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Seamus K - Irish tech industry expat living in Sweden.

Tag: travel

Vienna dawn

One of the occasional benefits of business travel and starts, is seeing sights like the dawn sky on fire behind the Schwecat Refinery outside Vienna.

Refinery dawn

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Plano Texas – the other America.

This week I am in Dallas, or Plano, one of the Northern Suburbs to be exact. I doubt you have heard of it, but you probably have heard of its most famous son – Lance “I am not a cheat” Armstrong.

Plano is an odd sort of place. For most Irish people their knowledge of the US comes from the Eastern and Western coastal states, and the big cities like Chicago,  which have a strong history of Irish connections. These are the older, urban,  liberal parts of the country. I think to really get to know the US you also need to spend time in the centre, and in the suburbs, in places like Plano.

It is very different. I seriously doubt you would overhear department store workers in Boston happily admitting to voting for George W Bush (the younger one). And getting from DFW airport up to Plano means spending time on “President George  Bush Turnpike” (the older one).*

To be fair Plano is not the most typical of urban areas. It is home to a large number of big corporate offices (like ours) and is pretty affluent. But it is an example of suburban America that has seen huge growth in recent history.

plano

A land of squares

Plano, as the imaginative name says, is pretty flat and featureless. On Google maps you can see how it has been subdivided into a chess board of squares, and each developed according to the sort of simple plan you would get in Sim City – this square is residential, this is retail, this is light commercial.

There is some public transport, but this is where everyone, even the poor, needs a car to get around – as I discovered last year when I found myself here for 10 days with no drivers licence, and so no rental car. There are some paths, but pedestrian crossings are rare, and people look at you like you have two heads when you walk. Each road junction has a strip mall, and if you are going to go the 100m across to a shop on the other side you pretty much have to drive. I could comment on how the shops keep repeating every few miles as you drive along, but then the same is true of most of Europe these days as well – where doesn’t have H&M, Zara, Spar, Lidl, etc?

stripmall

A strip mall at every intersection

Culture is a little bit lacking. A check on Trip Advisor lists things to do in Plano. The top 15 include 2 shopping centres, 3 churches, a cinema, and one listing each for “Bars and Clubs” and “Game and Entertainment” centres.

The top of the list is the Arbour Hills Nature Preserve. As I am trying to get back into hiking I got excited by this one. And apparently it has trails. Some of these are almost 4km long. Which, when I checked, is actually pretty good for the greater Dallas area. It’s somewhat different to Stockholm where multi-day walking trails wind through the forested parts of suburbs before heading off into the country side.

It is flat, far from the sea, has no culture, and is easy to mock for being soulless.  So why do people flock to live here? Because they like it. There are jobs. Housing is cheap. It is relatively safe (you rarely see the police, and for all the eye rolling we do about US/Texan gun culture, I have never seen one outside of a “sports” shop). I have friends from outside the US who have moved here, and they were pretty happy with things. They get to lead comfortable lives, they can raise their children easily enough and they don’t have to worry about many of the stresses that you can have elsewhere. Part of the reason for that is because things are a bit boring. But there are stages in life, like when you have small kids, when boring actually is fine.

Would I move here myself? God no! I can see myself putting on 10kg in a few months quite easily. The car culture, the heat, and just the totally different mind set of the people would grate on me. But mostly I would go mad not having mountains or the sea the escape to.

Which is why I am off now to REI. And as well as window shopping for gear, I will be asking the locals “how far do you have to go to get to some decent hiking trails here”. I won’t be moving to Plano, but I do find myself here at weekends from occasionally. And driving around the strip malls is not the way I want to spend my time!

* For US readers this is doubly amusing to Irish people as there you can’t name public infrastructure after living people. I think the rules do say they have to be dead at least 20 years.

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9 Things I learned Driving Across Europe from Stockholm to Vienna and Back.

Tomorrow I will hop on a plane from Stockholm to Vienna. It will take 2 hours and 10 minutes to make the 1288km trip. Of course it takes a bit longer to drive it. About 2 days. I know as I drove down with my father before Christmas, and I brought the car back two weeks ago.

In the spirit of click bait articles all over the internet here is my 9 things I learned driving between Stockholm and Vienna.

Wind Turbine blade1 – You see weird things. On the final stretch into Stockholm I saw a car on fire by the side of the motorway. It barely rated a yawn after 40 hours of driving where I saw everything from roadside brothels (Czech), to huge free range chicken farms (Germany), to gigantic wind turbine blades being moved by road.

No speed limits in Germany2 – You can tell what country you are in by their drivers. Czech drivers were the worst – aggressive, erratic and impatient. Germans were the fastest, but then much of the time there were no speed limits. And Swedes are by far the politest, most laid back drivers there are. I doubt the horn is even connected in their Volvos.

3 – Sweden is EXTREMELY boring to drive in. Malmo to Stockholm is about 6 and a half hours of trees. Swedes have so much space they don’t need to put motorways near built up areas. So other than 15 minutes looking at the lake near Jonkoping, and the sights near the Saab aircraft factory outside Linkoping, it’s nothing but trees, for hour after hour. I told the north of the country is even more boring. Somehow.

GPS map4 – GPS is wonderful, but.. Our children will not know the family rows our parents had driving on the continent with paper maps and trying to find the bloody Formula 1 hotel which you can see but can’t figure out how to get to. However it is not infallible. This I discovered when I found myself routed down a tiny Czech back road. I wasn’t the first to find themself there, as I was saved by a handwritten “Dresden” stuck on a stop sign which put me back on the right road.

5 – The whole journey is much easier if you sleep. Be sure to do the sleeping before you get in the car though. My biggest worry (other than snow) was getting tired and dozing off. I banked sleep for a few days beforehand and paced myself. Mostly it was 2 hour stretches then stop for coffee or food, and a driver swap if available. Only once on the trip did I feel tired, and then it was just for a few minutes. Boredom turned out to be the real challenge. But there is a solution to that.

6 – Music Music Music. When you are on your own it can be boring (see above about Sweden and trees). I found music made a big difference. I played my music collection off my phone, and was happily able to tunelessly scream out whatever I wanted. It did teach me I need to freshen up my music collection though.

Early start7 – The drive is easier when you have the road to yourself. So start as early as possible each day. I left Vienna at around 0600 on a Sunday so I didn’t see any real traffic until about about lunch time. By that stage I was across Austria, Czech, and all the way into Germany. The following day I had a 0600 ferry to Denmark, and was driving there at 0800. It was much easier as well to deal with driving in the dark when it is early in the day and you are fresh. Better that than after you have been going for 12 hours. The early starts meant some light early morning fog was the only problem. Which brings me to the weather…

8 – Between bad drivers and bad weather, I’d prefer to deal with the former. The weather was the one concern I had planning the trip. I was most worried about running into snow on the way which would totally kill my schedule. It turned out the greatest difficulties were heavy rain heading out of Stockholm on the first leg. It made for tiring driving and I was glad I could swap regularly with my father. On the return, snow and cold caused some problems. It had snowed across most of Europe the day before I left Vienna, but the next two days were when all that snow melted. Which meant slush, wet roads, and all sorts of muck thrown up on the windscreen. I had to refill the screen wash three times in 2 days to cope!

9 – It is good to be an Engineer – Being an Engineer I had a good car (Audi A6 with a petrol engine), which was well maintained, and equipped (winter tyres) so it was comfortable, reliable, and built for this type of driving. It also meant I knew what to do when I had my scariest incident on the road in the Czech republic.

At one point the road uses a causeway to cross a lake. The temperature went from +4C on the land to -4C over the lake in the space of about a kilometre. As the windscreen dropped in temperature it was suddenly coated on the inside by condensation. It happened so fast, and was so opaque I had to pull over. The car heater couldn’t clear it, even on full heat and blow. Being a good Engineer I figured the internal humidity was a  part of the problem. Once I brought in fresh dry air from outside the window cleared in about minute.

If there was a 10th thing, it is that this would have been a totally different proposition if I had the family with me. Synchronising everyone’s bladders, roadside dining timings and preferences, and getting them to tolerate my singing would have been far more challenging than the drive 🙂

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