“The Breisach Encounter”

Continuing the series . . .

One of my hobbies is exploring the Jewish past of Switzerland, as I’ve shown here and here. This is very interesting to me because, as part Gypsy myself, I find it interesting how itinerant people have been treated in medieval times.

Another of my hobbies is exploring the small villages along the Rhein. I find this interesting because historically the Rhein River had a tremendous meander which was removed via canals in modern times. This means there are medieval river villages and river relics that are now located far from the river.

Recently I was in one of these, Breisach in Germany, where I stopped to drink a coffee and smoke a cigar and reflect on my encounter with the Head of the Mossad, Gabriel Allon, at the old Synagogengasse in Zürich. Here my father tells the background story.

“Gabriel”, said a frustrated Mikhail,   “just what in the hell are we doing in Breisach?  There have to be a thousand better places in Germany for a safe house for our meeting.”

“Perhaps”, said Gabriel, “but not this close to the French border.  You never know when you need to cross over.  We’re still not very high on the German popularity list, and . . . .  Oh NO!  It’s him again!  NO!”

Mikhail jumped at Gabriel’s words.

Gabriel whispered hoarsely:  “Across the square, about 50 meters away, at your 11 o’clock.  The tall guy, baseball cap, sitting at the café with the espresso and cigar – and taking pictures.  Turn around – quick.  I have no desire to be photographed.  Very casually let’s walk south a bit.”

“Who is this guy?  Should I worry?” said Mikhail.

“Remember that I told you about him a couple of months back.  I had that meeting at the Synagogengasse in Zurich.  He’s the guy who’s a friend of you-know-who”, Gabriel responded.


“Exactly.  Old Mr. T”.

Mikhail’s brow furrowed: “You think someone has hired the T-Man to check us out?”

“Unlikely.  He never works for that side.  Mr. T has his scruples.  It’s just that the guy saw me then and I don’t want him to see me again”, said Gabriel.

Mikhail frowned. “Perhaps I should take him out.”

“No – you idiot.  Look —  this guy runs a blog.  At odd intervals, Tradecraft runs a column there answering questions, so the blog invites people to send in questions and he’ll eventually answer them.”

“So that means Mr. T uses that blog column as his mail-drop?”

“Possibly — Probably — Most likely — For Certain.  But the point is, it means that the guy over there – he calls himself Ken – is close enough to Tradecraft to carry on a dialogue – and feel secure.  He’s Mr. T’s pal.  In Zurich I had a Beretta in his ribs and he just pushed it away and called me a jackass.  Do you know of anyone else who Mr. T trusts like that?  The T-Man doesn’t have many friends.  Once he trusts a guy, bonds with him, nobody had better mess with that guy.  That’s Mr. T’s way.”

“I agree,“ said Mikhail, “that the T-man trusts hardly anyone.”

“So think about it, Mikhail.  If you  threaten this guy, or take him out, guess who will come after you?  I know you took out Tariq and Ivan, but Mr. T plays in a higher league. There’s no place you could run to.  Mr. T would declare war on The Office and I don’t need that – nor do I need this Ken taking our picture.

We don’t want to be an item in his blog.  Let’s just go get some lunch and let the blog guy take his pictures and move on.”

Triangle Crane

I captured this snap in Oberwinterthur, next to an indoor “freefall” center where you can pretend to fall out of an airplane:

I never re-touch or edit any of my snaps, so I thought it was wonderful  how the colors of the crane compliment how the sky looked at that moment.

And the crane itself is one I have never seen before: instead of being comprised of triangular truss rods, it seems to be comprised of pieces of triangular sheet metal.

Gordes from below

In a separate blog post I’ve shown the medieval French village Gordes from above, and here it is looking up from below:

I never re-touch or edit my photographs in any way, except a bit of cropping – so I’m always pleased when I capture magnificent blue skies like this that get pale near the horizon.  (That’s not a polarization effect, just the usual “blue sky” effect coupled with a progressively deeper slice of atmosphere as you get near the horizon: more air = more scattering.)

Training with the U.S. Special Forces

At least, I think they were U.S. Special Forces. In 1998 I was working at the Max-Planck-Institute, a huge scientific complex which sits alone in a huge woods in southern Germany.

Well, almost alone: right next to it sits Patch Barracks, the Headquarters for the U.S. military in Europe, and also the location of a troop of Special Forces soldiers (one of whom is even today a very good friend of mine).

Each day at lunchtime I’d go running in the woods, usually about 4 miles, but I almost never saw any soldiers. I guess soldiers don’t like running in the woods.

Anyway, one day I was finishing up my run with a sprint, when suddenly, out of nowhere, came a huge group of 10 soldiers wearing camouflaged clothes, backpacks, and boots. They were running in boots! But these crazy guys were not just running in boots, they were doing at least a 5-6 minute mile – with backpacks and in boots! This is not them, but this is what it looked like:

The strange thing about it was we literally ran into each other, and I suddenly found myself running along side them, mixed into their group. One by one they realized I was there, and they started snickering and smiling to each other. I wanted to stop – I badly wanted to stop. I had already done 4 miles and a sprint – I reached my limit and I could not run anymore.

Now, I am a wimp – but I am still a man. And there is no fucking way in hell I was going to give up in front of these guys and have these guys keep running! So as much as I wanted to stop I kept running. And soon I started praying that they would stop, because my energy was long gone and I could not run anymore and there was no fucking way I was going to stop.

Fortunately after about a mile the path forked, and when the soldiers veered left, I veered right – and kept right on running until they were out of sight. I collapsed to my knees, and for 5 minutes I lay on the ground and fought the urge to vomit. I had no idea why I wanted to vomit, but I later found out . . . vomiting is not a good thing.

Still, I was pretty proud! I did not stop in front of them!

Ask. Mr. Tradecraft – A word about my friend

Yes, he really exists. And it’s important because a few posts coming up touch on very sensitive topics (such as wet work). I’ve promised him not to edit any of his contributions, although naturally that last one (4) was a tad embarrassing for me – he’s requested that I print my recollection of events and I eventually will.

Note from Ken: I’ve known him for years, but I never know when I’ll hear from him. Gladly, he’s back, not sure for how long, and I hope he has time to start emptying his mailbox.

After many decades, Mr. Tradecraft remains a much-sought-after operator for the most demanding contracts with governments, corporations, and private parties alike. He has over 30 years of international field experience that span the whole spectrum of clandestine services, from cut-outs, snatch-and-grabs, bag jobs, surveillance, to wet work — much of it spent in red zones. His retirement increasingly near, Ask Mr. Tradecraft is the pro bono way he gives back to the community. If you’d like to ask him a question, please submit it to Ken – but due to obvious reasons there may be a wait of many months before he can respond to your question.


Ask Mr. Tradecraft – 4

Dear Mr. Tradecraft, So how did you meet Ken? – Spy Plying Outstanding Operator Knowledge



Communist China in the 1990’s. I was doing some TA work for a Middle Eastern client – Threat Assessment, arrive early, check out the opposition. Not ten minutes out of the hotel I spotted a 6-man surveillance team! Now here’s where you fall back on principles: it’s never a Red Zone until you confirm it’s a Red Zone. So after a few harrowing, blood-curdling bone-chilling minutes I realized there was indeed a team, but following a tall, bald American, not me. So I decided to hang back and watch the fun. Nobody, not even me, can evade a properly trained team that size.

But this dumb American! For the first hour he was clearly unaware of his situation. Don’t know what tipped him off – but after an hour he picked up the closest two. And then he did something amazing: he nonchalantly executed evasive pattern after evasive pattern (I counted four!), identifying each member of the team, and in less than 30 minutes he was absolutely, positively clear.

Here’s the thing: there was something about his body language that told me he was no operator. Followed up on him (had to, really, what he pulled off was a once-in-a-lifetime event) and learned he was a nuclear physicist – and not an operator, no training at all. That explained the team: nuclear physicists in China don’t go anywhere without surveillance. I told him – or better put, I counseled him months later, in a different Asian country, over steaming bowls of Bi Luo Chun tea – he has that raw talent that would easily take him to the upper echelons of our trade, if he ever so chose. More than sad – I would have been keen to have an apprentice of his natural caliber. But we keep in touch, and through his blog I get pro bono way to give back to an honorable trade.

Note from Ken: I’ve known him for years, but I never know when I’ll hear from him. Gladly, he’s back, not sure for how long, and I hope he has time to start emptying his mailbox.

After many decades, Mr. Tradecraft remains a much-sought-after operator for the most demanding contracts with governments, corporations, and private parties alike. He has over 30 years of international field experience that span the whole spectrum of clandestine services, from cut-outs, snatch-and-grabs, bag jobs, surveillance, to wet work — much of it spent in red zones. His retirement increasingly near, Ask Mr. Tradecraft is the pro bono way he gives back to the community. If you’d like to ask him a question, please submit it to Ken – but due to obvious reasons there may be a wait of many months before he can respond to your question.


Village in Provence

I seem to keep coming back to Provence, year after year, because I just haven’t yet had my fill. You can take leisurely drives anywhere and encounter stunning sights like this village, whose name I never even stopped to record:

I took this magnificent snap around Christmas time. It was a nice 20C in Provence while Switzerland was dark and covered with snow.

Winterthur: Sprawling megacity with a thousand frogwalks

OK, time to come clean: I may be guilty of a little bait-and-switch.

This is Winterthur, looked down upon from the edge of the forest where I carry out a daily 15 km Nordic Walk:

First, Winterthur is not a mega-city. I visited many mega-cities like Tokyo and Mumbai and Delhi, so you can take my word for it. In fact, truth be told, with a population of just over 100’000 inhabitants, Winterthur is not even close to a mega-city.

Second, I can’t really say Winterthur is sprawling. It has a pretty well-defined boundary, and although there is a bit of growth in the center, sprawling is just not a word that comes to mind.

Third – and arguably the most important – a thousand frogwalks.  I cannot really say there is a thousand  frogwalks. In fact, if I am honest, I’ve only ever seen three frogwalks, which I walk by on my daily 15 km morning Nordic walk.

But what is a frogwalk?  you may ask.

Well, this is what I see on my daily morning walks, hidden in a drainage ditch next to the side of a road:

And if you get a little closer you can see it’s a little ramp – complete with steps! – to help frogs and other amphibians walk up out of the ditch. That’s why I call them frogwalks:

Now, there remains a big question in my mind – and in fact it’s a whopper!  Why build frogwalks? 

In fact, the drainage ditch is next to a road in a residential neighborhood completely filled with apartments and cats. Is this an attempt to genetically purify the race of frogs by taking the stupid ones out of the gene pool?  Or perhaps to keep the cats clean by bringing their food to them?


Three views of Bamberg’s magnificent “Altes Rathaus”

Bamberg in Germany’s Franconia region is an amazing UNESCO village.  The centerpiece is a stunning building that straddles the river – and although it’s not usual to find churches and cathedrals this old, in fact the Altes Rathaus dates back to the fifteenth century, which is quite amazing for a building.

Here is one view:

And here is the much more impressive view:

And here is the final view, showing the stunning painted facade:

An historian once told me that painted buildings like this only came into fashion in the eighteen century in Europe, when the paint technology was sufficiently advanced to allow them to do this.

Tripping over the Jakobsweg in Bamberg

On a recent trip to the Franconian village of Bamberg I stumbled across this while on a long hike in the woods:

An old and often historically old marker like this, with a shell, symbolizes that you are on the world famous but “Ken disappointing” religious pilgrimage route, dating back to the early Middle Ages and leading to a cathedral in Galicia, Spain.

It made my day!  I try to hike sections of Jakobsweg whenever I get the chance, and in fact a short segment passes through Winterthur in Switzerland and is often a part of my 15 km daily Nordic walk. So I was quite thrilled to find this very unexpected branch of the trail!

Well, I was not surprised when my eyes sometimes later caught this fountain in downtown Bamberg, also adorned with a shell:

Don’t get me long – I love hiking the Jakobsweg, as countless people have been on these very same trails dating back many hundreds of years. But I say “Ken disappointing” because, after many years on my bucket list, I recently had the chance to visit the destination of the pilgrimage route, a cathedral in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela – and I was thoroughly disappointed.

It’s on my bucket list to do a bit more research here. Did Santiago himself pass through Bamberg at some point?

Château de Tarascon

I love touring around France in out-of-the-way places that tourists have never visited or likely never will. And the most amazing thing about Southern France is that even the tiniest towns have magnificent relics. Far from any place you’ll see tourists sit two villages on opposite sides of the Rhone River, Beaucaire and Tarascon.

And you can’t find anything more “castley” than this, the Château de Tarascon:

Bamberg Barge – and what in the heck is a Nitz?

The more you travel, the more things you don’t know – so the stupider you feel. At least in my case.

Here is a barge approaching the bridge I am standing on, in central Bamberg, a UNESCO village in Franconia, Germany:

And here is the same barge, passing directly under me, carrying what looks like a bit of iron ore:

So what makes me feel so stupid?

The name of this river is the Regnitz.  It caught my attention because of a nearby town called Pulsnitz. And when I looked it up on Wikipedia, in fact the Regnitz is formed by the confluence of – and this is no joke – the Rednitz and Pegnitz.

So, what in the heck is a Nitz?!?!?

I asked a number of locals, including a cab driver who spoke a very intense form of the Franconian dialect (itself a pleasure to hear!) as well as very well educated IT specialists. Sadly, nobody could tell me.

The amazing, incredible Kirchenburgs of Germany!

I’ve lived in Germany and Europe for a long time, but I never stop learning new things.

While driving aimlessly around the German countryside near Bamberg I was attracted to cathedral I spotted from a distance, nestled in a sleepy farming village of very few inhabitants but very many tractors:

It turns out this is no ordinary cathedral, but rather a magnificient example of something I had never heard about before, a Kirchenburg – roughly translated as “church fortress.”

You can certainly see it has a church:

But as you walk around, you see it is indeed a church squarely within a fortress:

And not only that, but it turns out this is the third largest such Kirchenberg in Germany!

9? How can she possibly have 9?

I recently posted a blog about the Indian goddess Durga (one of the must-know Hindu gods for anyone planning a trip to India) and this the photo I showed:

I didn’t think anything of it. But my father flipped out!  Just after seeing it he broke out in a cold sweat – he could not sleep, he could not eat.

For you see, my father is walking weapon, a deadly combination of IT professor and retired Marine Corps “master sniper” who keeps his ultra-long-distance sniping skills very much current indeed. (Aside: he would take me as a small 9-year-old boy to the shooting range, where trained me to hit ping-pong balls and glass marbles at 1’500 meters using a Winchester M1 Garand antique Sniper rifle using metal sights.  At 10 years old he helped me make my first Ghillie suit.) It’s those awesome sniper eyes that caused him to flip out.

“She has NINE arms!” he exploded to me on the phone, “NINE of them! That’s can’t be!  Eight, ok.  Ten – maybe – twelve, if she was a very, very powerful goddess. But the Durga you showed has NINE!”

“Relax, Pops” – actually I never call him pops, but I thought it was a good time to start, “I will look into it and get back to you.

So I rolled up my sleeves and went to work. I surfed and I Googled and I Binged and I “Wolfram Alpha’d” – no references to nine-arm Gods. So I reached out to my network: I have a large network of very devout Hindu scholars as friends. One of my best friends and religious scholar in general, Jim (his real name is Prabir) answered me in Facebook: I think the number of hands have metaphorical purpose. Indicative of some Divine person who has all the skills as denoted by hands. It also symbolizes the effort it takes to destroy evil in this world even temporarily. My response: go stuff a sock in it (or something to that effect), you don’t have a clue! He agreed – he didn’t know.

Here’s what I’ve learned: Durga can appear in any one of nine different forms (Skondamata, Kusumanda, Shailaputri, Kaalratri, Brahmacharini, Maha Gauri, Katyayani, Chandraghanta, and Siddhidatri), and she can have between 8 and 18 arms. But . . . no 9 arm avatar of Durga is known.

According to my friend Jim: Most likely just an artist’s goof.




Cow line

You can’t take a bad photograph of a good cow, and that even holds true for a whole line of cows!

I took this snap just outside of Winterthur:

I’m not an expert on cows, but I read something interesting: although they are herd animals, indeed there are “alpha” cows, and in group situations they always arrange themselves in such a way that the alphas tend to be in the center – and therefore much harder to reach for predators.

Swiss Police Cruiser

I thought it would be fun to capture police cruisers in different countries. In Switzerland they paint them with a high-vis orange:

What’s more amazing – even unbelievable – there is nothing inside!  My Uncle is a police officer in Cleveland, Ohio, and his cruiser is loaded with a rifle, a shotgun, several other weapons that I have promised not to publicly mention – a computer, a high-powered search light.  Interestingly, the computer does have games.

A saint, a bear, and a magnificent city in Switzerland

There are a lot of cultures that have legends of “Big Bad People,” such as Paul Bunyan and Babe the Big Blue Ox.  Here’s another one, Saint Gall (550 AD – 646 AD):

According to legend a bear attacked from the woods, but once encountering the saint it became tame and followed him around thereafter.

Anyway, he is the namesake of a truly magnificent abbey, which in turn is the namesake of a truly magnificent city in northeast Switzerland, St. Gallen. I haven’t shown many pics of this city in my blog until now, but I think it’s time to start sharing them – but slowly, otherwise your brain could explode from the majesty of the architecture, as this snap shows: