Drunk Grabs Girl, Dave Grabs Drunk

Ludwig: The town's leading drunk ramps up his abrasiveness.

Dave saw the drunk first as he careened about shouting belligerently on a downtown steet.

The drunk – let’s call him Ludwig – staggered over the curb, and fell to the pavement.  We eyed him for signs of distress, as if there weren’t enough signs already of a protracted, continual, non-stop distress.

It may be due to Christmas, a season that can be rough for even the sober, but Ludwig’s pitch has risen this month. He’s gone from public nuisance to a one-man fright-night show. He clears city streets wherever he goes – an entire block of shoppers in our downtown district vacate when he shows up.

None of this is illegal. Public drinking is tolerated here, as is public intoxication.

Ludwig started rolling around, so medical assistance was not required, and we wavered on our course, deciding first to head back and take a long circuitous route, but then, seeing how the crowds responded nonchalantly to Ludwig, we guessed it was safe to pass, but with a wide berth. We were right next to him when three things happened in rapid succession.

Thing one: A bus stopped and a girl of about eight-years of age stepped out.

Thing two: Ludwig came to.

Thing three: Ludwig lunged at the girl, grabbing her full-on by the shoulders.

He pressed his squashed mug right into her face, leaving only the slenderest of air margins between him and her. These things really do happen in a flash. Dave, my evenly tempered, unassuming computer-wizard husband shouted, “Hey!” and darted in, grabbed Ludwig’s sleeve and gave him a quick shake.

These are moments I live to avoid. I was a crime reporter, and know too well how such interactions can quickly spiral into a life-changing stabbing, but at the same time I feared for Dave, I knew there only one thing to do and he did it.

Ludwig released the child who, as the cliché goes, ‘beat a hasty retreat,’ and fixed his waxen eyes on David.  Then he staggered on to the bus, to what fate we do not know, but we can certainly guess that the passengers were in for a Christmas shopping day like none they had seen before.

That was Saturday. Sunday, Ludwig was not to be seen anywhere. We imagine his bus ride ended in arrest. We hope so, anyway. Christmas in the slammer is not a bad thing compared to what was going on on the street.

Still trying to figure out this country, the sweet and the sour

 

It’s funny what thoughts the town drunk will inspire.

For a teensy weensy little nation, Switzerland occasionally shows up in the top 10 richest countries in the world, which is something when you consider that it is competing against Qatar and the U.S.  In fact, according to Business Insider, it even topped the U.S., coming in at #6 over the U.S. at #7, based on GDP per capita.

Of course, where a country ranks depends on how the ranking is measured. For example, if a country’s riches were determined by the quantity of chocolates it produces, you would think Switzerland is #1, but guess what, it is not.

The top chocolate confectionary producer title goes to a U.S. company, Kraft Foods Inc. As a top consumer of chocolate products, I am stunned by this revelation from the International Cocoa Organization, a very real entity that I would love to work for.

Biel the beautiful.

Switzerland is the third-largest chocolate producer with the Swiss Nestle’ corporation placing it there, just behind “Mars,” a U.S. company. The U.S. is home to three of the world’s top-ten chocolate-makers.That is pretty impressive, but consider that Switzerland has two companies in the top ten, then compare the two  nations’ population and geography (the U.S. is gumpteenzillion times bigger, for one), and Switzerland is all the more outstanding. You have to think that if the U.S. applied the same degree of diligence that the Swiss do, we would be swimming in chocolate. This would be okay with me.

When the GDP alone is tabulated, Switzerland sadly gets bumped off the Top Ten list (the U.S. wins that one, even beating the legendary industry of the Japanese and the population-giant China who come in second and third respectively (according to 2008 GDP figures).

Switzerland still makes #21 on GDP alone, a real feat for a country that is one-tenth the size of Montana.

Thoughts of Switzerland’s relative wealth came to mind as I walked past Biel’s preeminent town drunk, a roguish, handsome white-haired man with an unfortunately crushed nose.

He is the fellow of whom I wrote early into our stay here, the same man who urinates openly in the square in front of the train station. He usually keeps to himself, and everyone gives him a wide berth, what with the urination thing, but lately he’s started lurching at passersby. It unnerves everyone, but he remains a fixture at the train station. He is the same fellow, by the way, who made loud freaky sounds as he walked behind me on one of the canal walkways.

Back in Canada, I’ve interviewed lots of homeless people, drunks, mentally ill, and so forth. People always talk about how harmless they are, but that is the same kind of wisdom that says bears are more afraid of us than we are of them, in other words, it’s bunk.

I’ve never felt completely safe in the presence of those who hand over their sensibilities to a bottle of booze or the drug-confection-of-the-day. These are ridiculously unpredictable people. As a reporter, where my job was to face up to them and engage in conversation, I found them somewhat fascinating, mostly because they weave such great fictions.

I know it’s politically incorrect to say so, but the volume of lies told to me by street people is amazing in its pure bulk, and mostly I discovered those lies by standing around long enough for the drug addict/drunk/street person to forget their original story and start into a second one.

On one occasion, I interviewed a man who alleged he had been roughed up by the police. I asked for his name. He gave it. Then he waved some kind of summons or ticket in my face to prove he had interacted with Victoria’s finest. I asked to see it and saw the name on the summons differed from that which he gave me. When I asked about this, he grabbed the summons and quickly fled on his bike. At least it may have been his bike. Give the high rate of bike theft in Victoria, I would guess he had “borrowed” it. This was not an unusual exchange.

Where this all goes is this: Switzerland is rich, and with a lauded social safety net, and yet we still have citizens veering on the streets with open beer cans in hand.

Yesterday, outside of a grocery store, I watched a few of the town drunk regulars (who have not risen to preeminent status) heckle a white-haired woman, her back a badly disfigured mountain range curved over so that she was a virtual comma when in her best upright position. She pulled her grocery cart past them, stumping along with her cane and unable to effect any getaway should one be needed. She kept her gaze fixed resolutely ahead while they shouted at her. I am not much in the way of personal protection, but I rushed up to walk just slightly behind and alongside her, signalling to the vagrants that perhaps she was my aged relative and my glare silenced the drunks who turned their attention in the opposite direction, as though perhaps they had been yelling at the crows.

Smarter people than me have puzzled over the problems of deviant behavior, drug addiction and such, but it seems that a crippled senior should be able to fetch some milk and eggs without having to run a gauntlet of yahoos.

We haven’t fixed this social ill  in Canada, but we shouldn’t feel too bad about this. If the Swiss with their smarts, industry and attention to detail haven’t figured it out yet, how could we?

The perils of public transport

Train-traveler packs one, two, three bottles/cans in full view for the trip.

Drunks were everywhere this weekend.

At the Bern train station,  a dread-locked man bark loudly in the face of passengers stepping onto a train.

The passengers stoically looked the other way while he pressed in, determined to make his presence known, if not felt.

Drunks upset the delicate social balance where we all agree that when we venture out, we not bark at others, and if we cannot stop ourselves from barking, then at least we should stay far enough away so that our victims are not soaked in our saliva spray.

Is it too much to ask? Apparently so.

This guy must be going on an overnight trip.

Staggerers,  shouters, boorish keg-carriers –  I judge you all.

A red-faced young man carried on what could have been the longest yodel ever as he stood on the train platform. A few minutes later, he smacked himself down in the quadrant of seats behind ours on the train, still yelling. He could have been singing, or bragging, or screaming ‘Help me, I am about to fall into an alcohol-induced coma.’

Given the unpredictability of drunks, especially that their moods  switch swiftly from party to sour to let-me-punch-someone-in-the-face, we quietly moved to another car.

At Fribourg's covered bridge. Isn't it charming? We could barely notice it, thanks to booze-soaked wanderer.

Last week, on the train to France, a tattooed scramble-haired man in an agitated state sat across the aisle from us,  hissing into his cell phone. Was it a drug deal gone bad? Was he going to take it out on us?  It did focus our minds, but not on the French countryside.

This weekend, as we got off  the train at Fribourg, we were happy to leave the drunken yowler behind, but after we made the walk down Fribourg’s plunging cobblestone streets and through its rustic wood-beamed covered bridge, we heard a familiar sound.

The skinny yowler staggered into view. How was it that he was still standing?

Eroded limestone hangs over the river at Fribourg. See the fisherman in the lower right corner. He is having a good day, because he has not met our drunk.

We had just taken out our map to plot our course, but the yowler, not the map, was going to decide where we would go.

He turned away up a narrow side road, his arms flailing, his head cocked oddly, while he continued in that strange thin bellow.

We took the road that he did not, and it was an enchanting road, but it lost some of its allure as we kept an ear open for the yowler.

For the first time since arriving here, I missed my car.

Fribourg's 40-metre long covered bridge, called the "Bern Bridge," dates back to the 17th century and is made of stone, wood and dirt. Yes, dirt, which is also the reference that I make to drunks.

On the cusp of villainy … or at least drunkeness

The neighbourhood where we normally walk ... fa la la la ...

We have only four channels on our television, and this paucity of choices has knocked us right off our evening television habit.

Happy streets, shining homes.

Happy Swiss walking to work.

We can’t just sit in the suite and stare at one another, or even out the window where the view is other windows like ours. Might as well paste a mirror up there.  And so, we’ve fallen into the practice of taking an after-supper stroll. Normally we head west, not because we are following an innate migratory desire to head back home to Canada, although that would be okay, but because it is the direction of the lake, not to mention a number of lovely waterfront cafes.

The trees along the way are huge with oddly rumpled trunks, and the canopy is thick owing to the town’s vigorous amputative pruning program that chops off branches so burly that the sight of it would trigger environmentalists into action, raining press releases down on the media, chaining themselves to shrubs, complaining about the effect on fish habitat and marmot reproduction rates.

Where was I? Oh yes:  The wide walkways west of our place follow a network of open canals that lead down to the lake, making it a happy walk, but last night we decided to venture east.

What harm could come of that?

Early clue that we weren't in Kansas anymore (North American cultural reference to being really lost)

Not a third of a block in, we noticed an open produce market. How delightful. But we did not check on it, owing to a number of loitering males. We avoid loitering males, especially in the evening hours. We always suspect they are up to no good, especially if their hygiene regimen appears substandard.

A few feet later, three chums – two men flanking a corpulent woman –  spanned the breadth of the sidewalk. It is difficult to describe them now because we averted our eyes so as to not call attention to ourselves, but it didn’t work. They did not so much walk as lurch, beer cans in hand (very likely as a balancing mechanism), eyes glaring wherever they landed, which was on us.

I’ve noticed this about the town drunks – they look right at passersby menacingly, as if to dare them/us to point out their inebriation.

It’s a little different than Canada’s street drunks, a vigorous lot who spend daylight hours in the courthouse challenging city hall for looking down their noses at addicts and alcoholics pitching tents in parks (I know this seems like a pejorative statement, but I’ve gone and checked, and haven’t seen anyone in those tents who looked much different than what we saw on the seamy side of the street last night).

Nevertheless, at least our Canadian drunks have some gumption. And lawyers.

We passed the wild-eyed, teetering trio, then turned a corner, thinking a one-block walk was sufficient exercise, when we spied another staggering fellow. Apartment buildings took on a blemished look, their balconies curtained in makeshift bamboo screens, and in the narrow walkways and alleys, waves of debris piled up against the buildings.

I went back the next day - this is the seedy mafioso-looking cafe, although really, it probably isn't that. Just looked like it after treading Intoxication Promenade.

We rounded the corner and came upon a scene that looked right out of the Godfather – the early New York ghetto scenes, not the later rich-crook scenes: An assembly of dog-eared cafe tables filled with somber middle-aged men with greasy combed-back hair, shaking hands formally in introductions. It could have been the Knights of Columbus planning its spring fishing expedition, or it could have been the Mafia, plotting what to do with all these foreigners wandering into their turf.

A few metres later, we were back on our street where pedestrians walked in straight lines without the balancing benefit of beer cans in their hands, the alleys were clear, the streets charming enough for a movie set, and the trees appropriately park-like and trimmed. What a difference a simple left or right turn can make.

It is fair to say that we are not ordinarily so jumpy, and in my work I engaged street people in conversation many a time, but there’s a new dimension at play when the street-folk speak another language altogether.

It can be socially awkward. For one thing, you have no idea if they’re asking for the time, or your wallet.

One wrong turn, and the scenery changes. Even Swiss towns have a wrong side of the tracks, although, technically, this is on the same side of the tracks as our neighbourhood, just one block over.