Friday, 10 April 2015

The Story of a Stone

He meant the world to me. Maybe it was the lack of a father figure or maybe just because he was such a kind person, I don't know. It really doesn't matter. I just know I loved my grandfather Gunnar to bits during the first six years of my life.

In the small block of five flats where I grew up with him, my mum and my brother – he was the caretaker who... well, took care of things. That's what caretakers do. When the radiators didn't get warm, fuses blew, doors needed oiling, driveway needed gritting or wash basins needed unblocking – the tenants called for Gunnar. In Swedish, he was a "gårdskarl", which literally means "garden man".

Gunnar, my grandmother Signe (who died before I was born), my mum Karin, my uncle Erik and their 'foster brother' Sven were the first ones to live in this, then very modern three bedroom flat. This was in 1937, when the house was built. They were now going to enjoy the luxury of having a proper bathroom and all the other mod cons. Happy family.

Later in life, when Erik had moved to America and Signe had died, my mum moved back in, now with my brother and myself. Bitter and devastated, she didn't know what else to do, having been left to bring up us children on her own after a painful divorce from my dad. Add the experience of her mum dying, as well. And soon thereafter, her foster brother Sven also died. I was only 3, my brother was 6. Mum shouldn't have worried. I didn't feel I needed a dad, as I couldn't remember what it was like to have one in the first place. Less arguing, if ever I need to ask for permission to do something, I remember thinking. Life was good. We did ok. I had mum, my brother – and my beloved grandfather.

I followed him everywhere. With hindsight, I realise he never got a moment to himself, poor him. He cut the grass, I helped raking it. He watered the plants, I did too – with my little watering can. Our neighbours smiled at the sight of Gunnar leisurely inspecting the garden with his hands behind his back, me in tow, with my hands behind my back. In the autumn, he collected leaves in a wooden wheelbarrow and let me sit on top of the piles of leaves on our way to the compost heap. Simple pleasures.

When he was tired, he would sit down to rest on a certain stone in the garden. I sat down, too. Back to back, we sat there. Our little quiet moment together. A time to breathe.

So, one dark December evening when I was 6, mum washed my long, blonde, wavy hair and ironed my Lucia dress and red ribbon, which she had hung up for it to be ready in the morning. In true Swedish tradition, I was going to be Lucia in the early hours of 13 December.  I was so excited, couldn't wait. Ok, I was only going next door, to the Svensson's, but still... my first time. Outside, large snow flakes started to gently fall to the ground, as I was getting ready for bed, still rehearsing the Lucia song. It was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.

"I'm just going to brush off that new snow before we go to bed", said my grandfather. And off he went, to clear the steps outside our front door. That was the last time we saw him alive. A few minutes later, Matti, the next door neighbour came rushing in, shouting to us that he found Gunnar lying outside, as if he had tried to make a snow angel in the new snow – broom still in his hand. He had died on his post. All hell broke loose, all the neighbours came in, mum was devastated, everyone tried to comfort her and I remember not understanding anything at all. I sat on one of the neighbour's lap, in another room, with the sliding doors almost closed. Through a gap I saw them carrying in my grandfather to lay him out on his bed. Nobody explained to me. "Don't worry. It'll be alright, Britt." I remember being confused.

Forward a couple of years, many grieving tears later – and you can see me in the garden, tending to my pretty flowers which I had carefully planted around that very stone where I used to sit and rest with my grandfather. It became 'my' stone. Every year, I planted new flowers next to it. I sat on it, jumped over it or ran around it. It was part of my childhood. A tribute to my grandfather.

One day, 20-years-and-a-life-in-Paris-and-in-Stockholm later, I move back in to the same block of flats, albeit the flat next to mum's. This time with my fiancee. Mum still lived in the old flat and my older brother had the flat above her, with his girlfriend. Back to the roots.
Then... as our first child came along, we found a nice nearby house of our own and moved out.

It was just one thing. The stone. Having 'reconnected' with it, I now felt very sad to leave it behind for a second time.

One evening, there was a knock on the front door of our new house. Outside is Tobba, a friend of ours – and also the man who took over our flat. He had heard the story about 'my stone' and thought he'd do something about it. "I dug up that old stone for you", he says. "It's outside, on my pickup. Do you want it? I know it meant a lot to you." Bless. That. Man.

And so it was that one day at work, I told this story to a teaching colleague, who is also a well known poet and writer. He was writing a book about – believe it or not – stones. And he became so fascinated by my story that he went home, sat down and wrote himself a poem which he included in his new book. Which was lovely. And as if that wasn't enough, he asked me to illustrate his book with my various drawings of stones! I had already made a drawing of my grandfather's stone so – that was a given.

A few house moves followed, as it does in life – and here I am now, in England. And the stone? It's currently being kept in my brother's garden back in Sweden.

One day, it will become my headstone.

Sunday, 8 December 2013


After many years of living in their main house and pretty much ignoring the old, wooden house in the corner of their garden, my brother and family decided it was time to save a bit of Arvika history. So, they started a huge renovation project. Too many traditional wooden houses have been pulled down in our home town, in the mid west Sweden. Like many other towns, Arvika also went through a phase in the 70s, where wonderful wooden villas with elaborate, 'gingerbread work' verandas, were being sacrificed for modern concrete and glass structures. Luckily, we were many who protested against this madness and a voluntary group called "Save Your Town" managed to save quite a few.


My brother's 2-storey corner house was one of these old houses. It had been used for storage of… well, stuff. For many years, even I had much of my Swedish life stored there, in boxes.

The whole family got involved, read up on the history of the house, looked at old photos to find out about its original paint, windows and so on. For about 2 years now, they have spent all their spare time working really, really hard on renovating this house. The aim was to rent it out to a family, once finished.

Friends came along and helped scraping off all the old paint. Another family member – a carpenter who specialises in renovating old houses – came along every day to make sure the work was done in a correct way. The whole house was basically gutted, the stone foundation corrected and pointed, new chimney, new roof, new... everything. The windows were specially made and painstakingly varnished, with linseed oil. That meant many, long winter evenings in the main house basement…
Their two sons also helped out as often as they could, after school and work. The youngest, who is studying to become a carpenter, has been doing his work experience in this house since October, he only had two weeks left. From initially having ensured a sound structure and exterior, the work had now moved inside. New floor logs were laid, and the next step was to deal with the interior. So much old history was found inside. A hidden safe, in which the first owner had left paperwork and newspapers which told a lot about the time that was. Gold dust for anyone interested in local history.

And so, at 4am last Saturday morning, the family were woken by the police, who had been patrolling in the area. They had just spotted the fire and the fire brigade were on their way. An arsonist had set fire to the whole building, starting with the door. The fire quickly spread upstairs. He or she managed 5 fires in 40 minutes in central Arvika: A skip, a door to an inhabited house, a small bin and the number plate (!) of a car.

Most of the house is now ruined and as I write, it is unclear if anything at all can be saved. I guess we just have to be glad nobody got hurt or died. Tools and materials can be replaced, people can not.

I just wonder what drives arsonists. Why? Is it the kick of blue lights and newspaper articles that does it for them? It's not the first time there have been fires along that street. When I stayed at my brother's place in September, someone had set fire to a plastic wheelie bin outside the very same house.

That time, we were woken at around 4am by the fire brigade, who were able to put the fire out quickly. Other bins, further up the street were also set alight that night. This had happened a few times, always around the same time, on a Friday or Saturday night.

Everyone praised my brother and family for their hard work in preserving this old house. Cheerful comments, grateful people walking past saying 'Well done' and 'Keep up the hard work'.

What a waste of time, energy and money.
Where will it happen next? This is what everyone now wonders, in my home town of Arvika.

 Photos from Arvika Nyheter, Värmlands Folkblad, SVT, 'En Annan Del av Arvika' Facebook page – and my own.

Sunday, 3 November 2013


I have been planning to write this blog post for many years now. 'The blog post I will write when my mum dies'. I would write about her life, how much I love her and miss her, how Alzheimer's ruined it all, how it is to live far away from your family, in a foreign country. I had many phrases already planned in my head.

And yet, now that it has happened, now that she has died, now that I've cried a million tears… I don't know what to write anymore. Everything I write feels wrong and not worthy.

Anyway, two weeks after she died (Two weeks! Where did those two weeks go?), I will give it a go:

After a rushed and incredibly stressful journey back to Sweden, during which I kept looking at the time, wondering if I'd make it – I did eventually make it to her bedside in time. In fact, I had about 24hrs of holding hands and comforting talk before she passed away. She held my hand so hard, she actually gave me a bruise. Sadly, it disappeared. I wish it hadn't.

The night before she died, we sat around her, playing Glenn Miller, Arne Lambert and other favourites of hers. We talked about the good times we'd had in her company, about the fun memories, we  talked about how much we loved her. We cried. We laughed. We cried again.

All that matters to me personally, is that I was with her the very moment her conscience went. Her last proper breath. Part of me thinks she waited until I had made it home, before she let go. She knew I was coming. She had my brother and myself next to her – and that's what she would have wanted.

Having only a limited time to sort things out, I started to sort out her belongings the day after she died. I emptied her drawers, shelves and wardrobes, packing everything into boxes and bin bags. I cried and cried, but told myself these were really only material possessions that didn't matter, at the end of the day. I kept her favourite blue cardigan, knitted for her by a lady I knew in Devon. Mary was born in March 1921, just like mum. They had never met (as mum refused to go abroad) but I'm sure they would have liked each other. That blue cardigan still smells of mum.

We gave away some of her furniture to the home where she had lived the last, almost 4 years of her life. The wonderful staff, who were sincerely sad to see her go, arranged a little corner at the end of her corridor, to her memory. The 'Warg corner'. They said they would sit there and think about her. I know I can visit whenever I want, but – I'm not sure I want to. Even though she was lovingly taken care of at that place, even though the staff genuinely enjoyed her jokes and sense of humour, I'm not sure I want to be reminded of her time there again. Those 4 years were good, but on the whole, it was a relatively short and sad period of her long life. I lost my 'real' mum during these years. Actually, I had already lost her, several years before then, not sure when her illness started exactly. It's a sneaky thing, dementia. Creeps up on you.

Anyone who loses their parent to dementia knows that you grieve for many years. You start talking about your parent in the past tense, even though they are still alive. And you feel guilty for doing it, even if logically, you know you shouldn't.

I decided mum was worth being remembered for the good times rather than for the bad times, so I put together a slide show of 158 stills from her life, showing a few snapshots of what she had been through. There were lovely old black and white photos of her as a toddler, teenager, young woman, mother, proud shop owner and so on.

There were more recent photos too, showing her arm wrestling with her grandchildren, dancing with her zimmer frame and playing drums (!) on her 90th birthday – 2 years before she died. It made guests at the funeral remember, laugh and share memories, rather than just cry. Exactly what I was hoping for.

Mum, rest in peace. You were the best mum in the world.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

To the Thief

I don't consider myself being a 'material girl' but I must admit my daily life has changed a lot, after my handbag was stolen last week.

It's a long and complicated story which I won't bore you with, but in short, a very professional thief discretely removed my handbag from the back of a chair in a London pub, where I had just sat down for an evening with my work mates. The bag was squeezed in between a work colleague's chair and mine – not towards 'the open' where the public could pass. There was nobody sitting at the table behind me. Eight of us around a small table and – nobody noticed. Amazing.

The CCTV camera noticed, however. And while I spent the entire Friday evening at Paddington Green police station, the thief was being chased by friends of another victim and eventually arrested by the police. He had my mobile on him – and a few other items he had acquired earlier. But not my handbag.

Thanks to lovely and supportive work colleagues and an extremely understanding Great Western train manager (thank you Drew!), I  managed to get back home to Swindon around midnight. In First class, for free – with coffee and shortbread. Drew turned what could have been a complicated and upsetting journey into an hour's worth of peace and tranquillity.

The following evening I had a call from Wembley police station. Some honest soul had found my bag in a street and handed it in. After what I understand, most things seemed to still be in it and I will now eventually get my things back, even though it might take a while, as they have now become exhibit items, lying in plastic bags somewhere, with a number attached to them. (Yes, I do watch police dramas.)

BUT... if I could talk to the thief, this is what I would say to him:

Dear thief,

I'm sure you have your reasons for stealing things from other people. Maybe you need money for drugs or you are just very poor and desperate. Maybe you are here illegally and can't work or you are part of a gang. I'm obviously incredibly angry with you but I still don't believe you are doing this just to be mean. I cling on to the belief that people are not born evil, they have all been little innocent babies. Something happens along the way. But whatever the reason, I would like you to know how much hassle a quick snatch of somebody's handbag can cause:

I kept my passport in my handbag. My 92-year-old Mum back in Sweden had just had a bad fall an was operated on the very day you took my bag. I was prepared to drop everything and just fly to Sweden the following day as you never know if someone at that age will make it through a big hip operation. Now I can't, unless I get an emergency passport made. But for this, you need a valid flight ticket. All my bank cards were stolen, so buying a ticket is not easy either. In my handbag, I also had my train tickets for my return trip home that Friday evening. A kind work colleague gave me some cash to get a new ticket which would obviously have been a LOT more expensive. As it happened, I never had time to buy a ticket for my train, as I had to spend so much time at the police station, filling in reports.

You ruined what would have been a nice evening with work mates. Instead, everyone was upset and the group split up – half of them with me at the police station, others running around looking for my bag, bless them. People had bought train tickets for this meeting, you know. Travelled from far away places. We don't meet that often so we had been looking forward to this evening.

I don't use a watch, I always use my iPhone to check the time and to wake me up in the mornings. I listen to Radio4 every morning whilst waking up – via my phone app. I like taking photos of things as I see them during the day – with my phone. I keep notes. I tweet. I hear a good tune and instantly 'Shazam' it, to find out what it is. I keep phone numbers on it, I can't remember everybody's mobile numbers off by heart. I wanted to send my daughter a birthday card yesterday but couldn't remember her exact address with postcode etc. That's also on my iphone.

I have a very useful little mirror in my handbag. It's perfect for when I put on my mascara or want to check how my hair looks from the back. That's gone. I had found the perfect lipstick recently – I always struggle to find the right colour. That was in the bag. A much loved and well used 70s purse, which I used as a teenager. My Orange dongle which is vital for when I'm working on the go. Gone. My driving licence, which I needed as I had to hire a van the other day. Now my partner had to both pay for and drive it, instead of me. And my AA card is gone, should I have a car breakdown. Not that I can call them anyway now – or even drive! My Coop card is gone, which means no points for any food shops since last week. My favourite pen. And a book of first class stamps which I had just bought. An Oyster card, which I sadly had topped up an hour before you nicked it. My house keys. And yes, we had to make a new set. The worry of having lost my keys, possibly together with my address.

Little things like that, you know. Silly little things which are ridiculous compared to, say, the sufferings people go through in Syria or under the rubble of a far away, collapsed sweat shop in Bangla Desh.
I wouldn't dream of even start to compare my suffering to theirs. But I wanted you to know that what might have been a quick snatch of a little handbag to you – instant dosh – means a hell of a lot more to somebody else. And this somebody else's family and friends.

Think about this, while you sit there, in the dock. Consider using your skills for a better purpose. Magician? Illusionist? 

Yours sincerely,

The Handbag Owner

The Thief is now in prison for 6 weeks and I have now, 2 weeks later, got both my iphone and hand bag back. Passport, driving licence, purse etc – all in there, part from some cash and the Oyster card. I'm SO lucky, really...

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Goodbye Jan – may you shine bright in the sky – forever.

I had sad news from Sweden today. Jan, 59 – a very good friend of mine, from as far back as I can remember – had been found dead in his flat. He had not got back to work after the Christmas and New Year holiday and his colleagues became worried. The police broke in and found him dead. He had been there for some time, not sure for how long, as I'm writing this.

Jan was a very special person. Without going into details, he had a tough childhood and the rest of his life was not that easy either. But in spite of the odds being against him in so many ways, he remained strong inside and kept on, as best as he could. He took a great interest in various things... Local, general and military History, Astronomy, WW1 and WW2, airplanes, ships, military battles, sci-fi, Tolkien, Robin Hood, fish, cowboys, indians, blues, rock, pop, archery, football (and with that I mean Spurs), food... I could go on. I will never forget the time I visited him and he opened the door dressed in a Sherwood green tunique, holding a bow and arrow in his hand, saying: "Fancy a cup of tea?"

Here is a photo of Jan when he congratulated my Mum on her 90th birthday, soon two years ago:

Jan was also an incredibly intelligent and learned man. He spent many years studying at University and read many – and I mean MANY – books. He took a particular liking to our own hometown of Arvika. He wrote books about Arvika, told previously untold stories about the people who once lived there, he did numerous historic walks around town with interested groups, pointing out buildings with a story to tell. In short, what Jan didn't know about our town's history was not worth knowing. In 2011, he was awarded a well deserved cultural price, 'Arvika's Profile 2011', at the town's 100 year Jubilee. I know this made Jan very, very proud.

He was an avid Spurs fan, member of the Swedish Spurs fan club and never missed a match. He even had a Spurs tattoo... COYS.

His knowledge about astronomy and literature kept him busy professionally, as he wrote book reviews for the local newspaper and organised star gazing evenings for school children – and adults, too.

Just before Christmas, he told me via Facebook that he had left a Christmas gift for me, at my brother's. I opened it on Christmas Eve – as is the custom in Sweden – and it was a lovely, wooden candle holder with a blue candle. A lovely present, made locally, by a mutual friend of ours. I never got to say thank you properly, which makes me sad. He never picked up the Christmas gift I had for him either, so that is still unopened.

I know now, why he didn't. And it makes me so, so sad. He had so much more to give.

Jan, you will be greatly missed. But I will think about you every time I light a candle in this, now very special, candle holder, for which I am truly grateful. I'd like to think you are now one of the shining stars in the sky yourself.

RIP Jan.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Nordic walking

I walk differently when I'm in Sweden.

This thought popped up in my head as I took the first steps on a wintery pavement this Christmas, after my arrival at Landvetter airport in Gothenburg. With all that ice, often hidden by new snow – you can't just trot along as you would on a bare (and probably wet) UK pavement. No, it requires a careful and balanced approach. I gradually got back into the habit whilst walking around Gothenburg, waiting for the train to take me further north, to Arvika.

A consequence of this 'Nordic walking' is the fact that most Swedish women don't wear stiletto shoes and boots – wintertime. We all dress practically up North, you know. I mean, we would be silly not to! Try walking on a snowy and icy pavement in mid-winter Sweden with high heels and you see what I mean. When Swedish women go to parties and clubs, they bring their indoor shoes with them in a bag and change once inside the venue. And when visiting friends, you just take your boots off in the hallway and walk around in your socks. How British people can walk around on white carpets with dirty shoes and even curl up in the sofa... well, that remains a mystery to us Scandinavians.

Then there's the Nordic driving. As I was driving quite a lot this Christmas time – on proper winter roads in the forest – the Nordic walking thoughts kept coming back to me. At the end of the day, it's really the same thing. Driving in a wintery Sweden requires not just winter tyres, but so much more concentration. Not only do your eyes have to read the landscape, in a constant look-out for elks. (That's an all year round thing, by the way.) They also have to measure how far out on the snow covered verge you can allow yourself to drive. When meeting cars, you have to balance the distance needed to the other car with the added risk of skidding off the road.

But – you get a 'feel' for it. The trick is to avoid braking, but instead using the clutch and steering yourself back to normal, should you start skidding. Be gentle. Slow down. "Pretend you have a raw egg between your foot and the accelerator." Those wise words from my driving instructor (when I was 18) still ring true.

Us Swedes might be 'safe and boring', but – there's a good reason for it.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Don't get Alzheimer's – it's hell.

I called mum today. No reply. I tried for a VERY long time, but – still no answer. Now, this is not unusual, as my mum often hangs out in the day room of this dementia home, with the other 'guests' and can't hear the phone. 'Guest', by the way. is a nicer name for 'another person who is also a bit gaga'.

Mum has always said to me: "If I die suddenly of a heart attack, be happy for me." I do NOT want to end up in a home, like your uncle Eric."

Uncle Eric, my mum's brother, went to America in the 50s. Married Martha, his American wife and had a son, James – my cousin. But when Martha died in the 1990s, Eric moved back to Sweden. He had been longing to go back for ages, but he didn't want to leave Martha. Once she died, he could. And he did. He left his much loved basset dog with a neighbour – and moved back to our home town of Arvika.

Life was good. He walked to mum's every day, for lunch. He started to realise that his old sailing- and hunting buddies were all dead but – at least he was back home now.
However, after a year or so, he started to forget where his home was. He accused his home helpers of stealing his money. Everything became a bit weird. He sat mum down for a talk once, made her promise to take care of him, in case he was to became completely gaga. He could feel something was not quite right.

Mum and her lifelong partner – Stig – felt so sad when they realised Eric was becoming forgetful and confused. Instead of enjoying his old age in Sweden as he had always wanted, he ended up in a dementia home. We visited him as often as we could, brought him cake and looked at old photographs, in the hope they would trigger his memory. "Who's that?" he said, when shown photos of his wife Martha. The love of his life.

I just happened to be in Sweden when Eric died. I loved Eric, we had a very special relationship.
Mum and I held his hands as he died that night, in October. There was a local fête going on that weekend and I will never forget the noise from the fairground outside his window, as Eric took his last breath. I remember whispering into his ear: "I've been to America now, Eric." He had always wanted me to visit him in the US, but that hadn't happened. I felt I had to tell him I had now finally been to America. Twice.

Soon after that, mum's partner also suffered from dementia and was being taken care of by mum, in their home. On the eve of his admittance to a home, he died.

My mum kept saying to me: "Whatever happens, Britt – I don't want to end up like that. If I die quickly – be happy for me.

Mum has been in a home for three years now. A brilliant home, she gets the best care and it's all good. But she is not happy any more. She keeps saying she wants to go back 'home'. It's just that she does not quite know what 'home' is. It's not the home she had before moving to this place. That home was full of neighbours coming in through the walls, checking on her. She didn't even undress for bedtime as she felt she had to keep awake – in case they came to get her. When she was found by her neighbours outside, one winter night, we realised she had to move.

She was so happy with the new place. She has her own little 'flat' – a room with her own furniture, a kitchenette, balcony and purpose built bathroom. She gets seen to, she gets all the food she needs, she gets medical support and is being kept active. There's music and plays. Things happening. The staff is lovely and caring. She dances to Glenn Miller music, she jokes around with the staff and thinks she is working there herself.

But lately, she sounds... tired. She sounds as if she has given up – and that feels terrible. Her voice has changed. It's slow and quiet. She sounds a bit as if she's drunk. I can hardly understand what she says anymore. This is why she didn't answer the phone today. According to staff I spoke to, she was sitting next to it, she must have heard  it (the sound is very loud) – but she didn't understand how to pick up the receiver. Twice now, she has refused to talk to me, even though she knows it's me, calling. It's like she's slowly dying. She doesn't care anymore.

That is what Alzheimer's is all about. It's like dying, in slow motion. As a relative, you are grieving in advance. You find yourself talking about your loved ones in the past tense, even though they are still alive. It's just that... the person you once knew is not there anymore.

I'm soon going back home to see mum, for Christmas. I just hope she will be there, still.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

A Seafarer's Tale

An Irishman with seven horses, a Yorkshireman with a radioactive cargo and a Swede with an English tractor. What could they possibly have in common?
Answer: They all boarded a ro-ro freight ferry from Immingham to Gothenburg last week – together with about seven other people. Oh, and me.

There are only 12 cabins of which just a few are single ones, so the chance of getting your own cabin on this type of ferry is pretty slim. In fact, you are not even sure to board the vessel until 24hrs or so before departure. Proper truckers outweigh common Volvo 'tourists'. It's Da (ro-ro) Law.

However, I was lucky. On a dark, rainy Tuesday night, I drove up to the dark Immingham docks... round about midnight – ready to board a few hours later. A polite, pony-tailed young man took my passport and showed me to my cabin. And it really was mine!
"Ah, you know, we try to accommodate lone women in single cabins whenever possible." he said.
The image of a beer bellied, net vest-clad lorry driver attempting to climb the bunk bed above me suddenly vanished from my retina.
I managed to get a few hours kip before breakfast, which was at 6.30 ship's (Scandinavian) time.

There were set times for meals (all included) which meant we all got to know each other quite well after a while. Our cabins were all in a corridor which lead to the intimate canteen with 4 small, round tables. Once the chef had placed the piping hot food on the cafeteria-like desk, he shouted: "Foooood's served!" The staff ate their dinner on the other side of the kitchen, in full view of us. A bit like "Upstairs, Downstairs" – or rather "Port and Starboard".

Next to the canteen was the 'TV-room', with a big corner sofa and some armchairs and tables. We were watching a mixture of English and Swedish telly, comparing languages and discussing programmes as we went along. It didn't take long before we felt like family.
Some had been doing this trip for years which helped us beginners to learn the ropes. A fifty-fifty mix of British and Swedish people. It's a wonderful – and unusual – feeling to be 'forced' to relax. I had brought a good book and my iphone was filled with podcasts to keep me going. When that got boring, I ventured out on deck and enjoyed the fresh Sea air and warm sun. Perfect.

So what made this crossing so special? Well, part from being a direct and quick way to get to Sweden, it also meant meeting a bunch of very interesting people. There was a feeling of 'huis clos' about it all. There we were, confined to a limited space on board a container vessel for 26 hours. No internet, no mobiles, we were left to rest, read or actually socialise 'in real life'. One by one, I soon got to know my fellow shipmates. They had so many stories to tell, so many different reasons for being on this ferry. Like in an Agatha Christie murder mystery, each character became clearer as time went on. (Luckily, no murder was committed in the making of this journey.)

"Gothenburg – we have a problem." We hadn't been on board for more than a few hours when we were told about the faulty fuel pump. Oh yes. As this meant we were unable to make more than 10kn (12 mph or 20km/h), our 26 hour journey was now estimated to take 37 hours.

To cheer us up, the chef announced there would be fine dining tonight – beef fillet, no less. Oh and there was a possibility he could organise some red wine to go with it, should we want to buy some. After all, nobody was going to drive for quite some time yet, post fuel pump failure. We weren't too unhappy with the situation – we quite enjoyed each other's company. We were all shown how to use the satellite telephone upstairs, so we could inform our loved ones. 

For the Irish horseman the prolonged journey meant a few more visits to lower deck. He had to look after his seven horses every four hours and each time, a member of staff accompanied him to the otherwise forbidden car deck. A strange coincidence was the fact that the horses were going to be transported to my own home town. All of a sudden, I found myself in a surreal discussion, with an Irishman, about which shortcut across our elk-ridden countryside to take. It wasn't his first time and I realised he knew his B-roads as well as I did. Small world.
A Swedish couple who had been criss-crossing England in their camper van told us how they had been chased by the Olympic torch. Wherever they went, the torch was there, too. And yet – they were unaware of its itinerary.

Even though we were pleased to finally see the rounded granite cliffs of the Swedish West Coast, I think I can speak for all of us when I say we felt slightly sad to have to say our goodbyes. I never learnt whether the Yorkshire man managed to transfer his radioactive cargo onto that ship, waiting in Gothenburg, ready to set off to India. How long were the queues behind the Swede and his extremely slow English tractor, on the small country roads? Did the elderly gentleman from Nottingham find his sailing gang and – did they like his Scottish whisky?

Come next week, there'll be another crossing, another bunch of people to explore. I can't wait.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Less is more

Half of my life lies inside this house. Books, photos, study notes, carpets, lamps, mugs, travel memories, vases, candle holders... You name it – it's there. Stored in an outhouse at my brother's place, this pile of belongings has come to represent the part of me which is still firmly rooted in Sweden. I have left it there for 'when I come back' – whenever that will happen... These (20 or so) boxes will now have to be moved, as the house in which they reside is currently being thoroughly refurbished.

The moment has come. I am heading home (note the choice of word...) to sort out my stuff, throw away what I don't need and give away some of the things I gathered in my pre-English life. 
The rest, the things which are dear to me and which I simply do not want to live without – I will bring back to England. Well, as much as I can squeeze into my Volvo, that is. Haven't got a clue what to do with the rest...

Like an inverted Viking, I shall be crossing the North Sea. Not to pillage and plunder, but to sort out a part of my life. 

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Things you learn at ASDA

So, we decided to shop at ASDA, for once. Maybe it was the promise of a lot of £1 deals for stuff we would have paid more for, at Tescos or Sainsbury's. Or maybe it was the thought of that excellent advert which still makes me laugh, I don't know.

Anyway, there we were, queuing up at one of the thousands of tills (ok, I'm exaggerating), together with what seemed to be 3/4 of the population of our town. It might have been cheap but we ended up buying a lot more than we had planned for. Oh well. I'll put it to good use.

The man serving at our till was an Indian looking man in his – I'm guessing – late 50s. He didn't say much, just smiled and started to scan our purchases, one after the other, in silence. We were busy packing away when he suddenly stopped and addressed me.

"Ah yes..." he said, lovingly."Pomegranate..." Holding up the sole pomegranate I had picked, to use for salads, he asked: "Have you ever opened up one of these?" I had to admit this was my first time. I was a pomegranate virgin.

He looked happy. He stopped everything and showed me, whilst pointing at the fruit with his ASDA pen, how to go about pomegranate cutting, as if it was an Art form. "You cut off this bit here and then... this bit." I thanked him and said something about it being similar to a mango.

"No, no – not at all like a mango", he said. He went on. "Then, you cut the skin from the top to the bottom. Here, here, here... and here. Mind you, JUST on the skin, not deep, ok?" I nodded as if understood.
"Then..." he said triumphantly, "you OPEN it up. And OUT they come!".

By this time, my fellow ASDA customers had been waiting quite some time, in the queue behind me.
I began to feel uncomfortable. That's when he started THE RECIPE.

"Pomegranate is VERY good in fruit salads." he tells me. "I know", I said. He pulls out some spare till receipt roll paper and starts writing on it.
"Look", he goes – making sure I am giving him my full attention. "You take 1 x pomegranate, 1 x mango, 1 x papaya..." and on he went. "You can use tins, too. Like... peach... fruit cocktail...Add double cream and put in the freezer."
I thought to myself... this is going to take forever. In an attempt to round it all off, I added: "Yes, and some banana, yes – I know."

"No, no, no, noooo – NEVER banana." he said. And remember, if you use banana – NEVER put banana in the freezer. Promise me. NEVER." Upon which he pulled off ANOTHER bit of paper and wrote 'Bananas - freeze' with a big X next to it. I was beginning to love this man.

After what seemed like a lifetime, he finally went on scanning the rest of the items and I paid with my card. I thanked him very much for his advice and said I was looking forward to having a go at his recipe. As he started to take on the (poor) next customer, he smiled to me and said: "If you EVER need any advice on Indian cooking, my wife is in till number 15. Just ask her."

As much as I had felt embarrassed to take up so much time for other people in the queue, I still felt privileged to have met this man. It was like he made everything stop around us. Like in a time machine, he froze the current time and the ONLY thing that mattered... was what to do with that pomegranate.
All I could offer him was similar advice on Swedish cooking – if ever he needed it. That made him smile. And me, too.  

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Britt on Britishness

What IS Britishness? Is there such a thing as Englishness? Or Scottishness? If so – what then, is Swedishness? The recent political debate has raised many different opinions and here is mine:

I cannot see the point of putting labels on nations or individuals. We can all agree that tea drinking, stiff upper lips and talking weather are all phenomena we refer to as typically British. Or should that be English? (See what I mean?) But then, we talk weather a lot in Sweden too. Does that make us British or does it make British people Swedish?

Then there is the word stoicism. Yes, I'm sure many Brits are stoic and yes, I know you were ever so stoic during the war. I've been to Bletchley Park, I've been to the Normandy beaches, I've talked to many veterans and I admire what they did. But does that mean ALL Brits are stoic and that people from other countries are not?  I could argue that us Swedes are incredibly stoic as we endure the long harsh – and dark - winter for most of the year. But I don't. And – why don't I?

Well, I have always felt uncomfortable using generic terms about whole nations or people in general. I'd like to think countries are made up by individuals with lots of different thoughts, characteristics and personalities. In my view, this is what makes this world. Our togetherness – yes. But also our differences. Let's face it – after all, the whole world is a big, melting pot in which we have been moving around for as long as we can remember – and beyond.

You can't measure ANY kind of '-ness', I think. Besides, what someone might refer to as typical British might mean something totally different to another person. This is why the latest talk about Britishness is just ridiculous. Moreover – what's the point in the first place? Why the need to alienate ourselves from other groups of people? Why do we need to mark our own territory in this way? Fundamentally, this need originates in nationalism and that makes me worried. We all know the harm nationalism can do if taken too far.

And no – I'm not against celebrating national days, waving flags and rejoycing in the good company of your fellow countrymen (or -women!). Any reason to throw a good party is fine with me. (Well almost any reason.) But if all we do is to show off our national credentials and boast about how good we are compared to others... well, then the party drinks get a somewhat sour taste.

I love my own country, Sweden. It will forever be my home and the nave around which everything turns in my life. However, that does not mean I think we should turn everyone who enters our country 'Swedish' or put them through a 'Swedishness-test'. Again, what would be the point?

I wish the debate would steer towards discussing how we can make life better and fairer for everyone instead – in all aspects.This, to me, IS worth debating.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

That's why Britts go to Scotland

You're at a dinner party. After a lovely meal, the host serves coffee and says:
"Would you like something with it? At 95% of all dinners I've been to, it is automatically assumed that the men want whisky and the women liqueur. Well, I don't. I have never had much of a sweet tooth and – I love whisky.
Don't get me wrong, I don't drink much of it and not too often, it must be said (mainly because I rarely have any in the house). However, there is something very special about whisky. Not only does it provide a whole range of different taste experiences, it also carries a story. Behind each bottle, behind each brand and blend – there is a tale to be told. If you learn about the area from where the whisky came from, how the rock affects the river water – which in its turn affects the final whisky – you add another level to the pleasure of drinking it.

Now then. I was on my way to Glasgow and Edinburgh for business when my Whyte and Mackay twitter friends Rob Bruce aka @robster38 and the Master Blender Richard Paterson aka @the_nose saw my tweets about going to Scotland. Rob, who is a lovely man and a hard working Head of PR at Whyte and Mackay, invited me to visit their HQ in Glasgow. Naturally, I took him up on that kind offer. Sadly, Richard wasn't there that day, but Rob let me in to the holiest of sanctuaries – the laboratory where the Master Blender creates his blends. What a privilege!
After this exclusive insight into what is the very core of Whyte and Mackay, I went for a drink with Rob. It was then he offered me... THE GIFT. A bottle of 22 year old Supreme – limited edition. Gorgeous. According to Rob, it was to thank me for supporting Whyte and Mackay and @the_nose and also for helping Rob out when he was new to twitter. Thank you Rob!

I continued my evening in Glasgow by having a scrummy dinner at Red Onion (Excellent place – try it!) with two other twitter friends, the fabulous duo @blessedsister and @tartancat . Wonderful, creative lassies and yet another proof that twitter is not just about telling people what you had for breakfast.
It's so much more – you get fridge magnets, too! Thank you @blessedsister – this one is now added to my collection! And I've learnt how to pronounce it...

After this Glaswegian experience (I did some work too – honestly!), yet again gobsmacked by the wonders that is twitter, I later continued my journey to Edinburgh where I attended and exhibited at a Holyrood conference about flood emergency response.

Having spent a whole day networking and talking flood protection, I came back to my hotel room to chill a bit – and to check my twitter feed. As you do.
To my surprise, I noticed a tweet about a Master Class whisky tasting taking place at Whiskirooms  in... Edinburgh! With @the_nose !! Tonight!!!
I quickly checked the time and saw it was actually just a few blocks from my hotel. BUT – it was starting in about 20 minutes! And you needed a ticket first... Damn.

Quick decision – then I was on my way. (I didn't have to think that hard.)
I arrived just on time and after some light persuasion, I managed to get a ticket, even if the last one had already been sold. I guess I came across as rather desperate to meet Richard...

And what a great evening it was. Six whisky samples (detailed list further down) were pre-poured in special whisky glasses for us to sample, under the gentle... I mean... robust guidance of Richard.
The tiny, intimate room was filled with enthusiastic whisky lovers with high expectations of what the Master Blender was going to say. And boy, did he deliver. If you ever get a chance to see Richard Paterson in action – please do. You won't regret it.

What this passionate man doesn't know about whisky is not worth knowing. And – it's not just about whisky, he tells you about Scottish history as well, little anecdotes told in an extremely entertaining way, stemming from an ardent belief and desire to spread the knowledge and pleasures of whisky.

From now on, I say "Hello, how are you?" to my whisky. I stick the whole of my nose in it and say "Hello" again. And again. Then I let it rest on my tongue, under it and finally let it go down, followed by a deep breath. It really adds to the experience.
Watch here how Richard Paterson explains about blended whisky to the Scottish actor David Hayman, here visiting Whyte and Mackay headquarters in Glasgow.

Watch and enjoy! Slainte!

The whisky samples were:
Isle of Jura 16 Years Old Island Malt
Jura Prophecy
Shackleton Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
Dalmore 15 Years Old Single Highland Malt
The Dalmore 1263 King Alexander ||| Single Highland Malt
The Dalmore 40 – Astrum