Thursday, July 1, 2010

When Swedish Rail loses track of its infrastructure

Where have the tracks gone?Yesterday morning, as I arrived on the platform of the local train station, Täby Centrum, where I grab a train Stockholm-bound, I was surprised to see that the railway tracks had disappeared (in part) overnight. I had been told that this was an unsafe neighborhood. Little did I know they meant the target of theft was the railroad. Honestly, what is anyone going to do with that amount of steel? They are bound to be tracked down…

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On the train from Baltimore to New York

Travel notes from Baltimore to New York City – on the Northeast Regional train.

We boarded at Baltimore International’s train station. The train, metallic silver reminded me of American Airline’s rustling Boeing jets mixed a nostalgic Americana Airstream caravan a bit like the one that can be seen in Stockholm’s Moderna Museet.

The windows of the coach I am now seated in are a rounded oblong shape. Out the window, the landscape zooms by. The train struggles from the airport to Baltimore’s central station as news of delayed and faulty trains ahead of us come through the intercom. The latter’s faded sounds are of a former age, last century no doubt. We come in and pull out of Baltimore station and the train finally picks up speed. It jolts on the tracks in a fashion which isn’t without scaring me. Trains run a bit smoother in Europe – yes even in the UK. Out in the horizon, the sun is setting lending the sky rich golden hues a promising sign of a generous summer.

A few miles North of Baltimore, the train drifts over a lake. The sun is but a few meters above the ground and narcissically admires itself in the calm waters. It is like a festival of colors the likes of Monet would have spent hours depicting.

In the years I spent in the USA, I never once took a train yet during my university years in Europe, I would occasionally visit the Amtrak website and contemplate the network map wondering what it would be like to board a train in Chicago’s Union station westbound. Today, I can gaze out and admire the very same landscape early settlers of the Thirteen Colonies were confronted with. Deep, lush forests and wildlife never before seen in Europe. Today’s landscape though alternates between timid woods and housing developments, the occasional fields and farmhouses, roads and telephone poles. Along the tracks, a few, seemingly abandoned, trailers, the reflection of  America’s other, sadder, side.

The train proudly blows its whistle as it whizzes past a small town. A gas station with an exotic sounding name and the backs of a row of shops greet and bid the steel mastodont farewell. Not a soul is to be seen. The train whistle truly reminds me of what I imagine would be XIXth century American or European rail, the one that can be seen in early films, the one Zola described so vividly in “La Bête Humaine”, or the one dramatically caught on film in the famous picture of a locomotive dangling outside Orsay’s train station.

Another whistle blow. The train floats over a river. In the distance, one can see rusty bridges reaching out from one bank to the other, elegantly embracing the river, throwing their steel arches over the evening sky. This America reminds me of Hopper and American Realism.

Behind the trees, the silhouette of grain silos appears. They huddle close together as if they feared the sometimes harsh Northeastern winters. Tubes reach out to each silo feeding them with freshly harvested crops – corn perhaps.

Another scene: a water tower: 5 strong legs supporting a balloon of water painted in pale blue and boldly displaying the name of the town – an ensemble of 5 or so streets and no more than a hundred homes.

Suddenly, in the middle of nowhere, the train slows down. It needs to recycle, we are told. It is good to see that Amtrak is serious about the environment although we soon find out recycling is not meant in the environmental sense here. Bluntly, recycling means shutting down the train, cutting off all electric circuits – air conditioning, lights, sockets – everything – and bringing the mastodont to a standstill on the tracks. One may think that we could do without air conditioning but in fact, at the peak of the month of June, temperatures soar very quickly.

The culprit has been found: a circuit breaker jumps every so often. This is due to – we are told – the high temperatures outside, the load of the train (they brought in extra passengers from a stranded train), and possibly other reasons. Imagine the same scenario in a plane where failure becomes critical – not anywhere as amusing as in a train. Being told there is too much load would lead the rational passenger to consider throwing passengers overboard. Imagine the looks being cast in the cabin. Whom to sacrifice?

Glimpses of America

Large ad billboards, American trucks, the highway

A pond, a boat, a bench, a man in a blue jacket.

“Ladies and gentlemen, Wilmington, Wilmington, Wilmington, Delaware…”

The road surface is wet. The regular evening storm has come and gone refreshing the atmosphere bringing a well-deserved breeze.

Pulling out of Wilmington. Dusk.

Headlights, street lights, traffic lights, windows, windows into people’s homes, people’s lives.

desolate multi storey parking lots, a matrix of vacant space

The Prudential Center’s neon signs

entangled web of bridges, pillars of concrete, cathedrals of modern cities.

The arrival

New York Penn Station – passengers bustling about – the heat rolls in waves  in the streets.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Icelandic volcano wreaks havoc in European airports

Over the years I have jumped through many hoops, witnessed many a cancelled flight, and even had the odd aborted take-off but never had I been a victim of the same predicament that – in a more virulent version – saw the instant decline of Herculanum and neighboring Pompeii.

I had been away in pristine Bavaria and then off to a weekend on the shores of medieval Bodensee. I was due to fly back to my Northern home in Stockholm when Eyjafjöll sputtered a few ash clouds tainting the common traveller’s prospects of reaching home. My friend Andreas brought me the ominous news as the regional DB train I had boarded pulled out of Ravensburg. “Your airport is closed mate, flights are cancelled”.

Resolute to reach the airport, I carried onwards, met a fellow traveller in the same predicament, and to pass time (or perhaps to trick ourselves into believing all was fine) we chatted about our respective backgrounds. The man, possibly in his early sixties, spoke in beautiful English ever so slightly influenced by remnants of a teutonic accent. He was in the textile trade and was meant to board a flight for Uzbekistan. Crickey, at least I knew there were at least 4 flights a day to Stockholm. But Uzbekistan? Did pilots even know where that was, let alone exist altogether?

Munich’s airport seemed quiet from the outside but the illusion soon crumbled as revolving glass doors led us into a departure hall crammed with suitcases, passengers, lost travellers, and overwhelmed information assistants. Overwhelmed but nonetheless curteous, friendly, and germanically efficient. I could not help but feel sorry for those passengers from overseas, as in truly overseas, not a mere Baltic Sea or North Sea but a more gigantic Atlantic. Passengers in the queue were all fairly calm and some of us got to chatting. I was between a Porsche car dealer from Rockville, MD, and a doctor from Gotland, a summerly island off the coast of Sweden, a pretty Italian girl returning home to Florence after a year in the US, and a couple flying to Barcelona. We were all in the same boat trying to catch a plane. The queue seemed endless as it snaked its way in the terminal around pillars, stairs, forlorn luggage. In the horizon, one could barely make out the Lufthansa booking counters. Slowly, one by one, passengers trickled past the counters, some in dismay at the prospect of staying another night in the Bavarian capital (albeit the hope of beer brightened up their day), others brandishing a golden token not unlike Charlie Bucket´s ticket to Willy Wonka´s factory. To kill time in the queue, we recounted our wartime stories and our near misses. I had almost flown out of Zurich but had unfortunately decided otherwise. The Swedish lady had driven down from Prague instead of flying straight from there, the American dealer hadn’t even wanted to travel to Europe, and the Italian girl, well she was in for a rather chaotic welcome back to the Old World.

A hour later, the Swedish lady had managed to rebook for the following day but I was still struggling in the queue. A glimpse of hope came as new flights were called out for check-in including a late 11PM commuter flight to Göteborg. Not quite Stockholm but still Viking land. I ran to the check-in counter only to be dimissed and told that I would merely be put in a waiting list with no guarantee for success. Sheepishly I went back to the exponentially growing rebooking queue. Fortunately, my fellow stranded passengers had kept my spot just in case and we resumed our chitchat which was waning by now as our legs were tiring. Once again a Lufthansa agent came round and called out for potential passengers to destinations including Göteborg. I gave the check-in counter a second, more aggressive, chance. And a chance well converted as the ticket agent, efficient, friendly, and calm, finally printed out the coveted plane ticket and a label for my suitcase. I saw the latter take off on the rolling carpet and be engulfed by the airport’s luggage system. I had never seen a more beautiful sight before. Like a sunset in mechanical land.

Security was a formality, the airport on the other side was religiously silent and void of passengers converted to duty free shoppers. I dashed to the gate where I spotted familiar faces on the bus that took us to the plane, a spanking new Embraer 190.

The plane ride was smooth, comfortable, with the plane barely one third full. Once at the airport, it took me a good few minute to figure out which of the 2 Göteborg airports I was at. I then skimmed the Internet for transport solutions to Stockholm, my beloved home. Train or plane? The choice was soon made. I was going to chug my wait to Göteborg, getting there in time for business.

But for now, comfortably sitting at a café miraculously still open in a deserted Göteborg airport, I listen to Manu Chao’s Que horas son mi corazon? Late, very late indeed.

Hats off to Lufthansa for handling brilliantly this volcanic indigestion.

35mm film re-edited to add photo stages of the travel mayhem

Pictures of the different stages of my trip dilemna. The departure board at Munich Apt with cancellation-itis, the window of the plane, and the arrivals hall signs at Göteborg Apt

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Sunday, March 28, 2010

SFI in Täby – First lesson of Swedish

Truth be told, my first encounter with the Swedish language was possibly when faced with a new keyboard layout. If it is similar in most aspects to the English one, it does have a few intruders, namely ä, å, and ö. I couldn’t help but stare at this part of the keyboard where the 3 keys lived, cosily nestled between the letter L, and the key where the backslash would normally reside on a US keyboard, just to the left of the return key.

Wonders of a Nordic alphabet: From A to Ö

My second – equally surprising – encounter was with the Swedish alphabet. In my twenty-odd years of written and spoken life (thus discounting the mute diaper years), I had come in close contact with a fair few languages. And up to then all alphabets roughly had 26 letters (not always but roughly) and more importantly always ended with the elusive Z (the very one that is struck by an identity crisis and is called by two different names in English). Swedish, however, saw to it differently. Indeed, the last letter is none other than Ö. In other words, where the French change the sound of a letter with an accent e.g. e and é, the Swedes create a whole new entity, a living letter of its own right, and one confusing alphabet.

But, to be quite honest, my main and daily encounter with the Nordic language was for the simple act of living and trying to get to work, order food, shop… Only, even the oldest granny speaks fluent English. As a matter of fact, one may more easily survive in Sweden on English than in the outer Hebrides. Possibly because sheep are not so talkative.

SFI, my pass back to the school bench

And so, to tackle the irksome issue of not being able to chatter as freely as one may want to, I embarked on a government-run scheme called SFI which essentially stands for Swedish for Immigrants, only written in Swedish but I haven’t reached that lesson as yet.

The signing-up process took about 2 weeks. They asked me what I had studied, what I spoke, whether I could write. And of course my personnummer. Not a form can do without that godly number. Eventually, on a cold and dark Thursday evening, I made my way to Täby Comvux, room N103, greeted the teacher in my friendliest English, and sat down. And the nightmare began. I had fallen into a fairly good classroom. All the students spoke the language and followed the teacher in her antics. Even David, an Englishman proudly sporting the football shirt with St George’s cross, could handle sentences stringing together more than a few words. Oh Lord, I was lost. I remembered my first day in Portugal when I had met an Austrian student who could speak fluent Portuguese and scared me nearly enough to ponder going home. It took me a week before I realized that Austrian student was part-Brazilian.

Back in Täby though, I was frantically batting my eyes as if morse-coding ‘May Day’ but no one came to my rescue. As the teacher used more voluptuous gestures, I grasped some of the context. I could somehow make out she was talking about the Vesuvius, Naples, and Pompei. For some reason, my neighbor could not quite understand what vulkan stood for and so the teacher´s arms erupted into circular movements of flowing lava and bursting magma in an epic hand reenactement of the 79 AD cataclysm which wiped a prosperous Roman establishment off the map of Campania.

Apart from this glimpse into History Lane, the rest of the class was very much shrouded into a fog of mysterious words. And like the undisciplined student, I started gazing around the classroom. On the far left side of the wall, there was a map of geographical Europe, with names in English for some odd reason. I tried to find some solace in the thick red line separating Belarus from the Ukraine and then contemplated what it would be like to be sitting on top of the seemingly rugged Dolomites.

Praise the Lord for Rædwald

Rædwald was none other than King of the East Angles. Picture a triangle. See that pointy edge on the right-hand side? That’s the East Angle (look left if in Australia). On a more serious note, Rædwald (whose name I must copy and paste for lack of a key combination), ruled over what is now modern-day Suffolk. He was the son of Tytila, himself the son of Wuffa, himself the son of Wehha, all of which were Angles, descendants of a tribe believed to have come from the area around the Baltic sea, namely Northern Germany and the Nordics. After such an agitated history, Rædwald is now enjoying a well-deserved retirement on the shores of the river Deben, not too far away from Adastral Park.

In short, Rædwald somewhat descended from Sweden. In his luggage, his family brought some of the roots of modern-day English and these were the very roots that let me grasp on firmly to the second part of the class. And I exclaimed (in my inner-self) Praise the Lord for the Invasion of England by those Barbarians, the ancestors of the modern Swede and IKEA for both languages (English and Swedish) share a common vocabulary base. As we worked our way through a list of verbs we had to conjugate (rough start for a first class), I took guesses that were not as wild as the Saxons who rampaged through Medieval England.

For instance grip, gripa, griper, grep, gripit means to grab, akin to grip (as in get a grip, or grip on to something) while måste translates to must. Interesting similarities. If only I could put them to good use and avoid another bad hair day (dålig hår dag)

The naughty steps of grammatical errors

The final minutes of the class were a festival of exercises and conjugation all round with fill-in-the-blank sentences where one had to choose between different forms of the given verb. Not knowing what any of the words meant in the given sentences, I felt very much like Mr. Bean on exam day, even more so when I suddenly realized the ghastly test sheet had two sides to it lengthening the torture.

I looked at the verbs begging them to yield some secret about which form to use. But they didn’t reveal a thing, let alone their very meaning. And when I stared at either verb, I remembered the time I had pretentiously thought I could tackle Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in the original Old English version.

	And in his geere for al the world he ferde
515	Nat oonly lik the loveris maladye
	Of Hereos, but rather lyk manye
	Engendred of humour malencolik
	Biforen in his celle fantastik,
	And shortly turned was al up so doun
520	Bothe habit and eek disposicioun
	Of hym, this woful lovere daun Arcite.

The Canterbury Tales, The Knight’s Tale , Sequitur Pars Secunda

It was all Greek to me. One verb caught my attention and solely because my stomach was by then crying famine. That verb was strör (it means sprinkle) which sounded so much like struddle, Pili’s very own sweet tooth specialty she used to pop into the oven at #46.

As the teacher went around the classroom asking each student to read out a sentence with the adequate verb tense, I could feel my capital sentence approaching and my embarrassment growing in anticipation. When my turn came, I read out my Swedish tidbit Han måste sluta [drick] where drick is the verb to use. I tried a form, failed lamentably prompting the teacher to scold me and tell me that with måste (which essentially means to must), one must use a specific form (which I cannot recall). I had pretty much said a sentence which put in English would have been ‘he must stop drink’ instead of ‘he must stop drinking’. There I was ascending the naughty steps of grammatical errors at the speed of a foreigner’s Swedish elocution.

Time was finally up. It had actually flown by quite quickly. Somehow, I felt there was room for progress and perhaps an inkling of hope at the end of this long, dark tunnel of linguistic hoops and traps. Tomorrow is another day, tomorrow is day II of the lessons, tomorrow I won’t be any more fluent than Thursday but at least now I can say sprinkle the volcano.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Ipswich, Indian takeway, Newborns, and a dose of French rugby

04:08 15/02/2010

There is a man next to me in the bus. His accent as he spoke to the bus driver betrayed his Eastern European origins. However he reminds me of that actor in the movie In Bruges. That big burly Irishman who is fond of art, flemish culture, and the big tower where he dies to the sound of Raglan Road. Brendan Gleeson, that’s him. I’ve got Gleeson with me in the bus except he sounds Polish.

Valentine’s sent me back to Ipswich

This weekend was a flash back in time, a journey to good old days, a taste of l’avant. This weekend I flew back to Ipswich. Unlike most people who travelled through Stansted at the weekend, I was not jetting to and from a romantic Valentine’s escapade. Instead, I was visiting some of my very best friends. Not as much intimate action but at least it lasts longer (friendship).

The house at No 46  still stands. The living room has but little changed and the inhabitants are still the very same Ruben, Maria, and Pili. The latter is always travelling, the former still spends the better part of his time in his bedroom, while the chattier of the three is now hooked on to a new Channel 4 show about births. Still, it is an improvement from watching gruesome birth videos on Youtube.

Friday night was well under way when the revised Air Direct service to Ipswich dropped me off at Ipswich Rail Station. A few minutes later, the all too familiar CinqueCento, a rich hue of blue in spite of its age and rust patches, roared into the foreyard of the train station. Out stepped Maria and ushered me in the back of Ruben’s valiant vehicle. A few minutes later, the dust was settling back on the quiet sidewalks of an early Saturday dawn Ipswich.

At home, Ruben, Maria and I chatted well into the night as if we hadn’t seen each other in ages and as casually as if I had just come back from yet another business trip. I was home. It certainly felt that way when I stepped through the front door. It didn’t feel so welcoming when I stepped in my former bedroom and saw that – obviously – there was no bed, no bedstand, no books, none of my stuff. Instead, the remaining tenants at No 46 had firmly camped their clothes drying grounds on this patch of carpet which had once harbored my den.

Pili being away, I inherited her bed for the 2 nights I was staying in Ipswich and soon, as the fictitious dials on the imaginary clock of the living room approached a very real three AM, we all headed to bed. Ruben on top, me at the bottom, and Maria in the middle. Just the way we all like it.

Suffolk Food Hall Heaven

Saturday morning slipped in subrepticiously. Ruben and Maria had a house viewing at 10AM and I decided to tag along. A ‘mature man’ probably in his fifties, showed us around after having managed to slip into the conversation that he had just resturned from his holiday – probably somewhere warm but I just can’t remember what exotic destination he’d mentioned. Spain, was it? The house turned out to be nice and strategically located for late night raids to the Fat Cat, our favorite local.

Later in the day, Maria and Ruben took me to the Suffolk Food Hall. This large food hall on the outskirts of town, just below the Orwell Bridge on the right bank of the river Orwell, is a piece of culinary heaven in a land most often (wrongly) described as deprived of all such palatable pleasures. In addition to boasting an impressive restaurant which treated us to a scrumpcious brunch, the hall also has a shop which sells everything from locally-sourced vegetables to a wide range of smelly, pungeant, odorous, fragrant cheese. French cheese, Spanish cheese, even some of that crunmbly Italian Parmigiano, and of course the local British cheese as well as the Suffolk breeds.

Our stomachs satisified and at peace, we headed down to the gardening section of the shop where Ruben treated Maria to a set of flower pots for her nth birthday (the censorship board at No 46 prevent me from printing the actual age). The flowers are to ornate Maria’s bathroom, the very one that fell victim to a leak and to the plumber’s incontrollable desire to rip the house apart. We eventually left Suffolk Food Hall. On the way out, Ruben kindly gave way to an incoming Mercedes. We always get this unbelievable feeling of posh superiority when we give way to a posh car such as a Benz from behind the windshield of Ruben’s old and clunky Cinque.

The afternoon was idly spent on shopping with Maria, coffee with Martin, and rugby with Dan at McGinty’s. The Lucky Shamrock got trampled on by the cocky rooster and Alfonso is about to get a very special gift, courtesy of Maria’s whim combined with Primark’s color blindness.

Do not underestimate the power of the jalfrezi

Saturday night was spent in the comfort of No 46. Some of us wisely chose a Chicken Tikka take-away, others settled for massive Chinese spring rolls while some arrogantly picked a lamb jalfrezi. Little did they know they would sorely pay the consequences the following day. The evening was doused with foreign liquor and ended early in the night.

And Lord, thank God for the early night in as a delivery man dared ring the doorbell at 11AM on Sunday. If we don’t go to mass there is a reason: it’s not that we don’t believe in God. No, rather it is that we believe in late lie-ins, lazy mornings, and breakfast in bed.
Instead, I was pulled out of bed by the incessant ringing of the doorbell accompanied by the humming – the roaring it seemed then – of an running van outside my window. When the man asked where a shell lived there, it took me a while before I realized he wasn’t lloking for a gastropod but rather for a Michelle. The box signed for, the man gone, and now being fully awake, I coaxed Ruben into exacting revenge on innocent Maria. We slowly tip-toed in Maria’s room (not that you need to on British carpet) only to be betrayed by the door’s cranky hinges. This didn’t stop us from jumping on top of Maria in a typical formation fondly referred to as montón amongst our circle of friends. This and teto are possibly two of the things I miss the most over in Stockholm. Maybe I should try to teach the locals these highly refined Spanish customs.
It was well into the afternoon when we were finally out and about. Food being high up on the priority list (the French and Spanish share this love for nourishment and attention to their digestive systems), Alicia joined us and we headed out to the Brewery Tap, Ipswich’s most famous brewery which once produced en masse beer before closing down only to reopen February of 2009. The place has been wonderfully renovated and the pub’s new credo is to only serve food that has been entirely made from scratch on the premises. As Alicia and I tucked into our generous Fish ‘n Chips, we savored this festival of tastes and flavors    while Ruben and Maria enjoyed another equally delicious dish – roast beef and lamb if memory serves well. The beers were a welcome and refreshing new adventure into the land of hops and other fermented cereals. A few pints of Cliff Quay Bitter, Tolly Roger and Victoria Ale quenched our curiosity as well as our thirst.

Baby Lara, the new kid on the block

A stroll along Ipswich’s marina took us slowly back to Maria’s car and we drove off to Sandra’s to visit the Clarke-Stincic homestead and check out the newly-arrived baby, little Lara. We found a very excited Elena jumping about in the living room while her sister was sound asleep in Nick’s arms. It was good to catch up as if I had never left. We celebrated Sandra’s 30th birthday by devouring a delicious chocolate cake, courtesy of Nick’s morning shopping. Later, in the bedroom, Elena pinned me to the floor and wrestled about and played hide ‘n seek with Tia Maria.
As the evening crept up, we bade Nick & Sandra goodbye and headed back to No 46 for a late crêpes dinner. I finally caught up with Pili, the best hugger in all of Ipswich, and Ipswich’s old timers, none other than Jose and Eva. One crêpe led to another and soon it was time for me to bus off back to Stansted bringing this Ipswich parenthesis to an end.

As I close this parenthesis, the burly man from the first paragraph has also dozed off to merrier lands than this roadide Essex landscape lit every 200 yards or so by the usual highway Sodium lamps, hardly what Constable would have wished for.

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Sunday, January 24, 2010

Getting the Swedish Personnummer and a round of Irish beers

With my hair freshly conditioned, I was ready to take on the latter part of the week with the resolute decision of blending into the local culture. With this objective set firmly in my mind, I decided to head to head to the Central Tax Office to register myself and get a ‘personnummer‘, not unlike the NI number over in the UK but in a friendlier format since it is composed of 12 numbers of which the first 8 represent your date of birth e.g. 19730321 for someone born on March 21st 1973.

And so, as 4PM came on Thursday, I headed to Kista T-Bana, the local underground station (although it is set some 15m above street level) and hopped on the tube. As the underground stations passed by, all with names more complicated than the previous one, I started counting how many people the personnummer system was intended for. Four single digits after a date of birth only allowed for 104 people per day, that is not many, is it now? 365 days per year would impose a maximum of 3 650 000 new babies per year. Considering there are a little over 9 million Swedes (source US Census Bureau) of which only 4 576 420 are women of which 1 427 878 are between 15 and 40 (assuming this to be an accurate age range during which women can indeed bear child), each woman would have to give birth to 2.55 children on average per year. Since pregnancy takes 9 months (0.75 years), a woman would need to have 1.91 babies per pregnancy and non-stop pregnancies by all means. In other words, lest Swedes should incessantly produce twins, the Tax Office, when planning their numbering system, has planned for a generous baby margin.

Mathematically reassured by a potentially flawed and inaccurate calculation, I got off at T-Centralen and walked into Skatteverket, the office for taxes and all things related to personnummer. Iwas greeted by a friendly attendant who waved his iphone in my direction asking me what my business was and typing on the trendy touch screen. Once I told him the purpose of my visit, he tapped a bit more and suddenly a ticket printed out one of those antiquated number-giving printers seen mainly in bank queues and supermarkets at the dairy, fish, or meat section. Ah, and bakery aussi. A slick 2 point O phone mashed with a vintage printer, welcome to Sweden indeed, where design meets geekery.

A handful of minutes later, perhaps 10 or 20, I was called to a desk where a middle-age lady greeted me, asked me for my papers and went through a checklist of items that was no longer than a single-sided page. Being from the European Union does have its benefits. She eyed suspiciously my National ID-card, xeroxed it and gave it back not without adding that it was possible the authorities would deem necessary to see my passport rather than this dubious, chip-less piece of plastic. I was tempted to reply that yes I got her point as the color design was poor – surely the designer back in France must have been color-blind – but still the card was no fish. But I was afraid she wouldn’t quite grasp the fish ‘n chip joke, not that anyone would anyway.

With one administrative hurdle down, all I had to do now was to wait for Skatteverket to send in my shiny new number. And do not dismiss it as a mere formality. Oh no, the personnummer is your gold pass to life in Sweden, a token of trust from the administration, a numerical honor bestowed upon you by the civil servants of his Royal Highness of Sweden. Without it, you are defenseless. With it, you are fully suited to ward off the dragons and demons that await you when you try to open bank accounts, sign up for a library card, or ask for Swedish language courses.

In the meantime, as I walked out of the of the offices in a pitch-dark night, blessings of Stockholm’s northerly location, colleagues and I arranged to meet for drinks in a local bar at Odenplan. A few metro stops and a change later, we settled down at a table in an underground bar where we enjoyed local drinks: a refreshing pint of… Murphy’s. One can’t get any more Swedish, can they? To recap, I drank Swedish cider in the UK, I now drink Irish stout in Sweden, what on Earth will I down in Dublin? San Migüel (to pronounce it English style)?

A few pints later, the bill settled, our merry little gang spilled out on the streets and rode back home in Stockholm’s amazing public transport system (bear in mind I am comparing with Ipswich and London neither of which are famously known for outstanding achievements in that area). An hour or so and one wrong change later, I was back in the comfort of my home. The concept of heating was taking on yet again its full meaning.

Friday came and went. It was topped by an evening out with fellow colleagues in a Sushi bar in bustling Sodermälm followed by coffee and dessert in Slussen. This, if anything, is something quite extraordinary. One can have coffee and cakes at 9PM on a Friday evening. Not something one could achieve in Sleepy Suffolk.

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First impressions of Snowy Sweden – part I: travel cards, shopping, and shampoo

It has now been a week since I relocated East and North of my former homestead, Sleepy Suffolk, to the unforgiving, snow-capped lands of Sweden where temperatures give a fresh and crisp new meaning to Jack Frost’s doings. The last few days have been times of new discoveries, astonishments, surprises, and early mornings one could do without. Here are a few recollections of the past week.

Sunday January 17th – snow, American homes, and candles

I don’t frankly know what I expected but I was surprised to see the entire countryside was covered in snow as Ryanair’s flight FR052 initiated its descent on Skavsta. Naïvely, I thought that if snow had melted in Ipswich, it would have also given way in other places of Northern Europe. Only, of course, it was not to be. The bus that took me to Stockholm filled slowly with a mix of locals returning home and tourists headed out to what guide books don as the capital of the Nordics. The scenic route on the way reminded me of America in Winter: red barns and white fences in a pristine landscape, a mixture of pine forests and wintry fields. Much later, Babak took Ryan and me on a quick tour of northern Stockholm suburbs which layout, large houses, and backyards reminded me of Kansas City and the Midwest. Northern German and Swedish immigrants must have taken this architectural style in their luggage when travelling to the New World.

When in Stockholm in last November, I had been struck by the number of candles in cafés, streets, windows… As I stepped into my new home, a suburbian apartment, I was equally struck by the amount of candles, tealights, and electric candlesticks lying about. This would be a haven for a 1666 revival, enough to give a UK Health & Safety inspector a heart attack three times over. Mental note to self: never invite Thomas Farriner, the royal baker who started the London ’66 blaze.

The apartment is cosy, large and spacious. Windows are equally large but well insulated avoiding a ‘Bar XIX’ type scenario where the large single-glazed antiquated windows invited every last draft from the street into our house. I am surprised to this day that Fadi, a fellow friend from warmer climates, hasn’t frozen yet. It sure felt like these windows hadn’t been renovated ever since the original planner, none other than Wolsey himself, had ordered the houses be built.

Monday & Tuesday January 18th and 19th – first days at work, commuting, and first shopping

The week started off to a series of company meetings and brainstorming. I already knew most of the team so there were hardly any new names or faces to learn. I got registered into the system which took a fraction of the time it would have taken in my previous job – thanks to the small size of the new company. With an access badge, an email, and a shiny new laptop, I was good to go.

Lunch was a novel, interesting, and I dare say delicious experience. My colleagues seemed surprised when I told them so. But by comparison to hub food, this was heaven for Gargantua. Salad bar, drink, bread and butter (yes Rubén that’s butter), and a main course compose a Swede’s daily lunch. With a choice of 3-4 main courses and twice as many types of bread, what else could one ask for? Coffee? Yes, it’s also included though on a scale from Italian to English, Swedish coffee ranks alongside the Insular variant.

On Monday evening, I sorted out a monthly travelcard, nearly twice as expensive as Ipswich’s travel card but at least valid on more services than just SuperRoute 66. Travelling back home was a near-blissful experience with trains and buses in sync. It took me a little over 30 minutes to get from work to my home stop and possibly just as much to walk from the stop to my home as I tried to recognize – in a pitch dark night – which of these darned buildings was mine. As my wee toes were giving way to the bitter cold, I eventually found the door to two-ten, my new home.

Tuesday followed on quickly. I managed to get up much earlier than I would in Ipswich (and much much earlier than Amaia would). I had forgotten early mornings existed with their lightly hued blue skys and birds singing glorious hymns… Heck, who am I kidding? The sky was grey, overcast, and if birds there were, they must have been as deep frozen as Birdseye, the sea captain’s famous food brand.

The highlight of the day was my attempt to learn the intricacies of Sweden grocery shopping. On my way home, I stopped at the nearby shopping center and stepped into Hemköp – pronounced Hemshop by the way. It looked much like any grocery store one might find in the Western world. Potatoes, a staple food here, are sold in bulk and customers are welcome to grab a small shovel and dig in various stacks of the tuber. Chorizo sold here is made in Denmark, Aalborg to be specific, but it didn’t refrain me from buying a pack. Chewing on a slice would certainly bring me back to Bull Rd. I managed to avoid linguistic mistakes by not reading any labels. I stocked up on local cheese and even a French bûche. As I left the grocery store, I felt happy I’d managed to handle that first experience smoothly.

Wednesday morning – of eventually reading the label correctly.

Fresh out of bed, I headed straight for the shower, grabbed the shampoo bottle I’d bought the previous night and started to lather it in. Only, it didn’t foam, it felt odd, and didn’t actually feel like shampoo. I glanced at the label. Fructis, yes so far so good. Normal hair. Yes, boring old hair. Only, in lieu of shampoo (which equates to schampo in Swedish), the label spelled out BALSAM which Google Translate later told me meant any of

  2. BALM
  3. SALVE

or possibly all of the above. I had managed to buy conditioner. Lord, I would have pulled my hair out at such stupid blindness. Even statistically if I picked a bottle at random in the hair care department, odds would be I would pick shampoo. There is bound to be more of that than conditioner, right? My ineptness, however, saw to it differently.

With half the week under my belt and no major mishap, I was ready to take on more of Stockholm and Sweden. Coming in the next episode, a visit down at the immigration office, drinks in Odenplan, an unwanted detour, and Sunday washing.

Posted by The Blog Hiker in 12:03:15 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Farewell, Ipswich.

Without warning Sunday January 17th stormed in on Bull Rd and it was all too late to try to stay in Ipswich. Had I clung to Maria´s bedframe in a vain attempt to remain, the bed would have flown out to the cinque and buggered off to Stansted dragging me along. Change was indeed inevitable and the path to Stockholm was wide open.

My moving, rummaging, packaging was all but done. The last 2 boxes had been taped up so much they looked like Egyptian mummies at the British Museum. They were now idly waiting in the living room for the UPS man to come and pick them up. (to be continued…)

Next to the boxes, I had brought down my suitcase -  my faithful black Delsey that has followed me so far to all the countries I lived in – and my Quechua backpack suffering from a bad back after the two flat metal rods that are meant to sustain had been lost in action while being hurled on ‘yet another on-time flight’ by Ryanair. My room, my sacred sanctum, my alcove, my refuge was now an empty rectangular bit of space with sole ornament a clothes hanger on wheels, remnants of my once full closet. In the corner, my rolled-up sleeping bag was a reminder I would no longer camp here. It was time for Herr Gorena to take away my house keys.

Going without a final pint would have seemed inappropriate so Ruben and I headed out in his clunky cinque and we met with the chaps, the usual Spanish gang, at McGintys, the local Irish pub where we had seen many a rugby match and an unforgettable Confederations Cup semi-final which saw the USA cruise past the Invicible Armada of Spain. Tanya and I had celebrated that night! Over at the pub, we sipped a few pints and mingled with newly arrived teacher assistants from across Germany, France, and Spain. New faces taking over older ones. With an Adnams Broadside in my hand, Nick and I (2 of the 4 veteran musketeers) recollected long-gone memories of audacious nurses flirting with BT students from their top floor Pearson Rd apartments. Soon the pub shut down and we headed home after one last round of goodbyes, hugs, and forget-me-nots.

In our living room, Maria, Ruben, and I shared a few final thoughts before driving off to the Old Cattle Market where the Stansted-bound bus was waiting. A merrily inebriated Rebecca met us there for one last group hug. And then, after an elated Glaswegian bus driver had chucked my luggage in the bus’s hold and given chicken to Rubén, the bus drove off leaving Ipswich behind. It was 02:30AM on a dark Sunday dawn and as they say in Friends, it was the end of an era…

Posted by The Blog Hiker in 00:37:23 | Permalink | Comments Off

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The move – four years, three months, twenty-nine days, and two hours 1/2 on

When I first got to Ipswich, my move was hectic and massively organized altogether. On the one hand, I had just returned to France quite laid back and relaxed with only a fortnight before my departure for Sleepy Suffolk. On the other, my dear mother, my very own Queen Mum, was breathing down my neck making sure I sorted out my suitcases and boxes.

I eventually filled a trunk up with books, clothing, bed covers and other items which I cannot think why I would ever want to bring them over to Ipswich. In my current move, I recently found the list of items I’d originally shipped and their weight. It is interesting to compare that with what I am now sending overseas.

  • Empty trunk (black – it soon became famous in Ipswich as the dead man’s trunk for its sheer weight) – 7kg
  • Yellow bag with bedsheets and towels – 3kg
  • White shoebox with cables and charger – 1.5kg
  • Creative 2.1 speakers SBS 350 – 3.1kg
  • Javascript 1.3 book + another book on programming – 1.5kg
  • Tall lamp – 4kg
  • bedcover – 4kg
  • bedspread – 3kg
  • Squash racket + umbrella + gloves + woolly hats – 2kg
  • “1…2…3″ bag with bedsheets – 2.5kg
  • Oblong pillow – 2kg
  • Set of 8 pants – 7kg
  • Irish sweater – 1kg
  • Mattress cover – 2kg
  • Square pillow – 2kg
  • 3 sweaters – 1.5kg
  • Slippers – 1kg

The grand total was 47kg. In addition to that box which I air-shipped and got to my new house a day before I did, scaring the wits out of my housemates, I had a black Delsey suitcase, your normal sized one with mainly clothes and other sundry items which list I have unfortunately not kept.

I had also added at the last minute a small box containing my hi-fi, a blue coat (famously known as Bibendum for its resemblance to Michelin’s mascot), a grey raincoat, a beige summer jacket, a chess game, extra sweaters, posters, another lamp, and a Royals wall mat.

Today I look back at the list and wonder why I had the urge of taking 2 bed covers, enough bedsheets to equip an entire hotel (at least a 2-bedroom one), two lamps, and an umbrella. I must have truly though Ipswich would be dark, somber even, dreary, cold, and wet. I also wonder how I managed to fit so much into a minute 2 boxes.

My shipment to the Nordics required no less than 5 large boxes rescued from certain shredded death in a cardboard recycling skip at Tesco’s. During the first 2 weeks of 2010, our house resonated with the sound of the tape measure being pulled in and out, duct tape torn off and stuck onto the fortunate boxes, and the frenzied tearing of cardboard.

On January 6th, as Britain was brought to a freezing halt, UPS, the friendly shipping people in the unmistakable brown vans, took away the first two boxes and sent them on a waltz that saw them go to Bury St Edmunds, Barking, Herne-Boernig, Hamburg, Copenhagen, Malmo, and eventually Bromma.

This time the boxes contained what I deemed ‘vitals’: mainly clothes, my books, my DVD collection, and odd bits such as cocktails glasses Laurine had given me on our first Christmas together back in 2005. All in all, the shipment weight reached a whopping 130kg, three times the weight of the original shipment. And this is excluding the generous 30kg I can ship with Ryanair when I fly in the wee hours a most certainly frosty Essex dawn.

I cannot remember any longer the exact contents of either box I shipped. The printing on the outside are reminiscences of their previous lives when they harbored My Little Pony toys destined to be displayed on Tesco shelves and sold to parents anxious to please their little ones. I fear opening the boxes will be a bit like a Jack-in-the-box experience or perhaps a Forrest Gump Chocolates one where I simply never know what I’m going to get…

Posted by The Blog Hiker in 13:35:11 | Permalink | Comments Off

Friday, October 16, 2009

London Luton Airport relocates to Cambridge

… or so seems to indicate Google Maps.

I was looking into Cambridge Airport today to see how convenient and close it was to Cambridge’s rail station should I want to go and fly from there when Google Maps actually delivered a total blooper.

As I swapped from Map view to Satellite view, here is what Google Maps displayed:

Google Maps relocates Luton Airport to Cambridge

Google Maps relocates Luton Airport to Cambridge

Yes, the hangar is labelled as Luton Airport. I squinted hard and long to try to spot those orangey, easyJet planes. But all I could see was grass, tarmac and semi-terraced homes whose owners would probably have a heart attack if suddenly the 117,859 Luton take-offs & landings took place here in tranquil Cambridgeshire.

Whatever happened to Google Maps?

Posted by The Blog Hiker in 10:05:14 | Permalink | Comments Off