Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Borders are more than lines on a map.

Zok and I have had to go to a few Embassies, including the American Embassy this week, for band Visas. I normally enjoy going to an Embassy, they tend to be inside of impressive buildings, sometimes with elegant furnishings. Plus I keep waiting for an E.U. embassy, I envision a sort of Castle slash Mall with each country represented inside perhaps a bit like the 'It's a Small World After All' ride at Disneyland.
All embassies have security, but nothing compares to the security of an American Embassy. There are protocols, there are lockers for your many, many common purse items that are becoming so unacceptable that I am starting to regard my lip gloss to be equal with a smoking cigarette. There are many technical advancements (the scanning of the finger prints, the sci-fi eye thing). Comparatively, one's own embassy is much friendlier experience. Therefore whenever I am in a group, going to the American Embassy, there will be a round of jokes about how all I need to do is open my mouth to speak, and the red carpet will be rolled out for me, as the others are then corralled through a series of questions, finger prints, and retina scans.
While this is an over-statement, there is a bit of truth to that. It is true that I had forgotten my passport but I was allowed in with my Tasmanian drivers license, even though I was also a late addition, without an appointment or purpose. This sort of leniency falls under the protection clause, that one will see in films; scenario: the country comes to unrest and the lead (American) character races to their Embassy not waving a passport but simply calling in their Yank accent "I am an American! Let me in!".
I have dealt and still deal with the trickier side as an immigrant in Australia, so I don't complain when I find myself at "my" embassy, getting preferential treatment. I see others trying to obtain Visas being spoken to over a loud speaker through what looks like bullet proof glass (for the whole room to hear) about why they won't be getting their Visas, meanwhile I am ushered into a secluded, separate room with quiet music and face to face communication.
Whereas my request of renewal, voting information, or extra pages is handled with a sweet murmur of 'Could I get you a cup of Coffee', I can hear others breaking down into tears over being denied into the U.S.
I have come to learn that people crying in the U.S. Embassy is common.
Today, I was geared up with excitement over now knowing that the U.S. Embassy here in Stockholm has a vending machine FULL of American Candy and Soda. I am talking Paydays, Butterfingers, Reese's Cups, Dr. Pepper, A&W; the mother lode, nicely priced as well. So there I am pocket full of change but to get to the machine I need to pass a hysterically crying woman, with her crying infant. Of course even though I know better I freeze, and she glances my way yelling "What kind of people can break up a family?" I have been on the scary side of a Visa and in fact I still kind of am in that place but I am definitely past the crying in the office part. Not that I am not unsympathetic but it isn't as if I know any Senators personally (or can name more than a handful of Senators full stop). Plus I really wanted that Butterfinger.
Zok and I did spend most of the afternoon speculating on what their situation was. "I think SHE was American and HE was Swedish" (Oh definitely says Zok), "Do you think the baby was born here in Sweden?", "Do you think they didn't know about the three months off of American soil waiting period?" "Well they must be married can't they just stay in Sweden?" and we went on and on. Really I just thought if I was her, I would go the easy route and live in Sweden, that is what Zok and I had planned if my Visa to Australia was denied. Australia is complicated and costly but the U.S. was much more so. Sweden is much easier than either. It has been nagging at me a bit, and I have been speculating on excuses all day because until all the criteria is met and the paperwork approved, if our world fell into unrest like an old movie, Zok and I wouldn't have the same Embassy to run too.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

"At Home He Feels Like a Tourist"

Breakfast at 10 a.m., Dinner at 10 p.m.
The coffee in Spain is easy to find, tasty, and about $2., so anything I say about Spain is intrinsically connected to this fact. The city was mobbed; honestly between the heat, traffic, noise, and people, people, people I barely knew if I was coming or going. Everything that we did do, or that we did see I thought beautiful.
Zok's friend Nanou and her boyfriend took us out a couple of the nights we were there, we had Tapas (of course) the first night in the Born District and Sushi the in Gracia District.
I always try to look up places to eat before we visit a new place because being hungry and unable to make decision can turn the world into a dark place. Luckily the Merct de Santa Caterina was in real life experience as good as it appeared to be on the internet. Although my Calexico Spanish, was not very useful and the place was not geared towards tourists, we got our food and coffee in the end. A good breakfast, plus the fortification of caffeine is the key to any good day.

A Rock Widow wandering in Spain.

Mostly we walked and wandered, which seems to be a theme, the lines to get into the Picasso Museum or the Gaudi Museum were a hundred people long. Of course Zok and I knew that traveling in August would have this draw back. Also his work which was seeping through into our Prague break, became less like seepage and more like a steady flow of interruptions. I did though have plenty of people to watch as I waited through various phone calls, I could keep walking, only Zok is the only one of us with a sense of direction.

My obsession with religious art and religion as an art form.

My favorite museum in the world that I know of is 'The Cloisters' in New York City, I would go to the Cloisters every time I went to New York, almost always alone. I have been fascinated with any and all art connected with religion for as long as I can remember. Since I felt myself to be an atheist before I knew the word and long before I could spell it, I find myself defending my love of religious art. (Although it is much better to get gifts of candles and icons rather than someone in your life still gifting you unicorns from some ancient phase in your past). Even if I did not have this propensity towards religious art, I still would have been awed by the churches I just went too.
The Churches in Spain were astounding, the scope and variation drove me to brave the crowds of each one.

Colleen & Zok in Barcelona

This morning I am back in Stockholm, Zok is at a festival somewhere else in Europe. I am going to have one more cup of coffee and then go scour the second hand shops to see if anything new has come in.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Prague through Beer Goggles

The beer in Prague was approximately one half the price of a Coca-cola in a bottle. The average price of a local draft beer in the .5 litre size was 22 kr., a 12 oz. coke was 48 kr. Mistakenly due to heat daze we once paid 50 kr for our beer, but I think this was balanced out by a lunch which had where the beer came included with the price of the meal. I felt fully vindicated because I had been crowing for weeks that I intended to only drink beer while in Prague. I was true to my word, except that apparently a litre of beer in one sitting is my limit.
Zok and I have traveled to a lot of places but I can't remember being in a place that was so obviously overrun by tourists in every part of the city. Even here in Stockholm a person can go to a neighborhood where there are more locals than people stopped in the middle of a street, map fully unfolded, guide book in the other hand. Every area in Prague was haunted by large groups of tourists, and many of them in organized groups so large that more than one guide (each holding up some sort of flag to keep their flock together) was needed. We saw groups that were so large that each person had a small receiver the shape of a walkie-talkie that made it possible for the whole group to hear the guide.
Highlight: We went into a couple antique stores that gave me an immediate buzz of excitement; I could sense the bargains and treasure all around me. I rarely get that feeling anymore. These days I get this sense of loss, because I did not understand when I was younger that all the vintage items I lusted for were actually part of a finite supply. I would pass up items because I saw similar items in stores all the time and somehow I believed they would always be there for me. Now that I live in Australia where finding items such as a 1940s rayon dress, a slider rocker, or a Formica kitchen set is laughable (and by laughable I mean I have asked vintage shop owners only to be laughed at), I really appreciate finding vintage items. I only bought a couple of dresses, but I feel content in my heart knowing that there is an exquisite pair of crocodile platform heels tucked away in a dark corner of a small shop on the outer edge of Mala Strana. I felt as if I had come across an previously thought extinct bird.
Lowlight: I have had friends tell me in detail how much they love Prague. Many guidebooks rave that Prague is the best city in Europe. I did think that Prague has been through a lot. I am sure the huge events both natural and political have changed the city. If the Prague you remember was free of graffiti, trash, and homeless, if her streets were empty where one can idly stand and gaze undisturbed at the ornate buildings, free of construction on every corner and with a population that seemed happy and welcoming, then I would issue caution, serious caution before going back. If you insist on returning, may I recommend going before the Euro changes the price of the beer as beer is key to overlooking much that could color your perspective.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Approached by Strangers

I read that in there are central areas such as Sergletorg in Stockholm that have a normal traffic flow of 60,0000 people passing through on an average day. At this time of year there are a lot of festivals; Stockholm Day, Gay Pride, the Culture festival all with events happening in the squares of any given area. My host here in Stockholm will often try and compel me to take part, even if he himself isn't attending. I suppose that it is his voice I hear in my head as I notice my reaction to a square filled with people is to make a quick turn away from them. Does this show some lack of adventure within my personality make up?
I could have stopped into Stureplan where there a band playing, but I could see from their imagines rendered up on a huge video screen that honestly I had no interest.
I was on my way to the central library. Yes, while a whole city was partying, my desire was to go to the library. I am able to go into a crowd when I have a purpose but I don't understand when people can do this with the purpose of meeting other people.
I have lived for a few years now in Tasmania and no one has ever stopped my in the street. This is noteworthy to me because anywhere else I have ever lived being stopped in the street is a normal occurrence. I don't mean being asked for directions, help, or to take a photograph for a group of people, that sort of occurrence is just a by-product of living in places that have a tourist trade. (Although, even this doesn't happen to me in Hobart which is a tourist destination.) I love to give directions or take snap shots I believe in my habit of superstitious thinking that this increases my karmic points for when I am need of the same services.
No, I am talking about a person stopping me because they think I am someone else. When I was younger this was usually followed by the follow up question of 'Are you a singer/in a band/ an actress' sort of line. Of course that sort of conversation sheds a bit of suspicion on my looking like the sister/ex-girlfriend/work associate, but now that I am (ahem) older I have noticed that the type of person stopping me has changed. They are men that are a bit older (okay I suppose they are my age), here in Stockholm by example this last week I've had three men stop me; Marco (from South America) Elian (from Romania), and Stefan (born in Sweden) all thought me a 'work associate' but the quality is different, as in 'you look like a girl I work with at the airport'.
Is this an example of my upcoming 40s? No longer is the idea of my being an actress/singer/band member plausible, and now I work at the airport? What image am I presenting to the world? Or is it that I have ceased to care enough to present anything, that I would rather go to the library than be a part of a street fair, that I wear converse because that was the practical shoe choice.
Am I to believe that I am so common looking that really I look like all these other women? I am constantly looking at people and perhaps my self-image is askew but I have never seen anyone that looks like me.
Could it be that these random men are hitting on me? Do I need a flashier wedding band? If these men are hitting on me then let me tell you I need a new look because if I did need a man I'd be unhappy with my options.
Perhaps by leaving the crowd (herd) and becoming a strangler (lone gazelle) I attract men by the stereotypical look of weakness; some girl wandering alone on a side street. Being alone I am the easiest prey ambling along.
I was actually lost when Marco started talking to me, and he was able to set me straight which allowed me to actually get to the library, I credited this event to the Swedish woman that I helped with her directions on the bus the day before.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The gulf between value and price

I am not certain about the entirety of thoughts that fuel my fevered brain, but I do know the re-occuring themes; two of which are Food and the other Money.
Not money exactly, but aspects that can be put under that heading. An example of this is- 'Where is all the money and how can I get some? a.k.a Searching for work'.
Perhaps in relation to that subject or even a direct cause of said situation, I constantly think about price versus value.
I am a bit obsessed. The obsession started before the introduction of the Euro. Before the Euro there was a pervading notion that "in Italy" designer clothing could be had by even a normal girl like me, that "in France" there were vintage finds for a pittance in every street market and "in Thailand" any clothing item could be tailor made for you for pennies! For me at least this did not turn out to be a reality, for example if your favorite clothing item is a 1950s dress with a lot of detailing and pleats, this will still cost you about a hundred dollars (U.S.) to have copied in Thailand.
What I did find when I ventured outside of the U.S. is that prices indeed vary. I started to keep mental lists of where items were most cheaply priced. Any city I visited had to include a trip to a coffee shop and a drug store to compare prices of a cup of coffee and toothpaste, which in my mind would anchor all prices for later comparison. My obsession has been rekindled by all the articles lately focused on "food miles", or the carbon foot print of an item getting to the shelves. Those articles are only the beginning of the dark spiral into how much an item really costs the large retail chains to buy.
In Sweden I find food pricey and clothes inexpensive. My perspective is skewed of course by the fact that when I first came here in 2001, I got 10kr to each U.S. dollar, today I get 5 kr for each Australian dollar (which to currently about the same as the U.S. dollar). When I buy anything from a dress or an ice-cream, I feel the sting of that item being in my view twice the price. I am often paralyzed into not purchasing an item because I can not decide if the value and the price match up simply because of price variation. My girlfriend had a shop in Seattle, and I used to buy Banho soap from here, I remember the soap being good value for the price, I know on the web through a place like Amazon the soap would be $14 U.S. or about 70 kr, I know that I saw this soap a few months ago in Melbourne AU on sale for $29 AU or about 145 kr, up the road here in Stockholm I saw the soap for 188kr or almost $37 AU-, as I stand in a shop staring at a simple item such as a bar of soap, I am sure my eyes are unfocused as my mathematically challenged brain tries to add up the price in all known currencies, then factor in the state of my personal un-employment better known as "should I really spend all my husbands money", and compounded by deciding if the item is coated by the guilt of underpayed employees, and drenched in the blood of depleting planetary resources...
I had to of course give up the soap and its complications and go to the sanctuary of a local community opportunity shop, known by me as a 'thrift store', where I purchased a cute, basic black dress by H&M, all potential guilt balanced out by the stores charitable standing, and the fact that the dress was priced at 45 kr or $9 AU and I placed my purchase into a shopping bag I had brought with me, on foot.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Stockholm from the Water

I came to Stockholm from Tasmania where the median temperature was about 40 degrees f. inside my house as well as outside. After my jet lag subsided I awoke in a room filled with sunlight and warmth. I was ready to race into the sun and bask to my hearts content. My tolerance for basking turned out to be pretty short lived. I was wilting beneath a larger tree in a park longing for but unable to physically walk the distance to the ice-cream shop when our friend Dave called to invite us boating.
How sorry I felt for any sucker bound by land when they could be enjoying the breeze off the waterway.

Cities that go on vacation.

I find Stockholm a lively city, even in Winter though I am opening myself up to arguments with that statement. Summer is undeniably a time with high activity. Every sidewalk is crammed with outdoor seating, the parks are full, and the waterways more crowded than the center of the city.
This street is Gotgatan, a street I normally avoid if I am able too, because the street tends to be just that bit more crowded than the streets running parallel. Except, as you see in high Summer when most locals are on vacation. As an American who rarely took vacations, I find this practice of a mass population all taking vacation at the same time a concept that is hard for me to conceive. I really can't get my head around the idea. The same practice happens in Australia, but of course high Summer there also encompasses Christmas, and New Years Day. I suppose I have read about "people" getting out of New York when the temperatures get too high, but I think of those people, being an elite class. Here, the mass exodus is comprised of normal people, exemplified by my favorite lunch eateries and boutiques being closed until the second week of August. I have to content myself with being able to navigate Gotgatan without feeling like I am a human bumper car.