Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Switz

No, let's not call it Switzerland. We should call it The Switz instead, since the French say La Suisse and the Germans say Die Schweiz and the Italians say La Svizzera. Let's not call the EPFL library the Rolex Learning Center, which is a tasteless and campy name. We should name it instead the Swiss Cheese, which is probably what it is supposed to look like anyway.

Among the races which inhabit this magical land that I have just renamed, there are the Romands, who speak something like French, the Alamans, who speak something like German, the Ticinese, who speak something like Italian (whatever that is supposed to mean), and the Rhaetians, who speak a language no one else on earth can understand.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Wisdom Teeth and Bad Catholics

Today a dentist lady removed two wisdom teeth from my left. When the anesthesia wore off, it felt like someone had just gouged a hole in my jawbone, because someone freaking did gouge a hole in my jawbone. It was of a jia lat type i.e. the offending tooth on the lower row was cloaked in bone, which was in turn cloaked in gum, and took a lot of work removing.

The dentist lady has mercifully prescribed me painkillers. And advice that I can use a cold-pack when it hurts, which worked. Presently I am happily sedated and reading about religion from this guy who writes snarky passages in the Bad Catholic Blog. Life is still good! With painkillers on standby notwithstanding.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

About Sweden

Singers Ulrika Bodén and Sofia Sandén
Source: I forgot where I got this from

I went for a short trip to Sweden five months ago. Today suddenly I am writing about it. The thoughts and memories have been turned and churned around in my head and today they are a few short paragraphs. Maybe, it is better this way.

Finland to Sweden transport
The base was Helsinki and the destination was Näsåker, a village in the middle Ångerman valley in Norrland. The popular route to Sweden is cruise ship to Stockholm, but I found cruise ships to be a bore and opted for a land route: Pendolino to Seinäjoki, then regional train to Vaasa, then a (re-appropriated) cargo ship to Umeå across the Bothnian sea, then train to Kramfors, then bus up the valley to Sollefteå, then taxi to the village.

The trip spanned five days, most of it on transport, but I think taking the long way via Stockholm would not have helped much. Besides, I looked at the portraits they print on the krona and they all wore wigs. It then occured to me that maybe Stockholm is more of a wig-wearing kind of city. I wish to have nothing ever to do with that sort of place.

A map of the East and West Bothnias

Sketchy outline of the village Näsåker and the Ångerman valley
The drainage basin of the river Ångermanälven is in what they call the Swedish up-country, north of Stockholm and south of Umeå, the urban focus of Norrland. The river runs from north-west to south-east, passing through the village by a dam and an archaeological site at the rapids called Nämforsen, where there are rock carvings.

Näsåker is roughly 63 degrees north in latitude.
The area is dotted with small hamlets with crofts that look as if they have been plopped carelessly onto green pastures, with nary a trodden path to garnish their sides. Compared to these clumps of houses, Näsåker is a metropolis. It is not hard to deduce why Sollefteå, down the valley from Nämforsen with only 8,562 residents, can be called a city with a straight face by the Swedish authorities.

Näsåker hosts an annual folk music festival, from 2 to 4 August last year, without which I would not have bothered going to Sweden.
The scenery is beautiful. I had known this before by listening to Swedish folk music. So these things are actually quite useful.

A pictorial representation of kulnings and nyckelharpa music

Sketchy narration of the Urkult festival
The festival lasted three days. I foolishly bought the three-day ticket and attended only one day of it. The ticket came in the form of an wristband, which I kept on lovingly and then wore to school in NUS until it got awkward.

With me was Tristan, an Australian dude recently graduated from Physics. He was at the festival to support his sister, who played with the Crooked Fiddle Band. With him I was sure at least there was someone around I can speak English with, because most of the festivalgoers were Swedes. Tchah! But Swedish seemed quite an easy language to learn.

[I can say with confidence that most of the festivalgoers were Swedes: An African band did a poll during their gig. They asked the people present to raise their hands, first people from Sundsvall (~30), then Örnsköldsvik (~10), then Harnosand and Gävle and Uppsala and then Stockholm (more than half of the crowd). They did also call out for people from the African countries, and that was when the lone festivalgoer from Sudan was booed.]

The festival compound was in a patch of forest, where the villagers had built stages and dance halls for this very purpose. Unfortunately they still have not built toilets in the place, so we had to be content with portable ones which filled up to the brim by the third day. Unfortunately also they are unwilling to build more hotels here just for visitors in August, so we had to be content with sleeping in tents in campgrounds, charging fees comparable to a good Latvian hostel. So living conditions were grimy, and a bit snippy due to persistent drizzles.

The band Väsen

I had two stated missions for the trip to Näsåker. Namely:
1. To meet singer Ulrika Bodén
2. To find out how the guitarist Roger Tallroth tunes his guitar. Allegedly it is something like ABABAB but no one on the internet knows exactly how.

I sadly never met Tallroth after their concert due to time constraints, but the upshot is that I met Ulrika, and got an autographed album with it. She was singing to full pews at the village church, with people lining up to get inside once seats are made available. I was shoved to the front of the queue because I "came all the way from Singapore". Well, thank you, nice Swedish grannies!

The Original Swedish Arvika Blues Breakers

The only imperfection of this band was their unwieldy name, which I shall shorten to OSABB. I didn't know who these peeps were, but they were quite young and lively, and sang campy songs that pleased the crowd so much. People cheered and broke into dance in the middle of the crowd exactly the same way people in Finland do not. The power went out for five minutes and the crowd became livelier. We milled up to the front, trunk pressing against trunk. Then the power went back on and we became more excited still! When the rain looked like it meant business, everyone bought raincoats at the info counter, then returned to the stage front.

At the time, I was tied up with the lady at the counter. It turned out that the village had only one bus out of the place on Saturday, which was 9am in the morning: the only bus from Näsåker to the world. The lady was at a loss but was eager to give me more concert time for the rest of Saturday, because I came all the way from Singapore. I insisted that it was alright, I can always return another time, and right now make the best of this whatever band that's playing. At midnight her shift was over, so we bade each other goodnight and I dove back into the stage front and danced with the Swedes.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

About Exchange

For the fettered students from this part of the world, the idea of student exchange radiates an alluring aura. It is a portal to another world, alien and wonderful. It is a heaven populated with nice people, where exams are easy, where girls are good-looking, and where snow falls like it never will fall in Singapore.

The cynic in me disparages such rose-tinted views: a country is a country, where people get born, live and then die. And people from different countries are essentially the same. A polite Englishman is like a polite Singaporean, an antisocial Finn is as good as an antisocial Singaporean, and a Frenchman is to be treated the same way as a Singaporean who speaks French. No real rapport and cultural exchange between people can happen before the honeymoon stage of Exchange is done with.

The other issue is survival. A student on exchange whose prime obsession is travel forgets the rigours of academia. Being used to trips of only up to a few weeks at the time, he forgets to prepare for a stay of a half-year away from home. Problems will rain from the heavens and ambush him in bed, catching him unawares, ill-prepared, though later on all of them are eventually overcome.

My coming exchange is to Lausanne, at the shores of Leman, close by where they sell the overpriced timekeeping produce. It is a long swim across to Evian-les-Bains in French land, where purportedly there are a few resorts for the nouveaux-riches.

The school, EPFL, is one of my targets for postgraduate studies, which is why I am here.
My secondary objective is to avoid visiting as few of the national capitals in Europe as possible, avoiding especially also Paris, the French Riviera, Venice, Pisa, Milan, and any other place which must have been trampled flat already by tourists.

Saturday, January 05, 2013

Traveller's Philosophy

Foreign lands are living, breathing places. The land is real land, and the people are real people. The same schmucks that lumber about in your own country also lumber here, dealing with basically the same problems that you have. A race has been alleged to exist that spends all day breathing fairy dust, speaking untranslatable tongues, and sustains itself with nothing other than pure cultural splendour and fine cheese. This race does not exist.

What do you look for in a trip? What is a trip?
When you boarded the bus to work this morning, it was a trip. When you went to the park on Sunday, it was a trip. When you went to France last year, it was also a trip, on the same line of thought, only longer.
For the rest of this passage, it would be useful to keep this interpretation of travel in mind. If going overseas for you is a thing with too much of a mystical hoohah to ignore, then sadly I must say, you will not find what I say very engaging at all.