Monday, April 25, 2005

More stuff you don't know about Europe

There is a huge cultural phenomenon over here called the Eurovision Song Contest (Wikipedia Article). Its like American Idol but bigger, more campy and contains the political intrigue of the League of Nations.

My rough summary is that each country gets to have 1 entry in the contest. The decision on what countries are 'Euro' enough to be in the contest is, as with so much here, unnecessarily complex and anachronistic. There is something about if your country doesn't get enough points you don't get to play the foll wing year. Also if your country is populated by mostly brown people, you only get to join every other year. Notably, Lebanon refused to participate because they didn't want to show the Israeli entry. The Middle East nations are like 7th grade girls arguing over who sits next to whom at lunch although more lethal (but if 13 year old girls had missiles it might be a wash).

Anyway, so your country has their representative they all get together for a huge concert and then each country votes a number of points to each song. Then they flip a 27 sided coin or something and then everyone appears to win. Most countries either recode their songs into English for the finals or well.....lose.

There is a drinking culture around the songs that people here call schlager. I think it means folk music but not sure. The point is that bars have schlager nights occasionally and they play the winning songs from the last 15-20 years all night and everyone knows the words and sings along. I must emphasize that they are bad, bad songs and one must drink to put up with them.

Check the site. I reccomend the Norway entry just based on their look.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Lamb Sandwich

One of my favorite books of all time is 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' and in it Robert Jordan comments a few times that he is not yet a skilled enough writer to describe all that he is seeing and wants to record. I feel the same way, these little vignettes are only shadows what they try to describe and if I was any good they would be 10x better. With that said, you have to take the following description and multiply everything by a factor of 10 to properly appreciate it.

I am a food junkie with a deep and abiding psychological problem. When I used to travel to the Bay Area for work, I would eat the Mongolian Beef (double meat, no onions, extra spicy and 2 Cokes) from the Crispy Fry at the Emeryville Public Market for both lunch and dinner every day. If I was a day I did some training in the morning I would add 2 Samosas with both spicy green and sweet brown chutney. The only times I missed out were on the nights I drove into the city to meet with my brother and his wife for dinner. On more than one occasion though, I would guiltily stop for a bit of Mongolian before I went in to meet with them. Its never because I was overly hungry, (though just thinking about it right now is making me hungry) its that I can't get enough of that flavor. Its not important to describe the meal (perfectly tenderized beef, blend of pepper/soy spices and a hint of curry powder....I asked) the point is that once I get something like this stuck in my head, I am powerless in its grip. I have ducked meetings to make sure I did not miss out a session. I planned my flight times to maximize intake and have taken to-go boxes to the airport rather many times.

My Stockholm version of the Mongolian obsession is the Lamb Sandwich. I talked about Hotorgshallen previously (you can click the Brits flag to see it in English but you will have to read with an accent) and I am the frequent and popular customer at La Gazelle (the littler guy, the one holding a lamb leg like a club still works there and usually has a snuss pouch in his lip). I know I am a popular customer because I have a nickname. I can't get them to spell it for me but sounds like 'Nos Saladin'. I am not even clear what language this is but I am guessing Arabic. If you know anyone that can translate it I would be grateful, all they will say is that it means 'wise man' but I wonder.

Every working day I am in Stockholm I go by and pick up a sandwich and a Coke for lunch. I will occasionally supplement with a meat piroger when they are available. The fact that they have this killer sandwich is almost a coincidence as it is one of the best food vendors in the city. I can't identify or pronounce most of the items but they are primarily from N. Africa and Algeria in particular. Imagine a butcher counter about 20' long shaped like a lazy 'J'. On the hook of the J is food meant to be taken home for cooking: spiced chicken breasts, eggroll-ish things filled with spinach and lamb, herbed potato pancakes (my kids freak out for these), Pirogers (meat or veg), some kind of a breaded cauliflower etc. No beef now that I think about it, only lamb and chicken. I will have to ask about that.

Further along the counter are about 15 trays (varies by day on what is fresh) containing various veggie dishes and some sauces. The sauces include (forgive the brutal spelling I have no idea really) tzatziki, baba ganoush, hummus (those that have had the pleasure can now recall Gerhard doing his Hank Hill 'What the Hell's hummus?') and a few others that I have tried but can't recall, pronounce or recommend. The veggie trays change daily but are comprised of mixes of eggplant, bell peppers, carrots and I am sure lots of other things. Some are spicy, some sweet it really is an amazing mix. The 2 common daily dishes: roasted/rosemaried/(!!!) sliced carrots and a spinach puree with yogurt, feta, garlic and olive oil.

Finally you come to the meat section of the case. On the top row there is: a tray of Lamb Sausages (they call them merguez but that might be Swedish for sausage, not sure), a tray of chopped lamb that has been slow roasted (something like brisket), a tray of lamb innards (the guy has tried to tell me several times and from where he is pointing on himself it might be lamb liver, kidney, way to tell and I have never risked it), a tray of chopped chicken that has been marinated, grilled and mixed with peppers and spices, a tray of huge lamb chops that I think are already grilled and meant to be taken home for re-heating, roasted diced potatoes (these are made in a secret laboratory at NASA, they are impossibly crispy on the outside and light and tasty inside) and a tray of roasted vegetables based mostly on onion (obviously I can't tell you how that bit is).

The way it works is that a customer comes up and can either have filled a small aluminum tray with any combo of the above meats/veggies/sauces or any combination on bread (white or wheat French rolls made fresh at the bakery just across the hall in the market or in a homemade Pita roll) for 30 Swedish Kronors (@ 7 per that is $4.20 which is incredible as you can't get a pack of gum usually for 30 SEK).

So the Nos Saladin Sandwich (did I mention they named this particular sandwich that I invented after me?) consists of the following ingredients: Wheat Bread (you can go Pita once every couple of weeks to mix it up a bit), Salat Machwia (no idea on the spelling but its like a roasted bell pepper salsa chocked full of spicy peppers), 3-4 Lamb Sausages (these are the length of a french roll and maybe 50% bigger in diameter than a pencil, bright red and mildly spicy on their own), 2 scoops of the roasted potatoes and a careful spread (its already bursting out of the bun) of the creamy spinach. The creamy spinach is a controversial addition and many of my followers (I am the Rasputin of the lamb sandwich) eschew it in favor of boring iceberg lettuce. You can't drop the spinach, the texture combination against the lamb sausage is ideal and the sweet creamy flavor paired with the Machwia sauce is perfect. It took me weeks to make this perfect blend and while I do recommend you experiment with all the options available, know that you will come back to the Nos Saladin in the end.

Incidentally, as I think about it my caloric intake between 7 and 5 Monday to Friday is almost identical day to day. I get coffee at the coffee stand near the office along with 2 chocolates. I am famous there too and the gorgeous Indonesian girls that work there clearly each have a thing for me. They had been putting a blue foil wrapped item on top of my coffee cup for the first few months which I always assumed was a sugar lump and promptly threw away until one day I mentioned to them that I didn't need the sugar at which point she informed me that it is some amazing dark chocolate that goes great with coffee. I feel like an idiot for throwing all that chocolate away and now she gives me 2 each time I stop by. La Gazelle for lunch and I usually eat at my desk. Most days when I get the sandwich I will also pickup a German pretzel (slightly crisp outside, doughy softness inside, tangy sea salt covering the top) to go along w/ the 3PM coffee. I eat one of the afternoon coffee chocolates and save the 2nd for JB. We have a little ritual when I get home where we invent wild distractions so that the girls will not catch me slipping him the pre-dinner chocolate.

I am getting a bit light on work to do now as my part of the project is winding up, its Friday (no one in Sweden works on Friday) and a day off for all of Denmark (a prayer day which I don't get for a secular country). Just killing time till 11:30 when La Gazelle opens.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Finland - The End

I know you are thinking this saga will never end but I promise this will be the last post.

Friday was more meetings and then off to ride snowmobiles. You wear a rented suit consisting of boots, coveralls, helmet and gloves. The coveralls all smell like they have been soaking in urine for a hot month and are 10x too warm. By the end of the trip I had all the vents open and the legs unzipped. It was a sunny day and only about 40F but the heat in those things builds up quickly. The rental guy convinced us all to go in just underwear (I have never been less clothed with more people than this trip) and it was a godsend. If I had worn jeans under the rubber suit I would have died of heat stroke in 10 minutes.

I don't know the size or details of the snowmobiles but they go fast. We topped out on the straightways at an even 100 KM/H which if you look on your speedometer will tell you is about 60 MPH. That fast w/ no seat belt and laughable safety equipment is AWESOME. They handle pretty well and even have brakes although I still can't figure out what the hell they brake on. We made a 35 K course which stops at a beautiful old cabin in the woods were a 7' tall woman made us chocolate cake and really good coffee. Her place was converted into an art gallery and people evidently rent the place out for exhibitions, poetry readings etc. I love the image of a bunch of pointy heads on snow scooters screaming along all dressed up under their rubber rental suits going to an exhibition 20 miles from nowhere.

Our final night was at the Hulla Luppa (sp?) which means Mad Reindeer (and thats Mad as the Brits use it). Its a largish bar w/ a stage for live music and a dance floor cause those Finns they love to boogie. The singer is a kind of faded has-been who has been famous for like 30 years in Finland. Our hosts assured us we were quite fortunate to see him live. He had 1 name but I can't spell or pronounce it. We will call him Matti because that is what all the other men in Finland are called. Matti comes out to a minor smoke and light show and opens with the Whitesnake classic "Here I Go Again" and what must have been the Finnish version of 'Levi!!! Are you ready to rock?!?!?!?'. All in all it was not a bad rendition. Matti is about 50, paunchy with long-y half-permed hair, WAY TOO TIGHT JEANS, and a shirt unbuttoned to his navel. Paunchy was a bit kind, dude was fat and it was hard to look up there as he got sweatier through the night. All considered, he gave a good show, everyone danced and we got a bit drunk with all the Huurugi Gurrugi (sp?) calls which means 'down the hatch' and is a signal to kill whatever drink is in your hand.

I eventually wandered over to the Blackjack table where I discovered that they were dealing from a 2 deck shoe and the dealer moved like molasses. Even in my semi-sloppy state I thought surely I could count the cards enough to make a few Euros. Turns out I was right, between the drunks arguing over the total of their hand and the glacial pace of the dealer, I was able to keep track of the count without much trouble. Its been several years since I worked on this but even conservatively I was making money turning 10 Euro into 75. I was so engrossed that I didn't notice my phone had been ringing for an hour and that my gang had already gone home. Sobering slightly in the cold air by the taxi stand I was able to piece together enough of a description of where I was staying that the driver got me there after only about 6 wrong turns.

More meetings the next day, flight home where they lost my bag and the story ends. A quick afterword though.

John (the other American) and I are waiting for the airport train to take us to the city when a girl walks by carrying a 4' tall iron tepee shaped....thing. imagine the skeleton of an inverted cone made of blackened steel. She set it down and asked us to borrow a phone to call someone to pick her up, we chatted and learned that she is an English circus performer (to be fair she bristled when we asked her what kind of circus performer she was but never corrected us with a more correct title) coming to a special school outside of Stockholm. The inverted cone is a device she commissioned and is the only one in the world. It attaches at the narrow end of the cone to something that is way off the ground and she does some kind of routine involving hanging, spinning, flipping etc.

We all exchanged numbers so she is supposed to check in before she leaves and let us know how her audition went. No real point here, I just seem to be on a bit of a streak meeting odd people.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Finland Trip - part 3

I just re-read that last post and it was a marathon. I promise to keep this installment more manageable.

After the sauna and a long cool down, we went off to dinner in the main house. Each course was served w/ a different variation of booze.

Starter = Wild Mushroom and Cream soup plus homebrew Vodka. Turns out the mushrooms are illegal in most countries as they are highly poisonous unless cooked 8 times. Just think of the brutal culinary Darwinian process that killed off cooks who tested cooking 1 through 7 times. Tasted great and the homebrew was less caustic than the previous batch.

Interlude = A thimble size shot glass that we were warned not to 'touch, smell, look at or handle'. After he said a short prayer we all shotgunned it. Not much flavor (a hint of anise maybe?) and low alcohol. We were then told it was a 'male energy' supplement and it was 'better than Viagra'. No idea the contents and no comment on its positive or negative effect.

Dinner = Roast Wild Bird (Google 'Capercaille' its like a Finnish peacock) with mashed potatoes, Lingonberries, Carrots and Squash with Homemade Blueberry wine. Great flavor to the bird, I even enjoyed the gizzards.

Dessert = Lappish Cheese, Cream and Cloudberries w/ Homebrew Jet Fuel. Cloudberries are like an extra tart, orange raspberry and only grow where it is cold as to stop molecular motion. Lappish cheese is made from 'the early milk of a reindeer' which I think is referring to colostrum. Either that or milk from a young reindeer mother, it was not clear. Its a little curdy and sweet but not too sweet. Its served slightly warmed over cream. Very rich and with the berries is amazing. The Homebrew he did the throw in the fire and make an explosion thing again. It is the strongest booze I have ever encountered.

After dinner the Shaman had us close our eyes and he played a drum through the room. It was a very deep, bass sound and he came up behind each person and played a kind of hypnotic rhythm just behind your head making a surround sound kind of effect that was intense. The drum is painted with all kinds of scenes from the Shaman's life and it can tell the future or something.

On the way home we spooked his reindeer herd and they ran along the trail in front of us for a few KMs. I wondered briefly if it was real or the mushrooms.

Levi Finland - part 2

We had no internet available at the cabin so I will back date these from my notes.

Good meetings in Copenhagen today and caught an early flight out to Helsinki. Another prop plane which still drives me crazy but I was mysteriously upgraded to 'first class'. First Class on an 80 seat plane involves 4 people getting hot meals while the rest get mineral water and the chance to buy some $4 pretzels. The meal was good w/ some cold pork but the potatoes were cold too. I love cold food which makes my wife question my sanity but potatoes is where I draw the line. They can never be cold, its like eating warts.

The Hilton is the one I have stayed at previously right on the Gulf of Finland. The water is about half frozen so I sat and watched tiny icebergs floating around as the sun went down.

In the taxi at 6 AM (note that is 5 AM Sweden time but who is counting?) after the standard Hilton breakfast. At the airport, we meet the hosts and the fawning begins. None of the guys in my company will touch wallets for the rest of the trip. Strangely its free seating on a 737 for the 1 hour flight. The runway appears to be about 3' longer than the minimum strip required for landing the plane but we did in fact survive.

Over to the cabin for a couple of hours of meetings. The cabin is 3 stories (that would be 2 in Sweden where the ground floor is #0). First floor has 2 bedrooms, a living room for meetings and a sauna built for about 15. 2nd floor is a 2 more bedrooms, dining area, kitchen and sitting room. Top floor is a huge master suite w/ private sauna and a big bedroom w/ 2 beds. The big guy from our company gets the suite and I have to split w/ the other American in the other top floor room. The place is a beautifully constructed cabin, rough looking logs exposed throughout.

As we tour around we find the place is well stocked and particularly in booze. Beer, wine, cognac and Vodka enough to party for a month. In the living room for a couple of hours of presentations. Lunch at 1 consisting of a cream-based reindeer and potato soup along with some buttered dark Finnish rye bread. Excellent, simple flavorful food.

Everyone in the group is an accomplished downhill skier but me and when we hit the slopes after lunch they split off a couple of the host guys who followed me everywhere I went no matter how slowly or poorly. They only offered advice when I asked for it specifically and otherwise hovered appearantly only to call an ambulance for the looming compound fracture. I actually did ok for it having been my 3rd time skiing (last being about 10 years ago). I took a couple of falls and tweaked my previously non-bad knee enough to cause a limp through Sunday. We all met up at a shack somewhere near the middle of the mountain for cocoa/rum and watched Finns dance to their national country-ish music. They have an affected sort of two-step and they were amazingly graceful in ski boots while I clomped around like a Yeti.

Quick showers after ski and off to the 'big adventure' the host guys kept alluding darkly to all day. We pile into our rented van and drive about 35 KM into the big middle of nowhere. The last 10 KM were through a forrest path and we were apparently on a snowmobile trail. Finally arrive at a sort of village consisting of about 6 buildings all built at least partly under the ground and snow. The shaman man comes out to meet us and he is so authentic looking to be a bit creepy. The Samis are indigenous to northern Sweden, Norway and Finland and are reindeer herders. The story I got was that they are a Stone Age culture that got pushed north by the Indos that came along later. Facially, they remind me alot of Native Americans from North America but with a bit more of an Asian look around the eyes. He had a 'full' beard but it was very slight and wispy and no more than 2-3 inches long anywhere. His eyes were quite small and appeared bloodshot either from heavy drinking or the constant presence of wood smoke (likely both). He wore mid-calf fur covered boots, leather pants (in Irish terms think Daniel Day Lewis Last of the Mohicans instead of Bono) and a buckskin looking leather jerkin (I think that is the term for a long shirt??). He had a fox on his head. It was dead but I was able to identify it as a fox when he turned around and I discovered its head still attached to the back of the hat like a Lappish mullet.

The area had no electricity, and he gave us a tour of 2 of the buildings right off stopping only to point out which was the poop tree (no tp in sight and all plants covered w/ snow but I didn't stop to ask) and which was the pee tree. The first ones we toured were for his guests. Imagine a round room with a massive center pole. You enter through a set of 2 doors about 3.5' high to a room containg a beautiful (if rough) stone fireplace on the right and the whole left side of the circle room is a long, curved bed covered in reindeer skin blankets that were surprisingly soft to sit on. He joked that 10 men could sleep here and 20 people would fit if half were women (think vertical...duh). The other buildings were for wood and food storage leading up to the 'main house'. Same basic round shaped large room with a long dining table that will seat 10. His bed takes up the whole right side of the cabin and a kitchen extends out behind the huge stone fireplace that is putting out a remarkable quantity of heat for the small fire in the box. I would imagine that those stones got hot and then just stay that way forever with a little fire to keep them rolling.

He offers some blessings to begin the purification ritual and we are each given a cordial of some homebrew. Downing the stuff is like swallowing razor blades and he throws a bit into the fire for dramatic effect and it momentarily got Hiroshima up the chimney.

We follow him out to the smoke sauna set a good distance away from the other buildings. I could write for 3 days on what I have learned about saunas and the Finnish sauna culture but I will try to keep this to a reasonable epic. A smoke sauna is a wooden building containing a fireplace covered in stone. A fire is built and the room is mostly sealed for the entire day. After something like 8 hours, the smoke is released leaving a great deal of heat behind. Additional important facts include 1) you sauna naked 2) sauna is co-ed and 3) you get a little towel to sit on (the towel is yours forever and trading is discouraged).

For a typical American, nudity is an uncomfortable arena. Those of us who have played some team sport and have had more time in the locker room culture are a bit more used to it but still, naked is not the usual state you wind up in at the end of a first day of a customer meeting (unless your hosts are really into spending money and you don't mind venereal disease). Fortunately I had the situation explained to me beforehand so I would not make a retard of myself when the time came to drop-em.

The staging are is a small porch in front of the sauna and the outside temp is about 14F (-10 C). One gets naked there and takes clothes in hand to the little indoor area to hang them on pegs. Ever been naked in 14 degrees? It stings.

I left my glasses outside partially to avoid the fogging up and mostly to avoid seeing my pasty, overweight colleagues. We come in and sit on raised benches. I only had about 4 inches clearance for my head and had to be careful not to burn my hand when wiping my hair. The fireplace was about 3-4 feet high, stone and had no fire that I could make out. A tiny window let in enough sunlight to see outlines of people but otherwise it was quite dark. I think they said it was about 140 F (60 C) when we first came in but it was all in C so I couldn't be sure i was converting it right all the time. You immediately start to sweat but there is so much humidity (not like jumping in a Tucson car at noon on a 118 degree day) that its not uncomfortable. Shaman passes round a bucket of what to me felt like freezing water and I later noticed was about normal room temp. I think the purpose of that water was to prevent your hair bursting into flames later when he really got the thing going.

Then he starts throwing water on the pile of rocks on top of the fireplace and it begins to get hot. You feel the wave of heat hit like sheet being wrapped around you. We got up to about 176 F (80 C) and stayed there for about 10 minutes sweating like mad. He then took it up to our final cruising altitude of 200 F (90 C). We sat there for 5 minutes and then he came by to baptize us. The way he was facing me (holding what my bad eyes did not until later identify as a bucket and ladle) I was concerned that I was about to be pissed on and I began racking my brain for ways to duck and dodge. Fortunately he showered me w/ was in fact water that was just below boiling and felt like the coolest refreshment of my life. My new name is Ailu (Eye-Loo) in Lappish. The name is just a name and has no real significance but I will now insist on being called by it forever.

After everyone is blessed he takes us one by one out to a small shack that has a pit going down about 12' to part of a spring whose water remains reliably at about 33 F (1 C as in just a hair above freezing). The last part of the ritual is to climb slowly down the ladder and immerse oneseself fully in the water. Notably the shaman does not accompany you down the ladder into the water. There was a moment just as I reached the bottom of the ladder and right before I dipped my toe in that it occurred to me exactly how insane this was. I don't actually know the effect of submerging into nearly frozen water. It can not be good and might be dangerous.

Turns out it is good. You get this amazing electric current over all of your skin and can practically hear the sizzle as your skin (still blazing hot) hits the freezing water. It actually makes a little steam cloud. To get the full effect I had to find a way to scrunch down quite a bit and managed to get underwater up to my armpits. I will refrain from the discussion of the effect of cold water on various body parts but will say that the effect is frightening, disturbingly long lasting but finally wholly reversible.

From the cold pit we went back to the sauna room for more heat treatment. By the way, this was all accomplished with a remarkable paucity of alcohol. Presented with this situation 1 year ago, I would have posted the booze threshold around 12 beers. Sitting in the sauna this time, the subject of snow swimming comes up. I have survived the extremes of heat and cold to the degree that I am now feeling invincible so the challenge of snow swimming is readily accepted.

To Snow Swim, one runs from the sauna and dives into the field surrounding the sauna (still naked mind you) and thrashes around in the snow (ostensibly 'swimming' to some designated point and back) to prove how impervious one is to the effects of cold.

I am always amazed by the brief moments of clarity I have in the middle of doing things. Its like my brain does a little aside to some imaginary audience. In this case it happended as I was soaring through the air toward a field of untouched snow that I began to muse on the properties of snow shoes. Given a certain composition of snow, a snow shoe will distribute the weight of the snow shoe-r sufficiently to let them 'float' on the top layer of the snow instead of sinking deeply into the drifts. I pondered the relationship of this phenomenon to my particular situation. There existed a possibility that should I land sprawled (but twisted slightly so as not to 'belly' or otherwise flop onto a semi-frozen surface) I will stay on top of the snow like a giant snow shoe. If I sink, does anyone have a clear idea of how deep the snow is? Have I sufficiently thought through the ramifications of diving into a field of snow of an indertiminate depth not fully sure if I will remain atop or plunge straight down? Also, will I be impaled by a hidden birch sapling?

Turns out I was a snow shoe and that the snow was kinda frozen on top so when I landed it stung quite a bit. My mission now is to 'swim' over to the big rock and back. I think that the idea is to sink down in the snow a bit so that I would plow through it and get all snowy in the process. Due to the crusty top layer, I was not sinking deeply and the half scoot crawl I ended up with began to scrape uncomfortably. Again focusing on the snow shoe principle I got my hands under me and focused more weight in smaller area and busted right through the snow down about a foot. The swim to the rock is nice and I really don't feel the cold at all. So much so that I stop just before I get out to do a little snow angel. This plan fails when I try to sit up. Sitting up involves redistributing weight from all limbs down to my butt. This re-focusing causes me to sink a good 3' into the snow. I am now staring up a the gray sky at the bottom of a snowy grave, in a sort of fetal crunch feverishly calculating how to become a snow shoe again. Every time I put a limb down to push my self up, that limb sinks deeper into what I am beginning to imagine is the Grand Canyon of snow. I finally reached a firm level of frozen-ness at about 4' and was able to crawl out from there.

I hate to perseverate but its important to emphasize that I remained naked throughout this adventure.

To further blow your mind, I just found out that the Shaman has a website. Obviously these pics are all taken in the summer and towels have been provided for modesty sake but still, my shaman is online. That rocks.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Flying to SamiLand part 1

Leaving today (Wednesday) for an odd trip. Fly to Copenhagen this morning for an all day workshop, from there to Helsinki tonight where I will stay at the Kalajastorrppa Hilton. Leave tomorrow morning to fly up North (and you thought I was already North!!) to a town called Levi for a 3 day executive conference between my company and Microsoft. I of course will be the only non-executive there but the project we are doing is so fundamentally changing the way our customer deals with Microsoft, they want me there to talk about what it is we are doing.

On the subway platform this morning, leaving for the trip referenced above, in walked a group of 4-5 college age looking people in blue jumpsuit/coverall (not sure if there is a distinction there but its a single piece of clothing covering arms, legs and body which zips from navel to neck) covered in patches and with various bits of metal attached all over making them a jingling bunch. Each was carrying a box like the kind a ream of copier paper would come in. For it being 6 AM they were quite happy and boisterous (all strange things for Swedes) but definitely speaking Swedish. I moved down the platform to ensure that whatever 'wacky' pastime they were engaged in would in no way involve me. This proved to be the wrong strategy when from the other side of the platform came 6 more groups each in a matching color of navel-neck zip suit (yellow, blue, pink, red, green and orange) and each carrying the same box. I was closest to the yellow gang and got to inspect them more closely.

2 guys and 2 girls and I noticed later another girl holding a box, standing near but not in uniform. Not sure why. The guy most into character had all sort of belts, hooks, caribners etc. on his navel-neck zip suit. To these he had 2 pair of rusty looking and very old handcuffs, several of the springy lanyard things that elementary school teachers use to keep track of their keys (you know the kind, they tend to wrap them around their wrists when not in use) and easily 25 bottle openers each connected via a string to one of the many attachment points. Long hair, short goatee, beret (whether you are being serious or ironic w/ this outfit the beret is the obvious choice) and a Danish beer company towel half wrapping him around the waist like an apron. I could not make out the origin of the patches covering every inch of his suit but they were in many languages and appeared to be travel related.

The train had 6 more minutes and I could not stop myself asking the non-uniformed girl (had to be her, too large a risk of weirdo contact talking to one of the others) what the deal was. Her English wasn't great but evidently they were selling magazines for school and it might have been to fund a trip of some kind. I bought one and flipped through and its some kind of kid's (maybe teen) magazine.

We all took the train to the next station and it finally dawned on me that they had the big-foreheaded eagerness of band kids. Don't ask me why I associate big-foreheadedness with band kids but its a strong connection for some reason. Clearly they were selling these magazines to fund a band trip. College band kids are just kinda sad. My all-time favorite though was the flag guy from UA. He was in the line of flag girls for football games and I recall that he was quite hairy and always barefoot. Also he was the only guy out there and wore the weird fish-scale inspired leotard thing.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Good things about living in Stockholm

Some that I have chatted with over the last months have gotten the impression that I hate it here. I do miss the US quite a bit but having the family here makes it nice. I decided to make a list of things that I in fact feel positive about in Stockholm (also Europe in general). In no particular order:

  1. European Coke

    Obviously the carbonated beverage not the other stuff. It reminds me of the type one gets in Mexico. I hear they use something like cane sugar everywhere but the US where we get corn syrup. I am a complete addict to Swedish (and Mexican) Coke. My Dr. Pepper fanaticism is reversed here. It might be an inverse thing w/ the corn syrup, not sure but DP tastes like Diet or something. Undrinkable.
  2. Chocolate

    I didn't like chocolate that much but I am now an addict to something called a Center bar (I'll eat the Ploop bars in a pinch too). The Center bar is 2 sections of 4 squares each. Chocolate surrounding a toffee center. If you leave them in the fridge they turn sublime.
  3. Potato Chips

    There is some Swedish brand analogous to Saguaro chips back home. I like the plain, regular salt ones in the red bag. They have the perfect crunch and an amazing lack of oiliness. when combined w/ #4 below creates the perfect snack.
  4. Euro meats (dried only) and cheeses

    Under the movie theatre not far from my office is a market call Hotorgshallen. Its a cool market setup w/ about 20 stalls each offering some ethnic type food. There is a seafood stall, sushi, Finland cuisine, falafalel...all kinds of stuff. My favorite though are the deli places offering dried meats, I am becoming quite a connoisseur of spicy dried Italian salchicha. I also am learning a lot about the different Feta cheese varieties. The Bulgarian so far is my favorite.

    There is also a place offering N. African food that makes a lamb sausage sandwich which I will probably end up doing 6 pages on at some point in the future.
  5. Easy-to-use transportation system

    Can't say enough about buses and subways. The are relatively clean, almost totally bum-free, run constantly and go everywhere. Work provides me a monthly pass that give me total free-run of the city and Tina gets on everything free when she has the stroller.
  6. Snow and snow related activities

    Winter is gone now but we thoroughly enjoyed the weekends in the snow. We bought a sled (note that I totally overdid this one and bought the Olympic sled speed demon machine and the boy and I have nearly killed ourselves countless times) and ice skates. As a weather type, snow is 68,000 times better than rain.
  7. Seasons

    This isn't something we get much of in Tucson and its interesting to see how things change.
  8. Coffee

    The average cup of coffee is about 3x as good as the average American. I think we have made great strides on this in the last 5-10 years but the 7-11 or office automatic coffee is much better here. Going to a coffee shop varies here as it would back home but a slight edge to the US coffeshop as its often easier to get a big cup.
  9. Meeting world people (non-Swedes)

    I think I mentioned that Swedes are cold and boring but we have met people from all over and that has been probably the best part of the our experience here.

Friday, April 08, 2005


First off from Mr. Simmons Cowbell thursday reviewing the U2 concert. So obvious and right that I can't figure out why it never really occured to me.

"They desperately need to do an "Unplugged"-type concert before Bono loses his voice for good."

I bought the Killers album 'Hot Fuss' a couple of weeks ago and Mr. Brightside is the most heroin-ish song (defined as immediately addictive and puts me in danger of my wife killing me if I don't stop partaking) I have heard in a while and so good. I need to check if 'so' qualifies as an adjective and if so what does it mean? Ultimate, penultimate something above median but less than penultimate?

The have this great updated 80s sound that I find addictive but the lyrics for the most part don't make sense or the imagery is kinda awkard. I think I still like the Strokes better even though album #2 from them sounded just like #1.

Song List:

Jenny Was a Friend of Mine - Dark and good. I like story songs but I can think of 2 other examples of a singer killing someone and then talking to the cops about it so poins off for de-creativity.

Mr. Brightside - This song is I think genetically engineered. Like the way cells have receptors in certain shapes that grab proteins which are complementary shapes (not bad huh? I payed attention at the science museum and I also recall something vaguely about this from the Bio class where I used to stalk my future wife) I think we all have a half a puzzle piece in our brains that this song fits into. I love the part where she is touching his....chest.

Smile Like You Mean It - So 80s, so good.

On Top - Same generally, great hook but I don't really understand the imagery.

Somebody Told Me - "Somebody told me you had a boyfriend who looked like a girlfriend that I had in February of last year"....what?

All These Things I've Done - least favorite..."I've got soul but I'm not a soldier"...thats just silly.

Andy, You're a Star - Something about high school athletes, I hate that this stuff still resonates with me. Thats a total lie.

The rest are good but my Ipod shuffles them and to be honest I cna't recall which is which, maybe later I will do a side-b kinda thing. On the whole, I think the album has about 5 too many songs.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Oslo Continued

#2 tells me that Norwegians are kookoo for pizza. Can't get enough of the stuff. He claims that Norwegians eat more pizza per capita (parenthetically did you even think there was such a statistic? It makes me wonder what other knowledge exists without my permission). He tells this with a touch of pride.

The pizza place we went to for lunch was call Dolly Dimple's (not sure if it was possesive or plural dimples) and fully 1/3 of the pizzas had 'nachos chips'. I agonized over whether this was french fries or American chip chips. Turns out it was like a really thin corn tortilla chip and is quite popular as a topping. This is the beauty of finding new places. They eat chips on their pizza. Not that its important but the pizza was delicious. Go to Norway, get a pizza with chips, jalapenos and extra cheese (cheddary and burnt to be crispy) and see if I am a liar.

A word about #2. He is 34 and wears odd clothes. I wish I knew if he was Euro fashionable or just flaky. He shaves his head down to stubble (loads of Norwegian guys have this look, it might be genetic) and has rosy, ruddy cheesks (totally genetic, more so in guys than girls). Medium build, 6' maybe a tad less. His clothes make me think of a 60s/70s record promoter that would have been on the Monkees TV show. Not sure how good a leader he will be in the martial sense but hopefully we are past the stage of the project requiring it.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Oslo, Norway

Over to Oslo tonight for an all day working session tomorrow w/ my #2. He will be taking over for me in a few months when I go so I am trying to make as many trips here as possible to get him as prepped. We have an interesting situation to deal with tomorrow and I am intrigued to see how he handles it.

The problem is that 1 of the groups in the project is supposed to write a document for the end users on what will happen before during and after we show up to do the installation. The rub is that the people tasked to do it are developers and not well suited to writing things for other humans to read. I picked a couple of Danish guys in a different group and told #2 to have them write it. They won't be able to do the whole thing but can make a start for us and the developer people can refine it.

I saw the response from the Danish guys before I flew out today. "This is not our task, Development must do it". Classic Scandinavian response. They really seem to get off pointing out what is not their job. The proper response at this point of course (according to the Baker management handbook) is "your task is whatever I say it is" but I am not sure how #2 will handle it.

The Scandic hotel for tonight is in a mall, thats kinda funky.

Flipping through commercial TV and I am realizing Norway is a giant red-light district. Starts with the weather girl on the news in a tight low-cut button down shirt and painted on jeans. Flip to the other channel and this one is in a super short skirt and high heels. Next they are showing what is on later tonight. 1 square per show and at 21:45 the square is the title shot of the show Lost etc. etc. At 23:45 its the interesting part of a topless woman. At the train station the magazine rack must have had 25 different magazines (of a lascivious nature) in plain sight. I am just saying its a different place, not that any of this is interesting to me personally at all.

Sunday, April 03, 2005

Tallinn Vacation part 5 (final)

Final day in Tallin. Tourism is brief as we have a 2 PM plane. We rode a tram out to Katrania (sp?) park to see the palace Peter the Great built when he owned Estonia. It is close to the ocean and supposed to be quite beautiful later in the summer. Nothing was blooming yet so we didn' get the full effect but it was still a nice park if populated by bare trees. The old palace is now Estonia' foreign art museum. The kids observations were from Sophia "Baby Jesus"about a million times. Her 'baby'is pronounced babay which makes it hilarious. Jackson finally hit a tipping point and started to ask loudly and often "why everyone was naked in all the pictures and didn't they have clothes back then".

Pics from Days 4+5

Group 1

The first bunch are on a section of the old wall and towers you can climb around on

Group 2

The next bunch in and on the church are on top of St. Olaf's church. I think I mentioned last time that this is way the hell up there.

Group 3

Around Town stuff and signs we liked

Group 4

In the museum and on top of the tower housing the museum

Group 5

Around town and more signs we liked especially the sandwich board of the naked guy. I hardly think that is sanitary.

The cab driver on the way to the airport set a new record for stinkiness. He was a fat guy wearing last week's shirt under a leather vest. I think he cleans the vest once a year by letting a leporous elk piss on it. It was not possible to put the windows down far enough and I grabbed J first thing and told him not to say anything. Being 6, he still doesn't have a great concept of filtering his comments yet.

Checked in, through passport control and onto the terminal for another ride in the deathtrap to get back home. We ate French Hot Dogs from the bar. A French Hot Dog is a bun that has not been split, instead it has a hole bored through one end, the bun gets toasted, drops some mustard/ketchup/mayo etc. into the hole and finally in goes the dog/keilbasa/chorizo etc. The ergonomic design far exceeds its American counterpart and I like how it gets more mustard-y as you get toward the bottom.

Speaking of ffine French food, my buddy from college has just moved to France to go to cooking school and I am hereby calling him a lazy, drunk SOB (I think Tina already calls him that but still) if he doesn't start a post about his times there. The very concept seems to be full of humorous possibility.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Tallinn Vacation part 4

2 for 1 today as we got the kids to bed early and I crapped out of the poker tournament pretty early. More on poker later, that might be a novel until itself. I will post the pics tomorrow.

Today we climbed on a portion of the old city walls and dumped boiling oil on unsuspecting passersby. There were also 3 towers you could climb up but the stairs were so narrow and windy it got a bit claustrophobic and very tiring. Carrying Sophia is a treat and each time I stopped for breath she would in her royal manner say 'no stop Daddy, more climbing now Daddy'. I assume these guys must have had their armor up in the towers all ready to go. I know they were tiny in the olden days but there is no way a guy with a shield is going up/down those spirals. The views were cool but the main point was to tire us out for the big ascent up St. Olaf's church.

This church (click here for the background story, you will hear it 92 times when you come to the city so get it out of the way now) has an 'observation platform' open to the public. The platform is 124 m (I think thats 360 feet or so) up and its narrow, windy stairs the whole way. Olden times people had small feet and made small stairs. Not only did I climb the thing which is impressive, I did it carrying a 30 lb kid which is also impressive but I also did the ascent and descent both almost totally on my toes. My calves actually fell off when I got back on the ground.

The real Hell though is that I am really, really afraid of heights. I have considered hypnosis and things before but never actually pursued it. I get anxious on glass elevators, am very uncomfortable near windows on buildings much higher than 15-20 stories etc. I think Jackson has inherited (is is genetic?) this as he shows real reluctance when it comes to heights. He is a daredevil in all other kid playing arenas but get him a few feet off the ground and he freezes up with a look that shows the specific feeling I recognize when I get panicy up high. I decided to go up this thing because from the ground the platform looks quite wide and I thought it would be a good moment for him to make the climb and then walk out there w/ me to show it can be overcome. This is getting a bit Hallmarky so we will jump to the scary bits. For the 'platform' they put up a 4' high railing around a sloped section of metal roof. To keep balance, there is a 5' wide board running all around the platform. It is not possible to pass someone unless you or they lean their body up against the fence (!!!!!!) and making the turn at the corner was so tight J nearly ripped his jacket squeezing through. I took a few pictures and he and I will consider this our Himalaya for some time. In fact please refer to him as Tenzing from now on.

Impressed with out bravery, we visited the church itself downstairs. Originally the place was Catholic so it has all the ornamental touches you would expect. Much of it has been painted over or buffed away by the Baptists who now meet there. I can no more imagine a Baptist congreation in this huge hall than I can imagine me tight rope walking 50 stories up in the air. 1 nice Baptist touch was to put speakers all throughout the pews so that you get high-decibel hell, fire and damnation no matter where you sit.

A cheap Greek place for lunch which was fine but when we ordered the 'Kebab looking things there in the picture' the Dad from My Big Fat Greek Wedding came flying out of the kitchen screaming 'its souvlaki'. In Greek restaurants they have fried cheese. That is a double down of 2 great things.

Next up is Fat Margaret (the old city tower not the 600 lb. model from those Spencer's gifts calendars. I know, I haven't been in Spencer's in about 20 years but they are bound to still have the same calendars and I am sure there is someone called Fat Margaret there.) and the Estonian Maritime museum. The tower was a tower, then a jail and now is a museum of very random ocean related accessories and ship models that in many cases have nothing at all in common w/ Tallinn. Not much of note but Sophia was in rare form really cute-ing up the inevitable old ladies at each floor. One lady in particular who was 2' tall and I thought blind, grabbed Tina kinda roughly by the arm and dragged her over to an old 47 mm deck gun from a Russian torpedo boat. She had us put the kids on the gun (by that I mean sit on the barrel about 5' off the ground) while she ran in circles pushing the gun around on its well-greased bearings. 1) I can't believe the thing still turns and 2) watching this millennium aged woman pushing my kids on a Russian gun merry-go-round officially counts as the randomest and funniest moment of the day.

Off to shop for more warm weather clothing to take back as gifts to our friends and family who live in some of the hottest parts of the US ( I just go where I am told).

Lite dinner at a jazz club that was setting up for a late crowd so we had the place to ourselves. Back to the room to drop off the family and I went to play poker. I will do a post on the tournament tomorrow hopefully but it was all done in about 90 minutes and I finished 8 of 18 when the top 3 spots got paid. Not great or awful play on part and not bad or good cards just kinda blah and all for $40 so really not bad.

Tina right now addressing postcards to old people in our family who like getting postcards stamped in foreign countries. I would say this is a bit lame but I just noticed that the stamps they gave us are from the 2004 Athens Olympics and have a naked dude on them. We are sending our older relatives a greeting from Tallinn and a picture of a little Greek........Tina edits these sometimes so I better just leave it at that.

So that catches me up and we are now in real time going forward. I may post some things prior to the trip but will put them in chronological so its easy to follow.

Final note for today is that my brother and his wife had a kid April 1st (US time). It ended up bing a c-section but Mom and baby are doing well. Cole Aricson Baker, 9lbs and 21". We have a few pics and Sophia is really jazzed but doesn't like the look of the umbilical stub and has asked me about 12 times to have it removed. Looking forward to meeting him when we get back in July.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Tallinn Vacation part 3

One of the best parts of being over here is to see the US from a foreign perspective. In particular I refer to the prism of music. Its like bizarro world for pop music here. They have an MTV and it shows a best of the 80s or 90s but I only recognize 75%. The rest are Euro bands I never knew existed or songs by groups I knew but that never caught on in the US. What is really unsettling though is the breakfast soundtrack at the Scandic. Eric Clapton's Greatest Hits is played every 3rd song (which is fine as its the original track being played). The other 2/3 are jazzy instrumental versions of Rolling Stones classics. I can't understand why its real Clapton and fake Stones.

To digress on the the Stones for a second, I am about 48 years too young to have any appreciation for them. I find them to be a very middle of the road band that has hung on way, way too long. Their last 20 years of music is not good and I think it tarnishes their enduring legacy. As I write this, I think I may be channeling part of a Simmons article I read (see the links, if you are a male approximately my age fascinated by sports, gambling and pop culture don't start reading his columns. It will be some of the best things you ever read also the worst. Everyone I know swears they have had it and will not read another word, and like me have every word of his read the second he posts it).

Visited the Kiek in the Kök tower for a few hours before lunch (Here is the tourism site so I don't have to do the explaining about the next couple sites). Again an old lady (varying levels of facial hair) on each of the 6 floors. They spoke no English but were very polite and made lots of googlies with Sophia. The cannon and seige weapon stuff was cool but the narrow windy stairs get to be a pain after a while. Inevitably more torture devices. Its no wonder Euros have such a history of brutalizing each other, apparently the racks and thumbscrews were just lying around everywhere.

Pub Lunch at an Irish place which was nice. They had big semi-couch things and we lounged next to a room-sized fireplace while drinking coffee and planning our next moves. As the coffee is high quality on average, they definelty don't have an endless cup policy. I should switch to Americanos or something but never remember to do it.

Bus out to the ruins of St. Bridget's convent. This was an unforgettable place. Ivan the Terrible evidently blew up most of it but the main walls still stand and they seem incredibly high for stone. They were buttressed (sp?) but still amazing to stand in the middle of the place, you can easily picture the setting from "Name of the Rose" (whatever that movie was w/ Sean Connery and a 14 year old Christian Slater who gets 'raped' by a lusty milkmaid, I think written by Umberto Eco?) with all the Gregorian chants, incense etc. Being from a country and in particular a state that consider things >100 years old to be in the realm of paleontology, its hard to express the impact old places like this have.

The Bus ride out was interesting itself as we rode without windows for 20 minutes in a bus packed w/ Eastern Europeans who make it a strict policy to not bathe. I am given to understand that the shower is (or was until the last 10-15 years) associated closely w/ the US and especially the idea of a daily shower. That is craziness. Everyone must take a shower, every day. When I am king this will be a rule and there will be monitoring and fines.

Next we wandered the very new mall and let the kids roam in the Toy Store. Other than the maps being indecipherable it could have been a mall in Toledo. Same stores, same chotchkly kiosks (accepting comments on the spelling chotchky in particular), same fruit smooth shops, same 14 year old girls in heavy makeup being stalked by dazed looking 14 year old boys moving in packs.

Coffee and cake at a coffee shop and the image you have of Euros smoking all the time everywhere is correct. I am frankly amazed that they can keep them from smoking on airplanes.

Back to the room to hang out and read some more Harry Potter. We are on #4 the Goblet of Fire. We started sometime around Jackson turning 6 and the first 2 books were all sweetness and light but the humor themes are changing noticeably as the kids in the book start hitting puberty. Poor J is not ready for some of it, not that its bad for him just that he has no frame of reference for it yet. Not sure how to handle this because he begs us to read chapters like a junky and reads ahead on his own if we can't get to it fast enough.

More Medieval dinner this time at a place called the Peppersack. The theme is much less intrusive in this place and the food is about 75% as good as the Olde Hanse from our first night. Nothing really adventurous but on balance it was cheaper. The highlight of the thing was a swordfight staged through the dining hall. J enjoyed it but S actually got upset and wanted the "boys stop fighting". The part we didn't know about was that the fight was staged over the belly dancer. What belly dancing has to do with medieval Tallinn was not clear but nonetheless she shimmied all around us through dinner. Its a hard call but I have to say eating at a restaurant with a belly dancer dancing while I am sitting with my family is not good. On one hand because she makes alot of eye contact as she jiggles and writhes, it feels impolite not to watch. Obviously watching is a good thing but then that seems wrong because of the company. Especially when my daughter stands up in her chair to dance too. This is unacceptable and I think Belly Dancing should be kept in Harems. When I want to see it I will know where to go.

Click here for Pics from Day 3:

Group 1 - Court of the Danish King

6 pics but what you don't see is that we were the only tourists along w/ 2 other groups: kids ditching school and gypsies. The gypsies played olden times music and angled for a way to steal one of my kids/wives. The surly teenagers just wanted to find a place to smoke in peace. Every hidden part of the area we explored turned up more surly teenagers who rolled their eyes at the epic and bloody sword fight J and I put on along the ruins and walls.

Group 2- Kiek in the Kök

11 pics in and around the 6 story tower

Group 3 - St. Bridgets former Convent

17 pics from the ruins of the former Convent. The place was enormous, there must have been alot of chastity back then.

Group 4 - Dinner at the Peppersack

7 from dinner and around dinner.

Group 5 - Around Town

12 random shots through the day ending with the 2 signs we liked best.