Travelling from the Greek island of Skiathos to Stockholm in Sweden – by car

Our summer on Skiathos is over. One last trip with friends in their boat to Katiyorgi on the mainland for lunch.

1
Then it is packing. Closing down the house for the winter. All outdoor furniture taken in. Emptying the fridge. Locking up. Packing the car.
On Friday evening, we drive onboard the ferry in Skiathos harbour. The ferry is taking us to Volos on the mainland, a trip of not much more than three hours. We drive strait to the hotel in Volos. Checking in. Then a short walk down to the harbour. A final, typical Greek dinner. Ouzo. Lots of small Greek dishes, mezes. Another ouzo.

2a
After a steady hotel breakfast on Saturday morning, we set out for a leisurely drive towards Igoumenitsa, just south of the border of Albania. We have plenty of time. The drive is 300 kilometers and the ferry to Italy is leaving at 23.00 in the evening. We are driving over the mountains. The leaves on the trees are starting to get its winter colours. The hot Greek summer is suddenly turning to autumn.1a
We stop by for a late lunch in the town of Ioannina. Ioannina is a town of 65,000 people, located at an altitude of 500 meters on the western shore of Lake Pamvoti. It is a town with a lot of history, dating back to Byzantine times and a big, impressive mediaval fortress is prominently located by the lake shore. On a Saturday afternoon like this, lots of people frequent the many lake side cafes and restaurants. A coffee. A glass of white wine. Talk. The latest gossip. No one is in a hurry this day.

dav
After a pleasant afternoon walk along the lake, we proceed towards Igoumenitsa. We reach the harbour and get our boarding tickets.

3
I have made this trip between Greece and Sweden so many times now so I do not need a map or a gps. And I have learnt a few things over the years. First, always plan the trip so that you drive through Italy on a Sunday. Lorry traffic is banned on Italian highways on Sundays. Then you must plan your entry to the ferry so that you get a quick exit out from the ferry in Ancona. Last in, first out.

5
The ferries are big and take several hundred cars and trucks. As you drive onboard the ferry, you may, if you are unlucky, be sent down one floor or up one floor to park. Then you will be late out of the ferry the next morning. Leaving the ferry in the chaotic harbour of Ancona can also be a problem. Trucks are often controlled and if you get stuck behind them, it could be more than an hour before you get out of the harbour.
So after checking in, we don’t drive up to the ques for the ferry. Instead, we park 100 meters away. Now a waiting game starts. We watch as the cars and trucks slowly enter the ferry. Finally, with only five or six more cars to enter, we join the que. And we are lucky this time again. We just drive aboard, being parked immediately next to a few trucks. The next day, we will be one of the first cars out, reversing from the ferry to Italian soil. The strategy worked again!

4
The crossing over to Italy takes 18 hours. The ferry is comfortable. Our cabin is comfortable. We sleep, eat, drink, read. I finish the book I started a few weeks ago.
We arrive in Ancona at 14.00 in this Sunday afternoon. We are the second car off the ferry. The drive is smooth initially, the weather great, sunny, just over 20 degrees. Passing Bologna, we make a phone call to Austria. Yes, they have rooms available at Hotel Heiligcreuz in Hall In Tirol. I have stayed in this hotel many times over the years. The lady in the reception immediately knows who I am. The room will be ready when we arrive.

6
Darkness sets in as we leave Verona behind us. The weather is getting worse, drizzling rain. More traffic than expected. We go over the Brenner pass. It is pitch dark outside. The road is made with black asphalt, very black. Rain. Lots of cars meeting us with strong headlights. It is a tiresome drive. But just before nine in the evening, we reach our hotel in this small village outside Innsbruck. After checking in, we walk to one of the nearby restaurants. A pizza and a glass of red wine will do this evening.

6a
Monday morning. After a heavy breakfast, we set out on the road. It is a beautiful day. High alps surround us. The trees on the mountains slopes are dressed in autumn colours, yellow, brown, red. Traffic is smooth. But subconsciously, I drive carefully in Austria.

7

7a

Once in my life, I have been fined for speeding in the traffic, and it was in Austria. That time, I was driving from Vienna to Prague in the Czech Republic, a drive of four hours. A few kilometers from the Czech border, Austrian police stopped me. I had been speeding, not by very much but it was still speeding. When the polite police officer told me the size of the fine, I burst out laughing. The fine was small. The police officer could not understand what was so funny. I told him what the fine would be for a similar offense in Sweden. “That’s too much”, the police officer said and now he started laughing. I paid my fine on the spot and the police officer wrote a receipt, both of us still smiling.

7aa
This day, we have the longest drive of our trip, 930 kilometers. We take turns driving. Our marching speed is 130-140 kilometers per hour but we are constantly passed by other cars at much higher speeds. A few times, we are slowed down by road works and also by a traffic accident.

9
We are reaching the ring road around Berlin. Twice I have made the mistake of missing an exit here, causing me to have to drive into the city center of Berlin. Both times, this cost us an extra 70 kilometers drive. This time we do it right. On the ring road, we make a phone call to TT Line, one of the shipping lines with ferries between Germany and Sweden. No cabins available at the 22.00 departure from Rostock but there are cabins available at the midnight ferry. We book the tickets.

9a
The ferry ride over to Trelleborg in Sweden takes seven hours. We sleep six and a half hours in our cabin. Getting off the boat in Trelleborg is smooth this Tuesday morning and we set off for our last 650 kilometers before we reach our home in Stockholm.
The autumn weather is fine, cool, sunny most of the time with rain showers occasionally. The traffic is not as intense in Sweden as it had been in Italy or Germany.

10
As we pass Jönköping, we call friends who live along the road. Yes, they are at home. Yes, we would love to come by for a cup of coffee. So just outside Nyköping, we leave the main road for a few kilometers drive to our friends’ home. We have a pleasant half hour break before we resume our drive. Ant then, finally, at four in the afternoon, we reach Stockholm.
We started our trip from Skiathos on Friday evening. We arrived in Stockholm on Tuesday afternoon. We have been driving a total of 2,620 kilometers. We have slept two nights in hotels, two nights in cabins on ferries. And now, we are back home in Sweden again!
We will stay in Stockholm a week, doing some shopping, having several dinners with family and friends. Then we will return home to Malaysia for the “winter”. In Malaysia, the temperature is 24-34 degrees, all year round. We will have a pleasant “winter”.
This is my last blog in 2017. Probably….
I will write the next time in 2018. Possibly…
In the meantime, enjoy your lives!!

Summer of 2017

1

The summer if 2017 has gone by fast. We came to Skiathos in early April, just in time for Greek Easter. And then, days passed by at an incredible speed.

1a
We did some travelling in the summer. Enough for jet lag to interfere with our days of sun, gardening, boating, socializing. And of course, sleeping, eating, drinking and lazying around in general.

2

3
It was a mixed summer for our gardening. Our new vegetable garden, with tomatoes, green peppers, cucumber, hot peppers did not do particularly well. We must improve the soil for next summer. Our new compost should produce good soil. But as usual, our herbs grew abundantly – oregano, rose marine, thyme, mint, basil, lemon grass and trees with bay leaves. Some of our fruit trees have done well – plenty of lemons in the early summer and a record crop of apples now in September. Our new fruit trees, pears, plums and nectarines have all given us small crops. As well as the fig trees growing into our garden from the land outside the wall. We also had plenty of grapes this year – not enough to make wine but enough to pick a few bunches of grapes in the morning to make fresh grape juice for our breakfasts.

4 (1)
It has been a record tourist year for the island. There is no Greek crisis on tourist islands in the country. People no longer travel to Turkey, Egypt or Tunisia – instead they come to Greece or Spain. We have had a fair share of family and friends visiting us – always enjoyable. All of them say that their visit has been too short and that they will stay longer next summer! Some of them even call this place Paradise…

6b
I consider September the best month of the year on the island. Cooler temperatures, not so many tourists any longer, the water in the sea still warm. I never get tired of walking bare foot into the grass in the early morning, carrying the first cup of morning coffee, watching the sun rise over Skopelos Island, the sun rays slowly moving over the sea giving us a new day of hope and pleasures…6c (2)
Yesterday, we went to the uninhabited island of Arkos, not far away from Skiathos, for a swim and lunch in the summer taverna on the beach. As we arrived to the beach, a fisherman was cleaning his catch of fish and calamares, selling it direct to the taverna for people like us to enjoy the fresh catch in the taverna a while later. You cannot get fresher sea food than this! As we had our lunch, with our feet on the sand under the table, a small group of dolphins passed the island.

7
But our summer is soon over. In a few weeks’ time, we will start our drive back to Sweden, staying a short while there before returning home to Malaysia for the winter. Well, in Malaysia there is no winter, summer surrounds us…

8
Another summer has passed by. We are one year older but we are richer with more memories, more ideas and more hope for the future. We are already looking forward to the summer of 2018….

Meeting a depressed President

IMG_5172
In the evening, we enjoy a Black Light theater performance. This is a theater genre that has been created and developed in Prague. It is unique, fascinating and funny. If you visit Prague, this is a must.
The evening is warm as we walk back to our apartment. Lots of people are out in the streets. Walking on the street stones of Dlouha Street, small street stones typical for Prague, another memory comes to my mind. A memory from the Jas Gripen activities back in the late 1990’s. We were to meet the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel.
We, all the twenty of us, gathered in a rather empty room adjoining the President’s office. No furniture in the room, just a microphone on a stand in a corner. We were served drinks. As we were standing there, sipping our drinks, Vaclav Havel entered the room. A rather small and thin man. Previously a heavy smoker. Only one lung left after lung cancer surgery. The hero of the Silk Revolution. The hero of the people. The first President of the free Czechoslovakia. He walked slowly straight up to the microphone. Someone introduced him.
He did not smile. He did not really look at us. A very serious man, I thought. Or was he shy? He took out a paper from his pocket and started to give a speech in English. I don’t really remember what he talked about. It was probably one of those polite speeches that was given to every foreign group of visitors to the President’s office.
Still no smile. Still no eye contact. No face movements. A soft low voice. The speech was monotonous. President Vaclav Havel seemed to be bored. No, bored is the wrong word. Depressed is a better word. A depressed President? No chance to ask questions after the presentation. After the speech, Peter Wallenberg and his companion Erik Belfrage went over to Vaclav Havel. Even though we were in the same room, I could not hear their discussion. But I watched Havel. Still no smile, no happiness in his face.
Then Vaclav Havel left. Someone announced that the President had left for the day. But we were free to visit his office in the next room. A rather dark room with dim lighting. Thick curtains in the windows. A big desk, rather empty except for some documents and books. Some photos in frames. Several telephones on the desk. On the side, a big Czech flag. Behind the desk there was a book case with books. On the walls, framed photos, some of them in black and white. I recognized a younger Vaclav Havel in many of them. Pictures from the Silk Revolution. Pictures from happier days.
I still wonder today… Vaclav Havel, Mr. President, why were you so depressed? Was it the fact that your health was giving way? Did you have personal problems? A lonely soul in the presidential palace? Or did you just have a lousy day like all of us have sometimes?
I shall never know the answer….

The day Peter Wallenberg shocked me

IMG_5098
Back in Prague, the city I used to live in for six years. We are having dinner…..Walking back to our apartment from the restaurant, memories come back.
Sweden tried to sell Saab’s military fighter airplane Jas Gripen to the Czech Republic. A delegation of almost ten people, headed by Peter Wallenberg, head of the powerful Swedish industrial Wallenberg family, Saab and their partner British Aerospace came on a sales mission to Prague.
But the size of this delegation was not big enough. The Jas Gripen group had to impress their Czech hosts. So the head of every Swedish company with Wallenberg connections in the Czech Republic had to take part. We were the backdrop to the big boys in the Jas Gripen delegation, posing in the background at every meeting with our well combed hair, dark suits and conservative ties. We were to be seen but not to be heard. Quantity but not quality.
In between meetings, Peter Wallenberg, now in his 70’s, asked me how the merger between Astra and Zeneca came along. This was a pharmaceutical megamerger between the bigger Swedish Astra and the smaller British Zeneca. I had been lucky. Soon after the top positions in the new AstraZeneca group had been filled, I was told that I would keep my job as the regional head of the companies in Central and Eastern Europe. I took part in meetings in London, in Manchester, in Philadelphia and in Södertälje. Astra’s chairman Percy Barnevik stressed the importance of speed. The new organizations had to be up and running as soon as possible.
In every country, there were now two company presidents, two finance managers and so on. One of the two had to go. A lot of good people had to be fired. The consequences of a merger. A continued career or unemployment? Life or death? It was my job in my region to decide who was staying and who was going. It was tough. I could see the pain in people’s eyes as I had to inform them that their employment was over. But the job had to be done. That’s why I was there. And with time, we again had good functioning organizations.
I gave a fairly positive answer to Peter Wallenberg’s question about the merger. Then he dropped a bomb shell.
“I don’t believe in this merger”, he said. I don’t think he saw how shocked I was. He, the head of the powerful Wallenberg Family and the biggest Swedish owner of Astra, did not believe in the merger? Supposedly, Peter Wallenberg was a key player in the merger. Or wasn’t he? I wanted to ask questions. Why then the merger? Why then the firing of so many good people? But I couldn’t get a word out. Peter Wallenberg continued talking. He told me that he had been living and working in England. “I know the British”, he said. “You can’t trust them”.
An old tycoon’s view…..
Who were the winners and the losers in this merger? On the winning side, you had the shareholders of course. Always the shareholders. Great Britain was a winner, the head office moved to London. And those of us who kept our jobs, like me, were winners. Higher salaries and bigger bonuses. All those who lost their jobs were of course the losers. As was the country of Sweden. With time, the British took over. Sweden had lost one if its big industrial flag ships. Maybe Peter Wallenberg had been right.
Early summer in Prague is beautiful. We are walking back to the hotel. A horse and carriage, filled with tourists, pass us in the street. The echoes of the hooves of the horses are bouncing on the walls as I try to shake off the memories of the merger. Not all of them were good.
Tomorrow, we shall continue to explore Prague, one of my favourite cities in Europe……

A moonlike landscape, a waterfall and a geysir

Gullfoss 1
Many must have perished in the cold waters of the North Atlantic in their search for a better life. Some of them were lucky. They found this barren island. A flat landscape. Black volcanic soil. Black volcanic stones. More stones. Few trees. Snow covered mountain chains in the background. How could they survive here? I feel for them. They were my ancestors. They were the Vikings.

Gullfoss 2

They found a sea full of fish. They found an infertile land. They found a lot of ice. They called the land “Island”. Iceland.

It is spring now. It is cold. Six degrees in the morning as we head north. We are well dressed but it is still cold. Icy winds. Winds doing their best to penetrate our clothing.
The road is good. We pass through moonlike landscape. We pass through lava fields, covered by greenish yellowish moss. We pass many horse farms. We reach Gullfoss, the most famous water fall on Iceland. The Golden waterfall. Glacial water, bluish, somewhat brownish, carries a lot of sediments that the water has carved out on its way. It is not one of earth’s biggest water falls but its beauty grips me. My eyes cannot stop starring at the falls. I breathe deeply. Harmony fills my soul. Suddenly, I come back to reality. Our driver’s voice is cutting through the air. We shall continue. I could have stayed here forever.

Gullfos 3a
We are reaching the area of geysirs. There are small pools of boiling water. A smell of sulphur in the air. Under our feet, the earth is boiling. We are standing with our cameras ready. Waiting. One minute. More minutes. Then suddenly, a whoshing sound, eruption, water bursting 15 meters up into the air. Strokkur has erupted again. Some people stand too close, running away from the falling water.

Gullfoss 4
Magic Iceland…