Friday, May 20, 2005

Adventures in Travel

This is the first of the many entries I plan to write on my trip to Sweden. Let me say that I had a fabulous time there but I am glad to be home. I hate to travel, but a destination such as Sweden makes it worth it.

I can't say enough great things about Sweden. It is beautiful, it is clean, it is safe and not crowded, and everyone speaks English. The Swedish language is absolutely poetic and soothing. The intonation of the Muppets' Swedish chef is not far off from the truth. There is a certain rhythmic lilt to their speech. If you've ever heard Carl Sandburg (an American poet of Swedish descent) reciting his poetry, you have a hint of the soothing sound of Swedish, with words that you can understand. If I ever go back to Sweden, I plan to study the language a bit beforehand.

But enough about how much I love Sweden. I'm supposed to be talking about my trip!

I was standing in line at O'Hare airport behind a man reading a journal paper full of math. I talked to him and asked if he was going to the conference. Sure enough, he was, and he introduced himself as David Gay. At that point, I realized that I recognized him from my interview at Sandia, because he had attended my seminar. His wife, Tanner, was also coming along to Stockholm, and he introduced me to her. Once on the plane, our seats were apart from each other, but I did see them again when we got into the Stockholm airport.

The flight was all right. I'm not a big fan of sitting in a tiny seat in a big airplane for eight hours, but it worked out all right. I had an aisle seat, on the aisle of the big rows in the middle of the plane. It was just fine with me, because that meant I would have some breathing room on one side. The plane was a big Airbus plane, and each of us had individual screens located on the back of the chair in front of us. They were touchscreens which you could use to choose what music to listen to, what to watch, and even play some games. We also had the option of viewing from a camera on the front of the plane or on the bottom looking down, as well as that map describing the progress of the flight. In this way, it didn't really matter if you had a window seat, because the views from the cameras out the front and down were better than anything you could have seen out the window. While on the plane, I watched a Danish movie calles Sharks, which I thought was really good, listened to the latest Scandinavian popular music, and tried to sleep. I slept maybe an hour, which was pretty good for me. Normally I can't sleep a wink on those planes.

In line at passport control, I met my new friends David and Tanner again. I also met some people from Argonne, who had also taken that flight. One introduced himself, and I realized that he was the guy who wrote me the rejection letter. So I light-heartedly said to him, "I know you, I received the nicest rejection letter from you a couple of months ago!" He looked a little sheepish but I reassured him that it was a nice letter, saying that I felt better about myself after reading it than I had felt before I read it, and that I was keeping it to use as a model if I ever needed to write rejection letters someday. We had a fun conversation about it, which was particularly remarkable since we were coming off a plane with less than an hour of sleep under our belts.

In the airport I bought a round-trip ticket on the "Flygbussarna" (I'll tell you how to pronounce that in a later entry) from Stockholm Arlanda airport to downtown Stockholm. My hotel was a short walk from there. By the time I got to Stockholm it was before 10 a.m., so I knew it was too early to check in to my hotel, but I went there anyhow, intending to get permission to leave my bags there until check-in time. The man I talked to took pity on me and let me check in early. I went up to my room and took a shower. That turned out to be a great idea. I take a shower every morning, so doing that made it feel more like morning, just a morning preceded by a really short night of sleep.

After that, I went out on the town. I took a free map of Stockholm and plotted a course to Gamla Stan, the oldest part of Stockholm. It turned out that I had chosen to walk south on the gigantic pedestrian shopping section of town, so I was able to take the opportunity to do some shopping too. My activities for the day included going to the Coin Museum and taking a tour of the Swedish Parliament Building, both of which were in Gamla Stan.

The museum was interesting. I had a coin collection as a child, so I enjoyed looking at all the historical coins from around the world. The problem was that all the signs were in Swedish so I didn't get to read all the captions. The Parliament building was beautiful. I went on a guided tour in English, and I learned a lot. One thing I learned was that in Sweden, instead of sitting with members of their political party, members of parliament sit according to geography, with other members from the same area, regardless of party affiliation.

After my tour of parliament, I was so tired that I managed to drag myself back to the hotel and watched some TV, waiting for it to be a decent hour back in North America so that I could let my better half know I had made it. He had gone to Kentucky to visit his parents for the duration of my trip. I called there at about 9 a.m. Eastern, and talked to mom-in-law, who answered the phone. She offered to wake him up, but I told her not to worry about it, just to give him the message.

I read my book and tried to keep my eyes open for the rest of the day. I lasted until about 6 or 7 p.m., before turning in for the "night." I say "night" because this time of year the sun doesn't set until 9:30 or 10, and rises at about 4 a.m. I woke up at about midnight, stayed up for two hours, and went back to bed again, getting up at 8 a.m. or so. Effectively, I slept two nights, with a two hour break in the middle.

I plan to tell you more, but I really wanted to have some pictures in the narrative, and I forgot to bring the camera to download the pictures from. So my story will have to continue later.

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