A savannah in Sweden

Recently my fella received in the mail a free travel pass for life! for 10 days, and so we decided to make use of this boon. The area it covers, the Västra Götaland region, is pretty large by European standards (I’ll not get started on Australian standards) and so we had many options to choose from.
On one day he went up to Lidköpping and had an enjoyable look around, and then last weekend we devised a plan to visit the coast near the Norwegian border and see either petroglyphs or standing stones, or possibly both. It was all a little tenuous without a car, as the problem with standing stones and petroglyphs is that they are either part of a stone in a fixed location, or they are a stone in a fixed location, and therefore they don’t move to more convenient locations. Generally convenient locations don’t include fields and backyards way out in the country. Despite these possible problems, we were determined to see something prehistoric.
As you may detect from my tone, there was another problem with this plan.

In a word: floods.

I feel as though I’ve been labouring a point these last few weeks when I mention the change of the seasons, but in case it hasn’t been made clear, we are now in autumn and it is both cold and rainy. It has been raining a lot. It has been raining even more up north, in the area of Västra Götaland that includes standing stones and petroglyphs.
After deciding on our prehistorical, coastal expedition, I happened to look at a local news site and found out that there was severe flooding in the towns we were considering visiting, and that in fact the train network in the whole area had been shut down until further notice.
At least we found out the night before.

So that expedition was put on hold, and after looking at maps, tourist sites and travel information we settled on a little place not too far away that boasted a zoo and pretty scenery. Which is how we found ourselves coming face to face with a number of distant relatives last weekend.

Borås zoo can be found, unsurprisingly, in Borås and includes, somewhat surprisingly, an African savannah. As we walked into the zoo, past the dinosaur sculptures and posters of lions, giraffes and zebras basking in sunlight, I wondered how they managed to create a comfortable environment for these animals this far north. I was soon to find out, at least partly.

Flamingos

Flamingos

Before we got to the savannah though, we were surprised by an enclosure full of lawn ornaments flamingos, bobbing through a lake, flexing their wings and generally looking awkwardly elegant and pink. We then found the African Wild Dogs, a huge pack of them, some sitting under trees scratching, running around chirping or standing and watching us pass by. Ever since I did an assignement about them in primary school (featuring a diorama that I was rather proud of) I’ve been fond of them, and it was nice to see such a large group apparently socialising happily and enjoying more space than is provided at the zoo in my home town.

African hunting dogs

African hunting dogs

Next was the savannah, a large area enclosed by a stone wall and containing ostriches, zebras and antelopes, grazing or running around and looking unbothered by the cold.

Strutting ostriches

Strutting ostriches

A sign pointed to the elephant house, in which we found no elephants, but instead a rhino and a giraffe family. They were all in cement floored enclosures strewn with straw and with food hanging from the ceiling. My first thought was that I hope these are winter enclosures. They did have openings to outside areas, but the rhino at least seemed somehow frustrated, if it’s possible to anthropomorphise snorts and shuffling and blank stares. The giraffes seemed less bothered, but due to the bareness of the area I got the chance to make direct eye contact with two of them as I stood and watched them eating, and felt a bit like an intruder.

A giraffe considering me

A giraffe considering me

From the savannah we made a brief stop at the restaurant then continued on to the ape house. At the door we were greeted by tamarins, who looked like extremely curious and energetic old men. Further in there were displays about the damage of palm oil plantations, poaching and the effect of humans on animals and the environment. There were also many apes.

Chimpanzees

Chimpanzees

In one of the enclosures a group of macaques rolled, played and groomed up and down branches and through straw. In one corner a female with her baby clutching her stomach was grooming a larger male, and just behind them another macaque was running around with a canvas bag over it’s head. They all seemed very intent and social, as with the chimpanzees and in a nearby enclosure. There were four of them, who began grooming while we watched. One was on its own for a time, and then wandered over to get the attention of the smallest, youngest looking chimpanzee, who I assume was the female. After some convincing, she settled down with him and they continued grooming, while the others wandered around and sat restless poses that were difficult not to anthropomorphise.
A lonelier ape was the gibbon, one of whom was staring out through the glass, though I couldn’t tell what or who it was staring at.

A watching gibbon

A watching gibbon

Finally were the orangutans, who were either climbing their constructed tree, resting, or in one case nestling under a bag on the straw. Bored or tired, it was impossible to tell, but for the first time I felt that the Perth zoo was doing a better job with one of the enclosures, which allows more space and openness for the families of orangutans who live there.

An orangutan, resting

An orangutan, resting

From apes we moved on to big cats, where feeding was supposed to be taking place soon. First we found the tigers, two from Siberia, who were relaxing on a vantage point and pacing the enclosure. I was reminded of the long stare from the tiger at Nordens Ark, and struggled to find an adjective for them that didn’t stray to the grandiose side of magnificent.

The feeding was taking place at the lion enclosure, where an entire pride was impatiently strolling around, alternately watching the gathering crowd and the cliff tops above their home. Soon food was dropped and despite there being plenty to go around, other than the mother and cubs, they didn’t seem very big on sharing. The male lion in particular made a point of roaring and grabbing whatever he could threaten away from the lionesses, and then settling down to enthusiastically gnaw, watched by those who had managed to keep their piece or who were waiting for scraps. I felt quite glad that I wasn’t in there with them, as the sight of hungry lions and the particular harmonic of their roars awakened an ancient instinct in me to run.

A hungry lion

A hungry lion

From lions we made our way to the wolves, and I got to see them clearly for the first time in my life. I had briefly seen one at Nordens Ark, but these loped around in the open, eating and hiding hunks of meat, and paying no attention to the humans watching from across the stream and fence. Despite the long history between humans and wolves, I felt no particular fear of them, just recognition of an animal that I have long wanted to see and that is so tied up in the culture of my ancestors. From Fenrir to guide-dogs, wolves and their descendants are part of our culture, and though I wouldn’t like to meet a pack on equal footing in the wild, I was glad to see a few in their close-to-natural environment and I hope to see more some day.

A wolf

A wolf

The last really wild and fearsome creatures we saw were the brown bears. They were huge, furry bundles that lolloped and rolled around, and still managed to seem powerfully frightening. While we watched a zoo keeper dropped perfumed pine cones into the enclosure, and soon the bears were rolling all over them, rubbing their faces into the scent that even we could smell from a few metres above with every sign of enjoyment. It’s something they do in between feeding to keep the bears occupied, as they’re fascinated by new smells.

A pile of bears

A pile of bears

We left the bears to their fun and walked on to find the elk, looking very much a part of their environment, and then the farm animal section.
A rather majestic pony greeted us and posed for a few photos, and then made way for a tiny pig (in Swedish, ‘minigris’, which literally means ‘mini-pig’), who squealed and snorted and didn’t seem very happy to be separated from the other tiny pigs in the neighbouring enclosure. My partner chatted to it a bit (he’s very good with pigs), and then we headed for the exit.

Photogenic pony

Photogenic pony

From the zoo we headed into Borås, and wandered around for a few hours.

The town hall and cathedral were very picturesque, and the parks around the canal must be very pleasant in sunnier weather, so we decided we’d better come back next year.

Nobel adorning a building

Nobel adorning a building

We were also treated to preparations for the end of a soccer game. This involved at least 3 police cars full of officers, a herd of mounted police and numerous others on the ground, watching various pubs and monitoring the main square. As we were heading back to the train station, the sound of chanting filled the air and a mob of about 150 people marched past, led and followed by police. I’m not sure where they ended up, or even who played, but it seems that the very thought of a riot is not to be considered in Sweden.
Dinner at a sports bar included yet more soccer fans, after which we took the long bus ride home and had an early night.

A riot-free street in Borås

A riot-free street in Borås

As I sit a few days later and think about the zoo, I wonder whether it’s fair to compare it to Nordens Ark. It has a different goal and a different theme, and it is ambitious to base a savannah in northern Europe. I couldn’t help feeling for the animals in their winter enclosures and cement floored homes, though. I’ll be living bound in by winter soon too, but at least I have the key to the door and I can ask why.

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Teaching and learning

As mentioned now and then, when not learning Swedish I have been teaching English since I moved to Sweden. It has mostly been relief teaching at adult schools, emergency or pre-planned lessons, with material I bring or part of a syllabus. It always varies, so I can never claim to be bored. Almost without fail my students, which is how I feel about them from the moment I enter the classroom, have been curious, focused and full of questions. The nightmare of bored teenagers and inertia hasn’t happened (I almost typed yet, but I don’t want to tempt fate).
You stay a step ahead, have a plan, prepare to drop the plan if needed, think about what they need, treat them as people and above all, listen.
There are few people in this world who won’t tell you want they want if you ask them sincerely.

It has been a process of learning for me as well, honing multitasking, patience and not being afraid of watching eyes. And throughout it all still being myself.

Recently I have been given, or rather loaned, my own class until the end of semester. Or as Swedes would say, until the start of semester. Yes, confusing, I know.
I reacted to the news with excitement and soon began to plan all of the cool things I could teach them about, all the stories and songs I could bring and share with them. Neil Gaiman, Suzanne Vega, Terry Pratchett, fairy tales, myths and legends, so many things! So many options! The real question should have been, of course, what do they need to learn and how can I help them to find it.

Writing exercise

Writing exercise

Discipline is required, especially when it comes to stories that you hold dear and would happily shove in the face of strangers on the street if you thought you could get away with it.
That said, I have included a few tasty morsels that I think the students will find interesting, and about which I can wax lyrical. The Queen and the Soldier has been done, with many insightful comments from the students, including aspects I’d never considered.
I’ve also found that learning another language has helped enormously in teaching my own, as I can see why people can make certain mistakes and for the first time get my head around the feeling of absorbing a language other than your own. It’s hard, and I am ever so glad that the two languages concerned have the same origin.

Books

Books

So how do you teach? My mother would say that you should facilitate learning, which brings to my mind images of people as conduits, funneling knowledge out of their chests into the minds of others, holding knowledge within their reach if students want to take it. Then there’s the old method from Dickensian dramas, the repetition of information, provided on blackboards for absorption or a background to whatever the student is thinking about.
There are many others, of course, as I have been finding my own way, a way that is being more settled as time goes on.

There will be another class this week, and such is the nature of the job that there may be more. I seem to have almost fallen into teaching, and I finally feel as though I’m managing to tread water and perhaps even swim.

A night of unexpected art

So it has been over a year in Göteborg now, and you know what that means? It’s Kulturnatta again!
Last year we went on a sort of guided tour, arranged by an long-term expat who has sadly left Sweden, from a photography show (possibly more on this in a later post…) to an opera, via interpretive dance and buzzing crowds. It was something like Kulturkalaset, except that it was packed into one day rather than a week. Every performance space was performed on, every gallery was open and any sort of expression of art was on display.

It was the same this year, but we took a different tack, and in the process discovered a new part of the city and a building that could only exist in Sweden.

Used printscreens

Used printscreens

Our evening started at the square next to Stora Teatern, where a clutch of musicians huddled under a tent in anticipation of the rain that had beset Göteborg for a few days. Luckily the rain never arrived, and instead the growing crowd were treated to some wonderful Jewish themed music, from lively dancing songs to melancholic ballads, played on violin, piano, double bass, drum and saxophone. The pianist also doubled as a singer, sometimes using Yiddish, and then switching to her native Danish, then through Swedish to English. I wasn’t the only person to thoroughly enjoy it either, as demonstrated by a couple nearby who almost provided a show by themselves.

By the end of the show most of the gang who were to explore Kulturnatta together had gathered, and we picked up our last member as we began our search for food. It led us all the way across town, though sadly it was a journey almost entirely without eating, as we had forgotten than a Friday night during a cultural event is not a good time to get a free table in the city. In the end we settled on an old favourite, and only worked out towards the end of the meal that we had missed the event we had been aiming for.
Rather than give up, though, we headed to another event further across town, in an area I had not seen before.

Interactive art

Interactive art

Klippan is a little suburb nestled between the E45 and the river, with the Älsborgsbrun looming above. It is also a bit of an artists hub, with Röda Sten sitting solidly under the bridge and a few artist collectives nestled among the maze of tall, red brick buildings.

The first one we found was especially surprising, given that from the outside it seemed to be a castle, with a setting and view that any where else would suggest very expensive apartments. Here, however, it meant galleries, workshops and small art factories, winding around a steep staircase. I suggest having a look for Gamla Älvsborg on Google Maps, and looking at the street view, or if you’re in Göteborg, popping down for a look. It’s unexpected, to say the least.

Artistic folk

Artistic folk

It seems to me to be an example of a type of place that wouldn’t exist anywhere else, where a collective takes over control of a very fine bit of real estate and uses it purely for art, and the sharing of that art. If this sort of thing exists in other places please let me know, because I’m quite curious about how they work and are maintained when property prices are rising and cultural priorities change.

What was even more unexpected, more so even than the workshops and kilns and bronze smelting rooms, was the sudden party. Inside what looked like a storage room was a crowd of people, sitting, drinking and talking while listening to a live band.

An unexpected band

An unexpected band

Among the crowd were men in top-hats and cloaks, drinking from brass tankards and generally acting as if this was perfectly normal behaviour. When the dog arrived with the pensioners, we decided to continue our Kulturnatta explorations.

We found a band playing Greek folk music, swing-dancers, drunk-dancers, the end of a light show more art, tucked away on various floors of the cluster of buildings.

Red Riding Hood was also surprised

Red Riding Hood was also surprised

Even once we had decided to call it a night and waited at the tram stop, we were treated to the toneless humming of an old man with headphones, perhaps deciding to join in on the festivities. He was then replaced by a younger man who, slightly less tunelessly but more annoyingly, sang hits from the Backstreet Boys and other 90s acts in people’s faces.

Maybe it’s an example of how the general community gets involved in art and culture, and uses the opportunity to express themselves.
Or simply alcohol + boisterousness = pop songs sung badly.
Whatever the reason, the evening showed me that art can be found in unexpected places, if you are willing to explore.

(All photos in this post are used with the permission of goddohr31)

City reflections and the Semla saga

Church reflection

Late last week I was asked if I could come to an interview at the okristlig (‘ungodly’) time of 8 ‘o’ clock, in a school across the city and the river. Obviously I refused and slept in.

Ha.

After the interview it was still early, the more so as autumn has officially Set In, and was gradually becoming bright and chill, with blue skies and a slight breeze sweeping through the streets. As there was no point going home only to head out again soon after for Swedish class, I decided to take a stroll around my adopted city and watch it waking up.

Brunsparken in the morning

Brunsparken in the morning

My plan was to find a cosy cafe and ensconce myself with a warm drink and some sort of pastry. Considering my general indecisiveness and habit of being easily distracted, I was quite fortunate that morning in having a destination in mind.

Earlier that week a friend of mine from Swedish class convinced me that what we really needed more than anything else was a semla. This is a traditional Swedish pastry, usually a soft, sweet bun filled with almond paste and cream and served in a bowl of milk. We asked our teacher for any tips about how to find them in the city and he suggested an old cafe that he was fond of. They would have semlas if anyone does, he said. Hurrah, we replied, and thus armed with a goal and an appetite we hit the streets.

A short time later we were victoriously marching into the cafe in question, and asking the ladies at the counter for their best semlas. Alas, they had none. They seemed surprised that we would ask for them, as they usually only come out after Jul. Oh, obviously, we said and went outside to consider our next move. We could both recall recently seeing semlas but couldn’t recall where they had been seen, so we decided to do some general looking around in the hopes that they would turn up.

An hour and a half later found us semlaless but a bit heavier by two pancakes a piece, complete with jam and cream, seated outside one of my favourite cafes in Haga. It was Thursday, you see, and Thursday is pancake day in Sweden. I do not question this wisdom.

Pancakes!

Pancakes!

I mention this saga because it was during the morning stroll around the city that I decided to give that first cafe another chance. It was nearly empty when I stepped in, aside from a few pensioners and regulars darting in to get their takeaway breakfast snacks. I chose a warm, sweet drink and a similarly warm, sweet pastry (with fruit!) and seated myself by a window to enjoy them. More customers came and went, reading the paper or sipping coffee and watching the world slowly move past outside.

Soon my dishes were empty and I joined the people walking past the window, the air chilling my face just enough to wake me up. From there I walked around, not aimlessly but rather making up my route along the way. I passed closed and opening shops, chattering students and people on their way to work. I caught Göteborg at a time I hadn’t before.

In Kungsportsplatsen King Charles’ head was just beginning to catch the sunlight.

King Charles IX

King Charles IX

Old churches and new construction was reflected in canals, as well as autumnal trees in the city park.

Church reflection

Church reflection

Pigeons stared back at me as I watched them and tried to look unruffled as they settled their feathers.

Suspicious pigeons

Suspicious pigeons

Trams and buses jangled past carrying a city’s worth of inhabitants, dinging to warn pedestrians whose were darting in front of them.

A young woman dared the morning chill with a short skirt, striding along with her thick jacketed friends.

Ducks foraged among the flowers in the cemetery and squawked around a mother and her daughter feeding them seeds.

As I wandered I was reminded of a chapter in The Sandman by Neil Gaiman, in which a man wakes up in the dream of a city. Whether or not cities dream, and whether or not it is possible to escape from them once that happens, or what should happen if they ever wake, I enjoy playing with the idea of a living city. It has a personality, a sense that sets it apart from all other cities and which it’s inhabitants recognise without being able to articulate.

Kungsportsbron on a clear morning

Kungsportsbron on a clear morning

As part of getting to know someone you need to see them in all seasons, times and weathers. The morning face of Göteborg in Autumn is cold, bright and calm as the surface of the canals, lightly riffled by the sea breeze that also spreads multi-coloured leaves across footpaths to be crunched under foot or tossed into piles.

Even if I can’t articulate the Göteborgness of Göteborg, I hope I can now at least describe one of her many faces.

Heroism and enigmas

For a few months now I’ve been waiting for a day of rain and cold that would compel me to seek the shelter of the city art museum. There has been a particular exhibition on that I’ve been pining away for, but the opportunity never turned up. I regularly faced ex-Queen Christina’s look of betrayal as I thought, ‘next time for sure’. So rather than wait for the weather the provide an excuse, last Sunday we made an outing of it, thumbing our noses at the threat of sunny skies.

Which is not to say that the weather was fine and clear; rain and winds threatened as we headed into town and a couple of times we were caught in brief flurries. The flurries became meaningless when we stepped inside a burger restaurant just off Avenyn, all brick walls, low ceilings and warmth. We were soon warmed on the inside as well by a meaty, carby meal and a few drops of wine and beer.

Thus heartened, we faced the light rain again and were soon inside the Konstmuseum, and facing a rather long queue. It seemed we were not the only people to decide that an overcast day is best remedied with art, preferably inside a warm building.

Tickets purchased, we scurried up the stairs to the first of the exhibitions, a painted history of Sweden. The first thing we saw as we turned a corner was the famous photo of the US soldiers erecting an American flag on Iwo Jima. Further inspection showed a large version of the crying Vietnamese girl running naked from her napalmed village and a grainy shot of Jackie Kennedy clambering past the slumped form of her husband. Among them were various paintings from Swedish history, with heroic figures and dramatic scenes.

A tour had just started and as we tagged along, the guide explained that the intent was the contrast the use of paintings as propaganda, and to consider the purpose and impact of art on culture.
A number of the paintings showed heroic kings fighting and dying in battle, from pietà scenes, gigantic victory parades and contrasts of blonde, light Swedes and dark, bearded enemies.

On a wall opposite a huge battle scene, a tv showed a scene from the film Arn on repeat, armies lining up, serious battle-faces assumed and then forces crashing into each other again and again.
Next to this was a photo the was purported to show the moment that Osama Bin Laden was killed, watched by President Obama, Biden and Clinton, among a host of others. The guide pointed out the almost solitary emotion shown by Clinton, contrasted with Biden and others, and then the way that Obama was portrayed. He was in the centre, but smaller, hunched and intense, a different sort of heroic figure than the warrior kings of Sweden.

Queen Christina by Johan Fredrik Höckert

Queen Christina by Johan Fredrik Höckert

There the tour ended, but I spent a little while considered the final painting, the one from the advertisements. The text by the painting described the moment the former Queen found out a close friend and possibly lover had betrayed her, and sentenced him to death with a flick of her hand. She looks both vulnerable and angry, a rare image of a ruler shown outside a moment of heroism.

Queen Christina is someone who I would very much like to find out more about. From first hearing about her in University as the cause of Descartes death, to a photo recreation of a pale woman with haunted eyes at a museum in Oslo to finding out she was examined after death to confirm that she was a woman, she has floated around enigmatically, waiting for me to find out more. Soon I will.

From Swedish history we descended to investigate an heroic theme playing downstairs, and found an exhibition of darkly romantic landscapes. It included a teaser from the latest Elder Scrolls video game playing on a large screen, as well as paintings of dramatic landscapes, monsters, light and darkness. There were sinking ships, crows, mountains, travelers and cloudless nights in dark forests.

The complexity and broad strokes suddenly disappeared as we turned a corner into an exhibition of photography from a woman whose work may have been lost if not for chance.

The photography on show ranged from a shadow of the photographer, Vivian Maier, to hunched homeless men, crying children, contemptuous well-to-do women in furs and incongruous feet among cans of soup. They were all gently humourous, curious and like doors onto the streets of not terribly long ago New York and Chicago. My favourites were the portrait of Vivian and a little girl and a young man feeding pigeons, his hair curling like feathers.

Young man with pigeons by Vivian Maier

Young man with pigeons by Vivian Maier

Vivian Maier is another woman who I had found out about some time ago, an enigmatic woman who died before she became famous for the many photos and short films she made during her life. It was exciting to see her work on display and find out a little more about her life.

Finally we made a quick trip through the rest of the museum to see a painting and a room that I remember fondly from my previous visit. The painting that I had felt such a strong feeling towards seems to have faded slightly, though is still lovely, and the quirks and beauty of the little exhibition room were still charming. From there we made a brief visit to the museum shop (anyone fancy an eraser in the shape of a peanut? Or a walnut? Well your wait is now over!) and then exited into a world that seemed slightly sunnier than before.
A world for the moment free of heroic battles, betrayed ex-Queens and crow haunted lakes, but could possibly have felt familiar to a lone and curious photographer with an eye for humour and humanity.