Brief addition to notes on Inismore. We noticed that a lot of houses had a miniature house in the garden, like a dolls house but built of brick or stone. According to our guide, they are leprechaun houses: said with perfectly straight face. When someone queried this, he said "most people like to provide a leprechaun house".
I left my last entry en route to the airport for Sweden. This was in response to an invitation, made many months earlier but confirmed at almost the last moment, for me to speak at a Swedish local government conference. My friend Margareta Holmstedt, who runs the European Department at Bradford University, (and is Swedish-born) was to present a session on the new system of EU Structural Funds. I was to follow with a session on the value of the EU to local government, speaking particularly from the experience of a country which has been in the EU for many years (Sweden has been in barely 12 years). That meant that my travel and accommodation for the trip would be largely covered, bringing the cost well down.
We flew from Leeds to Stockholm via Amsterdam and noticed that, as in Ireland, the airports outside the UK were far less paranoid than those at home. At Arlanda, our old friends Andrew and Helen Ellis were waiting for us: fortunately - as it turned out we had neither their address nor phone number with us! Andrew is an old chum (ex-Cambridge!) from Young Liberal days. He worked for the party on elections for a time and they have worked on democracy and elections in many countries since (including organising the first Palestinian elections). Currently they are in Sweden (although Mick visited them in Indonesia only 4 years ago!) and next year, who knows?
That was late Saturday, so we had a lazy Sunday morning than wandered around Stockholm sightseeing. I have been there several times, at different times of year, but it is always enjoyable. The waterfront is central to the city, especially the old town, and there are so many fantastic buildings. Transport is easy and inexpensive and prices in general are affordable, although booze - as everywhere in Scandinavia - is more expensive than in the UK. We found a terrific SF shop with many English titles, close to one of a number of Viking shops (aimed at tourists): we were very tempted by a T-shirt saying "Viking world tour" and listing where they invaded in the 10th to 12th centuries......
We encountered first-hand one of the strange phenomena of Sweden: winter starts on August 15th. Nothing to do with global warming - in fact it was very warm and sunny - but to the schools hols. Swedish children are on holiday from mid-June to mid-August. As it is a big country and many people have holiday homes to which they decamp for the summer, much of the summer tourist provision is geared to Swedish visitors. Once the schools reopen, street markets and cafes start to close, even in Stockholm, and general tourist facilities switch to winter opening. We did, however, manage to find an outdoor cafe to lunch at and a brilliant 19th century house (one of the first to use electricity throughout) whose enlightened management kept it open even on a winter (!!!) Sunday.
As to food: Helen had bought reindeer steaks specially so we decided to stop being vegetarians for the night. It was very tasty and remarkably digestible. I might be tempted again but there are not many free-range reindeer in Yorkshire. otherwise, in another country with a lot of coast, there was plenty of fish and seafood for us to enjoy.
On Monday we had to travel literally from coast to coast, Baltic to Atlantic, to the conference in Smogen (this should have 2 dots over the o and is pronounced smergen). We took the train from Stockholm to Gothenberg (another city with lots of waterfront, which I visited a few years ago for an EU conference, some of which took place on a ship). And for those who would prefer not to fly, it reminds me that there are perfectly good north sea ferry services to Scandinavia.
Margareta had found that the first class fare, booked in advance, was only a few crowns more than the standard, so we enjoyed very comfortable seats, big picture windows plus drinks and snacks provided in each coach. Crowns or kroner are local currency:Sweden voted narrowly not to join the euro, but we found people were willing to accept euros or put receipts in euros.
I love the Scandinavian scenery: lakes, forests, granite hills and big sky. From time to time you see a wooden house, often of old-fashioned design, painted in bright or pastel colours: presumably holiday homes rather than for full time occupation.
At Gothenberg we had a choice of super restaurants at the station (we had seafood salad, sitting by the window and people-watching: couldn't finish). We then got on a bus which took us northwards along the coast, stopping at lots of tiny places. Dramatic sea views, especially when we were on cliff tops, reminding us of the Atlantic coast of Ireland. There are similar "pavements", large slabs of stone supporting sparse vegetation, but here the stone is granite not limestone so it will take geological ages to break down rather than the centuries for Irish limestone.
Many of the coastal towns and fishing villages have a significant percentage of holiday homes so we were not surprised to find that many of the shops and restaurants in Smogen were already closed for the winter with signs such as "Thank you to all our customers! We look forward to seeing you again in June 2007" Fortunately, some cafes by the harbour were open all year selling very fresh fish and seafood to eat there or take away at prices which competed very well with the hotel! Getting ahead of myself, they also provided a very good takeaway lunch pack which we bought for our return journey to Stockholm.
We were in Smogen for 3 days, covering the 2 day conference then a day as tourists, with Margareta. I also got the chance to observe another Swedish phenomenon. Mick and I were seated together at dinner on the first evening, with a fairly stunning blonde woman to his right. She paid him a great deal of attention, after exchanging family details (she had recently re-married, she and her new man have 8 children between them and, no, he wasn't with her). Glad to say that Mick resisted the implied offer of recreational fun and games. I doubt an English woman would have made such a play for someone who was very clearly there with his partner.
The conference went well, I got a good reception and plenty of questions. I scattered business cards like confetti in the hope that it might lead to some more offers of work. The hotel had a gym, sauna and pool so we kept up the exercise.
On our "tourist" day we hired a car from a local garage: inexpensive, very laidback, took a minimum of details from us and took our word that we had re-filled the tank on return. We did an extensive tour of the area and spent several hours at the Zoo which was maintained by the local council. It was big, BIG, with lots of dedicated space for each of the creatures so we walked several kilometres, many of them on boardwalks taking us high above the habitats for the best of views for us and the minimum of disturbance to the animals and birds. Lots of strange northern creatures as well as the more familiar wolves, feral cats, eagles and owls.
Back in Stockholm we were on a MISSION: we wanted to buy a fish smoker. Both of us have failed to find one in places like IKEA, Habitat, cookery shops. We had a (very good) dinner with Margareta's brother and sister - we'd met them in England before - and asked them where we might find such a thing. Her brother directed us to a fishing tackle shop: obvious when you think about it.
We found one at our second try the next morning: it's essentially a metal box with a grill inside. You scatter a smoking mix at the bottom, put your fish/tofu/whatever on the grill and heat it, e.g. on your stove, until it is smoked to your satisfaction. No we haven't got round to using it yet, BUT WE'VE GOT IT FOR WHEN WE DO.
This did present the possible problem of going through security with a metal box and two bags of a mysterious mixture. We handled that by packing the smoker in its box, inside Mick's suitcase, stuffing it with socks and underwear so it wouldn't rattle too much. When checking in, we told the desk staff that we were carrying this item and invited them to examine it. They didn't. We had no trouble.
On our final evening in Sweden, we took a ferry trip round a large part of the archipelago. This was Friday evening, so many of the people were going to their holiday homes for the weekend. Some lucky folk live on the islands and commute by boat into Stockholm daily (or weekly). The main dish on offer was Baltic herring, which seemed entirely appropriate, served Swedish style with boiled potatoes and a sauce. Lovely food, accompanied by local beer, and a lovely end to our short holiday.
A potentially less exciting mission was to find the sushi bar during our 4 hour stopover at Amsterdam Schipol. Pleased to report that we did actually find it (it's behind the lift) but only after hunger had driven us to eat elsewhere, at the noodle bar if you ask: we recommend it.