As the ash cloud hovers ominously over Europe, so does the discussion and debate about reimbursements, damages and loans.
I flew to Bangkok, and was stranded there, with SAS. I cannot praise them highly enough. We passengers were provided with bus transportation, with hotel accommodation, with breakfast, with lunch, with dinner. We were given a voucher to cover email time and 3 minutes of international phone calls.
Other airlines made their passengers sleep at the airport, or pay for their own hotel and food. FinnAir flew people to Helsinki but, prior to boarding, made them sign a waiver to say they did not demand FinnAir should take them onwards to their final destination. So, once landed in Helsinki, passengers had to organise their own transportation to Copenhagen, Paris or wherever they were headed.
SAS got us home. Every one of us. At no extra cost to us.
For me, in the future, there is no competition. I will choose SAS every time I fly. I recommend everyone else does the same.
If we finally understand what a good airline SAS is, maybe we can save it from the bankruptcy that all experts are currently warning about. Sure, SAS might be more expensive than other airlines, but they have a humane approach to their customers.
I believe in karma. Do you?
The rain trickles down from the sky. Although it’s nearly May, the rain is a little icy. It stings a bit when it hits your skin. My coat is unbuttoned, so I pull it more closely around me. The wind cuts through me like a knife. I curse the fact that I only have a shirt on underneath and not a jumper too.
I walk along the road and notice that the cafés have opened their outdoor terraces. People huddle outside and drink a beer, or eat pizza. Some of them are lucky enough to have an infraheater above their heads casting a grateful heat onto them. Others may be shrouded in woolly blankets to protect them from the chill.
It really is far too cold to sit outside. But, this is Sweden, and it is the spring and as soon as the outdoor terraces are open, you sit there.
It is the continental thing to do.
You might not know this but I am an aristocrat. Yes, it’s true, I am titled. I am a Count. My official title is Balloon Count of Barkaby. I was given this title in a champagne ceremony a few years ago.
The title of Count or Countess is something that everybody is given after they carry out a journey in a hot air balloon over Stockholm. Where you land dictates where you become a Count or Countess of. I landed on a not-so-glamorous air strip in Barkaby, a not-so-attractive suburb outside the city.
Hot air ballooning is synonymous with the summer skyline of Stockholm. Every evening, weather permitting, the sky fills with a mass of brightly coloured balloons with baskets of gleeful passengers hanging beneath them. The growl of the flame can be heard on street level as the balloons sail gently across the evening sky.
From up there, you get a fantastic view of the city. You see clearly how Stockholm is built on islands and how bridges form a network of communication. You see the houses shining in shades of ochra, amber and gold. You see people busy in parks, on the water and in the squares.
In these days where the sky is filled with ash clouds and planes can’t take us where we want to be, perhaps it will become the era of the hot air balloon.
I wonder how long it’d take to get to England?
In London and many other cities, the cityscape is dominated by high walls, fences, gates, and locked doors. Signs saying ‘No entry’,’Tresspassers will be Prosecuted’ and ‘Private Property’ abound.
Not in Stockholm. One of things that strikes a tourist or a foreigner when they come to Stockholm is the openness and accessibility of the city. In Stockholm, you are mostly free to amble down canal paths and along the lakesides. No private owner has claimed it as their own. At bus stops, buses sink to street level to allow disabled people access to public transport. The city’s parks are not fenced in, or shut after 11pm, but spill out onto the streets that surround them.
But the thing that reflects Stockholm’s accessibility the most is the way the city presents its public buildings. The Royal Palace in the centre of the city is not fenced off like London’s Buckingham Palace to keep the hoards at bay. If you want, you can walk right up to the palace and touch it. The Houses of Parliament have a pedestrianised walkway running right through the middle of them connecting Stockholm’s Old Town to the commercial centre. Not a policeman in sight.
Stockholm’s politicians and royals are often seen on the streets or at public events mixing with the hoi pal loi. Granted, they have body guards, but they are very discreet.
Unfortunately, this accessibility has resulted in murder. Prime Minister Olof Palme and the Foreign Minister Anna Lindh were both struck down, one on the street, the other in a department store. These tragedies however have not removed the Swedish need for accessibility and openness.
Accessibility is one way in which the Swedes display their fierce belief in democracy.
And if you take that away, what then is left of a progressive modern society?
One of the Stockholmers favourite summer retreats is the archipelago outside of the city. The archipelago consists of over 20 000 islands. The islands are mostly flat and usually covered in greenery. They are various sizes ranging from the smallest of cobs and skerries to large islands with roads and villages. From the air it looks like God has broken digestive biscuits into different sized pieces and scattered them into the Baltic Sea.
Many of the islands are inhabited by permanent residents and a boat service carries residents to and from Stockholm in anything from one to six hours. Most islands, however, are not permanently inhabited, some having space only for a few wooden holiday cottages dotted about.
Many Stockholmers boat out to the archipelago in the summer months. They take picnics with them and munch on sour dough bread, quinoa salad and sip rosé wine. They sunbathe and swim from the rocks, often exotically naked. If the water temperature is over 17 degrees celsius they are happy. They glide in kayaks through calm, glistening water. They convene with nature.
I remember the first time I went out to the archipelago as a hardened Londoner. When we arrived at our island destination, all I could see was rocks and trees. I remember wondering where the pub was and how the hell anyone could spend a whole day sitting on a rock. But Stockholmers do just that.
For Swedes, the natural environment is very important whether it’s the archipelago, the woods or the mountains. It is as if many Swedes long to get away from their cosmopolitan lifestyles and retreat to their little red cottages deep in the woods. Or go fishing in fresh-water lakes. Or spend weekends picking wild berries. And mushrooms.
As little as a century ago, Sweden was an agrarian country with many of the people living under impoverished conditions. This heritage is still apparent in the Swedish mentality and could be one explanation for the sentimental relationship to nature.
Nature is an integral part of the Swedish lifestyle and Stockholm’s archipelago is the ultimate manifestation of this.
If you’d like to know more about Swedish culture, I strongly recommend this book – Fishing in Utopia by Andrew Brown. Written in 2008, it is about an Englishman’s experience of living in Sweden. In the 70’s he moved to Sweden to be with his Swedish girlfriend, then wife. Sweden was a Utopia for him – a welfare state that looked after its citizens. Unfortunately, his marriage didn’t work out and he moved back to England, where he became a successful journalist on The Independant.
Decades later, he decided to visit Sweden again to see if the Utopian future became true. Did the future everyone believed in then,actually come true? Or did the future disappear?
A great read. A fantastic way of describing a Sweden that was, and the Sweden of today. He tackles the small issues such as fishing in fresh-water lakes and the big issues such as what does it mean to be Swedish in the 21st century.
And so, miraculously, I am back in Sweden! We managed to secure seats on the only plane out of Bangkok that was flying to Scandinavia. Since the air space over Stockholm closes again at 20.00 tonight, we were really lucky! I now understand what a window of opportunity means.
I have to admit that it was rather scary knowing that we were flying over (through? around?) the ash cloud, but everything went well. When we landed, the relief that ran through the cabin was noticeable.
And one other thing was telling. The purser’s anouncement when we had landed on the runway went like this:
‘Thank for for choosing to fly SAS and Star Alliance. We hope you have enjoyed the journey and that you choose us again for your next flight – if we have survived ths….’
The far-reaching consequences of an eruption of a volcano on Iceland.
Escape Route 1
Fly to Bejing and take the Trans-Siberian railway across Mongolia to Moscow. Then take another train to Helsinki and a boat across the Baltic to Stockholm. Home!
Escape Route 2
Fly to Singapore and board a cruise liner across the Indian Ocean. Pass either round the southern tip of Africa or through the Suez Canal. Arrive in the Med and take a train up over Europe to Denmark. Take a train across the Öresund bridge to Malmö and then a train or bus to Stockholm. Home!
Escape Route 3
Catch a flight to Rome,Madrid or Athens when the air route is opened. From there, take a train, bus or rental car and drive up through Germany, Denmark and finally to Swedish south coast. Take train or bus to Stockholm. Home!
Escape Route 4
Catch a flight to Singapore and onwards to Los Angeles. Take another flight across USA to New York. From New York, fly to Rejkavik. From the Icelandic capital catch a boat to Norway. Once in Norway, take a train, bus or rental car over to Stockholm. Home!
Escape Route 5
Fly northwards to Shanghai and further on over Siberia and to the Arctic circle. Land somewhere icy and take a husky sledge through Russia, Finnish and Swedish lapland. Rent snow scooters to the first train station in Sweden (wherever that is). Take a train or bus down the long, thin country of Sweden to Stockholm. Home!
On Thursday I was due to return to Sweden after my trip to Thailand. This didn’t happen. A volcano erupted on Iceland spewing ash into the atmosphere and causing air space to be shut down over Europe.
My flight was cancelled and I marched out of the airport in a long line of disgruntled passengers, bussed back into Bangkok and put up in a hotel.
Three nights later and I am still here.
The hotel is a SAS hotel so all of the guests here have the same problem. A mixture of Swedes, Danes and Norwegians remain grounded and nobody knows when we will be able to get home. Experts see no end to the volcanic ejaculation.
We are lucky. Many other airline passengers have been forced to finance their own accommodation. Our hotel rooms are paid for by SAS and all our food is included. A plentiful buffet is provided at breakfast, lunch and dinner. It feels like an Atlantic cruise – with no certainty of when it will end.
You can tell how long somebody has been here by the amount of food they pile on their plate. Those who are newly-arrived stack the food high onto their plates, returning frequently to the buffet. If it’s free, then it’s good.
Those of us who have been here longer have developed a more restrained approach to the food – for us, moderation is the best policy. Since we’ve understood that we don’t know how long we’ll be here we have also understood we can’t eat an endless amount of deep-fried spring rolls and cream cakes.
How will this adventure end? When will we return to Swedish soil? How fat will we be when we get off that plane in Sweden?
Watch this space…..
Yesterday as we drove around Bangkok, people standing by the sides of the roads threw buckets of water over the windscreen of our car. This throwing of water is is the most obvious celebration of Songkran (Thai New Year). Thais roam the streets with containers of water or water guns (sometimes nicely mixed with talc), or post themselves at the side of roads with a garden hose and drench each other and passers-by.
The throwing of water originated as a way to pay respect to people, by capturing the water after it had been poured over Buddhas for cleansing and then using this “blessed” water to give good fortune to elders and family by gently pouring it on the shoulder. Among young people the holiday evolved to include dousing strangers with water to relieve the heat, since April is the hottest month in Thailand (temperatures can rise to over 100°F or 40°C on some days). This has further evolved into water fights and splashing water over people riding in vehicles.
Nowadays, the emphasis is on fun and water-throwing rather than on the festival’s spiritual and religious aspects, which sometimes prompts complaints from traditionalists. In recent years there have been calls to moderate the festival to lessen the many alcohol-related road accidents as well as injuries attributed to extreme behavior such as water being thrown in the faces of traveling motorcyclists.
It’s a good job that this celebration doesn’t exist in Sweden. To ‘kasta vatten’ – to throw water – can also mean to piss.
And you wouldn’t want strangers in Stockholm to ‘kasta vatten’ on you as you cycle past minding your own business.