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Archive for May, 2009

I am back in the car world. In Stockholm, I can walk just about everywhere I need to go: the grocery, the gym, the dry cleaner, the pharmacy, the pub. Everything is easily accessible by foot. Here in Cincinnati, everything is accessible but it’s only by car. Public transportation is not an easy option. I don’t think that buses even come to this part of suburbia where  my parents live or at least I’ve never seen one.  While I can walk around the neighborhood, there’s not really anywhere that I can get to without a car. As soon as I leave the subdivision, there are no sidewalks, no paths. There is just a ditch alongside the narrow and busy road.

I am loving the driving. But I am missing the walking.

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As I left the plane and made my way to customs, there was an announcement over the loud speaker telling me to be sure to wash my hands thoroughly. It was a quick reminder of the real threat of the H1N1 virus, or as it’s more commonly known, the swine flu. It was rather sobering.  As I went through customs and then security, all of the officers wore latex gloves. And the first thing I did after entering the US was to wash my hands. Thoroughly.

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We were out in the center of town last night for dinner at 8.30. As we were in Östermalm, it should have been packed at this time on a Saturday night. But it was quiet. And it had been very quiet on the subway as well. In starting to marvel at this fact, Robert and I suddenly remembered: the Eurovision Song Contest was on and Sweden was competing with the rest of Europe in a battle of the pop bands. This is big stuff in Sweden and indeed throughout Europe. Eurovision is where the world was first introduced to ABBA, for instance. And national pride is a at stake as well. But as neither Robert nor I are Europeans, we had forgotten about the contest.

Quite frankly, I don’t get all the buzz about this contest as the pop ballads are generally not to my taste. But it is an interesting cultural phenomenon on a lot of levels, so in the interest of doing as the locals do, I turned on the TV to check out the end of the show when we got home. It was quickly easy to see that this year’s contest was no contest and Norway easily won. Their entry featured a 23-year-old named Alexander Rybak who played the violin and sang a Norwegian folk ballad while a folk troupe danced around him. It was quite an amusing spectacle and not at all my style, but rather entertaining anyway. Interestingly, Sweden’s representative this year was a 38-year-old mezzo soprano named Malena Ernman. She could sing, but she didn’t do so well. At least “we” sent a good singer, even if she did not win!

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I am light greedy. I admit it. But I can’t help it. It’s a long, dark winter here in Stockholm, but now we finally have long days of light. But I will be missing out on the long light for two weeks while I travel to the US. That sonds very petty of me, doesn’t it? But if you haven’t been through a winter here, you just can’t understand my anxiety. Rationally, I know that I will have a great time seeing family and friends. But the light-deprived part of me still feels a bit cheated. You see, the sky is light here around 3.30 in the morning. And there’s still a beautiful pink light in the sky at 10.30 pm. What this means is that the night is not very long this time of year and I absolutely love that. I need that. It’s my payback for all the dark of winter. So that’s why I feel just a little bit grumpy about giving up my long hours of daylight, even if it’s just for two weeks.

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When it comes to travelers, I’ve come to think that there are two distinct types. There are those that travel while looking for the familiar: the Swedes who eat meatballs in Thailand and the Americans who eat McDonald’s in China is the great example that my friend Debora gave yesterday. These are the travelers who prefer to not push the envelope too far. Yes, they want to have the travel experience, but they don’t want it to be too authentic in terms of having to go too far outside of their comfort zone by eating fish and rice for breakfast, for instance. (A subset of this brand of traveler is those who tell you they saw all of Europe on their 2-week vacation – they have the 24 countries in 24 days approach. But that’s another story… )  And then there are the travelers who are comfortable taking risks to have the more authentic experience – they want to drink the local beer and eat the local meal and will do anything to avoid having Starbucks.

One of the reasons that I wanted to move to Europe in the first place was to have the authentic experience of living like a local. I’ve done my best to sample the local foods and drinks and have enjoyed the process thoroughly. So I perhaps relate to traveler number two a bit more. That said, every know and then when I am tired and hungry, nothing quite beats stopping in a McDonald’s where I know what’s on the menu and don’t have to translate what’s what.

Many years ago, I was traveling with my cousin Kezia in Madrid. We had been sightseeing and walking all day and were exhausted. We wanted the comfort of a familiar meal. One where we did not order what we thought was one thing and then receive another. In trying to find something, anything, that was familiar, Kezia said what she wanted was a Pizza Hut. We were in a neighborhood where we had not seen a chain type restaurant for hours, let alone something so specific as a Pizza Hut. But somehow, we turned a corner and there was a Pizza Hut. We almost cried we were so happy. It was so comfortable and familiar. Sometimes when you are traveling, a little bit of home is all you need. And then you can go back to exploring.

But now that I think about it, I can’t tell you the last time that I went to either Pizza Hut or McDonald’s. Maybe I am getting more familiar with my Swedish surroundings?

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It’s cold inside my apartment. I am wearing a sweater, a big knit scarf around my neck and I have a blanket over my lap. It’s ridiculous that I have to work this way. It’s May. It should not be chilly according to my calendar. But as it’s spring and I live in Northern Europe in the vicinity of the Arctic Circle, I understand that the temperatures can still be a bit chilly this time of year. It’s only logical. So why does it make any sense that I can not turn on my heat?  According to the guy who has been installing geo-thermal power in my building, the “heat season” ends April 17th. When he told me this, I laughed because I thought it was a joke. It’s not. Thus what this means to me is that the heat is turned off in apartment buildings from that magic date, no matter the temperature is outside. During that week that the heat was first turned off, it snowed. It was 16 degrees C in my apartment. I was not happy.

I resent that there’s a rule that governs when I can have the heat on, as I also don’t like the rule that outdoor serving at restaurants most stop in September. It’s frequently quite nice at that time of year, but all the tabes and chairs have been put away. I suppose that is known as “the cold season?”The rules bug me, but mostly right now because my nose and fingers are freezing. I will have to go outside to warm up.

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Maybe it's not the proverbial promised land, but Stockholm is pretty. Here's a view toward Skeppsholmen, one of the islands in the center of the city.

Maybe it's not the proverbial promised land, but Stockholm is pretty. Here's a view toward Skeppsholmen, one of the islands in the center of the city.

I live in a happy country. In fact, I live in one of the world’s happiest places. Or at least I do according to Forbes magazine and a new report from the Organization for Economic Co-Operation Development. (See World\’s Happiest Places.) The report looked at life satisfaction and basically people were  asked if their lives were dominated by positive or negative experiences and feelings.

My homeland of the US didn’t even make it into the top 10, unfortunately. Meanwhile, my adopted homeland of Sweden is number four on the list. Apparently, the ratings had a lot to do with the overall economic health of the countries in the poll. And as we all know, the US unemployment rate is rather high at the moment. In contrast, the countries at the top of the list have some of the highest gross domestic product per capita in the world.

Now while I can’t begin to speak for the rest of my fellow Swedish residents, I can admit that I am happy with my life. It’s not without its ups and downs, of course, but overall I would have to say that I am pretty happy. So that’s good.

As I am sure you want to know who else made the list so that you know where to relocate to, here are the happy places, from most happy to least: 1. Denmark, 2. Finland, 3. Netherlands, 4. Sweden, 5. Ireland, 6. Canada, 7. Switzerland, 8. New Zealand, 9. Norway, 10. Belgium.

Shall we meet in Copenhagen for lunch? I can be there this afternoon for a dose of total happiness.

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