I am home in Sweden for a short autumn visit. It’s dull and damp and I am busy, but here are a couple of photos of bird houses and play houses that I took on Sunday in Hisingspark.
Life in Mini-Europe: it’s a life in plastic, but I’m not sure Barbie would feel at home here – there’s more going on than you might imagine
According to Mini-Europe’s English language website, this is where you can “visit Europe’s nices [sic] places” and see “the Best of the Best”.
Mini-Europe exists in the shadow of the Atomium. I had the opportunity for an overview – so to speak – during my time-travel experience there earlier this year. (See here.) Still, I wasn’t prepared to be quite as charmed as I was when Mrs SC and I paid it a visit recently.
I’m not sure whether it really has Europe’s nicest places, or whether they are indeed the best of the best. (As a Gothenburger, Mrs SC was a little peeved. The fine model of Stockholm’s city hall is the only building representing Sweden. This despite the half a dozen or so buildings for each of Belgium and The Netherlands.) Still, somebody has clearly had a lot of fun creating Mini-Europe. I was surprised and impressed at the attention to detail, also because they keep the park so up-to-date. (You’ll see what I mean in a bit.)
Mini-Europe is inhabited by mini-Europeans: mostly young, healthy tourists with a fetish about sunbathing. (For example, here they are, stretched out on sunbeds in Budapest’s Széchenyi Gyógyfürdö thermal spa.)
They also have a slightly plastic look about them, and often stand with their feet in something that might be mud. (Or worse. I am speaking from personal experience of the leavings of Brussels’ dogs.)
The entrance ticket comes with a 64 page brochure which does not just present the buildings and scenes modeled. It also has something educative to say about the European Union, as well as about each of the countries represented. The park sports at least one building from each of the 28 EU member states.
In the streets of Copenhagen (for some reason) a Belgian army truck – fully equipped with an anti-aircraft gun – stands ready to confront the terrorist threat. (I’m not sure how practical that is, but it’s certainly in keeping with the political reality in Brussels at present.)
Meanwhile, outside the Houses of Parliament in London a crowd has gathered. They are protesting Britain’s impending exit from the EU. “We heart EU.” “Me and EU 4 ever.” And my favourite: “I am not for or against anything I just like to walk around with a sign.” Slogans reproduced from a real protest that actually took place only days after the Brexit vote.
It will be a shame if Mini-Europe has to remove the British buildings. Apart from other considerations, think of all the work someone’s put into making them.
And what will happen to Ireland? Isolated beyond the empty spaces where Stratford and Longleat, Dover Castle and the crescents of Bath once stood? Will the little people still feel free to sunbath on their raft in the Shannon?
There are a few dramatic moments. A bicycle race in Paris (where visitors can try to help their favourites on to victory by peddling for them). Vesuvius, that erupts (or at least rumbles and shakes) when you press the right button. And in the harbour of Barcelona an oil refinery catches fire on a regular basis. Firefighters on land and sea rush to prevent disaster – by looking at the flames apparently.
But generally speaking life in Mini-Europe is pretty calm. The plastic people enjoy the mixed melodies – and blessings – of 28 national anthems (plus the “Ode to Joy”) whenever visitors press the right buttons. They sit around casually outside cafés and in ferris wheel gondolas, watching the world – and the giants – go by. And in Finland blonde women emerge from a little sauna to go skinny-dipping in the lake before nipping back inside (for some birch-twig flagelation no doubt).
It’s all so very EU.
I wrote this article for the #Blogg52 challenge.
London green: green is perhaps not the colour one first associates with London – red, perhaps, or black – but maybe one should think about green.
If you ask someone what colour they associate with London, I guess most people would say red (thinking of London’s buses); or red, blue and white (the colours of the London Underground); or perhaps black (thinking of the black cabs). The colours of the Greater London Council are red and yellow, blue and white, while the City of London’s coat of arms show the red cross (and sword) of St George on a white ground.
Green is one colour people don’t usually associate with London. Perhaps they should.
Last week Mrs SC and I were in England, partly to visit my family, partly to snatch a very brief break for the two of us in London. It’s many years since we were both together in Britain in spring, and after a long, cold, grey winter it was wonderful to be greeted by London under the sun and decked in green. We only had two days, but took the opportunity to walk through five of London’s parks to enjoy the London green.
London is such a tourist magnate, with all its sights, museums, events and buildings that it can be easy to forget just how much green there is in the city too. I’ve grumbled here before about “densification” (in Swedish, förtätning). This is the distressing behaviour of modern city planners and developers who believe the best thing to do with an open space in a city is to build on it. Preferably something monstrous.
I presume such planners and developers don’t actually live in the cities they are keen to make more dense. I imagine they have their family homes or vacation houses in the open countryside somewhere. People who actually live in cities – especially densely populated ones; people who don’t have a second home to flee to – perhaps have barely the one home they can afford; for these people the city’s green parks and open spaces are an essential amenity.
They’re not bad for tourists either.
In fact, according to this article from The Independent a couple a years back, 47% of London is green space. Mrs SC and I only visited a very small part of London green, but it was very enjoyable.
Our first day, we walked from our bed-and-breakfast hotel near Finchley Road up into Hampstead village and then across Hampstead Heath to Kenwood and Highgate, taking in this view across central London. There’s a bit of a haze in the photo, but you can see the City of London’s financial centre and the Gherkin building, and the Glass Shard at London Bridge. Just in front of it you should be able to make out the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.
In the second photo you should be able to make out the London Eye and the BT Tower – the spindle-shaped building to the right. (It used to be called the GPO Tower when I was a boy, in the days when Britain had a General Post Office that also ran telecommunications.) Between the two, on the horizon you can also see the radio and television mast at Crystal Palace. Unfortunately the resolution isn’t good enough to make out the tower that houses Big Ben at Westminster – but take it from me, it’s there. (For a much more detailed – and zoom-able – version of this view, visit Will Pearson’s London Panorama project.)
Our second day we entubed to Queensway and then walked through the chain of Royal Parks down to Whitehall. Starting in Kensington Gardens, we walked south and east to the Serpentine, the lake that snakes its way through Hyde Park. We followed the Serpentine along past Princess Diana’s fountain and the Lido – the Serpentine’s bathing beach – all the way down to Rotten Row.
From the far corner of Hyde Park we crossed into Green Park and walked on to the far corner near the front of Buckingham Palace. The Queen was home (the Royal Standard was flying), but she didn’t come out to say anything indiscreet to us.
The whole walk took about 2 hours. (We weren’t pushing it.) At Whitehall we caught a number 11 double-decker bus to St Paul’s and enjoyed sitting down on the top floor as the bus edged its way through the traffic. When we finally reached St Paul’s, we had a sandwiches sitting in the sun on the steps of the Cathedral with all the other tourists.
That wasn’t all we did in London, but I think it’s enough for this blog entry.
This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.
W W Thomas Jr is the only name that looks remotely English (Welsh in fact), carved in stone in S A Hedlund’s Guest Book, but he turns out to be American and with a story to tell
About 10 minutes walk from my home in Gothenburg, near the entrance to a park, is a rock-face – a smooth granite cliff – inscribed with dozens of names. This is SA Hedlund’s Guest Book.
The first time I was taken to see it, soon after I first visited Sweden, I recognised exactly two of the names: the playwright Henrik Ibsen and the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. My (Swedish) guide was perplexed. What about Fredrika Bremer? The feminist Fredrika Bremer? No? Well, you must at least know Viktor Rydberg. He wrote “Tomten“!
I shook my head sadly. I did not know Viktor Rydberg. I had never heard of “Tomten”.
My companion was aghast at my ignorance. Clearly my claims to be a university educated student of history and literature were seriously in doubt.
And how is it, she asked, that the only two names you do recognise are Norwegian?
I’m very sorry, I said.
Not wanting to be found completely unworthy I scanned the rock desperately for names I might recognise. They all seemed to be Scandinavian. Or German. Except… Who was W W Thomas Jr? I asked
I don’t know, she said, offhandedly. Some Englishman.
But he wasn’t.
William Widgery Thomas Jr was an American. He was born in the city of Portland in the State of Maine in 1839. He first visited Sweden in 1863 when he was appointed as the first American-born Consul in Gothenburg. Not bad for a 23-year-old. This started a life-long love affair with Scandinavia in general and Sweden in particular.
In many ways, Thomas was probably typical of his age and class. His appointment (as the American Civil War dragged on) was probably in gratitude for his family’s support of the anti-slavery movement and the campaign to elect President Lincoln. Officially he was to be the contact man for American citizens visiting Gothenburg. In fact his job was also to counter Confederate propaganda and recruit immigrants to the USA – especially trained soldiers for the Union army.
Although opposed to slavery and so – you’d think – committed to the equality of all mankind, Thomas had very decided views on what was the Right Stuff for an American citizen. His fellow consuls in Britain were recruiting many Irish. Thomas disapproved. The Irish he thought “fickle, merry, light-hearted” and infected by Catholicism; Scandinavians were far superior, especially the “honest, pious, plodding Swedes.”
His period as Consul came to an end in 1865, but in 1870 he helped Swedish immigrants found the settlement of New Sweden in northern Maine. He married a Swedish woman (Dagmar Törnebladh, and after her death, he married her younger sister), and held the position of US Ambassador to the United Kingdoms of Sweden and Norway on three separate occasions. And he translated both Viktor Rydberg and Fredrika Bremer into English.
To judge by his memoirs, Sweden and the Swedes (Från slott till koja in Swedish), published in 1892, he really enjoyed Swedish wildlife. He certainly tried to kill as much of it as possible. Roughly half the book’s 700+ pages – by my count – is taken up with descriptions of hunting or fishing expeditions.
William Widgery Thomas (Jr) became my goal. I went out of my way to track him down. Thirty years on, I might not know much more about Viktor Rydberg or Fredrika Bremer. Or about some of the other 60-odd luminaries whose names are carved in the stone Guest Book. But I know a lot about W W Thomas Jr. I even know that the Guest Book originally missed the “Jr”.
In the first chapter of his magnum opus, Thomas describes coming to Sweden to take up his post as Ambassador in, I guess, 1889. He arrives in Gothenburg, crosses the river and rides out to the estate of his old friend, the editor and publisher Sven Adolf Hedlund. Hedlund, the legendary editor-in-chief of the Göteborgs Handels- och Sjöfartstidning – the Gothenburg Trade and Shipping Newspaper – had caused the rocks by the drive up to his summer residence to be carved with the names of all the illustrious people who had been his house guests over 32 years.
Thomas is delighted to see that his own name is carved in a place of honour, just above Viktor Rydberg (though in smaller letters). He comments, however, that the name is missing its “Jr”. Without it, he points out, Hedlund has actually honoured Thomas’s father. In the book he reports Hedlund saying he was trying to save money; that every letter costs one Swedish kronor to have cut. Still, Thomas’s published complaint seems to have had the desired effect. Hedlund found the cash and the carved letters now identify W W Thomas Jr and no one else.
This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.
I’m standing on Avenue Bruggmann, just outside the gates to a park which I discovered by sheer accident on Sunday…
Yes, well, clearly I’m not. This was an experiment to see whether I could dictate a text for Stops and Stories while out and about. Unfortunately, most of the time, I forgot that one key element of radio journalism is speaking into the microphone so that one’s potential audience can actually hear what one is saying. There are snatches of my recording I can use, but I think I’d better stick to writing this in the peace and quiet of my study.
However, imagine if you will that we are standing on a moderately busy suburban city street with houses of four or five stories, some with a narrow front, but still comfortable, others broader and quite impressive, almost mansions, but all pressed up against one another in an almost unbroken parade. A tram line runs down the middle of the street, there’s a church squeezed in among the houses over there to the right, and up the road on the left a little way, one of the mansions is doing service as the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba.
As you walk down this street towards the city, you pass on your right what appears to be the opening of a driveway leading to garages behind one of the more opulent of the buildings. The pillars of the gateway are a little intimidating, but you get a glimpse of a sanded drive and formally clipped green hedges and then you notice the plaque on the wall well above head height. “Parc Regional Abbe Froidure” it says. “Overture: 8h00.” Beneath are the long list of regulations (in French and Dutch) you have become familiar with seeing at the entrance to other Brussels parks.
And if you walk through the gateway and down the sanded path you come to railings, and past the railings…
you come into this tiny little charming park which is really tucked away and hidden.
I came across the park on Sunday while I was out taking photos of buildings in the area. It was a warm, sunny autumn day and the park was clearly being used by locals – walking dogs, sitting in the sun, reading a paper. There was a family playing with two small children in the little playground to one side. The colours, a mixture of autumn russet and summer green leaves, contrasted with the startling blue of the park furniture. I took a couple of photos, but then slipped out of the park to continue with my project for the day. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” I thought.
That was a mistake. The following day I didn’t get out until late afternoon and the clouds had rolled in and the first shower of the week had fallen. More were to come. Consequently most of my photos from the park are not sunny and cheerful but dull and rain spotted, and my recordings too are a little damp and a little melancholy, but perhaps that suits Abbe Froidure’s park.
Here in the middle of the park — it’s a sort of quadrangle of these cobble stones that are so prevalent all over Brussels. Personally I think they’re horrible to walk on but they are attractive to look at I suppose and, er— It’s an odd combination really. There’s this cobbled surface which looks old, and then there are these blue benches which are very modern. Blue, um, trellises I suppose, fences which are being used to train vines to grow up, and then in the middle there’s this concrete block. Er, I’m going to guess that it’s part of — a — water — feature…
Do you hear how my voice slows down there? I could see the phrase “water feature” coming and I really didn’t want to say it and sound like an advert from a House and Garden magazine, but I couldn’t find a synonym quickly enough. Oh dear. Although, if you look at the illustration I think you’ll see — despite the gutter being clogged with fallen leaves and chestnuts — what I was trying to describe probably is intended to have water flowing along it.
The park is completely enclosed within this block by the backs of houses and their garden walls, but just as there is a way in from Avenue Brugmann so there is a second entrance directly opposite into a little triangle of streets around a green space called Square Léon Jacquet.
There were fewer people in the park on my second visit. No doubt the weather played its part, but also it was a weekday. Still there were a couple of dog walkers, a couple of young men on a cigarette break together who left the park soon after I arrived, and a young woman who walked through, using the park as a short cut from Brugmann to Jacquet.
I sat down on one of the blue benches and tried to guess how the Abbe Froidure Park had come to be here. Although there are two or three mature trees – chestnuts and sycamores I think — the park itself is clearly not very old. Ten years, perhaps twenty. At first sight it looks as though it has been created by shaving pieces off the back gardens of the surrounding houses, but the more I looked at it and thought about it, the more I thought it must have existed as an empty space long before it was a park. The cobbles seem old, so perhaps it was a courtyard, perhaps a mews yard serving several of the houses around with stables for horses and carriages.
What a temptation there must have been to use the land for building, but instead someone with sense decided to create this little oasis of peace. Beautiful. City planners British, American and Swedish, who advocate “densification” (förtätning), please note!
Later, at home I went searching for Abbe — Father Froidure. Why did he get this lovely little urban park?
I still don’t know the full story, but I can report that Edouard Froidure was born in or near Ypres in 1899 and died in Brussels in 1971. A refugee and then a soldier in the Belgian army during the First World War, he became a priest in 1925 and in 1931 the vicar of the parish of St. Alène in Forest. (The park is on the very edge of the Brussels municipality of Forest.)
In 1933 he was involved in setting up a movement to enable young children among the urban poor to come out of the slums and spend time in the fresh air (in camps in the city’s larger parks) — “Les Stations de Plein Air”.
During the Second World War when Belgium was under occupation, he continued his activities on behalf of the children of Brussels and under cover of this worked with the Belgian resistance including to protect and save the lives of Jewish children. Arrested by the Gestapo in 1942 he was interned in concentration camps and ended up in Dachau. Liberated in 1945, he returned to Belgium and seems to have picked up where he left off.
He also worked with (and perhaps helped start) an organisation called “Les Petit Reins” — The Little Nothings — an organisation staffed by the unemployed and running charity shops and collecting, sorting and selling second-hand clothes.
Obviously the Abbe was a much loved man and a little park dedicated to his memory seems entirely appropriate.
This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.
All the photos (except the portrait of Abbe Froidure) were made by me on Sunday 4th or Tuesday 6th October. All the ambient sounds used in the background of the recording were made by me in situ on Tuesday 6th. And as for my French pronunciation in the recording – I’m sorry!
I did think I would produce a blog entry or two while I was home, but it turned out that I was away. Visiting home but away on holiday. I found I had little inclination and less time for any of this bloggety-blogging.
It’s an odd sort of existence we’re living, Mrs SC and myself. Away in Brussels, physically, at work and play for weeks, even months at a time; but spiritually, emotionally (and legally – for the purpose of taxation) still anchored at home in Gothenburg.
Where we are mentally is an open question.
We flew into Gothenburg at the beginning of August, took ourselves home and spent several happy hours enjoying the familiarity and comfort of our own four walls. Our sofa, our books, the views from our windows, the taste of cold, fresh, soft water from our tap in our kitchen. And our glassed-in balcony, especially that, where I sit to drink my tea in the early morning light, where we sit to sip our nightcaps in the soft gloaming before going to bed.
Three weeks we were there, and not a dead day. There was always something to do, somewhere to go, friends to meet, old familiar haunts to visit, changes to note. All through the long, drawn-out Scandinavian summer days and the short, somewhat cooler, Scandinavian summer nights.
Everybody we met told us how lucky we were with the weather. July, they said, shaking their heads. June, they sighed, shivering. But August – in August the sun shone. It shone almost every day we were home. And every day we checked the weather apps for Brussels and saw: cloudy, overcast, chance of rain, thunder. With what Schadenfreud we looked up from our smartphones and congratulated one another on having come home for our holidays! This, we told each other, this is what it’s really like. (Forgetting the rain and the storm and the ice in the winter, forgetting the long, dark nights punctuated by short dull days.) No, no, this, this is home.
Places resonate, especially places one has visited many times before, where things have happened and the fabric of the place is dense with memory. Here’s one such. Trädgårdsföreningen – the Garden Society park.This summer it was enriched with a temporary display – in association with the open-air sculpture park at Pilane on Tjörn – of apparently abstract sculptures by Tony Cragg. Only apparently abstract, because after you’ve stared at them for some time you suddenly see a face, a profile, a nose and lips, a chin and a forehead, and then you realise there are faces everywhere in the sculptures, smiling, frowning, gazing profoundly or blankly into the middle distance. Knock on one, hear its tone. “Caldera”, “Points of View”, “Mixed Feelings”. Good titles.
I saw the sculptures my first Monday at home in Gothenburg, and again on my last Thursday. My last Thursday after sitting by the Bältespännar fountain just outside the park entrance, watching a piece of performance art being filmed.
A woman dressed and made-up to look like a statue, a living statue, walking slowly, meditatively in a wide circle around the fountain past the children playing in the spray of the water, past the young families, past the schoolchildren in a group with their teacher. Followed and filmed, not just by her own two cameramen, not just by me, but also by the families, by the schoolchildren, by random passers-by with their mobile phones.
And back in the park, that first Monday, beyond Tony Cragg’s sculptures, beyond the palm house, in the rose garden with more fountains and children playing. I sat on a bench in the sun next to a mother with her young son. As he ran about, she followed him with her eyes and sometimes her voice, calling out in a language not Swedish. An older man sitting along the bench from her asks, is that Portuguese?
She laughs and tells him, no, it’s Bulgarian.
Ah, says the man, Bulgaria. I drove through Bulgaria. I used to drive trucks from Teheran.
That’s a long way, she says.
Yes, he says, days. There was always a break at Istanbul though. This was a long time ago, back before they built the bridge. You had to wait for the ferry.
I’ve never been to Istanbul, the woman says.
It’s a great city, he says. You should go.
I miss this. Being able to eavesdrop on a conversation. I can’t do it in Brussels – unless people are speaking English or Swedish – I can only watch body language and make a guess at what’s going on. It’s quite fun, but it’s not the same.
That first Monday, when the sun got too hot, I took myself indoors, into the empty dusk of The Rose Cafe – everyone, all the sun-starved Swedes, all the foreign tourists, they were all outside. I bought a salad and sent a text message and waited to meet my friend Kristina. As I arrived in Gothenburg, so she was leaving. That first Monday in August was our one day of overlap.Kristina brought me a copy to buy of her latest book, #författarboken (#theauthorbook), and a copy to see of her travel guide to Nice, Mitt Nice.
Trädgårdsföreningen’s rose garden is where we first met, years ago. We were both taking part in an Internet-based competition to find someone to represent the Swedish Hostelling Association for a summer reality show/vlog. Competitors, but we had similar ideas about authorial self-promotion and we pooled resources for a promo pitch. It’s still up on my YouTube site. We neither of us won the competition, which was a bit of a disappointment at the time, but we did find one another. We were both wannabe authors. Now that just describes me. Kristina is an author, a published author with four titles to her name, two of which – the two on the table – came out this year. It’s obvious which one of us had the gumption and get-up-and-go.
But I’m getting there. (He added, optimistically.)
And that was just the Monday. There was more, much more to come. Maybe there’ll be more here in a future blog post, but for now I think I’ll close.
Here’s hoping your summer holiday (or your winter holiday, if you live in the opposite hemisphere) was just as enjoyable.
Sound recording acknowledgements: Most of the ambient sound I recorded myself in the places stated. The sound of the music box playing “Home Sweet Home” at the beginning and end of the Soundcloud recording was taken from the sound track of a YouTube video posted by “Music Box” here.
This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.