Seamus K - Irish tech industry expat living in Sweden.

Month: April 2020

What to play while you are locked in

A load of media outlets have realised that with people confined to home some advice on what boardgames to play might be helpful.

My mate Paddy got the jump on most of them with his article on what are some good family games. He even used a picture of mine for it 🙂

The two things I would add are – never play monopoly if you can avoid it. And try and find places other than the likes of Amazon to buy these games. Support the smaller specialist shots, and who knows what other things you might find on their websites (buy Terraforming Mars if you can).

[2020 Target: 9/52. 4,325/25,000]

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“The Graves are Walking” – a review

One of my pleasures when back in Ireland is wander around some book shops for an hour or two. And when I come out I am slightly more stressed about my luggage allowance for the return trip as I may will have a few extra kilos to carry with me.

My book haul from last August.

It is not too hard to get English language books in Sweden. Though they can be expensive, and the selection is never as good. But I do love going into a book shop and picking up, and skimming, and coming away with 5 or 6 treasures to add to the stack on my bedside locker.

For a while I have wanted to do some reading about the Great Famine in Ireland in the 1840s. Obviously an Irish bookshop would be a better place to get books on that subject. But I was surprised to find that there are relatively few books available. Most Irish bookshops only have a handful, and often they were very local in subject matter. It can be a bit difficult to find something that is well regarded, and covers the full breadth of the famine across the country.

The two most recently published books (that were widely reviewed) were from 2013. One is “The Famine Plot” by Tim Pat Coogan. And the other is “The Graves Are Walking” by an American historian – John Kelly.

If you don’t know of him, Tim Pat Coogan is a well known, but controversial historian in Ireland. He has written a number of well researched, and well received books on events in Irish history. But he has strong, and sometimes contentious opinions on the topics he writes about. For that reason I decided I would go with a potentially more balanced take in John Kelly’s book.

I bought the book last summer but I found I kept putting off reading it. Having an interest in history, and spending plenty of time in the west you see a lot of evidence of the Ireland that was destroyed by the great famine – ruined stone cottages. Lazy beds where you think no person could ever have farmed anything. The famine graves. I find it moving. Though it can be hard for the mind to appreciate the scale of the catastrophe that happened. Every so often you hear some little thing that reaches you about it. Like when my father pointed out that Ireland is probably the only country in the world has a lower population today than it did 150 years ago. Demographically we still have not recovered.

Before Christmas I finally started reading it. I knew it would be emotionally difficult. I didn’t expect if to be so frustrating.

The books is well researched, and well written. As I read I felt it was opening up vistas to Ireland of 1845, and the horrors that were occurred. But it also leaves much unaddressed, and it came away with loads of questions.

After a good summary and historical background to the Ireland of the 1840s, Kelly quickly gets into the the failure of the potato crop. He shows how the press and the government quickly realised there was a significant problem. And he spends much of his tile going into great detail about the relief works that were started. He talks about immigration during the famine, and has many anecdotes about the death and suffering of those years. But the impression I came with was that in many ways this is half a book.

There is a problem when looking at the period. The peasants who were doing most of the dying were poor and illiterate, so they left few first hand accounts. Their experiences usually have to be recounted by others. But the book does not give you much of a feeling a personal, or even at a high level for the people who were actually suffering and dying. There are snapshot glimpses from those that observed them at the time. But even the big picture of what was happening to them seems incomplete. There is little to no information about the actual severity of the famine. It is not clear if anyone died in 1845. You can’t tell how much worse was 1847 to 1846?

And weirdly having spent 330 pages covering the first three years of the famine up to the end of 1847, the book suddenly ends. You have to go into the afterword (4 pages long) to see that the starvation, deaths, evictions, and suffering continued at a huge rate until 1850. I finished it and was left wondering “where is the rest of the book? Was this the first volume of a larger work?”

If your interest is limited to the British government’s response to the famine then there is a huge amount of detail. Most of the book is concerned with the relief efforts, and the politics around them. Understandably that is the area with a wealth of original documentation. But if feels like the people who were dying, the communities and the way of life that were shattered are barely touched on. It is like a book about a war that spends all its time writing about logistics and supplies and generals, rarely mentioning the civilians and soldiers experiencing it day to day.

Overall I would have to say that if you want an account of the Great Famine – one that covers the whole duration, and the national impact, then this is not the book to read. And personally I still need to find a book that gives me that picture. So with some hesitations I have ordered Tom Pat Coogan’s book.

I will finish with a mention of the genocide question. There seems to be a lot of debate as to whether the famine, and the actions of the British government at the time constituted an act of genocide. After reading one flawed book I certainly am not about to offer an opinion on that. But I do know that the book that is on its way to me has an opinion on that question…

[2020 Target: 8/52. 4,220/25,000]

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What is it like having Covid-19? (I think)

About a week and a half ago I came down with a “flu-like” illness. In Sweden you can only get a test for the coronavirus if you are admitted to hospital, or if you are a healthcare worker. Which means I don’t know for sure if I had the most famous illness in the world at the moment. But on the basis that – if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck. I am going to say my temperature, cough, chest pains, and lethargy, on balance of probability, were covid-19. My name is Seamus, this is my story…

No C-19 test cert, no t-shirt!

Don’t worry, I am not going to bore you with all the details. But I started to feel ill around Wednesday the 25th of March. I had a cough, was feeling off, and that evening my temperature started to go up. By Thursday it was at 37.9°C and while that is not too high I had very little energy. Like everyone else I was working from home at the moment, but I told the boss I was just going to rest for a day or two.

As I went into the weekend my temperature continued to climb. It spent most of those days from about 38.6°C to (briefly) 39°C. I had a dry cough, and could feel a pain in my chest. I had almost no energy. I would have breakfast, watch an episode of something on TV and then, exhausted by that much effort, I would sleep on the couch.

Saturday was the point in time where I got worried (and I now know my friends and family were too). I was lucky that the kids had gone to their mother a few days before I started to get sick. That meant I only had to manage myself in the house. But if my temperature got much worse, or I started to have breathing problems then I was very much on my own. And while people in their mid-forties with no underlying medical issues generally do okay with the coronavirus, there are no guarantees.

I had family and friends checking in with me twice a day to make sure I was still responsive. And local friends were told where to find a key outside the house in case I could not be contacted. I was given a quick test to assess if I was having breathing difficulties:

Try and count out loud, from one to thirty, in your native language, without stopping or taking a breath. If you cannot do it, then you should contact a doctor.

My mother the nurse

Saturday was the day where I felt the worst. But it also was the point where I decided in my head I am not going to let this thing beat me. Once I did that it was like a switch was flicked in my head. Physically I was the same, but I felt a little better. And by Sunday night my temperature had started to fall. And after that it was just a slow return to normality. The sweats and chills stopped, my energy and appetite returned, though it was Friday before my temperature dropped below 37°C. Right now it is just the last traces of the cough I need to shift.

Simulating the pandemic

So what next? Well Sweden has become a bit famous for its unique approach to the pandemic. It is hard to tell whether they will test for antibodies in the future. I will probably never know for certain if it was covid-19 I had. And apart from the bragging rights, the more important thing is whether or not I am immune now. I hear there is talk in some countries of identifying those that are, so they can be given immunity certificates, and allowed to leave quarantine. But then the restrictions are relatively light in Sweden anyway. It would be my luck though to be immune and then for them to institute a full lock down…

The biggest question has been how to return to society. I wasn’t really hoping for a party, with a brass band, fireworks, and loads of beer. But some consistency on guidelines would have been nice. The WHO recommends you stay in quarantine for 2 weeks after your symptoms have gone.

Image may contain: possible text that says 'World Health Organization (W... @WHO "People infected with #COVID19 can still infect others after they stop feeling sick, so these measures should continue for at least 2 weeks after symptoms disappear. Visitors should not be allowed until the end of this period. There are more details in WHO's guidance"- e"-@DrTedros 5:00pm 16 Mar 2020 Twitter Web App Replies 3,097 Retweets 3,273 Likes Reply to @WHO @DrTedros'
WHO guidelines

Sweden says 2 days! In the end I have decided to go with the Irish guidelines: 2 weeks from when your symptoms first appear, or 5 days after your temperature returns to normal, whichever is longer. That means that, baring a relapse, I will open my front door, and emerge, pale, blinking, and trembling into the great wide open on Thursday morning.

I am pretty aware that I have had it easy in a lot of ways. I had a shitty few days, but I have had stories of other people my age being floored for several weeks. My friend Conor in Ireland was confined by his family to the playroom for 2 weeks. He was jealous that I had a whole house to myself 🙂

Now that it is pretty much done, I want to say thank you to all the people who helped me get through it. My ex minded the girls when they were supposed to be with me. Friends and family in Sweden and Ireland called me, sent messages and worried about me. It was a pain in the ass sometimes to deal with them when I just wanted to lie down and think about my poor life choices. But I also knew it was a sign people were worried about me and cared for me. That was a huge psychological help. And finally there are the people who made offers to bring me groceries. There were so many I could have had a twice daily delivery if I had wanted. But big thank you to Treasa and Johan, and Mark and Katarina who I did let do a few runs for me. Hopefully I can repay all of you in someway, just without you having to get the bloody virus.

[2020 Target: 7/52. 3,216/25,000]

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Quarantine cooking

It has become a standing joke that every “guy”* in quarantine at the moment has started experimenting with sourdough.

Why do women mock us so?

Now I am in quarantine myself (more details to follow in the next post). And yeah I embarked on a sourdough starter as well. Is it any good to point out that I have been working on my baking for a while now. And as my soda bread is not too bad, sourdough was next on the list of things I wanted to try?

Home alone, who am I to talk to with tales of my efforts?

The last thing the world needs now is another guy going on about the results of his sourdough work. All I will say is I was not impressed with my efforts. For all the input, my output was not great. I will give it another shot. But I see a future where if/when I want sourdough I will buy it in the shop. Or mooch it off a guy neighbour who can’t eat the 2-3 loaves a day he is producing and having to stockpile in the shed with his 300 rolls of toilet paper.

My sourdough bread, made with fulkorn flour.

Right now I am far more interested in my other project. The less trendy, less glamorous one, but probably more useful – figuring out how to make a good Rosti.

I was introduced to rosti in mountain huts in Switzerland. Grated potato mixed with things like cheese, onion, bacon, or peas. All cooked together in a sort of pancake. It is quintessential mountain food to me. Now I will admit that after a day hiking and climbing through the Valais Alps nearly anything will taste great (with the beer). But the simple, flavourful, and filling rosti was always something I wanted to be able to do myself.

Mont Blanc du Cheilon – climbed in 2003.

My problem was previous attempts fell short. They burned, they fell apart in the pan. I knew it could not be that hard – hut wardens with simple facilities manage it, so I should be able to. That is what I have been experimenting with in my quarantine days.

There are of course loads of online recipes. But there seems to be a lot of difference of opinion on the order to do the prep. The options are:

  1. Peel spuds. Parboil them. Grate and cook.
  2. Parboil the spuds. Peel. Grate and cook.
  3. Peel spuds. Grate raw. Then cook.
Rosti in the pan. Best cooked slowly with a lower heat.

I have got best results so far with 2. But it means boiling the spuds a half a day before so they can cool to be peeled. That is possible but a little labour intensive. So tonight I will trial option 3.

My best result so far. Tasted as good as it looked.

If I can make it work then it is something new for the kids. And it might become a “one-pot” staple as well for camping and kayaking trips.

* “Guy” was famously distinguished from “man” by the comedian Dave Barry as “Men went to the moon. Guys invented mooning”

[2020 Target: 6/52. 2,200/25,000]

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