I usually wandered down Patpong when we finished our gig at the Bacchus around midnight, dropping in on other bars and clubs to catch their entertainment.
One night, a short, hawk-nosed Swiss traveler sat down next to me at the bar and ordered a beer. His name was John Dornbierer, he was a free-lance photographer, and he had been on the road for three years.
“To Switzerland ,” I said, raising my glass. “My father’s family came from Lucerne.”
“Have you ever visited it?”
“Several times. It’s a beautiful country, and I love the chocolate.”
“Jaa,” he said. Switzerland was wonderful, unlike Asia, where everything was dirty, people were inefficient and incompetent, and they made crap. He unstrapped his watch, a cheap, black plastic Casio, and tossed it on the bar.
“Look at this fucking Jap watch,” he said. “It loses five seconds a month. Can you believe that?” Disgusted, he took another swallow of beer. “Dumb cunts.”
John had a love-hate relationship with Asia. Despite his smug belief that everything was better in Switzerland, he admired Oriental art and culture, and enjoyed the unpredictability of daily life in Asia. Returning home to his small farming village north of Zurich would be hard, he worried. Maybe he wouldn’t fit any more.
He opened the briefcase at his feet and pulled out a postcard announcing an exhibit of his travel photography at the Nikon Gallery in Tokyo. That was on top of earlier, Nikon-sponsored exhibits in Switzerland and Germany. I was impressed.
“I’m doing an exhibition in Bangkok this month. I got the Swiss Embassy to sponsor it.”
“You’re in luck,” I told him. “I write for the Bangkok World. I’ll do a story on you. Can you meet me tomorrow night at the Bacchus and bring your portfolio?”
“How about 9:59 PM,” I replied. “And 30 seconds.”
He laughed. “Fuck you.”
The next night, he walked me through his portfolio as I taped the interview. I had never seen stuff as good as his outside of books. His people pictures reminded me of Henri Cartier-Bresson, a French photographer I greatly admired. I asked him how he did it since I had a decent camera and dreams of my own.
“Speed is important,” he explained. “When someone notices he’s being photographed, it takes him a second or two to decide how to react. You got to shoot it at that moment, or lose it.”
“Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment,’ yeah?” I offered. John refused to give credit to a Frenchman when a Swiss photographer was available.
“Forget that cunt,” he sheeshed. “If you want to see good people photography, study Werner Bischof, especially his Japan work.”
Typical smug Swiss. That set me off. I shut off the tape recorder and we argued for a half-hour, starting with Bischof versus Cartier-Bresson and moving on to Switzerland versus the world. ‘What the hell did the Swiss ever produce in the way of the arts?” I demanded. It was a cultural wasteland, populated by parochial, self-satisfied, chauvinistic bores. “Your country’s neat and clean and safe – and fucking sterile. The last time I visited Switzerland, I couldn’t wait to get to Italy.”
“Italy is a joke.”
That frosted me. "You ever hear Graham Greene’s comparison of Italy and Switzerland? Italian history is filled with warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but the country has produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. Switzerland’s had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what have you produced? The cuckoo clock,” I snorted.
Americans were unsophisticated, uncultured simpletons who had no history, knew nothing about food or art and bullied the world, he retorted. “You think a hamburger is haute cuisine, and a painting of a soup can is art.”
“Sophistication in Switzerland is some freak in lederhosen yodeling on a mountaintop.”
“Sophistication in America is Bob Dylan.” He did a hilarious imitation of Dylan’s annoying nasal twang that cracked us both up. We were both smashed by then. We finally agreed to a truce and I switched the tape recorder back on.
John photographed the world, traveling solo, and like Irish Brian he knew how to stretch a dollar. To finance an Indonesian shoot, he bought a $200 Nikon camera body in Singapore and declared it personal property to Customs when he arrived at Jakarta airport, avoiding the $100 duty fee normally slapped on it. Customs gave him a form. When he exited, he needed to show the form and produce the camera to prove he hadn’t sold it in Indonesia – which is exactly what he did. An Indonesian camera shop paid John $250 for the Nikon, $50 less than what it would cost to import one. John made a $50 profit over what he paid in Singapore. Everybody was happy except the Indonesian government which lost $100. John then took his $50 profit, changed it into Indonesian rupiah at black market rates, and ended up with local currency worth $60. He lived comfortably for a month on the money, then exited the country through backwater Borneo where a bored Indonesia Customs official didn’t even check his bags. Cost for a delightful 30 days in Indonesia? Zero.
John also bought pirated “Sound of Music” records in Thailand and smuggled them into Burma where people in Rangoon were mad about Julie Andrews.
“I could live for two weeks on Edelweiss,” he laughed.
I shut off the tape recorder. I had my interview – along with an idea. “Bali sounds phenomenal. I gotta see it. I think I can convince the Bangkok World to send us to Indonesia. You can shoot the photos and I’ll write the stories.”
“How much do they pay?”
“Not much, maybe $25 a story, but we get free airfare, hotel, food, maybe a case of Kodak film for you.”
“$25? That’s all the cunts will pay?” He thought it over, then stuck out his hand. We shook on it.
I was getting to like the guy. But I was getting tired of “cunt.” He needed to expand his vocabulary.