Winter in the North

A few years ago, I was traveling around Scandiland (that’s what I call Scandinavia) and was interested to find that unlike North America, cold weather didn’t shut the cities down or push life indoors for several months of sequestered living. Instead, our Nordic neighbors embrace the cold weather and dark days in a way that is significantly different from our practices in North America. I’ve often thought about writing a book that features cultural comparisons, but for some reason, I just haven’t.

The notion of cozy, warm, inviting is associated with the Danish concept of hygge. The idea is that hygge (pronounced in a way that North Americans and most other Europeans could never understand but generally in line with HOO-g’ where the end of the word is significantly truncated by turning down the volume of your voice so that it becomes audible only to dogs) warms the dark and cold months and creates a welcoming atmosphere regardless of the miserable conditions outdoors. The Danes take great pride in this notion, perhaps because as a national people, they are among the most aloof and coldest hearted people on earth (and no, I don’t say that lightly or mildly). Like so many things Danish, the Danes are good at exporting and propagating the idea, but short on meaning and actual delivery. Lately, it seems that hygge is everywhere in North America, more as a means to market lap blankets and candles than a cultural phenomenon, and perhaps (given its spurious nature), rightfully so.

Over the years, I have have come to explore this same notion of cosy, warmth in many northern countries—Sweden, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, and Estonia. Each country has a slightly different cultural spin on the idea, and from my experience, each does with more authenticity and meaning.

To understand the entire concept, it is necessary to have a basic understanding of weather, because ultimately, weather shapes who and where we wound up settling on this planet. In both the North and South hemisphere, there are four broad climactic zones: polar, temperate, tropic, and equatorial. Most of the North America resides in the temperate and tropic zones. The temperate zone is marked by four distinct seasons, a day/night cycle of light and dark in relatively equal shares over a 24-hour period, and a temperate that peaks just after mid-day and cools overnight. Tropic and equatorial zones are typically warm (or just plain hot) year round, have a much shorter sunrise and sunset cycle and a less hyperbolic shift in temperature between day and night relative to temperate zones. Polar zones, however are different. Rather than an equal share of light and dark over a 24-hour period, light and dark is precisely better charted over a 365-day period. Temperatures in polar zones typically do not cycle in a 24-hour period, but a 36-to-48 hour period. Though it is somewhat more complicated, the extremes relative to time and temperature are simply more extreme at the poles. While residents in the temperate zones can bank on colder nights and some warm relief during the day, our polar residents can’t expect that same regularity. Sometimes the temperature doesn’t warm up for days, and then, only slightly.

A relatively small portion of folks live in these more extreme regions. Simple survival skills have, over the centuries, persisted which bring not only comfort but also joy to those living in the somewhat less hospitable Northern climates. As technology has evolved, the necessity and significance of these practices of cultural survival have mutated and have become cultural constants though the evolutionary necessity of the practices may no longer be as necessary as centuries ago.

As Northern communities evolved, the notion of commune spelled for most the difference between survival and the bitter end. Unforgiving land was frozen for the better part of the year, and under the cover of darkness, food was scarce and difficult to sustain throughout the harsh conditions. Stockpiling and sharing became enmeshed in the culture of Northern communities. So to did the physical act best described as nesting. A short journey to a neighboring village becomes much longer and arduous in extreme conditions. Rest before and after the journey was necessary under warm blankets to prevent hypothermia and frostbite. The presence of light — particularly candlelight — provided a sense of security. Imagine walking 10 miles to a neighboring village in sub zero temperatures only to return, nearly frozen. You snuggle up under a blanket into a deep and cold sleep only to wake 30 hours later in a pitch black room wondering if you are dead or alive. The candle, which could burn for days, was a reassuring beacon that you were still alive in the dark, still, and quiet of the 6-month night.

The somewhat more dire cultural practices have transcended time and now translate into a peculiar but reassuring melange of cultural practices across the North countries and climates. Lap blankets—foreign to most North Americans—are a quaint curiosity at most restaurants, cafes, and homes across the North. Often placed in glass jars to buffet the harsh and persistent winds, candles are seemingly everywhere, indoors and out. The artificial light making up for the absent sun. Warmth is abundant. Soft textiles and surfaces provide a counterbalance to the harsh climactic extremes.

While we can certainly celebrate the notion of nesting, comfort, warmth, and light, it is easy to take for granted in our have-it-all society. We should, while relishing these comforts, keep in mind a reverence of its life-giving (and life-saving) presence in the lives of the ancestors that preceded us for many centuries.

Creepy Soviet Space Shuttles Are Sitting in a Kazakhstan Desert

Image by Ralph Mirebs, originally published in National Geographic.

This amazing article in National Geographic charts the story of a brave soul, Alexander Kaunas, and his companion, photographer Ralph Mirebs, who broke in to the former Soviet cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. 

Amazing images, amazing legacy, amazing bravery.

Life Outside These United States


I recently ran across a news story about a woman who moved abroad so that her kids would be raised with a greater appreciation for the world and a lesser sense of entitlement. (You can read the entire story here.)

The article is thought provoking and in line with my own observations over the years of my international travel. Life in most other countries is a bit more simple, spaces smaller, less materialistic, slower than in the United States. As a doctor of American Studies, I love the United States—the American love for life and true friendliness is unparalleled in the world. I sometimes wish, though, that we didn’t take it for granted as much as we seem to. Sometimes there is great joy in simple pleasures, and as Americans we’d be wise to stop, consider our bounty and wealth, and be grateful for it. 

Charlotte

Today, I was driving to work and there was this big spider 🕷 that had crawled out of my side mirror and as I was driving down the 400 at 70mph, this little spider was getting really tossed around but was hanging in for dear life. He was getting thrown so violently, I initially thought there was no possible way he could be alive.

I pulled over, rolled down my window and stuck out my finger to help. He immediately crawled on to my finger and stopped. I brought him into the car and put him on my knee for a moment and let him catch his breath and get his wits about him.

After a few minutes, he started spinning a little web on my knee. We talked about it and decided that my knee probably wasn’t the best place for that, and I suggested he explore my passenger seat instead. He crawled around and found a very nice spot between the center console and the seatbelt clicker thing.

After 20 minutes or so of sitting at the side of the road, we continued driving. I commented how surprised I was that he a survival instinct and how difficult it must have been to hold on despite the wind. He made a good point that the wind for him, would be relative to me being in 800mph winds. I told him how impressed I was that he was able to hang on and he explained that the tensile strength of the silk he is able to spin helped him to hold on. Regardless, I found his will and ability to survive impressive.

We chatted for the rest of the ride and decided that it might make better sense to live inside the car. So for the time being, my car is +1 spider.

The Best Restuarant

Everyone raves about Noma as “the best” restaurant in the world. Their pop-up restaurants (like the most recent Noma in Mexico) command just short of US$1000 per meal. 

I have to say, I’ve been to Noma twice and several of their spin-off restaurants. I wasn’t impressed. Eating fermented pine needles with froth (about which several critics raved) reminded me of pine needles with frothy saliva spit on them. They tasted like pickles and simply weren’t appetizing. I found the menu to be rigid and limited and frankly, for $1000, it just wasn’t worth it.

Noma “closed” in early 2017, so it didn’t place on the most recent list of the top 50 restaurants

I get it, eating at this level of restaurant is an art that requires a different type of thinking. The meal and its preparation are an art (or science) and are appreciated not for their satiating effect, but for small bites of sensory excitement.

It’s strange to me that all of the restaurants on the list are in or very near major cities. What about the thousands of restaurants that are off the beaten path? One of the most meaningful meals was made at a “restaurant” in Costa Rica, made from scratch by a woman and her daughter for two backpackers passing by (my friend Mark and myself.) I don’t think the restaurant had a name, I know it didn’t have a printed menu, but the food was outstanding and honest.

Housed in a splendid reclaimed warehouse, Aparaat is in a league of top restaurants around the world but their prices are much more fair.

Aparaat in Tartu, Estonia is another restaurant that is off the beaten path. It gets no significant press outside of Estonia, and consistently is one of the very best restaurants that I visit. The prices, on average are about 3300% (that’s not a typo) less than Noma and the meals are no less divine than any other “top” restaurant I have visited, and in fact are consistently creative and outstanding. The menu at Aparaat is flexible and accommodates all manner of eaters: vegans, meat eaters, gluten free eaters, localphiles, and on and on. That’s more than I am able to say for Noma.

I’m not a food critic, and I don’t have a fancy ranking system or list, but for my vote, I strongly recommend Aparaat. If I were making a list it would be at the top in the #1 spot.

Delicious carrot and beet salad with lentils and goat cheese with a local berry and greens sauce.

I Love SLA!

My “Green” Bowl (with shaved Parmesan).

One of the highlights of any trip to The Netherlands is a stop (or two, or ten) at SLA. SLA is a healthy-eating/salad joint that I just love. SLA has a special way of building a salad, which believe it or not, makes a big difference! 

Even a driving rain couldn’t keep me away from SLA!

SLA focuses on clean and healthy eating in a sustainable and environentally responsible way. Their shops are no-nonsense and comfortable and the food is consistently delicious. On my last visit, I bought the SLA cookbook, and many of the dressings and salad ideas have become staples and favourites.

According to the SLA website, SLA opened in 2013 as a family business – Jop, Nina and Ida – in Amsterdam. The SLA business focus on having as many people taste, experience and share how conscious eating affects life positively. 

“We believe that you are what you eat and that food can be a drug. SLA is our way of heart, head and hands to create an environment that inspires and encourages healthy habits.”

SLA has a new cookbook, SLA Easy, that came out recently. I’ll add it to my birthday list. You can get the cookbook here!


Check out SLA here. #ILOVESLA

 

Kayak is Swimming Upstream


What happened to the travel site, Kayak?! What is it with me and companies this summer? I seem to be finding myself disappointed in companies that I have long-trusted more and more. For decades, Kayak has been my go-to travel site for searching for hotels, airline tickets, and cars. Those days are over.

A few years ago, Kayak was subsumed into the annoying Priceline Group, which turned Kayak from a quiet, consistent site into a used-car dealing circus. About a month ago, the site quietly changed it’s logo to a more streamlined version, and also changed some of its policies. Now any search you do seems to trigger a never-ending e-mail blast of spam. The sheer volume of spam that each search produces would make Hormel blush. It’s ridiculous and it’s a guaranteed way to tarnish the brand and kill what was once a great product.

For example, I recently searched for a car rental. About an hour later, I received an e-mail “reminding” me that I hadn’t actually booked the rental (which factually, was in correct, as I used the Avis app to book the rental). Then, about an hour after that the crazy started. Each hour, I received a pestering, obnoxious e-mail “reminding” me to book my car rental. So, I went to the Kayak site and changed all my e-mail preferences so that I would receive no e-mail whatsoever from Kayak. Still, the e-mail persisted, like 20 a day. I mean, seriously, is anyone that much of an idiot that they need 20 reminders each day to complete a travel transaction? There is a line between helpful service and harassment, and Kayak seems to have crossed it with a firehose.

So this morning, I clicked (again) on the little “unsubscribe” link at the bottom of the most recent Kayak e-mail. It started a never-ending loop on my iPad of the Kayak app opening and Safari opening—back and forth—until I had to turn my iPad off to get it to stop. As if the volume of spam e-mail wasn’t enough.

So, after two decades of using Kayak, I have deleted the app from my phone and iPad, and I’ll find some other, less intrusive site to use.

Today, I became an e-resident of Estonia! 

Estonian e-residency card

I’m one of a very elite group of Americans (there are about 500 of us) that now holds e-residency for Estonia. Estonia, as some of you know, is my adopted home away from home, largely a product of my partner’s research activities there. Over the last eight years and seven visits to Estonia, I have come to love the country and its amazing history. The very short version is that Estonia has been inhabited for a very long time, by very resilient people who have worked diligently and seriously to maintain Estonian culture, despite odds that seemed constantly to the contrary.

Flag of Estonia

Whenever we mention Estonia to our North American friends, we get a blank look. We’ve had “the conversation” so many times, we literally carry around a little map showing the placement of Estonia and have a whole spiel all sorted out to educate our North American friends. The inevitable conversation goes something like this:

Person: Where? Astoria?

Us: No, Estonia. Astoria is a neighborhood in Queens, New York. When we were kids, it wasn’t on the map, it was part of the Soviet Union.

Person: Oh. (This is where the blank look intensifies.) So… you’re going to Russia?

Us: No, Estonia. It’s a little country on the Baltic Sea.

Person: Oooooh! The Balkans!
Us: No, the Baltic Sea. It’s just under Finland and next to Russia. (This is where we show the little map.)

The little map that we carry around to show folks where Estonia is.

Person: Oh, right. So you’re going to Russia.

Us: Actually, Estonia is a pretty cool place. It’s where Skype comes from!

Person: Oh wow! Yeah! I know Skype.

No joke… we’ve had that exact conversation about 10,000 times.

About 1 in 30 people actually pique their interest after “the conversation” and for the other 29, it’s their loss. Estonia is one of the coolest countries I’ve been to. Throughout the last five centuries, Estonia has been occupied: by the Swedes, the Danes (and in fact, it was in Estonian where the current Danish flag was “discovered”, the Swedes again, the White Russians—and then Estonia became independent—until it was invaded by the Nazis, then the Soviet Russians, and then again in 1990, Estonia became the first republic to cede from the United Soviet Socialist Republics, or The Soviet Union. Since then, Estonia has been free and amazing. Despite years of oppression, Estonians kept the Estonian language, culture, and traditions alive, despite the fact that all were illegal under 50 years of Soviet rule.

Estonians have a national tradition of song and dance, and in fact, won independence the second time through song (not a bad approach, considering that most countries earn independence through bloody wars.) The story is chronicled in the outstanding documentary The Singing Revolution.

As Estonia set up its new independent government, it had an eye on the future. It’s the only country in the world that doesn’t have a paper version of its constitution. It all lives online, and it makes for very interesting reading. Estonia is also the only country in the world to offer e-citizenship that allows e-citizens to start companies, bank, pay taxes, and fill prescriptions (among other actions) online. The idea is to foster creativity and help to secure a strong position for the future of Estonia as a home to entrepreneurs, inventors, and other creative people.

Estonian e-residency welcome kit

As a country used to doing business in a different manner, I am thrilled and honoured to be an e-resident and part of such a great society.

Time for a Breakup

After more than half my life as a Verizon customer, I’m filing for divorce. It’s time to #getoutofthered and switch to T-Mobile!

As you know, I’ve been plagued by problems with the Verizon TravelPass program since leaving the US a few weeks ago. 

In 2015, to great fanfare, Verizon overhauled its international roaming plans to include a $10/day travel pass that would simply deduct minutes and data from the users domestic plan. They quietly (and with no fanfare) axed this program in April 2017, without informing its customers or customer service agents. Instead, Verizon users traveling worldwide found themselves with substantial and substandard data speeds throttled in some cases after using only a few mb of data. To add insult to injury, Verizon erroneously implemented their own policy and changed the plans for customers with pay per gb plans, even though these plans were intended to unaffected by the change. 

Despite my best efforts to work with Verizon, Tiffany—the customer service representative with whom I was speaking—was shockingly cool and unprofessional in her dealings with me. She extinguished the case immediately and told me in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t like the policy, I could move on to another carrier. 

So after more than two decades and more than half my life as a Verizon customer, I say: goodbye and good riddance to VERIgreeedy’s overpriced plans, constantly shifting rules and ever increasing sneaky fees. I also say: I hope Verizon enjoyed its time as the once-market leader because its days are numbered as long-time customers jump ship in record numbers (more than 100,000 customers each month). It’s the new equivilent to cutting the cord.

Over the past two years, T-Mobile has quintupled its 4G LTE footprint in the US and has recently won a significant chunk of the uncluttered 600mhz spectrum. This ample bandwidth will allow T-Mobile to deploy fewer towers with greater coverage over a longer distance with greater penetration and consistency in rural and less densely populated areas. It’s the system that has been in use for decades elsewhere in the world and works well. It also gives T-Mobile substantial space for growing 5G network immediately. This is spectrum that Verizon, AT&T, and others will need to re-allocate in order to roll out 5G networks, which will put further pressure on the existing 4G LTE networks for Verizon and AT&T which have become so heavily trafficked in the past 6 months (since the re-introduction of unlimited data packages) that recent benchmarks indicate a nearly 20% loss in speed on the Verizon network and a 14% reduction in speeds on the already troubled AT&T network. Oddly, both carriers sat out of the most recent auction, which left T-Mobile a big winner both for the immediate and long-term future.

I know, for year T-Mobile has been the distant third carrier with lousy coverage outside of major metro areas. No longer. The speed reports and coverage data is impressive. T-Mobile has built out its network and has made more improvements over the past two years than the three other carriers combined. It is now a serious contender inside of major metros and in the rural areas in-between.

T-Mobile coverage in 2015
T-Mobile Coverage in 2017… filling in a lot of gaps.

John Legere, the fearless leader and CEO of T-Mobile has forged a new and exciting future for the company that was once a distant third to Verizon and AT&T. Straightforward, simple plans are the hallmark of the reinvigorated T-Mobile. There are no hidden fees, tricks, or other underhanded shady dealings that are the bread and butter of Verizon. So, stay tuned here to see the step by step transition process and how it goes. I’ll begin reporting on the transition process in early July.

#getoutofthered #verizonsucks