Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Helsinki, Finland- Get a Flavor and Feel of the Capital

wild geese crossing a path in Helsinki
The majority of Finland's population resides in but a few cities, the rest of the country predominately wilderness, the blurry boundary beginning about where I am staying, six km outside Helsinki's center.

I takes me a while to walk to the main road, the artery leading to the heart of the city. A palette of lush greens make up the summer color scheme, the hoot of an owl creating a stir among the small rabbits hidden in the grasses around me. They hop away, revealing their presence.
At 10 PM in late June, there's as much light in the sky as at noon, our owl friend likely finding it frustrating and confusing.
The lush greenery around Helsinki

I board a bus, five Euros for the ride, As the center grows closer, I'm a little taken a little aback by the architecture; buildings of grey and brown, with minimal upkeep, they feel worn and unappealing. It's not quiet Soviet-Communist ugly, but it's not terribly far ahead. Compared to other European capitals, Helsinki cannot be considered pretty.

Finland has two national pastimes, hockey and drinking with clubs facilitating the demand, staying open til 4 AM Thursday to Saturday.
Outside of myself and the ubiquitous blackjack dealer there to augment the club's income, everyone is staggeringly drunk .
Despite the high taxes on cigarettes, a large percentage of patrons lurch into and out of the designated smoking room, leaving their beers and cocktails behind at the cubbyhole bookcase at its entrance, ownership not trusting its sloshed patrons able two perform two vices at once. 
cubby-hole for drinks outside the smokers room
"I'm going to take you to a gay bar. I'm going to take you to a gay bar," the lyrics echo over and over, the girl I'm dancing with notices the confused look on my face.
"They're talking about Sweden," she yells in my ear, barely audible, "And how the men there are gay because they're so fastidious about their appearance compared to us. Metro-sexuals at best."
I look around the club, the heavy drinking showing on the Finnish faces, their bodies more rotund as a result. Actually, Finnish people wouldn't look much like Swedes anyways as they are genetically more closely related to Russians.
while there are some pretty people in Finland, a lot of the guys look like this. I'm not complaining
One thing Finland has in common with Scandinavian countries are high prices, taxes, and an overly generous welfare system. In recent years there's been an influx of immigrants from the Middle East and former Eastern bloc nations, and while the percentage might be small, some come to take advantage of the welfare benefits without any contribution, creating a backlash that's rippled through the country's natives and sadly contributed to the reactionary forces of the society growing in popularity.

two things- notice the long braided beard, generally associated with heavy metal. There were a surprisingly high number of these in the city. Also, the weather- very cold and grey.

Maybe it's the weather- cold, rainy, grey, maybe it's that Finns aren't the most open people, or a combination of that and the high prices, but I little in Helsinki which makes me want to extend my stay, save maybe the stillness and tranquility existing in the suburbs, broken only by the hoots of my owl friend late in the evening.

Discussion question:

1Under the cover of 24 hour a day darkness during the Finnish winter, owls deafen the population with incessant hooting. Explain.  

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

High Prices in Sweden- where the Sky is the limit

Ahhh, the old American favorite- McDonald's, where a weary traveler can stretch his dollar, where the worst father can be a momentary hero to his children, where the poor and stupid go to get fattened up ... Discount this completely in Sweden! Haha, I used the word discount, a word for which the Swedish language has no equivalent because such things simply do not exist. 
You'll see from the below menu the cheapest burger on the menu is 62 Swedish Kroner; yup, $10 for a burger at fast food joint! Still hungry? 
Burger King menu in Sweden 

Have a hot date? Want to take her somewhere decent where you'll have a chance to score? Check out the below video to see what that might run you.

I took a girl for tapas; a few slices of churrasco (literally), a couple of pieces of calamari, plus some veggies, and I'm talking about some seriously ungenerous portions, like it's the year 1491 and we're lost at sea and by captain's orders the cook is giving each sailor the thinnest shave of the salami. "Don't like it, go catch a gull!"
And that total was over $50! No drinks, just water, which by the way is the only free item in Sweden and can be drank directly from the tap, pure and clean.

The grocery store: prices two to four times those in the United States.
A beer at a club- $10.
An HDMI cable At Amazon will run $8, in Sweden it's close to $100. Want something higher up the electronics ladder- the prices would make Bill Gates flinch
Want to use the public restroom? That'll be $1.50 thank you very much.
10 kroner to use the toilet- that's a buck and half

I'm having a hard time staying afloat financially. Wish I could leave, but I'm stuck here for another few days and I have to a date coming up, and we're both hungry. I don't think I have much of a choice, I'm taking her to McDonalds. A cup of water on the side please. 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Understanding Swedish Society and "Lagom"

downtown Sweden, I mean Stockholm ... same thing really
The sign reads "Private property" and is all that stands between us and a lush garden decorated with sweet smelling rose bushes and a small apple tree.
"No Richard, you musn't!" yells out a concerned Annie as I step onto the grass. I pick a ripe apple off the tree, look back at her slightly bewildered and urge her to join me in the splendid surroundings. She hesitates, held back by years of conditioning, but at last, like a child dipping their feet into freezing water, she takes a tentative step onto the lawn. I've infected her with my rebellious Americanism.

Lock and Step
Swedes are expected to walk in lock step with each other. Behaving differently or standing out being the quickest avenue to social pariahism. Swedes follow the rules, the well being of their trusting, interwoven society dependent on it.
Apartment buildings have a shared laundry room included in the rent,  but if you don't have a pre-existing reservation, even if available, better not use.
A prepaid public transport card allows you to borrow a bike from the station and return it closer to your ultimate destination. In other countries this service would quickly disappear, as someone would undoubtedly augment their income from the sale of public bicycles.
You'll see many bicycles, not only in Sweden, but throughout
I'm in the Espresso House, Scandinavia's ultra-fancy version of Starbucks selling beverages and food at copious prices. Sitting at a table with my $6 coffee,  I pull out some bread, smoked salmon, and lettuce and make a cheap sandwich. I feel the icy, taken aback stares from the tables around me. Walk in tune or prepare to pay the price.
check out one the numerous Espresso Houses in Central Stockholm

Social Classes
Me and Aleksandra- my Polish amiga
While a very tiny upper class exists, along with a distinct upper middle-class (entrepreneurs in industries like IT, pharmaceuticals, and medical equipment) the vast majority of Swedish society is comprised of the working and middle-classes, with a tiny underclass at the very bottom- people who have somehow slipped through the finely woven welfare net, almost all of whom are alcoholics or junkies.
Greatly helping blur class distinctions, powerful labor unions have successfully fought for very high working-class wages (bus drivers, waiters, construction workers, etc.) which sometimes eclipse those of their middle class counterparts who generally have a higher level of education (doctors, professors, academics.)
A male construction worker married to a female journalist will often bring home more than his wife.
A department store cashier I got to know, brought home, after taxes, in excess of $4,000 dollars a month. A department store cashier! A comparable American job would pay out a third of that total.

A system of escalating income taxes, a VAT of 25% on most items, and high prices to begin with make it exceedingly difficult to accumulate wealth. Couple this with a welfare system that keeps almost everyone afloat, uniformly strong public education and health care, and the high-wages paid to the working class, and you'll find a tremendous amount of perceived parity between Swedes.
This equality is an integral part of the Swedish social fabric as there is less jealousy than in countries with greater wealth disparity.
It helps create a much more harmoniously functioning society, where no one starves and few turn to crime.

"Lagom" is Swedish word meaning "just enough." The temperature of that water is "lagom"- not too hot, not too cold. I have "lagom" food on my plate- nothing excessive (in fact, this a large contribution to Swedes as a population having low obesity.) It's a word that extends to social behavior, penalizing those who behave out of sync, too boisterously, or brag about themselves.
Indeed, an even quicker way to draw indignation to oneself than making your own sandwich in the Espresso House is to state you're better than someone else. The anvil will fall swiftly, and hard.
And it plays out in personal relationships too. Right now Annie is yelling that one step onto the forbidden lawn is "lagom" and she wants to go, while I insist that she join me by the roses. It's an exchange of cultural values, and having learned much about Sweden, at this point I'm insistent she take a bite of the American apple.
Go home Americano- you are not "lagom"

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Temples of Angkor Wat- Beautiful Video

You can get a feel for the temples that exist in Cambodia from watching this video. These are the world renowned temples built between the 9th and 15th centuries in Northern Cambodia.
The Khmer Empire during this time, encompassed much of South-east Asia and played a formative role in the political and cultural development of the region. All that remains of that civilization is its rich heritage of cult structures in brick and stone found by the town of Siem Reap today.

Sadly, some of it was destroyed by the murderous regime of Pol Pot, yet many ancient temples still stand today. Please watch the below video for more to get a feel of what ypu'll find when you visit.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Swedish People Love Taxes- YES! The Popular Skatteverket

83% of Swedes approve of their tax agency, the Skatteverket. 83%! I am not making up this statistic. Can you imagine that stat being aired on Fox News in reference to the IRS?? I can imagine hell freezing over too.

How Much?
Skatteverket offices
So Swedes must pay 5% taxes, right? Some paltry sum that they could hardly even bother over.
Not even close! Sweden has one of the highest effective tax rates in the world! In addition to paying sometimes in excess of 60% of their income in taxes, there's also a "hidden" 25% VAT (Value Added Tax) on goods sold.

So Helpful!
Like most things in Sweden, the agency runs efficiently. Letters from the Skatteverket often give the name and direct phone number of the employee dealing with your case, leading to quick and personal service. Tax returns arrive already filled out each year, all you have to do is sign your name. You can send in your return by a phone app.

Big Brother?
In addition to collecting gobs of money, the beloved Skatteverket has further powers- they choose your Swedish baby's name!
Well... okay, slight exaggeration ... but they do have the ability to veto names registered by parents who apparently have little interest in living vicariously through their children, as "Sickboy," "Metallica," "Dotcom" and "Krank" have all ended up on the Skatteverket cutting room floor.

Know thy Constituency
In a cunning political strategy, attempting to ride the wave of the Skatteverket popularity back into office, an incumbent Swedish government actually proposed tax increases as a tool to increase their popularity!
Every American voter looking positively dumbfounded
This with the Swedish public sector already making about half the overall economy!

Am I missing Something?
American: "Great, so they're highly efficient at extracting money from their population, they're Big brother and know everything about you, Swedes have the highest tax rate in the world, and the politicians propose more tax?!"
Swede: "They won."
American (bewildered): "Don't you think paying 70% in taxes is already too god damn high?"
Swede: (shrugging) "Perhaps, but I feel that I am getting something for it."

Swedes do see benefits, namely ultra cheap health care and free education, an excellent system of public transportation (though this comes with extra costs) and relatively generous subsidies to low-income households that keep the poverty rate and inequality low, helping to create a society without a lot of friction or crime, which was actually one of the great things I found about living in Sweden.

Unlike America, whose citizens don't see as visible a return on their tax dollar, in part because so much of it goes to the military (which helps protect the rest of the world mind you, and saves other countries from greater expense in the area) Swedes are generally okay with sky-high taxes because people trust the administration to use their tax money in an effective manner.
The goal has always been to create as equal conditions as possible for everyone. In fact, a  growing number of Swedes would accept even higher taxes to pay for a largely fair and well-functioning society.

So, my friends, if you're tired of the drones at the IRS, and you've fallen in love with the Skatteverket, (as you rightfully should) you can always renounce your American citizenship, move to Sweden, and empty your pockets. Hey, at least the babes are hot.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Getting a Visa To Russia in Prague, Czech Republic

As I am often finding myself looking for helpful information on getting visas online, I found the easiest way, and likely the cheapest way to get a visa to Russia in Prague.

I tried in Finland, and wasted GOBS of time. In Prague, it was super easy, and way cheaper. Just go to the below address, or call them. They speak English, they were helpful, you fill out a SHORT form, hand them 3,200 CZK, and bam, you are done. Pick up your passport when they tell you (mine took a week) and that was that. They came through, it was easy, nearly painless, and reliable.

CRC Consulting website -- it might be in Russian, but just call them and they speak English!
HIGHLY recommend! Now, if someone could help me get a Chinese visa here in Mongolia ... :)

CRC Consulting
+420 222 317 644
Office Center Zircon, Sokolov 131/86, 186 00 Prague - Karlin, Czech Republic

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Taste of Lisbon Portugal- Mellow Mellow

Shark Fin Towers

colorful Lisbon condo building

Cool structure downtwn

Architecture of Lisbon

Add caption

the ubiquitous bakery 
I exit my hotel, and walk down the street. Immediately to my right is a castle, right smack dab in the middle of Portugal’s capital city. I look around, no one but me is giving it so much as a second look. No tourists are lined up around it to get in, just the fence and the castle walls and turrets. It seems a little surreal.
I continue down the road, and walk through the park. 
the park
Portugal, is definitely one of the mellowest capital cities on earth. This will be a short short post and just enjoy the photos and get a feel for the place.  click here to read a funny story that occurred in this mellow city, 

Monday, August 11, 2014

Train Ride from Oslo to Bergen, Norway (beautiful landscapes)

Norway has some of the most rugged, heavily forested landscapes in the world. The train ride from Olso to Bergen is deemed by most to be one the most beautiful in the world, and while it still is seven hours on a train, it certainly didn't disappoint in terms of vistas. 
Check out the photos below for what to get an idea idea of the beautiful landscapes that comprise Norway. 

a mountain river, snow capped peaks behind

rugged mountains

a stop on the way to Bergen

a lake, mountains behind

here's a video recap of the trip, little vignettes of the scenery

ultra clean and clear water from a mountain river below the train

heavily forested Norway

another mountain lake with snow capped peaks behind