and dirty floors.

Many economists are skeptical about the economic benefits of hosting the Olympic Games, emphasizing that the mega-event costs more than it benefits in the long run.

The Games also have significant negative effects on host communities, displacing more than two million people over the past two decades, disproportionately affecting disadvantaged groups.

In other words, the poor are driven from their homes.

The IOC itself has been accused of taking bribes in the bidding process for the hosting of Olympic Games.

Hosting an Olympic Games is a damnedly expensive endeavour.

The biggest threat to the future of the Olympics is that very few cities want to host them.

To be fair, Rio is not unique in modern Olympic history in having many problems to overcome.

Antwerp 1920 had still not cleaned up all its rubble from the devastation that had been World War I.

Plakat der Spiele

Mexico City 1968 was marred by a massacre of protestors just before the Games began and is still remembered for the Black Power salute given by two American medal winners.

Logo der Olympischen Sommerspiele 1968

Munich 1972 is remembered for the Palestinian attack on the Israeli complex resulting in 11 deaths.

Ap munich905 t.jpg

Montreal 1976 is a Olympics famous for its huge debt that took three decades to pay, East German doping, a 20 African nation boycott and the perfect performance of Romanian gymnist Nadia Comaneci.

1976 Summer Olympics logo.svg

Atlanta 1996 was marred by the collapse of a steel lightning tower killing spectators and the Centennial Olympic Park bombing resulting in two dead and more than 100 people injured and an investigation that took seven years to find the bomber responsible.

A fire, emitting many different-colored stars, burns from a cauldron represented by the gold-colored Olympic rings and the number "100" acting as the cauldron's stand. The words "Atlanta 1996", also written in gold, are placed underneath. The image is situated on a dark green background, with a gold border.

Athens 2004 struggled with a bomb blast and a lack of ticket sales.

2004 Summer Olympics logo.svg

Beijing 2008 is remembered for extreme air pollution conditions as well as the threat of Islamic jihadist terrorism.

The official logo for the 2008 Summer Olympics, featuring a depiction of the Chinese pictogram "Jing", representing a dancing human figure. Below are the words "Beijing 2008" in stylised print, and the Olympic rings.

Vancouver 2010 began sadly with the death of a luge athlete during a training run, a lack of snow and criticism of its homelessness situation in its urban centre.

2010 Winter Olympics logo.svg

Sochi 2014 was a truly unpleasant moment in Olympic history as Russia massacred its stray dogs, banned all public discussion of gay rights and exercised extreme security measures after a suicide bomber struck in Volgograd.

2014 Winter Olympics logo.svg

Since Berlin 1936 some countries have chosen to boycott a celebration of the Games for various reasons.

Greece, Australia, France, Britain and Switzerland are the only countries to be represented at every Olympic Games since their inception in 1896.

Even Canada has boycotted, refusing to send its athletes to Moscow 1980 because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The Olympic Games has been used as a platform to promote political ideologies, the most famous example being Berlin 1936.

1936 berlin logo.jpg

The National Socialist Party (Nazis) wanted to portray themselves as peaceful and benevolent yet simultaneously showing the world Aryan superiority.

Though Germany was the most successful nation at the Games, the victories of black American Jesse Owens and Jewish Hungarian Ibolya Csak denied the complete success of their Aryan supremist message.

As early as 1904, many Olympic athletes began using drugs to improve their athletic abilities, with even one death as a result in Rome 1960.

Canadians still weep when we remember Seoul 1988 when Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson (who won the 100-metre dash) tested positive for the performance-enhancing drug stanozol.

Logo der Olympischen Sommerspiele 1988

Johnson was stripped of his gold medal and it was awarded to the American runner-up Carl Lewis, who arrogantly proclaimed American superiority and condemnation of doping while he himself had tested positive for banned substances prior to the Olympics.

Canadians felt that insult had been added to injury.

And the policies and practices of Olympic host countries continue behind the scenes: the theft of land expropriated for Games use and the neglect and intensification of poor social conditions for indigenous peoples.

Canada and America still have much work to do to resolve the injustices done to the natives that have lived there long before the Europeans arrived and continue to do so.

Yet in spite of politics, in spite of scandals, in spite of fears of disease or terrorism, the Games go on.

For the focus is not on the problems of nations but on sport’s greatest athletes with their superhuman feats.

Fans don’t let morality ruin their fun.

We watch gymnists flip and propel themselves into the air turning backflips and somersaults that leave us breathless.

We wonder if merpeople really do exist as we watch Michael Phelps seek to redeem himself from his arrest for drunk driving and resulting stint in rehab in 2014.

We gaze in amazement at the sprinters, who despite careers of strained hamstrings, still deliver speeds that dominate our imaginations.

And judo throws are thrown, badminton birds struck, bullets shot, soccer balls kicked, basketballs bounced, boats rowed and sailboats sailed, pools dove into, rugby balls thrown, swords drawn, hurdles hurdled and poles vaulted, tennis courts beckon, boxers spar, weights are lifted, water polo and golf attract but not so beautifully as volleyball on the beach…

The show must go on.

Are we having fun yet?

Once upon a time, once upon an Alp

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 14 June 2016

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

It is a placid existence, this Alpine life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everybody is an expert here…

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

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

We must know its museums and cinemas and restaurants….

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

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

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

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

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

Ebenalp, Appenzellerland, Swizerland, 2 April 2016

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

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

We thought we knew what we were doing.

Spring had sprung.

Birds filled the sky by the Lake of Constance.

Green grass grew and flowers blossomed.

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

We are prepared, all geared up.

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

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

We drive all the way back.

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

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

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

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

Ebenalp attracts up to 200,000 visitors each year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And snow…

Where did all this snow come from?

It´s spring in the valley.

Why is there snow up here?

We reach an impasse.

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

We return to the Berggasthaus, feeling frustrated and grumpy.

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

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

Signs suggest a short panoramic winter walk around the lodge.

A SHORT panoramic walk…

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

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

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

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

So how hard can snowshoeing possible be?

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

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

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

Now I had done everything right that weekend…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lowlander.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Walk west?

My snowshoes respond.

Westwards, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once upon a time, once upon an Alp.

Rotsteinpass, Foto Roland Gerth

 

 

 

 

Where there´s a way, there´s Wil

Wil, Switzerland: 2 February 2016

historic center of Wil

A small walk on a nice day?  Why not?

Climb some hills, ascend a tower, a leisurely stroll.

So while North Americans anxiously worried about whether their local groundhogs would see shadows, I decided to face my own shadows.

Prior to this day, the city of Wil represented only one thing: defeat.

I had worked for a private school in this town and found that the school and I had different philosophies in regards to teaching English.

I wanted the students to make an effort.

The school cared more about the students´ feelings than whether they actually learned.

I left under a cloud.

Many years ago, back in Quebec City, back in the 80s, a girl I was dating at the time had complained to me that walking along the Dufferin Terrace always reminded her of the unpleasantness of her last boyfriend.

I responded that the best way to deal with an old bad memory was to replace it with a new good moment.

I like to think my thinking worked then.

I decided to try similar thinking in regards to Wil.

Trains to St. Gallen and Wil, city bus to Bronschhofen.

The Old Schoolhouse, Bronschhofen

The pilgrimage church of Maria Dreibrunnen (Mary of the Three Fountains)

A bedroom community of Wil, Bronschhofen is known as a centre for electronics with Cicor Technologies / Swisstronics, a major manufacturer of memory cores for computers.

Up, up through streets and vineyards.

Up and onward through forest and fields to arrive at Wiler Tower:

On a clear day it seems that you can see half the world from the top platform.

The tower is an open structure, rising on six slanted columns from three equi-distant ground support points.

A circular stairway (189 steps) rises in the center of the columns, opening onto a roofed observation deck.

Although the structure rises some 34 meters above the ground, the deck is barely above the surrounding trees.

The structure is entirely of wood, all obtained from the surrounding forest.

The columns are Douglas fir and the stairway is of silver fir.

The wood was harvested in the early months of 2005 and allowed to dry naturally for a year before construction began.

The view from Wiler Tower looking south

I linger forever, trying to postpone returning to Wil, but eventually I know I must face the place.

I did not know that there was much I did not know about Wil, much that I had not seen.

Wil is more than its train station and pedestrian shopping street.

Rising above Wil Pond, the Hof, the former seat of power of the Prince-Abbott:

The old town of Wil and its pond

Datei:Stadtweier Wil SG.jpg

Inside the old city quarter of Wil

As I dig more into the stories and personalities that make up Wil, I begin to discover similarities with my own fall from grace:

Wil is said to be the “Güllen” of Swiss dramatist Friedrich Dürrenmatt´s tragicomic play, The Visit (Der Besuch der alten Dame) where an enormously wealthy older woman returns to her former hometown with a dreadful bargain:

The Visit (1964 film).jpg

She wants the townspeople to kill the man who got her pregnant then jilted her.

In exchange, she will provide enough money to revitalise the decrepit town.

The townspeople eventually agree.

Or consider the case of Anna Sutter:

Anna Sutter (26 November 1871 – 29 June 1910) was a Swiss operatic soprano.

Born in Wil, she earned a diploma in piano performance from the Bern Conservatory before studying singing in Munich.

She made her debut at the Volkstheater in Munich in 1892.

From 1892 to 1895, she was committed to the Stadttheater von Augsburg.

From 1895 until her death 15 years later she was a member of the Staatsoper Stuttgart.

Her career was cut short when she was murdered by conductor Aloys Obrist.

Prior to her death, she had broken off a romantic relationship with Obrist and become involved with the bass baritone Albin Swoboda Jr., who was just 17 years old at the time.

On 29 June 1910, Obrist broke into Sutter’s apartment, murdered her and committed suicide in the presence of Swoboda who was unable to stop him.

Unusual for an unmarried woman at that time she gave birth to a daughter in 1900 (from Hans Freiherr von Entress-Fürsteneck) and to a son in 1902 (from Hugo Reichenberger).

During her career she also performed as a guest artist at the Bavarian State Opera, the Berlin State Opera, and the Frankfurt Opera among others.

Her repertoire included Sieglinde in Richard Wagner´s The Ring Cycle and the title role in Richard Strauss´ Salome (an icon of dangerous female seductiveness, notably in regard to the erotic Dance of the Seven Veils).

Or ponder upon Alex Zülle:

Alex ZUELLE.jpg

During the 1990s he was one of the best cyclists in the world, winning back-to-back races in the 1996 and 1997 Vuelta a Espana, taking second place in the 1995 and the 1999 Tour de France.

He was world time-trial champion in Lugano in 1996.

In 1998, Zülle joined Festina.

The team was banned from the 1998 Tour de France amid doping allegations, which later became known as the Festina Affair.

Five Festina riders including Zülle admitted taking EPO. (erythropoietin: a performance-enhancing hormone)

Zülle said he took it to satisfy his sponsors.

On 28 November 1998, Zülle’s haemotocrit was found to be 52.3%, 2.3% over the limit.

Zülle retired in 2004 and held a party for his fans in Wil in October that year.

To be fair not all those who have shared in the life of Wil have become fallen heroes.

Wil has produced film makers and football players, TV show hosts and speed skaters, musicians and politicians, writers and monks.

Wandering along the waters of Wiler Pond or strolling the streets of the old quarter I begin to realize that it is not the place that creates the person but rather the people that create a place.

I take some comfort in this.

Last of the Knights Templar

Adam Kerr's photo.

Triesenberg, Liechtenstein: 25 January 2016

My private student in Winterthur had cancelled his lesson for today, leaving me only my regular lunch-time Cambridge BEC Vantage group in Vaduz.

With the wife away in Zürich, with time on my hands and little desire to waste the clear skies and temperate weather, I decide to explore more of this Principality of Liechtenstein, of which I know only its capital.

I am a humble rider amongst other humble riders on a metal steed, a Liechtensteiner bus.

“Attractions around the Principality are low-key, and aside from the mountain resort of Malbun, almost entirely untouristed.

South of Vaduz is the Liechtensteiner Oberland, with workaday Triesen, overshadowed by pretty Triesenberg, perched on a sunny hillside high above the Rhine and best known as the adopted home of a community of Walser people.

Many of the houses are old wooden chalets built in the Walser style.

Adam Kerr's photo.

The modern, well-presented Walsermuseum documents the community´s history and culture.”

(The Rough Guide to Switzerland)

Bus 21 whisks me away and up to Triesenberg.

In the Walser Museum, I am told that to be in Triesenberg is to be amongst a community of knights.

To be a knight in the Middle Ages, a man needed to possess the following virtues:

* Mercy
* Humility
* Honor
* Sacrifice
* Fear of God
* Faithfulness
* Courage
* Utmost graciousness and courtesy to ladies

A mid 13th century knight armed with virtues and facing the vices in mortal combat.

The parts of his armour are identified with Christian virtues, thus correlating essential military equipment with the religious values of chivalry:

The helmet is hope of future bliss, the shield is faith, the armour is charity, the lance is perseverance, the sword is the word of God, the banner is desire for heaven, the horse is good will, the saddle is the Christian religion, the saddlecloth is humility, the reins are discretion, the spurs are discipline, the stirrups are good works, and the horse’s four hooves are delight, consent, good work, and exercise.

The ideal knight was gentle, kind, patient, and tender with the poor, with those less fortunate than himself, and with the elderly, women, and children.

He learned to be civil, refined, genteel, and temperate.

He could be counted on to deal justly and fairly with everyone-the people of his Kingdom as well as his fellow knights.

King David I of Scotland knighting a squire

A knight was usually selfless and put the safety of others ahead of his own.

He was usually physically strong and hardy.

A great deal of self control went into being a knight.

Do the Walser have these qualities?

The first important distinction we need to make here is between real knights and the knight as a literary figure.

The literary and cultural traditions of chivalry and chivalric romance created a behavioral ideal for knights which was quite different from the more pragmatic requirements of possessing wealth and the ability to maintain local order and kill people on command.

Seal of Templars.jpg

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, commonly known as the Knights Templar, the Order of Solomon’s Temple or simply as Templars, were among the most wealthy and powerful of the Western Christian military orders and were prominent actors in Christian finance.

The organisation existed for nearly two centuries during the Middle Ages.

Officially endorsed by the Roman Catholic Church around 1129, the Order became a favoured charity throughout Christendom and grew rapidly in membership and power.

Templar knights, in their distinctive white mantles with a red cross, were among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades.

Templar Cross

Non-combatant members of the Order managed a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, innovating financial techniques that were an early form of banking, and building fortifications across Europe and the Holy Land.

Above: The first headquarters of the Knights Templar, on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

The Crusaders called it the Temple of Solomon and from this location derived their name of “Templar”.

The Templars’ existence was tied closely to the Crusades.

When the Holy Land was lost, support for the Order faded.

Rumours about the Templars’ secret initiation ceremony created distrust.

King Philip IV of France, deeply in debt to the Order, took advantage of the situation.

In 1307, many of the Order’s members in France were arrested, tortured into giving false confessions and then burned at the stake.

Under pressure from King Philip, Pope Clement V disbanded the Order in 1312.

The abrupt disappearance of a major part of the European infrastructure gave rise to speculation and legends, which have kept the “Templar” name alive into the modern day.

The Walser are the speakers of the Walser German dialects, a variety of High Alemannic.

They inhabit the Alps of Switzerland and Liechtenstein, as well as on the fringes of Italy and Austria.

The Walser people are named after the Wallis (Valais), the uppermost Rhone valley, where they settled from roughly the 10th century in the late phase of the migration of the Alamanni, crossing from the Bernese Oberland.

Because of linguistic differences among the Walser dialects, it is supposed that there were two independent immigration routes.

From the upper Wallis, they began to spread south, west and east between the 12th and 13th centuries, in the Walser migrations (Walserwanderungen).

The causes of these further population movements, the last wave of settlement in the higher valley of the Alps, are not entirely clear.

Walser legend asserts that the migration and their subsequent granting of “free man” status was expressly because of their association with Templar resettlement.

The Alps provided an ideal and easily defended refuge, a place already settled by other Templars in a town named after Jerusalem: Sion, Switzerland, the capital of Valais, the namesake region of the Walser.

In Liechtenstein, there is one Walser community: Triesenberg, including Saminatal and Malbun.

Triesenberg is a municipality in Liechtenstein with a population of 2,564.

1987.08.25.li.Triesenberg.jpg

Its area of 30 square kilometers makes it the largest municipality in Liechtenstein.

The center of the municipality rests at an elevation of 884 – 1,000 metres.

The village is noted for its distinct dialect, dating from the influence of Walser migrants in the Middle Ages, who arrived in the region early in the 14th century.

This dialect is actively promoted by the Municipality.

The existence of this dialect is one evidence of remarkable linguistic diversity within the small Principality, as it is spoken alongside the Standard German and Alemannic dialect common to this country.

Adam Kerr's photo.

Just in case you missed noticing that people round you talk differently – the Walser dialect dictionary – Triesenberg, Liechtenstein

Adam Kerr's photo.

Above: part of the permanent exhibition of the wood figures of Rudolf Schädler, Liechtensteiner composer, woodcarver and hotelier (1903 – 1990) (The Roots backpack and winter clothing is mine.)

Adam Kerr's photo.

Above: depiction of the legend where the devil is forced to carry the church bell on his back

(See Along the Fable Trail of this blog.)

This is the place where modern knights meet modern art and olden customs.

Originally called the Heimatmuseum, the Walser Museum was created in 1961 by the parish priest of Triesenberg, Engelbert Bucher.

Since 1980 the museum has been located in the centre of the village, next to the Hotel Kulm.
Its exhibits tell the history of Triesenberg and the local church and showcase many of the customs and traditions so central to the Walser population’s way of life.
The Walser Museum in Triesenberg

A multimedia show lasting around 25 minutes gives an insight into how the village has changed over the centuries.

In the basement visitors will find a permanent exhibition of wood sculptures by local artist Rudolf Schädler.
Walsermuseum

As well as the main building itself, the Walser Museum includes a 400-year-old traditional Walser house to the south of the cemetery, where visitors can find out about how the local population lived in the 19th century.

Walsermuseum Triesenberg

Hop back on Bus 21 and go to the end of the road.

1,600-metre-high resort Malbun feels like the edge of the Earth.

Above: the village of Malbun

It feels remote, even though in high season Malbun is mobbed.

It is a perfect place to unwind.

Above: the Chapel of Peace in Malbun, built to praise God for sparing Liechtenstein from the effects of the Second World War

Malbun is the only resort for skiing in Liechtenstein, a tiny exclusive ski resort, frequented by members of the Liechtenstein and British royal families.

Liechtenstein is the only country located entirely within the Alps, with most of its territory occupied by mountains.

With a total of 11 Olympic medals (all in Alpine skiing), Liechtenstein has won more Olympic medals per capita (population: 36,000) than any other nation, and it is the only country to have won medals in Winter games, but never Summer.

Bildergebnis für malbun winter

In summer Malbun is an excellent location for hiking and it has served as a high elevation stage of the Tour de Suisse annual cycling race in 2004, 2007 and 2011.

Today is an odd time to be travelling as a tourist in Liechtenstein.

Christmas and New Year´s have passed.

Fasnacht (Carnival) hasn´t started yet.

The streets are mostly deserted and the men in the local sports shop, which doubles as the village´s souvenir shop, are happy to talk to anyone besides themselves.

Some talk about the upcoming local elections.

I admire their election posters.

The ice rink restaurant is quiet and there are few customers.

It is a Monday so there are few skiers on the slopes.

As I drink my coffee and wait for the next bus back to Vaduz, I wonder if the short waitress or the obese manager have the blood of knights flowing through their veins.

It is a place of peace and sanctuary here.

As a place to escape to, the Municipality of Triesenberg is perfect for any knight, king, prince or teacher.

Regardless of what age he came from.