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Everybody In the Whole Cell Block

20 Aug

We have plans to visit Lucerne to see the former Swiss fortress that was hidden inside a mountain.  I wrote about that here but I’m sure that you’ve already committed it to memory so forget I said anything.  When I was looking for a hotel I came across a pretty unique one.  It’s called Jailhotel Löwengraben and it was a former jail.

Built in 1862 the jail was still in use until 1998 when a new prison was built and the prisoners moved along.  As the building was considered somewhat historic the city didn’t want to tear it down.  They floated a bunch of different ideas of what could be housed in the building without changing much of the structure.  My favorite has to be the plan to have a school there.  As if school didn’t feel enough like incarceration, let’s make it more realistic, shall we?  In the end, the hotel idea won out.  And since, as I mentioned, not much of the structure has changed, if you stay there you are staying in a jail.

They have three types of rooms – former cells, former offices and four suites.  The suites were a former library, a former rec room for prisoners, the director’s office and what used to be the visitor’s room.  The suites look like nice big rooms, the former offices or “Most Wanted” rooms look like smallish hotel rooms.  And the former cells or “Unplugged” rooms?  They look like cells… because they freaking were.  It seems that some of the good people on Trip Advisor didn’t quite the whole theme of the place.

The experience was really really close to jail experience! Gives you a first hand experience of what it would be to spend time behind the bars. The room was the most narrow/small room I have ever slept in! Dark, narrow and with a stell rail bed! The door of the room is made of old style steel & wood. There was not even a single window in the room except for a peep hole all the way up near the roof! (italics are mine)  And inside all this, was a make shift bath+toilet!
The experience was so bad and depressing that we kept roaming around in the streets even though we were dead tired. The very thought of getting back to this room was so repulsive that we chose to spend out time out doors until it was late in the night.

And…

The Rooms in this Jail Hotel were very small with hardly any ventilation. We felt choked and claustrophobic. Families should avoid this Jail!  (italics are mine)

In the Realms of the Unreal (2004)

3 Jul

I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our janitor where I work.  After a weekend of use my garbage is always much more full than my neighbors.  So on Mondays I joke to him that I worked hard on it for him when he comes to empty it.  I’m not sure that he understands me.  I don’t know if he cares that I nod and smile when I see him in the hallways.  I definitely don’t know if he’s an artist or a children’s book writer.

And that’s how it happened with Henry Darger.  He was a custodian for most of his life and went largely unnoticed.  Only three known photos existed of him at the time of his death.  His mother died when he was young and he was left to take care of his father until he was put into a nursing home.  From there Henry moved into an orphanage which was not a happy time for him.  Though things would get worse when he was moved to the poorly-named the Lincoln Assylum for Feeble-Minded Children.  He made several escape attempts after learning of his father’s death in Chicago.  Finally he was successful but learned that the Chicago of his childhood was not the Chicago he lived in now.  He began his custodial duties and his art.

Darger would go on to create a single-spaced, typed, 15,000 page book.  It was a tale of war where abused children fought against their oppressors and were led by the Vivian girls.  In addition to the book he wrote an autobiography and kept journals.  In addition to the enormous amount of writing he did he also created art.  He taught himself collage, tracing and then started to draw the Vivian girls in battle.  He would illustrate his book and create large works showing specific scenes. 

The movie about his life was interesting but I didn’t like it as much as the Mister.  In the documentary sections of the paintings are animated.  The Mister thought that this was necessary to hold the viewer’s attention for the entire 90 minutes.  I felt anxious to spend a bit more time looking at the art itself and not someone’s take on it.  Additionally, the director interviewed people who knew him.  Old neighbors and landlords talked about how little they knew about this man who had created this outsider art.

I thought it was interesting to hear from friends but they admittedly did not know him well and no one was aware of his art until he was moved into a medical facility where he would soon die.  I would have liked to have heard from experts in the field of outsider art.  And hearing a psychiatrist talk about him would have helped me to understand him better.  At this point I feel like I’ve watched a 90 minute preview for a movie that will really give me information.  Still, wanting to know more about the subject is a compliment to any documentary and as I said, the Mister enjoyed it.  If you like his work you might want to check it out for yourself.

The Eye of the Beholder

17 Jun

This work is by Henry Darger, a reclusive custodian who lived in Chicago. His art, like his 15,000 page novel, was created in private. Don't be surprised if I write more about this guy. He's absolutely fascinating.

Today let’s talk about Art Brut.  Now that’s not the band.  The Mister likes their song “Formed a Band” so you should YouTube that now so that you’ll have something to small talk with him about.  That and his love of small puppies named Henry.  Anyway, the Art Brut I wanted to share with you today is art by, well, brutes.

You can read in numerous places that art is in the eye of the beholder.  What’s unique to Art Brut is that it is created by those who often don’t even see their work as art.  They are simply expressing themselves.  They aren’t looking to get famous or noticed.  Some even hide their artwork and it is only after their death that it is discovered.  Another reason to call this work “Brut” is that much of the art is done by those considered criminally insane and mentally disturbed.  Murderers, child molesters, schizophrenics.  Those who live on the periphery of what some bother to call normal society due to their differences.

This collection is housed in a small castle in Lausanne, Switzerland.  It is the beloved project of a painter named Jean Dubuffet.  He left his thousands of artistic finds and the name Art Brut to the city.   It is now the official collection of Art Brut though many museums of Outsider Art can be found in the Europe and America.  To learn more about the difference between the two click here.  Those who visit say that it’s not as much the work but the story behind it that stays with you, in some cases it haunts you.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on artists of one breed or another.  When I see their work or even the places they called their own I want to know a little bit about them.  Or a lot.  I react to art but I want to know what colored the perspective of the person who was making it.  What drove them to create.  What made their voice unique.  I look forward to L’Art Brut Museum simply because it puts both the narative and the work together in one place.  It allows you to see a bit through their eyes and maybe come away a little different.

And I really think travel is about learning about others.  Elvis Costello sang “they say travel broadens the mind until you can’t get your head outdoors”.  Whatever that means.  I just think that it’s harder to misunderstand others when you’ve bothered to get to know them.  Then you can really say with authority that they’re messed up.  Just as God intended.

I’m Fondue of You, Switzerland

13 Jun

This is emmentaler cheese. We have an Americanized version of this called Swiss cheese. But as you can see by the packaging this is the real Swiss cheese. It's so real. So very, very real.

I love cheese.  I think many of us are in this boat.  Thanks to my cruelty-free vegan friends I know that some of us love cheese because we’re addicts.  You see a cow produces milk that’s up to 80% casein.  This casein is both a protein (yay!) and a sedative (what?).  Nature did this so that baby cows would become grown up cows and get jobs, pay taxes and become a productive member of bovine society.  However, when we make cheese, ice cream and milk chocolate we are getting concentrated opiates.  Some of us poor digesters will even become addicted to the stuff.  This might not bother you since cheese is both legal and delicious, but then again, it might.  If that’s the case don’t read on.  I plan to talk about both cheese (potentially addictive) and gluten-happy bread (also potentially addictive, I checked here).  I’d hate to be your pusher man but I’ve got needs and they involve…

Fondue.  Oh, man.  I love fondue.  When we were kids we had a lovely Swiss man named Alex staying with us for a time.  He made us amazing (not that we thought so at the time) stinky cheese sandwiches and he taught my parents what real fondue should taste like.  This lead to more stinky cheese, wine and a tiny bit of cornstarch being added to a pot.  Then it was heated before being transferred to our faithful fondue pot and its stand.  We then stabbed some crusty bread on a fork and jammed it into the fondue.  Or at least this is how I’m assuming it happened.  I was all of six so I’m going on old sensory memories that just scream “yummy!” without giving me much in the way of details.  I looked the rest up and used my imagination.  I’m not a real reporter anyhow.  Go bother CNN.

The Swiss are credited with the creation of fondue.  After WWII military regiments and event organizers were sent fondue kits by the Swiss Cheese Union to promote cheese consumption.  It worked.  The Swiss now consider fondue one of their national dishes and a sign of Swiss unity.  Not bad melted cheese!

The Swiss typically mix two Swiss cheeses: Gruyere (nutty, slightly sweet) and Emmenthaler (like America’s “Swiss” cheese but higher quality).  It depends on which region they live in as each canton has its own cheese favorite.  Then a dry white wine is added.  If you’re in Switzerland the wine is likely chasselase but it’s rare to get this wine outside of Swiss.  Not much is produced so it isn’t exported.  Lastly, a clear cherry brandy called kirsch might be added to increase the tartness of the fondue.  It can also be served alongside the fondue as well as raw garlic, pickled gherkins, onions and olives.

The word “fondue” comes the French fondre which means “to melt”.  Nowadays fondue can be used to describe a hot liquid that food is dipped into.  The Mister enjoys a chocolate fondue, for example.  These other types of fondues were the product of a New York restaurant called Chalet Suisse.  The Swiss chef in residence there created the beef bourguignon fondue, a mixing of fondue and the French beef bourguignon, in 1956.  He followed up this hit with chocolate fondue in 1964 as part of a marketing campaign for another Swiss masterpiece, Toblerone.

There is a little etiquette in enjoying fondue.  Toasts are often made before dipping your, um, toast into the fondue.  There are also rules for what happens if you drop your bread in the cheese.  A man will have to buy the next round and a woman will have to kiss her neighbors.  I think that this means her neighbors at the dining table and not those who live next door.  Either way, it’s a fine commentary on the roles of men and women.  Hey, at least if I’m clumsy I get off cheap!  Or I am cheap.  I can’t decide.

The part I found the most interesting involves the bit of cheese at the bottom of the fondue pot or caquelon, as it is called.  This cheese typically becomes solid throughout the long cooking and becomes like a cracker.  It’s referred to as la religieuse which means “the nun”.  Well, the Swiss never discard the nun.  They eat it.  I’m going to stop right there because I feel myself getting into trouble as I write this and this time it has nothing to do with cow opiates.

Swiss Build a Fortress Around Their Hearts

1 May

One of the hardest sights to schedule around is Fortress Fürigen.  I’m bound and determined that we see this place but it’s only open on weekends and then only in later spring.  The Mister is a WWII buff and I have taken a shine to the Swiss and their unique way of seeing independence.

Fortress Fürigen is one of many such spots in Switzerland.  In the early 40’s, the Swiss began building strong points within their strong mountain ranges.  If their border defenses were not able to withstand attack then their fighters would fall back to a mountain fort just like this one.  Unlike mountain forts we’re used to seeing this one isn’t easy to see at all.  It’s literally built into the side of a mountain.  The Blogosphere points out that if they hadn’t built a visitor’s entrance that tourists would still be looking and even this entrance is hard to find.

I know he's probably saying something very interesting about Fortress Furigen but I just want one of those Swiss cereal bowls.

The Swiss used their intimate knowledge of their biggest strategic asset, their giant mountains, as a way to protect their country.  Every bridge that connected to these mountains was built with an incendiary device (can I tell you that I’ve always wanted to use the term “incendiary device” and I’m thrilled that I could share this moment with you when I finally get to!)  If the bad guys started to approach the bridge then it would be destroyed in a matter of seconds.  That’s not all.  Innocent looking barns and silos housed giant tanks and missiles.  Picture something the size of a bus being aimed directly at your business.  The Swiss took their independence very seriously.

This brings us back to the theory of armed neutrality.  Remember, I read a whole book on it?  What I learned there is that it’s not enough to say “we’re neutral” and then go back to eating chocolate bunnies and watching cartoons.  Neutrality that works has to be defended.  In WWII the Swiss definitely saw the inherent evil in the Nazis.  They tried to cut ties with them as effectively as they could while they still needed to depend on the Third Reich for trade.  There’s been a bunch of criticism on the Swiss for this but look at a map of Germany’s holdings as WWII progressed.  Switzerland was surrounded by fascist possessions on all borders.  They could have met the noble expectations of those who thought that they shouldn’t mix with the bad guys but then they would have starved, leaving them vulnerable AND unable to lend so much support to POW and refugees. They couldn’t take their game and go home if they wanted to survive.

Anyway, Fortress Fürigen is somewhere I’d like to see not only because it’s a part of this history.  It’s also because it’s wicked cool.  It’s not set up like a museum.  You get to walk through a barracks that looks pretty much as it did when it was operational.  The beds, the dining room, the ammunition, the radio room… it’s all there.  AND since it’s so cold in the fortress they let you wear Swiss army jackets during your tour!  AND they let you play around with WWII guns.  AND you can pretend to aim a machine gun at a nearby mountain.  Maybe the PS3 network is down because it’s currently humiliated by how much fun real life is.

Here are my two favorite blog posts about the fortress: Anchor Chains, Plane Motors and Train Whistles &  Andria’s Travels (scroll down to mid page)

Even if you don’t speak German, this video is fun to watch.  I really want some of those Swiss cereal bowls.

Ch-Ch-Changes

18 Apr

Since you’re reading this post, I’m going to go ahead and guess that you know what the internet is.  And if you’ve been on the internet then maybe you know my friend Google, too.  You see, I’ve been beating him like he owes me money lately.  He’s been working hard on searches for me and I only repay him by making him do more searches. 

Some of the search results he’s provided have looked a little bit different since I’m trying to find out about foreign countries.  Where American websites pretty much always end with “.com”, a British website might have “.co.uk” instead.  They aren’t the only one with their own domain either.  You just know that the other countries had to get in on the personalization tango.  So France is “.fr”, Belgium is “.be”, Italy is “.it”.  Then Netherlands is “.nl”, Austria takes “.at” and Germany takes “.de” which makes sense if you remember that the German call their country Deutschland.  Every other country calls Germany something else like the Dutch say “Duitsland” and the French say “Allemagne”.  But what is really goofy is that Switzerland is “.ch”.

What the what?  Those letters don’t even appear anywhere in “Switzerland”.  What gives?  To get the answer I had to learn some history and now you might learn it too.  No pressure.  When the Romans were busy conquering most of Europe there existed a group of people where Switzerland is today.  They were called the Helvetians and they fought with Julius Caesar.  When the first three cantons (similar to states) decided to join up and become a confederacy they kept the name of Helvetian and became the Confederacy of Helvetica in 1291.  That’s where the CH comes in.  Well, then why is it called Switzerland?  One of those first three cantons was called Schwyz.  If you can’t make the leap from Schwyz to Switzerland then you’re going to have to do your own research.  Mama is tired.

My familiarity with Helvetica was more along the lines of the font.  I went to mock up an example of my blog name in Helvetica to show you how wonderful it really is.  Unfortunately, I’m on a PC and Windows has chosen to work with Arial instead.  I’m sure that involves cost, somehow.  Instead I made my little bitty graphic protest and I hope you enjoy it.

Lastly, it would be pretty sad to go on and on about domain names without giving you some fun foreign ones to check out so here they are:

http://www.jailhotel.ch/ –  a hotel made out of… a jail.

http://bouchard.be – arguably some of the best chocolate in the world.

http://www.fcbayern.t-com.de/ – we’re hoping to see a game of football in Munich.

Target Switzerland – Stephen P. Halbrook

13 Apr

Seems like Switzerland wants us to expect more, pay less.

See the picture on the right of Target Switzerland: Swiss Armed Neutrality in World War II.  Does the font of “Target” strike you as funny?  It might, if you had worked there for 6+ years.  Target, I mean.  That has to be the same exact font that the merchandiser with all the trend-right gear uses.  I know because I feel a distinct need to buy things that I won’t remember purchasing.  Zebra-striped wallet?  Check.  Mr. Bubble?  Check. And I want to say Hostess Easter Brownies but I’ve somehow managed to hold off against their treachery.

So back to the book.  Let’s talk about its contents, shall we?  I’ve got to say that the details it shares are really interesting.  It is written by an academic and that’s how it reads.  I don’t think it takes much storytelling to make this period in world history interesting though.

Halbrook starts off with telling us the history of Switzerland.  It started off as three different small states, or cantons, and it would end up 26 in total.  As this group of states grew slowly through war and more war, each canton had a well-established personality.  Imagine if Texas and New Jersey had been separate as for hundreds of years before joining the union. They’d have their own royalty, currency and set of measurements, not to mention major league baseball teams.

There are two defining things about Switzerland that determined its role in WWII.  The first is that every Swiss male is required to sign up for military duty.  If they are accepted they will have training for about 18-21 weeks.  After that they will remain active until they are 34 (some until age 50).  The Swiss military depends largely on the citizen.  They keep uniforms and gear at their house and at the ready.

The second thing that makes Switzerland so different is that it’s a democracy.  While it wasn’t the only country that professed neutrality in WWII, it was the only one able to stick with it.  Hallbrook states throughout the book that Switzerland stayed neutral because it didn’t have a centralized leader.  The Swiss president is only a figurehead and serves for only one year.  The majority of the work is done by Parliament.  And with no one person to announce surrender, the Swiss got armed and ready.  They protected their borders against any who would pass through them – Axis or Allies.  They were even told that any cease fire that was issued would be propaganda from the other side and to ignore it.

The Swiss were brave and they were generous.  They almost bankrupted the country by trying to provide for prisoners of war from both sides and refugees.  They treated all comers fairly.  The Red Cross and the Geneva conventions both originated with the Swiss, after all.  I know that the Swiss did do some banking with the Nazis and that this is sometimes enough cause for people to think poorly of their behavior during the war as a neutral country.  Once they realized the threat of the Third Reich to democracy they started looking for opportunities to become more financially independent from their Eastern neighbors.

I really liked this book.  It helped me to understand the Swiss as a people.  I think before they were only a bank or the maker of great utility knives in my mind.  I’m going to try not to think of what their generalization of us Yanks is.