Friday, September 30, 2005

Toilet humour

I cleaned the toilet yesterday.

Now that I’m working from home this is not an uncommon occurrence. I have taken on an increasing amount of the housework while my wife is out doing her proper job.

I don’t mention this in search of praise or tributes – in Sweden’s equalitarian society it’s considered only right the man does his fair share of the household chores.

Which is why I’m really looking forward to my wife cleaning the car for the first time in ten years.

Anyway that’s another story, so let’s get back to the toilet.

The wife asked me to clean it as part of her on-going and as yet completely ineffective campaign to get me to sit down while I pee.

Well, a job worth doing is worth doing well, so I also decided to clean the entire bathroom while I was at it, putting all the bottles of children’s shampoos, inflatable bath toys etc neatly away in the draws under the sink.

I thought nothing more of it until this morning, when I heard a high pitched scream from the bathroom.

Apparently the wife had just got out of the bath and decided to moisturise her legs. Turns out I had removed the bottle of body moisturiser from its usual drawer and replaced it with a deceptively similar looking bottle of Bamse children’s shampoo (med honung).

I thought she smelt rather nice, but for some reason she didn’t see it my way.

I think I’ll go out and clean the car when she comes home tonight…..

Friday, September 16, 2005

Regrets, I've had a few

Have you ever promised yourself never to do something again - and then done it anyway?

You know exactly what I’m talking about. Stuffing down that extra piece of chocolate cake when you know it will ruin the diet, tearing into a unnecessary kebab at 2am on a belly full of beer, splashing out that little bit extra on an irresistible two-for-one deal, when deep down you know you’ll never need the other one.

Well last night it was my turn - again. I ate surströmming.

For those unfamiliar with this Swedish delicacy, it’s raw fermented Baltic herring. For fermented, you can also read rotten.

I couldn’t help it – I’m weak-willed and easily led. Everyone else at the dinner table was eating it, and I so desperately wanted to be a part of the crowd, one of the lads. If you live in Norrland eating rotten herring is tantamount to a test of manhood, so last night’s dinner became a very public display of how well I’ve assimilated into Swedish society.

Of course, this morning I’m full of remorse. I feel like one of those hapless characters in some childrens' film that drank out of a bottle of potion with ‘Don’t Drink Me’ clearly written on it.

My stomach is making the sort of gurgling sounds you hear when you let the water out of the bath and despite getting through half a tube of toothpaste I’ve still got breath that can melt glass.

So I’m writing this to remind myself to never, ever, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die eat rotten herring again.

The next time I’m at a dinner party and feel the need to prove I’m a pseudo-Swede I’ll demonstrate it some other way – like by drinking all the schnapps and passing out under the table.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

How to Speak Swedish - listen,repeat and piss yourself laughing

I've just thrown my second pair of underpants in the washing machine after listening to this hilarious 'How To' guide on speaking Swedish from Slay Radio.

I've nicked this link from the brilliant Mark Wants a Porsche blog. Click here to listen to lesson one.

If you can stand anymore, then go to Mark's blog for lessons two to four.

Darren Ohmygoshicantski

With Kebnekaise now firmly under my belt, I’ve been contemplating daft new ways to earn a bit of cash for breast cancer research.

I initially thought about climbing another mountain, preferably in Holland, but feel as though I got away with it once, so why tempt fate again.

I want the challenge to be uniquely Swedish, as it’s important I get to experience everything my adopted homeland can throw at me.

After much deliberation I think I may have stumbled upon the perfect solution – Vasaloppet.

Vasaloppet is the oldest, the longest, and the biggest cross-country ski race in the world, where over 14,000 participants take on a gruelling 90 km course from Sälen to Mora in central Sweden.

Sounds fun doesn’t it?

There’s just one drawback.

I can’t ski.

But I consider this a minor inconvenience, a mere bump in the road. The first snow is due here in Umeå in a couple of months and there’s a 10km cross-country track just five minutes from my front door.

This means I’ve got approximately four months to prepare, to hone my cross-country skiing techniques (as I understand my traditional downhill snow plough technique is not permitted) and eat plenty of pasta and bananas.

I’ve already bought a pair of brightly coloured second-hand boots and matching cross-country skis with red ‘go faster’ stripes on them. They look alarmingly narrow, so I assume it will be a bit like trying to ski on very long chopsticks.

The wheels have been put in motion. I’ve already registered for the race. I’m just sitting here now waiting for the snow….

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Thought I'd indulge in a bit of freestyle writing - an exercise in which you start writing with no predetermined idea of subject matter, style or length, and simply spurt out whatever pops into your head. It's supposed to be mentally cleansing, and as I definitely could do with a touch of that, here goes:

Cabbages. Can't stand them personally, although Mr Wilbur, my childhood pet rabbit, was very partial to them until he died. Pity no one told me he was dead before I opened his hutch and stroked him. I just thought he was a bit stiff from sitting in a draft.

My Dad once sent me a poem entitled This Be the Verse, written by Philip Larkin. It struck a chord:

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another's throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don't have any kids yourself.

And Philip's right - they do fuck you up. My Dad started collecting pottery in his 50s. The house became littered with 18th century plates, milk jugs and butter dishes. I took it as a sign my Dad was fast approaching his sell by date. But last week I went to an auction in Sweden. I bought a Stig Lindberg vase, and flogged it on E-bay for 1000 SEK profit. I'm hooked. I now spend excessive portions of the day looking at Swedish pottery websites. Thanks Dad. Thanks a lot. At least you were in your 50s. I'm fucked up at 36!

Swedish pensioners - does a ruder, more obnoxious generation of people exist? I doubt it, as if they did, it would be on CNN. Push-in, barge-past, never-smile, moan-about-money, better-in-my-time, Volvo-driving, Spanish-holidaying, over-privileged, pompous-and-arrogant, never-fought-in-a-war, shouldn't-still-be-driving, like-a-drink but never-admit-it bunch of idiots.

Ohhhhh, that feels a bit better. Your turn now. Whatever comes to mind first (and if it's cabbages, we need to talk)

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Sven? Never Heard of Him.

I hate it when England loses at football.

Not just because I'm old enough to remember when England were a decent European team and still hope one day they will be again, and not just because I expect better of a squad of pampered players whose combined worth tops £221 million.

It's because every time they play badly or lose, my phone rings off the hook from friends back in England asking me what the hell Sven thinks he's playing at, as football apparently isn't it.

I want everyone living in the UK to understand I don't know Sven personally just because I live here. I've got no more idea of what's going on under that horribly unfashionable slicked back patch of grey hair than anyone else.

I confess that at first I used to defend Sven - after all he seems a perfectly reasonable, if somewhat undynamic sort of chap.

But my tolerance level, particularly after last night's dismal performance against Northern Ireland is now at an all time low.

Watching Sven fielding questions from the blood-thirsty UK press after the debacle, I lost count of the number of times he said he was 'wery sorry'.

Well sorry doesn't cut it any more Sven. Granted your players let you down (and should have their Porsches confiscated with immediate effect), but as a manager you presided over a tactical blunder on a scale with the charge of the Light Brigade.

And while I'm on the subject of Sven, what's the story with his glasses? The man is worth millions, he's living with a self-proclaimed style guru, and yet he wears glasses that make him look like a very old Harry Potter.

Perhaps you need to change them Sven. And while you're at it put stronger lenses in. Then you might see a bit more clearly what a mess you're making of managing the English team.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

How Not to Climb A Mountain - a Pictorial Guide

Setting off - looking confident and relaxed (and somewhat stupid in a hat). Little did I know I'd be deep frozen only a few hours later

The strange sight of dozens of stone markers greeted us at the summit of Vierramvare, with the glacier dripping off the edge of Kebnekaise in the background

On the way down the weather improved and we caught our first glimpse of the valley below. Typical. Bloody typical.

The weather gods must have been chuckling to themselves, because the moment we arrived back at base camp it turned into bikini weather. Everyone smiled politely but no-one really believed us about the snow storms - but it did snow on August 18th, honest!

Monday, September 05, 2005

Climbing Kebnekaise

The blisters have finally disappeared so I thought it was high time I posted an account on what it was like to climb Sweden's highest mountain.

This is the serious version, so I've removed all references to farting in tents, drinking 12 bottles of blueberry cider on the eve of a 20km hike (which I do NOT recommend), stepping in reindeer shit and other such mundane details.

However, I hope what's left is still interesting all the same.....

As I stood trying to stamp life into my frozen feet in the tiny wooden cabin perched 1890 metres up Sweden’s highest mountain, I found a tattered copy of the New Testament lying open on top of a rickety wooden table.

I’d never read the New Testament in Swedish before. Staring out of the frosted window at the swirling snow clouds engulfing the remaining 200 vertical metres to the summit of Kebnekaise, I figured this might be a good time to start.

To reach this precarious point my close friend and climbing partner Olly and I had spent six gruelling hours clambering almost 12 kilometres over treacherously slippery rocks while being buffeted by high winds and driving sleet and snow showers.

Things had seemed very different just a few hours before, when we had looked up over a campfire breakfast at the breathtaking Kebnekaise mountain range, which is situated deep within the artic circle in the far north of Sweden.

We had both felt in good shape and high spirits, despite having flown in to the mining city of Kiruna only two days before. Although neither of us had ever climbed a mountain before, we considered ourselves relatively fit thirty-somethings and were confident we could cope with the challenge ahead.

Our resolve was strengthen by the fact that we were attempting the climb to raise money for a UK breast cancer charity, after a mutual friend was diagnosed with the disease just a few months before.

The previous day we had taken a bus 60 kilometres from Kiruna to the old Sami settlement of Nikkaluokta. After a night under canvas we had set out on the 20-kilometre long hike along a stone-strewn trail towards Kebnekaise Fjällstation, the mountain base-camp, nestled 670 metres in the Kitteldalen valley directly beneath the mountain range.

This unspoilt wilderness, described as one of Europe’s last true wildernesses, was so captivating that Olly and I decided not to catch the regular boat service up the Laddjujavri lake, which would have shaved around six kilometres and an hour’s walk off the journey, opting instead to reach the base-camp on foot.

When we finally arrived five hours later we discovered the base-station was an oasis of unexpected luxury, where weary hikers can book into comfortable cabins, take a shower and a sauna and even eat a la carte from the well-stocked bar and restaurant.

For those who don’t want to walk the trail from Nikkaluokta, there is even a regular helicopter service that ferries people to and from the base-camp throughout the day.

But such comforts come at a price, with a bed in a double cabin costing 650 SEK per person per night. With limited funds, and a desire to have the total wilderness experience, we pitched our tent a few hundred metres from the camp, with the imposing Tuolpagorni mountain as a backdrop. However, we did pay the 80 SEK daily fee to use the facilities of the base-camp’s service house, which entitled us to use the shower, sauna, toilets, washing and drying facilities.

Before setting out for the summit the next morning, we had checked the weather forecast. Although the predicted rain and 3-5 degree daytime summit temperatures did not make for ideal climbing conditions, we were scheduled on a flight back home the day after, and therefore could not afford the luxury of waiting for the weather to improve.

The fact that there were pockets of snow covering the highest peaks was not unusual. Snow and ice are a constant feature of this artic mountain range, which boasts around 40 glacial formations. With good weather predicted in the next 12 hours, we felt conditions would surely improve. It was, after all, only the middle of August.

We set off at 7am off from the base-camp carrying only the minimum equipment and food required in order to travel light. We were travelling alone, as the western route we had chosen is the only path to the summit that locals recommend can be attempted without a guide.

Starting from the valley floor, the path quickly led up to the foot of the Kitteldalen, where we scrambled up the ravine and into the clouds above. Despite increasingly poor visibility, we managed to keep to the path, which was clearly marked with painted red stones every 10 metres.

Fording the icy streams that cut through the centre of the ravine, we headed up through the saddle between the peaks of Tuolpagorni and Vierramvare. At 1711 metres, Vierramvare gave us our first real taste of what the mountains had planned for us.

Staring up towards the summit we could barely make out the trail of red markers as they snaked up the steep slope and into the clouds that were funnelling up through the gulley.

Ahead of us we could only see rocks – even the hardiest of shrubs had given up trying to grow several hundred metres below us. The only thing that seemed to flourish up here were the mosses, which covered many of the stones, making them as slippery as glass.

The rain started three-quarters of the way up Vierramvare. Undeterred, we quickly changed into our wet weather gear, still optimistic that the clouds would part to reveal the spectacular peaks and valleys all around us.

As we approached the very top of Vierramvare we found dozens of small piles of stones that had been built by previous climbers to mark the mountain’s summit. Jutting up like broken teeth, they only added to the eerie atmosphere of this desolate place.

Crossing the peak we came to the part of the western trail that can easily break a climber’s resolve. Having already climbed 1711 metres, we now had to descend 300 metres into the Kaffedalen and then back up another 600 vertical metres to the summit itself.

Picking our way down the side of the mountain required less energy, but was considerably more dangerous, as a single slip could result in a long fall into the gorge below.

Traversing through the ankle-deep snow covering the floor of the Kaffedalen, we came to a stop at the base of Kebnekaise itself. We knew that only 600 vertical metres remained until we reached the summit. What we didn’t know was that the mountain wasn’t going to be beaten without a fight.

Around 200 metres into our ascent the chilly raindrops turned instantly into hail. Driven by strong winds they pelted our exposed faces until our skin felt raw. As we huddled behind a large rock for shelter, we discussed for the first time that day something we had both been brooding about over the past couple of hours – whether we had enough equipment to last a night on the mountain should the weather get any worse.

We both already knew the answer, so resolved to carry on to the mountain cabin, known as the toppstuga, where we could at least take temporary shelter and have some much-needed food.

Another 100 metres up and the ice turned into snow. Although it still clouded our visibility, the softer snow provided a welcome break from the pummelling the hail had given us.

While scanning the skyline for a break in the clouds, we suddenly caught a glimpse of the wooden hut perched on the side of Kebnekaise. Within seconds it was gone, swallowed up once again by the clouds.

But with a renewed sense of optimism we headed in the direction of the hut, and within minutes tramped wearily up the wooden steps and opened the door to Sweden’s highest building.

Built in 1983 to replace the crumbling cabin which still remains just 200 metres away, Kebnekaise’s toppstuga provides climbers with a bolthole from the changeable mountain weather and a place to gather energy before the final push to the summit.

A couple of simple wooden beds and thick woollen blankets are provided for those unlucky climbers who are forced to stay up the mountain for the night. Beside the beds stands the table, on top of which rests a copy of the New Testament and a travel chess set.

Olly and I had no intention of either sleeping here or playing chess. We both felt we had come too far to give up now. It is a bullish attitude typical of novice climbers who don’t know when to turn around and has almost certainly proved fatal in the past.

It was only when we arrived back exhausted but safe to the base-camp several hours later that we discovered several people following up the mountain after us had turned back at the toppstuga, and some of the guided tours had not even made it that far before returning to base-camp.

We changed our soaking wet clothes and boiled up some water to cook our freeze-dried food. Feeling much better we peered out of the cabin’s only window and waited for a change in the weather.

Inside the cabin the air was freezing. We knew we couldn’t afford to wait long if we wanted to keep our core body temperature stable.

A few minutes later the snow slowly dissipated. We took this as a signal to dash for the top. We practically skipped over the stones until we came up to the glacial top of Kebnekaise.

Rising up into the white clouds above it was difficult to see where this gigantic snow cone ended. We felt our way around to the western ridge, where we found a narrow trail barely wide enough to walk up leading upwards. The fresh snow that lined the trail gave us a little much-needed traction.

Cautiously we inched our way up, crawling much of the way on our hands and knees. At last the cone levelled out, and despite not being able to see a single landmark through the clouds we knew we’d finally made it to the top of Sweden’s highest mountain.

We didn’t jump for joy – just one metre to our left was a fatal drop into the Rabots glacier and one metre to our right a deadly slide 500 metres down into the Björlings glacier.

However, we did hug each other, now bonded by an experience that taught us that beauty and danger are never far behind you when you’re climbing mountains.