Sunday, January 10, 2010

I'm on a BOAT!!!

11:15am, Uppsala, Sweden, 25 December 2009

Well...not exactly. It would not be the complete truth to claim that, as I write this post, I am 'on' a 'boat'. Or any kind of water craft, for that matter. Where I actually am is sitting at my desk in my room in Flogsta on Christmas morning, pondering just how bad I have been at keep this blog up to date. Obviously there is a limit to what I can cover here, especially given my rather long-winded writing style, and the fact that some things are better not committed to the inter-webs...but even so, I think I've posted perhaps six times in 18 weeks? Not so great...

But I have had these notes lying around for about 6-8 weeks now, so perhaps it's time to turn them into something constructive. Or something to fill some time before Icky Matt makes French Toast in any case.

So, I'm on a Boat. Or rather, as we have discussed, I am not. But I was! In fact, since arriving in Sweden I have travelled on no less than 5 boats! Except that strictly speaking, one of those was twice on the same boat. Does that count? Oh, and I also took a trip down the Fyris River on the King Carl Gustav way back in September. That was out and or two boats? Any rules regarding number of boats should be applied consistently, I feel. And then their were two trips on the Djurgården ferry in Stockholm...but I have no idea if it's always the same boat, and anyway those trip were 5 months apart, AND in different directions, so that could easily count as two and...


...I feel I've gotten bogged down in unnecessary details. I've been on a number of boats, some of them were very big boats, the kind you can use to cross the Baltic Sea, or Östersjön ('the East Sea') as it's called in Swedish. And that was actually the point of that lead in – I have visited three of Sweden's cross-Baltic neighbours by ferry in the last 2 months, and I would like to share some of my experiences with you all.

Riga, Latvia: 29 October – 2 November

At Swedish universities, it is common that rather than taking four or more subjects ('courses') concurrently as we tend to do in Australia, students instead take their courses intensively and consecutively, spending 4-5 weeks on each one, taking an exam or completing a major essay and then moving on to the next course. As there are no centrally mandated start and end dates for each course, gaps tend to appear between courses. This was the position I found myself in over the long weekend between my Swedish Economic History exam (Thursday morning) and my first lecture in Comparative Welfare States (Tuesday afternoon). Crossing the Baltic to visit beautiful and atmospheric Riga, the capital city of Latvia, as well as nearby Kuldiga/Goldingen (the town in western Latvia where my Mum's Jewish ancestors migrated from in the late 19th century) seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.

Excited, I began rounding up friends to take along – but Simon had no money, and Jonas had no time, and Matt had just been somewhere and Inken was about to go somewhere, and Mike had his girlfriend visiting him from England. Of course (being both an engineer and a northerner) he said he'd much rather come with me than have to cuddle and talk about his feelings...but I wasn't willing to be responsible for that. And so only Lucy was free, and (after soup lunch at VG and a quick stop at a supermarket for Pringles and Kanelbullar) we set off together for Stockholm and the ferries to Riga.

Thanks to Lucy's mad organisational skillz we made it to the Silja Line terminal at Frihamnen, a little to the north-east of central Stockholm, with time to spare. After dealing with the surly young woman at the check-in counter (who seemed personally aggrieved that not just one, but BOTH of us wished to pay for our journey) we scanned our boarding cards and made our way out along the passenger bridge, the ferry looming huge and motionless in the water to our left. Our cabins were on deck two, which as it turned out was below the entry deck, both the car decks, and the waterline; a part of the ferry where tight stairwells and cramped corridors twisted into dead ends peopled by bands of drunk, seedy Russians in spandex and tracksuits, where watertight bulkhead doors sealed behind us when the ferry got under way, and where brown portable-classroom carpet, beige linoleum walls, flickering flourescent lights and constant yet irregular machinery noise served as a constant reminder of our station in life. Still my cabin was quite comfortable (even if it did on my arrival contain two naked Lithuanian men) and in any case Lucy and I spent much of the 18 hour journey exploring the rest of the ship. We wandered in the duty free shop listening to the alcohol bottles vibrate against one another, watched the full moon rise over the Baltic from the upper deck, took in the evening's free entertainment (drunk Russians falling over a lot while trying to dance/walk/climb up and down stairs) and ate some of our haul of Pringles, sandwiches, pastries and chocolate in an alcove near our cabins.

The next morning we climbed to the upper deck to get our first view of Riga. Passing the outer channel markers quickly, we entered the mouth of the Daugavapils with hordes of seagulls diving and swooping in our wake. The wide brown river looked oddly beautiful in the morning light, its banks choked with all manner of post-Soviet industrial debris; decaying factories, silent smokestacks, abandoned cranes, empty slipways and rusting cargo ships listing gently in their berths. Twenty years ago Riga was one of the Soviet Union's most important ports, ten years ago it was the rising economic star of the Baltic states, enjoying its new-found freedom for all it's worth, and now, amid the latest financial crisis, it seemed all but abandoned. The light and subject-matter were certainly quite extraordinary, and I took lots of photographs, but the grim grey concrete flats which rose out of the morning mist beyond the docks and warehouses served as a reminder of the human cost of the changes which had created this landscape. And gazing up at the ultramodern cigarette lighter-shaped Swedbank skyscraper which stood opposite the ferry terminal, it was difficult to assess what kind of changes were ahead.

Lucy and I spent our first morning in Riga as we would much of our time – in happy yet fairly aimless wanderings. We took a wide circle from the ferry terminal down to the old city via the architectural treasure-trove of Elizabetes iela and its surrounding streets. We took in the grand mansions of Embassy Row, the fearsomely blockish Soviet-built government offices, the fantastical facades of the Art Nouveau houses which Riga is famous for, the picturesque grandeur of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral and just about everything in between. We wandered in grand parks where I imagined shady Cold War dealings going down and Lucy dived into huge piles of autumn leaves (which she spent the rest of the trip picking out of her hair) and we both marvelled at the strains of accordion music wafting between the trees. The gentle arch of Elizabetes iela brought us eventually to the eastern edge of the Old City. Crossing the wide avenue in front of the railway station, we bravely crossed under the railway viaduct to the 'wrong side of the tracks', headed for the Riga Central Market.

The market is one of the outstanding highlights of Riga, filling five huge old Zeppelin hangars the Latvians bought from the Germans for the purpose in the 20s. They are connected by small intervening buildings and passages, and Lucy and I wandered through each in turn, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the market, which were different in each hangar because each houses a different sort of produce – meat in the first, followed by deli goods, then bread, pastries & cakes, fruit & vegetables and in the final hangar, fresh and preserved seafood of all kinds. The whole complex is at least twice the size of the Queen Vic Market, perhaps larger, and spills out into the surrounding area – even in late autumn with the daytime temperatures under 3 degrees, the hangars were surrounded by stalls selling flower arrangements, fruit & vegetables, knitted goods, handbags, knives, luggage, hats, lingerie, pet food, pastries and just about any other commodity you can think of. The narrow aisles teemed with people – overwhelmingly locals doing their regular shopping – and the noise and colour and energy of the place kept us entertained for at least a few hours. Lucy impulse-bought a pomegranate the size of her head (“They just look so inviting!”) and I managed to make a middle-aged Latvian lady understand that I wanted a few slices of some kind of smoked ham. We bought some pizza rolls and pastries from a rather surly girl in a corner bakery, and next door Lucy also got very excited to discover a stall selling little deep-fried pastries she calls 'Piroshki' – apparently a Russian delicacy on offer in her own beloved Adelaide Central Market. Riga is approximately fifty per cent Russian, so it's likely it was the same thing.

We returned triumphantly to the Old Town and, after some trouble finding our hostel 'The Naughty Squirrel' (we had walked past it at least twice without seeing the tiny sign) we climbed the four flights of stairs and rang the bell. We were greeted by the smiling bearded face and pleasantly surprising Australian accent of Jarrod, who runs the place with his Latvian girlfriend Ieva, who checked us in and gave us a quick run-down on Riga. Stowing our bags in the room, we settled down to enjoy a late lunch of market goodies, only to be interrupted by Jarrod, who uncorked a brown earthenware bottle and poured us two generous shots of the local speciality 'Riga Black Balzams' – a vile tasting brown viscous concoction which we later learned is made from grass (picked on 46 different days of the year) and a secret recipe of over 200 herbs, seed and oils, all drowned in vodka for that 45% alcohol taste we all love. It was apparently created as a health tonic in the mid 18th century, and according to legend cured Catherine the Great of a mysterious sickness. I can only imagine it has remained secret for so long because no one else in their right mind would want to produce the stuff. “Aw sorry mate, I probably ruined your lunch!” Jarrod apologised, going on to tell us how much the locals love the stuff, so much so that in Winter they can be seen in cafes all over the city, pouring shots of it into their coffee. Still someone must drink it – while walking around Riga you are never more than 200m from one of the 'Latvias Balzams' alcohol stores which make their living selling the stuff. The pomegranate was much tastier, although opening it was somewhat of an issue – I got some decent purchase with my pocket knife, but soon got a bit impatient, applied too much force and the thing exploded in my hands, showering myself, Lucy, the table, our lunch, the kitchen, and the Germans sitting at the next table with juice, bits of pulp, and tiny scarlet seed pods.

Recovering from our shock we set out into the evening streets of Old Riga. Listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, the Old Town is a melting pot of architectural styles influenced by the many invaders that have made this key Baltic port their home away from home over the centuries. Fragments of medieval walls built by the Swedes stand should to shoulder with the Teutonic castles, German guildhalls, Russian cathedrals and (mercifully rarely) Soviet office buildings, constructed between the every style imaginable. The spires of some of the city's many churches can be seen from anywhere you stand, and give Riga an impressive skyline uncluttered by modern skyscrapers. More prosaically, Lucy and I were thrilled to discover that the twin joys of espresso machines and opening hours which extend past 5pm have made their way to this weird little corner of the old Inner Empire, even if they are yet to penetrate our own dear magic land on the far side of the Baltic. To celebrate this find we had a Riga Coffee (like a Vienna Coffee but with Balzams) at one of the ubiquitous Double Coffee stores (it's the former Soviet Union's answer to Starbucks – but actually good) and were surprised to discover that we didn't immediately regret our decision.

Crossing the river into a newer part of the city, we made our way across one of the city's many parks to Elizabetes iela in search of a restaurant called LIDO which had been recommended to us at the hostel. Despite our initially slightly dubious reaction to the prospect of 'Buffet-style chain restaurant serving traditional Latvian food', we realised only shortly after walking through the door that we had in fact struck gold. Huge pans of fresh cut chips sizzled before our eyes as a friendly chef in a white hat and apron directed us to grilling meats of all kinds, delicious shish-kebabs, potato pancakes, bowls of sauces, salad bar, drinks and desserts. Tossed between Germans, Swedes, Poles and Russians (not exactly the continent's finest chefs) Latvian cuisine typically features a lot of pork, cabbage, potatoes and dill, but this was so fresh and delicious that we happily stuffed ourselves (for about 4 Lats each – around AUD$8.80) and rolled gently back to our hostel through the evening streets.

The following morning we headed out early. With an assignment looming in her Geology course, Lucy was leaving on that afternoon's ferry, and I had planned to spend my last day tracing my roots in Kuldiga. Alas we soon discovered that the Sunday buses were too slow and infrequent for me to get there and back without missing my 5:30pm ferry back to Stockholm, and so I had one more day to spend in and around Riga. We set a course back to the market to collect more bread, pastries and fruit to sustain ourselves, before a little souvenir shopping among the knitwear-purveying babushkas whose stalls huddle around the edges of the market halls. “Baaaaah” one tiny old woman burst out, her fingers curled like horns beside her head as another rather dumpy one furiously mimed hand-knitting. Lucy was impressed by these attempts to cross the language barrier, and bought herself some cosy mittens and some purple mohair socks.

We had heard about a free walking tour of Riga from a poster in the hostel, but we had a little time to kill before it began so we wandered up through the Old City again, this time to have a look at the Anglican Church. Built for the small British ex-pat community in Riga in 1857, it was constructed on a shipload of real English soil brought out for the purpose. Lucy and I made a video for our British friend Simon, who we thought would appreciate the minds behind that endeavour.

The walking tour began at noon below the clock tower of the St Peter's Church, and was lead by a short young woman of about our age with bright reddish-pink hair and a lemon yellow beanie. She was a local, and shows tourists around the 'off the beaten track' parts of her city for the tips she can collect in her hat at the end of the tour. She started by leading us over to the Central Market – Lucy and I felt a little smug for having already ventured over here – but soon we moved off into the area beyond. Known locally as 'Little Moscow', the run down inner suburbs to the south of the central market are inhabited mostly by the city's large Russian population. Struggling to keep up with our guide's breakneck walking pace and shooting photos from the hip in the bright Riga sunlight, we wove past Riga's 'other' central market – “Here you can come to buy 10 sacks of potatoes at 3am in the middle of the winter, no questions asked” our guide explains – and down streets which, so it seemed to me, captured perfectly the impact of Soviet and particularly of Russian culture on this city. Standing at one intersection waiting for a light to change, the four corners housed a tumble-down wooden house which looked to be straight out of Tolstoy, a Soviet apartment bloc in pebble-crete and rusting metal, an intricately carved yet rather decrepit wooden Russian Orthodox church with babushkas praying fervently at a small shrine by the gate, and the towering 50s edifice of the Academy of Science, known locally as 'Stalin's Birthday Cake' for the plans to top it's 108m height with an enormous statue of Old Joe to celebrate his birthday. Luckily for Riga's citizenry, the old bastard carked it just before it was completed, but the hammer & sickle symbol can still be seen near the building's top – something which chafes with many Latvians.

Our next stop was the Jewish memorial, beside which stands the remains of the Great Choral Synagogue, which the Nazis burned to the ground with around 300 Jews locked inside. I found it a chilling experience – the realisation that this peaceful tree-lined street in a quiet corner of Riga had seen something so horrific, and worse, that that had been only the beginning of the suffering and slaughter that would follow for Jews under the Nazi occupation. Carved into the columns of the monument are the names of Righteous Gentiles (mostly Latvians, but a few Germans and Russians too) who risked their own lives to save around 250 Latvian Jews by hiding them from the Nazis, though this number seems tiny however in comparison to the more than 30,000 Jews who had lived in Riga before the war.

Next stop on our tour was another market, this one distinctly seedier and well...distinctly more illegal-looking then those we'd seen so far. Crammed into a vacant block between two run-down wooden apartment buildings were a hundred or so stalls piled high with every conceivable variety of suspicious goods: car stereos, electric motors, mobile phones, electric and hand tools, car parts, old Soviet uniforms, medals and badges, old clothes, shabby children's toys...the place would have made the set dressers from any post-apocalyptic movie hang their heads in shame at their inadequate attempts at recreating a dystopian junkyard society. Needless to say, we did not take photos – anyone with a pile of car radios approaching two meters high doesn't want his picture taken – but our guide informed us that the place was technically legal...only the dozens of men and women with their eclectic bundles of junk that we had walked past on the footpaths outside were genuinely on the wrong side of the law. As if to illustrate the point, less than twenty minutes after arriving we returned to the street outside to find them all gone, the only evidence of their industrious sub-legal commerce the single toothless old man frantically piling rusty drill bits into a sack, goaded on occasionally by a couple of Latvian police constables.

From there on the tour got faster and faster, our guide apparently attempting to break the land speed record for guided walking tours. Among the buildings we hurtled past were some fine examples of the Art Nouveau architecture Riga is famous for, some interesting buildings in the Latvian National Romantic style – “Rocks represent strength of Latvian people” our guide informs us – and one very grim structure which was formerly the KGB headquarters in Riga, where the Soviet secret police tortured and murdered many Latvians during their nearly five decades of occupation. We did manage to end on a brighter note though – outside a beautiful Art Nouveau theatre (now a boutique cinema) which stands near the Freedom Boulevard – one of Riga's major arteries and a considerable improvement in name over its earlier incarnations: Stalin Boulevard, Lenin Boulevard and Adolf Hitler Boulevard! At the foot of the street, before it enters the Old City, is a wide open square by the banks of the canal in the centre of which is the Freedom Monument, its guard of honour watching over the carpet of flowers and wreaths at its base. During the Soviet occupation, it was illegal to place flowers here, and those who did were often carted away by the KGB, but still the Latvians would come, in the depths of night if necessary, just to lay their flowers for freedom.

After a little souvenir and postcard shopping, we climbed the hill in Bastion Park for a view of the Old City through the autumn foliage. After a pause to snack on a few more of our Central Market pastries, I walked Lucy to her ferry in the growing dusk. Her boat looked considerably grander than the one we had come out on, and sure enough within fifteen minutes of her disappearing up the escalator in the terminal my phone chirped: “Holy crap. Classy boat! Everything is shiny...taking lots of photos!!!” I returned to the city along the waterfront, taking photos of the Daugava at night as I went. The brightly-lit sky blue Riga trams seemed to fly across the darkened river, the bridge that carried them all but invisible against the black water behind. It was Hallowe'en, and as I walked back to the hostel the streets of Riga were rather like a scene from Blade Runner: a faint mist rolls in over the city, flickering neon signs silhouette decaying Soviet tower blocks, topless young men wearing animal masks scream as they dash between the trees, wizened old ladies sell flowers under flickering flourescents by the side of the road, women in transparent plastic coats and men in grubby overcoats lean on lampposts, a tiny Napoleon darts out of a side street laughing maniacally before plunging into the park on the other side of the road. Some shish-kebabs with bacon-wrapped potatoes and a large pile of chips with dill sauce from LIDO grounded me a little, and I stumbled contentedly back to my hostel to sleep.

My final day in Riga was perhaps the least interesting. With my plans to visit Kuldiga foiled by inadequate Sunday buses, I took in some more of the sights in and around the Old City. I visited the hideous black box which is the Museum of Occupation, which gave a fascinating and detailed account of the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Latvia during the twentieth century and the struggle for an independent state with a minimum of romanticism, even acknowledging the role of Latvian collaborators in the events of Holocaust and the Soviet periods. The descriptions and recreations of the Gulags many Latvians were transported to were particularly chilling. I also retraced part of the previous day's blisteringly-paced walking tour in order to catch a few photos I had missed, spent a while back at the Jewish memorial and the remains of the Synagogue, and checked out some of Riga's architectural landmarks: the Cat House (which has a cat for a sundial and an amazing Art Nouveau facade), the Three Brothers (the city's three oldest medieval houses, which are conveniently located beside each other), the Neo-Gothic Guildhalls and the huge red brick Gothic cathedral (the largest in the Baltics, which sits more than a meter below street level because the streets around have been raised so many times in the intervening centuries). I visited the small but interesting Jewish Museum and was rather disturbed by the extent to which the people in the old photographs looked like my family...there is clearly a 'Baltic Jewish' look which is quite distinctive. Finally I took one last happy wander through the Art Nouveau district, this time chancing on a few streets of incredible buildings that I hadn't noticed before. With my camera batteries finally extinguished from all the architectural goodies, and a backpack full of pastries to sustain me in the 18 hours ahead, I headed for the ferry terminal and the voyage home.

To be continued...

In Part 2, Ben explores Helsinki and Tallinn, so stay tuned!

Saturday, December 26, 2009

God Jul!

4:30pm, Uppsala, Sweden, 25 December 2009

It has been suggested to me on several occasions that perhaps if my blog posts were just a tiny bit less, well, masters-thesis length, that perhaps I could finish and thus post them a bit more regularly. Although I have only 18 full days left in Sweden (eeep! So much to do!!) I am going to have a shot a short post anyway – think of it as part writing exercise, part Christmas bonus-post, part test-run to see if I could keep something like this on a more regular basis. Assuming I could think of something interesting to write about, of course...

And so, it being that time of year, I will share with you some of my thoughts and experiences of Uppsala in December: the onset of winter, the winding up of the year, and the Swedish wintertime celebrations of Advent, Lucia and Jul.

December was rung in noisily with a spectacular fireworks display over the Botanical Gardens. This being Sweden in December, the show was conducted in the deep darkness of 4.30pm. Lucy and I watched from the foot of Slottsbacken – the castle hill – Uppsala Slott rising pink and ponderous behind us as the sky was filled with sparkling, shimmering, bursting colour and light and noise. A low fog had rolled in over the city, but rather than detracting from the show, it rather added to it, the colours from the fireworks lighting up the low-lying cloud from the inside with white, red, green, yellow and purple. The show seemed to go on for hours as we watched, excited as small children by the sheer splendour of a brightness we hadn't seen for months, and concluded with an explosion of white light which lit the whole sky around like a summer's day for perhaps thirty seconds or more. To see brightness in the sky after such a long dreariness was cheering to a degree I hadn't anticipated, and left me both buzzing with excitement and suddenly longing to feel the heat and brightness of an Australian sun on my skin.

The darkness has only got longer and darker in the month since those fireworks – the winter solstice just four nights ago saw sunset at about 2.30pm and no real sun until around 9am – but the Swedes have been doing this for some time, and know a little something about the value of light, warmth and good cheer at this end of the year. For cheer and warmth, it is hard to go past warm spicy Glögg (the Swedish version of mulled wine) from the riverside Julmarket, or indeed from any nation-related event, where it becomes a staple at this time of the year. Uppsala's Julmarket was unfortunately rather lacking (although a few little things may have been purchased there...) but those we saw in Helsinki and Tallinn* were much improved. Not enough to impress the Germans, of course, but no-one does a Xmas market like Germans. And when the freezing cobblestones became too much and even watching the lamplighters setting their candles in the niches along Fyrisån proved inadequate for cheer, good old reliable Kalmar Nation provided an Advent Fika fit for not one, but three Kings. Or one Icky Matt. Those eat more.

The first days of December disappeared in the frantic whirl of travel preparations*, rehearsing for Jul concert with the ManChoir, and exams and assessment in Politics and Swedish, but a heavy frost on the 2nd prompted a spontaneous trip to Gamla (Old) Uppsala, a crucial site for Swedish history and identity. From prehistory until the Middle ages, this was the seat of the court/parliament/assembly called the 'Thing of all Swedes', the location of the foundation royal estates and the great pagan Temple at Uppsala. With the Christianization of northern Europe in the 12th century it became the seat of the Archbishopric of Sweden, and the choir and central tower of the old cathedral remain. The site is dominated by three huge grave mounds, containing the remains of Swedish kings and queens from the 5th century AD. The whole site, coated in thick white frost and sparkling in the unusually strong midday sunlight, was eerie and beautiful and serene in equal measure, at least until Lucy got sick of me hanging around taking photos and shoved ice down the back of my shirt.

We returned from our Baltic adventures* on the 10th of December, just in time to celebrate the quintessential Swedish holiday – Lucia, on December 13th. Ostensibly the feast day for Saint Lucia, a 3rd century Sicilian martyr, this (officially) Lutheran country is in fact celebrating a far more ancient pagan tradition. Back into prehistory the pagan peoples of Scandinavia had celebrated the longest, darkest night of the year with variations on the theme of a woman in white bearing light into the darkness. When the church arrived, they initially tried to stamp out this practice, but it proved rather too tenacious (understandably, given the depressing darkness) and so they took advantage of the similar imagery of the Sicilian Saint Lucia, and the timing of her feast day (13th December) to co-opt the old tradition into a new, more respectable Christian format.

Over the course of the weekend we had Lucia Gasque at Västgöta, Lucia Fika at Kalmar, and a Lucia service in the magnificent Domkyrkan. All were very different events, but the thread tying them together is the Lucia procession: led by a girl in white wearing a crown of candles, a choir in white robes – the women and girls with green wreaths on their heads and the men in tall pointy white hats – enter in a slow procession, singing the haunting 'Sankta Lucia', which describes how Lucia brings light and hope into the darkness. In Västgöta nation's elegant dining hall alongside the magnificent spread of the Julbord, it was touching, over the sweet treats of Fika at Kalmars, it was enjoyable...but in the setting of Domkyrkan, with the scalloped stone columns towering above us towards the darkness of the vaulted ceiling, the huge bronze candelabras swaying above the crowd, the flicker of candlelight in the aisles, the hush of thousands of people crammed into every pew and side-chapel and the sudden sound of the choir as they emerged from out of the darkness, filling the enormous space with their was breathtaking. And, despite being called 'St Lucia', despite the cathedral setting, despite the Christmas songs that filled the gap between the entrance and exit processions, this felt as un-religious as could be, and I understood why in this nation of agnostics, this huge cathedral could be filled twice over on one day in December. Lucia is about keeping hope, and remembering the better times that will come. And when you have this much darkness to endure, it makes an awful lot of sense.

Less than two weeks passed between Lucia and Jul (Christmas, which Swedes celebrate on Julafton – Christmas Eve), and yet it is hard to imagine a busier time. I sung a solo in Swedish at Västgöta Nation's combined Jul concert with all three choirs (sadly my last performance with the wonderful VGMK), and took a wintry trip to Stockholm with Eric – a visiting friend of Lucy's – who we took to the Vasa Museum, the Absolut Ice Bar (carved from real ice!!) and our personal favourite, the fried herring wagon at Slussen. We saw the sights of Uppsala and ate far too much Fika at Cafe Linné. We hosted had a Jul corridor party in our corridor, after which I finally got a chance to try a Bastu or Sauna followed by a naked roll in the snow (did I mention it snowed?!!) on our rooftop. And sadly I said farewell to Mike, Simon, Jonas P, Aaron, Elle and Lucy, amongst many other friends. But Mike, Simon and Jonas' collective farewell could hardly have gone any better. A great party in itself, which only got better when Mike's Swedish corridor-mate Björn turned up in his psychedelic dressing gown and played incredible Swedish folk fiddle for us right there is Mike's room. But the best was yet to come. As we wrapped up around 2am, Jonas (who'd already left) sent a message that said simply “Look outside.”

And when we drew back Mike's curtains, there it was...a thick, clean, pristine, beautiful, white blanket of snow covering Kantorsgatan and still falling. The little flurries we'd seen in the weeks before, or the thick wet flakes which had plastered themselves to our faces in Tallinn, were nothing on this...even the beautiful frost on the grave mounds at Gamla Uppsala paled into insignificance. I doubt that any of us had ever put gloves and coats on so quickly. We ran dangerously fast down Mike's spiral staircase and pushed open the front door. Lucy and I stood gobsmacked and laughing on the doorstep, but Simon just hurtled past us, yelling “Quick, you Australians, follow my lead!” as he dived head-first into the nearest snowdrift. Waggling his arms and legs and spitting out snow he cried “Snow Angels!” And in a second Lucy and I were in the snow on either side of him, waggling our arms and legs about and grinning like idiots at the perfect angel prints we had made.

The next half-hour or so are a blur of happiness and face-snow. Snowballs and indeed just handfuls of snow played a big part in both of those. I remember the snow was unbelievably light and fluffy...not at all how I had imagined it. We threw snowballs at Jonas' window until he and his sister (who was visiting) came out and played with us. Thanks to an unstoppable alliance of the ruthless English and the cunning Germans, Lucy and I were helpless, and both ended up with snow caked to our faces, mine all the worse for my glasses. At last we really did have to say goodbye to Mike and Jonas, and Simon, Lucy and I brushed the snow out of our clothing and our bicycles and started the long slow cycle back to Flogsta. Cycling in snow is (predictably) slippery as hell and would have been scary if there was any other traffic anywhere in the city, but of course the sensible Swedes were all asleep. Simon was effusive and joyous on our ride back home, singing the wonders of snow and (perhaps for the first time we could recall) praising something about Sweden which was better than the UK :-P

Passing a hillside covered with snow, he yelled “Ditch the bikes and follow me!” We ran up the hill beside him, the thick, fresh snow clinging at our calves, and hurled ourselves down the pristine slope at a dangerous speed. “My God, there's nothing like fresh snow” Simon declared expansively from his bicycle as we resumed our trek, “it's so white and perfect and smooth and beautiful, and then you can just destroy it, it's fucking amazing.” Lucy and I could do little but laugh, try not to fall off our bikes, and marvel at the sight of so many familiar sights so deeply buried in white powder, in a 3am city seemingly abandoned to just us three. It really was a magic land that night. Simon had to leave at 5am, and as it was 4am by the time we arrived at Flogsta he elected to join us in my corridor for hot chocolate, banana slice with freshly made caramel icing, and cheese & vegemite toasted sandwiches. Wrapped in my mohair blanket, Simon grinned like a schoolboy into his mug and ate his toasty without so much as a mention of Marmite. I can't imagine a better way to have spent our last night together.

And before I was really aware of it, I was standing on the platform at Uppsala Centralstation at 5.30am in 18 below, watching the showers of sparks recede into the dark distance as the pantograph on Lucy's train scraped the icicles from the overhead wires, and suddenly it was just Jonas Cool, Icky Matt and I, together in Uppsala for Christmas. After a couple of slack days watching bad movies (Worst bad movie: Pluto Nash with Eddie Murphy – DO NOT WATCH! Best bad movie: Død Snø (Dead Snow) – what about 'Nazi Zombies attack hot Norwegian university students at a secluded cabin in the mountains' doesn't sound awesome?) we picked up our game, and joining up with a couple of friends, cooked up a delicious Julbord for our Christmas Eve dinner. Jonas made a tomato/pesto/mozzarella pasta bake, I roasted potatoes, pumpkin and carrots, made gravy and cooked peas in an attempt to add some green. Icky made a vat of very tasty apple sauce, and the two of us filled two bacon explosions with some of the larger apple chucks to make 'Christmas Explosion'. We had red wine and spirits and Baileys and bread & butter, and a platter of cheeses (including real Roquefort), and for dessert Jonas and Matt made Chocolate fondue and Matt dipped whole mini-Kanelbullar in it. For five students at about 120kr a head with plenty of leftovers, it was epic. Afterwards I talked to my family on Skype for Christmas morning before joingin the others for A Muppet Christmas Carol. The next morning, after Skyping with more family at the other end of Christmas Day in Australia, I spent the morning in bed eating home-baked Cheese & Vegemite scrolls and watching episodes of How I Met Your Mother. For brunch, Matt cooked us French Toast and I've spent most of the afternoon writing this, eating leftovers and planning my travels for January and February.

Only 18 days left...what a time it's been. I still have two half-finished posts to go up here before I leave, and after that there's 30 days of travels in Europe to report on, so don't stop checking this just yet...if only to find out if I survive the -21 that's forecast for Monday ;-)

*more to come soon on this, I promise! It's been half-written for a while now...

PS: 2200 words...undergraduate essay length. I'm getting better!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Video Blogging

Or: Adventures in Wondows Movie Maker Land

This is to make up for totally failing at blogging in the last's silly and not nearly as much effort went into it as a real post, but I hope you enjoy it all the same :-)


Coming Soon:
Baltic Adventures: Riga, Helsinki and Tallinn
Advent, Lucia & Jul
Swedish Food: More than just Meatballs (but not much more...)
The Västgöta ManChoir - Field Observations

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Enter the Västergötlanders

7:40pm, Uppsala, Sweden, 3 November 2009

I realised recently that despite having been here for almost 11 weeks, and having written somewhat irregularly but in significant volume about my experiences, I am yet to introduce you to any of the wonderful friends I've made. These are the people who have really made my experience here, filled my days with happy memories, my nights with drunken stupors and my stomach with far more Fika than can possibly be healthy. In no particular order, here they are:

Jonas “Cool” Schmöle

Kassel, Germany. That's pretty much right in the middle. Just go to Google Maps, zoom in on the centre of Germany, and there it is.
Area of Study: Theoretical Physics (Masters level)
Physical Description: tall, blonde and generally Viking-esque, usually attired in cargo pants and black T-shirts, often with heavy metal bands on them.
Special Powers: tolerates (indeed adores) large amounts of chilli on everything – has been seen eating chilli flakes straight from the jar; almost never feels hungry but once eating rarely knows when to stop; rarely sleeps – actually studies in bed.
History: Jonas lives at the end of my corridor, and was just about the first person I met in Uppsala. We initially bonded during a rainy shopping trip to the far side of town on our first day. Wandering the aisles of COOP Forum, trying to find bikes with hand-brakes and laughing at the funny names in Ikea (“Strippa” standard lamps), we found ourselves connecting in spite of having almost nothing in common.
Features: Despite otherwise ruthless German efficiency, somehow tolerates my terminal indecisiveness, my painstakingly slow efforts at basic household tasks, my strange propensity to photograph my food before eating it and even my occasional slips into confusing Australian vernacular. Shares his ice-cream with me, cooks fantastic pizza, and makes me laugh at unexpected moments.
Greatest Life Moment: while attending an Amon Amarth concert in Stockholm, caught a plectrum thrown by the lead guitarist out of the air one handed while continuing to mosh. Why is his nickname Jonas “Cool”? Need I say more...
Secret Shame: Once got an A- on a test.
Life Goal: train himself to sleep just half an hour every four hours and remain awake the rest of the time, thus maximizing effective use of life cycle.
Quotes: A long and tuneful negation, in Schwarzenegger-esque accent, usually delivered in the face of the obviously ridiculous (like making cake in a microwave): “Nooooooo....nooo...nooo. No. That can't happen.” On discussing our ancestry: “My ancestors are German since....I don't know how long ago...five generations, ten generations...thirty generations.....there was nothing, there was fusion of atoms, there was Helium....und then, there was Schmöle...

Lucy Arrowsmith – consists principally of Chocolate and Happy Dreams

Hometown: Australia's largest town: Adelaide.
Area of Study: Limnology, Geology, Ecology, Botany
Physical Features: Tall, slim and pale-skinned, dark hair and blue eyes. Perfect jelly-bean smile. Lower body usually visible from space due to extensive and technicolour collection of skinny jeans and leggings. Only person in Uppsala who owns and regularly wears a bicycle helmet.
Special Powers: always right about everything; has brilliant ideas on a whole range of topics (mostly food-related: Snowbercue, Meteorbercue, etc); can identify rocks by taste.
History: Lucy has become one of my closest friends in Uppsala, and we would probably not have met at all had I not heard her accent as she and her boyfriend queued behind me in the bar at Snerikes nation. Having bonded early on over Tim Minchin, Fika and Cheese & Vegemite toasties, Lucy is now my travelling companion of choice for cross-Baltic sojourns. Unfortunately, she lives at Lilla Sunnersta (the Uppsala equivalent of Pakenham – for distance, not for unclassy-ness) which means being friends involves more exercise than I am really comfortable with. Luckily we usually eat more than enough chocolate and cheese to make up for any undue exercise.
Features: cooks delicious and entertaining fusion cuisine (e.g. Swedish meatballs in Satay sauce wrapped in Tortillas) but apparently subsists mostly on cheese & vegemite toasties; heavy addiction to Somersby Pear Cider, aka “Sugary Crack-Water”; attempting to gradually introduce me to the “popplar musicks” of the 20th and 21st centuries.
Greatest Life Achievement: fell in a Lake whilst on a field trip.
Secret Shame: loves Muse.
Life Goal: Get posted to scientific research station in Antarctica.
Quotes: on her personal philosophy: “Fuck it, we're in Sweden.”; on seeing frost for the first time, and (while nodding earnestly) every time something wonderful has happened since: “We live in Magic Land!”; whenever the occasion arises: “FRIEND!

Simon Cowley – Gentleman Thief

Hometown: Haywards Heath, Sussex, the Home Counties, England. Born in Rome and occasionally pretends to be Italian.
Area of Study: Philosophy – currently studying Swedish History and Culture
Physical Description: average height, spindly build, possible love-child of Gumby and Stephen Fry. General air of mirth and mischief: often seen grinning maniacally, eyes twinkling. Appears to own only two flannelette shirts, two ironic t-shirts, two mandigans and a single fleece-lined jacket.
Special Powers: Gentleman Thief; once worked as a postman for the Royal Mail – can do tricks on bicycle as a result; Combination Attack: regular and remarkably deft purloining of my Studentmösse while cycling at speed (always returns the hat); Apparently resistant to cold (see above re clothing).
Features: Grinch par excellence: likes to destroy peoples hopes and dreams, especially mine. Tells small children that Father Christmas doesn't exist, would happily ruin Thanksgiving if he weren't so busy denying its existence. Burns an effigy of the Pope on the 5th of November every year. Has travelled widely, especially in Europe, but has never been to Scotland because it is “impossibly far north”. Ferocious loyalty to the England tempered only slightly by crushing awareness of reality (e.g. there will never be Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover – they're native to North America). Defended Marmite vigorously and at length in the face of Australians, despite not actually liking it himself. Eventually defeated in Marmite vs. Vegemite blind taste-test challenge; Vegemite emerged victorious. Sings 'Jerusalem' with minimal prompting/alcohol. Rides on the correct (left) side of the road, especially at night. Drinks beer with some dodgy-looking weasels on it. Often does above three simultaneously. Gives continuous impression of plush smoking jacket without actually wearing one.
Greatest Life Moment: said “Erm, excuse me?” to Jarvis Cocker while standing behind him in a queue at a music festival. Jarvis said “Oh, sorry, never mind, you go on.”
Secret Shame: Unknown...?
Life Goal: Unknown – probably not very nice.
Quotes:Ah, good old Rohypnol.

Inken Lillpopp – yes, that is her really name. It's Danish and it means “cute little doll”.

Hometown: Somewhere in Germany – curiously evasive as to exact location. Probably German. Potentially human. Possibly alien/replicant/cyborg/genetically-engineered Überfru.
Area of Study: Literature and Language
Physical Description: well, this is dangerous ground...something of a pocket-sized femme fatale: small and pretty, long straight sandy-brown hair, large dark eyes, winning smile, razor sharp teeth and a willingness to use them.
Special Powers: Highly developed Feminine Wiles – the pout and eyelash flutter that launched a thousand ships. Can only be subdued by singing and tailcoats – possibly a variety of Cerberus. Extremely dangerous: Approach With Caution.
Features: Totally Awesome. No, she is. No, I'm serious. I'm SERIOUS! She's TOTALLY AWESOME!!!! I just LOOOOOVE her. Really, it's truuuue! Even if she does steal my man choir hat and refuse to return it, requiring all my wits (or just a serenade on bended knee if I'm feeling lazy) to secure its safe return. Superstitious: believes Simon to be a kind of Ancient mariner-esque pariah, cursed with bad luck and ruining her winning streak at Monopoly.
Greatest Life Moment: sitting in Torrummet being serenaded by the entire Man Choir simultaneously.
Secret Shame: Unknown – Inken is very good at keeping secrets...
Life Goal: convince the entire Västgöta Manskör to marry her in a massed ceremony.
Quotes: Upon being denied what she wants/deserves: “DON'T TALK TO ME!”; Upon appearance, mention or suggestion of the mere existence of the Västgöta Manskör: “OMIGAWD MANCHOIR!!!!!

“Icky” Matt Kalinowski

Hometown: Chicago. Or close enough, anyway.
Area of Study: Computer Science
Physical Description: Short-statured, heavily muscled, impressively scarred, with dark hair and eyes and and a dispossession cheery beyond reason. Like a tiny, joyful Rambo.
Special Powers: Eating – able to consume quantities of cake that would kill a lesser man, or even a small African country; Food ideas – not always as good as Lucy's in execution, but for sheer scale, scope, volume and sugar-levels he can't be beaten; Lifting stuff – a body-builder and weight-lifter, can dead-lift ridiculous weights, and some of the smaller Nation Houses; never too proud to piggy-back me around the dining room at Kalmars Nation during Sunday Fika...
History: Matt and I first met during Recentiors activities at VG, when (as you may recall from earlier postings) he was seen to roll 28 chokladbullar in 2 minutes – one every 4 seconds – his tiny leprechaun hands seemingly an advantage. Continuing in a theme of sweets, he introduced me to Somersby Pear Cider at our first little get-together at VG's Pub Djäknen, when we bonded as a group over drinking games. Matt was christened “Icky” (short for Icarus) by Simon during one of our weekly Sunday Fika at Kalmar nation – drawn to the smörgåsbord of delicious sandwiches, cakes, pies, biscuits and pastries like a moth to a bug-zapper, he attempted to eat one of everything (and two of some things) and...well, he flew too close to the sun.* Defining himself by food as always, his trademark event is the “explosion” – in which a food variety is rolled into a log shape and eaten – and while we will not mention the ill-fated “cookie dough explosion” or its aftermath, the Bacon Explosion was a delicious and artery-clogging success. I didn't have the bacon ice-cream though...
Features: Lives in squalor: room has no bedsheets, curtains, decorations or ornaments...just piles of stuff everywhere – clothes, shoes, electronic gizmos, weeks worth of dirty dishes, etc; Unable to handle consumption of anything not at least 48% sugar: nearly died while judging Vegemite vs. Marmite challenge; Doesn't appear to study, or indeed ever talk about studying – apparently just eats, trains, watches Dexter and plays Roller Coaster Tycoon when not hanging out with us; Covered in scars from repeated heart-surgeries: makes him look well-hard; Plans everything to excess: encouragements from the rest of us to be more spontaneous have resulted in fun times however – midnight nutella & banana crepes, for example. Putting Ljus Syrup on them was a bit too spontaneous though...I did warn him it was stronger than Maple Syrup...
Greatest Life Moment: every time the cake arrives.
Life Goal: to lift weights so heavy that he bleeds from his eyeballs.
Quotes: Icky's most famous contribution to the conversation is to rub his knuckles against your face when you least expect affectionate gesture somewhere between Rainman and Lennie Small from Of Mice and Men. He also needs to be physically prevented from saying “That's what She said” at every possible juncture...

* Believe it or not, he did actually finish in the just took a little time, a boxing coach-style pep-talk from Simon and a lot of ribbing from the rest of us...

Michael Browne

Hometown: somewhere in Yorkshire – or possibly Lancashire. Certainly comes from one and studies in the other one...can't quite remember. It seems rude to ask again.
Area of Study: Engineering
Physical Description: Tall and thin, long face which easily breaks into a cheeky grin.
Special Powers: Master of drinking games and card-shuffler extraordinaire; Phenomenal tolerance for alcohol. These two may linked...
History: Mike really deserves the credit for bringing our disparate little band of ragamuffins together – it was over his (and to a lesser extent Lucy's) drinking games at Djäknen that we first bonded as a group, sitting at the outside tables beside the Fyris, under the stars (and the space-heaters) on one of the last warm nights of the year. The shared intimacy of “Never have I ever” and the mutual blasphemy of combining in one activity playing cards, alcohol and the Holy Bible ensured a bond that could never be broken. Mike also deserves big props for his chip-cooking skills, his willingness to sleep upright in a chair in front of an open window in only his long-johns, and his pleasant habit of shouting everyone large quantities of alcohol.
Features: Pleasant northern accent, although increasingly incomprehensible when drunk; Player of volleyball – which he assures me is a very manly game, and not just something you do at the beach for a laugh; Brilliant taste in films and TV shows – introduced me to such delights as “Lesbian Vampire Killers” and “The Inbetweeners”; Drinks Newcastle Brown Ale, and unfortunately tries at every opportunity to get other people to do the same.
Greatest Life Moment: surely nothing can top giving a presentation on asphalt and bitumen, while hung over, after about four hours sleep in a chair.
Secret Shame: It ought to be having watched a film called “Lesbian Vampire Killers” more than once...but probably isn't.


Hometown: Berlin, Germany.
Area of Study: Theoretical Physics. Yes, another German Theoretical Physicist called Jonas. They're both vegetarians too, what of it?
Physical Description: Tall and finely built, sandy hair, disarming smile, eyes filled with madness/genius. Vague impression of a bird-of-prey which has already eaten, but is nevertheless watching you, keeping his options open.
Special Powers: Can use Science. Mad card-playing skillz tempered only by inability to remember suit names in English.
Features: Likes making horrendously un-PC jokes about Germans/Nazis/etc – when questioned, claims to be Polish. Can actually speak Polish, so may be telling the truth. Also c/f last name. Continuously disappointed by lack of decent coffee in Uppsala – developing theory that coffee improves the farther south one travels. Occasionally seen playing with his Kaosilator (Google it). May have invented Faster-than-light travel, but isn't telling anyone; ditto Cold Fusion, and probably even a way to eat tacos without stuff falling out the end. Genius.
Greatest Life Moment: Beyond your comprehension.
Secret Shame: None.
Life Goal: Open world's best cafe at South Pole. Or world domination. Whichever is available.
Quotes:I like to sit up here in the window, I can look down on people.”

So there you are, now you have met some of my new Sweden friends. Sorry that there have been so few posts recently, but life (and a week without internet) have been getting in the way somewhat. I do have three other posts on the go at the moment however, so the chances of seeing something sooner rather than later are pretty good...perhaps I'll even have a special treat for you all...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Do You Know What It Means/To Miss Double Cream...

1:45pm, Uppsala, Sweden, 9 October 2009

Sincerest apologies to Eddie DeLange and Louis Alter...wherever you are.

Despite promising myself I would post at least every fortnight – mostly to spite Joe, who said I wouldn't manage it – I have failed you all after just six weeks. In my defence, quite a lot has been happening, and the Wednesday-Friday period at the end of the fortnight when I usually write these posts was filled with exams, rehearsals, dinners and performances.

For those who are just wondering what I'm up to, here is the condensed version: Bought a tailcoat, mended it myself. Protested climate change. Learning Swedish. Ate too much. Drank too much. Watched Let The Right One In. Baked many cakes, biscuits and slices. Made friends with people using same as bribes. Took part in production of a Bacon Explosion. Dinner-partied with corridor-mates, played drinking games with VG international students, cards and the Holy Bible. Partied with bad hair for Inken and in Tailcoat with Men's Choir. Sat four hour exam in Swedish Politics. Probably passed. Got a cartoon published. Changed to Winter hats. Sang on bended knee to a random woman on her birthday. Sang to a statue in a park. Sang to room full of screaming young women wearing clothes made from tinfoil. Sang to a beautiful girl on bended knee. Dressed as a Bedouin and went “Alalalalalalah!” a lot. Celebrated Kannebullens dag. Had way too much Fika. Experienced Matcoma. Tried to see the UN Secretary General. EPIC FAIL. Went to a movie instead. Movie in Italian with Swedish subtitles – fried brain trying to interpret both at same time. Wore my studentmössa a lot. Played the grand piano in the ballroom and sang Tim Minchin songs for an appreciative audience of one. Ate soup. Ate Meatballs. Won a pub quiz. Wrote a blog post. Turned into a jet. Bombed the Russians. Crashed into the sun. LIKE A BOSS. Damn Right.

I'm deep in readings for my second subject – Swedish Economic and Social Development from 1700 to the Present – so I don't have time to make it up to you just yet with a full-length post. Instead, I offer you this short post, a list of the sometimes unexpected things I'm missing here in this far-off magical kingdom.

1.) Double Cream – cream here is thin and runny and used for cooking or making whipped cream. The thick kind, which my father and I have been known to enjoy smeared thickly on freshly-sliced white bread with blackberry jam, is not only unavailable but apparently utterly bizarre in conception to everyone I ask...except for the Poms of course.

2.) The ABC Radio News Theme –
whenever I hear this, I just somehow know that everything will be alright. Go on, have a listen. It soothes the beasts within...

3.) Don Don, GiGi, Shanghai Dumpling, most of Victoria Street –
in fact, cheap, tasty, widely-available Asian food in general. I think that Europeans must do something dreadful to their Asian migrants that makes them forget about their traditional food culture and produce things like stir-fry without any vegetables in it. The Horror.....

4.) Trams – probably not a surprise to anyone, but it's the sound I really miss. The squeal they make going around corners, the “PZSHH...fzzzzzt...zzzzZWCK” of the pantograph leaving the overhead on a rough bit of track and then smacking back into it with sparks flying. I have lived beside tram lines for about a decade now, and getting to sleep without the gentle trundling noises in the distance is always a difficultly.

5.) Sausage Rolls – Sweden doesn't have them. This is an issue.

6.) The Age – yes, it's a pinko rag with increasingly questionable standards of journalism, but it's my pinko rag god damm it. I miss having a stack of them on the table going back weeks that I can pick through at my leisure, safe in the knowledge that whatever horror news story I'm reading about has probably been resolved by now. Also, I miss Kenneth Davidson. He is my hero. I miss doing the huge weekend general-knowledge crossword with my parents. And I miss the comics, but not the stupid one with the penguins. Does anyone you know laugh at that? This morning at breakfast I read a copy of Thursday's Wall Street Journal – Europe Edition that I won in a pub quiz last night. NOT SAME.

7.) Espresso –
I know I hardly ever drink it at home, but the omnipresent nature of drip-filter coffee here is killing me not so softly with its delicate palate of sand, ash and bitterness. And of course no espresso machines means no proper Hot Chocolate either, and that DOES bother me.

8.) Weetbix – the 'Weetabix' available here are somehow slightly off. Can't put my finger on might be the rounded ends. I swear that makes them taste different.

9.) Water – Sweden might have it over us in purely quantitative terms, but if quality is what you look for in your water, you just can't beat Melbourne. I've just about got used to the taste of the water here – in that I don't wince when I drink it anymore – but it's difficult to truly enjoy consuming something which has an aftertaste resembling talcum powder...

10.) Fish & Chips – oh, the things I would do for that satchel of goodness. 'nuff said, I think. And yes, I am aware that most of these are food and drink.

11.) And ten thousand little details: breaking crusty bread at Sunday Roast with Grandpa and the family. Trying to finish the crossword AND the Sudoku in the MX on the one weird evening express between Melbourne Central and Riversdale. The serenity of the System Gardens on a spring afternoon. The bagpiper on the Princess Bridge who only knows three tunes and always plays Auld Lang Syne when I walk past. Walking through the Old Quad in the evening and whistling the Harry Potter theme. Standing on the end of St Kilda Pier at 4am watching the milk crates you threw in float gently back to shore. Chocolate Brownies at Max Brenner. Sour cherry muffins at Castro's. The grandiose charms of Victoriana, in brown and grey and white and red and cream. The LaTrobe Reading Room in the afternoon light. The nationwide echoes of “Oh do shut up Malcolm!” when the Oppositon Leader appears on TV. The unique and musical calls of the Big Issue sellers (“GeeeeEEEAATchaBigIshewOnleeFIVEDollarrzzzuPOORTthe
HomelezzenLongtermUnemplOYED...”). The Yarra at night, reflecting the city. The smell of eucalyptus, of Chinatown, of fresh-cut grass in the Royal Botantic Gardens, of the sea. The seasonal changes of the day. The remarkable, unfathomable light.

12.) And of course, all of you. Awwww.

And that's the kind of drivel you can expect from me in the future I suspect...

I should get back to work now, but I will try to put up something else soon, to make up for missing a fortnight.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Of Chocolate Chips, Fika and MAX, of Sexa, Choirs and Kings...

2pm, Uppsala, Sweden, 16 September 2009

The time has come, the Walrus said...

Actually, the time has long since passed. It has been two weeks since I last wrote something here, and I have to apologise to all you vicarious travellers for not writing anything sooner. I'm still debating in my head the best way to use this blog: should I try to have a “weekly diary” of happenings, or would a series of shorter posts on particular topics like 'The Nations' or 'Swedish Food' be more interesting? Or perhaps a mix of both? One thing I have decided is that I will write shorter posts from now on, in the interests of perhaps getting them up more frequently.

This evening will mark the end of four full weeks in Uppsala, and almost eight weeks since I left Melbourne. Terminal one at Tullamarine seems impossibly far away and long ago...even arriving in Uppsala feels like a distant memory. Each evening as I cross off a day on the little hand-scribbled calendar on my desk, I am reminded of how little time I have here, and feel a renewed commitment to my number one rule for being on exchange: say 'Yes'. So this post will be about a few of the things I've said 'yes' to in the last few weeks, and some of the wonderful moments I've encountered along the way.

One thing I have little difficulty saying 'yes' to is Fika – that wonderful Swedish word for sharing coffee and cake with friends. Older people in Sweden have an almost religious commitment to the daily schedule of meals – Breakfast, Fika, Lunch, Fika, Dinner – while younger people will Fika (yes, it's also a verb) at just about any time: I myself had midnight Fika with some of my corridor-mates just a few days ago, and last Saturday I had a little over three hours of back-to-back Fika before waddling back to my corridor filled with kladdkaka (incredibly dense chocolate cake), snikertårta (a sort of peanut & chocolate slice), blueberry pie and chokladbullar (something like a rum ball sans rum). Getting into the true spirit of Fika, I've also made couple of things myself – namely a huge batch of choc-chip & cornflake biscuits and a large chocolate brownie cake (that's brownie made in a cake tin because our kitchen has no slice tins: very thick and not really cooked in the corridor-mates approved.)


And where in Uppsala can one sit Fika-ing in the sunshine for over three hours without spending a fortune? Why, at a nation of course! When my temporary student ID expired on the 31st of August, I had to make a decision: which of the 13 nations would be my home away from my home away from home this semester?* In the end, the choice was easy: the first nation I ever visited had won my heart from the beginning, and so I have nailed my colours to the pointy spire of the orange 17th century castle that is Västgöta Nation – universally known as “VG”. And I don't think I've made a better decision since arriving in Uppsala...except perhaps making the brownie cake, but it's a close call. I think I might do a whole post on why VG is awesome, because there's quite a lot to cover, but I will mention two things: Reccemottagning and Manskören.

A reccemottagning is the nation's reception (mottagning) for recentiors (freshmen), and VG held its reccemottagning last Saturday afternoon and evening. We began at 3pm, gathering in the nation's top-floor library to hear speeches. First up was the nation's Inspektor, a Professor of Finno-Ugric Languages by the delightful name of Lars-Gunnar Larsson, a charming old gentlemen resplendent in leather-elbowed tweed and overgrown grey Colonel-Sanders-esque facial hair, who addressed us in Swedish, English and German before conceding defeat after just a few words of Polish... Next to speak was the wildly be-dreadlocked Förste Kurator (aka 1Q) Adam, followed by the second and third curators Hanna and Sebastian; the Kuratorer are the nation's semi-permanent student managers. Fun fact: all three have red hair...

After the speeches were done, we were divided into groups and, lead by a 'father' (in my case Cara, one of the International Secretaries), we spent several hours touring the nation taking part in various games in an effort to win points for our team: from song-guessing contests with the Mixed Choir to “guess the beer” taste tests with the Bar Masters, from charades with the Theatre Group to drinking games with the Pub Managers, from Chokladbullar-rolling in the Fika kitchen to being questioned on the nation's history by the Aldermen in the medieval cellar, we were put through our paces...and for the most part found severely wanting. We shone in only two places: Matt, our 5-foot-nothing American, rolled an astonishing 28 Chocolate Balls in two minutes (that's one every 4 seconds!!), and when the newspaper editors asked us to write a story, we shot to glory with the surreal tale of a depressed Roof-Beaver (they live on rooves...what of it?) named Karl Gustav John Linné and his quest for hearty bacon soup.

Drinking games with the sexmästare.

The Aldermen in their cellar.

Exhausted from our trials, we were paired up boy-girl with strangers (by means of magazine pictures that had been cut in half) before piling into the nation's main hall for a sexa, an informal dinner. The Swedes, however, have a slightly different take on “informal”. We sat at three long tables covered by white table cloths, with the three kuratorer (in full tuxedoes, or traditional costume in Hanna's case) sitting at a high table at the end of the room. We were served two courses: salmon in a white sauce on pasta, and then enormous banana splits dripping with merengue and chocolate sauce for desert.

All the while we were plied with alcohol, and I must say the Swedes have elevated mixing one's drinks to an art-form. Before entering, we could have champagne or cocktails, and on sitting down we were immediately given a choice of beer or cider, and a glass of one of several choices of snaps (I had a very strong, very sour white spirit which I was told was called something like “ohr-yah” idea how to spell packed a punch though). The main course was also accompanied by red wine, and with dessert we were given coffee-cup-sized glasses of punsch – which is not our 'punch' but rather a strong, sickly-sweet, amber-coloured liqueur made from the South-Asian spirit Arrack and god knows what else...

The drinking was slowed at least a little by the requirements of protocol, which my lovely partner Klara was kind enough to help me through. Speeches were given at regular intervals by a variety of the nations' ämbetsmän, announcing the winners of the day's contests. Before each person rose to speak, our attention would be called one of the ämbetsma banging a short rhythm on the floor with the nations's ceremonial mace. There were performances from the nation's choirs (the mixed choir's rendition of “Fix You” by Coldplay brought a tear to the eye of even Jonas, my diehard metal-head corridor-mate) and speeches by the kuratorer and the Aldermen (who declared the entire cohort of recentiorer unfit to join the nation, until 'persuaded' to relent by 1Q in exchange for a bottle of punsch), but perhaps the most quintessentially Swedish thing was the singing.

Every ten minutes or so throughout the evening, the mace would bang on the floor and the Sånganförare (song foreman) would rise and lead us in a drinking song from the Västgöta Nation Sångbok...and the Swedes knew them all, and sang along cheerfully before raising their glasses in the recognised pattern (partner, neighbour, ahead, Skål!) and sipping their snaps. It was all completely delightful, genuinely Swedish and heaps of fun :-) After clearing the plates, and then the table to make room for a dance floor, we danced until 1am (late when you start drinking at 6!!) before drunkenly wheeling our bicycles back to Flogsta in the crisp September night.

After hearing their wonderful work at the reccemottagning, how could I say anything but 'yes' to the Västgöta Manskör or male voice choir. Rehearsing for three hours every Sunday night, these thirty or so young men make some of the most beautiful sounds I've ever heard – it is simply a joy to be able to sit among them and join in their singing. That said, it is also quite challenging; they are singing at a very high level and I have to work hard to keep up. Of course, they also sing a lot of repertoire in Swedish (which is great pronunciation practice for me) as well as English, German, French, Finnish and Estonian. I take some small comfort from knowing that most of the Swedes find those last two hard also! And on top of the singing, the rehearsals are conducted entirely in Swedish...which is REALLY testing me. So far I know 'page', 'system', 'bar', 'slower', 'faster' and 'longer phrases'...thank goodness at least that 'mezzoforte' is still 'mezzoforte'!! The choir is also a tad bizarre at times, on the verge of some kind of strange secret society. For one thing, they all have secret “choir names” that they reveal only to members...our conductor is “Mjao”, my section leader is “Unsymmetrical Åke” and one of the 2nd Basses introduced himself to me as “Tutten” which translates as “the boob”...

One final thing which I had great difficulty in saying 'yes' to was not murdering the man who promised two weeks ago to sell me a bicycle. After at least four fruitless visits over the space of two weeks, I turned up ready to give old Geppetto (as we have named him) a piece of my mind...but it didn't work. As soon as I started to speak, he grab the bike and literally ran down the stairs into his basement shop, and by the time I had followed him down the bike was up on a hoist and he was sawing away merrily at the rusted-out D-lock with an angle grinder. In the space of less than 10 minutes, while he busily worked away greasing and sanding and oiling and wrenching, he had me laughing along with his jokes, listening to his stories about bikes and odd customers, talking about Swedish Politics (“All is going to shit here...they make us like America!”) and of course answering his questions about Australia.

Bits of bike hurtled about the tiny workroom as he played rubbish-bin basketball with the rusted-through parts that he pulled off my bike-to-be; before rummaging in cupboards and boxes (and a storeroom which was like the Elephant's Graveyard of bicycles) for replacement parts, talking all the while in his endearingly-broken, heavily-accented English (“I read for 9 years in school...but that was 40 years ago.”). By the time he was done, the bike had a new chain, new gears, new rear brakes, new wheels, tires and tubes, new lights and reflectors and, of course, a brand new bell. But before I left, he proudly showed off the cans of Surströmming (that's fermented herring, a Swedish delicacy that is not especially delicate) he had ordered and was storing in the crowded little office: “Tomorrow I have my one day off for this year. I go in my car to up North of here, and I will eat this with my friend. It is very nice, you must try before you go home!”

*Home = Melbourne; Home away from home = Flogsta; Home away from home away from home = a Nation.

PS: MAX is the Swedish equivalent of MacDonalds, only better. I only put it in the title in order to preserve the rhythm of the line...sorry about that.

Ben will return in Åttakisse...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Land of the Long White-Blonde Queue

11pm, Uppsala, Sweden, 31 August 2009

Well ladies and gentlemen, it is blog time once more. As I mentioned in my last post, my travelling adventures have come to an end, here in the wonderful little university town of Uppsala, about 70 km north of Stockholm in the province of Uppland. Or seven miles, as the Swedes would say, because for some unfathomable reason a “mile” here is ten kilometers...but if you describe someone as “six foot two” they look at you like you just announced that you can speak Aramaic, and ask “What is that please in centimeters?” :-)

Flower-laden bridge on the Fyris River

I write this tonight from a large, and already extremely messy desk in my room on the second floor of Höghus 2, in Flogsta, one of the main student accommodation areas here in Uppsala. Flogsta lies about 3km away from the centre of the town, and consists of around sixteen Höghusen (literally “High Houses”) of seven or eight stories grouped around a road that from the air resembles the layout of the tape in an audio cassette. Around the towers are woods and fields in two directions, and a mix of residential housing ranging from modern 'terrace houses' to little red and white country cottages that look like they were built off a postcard rather than a plan. Students, many of them internationals like myself, live in the first ten Höghusen, the other six seem to be “normal” people. Scattered around the base of the buildings are a small number of shops catering to students: bicycle store, convenience store, solarium, pizza store; in the basements of at least two buildings there are laundry rooms, and on every roof there is a Sauna. It is a very Swedish piece of prioritizing to give every building a Sauna, but provide only 15-20 washing machines and 10 dryers for upwards of 1,600 students. A Swede would nod sagely at this and say in a serious fashion “Yes, it is a pity there could not have been a sauna for every floor.”

I have my own bedroom/study and my own bathroom, and share a corridor, kitchen, lounge room and balcony with eleven other students, some of these shall be introduced in greater detail later. The room is large and light, but a little bit sterile in it's lack of colour; the kitchen is, like the rest of the building, aging a little, but it's cosy and fairly well-equipped – kitchen gear extends beyond the standard offerings to a Wok, an Electric Mixer, a sandwich toaster and even a coffee machine. No bread knife though...and no sink plugs either!

My room on the night I arrived

Our communal kitchen

I have been here now for twelve days, but it feels like much longer – the principle reason for this being that the middle seven or so days were O-Week for us International Students. There are not many major experiences in life that you get to have multiple goes at: I guess you can get married quite a few times, and you can have multiple children, but most things happen just once: finishing year twelve, your first kiss, your twenty-first birthday and so on. For most people, O-Week falls into the latter category, but for we few, we happy few, we band of brothers, we get to have a second go at it. And I have tried to take full advantage of that by means of a 'Policy of Yes' – I have tried to say “yes” to anything on offer which isn't actually going to get me seriously injured or thrown out of the country. And I have to say, it has rarely failed to keep me entertained...

The last two weeks have revolved around two types of activity: those that involve getting practical things done, and those for having fun and meeting people. The first involves the three great Swedish leisure pursuits: queueing, paperwork and queueing. This is not always as bad as it sounds, as you'll see below...There is also some overlap, which I'll go into in a moment. Leaving practicalities aside for now, let's have a look at fun.

Uppsala is a small town (by Australian standards) of about 140,000 people, of whom perhaps 40,000 are students, and having fun in Uppsala centers on the Student Nations. Nations are an apparently exclusively Swedish phenomena – not quite a fraternity, not quite a student union, not quite a college, not quite a student club, not quite a restaurant, pub, club or cafe – not quite like anything else really, but something of all of these things and more. They have all sorts of facilities, from libraries, study rooms and computers, to pubs, restaurants, cafes and clubs with student priced food and beer. Activities and events range from choirs to ice-hockey, chess to theatre sports, formal dinners in white tie and tails to disco ping-pong evenings (more on that another time). You can work there to earn some pocket money, you can live in their accommodation, you can even get scholarships and loans.

The house of Västgöta Nation - aka "VG"

There are thirteen Nations here in Uppsala, and they are linked to (and take their names from) the counties and cities of Sweden: Norrlands Nation, Uplands Nation, Stockholms Nation and so on. Swedish students tend to join the one linked to their home town, but for international students the choice is a bit trickier. You have to join one; having existed since the early 17th Century, the Nations have become so absorbed into University life that you are not technically a student until you join one. They issue your student card and allow you to access your results. So they're pretty important, and apart from having fun, getting to know Uppsala, and meeting new friends, the chief purpose of O-Week here is to help us decide which one to join.

My last week has been a parade of events at various nations, and every time I visit another it seems I make a table full of new friends without even trying :-) Because only students can enter the Nations' pubs, clubs and so on, everyone you meet is a student just like you, which makes meeting people easy. And because everyone had to be checked on entry, the long queues provide another great opportunity to chat to those around you...usually about how impressively long the queue is, and what other good queues you've been in today. I swear, most of the security guards and door-bitches (is a male door-bitch a door-bastard?) checked my temporary Student ID and Passport more thoroughly than any Customs Officer I encountered in 4 weeks of travelling!

My last week has been filled with lunches, dinners, city walks (a pleasure in this beautiful little town), BBQs, pubbing, clubbing (yes really...I went clubbing. Twice actually. Hip-Hop clubbing no less...), and the wonderful Swedish institution of Fika. A twisting of the word 'Kaffe' (Coffee), Fika is meeting your friends for coffee(s) and cake(s) and whiling away the afternoon chatting. Of course, we do this in Melbourne too...but I think the fact that Swedes have a word for it, and that that word is not only used as both a noun ('We had Fika.') and a verb ('Shall we Fika on Saturday?'), but also spelled with a capital letter, gives you an indication of the importance of the institution here. I will try my hardest to live up to their expectations, even if it means having to eat literally hundreds of servings of the local specialty, cheesecake. I will struggle through, for the sake of inter-cultural understanding.

Some Fika in process...

I have met far more people than I can possibly mention by name, people from all over the world and from all over Sweden. Special mentions go to Kai and Karen from Germany, who busted their best moves with me on the Hip-Hop dance floor at Stockholms Nation until closing time (I hope whoever stole your hat is suffering now Kai), to the posse who took me under their collective wing on Friday night's pub crawl: Johanna and Jasmina (Swedes), Lucy and Ben (Adelaide), Leo (Italy) Caroline (France), Eva (Germany) and Dennis from Dresden, whose name makes my dad laugh so hard. Also to the hordes of Science-Po Frenchmen (and -women) in my Swedish Politics class, but especially Thomas and Clement. Big props to Adrian, French Jazz Guitarist extraordinaire, who sat with me in the sunshine by the river Fyris one afternoon and jammed (even though I had met him half an hour before), and to my Swedish-Tunisian buddy Jonas for offering to drive me to the cargo terminal at Arlanda for my boxes, and being a generally damn-good bloke. To all the Aussies I've met even though I'm trying not to, especially Aaron & Elle, who make me very jealous that I couldn't have brought MY girlfriend along. Finally to my corridor-mates Jonas (another German), who cooked me tomato pasta and suffered my terminally dreadful indecisiveness in IKEA, and Jonathan (from the very far north of Lapland) who sat on the floor of his furniture-less room and shared his beer with me. You and many others are all awesome, and I am having such a great time already because I met all of you.

The whole gang in the vault at Upland Nation

Of course, it's not ALL partying here...even though classes haven't begun, I have had lots of practical matters to sort out. Furnishings, textbooks, stationery, banking, rent, enrollment, bus pass, nation, luggage, currency exchange and the eternally frustrating Quest For A Bicycle. As this is Sweden, nearly all of these involve paperwork, queueing, bizarre opening hours or all three. I should say first up that Swedes LOVE queueing. They queue for everything, more often than not by taking a ticket (like at the Safeway Deli) but also using the more traditional “stand-in-a-line” method. The formation of neat, orderly lines to acquire goods and services is something the Swedes take great pride in, and god help you if you try to push in, or even cut the line. You would be subjected to a tirade of...well, I don't know. I've never seen anyone try it. Swedes are polite and composed to the point of shyness in public...perhaps they would all cough suggestively at you: “Ahem. Ah-hem. A-HEM.” Or maybe they'd go totally berserker and run screaming at you with an axe covered in runes.

I'd ask you all to just think for a second now, remember the last time you queued for something. I mean seriously queued, not just had to wait behind a couple of people at the ATM, or to get your soy chai latte from Castro's. How long did you wait? Five minutes? Ten maybe? That was a long time, right? Oh no it wasn't...

I queued for two hours in a bank to open an account. I queued for almost an hour in another bank just to pay a bill! I queued for 40 minutes in a Forex office to change some money, at about 3pm on a weekday...why weren't these people at work?? I queued to get into clubs, which is normal, in the supermarket, which is understandable, at IKEA, which is tolerable, in a bookshop, which was a little odd, and in a pub, which is totally bizarre. I don't mean you had to push through a bit of a crowd at the bar...I mean the Swedes formed a neat queue from the bar which stretched out the door.

But as I've said, the queuing isn't so bad. I met many of my new friends here while standing in the queue at Västgöta Nation on the first day, waiting to collect a temporary student card and sign up for activities. That queue took over two hours, but I'd really got to know people quite well by the end of it :-) I think some people further back in line had actually got married and started families, and I swear I heard bagpipes playing a funeral march at one point.

One thing which mercifully did not involve any queueing, was my quest to get a bicycle, the key to student life in Uppsala. With Bus fares costing 30 SEK one way each time (about $5-6) and a pass costing 500 SEK per month, a second-hand bike is worth it's weight in gold to a poor student. For over a week, with my feet and wallet aching from alternately walking everywhere and paying for buses, I visited every bike store in Uppsala (there are about a dozen, maybe more) at least twice, called the numbers on every “For Sale” poster I saw, and even considered texting the extremely dodgy character known only as 'Ole' who looks like a hobo and always seems to be able to get a bike...usually one with a “broken” lock :-| With my feet aching, I arrived at the very last store, far out to the north of the town, and descended into a basement which looked like the Elephant Graveyard of bicycles. Fully expecting another “Nej”, I ask the question again: “Har du några begagnade cyklar?” “Oh ja, ja,” came the reply, and before I knew it I was presented with a trailer full of used-bikes. Jackpot. Blue mountain bike, 26” frame, 18 speed, new gears and chain, new lights and that slightly beaten-up look that will hopefully ward off thieves. 800 SEK, and I can collect it on Wednesday – after which I will be zipping around town with the best of them, and the callouses on my feet can be brought back to a reasonable level, somewhere between buffalo hide and tortoise shell. I must buy a decent lock though; apart from queueing, the major Uppsala pastimes are stealing bicycles and throwing them in the river...

This is what happens if you leave your bike beside the river without chaining it up...

Tune in next week kiddies, for another exciting episode of “Uppsalaphilia”, in which Ben goes to lectures and possibly bakes some chocolate biscuits. Hold on to your seats...