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The Mammoths of Niederwenigen

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Mammoth

Image Credit:  Mammutmuseum Niederwenigen

So far this past week, we’ve crammed more activities into one week that we’d previously done all year.  There is a lot of beautiful scenery here in Switzerland, and though we spend time in the mountains, we also like museums of all shapes and sizes.  Our busy holiday started a week ago when my husband took a few weeks off from work, and our first stop was just over the hill range in the next valley, known as Furttal:  We had a private tour (given by an old family friend) through the local mammoth museum; it is one of the few in Europe.  Roughly 185,000 years ago, glaciers and glacial lakes came and went, and the intermittent stages formed lush valleys filled with wild grasses & forests – the perfect place for mammoths to forage.  Fortunately for us, but unfortunately for the mammoths, the ground could sometimes become swampy, trapping victims, and thus preserving their remains intact.  Today, any construction site in the valley is likely to find fossils, and the archaeologists are called in on a regular basis – whether by construction crews or by farmers whose ploughing churns up artefacts (from prehistoric to Roman).

To read more details about the findings, click on the image above for a scientific report (PDF), or on the link above for the museum information.  And just as a side note:  Mammoth teeth are huge, and were formed with ridges that ground their food between the top and bottom teeth (see image below, showing a fragment in comparison to a whole tooth).

Mammoth Tooth - Plymouth-edu

Image Credit: www.plymouth.edu

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Hawaii, ca. 1924

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By clicking on the image below, you can watch a ~9-minute video of a series of short video clips from the 1920’s of Hawaii, interspersed with silent-film era title cards.  Not only is it an interesting time-capsule glimpse of a simpler time on the islands, but it’s also an insight into what the rest of America knew about the islands, the foods and customs.  Back before you could find certain fruits and vegetables in the grocery stores year round, many people didn’t know what some were, such as papaya.  My Swiss mother-in-law remembers when bananas came to Switzerland, and were exotic and expensive; in her house they were only bought for her brother, who was very sick at the time, as a source of energy; that was during World War 2.  Once, she confessed stealing a bit of money from her brother’s piggy bank to buy herself a banana.

Back then the world in general also knew very little about strange customs such as “surf riding” (surfing), and the footage of surfers is utterly tame compared to the monster wave-riding considered “for surfers” today!  Volcanic activity also seems to have been a fascination; such footage may well have been the first time anyone had seen such a thing outside of volcanic regions; it still had to be described in colours, however, such as “cherry red” for the lava, as the footage was, obviously, black and white.

The image below is of King’s Mansion, in Kealakekua, Hawaii, on the Big Island.  I actually lived here in 1986, as a student (my dorm window was the left bay window at the front).  The mansion originally belonged to Kamehameha dynasty; thus the name.  We had avocado trees in the back garden, and our neighbour’s horses, across a stone wall, would come trotting to the wall when they saw us in the garden, hoping for an avocado; we’d feed them, entertained as they carefully chewed away the flesh around the pit (reminding me of an old man chewing tobacco!), and then skillfully spit the seed aside.  In the bottom of our front garden stood a huge banyan tree [if you were standing on the covered lanai (porch) at the front of the house, it would be to your left]; it was a favourite tree to climb.

King's Mansion

Villa Helios

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For decades this old mansion was decaying under our watchful eyes; our family holiday flat looks out over this building (from the image below, our flat would be behind the dome) on the shores of Lake Lugano, Switzerland.  A few years ago someone began renovating it, and over the years we’ve watched the progress.  I’ve been watching it as a writer, and have developed a novel around it, so its progress is especially interesting to me!

Last week, we were again there on holiday, and saw that at least one of the flats is now occupied; most of the windows are still boarded over, or shuttered with a air of permanence – at least until they are sold and renovation on them can thus be completed.  By that I mean that, until a flat is to be lived in, there’s no point in finishing it; when we bought our own flat in a small town outside of Zürich, the building had been completed and the other flats occupied four years before we came along; for that time, our flat was just a concrete shell, so that we as the new owners could choose the flooring and other fixtures such as tiles and cabinets and stairs; likely the same principle is being applied to the flats in Helios.

To learn something about the history of the building, please click here.

 

The Halifax Explosion

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Halifax Explosion, 6 December 1917

Library of Parliament collection, Library and Archives, Canada

6 December 1917 will live on in infamy in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in Canada, as one of the worst disasters in history.  On that day, the largest man-made explosion prior to the nuclear age occurred, wiping out several communities and reshaping Halifax forever.

The events that led up to the explosion that killed thousands and maimed thousands more reads like a thriller:  The delay of a shipment of coal; the climate of war that complicated the comings and goings from the harbour; an experienced captain now behind schedule who “bent the rules” for once; the captain whose impatience at previous delays pressed him to disregard the harbour speed limits and refuse to give way a third time; the third ship in his path who, because of their cargo (tons of explosives), could not make sudden manoeuvres and was relying on him to give way; a right decision made too late.  Curious onlookers who gathered at their windows to watch the blazing ship in the harbour had little idea that it would be the last thing most of them would ever see; if they were not obliterated in the initial blast, the light from the flash or the window glass shattering [in virtually every window within a 2.6-kilometre (1.6 mile) radius] blinded them; some 5,900 eye injuries were treated, leaving over 40 survivors permanently blind.

Confusion after the initial blast was compounded when people began evacuating thinking that it was a German bomb attack; fires throughout the city (caused by tipped oil lamps and ovens in collapsed homes) added to the confusion and hindrance to rescue efforts,  but within a few hours the true cause had become widely-enough known to calm initial fears.  Rescue teams started arriving from as far away as 200 km (120 miles), their help hampered by damaged roads and fears of secondary explosions from a munitions magazine at the Wellington Barracks.  To make matters worse, the next day blew in a blizzard which dumped 41 cm (16 inches) of heavy snow on the area; this blocked train transport with snowdrifts, and tore down hastily-erected telegraph lines.  Halifax was isolated, though the snow did help to extinguish the fires throughout the city.

Here in Switzerland, the NZZ (Neue Zürcher Zeitung) reported on the 7th of December:

“Zerstörung der Stadt Halifax? New York, 6. Dez. (Havas.)  Aus Halifax wird gemeldet: Die Hälfte der Stadt Halifax sei ein Trummerhaufen infolge einer Explosion.  Die Verluste werden auf mehrere Millionen geschätzt.  Der Nordteil der Stadt steht in Flammen.  Es gibt hunderte von Toten und an die tausend Verwundete.

[“Destruction of the city of Halifax?  New York, 6 December (Havas – a French media group based in Paris.)  From Halifax was reported:  Half of the city of Halifax lies in ruins as a result of an explosion.  The loss has been estimated at several million (unclear whether it means Canadian dollars or Swiss Francs).  The northern part of the city is in flames.  There are hundreds of dead and thousands injured.”]

On the 8th of December, a similar footnote was reported, adding, “Kein Haus der Stadt ist unbeschädigt geblieben…” (“No house in the city has remained undamaged”)

That it even made it into a footnote of the international news section is actually remarkable, considering that Switzerland was surrounded by war at the time and had far more pressing matters on the home front and in neighbouring countries with which to keep abreast.

In the end, it is estimated that over 2,000 people were killed and 9,000 injured (of those injured, it is unclear how many died of the injuries, and how many were permanently disabled in some way).  The blast was so hot that it evaporated water in the harbour, exposing the harbour’s floor momentarily; as water rushed back in to fill the void, the resulting tsunami erased a settlement of  Mi’kmaq First Nations along the shores of Bedford Basin, on the Dartmouth side of the harbour; how many were killed is not known, though around 20 families lived there at the time.

To read the fascinating history of this event, please click here.

Sources:  Wikipedia; NZZ digital archives

The Deaf Princess Nun

Princess Alice of BattenburgPrincess Alice of Battenberg, christened Victoria Alice Elizabeth Julia Marie (born 25 February 1885 at Windsor Castle – 5 December 1969 at Buckingham Palace), later Princess Andrew of Greece and Denmark, was considered the most beautiful princess in Europe.  She was born completely deaf, yet learned to read lips at a young age and could speak several languages.  Alice grew up in Germany, and was the great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria.  In a time when royalty had little to do with the commoners, she was an unconventional royal who placed the importance of people over privilege and wealth.  She was devoted to helping others, and in the turmoil of her own personal life never lost sight of her devotion to God and her commitment to helping those less fortunate.

At the age of 17 she fell in love with Prince Andrew of Greece, and they were married in 1903.  They had four daughters and one son; their daughters went on to marry German princes, and their son Prince Philip married Elizabeth II, Queen of England; Alice is therefore the grandmother of the Princes Charles, Andrew, Edward and Princess Anne.  She and her family lived in Greece until political turmoil caused the royals to flee in exile in 1917, when they settled in a suburb of Paris.  Alice began working with charities helping Greek refugees, while her husband left her and the children for a life of debauchery and gambling in Monte Carlo.  She found strength in her Greek Orthodox faith, yet relied on the charity of wealthy relatives in that period of her life when she had no home to call her own, and no husband to help raise her children.  Understandably through the stress of circumstances, she had a nervous breakdown in 1930; dubiously diagnosed with schizophrenia, she was committed suddenly and against her will to a mental institution in Switzerland, without even the chance to say goodbye to her children (Prince Philip, 9 at the time, returned from a picnic to find his mother gone).  She continually defended her sanity and tried to leave the asylum.  Finally in 1932 she was released, but in the interim her four daughters had married (she had thus been unable to attend their weddings), and Philip had been sent to England to live with his Mountbatten uncles and his grandmother, the Dowager Marchioness of Milford Haven.

Alice eventually returned to Athens, living in a small flat and devoting her life to helping the poor.  World War II was a personal dilemma for her as her four sons-in-law fought on the German side, while her son was in the British Royal Navy; yet in her home she hid a Jewish family safely for the duration of the war.  She also remained in Athens for the duration of the war, rather than fleeing to relative safety in South Africa as many of the Greek royal family did at the time.  She worked for the Red Cross in soup kitchens, and used her royal status to fly out for medical supplies, as well as organized orphanages and a nursing circuit for the poor.  The German occupied forces assumed she was pro-German due to her ties to royal German commanders, and when a visiting German general asked her if he could do anything for her, she replied, “You can take your troops out of my country.” [For an interesting film on this period in Greek history, see “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” (2001), starring Nicholas Cage and Penelope Cruz.]

After the war ended, Alice went on to take the example of her aunt, Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna (who had been formulating plans for the foundation of a religious order in 1908 when Alice met her in Russia at a family wedding), and founded a religious order, the Christian Sisterhood of Martha and Mary, becoming a nun (though she still enjoyed smoking and playing cards) and establishing a convent and orphanage in a poverty-stricken part of Athens. Her habit consisted of a drab gray robe, white wimple, cord and rosary beads.

Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh with his mother, Princess Alice (taken late 1950s, early 1960s)

Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh with his mother, Princess Alice (taken late 1950s, early 1960s)

In 1967, following another Greek political coup, she travelled to England, where she lived with her son Prince Philip and her daughter-in-law, Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace until her death in 1969.  Her final request was to be buried near her sainted aunt in Jerusalem; she was instead initially buried in the royal crypt at Windsor Castle, but in 1988 she was at last interred near her aunt in the Convent of Saint Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

In October of 1994 her two surviving children, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Princess George of Hanover, went to the Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem to see their mother honoured as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations” for having hidden Jews in her house in Athens during the Second World War.  Prince Philip said of his mother’s actions, “I suspect that it never occurred to her that her action was in any way special. She was a person with a deep religious faith, and she would have considered it to be a perfectly natural human reaction to fellow beings in distress.”  In 2010 the Princess was posthumously named a Hero of the Holocaust by the British Government.

Information Sources:  Wikipedia; The Accidental Talmudist

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Happy Lammas Day! Happy Birthday, Switzerland!

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The original Thanksgiving day, Lammas has a centuries-old tradition in some English-speaking countries.  “Lammas” comes from the Old English hlafmæsse, meaning “loaf mass”, and was a celebration and a time to give thanks for the harvest.  Everyone would bring a loaf of bread to the church on that day, made from freshly-harvested wheat; it would then be blessed by the minister as a symbol of giving thanks for the entire harvest.  Perhaps this is the Eucharistic overtone admitted by J.R.R. Tolkien* in a private letter concerning the Lembas Bread of the Elves; this bread might have been based on Hardtack texture-wise, but the name itself is a quite clear connection to Lammas. 

In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles it is mentioned several times, and there it is referred to as the “feast of the first fruits”. To read more about this celebration, click on the image below.

And before I close, I will also say, “Happy Birthday, Switzerland!”  Today is our Founding Day, the first being in 1291.  Fireworks, here we come!

Breads, Harvest, Lammas Day

*Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. (1981), The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 0-395-31555-7

Swiss Samichlaus and Schmutzli

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Samichlaus and Schmutzli in traditional Swiss costume.

Samichlaus and Schmutzli in traditional Swiss costume.

With Christmas coming up, I thought I’d share a Christmas tradition from Switzerland:

Here in Switzerland, Santa has come and gone!  In Zürich alone, the Swiss Santas (“Samichlaus”, also known as “Sankt Nikolaus”) will make roughly 1,000 visits this year; within a few days around 6 December each year, just over 30 Santas, 50 Schmutzli and 50 drivers are underway from the Zurich Samichlaus organisation (not counting those organized between friends and family).  Now I’m fairly certain most of my readers are familiar with Santa; but here in Switzerland, his helper is called Schmutzli.  Parents throughout the land book Samichlaus and his assistants, and fill in a form for their children:  Names, ages, their favourite subject in school, and the most important questions:  What have the children improved in since the last visit by Samichlaus, and where do they need to improve?  Making their bed, cleaning their room, being nice to their siblings, or sharing more often?  The Samichlaus goes to the home at the appointed time with his assistants (often two Schmutzli, who are the

Thomas Fetz, a local Schmutzli.  Image Credit: Migrosmagazin

Thomas Fetz, a local Schmutzli. Image Credit: Migrosmagazin

“coal” bearers, often with coal-blackened faces, and who carry large baskets with some coal, a besom broom, and I’m sure a bit of room for gifts given back to them by grateful parents).  They sit down to speak with each child, reading from a great book they carry with them.  Each child is then given a “Samichlaus” bag, and perhaps a gift sponsored by the parents.  Now Swiss Samichlaus and Schmutzli are not the hygienically, politically correct version of countries like America; the large sack they carry was originally (and up into my husband’s generation) shown to bad children who might get kidnapped and taken off if they don’t learn to behave before their visit the following year (they still might threaten it here and there even today).  It might have something to do with Swiss children in general being so well-behaved…  Children are in general very respectful of Samichlaus and his two assistants, even though Mr. Fetz (pictured) looks more like a big teddy bear than someone who might threaten to kidnap naughty children!

Rather than reindeer, here in Switzerland Samichlaus and Schmutzli lead a donkey laden with gifts.  Now I have it on good authority (our local “Unterländer” newspaper) that there are precisely 8,356 donkeys registered in Switzerland to help on the day.  As Swiss are very nature-minded, there are strict regulations with how much a donkey is allowed to work or carry:  They are only allowed to carry up to 90 kilograms, and only 25 kilometers per day.  That means that these donkeys could carry a one-kilo gift to each of the 715,000 4-to-12 year olds in Switzerland!

One of the 8,356 donkeys, ready to go!

One of the 8,356 Swiss donkeys, ready to go!

Since 6 December is the official Samichlaus Day, it is customary on that day to give “Samichlaussäckli” (Santa Claus Bags) to friends, family, neighbours and coworkers.  They are great winter gifts to take when visiting friends; if you’d like to know how to make one, please click here.

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