Jonathan Worthington :: jnthn.net

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Wednesday, 26th May 2010

Vastness vs depth

I've traveled quite a bit. I hope to travel quite a bit more. Of course, being me I tend to step back and analyze things a bit. By now, I've visited a lot of places. Some places I'd dearly like to go back to. In quite a few cases, I'd like to visit the same country but see other places. Since my travel is often often also my vacation, sometimes it's nice if I can go somewhere where Stuff Just Works and I'll be, very likely, safe and comfortable. Other times, it's nice to have more of an adventure.

One of the crosscutting things, though, is whether to spend a lot of time in a small number of places, or whether to visit lots of places and get a feel for each one. That is, do I want to see one place in depth, or do I want to get a feel for the vastness of the world.

My favorite and - uniquely - repeated "depth holidays" is to go to Wengen in the Swiss Alps. I can go and hike - sometimes on familiar but always enjoyable trails, sometimes on new ones - and know that on the evening I'll return for a delicious hot meal, followed by relaxing over a few pints of good beer, followed by a good night's sleep. The day's physical exercise and the evening's hearty meal and the beers make a good night's sleep pretty much a cert. I return home refreshed and happy. Each time I go, I manage to see some new things. The familiarity of the places I do know also makes it somewhat reassuring, though.

All of my backpacking trips so far, by contrast, have fallen decidedly on the "vast" side. When I do such things, I invariably like to travel overland, apart from at the start and end of the journey (getting to, for example, Japan or China overland is very possible and would be enjoyable too, but at over a week in each direction, it wouldn't leave that much time to see the place I was aiming to see). Sure, I could fly between two places in a couple of hours rather than do that 24 hour train journey. But for me, that would in many ways spoil it. Flights magically transplant me from one place to another without really leaving the sensation that I really went anywhere. It doesn't actually really help to fly long haul on this front; I've done it and, to be honest, I don't feel much different about my journey after flying 2 hours compared to flying 10 hours, aside from having a numb butt and, if I flew on a fancy plane, worn out fingers from playing space invaders and tetris for hours on end. Flights rarely make for a lot of interaction. Traveling overland, on the other hand, has often brought me closer to the local people than much else. Some of my fondest memories of China, Russia and Ukraine are from the train journeys I made. In fact, they're some of the memories that make me most want to go back and experience more.

One place I'm looking at going back to again is China. I fancy going when the Harbin Ice Festival is on, though my finances say no for next year, so it'll be the year after, I suspect. Things will, however, be really rather different on the travel front next time I go. When I last visited China - recent though it was - it was before they'd really dug into an epic high speed rail building program. By 2012, on the other hand, China will be well on its way to (or maybe even have reached the point of) having more kilometers of high speed rail than any country in the world. Guangzhou to Beijing - once a 30+ hour journey - will be possible in less than 10 hours. In many ways, that's great, and I look forward to using some of the trains. But part of me looks at it and already senses a future bit of nostalgia, when I'll sit alone in my comfortable seat in the pristine, smooth and modern train, pining for the "old times", trundling along for hours on end in an open-plan sleeper carriage, teaching the locals some new card games despite us not having a word of language in common, experiencing them try to spice me out with their super-picant snacks, then creatively using my phrase book to ask me how much beer I need before I'm drunk and hopping off the train to buy it at the next stop (and that was just some of what happened on that journey...then there was the local firewater served in a jam jar, and the admirer, and the nuts I couldn't crack, much to everyone else's amusement...) Of course, if I want long journeys, I guess there's going to be Russia for the foreseeable future. I've been three times already, with my trips lasting anywhere between a few days and a few weeks, and in a way yet I barely feel like I've seen the country yet, even if I've got a travel map splattered with points all across Siberia.

But then I look back at my time in Russia and remember why vastness isn't everything. It took a third encounter with Moscow before I started to admire it rather than consider it a transport hub on the way to cool places, because that was the first time I bothered to spend more than a single day there while between other places. I loved Tomsk, but had only planned 24 hours there into my trip. I saw Lake Baikal, but didn't get to go out to the beautiful island on it that I didn't really know was so worth visiting until I met person after person saying so. I spent my time in St Petersburg uselessly obsessing over a girl rather than enjoying the place. OK, that last one wasn't a fault of travel planning. :-) In China it was the same; Beijing was deserving of a whole week rather than a couple of days, for example, and longer in Sichuan would have been great because I loved the food and the people. Equally, if I'd chosen to visit just a few places, I'd maybe have never discovered some of these.

There's a place for vast exploration, and there's a place for exploring somewhere in more depth. In general, it seems the first, followed by the second, can be the way to go, but of course doing the second always leaves me wondering, what if there's a better place to have explored more deeply. Well, I guess that argues for continuing to do a bit of both. And, provided health, money and time allow me, I'm sure I will. :-)

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Tuesday, 18th May 2010

Iceland: volcano, geyser, hikes, beer, curry, rock...wow!

So finally I get to writing a bit about my time in Iceland a week ago. In summary: I loved it, and I want to go back again...and again. Granted the first trip packed quite a punch in terms of natural wonders: seeing an erupting volcano for the first time in my life, followed a couple of days later by watching a geyser erupt for the first time in my life, followed a couple of days later by walking in the rift between the Eurasian and North American continental plates, was rather thrilling. I had the best day of hiking since I was in Japan last year near Mount Fuji, wandering around the various trails of the Þingvellir National Park. In May, it's a very peaceful place: it was easy to walk a couple of hours on a trail and see nobody. The scenery is wild and yet beautiful; it's possible to be looking toward a pretty snowy mountain...while perched on the edge of a deep crack in the ground thanks to the continental plates slowly being pulled apart.

With all that natural excitement, it'd be easy for being back in Reykjavik, the capital city, to feel rather boring. But no - despite its small population, and not being all that interesting architecturally, Reykjavik was a lot of fun to hang out in. I'd somewhat expected that such a small community could be fairly inward looking and that it'd be hard to meet people, but actually it was one of the friendliest places I've been; it was really easy to meet people in bars to chat with.

The city is also packed full of nice bars and restaurants. I ate what I'd consider the best Indian food I've had so far this year there, at the Indian Mango restaurant (don't look at the prices, though!) and was delighted to find some really lovely locally brewed beers (my favorite one, Mori, was altogether too popular and sold out once it got past a certain point on a Friday night, but I very much enjoyed the bottles I had). Not bad going at all.

Oh, and then there's the hot water. I had a pretty early encounter with this; a popular way to get from the airport to the city is via the Blue Lagoon. Yeah, it's touristy, but relaxing in a pool of geothermal water full of silicates is a great way to unwind after a flight. I think I woke up the day after feeling better slept and healthier than I had for quite some weeks. The place I was staying also had a jacuzzi on the roof which - after the slightly chilly walk to get to it - was very pleasant. But those aside, the other cool thing is that they pipe hot water as well as cold water to houses, heated geothermally! So you can stay in the shower as long as you like without feeling guilty about a boiler burning up fuel or the hot water running out. Lovely. :-)

Last but not least, there's also a vibrant Icelandic music scene, it seems. I went music shopping and returned with three CDs of Icelandic prog/rock, which I've been really enjoying listening to since I got back. If you like the kinda stuff I do, I suggest checking them out: Dimma (probably my favorite), Dark Harvest (good instrumental prog/classic rock) and Kimono (who gave an album the wonderful title, "easy music for difficult people").

Anyway, some photos on the travel site - as you'll see, I've left plenty of Iceland to see in future trips. And it goes without saying - Iceland comes highly recommended for a funky city break, some awesome nature or - preferably - both.

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Tuesday, 11th May 2010

Free regex talk in Malmö

Tomorrow I'll be giving a free talk on regexes for the Sweden .NET User Group in Malmö. Once again, it's sponsored by Edument, the company I'm working for here. Free to join, but do sign up on the SweNug site.

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Sunday, 25th April 2010

Want a dam good walk near Lund? Ur-in luck!

In general, the weather seems to have made a habit of being nice in the week and miserable on a weekend since I arrived here in Sweden. This weekend, however, has turned out beautifully in terms of the weather, so I decided it was time to see what the opportunities for a walk were like. A little research later, I found that it was possible to walk to a nearby village and there was a series of dams there.

The only thing is that, while it's an advertised beauty spot with a bunch of marked walking paths, the dams are actually the final stage processing of a sewage works! Sounds potentially crap, but actually it was really quite pleasant to walk in the country side and by the water for a bit. It was a wee bit smelly at the end near the processing facility, but nothing that'd stop we wanting to walk there again. The dams had plenty of bird life, including some enormous swans (guess eating processed food really does make you fat ;-)).

Anyway, it's nice to know that there's some decent place to walk nearby. I discovered a couple of pizzerias that I didn't know existed too; the one I've gone to so far is OK, but not really as good as what I had back in Bratislava. So, must try out these two now. :-)

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Saturday, 24th April 2010

The flight dependence

The recent airspace closures in Europe were rather interesting to watch. I was within 5 hours of being caught up in it myself, having flown back from Moscow the morning before Danish and Swedish airspace closed. I landed around 11am, and by 4pm nothing was flying around here. I was relieved that I'd decided to come back from Moscow, despite some encouragement to stay on for a couple more days to enjoy the city some more (tempting). Anyway, I count myself as highly lucky. I expect to fly to Iceland on Friday and be there for a week or so (something I arranged many weeks ago), and I'm quite open to the fact that I might not get so lucky again. :-)

Some of the numbers that I heard were fascinating though. I'd never stopped to wonder about how many flights there were in Europe each day, and that it's well over 20,000 was a little surprising to me, somehow. I've no idea what the average occupancy of a flight is; if it's 10 people we're talking 200,00 people a day flying, but that seems rather low; take 50 and it's a million a day.

Of course, a lot of flights bring freight. It didn't really occur to me that we bring so many goods from afar by air, but we do. Of course, that has a knock-on effect on those folks producing perishable goods in other countries. We have such a fragile, dependent-on-being-able-to-fly bunch of global infrastructure, that by now a (relatively small) volcano erupting in Iceland can create economic hardship for people in Kenya. It's a timely reminder of how many non-local dependencies we have these days - it's equally admirable that things work so well most of the time that we don't notice all of the complexity.

Others flights bring post; had I wanted to next-day courier my passport off to the Russian embassy in the UK, as I needed to recently, I'd not have been able to during the flight ban. Interestingly, though, in general not being able to fly meant very little to the spread of information. Well, that's been true since we've had widespread internet access, and before that television, and before that the radio and the telephone. Good to know that we have a good deal of redundancy for getting information around.

Most of all, though, it was a reminder that nature still rules. No matter how high-tech an infrastructure we've built, there's not much we can do other than sit back and deal with it when Nature Happens. Those of us living in many parts of Europe are in general pretty isolated from things that would provide a more regular reminder, like earthquakes (certainly not all, though; see Italy). Sure, we read about them happening, but reading about it and living through it are completely different. In the last week, many people have had to deal with such an event, though. And it's been - and for some still continues to be - a no doubt irritating, though equally healthy reminder of the fragility of so many of the things we take for granted.

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Tuesday, 20th April 2010

Perl 6 talk in Malmö

Recently I moved to Sweden to join startup company Edument. They are, happily, very open to and supportive of my involvement in the Perl 6 project, and are organizing and sponsoring me to give a talk on Perl - both 5 and 6 for the Dataföreningen in Malmö on Tuesday 27th April. I believe this is only open to those who are members of the user group; if you are, feel free to come along though.

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Saturday, 17th April 2010

Bryndzové Halušky

Tonight I managed to create a little bit of Slovakia here in Sweden. :-) Whenever I was in Slovakia and fancied eating the national dish, I'd potter along to Prva Slovenska Krcma, about ten minutes from where I lived, and eat them there - usually along with a glass of a heavy, dark beer. It made a cheap and wonderfully filling meal. But I never actually tried my hand at making them myself (why bother, when I could have them made for me just several euros).

Anyway, no Slovak themed pub here in Lund (though there is a Czech one up in Helsingborg, which at least has good beer; I never tried the food yet). So, it was time to have a crack at it myself. I'm no cook but thankfully, it's actually pretty easy to make. The recipe here seems to work just fine. The lovely thing about halušky is that it's easy to know when they're cooked - when you drop the dough in the pan it sinks, and by the time it's cooked through it's floating. Didn't find the typical Slovak sheep's cheese here, but feta works fine and gave the kinda flavor I remembered.

Next time, I need to make slightly smaller halušky (just means forming smaller balls of the dough) and prepare a bit more in advance since a bunch of things need to be ready at pretty much the same time, which I wasn't quite prepared for this time around...the distraction of getting the cheese grated left the bacon slightly more crispy than planned. Wouldn't mind finding some thicker cuts of bacon too - the bacon I got today was quite thin, and it's nicer when trying to get crispy bacon to have something thicker so the inside is still a bit more tender even if the outside is crispy. Maybe I should make some garlic soup for a starter too. :-)

I spent the Easter weekend up in Uppsala and helped some Swedish friends with making köttbullar (Swedish for meatballs), so I'd like to try my hand at those sometime soon, along with the lingonberry sauce and potato moose plus some sauce. I think I'm meant to include pickled cucumber on the side too. Maybe tomorrow or something. I noticed you can buy the pre-made meatballs, but I'm informed they suck, so I'll try making my own. I should dig out my beloved kofta recipe sometime soon too...didn't make that one in ages. Of course, all these things take time - much more than throwing a pizza in the oven, or whipping up some pasta with pesto sauce, or frying some lamb and pouring a jar of a nice vindaloo sauce I discovered over it and serving it with rice. But it's nice to take the time at least a couple of times a week, and I'd like to get into the habit of doing so.

Now, do I continue the Slovak way and pour myself a borovička, or is it time to open the Nemiroff I just brought back from Russia? (Duty free...it becomes so much more interesting when living in Sweden!)

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Friday, 2nd April 2010

Settling in to Sweden

After a few weeks here, I'm starting to settle in a bit more. It's been a rather up and down experience, sometimes feeling "yay, this place is great" and other times feeling really quite homesick for Slovakia and wondering why I left. Visiting the Lund International Church was one of the things that made me feel a lot more at home, though. Compared to my church in Bratislava, it's quite small, but also very welcoming and I quickly felt like I belonged and could fit in and find friends there. So I look forward to going to that more in the future.

I was rather disappointed to find that the Indian restaurant here in Lund is really not that great (I doubt I'll go back, I can make better curry myself at home), but more recently was very happy to find a very nice and by Swedish standards good value Thai restaurant. I went there twice in the space of a week now! Also I found a decent pizza joint - first time it was OK, but second time I chose a different topping and liked it much more. Next up is finding a good Indian in Malmö I guess.

On the language front, it seems I have now found a teacher. We meet for the first time on Wednesday. I'm finding that I'm kinda sucking up quite a few bits just by being exposed to the language - much more so than I found with Slovak. I think part of that is that it's a Germanic language, and thus rather closer to English. Tonight at the Thai place I managed to get by in Swedish most of the evening. Not that I had to say all that much, but being able to order and say the various politenesses was nice. I'm tending to get by at the shops too. Thanks to an iPhone App, I managed to get a lot of food words into my head before I came here, so I can often decode menus to some degree too, if they're only in Swedish. That's come in handy now and then. :-) But anyway, the real learning lies ahead; while I expect the grammar will be relatively easy after Slovak, there's still plenty of work to do on vocabulary and especially pronunciation of all the tricky different vowel sounds.

The weather is starting to get quite cheerful here. It seems to pick weekends to rain of late, but when it's nice, it really is quite bright. The nights are starting to get lighter quite quickly now too. And I imagine the summer's going to be lovely, with long, long days thanks to being further north than I have been for the last couple of years. Yup, I'll miss Slovakia...but I think this place can be a very pleasant home for a while too. :-)

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Tuesday, 23rd March 2010

Off to Russia!

I recently got an invite to speak at a conference in Moscow. Of course, it was a hard one to resist, and it was all fine with my new work, so I'm going - provided I can get the visa sorted out of course! Which will be the usual nuisance. :-/

It'll be the first time I actually spend a few days in Moscow. Until now, I've mostly used it as a transit point on the way into or out of Russia and only ever stayed one night before heading off somewhere else. Both times I've seen Red Square and the things immediately around it and been fairly wowed, but that aside the city's never really charmed me. It occurs to me that I've probably never really given it a proper chance to, though. So, now it gets one. :-)

Now I'm living in Sweden, I suspect I'll be appreciating duty free a little more too! Given I'm going to Russia, I think that it's going to have to be a bottle of vodka that comes back with me. I've also dug out the Russian audio lessons and started trying to brush up a little. I didn't forget everything, it seems...

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Saturday, 13th March 2010

Stranger in a strange land

So, I've survived my first few days in Sweden. It's all been pretty straightforward, actually. Partly because I'm used to moving country by now - this is the third time - but also muchly thanks to the company I've come here to join taking care of many, many things for me. That's been nice. As soon as I arrived, I had working mobile broadband (I can commit and read mail and surf on the train and in meetings wherever in Sweden...excellent), and today my ADSL got installed too, so I've been enjoying the rather lower latency than the mobile broadband provided me with.

My new place is rather smaller than my one in Bratislava, and nothing so impressive; there's no beautiful castle view, underfloor heating or anything so exciting. It's plenty big enough for me, though, and clean and decently equipped and furnished too. The location is very good: on a quiet street, a few minutes walk to a small but very well stocked supermarket, and just under ten minutes walk to the railway station. There's a curry house that I've yet to try near to the station, a much larger supermarket and various other eateries. A few minutes more walking leads to the British Pub I lazily used on my first day here instead of cooking; it does some basic pub grub and has plenty of choice of beer - it's expensive there though! I'm sure there's much, much more to find and discover, but that's as far as I've got so far.

I checked out my local Systembolag - the alcohol shop - a couple of days back. The range of beer is pretty impressive, and it's beautifully categorized by type (ales, dark/stout, lager, pils) and clearly marked up with the country of origin. Didn't see any Slovak beers, but there was a decent amount of Czech stuff. I couldn't resist picking up a bottle of German Weissbier and a bottle of Bishop's Finger (an ale I frequently drunk back when I lived in England), too. The prices weren't as bad as I had feared, either. Only downside is the opening hours - particularly at a weekend (until 3pm on a Saturday, and closed all day Sunday!) So I'll need to be a tad more organized about things. Anyway, I'm content. :-)

The thing I've found oddest so far is not being able to speak Swedish. I'd got so used to just being able to cope in Slovak in everyday situations that I'd kinda forgotten what it was to live in a place and not know the language. Granted, I known some words, and more are sinking in as I see them each day, but I very much need to find a tutor so I can learn to speak. I think I should be able to pick Swedish up much faster than Slovak - it's a Germanic language so there's many more familiar word roots, and the grammar is simpler in many ways, since it lacks the epic case declensions that makes Slovak so much fun. (Curiously, I've caught myself looking at Swedish words that follow prepositions and trying to parse out the inflection - and of course failing, since Swedish doesn't work that way. Really odd.)

Anyway, here's hoping I'll be able to get nicely settled here and that with time it will come to feel like home. I think a part of me still thinks this is just some trip and that I'll be going back to Slovakia soonish, and it's not really sunk in yet that I've left it all behind for at least the medium term. Alas, I have, and now I'll just have to settle on paying a visit once in a while, and my fond memories of my days there.

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