A world of darkness

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So, my six months stint in Sweden is drawing to a close, and it’s time to reflect on everything that surprised me, as a Frenchman, living in this country. I’m leaving tomorrow, followed by the lamented cries of the people here

So the first thing you notice is, this is an expensive city. And I say that coming from Paris. All things compared, accommodation is bloody expensive, something like 30% more than in Paris. That sucks up most of your pay. It is known.


When you get past that, you notice most of everything is also expensive. Doing one trip in the subway will cost over 4€, twice the price of the most expensive ticket in Paris. Getting a one month fare is a little bit more than Paris, but the network is five times smaller. Plus it’s not one month, it’s 30 days, so you get fucked if you forget when you bought the ticket. Oh and there’s no getting paid back half the fare by the employer as in France.

Ok so restaurants are pretty cheap, you pay around 10-12€ for a meal. But a good restaurant here would be considered below par in France – sorry. And you don’t get meal tickets (about 7-8€ for each working day).

I came here thinking Sweden was a socialist worker paradise, but it’s actually lagging behind. You work the regular 40 hours week or more. I’ve read about Sweden testing the 32 hours week, but it’s only a few companies.
To conclude on cost of living, it’s better not to have hair here : the basic haircut – for a man ! – is around 50€ ! That’s the price for women in France. I had to find a hairdresser school to get below 20.


Right, now, what do you discover in supermarkets ? It’s the place where you learn the most about peoples habits. I won’t even cover the subject of food in tubes, I did not try.


This will only be funny for French speaking people, a famous chocolate cake is named kladdkaka.


The default size of packagings is very strange to me. The roll-on version of body spray is about the size you would need to use it between your fingers.


The biggest washing machine powder pack is less than 2kgs. I’ve never seen one so small.


On the other hand, the smallest flour or sugar pack is also 2kgs. Couldn’t get through that in six months. I also never found what I consider regular sized sugar pieces, there were all small, 1 centimeter.


I also spent a lot of time getting fooled by what was and what was not milk. They use the same packaging, the name is very close, but no, it may be yoghurt, fermented milk or some other stuff. They also mix it along very skillfully to confuse you.


On the day to day life, no one here owns a washing machine. There’s a common laundry in the basement. You book a timeslot with a kind of board with locks. Except no one respects it, so you end up doing the same.


Most common doors also have a lock to turn to open. The trick is that the lock needs to be kept open while opening the door. Impossible to do it with one hand. It’s fine when you have to push, but when you have to pull, with one hand busy with, let’s say, your laundry, this gets annoying fast.


Many other doors can be opened automatically with a button. That’s more convenient.


Ok I’m not going to go into all the details and the pain to open a simple bank account here. Took me close to two months. When I realized you can’t expect the same level of service as in Western Europe, I was ok. Employees were mostly dumb.

It was the opposite at the tax department. Very welcoming and efficient. Fast process and they guide you through the loops. Tax is paid directly from the salary.

The only problem being, whatever you’re being paid in a year, you will be taxed at least 12%, which as an average tax bracket (not marginal) is pretty darn high ! For what I received over 2016, and then in 2017, I wouldn’t pay taxes in France. All in all, I will pay around 3k€ national tax over two fiscal years.

To conclude on money, this is indeed a cashless society. I have not withdraw money over the last three months, I never needed to. Everyone has a card machine – except the beggars on the street or in the subway, I don’t know how they manage.


Okay so the most famous attraction in Sweden is the Vasa museum. It’s a museum built around a 17th century ship, a great three decker, three masts, 80+ cannons from the glorious age of sea conquest. It was built to help ensure domination on the Baltic Sea over Poland.

Ever since the ship was retrieved from the bottom of the sea, about 50 years ago, it’s been a fight to preserve it from decaying, falling to pieces and rotting. You can’t get onboard, you can only go around. It’s still very impressive. After 300 years in the mud it remains a massive sight.


Of course less impressive is the fact that it sank on its maiden voyage. And it didn’t take an iceberg to bring it down. After a single mile, it toppled over in Stockholm bay and went under. 50 people died. The issue ? There was not enough ballast to keep it balanced. Conception mistake, blamed upon the master engineer of course, and also… the Swedish King, who forced the design. Good thing he wasn’t around when it happened.

It leaves you wondering though. If there had not been such a tragic mistake, a ridiculous accident, the ship would have lived its regular ship life, and certainly disappeared like all others. We would never have heard of him or see him on display in a museum.


To conclude, here is a piece of bread, 20 years old, to demonstrate that to remain forever young, you only need to live in a plastic bag with no air.

Oh yeah, why this title “a world of darkness” ? It’s because you don’t get to see much of the sun here during winter, when it sets at 3pm. But as you don’t talk about weather in England, you don’t talk about the sun in Sweden.

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Culture shock – Northern Europe

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So I’ve been in Stockholm for a week now, and everything’s fine. It’s time to write down the few quirks I encountered during the trip. I’ll probably do a few similar posts on life in Sweden a bit later. For now, this is what surprised me as a Frenchman, while going through Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden. This will be more or less random, based on the photos I come across.


This is a good start, as it’s still actually biking. I’ve found that Germany provides good, specialized lanes for most of the major roads. It’s not at the level of Belgium or Holland, but definitely better than France or Sweden, and even Denmark.


I have to post that again, the pedestrian tunnel under the Escaut river, along with the wooden escalators, was really a delight 🙂


Back to Germany, there was quite a bit of speed limits for panzers, once above Hamburg. Maybe invasion of Denmark is in the works.


This was a fantastic playground right outside Helsinborg in Sweden.

Antwerp again, with a pigeon rap gang just by the bike shop.


And a bit further, the church of the holy praying mantis.


Special Trump editions of snickers, found in Gränna in Sweden.


Almost all hotel rooms in Sweden had a beer opener – in the bathroom. Again, this is in Sweden, not in Germany.


This was in Germany – local elections coming up. All posters were really clean, standardized, same logic. No fighting over getting elected here.


May have posted this during the trip : the Fehmarn train going into the ferry for Denmark – maybe with bikes inside the train inside the ferry. A steel turducken.


A cat ladder to enter directly at the second floor. This was at my first stop in Sweden.


This is a parking spot in Sweden – family spot ? Special stroller ?


A take on the US election, by Eindhoven in Holland.


Bike paths in Germany are nice, but when they’re over, you’re on your own.


A taste of Nordic mythology in Bremen.


An automatic sex shop in a public lavatory in Germany, with the most convenient “travel pussy”.


A local version of KFC, with the Swedish fried chicken.


Denmark, of course.


Quite a few hotels had this digital juice dispenser, which make me dream again of the Coke version found just a couple of times in California.


Old distance marker by the road in Sweden. Thanks France for the metric system !


Sweden again, wearing a cap is forbidden because ?!


Last pic before arriving in Stockholm. It’s all over town.

Mythologies

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Resting day in Bremen. It’s always tough for me to stay put and wait, when I could be moving on closer to the finish line. But I really have to rest.

  
These last two days, I was feeling my legs cramping up faster and faster. I’m not going very fast, and the road is certainly very easy and almost flat, but still the effort stacks up. A day of rest here and there is necessary. So I have to simply wait it out. After all, I’ll be leaving Germany in three days, and reach Sweden in a week. It’ll be very quick.

  
So, I had a lazy morning, walked around the city early afternoon, when there were a few blue pools of sky between the clouds, and of course I ended up in a movie theater. I’m actually contemplating going again as I write this.

  
I walked around the city center, which is quite nice. This part is surrounded by the river and canals, creating a kind of bread shaped form with scales, like a stegosaurus back. Each scale is a park, lining up on the north. The old town is at the center, with buildings mostly under maintenance, and the Bottcherstrasse, an attraction in itself, notably with a carillon, and a rotating piece of building.

  
On the main commercial streets, I was surprised to see groups distributing free kurans, and others free bibles. In other towns I’ve seen also the common stand up group with messages about Jesus and salvation. Such a level of proselytism is a big no-no in France. Religion is like a dick, it’s ok to have one and being proud of it, but don’t stick it out in public, and don’t try to shove it down other people’s throat, please.

  
This also reminded me I was advised to brush up my Norse mythology for Sweden. Having played role playing games for thirty years or so, mythologies are my bread and butter. I certainly know more about Greek / Roman, Egyptian, Norse mythologies, and Chinese / Japanese, Mayan, or even Lovecraftian / Mignolan ones than on the Christian, Hebraic or Musulman ones, which are anyway really dry in comparison. Only Buddhism is a bit more fun. Having only one God is like a Friends episode with just one character talking to himself. No wonder he ends up psychotic, creates mankind, burdens it with sin only so that he can save it, and demands unconditional love unless you want to burn for eternity.

  
I just have to make sure I don’t confuse which of the two ravens is thought and which is memory.

Culture shock 2

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Here I am back at the Phnom Penh airport, along with half of the group. Boeun and his team dropped us off one hour ago, and it was a sad moment to see them go, after having cared about us for two weeks.

Here are a few more items that could be striking for a westerner spending some time in Cambodia.
One important aspect is the presence of the king’s picture in all places, along with his parents. It reminds me of the book from Guy Delisle in Pyongyang, where the dictator and his father had their pictures in each and every rooms. Not as omnipresent here, but for a king without power, he sure is visible. And of course I never snapped a pic of that 🙂
Coming back on the road traffic a minute, as in all poor countries you can see overloaded cars, buses, trucks and else. People cram on top, they cram stuff at the back door, strapped ajar by a cord, they sit everywhere and make the most of the space available. Security is clearly not the main concern.
You also see a lot of farm engines used as vehicles, notably these small motors with very long handles, that people drive with their feet, moving at maybe 10-12k/h. They also leave the special metal wheels that are necessary for plowing the drenched rice fields, probably damaging the roads a bit more. Behind such a contraption would be a long cart, with a few people and wood planks, tools, or some harvest.

  

What’s been striking me in almost all areas were houses along the road, for miles on end. We were out of any town for an hour or two, and still houses were aligned every now and then. I guess this is in order to be closer to fields, and have quick access to the road, as on the other hand, they are far away from everything else. This was less true in the south of the country, with more void and natural areas.

  
In any area though, you can see a lot of litter, of any kind, in any place. This seems to be a common factor of poor countries and poor regions. I have noticed a few litter cans, notably along the road where they are probably gathered, but this was rare. Plastic, bottles, construction material, you can find any kind of crap around. Bottles and cans are often gathered by some people, to be returned against a fee. We even passed a house almost covered with metal cans at one point.

 

Another constant feature is the use of cows or buffaloes as lawn mowers. They are attached at one point, often along the road, and keep the grass in check. Fields are mostly open, so that would be the only way to retrieve them – although they can get loose easily. It’s quite funny to see a large field, with cows being placed at regular intervals like a giant chess game!

Many fields are also protected by a wall. And that would be only one, lonely wall, generally on the side of the road, or sometimes along the next field. All other sides would be open. And most of these fields remain raw, uncultivated spots.
Using them everyday during the trip, I almost forgot that most of the little shops use cooler boxes and a lot of ice, having no fridge around. In most areas outside cities this is how drinks are kept and sold.

  
I made quite a few pictures of monasteries. There is a lot around, and we passed a huge one being built, south west of Phnom Penh. Most are living places, and used by monks or common people. There is usually a couple large buildings for ceremonies, a few housings, some statues, and a few stupas. These are the family mausoleums where ashes are kept, as all Buddhists are being cremated.

  
Another extremely common faith item are what could be seen on a first glance as birdbaths : small decorated houses, perched on a pillar at man’s height. These are used for incense burning and offerings, and can be found in almost every middle class garden. Many are sold here and there.

  
And finally, to conclude this second list, I often noticed French written below Khmer, especially for police and official buildings. It’s probably been there since the fifties!

 

Well, this is about all I can remember on this subject for now. It’s been an intense discovery, mind-clearing, eye opening, physically challenging, that went by in a flash. I remember clearly standing here two weeks ago, thinking it would be fast, and it has been. Two weeks is a quick period of time, but you can do a lot though, like visiting a country or fucking up your life.

 
I think I had a very diverse view of Cambodia in a short timeframe, thanks to Boeun and his team, clearing the way, taking care of all details, and explaining everything. Riding on a bike remains the best method to discover a place : you go fast enough to see a lot, and slow enough to enjoy it all by yourself. It’s been a great adventure.

  

Culture shock

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Having spent two weeks in Cambodia, here are a few things that were striking for a French guy.

Keep in mind I never visited another Asian country but Hong Kong (probably the most western place in Asia), and it was a long time ago (1999-2000). Closest would be Mauritius two years ago probably. I won’t be talking about nature, cultural heritage or history here.

  
First off, of course, this is a poor country. We passed many very simple houses on the way, made of wood, straw or steel. It doesn’t get better around large cities, as the poor are crammed together in small areas. The people are dressed very simply in these areas, and even if most seem supplied with electricity, they collect rain water, and seem to have very crude living equipment. I have seen or heard very few electronics (TV sets, radios…) outside of cities.

  
Even if most people are clearly very poor, a large part seem to live much more decently, at least seen from the houses. And what is unsettling is that everyone is mixed together : large, impressive, modern houses, side by side with wooden huts. In the west we have the decency to reject the poor in the suburbs where no one can see them :/ I suspect I have missed rich districts, or maybe there isn’t yet enough around.

  
Cambodia also appears to remain very heavily a land of agriculture. In the countryside, many of the houses were linked with farmland, mostly rice fields, visible everywhere. This requires a lot of manual work, and we passed a lot of people working on the fields. Lots of animals around too. Families were living with a collection of chicken, dogs, cows, and the odd cat or buffalo. Most farmers though were using engines to plow the land, not too many work with animals.

  
Another striking point, clearly demonstrated in the photos, is the abundance of children. They were everywhere (less so in large cities), smiling, waving, welcoming. There are also schools everywhere, with morning and afternoon shifts, to be able to accommodate all of these kids, with mandatory uniforms! Waving back to children was the delight of this trip.

  
Riding on a bike, we have seen the traffic up close, and it is a joyous mess. Everyone moves at once, and priority is given to the boldest, or the biggest, which are usually the same. This means the cyclist is a negligeable quantity, just above the pedestrian and the chicken. I’m wondering what is the mortality rate on the roads. People do not seem to drive excessively fast though. It’s often a necessity, as road conditions range from catastrophic to excellent, but average around dangerous!

 
Motorbikes are the predominant form of transportation. With super long seats, they can accommodate three people, even four or five including children. Very few users have helmets, much more have medical masks to protect from the dust. Motorbikes are the ones able to get anywhere and around any obstacle, like a van trying to turn left or right at a crossing. Right after them would be cycles, but they are more frequent in the countryside, and mostly used by kids.
Another regular surprise is the number of political lawn signs. At first I thought they were marking party offices, but they are everywhere. 90% are for the Cambodian people’s party (most political parties want to be “of the people” anyway), then the Rescue party (?), or Linpinchek, and I’m missing another one. The people’s party often displays the three notable VIPs, and I’ve seen quite a few signs for the prime minister.
Right after lawn signs come the beer commercials! I don’t think there are as many even in Germany. Angkor beer, Anchor beer, Cambodia beer dwarf commercials for farm engines or about anything else by a factor of 100 to 1 – literally. It might be mandatory to drink beer in the country. And as all three brands use the same logotype : strong red background, gold letters, they are easily confused.

  
These commercials are usually linked with shops or restaurants. You can find a small shop about everywhere, even by highways. Most of the time, it’s a table, a few products, a few bottles of gas, but it’s a shop! When they are more “brick and mortar” versions, they get their beer commercial to be more visible. In the southern part of Sihanuk, where all the tourists are, the streets are a long line of small restaurants, bars, souvenirs, mini marts, massage parlors, mini hairdressers, a few hotels, casinos, etc. Not a single residential home.

  
A complement to the huge number of small shops are street vendors. Whether on food, cycle, motorbike, they pop out of anywhere to sell snacks, raw food, even ice cream. They are the true equivalent of the NYC hot dog vendors, complete with repetitive music.

  
When entering a town, one surprise is the number of electric cables hanging around. It’s just as if each new home got a direct line to the town generator, adding one cable to the mass already in place for kilometers. Thing is, I’m almost sure it’s exactly what happens. There are hundreds of cables hanging from each post, some of them so loose they can be reached from the ground. Probably a maintenance nightmare.

  
Another such surprise is the scaffoldings. In Hong Kong they make them out of bamboos, even for 30 or 40 stories buildings. That was very surprising to me at the time! Here they are made of wood, but extremely simple : the areas where workers can walk is only one long branch, exactly the same as the ones used for the structure of the scaffolding, meaning they are always balancing over the void.

  
And after a trip to the US, my list wouldn’t be complete without a note about obesity. There are a few overweight people in large cities, but you have to find them. The official obesity rate is 3%, lowest in the world (ok Ethiopia or Bangladesh are lower). To be compared to 33% in the US, meaning one in three adults, ranked in the top 3 of actual countries (not autonomous islands). France is at 18%, in the middle of the charts. 

I <3 New York

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Last post from the US ! I’m ready to depart back to sunny France. End of one week of rest / strolling in the city.

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I’ve lived in Paris for 17 or 18 years, after living in the countryside, or small cities. I prefer large cities anytime. You get everything you want and a lot of people, and you can move around easily.

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Among mega-cities, New York is probably the only place I’d rather live in than Paris. Everything is bigger, better, more impressive. And there’s a feeling it is constantly being built and redone, so that it evolves with the time. Paris changes much slower.

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Manhattan is the heart, of course, and I can see more people walking here in a day than for the rest of the trip combined. People of all shapes and colors, speaking all languages. I even heard French quite a few times a day. There is also an architectural diversity that cannot be matched. It’s several cities put together and mixed up. Perspectives are staggering, amplified by the heights of the buildings. And there’s something to see in every street.

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On Thursday I did a ride all around Manhattan, that’s about 30mis/50kms, plus around Central Park. It’s amazing to see the differences from place to place in such a short time. The northern tip is covered in forest while the southern one is packed with glass skycrapers. Lots of red bricks, concrete, large avenues, small corners, deserted areas, crowded walkways… And quite a few places to get lost while trying to ride all around ! I was along a nice pathway for a mile before seeing it was a dead end – no sign at any time.

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I also went down all the way through Brooklyn to Coney Island, in order to reach the Atlantic, and take the mandatory bike-in-the-ocean picture for the end of the trip. Brooklyn is much bigger than I thought ! Took me an hour to get there, and another one, all along the Jamaica bay, to get back to my place. Great views of Manhattan in the distance, a fantastic conclusion for the whole trip, and the eighth and last time I see 111,1kms on the counter.

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On Friday, I started packing, taking down the bike and once again, my life fits in a box. It’s a bigger box this time, maybe there’s a meaning around there 🙂

Aftermath

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Three days without riding, for the first time since I started getting ready for the trip (apart from the broken bike gap), it really feels like the end of the adventure.

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I love the word “aftermath”, it feels like you did so much math the world now lies in ruins 🙂 Don’t do too much math ! You never know.

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I’ve been walking around Manhattan for three days. Not that much, as my back still aches from the accumulated pressure over the last week of riding, and the downfall of that pressure. But I love it (the walking, not the back ache). I’ll have to make another post about the city 🙂

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It feels really, really strange not having the road moving below the wheel, and going into one direction for hours. It feels strange not watching the horizon become the next crossroads. And it feels strange not having the same routine anymore.

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Goon into the routine of the ride was tough. Mostly the second month, as for the first one it was new and attractive. But it has become a habit now, and leaving a habit is not natural. My bike and the trailer are sitting restlessly in a corner. I hope I’ll feel better enough to do a few rides around the city before leaving.

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So here I am trying to do something else now, enjoying New York. And of course I’m wondering if I am enjoying it enough. Am I making most of the time here ? Am I spending enough time outside ? The kind of stupid questions where I’m judging myself as if someone was pushing me to do more. Is five hours walking enough ? Six ? Seven ? If I’m tired, can I do less and still avoid questioning myself ? How many movies in a week can I see without feeling I’m losing time ?

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I had a mini experience like that going up the Empire State this afternoon. The price to go up there is steep (29$), and I stayed maybe 20 minutes. That puts a price to the famous New York minute 😉 I enjoyed the view, took nice pics very similar to the ones I took eight years ago, and then the vertigo pushed me away from the observatory 🙂 Did I enjoy the place enough ? How do you measure that ?

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For sure though I’m enjoying netflix 🙂 It should be up in France a couple of weeks after I get back, so I’ll be on the waiting list !