Thursday, July 8, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 13

We left our airport hotel room a little earlier than we should have needed to, because we hadn’t been able to sit together on the flight out and wanted to minimize the chances of that happening again. This time there was no problem, and then the flight was delayed by close to an hour, so we had lots of time. The in-flight video system wasn’t operating, which I’m sure frustrates lots of people. I always bring my own movies though, so as long as I can plug in the laptop – which I could – I’m happy. I'd already finished Helas pour moi but I watched Harry Kumel’s Malpertuis and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai (I honestly don’t bring my entire DVD library on vacation – I just had one more movie left) and wrote a bit of work-related stuff (maybe this sounds like a terrible sign of real life instantly creeping back in, but it’s not that tough for me to switch it on and off). I also started reading Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded, but God knows if I’ll ever finish that once normal life resumes. Ally slept much more than I did and also tore through the first 200 pages of Dragon Tattoo.

The trip accomplished exactly what we hoped for: to take us back to Paris and sharpen our faded sense of it, and then to open up a new country providing a bit of a contrast. We enjoyed every single day and had no significant problems at any step. All our hotels were in perfect locations, which is never guaranteed, and they were at least fine in all other respects too. As always when we head home, our heads overflowed with memories and impressions.

To the extent we can rely on our memories, Paris really hadn’t changed that much. Of course everyone is on their cell phone now, and so I suppose you have the same escalating divide between inner and outer lives. But the outer life sure is solid – you can go for blocks without seeing anything resembling a new building. That could be a sort of paralysis if it wasn’t all so constantly alluring and vibrant (except, of course, when it’s being alluring and sophisticated instead). There’s a lot of angst, it seems, about whether France is doing enough to look forward as effectively as it looks back. Even on the short train journey to the airport, you pass through some pretty grim looking areas, and others that seem merely unassuming, and it’s pretty obvious life there has little to do with romantic visions of the Seine. But then, every city has its ups and downs. The difference, I guess, is that (for instance) Toronto's highs don't matter to much more than Torontonians; Paris's highs hypnotize the world.

It’s somehow not surprising that Sweden , although part of the European Union, stood aside on the Euro and continues to use the Kroner. There’s a sense of stubbornness to the country; the necessary reticence built on knowing it doesn’t quite have a Paris, or an empire, and has to take care of itself. That could be an ugly trait, and some say they see that in Swedish society, but we saw very little ugliness (visual, metaphysical, or otherwise). We liked the relative lack of crowds and the surprising feeling of light and space – Stockholm is surely undervalued as a scenic destination. The side-trip to Gotland added a little to our sense of the country’s inner rhythms. And at the end of the day, you appreciate a lot of things (some of them important, some of them perhaps not) a little better than you did.

We were back home by mid-afternoon (oh boy I thought Paris was hot) and all unpacked and settled in within an hour. I discovered I lost two pounds, which must be a relatively rare vacation feat (Ally has not weighed herself and even if she had, I expect the information would be censored). I always used to end my annual diary with the true resumption of normal life: we’d go and pick up Pasolini and bring him home, and then we’d know we were really back. Pasolini died in March though. In September our new dog Ozu will be coming to live with us, and we’ve contemplated maybe staying in Canada next year and just spending our vacations with him, because we regret not doing that more when Paso was young (and it’s not as if we’ve even scratched the surface of our own continent). A year from now though, when Paris and Sweden are a year in the past, the motivations may seem different. And of course I have no illusions Ozu’s first year won’t largely consist of him being a pain in the ass (so maybe, much as I know we'll love him, we'll feel like a break). But for now, since we’re safely home, I’ll end as things should have been, if only our brave wonderful friend Paso could have been a little luckier.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 12

We were up at 6 am today, and for once we stayed up. It was a beautiful day in Stockholm, and it would have been so alluring to slide into the slow early-morning activity, but instead we took a cab to the airport. Is there a more comprehensive short-term hell than the check-in process? The automatic machines seem to promise a smoother process, but it’s just a psychological trick, merely displacing your frustration onto the tortuous baggage drop-off line. The airport didn’t actually seem that busy overall, but at the check-in point you would have sworn the whole country was heading into exile. Anyway, all of that said, we had time for a quick breakfast and our flight to Paris was on time.

We were both delighted with the Sweden trip. We’re both big believers in the cliché about travel broadening the mind, and even if a particular excursion doesn’t necessarily do that so much – for instance by primarily confirming preexisting impressions rather than generating new ones, or by providing mental postcard images more diverting than they are instructive – there’s a huge value to feeling at ease in the world. A lot of people just aren’t – we tell them we’re going to somewhere like Sweden and they reflexively ask if we’re visiting family members (the assumption being no one picks a foreign destination – unless it involves lounging on a beach - on any other basis) or whether we’re taking a guided tour (because even in the Internet age, how could you ever trust yourself not to screw it up?). We are not adventurous travelers by any means, but it’s one of the happiest things in my life that we’ve occasionally been able to engage with the world as a menu of choices rather than a series of barriers and traps. The other thing, of course, is that for now at least we have the resources to do all of this. I know for many people it's simply impractical, except perhaps for the dream of one day taking that “trip of a lifetime.” We’re pretty obviously getting stuck in wretched economic times, and I don’t think foreign travel is going to get any more accessible in the foreseeable future, if ever. It’s sad, because along with the miserable standard of cultural education and awareness, it’s just another thing adding to the prevailing ideology's unbelievable stupidity. If you can find a workable revolution anywhere close by, sign me up.

Anyway, we are spending our last night in the Sheraton at the Paris airport, because that’ll make things easier tomorrow morning. It’s actually right within terminal 2, and from the window you can look down at the activity below and then at the runways beyond…maybe not a classic Parisian view, but still kind of diverting. We had a smooth flight and a very quick turnaround within the airport and then headed downtown on the train, getting off around 3 pm at the Les Halles shopping complex. Apparently it’s regarded locally as a bit of an eyesore, but at first glance it has some rather eye-catching angles, and the fact we couldn’t find the right exit added to the adventure. Then when we did get out we were opposite St-Eustache church, which is very beautiful. I have been negligent in documenting all the architectural highlights of our trip, partly because it’s all in the guide books anyway, but in both Paris and Stockholm we would occasionally stop ourselves and say something like: you know that building above the café, it’s actually gorgeous! And then we’d pause and look up, and it really is! But what can poor tourists do other than drink in the whole – if we were paying due respect to all of the individual parts, we’d never be able to leave.

We instantly remembered that Paris is many multiples busier and faster-moving than Stockholm, magnified today because it’s unbelievably hot here. We walked round the neighborhood a bit, back past the Pompidou Center, and then to the Bastille/Marais neighborhood, which we hadn’t visited first time round. We would have gone to the Picasso museum, but it’s closed for renovations until 2012, so we mainly wandered the streets – lots of slow-moving people, café activity, elegantly distinctive-looking stores. We came to the place de la Bastille, with the opera house on the other side, and then wandered back down towards the Seine, where our pace got more and more leisurely. You know, some of those intellectual book sellers actually use the philosophy volumes and the historic prints to hide material like “America’s Biggest Tits.” That’s the kind of thing you notice when your pace slows down. And frankly, I question whether it's even a well-researched claim.

Anyway, Paris never runs out of options of course – we’d talked about the Musee d’Orsay too, which would have got us out of the heat, but we didn’t feel like it. We ended up eating much earlier than usual, at the Deux Magots café I mentioned earlier. The outside spaces were crammed, but we sat inside, where it has a more desolate but entertaining air. We split a club sandwich and a weird salad, presumably a signature dish of sorts, comprising lettuce, green beans, foie gras and duck. Then we walked some more and stopped for a final glass of wine, and a final tarte tatin, at the same place we’d spent the evening after our day in Chartres. We took the train back, and that was almost it. Except that we did walk around the airport for a while – it’s rather liberating to walk through an airport just because you can, with no immediate pressure about checking in or security. Some parts were deserted, others were still teeming with late night flight activity, mainly to the far East. For us, that’s tomorrow’s problem. When we entered the hotel, we glanced towards the bar and every face in the place was staring silently upward in the same direction – yep, Germany versus Spain. We were of course neutral (we love all of Europe equally!), but our unscientific survey of the streets earlier suggested greater local support for the latter. So I guess they must have been happy.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 11

We decided today to visit one of the many islands in the Stockholm archipelago, choosing Vaxholm mainly because it’s the one with the most boat routes. We missed the 10.30 boat by about ten seconds, but anyway that was just any old boat whereas the 11.00 boat was a “classic steamer.” The trip (some 16 km) took just over an hour (this by the way is a photo of our hotel from the water), and of course there’s always something alluring about chugging along on a boat, watching the sights come and go (Vaxholm is actually connected to the next island by a bridge, and we could have got there by bus, but how exciting would that be?) On arriving we had a bit of lunch and then embarked on what turned out to be - exceeeding our ambition - a three hour-plus walk around the island’s entire circumference. This included some very quiet residential areas, snatches of the shoreline, a camp ground at the island’s far end, and then a trail back along the other side, bringing us right out where we started. It was all very easygoing and satisfying. Throughout our visit in Sweden, the parks and paths and other public spaces have seemed much more widely used than we’re used to from other countries – in a way you miss the experience of leaving everyone else behind, but it's nice to feel the sense of mass participation .

I mentioned before how Sweden reminds me of childhood summer seaside rituals, and it sometimes feels like a bit of a throwback in other ways too. For example, both Visby and Vaxholm had copious posters for a traveling circus (two different ones). I vaguely remember traveling circuses in my childhood, but if they exist now, it’s off my radar. The circus coming to Vaxholm is called Cirkus Maximum and even has elephants, which I don’t think is really appropriate in our enlightened age, unless we assume Sweden in some respects isn’t enlightened.

It’s very clean anyway; I’ve seldom been anywhere with so little litter. What else? You hear a lot of English around here, often clearly as the common language between people from different places altogether – last night for instance an adjacent table had what seemed to be a Swedish and a German couple. For someone who’s not that strong in English, like a woman we heard struggling to get her point across at the hotel the other day, it can be a bit daunting. It’s hard to overstate how easy we have it. Swedish itself, from our warped perspective, often seems inadvertently funny, crammed with words like “Slut,” “Utfart,” and “Tvatt”…I expect an expert parodist could have a fine old time with it. Naturally I say this with full respect for the Swedish literary tradition (and hey, I have at least twelve Ingmar Bergman films at home!) But even if you have to absorb the shots and converse in funny old Swedish, better that than sitting morosely in silence, sharing a meal with someone you plainly have no remaining instinctive ability to talk to. We’ve seen a lot of that on this trip. We never have that problem because if all else runs out, we just talk about our forthcoming puppy Ozu.

And I’ll tell you something else – I think the Swedes really love lunch. Every lunch place is full by noon. Even at 11 you see people having lunch. I know that’s true at home too, but because North America’s economy now depends solely on maintaining 24-hour access to horrendous food, it’s not as interesting an observation there. And whereas Parisian dogs were usually off the leash – which, as I recorded, generates some problems – Swedish dogs always seem to be on their leash (some seem resigned to it, some don’t). Oh, and the female archetype of the tanned leggy blonde is only slightly less common than legend would have it. No surprise there, but I didn’t expect that so many Swedish men would have the look of taciturn paid killers out of lesser James Bond movies. And that’s the end of today’s Insight Corner.

We took a faster boat back, arriving in half the time. Then we actually purchased something, a painting by a local artist – we’d scouted out the gallery the other day. It’s a collage incorporating Audrey Hepburn’s face into a play of eyes and arrows, so obviously that’ll always remind us of Sweden. Then we returned to the hotel. I was in a bit of discomfort today – just mundane digestive stuff (which however has landed me in the hospital in the past), but that’ll be a cold day in hell, when I let that stop me from doing anything. Anyway, we are leaving Stockholm tomorrow, but we agreed we would ideally have spent at least one more day here – in particular because it would be so appealing to walk further along the water in various directions and see where it takes us. But then that’s the secret of quality entertainment, to always leave the audience wanting more.

Talking of quality entertainment, on the boat today I listened to Cream’s Wheels Of Fire and to Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds concept album, because I like to try and listen to everything on the ipod once in a while, and I figured I might as well burn off some of the duller stuff while I was fully occupied, visually-speaking. I must say War Of The Worlds in particular sounded quite a bit less silly and dawdling today. See, Sweden has its own kind of magic. And then back in the hotel I started watching Jean-Luc Godard's Helas pour moi, because you know, you ain't dealing with a chimp here. Oh my God! - for the first time in our trip, it started raining! Not too heavily, but it still impedes our perfect record...or maybe it just tells you we had good timing and we knew when to get out. Anyway, we had another fine last meal at Magnus Trotzig (last night's place was called Magnus Ladulas), a little more up-scale and very smooth and satisfying. I ordered a so-called mille feuilles constructed from root vegetables; Ally had a brisket dish, and we swapped a bit. We didn't stay out all that late because, you know, when you're done, you're done.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 10

At one point it seemed we’d get going earlier today, but then I drifted back to sleep and things again converged on the magic hour of 11 am. In most cities, you see landmarks and head towards them, or pick out places on the map, and they turn out to be further away than you think. In Stockholm it’s the opposite – we embark on what we think will be an hour’s walk, and it takes about fifteen minutes. So in a couple of hours this morning we explored virtually all of what seems to be the higher-end shopping district adjacent to the old city, wandering up and down many streets with elegant stores, long-established trees, and a slow summer ambiance. We found a covered market with lots of outstanding-looking food selections, no less appealing even though it seems every city now has such a market, and actually we live within five minutes of a pretty good one ourselves. We bought a sandwich and some cookies (and not that I want to reduce everything to a lowest common denominator, but it also seems to me that macaroons have all of a sudden become the predominant global cookie, not that there’s anything wrong with that). Oh look by the way, Sweden actually has some of those dumb-ass Segway things!

Afterwards we went to a movie. Whenever we visit a new country, if time and logistics allow, we like to do this, the quirkier the film the better, and over the years it’s built up into quite an eclectic list of experiences (most recently we saw The Brothers Bloom in Jerusalem). This one worked pretty well – we went to see The Joneses, which barely played anywhere in North America, but given the vagaries of international distribution found itself a screen in Stockholm (it was just us and two other people though, so maybe the North American decision-makers knew better). Demi Moore and David Duchovny play a pretend married couple, who move to a high-end community with their two pretend kids, embodying a perfectly designed and accessorized existence; they’re in fact a sophisticated form of product placement for their high-paying sponsors. It all works fine until, of course, everyone involved starts to want more. With its enjoyable if obvious critique of American materialism, the movie might in theory have played better to a more distanced European audience, although just about any viewer would likely wish for a sharper outcome. Anyway, it easily achieved what we wanted for it, although since a multiplex in one country looks more and more like a multiplex in any other, the experience becomes less distinctive over time (we actually couldn’t find the theater and had to get directions from someone in another theater, then we came round the corner and it was this huge colossus currently topped by a big plastic Shrek figure - hence my point about the standardization of experience).

Anyway, after that we wandered a bit more (and we finally bought something too – take a look, aren’t you jealous?!) and then we went to the Nobel Prize museum. It’s perhaps a bit of a disappointment because it spends too much time (and repetitively so) on the life of Alfred Nobel himself, and not enough on the prize’s recipients and what they may have represented, but on the other hand, I guess there are a lot of them. There's a little auditorium playing short films on some of the more interesting individuals, and the body of the museum has a weird moving banner display of all the winners, trundling over your heads, so at any point you might look up and say, oh yeah, Harry Martinson, that was a good one (literature, 1974). Since there are too many banners to be on the move at any one time, the rest are all bunched up at the starting point, conjuring the thought of Nobel Prize winners patiently waiting for their turn on the ski-lift. Anyway, it’s a great institution of course, but (for one of many examples) the choice of Barack Obama for last year’s peace prize – which I didn’t think made much sense at all, and which they must surely be regretting since his cold-blooded "calculus of war" acceptance speech – seems to demand more than the mere formal acknowledgement it receives here.

We passed a little group of (I think) Turkish protestors, but the impact was blunted since they’d positioned themselves behind a big stationary horse-drawn carriage (honestly Turkish protestors, you should have moved, that’s what any Nobel prize winner would have done). My Visa card hasn’t been working for several days - I should have called about it, but I guess I’ll leave it now until I get home. Then today I couldn’t use my bank card either. Maybe the white collar crime guys finally stumbled on my role in the derivatives thing and froze my accounts. Anyway, I’m entirely dependent on Ally to pay for everything, which is why she bought herself a big ice cream and just let me lick up whatever happened to drip on the ground. Nah, she was actually nicer than that. We also went to a bookstore which has a selection of Swedish books translated into English – apart from the Stieg Larsson stuff, this appears to consist entirely of lots of Henning Mankell, some guide books, a study of Norwegian exchange rates over the centuries and (I swear) a shelf-full of Abba. A customer was asking at the front desk whether they had any English-language books on mining. Boy, did that guy get a wrong number…

I think I was correct that yesterday’s crowds were due to the weekend – it’s much sleepier again today. There are tour buses, but they mainly seem to bring Scandinavian visitors to the nearby Royal Palace, which I guess means more to the locals than to us (all we see is a big grim looking building with a single guard outside doing the don’t-let-me-smile thing). And despite a somewhat overcast start today, we still have not had a single drop of rain. Anyway, we returned to the hotel for a couple of hours. Later we went to another restaurant, more than making up for last night. It had a cavernous kind of ambiance which we liked; Ally had chicken and I had quinoa salad. I'm pretty sure no one who's not officially vegetarian ever orders the quinoa salad, but I feel last night's order of pasta with beef did not reflect the true me, and I felt redeemed and happy (I've liked the idea of quinoa ever since David Lynch made his weirdly mesmerizing quinoa-cooking video). We kept on ordering drinks until we were the last ones in the whole place, so folks, I call that a success.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 9

We left Visby at around 11 this morning, to catch a noon flight back to Stockholm - one of the few airport-related occasions when setting out an hour in advance provided way too much cushion. It's also the only commercial flight I can recall that was actually in the air earlier than the departure time printed on the ticket. We were in our Stockholm hotel by 1.15 - again staying at the First Hotel Reisen, although our room this time isn't quite as nice (last time we had a balcony).

We had a quick lunch at the underground "Art Cafe" and then walked to Moderna Museet, the Modern Art Museum, on the island facing the hotel. Stockholm was infinitely busier today, and in fact it was almost hard to recognize it as the same place. Part of this might just be weekend volumes in general, although a Red Bull-sponsored event was drawing big crowds in the harbor - as far as we could tell, it mainly consisted of people dressing up in wacky costumes and taking dives. I'm not saying it couldn't qualify as performance art, but we had something even classier in mind.

I rather wish I'd thought to buy a poster or something from every modern art museum we've ever visited, because it would be quite a wide and quirky collection by now. It's possible to get a little tired of so many works asking the same questions about the nature of representation, the generation of meaning, the relationship between the artist and the spectator, and so forth...and of so many curator's notes merely reiterating those same themes. Once in a while you'd like to see a modern artist wholeheartedly devoted to a more prosaic preoccupation like "Wow, I really love milk," or "What a shame frogs can't talk." That (very) minor observation aside, they're endlessly rewarding and provocative destinations. The Stockholm museum has enough of a collection at least to give it some table stakes - a few Warhols, some Legers, a Dali, and so forth - and of course a variety of one-offs and oddities.

At the current time it also has a quite extensive exhibition - it seemed like more than 100 works - by Ed Ruscha: the program says his work "is driven by a fascination with the power and enigma of language and characterized by a delight in paradox, ambiguity and the incongruous." The word "delight" seems well-chosen - seeing so many Ruscha paintings in succession (often consisting of a single word or phrase against a background), you sense consistent applied curiosity and investigative focus, but little over-elaborated pain or heaviness. The museum's basement also had some more challenging videos and installations - that's where you usually find the stuff they're not sure about, in the basement (see, even the power sockets are edgy!). Indeed, this all would probably have rewarded greater concentration, but I guess you'd say we just sampled it (we are tourists after all).

There's also a National Museum, but we're not going to bother with that - it's probably mainly of interest if you know your Swedish history, and anyway everyone we've seen going in or out of there has looked very ancient, so I'm not sure we'd be able to distinguish the exhibits from the visitors. We wandered round a little bit more before returning to the hotel. Stockholm is absolutely gleaming today - it's a beautiful, restrained jewel of a city (I say restrained because nothing about it seems remotely gaudy, except perhaps for the van we saw driving round to advertise a local strip joint). And no one should begrudge the Stockholm residents this gift of summer - the cab driver was moaning to us that the snow comes up to his roof every winter and he just can't take it any more (so he intends to split his year between Sweden and the Far East).

I just lapped up The Phantom Of Liberty - I've seen it numerous times before, but I can't tell you how much I enjoyed watching it (and, of course, watching it in Sweden is worth an extra something). Ally meanwhile has finished the Amanda Boyden and Annabel Lyon books she brought along, and won't be detained for long by the current Elmore Leonard, so we will need to go shopping for adequate return-flight reading - I was suggesting the first of the Stieg Larsson trilogy might be worth a try given the local resonance, even if she'd be coming a little late to that party (I suggest virtually all the books she reads because I'm more tuned into reviews and suchlike, but because I'm always watching movies (etc.) I seldom read any of them myself..might sound odd, but usually works out...)

In the evening we walked out of the old city and into a presumably more "normal" neighborhood, which alternated drabness with thriving city activity. We walked through what looked like university grounds - not the most handsome of campuses, but still with the traditional accompanying color. From there we found ourselves in a series of atmospheric old streets, the kind where you could bring in a bunch of actors in circa 1900's costumes and you'd barely need to change a thing to guarantee your movie's verisimilitude. Crossing back into the old city, we went to a restaurant described by the guide books as one of Stockholm's best, and to our first disappointing meal of the trip, mainly due to inattentive service, something I truly hate from somewhere obviously putting itself out there as being a notch above (Ally had elk burger; I had pasta with beef, which I might have liked more under different circumstances, or maybe not). We abandoned our plans to hang out there and went back to the hotel, where we drank a bottle in front of the water, and the brief interruption in our good mood evaporated.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 8

Gotland is a big island, and most people (I imagine) spend a portion of their trip exploring it by car or bus or by bike. We thought of renting bikes today, but ended up sticking to our tried and true walking routine. This means we've ended up covering only a very tiny portion of the total land mass, but...well, that's just your metaphor for life then...

We got going around 11 am seems our unpredictable sleeping patterns (I once more woke up early and occupied myself for a couple of hours before drifting off again) always net out to the same starting time. We went along the coast to the south, noting that Saturday morning is obviously the big departure time (this also reminds me of the mechanized nature of the classic British seaside vacation - you get rid of the old batch on Saturday morning and a new crowd rolls in a few hours later). The trail wasn't as immediately promising as yesterday, but within half an hour we were walking along cliff tops, with a great view back onto Visby harbour (very busy today with car ferries coming in - it's also a stopping point for cruise ships) and down onto much quieter beaches below. Not to overdo the British comparisons, but the terrain reminded me of it too, with stony paths and lots of hardy little flowers. Yesterday everyone on the beaches was covered up (so much for the myth of Swedish decadence!) but today we could see a woman swimming nude down below us. We found a path down to the shoreline, which eventually led us into the woods. Now it felt like we were far from everyone, but we gradually started to hear a droning got louder, and we suddenly hit a fence, looking through to a kids' go-kart track. So much, once again, for our illusions.

We walked up and found ourselves at a resort called Sommarland, which sounds kind of lame and probably is. We crossed the road and followed the cycling trail into a little residential area, which was pleasant but didn't really get us anywhere, so we retraced our steps, heading slowly back along the top of the cliffs and stopping along the way to eat our cunningly pre-purchased lunch. We headed back into Visby by another path, exploring the upper end of the city, where things are set up for normal life rather than for tourists. Looks like the majority of stores still close for Saturday afternoon, which I personally admire, but perhaps if you live here you just find it a pain in the ass, and you dream of unrestrained retail access.

We ended up back where we always do, today trying out Visby Glass' competitor (actually called Glass Magasinet, not Skopglass) - by the way, I said they have Ben and Jerry's, but before booking your trip, keep in mind a scoop of Ben and Jerry's will cost you an extra 5 kroner compared to the regular scoops. We are not really monitoring our expenditures, but I'm sure Swedish prices are a bit higher (it's an unfamiliar exchange rate so you tend not to focus on it) - certainly our Norway trip a few years ago ended up being relatively expensive. We wandered round Visby a bit more, filling in a few more unseen patches - at certain moments it looks as impossibly pretty as Disneyland - and then went back for our siesta.

We're not getting much insight into the Swedish psyche on this trip. It's a trite impression of course, but people feel pretty self-contained here - for example, when you're walking these remote routes and you pass someone going the other way, in some countries they'll habitually greet or acknowledge you, but here they generally stare straight ahead and keep going. Not that I'm saying we warrant a greeting. But superficially, you get the sense of a country that's figured out its own route in the world and values its inner cohesion (some people say Sweden has a strong vein of racism and corruption...unsurprisingly it's less of a visual melting pot than back home, but otherwise we're hardly here for long enough to explore such undercurrents). Other random observations. Many Visby restaurants supply blankets with their outside seating; hardly necessary this week, but presumably a nice touch at certain times. The bicycle racks sometimes come with little hoods to protect the seat from rain. And Visby even has a university, although one seemingly specializing in just a handful of quirky areas, including motion capture and DNA testing.

Anyway, I started watching Luis Bunuel's The Phantom Of Liberty (so many movies I wish I could watch annually, instead of every two or three years at the most). We had an exceptionally pleasant final evening here, walking round and filling in yet more gaps in the maze, and then randomly choosing a restaurant where we shared a quiche appetizer and chicken/vegetarian pasta main courses, and lots of wine. Then I ordered "grog" because it was on the drinks menu and I didn't know what it would get me, although they didn't seem sure what to do about it either (it ended up being kind of like a whiskey sour). The town was full of happy activity, not just from a presumably new influx of tourists but also from setting up for some water sports event over the next few days. Looks like it's even gonna be on Swedish TV (and presumably actually in Swedish). Must be the place to be!

Friday, July 2, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 7

This time Ally spent an hour awake during the night and I slept straight through...we'll both get it right eventually. The woman in the hotel seemed very perturbed that we didn’t eat any breakfast, and also seemed reluctant to believe we had no complaints about anything at all…maybe that speaks to her past experience with English-speaking visitors. Anyway, we walked up along the coast from Visby, which you can do for 3 or 4 km until ending up at Snack, consisting mainly of a hotel and campground (and, sure, some snacks). Along the way we saw many tents and caravans and little holiday chalets – it really does seem to be a place offering something for everyone, regardless of their budget. It actually makes me think quite vividly of 60’s and 70’s Britain when hoards of “working class” families would take their summer break in some seaside “holiday camp,” crowding for a week onto whatever little patch of sand they could find and praying it didn’t rain. Visby has somewhat better beaches than that, and (presently at least) better weather, but there might be some broad similarity in the place it occupies in the Swedish scheme of things.

Pleasing to note by the way that we have not had a single drop of rain on the trip so far, and never a night when it wasn’t warm enough to sit outside, if we wanted to. Sweden has been a few degrees cooler than Paris, but you could hardly detect that today. The trail along the coast is unbrokenly scenic, and very well-used both by walkers and cyclists – the only minor drawback is that it doesn’t actually smell all that good. I imagine it’s a natural phenomenon and you probably get used to it, but it certainly counted as an imperfection today. On reaching Snack we walked up a bit and then came back a different way, mostly along “nature trails,” although of the common variety where you’ll succumb to the illusion that you’ve wandered far from everywhere, and then you come round a bend and realize you’re right next to the road. We saw far fewer people on this route than we did along the coast, which helps the illusion of doing something rare and far removed.

Arriving back in Visby, we got some ice cream from the magnificent ‘Visby Glass,’ which has just about every flavor you can think of (well, no apple) and all locally made…it seems to have the advantage over its next door neighbor and competitor “Skopglass,” although Skopglass does offer Ben and Jerry’s. I had crispy chocolate and mandarin, Ally had passion fruit and blueberry. We then walked fifteen minutes or so to the windmills we’d spotted last night. Unfortunately they are pretty much derelict now and not in particularly good condition, although the sails are still there. Windmills are strange and gorgeous creations: through modern eyes, they're a ridiculously unwieldy way of accomplishing their designated task, and yet they're oddly progressive - not just in harnessing natural energy, but even embodying a living space explicitly dependent on it...

From there we made our way back to the hotel for our afternoon break. What a great rhythm it is we have on vacation. Year after year on vacation I find myself thinking, I need to find a way of integrating this better grasp of how to live into normal life. I don’t really have that feeling this time though, because with my job change and better control over my schedule, I’ve actually made some progress to achieving it. Ally is still more tied up in work-related logistics, especially the commute, but she's content nevertheless. So we are in good shape. At least until September, when our new puppy Ozu comes to live with us and disrupts everything (but then, it’s not like anyone held a gun to our head and forced us to take him).

A poster informs us British rock legends Status Quo are soon touring this region of Sweden…so that’s where such groups go to die. And appearing in Stockholm this very night – John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Rival fame, which might actually have been tempting for the sheer oddity of it, if we were in Stockholm. Swedish TV appears to consist in large part of American imports - it would work quite well for us, if we cared, since it's all subtitled rather than dubbed. When we came back last night, only one of the five main channels was carrying something in Swedish - the others had Spider-Man 3, The Sopranos, CSI New York, and a reality cop the hearts of the cultural guardians must swell with pride...

Anyway, since I'm more than adequately supplied with my own viewing, I finished watching The Ascent; I've also kept on top of all my designated websites, and done a tiny bit of work; Ally has finished one book and is tearing through another. We went back out and explored some more. Like Dr. Who's Tardis, Visby has the feel of being smaller than it is - once you start walking, it keeps opening up new side-streets and angles and squares and look-out points. It also has a ton of restaurants, and many of them were busy tonight, but then it's a vacation spot, and it's Friday night! We decided to do Italian, and split a pizza and a pasta, both good, although heavier than they would have been back home based on the same menu descriptions. Then we drank our wine, and the streets gradually thinned out...most likely the old-timers went home, and the others congregated and danced till dawn (a feat demanding fewer hours here than in most other places). We did not dance till dawn.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 6

It didn't get dark until close to midnight, and then at around 4 am the light streamed in again and woke me up. I can’t remember the last time Ally consistently slept so much better than I did. But after being awake for a couple of hours, I did go back to sleep again and stayed that way until around 9. We left the hotel at 10.30 and took a brief ferry ride, from a terminal just a few minutes away, to Djurgarden, site of one of Stockholm’s best known attractions, the Vasamusett. The Vasa was a warship that capsized in Stockholm harbor in 1628, barely into its maiden voyage, killing several dozen of its crew. It was largely forgotten over the next 300 years, then in the 50s a marine archaeologist relocated it; it was raised up in the early 60s and then, after extensive restoration work, placed in a purpose-built museum in the early 90s. Rising up in layers around the ship, the museum takes just about every angle you could think of: sketching a broader picture of Sweden at the time (which doesn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs); reconstructing examples of the dead crew’s faces based on their skulls and computer analysis; and so on.

The Vasa itself is quite magnificent (apparently the low salt content of the harbor aided its relatively good condition); like I was saying earlier about cathedrals, marked by an intricacy of detail that would surely seldom be fully appreciated once built, although presumably here for the glory of empire rather than God. And the magnificence is obviously tempered by the knowledge that it represents a rather profound design blunder – apparently the hull just wasn’t relatively wide and deep enough to provide sufficient ballast, so the ship was knocked on its side by the first gentle squall it encountered, and took on water through the gun hatches. And I’ll tell ya, as soon as I saw the hull, that’s what I said to myself, shaking my head in sorrow, oh God, those idiots, how could they have thought that was wide enough?

The standard downtown map of Stockholm has about one fifth the scale of that of Paris – a walk that might look demanding and complicated down on paper turns out to be a mere stroll. We walked back from the museum, crossing a bridge to Ostermalm, walking along the water to the area called “City,” and then across another bridge to our area of Gamla Stan, which is the old city. It only took about half an hour (there’s a water taxi providing “hop-on hop-off” service between all these points, but you’d have to be pretty lazy to use it, more like “haul-your-fat-slothful-ass-on haul-your-fat-slothful-ass off”). Then we split a chicken curry sandwich, before some further old city exploration. The most common current artifact seems to be pictures of the princess and prince, a hangover from the royal wedding just a week or so ago. We have however seen no Abba artifacts whatsoever.

At around 2.15, feeling like we’d already had an exceptionally nice return on the day, we caught a cab to Stockholm’s inner city airport, and just an hour and a half later we were on the island of Gotland…if only all transitions could be as uncomplicated. At first sight Gotland is remarkably lush and brightly coloured, as if everywhere else in the world were afflicted by a fog we’ve long stopped registering. A brief cab ride took us into the heart of the main city, Visby, where we are spending the next three days at the Hotel Stenugnen. We wouldn’t have planned to leave Stockholm so quickly, but Gotland is a very popular summer destination for the Swedes, and we could literally only find one available hotel room, and then only if we came on these specific nights. It’s an exceptionally nice little hotel, with a pretty white room staring out onto the street.

Everyone in Stockholm seemed to speak English as a matter of course – actually it often seemed to edge out Swedish as the default language. Gotland is a bit more (we must assume) truly Swedish, but it’s hardly a great difficulty. The universal language anyway isn’t English, nor love, but rather pointing/nodding/ shrugging. We had a fine walk around Visby tonight – it’s another old city with remnants of medieval walls and a near-maze of winding, cobbled streets, somewhat bigger than we thought it would be, and with promises of amazing walks leading off in all directions. Of course it’s also crammed with eating and drinking places (and has a movie theater currently showing Sex And The City 2 and Robin Hood). We covered most of the perimeter, insofar as that’s marked by the old wall anyway, and then had dinner at one of the eight restaurants constituting the “culinary Gotland” circuit. For the last few days we have not been eating that much, or seeking out anything too special, but we made up a bit for that tonight with an outstanding (and suitably expensive) meal. Ally had lamb and I (of course) had fish (cod), and we drank sangria for a change.

Afterwards we went for a further walk, along the coastline and past a ferry terminal where – from the looks of things – many Swedes turn up on vacation, leave their cars for the duration of their stay, pick up bikes at an adjacent depot, and do things the healthy way until it’s time to leave. Both Paris and Sweden, needless to say, are light years ahead of North America in this respect, with a steadfast commitment to bike lanes (Paris also has a recently implemented system of rental bikes which people unlock via credit card at one location and then drop off at another – it seemed to be a big hit from our casual observation). Visby further helps discourage cars by seemingly having a 2 mile an hour speed limit within city limits (well, I’m exaggerating a bit, but not much). We kept going until we’d just about left about the city behind (although we resisted the temptation of old-time windmills on an adjacent hill - is anything more postcard-perfect than windmills?) and then we walked back, choosing one of the many nearby hangouts to work through a bottle of wine (our vacation evening routine may have elements of repetition, but it’s damn good). An adjacent place was showing every sign of being a pull-out-the-stops pulsating night spot, but we’re just too old even to investigate. Although we’re only a half hour flight from Stockholm, it felt to me like it got dark an hour earlier, but my lack of knowledge of meteorology and related sciences prevents me from confidently asserting this to be the case.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 5

It’s difficult to say whether Paris’ famous style and self-assurance are particularly evident in the normal run of things. I mean, you certainly walk by people who strike you that way, but they’re not a majority, and since we’re obviously in one of the showcase areas of town, it’s hard to know whether you’re encountering everyday Parisians, or visiting Italians, or paid models (one can confidently conclude however that none of the people catching your eye for their stylishness are English). You do detect a greater overall assurance here…I don’t know if you’d call it a sense of entitlement, or rather one of history and context. The fact of so many bookstores and vendors prominently displaying very old and scholarly books, and even newsstands carrying magazines devoted to Proust and Pascal, suggests a refined collective awareness, even if that’s largely a self-aggrandizing myth worked on by the few on behalf of the many. As a counterpoint, the French are famously jumpy about protecting their economic entitlements, even when these make little sense and are plainly unsustainable (reportedly a wave of civil unrest may lie ahead over the proposal to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62). I suppose all cultures have their points of enlightenment and self-delusion, but at least you mostly get the feeling the French know what they like; I’m not even sure that much holds in North America currently.

Anyway, we left the hotel around 10 am today, but only so we could get in a quick morning walk before heading to the airport. We walked along the Seine’s left bank again, past Notre Dame, until the flavor started to drop away a bit, then we came back along one of the inner streets. It took about an hour. We checked out of the hotel, and the final proof of its perfect location is that it’s only a couple of blocks from one of the handful of downtown stations with a direct rail link to the airport (without requiring a metro change). So we took that, and barely more than an hour later we were all through security…today everything moved very serenely, although of course this may not be any kind of comment on the airport’s overall relative efficiency. I expect we are among the few people leaving Paris after four days without having added a single item to our collective possessions – we did not buy anything at all. In this respect at least we know what we like.

Semi-ambitious vacation plans always involve giving up some time to logistics, and this was our fate today – for seven hours we were primarily in transit. But then, what happens on either side on such days is usually so memorable that you remember those slivers of experience long after your fuller but more conventional days have faded into oblivion. Anyway, my personal goal for such passages is always to maximize the time you spend doing stuff you would have wanted to do anyway. So today, in addition to this blog, I wrote a movie article, watched half of Larisa Shepitko’s The Ascent, made some progress on the sizeable magazine backlog I brought with me, and napped a bit. Oh, and talked to Ally. But back to those memorable slivers of experience: today, to illustrate, will always stay in our minds as the day we entered a new country, Sweden, and a new city, Stockholm. The inward taxi ride followed the usual pattern, at one point wrapping us up in stalled traffic, but then we broke out of that, and the old city seemed astonishingly quiet and slow-moving after Paris. We are staying in the First Hotel Reisen, right on the water, although at first glance it appears virtually all of old Stockholm is on the water, the mainland and various interconnected islands combining into sheer expanse, at various points suggesting a series of facades that can't possibly have anything behind them. In its immaculate mixture of colorful historicity, and in its profoundly civilized relationship with the environment, it reminds us somewhat of Bermuda, where we lived for a few years and where we met.

We walked the entire circumference of the island that looks onto the hotel - it holds the Modern Art Museum, and seemingly has quite a boat culture on its far side. At around 8 it seemed the sun was on its last legs, but then it stopped descending, and it wasn’t ultimately dark until long after 11 (since we are not that proficient at using the camera, our photos from this evening are a bizarre minute-to-minute contrast of shots that might have been taken at noon and others that look like we were fighting off nightfall). We saw many groups of people setting themselves up on the grass with bottles of wine, just taking it easy and enjoying the sights – this, you feel, is part of picture-book Stockholm living.

We walked a bit deeper into the city, encountering a few streets conforming more to the downtown glamor model (they certainly have the biggest H&M we’ve ever seen) but more often wandering down narrow old lanes that don’t seem to owe much to recent decades. You always notice the little anomalies – cafes and bars here don’t seem to have table service, although of course restaurants do (no sign of Starbucks here by the way)…maybe it’s considered more virtuous to earn your drink by lining up for it. It’s very plainly a small town by comparison with Paris – among so many wondrous world destinations, it never reaches the top of the must-visit list for most people. Which is largely why we came here (plus, naturally, so I can indulge my fantasy of being here to receive a Nobel Prize, even if one of the lesser ones).

We eventually ate in an authentic-looking old place – we started with reindeer meat with whipped cream (fine, but we couldn’t really see the inner logic) and then Ally had Swedish meatballs (even in Sweden, that’s what they call them, Swedish meatballs) and I had vegetarian lasagna, and we shared the whole thing so it ended up a pretty good mix (people who just stick to their own food are really missing a trick). We went back to the hotel – and when I say things like this, I always mean Ally got us back to the hotel, she has all the navigation smarts – and had another drink at one of the tables outside. And that was a pretty darn good first night in Stockholm. Tomorrow, logistics demand that we move on again, but we’ll be back for three nights next week, all geared up for ABBA sightings.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Vacation Diary - Day 4

I finally slept through the night, and of course Ally did too. Actually, in another example of how quickly you get used to things, I woke up assuming it must be 2 am or suchlike, but then discovered it was six hours later than that. Did another Starbucks run, although the usual Starbucks was closed because of some kind of mishap so I had to go to another Starbucks, a whole block away. Despite this example of market saturation, I don’t get the feeling Starbucks is particularly integrated here– the volume of activity it attracts must be dwarfed by all the cafes (and it must be said, ordering a venti Americano or whatever feels rather gauche by comparison). Actually, North American brand names aren’t particularly prominent here. I mean, you see Macdonald’s and Subway and suchlike, but in comparison to other world cities we’ve been in, they never feel like they own the block. And the garish posters for Killers and Cop Out (or Kiss and Kill and Top Cops as they’re called here), seen in between those for weightier European films and (as you can tell I’m obsessed by) homages to past cinematic glories, seem like a form of sly cultural mockery.

We again got going around 11 am and walked down to Montparnasse station, where we caught the train to Chartres, about an hour away. This was an idea I’d had last night because I thought of the following monologue by Orson Welles about Chartres cathedral, from F For Fake:

Now this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole western world and it’s without a signature: Chartres.

A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man. All that’s left most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked, radish. There aren’t any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe, which is disposable. You know it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us, to accomplish.

Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life. We’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced – but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.

Well, it’s not a traditional marketing pitch maybe, but sounds more than good enough to me. The cathedral dates back to around 1200, but as I was saying about Notre Dame, it’s so irreconcilable with present-day achievements that it might as well have been left behind by aliens. Chartres is a gorgeous but modest city; the cathedral rises out of it like a vision made possible only by digital trickery. It’s enormous, but you can’t look anywhere without registering painstaking detail and sacrifice. We walked round the interior; I always feel a little guilty observing people who appear to there to pray and be humble, but who must put up with hoards of chattering kids and camera flashes and general hubbub. We went back again four hours later, just before catching the train back, and it was much more peaceful and somehow appropriate.

In between we walked just about every street on the Chartres downtown map. It has the remnants of an old medieval wall, and much narrow, cobbled character within that perimeter; there’s a square with lots of eating and hanging out, a river, and in general it just feels supremely scenic and satisfying. Outside the walls it gets a little more functional but still provides the basis for a great afternoon of walking. At one point (and I apologize for all the dog stories) we saw a woman shouting frantically after one of her three dogs, who’d got spooked by something and started running wildly up the street – we tried to catch him as he approached, but failed. Through pure coincidence though we saw her again later; the dog was back on his leash and – from the sound of it – having to suffer a big piece of her mind. We had lunch right opposite the cathedral – a gorgeous, easy-going spot – and caught the train back after five hours or so.

We walked back through Montparnasse. I mentioned yesterday how central Paris only seems to have a single North-American-level high-rise building – it’s opposite Montparnasse station, looking utterly anonymous and uncomfortable (as if the aliens who deposited Chartres cathedral subsequently engaged in a similar, updated, but less inspired experiment). We walked along St. Germain, ending up at the bustling square just a few blocks down from our hotel. It was busier than Toronto ever gets, but without the near-desperation you sometimes feel in London. We chose a café and hung out for several hours, getting through a nice amount of wine, a croque monsieur and a tarte tartin. We engaged, as we tend to, in some high-quality people watching, especially enjoying (and I apologize for all the…oh, who cares) the young woman who turned up with her dog – she put him on the chair beside her and they just hung out enjoying the human show. The light slowly dimmed (although it’s not getting dark until close to eleven) and the action slowly dissipated (relatively). And then we went back to the hotel, having already concluded our last full day in Paris. Which doesn’t mean the fun’s even close to ending…