Christmas travel, Sheikh travel

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Christmas was spent in Stockholm, mostly at my moms or her partners place, until they took of for Florida. New this year is that Sara and Tura tagged along, and my brother once again proved his worth in child-entertainer gold. Since Kungsängen is a space-out zone and I revert into a teenage sloth when in its proximity, I didn’t even get to record much video. This is the excuse for not showing the exchange of gifts or stuffing of faces with foods, in the video above. I do beg your pardon.

I bought Sara lightbulbs for Christmas, she bought us a trip to Sharm el Sheikh — Seems a fair trade. So now we’re hoping that we won’t get sick (well, sicker) so that I can get a refresher diving course and Sara can snorkel to her hearts delight. Last time I had a chance to SCUBA was in Hawaii and I got a perfectly timed cold which precluded anything more vigorous than walking, and it would suck whaleballs if that happened again. So I’m eating vitamins and drinking my required glass of red wine a day — even being ambitious and overdoing it a bit, just to be sure.

It looks as though New Years Eve is spent at least partially at our place, which is a great motivator for tidying the place up; one more example of how my priorities have gone all pear- and bourgeois-shaped lately. No, but seriously, it’s gonna be fun. Really, I’m looking forward to having people over leaving popcorn in the dip, spritzer in my keyboard and the bookshelf de-alphabetized. Happy New Years!

On Ballard and trains

In J.G. Ballards Millennium People a neighbourhood rebells as a response to the trappings of middle class life and their inability to afford more than the image of it. Their grievances are not political to begin with but relate to maintenance and parking space, and only later turn to structures of indoctrination and politics. I’m not sure that the story applies to actual mass psychology of how revolutions start, but it’s a classical Marxist notion and interesting to see it artfully applied in fiction.

At some point, a critical mass of disillusioned middle class might set themselves to start a revolution, and it might even start over something trivial.

Unrelated to politics, but related to the trappings of comfort and our societies coating of polished civility, came to my mind when I was stranded on a train recently. I was on my way to Stockholm for work when there was a loud bang and we came to a halt. Both pantographs on the train set had snagged on something and had torn, leaving us without power in the middle of nowhere. The PA doesn’t work without power, leaving the crew to rush between trying to fix whatever had broken and walking from cart to cart shouting out what little they knew. They soon gave that up though, perhaps figuring that leaving 400 passengers steaming in a train with no articulated windows or ventilation or flushable toilets would pass for “a plan.”

The cafeteria kept selling food and drink until the power went out, after which they started writing IOUs instead. They gave this up after five minutes, seeing that the queue was growing in length and annoyance, allowing people to take food and drink (“–No alcohol!”) for free. Later, in the papers, SJ’s spokesperson put it in terms of that they “distributed food and drink to the passengers” which is an odd way of saying “allowed a disorganized free-for-all once the till didn’t work.” Apparently stuff got heated once people started looting the booze. There’s a tradeoff between offering disgruntled people alcohol to placate them, and the risk of suffering their poorer impulse control afterwards.

Once the diesel locomotive had arrived and hooked up, we were off again. disembarking an hour later at Hallsberg. Parents with kids, older folks with clumsy luggage, all dragging their charges and parcels in every which way, looking for bathrooms, someone to give them information on trains or missed connections. In the hustle for soda and pork sandwiches, the din drowned out any announcement coming over the PA for how to get to Stockholm, and mostly by chance I managed to get on a train heading in the right direction. When I finally arrive it’s night, and I’m more than six hours late on a three hour journey.

What has been lost now that we are constantly being treated as customers instead of individuals with agency, is that we’re reduced to objects with demands and criteria of contentment. We’re Sims in a very boring game of TrainVille which have to be clicked on every once in a while until the workday is over. We have demands and rights, but outside of the guidebook for consumer interaction there is no way to talk or meet in a shared interest or humanity. Which leads to four anxious crew members stressing out because they have four-hundred annoyed consumers who are not getting their moneys worth of travel experience, and no way to garner sympathy once they’ve “distributed food and drink for free.” Also, some of them were impolite asshats.

Things to remember:
* Keep people informed, even if you have nothing new to say.
* Don’t be an entitled customer asshole.
* Always bring extra water and energy dense food when you’re travelling with SJ.
* Acknowledge that people have the option of ignoring what you want them to do — offer arguments as to why they shouldn’t instead of getting indignant.

Your backfat is encroaching on my private space!

They scratch their balls, take up your elbowroom and eat crisps with their face halfway down the bag. They keep their knees wide and their coats on should you be tempted to steal the smelly Canada Goose. Their cellphones are never muted and they let it ring instead of denying a call. They look at you over the rim of their Dan Brown novels with blank, unblinking eyes.

I had a perfectly good seat on the train back from Stockholm, but traded with a girl who wanted to sit next to her friend. I should have checked where she was seated before accepting. I spent two hours composing a diatribe against my new neighbours. I went over the top and felt rather judgmental afterwards, but fuck it, I was riding backwards which always makes me want to vomit and sleep at the same time. Minge minge.


Writing. Reading. Outsourcing. Fucking on a train.

Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen—in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all—and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, willful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class.

→ George Orwell: Why I write

The infrastructure of publishing constrains the thinking of writers. Obviously, all forms of art and design have some inherent constraints-but it seems to me that writers are especially misled by the apparent freedoms of language. Published language, in print, on paper, is not language per se: It’s an industrial artifact.

→ Interactions magazine, Bruce Sterling: Design Fiction

Nevermind, of course, that you can use ball-point pens to write whatever you want: a novel, a screenplay, epic poems, religious prophecy, architectural theory, ransom notes. You can draw astronomical diagrams, sketch impossible machines for your Tuesday night art class, or even work on new patent applications for a hydrogen-powered automobile – it doesn’t matter. You can draw penises on your coworker’s paycheck stub. It’s a note-taking technology.

→, Geoff Manaugh: How the other half writes: In defense of Twitter



When you’re young, it’s easy to believe that such an opportunity will come again, maybe even a better one. Instead of a Lebanese guy in Italy, it might be a Nigerian one in Belgium, or maybe a Pole in Turkey. You tell yourself that if you travelled alone to Europe this summer you could surely do the same thing next year and the year after that. Of course, you don’t, though, and the next thing you know you’re an aging, unemployed elf, so desperate for love that you spend your evening mooning over a straight alcoholic.

→ The New Yorker, David Sedaris: Lost loves and lost years

Honey has completed her first project for me: research on the person Esquire has chosen as the Sexiest Woman Alive. (See page 232.) I’ve been assigned to write a profile of this woman, and I really don’t want to have to slog through all the heavy-breathing fan Web sites about her. When I open Honey’s file, I have this reaction: America is fucked. There are charts. There are section headers. There is a well-organized breakdown of her pets, measurements, and favorite foods (e.g., swordfish). If all Bangalorians are like Honey, I pity Americans about to graduate college. They’re up against a hungry, polite, Excel-proficient Indian army. Put it this way: Honey ends her e-mails with “Right time for right action, starts now!”

→ Esquire, A. J. Jacobs: My outsourced life

Critics compare him to Kafka, but it is from Borges that Auster borrows his allegories (detective work, biographical research) and his favorite theme: the impossibility of ever really knowing anything. This is an unwise choice of material, because he is not enough of a thinker to convey the fun that makes intellectual exercise worthwhile after all. The gnostic correspondences between Chinese food and food for thought; dog spelled backwards is god—this is philosophical writing?

→ The Atlantic Monthly, B. R. Myers: An attack on the growing pretentiousness of American literary prose

Tunisia and back, day 5 & 6

We’re back from the trip and Wednesday passes in the sign of leisure. Me and Anna walk around the beach and try to find the “real” Sousse. There has to be something that isn’t geared towards tourists, something that keeps the local people sane if for no other reason than because it’s cheaper.

At a beach café we drink coffee, and even Anna puts sugar in it now because there’s a salty quality to the water – maybe they’re desalinating sea water, or the ground water is so full of it. It reminds me of how Iceland all smells like fart because of the sulphur that permeates everything.



A few tourists, seniors mostly, lay like beached whales on the scattered sun-deck chairs. Walking in sand takes time, and a few hours pass before we choose to take the inland way back. Along unfinished skeletons of hotels, and fancy resorts with tennis courts, we’re looking for food. Anna scores the only interesting foodstuff on the whole trip, a deep fried bread filled with egg and tuna, and is munching while we make our way downtown.

One of my few and (in my opinion) humble goals of the trip was to eat a lot of nuts. We passed a few stores that carried olives, beans and nuts, but to my dismay they proved to be as expensive as in Sweden. Considering that the average salary in Tunisia is one sixth of what it is in Sweden, we couldn’t see how people made by. Either Sousse is an expensive city and the salaries are adjusted accordingly because of the tourist trade, or there must be a big enough upper middle class that skews available consumer goods.

The train station is just next to our hotel, and we check the time tables for Tunis. Anna is by now fluent in French thanks to sheer willpower and mutilated Spanish, and once back with our friends we decide to take the train early next morning and be back the same day.


Thursday morning finds us hastily drinking coffee by the train before the station manager ushers us into the carriage. Afterwards, we’re not certain why he was in such a hurry – the train doesn’t leave until fifteen minutes later, and we’re longingly looking at the people who are standing outside, smoking. We needn’t have worried about this though, because smoking on the train in Tunisia is not a problem at all.

The vegetation outside our train is much greener, and there’s something reassuring about trees that don’t seem planted. With the ocean far away, smaller mountains to one side, the landscape is far more pleasant than in the southern parts of the country.

We’re going to Tunis and then onwards to Carthage. We’re unsure how to get to the ancient city, but that matter is sorted for us by a taxi-driver just outside of the station. Anna is certain that we’re being taken advantage of, but the price is low enough that no-one else minds. Carthage is a twenty minute drive away, and having probed us enough to realise we don’t know much about the city, most of the trip consists of our drivers incessant attempts at offering himself as our driver for a day. We’ll get to see all of Carthage and the blue city as well, all for the very reasonable price of 15 dinars per person. Too high price? Twelve dinars?


Having spend two days on a tour bus we’re not very keen on being herded from one Kodak moment to the other, and decline in different ways until we give up on it and Christoffer, who is riding shotgun and acts as spokesperson, is repeating “thank you for your offer, but we’d rather walk” over and over again. Once we get out of the taxi Sine gets the drivers business-card (on it, a picture of a Porsche) and he walks over to the other drivers, maybe hoping to snag us on our way out of the museum.

I eat crisps, the others eat sandwiches, and we’re all shivering with cold. The museum proves to be little better, and with our arms wrapped around ourselves we’re looking at relics 2500 years old – shards of pottery, glass works, someones skeleton.


Some people can be swept away by the tides of history when they’re among old ruins, but that isn’t something that I’m good at. I can most often immerse myself in a photo or a description as much as the site itself, and looking down from the former fort atop Carthage makes my mind drift to more practical matters – i.e. where can I buy coffee – rather than back in time to when proud men would carve dentures out of bone at the age of 30.

In the store on our way out we meet three bored girls that are a wonderfully friendly bunch. One of them tries to pick up Christoffer, unbeknownst to him, and we’re all given fragrant ointments rubbed on our hands – the one on my right hand is “Tunisian Viagra”. Viagra here smells of peach and flowers.

Sine has had cramps the past hour or so, and she’s drinking Coke and then mint tea that the girls make. The one who tried to charm Christoffer now joins us in a light mocking of Sine, and suggests that we either lead her as a camel, or carry her as luggage. Ah, the good-spirited art of kicking those who are already down!


We’re walking down the hill, look at some water and the presidential palace (no pictures, please), and decide to take the commuter train to the blue city – Sidi bou Said – because apparently it’s pretty and some famous people decided to take consecutive shits there. The older man selling tickets for a pittance tries to scam Sine out of 20 dinars, and it takes a bit of standing around and staring angrily before he returns it.

It’s not the stealing per se that is annoying, it’s the nonchalant routine of it all: He couldn’t brake the twenty that Sine wanted to pay with, and asked her for smaller bills without returning the twenty – all the time acting as slow and ignorant as he could in the hope that we’d leave. It’s disheartening how common this behaviour is wherever tourists are involved; just be an asshole and whowever you’re scamming will get mad and leave, with little hope of reprimand.

Sidi bou Said is pretty enough, but how much sight-seeing can one take? Yes it has pretty blue decorations, yes I imagine that it must have been inspiring at one point, and no I don’t want to buy your chess-set nor water-pipe nor a henna tattoo. Somewhere along the way we have become so hungry as to be grumpy, and we’re walking to and fro before finding a café with a beautiful view and the most hideously crappy and clinically retarded staff ever. (Except the guy who made the expensive omelettes whom Sine liked.) The mood becomes rather grim in a general “fuck you I shouldn’t have gone on this trip you fucktart” way. Soon enough we’re smoking water pipe somewhere else, and start back to Tunis so as not to miss our train back to Sousse.


The commuter train takes longer than we expect, and we’re worried that we’ll miss our last ride. Once in Tunis it takes the help of a very well dressed man to show us the subway, and we’re soon in front of the train station with fifteen minutes to spare before departure. The bureaucracy of any given country is always interesting, and we encountered one at the train station. We had open return tickets, but before we were allowed on the train we had to validate extra return tickets and gotten them rubber stamped before showing them to three station hosts to get on the platform. It reminded me of all the meaningless jobs that people were made to have in communist Poland; you dig a hole, someone else will be along to fill it.

Once the train is rolling, a few young guys start banging out a rhythm on the walls and windows and singing loudly – we’re guessing it’s local talent warming up for a raucous night, and as charming as it might seem we’re glad when they get the hell off our cart and disappear into the night. The rest of the trip is spend sitting on the floor in between carts, smoking a lot and watching the wagon become more and more empty the closer to Sousse we get.

The bar on the corner is happy to serve us boukha and gin and beer and popcorn on small plates, and with one eye on the tv screens showing scantily clad women advertising phone-in sex-lines, we are summing up the past week. Sahara is an overwhelming place, tourism is rotting the country, and let’s buy a lot of olive oil to back home.