Friday, November 2, 2012

Three Circumnavigations

My last same-day commute from Falköping to Stockholm and back is finally in the books. It truly feels unreal.

When I take the train back up to Stockholm on Monday morning, I’ll spend the night there. Not in a hotel room. Not at someone else’s apartment. At my own place.

I’ve covered 682 kilometers (424 miles) of rail virtually every weekday for the better part of 14 months. That’s close to six hours a day on trains.

During that time, I’ve circumnavigated the globe THREE TIMES. As I’ll now have the opportunity to start reflecting on what I’ve done, that statistic alone is incomprehensible.

I say I’ve spent close to six hours a day on trains but in reality my actual daily commute during this year-plus, to each of three different offices with two companies, has always been longer than six. For the last half-year, this has been the routine:

I set alarms for 5:03, 5:11 and 5:25 every weekday morning. I’m a sound sleeper and I usually haven’t gone to bed until 1 a.m. or later, anyway, so I always ignore the first alarm. If I don’t hear the second one, though, I’m in trouble. Not only will I not have time for breakfast, I’ll only have about 20 minutes to shower, get dressed and do anything else I need to do to get out the door.

The train leaves Falköping Central at 6:03 a.m. and our apartment is 1.1 kilometers (.8 miles) away. I’ve never missed a train on a morning that I made it out the door but I’ve come pretty close. If I leave home at 5:45-5:47 I have no problem as long as I take long strides, but if it’s 5:48-5:50 I’m in various states of trouble and won’t make it without some short stretches of jogging.

Unless it’s winter, the train is probably on time and as long as there are no signal failures along the way it’s a relatively quick trip of 2 hours, 32 minutes — an average of 135 kilometers (84 miles) per hour including four stops along the way.

When I get to Stockholm I’ve got a short walk to the subway, where I return to the rails for three quick stops. Then it’s about a five-minute walk from that station to my office. If everything has been on time, it’s 8:55. Depending on what time I left home, that’s 3:05-3:10, one-way.

I’ve been very fortunate that, for a town as small as Falköping is, we have arguably the best train service in the entire country. The only two direct trains to Stockholm each day are 6:03 and 7:05 a.m., and there have been plenty of times I missed the first one in favor of an extra hour in bed and was still able to be in the office by 10 a.m.

I’ve been even more fortunate to have incredibly understanding employers who have routinely let me do my last 60-90 minutes to finish my 7.5-hour workday from the only direct train back to Falköping.

It leaves Stockholm Central at 4:36 every afternoon, so I’ve had to leave the office by 4:15. If it’s on time it gets back to Falköping at 7:04 p.m. I’m usually pretty tired by then so I walk a bit slower on the way home than I do on the way to the station in the morning. I’m usually in the door right around 7:20, so that’s also 3:05 to get home.

So there it is, my 6:10-6:15 daily commute. There isn’t much I’m going to miss about it, that’s for sure.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012


It’s been exactly 800 days since I “moved” to Sweden.

I use quotation marks because even though I’ve been back in the country almost three weeks since my last international trip, I’ve still spent less than 80 percent of those 800 days in Sweden.

That’s right. I’ve been away from Sweden a little more than 1 of every 5 days since I’ve called it “home.” Between vacations to Scotland, Italy, Germany, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands and Belgium, and SEVEN trips back to the U.S. in 26 months, I’ve spent 166 of those 800 outside of Sweden. That’s 20.75 percent, a pretty ridiculous number when you really think about it.

Granted there have been some extenuating circumstances, but how could I ever hope or expect to assimilate myself into a culture when I’m never here long enough to feel settled?

I do miss the States — the people, the food, the weather, the sports — quite often, and despite how often I’ve been back to visit in these first two-plus years it never feels like I have time to see everyone or do everything. Still, I’m starting to recognize I’ll be doing myself a disservice if I keep this pace up.

Not that I probably could, anyway. Even though some of that travel has been made possible by Sweden’s very generous paid vacation benefits, much of it also occurred while I was underemployed (and even unemployed for a time).

Now that I’m continuing to establish myself professionally with a great company in an exciting industry, and even though my job has brought and will bring more opportunities for travel, I won’t have that kind of time to vacation on the other side of the world anymore.

Not to mention the fact that if Sweden truly is my current “home” — for whatever period of time I choose it to be that, since I’ve been granted permanent residency this week — I shouldn’t want to be away so often, anyway, right?

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Grilling with Gas

Over the years I’ve learned the secrets of successful grilling from two charcoal masters, my dad and Dan Squier. When Amanda’s family bought me a beautiful new gas grill for my 25th birthday, I was very appreciative but a bit apprehensive at the same time.

For different reasons — poor late-spring weather, a month back in the States and a long evening commute, among others — it took more than three months before I finally grilled with gas for the first time.

I’ve used it a few times since and I really like the push-button convenience and ability to use dials to control and maintain a desired temperature, but I miss the intense smells and flavors of charcoal grilling. I also think the latter experience is more hands-on, but on the other hand it’s much messier than gas.

There are other pros and cons for both barbecue methods and you can even throw electric grilling into the ring. I’ll probably never fully commit to one technique. Even though I have an awesome gas grill now I still think there’s a time and a place for charcoal every once in a while. You just can’t beat the smoky flavor.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sweden’s Best Place to Live

Fokus is Sweden’s leading weekly news magazine. It features national and global stories on politics, the economy and culture. Think Newsweek meets The Economist.

Since its launch in 2005, Fokus has ranked the country’s 290 municipalities each year to determine the overall best place to live based on more than 40 factors that fall into five overall best categories: to be young, to be old, to have a family, to work, and for fundamentals such as housing values, crime and suicide rates, health statistics and protected environmental areas.

Falköping ranked 68th overall in the new rankings Fokus released today to crack the top 25 percent, up 62 spots from its 2011 mark.

Our town scored in the top quarter in buying a house (17), divorce rate (50), unemployment development (50) and environmentally protected areas (72), and top fifth in two of the “best to be old” categories.

We ranked in the lowest quarter, though, in business climate (232, the justification for my commute), achieved goals in school (243) and beach length (280, we don’t have any beaches).

Habo, a tiny town of 7,000 near Sweden’s second largest lake about 30 minutes south of us, earned the top overall ranking.

Many of the other results were pretty predictable. Many of the rich Stockholm suburbs are ranked in the top 20, while the capital itself is 54 this year. Sweden’s two big university towns, Lund in the south and Uppsala north of Stockholm, ranked 3 and 29, respectively.  

At 68, Falköping ranked behind Amanda’s university town, Jönköping (27), as well as nearby Skövde (33), but ahead of Sweden’s nicest ski village, Åre (72), the closest town to the summer house, Falkenberg (134), and significantly ahead of Sweden’s second and third cities, Göteborg (207) and Malmö (284), the latter of which slipped 97 spots since last year’s rankings and has earned a negative reputation for its recent crime.

Fokus compiled the rankings using numbers from administrative agency Statistics Sweden and the National Public Health Institute, so they’re more objective than one might think. Still, you can’t take these things too seriously — especially if your municipality isn’t highly ranked, I guess.

I’ve been to many cities and towns in central and southern Sweden, and while Falköping may leave me feeling a bit under stimulated at times, overall I believe it’s very deserving of its 2012 ranking and significant improvement from a year ago.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Expanding Musical Horizons

I’m going to see this guy scream tomorrow night. Voluntarily. I’m actually paying money to do it.


It’s a lengthy explanation, but let me give it a shot.

For more than 50 winters, Sweden has held an annual music competition called Melodifestivalen — you guessed it, “The Melody Festival” — to select the Swedish representative for the Eurovision Song Contest in May.

I had never heard of Eurovision before moving across the pond, which some might call embarrassing considering how musically connected I consider myself.

In any event, the European Broadcasting Union settled on an international song contest when exploring ways to bring its member countries together in the years following World War II.

Participating countries perform their song on live TV and then use a positional vote system to award 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 10 and 12 points to other countries’ songs, with a country’s favorite song being given 12 points. Determining the overall winner is quite a process, and global audience numbers have topped 600 million. Eurovision is credited with launching the international careers of ABBA, which won for Sweden in 1974 with “Waterloo,” and Celine Dion, who won for Switzerland in 1988.

Sweden makes a huge deal out of its eight-week Melodifestivalen. It’s far and away the most popular Swedish TV program. Of the 9.1 million people living in the country in 2007, 4 million watched the final.

Public phone votes and panels of jurors have equal weight in selecting the Swedish winner, but from what I’m told, it’s taken a very radio-friendly pop song no matter what to win the contest in recent years. That sure was true this year, as you’ll hear below. Loreen beat Danny in a two-horse race for the honor of representing Sweden in Azerbaijan a few weeks from now.

One band that appeared to win a lot of new fans throughout the competition before falling short in the semifinals is Dead By April. Wikipedia describes them as “Pop-Metal.” Their Spotify bio says “metalcore.” iTunes simply classifies them as “rock.”


I’m not quite sure how to describe Dead By April. They’re like a fusion of a boy band and a hardcore punk band. Think, maybe, Backstreet Boys meet The Used or 30 Seconds to Mars.

I’ve never really been a fan of any genre of guitar music, other than maybe country. My musical tastes are almost exclusively rap and R&B, and with a growing amount of trance. Never any type of rock whatsoever.

But I think Dead By April have kind of a nice sound. The interspersed screaming probably threw a lot of people off during Melodifestivalen and undoubtedly didn’t earn the band any of Sweden’s pensioner votes. I can’t really take it seriously, either. I find myself laughing every time Jimmie does his thing. But it seems so difficult to do I’m also sort of fascinated, so I have to see it live.

Tomorrow is Valborg, a big spring kickoff festival in Sweden and other countries in Northern Europe. The bar up on Mösseberg here in Falköping somehow landed Dead By April for the evening, which is an accomplishment considering the small size of our town and the fact that the band is a pretty big name in Sweden. As you’d expect, the town is abuzz.

It promises to be a very different concert experience for me and I’m looking forward to it.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Restrictive Business Hours

There are so many things I love about living in Sweden. I probably haven’t made that clear enough over the last 18 months.

But no matter how many things you love about any place you call home for any period of time, there will inevitably be something you can’t stand.

One of the only things I’m still having a really tough time adjusting to even after a year and a half in this wonderful country is the unaccommodating business hours.

And I’m not just talking about Systembolaget, the government-run alcohol monopoly with some of the worst hours you could imagine. If you’re unfamiliar, catch up here.

No, it extends far past Systembolaget to virtually every type of business.

Below are major examples (and pictures, because you probably won’t even believe the words you read).

For comparison, I’ll also refer to some businesses in my hometown of Arcata, which had a population of 17,231 at the 2010 census. In the same year, my current town in Sweden had 16,350 inhabitants. For all intents and purposes, Arcata and Falköping are the same size.

Buying Food

Falköping has six grocery stories — four Swedish (two ICAs, a Coop, and a Willy’s), a Danish discount (Netto) and a German discount (Lidl).

ICA and Coop have the best hours. They’re open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., seven days a week.

Willy’s, where Amanda and I do most of our shopping, has the same schedule except on Sunday, when it opens two hours later.

No grocery store is open before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m. I find that ridiculous, but that’s because I’m accustomed to much more flexible hours.

Statoil, an overpriced gas station with a “convenience” store that defies the term, is the only place in town you can get any small selection of groceries before 8 a.m. or after 9 p.m.

I’m not sure how convenient it can really be considered, though, since it’s only open from 6 a.m. to midnight on weekdays and 8 a.m. to midnight on weekends.

If you want any type of food at all after midnight, it’s the McDonald’s drive-thru until 1 a.m.

After that, your only option is pizza. We’ve got a couple dozen pizzerias in town, and to my knowledge three of them (Valentino, Happy Time and Eldorado) are open until 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday nights for partiers. That’s late for Sweden.

So, why am I complaining about this?

Because the town I grew up in, which is just as small as Falköping, is also home to six supermarkets (counting Safeway, Wildberries, Murphy’s Sunny Brae and Westwood, North Coast Co-Op and Ray’s Food Place, excluding mini-mart types like Greenview Market, Hutchins Grocery and Fourth Street Market on Samoa).

Safeway and Wildberries are probably two largest/most popular of those. Safeway is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and Wildberries is open 6 a.m. to midnight daily (same hours as our town’s “most-convenient” store). Even the Co-Op is open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day, and it has the worst hours of any supermarket in Arcata.

With a 24-hour supermarket, you never have to worry about buying groceries around the store’s schedule.

If you want other food in Arcata at strange hours, there’s Don’s Donuts and Toni’s Restaurant, which are also both open 24 hours. Arcata Pizza and Deli, which offers a lot more than just pizza, also serves the late-night crowd until 11 p.m. Sundays, 1 a.m. Monday through Thursday and 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday.

That’s what I’m used to, which makes the restrictive hours here in Sweden feel even more limited.

Buying Medicine

What Systembolaget is to alcohol, Apoteket is to medicine. Well, the government-owned pharmaceutical monopoly was actually abolished a few years ago — maybe the Swedish government didn’t like being put in the same category as Cuba or North Korea — but in small towns like Falköping, it’s still the only option for medicine.

Apoteket is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday. If you need prescription medication at 2:01 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, you have to wait 43 hours until the pharmacy opens again Monday morning.

That’s crazy, but maybe I say that in part because 24-hour pharmacies are becoming the norm in the United States, now mater how small a town is.

Buying Household Items

Sadly, Ö o B has some of the best hours of any store in town. It’s kind of like a small-scale Walmart — lots of random stuff at cheap (relative to this being Europe) prices. It’s open until 7 on weeknights and 5 on weekends.

Buying Books

Bokia operates several dozen bookstores across Sweden and is one of the largest book chains in the country. It doesn’t seem to be suffering the same fate as U.S. chains that Amazon has essentially put out of business.

Not that I buy a lot of my books at bookstores — I prefer Amazon UK’s selection and prices, even after international shipping — but if I did want to, I would have to do it between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. on weekdays or 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Saturday.

It’s closed on Sundays, of course. What kind of a bookstore is that? I’ve never been a huge recreational reader but I’ve always imagined Sunday is probably the biggest recreational reading day of the week, no?

Buying a Cup of Coffee

Lila blå is our favorite coffee shop in town. They offer the best caffeinated drinks around, hands down. But if I’m not home and want to grab a cup at 6 or 7 in the morning, I’m out of luck. They never open before 8, close at 3 p.m. on Saturdays and are closed on Sundays.


I bank at Nordea and I often wonder why, because there are a couple of banks with slightly better hours.

If I need to go exchange currency or do an international transfer, which are pretty much the only things I can’t do online, I have to do it before 1 p.m.

Yes, my bank closes at 1 p.m. all but one day a week (it’s open until 6 on Thursday, likely dictated by Systembolaget’s extended hours that day of the week).

These limited hours aren’t unique to small Swedish towns. It’s not much better in the few big cities.


If any of this has surprised you, you’re probably wondering why it is this way.

As far as I can tell, there’s absolutely no demand for it to change. This is how it’s been for a long time and this is what Swedes are used to. Consumer preferences will never prompt an extension of opening hours. It’s obviously only expatriates like myself who have a problem with it.

There’s another reason, though, which has to do with how well Sweden treats its employees. There are countless perks for workers, such as at least five weeks of paid vacation every year.

The benefit here that I believe discourages any business from considering an extension of its hours is “OB,” which basically means inconvenient/uncomfortable working hours.

If somebody works during these hours, they automatically earn an hourly supplement to their fixed monthly salary. It varies a bit from employer to employer and I could be wrong with these details but it’s my understanding that many employers offer both a regular supplement for “simple” inconvenient hours and a double supplement for hours that are “particularly inconvenient.”

Simple inconvenient hours are generally something like weekdays after 6 p.m. or 7 p.m. until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m., when the extra inconvenient hours kick in.

Double inconvenient hours are paid on holidays, all hours between 6 p.m. on Fridays and 6 a.m. on Mondays and all other time between 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. and 6 a.m.

I understand that some industries in the U.S. offer similar differentials and that there are jobs where employees earn double-time or night shift differentials, but it’s not nearly as standard as it is here. My last newspaper could never have paid me a differential like that. My typical shift was 3 p.m. to almost midnight, often on weekends, too. That extra money would have added up fast.

If a Swedish grocery store tried to remain open 24 hours a day, it would go out of business paying its employees for all the “inconvenient hours” they would work.

Sweden’s restrictive business hours will never improve. There’s no demand for it and even if there were, a massive overhaul of labor laws would be necessary to make it economically feasible for businesses.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Falköping Alpin

I never realized how spoiled I was in Sacramento, a short 90-minute drive from major Tahoe resorts.

I mean, California snow is garbage compared to the “cold smoke” I rode on in Montana, but that’s not a fair comparison. Most Swedes don’t even believe I snowboarded in a state that movies portray as looking entirely like a beach. Point being, I was lucky I got to ride as often as I did during those five winters.

I’ve only hit the slopes twice in one-and-a-half winters in a country that movies portray as looking predominantly like the North Pole. How ironic is that?

Thing is, it has to be cold for snow. In California that means going to high elevations. In Sweden, we have our northern latitude to thank for low temperatures, even at low elevations.

The highest point, Kebnekaise in the far north, has a peak of 2,111 meters (a little under 7,000 feet). And there’s not even any commercial skiing around there. Several Tahoe resorts have a higher elevation than that — at their base.

We live in southern Sweden and most of the big resorts are many hours north. We’re fortunate to have a tiny mountain in our town (average elevation of just 230 meters, 750 feet). Most of the neighboring cities have nothing.

Falköping Alpin only has two runs I can really use, “Slalombacken” and ”Mittlöpan,” the longer of which is a very short 400 meters (a quarter-mile).

I had Slalombacken mostly to myself on Sunday after a decent storm Saturday night.

Here's a view looking up Slalombacken I shot on a bluebird day last winter.

To the far right is Mittlöpan on the same day, with a few medium kickers.

It's rather underwhelming and gets old fast, but beggars can’t be choosers and considering that I can walk there from our apartment in less than 20 minutes and a lift pass runs a little more than $20 USD, I can’t complain too much.

Sure, there are only rope tows, since chairlifts aren’t feasible for such short distances.

And it takes about 30 seconds to speed down the steepest run, but it’s something. And I don’t have to take an overnight train to get some action.

Though I do plan to make a trek to the north in the near future to experience the famed Åre resort pictures below.