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Back in the U.S.S.A., Part 1 [9/08/2007 03:48:00 PM]:
Ah, yes -- home sweaty home. Been back a week or so, actually, but I've been feeling a bit weird about the Internet thing and music in general (more on that in a sec); sorry it's taken me so long to finally crawl back online.

It's strange to be back in H-town, I have to say. After spending a few weeks wandering the clean, efficient, pretty streets and highways of Denmark & Sweden, it was something of a shock to return to the steambath that is this city, with the freeways that are ugly, ugly, ugly and practically drowning in advertising, the streets where garbage always seems piled high pretty much permanently, and the people who're only friendly to you if they want something from you (mostly, anyway).

Granted, Scandinavia was expensive as hell -- I can't bring myself to look at the latest credit card bill, because I think it'll send me running out into the street, screaming. But y'know, at least you get something for it. We were there partly to visit family, most of whom live in Uppsala, a large university town north of Stockholm, and Soderfors, a teeny-tiny ironworking town 45 min. or so further north, and so we quizzed them in-depth on taxes, the educational system, crime, the whole deal.

The tax thing's heavier than it is here, naturally -- most citizens pay 30% of their earnings, with the wealthy paying up to 50% -- but apparently it used to be worse, with the richest people in the country actually owing 100% or more of what they make each year (Astrid Lindgren, the author of the Pippi Longstocking books, got hit like that, I'm told). A while back they decided to make it a bit more sane, though, and dropped the cap to 50%. Again, though, you get something back for your money, a lot more than you do here. Free education through college for anybody who wants it (I only met one guy, a cousin named Jan who happens to be a skinhead & classic car fanatic, who hadn't gone to college; he works at a custom concrete fabrication yard), healthcare whenever you need it, benefits when you're out of work, in school, or retired, a ton of vacation time, the whole nine yards. After feeling like I've watched my tax dollars get flushed away for the past five years, in particular, it seems very tempting.

The funnier part, though, was when the Swedes started asking us about life in the States and Houston in specific. It was a little ridiculous to see the beefy, tattooed skinhead guy lean across the table to me with a worried look on his face and ask, "but is it safe to live there? Do people get murdered or robbed?" And, trying to be honest about our country/city, we responded by saying that no, it's not all that safe, and yes, people do indeed get killed or robbed, every single damn day. We also joked about freeway cameras -- Sweden's covered with 'em, and if you see a flash up above the roadway, that means you'll most likely get a speeding ticket in the mail -- and about how the first time they tried 'em here, it seemed like people shot most of 'em up. (They thought that part was pretty entertaining.)

Of course, there's also the matter of scale -- Sweden's only got like 8 million people or so in the whole country, about a fifth of whom live in Stockholm. Houston alone has, what, 5 million people, and that's probably not counting people who live in Katy, The Woodlands, etc.? Traveling to the U.S. for these folks, especially the more countrified, Stockholm-hating cousins in Soderfors, would be like somebody from Delaware traveling to Texas.

We invited everybody to come visit, naturally, but most smiled and just said, "maybe." Jan, in particular, seemed interested -- he said he'd heard New York was awful, so he wanted to visit another U.S. city -- and we told him that Houston's far from a tourist-friendly town (unless you're into sports, I suppose), but that there are things to do here. His dad, however, laughed and said what I think must've been the Swedish equivalent of "yeah, right!", so maybe it ain't really likely. The $1200 a person pricetag for plane tickets might play a bit of a role in that...

Rather than take the bus or train cross-country, by the way, we drove. We rented a sweet, sweet Volvo S80 (pickup not as good as I'd hoped, but it held all of us plus our ridiculous amount of luggage, had heated seat cushions, and ran on biodiesel(!)), which sadly became the Crapmobile after we made the mistake of parking under a tree outside our hotel in Norrköping. We got the insurance, so hopefully that'll cover birdshit, but maybe I'd better check the credit card bill after all and make sure we didn't get hit with a cleaning charge or something -- one thing I noticed in Denmark and Sweden is that absolutely everything costs something.

Just to give a quick rundown of our trip, we started in Copenhagen, over in Denmark, which was very cool -- I wish we could've stayed there longer, but we had hotels booked all the way across Sweden. We saw the Little Mermaid, rode the rides in Tivoli (well, a few of 'em, anyway; one ferris wheel ride for the three of us cost about $20), and visited the near-death commune at Christiania, which was extremely strange. Imagine an abandoned military base taken over by hippies and artists and then sort of left to see as the years went by, with quiet people biking everywhere and staring in a not-too-friendly sort of way as you wander past. (Not that I blame them, mind you -- I found out after the fact that the cops staged a huge incursion back in May and sparked a riot; thinking back now, it makes a lot of sense that most people seemed paranoid and hostile. Heck, we could've been police infiltrators...)

After that it was a train ride across the Oresund Bridge and into Sweden. We hung out at the Malmö Festival in Malmö (mostly 'cause it was outside our hotel room window), then rented a car and headed south. We hit the recreated Viking village at Foteviken, played in the sand on the south coast at Mossbystrand, hiked up to the incredible standing stones at Ales Stenar (which means, I believe, "old stones"; duh...), situated right on top of a grassy cliff overlooking the Baltic Sea, and then proceeded to get lost, get crazy pantomime directions from a Swedish lady, flatten a tire, and discover that our cottage at the hostel/resort place we'd booked into in Växjö had been given away. Ah, fuck. Best Western Royal Corner, you guys are lifesavers, as are the kind mechanics the next block over who stayed open to refill our tire for free. (Everything in rural Sweden shuts down between 6 and 7PM, with the possible exception of bars and restaurants.)

From Växjö we first went to see an awesomely spooky abandoned castle, Kronobergs Slott, then drove north to Linköping, where we checked out some cool old 19th-century Swedish buildings and I got lost while trying to get back to the car (yes, again). Then on up the freeway to Norrköping, which is this old industrial city that's been "reclaimed," with the old waterways and industrial buildings turned into parks and museums and such. Another place I wish we could've seen more of, but we were due to meet my wife's sister's family in Uppsala and didn't want to be late. We zipped through Stockholm and on up into Uppland, meeting the fam and having the first of several cool family get-togethers.

That night we went out on the town, mingling with Swedish students who all looked like they could be models for Gap ads and settling down at a river-side bar to drink. Well, okay, not me -- I don't drink much in general, but I would've if I wasn't driving, 'cause drunk-driving in Sweden is a major taboo, and the first time gets you slapped with a hefty fine, an automatic 3 weeks in jail, and the suspension of your license besides (I didn't ask what happens to repeat offenders). We had a good time, sitting around discussing religion and politics -- cousin Stefan's a religious history grad-turned-Cisco administration professor, and cousin Elisabeth's husband Michael's a lecturer in political science. When Michael turned to me and regretfully confessed his secret love for Rush (the band, not the asshole radio guy; he follows them from town to town when they tour Sweden), I could tell we were pretty deep in the cups.

After Uppsala was Soderfors and more merrymaking, this time with the whole tribe in attendance. The whole thing was a whirlwind, and I won't go into it here 'cause the names & stories wouldn't mean much to anybody else... And finally, we hit Stockholm, staying in the top-floor suite of the Hotel Sven Vintappare in an amazing old building built in the 1600s in Gamla Stan, the city's "Old Town" district (which is on its own little island in the middle of the city and is largely car-less). Yet another place I dearly want to go back & visit -- we got to see some of the sights, like the Skansen open-air history museum, Pippi Longstocking-land in Junibacken, the Vasa Museet (which has gotta be the only museum in the world devoted to a ship that sank before it ever left the harbor), and the Riddarholmskyrkan, where all the kings and knights are buried, but there's still a ton we didn't do.

Argh -- gotta go; par-tay time in the park looms. More later...

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