Thursday, 28 August 2008

Hej Stockholm and Helsinki!

I basically never thought I would get to Scandinavia until I was diving in a pile of money Scrooge McDuck-style. So what I know about the place can be summed up in this list: Ikea, Volvo, Absolut, Nokia, and from my design degree; an ability to speak briefly and shallowly about Arne Jacobsen's egg chair. Also, the most famous Scandinavian of all: the Swedish Chef from The Muppets.

Armed with this scarily in-depth knowledge, I boarded a Finn Air flight with the 20+ other uncles and aunties on the tour + mum + 'real' uncle + aunty. Joining me in the under-40 crowd was my 7 year-old cousin. The planes were old-school, with only the screens in the aisle viewing PG movies involving pigs/dogs. This caused me to immediately curse myself for being too cheap to buy an iPod.

I turned to assessing my fellow travelers for entertainment. There were a lot of older people on board, but they were distinctly stylish old people. They sported interesting hairstyles and the heavy-framed glasses that I associate with creative types. It was more akin to being at an architect's convention.

We finally got to Helsinki, where we were thoroughly checked before being allowed to wait for our shuttle to Stockholm. Only this time I saw something unbelievable: hot airport security staff.

From the waifish girl who pokes a gloved hand into your bag, to the windswept guy monitoring the scanner and the well-coiffed people ready to pat you down; one and all looked as if they were just earning some cash until their gig as a model/lead singer/TV host took off. I wasn't allowed to take pictures, or run back through the scanner and put some metal on so I could be patted down. Boo.

When we finally got in to Stockholm, it was about 8pm and we got our first glaring taste of the long sunlight hours. Next morning, we were whisked around on a city tour. Our tour guide happened to be the one person in Stockholm who doesn't have great English, but no matter. Stockholm is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe I've been to, so it speaks for itself.

Having been the centre of an empire in the 17th century and more or less stayed out of war since then, there's been a lot of peace time and money to get things right. Everywhere you turn, there is an impressive building or structure decorating the skyline. Gamla Stan, or Old Town, has the main concentration, but the rest of the city isn't short either.

Then there's the water. Stockholm is set on a few islands at the heart of an archipelago of 30,000 islands. The directions to anything involve "...then you cross a bridge..". This is a good thing for those totally hopeless at directions (like me) but also because it's pretty everywhere you look. It's not just glittering in appearance either; you can swim and fish in the heart of town.

In fact the only thing as ubiquitous as the water, is the H&Ms. They are EVERYWHERE! Initially, it was like a dream come true. But after your first 10 or so mega H&Ms, it starts to get old. I know, I didn't think it was possible either.

Just as I was figuring out how to pronounce the A with the little o on top, we were off on a ferry to...


The overnight ferry was our first of many boats on this trip. This was the Viking line, which is Swedish for duty free alcohol/cigarettes and poker machine bonanza. Just like the original Vikings. We got our own tiny cabins but other people preferred to sit on the freezing deck and drink through the night. Awesome. Clearly the famous Scandinavian prudishness on alcohol doesn't extend to the open seas.

The harrowing effects of alcohol abuse

It also doesn't extend to Helsinki. Finland, I would find out, is culturally closer to Russia, whereas Sweden-Norway-Denmark are more Germanic. Hence the open tolerance, if not encouragement to enjoy a tipple, or twenty, outside. It's all done very safely though; I was walking around at 2am and the only threat I felt was from the cold.

Helsinki was an outpost of the Russian empire, so it doesn't have the grandeur and importance of Stockholm, but it's charming nonetheless. And the prices are less heart-breaking more reasonable. This was the largest and most well-equipped hotel room that we got. Ironing boards! Hairdryers! Is enough to make a girl dizzy with happiness.

The only downside is they seemed to have a lot less people who look like part-time models and a lot more who look like guitarists in a death metal band. You can't move for all the people with blond roots and stringy black hair trying to look disturbed and haunted.

This girl struck it lucky with great hair, and great everything else; if your sunnies don't match your bag and bike, I wouldn't know why you bother leaving the house. I vote her most stylish cyclist in Scandinavia, which is a pretty tough competition. She wins my approval, and isn't that pretty much all anyone needs?

Next: Brrr Norway

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Scandinavia-the round up

So Wednesday morning, we woke up to an empty driveway.

The 6-week-old car vanished overnight. And the gate was closed. As if it had just popped down to the shops.

After we managed to close our mouths, I got my first entry into a Malaysian police station. My parents were at the counter with a lady living in the next street who was also reporting a stolen C-RV. Another 3 had gone from another suburb. Clearly it was a syndicate, filling an order.

The possibilities began to click through in my mind about how it happened: they'd definitely hacked our gate's remote control lock, because there was no damage...we were lucky they didn't come did they find us?..maybe they paid off someone at the dealership?..maybe the salesman is part of the syndicate?...crooked police? Basically anything that might be a plot twist in airport fiction, is a plausible possibility in Malaysia.

And it's here I begin to be wistful for Scandinavia; that rare combination of being a place you would want to go and a place that's safe to be.

View Larger Map
The route: Anti-clockwise on the Blue line for 2 weeks with the tour. Then Pink line on my ownsome.

With the exception of Oslo which has seen better days, from the beginning in Stockholm, right around the landmass, and over to Denmark, I was only ever in danger of offending locals by misusing the words "Scandinavia" and "Nordic" (oh yes, there's a difference)

Rudolf's posse spotted scoping a joint

All the time I gawped at new bicycles left unsecured on the street, potted plant arrangements left unvandalised, and struggled to spot so much as peeling paint, let alone graffiti. There's a level of civic consciousness that's astounding. It's like Japan; safe, expensive and culturally homogenous but with more trees, less people, slightly less fish and a lot more reindeer.

Sure, as a tourist it's unlikely "historic crackwhore den" would be included on the Copenhagen city tour, but as a comparison,
in San Francisco you can't go the two blocks from your overpriced tram ride in Market St to the statue in Union Square without passing at least 4 homeless people panhandling, 3 of them with AIDS, 2 junkies cursing...

"And ooonnne crazypersonmuttering toooo themmmm...sellllllves".

It was just really relaxing to not-worry about maintaining a vice-like grip on my bag, to not-worry about security in the hotel rooms, to not-worry about drivers going through zebra crossings, to not-worry that my bag would be stolen when I went to the toilet.

Maybe it's just because I was there with Malaysians, so given our exchange rate, no one would want to steal from us anyway! But for a place that often looks the stuff of fairytale, my favourite part couldn't be photographed.

I'll be doing a run-through of the different stops on the route in the following days. It won't be blow-by-blow, I promise. I know you can't be arsed to read that, but more importantly, I can't be arsed to write it.


Friday, 8 August 2008

Herrang Diaries or Punch Me in the Stomach: Part 2

Heaps of people are already seated in the driveway of Folkets Hus when I get there a titch before 9am. Impressive. Clearly they had all filched their lunches at the breakfast buffet faster than I had managed.

ID cards and fluorescent t-shirts are handed out, people in charge introduced, then the crucial business of divvying up into teams under team leaders. I'm in the Ice Cream Parlour (ICP) team, which right now sounds totally fun. We're a group of 8. There's one Russian guy and Lithuanian girl, then the rest are Swedish girls a lot younger than me.

Before I start checking if they've finished highschool, our manager introduces herself. Helena is bubbly and fun and is totally pulling off the 80s look. She has a monobrow, but manages to make it look super cool. I didn't even think that possible. I consider one myself for about 5 seconds, then aah I remember I'm not Swedish. They just get away with a lot more!

She's great, the other girls seem nice, the job of baking doesn't seem too hard, it all seems like a fine way to spend a week.

After training wraps, I see about my booked accommodation. The bed that I got assigned is miles away. In the woods. Past the tents and the caravans. It has an outdoor shower, and is costing 2000SEK for the week. i.e. a bajillion dollars. When you book, there's no online options, so you just get whatever they confirm in the email.

I explain to reception when it's open, that this isn't ideal, is there anything else? I am mentally prepared to grovel, snivel and plead. They look, and Yes! Yes there is! right next to the school! and it's 1300SEK! Woo!

Such is Herrang, that I have to feel a flutter at the prospect of a private indoor shower.

Giddy with my new place, cycling on my newly rented bike, meeting my new Russian roommate, I'm thinking things are looking up.

They did look up. For about 5 minutes. Then they looked doowwwn, waaay dowwwn.

I find out volunteering for me involves 10+ hr days next to the oven. Alternatively punching out banana bread and choc chip cookies. In between, bussing tables, washing dishes and mopping floors. Lunch hour would be spent napping, sending in laundry, checking mail and finally, eating a ham and cheese toast--the most lunch-like thing at the ICP.

Which brings me to...

One of the benefits I guess of ICP was the food. Whilst others were eating microwave mac n' cheese or cooking on those tiny camp stoves, I had all the ham and cheese toasts, banana bread, ice cream and cookies I could filch :D

Banana bread of Dooooooooom

That combined with aforementioned deep-fried meatballs, were, culinarily-speaking, sitting pretty for Herrang standards. I did try the camp restaurant once. It's misleadingly called Yum Yum, and set in the school canteen. On the night I was there, they served what looked and tasted like reheated frozen fish fillets, accompanied by a pile of shredded cabbage and, bizarrely, whole olives and canned mushrooms.

I'm not expecting Michelin stars, but for 95SEK/USD$15/Rm50, it's hard to resist the urge to go in there and show them what they can do with the shredded cabbage. I totally would have too if I already wasn't nodding off into it.

Which brings me to..

This was one of the things I was told the truth about: "Hooo, hope you're not intending to sleep. Wait til after!" And it was totally, miserably, cripplingly, true. All the regulars told me to sleep from 9pm-2am, then the best dancing is between 2 and 5.. by which time I figured just keep going until work starts at 7. I started counting sleep in minutes, as in "40min at lunch, plus an hour 40 after dinner, before the show at 9pm.."

It's not a schedule I've been able to manage since I was 18, so unsurprisingly shit started to happen...

1) Wore a skirt and biked to work one morning. Misjudged the breaking on the balding tires and managed to do a crash landing into the bike rack. Escaped with a few bruises and scratches. NOT helped by the group of lounging Russians nearby.

I got lucky with the bikes actually, one girl fell off the back when the rack broke, and another guy broke a rib when his chain came off (!)

2) Managed to successfully burn myself a bunch of times on oven racks

3) Sent just a blank sms to my parents. Freaked them out big time. I remember starting it, but I just ran out of batteries and keeled over into bed.

4) Accidentally put melted butter instead of room-temperature into cookie mix, and none of them held shape. So ended up with THREE gigantic, cookie-tray-sized cookies. I had to re-do it, but the other volunteers were super happy I was such a crap baker :p

That's like an avalanche of bitching, but in the end, I did meet some fun people, and I did dance more than I have in probably the last year and I did do Swedish karaoke; how many people can say that? I also do a mean banana bread, which I don't want to do for a long time, so don't ask, ok? :p

Finally, some truth

I realise a lot of times travel is a bit masochistic. If you don't want to be outside your comfort zone, you should just stay home. But there are different levels that you can prepare yourself for. And I've decided for Herrang volunteering, you need to be near the top at Mr Park.

Mr Park was my tae kwon do teacher when I was 17. Lessons were held in a dojo near our local seafood market. It wasn't so much dojo, as a big carpeted hall with some gear stacked at the back. He was like any other Asian uncle, except one thing; hanging near the entrance, was a picture of Mr Park, when he was Mr Korea in the '70s. Oiled and flexing, like a Korean Schwarzenegger. This was the first thing that was pointed out to new students. I nodded to show that I was impressed.

He was now in his 40s, I guessed, with two daughters a bit older than me, and definitely wider round the middle.

At first, he would let his daughters take us, during the punching and kicking exercises. But one day, he took over. Instead of using the pads, he asked us to aim for him. "Go on, punch me in the stomach" he said. When he saw our hesitation, he'd exclaim "I can take it! Come onnnn". So we'd punch him in the stomach until our arms were as jelly-like as his girth.

In conclusion dear reader; Mr Park loved a punch in the stomach and so should you, if you're planning on some volunteering at Herrang.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Herrang Diaries or Punch Me in the Stomach: Part 1

I just read this by some-time Swede, Elin, and it got me angry.

Angry like when a vending machine eats your coins without giving you Doritos, ANGRY.


That's cos you can't find a swing dancer anywhere, who WON'T add to the already Atlantic-sized ocean of love for Herrang Dance Camp. I couldn't find anyone who'd utter even a non-committal word about it.

Leaving n00bs, like ME 2 months ago, with the perception that heaven exists just about 2 hours north of Stockholm. The deception has to stop people.

So even though I have hours on Facebook to log, I guess I'm going to stop that important work to tell the truth about Herrang. I know it's a drop in the ocean, but someone needs to counteract the hype. And since I could definitely be a medallist if Hatin' was an Olympic sport, I bravely step up to the line and risk the ire of the converted.

Also, I notice the burn mark on my arm is about to flake off entirely and the blister on my foot went a few days ago. The orange-sized bruise and various scratches on my leg is fading too, so I want to note down my vitriol before the golden light of nostalgia causes me to succumb to the mass amnesia that has clearly infected everyone else.

For the non-swing people reading, Herrang Dance Camp is a mecca for Lindy Hoppers. It's held in the tiny town of Herrang for 4 weeks every summer. "Herrang" roughly means "Mr Meadow". That's really only the beginning of the strangeness.

For me, it started badly, and maybe I should have heeded the signs. When I found out I'd be in Scandinavia, I checked straight away about registering. Unfortunately, there were no more places for follows (girls). So I considered volunteering. If I worked there this year, I could get classes next time for free. Hmmmm given the distance and expense, I might never return, but that seemed my only choice, so I grabbed it.

After farewelling my family and the tour group in Copenhagen, I stayed an extra few days then I hopped an 8-hr sleeper train to Stockholm.

Bound for DANCE NIRVANA!!!! WOOOOT!!!!!

Having spent the night in a space about three shoe boxes big, I thank the deities for being short, and for pulling up to Stockholm on time at 7am.

Dance nirvana, here I come! Woo!

I killed time and paid to use toilets for 3hrs until the shops opened. Then I tooled around in a costume shop on Stockholm's outdoor touristy shopping mall. Come 1pm, I headed back to Central Station and collected my bags.

dance nirvana...i'm gonna make it...

There I got on a metro. Then I got on a bus. For over an hour. I waited 40min then I got another bus. The meadows became more lush and expansive. Hmmmm cows and hay. Am I on the right one? Is this it?

Thankfully some Swiss dancers show me the right stop and point the way to the Folkets Hus, or Community Centre. So 4 hours after leaving Stockholm, 20 hours after my last shower, I finally arrive.

where can I eat?

I ask a volunteer in a fluorescent t-shirt for some help. In the afternoon light, I explain that I'm a volunteer, I'd like to check in and find a bed until my booked accommodation opens up tomorrow.

And here began my downfall: What I was expecting was a bunch of people who, though a little disorganised, were nonetheless helpful and fun.

What I wasn't expecting was couldn't care less, and can't be bothered. If I wanted that I could have spoken to some staff at Northwest Airlines He couldn't help me on the beds, I had to find my own. But he could helpfully remind me that when I got my stuff sorted out they needed extra hands with the decorations for that night's party. Thaaanks.

I head inside the main building and see some kind of registration process in the library. I sidle up to the slow-moving queue and spend a good 10min there before checking it's the right one (clearly spent too long in Singapore). When I run upfront and inquire, I'm told this is the queue for a weekend beginner's course and volunteers only needed 9am tomorrow. And where to sleep? General Accommodation. I steal an info booklet for students to find where it is.

General Accommodation
This is a euphemism for the bunks crammed into the school gym and some extra rooms. It's free to sleep here, so it's not surprisingly full. It looks like there's been a 3-week baggage handler's strike in there. Bags with their bowels spilling out, on bunks as far as the eye can see.

There's meant to be a labeling system, but buggered if I can tell which ones are legitimately taken, and which are the ones I can rightfully push stuff off. But who am I kidding? I'm a polite Asian. Call me thin-skinned, pussy-footed, lily-livered, or denigrate some other part of me, but I am just not the person that pushes someone's stuff off a bed. Others apparently did do this, and I met their (legit) victims in the reception the next night.

It's madness on a Friday night because of the crossover between those leaving and those arriving, and there not being enough beds. So clearly they expect people to apparate in at 8.55 on Saturday morning. Either that or a tractor beam from the mother ship, perhaps. I can't fathom any another explanation for having nothing available. Oh wait-there ARE more beds down near a place called the marina, but that's a long trek away, in the dark, especially with a backpack, and the bike rental closed 2hrs ago, lady.

Frustrated and pissed off with no bed still, I head back to Folkets Hus to find some food. I'm pointed to the burger kiosk down the road, where I spend 60SEK/RM35/USD$10 on a few deep fried meatballs, with powdered mash and shredded iceberg lettuce, plus can of Coke. This turns out to be one of the better options available actually.

After dinner I get acquainted with the showers. Do you remember teen movies in the 80s? It'd be called Porky's or Goonies, or something else that was easily-pronouncible. Many had totally unbelievable (I thought) female school shower scenes in them. It'd be scores of totally fake-boobed chicks walking around a tiled room lined on one side with shower heads, completely starkers, with nary a towel or dividing wall in sight.

Well, imagine that, minus the silicone, take the number of showers down to 3, take the grittiness of the floor up to public pool levels, add a lot more random, used clothing in the changing room, and you're about there. I won't go into the gory details, but it's not sexy, I can tell you that much.

I did go to help with the decorations after that (my other option, to cry, I would end up taking later). That got me into the hippy-themed party for free, but after doing a few laps of the hippy festivities in a turban and sarong (no, there are no photos), and a half-hearted round of the dance floor, I decided to call it a night.

Sitting in a tent, mercifully lent to me by the ONE person I do know (all hail the wonderful Cat), with the sounds of the party still in the air, waving my phone around to find an apple, chocolate, or ANYTHING to eat, was not really how I'd imagined my first night in Herrang.

I went to sleep, praying to all the deities, for the beginning of something better tomorrow.

Continue to Part 2