Thursday, 2 November 2017

FEUILLES MORTES

Street lock on Hammarby Quay

Our brain sometimes can play peculiar tricks on us. The other day, when taking my usual 45 minutes' walk after breakfast, suddenly some phrases bubbled to the surface, as if trying to accompany the wind blowing around nose and ears from Hammarby Lake. Let's see if you can recognise them.

"Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle.
Tu vois, je n'ai pas oublié...
Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle,
Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi.
Et le vent du nord les emporte
Dans la nuit froide de l'oubli.
Tu vois, je n'ai pas oublié
La chanson que tu me chantais." 
(Jacques Prévert: "Les feuilles mortes").

"Feuilles mortes" at Luma Park

These melancholic words accompanied me on my continued walk, adding to my appreciation of the late autumn atmosphere all around me. Eventually I arrived at the mid-point of my venture, where two giant oaks welcomed me as usual, but, unusually, one was still full of leaves, the other completely bare. A third should have completed the scene, but only its trunk was left, the crown torn down by an earlier autumn storm. 

At mid-point of my daily walk

As I went on with my training round, the sun came out of the clouds and temperature rose appreciably. It was as if autumn yearned to turn into summer again. Even the mallards seemed to enjoy the mellow atmosphere, paddling contentedly among the reeds along Sickla Quay.

Ducks among the reeds along Sickla Quay

I hate to admit that I am a bit in arrear with my blogging. A series of engagements, the foremost a great wedding party in Austria, have kept me from my favourite pastime. This is a pity, since this autumn provided us with many interesting events, at least as concerns the weather. In early October it looked like we would have an early winter again, with temperatures early on tending down to zero degrees (Celsius). Then again, days were back to warming up. Then came a period, still with us, with every-second-day weather, bringing alternately warm and cold temperatures. 

As a result, there are still trees keeping their leaves, even if they have started withering with a vengeance lately. On the day when the above pictures were taken it felt like summer would come back any time. Compare this to last year, when there was a three days' blizzard, preventing me from leaving the apartment, since snow kept accumulating on the streets. 

A rather peculiar event occurred back in October, meriting a blog of its own, which I am sorry to have missed out on. I usually wake up when traffic starts getting heard, and it was already light when I got out of bed around 6.30. Since my breakfast haunt opens up first at 7.30, I could doddle around in the apartment for an hour before getting out into fresh air. Judge of my surprise: it had gotten dark again, as if day had decided to take a sudden turn into night. The sky was dark as soot and I could hardly see my feet moving on the sidewalk. "Götterdämmerung" is the appropriate word for this event. 

People around me were shaking their heads, barely discernible in the dark, and nobody could find a good explanation for this sudden somberness. Day after, the newspapers told the story. A strong southern jet stream had brought sand from the Sahara, mingled with soot from the many fires raging around the Mediterranean. A sign of Earth' future if any. 

But we are spared the travails of Earth warming up here in the North. After an hour or so, the sun managed to break through the massive wall of darkness. Rays of light, clean and polarised, as if from a search-light, brightened the scenery opposite my balcony. Whilst the continent will begin to suffer from climate warming, it will indeed become more agreeable up here!

Sofia Church after "Götterdämmerung"

Being eager to bring this blog to its well-deserved conclusion, I almost forget that there is another autumn day to remember. I sorely missed the 25 years' jubilee on 24 September, of the Great Crisis Nadir of 1992. For those not familiar with Swedish history, or those who have suppressed the sad event, let me freshen up your memory by citing myself from a report I once wrote about it.

"On a sunny day in late September 1992 (24 September) I arrived at the office early, to work on an article on capital adequacy in banking. I did not get a chance to do any work that day, however. The phone started ringing as soon as I entered my room (at 7 AM) and did not stop during the day. The calls came all from foreign bankers and financial experts/journalists and were all about the same theme: How solid is the position of the Swedish Banks, Mr. Ems, how long can they hold out in the onslaught of credit problems and exchange risks. Being a Central Banker I could do little else than utter vaguely encouraging mumblings. But the frequency and intensity of calls indicated that the end was near for interbank lending to Swedish Banks. Fair enough, the same afternoon, Government held an urgent press conference, telling the world that it felt obliged to guarantee all of Swedish Banks' liabilities and that it would undertake a general scheme for bank support to counter the on-going banking crisis. This was without comparison the most demanding and challenging day of my life – it was the nadir of the Swedish financial crisis."

The world has gone on since then, and even experienced a comparable crisis on a global scale 15 years later. We are still suffering from its aftermath. This brings me to the question, whether there could be a repeat of such a sad event in near future. The question is far from futile, since both the BIS and IMF both have recently been making noises about the great indebtedness of nations. Sweden is no slouch in this respect and asset prices have been rising steeply the past few years, a sure sign of a financial crisis being imminent. In my mind, I can see some similarity between the year of 1991 (the build-up year of the great crisis) and the present year.

Most notably, real estate prices have ceased rising and are on a downward trend. Minor building companies are already in difficulty and some even under receivership. So, keep your fingers crossed, lest we will be sliding into bad times. Let's all join in an incantation to be repeated over and over again: "This time is different! ... This time is different! ... This time is different! ... ... ..."

Best not to think about such sad things. Let's get back to where we started and invite a famous French singer to phrase the poem mentioned at the beginning of this blog!





Friday, 18 August 2017

WALTZ FOR EMIL


The white night of Summer. 

We are in mid-August now and can already begin to sense Autumn's first inklings. But the white nights will still be with us for a week or so. This can be seen in the above picture, taken at 8.30 pm day before yesterday.

Even if serene calm seems to reign over Hammarby Sound and Canal, there is a snake in Paradise. You may recall my lament from 4 May last year about a terrible noise at 5 am. A small boat had chosen that early hour to empty its septic tank. Since it used a lorry as receptacle, I let it go, since the action was not illegal, after all. But judge of my surprise, when the same boat woke me up again, at 5.45 am, two weeks ago. This time it was worse, since the owner did not bother with commanding a lorry to take care of the waste.

To the owner of this boat: if you read this blog, beware! Any repetition of this evil deed will be reported to the authorities forthwith, well documented by a sequence of pictures as solid proof. So there!


Misdeed on Hammarby Canal
































But we won't let this sad occurrence trouble our mellow Summer mood. Whenever ripples of discontent threaten to affect my feelings of content, I am drawn back to my early days in Sweden, when vigorous youth met ebullient Gründerzeit. Usually, I let my thoughts dwell on many a Saturday evening, back in August 1962, when I sneaked through a hole in the fence of Hässelby Strandbad, to join Swedish youth in dancing and frolicking till midnight. No waltzes, polkas or marches were being played there by the band. Rather, big band music in syncopated rythm. One song in particular tickled my fancy, and from it, I learned my first Swedish words.

På västerbron i den himmelska ron
en spårvagn går ensam och tom ...

This was a brand new song and was played throughout Stockholm, in dancing halls and radio. The singer's voice was smooth as velvet and her song was so elegant and elf-like that it went straight to my heart. Her name was Monika Zetterlund and, ever since, she remains for me the quintessence of a Swedish singer. But music tells more than a thousand words, so why not have a go at the video below (please click on the word "VIDEO":

Thursday, 29 June 2017

LONG DAY'S JOURNEY INTO NIGHT

Hammarby Sound, Solstice Day at 10 pm




















I have to admit that I am a bit in arrear with this post. Days are getting shorter as I am writing this. But don't you worry, the "White Nights" will be with us for another month, even if Solstice Day lies already behind us.

Summer weather this year is a bit unusual, more of an April weather really. If I am stepping out in the morning for my Nordic walking exercise, the sun may still be shining, but upon my return to the apartment I can be certain that clouds will build up again and rain will soon be pouring down. Then the sun will re-appear and the whole cycle repeat itself.

Annoying though this is, it spells heydays for us photographers. On 21 June, for instance, nature delighted us with spectacular solstice opportunities throughout the evening. This tore yours truly from his Summer lethargy. Nowadays, I usually spend evenings watching TV, but this time I just could not resist taking out my camera again and clicking away.

As reward I was allowed to witness a rare event. A sunset, or should I say firebrand, that stretched over almost a quarter (90°) of the horizon! As if all of Southern Island was on fire! About two thirds of it are visible in the picture below. You can just about make out the sun sneaking along below the ridge to the left of Sofia Church and the mauve "flames" emanating from it to reach beyond its tower and much farther towards the right.

Hammarby Canal. Solstice Day at 11 pm















Mightyly satisfied with having documented this unique experience, but also tired, I went to bed and fell asleep almost immediately.

Suddenly, an enormous ruckus threw me out of bed. It was as if a rock band with its humongous loudspeakers had lodged itself smack on my balcony. Windows shook, balcony rails vibrated widely with the sound waves and my hair stood on end. Enraged I rushed out into open air, camera in hand, to document this outrage, with picture and sound, for my intended complaint to the police.

What I saw was what looked like an oversized cottage lodged on an immense barge, and filled to the brim with rowdy youth, screaming, dancing and bending like weeds to the sound blasts emanating from the structure's interior. This abomination was parked on the quay smack below my balcony. I was about to fetch buckets of water to throw upon the maddening crowd below, when, suddenly, three youngsters debarked and the Leviathan of a boat cast off again.

Hullaballoo at 00.30 am!

As the cacophonous misfoster was slowly cruising away towards Hammarby Lake, surely awakening all of 20 000 people living in the vicinity, it gradually came to me that its trajectory seemed an apt metaphor for the progress of Sweden's economy. With its rambunctious growth, whipped on by unfettered consumption, fed by uninhibited monetary growth and expansionist fiscal policies, clawing at the limits of capacity, with unemployment virtually extinct (excepting the uneducated and the recent immigrants, which are deliberately being kept out of productive society) it much resembled this construct sailing towards the horizon in blunt negligence of all that is normal and sustainable.

But, as we economists use to say, that which cannot last, WILL NOT LAST! Suddenly I got a vision of the boat smashing straight into a glassen wall, ending its progress, just like an economy that has gotten out of control will be crashing into subsequent depression. But this is easier to show than to explain. So why not click on the picture below, to see my vision enacted on Youtube. But, "Patience!", the bitter end comes first a bit into the video! There you will also discover a melody that for me is the most frightening of them all.

From boom to doom!

























You did not find the song frightening? Then you must be young, so let me tell you that this melody was once sung to conjure up, in vain, some hope during a time of utmost distress and desolation. I tremble when even thinking about the possibility of it coming back to haunt us.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

CLAWING BACK MY YOUTH?

"Quite impossible!", you may say, and I may be forced to agree with you, looking at the two pictures above. Whereas a group of eleven year olds had, once upon a time, been frolicking up this mountain top like sprightly chamois, I barely made it, and only on all fours, lest I lose balance and tumble down into the abyss.

You are witnessing here a re-run of an event from way back in 1955. Pupils of a renowned high-school, the venerable BEA Graz Liebenau, had rounded up their first year of studies with an excursion to Teichalm (Austria). The mountain top they had ascended was Hochlantsch. Their older selves decided this year to have their 55th anniversay-of-graduation meeting at the same place.

Speaking of our Alma Mater, this was no ordinary school, so permit me to tell you its engaging story. It started out as a Cadet School, founded by Emperor Franz Josef in 1854. After the Great War, when a smaller Austria emerged from the Empire's ashes, fumbling for its raison-d'être, the state decided to restart the school as an elite gymnasium and boarding school, especially targeted at gifted pupils from modest backgrounds or from remote regions without access to such education. 
  
BEA Graz Liebenau. Main school (former Cadet School) building.
Photographer: Wolfgang H. Wögerer, Wien

After a short (and sad) interregnum, when the Nazi regime put its own imprint on the institution, the reconstituted Republic of Austria decided to restore the school to its former glory in 1947. It regained its status as elite gymnasium with universal teaching and kept it until the end of the 'seventies, when it was integrated into a reformed system of federal boarding schools.

In its heydays, the BEA's (there were more than one) contacted, each year, the elementary school teachers in Austria, asking them to single out, among their fourth-grade pupils, the most gifted and send them to the Länder capitals (e.g. Graz in Styria) for entrance tests. Out of them, some 90 boys were enlisted for an eight years' elite high-school education in Graz Liebenau. I happened to be one of those admitted to the cohort of 1954. This thanks to Frau Pieber, my first teacher, who had prepared me for the tests with special tutoring, during the afternoons when ordinary pupils could enjoy their free time. 

The education in our school was not only utterly comprehensive, encompassing both humanities and natural sciences – not to speak of art, music and sports – but also utterly demanding. Three classes of thirty students in the beginning were trimmed down to one class of some twenty in the end, and, out of those four students had joined the class years later. There are tight bonds between us, the few – the precious few, who made it; thus we are meeting every five years to celebrate our good fortune of having passed the "needle's eye".

Most of the few – the precious few, who made it!
Photo: Herman Farnleitner

Now on to this year's excursion, celebrating the 55th year of our graduation. As usual, it started with an inspection tour of our old school grounds, where the above picture was taken. Thereafter, we had lunch in our former students' mess, and – you may be surprised – even with two of our teachers present, Professors Jungwirth and Gugerbauer. Like most of our instructors, they had been in their twenties in our school days, due to the state's ambition, no doubt, to deliver us from any bad spirits that may have lingered from the totalitarian regime that had been terminated only a decade earlier. 

After lunch, off we went to Teichalm, following in the footsteps of our younger selves from 1955. There festivities began, with many a pleasant chat over dinner, to relive our eventful days of yore. Amidst the general ruckus, Herman Becke, the most hardy hiker among us, rose and challenged us all to climb the prominent mountain in the area, the Hochlantsch, the following morning. 

Sure enough, a small group of five assembled in front of the hotel at 9 am sharp next morning, eager to make the climb. The track started just behind our hotel, the Teichwirt and was quite pleasant to tread at the outset, inviting us to keep a lively conversation going along the way.

Here I am in lively conversation with school friend Volkmar Lauber
Photographer: Herman Becke

But soon enough, the path lost itself in the forest and changed into a steep incline, reminding us of the fact that we had an altitude gain of some 600 meters ahead of us, along a track that went straight upwards and into the clouds. No more chatting for me, thank you! Step after step, I stumbled upwards, rather stoically, keeping the eyes on the stony ground ahead of me, and this for almost two hours!

A short break for the Hardy Five.
From the left: Volkmar Lauber, Emil Ems, Helmut Kroiss, Hermans Becke
and Herman Farnleitner
Photo: Herman Becke




























At long last, and to my great relief, a marvellous vista opened up, showing the top of an immense glistering limestone cap, as if rising to the occasion of our memorial efforts. If you put your eyes on the cross, in the picture below, and let them slide towards the right from there, you are looking at a rather narrow ridge which we would have to clamber up on our way to the top. The last bit of this access proved embarrassingly difficult for me, since it implied balancing on narrow and slippery lime stone, always with the risk of sliding down into the abyss.

For a moment I considered to give up and back down the way I had come, but the prospect of reuniting underneath the summit cross gave me the necessary impetus to keep going. My friends, who seemed to maintain more vigour and balance in their steps, watched with amusement my manner of  proceeding on all fours.

A narrow ridge to reach the "Top of the world"!
Photographer: Herman Farnleitner

The reward came, when our small team assembled around the cross for a triumphant group portrait, emulating the title picture taken so many years ago!

The Hardy Five on "Top of the world", el. 1720 m
Photo: Herman Becke

From then on, it could only go downhill. However, as foretold by Herman Becke, who had been here many times before, the first part of the descent, down the back of the mountain (to the left of the title cross), would be quite intense. But, in fact, a new path had been forged out of the lime stone and we had no major problems getting us through those stony traps. Furthermore, after a good hour's labouring downhill, a welcoming vista could be discerned, even if still far below our feet. 

This was a well placed – and visited – restaurant, situated halfway down into the valley, just perfect for having a leisurely lunch before returning back to Teichwirt. We were quite exhausted by then and spent a whole two hours there eating, drinking and gossiping.

Like a mirage: the welcoming tavern "Steirischer Jockl"
Photographer: Herman Farnleitner


























Not quite two hours, though! Well before that, Herman Becke, our indefatigable leader, urged us on, or rather down an innumerable number of steep steps hoed out from the sheer limestone cliff below the tavern. This turned out to be the sidetrack to Schüsserlbrunn, one of the holy springs found at many a place in Austria.

It is a peculiarity of the Alpine regions, especially limestone mountains, where springs are rare, that natural wells are being venerated as blessed by Virgin Mary and considered curing all kinds of disease for those taking a sip or two. So it came to be, for this humble crack in the cliff, within which water is appearing drop by drop, that it was adorned with a small cross and chapel, as seen in the picture below. But not only that, a quite substantial church was added, like plastered to the cliff, welcoming pilgrims all through the year, but especially on 15 August, when it is difficult to find even a place to stand for those worshipping Godmother and her holy spring.

Schüsserlbrunn, a humble well, blessed by Virgin Mary
Photographer: Herman Farnleitner

Whilst admiring this simple but venerable crack in the wall, it occured to me that my water bottle needed filling. So I approached the crack with reverence, hoping for sustenance, if not healing for my ailing body. But getting into the hole proved quite impossible for this well fed senior citizen, with a stiff back to boot. Herman Becke to the rescue. He had filled his bottle there many a time before and knew how to spiral himself into the crack. It took some time to get the bottle filled, drop by drop, but eventually I had it back in my hand and could take a healthy gulp.

Herman helping me out with his flexible demeanour
Photographer: Herman Farnleitner



Thus refreshed the hike back to Teichwirt worked like a charm. There was just one bit of experience missing from the schedule. Early on, Herman Becke had promised us the experience of watching a rare animal, the Alpine Ibex. I was astounded to hear it, having thought this long-horned goat to be long extinct in our mountains. 

True enough, the last specimen was shot in the beginning of the 19th century. Not all, really, since the King of Italy, an avid hunter, wanted to keep a herd for his private shooting pleasure, and declared a small area in the Italian Alps, in the Gran Paradiso region, to be his Royal Hunting Preserve. Nowadays it is a national park. From there, the Ibices, or Steinbocks, have been replanted in several Alpine mountains, among them the Hochlantsch. 

Apparently, not having been hunted for almost a century, and much admired by visiting hikers, they are no longer as shy as they used to be and rather fond of us humans. Unfortunately, they had other plans for the day, so we did not get hold of a single bock. But a young lady we met in the tavern, a friend of Herman's, had indeed seen a flock and lent us her picture so that we have something to show for in this blog. 



This about ends this interesting outing of us veterans. But let me just round up the exposé with a little music, to vent the artistic aspect of our schooling. It is a melody that inspired us greatly, when we were young, and got us to start our own small band, in the upper classes. 

The picture below shows our ensemble performing at an outing in eighth grade, just months before graduation. We were then visiting our sister school (there were BEA's for girls too, in those days!) in Altmünster near Gmunden and tried to impress the other sex with our performance. Unfortunately, the music we played is no longer with us, but if you click on the picture, you will hear one of our forebearers, albeit from some thirty years before our time. 

Our teenage school band performing in Gmunden
From the left: Emil Ems, Udo Jonas, Raimund Wurzer and Claus Weyrich
Photographer: Herman Becke

Thursday, 5 January 2017

WINTER BLUES

"Winter Blues" at 8 am.

I was greeted by a rather surprising view at 8 am today. After several weeks of warm weather, almost autumn-like, winter cold came back with a vengeance and, suddenly, Hammarby Sound had begun to freeze over at night. For 36 hours already, snow had been falling intermittently and I was quite unprepared for this clarified view. Alas, I shouldn't be surprised. Standing on the balcony in my pajamas I suddenly started to shake. I had to rush back in and put on a dressing gown before taking the mandatory picture of the event. It does not pay off taking pictures with cold shaken fingers! It turned out that it was more (or should it be less) than minus 10°C outside.

Speaking of snow; another surprise: when I left the apartment building later on, to trudge stoically uphills towards my favourite breakfast haunt, the snow had been cleared away from my porch, and all the way up to Luma Square! And this only after 36 hours of snowfall! Yesterday morning still, after more than 12 hours of downpour, I had to wade my way uphills through decimeters of the white powder; today, going was much easier!

Clearing the paths only after 36 hours is still quite unsatisfactory, you say? I tend to agree, but have to point out that it is still better than not clearing at all; which happened last time around (see Decline and Fall of a Great Country).

In my favourite breakfast haunt.

The question still remains: why does it take such an awful amount of time to clear the sidewalks around my apartment building? I have only two alternative answers to this against the background of snow clearing being contracted out to private enterprises. Either, the contracts permit such delays in order to save money; or, the contracts are badly written. Both could of course be true.

The first named cause of delay should be acceptable to me. After all, saving money leads to lower municipal taxes. Who am I, a privileged member of the Baby Boomers generation, to deny such bonus to those who come after us. What is a little hip damage or broken knee, compared to younger people being able to spend more money after tax?

But I am much less forgiving when it comes to writing bad contracts, leading to bad service for good money. It is in the essence of private enterprise to look after itself rather than society at large. In consequence, there is a a need and responsibility for the municipal contractor to write approptriate contracts, which lead to the result we expect and pay for.

Have we not recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics to Dr. Bengt Holmström, the famous Finlander and Professor who explained to us how such contracts should be written and enforced? The Award Ceremony took place just a few weeks ago (and I saw the King handing over the prize to him, since I attended the ceremony), but regrettably, no one asked him for advice on how Stockholm's contracts with their snow cleaning entrepreneurs should have been written.

Be that as it may. When coming back from breakfast, and whilst I am writing these lines, flakes are again starting to tumble down. And the weather report is promising us intermittent freezing colds and heavy snow falls over the weekend. Time to prepare for a prolonged weekend in bed!

Heavy snowing again, at 10 am!

Looking back at what I have written just now, it appears a bit morose. Time to lighten up the text a bit, don't you agree? Why not revisit the Nobel Prize Ceremony for a moment. Attending it was a first for me, very engaging for a septuagenarian, I can assure you. I witnessed the ceremony with wide open eyes and the childish admiration even an oldtimer can show for an event not experienced hitherto. In that context I couldn't help noticing the dignified respect paid by the audience and participants to the proceedings.

Even a life-long performer of the arts was so aw struck by the surroundings that she got stuck in the middle of her recital of a Bob Dylan song. She was able to continue first after uttering the by now winged words "I'm sorry, I am so nervous".


                  Patti "The Nervous" Smith singing "A hard rain's a-gonna fall"