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?

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The poor you will always have with you

Jesus’s words about the ever-present poor hover about wherever we go, although each country seems to have its own particular type of impoverished.

This panhandler near the Georges V hotel in Paris remained motionless with her hand and cup outstretched. Completely cloaked, we couldn't be certain of her age, if she was conscious, or even a she. The still prostrate posture was common among Parisian beggars.

In Madrid, we saw them lean, their ragged clothes drifting over their hollow rib-cages, camped in low-lying creek valleys and ditches, living in makeshift box and sheet-metal ghettos invisible to the eye until the passerby almost stumbles in to them.

In Atlanta, a woman and her eight-year old son lingered at a downtown parkade’s exit, looking for some change. Dave drove them to a Burger King. On the way, he offered the child a piece of gum. Instead of chewing it, the boy gobbled it down – a sobering vision of hunger in America.

In Victoria, B.C., the poor lack the hollowed-out visage common to the poor of other countries. On Douglas Street at a poverty protest, a group of “homeless” panhandlers assured me that they had food aplenty. What they really wanted were cigarettes.

And in Paris the poor sometimes lay prostrate on the pavement only a few feet from where people lined up outside designer stores where women’s summer pumps sell for $1,500.

The most well-fed beggar we saw had a corner on the Royal Pereire Cafe near the metro entrance. You can even catch a glimpse of him on Google Maps here.  (the link will not take you directly to him, but if you check the pavement in front of the cafe, you can see him – he’s obviously a fixture).  Locals stopped to chat with him, and except for the upturned cap on the pavement, his calm demeanor would have been just about right had he been seated a few feet away at a cafe table.

Security manages the line at the Louis Vuitton store on Paris's Champs Elysees - the couple at the front stood patiently, their faces befuddled and frustrated while he let other customers walk right in ahead of them. Nevertheless, when he waved them in they were all smiles. I think they're called "marks."

Many beggars in Paris were women dressed in burqas. We don’t know what to make of that. We didn’t see any of the drug-induced lurching and mentally ill erratic manifestations of Victoria’s street population.

Nevertheless, in Paris’s underground, there were signs of possibly drug-related poverty: On the metro, a man appeared in one of the cars, mumbling, his head swaying rhythmically while passengers studiously looked the other way. When he turned to leave, his shoulder blades jutted in sharp profile against his beige sweater that was tucked into loose slacks, revealing his skeletal form.

Out on the broad promenade at the Champs Elysees, people were practically begging to get into the exclusive designer house stores. At Louis Vuitton, two security guards kept the line-up roped in a New York club-style. The line inched slowly along while the occasional “well-heeled” customer walked right up to the security guard and was let in without even so much as a glance at the waiting masses, much to the disgruntled expressions of those  in the queue. It was a statement of class, money and power.

I made my own statement by not trying to get into the store, although I doubt that Louis and his cohorts missed me much.

Those familiar with the title of this post as coming from the New Testament, the seventh verse of the 14th chapter of the Book of Mark might know what comes after – that Jesus goes on to say we  “can help them (the poor) anytime you like.” We can. We’re just not sure how.

Here are more images of Paris’s down-and-out population – and for something a little more upbeat – here’s my not-very-good vid of a Paris busker who was fabulous. His singing starts at the 39-second mark.

A man sleeping the doorway of a commerce building facing the Seine River.

A panhandling woman looks around, seemingly bored with her line of work.

Not technically a beggar, but a street-performer. It was the worst show on earth - for a coin or two, she would nod, then go back to this position. Nevertheless, as a hot-flash-enduring middle-aged woman who cannot keep make-up on my face, I want to know her secret. It was scorching outside, yet her gold patina was flawless.

Another beggar, keeping her face down, kneeling motionless and silent on the Champs Elysees.

One panhandler was nowhere to be seen - must have run off for a cafe' au lait, although he still left his post open for donations.

Amazing that he was comfortable leaving his stuff unattended on Paris streets while nervous tourists clutch onto their bags in fear of robbery (quite rightly).

Sleeping on the job., but with the cup still in full view.

Two weeks, more or less

Two weeks in Switzerland: Two weeks of discovering new cheese, new chocolates, new shoe stores (and shoe prices!). Here’s what we’ve learned so far:

They have homeless people, but not in near as many numbers as North American cities. As in all things to do with homeless populations, numbers are extremely difficult to count. One 1980 U.N. survey put the number of Swiss homeless at 2,400, but that figure is 30 years old. Switzerland’s overall population in 2009 was  7.7 million: 

Biel homeless man has worn garbage-bag shoes for the past two weeks, even in the blistering heat.

They love Justin Bieber (who, by the way, has a strong Winnipeg connection): 

Justin Bieber images are everywhere, such as on this junior sheet set at a local department store. His visage outnumbers that of Obama, Clinton (either one), Michael Jackson, the Beatles and anyone running in Canadas current federal election.

They are cane-enabled (get it: Cain’n Abel  – sorry, couldn’t stop myself). : 

Elders favour canes over walkers. Even young people sport these arm-brace-style canes, making us wonder if polio races through the Swiss.

They view sidewalks and roadways as near-equals: 

They park, and occasionally drive, on sidewalks.... not as often as the Spanish, but a lot more than North Americans.

They smoke, a lot:

One in four smoke, according to Switzerlands Federal Health Office. In both Canada and the U.S., one in five smoke. Despite the 25 per cent rate given by the Swiss government, the number of smokers looks higher on the street where the Swiss smoke as they walk, juggle babies, lounge in street cafes. Smoke is blowing into our suite as I write this as my Italian neighbour takes to the balcony for her morning fix.


Their public art holds some surprises: 

Despite their reputation for attention to detail, their take on public art would make North American insurers and art/park commission managers gasp. These wrought-iron statues could inflict fatal wounds if someone tripped into one. Note: Dave does not let me twirl anywhere near these.

Just in case you dont quite see it: The arms on this prone statue are about two inches thick and maybe two feet long - would plunge through a chest wall or eye socket quite easily. Eeeew.


Luscious Lucerne

Saturday we took the 90-minute train ride east to Lucerne, past lush, meticulously kept pastures, rolling hills, quaint farms with cows lolling about, a trip made sweeter because we now have our Swiss Rail resident half-price cards.

It looks like a great deal, bringing the price for  two return tickets down to $78. We were pretty pleased with that until we realized that we were travelling only 48 miles – what the heck? That’s like a $1.50 a mile.

Swiss comedians? Or the Swiss version of a chain gang (ie. not breaking rocks, just colouring on them).

We arrived in Lucerne to discover the city in the throes of an international comedy festival called “Fumetto” – at least, that was the explanation we got for the men in orange suits studiously scratching a chalk path into one of the cobblestone squares, which didn’t look funny at all, but I’m sure something hilarious was about to happen. We had our doubts, because orange suits are prison gear back in the U.S., so we were suspicious this was the Swiss version of a prison-work program.

We checked out a kitchen store where laundry bags sold for $99 and shoe stores, at one of which I found a pair of  loafers priced at $269… others were priced higher, but my brain could not compute such numbers well enough to recall them now.

Lucerne is, after all, Switzerland’s Monaco, and the well-heeled were in ostentatious abundance from stylish couples strolling the lakeside promenade to high-end sports cars inching through narrow cobblestone streets that until their arrival, we thought were pedestrian-only. Maybe the rules are different for those driving Bugattis and Lamborghinis.

Even the McDonalds restaurant was high-end with vintage ceiling tiles, orange cube leather seating and a McCafe pastry bar. Ooo la la! It was a beautiful city. I’ll let the photos speak for it. Click on photos to get a larger version.

At a swank chocolate shop called Merkor - I think it translates into "No chocolate under $40"

About half of the chocolate in Merkor's main showcase, and I do mean "showcase." The word "display" just doesn't quite make it.

Lucerne's waterfront. Not so bad.

The inside of Lucerne's Jesuit Church. Very white. Very bright.

Lucerne. Very pretty.

Lunch for the uber-rich - also, where they are on display for gawkers like us.

 

Many of Lucerne's Old Town buildings sport frescos (murals) - this one depicts the city's Mardi Gras celebrations.

A wall mural depicting the building's former street level cafe-owners in Mardi Gras celebrations.

Lucerne has two homeless men. We found them both. It's noteworthy that this man's wardrobe included a colour (red/orange pepper) that matched many park benches, and that is also favored among the rich (see other photos). Even Lucerne's homeless fall under the dictates of fashion.

The photo quality is not very good, but this stylish 8-10-year-old girl's pic is worth posting - we saw fashion-conscious kiddies everywhere. What is this? France?

A woman parading her control over her husband on Lucerne's Promenade - his attire matches hers right down to his shoes. Somebody help this guy.

View over Lucerne Lake with the Alps in the background. This body of water is also called Vierwaldstattersee. Yes, it is.