Bird houses and play houses in Hisingspark

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.

Bird houses and play houses in Hisingspark

Play houses like bird houses

The Sleeping Homeless

The sleeping homeless - behind Square Jaques Brel
The sleeping homeless – behind Square Jaques Brel, Brussels, a sunny afternoon (Saturday 3rd September 2016)

Life in Mini-Europe

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

Mini-EuropeSome towns and even villages exhibit models of themselves. Tourists can walk about like Gulliver in Lilliput, exploring and taking photos. Brussels has Mini-Europe.

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 from AtomiumMini-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.

Mini-Europe - Stockholm city hall representing SwedenI’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.)

Sunbathing in BudapestMini-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.)

Tourists in mud - or worseThey 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.)

Happy ever afterStill, there is an attempt to present the whole breadth of life here, from the couple who joyfully rush from a German church to begin their happy ever after…

In the cemetary… to the little family visiting the grave of a loved one somewhere in the fields of Flanders.

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.

Montmartre news kioskIn front of Montmartre a queue has formed of citizens seeking News. (You may just be able to make that out from the headlines on the papers for sale.)

Facing the terrorist threatIn 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.)

Anti-Brexiteers rally outside Parliament in LondonMeanwhile, 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.

Mini-Europe - notice of demolitionNearby, an official sign announces the demolition of the British buildings awaits the outcome of Brexit negotiations.

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.

Mini-Europe - Sunbathing on a raft in IrelandAnd 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?

Coast guardOf course you could complain that Mini-Europe doesn’t cover all the bases. Where is a Pride Parade, for example?

Sinking gondola in VeniceAnd what about the refugee crisis? There’s a fine model of a Coast Guard boat, but where are the overloaded rubber dinghys? Mmm, perhaps I’m asking for too much. There is a sinking gondola in Venice.

A fire at the refinaryThere 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.

Singed firefighterMeanwhile the poor firefighter closest to the action, up on a ladder, is looking increasingly singed.

On a ferris wheelBut 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.

Finnish sauna and naked bather
At the Finnish sauna…

I wrote this article for the #Blogg52 challenge.

London Green

London green: green is perhaps not the colour one first associates with London – red, perhaps, or black – but maybe one should think about green.

London symbolsIf 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.

Henry Moore's Stone Arch across the Serpentine in Hyde ParkLondon 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.

London green: London skyline from Hamstead Heath (City)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.

London green: London skyline from Hamstead Heath (Westminster)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.)

London green: In Kensington GardensOur 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.

London green: Cavalry horses exercising on Rotten Row in Hyde ParkRotten Row is the ride that runs along the south side of Hyde Park where the Queen’s guard cavalry regiments exercise their horses. One team cantered past, kicking up the dust.

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.

London green: Selfie in St James's ParkWe crossed into St James’s Park, paused for selfies on the bridge over the lake and then walked on to Parliament Square.

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.

London green: Skyline from Hampstead Heath

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

W W Thomas Jr – His Name Set in Stone

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.

SA Hedlund Guest Book - Fredrika Bremer et alThe 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.

Viktor Rydberg and W W Thomas JrWilliam 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.

SA Hedlund home foundations and Hällskriftsgatans pre-school 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.

SA Hedlund guest book from a distance

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.