This week in bigger pics

    Monday 8th July. Finland.  Week 107


    Tale of two cities.

    Umea is a little odd. While proudly boasting it's Northern Sweden’s largest city it makes no mention of the fact it's stuck in a time warp, now that's an opportunity missed!

    Surrounding the small city like a ring of defensive wagons are the all too familiar blocks of apartment buildings. We toured them, not because we wanted to, but because we got lost trying to get to the city centre. Once we’d accidentally found our way through the estate we entered the City. Here timber buildings outnumbered brick ones. To its credit the timber buildings across Sweden do give it a slightly Colonial look. Interestingly, almost all are painted the same deep red throughout the country. So they have continuity, but not individualism.

    We pushed on and arrived at the City centre and in doing so entered an episode of The Sweeney. I half expected to see a Ford Granada come hurtling round the corner. It appeared to be architecturally stuck in the mid 70's. It immediately put me in mind of those 60's promotional films, the ones showing the future of 'new town' planning. They showed affluent smiling families. Mmen wore hats, the mothers looked like models and the kids looked well behaved. There were designated play areas for kids. Cars looked futuristic. Buses whisked a diverse mixture of people around, not just old folk and nutters. About then the Holy Grail of inner city centre planning was revealed, the fully paved city centre. A God like voice boomed over the soundtrack. It told us in clipped BBC tones: in the future cars and pedestrians will be kept separate. As if to ram home this point an image of a no entry sign barring a smiling motorist was shown. It sounded futuristic. Everyone looked happy. I couldn't wait for it to become a reality. In has - and it sucks! but that’s for another day.

    The point being that the film could have been shot here yesterday. Like most of Sweden I've seen, Umea looks oddly out of sync with the 21 century.


Hazel says theres not enough pics of us. Easily remedied.

So we bade the City a nostalgic farewell and headed for Finland, 250 miles north. The drive was staggeringly monotonous. The only time we got mildly excited was when we saw another moose, this time with her baby, and then when we stopped to eat our cheese and onion sandwiches. Now, if that’s the high point of your day there’s something amiss, right? Anyone who tells you it's adventurous or scenic driving through Sweden’s forests is either mad or from the Swedish tourist board. To demonstrate just how monotonous the whole journey was, here are three facts.

    Fact 1, We joined the E4 motorway when we arrived in Sweden. We've now arrived at the boarder with Finland and we're still on the E4. That's 1016 long miles on the same road, most of it straight. That's akin to driving from London to Rome.

    Fact 2, Apart from one brief section it all looks identical. You only ever see trees and very occasionally a few scatted red farm buildings.

    Fact 3, The E4 is peppered with speed cameras. You are constantly having to alter your speed. It ranges from 60 through to 110 and changes on a whim. Why? I have no idea. You're in little danger of running into a Moose as the entire motorway is fenced off to them and I doubt you could knock down a Swede even if you wanted, you see so few. So the cameras are both a mystery and hugely annoying.

Having drop his coin and made his wish Phil considers the wisdom of throwing money in the drink 

    However today finds us in Tornio, in Lapland Finland. Land of the midnight sun. The glossy welcoming brochure I picked up at reception excitedly informed me: you can walk out onto the frozen ice of the river at midnight and go fishing. What it doesn’t say is why any sane person would want to venture out on a frozen river and fish at that ridiculous hour. That, we have to guess. The river separates, what is really one City. Half in Sweden (Haparanda) the other in Finland (Tornio). If you cross the bridge you can stand with one foot in either country and , literally, be in two places at the same time.



    Tuesday 9th July, Finland,  Week 107


    People in glass........

    This camp site which sits alone on a small island in Tornio deserves a mention, if only because it has two unique features we've not seen anywhere else.

    I bet when you go to the loo, now stay with me, you first check to see if it's engaged right? You might try the door handle, or, if one's fitted, check for a green segment in the handle mechanism. That’s the way you, I, and the rest of the world do it, but not here. Here you simply have to look through thelarge window in the door! how convenient is that? No more faffing about. If the're engrossed in the Daily newspaper rather than getting on with the job in hand you can hurry them along. Knock on the door and call out: You going to be long chief?.

    Thankfully the showers don’t have windows in the door, that would be silly. No. They get around this by doing away with doors, and for that matter partitions, altogether. Here you shower in full view of anyone else in the shower room. (Max ten persons). Now I don't know about you but when I shower I like privacy. I like to feel uninhibited when I lather up my nooks and crannies. I can get a tad self-conscious having an over weight Finnish pensioner staring at me. I mean, you never know what they are thinking - old blokes can go a bit funny.

    So I showered as quickly and discreetly as possible and then slid into the communal changing room. Here the lack of windows and lack of privacy in the shower room is turned on it's head because one wall has three large panoramic windows fitted into it which looks out over the camp site. I was drying myself when a motor-home drove past. From the height of the cab the driver and his whole family got to see me in me birthday suit. Still, their treat.


No such thing as complusory purchase here, if you don't want to sell you don't have too.

    I got chatting to a fellow camper, Sven Ollafsson. He lives as far north as you can get and still be in Europe, the very top of Norway. During our conversation I asked what life was like living in such a remote and inhospitable place. Now bear in mind I can't do the accent but I'll have a go. He told me, in that calm and reassuring way airline pilots talk when they about to announce they are out of fuel, that he liked it.

    “The znow ist good he said., ve enjoy much pleazure in vinter”. -Obviously he's not quite got the diction of an airline pilot- I told him that Britain grinds to a halt whenever it snows.

    “Yes, it's much making Norwegians laugh to zee English peoples shtuck in very little snow”. He then held his hand in the air, about waist height, “When zar snow iz about zis deep, zen maybe ve have a problem.

    Then, in a very understated way he explained: I am much driving a coach. U learn vhen icy vind blow from nosth pole and blows u oft the road, not to fight it. You zeer with it. vorst thing happening, u get shtuck in snow, but if u fight it you can tip over, vhich is not zo good. I like the vinters. I fish, I ride my snowmobile, I shpend, maybe, zwo hour a day clearing zhe snow, iz good exercize I'm thinking”.

    And maybe that's it, we can all endure a little hardship if we have the right attitude.

    However in the UK we get a dusting of snow which is about as deep as icing sugar on a fairy cake and the police advise us to: 'Stay at home unless your journey is absolutely necessary'. Aren’t you glad we have a police force eager to pass on such sage advice? I know I am. If they didn’t how many of us would go blindly walking out into the snow like Scott of the Antarctic never to be seen again? And then, as if to prove just how hazardous 5mm of snow can really we discover some old duffer froze to death his Morris Minor on the B3446 on his way to buy a tin of spam.





    Wednesday 10th July, Finland,  Week 107


    Wednesday round up

    Imagine you're at a dinner party and someone says: Oh! did I ever tell you the time I rode my scooter to the Arctic Circle. I'm guessing you might be a tad impressed and hopefully want to hear more, I know I would. I'd want to know more because it sounds adventurous and the method of getting there sounds wholly impractical. You might also imagine that anyone who undertakes such a 'boys own' venture is perhaps made of stronger stuff than you or, failing that, bonkers. Turns out they are neither.

    Your vision of the Arctic Circle, that line of latitude that rings the world at 66.30 degrees, is maybe of a wall of ice similar to that depicted in the TV programme, Game of Thrones. A seventy meter sheer rampart of freezing ice and snow that separates the north from the kingdoms in the south. Because, lets face it, there should be some physical boundary that marks ones entry into what is an unforgiving, unfriendly and inhospitable geographical area. A place where you are pitted against the raw elements of cold, wind and general all round bleakness. The reality is somewhat of a disappointment. If it wasn't for a map or your sat-nav you’d never know you've just passed that magical line of latitude. Disappointingly there was no flashing neon sign. No mayor handing out cagoules, and no band. It was, in short, an anticlimax and frankly surprisingly warm. I had to take off my jumper. Life so rarely lives up to one's expectations..... Still it's done.

    Turn your radio on anywhere in Europe except France, there they still like to hear Edith Piaff, you'll be fed a diet of American and English music. In Finland and Sweden it's all you hear between the inane gobbledygook spoken by DJ's the world over. Some Scandinavian pop groups sing in English. One or two have had a stab at writing songs in English. The trouble is, if your command of the language isn't perhaps what it could be, then you are apt to end up with a song like the one that’s currently quite popular here. Sorry I've not managed to catch the band name, nor the title, but the chorus line is: Baby, baby baby your bush is on fire. Ummmm.....I'm guessing this has some religious connotation.

It might look picturesque but it's just trees.

    We left Tornio and headed south to Santa's official summer residence Kalajoki, obviously we didn't come here because of him. Apparently he gets sacks of mail from gullible kids around the world who don't have a clue there’s no such chap (What!!! Ed). Seems odd to me that we strenuously teach our kids to beware of old men bearing gifts, but then actively encourage them to write to one asking him to visit them in their bedrooms. Case of mixed messages if you ask me. Oh, apparently if you address your letter to: Father Xmas, c/o Finland, it will find it's way to him unless you send it from the UK, then, according to the Post office, you'll still the dudes postcode.

    Anyhow on the drive down the scenery was only marginally more attractive than Sweden. Still plenty of trees, but at least they were spaced out so you could see between them. However, and I didn't think this possible, they have even more speed cameras than the Swedes.

    However, in their favour, they do have a farer way when it comes to fixing speeding fines. It's based on 1/60th of your months net income/worth. This means that unlike our system of fixed penalties which punishes the poorer people in society far more than wealthy, it's considerably fairer. But then our legal system was based on protecting those that have, from those that don't. (Bit of a barbed comment there, and you were doing so well too. Ed)

    It's a Fin who holds the world record for the heaviest speeding fine. He was riding his motorbike at twice the legal speed in Helsinki. He was fined 170,000 Euros. Jussi Salonoja, that's his name not the bike's, is heir to the mighty HK sausage factory. So 1/60th of his months worth was 170.000 Euros. Ouch!





 Thursday 11th July, Finland, Week 107


    Idiots guide to Finland.

    You know what it's like. You're at a dinner party and there’s some clever dick rabbiting on about the time he rode his scooter to the bloody Arctic circle. And your thinking, big freaking deal, give it a rest mate.

Well read on, because today’s meanderings will arm you with a dozen mildly interesting facts about the Finns that will make you sound well travelled and entertain those around the table. -Can't guarantee it will shut up Marco Polo with his bloody scooter stories, but hey ho-.

    Word of warning. Don't start with: did you know that?....... and then rattle them out. It will make you sound nerdy and, take it from me, I've learnt the hard way, you’ll not get invited back.

    1, Finland was once part of the Swedish empire -That will come as a surprise to some. Who'd have thought Sweden even had an empire? not me.- They then gave it to Russia when they discovered it was just full of trees. Finland gained autonomy from Russia in 1918

    2, Like Sweden, Finland doesn’t waste tax payers money on defence. What they spend on arms wouldn't pay for the British, Regimental Sergeant Major's dress uniforms.

    3, Finland is run by women. Of the twenty minsters in the government twelve of them are women and so is the President.

    4, Worryingly the average age here is 43, It's has an elderly population and the birth rate is low. Without reforms or much higher immigration, Finland is expected to struggle.

    5, Geographically they have 188.000 lakes and as many islands.

    6,. Finland is twice the size of England but with the population of Scotland.

    7, There are No public phones in Finland, none. But there are more cell phones than inhabitants.

    8, Finns invented the sauna, ice skates, the Molotov cocktail and the dish draining closet. The later item is a mystery to all but the Finns, but they proudly lay claim to it.

    9, Finns don't drink, at least not in the week. It's the weekends they traditionally neck it down. (I expect that’s down to price. Tough to find a bottle of wine less than a £10. Ed)

    10, While the national costume looks wonderful, regretfully it's been superseded by the ubiquitous track suit and base ball cap.

    11, Speeding fines are levied according to gross income. Motorists, when asked by the police how much they make a year, were expected to answer truthfully but instead lied dreadfully. (Get a way!. Ed). Now the police have access to governments tax records, wealthy Fins are kicking up a stink at the hefty fines they are receiving, calling it unfair.

    12, Like the Swedes the Finns have a love affair with American 50's & 60's cars, you see them daily.

Being a Finn looks fun.

    Lastly: Sport is a big thing here. However, they tend to pursue sports which are a little more diverse than anything we play. For example they love throwing competitions. Get a few Fins round for a barbecue on the weekend and it won't be long before they start throwing something They'll throw any old thing. Cellphones, beer barrels, coins, boots and even each other. Other national sports include mosquito catching, swamp soccer, wife carrying and air guitar playing - to name but a few. Patti Valasti and Aki Kontala jettisoned themselves into the Finnish record books by playing ping pong with an raw egg. It was hit six times before it broke. If there's any justice in the world that should be an Olympic sport, about time they injected a little humour into the games.

    And of course who can forget, certainly not the Fins themselves, they achieved the highest score in a Euro-vision Song Competition in 2006, with a score of 292.

    It's fair to say the Finns are not well known for their skills at breaking records, but more their ability to invent new ones.





   Friday 12th July 2013, Finland, week 107


    Education V Propaganda

    A week or so ago I wrote, and not for the first time, that some countries had changed their laws regarding the universal smoking ban and allowed smoking in some pubs. This was to combat both bar closures and the resulting unemployment. Oddly non smokers who supported the ban and argued they couldn't go in a bar because of the heath risks and said they would if smoking were banned, lied. Anyhow....

    It was suggested by a reader of my humble rantings, (Don't go upsetting anyone. Ed) I try not to, that this 'right' of people to smoke which I fully support, cost lives. I was reminded that 'Smoking kills' and perhaps I was being irresponsible.

    Now the trouble is I have a problem with the government slogan 'Smoking kills', in much the same way I have with 'Speed Kills' since neither are true.

Couple of Hazels more arty shots today, enjoy..

    Let me explain myself. Take 'speed kills'. If that were true the obvious question would be: at what speed would this occur? At what velocity would a human have to be travelling at before say, their head exploded? You might retort with: It's shouldn't be taken literally Phil, speed in itself doesn’t kill it's simply a possible factor in road fatalities and I would agree 100% with that. This therefore makes it just a slogan. Some might call it propaganda. A scare tactic. It's meaning is meaningless. Yes, speed can be a factor in determining whether you walk away or get carried away from an accident, but ROSPA suggest there’s a raft of other factors which can influence the outcome of an accident. To focus on speed is a little short sighted. Unless, of course, you are trying to justify the existence of speed cameras. I'll come back to that in a mo.....

    It's the same with smoking. Here is some statistical data neither the government nor ASH will tell you about. According to the World Health Organisation, statistically speaking, inhabitants of Japan Switzerland and San Marino ennjoy the longest life span. Overall life expectancy is 83 in each country. So health wise you'd think these countries have cracked it, they are doing something right, right? Wrong!. In fact Japan and Switzerland are in the top twenty of nations with the worse smoking habits. They are actually one and two if you exclude eastern bloc countries and Spain from the table.

    So how can that be? How can two of the heaviest smoking nations on earth have the longest life expectancies? Surely if we believe what the government tells us smoking is supposed to shorten our lives, currently anywhere between 3-10 years, not lengthen them. And to muddy the waters still further it turns out that the USA has the highest mortality rates from smoking and yet they are way down the list in forty fourth place. Something is amiss.

    I quote from an article in the New York Times: How is it that a country with a relatively low smoking rate (USA) takes the top spot for smoking-related deaths? Answer! no one quite knows. This has led to much speculation in the USA. The implication of this evidence is that there must be other outside factors, as yet unknown. What's needed more unbiased research into smoking related illnesses.

    Like the slogan speed kills, smoking kills is just as inaccurate and therefore not helpful. It’s a slogan we have all accepted because that’s what we’ve been told.

As yet unnamed. I'm going with rock in water.

    Zhang Shuqing, of China turned 100 and admits to smoking all his life. Winnie Langley, who smoked since she was seven and only gave up because she couldn't see the end of a fag to light it, died recently at 102. Sek Yi, of Cambodia attributed his long life and that of his 108-year-old wife to smoking and the power of prayer. Now of course there are always exceptions to any rule. And these people are those exceptions, but they disprove the statement that 'Smoking kills'. Smoking may shorten your life or it may not. You may die of something quite unrelated.

    It's said that between 65,000 to 100,000 people die from smoking related disease in the UK. Does it not strike you as odd that they don't actually know the number? Figures are vague.. How much is guess work or anti smoking rhetoric?

    I'll never suggested smoking is good for you, it's not and nor is speeding always safe. Some old cynic might suggest we're perhaps being given slogans to make the collection of huge tax revenues from smokers or fines from drivers just that little more palatable. Glad I'm not a cynic.



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