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Tuesday
Jul082014

Baltics cruise - Stockholm

 

Hayden and Lydia adapted well to cruise-ship life

Our escort out of Stockholm and onto the Baltic Sea

Tuesday
May192009

Swedish drinking

Who would have thought that Swedish scientists would live up to the national stereotypes? At the conference dinner our Swedish hosts poured everyone a glass of akvavit then broke into song:

Helan går, sjung "hoppfadiralla
helan går, sjung "hoppfadiralla
Den som inte helan tar,
han heller inte halvan får,
helan gååååååååååår,
sjung "hoppfadirallanlej".

Then down the hatch with the akvavit. They provided us with an English translation, which was not overly informative:
Hell and gore
Chung Hop father Allan Allan ley.
Hell and gore
Chung Hop father Allan ley.
Oh handsome in the hell and tar
hand hell are in the half and four.
Hell and gore
Chung Hop father Allan ley.

I asked my Swedish neighbour what this actually meant. She told me that "Hell and gore" was a full shot and a half shot, and what it basically means is that if you don't drink the full shot you won't get the half shot either. The tradition is to sing the song and drink a full shot at the start, after which it is okay to drink half shots. I'm told that every Swede knows this song and that when Sweden's ice hockey team won the World Championships the team sung Helan Går instead of the national anthem.


They then broke into singing Abba. I kid you not.

Monday
May182009

Super-swedes

Talking to a Swede over dinner about living in Belgium.

"Do you speak French or Dutch?"
"No, I am trying to learn, but I am no good at languages and only speak English"
"Ah, me too"
"Except you can speak Swedish as well of English"
"Of course"
"And how is your Danish and Norweigen?"
"I can understand it, but I am not great at speaking it"
"You are too modest, calling yourself bad at languages. You Swedes are all super-people, tall, thin, beautiful multilinguals living in a socialist paradish"
"Yes we know, but it is nice to be told"

The most interesting talk so far has been one which tried to answer the question of whether adult pancreatic beta cells divided in humans. They looked at the Carbon-14 content of the DNA, which is a reflection of the atmospheric Carbon-14 levels when the cells divided. Since atmospheric Carbon-14 levels were tiny before the US and USSR started testing atomic weapons, they were able to divide beta-cells into those that divided before the 50s (low Carbon-14) and those after the 50s (high Carbon-14 due to breathing in mildly radioactive air). By looking at people of different ages, they were able to show that human beta cells stop dividing once you reach the age of 30, giving profound consequences for potential diabetes therapies.

Possibly my favourite moment during a talk was when a PI said "surprinsgly, we did a control".

Saturday
May162009

The Öresund 

I still find it strange to fly into one country and use public transport to enter another. My conference is in Malmö, Sweden, but it is easiest to fly into Copenhagen and catch the train from Denmark, across the Öresund Straight, to Sweden. The Øresundsbron bridge is the longest combined road/rail bridge in Europe, and the longest border crossing bridge in the world. Since it opened many Danes have moved to Skane, with its cheaper prices, commuting across the bridge to Copenhagen. In many ways Skane has always been more orientated towards Copenhagen than Stockholm. It has low fertile hills and warmer weather, contrasting with the cold mountains and forests of nothern Sweden. It is actually closer to Italy than the northern tip of Sweden and was the last part of Sweden to be incorporated, having been Danish until the Treaty of Roskilde in 1658.

Malmö was a surprisingly pleasant city to walk around. The core of the city was built between 1300 and 1600 (under Danish rule), and typical Scandinavian architecture still abounds. There is a network of pedestrian shopping streets joining squares and parks, nice statues and interesting buildings.

Sunday
Jan222006

A Snowstorm in Stockholm

I woke up late this morning, my last in Stockholm. The clouds from yesterday’s snow storm have dissipated (they gave over a metre yesterday, which is a lot for Stockholm), so it is colder but clearer, with beautiful blue skies. I spent an hour wandering around Gamla Stan, which felt like a different place in the fine weather. The Palace was opened, so I snuck a look in the Royal Chapel, and I visited the statue St. George and the Dragon. St George doesn’t look very brave it in – in full armour from on top of his horse he is striking an oversized goanna with his sword. Passing by the Parliament (Sweden has a single chamber parliament with 349 seats, ruled by a coalition of the Social Democrats, the Left Party and the Green Party) I read how they were making a small dam around it, using high power underwater concrete jets, to raise the water level of the lake around. Because of the melting of the ice in Sweden, the heavy pressure pushing the bedrock down is being removed, so the country is springing up at a rate of 40cm/100 years. This means that the wooden pylons holding up Parliament and several other building are being exposed to the air instead of the brackish water, and are in danger of rotting away unless the dam is built.

  

With my last hour in Stockholm I took a boat cruise through the city. The summer pathway is closed in winter, so the boat took us east through the islands and to the innermost islands of the Stockholm archipelago. Stockholm is built over fourteen islands, having spread from the central island where Gamla Stan is. It was founded in 1252 as a fort to stop invading Vikings sailing into Lake Mälaren and attacking the towns on the lake. We cruised between the islands in our boat, a 100 year old icebreaker, cracking through the ice when we neared sheltered inlets. The ice was only ~30 thick, but the boat can still handle ice nearly 2m thick. We passed the Vasa museum, the gardens of Djurgården (the management of which is one of the few jobs of the King), Manila House (a mansion that is now a school for deaf children), and entered the Stockholm archipelago. The archipelago consists of around 40 000 islands, which stretch nearly to Finland. About 12 000 people live on them year round, but they are mostly used in the summer. The Swedes flock to the islands in summer (one in five people in Stockholm own a boat), some to summer houses (85% of the islands are privately owned). Even those without summer homes can camp in the archipelago, because of allemanstratten, the legal right of all people to have access to private lands, being allowed to camp for a few days as long as they keep away from houses and treat the land with respect.


On the way back to Stockholm we passed God Father on Heaven’s Arch, a Carl Milles statue consisting of an enormous half-arch over 100m tall, completed on the other side by a fountain of water, with God standing on top hanging stars in the sky. I like it because he built it as a monument to peace when the United Nations were created; even better, the UN rejected it because of the religious symbolism, so it now stands in Stockholm.


We also passed the Royal Palace again, and I was told that Carl Gustov XVIII is actually from a French dynasty, because in 1818 the King of Sweden was old and heir-less, so the nobles started searching for a new king (it is very odd, like Norway asking for a Danish prince to become King of Norway when they gained independence from the Swedes, how can a ‘divine’ royal right be bestowed?). They had picked a Danish prince, but he died suddenly on his horse (an odd phrase, I think), so they asked Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, one of Napoleon’s field-marshals, to be adopted by the King, he renamed himself Carl Johan XIV and started the current dynasty. Apparently he was quite good, even if he didn't learn Swedish, but funnily enough he had a tattoo saying Mort aux rois (Death to kings), from the days when he participated in the French Revolution.

 

Now I am sitting in Arlanda airport, and the sun is setting, not that it even reached more than 20 degrees into the sky, even at noon. I loved my trip to Stockholm, I think I could move to Sweden, even with the language barrier. The country is beautiful in the snow, I love rugging up against the cold, and feeling warm under piles of blankets at night. Everyone says it is beautiful and leafy in the summer, the water through the city is clean enough to swim in. The people are friendly and the atmosphere is wonderful. They are very environmentally conscious, changing to green industry and being careful with recycling and waste management (and 25% of their energy is from renewal resources). The people are considerate of others, the influx of the largest population of Iraqi refuges without any racial violence shows their tolerance. Education (even through university) and health care are both free, and religion is declining in importance to their lifestyle – in 1996 a new law was passed that people have to actively register their religion rather than being passively included as their parents religion (a big shift considering it only became legal to leave the church and become an atheist in 1951). I do love this country.



Saturday
Jan212006

Swedish post

A very tiring day. After a warm night curled up in my bed, walking out into the -12C weather (before wind-chill) was a shock. The Strand is on the Nybroviken inlet, so yachts were moored outside. It is cold enough here that the Baltic Sea freezes in the inlets, locking the yachts into the ice. Flocks of gulls and shearwaters circled around in the cold morning air. I walked across the bridge from the main island Norrmalm to Gamla Stan, the old town of Stockholm.

Gamla Stan was beautiful, filled with old buildings separated by tiny lanes, and littered with small squares. I walked around Kungliga Slottet, the Royal Place (built in 1734 on the ruins of Tre Kronor, the 13th century castle destroyed in the fire of 1697). It was closed so I could look inside, but it was quite impressive from the outside. I then tried to visit the Nobelmuseet, but that was also closed, so I lost myself in the warren of alleys. There were very few people out, but it was adorable when I came across parents, harnessed to a small sled for their child. Finally I turned a corner and unexpectedly came out on the Riddarfjärden, the channel between Gamla Stan and Sodermalm. The cliffs of Sodermalm looked gorgeous, so I walked across to the island of Riddarholmen to take a look. Riddarholmen has the oldest buildings in Stockholm, including the church Riddarholmskyrkan, built in the late 13th century but decommissioned in 1807 to serve as the Swedish royal family necropolis. As the wind and snow picked up it became painfully cold, and with the views over the ice flows in Riddarfjärden (complete with seabirds that looked like penguins from the distance) I felt like I was in the Antarctic.


I visited Riddarhuset, the House of Nobility, then the Postal History of Sweden museum, dedicated to postmen who delivered through terrible conditions (they say Spring was the worst, due to the melting snow). Interestingly, during epidemics, the postmen of Sweden had to follow special rules because people were afraid the illness would spread by the post. First, the whole mailbag was to be washed in salt-water, then the mailman had to pick up the letters with tongs, dip them in vinegar, perforate, dry in a linen press and hold them over smoke of vitriolic (sulphuric) acid for it to seep in through the holes. After the post museum, I walked up Vasterlanggatan, the main street of Gamla Stan, with little stores and narrow alleys, including Mårten Trotzigs Gränd, the narrowest lane in Stockholm, less than a metre wide and ending in a steep set of stairs. I walked back to Riddarholmen, then across the bridge to the island of Stromparterren. They had started to build a car park there, but found medieval foundations, so changed their mind and built a beautiful museum instead.


I had to return to my hotel to defrost, then I visited the National Museum of Fine Arts. Afterwards I watched the white swans and colour ducks huddle together icy water, away from the wind in the lee of the bridge, then I walked around the art museum island of Skeppsholmen. Now, too tired to explore further, I am settling in for an early night...



Friday
Jan202006

The pleasures of snow

Yesterday morning after breakfast Chris and I went for a walk around Krusenberg estate, so cold that ripples moved through the air. It was a beautiful walk, moss covered rocks, fields and forests, all covered in snow. After our walk was lunch (a very nice risotto), and a few extra people arrived for the conference, including Leena, my long-term collaborator whom I met for the first time, and Nora, her PhD student that I had previously met in Montreal. I was chatting to Nora over lunch, and she was saying that in Finland they won’t accept a thesis for submission until the student has five papers published, so PhD’s are usually ten years…

 

The afternoon conference was quite good. Leena spoke about a human study she had set up to test my mouse hypothesis (very gratifying), my talk was well received and stirred up a debate, and Georg had some great data. Around three I was distracted by the snow falling outside, and the deep blue sky and snow of twilight. Talks went all afternoon until dinner, which was a decadent affair in the main Manor house. Five courses - port-boiled figs; garlic vegetables; vegetable lasagne; a vegetable for which there is no English word (I was told the Finnish, Estonian, Norse and Swedish words though, the closest translation is ‘Black root’ or ‘Poor man’s asparagus’); and a cloud berry mouse and chocolate ice-cream even more chocolaty than Coco Black’s. A wine with each course and a special feature by the Uppsala Chamber String Quartet finished off the meal.


I was so tired after it ended (at about midnight), but Nora and Kai convinced me to try a sauna with them. We sat in the heated oak tub by the lake, with steam rising around us and the pink of the night’s sky perfusing the woods (the reflection from the snow gives bright night skies). We sat in the comfortable tub, dipping our heads under the water every few minutes to melt the water that quickly froze in our hair, then jumped out, rolled around in the snow for a few minutes and jumped back in, giving an odd feeling of numbness combined with burning. Afterwards we had a sauna, and were going to jump from the sauna into the lake through an ice-hole, but it was too cold, so no-one could cut a hole through the ice. Oh well, snow was cold enough.


This morning it was very tough to get out of my so comfortable bed after only a few hours sleep, but the promise of another delightful breakfast helped. I love wrapping up in my coat and green scarf to walk between hotel buildings for a couple of minutes, I wonder though if the novelty wears off?

 

Another session of science in the morning, and after lunch we left beautiful Krusenberg. Olle kindly offered to take Chris, Enroe and myself to Stockholm, and show us a few sites in the city. He took us to Milles Garden, the home of the famous sculptor Carl Milles. He built the studio on Lindingö in 1906, which was opened to the public in 1938. The place was amazing, a series of terraces and gardens, designed to overlook the Baltic Sea, with scattered sculptures and fountains in a wonderful harmony. The sculptures all looked so light and perfectly in place, and the light flutter of snow was adding to the blanket covering them. It was a really delightful place. My favourites were The Dancing Girls and The Hand of God. There were more displays inside, including his collection of Roman, Greek, Chinese and Egyptian sculptures, which he used as inspiration for his own sculptures. It was the largest private collection of Roman statues in the world, and it is staggering to think that he took the lot with him every year when he travelled to the US. His living quarters were also kept, which was interesting to see, especially the special porcelain chimneys, invented in Sweden to get the most heat from the wood being burnt (the chimney contains loops to force the hot air up and down so that it can transfer all its heat to the house before being expelled).


Olle then took us to the Vasa museum. The Vasa museum is devoted to the man-of-war Vasa. Vasa was built in 1628, the largest, most powerful battleship of its time. During the construction, the king requested an additional level to be added, such that the finished ship was 69m long and 52.5m tall, with a crew of 450 men. It was loaded up with 64 canons and many riches, and sent out to fight, but tipped over in the first wind while still in the harbour Stockholm. As the Baltic Sea is brackish water, shipworms, Teredo navalis, cannot live there, and thus the ship was perfectly preserved under the water until it was found and raised in 1961. They have now built a museum around this monster ship, which is staggeringly large, and so impressive for something built nearly 400 years ago. The loss of the Vasa was such a disaster that there was a massive inquiry into the affair. Olle was telling me that ships were made of oaks, and the king dictated that all oaks in Sweden were his (which was only changed a couple of years ago – it is still illegal to cut down an oak tree, even if you own it). They had a long-term oak planting scheme, where each oak was planted surround by four quick-growing trees, so that the sunlight came from directly above and the oak grew straight.


Next Olle took us to Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde, an art museum which was Prince Eugen’s home in the early 1900s. Prince Eugen was an artist (considered to be one of the best landscape artists of his generation) and an art collector, and when he died in 1947 his home was converted into an art museum, but also conserved as his home the way he lived. It was like walking around a miniature Hermitage, getting to see how the Prince lived, how he decorated his rooms, it was quite enjoyable. The walk to Waldemarsudde was excellent too - biting cold, but the pink sky gave the snow covered park such a warm glow. Afterwards Olle took us out to dinner to an amazing restaurant. Another four courses, each with their own wine (except for Olle – the alcohol limit in Sweden is 0.02). Desert was really good, a cloudberry panna cotta. Mmm…


Now I am in the Radisson. I was meant to be staying in the Red Boat Mälaren (a Göta Canal steamer built in 1914 and now permanently lodged at Riddarfjärden), but when Olle learnt that I was staying in a hostel he was horrified, cancelled, and tried to book into the Grand (the Nobel Prize hotel). They were booked out, so instead I am at the Radisson, which is very nice.



Thursday
Jan192006

Krusenberg Herrgård 

After 46 hours of travel, I arrived in Stockholm. Only 6pm, it was already dark (the sun had set at 3:30) and a light flutter of snow was suspended in the sky, not really falling, just twirling. A driver met me at the airport, I rugged up in Ed’s jacket and my green scarf, and he drove me through snow covered fields and forests to Krusenberg Herrgård (The Krusenberg Manor House) for the conference.


I was expecting to sign in and go to sleep, but as I was walking to the reception the Euraps conference group passed by me on the way to dinner. We went to dinner in the main Manor House, leaving heavy coats in the cloak room, as the -10C chill outside became rosy warm inside. The dinner was magnificent. It was a formal table dote, with each dish announced as it was brought out to the dozen of us, and an extra placing for the Krusenberg ghost. The talented chef had made a separate dinner set for me, for which I am eternally grateful. The first dish was marinated peppers; the second was a potato roll with mushrooms and beautiful fresh bread rolls (served with Riesling). The third dish was figs baked in port; the forth was one of the most delightful dishes I have ever had: a delicate vegetable patty with shitake mushrooms, covered with a cheddar and Swedish potato sauce (served with chilled Shiraz). Desert was a beautiful coconut ice-cream dish covered in coconut sauce, served with a desert wine.

 We had a wonderful meandering conversation about genetics, history and evolution. Everybody was quite excited about canine genetics, the genome has now been sequenced, and the different breeds of dogs have been separated for about 30 generations, each has unique medical problems. SNP linkage between individuals in the strains allows rapid location of the genetic region, and then SNP linkage between strains allows gene identification, as dog haplotypes are quite small. As the conversation turned to evolution against autoimmunity, we were discussing why autoantibody targets are generally evolutionary conserved regions. Olle and myself were saying that immunogenic autoantigens would be selected against where possible, such that only regions with vital function (and thus evolutionarily conserved) would be left as autoantibody targets. This made Chris wonder how much autoimmunity could be altered by evolutionary selection, as it usually occurs after reproductive age. This was quite interesting, because I just read recently that menopause, rather than simply being a result of living ‘too long’, is actually a trait which only humans and whales have evolved to prevent loss of elder females in childbirth, thus demonstrating that there is group selection to maintain members in old age. This implies that diseases of post-reproductive age actually could be an evolutionary constraint in humans. Olle also told us that Scandinavian populations have promoter polymorphisms in the lactose metabolism genes, such that they do not turn off after childhood, so Scandinavians are able to metabolise more energy from milk products. An interesting piece of local evolution trivia, especially learning it in Sweden from the geneticist who actually did the research. After dinner we retired to the smoking room for peach tea and aged cognac before I got to head to my room at 11pm, have a nice warm shower, and curl up in my delightfully soft and warm bed while it snowed outside.


I woke up around six, while it was still dark outside. Out on the balcony the sky was dark blue and a fresh layer of snow covered the land. I walked down to Lake Mälaren, crunching through the snow with my green scarf wrapped around my face, keeping my ears and nose warm. I walked out through the reeds and onto the frozen lake, which was making deep cracking noises as it refroze in the intense cold. The sun started to rise just before eight o’clock, and sparrows flittered about, tweeting. I have newfound respect for these little birds, ignoring the cold and snow as they fly around looking for food. I took a couple of photos of the beautiful estate: many parks and Sweden’s most famous orchards and flowerbeds, all covered in snow; until my batteries went flat from the cold (silly me, I didn’t bring my recharger since I will only be here a few days). At eight I walked to the Manor house for breakfast. The centre of the estate was originally Krusenbergs Slott (Krusenberg Castle), commissioned by Johan Cruus in 1640 (he actually died in Denmark before it was built), but it burnt down in 1717. The current manor house was built in 1802, but the estate was soon sold to a Swedish industrialist (in 1819) and heavily renovated. Inside it is like a museum, with old maps of Scandinavia from when Sweden ruled the entire area, enormous historic paintings, and they even boast (oddly enough) that the imported wallpaper from France and England is still on their walls from the 1819 renovation. Only relatively recently was the estate made public, after it was sold to Pharmacia in 1985, restored and opened as a conference centre.


For breakfast I had piles of excellent scrambled eggs, with freshly cracked pepper and ground salt, wedges of pepper cheese cut from the wheel with fresh bread loaves, and freshly squeezed apple juice, far nicer than Australian apples (with a somewhat pear-like flavour). After breakfast I wrapped up again against the cold, and walked down to the lake, watching the low sun over the forest and walking down to the redundant dock and a highly amusing (to me at least) “no diving” sign, placed next to a smooth granite-like expanse of frozen water. I finally understand why people would have settled in the far north, it is simply beautiful.