I just came across a fascinating glimpse into the past, through film footage of New York City’s hustle and bustle, 1911-speed. To take the virtual visit, just click on the image below. Enjoy!
Category Archives: History
Depending on where you are in the world, right now you’re feeling the effects of our global village more or less than others. Here in Switzerland, the Corona Virus is headline news. We’ve had a few cases here – 43; the government has issued instructions on how to sneeze properly (into your sleeve “elbow” or into a tissue), to stay home when sick, and to cease greeting rituals (here, that would involve either hand-shaking, three kisses on the cheeks, or hugs). Gatherings of over 1,000 people have been banned – goodbye, sports fan sections and exhibitions. Below that number, lists of participants must still be kept to trace any spread to a patient zero. This includes our church; it was strange not to hug people, and to checklist who attended. It might be just a matter of time before facemasks are commonly worn in public (they’re sold out here, but I’ve yet to see someone wearing them in public).
The global village is also felt in the breakdown of the chain of supplies for goods; many shelves in our supermarkets are empty. If tin cans are made in some outback area of China that has now been quarantined by the Chinese government, then companies canning foods in Europe don’t get the wares they need to keep their factories running – as soon as one interruption happens, it breaks the steady flow. If enough shelves empty, people begin to panic and hamster supplies. Remember Y2K? The panic induced by the media, in the end, came to nothing. Yet the media are once again being panic mongers by continually focusing on this issue. What else is happening in the world? I have no idea, because the Corona Virus has taken over the world press. What I do know is that this is now the new reality; we’ll just have to get used to it and get on with our lives.
While I take all of this as seriously as it needs to be taken and find some of these measures sensible in any case of sickness, even the common cold, I am also a lover of history – so let me put the present crisis into a larger context:
- The World Health Organization (based here in Switzerland, by the way) estimates that worldwide, annual influenza epidemics result in about 3-5 million cases of severe illness and about 291,000 to 646,000 deaths. That’s the old, run-of-the-mill flu, something that most of us, if not all, have had once (or even multiple times) in our lives.
- The Covid-19 flu strain (known as the Corona Virus) is 10x likelier to be fatal.
- The Spanish flu, which struck just after WW1 (and which is related to the Swine flu of 2009), killed an estimated 40-50 million (but could have been as high as 100 million). The common name is a misnomer: The reporting of the flu in Allied countries and in Germany was suppressed by wartime censors to avoid damaging already-low morale, but the newspapers were allowed to report cases in other countries, such as Spain. As a result, people thought the flu was heaviest there or had even begun there; thus, the common name. To put that in perspective of the Great War, the total number of military and civilian casualties in World War I is estimated to be about 40 million.
- Going further back, the Black Death killed 50 million people in the 14th century (1346-53) – that was roughly 60% of Europe’s entire population at the time. It reset the economic and social structures, ending centuries of feudalism with its systems of lords, vassals and fiefdoms; it also killed off a disproportionate number of priests as they were infected while helping the sick (as well as the fact that they lived in closed communities). This necessitated a restructuring even of the church in some countries, opening the way for lay preachers and access to the Bible for common people (that’s a whole other topic).
These statistics shouldn’t induce panic; on the contrary: It shows us that life goes on. We should take precautions and practice sensible hygiene – washing hands when we come home from shopping or work, using hand disinfectant* when out, keeping distance as much as possible between ourselves and strangers when out in public, avoiding crowds of people, and avoiding physical contact with people outside the immediate family. But in the end, it is what it is; we can do what we can do, and no more. [* In case hand disinfectant is sold out in your area, you can make your own: Proportion into a pump or squeeze bottle 1/3-1/2 aloe vera gel (as close to 100% aloe vera as you can get), 2/3 rubbing alcohol or any alcohol with 60% vol. or more, and a few drops of essential oils for scent.]
How we respond to the present crisis will show our mettle; there’s no need to panic, to hoard, or to isolate ourselves behind closed doors. Hopefully, the current climate of raised awareness will linger; that it will teach people to consider others (I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been greeted with three kisses, only to be told after the fact that the other person is sick! I’d rather be warned and be able to have a choice in exposing myself or not, thank you very little…) and to generally adopt more hygienic practices even when sick with a common cold.
For me, far more important than the outward circumstances is the heart of a community that manifests itself in times of crisis. If we could look into individual communities in those past ages, we would almost certainly see people supporting others; groups who united to help the families affected. The human stories would most certainly be inspirational. There are numerous contemporary examples of natural disasters in which people have pulled together, whether locally or internationally, and helped the helpless. I can think of a dozen people in our church who would cook meals or run errands for those who are sick, and I’m sure there are far more people out there willing to step out of their own isolated, daily bubbles – and that’s where such a crisis becomes a blessing to communities, in the long run.
I do a lot of crafts. I mean, a lot variety-wise, and a lot quantity-wise. When I’m not writing, managing our household, planning meetings or teaching students (I’m a vocal coach and an English teacher for adults), I’m usually doing some kind of craft, and it more often than not involves some form of upcycling – turning “trash” into “treasures”. Recently, I’ve been making sheets of plastic-confetti-filled bubble wrap, ironed into what’s known as “ploth” (plastic cloth). These can then be sewn into bags, etc. It got me to thinking about just how bubble wrap came to be. I have tons of the stuff, stashed here and there in the craft room, for such projects – and I’m constantly on the lookout for creative uses for that poppable fun.
Did you know that originally it wasn’t intended as packing material but as wallpaper? In 1957, Swiss chemist Marc Chavannes and his business partner, Alfred Fielding, wanted to make a wallpaper that would appeal to the emerging Beat culture [for those of you unfamiliar with that term, it was a generation of post-war, anti-establishment rebels who were more or less the precursor to the 60’s hippie and counterculture movements]. What the partners did was simple enough: They put two layers of a plastic shower curtain through a heat-sealing machine. But it came out in what they first saw as a failure, with air bubbles trapped between the two layers. They figured they were onto something, failure or not, and so they got a patent and then began experimenting to find other uses. Wallpaper wasn’t popular; neither was their suggestion to use it as insulation for greenhouses (perhaps that was simply a matter of marketing to the wrong demographic). Then, around 1960, IBM began shipping their newly-designed 1410 computers and needed a way to protect the delicate dinosaurs – eh, I mean, computing mammoths. That’s a LOT of bubble wrap. The rest is, as they say, history. And in case you’re wondering, yes, people have been popping the bubbles from the beginning, just for fun. So much fun, in fact, that the last Monday of every January is officially “Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day”.
Click on the image below to watch an IBM recruiting film (1 minute), from 1960. You can also see one of IBM’s massive scientific mainframes being used by the original “computers” of NASA in the film “Hidden Figures“.
History can be confusing sometimes, especially if it’s distant – beyond our own experience. Who’s who, who did what, and what the consequences were can all seem a bit vague. The analogy below, put into a relatable context, may help you visualize an important bit of world history; I don’t know who came up with the original piece, but it’s brilliant! I’ve made several additions here and there, but otherwise, it’s someone else’s work – if anyone knows who originally came up with this analogy, please let me know so that I can give credit where credit is due!
If World War I were a Bar Fight
Germany, Austria and Italy are standing together in the middle of a pub when Serbia bumps into Austria and spills Austria’s pint. Austria demands Serbia buy it a whole new suit because of the new beer stains on its trouser leg. Germany expresses its support of Austria’s point of view.
Britain recommends that everyone calm down a bit.
Serbia points out that it can’t afford a whole new suit, but offers to pay for the cleaning of Austria’s trousers. Russia and Serbia look at Austria. Austria asks Serbia who they’re looking at. Russia suggests that Austria should leave its little brother alone. Austria inquires as to whose army will help Russia make them do so.
Germany appeals to Britain that France has been eyeing Britain, and that it’s unwise for Britain not to intervene. Britain replies that France can look at whoever it wants to, and that Britain has been watching Germany too, and what is Germany going to do about it? Germany tells Russia to stop looking at Austria, or Germany will render Russia incapable of such action anymore. Britain and France ask Germany whether it’s looking at Belgium.
Turkey and Germany go off into a corner and whisper. When they come back, Turkey makes a show of not looking at anyone.
Germany rolls up its sleeves, looks at France, and punches Belgium and Luxembourg, who had been minding their own business at the end of the bar. France and Britain punch Germany; Austria punches Bosnia and Herzegovina (which Russia and Serbia took personally); Germany punches Britain and France with one fist and Russia with the other. Russia throws a punch at Germany, but misses and nearly falls over.
Japan calls from the other side of the room that it’s on Britain’s side, but stays there.
Italy surprises everyone by punching Austria. Australia punches Turkey and gets punched back. There are no hard feelings, however, because Britain made Australia do it.
France gets thrown through a plate-glass window, but gets back up and carries on fighting. Russia gets thrown through another one, gets knocked out, suffers brain damage, and wakes up with a complete personality change.
Italy throws a punch at Austria and misses, but Austria falls over anyway. Italy raises both fists in the air and runs around the room chanting. America waits until Germany is about to fall over from sustained punching from Britain and France, then walks over and smashes it with a barstool and pretends it won the fight all by itself.
By now all the chairs are broken and the big mirror over the bar is shattered. Britain, France and America agree that Germany threw the first punch, so the whole thing is Germany’s fault. While Germany is still unconscious, they go through its pockets, steal its wallet, and buy drinks for all their friends.
Everyone went home, leaving Germany to pout on the floor planning on how to get even.
Originally posted on History Undusted, September 2015
It’s been a while since I last blogged; sometimes, life just takes over, but I’m back into “normal” life (though that’s usually just a setting on my washing machine). My husband and I just returned from a week-long wedding in Francavilla al mare, in the region of Abruzzo, Italy; the groom was from England & Chile, and the bride was from Switzerland – so it wasn’t a typical Italian wedding by any stretch of the imagination; it wasn’t a typical wedding period. Languages flew faster than seagulls at the beach resort where we were staying; you could hear English, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish, Romansch, French, Swiss-German, High German, Danish, and a host of other tongues – and those were just the wedding guests. What made the wedding even more special was the mix of people: The groom was Daniel Ilabaca, co-founder of the World Parkour and Freerunning Federation, so most of the guests were from that scene; his wife Paula is a good friend of ours who’s lived with us off and on over the years, and we got to know him and the work they do through her. Near the hotel is a permanent Parkour installation on the beach, and at the wedding reception, a slackline was set up on the beach for the guests (whether walking the line or not, we all enjoyed it!). If you’re not familiar with Parkour, or what a slackline is, click here for a video; you’ll see the slackline at 1:10.
I’ve lived in Switzerland for over a quarter of a century; in all that time, we’ve never gone into Italy except the border areas around Como or South Tirol, so a road trip down to the east coast, roughly level with Rome, was a new experience. While there, we experienced a few cultural differences. The saying When in Rome, do as the Romans has never been closer to home than this trip!
The first thing we noticed on Italian streets is the Italian way of driving: Italians love their cars, so you would think they wouldn’t risk life and limb with their driving tactics. I say risk, but that’s obviously not how they see it: In any other country I’ve lived in, a general rule of driving is one car length’s distance per 10 km of speed – this gives you reaction time. But in Italy, regardless of how fast you’re driving, you will have a driver relentlessly glued to your tailpipe. My family history gives me little patience for idiots on the road, dare I say it – for drivers who endanger others with their way of driving. But in Italy, we observed several surprising things over the course of our trip:
- The traffic, even on stretches of motorway around densely populated areas, flowed uninterruptedly and swiftly. The only times we had to stop on the motorways were when we queued for their toll gates. We didn’t see one accident, and the roads are smooth. Swiss roads tend to be clogged with tons of traffic on narrow roads (less space between the mountains and antique towns to spread out a wide motorway) and construction zones at the slightest hint of a pothole in the road. What usually takes us under three hours to drive home (e.g. from Lugano) took us over five hours this trip (for those of you into numbers, we averaged 84 km/hr in Italy, and 44 km/hr in Switzerland…)
- Speed limits are just a suggestion there; if you’re not going at least 15 km over the number on the road sign, you’re obviously going too slow. Not even the presence of a police car on the road slowed them down.
- Tailgaters appear out of thin air. Even in the backwaters of the Italian countryside, without a car in sight, within ten seconds of getting on a road, we had someone so close that we couldn’t even see their front license plate in the rear-view mirrors. We began making up reasons for this behaviour; our most logical one is that Italians are family-oriented, and they just didn’t want us to feel lonely.
Italians are famous for their food; for the most part, we ate excellent meals at restaurants, but just like anywhere else, sometimes food can be indifferent. The ravioli at Restaurant X might not be anything to write home about, but the ice cream? That’s where they really excel! Any flavour you can think of, they probably have it somewhere. Even cheesecake ice cream that really tastes like its namesake!
Did you know that there’s a German-speaking part of Italy? South Tyrol (also called Trentino-Alto Adige) used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but was given to Italy by the Allies during the Treaty of London in 1915 – a “perk” to entice Italy to join their side in the war. This area now has 18,400 hectares of orchards, making it the largest contiguous apple-producing area in the EU. Driving through the area, we now know where the apples we eat come from – and that their farming practices are organic, rejecting the use of chemical pesticides and fertilisers.
A week in our neighbouring land gave us a small taste for the diversity and beauty of northern and central Italy; it won’t be our last road trip!