Thursday, May 28, 2009

360° view from Slussen

Here is another 360-degree image I made recently in Stockholm. In this view from Slussen, you can see Gamla Stan (the old town) across the water, the circular Berg Arkitektkontor (Berg Architecture office) building, and Gondolen, a tall elevator-and-bridge observation structure.

Click images to view full size

Slussen is a central point in the city. It is the location of one of the live webcams in the left-hand column on this site. From that camera's position on the Gondolen, you can look down on the position where this 360° view was made. The yellow Hilton Hotel is in the left side of both views, and the satellite view below shows these landmarks specifically.

The greater Slussen site is a major junction that has been built upon for decades to accommodate the growing traffic demands of all the cars, trains, boats, bicycles, buses, and pedestrians who use it daily.

It's one of those types of places where you can feel that there was never a master plan. Things are randomly arranged in a confusing fashion. Some areas seem closed until a car comes through and surprises you. When you're crossing one of the streets there, it's sometimes not clear which direction you should look to watch for traffic. The current version of the site is nearly 100 years old and is in dire need of repair. This black and white image is how it looked in 1935 and at first glance it seems not much has changed since then. Today, the complex includes twenty-four bridges.

Its central location makes it a popular meet-up spot, not least because five of the seven subway lines pass through every few minutes. Underneath the streets, where you can walk to the Tunnelbana station or visit some underground shops, much of the concrete is old and crumbling. While it probably seemed like a futuristic nexus in the 1930's, it's quite primitive by today's standards.

The whole scene down there is oddly out of place in this otherwise clean and organized city. You can see some of its deterioration if you look at the handrails and concrete infrastructure in the detailed 360° image.

In the next few years, Slussen will be completely rebuilt and modernized. Through a massive reconstruction project, the new plan will open up much more public space and access to the water. A victim of this renovation will be the Debaser Slussen nightclub which sits under all of it adjacent to the boat locks. The area where Debaser sits seems like it will completely disappear in order to accomplish the new vision. The circular Berg building in the center, truly a landmark, will also vanish.

This picture from the Dagens Nyheter ("Daily News") newspaper website shows a rendering of the new Slussen. It's much more sleek and open.

I know many Stockholmers have a lot of sentimental attachment to the Berg building, Debaser, and the general familiarity of Slussen. Understandably, some people are freaking out about the changes, but it seems that the area is falling apart so something must be done. It's nice that the opportunity is being taken to do something truly forward-looking that embraces the water and enhances the public space.

Here is an overview on the Stockholm City website of the challenges involved the project, which includes several pictures truly worth a thousand words.

The Slussen controversy reminds me a bit of the 8664 debate that has been going on for a few years in Louisville. Some businessmen and activists (supported by more than 10,000 members of the public) are pushing to stop the expansion of downtown highways to an absurd 23 lanes.

The alternative plan they are advocating would route thru-traffic around the city and replace the giant, elevated highway with a ground-level, tree-lined waterfront parkway. Aside from reconnecting the city to its riverfront, it would also save billions of taxpayer dollars. Naturally, the higher-ups aren't listening.

With driving rates continuing to decline, it only seems comical to continue building monstrous automobile infrastructure. I'm continually returning to the idea what kind of public transit a couple billion dollars could buy for Louisville, instead of the proposed 23-lane monument to yesterday's sad love affair with the internal combustion engine.

The image you see here is not an exaggeration by the opposition, it is from the actual Ohio River Bridges Project website. It's really quite shocking how the project absolutely dwarfs entire city blocks of houses and businesses, and is placed directly between the city and its waterfront. If you're having any trouble imagining the size of this monster, compare it to the baseball stadium in the bottom left of the picture.

If everything goes according to plan - which construction ventures never do - the project will be finished in fifteen years. When you think about what has happened to oil prices, driving trends, and auto manufacturing, just in the last two or three years, a fifteen-year project like this is nothing short of senseless, foolish, and wasteful. It is a prefect example of doing more of the same thing and expecting different results.

Stockholm, a city roughly the same size as Louisville, is literally blanketed in a web of public transit. This access grew out of investment and planning dating back to the 1940's, when Louisville was foolishly dismantling its electric street cars. The result today in Stockholm is a beautiful city that is drastically quieter, cleaner, and more accessible to everyone than Louisville is. In my several months here I have been inside a car only a handful of times. Buses, bicycles, pedestrians - they all coexist in the same space and breathe the same air.

Just like Louisville, Stockholm was originally founded because it was a natural stopping point for shipping. The boats had to stop here and therefore a community grew around that pause in the transport of goods. Sure, Stockholm is more than half a millennium older than Louisville, but that should make its lessons of modern growth more of an example than not. Despite the age difference, the two cities share a lot of parallels and similar challenges when it comes to transit - namely, a similar population, surface area, high water table, commuter culture.

The difference is that in Stockholm they made tough choices for the greater good. They moved their air traffic away from the city instead of continuing to expand an old airport in the middle of where everyone lives. They built an extensive underground rail system which meant carving deep into the bedrock below lakes and rivers.

Both of these things happened more than sixty years ago and neither was cheap, but in the long run, they were ultimately worth it. They required sacrifices but they became gifts to future generations that people today are enjoying.

With all the investment UPS has put into the Louisville airport and the city's cost of buying out homeowners to expand it, they really should have built an entirely new airport somewhere else. Jumbo jets regularly flying a few hundred feet over houses and schools is insane, not just because of the noise, but because of the danger. It only takes one accident to ruin a neighborhood and scar a generation of life in the city. In the same respect, individuals driving alone in their cars from the east end of the city to their jobs downtown is doing nothing but slowly burning up the planet and filling the local air with noise and toxins. There is plenty of land in surrounding counties for a truly international airport and plenty of daily mass commuting in and out of the city to support collective transit.

If you build it, they will come, you just have to make the tough choices and understand that you can't please everybody. Lincoln wasn't popular and the Kennedys certainly weren't overwhelmed with love, but we don't remember the popular guys as being anything but popular. We remember the guys who had a vision, the ability to get us to see it, and help them remake things for the better. In a 200-year old city, it may be difficult to see 100 years into the future, but you must do that.

I miss a lot of things about Louisville, but I certainly don't miss the noise level, the exhaust, the need to drive or the cost of driving. Louisvillians think of the city as clean, quiet, and easy to get around. By American standards, that's pretty true, but you really haven't seen anything like Stockholm.

In Louisville, you always hear a motorcycle, an airplane, a siren. When I hear one of those things in Stockolm, I notice it as unusual. I feel like even if I live another fifty years, it may not be long enough to enjoy this in my own hometown.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Flower headbands

There is a school between the apartment where I live and where I catch the train to go into the center of Stockholm.

The students I pass when I walk through the Kungliga Tekniska Högskolan (The Royal Institute of Technology) are of all ages - teens to adults. When the weather is nice, there are people hanging out in the grass or on wooden platforms that dot the field, presumably placed there for picnicking or sitting in the sun.

While walking to the train today, two rings of dandelions laying on one of these platforms caught my eye. It appears someone has been practicing the art of making headbands out of flowers in advance of the Midsommar festival next month.

I continued walking by, but after a few steps, I decided I had to return to document this. The tall trees, the rings of flowers, the green grass, the crystal clear air and sunshine - it was just too Swedish to let it pass.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009


Hermans is a fantastic vegetarian buffet restaurant in Stockholm. Their food is augmented with tons of outdoor seating and an amazing view of the city.

We ate there Monday night because the weather was perfect for such a visit. I don't have any pictures of the food because my four plates of it disappeared so quickly, but are a few photos of the scenery and some important Swedish words.

A blurry arc has recently appeared in my point-and-shoot camera's lens, which you can see a little bit in the first two images. That's not good. I may have to throw down some kronors this summer and get a new pocket camera if it gets worse or starts ruining my pictures. We can't have that, right?

Uteservering = outside dining
Solnedgång = sunset

Utsikt = View (as in scenery)
Gamla Stan = old town

Roligt = Funny
Te = Tea

Ansikte = face
Trött = tired
Fars skjorta = my dad's shirt

Monday, May 25, 2009

When does the sun go down around here?

I would like to say that I'm starting to get used to the surplus hours of daylight in Stockholm, but I can't. I still find it so amazing.

During the past few weeks, it has been fascinating to me that each day has been noticeably longer than the day before. It is beyond surreal to see the sun still going down after 11 pm and coming up again at 2 in the morning.

Now, as you can see above in the timelapse of hourly snapshots from the Slussen webcam, we are enjoying about 21 hours of daylight.

The pages at those links are updated live in real time, so you can check them periodically if you want to see how each day inches closer and closer to midnight sunshine. Sweden is six hours ahead of Eastern Time in the United States.

The daylight hours will continue to get longer and longer here until late June. The longest days of the year are celebrated with the Midsommar festival. Midsommar is responsible for many of the stereotypical or recognizably Swedish images that foreigners have of the country. Singing, dancing, eating outside, and girls wearing flowers in their hair.

Here is a nice overview of Midsommar in English.

That's still about a month away, so get ready for more pictures of train stations until then!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Free at last

This picture might not mean anything to you, but it is really big news for me. This is the screen of my finally-unlocked iPhone displaying my balance with a Swedish telephone operator.

Yes, it's true. After many attempts during the months I've been in Sweden, I have finally successfully sprung my iPhone loose from AT&T's shackles and unlocked to use it locally. It was made possible by a new process that just surfaced in the past few weeks which allows for the reverting of the modem firmware update back to version 02.28.00. Blah blah blah this isn't an iPhone site. Talk about funny Swedish shit!

The whole process took nearly three hours. It was not easy and is not an undertaking I would recommend to anyone without a great deal of patience.

I am now happily out of T9 prison and texting again at the speed of thought. One less device in my pockets!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Allt om mig

Enough about Sweden already. Let's talk about me.

Today's story has been in the works for more than a few weeks. It has a lot of personal information about my thoughts, feelings, and ideas, so if you're more interested in the Swedish culture stuff, pictures of stairs, and fake charts, this monologue might not be for you.

Hard to believe, but true, sometimes I think about myself instead of what coins look like, what spännande means, or what the King is having for breakfast.

Honestly, this story might not be for anyone but me, but since I'm sharing my thoughts on everything else, why break the streak now?

One of the main attractions for me in moving to Sweden was that I thought it would give me the opportunity to "turn off" for a while.

I don't know nearly as many people here, so combine that with Sweden's more reasonable speed of life; not having as many expenses; therefore not having to work so much, et cetera. All these elements would theoretically come together and allow me to explore some larger, longterm projects that I ordinarily wouldn't have the ability to. More rest, more quiet, less pushing myself to do new things, less need to try to change things.

I've had several conversations lately about whether it's okay to live without goals. I know there are millions of people who just go to work, eat, sleep, and maybe hang out with their family or friends. That's all they do. There's no larger plan for their career or anything else. For them, day-to-day life is the plan. It goes on for decades and there's nothing wrong with it. For a lot of people, especially in places like America in a tough economy, that's all that they can afford to do. Others aren't even that lucky. For some, just doing something is all they need to be happy.

There are those people in the world who know exactly what they want to do with their lives when they're twelve years old. Doctor, lawyer, photographer, fireman, news reporter, forest ranger, computer programmer, teacher, president. Whatever it is, some people know instinctively what they want to do. I just wasn't one of those people. Sometimes I envy them. Okay, most of the time. It seems like it would be so much easier to just know.

Instead, I have needed to invent big projects for myself to keep me busy. I've always felt like I was supposed to be doing something special, but since I haven't known what that special thing was, I have tried just about everything that interested me. These undertakings entertain me and occasionally pay my bills. Usually they overlapped and I ended up doing a dozen things at once.

I haven't needed luxuries like a fancy car, a DVD collection, concert tickets, nice furniture, a big wardrobe, home ownership, fancy dinners, et cetera. It's always nice visiting people who do have those things, but over the past decade - even before moving across the ocean - I have gradually been downsizing the volume of my belongings.

When I moved to Rhode Island in 2001, I rented a moving truck. Less than two years later, when moving to California, I committed myself to keeping only what I could fit in my Volvo wagon. That was liberating.

The lack of owning so many things has permitted me to live with a little more freedom. Not having monthly payments for a mortgage, car, whatever, has made it possible for me to explore larger projects that require dedicated time and resources. Whether the project has been publishing a magazine with interviews of my friends, writing songs, putting out records, building a social networking site, running for office, or whatever, these projects have added a lot to my life and hopefully have engaged or entertained others.

A lot of the projects I took on had the theme of being unique: either no one had done something like it before, or it needed to be done and it seemed no one else was going to do it.

I don't know if other people don't have the same kinds of ideas I have, or if other people just don't pursue them. People are always saying "wouldn't it be cool if..." but if I have an idea like that, I try to do something about it instead of letting it remain in a conversation. That started a long time ago and has built progressively with each project. I suppose the ability to do such things comes in small degrees.

I think in moving away, I wanted to put all that on hold for a while. My efforts to expand my own boundaries weren't necessarily starting to take too much away from me, but something was happening.

Specifically, running for state senate was a dream I had for a quite a while. It was a big goal which unfortunately turned out so unlike my expectations. Rather than being something positive and influential, a lot of the time and energy in my campaign was spent fighting just for the right to participate. It was just exhausting at times when it should have been exhilirating. Of course I'm glad I did it, and just participating in the process was an achievement I'm proud of. I don't regret it and I would do it all over again. Maybe one day I will. (I can't believe I just typed that sentence.)

I met hundreds of people during the campaign and I received priceless support toward the effort from just as many. Because of that support, I felt a constant drive to do everything I could to not let anyone down. Once someone gives you their hard-earned money and asks you to see if you can make a difference with it, it's nearly impossible to not keep fighting, even when all the odds and money are gone. I can't say too much about any of it yet, really, because here I am on the other side of the world and I can feel myself starting to get all worked up about it. The lawsuit that disqualified me and its plaintiff - my opponent who was re-elected as the district's senator - are not my favorite topics... Yet I'm still being very careful to be kind with my words. (Using the term "re-elected" is one way of being very kind.)

The day after the election was bittersweet. I was so relieved that Barack Obama had been elected. I still kind of can't believe it. (Every time I check the American news, I am impressed and ecstatic at each new overdue misconduct he is trying to take on. It's almost too good to be true.) The day after the election there was also a sense of relief that the public aspect of my campaign was over. That might be the day I decided for sure that I was moving to Sweden.

I remember saying to a friend, "I could stay in Kentucky and continue fighting for the rest of my life, or I could just go where everything is already fixed." That's an oversimplification of things and I think it's unnecessarily harsh and childish, but maybe it captures the feeling of the time. I don't like fighting. I don't want to spend my life being angry over things that I may never be able to affect. I would rather create things or just throttle down a bit. Unwind, reset, breathe. What would it be like to relax, or have the time to read, or go on a date, or do anything else most people do that have somehow eluded me?

I thought that moving to Sweden would be a great way to turn off my need to continually generate new materials and ideas, to not have a project, and to be somewhat anonymous.

The anonymity aspect has turned out to be much as I expected. Sometimes it's too much. Everyone knows the feeling of being alone in a crowd. Maybe some of the lonliest people in the world are those who are living in big cities, surrounded by other people who are talking, laughing, holding hands, chatting on the phone, and otherwise carrying on.

Even in a year-round Casual Friday community like Louisville, where people are always saying things to people they don't know, it's still possible - if not very easy - to go an entire day without speaking to anyone. That's even easier in the iPod Age where everyone has headphones and you're in a country where those who don't are speaking a language you don't understand.

The several-month project of selling and giving away virtually everything I own was obviously an overwhelming endeavor. As you can imagine, it was at once painful and liberating. My move to Sweden made moving in a Volvo look positively posh. I arrived here with only a rolling suitcase and a guitar case. With the exception of a few boxes in my parents' basement, if I move back to Louisville at any point, there's not any material "stuff" there to go back to. My car, apartment, furniture, books, music, dishes, everything - it's all gone.

I expected that once the process of shedding my earthly belongings, saying farewells to friends and family, and getting on the plane was finished, that would be the moment I crossed the line and I would really be able to turn off for a while. From several previous, extended visits, I already knew the basics of finding my way around Stockholm, the public transit, and stuff like that. I could unpack my few things here and just let go.

I'm not sure how it could have escaped me that moving to a different country with a different language is, in itself, a huge project.

I'm sure it is self-evident to anyone reading this, that learning a new word for everything and an entirely new way of talking is a really big project. It's like if I started att skriva this helt på svenska du... I mean, if I started writing this totally in Swedish, you wouldn't be able to understand any of it.

The good news is that even though it just occurred to me last month that this language thing is a gigantic project, I am way beyond the point of all the words looking and sounding crazy. I had a couple years of a head start in dabbling with the Swedish language in Louisville, which has proven to be helpful, but only a little bit.

At the very least, I understand the topic of most conversations. Depending on who's talking or what's being discussed, I understand a little more or a little less. Sometimes I don't believe that the sounds my roommate Iida is making are actually talking. It's so fast and I may only catch a word or two during a few minutes of listening to her and Erik chatting. On the other hand, sometimes when I'm reading, I have moments when I feel like I get it. Headlines and advertising are getting easier faster. If I'm watching Swedish television and the closed caption text in Swedish is on the screen, my comprehension skyrockets.

Even if I'm still less than 20% able to comprehend or carry on a real conversation comfortably in Swedish, I'm on my way toward it. It would be coming so much faster if Sweden wasn't such a bilingual country. Here, it's not like how some people in America speak Spanish and some speak English. Seriously, everyone in Sweden under 50 speaks both Swedish and English - and both languages well. A blessing and a curse. As soon as I begin speaking, even if I'm just ordering a coffee, the other person will inevitably start speaking English to me.

You might ask, if everyone speaks English, why bother learning Swedish? Honestly, I feel rude not knowing the language. If I like the place enough to live here, I owe it to everyone else to speak their language. If I'm in a group of people and they're all speaking English because of me, well, it makes me feel silly. More often, I'd rather the conversation continue in Swedish, even if it means I'm not involved, just so I can hear more of the language in context.

Also on the plus side, I love the way Swedish sounds. It is beautiful and cool and like a song. There are special ways to pronounce things and a lot of it has a nod-nod-wink-wink quality to it. (Skiva is pronounced "whuooeevah" but skriva is "skreevah." Ljug is pronounced "yoeg" and själv is "whhelf." Sig is prounounced "say" and de is "doam." This shit's crazy! And those are short words! Not only that, but seeing it in print isn't even a hint as to the inflection. Jävla betoning!)

The world around you looks different depending on the sounds that come with it. That's something else I've been thinking a lot about. For example, if you're walking around the city listening to Slayer on your iPod all day, your perspective will be different than if you're looking at the same things while listening to Mexican mariachi music. (Most people I know have tons of mariachi music on their iPods.) I think the same is true of the sounds in the language you speak and hear. Whether it's a harsh language like Russian or a mushy language like French, constant exposure to these sounds must have an effect on the people who speak the language.

The singing, fun, and active dynamics in the Swedish language must be somewhat responsible for the attitudes and personality the Swedish people have. In the same respect, the artistic and caring nature of the people must also influence the way the language continues to develop. When I first came to Sweden in the nineties, I fell in love with the entire package: the landscape, the people, the design aesthetics, the sound of the language. I'm still seeing everything I saw then, but now it is part of my everyday life.

I listen to several hours of language every day on my iPhone, whether it's news or instruction or comedy. I push myself to hear more, even when I would rather listen to something in English. Even then, if I'm thinking about other things, not exactly tuned in to what's playing, or sleeping, it's still there and I believe I am subconsciously absorbing something from it.

Trying to figure out what everyone is saying all the time is no small task. My brain is getting a serious work-over every day. I think an hour of trying to keep up with a Swedish conversation probably equates to four hours' worth of English brain work. It's like flipping through a turbo dictionary upstairs every time somebody talks. I'm pretty used to getting really tired really fast.

For several weeks, I was intentionally starving myself of American entertainment in order to submerge myself deeper into Swedish. That just ended up making me crazy. I'm starting to seek a balance now so I can build my Swedish while keeping my English sharp.

I'm on the case and I'm getting it. I'm just not sure how I missed the idea that this whole move is probably one of the biggest projects I've ever taken on. How could I have thought all this wasn't a project at all?

Friday, May 15, 2009


Here are a few photos from Vasadstaden, a central Stockholm neighborhood that originated in the late 1800's.

These photos were taken from the top of a hill in Observatorielunden, a park that surrounds the Stockholm Observatory. The observatory is about a hundred years older than the surrounding neighborhood and was an influential early astronomical research center. It is believed to be one of the oldest continuously operating observatories in the world. Weather measurements are still made there daily.

This fantastic orange is the Stockholms Bibliotek (public library), completed in 1928. It was designed by Swedish architect Gunnar Asplund. A couple interior shots of this unique building are below.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fake Starbucks

I wrote earlier about the absence of Starbucks in Sweden. Personally, I don't miss Starbucks, but it seems there are those Swedes who feel their country has been left out of this worldwide phenomenon of "coffee culture."

Maybe they were left out, maybe they opted out, maybe they escaped. I've heard several explanations of Starbucks' conspicuous absence in this otherwise fully-westernized, participating-locations country.

One story goes that there once was a Starbucks in Sweden which was closed by the government because the products did not meet health standards. Starbucks felt it was better to close the store instead of changing the formulation of their beverages. After exhaustive web searching, I really couldn't find any information from any reputable source about what may or may not have happened.

I did find an article from the Puget Sound Business Journal which reported Starbucks had plans to open stores in Sweden during 2000.

Regardless of whether they got around to opening any shops in Sweden, a number of imitators have picked up the slack. My favorite Starbucks tribute shop is one whose name is Coffee Culture, but I call it Fake Starbucks. Anything look familiar about the menu board?

The cup sleeves at Fake Starbucks - I mean, Coffee Culture - even say, "Careful, the beverage you are about to enjoy is hot," which is only one word away from being the exact phrase from Starbucks' cups. In fairness, their coffee is not bad and the price of 20 kr ($2.50) for a take-away latte is very affordable in the area.

I apologize that the photo is a little blurry, but I think you get the idea. I didn't want to look like a corporate spy taking pictures of their shop.

Starbucks recently sued a small shop in Göteborg called Starcups after the owner refused to change his store's name and logo. Perhaps that's a signal Starbucks is planning on moving into the country.

I just don't see the point in copying something or opening a business that is so recognizably derivative.

I really miss some of Louisville's independent shops like Quills and, of course, Jackson's who, without question, sells the best coffee I've ever had. Anybody wanna send me some?

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Dark skies over Gamla Stan

A few images of dark clouds moving in over Gamla Stan (The Old Town) last week.

The gold-tipped building is Stockholm City Hall (Stadshuset), completed in 1923. You can see one of the old-style Tunnelbana trains passing in the foreground. Most of the trains running through the city are very modern and from the 1990's or later. Occasionally you'll board one of these Cx-type wagons which have been in use more than 30 years.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Driver's license

I recently walked with Iida to the local post office to pick up a special delivery. It was her driver's license.

Getting a license to drive in Kentucky has gotten a little tougher since I first got mine - you have to be doing sufficiently well in school to qualify - but the process still would seem comical to anyone who has done it in Sweden.

I got my first driver's license when I turned 16. This is the case for most kids in America, except those who live in huge metropolitan areas like New York City where driving isn't necessary to get around. In a lot of cases, and certainly in mine, getting a driver's license provides as much freedom for the parents as it does for the new driver. It's really hard for me to believe that I've been driving for over twenty years.

Learning to drive for me was very much the same as learning to ride a bicycle. I think my dad taught me to ride a bike and my mom taught me to drive. That seems about right. My dad was always the one swimming and running around with us while my mom was wearing sunglasses and reading a Robert Ludlum book. I'm kidding, of course, they're both really active and were always playing tennis and going bowling - you know, the usual hilarious stuff adults did in the '70s and '80s.

When I was learning, my mom and I just took the car out in our neighborhood a few times. She drove first, showed me some basic things, and then it was my turn to try it.

Everything inside the car was was pretty familiar to me by that age because, like I've said, in Middle America you're in a car pretty much every day of your life. I already had sixteen years of seeing how it was done from riding in a car anywhere we would go. Bicycles were used for recreation, and the places we could get to by walking were limited to just neighbor's houses. All I really had to learn to take the driving test was how to use the clutch. Apart from that, it just takes experience behind the wheel to get a feel for where the car should be on the road and how long it takes to stop. Of course, you have to know the right-of-way rules and that kind of stuff, but whatever, man, this is America, I can do whatever I want!

In Kentucky, at least back then, the process of getting your first license began with going to your local Transportation Cabinet office to get a learner's permit. This permit was good for 30 days and allowed you to drive a car immediately, as long as there was a licensed driver over 18 in the front seat with you. The office sends you off with a book that has pictures of road signs and basic rules in it. Naturally, there are pictures of menacing Kentucky cops on the cover to scare the shit out of you.

Once you feel like you've got it down, you return to the Transportation office. You fill out a form, take a visual test, and do a driving test in a closed course with someone who is probably very old and frightening. For this article, I grabbed a copy of the paperwork from the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet's website and it is shown here. Seriously, this is it. I noticed in the top corner that it was revised in 2008. Looks great, guys!

The process Iida went through to get her license - and all Swedes must complete - is a study in contrasts to Kentucky. I should say it's not just Sweden that has a much more demanding gateway to automobile access. It's like this in most European countries for a variety of reasons which range from public safety to environmental preservation. In neighboring Denmark, sales tax on automobiles is 100%. That is, if you buy a car that costs $20,000, you'll pay $40,000 for it.

The journey to a driver's license in Sweden can easily take more a year. Steps in the undertaking require the new driver to attend individual driving lessons from an authorized instructor. These mandatory classes are run by private companies and are not cheap. It would not be unusual if simply learning to drive in Sweden ended up costing you more than $2,000 (16.000 kr). In Kentucky where any licensed driver over 18 (like a friend, parent, or my older brother) could hop in the car next to me before I got a license, just getting one of your parents to teach you during your learning period must be approved in Sweden. That approval process can take up to a month and costs about $125 (1000 sek) per driver.

A typical driving instruction program is comprised of a combination of lectures, books, and in-vehicle instruction. Behind-the-wheel training is extensive. Because Sweden's weather and daylight hours vary so dramatically, new drivers are obliged to learn and be tested in driving on ice and at night.

When your instructor clears you to proceed to the actual test administered by Vägverket (the government agency that handles licensing), there are more fees waiting for you. The lengthy, official, daytime-only driving test costs almost $100 (700 kr). If you want to drive when it's dark or after 6 pm on weekends, that's extra. If you want to drive a truck or a car with a trailer, that's extra.

Then even charge you for the photo and the manufacture of the license, which I must say, is a pretty substantial card. This thing has about a dozen security features and I can't imagine how anyone would even begin to try to fake one. The photos here don't really capture what a piece of artwork and technology the Swedish driver's license is, but I think they accurately represent how funny my Kentucky one looks. Iida's photo came out looking only a little bit like Marilyn Manson.

If you fail the test - which is apparently pretty easy to fail - you have to pay the $100 fee again to be re-tested. Iida's first test was unsuccessful because the guy said she was taking her turns "too fast for the environment." Well, he said that in Swedish where it's easier to understand what he meant. I had to ask her to clarify if he meant the environment as in miljö which means "nature" or the environment as in område which means your immediate surroundings. I could see where it would be important to take turns at a speed that respects the neighborhood you're in, but he really did mean that her turns were too fast for Earth's ecosystem. That's certainly something that is not part of the criteria in Kentucky.

Essentially, it seems they just don't want people driving cars here. If you must drive, though, they want to be sure you're safe and you know what you're doing. I've mentioned before that it is strangely uncommon in Sweden to hear someone with an intentionally loud vehicle, hot-rodding, peeling out, or otherwise making a ruckus. The licensing process may be partially to credit for the lower noise level, whereas in Kentucky, any jackass can get a driver's license. Pass a common-sense test, fork over $12, and drive off the lot. Fill 'er up at the next corner for $2 a gallon.

Americans love to complain about "high gas prices" as much as their "high taxes." A 2008 survey of prices from around the world showed that gasoline was more expensive in 107 other countries than in the United States. It's around $5 a gallon here (10 sek/liter). Two dollars per gallon would be about 4.1 sek per liter.

The real difference is the taxes. In Europe, much of the cost of automobile infrastructure (and sometimes public transit) is included in the cost of gasoline. In America, those enormous costs are shouldered by the general public regardless of whether you drive a car. Since everyone pays, the taxes on gasoline are tiny. Last year when presidential candidate John McCain proposed a summer vacation from the Federal Gas Tax, he was essentially offering 18 cents off the gallon price of gas (38 öre per liter). That's not even a sale.

Safety is a big concern in Sweden, but it takes on a decidedly different character here than it does in the United States. It seems to be built into the system here. Volvos, the world's safest cars, are Swedish.

I've learned that fine print and the excessive warning labels in America are very funny to Europeans. Libertarians call this the "nanny culture." I was on a tour in America in 2001, opening for the band Favez from Switzerland. We crisscrossed the continent and they got a pretty good uncensored view of the country from coast to coast. The thing I remember them being most amused by was the warning on wide-angle mirrors: Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.

If I could go back to the '80s and see the machine that I took the visual driving test on, I'm sure it would be hysterical. This part of the test was a multiple-choice survey where they would show you a yellow traffic light and it would say, "What does this signal mean?" You could choose from four answers. I presume they administer the test with a computer now, but back in then it was on this bulky, wooden machine that was like a cross between a school filmstrip viewer, a slide projector, and a hearing test machine. The buttons on it were exact replicas of the buttons in the world's first elevator. Kentucky taxpayers probably shelled out half a million dollars for a room full of these behemoths that had all the modern elegance of a rotary telephone.

I remember the whole testing process taking less than an hour. I missed a few things on both the driving and visual test, but my score was good enough to legally set me loose on America's roadways. They took my awkward teenage picture and my driver's license card was produced on the premises. I walked out the door with it and drove home. So long, suckers!

It was nothing but excitement after that. Road trips to Cincinnati to see all the bands that didn't come to Louisville; going to field hockey games after school; driving to high school instead of carpooling with the neighbors from around the corner; exploring the backroads of Middletown and J-town; getting a job at the ice cream shop in the mall; driving to practice with my synthesizer band Pink Aftershock; meeting new people; you name it. I didn't start drinking until I was 27, so this was all good, clean fun.

In America the open road and freedom are inseparable ideas. I could be a jaded cynic and say the automobile lobby and advertising have pounded those ideas into our heads, but for me, getting a driver's license was the beginning of what I remember about my life. Before that happened, there's not a whole lot I can recall. I remember isolated events - like not letting my mom leave on my first day of school or seeing the Space Shuttle take off when I was 11 - but those are all just blips. After I got my driver's license, my memories become more of a narrative and I can see the timeline when I think back.

It seems in Sweden the driver's license is anything but a rite of passage. It truly is a privilege, or even a luxury, to have a car. In Stockholm, aside from the rare occasions when you may need to move furniture or go somewhere far outside the city, having a car would add a lot of expense to your life and I'm not sure it would be worth the hassle.

A couple weeks ago, I actually did have to move some furniture, but I'll save the tale of that adventure for a future episode.

Monday, May 11, 2009


Jordgubbar is the word for "strawberries." I thought they looked pretty nice in this photo from a recent hilltop picnic on Södermalm. Here are a few more sunny pictures from the same day:




Iida and Therese

Sunday, May 10, 2009

If you missed it...

Every year, the reporters who cover the White House get together for a big fancy dinner - almost as fancy as the Stockholm Grocery Store Owners Association dinner.

Typically, some comedians will come out and roast Washington officials, then the president will take the stage and return the favor. Stephen Colbert's 2006 appearance with George W. Bush is a painfully hilarious classic that perhaps proved him to be one of the bravest men in America.

Just in case you didn't see Barack Obama at the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, this video is President Obama's response from this past weekend:

Friday, May 08, 2009

Solna Centrum station

Stockholm's subway system is not just extensive - 100 stations in a city roughly the size of Louisville - but also quite beautiful. Each Tunnelbana station has been decorated with art and some of the stations themselves were designed by artists. I'm going to continue adding photos of different stations periodically.

This week I bought my summer pass for the transit system, so theoretically I could visit all of the stations. Of course, I haven't been to all of them yet, but so far, one of my favorite stations is Solna Centrum, just north of the city.

Some of the older stations are dug into the bedrock and have bare, exposed rock walls instead of finished interiors. In the Solna Centrum station, this exposed rock has been painted in a super deep, vivid red. These pictures really just don't capture how intense the red is or weird it feels to be walking into a tunnel painted this color. As always, you can click on any photo to enlarge it.

As you go down the escalators, you begin to see that it's not just entirely red everywhere. What you were seeing is part of an enormous painting and all that red is the sky. Little black silhouettes of houses and a horizon begin popping up around you as you descend.

Once you reach the train tracks, you are surrounded by an endless landscape that stretches all around the bottom level of the station. When you walked into the station above, all the red almost looked demonic, but after seeing the entire picture, it was the top of a sunset.

The landscape includes a spruce forest, lakes, waterfalls, bridges, factories, more little houses, and people. The detail of the artwork has a childlike quality that makes the massive scale of it very tickling.

The panorama runs all around the station and is nearly 1000 meters (3000 feet) long, according to posted information. Solna Centrum station was painted in 1975 by artists Anders Åberg and Karl-Olov Björk.

It says the scene depicts "rural depopulation, the destruction of the environment, forests and nature" which were big issues when the station was built in the 1970s. I guess you could say some things haven't changed.

In some of these pictures you can see heavy cables and what look like transmitters in the ceiling. These carry 2G and 3G cellular telephone signals. Even deep beneath the bedrock, surrounded by stone walls, your phone works just fine.

Here's a link to a PDF called Art in the Stockholm Metro if you want to see much more than I can tell you about.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Payin' the bills

Life in Sweden is not all sunshine, cool breezes, wild strawberries, and two-hour coffee breaks. I've been keeping busy lately, working on several projects.

As you may know, I make my living as a designer and writer, both for the Internet and printed materials. Lately, I've been doing much more designing than writing, at least in the for-hire department. My clients are all in the United States, so I've been doing all this work over the Internet and telephone. Some days I am loaded with work and other times I'm free to sit in the park or explore Stockholm.

A few big projects I've been involved in recently have just launched. I thought I'd share them so you can see what I've been doing.

CityScoot is a designated driver service in Louisville. If you're out having a few drinks and it wouldn't be safe to drive, these guys will come to wherever you are and drive you home in your own car. They travel to you on small motorized scooters that fold up and are stored in the customer's trunk or back seat. After you're home safely, they unfold the scooter and drive away.

I built CityScoot's website and have done all their design work since they launched the company about five years ago. Their website was designed back in 2004, so needless to say, it was time for an update. You can see an image of their original site on the right and the new version above. The overhaul took a few months, but they are (and I am) very happy with the new design. The working version is online at

Drinking and driving seems to be a much bigger problem in America than in Sweden, if only due to the proportional number of drivers. In Stockholm, public transit is ubiquitous, so the opportunity for it to happen is greatly reduced. Most people don't drive anyway, much less when they're going to have a drink, and yes, I meant to say a drink. Sweden's blood alcohol limit for drivers is 0.02%. In Kentucky, and I think in most of America, the limit is 0.08%. I know from experience that just a few drinks can put you over the 0.08% limit, even if they're spaced out over a couple hours.

In the wide-open spaces of America where walking, biking, or public transit aren't options, CityScoot is a wonderful thing to have available. It's kind of strange now that I haven't driven a car in nearly three months. Automobiles are such a big part of life in America and yet I've only been in a car a handful of times here. In Louisville, even if I wasn't the one driving, I was typically in a car pretty much every day. Earlier this week, I shelled out the kronors for my SL Sommarkort which gives me four months of unlimited access to Stockholm's public transit. Where do I want to go first?

In the same way that CityScoot offers an unusual delivery service, so do some other people I work with in New York City. Two of my friends started a company called Relax Already which delivers yoga sessions to busy people in the city.

They work with a lot of stressed-out Manhattan executives and banker-types who are unable to take the time out of their days to visit a yoga studio. Making another stop during your day in New York could add an hour to whatever you're doing. Relax Already "brings yoga to you" so they end up running relaxation sessions in conference rooms, offices, homes, or wherever their clients happen to be.

This is another company I've been with from the very beginning. Their logo, business cards, brochures, and website are all my handiwork. Their website just launched and you can check it out at

Monkey Drive Screenprinting is run by one of my best friends, Chris Reinstatler, who also plays drums in Metroschifter. He operates this company that prints shirts and all sorts of other stuff for bands, small businesses, and other groups. In started in Cincinnati in 1998 and moved with him to Louisville about ten years ago. Monkey Drive also has a partner company by the same name in Frankfurt, Germany, that offers printing and shipping all over Europe.

I just finished doing a round of updates to his site, including a new page for hoodies and a redesign of the company's logo. The Monkey Drive website is at and the European site (which I did not design) is at

My sister Greta recently moved back to Louisville from Chicago where she had been building and repairing violins. A few years ago, she opened a shop in Evanston, Illinois, called Col Legno that I made the website and print materials for. The name "col legno" is a term for the sound that is made when the wooden part of the bow strikes the strings.

Now that she's back in Louisville, she has opened a string instrument workshop called G. Ritcher Violins. Her space is in one of the city's beautiful, old, downtown buildings. I tried to give the website for her new shop an old-timey look that would reflect that setting and the work she's doing.

You can see the G. Ritcher Violins site at and the older site for the Chicago-area shop at
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