Archive for April, 2015

Seeing Red

April 22, 2015

Denmark gets a lot of real estate in the media for the cycling thing, Copenhagen especially. And they always seem to use that same photo that shows row after row of bicycles lined up outside the main station. Actually, there are even more bikes on the opposite site of the station but most visitors aren’t aware of that unless they are looking for a cheap hotel (does this mean that journalists from the rags such as the New York Times and the Guardian only stay at the more upmarket ones?) Alternatively, maybe they didn’t take a snap back there since it smells really bad around the back, because, after sinking a few jars, locals will nip around there in the evening to relieve themselves before jumping on the train. That’s what happens when you charge 5 kroner to gain access to the genuine article.

There is no doubt there is a major cycling presence in Copenhagen, aided by the presence of cycling lanes on all the main roads in the city. These are physically separated from the pedestrians and cars, usually by a few centimetres in the vertical axis. However, what the article doesn’t point out is that a majority of the cycling is over short distances. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with that, but I came to the country expecting a cycle mad nation that uses their bikes to get everywhere. I think cycling aware would be more accurate. What generally happens is people will ride their bike to the nearest train station or bus stop. If they are taking the train, sometimes they will put the bike on board. Usually they park the bike and use public transportation to get them within walking distance of their destination. Like any other country, there is some kind of inverse relationship between commuting distance and fraction of population willing to ride. It’s just that in Denmark  it’s easier to put take your bike on the train (there are entire carriages dedicated to them) and they have more bike racks per capita than, for example, the UK.

In Copenhagen, cyclists obey the traffic lights. Coming from China, i found that quite strange at first, when I first arrived, no one obeyed traffic lights. It was only the arrival of CCTV that gave the government a way to bring things under control. Aside from fines, they also attempted to rein in miscreant motorists by publishing their CCTV images as they blew through a red light. I lived there long enough to sort of understand the shame thing, but I never really grasped it in relationship to running a red light, it seemed you could always bow a couple of times and claim the sun was in your eyes or you sneezed at an inopportune moment. Of course, sometimes an image of a senior party official would be published with a woman in the front seat who was young enough to be his granddaugther but who was quite something else. I imagine those situations tended to be a little more tricky to weasle out of.

Since bicycles are at the bottom of the pecking order, I continued to adopt a fairly relaxed attitude to traffic lights. Large roads with fast moving traffic commanded respect, but otherwise on a good evening I could roll through a complete sets of 8 lights as I freewheeled downhill on my way home in the evening. My passage through each red light would be announced by a brief light show as an array of flash bulbs were set off to record my crime. They must have captured close to a hundred shots of me every night. But i never made front page news.

But getting back to Denmark, if you read the cycling in Denmark article, you’ve probably also read the one about Denmark being the happiest country on the planet. Copenhageners are apparently brimming over with joy if we are to believe the stats. Perhaps that’s why they exhibit  such restraint when faced with a spot of red. Michael Rassmussen may have doped and lied about his whereabouts during the 2008 tour de France, but i get the impression he would never haved considered jumping a light when he was back home to visit his mum and dad . Bjarne Riis, I’m not so sure about.

Given such happiness and restraint, it makes it all the more striking to witness the aggressive, semi-suicidal riding style of the average rider in Copenhagen. I’ve raced in fast moving peletons in pouring rain that exhibited more restraint that the average Copenhagener riding in similar conditions. In the peloton it was hairy but at least you had some confidence knowing that your fellow riders were aware of the potential dangers. In Copenhagen, there appears to be a blissful ignorance of the possible risks associated with squeezing past another cyclist on a rain slicked path just wide enough for two hybrid bicycles if the handlebars are touching. Add to the mix the sharply edge stone kerbs separating bike and pedestrian on one side, fast moving traffic passing on the other and a high density of riders and it’s only a matter of time before something happens.

Riders are also happy to ride along with several bags shopping dangling from both handlebars. Younger people prefer to take it a step further, and throw in a set of headphones and a cigarette for good measure. Another popular pastime is texting while riding, preferably with both hands to improve words per minute, something that appears to be common to all age groups. I even witnessed one hip gent waiting at a light on a dull weekday afternoon with shopping on the handlebars, texting with one hand and a cigarette in the other. And he was wearing sunglasses and sandles.

A colleague at work showed up one morning looking like he been for a night out in Norwich. Apparently he had nipped round the corner on the bike to get some milk, his attention had lapsed, he clipped the kerb and down he went. He wasn’t wearing a helmet but it probably wouldn’t have helped since he hit the kerb with his cheekbone. By the time he got stitches and arrived home several hours later he realised the milk was laying somewhere on the bike path and the shops were all closed.



April 18, 2015

Denmark is big on recycling, they are also big on buying stuff. it makes for a symbiotic relationship. If you can recycle your belongings it frees up space so you can buy more stuff. For many people, buying stuff makes them feel good about themselves, and recycling the crap you got bored means you are a better human being. It’s a win win situation.

Our housing complex is a typical modern Danish building, white walls, lots of wood, lots of glass. It can be quite dazzling in there around noon in the summer. And rather than a recycling bin, we have a recycling shed. That doesn’t really do it justice since it looks more like a clubhouse from the outside, The sort of place you amble back to on a summer evening with the applause of a slightly soused crowd ringing in your ears after a turning in a respectable show at the wicket. I sidled over there myself the evening before we left, the sound of cardboard and metal ringing in my ears as I dragged a large cardboard box of rubbish across the car park together with two retainer brackets leftover from when they delivered the new washing machine. It was raining.

My experience of living in Denmark is that order is high up in the, er, order of things. In the supermarket, items on the shelves are lined up with precision, the buses (usually) arrive on time, and when they don’t, many bus stops have a display that tells you when the next one is due. Therefore, I was somewhat taken aback by the disarray that greeted me when I opened the door to the clubhouse. It looked like a massacre had just taken place. Many people had taken the time to put items in boxes but, judging by the scatter pattern of a matching bed set and a Thomas the Tank engine pair of jammies, had then apparently hurled them against the back wall with such fury that the contents had been scattered across the room. Or maybe they had been fired from a trebuchet.

But it wasn’t just the way things were scattered, it was what people were choosing to dump in such a dramatic manner. Old VCRs made sense, although I was left wondering why they held on to them for so long. Even the charity shops in the uk stopped trying to flog video tapes sometime in the last millenium and it’s not as if i live in some far flung coastal extremity in the Kingdom of Denmark, Copenhagen is only 30 minutes away on the fast train. Cardboard boxes also seemed reasonable, as did old TVs from the pre flat screen era. But I would question the recycling value of a soiled pair of child’s jeans, although that could have happened when Daddy hurled the first box against the back wall. There were broken speakers from surround sound systems, desk lamps, table lamps & free standing lamps, as well as the desks and tables that were presumably where the lamps used to be located. It was just as well the floorboards were nailed down. There was even an exercise bike that seemed to be in good working order (I got on for a trial spin in the midst of the carnage). Judging from its pristine condition, I suspect they expended more effort getting it from the flat to the recycling shed than they ever managed while sitting on it.

I’m not sure if this was fly tipping at the communal level, or just a general uncertainty about what you are supposed to do with these sort of things when you are finished with them. In the UK, with the exception of unwanted offspring and asbestos panelling, you can drop off pretty much anything at a site owned by the local council, there is one bin for electronics, another for metal and so on and a tough looking gent making sure you aren’t smuggling in a box of depleted uranium or anything else naughty. And the council will take care of everything, such as shipping the uncool electronics to hellholes such as GuiYu, leading the way in lead poison. But at least we can get that slightly smug and self righteous feeling when we unwrap our new iPhone.

Sail On

April 12, 2015

It seems that when you read people’s accounts of emigrating, it is commonly a consequence of fortuitous decision by their company or government, or someone headhunted them with a generous relocation package. The most common gig I’ve seen is families swanning off to Hong Kong, Beijing or Shanghai. Visas are taken care of, belongings are shipped, a driver with sign aloft waits at the airport, and plush, furnished and spacious living accommodation waiting at the end of the ride in an equally plush and spacious company car.

Me? Jealous? Not really, except when it comes to moving. I’ve lived in five different countries so far, and am in the process of relocating to a fifth. In each case, aside from visas, we’ve had to handle the logistics ourselves. And even with the visa, the people who were supposed to be helping out generally got it wrong. I even managed to work illegally in the US for about three months, but that was many years ago when immigration officials were generally more laid back and even more confused and they still asked whether you intended to overthrow the government of the United States of America. Later, when I applied for a Green Card, my immigration lawyer tried to pay (on my behalf) a $1500 fine during my final interview,. The official brushed away their generous attempt to hand over a significant portion of my monthly salary on the grounds I hadn’t done it deliberately – I had answered the questions posed by an equally relaxed and confused immigration official at JFK in New York honestly and accurately and he had still waved me through.

When you are paying relocation costs yourself, it makes you sit back and evaluate which belongings are really important. When I moved from the UK to the US I filled a backpack and shipped a bike. When I moved on to China 17 years later, I took two suitcases and two bikes. The move to Denmark another 10 years on necessitated shifting 8 boxes and two bikes, and I picked up a third bike on a return trip. But this time we are moving just up the road to Norway, which means are driving and suddenly, rather than abandoning everything, we have the option of moving furniture (plus an obligatory number of bikes, I’m now up to 4 and a half – one doesn’t have any wheels – and a workstand)

Now, rather than figuring out what we can sell or more conveniently dump on friends, we found ourselves considering what size van we needed. Common sense did kick in when we realized how expensive petrol is in Scandinavia, and the significantly better fuel efficiency of a Citroen Jumper somewhat curbed our excesses. And moving to a third floor flat accessed via a decorative winding staircase also encouraged restraint, but we still appear to have significantly more supplies to move internationally locations compared to previous relocations.