Neatnik, Swiss-style

A while back I wrote a post on stereotypes. Okay, it was a long while back, when Harold Camping was predicting that the world was about to end. In that post I recapped some pretty standard Swiss stereotypes:

The Swiss go on eating Rostis and chocolate and dipping day-old bread into oozing pots of cheese fondue, occasionally heading down into their fallout shelters for another bottle of Chasselas or Pinot noir, which they deftly open with their ever-handy Swiss army knives, accordions playing cheerily in the background.  When they’re not conducting secret bank deals involving covert Carribean cash transfers, that is. Or cleaning their ovens with toothbrushes. Or hiking up an Alp behind a herd of fat cows whose bells ding and dong sweetly into the picture-postcard valley far below.

Today, I came across something that made me laugh. It’s a story of a Swiss person who has taken the Swiss neatnik stereotype to such an incredible extreme that he completely defies another Swiss stereotype: the one that says the Swiss have no sense of humor. It seemed like an appropriate thing to share on April 1st. It’s no joke, though. Continue reading

Instances of poetry

Hello everyone. I’m still here. It’s spring, and I’ve decided to come out of hibernation. Just the other day the temperature went up over 10C and I swear I felt a kind of sap surging in my veins. I’m alive! It’s warm! I feel the sun on my face!

I have decided, however, to adopt a new blogging style. Short. Sweet. To the point. No more ramblings from one topic to another. That’s a real challenge for me, because I find so many things interesting, and I want to share them all with everyone. I guess that means I’ll need to post more things, then, if I limit myself to one topic per post.

Today it’s poetry. I happened to visit Brainpickings, Maria Popov’s brilliant blog, and read a fascinating article about a woman named Nina Katchadourian, who photographs the spines of books arranged to make sentences and poems. It reminded me of Jane, a woman I met a couple of weeks ago when I was visiting my mom.

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A waltz through Vienna

You’re probably wondering what’s wrong with me. It’s already almost May and I haven’t written a single word about weeds yet this spring. Don’t worry, I’m still obsessed. The post is brewing.

I’ve been otherwise occupied, on many fronts.

Brendan and Luc are now able to forage in the fridge sufficiently well for me to leave town for a few days without worrying that they will starve to death. So last week I accompanied Marc to Vienna (he had a meeting). One of my good friends from our Baltimore days was planning to be there, too, and it was a perfect opportunity to see her.

I have a confession to make. My friend Brigitte is very knowledgeable about art, design, history and pretty much anything cultural. And because I knew this, I didn’t even bother looking at a guidebook or the Internet before I left. I knew she would have everything figured out for an awesome Vienna culture-fest.  And she did!

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Open up

A couple of years ago, a co-founder of an EPFL start-up came to me for help. Their html5 video player had just gotten fantastic reviews on gizmodo, and they wanted to make sure the English on their website was good. I suggested a few corrections, he asked me how much they owed me, and I said it was on the house. I thought their product was great, their enthusiasm was palpable, and I knew they probably didn’t have much money. He was very appreciative.

A few weeks ago, I translated an EPFL press release about another start-up. I visited the company’s website to check some details, and noticed that it had some serious problems. I wrote the two young co-founders an e-mail, telling them that I would be willing to help them polish the English on their website. I didn’t mention money explicitly, but I hinted that I was prepared to spend a couple of hours working for free, like I had with Jilion.

No response. Not even a No, thank you.
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2234031789_0d3d49b696_mArt is what you can get away with. –

Sometimes, instead of imitating life, art imitates art. This is more commonly known as forgery. If you can get away with it, I suppose you’re an artist of sorts.

Here’s a real-life story of some forgers that didn’t.

The picture on the front page of Thursday’s local paper caught my attention: a man in a suit, wearing a “scream” Halloween mask, climbing the steps to the Lausanne courthouse.  “The colorful theories of a gang of forgers,” the headline blared.

I wanted to wear a DSK mask, said Christian*, but they asked me not to be provocative…

Leonard*, aka Johnny, wasn’t as circumspect as he posed for the photographers: It’d be a shame for me to hide this handsome mug.

Christian, Leonard and five others are accused of running a forgery ring, selling at least 120 forged paintings over a five-year period, for more than 400,000 Swiss francs.

It took a Lausanne detective specializing in art theft five years to unravel the mystery.

It all hung on a nail.

Christian, who is an art dealer and expert on the painter Bosshard, and Johnny, a more lowlife character, both claim to have tried for several years to convince an elderly Lausanne woman to sell the Giacometti hanging on her living room wall. She balked.

Christian had a hard-of-hearing painter friend make a copy from a Polaroid (I told him not to work too hard on it, and it’s a terrible copy), in the hope of offering it to the woman so that she would agree to sell the original. With the copy, he argued, her wall wouldn’t be bare. Fail. She still won’t sell.

So they move to plan B. A young blonde woman rings at the door, claiming that her budgie has escaped. Perhaps it has flown into the woman’s home? The woman lets her in.  She manages to get another accomplice, Bernard* (un Jenisch fauché, which translates roughly into “a thieving gypsy”), in as well, distracting the woman while Bernard exchanges the original for the copy.

But when he tries to hang the copy on the wall, the nail comes out. Yeah, that was a bummer. So he leaves it propped up against the wall and makes his getaway.

Bernard claims he sold the Giacometti to Christian for 40,000 francs. Christian, in turn, allegedly sells it through a middleman to a Zurich gallery owner for three times that amount, in cash, the transaction taking place in the back of a car.

Meanwhile, the elderly woman isn’t totally clueless, and notices the painting is on the floor and that it is a pathetic excuse for the original. She calls the police. And everything starts to unravel.

More gems from yesterday’s paper, as the case continues to unfold:

The group’s modus operandi is to scour flea markets and salvation army-type stores, buying paintings, adding authentic-looking signatures to them, and then selling them to galleries in Lausanne and Geneva. Christian’s painter friend made forgeries of existing paintings, as well, passing them off as originals.

The court expresses astonishment that the gallery owners could be so credulous.

A Braque for 4,000 francs? Don’t you find that just a tad bizarre? Then a second, and a third, and then a Fernand Léger 6225275802_41157ea0abor a Van Dongen? Next week, it’ll be, what, the Mona Lisa for ten francs?

Christian, the art expert, testified that an original Braque would sell for 70,000 to 400,000 francs. Are the gallery owners in on the scam? Sorry, but these gallery owners are “pigeons” (suckers). Are they igoramuses? I don’t know. But they should have gotten appraisals before buying these “croutes” (crusty pieces of crap). I’m not in the best position to say this, but it strikes me as dishonest and unethical on their part. 

The detective agrees. They should have known it was a racket. The prices were too low. Some of them resold the “croutes” for a tidy profit. Perhaps they should also be on trial?

On the third day, the members of the ring hurl insults at one another as the court tries to figure out who has done what, and who is the brains behind the operation.

The blonde admits only to having come up with the idea of the missing budgie.

Bernard, the “Jenisch fauché” only did it for the money, but said Christian told him where the painting was hanging.

Christian says it was Johnny who sold him the painting after it had been stolen, and he was completely unaware of the theft. During our discussion about the sale of the painting, I could tell something wasn’t quite right. 

You had a fake Buchet, too. You wanted me to sell it for you.

Leonard, aka Johnny, aka the “Jenisch sanguin” (irascible gypsy), turns out to be the ex-husband of the blonde, and keeps yelling at everyone. At Christian: One day I’m going to kick your ass. You’re a (expletive). At the deaf artist who painted the forgeries: You’re not just deaf, you’re a stupid jerk, too. 

The paper promises more to come as the trial continues on Monday.

I never read anything this colorful in the papers in the US. Real-life drama, unfolding before my very eyes! Maybe the journalists have more freedom to report on what happens in the courtroom here. Whatever the case, it makes for great reading. I’ve learned a whole slew of new words in French, too. Jenisch. Pigeon. Croute. Faussaire.

This is life! I wonder if Christian trafficked in Munch, too. The mask could be a clue…

*not their real names (I think).

Photo Credit (nail): kevin dooley via Compfight cc

Photo Credit (Mona Lisa): -RejiK via Compfight cc