Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I’ve been back in Sweden almost a week but it feels like I just left Scotland yesterday. It was a rushed few days in Glasgow and I’m already itching to go back and experience Edinburgh sometime in the future.

It was weird to imagine going to a country where the official language is English, yet I’d have a difficult time understanding most of what the natives said. Experiencing that was even stranger.

I mean I expected I’d hear things referred to by non-American words. Like when the attendants on the flight to Glasgow came through the cabin to collect “rubbish” before landing. Or the train from the airport to central Glasgow that reminds passengers to mind the platform gap when “alighting” from the cars. Or the elevators in the tall buildings known simply as “lifts.” Words we probably wouldn’t use everyday in the States. You get the idea.

I’d estimate 85 percent of Glasgowians smoke. And they don’t smoke cigarettes, they smoke “fags.” They drive on the “wrong” (left) side of the road and their taxis are all the famous London hackney carriages. Those were my first observations during the four-minute walk from Central Station to the hostel.

I’ve stayed in some really nice hostels across Europe and also suffered through nights in some pretty terrible ones. Euro Hostel’s flagship property in Glasgow, a nine-story building overlooking the River Clyde, definitely falls into the former category. It’s in the virtual city centre with all the shops, restaurants and countless watering holes.

The building on the left with the blue lights is a hotel. The building on the right, directly across the street, is the hostel.

My view from the sixth floor.

The River Clyde is tantamount to Glasgow’s history, from fishing industry to the construction of war ships. An extensive system of pedestrian suspension and vehicle bridges cross the river in dozens of places, connecting the northern half of the city with the south.

Glasgow is home to some impressive architecture, like St. Andrew’s in the Square and its honey and rose sandstone, prevalent in other old buildings throughout the city.

The Kelvingrove Art Gallery, foreground, and historic University of Glasgow, background, were also remarkable.

A popular student club in the university area was lively on a Tuesday night.

The armadillo-looking building below is the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre. In the foreground, the city recently began construction on a new stadium in preparation for hosting the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

I had some good food – the traditional greasy fish n’ chips from a corner stand – and some not so good – haggis, a spicy sheep intestine sausage type dish that all foreigners are supposed to try.

Scotland produces some excellent beers, most notably at West Brewery in Glasgow Green. The brewery occupies the left side of the Templeton Building, pictured below, where a famous carpet factory sat from the late 1800s until the 1950s. The factory produced rugs for the Whitehouse’s West Wing and the Taj Mahal.

Across from the Templeton Building is the People’s Palace and Winter Gardens, a social history museum and adjoining glass conservatory of exotic plants.

I hoped a visit to People’s Palace would help me explore deeper into some family history. My dad’s side has Scottish roots dating back many generations. Since the museum showcases how people lived in Glasgow back to around 1750, I had hoped to see the Gourley (also spelled Gurley and Gourlay back then) name in an exhibit or two.

When I didn’t, I asked one of the museum staff for some help. He said the name wasn’t common, at least in that part of the country (although we already knew my great, great, great grandfather Paul Gourley was born in Glasgow in early 1813). I think he performed a few Google searches behind his desk that essentially just confirmed the same information my family already knew: Gourleys in the United Kingdom descended from “Ingelram de Gurley,” who accompanied “William the Lion” from France to Scotland in 1174. We had previously traced the roots back as far as my great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather Robert Gourlay, born in 1712, and while I was unable to discover any more during the trip, I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit to the UK.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Election 2010

Sunday’s national election was a historic one for Sweden, which picked a new parliament as well as “county” and “city” officials.

Voters surprisingly re-elected their Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and his center-right coalition, but did not give it another majority. Instead, the far-right, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats were elected to parliament for the first time, which scares a lot of people in this part of the country.

I’m told it was the first re-election to another term in almost a century. Swedish public TV made a bigger deal of it all evening than some American stations did President Obama’s historic night.

Rather than the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November chosen by Congress as the day for U.S. elections, Swedes flock to the polls every four years on the third Sunday in September.

Despite similar ways to vote early and cast ballots by mail, it still strikes me that any Tuesday would naturally see higher voter turnout than any Sunday. The truth is, I couldn’t be more wrong.

For a slew of reasons, voter turnouts in Sweden have always trumped those in the U.S.

Turnout here historically hovers around 80 percent, and Amanda’s aunt, who did some work for the Moderate party in this year’s election, said officials expected this year to surpass the 82 percent mark from the 2006 election.

Those numbers are pretty insane when you consider that only 56.8 percent of the U.S. voting-age population cast ballots in the national election two years ago and the 2006 election saw an abysmal 37.1 percent turnout.

Obviously, getting young Americans to the polls has always been a problem, whether they feel disconnected from Washington, don’t think their lone vote can make a difference or just don’t care.

Across the pond, the seed is planted early in Swedish schools. Amanda was two months too young to vote in the 2006 election but couldn’t wait to visit a precinct for the first time today as one of a record number of first-time voters in a Swedish national election. Her 16-year-old stepbrother’s freshmen class held a mock election with real candidates and parties at his high school last week to stress the importance of voting when students become eligible to register. Political discussions are much more common at the family dinner table in Sweden.

The voting process is similar to the U.S. in many ways. Voters selected ballots for various parties in the precinct’s entry room, with most people taking ballots from several parties so as not to make their choice obvious.

The green curtains may not be quite as private as the “voting rooms” we’re used to seeing in the States, but you get the idea.

As an indefinite Swedish resident and California citizen, I’ll be voting as a “citizen overseas” in the election this fall. Sacramento County starts sending out ballots tomorrow and I just have to mail it back or fax it in by 8 p.m. on November 2.

I didn’t think another Republican had a shot at the Governor’s office after Schwarzenegger but I hear it’s still shaping up to be a coin flip. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman sure is doing her best to buy her way into office over Democrat Jerry Brown. I also have passionate feelings about Proposition 19 and its potential detrimental impact on the local economy where I was raised, so I’ll definitely be checking the mailbox regularly next week.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Musings on Ryanair

I’ll admit it. I was a little worried my first taste of Ryanair earlier this week would be, as one web site devoted to the airline’s demise puts it, disgusting.

With all the negative publicity and Internet buzz (sites like www.ihateryanair.co.uk love to spread horror stories and are primarily responsible for perpetuating the airline’s awful image), it’s hard not to be nervous. One roundtrip in the books, though, and I’m instantly singing Ryanair’s praises. At least for now.

Ryanair is well known as a “low-cost” and “no frills” airline.

“Low-cost” means insanely low, like as cheap as $16 USD for a roundtrip flight from one of their 153 European destinations to another if booked smart and booked in advance. If booked last minute and the fare includes taxes and online check-in fees, plus an administration fee of around $20 USD, it might still be only half that of the next cheapest competitor’s fare.

“No frills” means, among other things I noticed: no free food or beverage service (even water is exorbitantly expensive), non-reclining (but still leather) seats, no seat-back pockets, life jackets stowed overhead rather than under the seat, one toilet rather than the three found on most other comparable aircraft, no connecting flights and no compensation for missing a flight. Ryanair also requires passengers to print their own boarding passes and bring them to the airport, and they charge $50 USD to issue a ticket if you don’t abide. Their fees for checked baggage and other charges are well documented on their web site.

Ryanair saves a lot of money thanks in part to a remarkable target turnaround time of 25 minutes and by demanding next-to-nothing charges to utilize each airport. This often means flying into secondary and regional airports that aren’t even really in the city they’re named. For example, I flew from Gothenburg City (not Landvetter, the main airport) and it was about a 30-minute bus from the city’s central train station. The flight landed at Glasgow-Prestwick, which is actually in the town of Prestwick, a 45-minute train from Glasgow. The most extreme example I’ve heard is Paris-Beauvais, more than 80 kilometers from the better-known Charles de Gaulle in the French capital.

CEO Michael O’Leary is always coming up with another crazy idea to cut even more costs and offer customers even lower fares. He’s talked about redesigning aircraft to rip out rows of seats and replace them with standing room for a higher volume of passengers. He’s also mentioned charging to use the toilet. I’m cool with that. I’ve got a big bladder and I like a challenge.

Many call O’Leary crazy, but he’s obviously doing something right. Ryanair became Europe’s first airline to carry more than 7 million passengers in one month earlier this summer. The airline has turned net profits 9 or the last 10 years despite the airline industry’s massive losses since the turn of the millennium.

To successfully save thousands of dollars flying Ryanair over a period of time, though, you’ve got to memorize the airline’s sometimes-crazy rules and follow them to a “T.” Otherwise, it could cost a lot. You’ve got to factor in train and bus costs at both ends and add them on to your airfare to make sure it’s still an unbelievably good deal. Carry-on baggage dimensions are smaller than most other airlines by several centimeters, they’re limited to 10 kilograms and they are weighed at the gate.

They don’t mess around. I’ve read stories about people who were charged for being 100 grams overweight who didn’t have time to remove something and were forced to check the bag for $40 USD. Wear heavy jackets onto the plane, roll t-shirts in your carry-on and pack some of these to save a little more weight:

If you’re traveling for more than four or five days, you may have to pony up the $40 each way to check a bag. Also, business people would be better served paying for a more expensive flight with a “frills” airline that flies to main airports, to avoid the extra train/bus travel time, etc.

Ryanair is a company you either love or hate, run by a man Europeans either love or hate. I don’t think there could possibly be an in-between. It’s definitely not for everybody. If you’ve too proud to accept being treated like cattle in exchange for a fare so cheap you’d think your Internet browser was lying to you, don’t fly with Ryanair, but if you can resist the urge to pay $9.50 USD for an in-flight beer and ignore the incessant pitches for smokeless cigarettes and scratch lottery tickets, Ryanair is far and away the cheapest and most effective way to get from point A to point B in Europe. The 737 fleet they fly is far nicer than the terrible Airbus used by many major carriers, the flight attendants are no less polite than any I’ve had with other airlines and Ryanair boasts a pretty respectable on-time record in this jingle as the plane is taxiing to the gate.

I’ll be sure to blog again if/when Ryanair lets me down.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


We’re finally enjoying a much-needed mellow night at home, basically the first since I arrived in Sweden a few weeks ago.

Last Saturday was a big one for the town of Falköping. What used to be a huge downtown dress-up party featuring school bands and the works the last weekend in August for 20-some years is now an even more massive carnival on a farm outside town.

Wrågårdskalaset attracted 1,500 revelers this year, according to a story in the local paper the next day. As far as I understand, there’s no real point to the celebration. A bunch of young people get dressed up in costumes a couple months before Halloween and get drunk outside while the weather is still warm enough.

The city could no longer afford the costs associated with closing down the streets and providing security and other staffing for the event, so it shifted to the farm a few years ago. The landowner had decided he didn’t want to make it in the fields anymore so he renovated his barns and converted them to meeting, banquet and party facilities.

Buses included in the ticket price ran from the train station in town, which was convenient since Amanda’s sister’s apartment is only a few hundred meters away.

Wrågårdskalaset had some decent bands rocking outdoors.

DJs played club music in the barns.

After two weeks of seemingly nonstop partying, I had a few productive days this week, too. I updated my resume, modified it until it fit the mold of a curriculum vitae and sent it off to a couple of advertised job openings.

I’m preparing a few cold-call cover letters for some English teaching opportunities that I hope to send out in the next several days.

I’ve also downloaded the media credential application for the London 2012 Olympics and will soon be submitting that. Only 691 days to go and I already can’t wait.