Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Sweden: Food in Tubes, Fika and Assault

When I found out that I was going to take a trip to Sweden, I
quickly took stock of all of the things that I knew about the country.
My list was disturbingly short:
The Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show
Red candy in the shape of fish

As far as American pop culture would have me believe, Sweden is a country that loves disco, bite sized meat and efficient design. Furthermore, I'd have to be extremely careful around anyone wearing a chef's hat, lest I be bludgeoned to death with a rolling pin.

On my last trip to Norway, I was given a stern warning that, should I ever visit Sweden, it was vitally important that I did not impersonate the Swedish Chef as the Swedes don't find this character particularly endearing. This advice was given to me by the wife of a man who, upon arriving in Sweden, began to do his best Swedish Chef impersonation. I took this advice to heart and kept any "hordy-bordy, bork bork bork" comments strictly to myself.

Upon arriving in Sweden, I was surprised to find that disco wasn't blaring in the public squares, I didn't have to run from anyone with a rolling pin and the bed at my hotel was already fully assembled. What I did find was a country full of friendly people and wonderful traditions. My two and a half day visit was far too short, but I enjoyed it immensely despite its brevity.

The group that I visited was quick to teach me their favorite Swedish tradition: Fika. Fika is similar to a coffee break in the United States, only it's more riged in that it is scheduled. At 10am and 3pm each day, most people take a social coffee break, which regularly includes some sort of cookie and casual conversation.

It is my understanding that the scheduling of Fika is unflinchingly riged with only one exception: If you find that you need to avoid someone, it is perfectly acceptable to take Fika that is slightly
later than normal. I never found out what happens if the people who are trying to avoid one another both take a later Fika. I imagine that there may be some sort of complicated communal Fika schedule, but no one ever showed it to me. Even though I never unwrapped all of the mysteries of Fika, I did enjoy the tradition a great deal, and I hope that it catches on throughout the world.

As is my normal routine when visiting a new country, I took the first opportunity I found to visit a grocery store (see: Why I Love Grocery Stores). Just before entering the store, I saw a large crowed of people gathered around a portable PA system to which were attached three pink balloons. Normally this alone wouldn't be something that would draw a crowd, so I started looking for the more interesting something that had garnered so much attention.

An older man was yelling something in Swedish while a younger man was restraining him by hugging him from behind. Had it not been for the yelling, I could have believed that this was a young lover and his sugar daddy, but the yelling gave it away. The older man struggled, broke free and began to beat the man who had been restraining him. At this point a larger man, who appeared to be a motorcycle enthusiast (leather jacket, long hair and plenty of muscles), stepped forward and restrained the older man.

As far as I could tell, the older man had a serious dislike for pink balloons as this is apparently a very serious problem in Sweden. As an outsider who is indifferent to the presence of pink balloons, it was of no concern of mine so I went into the grocery store to see what I could learn about Swedish culture.

Based solely on my observations in the Swedish grocery store, I've come to the conclusion that the Swedes have a great and deep love for storing food in tubes. I'm still trying to wrap my head around this.

Toothpaste is easy, but what about everything else that could be contained and stored within tubes? Ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise seem natural enough along with chocolate fudge for ice cream. I can even understand the chocolate sprinkles (AKA: Jimmies) as they can be conveniently stored next to the chocolate fudge, but the Swedes have gone much further than this.

What really surprised me were the tubes in the deli section that contained a wide variety of meat spreads. Having lived all of my life chewing my meat or tearing it off sticks with my teeth like a fool, I was blissfully unaware of this highly advanced society that had developed the technology to process meat and put it in easy to carry tubes. At this moment I felt inadequate as a human being, which is a very strange feeling to have while standing next to a cold case in a grocery store.

As far as variety goes, the field is pretty wide open: lobster, prawn, bacon and various types of ham that I was unable to identify are easily available. I even saw tubes of something called Kaviar, which I assume is as much like caviar as krab is like crab.

I was able to summon all of my will power to resist purchasing a tube of bacon, which is just as well since it would have probably been confiscated in customs. I did load up on salted licorice before I left, but I resisted the irony of purchasing Swedish fish in Sweden. Oddly enough, the Swedish fish were sold loose and were assorted colors; not just red.

Upon exiting the grocery store, I found that the crowd had greatly thinned, and the major players in the confrontation that I had witnessed were no longer there. A pair of police officers were questioning some witnesses, and the pink balloons no longer adorned the portable
PA system. As I walked toward my bus stop, I couldn't help but think about what happened to those pink balloons.

Looking back on my time in Sweden, I find myself wishing that I was able to spend more time there, and I look forward to the next time my travels take me to Sweden.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Lousy With Postcards

Photograph by Nicole Holt

I have to admit that I'm lousy with postcards.

Function: adjective

1. Miserably poor or inferior.
2. Amply Supplied.

When you move, you end up sorting through a lot of things that you haven't thought about in a long time. During my latest move, I found several caches of postcards that I have accumulated from my travels around the world.

I really like postcards. There are several things about the format that I enjoy. The size forces you to practice brevity in your writing, and, oddly enough, there is much to be said about brevity. Planning what you want to say and choosing your words carefully become a matter of practicality rather than just something that we should all do more often.

Writing postcards utilizes the dying art of handwritten correspondence. With so many modern forms of written communication: e-mail, texting and instant messaging, it’s no wonder that I find that one of the few times that I sit down to actually write on paper is when I’m writing postcards. The feeling of putting ink on paper is one of the simple pleasures in life that appears to be going by the wayside; writing postcards helps preserve that tradition.

Postcards also turn our focus onto someone else for a few minutes. Be it a neglected friend or a distant family member, postcards remind us to think of others.

I’m not a great photographer, so postcards let me capture a little bit of the area in an easy and convenient way. Postcards give us an instant glimpse into the areas that we visit. Sure it’s the distilled, touristy version of things, but people on the receiving end of the postcards usually don’t want to see something depressing when they check their mail. I did recently send a postcard of two people being devoured by a dragon, but within the context of what was written and to whom it was sent, I think it was fine.

So, with all of these great things that postcards have to offer you'd probably think that I would regularly send out lots of postcards, right? Not so. While I'm really good at buying postcards, I'm also lousy at sending postcards. These two facts have manifested in the merging of several stashes of postcards that I uncovered during my recent move to the Boston area.

If I had to guess, I’d say that I have somewhere in the area of 200 neglected postcards from around the world. My favorite of the lot is a postcard that I picked up on a trip to Taiwan:

The postcard above can be mailed, cut up into pieces and assembled into a small model. Mostly, the postcards were of famous buildings, but I couldn’t resist this one of a monkey.

Postcards are a great way to let people know that you are thinking of them and a great way to remember a trip. I'm going to try to be better about sending them, but I have a feeling that my stash of postcards is going to continue to grow.
Photograph by Nicole Holt

Do you have a similar pile of postcards that mocks you each time you glance in its direction?

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Flying With a Cat

I like to consider myself a fairly experienced traveler as I’ve been traveling fairly frequently for the past 6 years. As a result, not that many things strike me as unusual when it comes to traveling.

My last trip was across the country from Eugene to Boston by way of San Francisco (EUG->SFO->BOS). My wife and I relocated with our cat, Satsuma to the Boston area. Neither of us had traveled with a cat by plane before, but we knew that our cat, Satsuma, does not like traveling in cars. She’s not one of those cats that sits quietly during a car ride, but rather prefers to claw at her carrier until all of her nails are shattered while howling incessantly for the duration of the trip. We knew we were in for a treat.

Given Satsuma’s history with car travel, we decided to look into what could be done to try to calm her down and make her as comfortable as possible for what would be over 9 hours of travel by car and plane. When we went to her vet in Eugene, they told us that there was no “magic bullet” that would work for all cats, but there were several things that we could try in order to calm her down for the trip:

1. Cover her carrier with a towel to block out overwhelming visual and auditory stimuli.
2. Get her used to being in the carrier by taking her on short car trips.
3. Spray her carrier with a synthetic feline pheromone.
4. Sedate her with a cat sedative.

We did all of these things with lackluster results. Since I realize that these may be entertaining to someone that didn’t actually live through them, I will share them with you.

The morning started at 2:00 am when our alarm went off to let me know that it was time to administer the sedative. The funny thing about this pill based sedative is that it takes 2 hours to kick in, and if it isn’t active at the time you want the cat to be calm, kitty over-ride takes over and the sedative won’t work. So, at 2:00 am I rolled off the air mattress to fetch two quarter tablets of the sedative in order to force feed them to the cat.

Of course, cats don’t like to be forced into doing anything, let alone being woken up in the middle of the night in order to choke something down that doesn’t taste like anything remotely resembling a treat. I thought that I did a good job with this until, at 3:30 am when we got up to get ready to to leave for the airport, we discovered that I had only succeeded in feeding the cat one of the tablet fragments. This was both frustrating and disappointing because now there was a good chance that the cat would not be sufficiently sedated. As it turns out, she wasn’t.

We proceeded to pack up the remaining belongings into our rental car, and Satsuma proceeded to get very anxious about the whole process. Over the proceeding month, she had seen all of the things that she had become used to be packed into boxes and carted away. The things that did stick around a little longer she watched being sold at a garage sale. Somehow, during all of this, we were unable to convince here that we weren’t going to leave her someplace or do something terrible to her. Unfortunately, this message never got through to her.

We loaded her up into her carrier that he had recently sprayed with synthetic feline pheromone and covered her with a towel. The thing with cats is that they have this nocturnal hunting instinct about them, and some of them are most active at night. The nocturnally active cats purrfur (sorry, I had to get one cat pun in here) to sleep all day while trying to keep their owners from getting a good night’s sleep at night. Our cat definitely belongs in the nocturnally active category.

Now that I think about it, covering the cage with a towel was a terrible idea. We should have carted around a sun lamp so that she would have thought it was day time, and time for a nap.

On the way to the airport we had to gas up the rental car before returning it, so we looked for one that was open. We passed a couple gas stations that were closed, but we finally found one that was open 24 hours. Of course, it was the gas station that I try to avoid due to dangerous things that seem to happen when I visit there. I’ve witnessed shoplifting and an outburst by a soldier that had just returned from Iraq. He reacted poorly to the high price of gas and vowed to return to the gas station and shoot everyone there. At that point I decided to avoid that gas station in the future if it was at all avoidable.

Unfortunately, on that particular morning, it was unavoidable. Fortunately, nothing scary occurred that morning. By the time we pulled into the gas station, Satsuma had emptied the contents of her bladder onto the pad that we had in her carrier, so we proceeded to change the pad in the parking lot of the gas station. This is when I remembered one of the earlier trial runs when I took Satsuma to the airport and discovered that when she gets really nervous, she loses control of her bodily functions. By the time we finished up at the gas station, it was about 4:30 am.

I’d like to say that check in went smoothly, but it didn’t. I had packed about 6 pounds too much stuff in my suitcase, so I had to do some shuffling at the ticket counter. We had 5 suitcases, 3 carry on bags and a cat. The last thing you want to do is to be shuffling items around at the ticket counter, and I always hate it when people do that at the airport. That morning, it was my turn to do it. I hereby apologize to everyone who was behind me in line that day and to the poor ticket agent, who did a great job in humoring/putting up with us.

Once the bags were sorted, we got through security without any problems. Satsuma would make some noise every now and then, but she was tolerating things fairly well considering the circumstances. Nothing much of note happened until after we boarded the plane.

Once on board, Satsuma started howling like she normally does while traveling by car. Fortunately the sound of the airplane engines soon drowned out her howls. Shortly after taking of, she pooped. Normally cat poop smells pretty bad, but add that her stomach had probably been in knots due to the move and that she was an anxious traveler and this is something altogether different. I can’t really describe the smell and do it justice except to say that it was right on the edge of being ungodly. I apologize to everyone who was on that flight that morning.

There wasn’t a thing that I could do until the seat belt sign was turned off, so my wife and I devised our game plan. When the seat belt sign went off, I’d get up, obtain the proper supplies from the overhead bin, take the cat to the lavatory, dispose of the offending object(s), change her pad and then come back. This is, more or less, how things transpired. I was fortunate that no one else also needed to use the lavatory so I got right in. I could only imagine the reactions of the people around me had I needed to stand in the aisle and wait my turn.

When I got in, I sat the carrier on the toilet lid and slowly opened the carrier in order to survey the damage. There was some poop in there, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as it smelled. After carefully removing Satsuma and setting her down on the thankfully dry floor I went about changing the pad. Before this was complete, she tried to jump back into the carrier. When I removed her, she tried jumping in again. As it turns out, the floor of an airplane lavatory is not the most comfortable place for a cat. I finally got things taken care of, put Satsuma back in the carrier and returned to my seat.

The rest of the flight consisted of Satsuma thrashing about the carrier while we tried to calm her down. It was kind of like in movies when there's some giant, unseen beast within a large wooden crate only much smaller. You knew something was going on, but you didn't quite know what it was. The rest of the trip was more of the same, so I’ll spare you the repetition.

In the end, we did make it to Boston without too many problems, but it was a very long day. If you can avoid traveling with a cat that loathes travel, I’d advise avoiding it. Satsuma is currently doing much better in her new home and enjoys sleeping and watching the birds from one of the many windows she now has access to.

If you have any interesting pet travel stories, I’d love to hear them. Please leave a comment below.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Green Travel Technique: The Lending Library

Until recently, I worked in an office with a team of 4 or 5 travelers; I'm still working with this group, but I'm now working remotely. Before I left, I was able to help establish a lending library for our department. Being that we all travel quite a bit, some travel distractions are required. For most of us, that includes books and magazines.

We had all been purchasing printed materials and maintaining individual libraries that would only be read once and then forget about. By pooling our resources, we accomplished several things.

1. Reduction of the costs of travel distractions.
2. Exposing coworkers to genres that they might not otherwise explore (such as books on writing and grammar).
3. Reduction of the environmental impact by circulating materials to others, and by buying used books.

In addition to these primary objectives, establishing a lending library gave me a good excuse to subscribe to Wired and Popular Mechanics.

What to Stock:
While the lending library wasn't originally my idea, I did my best to give it a good start. We figured that a stock of books and DVDs would be the most useful, so I scoured my DVD collection for some unloved DVDs. This is how I finally got rid of my twice-watched copy of The Rocky Horror Picture Show that I'd been carrying around with me for far too many years. The person that gave it to me was well intentioned, but I really couldn't get into it. I mean, you don't know that it's a science fiction movie until the last 10 minutes. I also unloaded a copy of Gladiator which I had never gotten around to unwrapping.

As for books, my personal library consists of mostly cookbooks, which hardly makes for interesting airplane reading for most people (I guess I'm in the minority here), so I decided to track down some books. Since there was no budget for this project, I started hitting the local thrift shops that specialized in used books. The books were cheap, in plentiful supply and the selection was decent. The only problem with this was that I was only buying books that I wanted to read. This consisted primarily of Science Fiction and James Bond novels.

My wife noticed this trend in the small stacks of books that I would bring home, and she offered to come along with me on my next outing to ensure that there was a little more balance in the initial selection of the lending library. She has read a lot more books than I have, most of these being decidedly not Science Fiction, so I accepted her offer.

Amongst the next group of books was a well-loved copy of Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice which I still haven't read. There is a version titled Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I will read in the eventuality that a copy makes it my way. I can just imagine it now...

"Mr. Darcy has turned into a zombie! Quick, shoot him in the head with a Victorian era
elephant gun!"

Yeah, I'd read that. If I do get a copy, I'll give you one guess as to where it will wind up after I've finished it (some of my coworkers really love zombies).

It was about this time that Amazon was having one of their regular magazine sales, so I took a look. For about $45, I was able to buy two-year subscriptions to Popular Mechanics and Wired as well as a one-year subscription to Mac Life.

As soon as we had a fairly decent stock of books, DVDs and a place to keep everything, the announcement was made that the library was open. It runs on the following system:
You can take anything you want; just bring it back when you are done. Add something to the library as you wish.
How it's Going:
The lending library started off slowly, but as the magazines started coming in, it began to gain some momentum with new books showing up regularly. I started to move magazines over two months old to a common area, and then I'd recycle those after another two months.

Since the initial start of the lending library, we've expanded to include language handbooks and maps.

While it is true that electronic books, GPS devices and pocket translators are becoming cheaper and easier to use, they will always be limited to the batteries that you can carry. For now, I'll stick to printed material.

The Next Step:
Right now, the lending library is limited to one department, but I hope that this is eventually extended to all of the travelers within the company once a little more momentum is gained.

What I would really love to see would be for there to be similar, larger lending libraries that would be available to the public. Think of how great that would be. These libraries could be run by cheery, book-loving government employees. Nah, it would never work.

Your Turn:
What do you think of having a small lending library for just a handful of people? Have you started something similar at your workplace? How did it go? Please leave a comment below.

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