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