Sweden

13 06 2018

About six years ago, a dear friend of mine moved to Sweden. It was quite a departure from her life in San Antonio, Texas, where she had moved after we graduated Architecture school together in Austin. In fact, winter in Austin was just slightly cooler than summer in Stockholm, where she now calls home.

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For years, I had been meaning to prioritize heading there to see her and her husband, Carl. It just kept being pushed to the back burner for more adventurous trips that aligned better with our travel matrix. You see, as an avid traveler, with a modest budget, I can only make it so many places in a given year. Usually I try to travel to places that are higher on my list, which is a pretty simple assessment.

 

Top Travel Priorities =

  1. Places at risk of disappearing due to climate change (already checked off the Maldives, Glacier National Park, and the Everglades)
  2. Places that require very long travel times (Asia, Australia, very remote islands, etc.), which are easier to handle while my body is young, and will be more painful if I wait until I’m older to explore.
  3. Once-in-a-lifetime events and cheap deals that are too good to pass up. (Solar Eclipse in Paducah, KY is a local example, or visiting a friend in the Peace Corp in Ouagadougou, which I regret missing out on)

 

So, when I heard an interview last fall on NPR about silly-cheap flights to the Nordic regions, I had to explore. Apparently, Norwegian Air was offering round trip flights for as little as a few hundred bucks, which was less than half of my first European travel back in 2001! Online I went to explore the possibility.

 

At first, it seemed too good to be true! $400 to fly to see Raina and Carl? Totally worth it! As I worked my way through the airline’s website, however, I was nickeled and dimed to death, with add-ons for so many ridiculous things that mainstream airlines like Delta or American Airlines don’t pester customers with. Eventually, I made it to the final page, with the “no-turning-back” button staring me down. As I prepared to click to book the flight, I was accostsed with yet another pop up. “Want to pay with credit card?” It taunted, “That’ll  just be another $33 fee!” This was the last straw.

I opened another tab and did a quick search. Turkish Airlines, which we had flown last year to Sri Lanka, was all-inclusive, and just about $500. It was worth it to know I had an assigned seat, room for my luggage, and even free drinks on the flight! Plus- BONUS- I had enough reward points from my credit card hobby to buy both our tickets without spending a dime!!

 

Thus, our trip was booked! Free flight, free accommodations (thanks to Raina and Carl for putting us up in their office/spare room!), so we just had to pay for meals, entertainment, and local transportation. My wife and I were very much looking forward to a different kind of vacation, with the ease and comfort of knowing locals, and a cultural experience more like our own than different.

 

What I discovered, was a bit surprising. This is very much my personal experience, which reflects my own travel history moreso than Sweden’s generous offerings.arctic circle

 

Sweden is north.

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Really far north. Like, “further-up-than-most-of-the-country-of-Canada” north. Which means the sun plays tricks with your body, by doing things like making the sky light at 3am (or 10am, depending on the time of year). While it technically rose at 4:30am, the sky begins to glow for hours before and after the official existence of the sun in the sky. This seemed like no biggie, but after tacking up extra curtains, wearing an eyemask (thank you for the freebie, Turkish Airline!), and covering my head with a pillow, the sun was no match for my body’s incessant alignment to the cycles of the sun. I slept well every second or third day, which made it tougher to fully enjoy our daily excursions.

Sweden is soooo easy.

Never in a million years did I expect this to come out of my mouth, but our vacation was almost TOO easy for me. I didn’t realize how much I enjoy the challenge of learning a new language, adapting to other countries’ cultures, and the challenges of figuring out how things work. This is definitely a sensation that has evolved over years of traveling to less and less developed parts of the world. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy a lazy day where I can relax, order a beverage in my native tongue, and not have a care in the world. But I also (apparently) really enjoy the challenges of foreign travel. Maybe it just makes for better stories.

There’s no language barrier.

In Stockholm, as in many large European cities, everybody speaks English. Here, it’s partly because they have free college education as citizens. Even when we tried speaking Swedish, people responded to us in English, which, as a language lover, was sometimes disappointing. Clearly, I’m privileged as a native English speaker, but it was also beautiful to see so many other visitors from countries all over the world speaking in their native language, and then switching to English (instead of Swedish) to order a meal.

 

Cars not required.

Our friends and hosts, Raina and Carl, do not own a car. They live and work in a place where they can either walk, bike, or take the metro every single day. Even when we wanted to escape to the country, we could do so by simply taking one of many ferries out through the archipelago to a remote island, knowing that there was a regular schedule to allow us to return home at regular intervals. Never once did I feel ‘stuck’ without a car, because their transportation system is so interconnected, frequent, and redundant, that at almost any point we had multiple options of how we wanted to get home.

Stockholm was inviting.

This city is extremely clean, feels very safe, and most importantly, it has good urban design.

 

As an Architect, I relish in discovering the dichotomy of ancient ruins, historically preserved buildings, and modern infill. Yet, unlike other major European cities I’ve been to, Stockholm feels much more preserved. It’s not that there is no modern design, but that the scale is kept in check with historic neighbors. There is not a ‘downtown’ filled with skyscrapers, in fact,  there are seldom any buildings taller than the predominant 5-8 stories. Instead, new construction is respectful, and typically built no higher than the tallest neighbor, which is often a church steeple from 400 years ago. The city has maintained a human scale, where you feel like you still matter. This makes it feel like a much smaller city than Indianapolis, despite having 50% more residents.

 

The density of the built environment n Stockholm is much more consistent, versus the skyscraper cluster that transitions into single family homes in less than a mile of downtown Indy. Single family homes are rare in Stockholm, and our friends owned a flat in a 4 or 5 story apartment building with a beautiful courtyard filled with bicycle parking.

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People MOVE here.

I’m not talking about immigration, although they DO have an unbelievable program that paid for Raina to take a year of intensive language courses specific to her field of expertise so that she could be a fully productive member of their society.

 

No, I’m taking about how people get around. I mentioned the mass transit, and referenced the bikes, but it really is amazing to see just how little cars are used here. It took me a few days to put my finger on it, but when I did, it was truly eye opening. After spending endless hours walking the cobblestone streets of the chain of islands that make up Stockholm, we sat at an outdoor cafe, joined by others willing to brave the chilly 61F temps to celebrate winter’s passing.

 

31403986_2000446300037984_1177753822146862086_nWith a glass of wine in hand, we sat and watched the boats pass by, the regular trains over bridges, and the abundance of pedestrians. I started watching more closely to observe the footwear of those who clearly were walking to or from work. What I noticed was starkly contrasting to what I would see back home. Unlike the business professionals in Indy, the very stylish Swedes made one small concession. They wore comfortable shoes. Think about this. Not a single woman walked past us wearing high heels. They were just too impractical! Instead, women wore sneakers- all of them! They might have fancier shoes at work to change into, but nobody was judged for wearing logical shoes on their walk to work. And you can see the difference in how fit everyone is!

 

There’s room to breathe.

One of the very unique aspects of Stockholm is that is is made up of a series of islands. Each island is connected via numerous bridges and tunnels, and many waterfronts are also lined with public parks and trails for biking and walking. While many of these parks are narrow strips of green, the interstitial space between the islands effectively functions like additional park space. No matter how dense the buildings are, you are seldom more than a 15 minute walk to a waterfront, which functions as a ‘release’ from the density. It gives your mind and body space to breathe, and enough visual distance for beautiful vistas that encourage you to slow down and enjoy the view.

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People Matter.

Hands down, the most fascinating thing to me about our experience in Sweden was the culture.  It left me so impressed, I can imagine why people want to live here, despite the dayless winters and nightless summers.

 

Taxes are high, and they have the social support system to prove it. For example, I saw more men pushing baby strollers on any given day than I have seen in the US in any given year. Swedes get 14 months paid leave when they have a baby! They also value work-life balance. When you work overtime, it gets banked as extra vacation time, on top of the 4 weeks of standard vacation folks already get. And your boss expects you to actually take all that vacation time!

 

Lastly, I have one word for you. FICA (pronounced “Fee-kuh”). Fica is a national concept that every employee, EVERYWHERE, takes a mid-morning break, where it’s practically mandatory for you to leave your desk, grab a coffee, and socialize with your coworkers for 15-25 minutes. Then, in mid-afternoon, you do it again. We actually went to Raina’s architecture firm to witness a Fica, and it was surreal. They even play ping-pong like socialists. Everyone grabbed a paddle, walks in a circle around the table, and takes one turn to hit the ball before continuing forward to make room for the next player. It felt like I was in a commune (but in a good way, and much cleaner). I’ve now taken it upon myself (as a person who eats lunch at my desk while working) to embrace this concept of Fica and bring it back to Indianapolis.

All-in-all, we had a very enjoyable experience. I didn’t even get into the specific sites and attractions Sweden offers, but that’s what your ‘big box’ travel sites are for! If you’re looking for a nice entry to oversees travel, I highly recommend it. Or if you just want an easy place to wander, you’ll never feel lost in Sweden. Say “Hi!” to Raina and Carl for us!

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Turkey: The Architecture of Terror

17 04 2018

I’m getting ready to fly back through Istanbul for the second time in just over a year. This time, however, I have no plans to step foot outside the airport.

 

I wasn’t looking to visit Turkey again, but after chasing a ‘cheap airfare rabbit’ down a dead-end hole with Norwegian Air, I decided to look elsewhere for a cheap flight to Sweden. To my surprise, Turkish Airline was comparably cheap- around $500 round-trip! Bonus points because I actually accrued miles with them last year, and was able to buy my flight for free using other credit card points. So… Turkey is is then!

 

Last year, we flew through Istanbul en route to Sri Lanka, with a hefty 8 hour layover in both directions. Better yet, Turkish Airline offered a free tour bus for anyone with a layover of more than 6 hours! We could safely explore a few highlights in a group, with a tour guide and even two meals provided. I was excited about the opportunity to explore Turkey for the first time. As a young Architect student, I had studied Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, and was thrilled to finally experience these ancient architectural marvels in real life!

On the day of our departure from Chicago, a massive snowstorm was rolling in. While we were incredibly lucky not to be cancelled, it did leave us stranded on the tarmac for 3 hours until we could be deiced. We couldn’t watch any of the in-air entertainment yet, so I decided to catch up on email and social media. When I powered my phone back up, Facebook started exploding with concerned messages. “Are you two okay??” friends asked. Geez, it’s just a snowstorm, I thought. As I read on, however, I learned that this was not their concern. Apparently there had been a bombing in Istanbul at the stadium. It was chaos as the news was breaking, and friends and family knew only that we were supposed to be there, but were unsure of the exact timing. I spent the next hour assuring everyone that we were safely delayed. We were not counted among the 44 dead and 155 injured.

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This near miss certainly did not go unappreciated. Timing is everything, and clearly we were grateful for our 6 inches of snow and counting. Our flight delay did, however, carve into our layover, making the planned excursion impossible. I had mixed feelings, as a renewed sense of security concern washed over our plans to experience this famous city. After all, it was just 6 months earlier that the airport itself had suffered a terrorist attack. Is it wise to still consider exploring the city, after all that has happened there? We knew we at least had one more chance on the way home, and we would call it then.

 

After enjoying a successful conference and a couple weeks of vacation in Sri Lanka, we were renewed in our excitement to see Istanbul. Our flight arrived early, around 6am, so we headed to the VIP lounge (thank you, credit card perks!) to get breakfast and relax until the tour departure. We knew that we would have to get a visa, which supposedly was a quick and easy process. They lied. It was a nightmare! We spent 3 hours running all over, getting conflicting information, and watching the same visa guy treat everyone like wanted criminals. We missed our tour bus. Eventually, after spending way more money than we expected, we escaped the airport and took the metro into the city. This was my only chance, and I refused to let it slip through my fingers!

 

It was just above freezing, dreary, and drizzling. Bethany had lost her winter coat on the trip, so I gave her mine. We wrapped our heads in silk scarves to draw less attention to ourselves, and tried to blend in, knowing that being American was one thing, but being two American women- and lesbians, no less- was a whole separate level of risk.

 

Hagia Sophia WAS amazing, though not as mind-blowing without sunshine streaming in the windows to make the dome appear to float. There is no heat (it was built in 537 AD), and I was frozen to my bones after an hour. The rain had turned to sleet, and the inches-deep puddles were starting to ice over in shallower spots. We couldn’t bear the thought of taking off our rain-soaked shoes to step inside the cold, stone floors of the Blue Mosque, so that was the end of it.

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Just days after our return back home, Istanbul suffered yet another horrific attack, book-ending our trip in the most terrible manner. This pretty much settled it. No matter how much I desired to immerse myself in this ancient city, to go back and enjoy summer evenings strolling through sidewalk cafes, spending days-on-end losing myself in its architecture… Istanbul has lost all appeal to me… for now. So, next time I’m there, I won’t wonder what I’m missing, or expend energy calculating the mental stress of taking a risk being a tourist in dangerous times, or feel like a boring traveler for not getting outside of the airport. Instead, I will enjoy my free drinks in the airport lounge, and spend my layover hours practicing pronunciation with my new Swedish language app.

 

 





Who Wants to Die While Flying?

7 11 2016

I consider myself an optimist. This is pretty important when you understand the vast array of incredible risks that we all take every single day. I could step in front of a bus. I could get t-boned by a distracted driver. I could be side swiped by a car turning across the bike lane. Or I could be one of those rare cases where there is an aviation catastrophe.

 

travel destinationsI believe in managing this risk by calculating (sometimes emotionally) the cost-to-benefit ratio. How much positive gain will I get from engaging in this risky behavior? When it comes to driving to work everyday, the benefit is pretty great- or else I’d be unemployed and homeless. When it comes to bungee jumping, the 30 second thrill is not worth the risk of death, at least for myself. Maybe I’ll change my mind when I’m eighty. Flying, however, is the best way to get to some of the innumerable treasures that our world has to offer, and as a cultural-minded travel fiend, the reward is far greater than the risk. I think…

 

iataIATA (International Air Transport Association) represents approximately 260 airlines globally, comprising 83% of global air traffic. According to the IATA, “The 2015 global jet accident rate… was the equivalent of one major accident for every 3.1 million flights. This was… a 30% improvement compared to the previous five-year rate (2010-2014) of 0.46 hull loss accidents per million jet flights.” They also inform us that there were 136 fatalities last year, resulting from four turboprop accidents.

We worry about the risk of flying, even though 865 times more people die in automotive vehicle crashes. 

travel-safetyc0d9ce5ac576df97483b6a43b350f5feIn contrast with the 136 fatalities from plane crashes, “38,300 people were killed on U.S. roads, and 4.4 million were seriously injured[i], meaning 2015 likely was the deadliest driving year since 2008,” according to the National Safety Council. (On a separate note, I bet their logo is being revamped, at least in Colorado, after slews of stoners came knocking on NSC’s door looking for herbal relief). These increasing numbers make sense, as the economy has recovered, and more people are working, along with decreasing gas prices allowing more leisure driving, our risks naturally go up with more cars on the road.

 

At first blush, I read the IATA stats and thought to myself, “Oh, I actually expected that number to be higher than that.” Until I read on… IATA continues, “The loss of Germanwings 9525 (pilot suicide) and Metrojet 9268 (suspected terrorism) that resulted in the deaths of 374 passengers and crew are tragedies that occurred in 2015. They are not, however, included in the accident statistics as they are classified as deliberate acts of unlawful interference.”

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Now, I don’t know about you, but in a global economy where more and more acts of terrorism are making the news, this certainly gut-checks as a very real and serious risk that should be included in my risk assessment every time I get on a plane. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that anyone who ‘looks like a terrorist’ in my security line is deserving of interrogation, and indeed we need to do more work to end racial profiling. Rather than focusing on who may be increasing my risk, for the sake of this article, I prefer to focus on the numbers. That flight statistic above jumps to 510 deaths if you include those two horrible tragedies, which, although devastating for those who suffered, is still dramatically lower than vehicular deaths.

 

So, flying is still relatively safe. But how can I make it even safer?

 

Not all airlines are created equal. The risks inherent with flying may dramatically go up depending on who you choose to fly with. Since we know that the risk of actually dying is relatively low, we can broaden out focus to the other implications- injuries, delays, and slight inconveniences due to mechanical failures either on the ground or in flight.

 

One airline is 4x more likely to have a major breakdown during your flight. Do you know which one it is?

 

According to a recent Tampa Bay Times article, Allegiant airline, while quite affordable, is one to avoid. “In 2015, Allegiant jets were forced to make unexpected landings at least 77 times for serious mechanical failures.” Thankfully, none of these resulted in fatalities, but the sensation of thinking you’re about to die, would surely start your vacation off on the wrong foot.

 

The Times continues, “Forty-two of Allegiant’s 86 planes broke down in mid-flight at least once in 2015. Among them were 15 forced to land by failing engines, nine by overheating tail compartments and six by smoke or the smell of something burning.”

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While this is enough to make me decide to pay the extra $32.58 for a slightly more reliable carrier, how can you know which choice is a better one? Especially when making connections internationally on airlines you’re not familiar with, what can you do to minimize your risk of delays, cancellations, and emotional trauma of living through a mechanical failure in mid-flight?

 

Safety by region

The good news is, overall, the risks are improving. Per IATA again, almost all regions exhibited improved safety performance in 2015 compared to the respective five-year rate 2010-2014, (North America being the exception) :

Jet hull loss rates by region of operator

  1. Africa (3.49 compared to a five-year rate of 3.69)
  2. Asia-Pacific (0.21 compared to 0.56)
  3. CIS (1.88 compared to 3.14)
  4. Europe (0.15 compared to 0.18)
  5. Latin America and the Caribbean (0.39 compared to 0.92)
  6. Middle East-North Africa (0.00 compared to 1.00)
  7. North America (0.32 compared to 0.13)
  8. North Asia (0.00 compared to a 0.06).

Looking at these regional comparisons, I’d suggest dong a bit more research before booking a flight in Africa. The above numbers are for jet planes, and as we learned earlier, turboprop planes are far riskier. So what about those numbers globally?

  1. Africa (4.53 compared to a five-year rate of 18.20);
  2. Asia-Pacific (2.07 compared to 2.36);
  3. CIS (0.00 compared to 17.83),
  4. Europe (0.00 compared to 1.63);
  5. Latin America and the Caribbean (0.00 compared to 5.38),
  6. Middle East-North Africa (0.00 compared to 13.88);
  7. North America 0.51 compared to 1.38).

Again, Africa is statistically a far riskier place to fly, if wanting to avoid plane failures. However, the IATA provides additional insight, breaking down one region into far more interesting data, stating that, “North Asia had the worst performance (25.19 compared to 5.90), reflecting two regional hull losses, one of which was fatal,”  which also reflects far fewer total prop plane flights in that area.

 

What about XYZ Airline?

 

I recently booked a flight to Sri Lanka, where I am presenting at the International Conference on Sustainable Built Environment. In order to get there, I had several options for how to fly and where to layover. For weeks I did new flight searches on Mondays and Tuesdays (when most flights are slightly cheaper), and the layovers and prices kept changing. One week the best option was Istanbul (which I vetoed based on the terrorist attack there), one was Abu Dhabi, one was Qatar- all were regions I’m vastly unfamiliar with, and would need to research to be safe being:

  1. an American
  2. a woman
  3. a gay person

2016-11-07_8-48-56I almost pulled the trigger on Abu Dhabi, until I researched the airline, only to read horrible reviews about constant delays, cancellations, and lack of communication with stranded passengers. I learned this through AirlineQuality.com, a website for frequent travelers to rate airlines subjectively based on their experiences.

 

Ultimately, as the dates grew closer and prices started to rise, I made a split second decision to buy a flight that saved me $500 below any other option. I checked out the airline review, which was far more positive than the other options. I clicked the submit button, and it was done. In December, we will be flying Turkish Airline, with a 9 hour layover in Istanbul. 

 

We had talked about this option weeks earlier, and opted to not take it because of the risks. Just earlier this year, 43 people died in a tragic attack at the airport. This is not the first airport bomb, of course. And after each incident, the wounded entity rallies support to beef up security, ensuring that this target will be far less likely to be targeted again. Instead, the insidious terrorist groups will likely move to an easier target… at least, that is part of my personal risk assessment. With this in mind, and after reading such terrible reviews of the other affordable options, I got swept up in the rush of finding a cheap flight, and just went for it… perhaps without fully thinking it through.

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So… my flight should be relatively smooth, but what about the layover? Will we dare to travel outside the airport, into the heart of Istanbul? Will we be at higher risk of being targeted? Is it worth it to see the awe-inspiring Hagia Sophia?? We will likely never have the chance to do so again…

Haghia Sophia (Aya Sofya), The Church of Holy Wisdom,

I’ll report back in January to let you know what it’s like to be an American woman traveling around Istanbul for a day with you wife.

 

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