Canada Slim and the Forgotten

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 30 May 2017

Marriage ain’t easy.

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“My successful marriage is built on mistakes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was prone to bouts of tuberculosis and despondency.

Mileva was known for neither her books nor her personality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Albert urged her to return to Zürich.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above all else, Albert loved Mileva for her mind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mileva became pregnant by Albert.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Above: Petrovaradin Fortress, Novi Sad, Serbia

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

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

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

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

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

She did not bring Lieserl with her.

Albert and Lieserl never laid eyes on each other.

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

The fate of Lieserl remains unknown.

Albert finally was rewarded the position on 16 June 1902.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Life should have been glorious.

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

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Above: Hofstrasse  116, Zurich

They were reunited with old friends.

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

After a year of silence, Elsa wrote to Albert.

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

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

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Mileva was unhappy in Berlin and their marriage was dissolving.

She had become more depressed, dark and jealous.

He had become emotionally withdrawn.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what of Mileva?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I found parallels with my own past…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Above: The Napfbrunnen Fountain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

Tim Dowling, How to Be a Husband

Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe

Duncan J.D. Smith, Only in Zürich

Wikipedia

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How to Train a Dragon 1: Canadians in China

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 23 March 2017

The further away a country is, the harder it is to know and understand that country.

China is such a country.

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So it is with caution that I express my opinion of the events that have so far transpired with China and its relations with the rest of the world.

Until this year I have had little exposure to Chinese people.

The only Chinese people I had known were second generation Chinese Canadians, more Canadian in character than Chinese as they have spent the entirety of their lives in Canada.

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I am not certain whether they have ever visited their parents’ homeland or even if they have wished to do so.

I have nothing against the three Chinese Canadians I have known, though whether they feel the same towards me remains debateable.

I know that Dicky and I have become more closer since our high school days and that he seems happy back in his hometown of Lachute and working for Air Canada at the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport in Montréal.

I am fairly certain that Walter from my college days became the international lawyer he wanted to be, though whether he returned to Québec City I do not know.

Things had ended badly between us and the only excuse I have in my pitiful defence is that we had known one another at a most difficult and painful time of my life.

Nonetheless I wish him much happiness and success but I don’t anticipate a happy reunion betweeen us anytime soon.

I am not at all sure where Jack, whom I knew from my travelling days, is or what he is doing these days.

I remember his face and stature as if he had been seen only mere moments before, but whether he found whatever he was searching for in his travels I know not.

Here in Switzerland I teach a young lady from Beijing twice a week and I occasionally meet another Chinese woman who works for a company I teach at once every two weeks.

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These two ladies have awakened within me a curiosity to know more about their homeland, but I remain uncertain about how I feel about visiting China one day.

As tourism goes, of course, there is much that attracts me about China…

I would love to walk the Great Wall, visit Beijing’s ancient Forbidden City and Summer Palace, parade amongst the army of terracotta warriors, explore the lush rainforest of Xishuangbanna, take in the sights and scents of Guangzhou’s evening spice markets, listen to the talented Chinese National Orchestra in live performance, watch a Zhang Yimou film without English subtitles, eat duck in Beijing followed by chá at a teahouse where my appearance might increase the level of gossip and intrigue within, hug a panda (if such a thing is even possible), dodge yet another of the endless array of construction sites, sigh as yet another Chinese student tries to practice his English upon me, gaze nervously at Tiananmen Square fearful that my rebellious thoughts betray me, wonder at a country which doesn’t only include an endless sea of Han Chinese but as well 55 other officially recognised ethnic groups…so much to see and experience one hardly knows where to begin.

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The Hall of Supreme Harmony (太和殿) at the centre of the Forbidden City

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Above: (from top to bottom) The Great Wall, The Forbidden City, The Terracotta Army, the tropical rain forest of Xishuangbanna, the skyline of Guangzhou, the logo of the Chinese National Traditional Orchestra, poster of Zhang Yimou’s 1991 film Raise the Red Lantern, Peking duck, the Yu Yuan Garden Teahouse of Shanghai, a giant panda bear in Hong Kong Zoo, Tiananmen Square

(I am curious about the rumor that generations of Chinese are still convinced that Western music is the Carpenters, Richard Clayderman, Kenny G and Lionel Richie and what the concert goers to Wham!’s Freedom Tour actually felt and understood.)

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Above: (from top to bottom) US musicians Karen and Richard Carpenter at the White House in 1971, French pianist Richard Clayderman (née Philip Pagès), US saxophonist Kenny G. (née Kenny Gorelick), US musician Lionel Richie and British pop duo Wham!

The little I know of China has been limited to newspapers and magazines and the occasionally travel account from writers like Paul Theroux (Riding the Iron Rooster: By Train through China) or books telling folks how to do business in China, and though this exposure has been interesting I am uncertain, despite the advent of the Internet, how accurate are these impressions.

And though I am aware that it is unfair to confuse the Chinese people with the Chinese government, much as it would be to label all Americans in the mold of Donald Trump, I must confess the politics of China does bother me, especially in regards to Taiwan and Tibet.

Why can`t the Chinese government let Taiwan go?

A red flag, with a small blue rectangle in the top left hand corner on which sits a white sun composed of a circle surrounded by 12 rays.

Above: Flag of Taiwan

Why must the Chinese continue to occupy Tibet?

Above: Flag of Tibet

I have met a handful of Tibetan people here in Switzerland and have read numerous accounts of the oppression that Tibet endures and the never-ending exile of their Dalai Lama and I find it difficult to reconcile my desire to see China with my sadness about the acts that are done in China’s name.

I also admit to feeling remorse about the correctness of the accusation that is often levelled at the West…

We simply don`t care about what happens outside of the West until it affects us.

Shortly before I began teaching Chinese students in St. Gallen and Herisau, I read of one Canadian couple’s experience in China and it is their tale I now wish to tell…

Vancouver, Canada, 28 June 2014

Su Bin, aka Stephen Su or Stephen Subin, the owner and manager of Beijing Lode Technology Company Ltd, an aviation technology company -based in China with offices in Vancouver, Kansas City, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu, Xi’an, Shenyang and Changchun – a cable harness equipment company that served the aviation and space market and represented and distributed related aerospace products for a number of companies – is arrested today.

Su Bin a.k.a Stephen Su a.k.a. Stephen Subin

Su Bin, a Chinese businessman and permanent resident of Canada allegedly hacked into the computer systems of US companies with large defence contracts, including Boeing, to steal data on military projects including some of its fighter jets.

On 27 June, the Los Angeles branch of the FBI filed a complaint outlining the alleged participation of Su Bin in a conspiracy to unlawfully access computers in the United States.

The complaint provides an in depth look at an EaaS (espionage as a service) operation.

Su’s alleged role was to help his partners identify valuable military aviation technology to steal.

His company’s logo is almost laughably ironic: We will track the world’s aviation advanced technology.”

Lode Tech is also a representative and distributor of related aerospace products for a number of companies, including DIT-MCO of Kansas City which proudly announces that its equipment “was used on the early Hawk Missile, the first Transcontinental Atlas missile, Polaris missiles for the Navy, Titan missiles for the Air Force and the Patriot Missile used so successfully in the Desert Storm War, as well as almost all the aircraft used by the Air Force, Army and the Navy.”

DIT-MCO International

Prosecutors allege that Su Bin worked with two unnamed Chinese hackers to get the data between 2009 and 2013 and that he attempted to sell some of the information to state-owned Chinese companies.

This case underscore the importance for companies in high value technologies to:

a) Conduct in depth due diligence investigations on all of their vendors.

b) Restrict network access by implementing least privilege rules.

The three hackers targeted fighter jets, such as the F-22 from Lockheed Martin and the F-35 as well as Boeing’s C-17 military cargo aircraft program.

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As well, they stole 20 gigabytes of date from a US military contractor via the company’s FTP server, acquired a list of contractors and suppliers and had access to a Russian-India joint missile development program (Brahmos Aerospace?) by controlling the company’s website and “awaiting the opportunity to conduct internal penetration”.

Su Bin’s arrest marks the first time that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has issued an arrest warrant for a foreigner charged with an act of cyber-espionage via a network attack that had until now been attributed to states.

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While this is the first criminal complaint that describes “hackers for hire” or espionage-as-a-service, this type of criminal activity is neither new nor exclusive to China.

Hackers for hire operate in the following manner:

Their target selection is determined by the science and technology priorities of their potential customers.

The hackers establish “technology bases” and hop servers outside of their native nation and “machine rooms” with legal status in cities back home.

They focus on those contractors which are among the top 50 arms companies.

Cyber security companies who research cyber threats should study this criminal complaint closely.

Intelligence companies worldwide need to find ways to differentiate the activities of a nation-state with those of a for-profit hacker group, criminal organization or other alternative entities engaging in acts of cyber espionage.

US Department of Justice spokesman Marc Raimondi said that the conspirators are alleged to have accessed the computer networks of US defence contractors without authorization and stolen data related to military aircraft and weapons systems.

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“We remain deeply concerned about cyber-enabled theft of sensitive information and we have repeatedly made it clear that the United States will continue using all the tools our government possesses to strengthen cyber security and confront cybercrime.”

Boeing said in a statement that the company cooperated with investigators and will continue to do so to hold accountable “individuals who perpetrate economic espionage or trade secret theft against US companies.”

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“We appreciate that the government brought its concerns about a potential compromise of our protected computer systems to our attention.”

None of the claims have been proven in court.

The New York Times reported that Chinese hackers broke into the computer networks of the Office of Personnel Management earlier in March with the intention of accessing the files of thousands of federal employees who had applied for top secret security clearances.

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The hackers gained access to some of the agency`s databases before the threat was detected and blocked.

The Chinese community in Canada is one of the largest overseas Chinese communities, the 2nd largest overseas Chinese community in North America after the United States and the 7th largest worldwide.

Canadians of Chinese descent make up about 4% of the Canadian population, or 1.3 million people.

The Chinese Canadian community is the largest ethnic group of Asian Canadians – 40% of the Asian Canadian population.

Chinese have been a part of the Canadian mosaic as early as 1788.

The highest concentration of Chinese Canadians is in Vancouver, where 1 in 5 residents is Chinese, prompting other Canadians to nickname Vancouver “Hongcouver”.

Clockwise from top: Downtown Vancouver as seen from the southern shore of False Creek, The University of British Columbia, Lions Gate Bridge, a view from the Granville Street Bridge, Burrard Bridge, The Millennium Gate (Chinatown), and totem poles in Stanley Park

According to the Canadian Ethnic Diversity Survey of 2002, 76% of Chinese Canadians said they had a strong sense of belonging to Canada, yet maintaining a strong sense of belonging to their ethnic culture.

Chinese Canadians are active in Canadian society.

Many of them vote in federal and provincial elections and participate in gatherings such as sports teams or community organizations.

Sadly 1 in 3 Chinese Canadians reported that they had experienced discrimination, prejudice or unfair treatment based on their ethnicity, race, religion, language or accent.

Dandong, China, 4 August 2014

An obscure port tucked away in the corner of southeastern Liaoning Province at the confluence of the Yalu River and the Yellow Sea, Dandong‘s interest to travellers lies in the city’s proximity to North Korea and its convenience as a departure point for the Changbai Shan Nature Reserve eight hours distant by bus.

View of Dandong's skyline on the Yalu River

The North Korean city of Sinuiju (Chinese: Xinyizhou) lies on the other side of the Yalu River, so the Chinese come to Dandong (“red east”) just to see the border of their country.

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Above: Flag of North Korea, or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea

A strong Korean influence can be felt in Dandong, from shops to restaurants.

Yalujiang Park is an appealing riverfront park that is a favourite with tourists posing for the standard “I visited the Sino-Korean border.” shot.

After the start of the First Sino-Japanese War in 1894, this region was occupied by Japan who built an iron bridge leading to North Korea.

From November 1950 to February 1951, this bridge along with a younger Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge was “accidentally” bombed by the United States during the Korean War.

(Americans also “accidentally” bombed the airstrip at Dandong.)

Even though the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge was rebuilt, the remains of the Japanese-built iron bridge remain and now serve as a war monument.

The Koreans dismantled the Japanese bridge as far as the mid-river boundary line, leaving only a row of support columns.

On the Chinese side, tourists can wander along the remains of the original Broken Bridge, from dawn to dusk, and see shrapnel pockmarks along the bridge until it ends mid-river.

The Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge runs parallel to the remains of the Japanese bridge.

The Korean War, from the Chinese and North Korean perspectives, is recorded in the city’s huge macabre Museum to Commemorate Aiding Korea Against US Aggression in a compound northwest of the city, close to the 53-metre high square column Resist America, Aid Korea Memorial.

This gleaming museum, built in 1993, has nine exhibition halls on the Korean War, full of maps, plans, dioramas, machine guns, hand grenades, gory photographs, “Defeat Wolf-hearted America” spelled out on marble, a trench simulation, an impressive revolving panorama showing Korean and Chinese soldiers hammering American aggressors, North Korean folk art including dolls and children’s shoes and statues of valiant Chinese and Korean soldiers.

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Everything is labelled in Chinese and Korean, with the exception of the Chinese propaganda leaflets dropped behind enemy lines in which worried American wives wonder what their husbands are fighting for, and the United Nations official declaration of war – the only written record in the entire museum that mentions the small trifling detail that it was the North Koreans who kicked off the War by invading the South.

A couple of MiGs and Red Army tanks sit in a compound to the side of the Museum.

At the entrance to the compound, next to Chinese President Jiang Ze Min’s large plaque of calligraphy swearing eternal Sino-North Korean friendship, ice-cold Coca-Colas are for sale.

Behind the Museum, a gleaming structure marks a graveyard containing the remains of more than 10,000 Chinese soldiers.

The promenade along the Yalu River is packed with games, parks, modern restaurants offering freshwater fish or Korean barbeque and the Hong Kong Coffee House with strong Korean coffee and the latest North Korean news on TV.

One of Dandong’s top-rated destinations on TripAdvisor is Peter`s Coffee House, owned by Julia and Kevin Garratt of Vancouver and named after one of their sons.

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Peter’s Coffee House is a hub for expats, local Chinese curious about the outside world, state security agents suspicious of the staff and customers, and the occasional North American diplomat.

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“Down by the riverfront Peter`s Coffee House, at 103 Binjiang Zhong Lu, open from 0800 to 2200, Monday to Saturday, noon to 2200 on Sunday, is a friendly café run by a longterm Canadian expat family.

In addition to its excellent coffee, Peter`s serves milkshakes and sodas, authentic Western baked goods, a fine all-day breakfast, burgers and sandwiches.

This is also the place to go for local information and restaurant recommendations.” (http://www.peterscoffeehouse.com)

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Canadian Christian aid workers Julia and Kevin Garratt lived in China on and off for 30 years, raised their four children there and moved their family from Vancouver to Dandong in 2007.

Kevin Garratt and his wife Julia pose for a portrait in the backyard of a home they're staying at after returning to Canada. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Julia taught international trade and management at a local university while Kevin ran the café, organizing weekly “English Corner” language exchanges.

In their spare time, the Garratts volunteered around Dandong, often taking Chinese orphans ice skating.

The Garratts wanted to address the suffering of those living across the border by providing aid to orphanages and a school for the disabled in North Korea.

The Garratts considered China their home, as do the 300,000 Canadians living in China.

(Most Canadians live in Hong Kong, Beijing or Shanghai, so it can be imagined that the gritty border town of Dandong might have regarded the Garratts as highly unusual but generally not unwelcome.

For two Canadians remain etched in Chinese consciousness: Dr. Henry Norman Bethune and Dashan.

Norman Bethune (1890 – 1939) was a Canadian physician, medical innovator and noted anti-fascist.

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Above: Dr. Norman Bethune (1890 – 1930)

He first came to international prominence for his service as a frontline surgeon supporting the democratically-elected Republican government and their Loyalist troops during the Spanish Civil War, but it was his service with the Communist Eighth Route Army during the Second Sino-Japanese War that would earn him enduring acclaim.

Dr. Bethune effectively brought modern medicine to rural China and often treated sick villagers as much as wounded soldiers.

His selfless commitment made a profound impression on the Chinese people, especially the Communist Party of China’s leader, Chairman Mao Zedong.

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Above: Chairman Mao Zedong (1893 – 1976)

The Chairman wrote a famous eulogy to Bethune, which was memorized by generations of Chinese people:

“Comrade Bethune’s spirit, his utter devotion to others without any thought of self, was shown in his great sense of responsibility in his work and his great warmheartedness towards all comrades and the people.

Every Communist must learn from him.

We must all learn the spirit of absolute selflessness from him.

With this spirit everyone can be very useful to the people.

A man’s ability may be great or small, but if he has this spirit, he is already noble-minded and pure, a man of moral integrity and above vulgar interests, a man who is of value to the people.”

Bethune is one of the few Westerners to whom China has dedicated statues, of which many have been erected in his honour throughout the country.

There are hospitals across China named after him and the Norman Bethune Medal is the highest medical honour in China.

Dashan is the Chinese stage name of Canadian Mark Henry Rowswell (born, nine days after yours truly, on 23 May 1965 in Ottawa) who works as a freelance performer in China.

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Relatively unknown in the West, Dashan is the most famous Western personality in China’s media industry, where he occupies a unique position as a foreign national who has become a bona fide domestic celebrity.

Dashan is best known for his mastery of Mandarin Chinese and is considered a true cultural ambassador through his work as a TV host and stand-up comedian done in Chinese.)

This evening the Garratts were invited to a restuarant dinner by Chinese acquaintances who told them they wanted advice about how their daughter could apply to the University of Toronto.

But the dinner was a trap.

When the restaurant elevator doors opened onto a crowd of people, many holding video cameras, Julia and Kevin thought they had stumbled into a wedding party.

But this was no celebration.

In a flash, the Garratts were snatched by men and shoved into separate cars.

They did not know they were in the hands of China’s feared Ministry of State Security.

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Above: Logo of the Chinese Ministry of State Security

They would not see each other for more than two years.

The men drove Julia, 55, to an office building and demanded that she sign a document stating that she agreed to be investigated.

“Investigated for what?”, Julia asked.

It was only after a translator said the words “suspect” and “spy” that Julia understood.

“I seriously thought they would realise that they had made a mistake, they would say sorry and we would go home.”

In another room, Kevin Garratt, 56, was hearing the same chilling accusations.

Scared and bewildered, the Garratts signed.

Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, 12 December 2016

Why were the Garratts taken?

The Garratts suspect they were unwitting pawns in a gambit by the Chinese government to prevent Canada from extraditing Su Bin to the United States.

Those supporting the Garratts say that the couple were simply chess pieces in a larger geopolitical skirmish.

“The Chinese made it clear that the Garratt case was designed to pressure Canada to block Su Bin’s extradition to the US.”, said James Zimmerman, an American lawyer in Beijing hired by the family to lobby Canadian and Chinese government officials for their release.

In an emailed statement about the Garratts’ detention, Global Affairs Canada, the department that handles Canada’s diplomatic relations, declined to comment on the question of an exchange, but said: “Senior government officials were raising the case at every opportunity.”

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The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa denied that the Garratts’ detention was linked to Mr. Su.

“We don’t think it is related to any other cases.”, an Embassy spokesman said in an email.

The Garratts’ account provides a rare glimpse into the workings of China`s opaque state security system.

Their interrogations also reveal clues about the vast reach of China’s global espionage network and the lengths to which the Chinese government will go to protect it.

During the couple’s months-long detention, they said they were frequently threatened with execution or told that they would be sent to a North Korean gulag.

The Garratts’ experience highlights the risks nations face in engaging with China.

According to the Garratts’ account, after signing the investigation document Kevin was driven to the couple’s apartment, where agents ransacked their possessions, grilled him about the contents of their kitchen cabinets and then carted off schoolbooks and computers in the family’s suitcases.

After a heated exchange, the men allowed Kevin to take a pair of Bibles back to the detention centre.

Julia was already at the compund, an extralegal detention centre on the outskirts of the city, confined to a separate isolation cell that had a couch, a bed and a small window covered in opaque plastic.

During the next six months, neither one knew where the other was.

But neither was ever alone.

Rotating pairs of guards sat on the couch in each of these cells, staring intently at them and writing down their every move.

Harsh lights remained on 24 hours a day.

To stay sane, Julia prayed, read books provided by the Canadian Consulate and each day drew a cryptic picture of something she was grateful for in the back of her Bible, afraid anything written would be confiscated.

They each faced daily six-hour interrogations by a team of three men.

Armed with years of emails, Skype messages and surveillance records, the interrogators accused the Garratts of “hosting” foreign diplomats at their coffee shop, taking orders from Canada’s intelligence agency (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service – CSIS) and stealing state secrets.

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The agents showed them photos of United States and Canadian diplomats who had visited their coffee shop.

The interrogators claimed Kevin’s photos of street scenes in Dandong and views of North Korea across the Yalu River were espionage, even though tourists on riverboats took the same photos every day.

Security officers used a variety of coercion tactics.

In one exchange, the interrogators described a 2009 meeting in Vancouver between the couple and a CSIS agent who had wanted to ensure their volunteer work in North Korea was not violating United Nations sanctions.

When Julia asked how the interrogators had known about the meeting, one of them said:

“We have people in the US, Canada, everywhere.”

Canadian officials declined to discuss the Garratts’ treatment, but the couple’s accounts squares with those of many people who have been in Chinese detention.

In February 2015, Julia was released on bail and returned to their apartment.

Meanwhile, Kevin was charged with espionage and transferred to a prison medical ward.

During the 19 months he spent there, a rumour circulated among the guards that he would be released as part of a prisoner exchange.

But in February 2016, Mr. Su waived his challenge to extradition and cut a deal with the United States.

Once that happened…

“Beijing was stuck with a weak case of espionage against the Garratts and little bargaining leverage to get much of anything out of Ottawa.”, said Mr. Zimmerman, the American lawyer.

At the end of August 2016, just days before Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived in Hangzhou, China, for the 11th meeting of the Group of Twenty (G20) – an international forum for governments and central bank governors from 20 major economies, with the aim of studying, reviewing and promoting high-level discussion of policy issues pertaining to the promotion of international financial stability – Julia was allowed to leave China.

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Above: Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

The G20 Hangzhou summit was held on 4-5 September 2016.

Two weeks later, Kevin was taken to court, where a judge read out an eight-page guilty verdict in Chinese.

The next morning, he was put on a plane bound for Tokyo, but only after agreeing to pay more than $14,000 in fines and signing a document promising not to speak with the news media about his detention.

Much of that money had been dedicated to a North Korean orphanage.

Julia and Kevin were finally reunited in Canada in September.

Though the Garratts are now back in Canada, they say they do not feel entirely safe, describing a series of unnerving incidents suggesting that the Chinese government may be trying to keep tabs on them and their relatives.

In recent months, relatives have encountered strange interference on their phones, computers have gone haywire and strange cars parked outside their homes drive away when someone approaches.

“Even now we live under a cloud.”, Kevin Garratt said.

Most of all, the Garratts feel grief at losing the lives they built over 30 years.

“That’s the sadness that overwhelms us.

We were just trying to help people in need.

That’s all we did.”, Kevin Garratt said.

So how should businesses and governments deal with China, a country that is both a strategic partner as well as a potential adversary?

A country that is surpassing the United States as the world’s largest economy?

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A country whose investment in its military continues to rapidly increase, to perhaps achieve military equality with the US in 15 to 20 years?

A one-party socialist regime with a poor human rights record?

I personally teach for three companies in Switzerland which do business in China.

China is Switzerland’s top trading partner in Asia.

There are approximately 300 Swiss firms with more than 700 branches operating in China with a total employment of over 55,000 people.

China is the second largest foreign creditor of the United States, yet US President Donald Trump continues to make comments that strain Sino-American relations and have some Americans anticipating potential trade or military conflict between China and the United States in the near future.

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China is currently Canada’s second largest trading partner.

Trying to understand China feels as difficult as trying to train a dragon, but I believe if we can learn from those who have spent time there and those who have studied Chinese history and culture we might be able to find a solution that enables nations and individuals to have an economic partnership with the Chinese, while encouraging them to develop their country for all its people within their sphere of influence, improve their human rights record, govern well for the good of everyone and build a world that is safer and more secure.

If our leaders could admit that even the most capable must sometimes ask for help and that dragons need be handled carefully, then progress rather than destruction could be their legacy.

(To be continued…)

Sources: Wikipedia / Lonely Planet China / Rough Guide China / Jeffrey Carr,”Su Bin, Lode-Tech and Privatizing Cyber Espionage in the PRC”, Digital Dao (electronic blog), 14 July 2014 / CBC News, “Su Bin, Chinese man accused by FBI of hacking, in custody in BC”, 12 July 2014 / Dan Levin, “China freed Canadians, but ‘even now we live under a cloud'”, New York Times, 3 January 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Yellow Taxi

Landschlacht, Switzerland, Ides of March 2017

These are interesting times we live in, where nothing seems as certain as it once was.

Uncertainty as to whether foreign governments can determine other national elections…

Increased irrationality and xenophobia and hate crimes against folks whose only offence is the appearance of being different…

Wars that never end, from the ancient conflict between the Koreas that was resolved by uneasy ceasefire but without a peace treaty, to Afghanistan whose location and lithium cause empires to clash, to Syria so divided and torn apart causing untold millions to become adrift in modern diaspora, Africa where bloodshed is constant but media attention is scarce…

The most public nation on Earth run by an administration whose only real goal seems to be the total erasure of any achievements the previous administration might have accomplished…

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Brazil: where governments change and prison conditions worsen…

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Turkey: a land of wonderful people ruled over by a government that seems desperate for the world to view the country in the completely opposite way…

Flag of Turkey

Israel: fighting for its rights of self-determination while denying the same rights of those caught within its reach…

Centered blue star within a horizontal triband

India: a land of unlimited potential yet prisoner of past values incompatible with the democracy it would like to be…

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

A world where profit is more important than people, short-term gain more valuable than long-term consequence…

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

Interesting times.

And it is these interesting times that find me re-evaluating the behaviour of the routine traveller and why this type of person may be more deserving of respect than is often shown him…

A routine traveller is that kind of person who, regardless of a world that has so much to offer visitors, will not visit any other location than the one to which he returns to, again and again, year after year.

This kind of routine traveller tends to be found amongst the older population.

My biological father will drive down from Canada to Florida once a year, following the exact same route, stay at the same motels and eat at the same restaurants he slept in and ate at before, return to the same trailer by the same beach and do the same things he did before, vacation after vacation, year after year.

An elderly lady student of mine travels from Switzerland to Spain once every seven weeks and lives in Barcelona for a week, remaining in her apartment except to visit familiar places and familiar faces.

22@ district, Sagrada Família, Camp Nou stadium, The Castle of the Three Dragons, Palau Nacional, W Barcelona hotel and beach

And the only thing that would dissuade them from changing their routine would be circumstances beyond their control, like ill health or acts of God or government.

For much of my life I have mocked this kind of traveller.

I have wanted to explore the planet and visit faraway places with strange sounding names.

I have loved the sound of ship horns, train whistles, plane engines…

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I have loved discovering new sights and smells, meeting new people with different perspectives, learning anew just how much I have yet to learn, every day a new discovery, every moment a new adventure.

And that inner child, with eyes wide open with excitement and wonder, never really disappeared from within me.

But as I age I feel I am beginning to understand the routine traveller more, for there is something comforting in the familiar.

My father and my student had made wiser financial investments than I ever had or ever will so they have managed to build themselves second homes in other locales outside their countries of regular residence.

My wife and I, limited like most by time and money, have not even considered the lifestyle of the routine travelling retiree just yet.

But I am beginning to see their point of view.

Last month the wife and I visited the Zürich Zoo and I found myself, to my own amused astonishment, expressing a desire to retire one day in walking distance of a zoo with an annual membership and spend my final days sitting on benches watching the animals obliviously engage in their natural routines.

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I could see myself spending hours watching monkeys climb and swing, penguins march, peacocks strut, elephants calmly forage for food, owls stare back at me unblinkingly, bird song filling my ears, animal odors filling my nose, the solid concrete beneath my feet, the endless activity and colourful wonders of nature in myriad form.

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I can imagine worse ways of spending my last days.

There must be something comforting about going away to a place oft-visited, to once again shop in familiar markets, to take familiar strolls that never require a map, to rediscover the pleasure of a favourite café, to browse again in a well-loved bookshop, to feel at home in a place that isn`t home.

Above: Café Terrace at Night, Vincent van Gogh

I am a married man, for better or worse, so I am unable to simply abandon everything and hit the road as I once did.

I, like most, am bound by schedules and obligations and responsibilities and it is an adjustment, a rut, quite easy to mold oneself to, with its security and certainty in a world not so secure, not so certain.

Time is precious – as is health –  and the unreligious know that we only get one life, so there should be more to life than spending one`s youth working for unappreciative others than finding oneself struggling painfully to maintain a sliver of dignity in a health care centre just waiting to die.

Yet if this be fate then few will avoid it.

As much as I long to see more of a world so vast and unexplored, I think what might attract me to a life of a routine traveller is the increasing realisation that change is inevitable so it is important to appreciate what we’ve got before it is gone, before it is no longer available.

My father at Jacksonville Beach, my student in Barcelona… are comforted by the false security of the familiar getaway.

Images from top, left to right: Jacksonville Beach Pier, water tower, Jacksonville Beach City Hall, Sea Walk Pavilion, Adventure Landing, Jacksonville Beach

No matter how much their lives have changed back in Canada or in Switzerland, the trailer by the beach abides, the apartment in Barcelona is waiting.

But I am not yet ready for a trailer by the sea or an apartment in another city, for what I want to do in the few precious leisure moments afforded me at present, though I am limited by money, I want to step outside as often as possible and explore and re-explore the outdoors within my reach.

While it still lasts…while I still can.

For the newspapers and the media suggest that things might not last.

America has convinced itself that running a pipeline next to a major supply of fresh water is somehow a good idea.

Around the globe, forests are denuded, holes scar the Earth in Man’s mad search for scarce resources, waste is dumped into rivers and oceans with no thought or compassion as to what dwells under the surface or the consequences these actions will have for generations to come.

We rattle our sabres, stockpile our nukes, cry out for war and blindly fight for invisible gods under ever-changing banners, staggering drunk down the road towards our destruction while applauding ourselves for our cleverness.

Nuclear War: Nuclear weapon test, 1954

How long will the forest beyond the village of Landschlacht stand?

How long will seagulls and ducks swim in the clear waters of the Lake of Constance?

How long will the waves crash upon the shores of Jacksonville without dead fish and rotting carcasses polluting the sands?

How long will Barcelona’s streets be filled with music before the sound of marching militia boots tramp over the assumed tranquility?

How long will mothers fear the future for their newborns, teenagers feel the rage of a legacy cheated, the workman groan under the weight of his duties, the elderly too weary to care?

Too many questions…

I still want to explore the planet, but I no longer mock the man who embraces the familiar.

For the routine traveller may be lacking in courage or curiosity, but he is wise in his appreciation of the moment.

The routine traveller abides.

I take some comfort in that.

 

“They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

With a pink hotel, a boutique and a swinging hot spot….

…They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum

Then they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em….

…Hey farmer, farmer, put away that DDT.

Give me spots on my apples but leave me the birds and the bees please….

…Late last night I heard the screen door slam

And a big yellow taxi come and take away my old man

Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve gone ’till it’s gone…”

Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”, Ladies of the Canyon, 1970

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Out of the Shadows

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 2 February 2017

Sometimes inspiration flows like sap through a maple tree.

Sometimes it is as slow-moving as molasses in January.

Those who read this blog (both of them!) or follow me on Facebook (the rest of their families!) are aware that I work…a lot.

Between working as an English teacher during the work week and at Starbucks on weekends, I don´t seem to have an abundance of leisure time.

And what leisure time is not required by my spouse´s instructions is not always used as productively as it should be, for there is much in this modern world to distract even the most resolute of urban animals.

And though I feel most alive when writing my thoughts and feelings, peppered with facts obtained through reading and research, writing – an exercise of the mind´s creative muscles – does feel like work sometimes, so my impulses don´t always cause me to leap behind the keyboard and create words that drip like honey from the lips of the gods.

Yesterday was my first day off – not counting sick days when I truly was ill with that most fatal of ailments, the man cold – in weeks, when I had no immediate urgent obligations to spouse or employers.

A much-beloved private student of mine works at the Kunsthaus in Zürich and finally after months of discussion, I took advantage of her offer to explore the museum for free.

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I thought that getting out of Casa Kerr – our humble wee apartment a short stroll away from the Lake of Constance – would aid me psychologically and inspire me creatively.

For though there are a number of ideas I am working on, words have been trickling slowly these past few weeks.

Part of the problem has been the immediacy of the moment…

It is one thing to write about problems in faraway places like Turkey or Belgium or speak of times past remembered or researched, but to capture the electricity of the moment, fresh and still sparking, this is what has been missing from both my spirit as well as my writing.

I later visited the FIFA Museum and though I see future ideas from this visit there was still lacking the sense of urgency to verbalise what I witnessed there.

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Serendipitiously I stumbled across a dozen books I had neither seen nor read before in three different bookshops, but again ideas from them must be sifted before grains of inspiration can be found lying at the bottom of the goldpan of the mind.

I returned home, began watching To Walk Invisible: The Lives of the Bronte Sisters and, like many typical husbands unsupervised by their spouses, I fell asleep on the couch.

I was awakened by a phone call from Canada.

My childhood was rather…unusual.

I have four brothers (Christopher, Thomas, Kenneth and a stepbrother Stephen) and three sisters (Valerie, Cythnia and a foster sister Victoria).

Having met or learned of my brothers and my biological sisters only when I was in my mid-twenties and finding that decades apart does not a family create, the only true sibling I have any significant contact with is my foster sister Victoria.

It was she who phoned me last night / this morning.

There are many similarities between Vicki and myself.

We both come from large families yet were raised as isolated foster children by the same Irish Canadian woman and French Canadian home owner.

We were taken from our biological families because they were unable to properly take care of us themselves.

In a revolving door type scenario, Vicki, 14 years my senior, moved out to pursue her post-secondary education when I moved in.

For a time Vicki was a French teacher while I remain an English teacher.

There is a significant age difference between ourselves and our spouses.

Vicki remains quite spiritual in her beliefs and I can be occasionally philosophical in my expression.

Vicki feels too much.

I have often been accused of thinking too much.

We both worry too much.

We both desperately need to learn and practice the tenets of St. Francis of Assisi´s Serenity Prayer:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the strength to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

And, sadly, though we both are driven by the creative impulse, we are both hampered by crippling bouts of self-doubt and discouragement.

She confessed to me last night that she had written two books and having been unsuccessful at getting them published, she simply tossed all of her work into the rubbish bin.

I love my sister and I know her mind and I am convinced that she, like me, need not worry whether her words are good enough to share with others but instead she should keep writing and keep learning how to market her writing.

Instead of seeing shadows of a winter endless in prospect and prophetically cold and unwelcoming, Vicki needs to believe that success will eventually spring her way and that the only handicaps preventing her from reaching that spring are those she has created herself.

Which leads me to the subject of Groundhog Day…

Last year I wrote a blog post called Omens and portents from a rodent.

I spoke of the tradition of Groundhog Day celebrated across many locations in Canada and the United States, where, according to folklore, if it is cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring weather will arrive six weeks early before the spring equinox; if it is sunny and the groundhog sees its shadow and retreats back into its den to resume its hibernation then winter weather will persist for six more weeks.

I wrote of the largest Groundhog Day celebration that is held every February 2 in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where crowds as large as 40,000 have gathered to celebrate the “holiday” since 1886.

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I told of other groundhogs less famed than Punxsutawney Phil, like Wiarton Willie (an albino groundhog)(Wiarton, Ontario), Balzac Billy (Alberta), Fred la Marmotte (Val d’Espoir, Quebec), Shubenacadie Sam (Nova Scotia), Manitoba Merv (Winnipeg), Oil Springs Ollie (Ontario), Winnipeg Willow (Manitoba), Dundas Donna (Ontario)…and these are just the Canadian celebrations…

Flag of Canada

In the US, besides Punxsutawney, Groundhog Days are celebrated in Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, Connecticut, New York and many other places across the US…and not always with a groundhog.

Flag of the United States

Red Rock Canyon in Nevada has Mojave Max, a desert tortoise.

And Claude the Cajun Crawfish annually predicts the weather one day earlier in Shreveport, Louisiana.

And in faroff Srentenje, Serbia on 15 February (2 February according to the local religious Julian calendar), it is believed that if a bear awakens from his winter slumber and meets his shadow in his sleepy and confused state, the bear will get scared and go back to sleep for an additional 40 days, thus prolonging winter.

So, if it is sunny on Sretenje on 15 February, winter ain´t over yet in Serbia.

And it is this idea of a sleepy and confused state, this viewing of shadows of portents and omens to come, that first made me think of waxing political about how Donald Trump´s hair resembles a dead groundhog and how he casts shadows of doubt upon the future…

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Then Vicki´s phone call and my encouragement of her literary efforts made me think of the 1993 film Groundhog Day.

Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an arrogant TV weatherman who, during an assignment covering the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, finds himself in a time loop, repeating the same day over and over again and again.

After indulging in hedonism and committing suicide numerous times, Connors begins to re-examine his life and priorities.

Estimates regarding how long Connors remains trapped in the time loop, in real time, vary widely.

During the filming of Groundhog Day, director Harold Ramis, a Buddhist, observed that according to Buddhist doctrine, it takes 10,000 years for a soul to evolve to its next level.

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Therefore, in a spiritual sense, the entire arc of Groundhog Day spans 10,000 years.

Groundhog Day is often considered to be an allegory of self-improvement, emphasizing that happiness comes from placing the needs of others above one’s own selfish desires.

For some Buddhists, the film’s themes of selflessness and rebirth are reflections of the Buddha’s own spiritual messages.

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Some Jews and Christians see Connors’ time loop as a representation of Purgatory, from which Connors is released once he has shed his own selfishness and commits himself to acts of love.

Above: Gustave Doré’s image of a non-fiery Purgatory illustration for Dante Alleghieri’s Purgatorio

Theologian Michael Pholey has suggested that the film could be seen as a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress.

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Above: Title page of first edition of John Bunyan´s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)

Others see Groundhog Day as an affirmation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s directive to imagine life – metaphorically and literally – as an endless repetition of events.

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Above: Friedrich Nietzche (1844 – 1900)

The phrase “Groundhog Day”, as a result of the film, has entered into common usage as a reference to an unpleasant situation that continually repeats, as in today is SSDD – same stuff, different day.

Fourteen years after the movie´s release, “Groundhog Day” was noted as common US military slang for any day of a tour of duty in Iraq.

Major Roger Aeschliman in his Iraq War memoir Victory Denied describes guarding assorted visiting dignitaries as his “Groundhog Day”:

“The dignitaries change, but everything else remains the same.

The same airplanes drop them off at the same places.

The same helicopters take us to the same meetings with the same presenters covering the same topics using the same slides.

We visit the same troops at the same mess halls and send them away from the same airport pads to find our way home late at night.

Over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over until we are redeemed and allowed to go home.”

And this is my take on Groundhog Day, both the film and the event…

Yes, there is fear that success in our endeavours is a long long way away and that it will take 10,000 years, or at least a lifetime, for us to achieve our goals, so it is almost instinctive to return back to our caves/our burrows/our warrens and ignore the unpleasant weather and let our dreams remain dormant.

But not venturing outside our comfort zones, we avoid dangerous difficulties that may lie ahead.

But just as Phil Connors had to continually relive Groundhog Day until he finally did the day right securing his release, so must we continue to strive, despite failure after failure, until we finally learn how to succeed.

So, my sister, if you are reading these words, keep on keeping on.

Fail, learn why, fail again and again, until finally you find the formula to see your thoughts and ideas spring into the hands and minds of others for their enjoyment and enlightenment.

Ignore the shadows of doubt.

Spring will come.

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Sources: Wikipedia

That which survives 3: The promised land

New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, 21 January 1858

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

Fashion rules so absolutely…

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

This is so like the Americans…

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

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

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 25 January 2017

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

Reading Monday’s International New York Times:

“No, I’m not over it.

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

Flag of Ecuador

Above: The flag of Ecuador

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

Flag of Thailand

Above: The flag of Thailand

Flag of Zambia

Above: The flag of Zambia

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

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

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

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

Nobody expects anything out of Belgium.”

Flag of Belgium

Above: The flag of Belgium

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

Now this opinion piece annoyed me on many levels…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Though nations are individual, no one nation is exceptional.

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

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Above: William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

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

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

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

Wherever I went, there I was.

I was not seeing Brussels as it was.

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

I saw Brussels as I was.

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

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

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

That Which Survives

1: Wooden soldiers and little books;

2a: Teachers’ Travels: Welcome;

2b: Teachers’ Travels: Days Confused;

2c: Past Tents and Last Year’s Man;

2d: A Matter of Perspective.)

Brussels, Belgium, 15 February 1842

It was a dull grey day.

The avenues were almost deserted.

The branches of the trees bare against an overcast sky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The trio stopped at a large building with tall windows.

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

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

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

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

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Above: Charlotte Bronte (1816 – 1855)

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

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

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

Brussels, Belgium, 9 November 1996

Day Six in Europe, Day Four in Brussels and Belgium

A “grand bataille” with “Zoé”.

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

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

During the visit to a brewery exhibit, tensions erupt.

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

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

IMG 6001 Brussel-Centraal B.JPG

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

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

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

Brussels, Belgium, 15 February 1842

So, what brought the Brontes to Brussels?

Charlotte was 25, Emily 23.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Above: Bronte Parsonage Museum, Haworth, Yorkshire, England

Charlotte saw a possible solution.

They could open their own boarding school in Haworth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brussels, Belgium, 9 November 1996

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

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

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

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

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

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Above: Tour Eiffel, Paris, France

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

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Above: Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

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

She represented a continent I had always longed to see.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoé saw me as a romance finally realised.

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

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

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

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

What the hell am I doing here?

Brussels, Belgium, July 1842

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

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

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

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

They in fact made no attempt to integrate.

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

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

The other girls found them odd.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte’s analysis was simple.

They were foreigners.

Brussels, Belgium, 9 November 1996

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

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

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

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

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

But forbidden fruit does not appeal.

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

I pass a number of establishments advertising peep shows.

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

Foreign businesspeople?

Students on EU work placements?

Circle of 12 gold stars on a blue background

Members of the European Parliament?

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

Jean-Claude Van Damme 2012.jpg

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

Wordplay flits through my thoughts.

Brussels…where one can find sax and violins…

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

Adolphe Sax

Above: Adolphe Sax (1814 – 1894)

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Above: A modern saxophone

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

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

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

I miss the independence and solitude of travel.

I hate my physical and financial dependence upon Zoé.

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

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

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

Brussels, Belgium, Spring and Summer 1842

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

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

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

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

And the religious fêtes filled with bouquets of flowers…

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

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

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

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

Above: Constantin Héger (1809 – 1896)

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

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

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

Madame was 37.  Monsieur was 33.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Emily chose to remain in Haworth.

Charlotte returned alone to Belgium in January 1843.

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

Brussels, Belgium, 10 November 1996

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

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

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

This evening I have made a difficult decision.

Tomorrow I will leave this slug-infested apartment behind.

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

And the day had started out so well…

(To be continued…)

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

Flag of Brussels

The cure for Wanderlust?

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 28 January 2017

Flag of Switzerland

As those already acquainted with myself already know, I earn my income in two ways:  I am a Canadian, resident in Switzerland, working as a freelance English-as-a-second-language teacher and part-time Starbucks barista.

Flag of Canada

And while both physical and psychological health remain I wish to continue to do both jobs for a while longer, for I find that both jobs are quite educational and inspirational.

Not only in the sense that it is my duty and pleasure to educate and inspire others, but as well in the manner in which these two jobs educate and inspire me.

I have recently acquired a new student from Beijing whom I teach twice a week at a private school in St. Gallen.

The Abbey Cathedral of St Gall and the old city

“Jaja” hopes to study Business Administration at the University of Zürich and needs to pass an English entrance examination to be able to be allowed to do so.

Her English needs a lot of work in a short time and her German even more, so I find myself during our lessons inserting commonly confused “false friend” words that show the close linguistic connection between German and English, thus creating words that look identical yet whose meanings are completely different from one another.

Somehow the word “Wanderlust” came up and explanation became necessary as to the differences between “to wander” (to travel without a specific destination in mind) and “Wandern” (German: hiking).

And both of us so far from our home and native lands of Canada and China, strangers in a strange land, began to speak about what it is to travel and how difficult it is to readjust to normal life once we have returned to our original countries.

Flag of the People's Republic of China

Just five days ago I was inspired.

Like any civilised animal of the West, I occasionally connect myself to social media with marked preference towards Facebook, for it, unlike media like Twitter, allows me to expound my thoughts fully rather than being restricted to a mere set of characters.

Logo von Facebook

I subscribe to a number of newsgroups and one I enjoy immensely is the closed newsgroup Nomads: A Life of Free/Cheap Travel.

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A fellow had commented on how difficult it was for him to adjust to life off the road back home and I responded:

“In response to… and to discuss what has been on my mind since I read his and others’ dissatisfaction with life when not travelling, let me share my thoughts on the matter:

I am a 51-year-old man, married, a Canadian teacher resident in Switzerland.

Prior to settling down in a committed relationship I did a wee bit of travelling on my own:

I have walked thousands of kilometres, hitched tens of thousands of kilometres and have lived in Asia and Europe.

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

And I have not regretted my life choices before I met my wife or since.

I speak only for myself.

There was a time that I feared the familiar and embraced the unknown, and that spirit of adventure, that thirst for travel, is never quenched but it can be channeled.

Some things must be clearly understood about travel.

To quote Carl Franz, of The People´s Guide to Mexico:

“Wherever you go…there you are”.

Whatever mindset, whatever emotional baggage, you possessed before you begin travelling is not shed or left behind by hitting the road.

The road distracts.

The road teaches.

OnTheRoad.jpg

But the basic character you were before your adventures still remains mostly intact.

Coming home you once again face the demons you thought you abandoned and though you feel somewhat transformed by your adventures, those who did not accompany you will still view you as you were before your travels.

And that image of yourself may not always be pleasant.

The experience of travel is as restrictive as you make it.

Money often seems a restriction and, yes, you might not always be able to afford to jump on a jet and speed away to faraway places with strange sounding names as soon as you might like to, but consider this…

Where you are is strange and foreign to someone else.

And many folks travel to far-off places without considering exploration of their own country or their own neighbourhood…

Many people don´t realise the magic of the here and now where they are…

Try to imagine you are researching and investigating your neighbourhood for a foreign visitor.

What is unusual and interesting about where you are?

You have feet.

Walk around and explore.

You have eyes.

Read and learn as much as you can about where you are.

You have speech and hearing.

Bathe in the adventure of humanity by reaching out to others with a sense of curiosity and wonder.

Here is a result of history and heritage.

Everyone you meet has their own unique story to tell.

You are superior to every one that they can learn from you.

Everyone is your superior that you may learn from them.

Travel isn´t just the act of dashing off to an exotic locale.

Travel is your interaction and interdependence with that magical thing called Life.

Life is a contact sport.

Life is all around us.

No two sunsets are exactly the same.

There is always something to discover wherever you are.

Whenever money does not permit travel to faraway places, I strap on my walking shoes and explore the countryside, visit attractions tourists would go to, visit the library and explore the Internet to discover things that interest me and possibly others.

Two dark gray ankle-covering boots covered in suede and cloth with laces going through hooks rather than eyelets, on a pebbly surface

The street where you live…

Where did it get its name?

The stream you walk over everyday on your way to school or work…

Where does it flow to, where does it flow from?

What is special?

Every day has its potential to bring magic.

How we profit from that day, equally given to everyone, makes the difference.

And never forget your observations, your discoveries, are simultaneously unique to you and similiar to the rest of humanity.

In the entire history of the universe there has never been anyone exactly like you with your unique life story, thoughts and ideas.

In the eternity of time that lies ahead, there will never be another person as unique as you.

Travel, whether near or far, is not just an exploration of a geographical landscape, but as well the discovery of a psychological landscape.

I refuse to believe that individuality is accidental.

Life, for each one of us, has a purpose.

Travel is that search for that purpose.”

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Eye problems

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 9 January 2017

Today is my first day back to work as a teacher and this, of course, involves planning.

Planning involves going through my wee little library here at home in search of interesting material to share with my students in the hopes that as they learn they might also be entertained, informed and inspired.

Above: The Long Room, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland

Not always easy, but never dull.

I ran across an editorial from The Hartford Courant by Denis Horgan, reprinted by the International Herald Tribune and incorporated in an English textbook, On the Record: Mastering Reading and Language Skills with the Newspaper, by Robert Hughes.

Hartford Courant March 24 2008.jpg

Horgan´s comments, with a wee bit of adaptation to today´s issues, still seem relevant.

“Maybe it´s my weary old peepers, but I never seem to see things.

They cut the gasoline tax and I don´t see the price go down.

Instead the price goes up.

No matter what happens the price goes up.

No matter what happens the price never goes down.

Cold weather?

It drives up the price.

Hot weather?

see caption

It drives up the price.

Cut taxes?

They raise the price to pay for the change.

When there is an international crisis, they run up the price of oil in anxiety.

When the crisis goes away, the price stays up.

When we are in an oil glut, the price goes up instead of down.

Everywhere, big companies lay off half the work force, wrecking the lives of thousands of employees, and I don´t see where anyone´s better off for it except for a few bosses.

Above: “The Strike”, Robert Koehler (1886)

Not the customers.

Not the public.

Surely not those laid off nor those left behind.

They say I should see that the stockholders are better off, but what I see is that they get a quarter or 50 cents more in dividends, a small increase in stock price.

Looking up at a computerized stocks-value board at the Philippine Stock Exchange

And for that people´s lives are destroyed, service is gutted, products and reputations are diminished.

So someone can make pennies and executives can make millions.

Fortunately, there is at least a Hereafter where that will be redressed.

The Cold War is over and I don´t see where the peace dividend is.

Above: Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, 27 October 1961

We pumped trillions into defense where there was someone to defend against, but I don´t see where there´s a need to pump trillions more into gigantic submarines and monster bombers with no known purpose anymore.

Nuclear War: Nuclear weapon test, 1954

We could have hoped that some of the savings might show up in helping neglected corners of the society, but I don´t see it.

They cut the taxes of the wealthy, telling us that´s good for us all, and I don´t see where that helps anyone but the wealthy.

They say that we will all benefit when the rich get around to trickling it down to us later, but I never see that happening.

We forever await the grace of the privileged without ever much getting it.

Meantime, we can see quite clearly that there is less for support efforts for those who need them.

Companies cut services while making bloated profits, and no one sees any of that coming back to the sap customer paying new fees and higher prices and getting poorer products and less support than ever before.

I don´t see that those efficiencies very often benefit the people paying the bill.

Employee rolls are skinnied up and replaced with part-timers and tempy and others on the cheap – but when was the last time the savings showed up on the price tag?

I don´t see it happening very often.

We are told we will save money by not helping those who need help, and people actually will be better off for being poorer, but I don´t see either happening.

Do you have more money in your pocket because they whittled the welfare funds?

I don´t.

Maybe when we finally get it we´ll spend it on cheaper gas.

Do you see all those jobs that don´t exist being filled by people who were straight-arming away jobs in favor of keeping the peanuts they get from the dole?

Neither do I.

What I think I see is a mood where people of no wealth become people of no value and, thereafter, are invisible.

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Unseen.

To thundering self-praise, they tell us they´ve balanced the national budget which will make things better while, at the same time, spreading such tax advantages and college aid and various bits of boodle as to turn this into the Promised Land.

Great.

But maybe the promises are so seldom kept that you will pardon the squint as I keep on the lookout for the thing to happen.

From the left and from the right costly pledges of change fly only to produce more of the same, helping mostly and only those already with advantage and authority.

They tell us we will see it get better.

Someday.

Maybe I need new glasses.” (Denis Horgan, “Something Wrong with My Eyes”, Hartford Courant)

I too look at the world of today and I too question whether or not there´s something wrong with my eyes.

There probably is.

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