Monday, May 30, 2005

Problems with my Plumbing

This is a picture of my bathroom, taken this morning.

As you can see, it needs a little work done on it, a few finishing touches here and there.

The problem is I'm still waiting for the f"#"king plumber who said he would come and lay the pipes three weeks ago to finish the job he's started.

Which brings me nicely on to the topic of Swedish tradesmen.

As a rule I can't stand them.

You've got more chance of Finland winning the Eurovision Song Contest * than of finding a plumber/builder/electrician in Norrland who'll give you a reliable, professional service.

Now I may sound particularly bitter, but in my personal experience over the past five years, during which time I've pratically rebuilt an entire summerhouse and half a town house, I've met more cowboys than Sitting Bull.

Missed appointments, having to listen to air being sucked through teeth, additional hidden extra costs on the final invoice - I've endured them all.

To compound my bathroom blues, my parents are coming over from England in two weeks, which means unless this mess is sorted out there'll be six people sharing a solitary shower and toilet.

I've got a good mind to find out where the plumbers live in Umeå and go round and crap in their toilets. If that doesn't bring them running back here with their monkey wrenches nothing will.....

* they never have
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Friday, May 27, 2005

Mounting (sic) Preparations

On my return from the UK at the weekend, I was walking aimlessly around Arlanda Airport when I spotted a book entitled Into Thin Air, which at a quick glance I thought was an adventure book about climbing Mount Everest.

As I'll be climbing Sweden's highest mountain in a couple of months and know bupkis about climbing, I thought this would make excellent 'research' and motivational material.

A few pages in it became apparent that this was not the motivational read I had hoped for. In fact Into Thin Air is a harrowing account of the perils of high-altitude climbing, graphically detailing an ill-fated attempt to reach Everest's summit in May 1996 which ultimately claimed 12 climbers' lives.

It's not that I hadn't realised that people die climbing mountains, it's just that I had conveniently overlooked the fact. Now the sheer scale of the task ahead is unravelling before me, I'm catching myself thinking about life assurance and wondering who'd kill the mice in the summerhouse in my absence.

So with ignorant bravardo I'm going out today to buy some crampons. I've got no idea what they are but they were mentioned repeatedly throughout Into Thin Air and so I'm sure they'll come in useful.

And if any of you know a Sherpa living in Umeå, please put him in touch.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Stockholm’s Perfect Pub Guide 2005

I know what some of you are thinking. Writing a pub guide for a country that supposedly:

a) doesn't encourage drinking
b) has no indigenous pub culture (try saying that after you’ve been in one)
c) is full of people that don't drink out at all on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays

is a little like writing a guide about Finnish comedians. On the face of it there seems little point.

But that’s where you’d be wrong. Over the past few years several excellent Swedish pubs have been quietly fermenting away, and now offer selections of beer, whisky and wine that you’ll find hard to rival anywhere else in the world.

And how do I know all this? Well, for the past six years I have worked as an export manager for a British brewery, a job which has required me to travel round most of Europe (and nearly all of Stockholm) drinking in pubs.

As you can imagine, it’s been a tough assignment, but I’ve selflessly decided to lay my liver on the line so that you good people don’t have to.

I’m currently compiling a list of my personal top 10 pubs in Stockholm, which I’ll be posting here early next week.

However, I want this to be a group effort (and my liver can only take so much damage) which is why I need your help. Although I’ve ‘researched’ dozens of pubs in Stockholm, I have by no means seen them all. Therefore, if there are any pubs you feel should be in the top 10, then please post a comment with the pub’s name and your reasons why it should be included.

If you’ve got happy memories of a pub while on holiday in Stockholm, or if you want to try and get a free pint by telling your local pub landlord you’ve nominated him for this guide (good luck with that) then start posting your suggestions right away!

To get you going, here are a few personal definitions of a perfect pub:

A place where you DON’T have to pay to put your coat in!
A place that serves a good selection of beers/wines/whiskies.
A place where the staff know what they’re serving and give professional, friendly service.
A place that actively builds a sense of community.
A place to meet friends and make new ones.
Any place that sells pickled eggs in opened packets of Salt and Vinegar flavoured crisps (although I concede this is a rather personal definition).

You'll Never Walk Alone!

Which is just as well, because after last night's amazing football match I needed help walking back home from the pub.

To be honest there have been very few times in my life when I've wished I had been born in Liverpool. Last night was one of them.

Liverpool's incredible comeback from three goals down against Milan to clinch the Champions League final on penalties was one of those rare sporting moments when the game became larger than the players taking part, greater even than the game itself.

It was pure, uncensored, unpasteurised, raw sport at its very best - a "do you remember where you were when...." night.

As a tribute to all my scouser brothers and sisters I'll be listening to the Beatles all day long up here in the North of Sweden, despite the fact I’m feeling as sick as a parrot after last night’s celebrations.

And to my brother, who has supported Manchester United for the past 30-something years I tell you this.

I will hunt you, I will track you down, I will find you no matter where you hide, and when I do I will rub this victory in your face for the next 30 years.

For once the bragging rights belong in Sweden!!!!

Monday, May 23, 2005

Out of the mouth of babes...

Totally unrelated to living in Sweden, but thought you'd like this one anyway.

During the past two weeks we've taken the dummy (a pacifier to all my friends living stateside) away from our three-year-old daughter.

Despite some initial resistence, she's adapted remarkably well. As a reward, I told her the story of how when Tom, her older brother, was clever enough to throw away all his dummies, mummy and daddy bought him a special present.

"So it's only fair we get you a little something too", I explained to her, as she nodded fervently.

"You can have anything at all, as long as it's only a small thing. So what would you like us to buy you"?

My daughter looked at me with big eyes, pondered her options for a brief moment and then replied with an assured tone.

"A dummy daddy".

It appears, my darling daughter, you've already got one of those.

- - - Results Service- - -Results Service- - -

Darren 3-0 Mice

Thursday, May 19, 2005


Waiting for your luggage to plop onto the conveyor belt at London Heathrow is never fun.

It gets downright boring when, after an hour, you realise you're the only one still waiting and your suitcase is nowhere to be seen.

So off I go to stand in another queue at the SAS Arrival Services. I'm on first name terms with all the staff there as this is the seventh time SAS has conspired to lose my luggage.

I'm told they're having 'difficulty locating my suitcase at present' but they'll forward it on as soon as possible.

That was last night. This morning I'm just about to go into a European marketing meeting with a loads of corporate suits wearing a pair of jeans and a Pac-man T-shirt. Due to a complete lack of toiletries I smell like a prostitute's handbag and my hair has contorted itself into a style Vidal Sasson would marvel at

On the bright side SAS have rung to inform me they've now located my bag - in Istanbul. It will be arriving, via Frankfurt - later on today.

Thanks. Thanks a lot.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Flying Visit

It's been a while since I sat on a bar stool at my local pub in England, caught up on some hometown gossip with the old lads (affectionately known as the 'coffin dodgers') and got my top lip curled around a pint of cask-conditioned Master Brew Bitter.

So I'm really looking forward to flying off to Blighty tomorrow morning for some much-needed bacon and eggs, Indian takeaways and Marmite on toast washed down with mugs of PG-tips tea.

In my excitement I've even checked Google's 10-day weather forecast to discover it's going to piss down non-stop the entire time I'm there.


Monday, May 16, 2005

Climbing Mountains

Something happened to me over the weekend. For the first time in a while, I listened to myself.

I don’t want to sound overly melodramatic, but I’ve had this growing, gnawing thought that I’m not doing enough with my life, not testing my potential. The thought that I’m jogging when I could be running, settling for a low-calorie life when I could have a full-fat one.

Normally I’m great at ignoring this thought, well-practised at burying it away for a few more months.

But then I found out a very close friend of mine got breast cancer.

Just like that.

Well she’s going to be OK, they caught the cancer early, but it meant the thought came back, only this time it was louder than ever before, harder to ignore.

So this weekend I listened to the thought, and now I’m going to do something I’ve wanted to do ever since I moved to Sweden.

I’m going to climb Kebnekaise, Sweden’s highest mountain.

Now at 2113 m it isn’t exactly K2 or Mount Everest. But it’s still a 60 km walk up and down. Considering I often have difficulty climbing out of bed, I think it’s a reasonable challenge.

The reason I’m telling you all this is that I’m worried if I keep this to myself the thought will start getting quieter and other thoughts will drown it out. So I’m posting this statement of intent to remind myself why climbing this mountain is so important to me.

I’m setting out in late August, and I’ll be blogging my way up the mountain with real-time picture and text updates from my mobile phone so those of you who are interested can stay in touch.

To my close friend, just look what you’ve made me do.

Thank you x

Help the fight against breast cancer by clicking here

Friday, May 13, 2005

This is a message to all the mice that are currently living in my summerhouse.

I'm not sure whether you'll read this, but I thought it only fair to warn you that your days of crapping in my kitchen are coming to an end.

I reached breaking point this morning when I discovered the inexcusable mess you made of my wife's favourite oven glove.

I've paid to heat an empty summerhouse all winter so the water pipes wouldn't freeze, so I feel I've done my bit towards your continued survival. Now the snow has melted it's about time you all buggered off outside again.

The traps are going down this weekend and I'm baiting them with Västerbottens Ost, which you all know is the finest cheese in the whole of Sweden.

You have been warned!!!!!
Posted by Hello

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Since posting my last article Five things I'll never understand about Swedes (as long as I live here) I've taken the precaution of changing my identity.
And to all you raggare out there - I really dig the Dixie Chicks man *cough, cough* Posted by Hello

Five things I'll never understand about Swedes (however long I live here)

1. That in a country with one of the most active anti-alcohol movements in Europe, every Swede I've ever met knows at least five drinking songs word for word. I come from a country where we drink like fish and I only know one drinking song. It's called Roll out the Barrel, and I can only manage to get to the second verse before I start humming.

2. Swedes that are raggare - excuse me for pointing this out, but you live in the North of Europe, not Texas. Don't you think cruising through town in classic American cars with a boot (or should I say trunk) full of beer while dressed up in denim and cowboy boots seems, well, a little out of place? It's as though you missed the boat a hundred years ago. I'm sure if petrol was the equivalent of 10 SEK a litre in the States, all Americans would be driving Ford Focus combis anyway. So burn the Shania Twain CDs and buy some sensible Swedish music, like a Kramgoa Låter album.

3. Swedes who buy Kramgoa Låter albums - For a country with an enviable international reputation for producing some of today's most popular artists and hits, why do you continue to listen to music that died out in the 1950s? These compilations of wedding singer songs really are pretty awful. I'm very sorry, but I just don't understand you and I never will.

4. Swedes who pick berries - for fun. I don't know about the rest of Sweden, but up here people go berry-crazy in the autumn. Now if you're an unemployed Polish steel worker (where the average monthly wage is under 5,000 SEK) I can understand the motivation for seeking rich pickings. But for the rest of you, you can buy conveniently packaged frozen berries at ICA and avoid all the back-breaking work and mosquitoes flying up your nose. Berry pickers - I don't understand you.

5. Swedes who use rullskidor in the summer. Hello, the snow's melted. Just accept this fact and either a) move somewhere 4,000 metres or more above sea level, or b) find a less conspicuous way of excercising during the summer months that doesn't make you a traffic hazard.

Coming soon....I don't want people to get the impression I don't like anything about Sweden. so I'll be posting 7 Things I Love about Living in Umeå!

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Three Swedish things I find difficult to swallow

Now with a few more suggestions.....

1.Messmör – There’s a reason this stuff is left over in the cheese-making process. It’s practically inedible, however much sugar you add to it. OK, so theoretically it’s good for you. But then so is dog food, and you won’t catch me spreading that on my toast either.

2. Palt – Have heard this described as Swedish comfort food. I can’t think of anything comfortable about eating a cannonball-sized lump of paper mache with a disappointingly meagre amount of chopped pork (it is pork isn’t it?) hidden deep inside. As close to eating an elephant’s testicle as I imagine I’ll ever get.

3. Surströmming – I don’t care what anyone says, these baby Baltic herrings are rotting, not fermenting. The very idea of letting fish fester in a tin for over a year until it virtually explodes amazes me. And the smell, oh sweet lord the smell. Combine the stink of putrid water from the bottom of a plastic rubbish bag left out in the rain for a week with the waft of a portable toilet at the end of a two-day heavy metal rock festival and you’re close – but not quite there.

4. blodpudding - Ask the children if they want some pudding and watch their faces when you give them a plate of this. (It stays dark up here for a loooooong long time. I have to find some way to amuse myself...)

5. lutfisk - cod left to dry out for several weeks, then re-hydrated to achieve a delicious consistancy reminiscent of wallpaper paste . Another perfectly good reason why Christmas should only be celebrated once a year.

6. Saltlakrits - Couldn't agree more. They're supposed to be sweets for goodness sake. Salted tyre rubber more like.

Thanks to Shazzer, Stjude and heartofclarky for the tips

Got any more suggestions for the list? Let me know and I’ll include them!

Tommorrow – Five things I’ll never understand about Swedes (however long I live here)

Monday, May 09, 2005

This is me with one of the best things I've ever discovered in Sweden - the cheese slicer. I've been sending these ingenious devices over to the UK as presents every Christmas since the new millennium.
 Posted by Hello

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Swedish Beer - A Survival Guide Part 2

On the first day of induction into the EU in 1995 the Swedish Government was forced to abolish the law prohibiting the sale of any beer above 5.6%. At the same time the state monopoly on importing alcohol was withdrawn, allowing private companies free range to source beers from around the world.

This sudden exposure to new beer styles and flavours has had a dramatic effect on the modern Swedish beer industry.

Encouraged by a revitalised interest in beer, a new generation of micro-breweries have begun emerging, offering a real variety of styles and, at long last, taste.

The president of one such micro-brewery, Peter Emilson from the Nils Oscar Brewery is optimistic that the stor stark syndrome will finally be consigned to history.

“I believe Swedish people are more open to experimenting with beers than ever before” he said, adding that the success of wine and whisky in recent years was something the Swedish beer producers needed to try and emulate.

“In only a few years the public has become very knowledgeable about wine and whisky, but the general knowledge of beer has not yet reached that level. We need to learn from their successes”.

Nils Oscar is typical of the post-EU beer revival. Started in 1996 in Kungsholmen, Stockholm by six beer enthusiasts, it claims to be the only brewery in Sweden that helps grow its own barley and roasts its own malt.

The brewery’s best-selling God (‘Good’) Lager, a 5.3% abv straw yellow, hoppy lager with a big barley bouquet. But arguably the brewery’s finest beers deviate from the traditional pilsner style and demonstrate Nil Oscar’s brewery versatility.

Nils Ocar Imperial Stout is a wonderful example of a deliciously dark, richly roasted stout, which makes an ideal companion to oysters and other shellfish, as well as sweet deserts. The brewery’s Barley Wine won its category in the 2000 World Beer Cup in New York, which featured 1,100 different types of beer from 370 breweries from around the world.

Another of Sweden’s most respected micro-breweries is also one of its smallest. With a full-time staff of just four, Jämtland Brewery based in Pilgrimstad manages to produce an impressive range of ten bottle-conditioned beers.

Since starting up in 1996, Jämtlands Brewery has been busy collecting awards for its beers. During the past five years at the Stockholm Beer Festival, Scandinavia’s premier beer event, this tiny privately-run brewery has amassed a staggering 40 gold, 18 silver and 10 bronze medals for its unconventional beers.

And it’s not just the brewery’s beers that are unconventional. Head brewer David Jones is an Englishman who calls brewing beer “more of a passion than a profession”.

He is largely responsible for creating what has been called the new Swedish lager style with Hell, a 5.4% abv copper coloured lager with a strong hop finish and fruity aroma.

“Hell is a lager that has all the virtues of an English ale” says David.

If drinking Hell is considered too sinful, there is a more saintly alternative in Heaven, a somewhat darker beer with distinct chocolate and coffee tones. Mixed together they make a potent drink affectionately known as a ‘God Damn it’.

Another notable Jämtland beer is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a fruity English ale called Pilgrim, winner of seven gold medals and a testament to how Swedish drinkers are increasingly willing to embrace new styles from around the world.

David is also very positive about the future for Sweden’s micro-breweries. “The monopoly of the big Swedish brewing giants has actually opened the door for us to provide people searching for something completely different – craft beers with exciting tastes”.

Inspiration from a trip to the USA led to the opening in 1995 of another of Sweden’s emerging micro-breweries – Slottkällans Bryggeri in Uppsala.

Based around 50 kilometres north of Stockholm, the dedicated team at Slottkällens produce an impressive range of unpasteurised beers with names such as Dublin, London, Prag (Prague) and Wein that hint at their diverse styles.

It’s clear the Swedish micro-breweries are coming out fighting in their battle against bland beer. And it’s a fight they appear to be winning.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Swedish Beer - A Survival Guide Part 1

I confess I may be somewhat absent-minded but at least I know the phrase "you couldn't organise a piss-up in a brewery" can never be applied to me.

That's because for the past five years I have worked as the Export Manger for a large regional British brewery, spending most of my time taking bar owners and importers from Scandinavia on 'eduational tours' of the facilities in England (see above).

In many ways getting Swedes, Danes and Finns drunk has been an ideal job. It doesn't take long and the success rate is steady at 100%.

Over the years I have often been asked my opinion on Swedish beer. I've always thought it's like asking someone their opinion on China's human rights record. It isn't good.

But then, at last year's Stockholm Beer Festival, I began paying closer attention to the growing number of small Swedish micro-breweries emerging with an exciting range of beer styles and tastes.

Like Forest Gump I sometimes have occasional moments of clarity. During one of them I decided to write this rather sensible article about the current state of the Swedish beer scene, why it got as bad as it did, and what the future holds for Swedish beer drinkers.

It's rather long, so I've cut it in half and will post the rest if anyone is brave enough to trawl through it and wants to read more......

Are micro-breweries the cure for Sweden's Stor Stark Syndrome?

What comes from Sweden, is easy to assemble, mass-produced, pretty to look at but often lacking in substance? No, I'm not talking about furniture from IKEA. I'm talking about Swedish beer.

The effects of over a century of frenzied anti-alcohol politics, a devastating Government-backed 'rationalisation' of the Swedish brewing industry in the 60s and 70s and one of the highest levels of alcohol taxes in the world have all taken their toll on this once ambitious beer-producing nation.

In a recently published guide to the world's top 500 beers, Sweden gets a single solitary mention (even Namibia gets more). Ironically it is for Carnegie Porter, a rugged, tasty stout which until the 1950s could only be prescribed by a doctor, and which brand owner Pripps tried to scrap in the late 1970s until public protests bought it back to the shelves.

But perhaps the most telling measure of how low the expectations of Swedish beer drinkers have sunk for their own beer is by the way they order it - automatically asking for a 'stor stark' (quite literally 'big and strong').

Having given up years ago trying to differentiate their beers by taste, many Swedes simply do it by strength and price - the higher and cheaper the better.

It was a very different picture in Sweden in the early 1840s, when the introduction of bottom-fermenting beer by Fredrik Rosenqvist marked the beginning of a revival in beer consumption among a population of traditionally heavy spirit drinkers

Rosenqvist had spent time travelling through Germany, where he studied brewing methods. On his return home he rented a small brewery in Södermalm in Stockholm and put his new found knowledge to good use. In 1843 Sweden's first lager was launched.
Other breweries soon imitated Rosenqvist's beer and a distinct Swedish lageröl style quickly developed.

Lageröl was pale brown or dark amber in colour and relatively lightly hopped, with an alcohol content of around 5.5%. This style of beer, in the form of Bayerskt, is still popular in Sweden today.

Pils was introduced into Sweden in the 1870s. First, unsuccessfully, in 1876 by Alfred Sandwall in Borås. A year later, Franz Heiss, who had studied in Pilsen, started brewing a pilsener-bier in Stockholm. It was paler and much more bitter than the lageröl being produced, but the public quickly adapted to the new taste and it soon became the dominant beer style in Sweden.

The resulting upsurge in beer production reached a crescendo in the beginning of the 20th century, with 240 breweries in operation.

Since then, however, Swedish society has done practically everything it can to dismantle its brewing industry. And it very nearly succeeded.

First to attack was the temperance movement, formed in the early 1900s as a reaction to the increasingly widespread abuse of spirits.

The movement lobbied hard for total prohibition, and triggered a referendum in 1922 calling for the banning of all alcoholic drinks over 2.25%. An acrimonious campaign by pro and anti campaigners deeply divided the nation, creating social taboos surrounding the consumption of alcohol which are still very evident today.

The victory by those opposing prohibition, with the narrowest of margins - 51% to 49% against - was a hollow one. The real winner was the temperance movement, which although it didn't yet know it, had already delivered a near knock-out blow to Sweden's beer culture.

Wary of the rising influence of the anti-alcohol movement, the Swedish Government began moves to regulate the brewing industry. In the first half of the century the Svenska Bryggeriföreningen (the Swedish Brewers Society) strictly controlled competition by handing out local monopolies confining breweries to sell within a certain radius of their premises.

Prevented from trading beyond the boundaries of their local markets, the only way for breweries to expand was to buy other breweries. As a result, midway through the 20th century, the total number of breweries had fallen sharply to 115, of which 66 were owned by just 16 brewing groups.

This round of consolidation continued in 1955, when the local monopoly system was abolished and breweries were allowed to sell their beers anywhere in the country. For the smaller breweries, their protected local markets suddenly became vulnerable to the larger groups.

Two in particular, AB Stockholms Bryggerier and AB Pripps and Lyckholm, set about buying up and closing down breweries with remarkable speed. By 1963, they joined forces to create a brewing giant operating 35 plants that controlled two thirds of the Swedish beer market.

A decade later just a dozen brewing groups owned the 25 breweries left in Sweden. Fast forward to 1992 and seven companies owned the remaining 12 breweries. A once thriving beer industry was struggling against the ropes.

With so little brewing diversity the country was flooded with bland, heavily processed and excessively taxed Pilsner-style beers.

All hope seemed lost until an unlikely saviour came along to rescue Sweden's beer culture - the European Community.

Next post.....They may think Swedish strawberries are too small, but the Europrats in Brussels inadvertantly revive the Swedish Beer industry, and I tell you which of the country's micro-breweries and beers to look out for.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Advice to writers: Sometimes you just have to stop writing. Even before you begin - Stanislaw J. Lec (1909 - 1966)

Ever since I was a teenager I've dreamed of writing a book about the trials and tribulations of living life in a foreign country. As France in my youth had been a source of great fascination to me I had envisaged entitling my book along the lines of "Lazy days in Languedoc", "Mad About Medoc" or perhaps even "An Englishman With Nothing Toulouse".

To be honest, I didn't really care what the book was called, as long as my trials and tribulations involved cycling to fetch warm baguettes from the bolangerie on crisp spring mornings, drinking endless dusty bottles of exceptional red wine and spending countless days wasting hours in tiny village cafes with the Pastis boys.

However, something happened that radically changed the title of my book.

I moved to Sweden.

And not just to the comfortable, metropolitan south of Sweden, but to a place called Umeå, which nestles just below the artic circle, where winters last five months, gun-totting middle-aged men in red baseball caps still hunt elks and the mosquitoes are so large they would be required to fly in a holding pattern over any major airport.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't initially disappointed with the direction my life had taken me. But then slowly, despite considerable reluctance on my part, the Swedish way of life began to grow on me. Soon I was singing Bellman drinking songs and hammering back snaps, dancing around penis-shaped maypoles under a midnight sun and even contemplating taking my swimming trunks off in a sauna.

I quickly became captivated by the hostile beauty of the region and the stark contrasts of the seasons, the friendly nature of the Swedish people and their iron-clad conviction that they live in the finest country in the world. The proliferation of cable porn channels were, I confess, something of a bonus.

So at long last here's some glimpses of my 'work in progress'. I've exchanged the red wine for aquavit and the baguettes for herrings but I hope you'll enjoy the journey all the same.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

First impressions

As I sat at 35,000 feet hurtling at great speed towards the north of Sweden I stared down at the raw lump of herring and wondered whether I was really supposed to eat it or call the stewardess and ask her to put a parachute on it and throw it back into the sea.

Eventually, my hunger and curiosity won over, and I ate what I later found out to be my first ever bit of sill. I recall making a mental note to myself that if all food tastes like this in Sweden, next time I visit I’ll bring sandwiches.

However, the next ten minutes sitting in the toilets situated at the front of the plane did give me time to reflect on the rather bizarre events of the past few months.

Until recently I had been happy running a small company managing corporate events and exhibitions throughout Europe. When an unexpected opportunity to sell the company came up, I took the money and spent the next couple of months doing nothing other than wondering how to spend it.

The answer came just a few days later, when a Swedish girl I’d briefly meet while working in Norway rang me out of the blue to tell me that she and her girlfriend were out Euro-railing, in England and that I should put the kettle on.

As I waited for them to arrive I frantically tried to piece together everything I knew about Sweden.

And that’s when the problems started. I quickly realised the only experience I’d ever had of Sweden was through the pages of my older brother’s rather extensive collection of pornographic magazines.

As I didn’t think this would be a particularly suitable opening topic of conversation, I struggled to think of something else I knew about the country.

Of course, I was convinced like everyone else in Britain that all Swedes spoke like the Chef off of the Muppet Show, that they drove very safe, if somewhat boring looking cars and that the greatest contributions Sweden had made to the modern world were dynamite, Anni-Frid, Agnetha, Benny and Björn.

As it later turned out, I was greatly misinformed. The Chef from the Muppet Show is clearly Norwegian and Volvos can be sexy. Just don’t park one next to a Porsche.

The bit about dynamite and Abba still holds true though.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Learning the språk

It could have been the beer I suppose, but somehow I managed to talk my way into spending Christmas with my new found love in Sweden.

Eager to impress, I decided to try and master a few Swedish phrases before departing for the northern city of Umeå (which I pronounced you-me-a). However, a quick search of the high street book stores produced nothing.

If I had wanted to learn ‘Business Swahili for Beginners’, or perhaps get to grips with ‘Tibetan Tongue Twisters’ I’d have been in luck. Swedish, at least in the little corner of England I occupied, had apparently ceased to exist. I’d have to dig deeper.

At my local library I struck gold. Hidden among the shelves in the back of the building where people normally only went to look at the saucy pictures in biology books I found it – in mint pristine condition and rather optimistically entitled ‘Learn Swedish in Three Months’.

I figured as there were just six weeks to go before Christmas, I could at least learn half the language. That should impress her enough to lead me into the bedroom. If that didn’t work, I could always resort to my usual technique of begging.

I returned home with my book and spent the next few hours feverishly flipping through the pages. What I saw horrified me.

It quickly became obvious that the author of the book was either completely mad or Norwegian – I still have difficulty separating the two – and therefore had something of a head start.

I’ll confess I didn’t pay as much attention at school as I perhaps should have, but one thing that had been successfully drilled into me was that the alphabet consisted of 26 letters. The Romans had designed it this way, and if it was good enough for Caesar, then it was good enough for me.

But apparently not good enough for the Swedes, who had thrown in three more letters for good measure and decorated them with little dots and circles.

Not only that, but the number of vowels had suddenly increased from five to nine, all my favourite diphthongs had disappeared and there wasn’t a single word to be found (excusing names) that began with the letter W.

How, I thought, did a Swede ever manage to spend a wild weekend away, take 40 winks after a wearisome walk through the woods, or ever figure out which one is which. How, I wondered, could they ever wonder?

To achieve the correct pronunciation of these new found vowels required me to perform the oral gymnastics of a trumpet player with a mouthful of marbles. My face became painfully contorted, resembling that of a man trying to pass wind in a church or a young child that had just been told that Santa Claus was actually the insurance salesman who lived next door. It was not a pretty sight.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Only bad clothes

When I was a young boy I went to a primary school where they enforced a strict rule that knee-high shorts had to be worn from June through to October – regardless of the weather.

During the summer this didn’t particularly matter, but by the middle of September, when the wind often turned and blew straight in from the North Sea, my matchstick legs had a habit of turning light blue and I found it increasingly difficult to compete in egg and spoon races.

I thought this miserable experience had taught me the true meaning of being cold. The second I stepped off the plane in Sweden, I knew I had a lot more to learn.

Now I’m no stranger to snow. I can clearly remember the bitter winters of 1984 and 1987, when the south east of England shivered in artic conditions. For five days a colossal 10cm of snow fell on top of us and temperatures plummeted to minus 5 degrees.

The snow had a dramatic and instant effect on our nation. Hysterical housewives rushed to the shops to stock up on tins of baked beans, sausages and loaves of bread in order to feed their families during the onslaught of the next ice age. Rationing, not seen since the end of WWII, was reintroduced to ensure everyone could have a decent breakfast.

The road and rail networks collapsed under the strain of it all. Snow on the rail lines meant the electricity required to power the trains fizzed, crackled and seeped uselessly into the surrounding countryside.

The police and the Automobile Association broadcast hourly bulletins to the nation, warning them not to attempt any journey unless it was absolutely necessary.

I remember my father asking me whether the fact it was 15 minutes till closing time at the local pub constituted an absolute emergency. We both agreed it did, and with a sense of great purpose set off in our Land Rover. As one of the few families with a four-wheel drive, we got further than most, crawling our way along country lanes littered with abandoned cars, whose owners had obviously given up all hope of achieving forward motion. We later found most of them sitting at the bar, where they spent the next three days until the weather improved.

Much to the delight of the nation’s youth, almost every school in the south east closed, as boilers broke and water pipes burst. Every morning for the next two weeks gleeful pupils would tune in to the radio to hear the latest School Report, hoping their school would be on the list of those who had an impromptu ice skating rink in the assembly hall.

I genuinely thought I had come to Sweden well prepared for whatever the weather could throw at me. My concerned mother had bought me a rather fetching Marks & Spencer matching two-piece thermal underwear set and some thick socks, and I had managed to borrow a skiing jacket off a friend who had been to the Alps and, against all expectations, had managed to return.

This jacket was a Jackson Pollock-inspired work of art, covered with patches of purple, lime green and orange. Rather than being lined with Gore-Tex™ , it was lined with Bangalore-Tex ™, a cheap Indian imitation which rather than seal in my body heat and let moisture out, sealed in all the moisture while allowing my body heat to dissipate rapidly into the artic air.

So fluorescent was this jacket that fisherman casting in their lines off the Finnish coast could clearly be seen waving to me across the Baltic Bay. I took cold comfort from the thought that although I would most probably freeze to death wearing it, the rescue services would inevitably find my body.

Coming soon... More than one hundred people have been cryopreserved since the procedure was first introduced in 1967. Although it currently costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to achieve this frozen state, I discover a cheaper way of attaining eternal life.