16 december 2010

The kindness of strangers - December in the USA

Ever lost something in the back of a cab?

Well, exactly that happened to Lynn and I when we were in New York this week. After a cab ride from Chelsea to the Meatpacking District, Lynn discovered that she had lost her Iphone in the back of the taxi. After hours of ringing the cab company, the police, the dispatch centre with no result, we had almost given up and Lynn was almost in tears. Gone were her text messages, her contact numbers and her photos.

We decided to give her phone number one last chance. I tiredly dialed the number on my phone and, amazingly, a man answered. He had found the phone in the back of the taxi and taken it home in the hope that we would ring him. A long taxi drive later up to the Upper East Side and we had retrieved the phone -unscathed and unused.

What are the chances of that? Losing an Iphone in New York and getting it returned? I guess there are more good people in the world than there are bad.

A few days earlier, we had been waiting in a bus station in Wilmington, Delaware. We had been running an Advanced Negotiation skills workshop there and were heading back to New York. Delaware has no sales tax, so we'd done a lot of tax-free shopping and had a mountain of luggage with us. The bus station was on N.Shipley street (my name!) and was basically a run-down, unheated room full of graffitti and toilet odour.

Slowly the room filled up with an interesting blend of people. Young men drinking beer, a rasta carrying a matress, a chinese woman hugging her stomach, a loud woman screaming into her telephone. And there we sat, with our mountain of luggage and our out-of-place fashion choices. It didn't exactly feel threatening, but it did feel like a very alien environment - an socioanthropological adventure.

The bus arrived, on the other side of N.Shipley street and we had to cross the road to get to where it had stopped. We were wondering how many trips backwards and forwards it would take us to get all of our bags to the bus. As we stood up, everyone in the room approached us and, to our amazement, asked if we needed help to carry our heavy bags. We accepted and a trail of people carried, dragged and wheeled our luggage over to the bus.

Just like the man in New York, these people acted out of kindness and sympathy. They didn't know us. They could have easily just left us to solve our own problem. But they didn't. They lent a helping hand. I guess it is true what they say about the kindness of strangers....


28 november 2010

'Cod' by Armani

Alderley Edge High Street, a football-kick from Manchester
It isn't every day that you laugh hysterically with a taxi driver at 8am in the morning. Or at least not in my daily life. But on Friday this week, Lynn and I sat in the back of a taxi outside Manchester, UK, and split our sides in hysterics. It was one of those 'had to be there' experiences, but I'll try to describe the situation.

We were in the UK running Advanced Negotiation training for AstraZeneca. AZ's office is in beautiful parkland in Cheshire, 30 minutes from Manchester airport. Close to the AZ compound is a village called Alderley Edge, and this is where we were staying. Alderley Edge is a cute village, with a tree-lined main street, Georgian houses and thatched cottages. Very rural. It is the place where the elite of Manchester settle down, in very exclusive houses. The Beckhams once lived here and the place is crawling with footballers and their orange-skinned WAGS. Apparently, this village is the place where the most champagne per capita is consumed in the whole of the UK.

The village is also renouned for its fish and chip shop - Foster's. Chippie to the stars. No matter how much money or prestige you have in the north of England, you can still pop down to the fish and chip shop. This is where we decided to eat our meal on the Thursday night. Cod and chips twice. And a side order of mushy peas for Lynn. What is good about Foster's was that it isn't just takeaway - you can sit inside and eat. We hung up our coats and, surrounded by locals and glitterati, we tucked in to our meals.

Back at the hotel, we noticed an unmistakeable odour. Our clothes and coats had soaked up the scent of fried fish, batter and greasy chip oil. Oh well, we thought, it'll be gone by the morning. No such luck. The next day, our coats still reaked of chippie. Climbing into the taxi, we were still complaining to eachother about the revolting, lingering odour.

The taxi driver asked where we'd been. We answered that we'd been at Foster's in Alderley Edge. 'Oh', he said. 'then you're wearing 'Cod' by Armani.'

He had hit the nail right on the head. The designer image of classic clothing and perfume combined with the down-to-earth phenomena of the fish and chip shop summed up the people of Alderley Edge perfectly.

But the taxi driver didn't stop there.

'There's always something a bit fishy about Alderley Edge', he said
'Oh we're out of the frying pan into the frier in this taxi', we said
'Yeah, but this is the best plaice to be', he said
'Glad we've got you as a driver,' we said, 'you're a real catch'
'Are you fishermen's friend?' he asked Lynn
'Be careful or she'll batter you', I said
'Oh I feel like I'm in deep water' said Lynn
'Stop fishing for compiments' the driver said

And so it went on. The entire journey from the hotel to AstraZeneca, we were in stitches.

Wouldn't it be fun if more of our days could begin that way?  Especially on a Fryday!

Neil S

17 november 2010

The buns of Ballerup

Lynn and I are working in Ballerup, Denmark, today. We're running an Effective Communication workshop. This morning when we described the logistics of the day, we said that we would have a coffee break around 10.15am.

'Will there be cake or buns?' piped a Danish participant.
'We don't know', we said.
'Without cake or buns, it's not a coffee break', he claimed.

It turned out that in Denmark, the concept of coffee break is closely associated with cake. Coffee, you see, is available all day long. You can have a cup of coffee whenever you want. Just grab and go. But, unlike in other countries, a 'coffee break' is only called a 'coffee break' when it is accompanied by cake or buns. It is not correct to refer to it as a 'coffee break' if there is no edible element to the occasion. It would be false advertising.

I wonder what they call ít when coffee's accompanied by Danish pastries. A cannibal break?

Ooh, give me a slice of that Danish Rosette cake

10 november 2010

Thank you Mr Fawkes?

 On Saturday night I stood in a bus shelter with a group of middle-aged Swedish women and looked on as a fierce-looking, fire-wielding mob marauded through narrow, ancient streets and burned an effigy of a man on a bonfire right there in the centre of the town. Then, accompanied by about 40,000 men, women and children baying for more, we marched to a large field and burnt another effigy of the same man on an even bigger bonfire for good measure. Everyone was delighted. 

Bonfire Night, Windsor Castle, 1776
We were of course celebrating Bonfire Night, on this occasion in Battle, England. The effigies, carefully sewn together by local children, were of an Englishman called Guido 'Guy' Fawkes who tried but failed to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London on 5 November 1605. Every year since, hoards of people across Britain gather on the anniversary to watch the effigy of this man burn atop a bonfire.  

The Swedish people were there with me for a language and cultural experience but I was wary of the potential rowdiness of the event and the very real dangers of taking them to Bonfire Night. Despite my verbalizing this they remained keen, although I knew they were comparing it in their minds to Sweden’s Walpurgis Eve (Valborg) at the end of April. Really the only similarity between the two however is the bonfire. Everything else, from the sheer scale to the murderous theme, is quite different.  

Bonfire Night, Battle Abbey, 2010
Throughout the evening there was fire all around us constantly and the smoky air turned red with flares being set off in all directions by the public. For around four hours the ground was rocked every few seconds by deafening, bone shaking explosions. Following the parade and the two burnings of the ‘Guy’, the evening rounded off with an awesome firework display, the crescendo of which was the oddest, rawest firework I have ever seen - an immense, hellish fireball about the size of a hot-air balloon which exploded in mid-air. No sparkle, no beauty - no ironic ’ooohs’ and ’aaahs’. Instead the entire crowd spontaneously and audibly gasped, their breath literally taken away by this incredible spectacle. 

And then we all went home. 

The evening was primitive, powerful and intense. And my small group of quiet, unimposing, well-to-do Swedish ladies thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. While the first bonfire was being lit in the open street and the firecrackers that filled it were ripping the air apart, one of them noted that this would never be allowed in Sweden on health and safety grounds. I nodded in agreement and then couldn’t help wondering to myself why on Earth it is still allowed here in England.  
This event could easily have lost its soul to health and safety regulations. But I have to say that there was little or no sign of any overbearing, party-pooping restrictions designed to mollycoddle the public. The police presence was low-key and there were very few marshals or barriers to control the flow of revellers. Just a vague map of the procession route down the tiny streets hinted at some semblance of organisation. Otherwise, we were allowed to get on with it and look after ourselves. Someone somewhere along the way has understood that Bonfire Night is precious. Although England has a national day on 23 April, Bonfire Night is what really matters. In fact it is perhaps the only annual celebration where we get together, young and old en masse, and really have a blast without too much interference from the authorities. It doesn’t make it free from incident, but it gets to keep its edge and in doing so, has become somewhat sacred. 

So despite being arguably the most reviled person in English history ever, perhaps we have something to thank old Mr Fawkes for after all. But unfortunately for him, the end result is we’re just going to have to keep on burning him year after year for centuries more to come.

Dave S 

6 november 2010

An Arctic Family

I'm glad I'm not a seal!

It's 10pm. The siren sounds. My second night in Churchill and I already understand. It's time to go in - or at least stay only on the one well-lit main street without diversion. Why ? Well, because your life literally depends on it, and on the conservation management team that roam the perimeter of this small Arctic town 24 hours a day.

In the 20 plus years that I have been living outside the US, I've been asked a few times about the polars bears that walk the streets when I mention I live in Sweden. While this is a definite misconception - here in Churchill, Canada's only main port on the Arctic ocean, the uncontested kings of the Arctic are frequent visitors to this tiny community of 1,000 residents.

Some 600-1,000 polar bears, the largest concentration in the world, congregate in Churchill for about 6 weeks every autumn. At the edge of the Hudson Bay (the second largest bay in the world) they wait. By mid-November, enough ice has formed along the coast for them to once again return to their hunting grounds and siege a much awaited seal meal. While they wait, we humans are provided with a rare opportunity to witness these majestic beings in their natural habitat.

Let's make no mistake about it - the environment they call home is harsh. Of the 4,600 mammal species, only about 40 live in the arctic. Food this time of year is scarce to non-existant. Common conditions include temperatures of -30 to 40 celsius with winds of up to 50 kilometers per hour. While not thriving, life here continues, and each year babies are born - to both the humans and bears that inhabit this Arctic realm.

The polar bears seem perfectly adapted to the Arctic conditions. With amazing dexterity, this huge being can glide it's 450 kilo body gently over ice that a 75 kilo person would step through. They are excellent swimmers, can smell a seal up to 20 miles away, and can go several months without food. (new mothers sometimes go up to 8 months!) However, despite their ability to accept and adjust to the land as it is, they are still vulnerable to humans.

In contrast, we humans, the least adapted of all Arctic animals, would die in less than half an hour if exposed unprotected in Arctic conditions. Yet through observing these top predators, man has also learned to cope with and survive life on the tundra.

In Churchill, people and polar bears have co-existed naturally for centuries, maintaining a precious balance through mutual respect.

To the native people of this area, 'family' meant more than just humans. It included the animals, the land, and all else on it. To not live in balance with this 'family' meant their own lives would be compromised. This humility and respect for all life in the family was key to survival. Today, these native beliefs shine through in the way the people of this communinity, and those who come to work in Churchill during viewing season, passionately protect and the animals and preserve the land they live on.

One might ask - why take this type of journey? Should humans be 'viewing' on the tundra in the first place? Can we do so without causing harm? My answer - absolutely. We should, and we must - as long as we do it with awareness, humility and respect. In doing so, we are offered the opportunilty to experience an intimate connection with our surroundings. These experiences of connection invoke in us a desire - to understand, to protect, to preserve.

Effortless to consciously connect? No!
The gains? Profound!

It is difficult to leave such a place, such an experience, without a deepened connection to oneself  - and that, in turn, enables us to open our hearts to others and pepetuate our desire and responsibility to take care of earth's 'family'.

I am humbled by my brief time surrounded by Arctic beauty - the people who live and work here, the animals and the land, are a conscious reminder that 'family' regardless of species,  includes us all.

Lynn G.

4 november 2010

Copenhagen - cracking the Danish code

Copenhagen is a fantastic city located at the mouth of the Baltic Sea. It is a capital city where the oldest monarchy  and the happiest people in the world reside. Spending the day here today, it's easy to see why they're happy. The city's buildings are colourful and the architecture exciting. People cycle everywhere - safely. The city is peppered with fantastic cafés and restaurants, including the one I went to last night -Custom House. Apparently, the world's best restaurant is here. The air is fresh, the shopping great.

And the people are friendly and easy to understand.

At least when they speak English. When they speak Danish, well, that's another story. Although I speak Swedish, I understand very little Danish. It sounds a bit like they're speaking with a mouth full of porridge.

But today I had an epiphany. I think I cracked the Danish code. It seems like many words in Danish are similar to Swedish words, but where there is a T in Swedish, they have a D in Danish. 'Mat' becomes 'mad' (food), 'get' is 'ged' (goat). Likewise, a Swedish K translates to a Danish G. 'Bok' becomes 'Bög' (Book). 'Tak' is 'tag' (roof). It's in the D's and the G's - I'm sure of it.

So now it might be a bit easier for me to understand the Danish language. I appreciade id. I lige id. I thing id feels gread.

Neil S

3 november 2010

UK - the Bronte sisters and me

Currently in the UK, I decided to head off to West Yorkshire and the tiny village of Haworth. This Victorian village consists of a tiny, narrow,cobbled street which winds its way slowly up a steep hillside. The village really brings to mind the industrial revolution and the hardships suffered by the people of the time.

On the top of the severe hill is a parsonage, a house which is a tourist magnet for people all over the world. It is in this house that the three Bronte sisters, Ann, Charlotte and Emily lived and died. It was from this house that they wrote literary classics such as Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey. Being in the house, seeing the village crawling down beneath it and the vast bleak moors spreading up behind, it was easy to relate to the stories and envisage the atmosphere of the time.

In the parsonage there is a museum. In the museum I learned that the three sisters all died before they passed 30. In their short lives, they had a huge influence on English literature. They are famous around the globe. Their stories are loved. They achieved so much in such short lives. That is truly inspiring.

A trip to Bronte country is worth a visit on so many different levels. Steep landscape. Elevated insight. And heightened respect.

Neil S

30 oktober 2010

Soul and the City

At the risk of sounding redundant in comparison to my last blog contribution....I find myself in another sunny city on the water after another amazingly smooth journey. What's going on?? Where are all the stresses of travel by air! (strange to have nothing to complain about)

Well, I will knock wood, count my blessings, and anything else required to keep the travel gods smiling on me for a while!

It's been 25 years since my last visit to Chicago if you don't count all the hours I've spent in transit at O'hare (I can't believe I just wrote that - 25 years!!). While many things have changed and the city has grown, I find recognition in something that has always defined Chicago for me - MUSIC!

Music permeates the city - soul, blues, hip hop and a light and easy Luther Vandross kind of sound can be heard on the subway (yes, there is a well maintained subway functioning throughout the city that only cost 2.25 USD/ride), several shops (trust me- I've been in lots!), and on the streets as many people walking dare to sing out loud. I've tried singing out loud a few times while walking in Stockholm with my 6 year old daughter. She always says - 'you can't go around singing all the time-people look at us!'. 'Yes they do' I reply, 'but maybe it makes them smile a little too', and then I usually stop singing.

Music, in part, defines a culture. But it is not only the music itself. It's where, when, how it's played and by whom. It seems that in Chicago, music is everywhere. Not only is it said to be the birthplace of house music, it is also home to it's unique blend of Chicago blues, jazz and soul.

I like to sing out loud when I'm out walking and not in a hurry. It's a welcome change to my usual fast, determined walk to keep pace with Stockholm city life. As I walk the streets of Chicago, a city of  almost 3 million people, I hear a lot of them singing out loud. It makes me smile! In Chicago, you don't have to visit one of the many clubs to enjoy the soulful sound of the city. Just walk the streets! Perhaps I'll try singing out loud a bit more often as I walk the streets in Stockholm - especially when I'm with my daughter!

Lynn G.

28 oktober 2010

Gothenburg - Sun and the City

A sunny autumn Gothenburg evening.

Over the last few years I have been in Gothenburg countless times. Almost every time I've been there, regardless of the season, I've been greeeted with a gray and wet sky. At the moment it's that gray sky time of year in Stockholm, so my expectations for something better in Gothenburg were not high. Imagine my surprise to arrive to a city bathing in sunshine!

From then on, everything about my journey fell perfectly into place - out of airport quickly, taxi waiting, traffic to seminar location light! The event I was speaking at was supurbly organized by IFL Stockholm School of Economics - everything set up and ready to go. Even my computer equipment worked smoothly (and for those of you who know me - that is some amazing feat!)

My lecture 'Strategies for Successful Communication Across Cultures'  for about 50 guests was very well received - which made for some delightful conversation over wine with guests after the seminar.

Our discussions included everything from missing work because the dog is ill (not totally uncommon in Sweden) to reinforcemnet of my belief that after all my time in Sweden, the word Lagom can not be translated directly into English. It's meaning is subjective to the beholder - for example, 'lagom size' can be anywhere from 15 employees (the size of Key) to 250 (the size of the consulting company one of the seminar participants belonged to). Some people say it can be translated to  'just right'. Well, my experience in Gothenburg felt 'just right' - so does that mean it was 'lagom'?. No - because lagom isn't always perceived as a positive thing. Sometimes it can mean - good enough or Ok, but not great.

So, I don't want to say my time in Gothenburg was 'lagom'! In fact, the only problem with the evening was that it was over much too quickly! Before I knew it I found myself back on the plane to Stockholm. Although, I must admit, I was happy to be getting home again as I am away a little more often than what feels 'lagom'.

Lynn G.

27 oktober 2010

Correct Bay to Log Island

                                                             A train station. Somewhere.

When I was 11 years old, my parents allowed me to travel by myself on the train to stay with my then 25-year old sister in Wales. To occupy me, my dad gave me a notepad and he told me to write down the name of every station I passed through on my way from Darlington in the north of England to Pontypridd in the south of Wales. As the diligent youngster I was, I took this mission very seriously, and painstakingly wrote down every minor station on that long, windy track down the country.

On my journey back from Mora today, I was reminded of this. The train between Mora and Stockholm stops at many stations before arriving at its destination. As I travelled through the Swedish countryside, I realised how silly some of the place names are when you translate them into English.

Just to mention a few - after Mora, we stopped at Correct Bay, and then Pine Mountain. Next station was Play Sand and then Inland Lake. Animal Ridge is another place, as is Live Long. Honest Mother is another place worth mentioning.

Place names sound funny when you translate them to English don't they? Oh, well, only a few more hours to go till I'm home in Log Island.

Neil S

Mora, Sweden - check your assumptions

                                                        The best, and only, taxi in town.

One thing I am always reminded of when I travel is to check my assumptions. You don't even have to leave your own country to experience the benefits of doing this.

Today I've been in Mora in Sweden delivering a Cultural Awareness seminar. After the 4 hour train journey northwards, I arrived to a deserted, cold and rainy station. There were no people around, let alone taxis to take me onwards on my journey. A phone number was written on the station wall to a local taxi firm. I dialed them on my mobile. They seemed surprised to hear from me. They said they would 'see if they could send me a taxi.' I hung up.

Ten minutes later, I rang again to check if they'd found me a taxi. Not yet.'Why not?', I asked. 'Well'. they said, 'we only have one taxi in Mora during the days because nobody ever gets off the train at that time'. 'Oh', I said. 'I'll wait'.

I waited 20 minutes in the icy rain for the taxi to fetch me. And I remembered what I should have done. I should have checked my assumptions. I just presumed there would be a taxi rank outside the station to whisk me away.

I was wrong.

Neil S

20 oktober 2010

Chilling out in Finland

Some Finnish babies doing some serious chilling
Like the Swedes, the Finns are very keen on the outdoors. Today, however, I came to understand that they are rather more extreme about it than their Swedish neighbours.

A few months ago, a Finnish friend told me that not only do Finnish children go to school when it's snowing (which is shocking enough in itself for us Brits), but they also have playtime outdoors everyday whatever the weather. There is one exception though - they are allowed to stay indoors if it is colder than -30C outside!

To be honest, I thought this was a little extreme until a conversation I had today made this seem like, well, child's play.

I am running a Presentations course here in Helsinki and I had lunch with two of our contacts from the HR department. Both are Finnish - one a mother and one a grandmother. They had been kind enough to buy a cute summer outfit for my daughter when she was born in May this year and so naturally the topic of conversation soon came round to babies and parenting. I commented on how hot the summer had been, mentioning that it was nice to have spent so much time outdoors with my newborn. They agreed and then asked me if I have a place like a balcony, garden or porch to keep the baby in the winter.

Slightly baffled, my immediate response was to laugh... until I realised it was a serious question. I quickly pulled myself together enough to ask them what they meant.

As it turns out, it is apparently common practice in Finland to leave babies outdoors in their prams for 1-2 hours at a time, often unattended, and at any time of the year including deepest winter. When I asked what the benefits of this might be (suggesting helpfully, 'fresh air'), I was met with, "Well, I don't know, it's just tradition really!".

Confused about the purpose of deliberately leaving one's baby outdoors in freezing conditions, I questioned whether it might sometimes get a bit too cold during the Finnish winter to pursue this tradition. Understanding my concerns, they quickly reassured me that babies are rarely left outside in the cold below -20C. Phew, that's ok then!

I've always considered the Finns to be a cool, calm people - perhaps this is because, quite literally, they learn to chill out from such an early age.

Dave S

Budapest - feeling at home

Lynn and I are staying at the Mercure Korona in Budapest. It's the same hotel we stayed in six months ago on our first visit to the city. Funny isn't it how, when you've stayed in a hotel, and returned home, you immediately banish the thoughts of the hotel staff? You never give them a second thought. You just go about your li´fe as normal, and they cease to exist. And then, when you come back a second time you suddenly recognise and remember them. It can go months, years even before you return, and as soon as you see the staff members behind the front desk, it's like coming home. This happened to us today when we checked in and it was rather fun.

Since we're staying in the same hotel, we also remembered a restaurant around the corner on Szarca utca that was shut last time we were here. We decided to try it out and see if it was open this time. And it was. A modern, fusion restaurant with a taster menu called Babel. The restaurant is contemporary with one wall covered in a glass-fronted fridge holding masses of wine bottles. It was a great dining experience and we strongly recommend the vegetarian menu if you happen to eat there sometime. http://www.babeldelicate.hu/

A short walk back from the restaurant and we were home, stomachs full of lovely food. Full of energy to deliver tomorrow's workshop in Budapest Science Park.

Neil S

19 oktober 2010

Budapest,Hungary, 19 October 2010

We're off today to run a second Communicating Value workshop in Budapest. The first one was run in spring earlier this year. On that occasion, we arrived a day early and spent the day sightseeing and admiring the beautiful towns of Buda and Pest. We ate great food and watched the city life on the streets and the river.

This time, our visit is shorter, although we do hope there will be time to experience more of what the city has to offer. We may, however, be arriving at a city in shock. A week or so ago, a dam broke upriver, flooding nearby villages with toxic waste and killing all wildlife in the waterways. This toxic waste is threatening the river Danube and the capital of Budapest. We hope it hasn't reached the city. In a few hours, we'll find out.

Neil S.