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On being an international commuter

Sigfrid Lundberg's Stuff 2009-12-10

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In both Lund and Copenhagen there are a lot of people riding bicycles. They behave very differently, however, and their spatial distribution is different. In Copenhagen the riders have a much more aggregated distribution. They ride at high speed in squadrons, somewhat like Mongolian cavalry. Before their mounted assaults on the pedestrians on H.C. Andersens Boulevard, their prime target, the Copenhagen bicycle riders congregate at any of the many traffic lights in the area.

In Lund, where the traffic lights are more scarce, there are few natural meeting points. Hence, bicycle riders in Lund are forced to operate in much smaller units, or even solitarily. Great speed and bravery is nevertheless needed, as Lund's bicycle riders are well known for their suicidal attacks upon much larger four-wheeled vehicles.

Normally I leave home and mount my bike ten past seven in the morning. That gives me ample time to patrol the area between my home and the railway station before I have to catch the 07.39 train from Lund to Copenhagen. That trip is uneventful, except for occasional encounters with an increasing number of power walking young ladies. The power walkers stride along in a frenzy, their eyes fixed on a point far way. Neither their faces nor their eyes reveal any emotion whatsoever. They don't seem to like walking. I think that they are all in a hurry home for a shower and a nice slow breakfast.

I haven't yet seen any power walkers striding along H.C. Andersens Boulevard or elsewhere in central Copenhagen, but I reckon it is due to the successful operations of the bicycle riders.

A parking place

Secure locking is essential

I have one serious problem. That is to find a secure parking place for my bike at the railway station. A lot of people who park there have lost their vehicles. There are stories about thieves coming there with lorries, bringing loads of bicycles for export to Poland. I've recently acquired a new bike, since my previous one was stolen. Apart from finding a parking place, the temporal bottle-neck is to lock the thing. I've got two really solid locks, and try to park where I can use one of them for locking the bike to the iron structure provided by the local council for the benefit for of paranoid bicycle owners (see the image).

I've been told that bicycle theft is very common in Copenhagen. And that the shortage of parking places is a real problem as well, in particular around the Central Station. I take the bus, or walk carefully avoiding HC Andersen's Boulevard.

Two cultures

Swedes & Danes are cousins. Both tribes are viking grandchildren. So are off course the Icelanders and Norwegians, but it is only the Icelanders who have kept their old language. The rest of us has diverged, but still there has been some force that has kept us together linguistically as well as culturally. I've been told that people from Algeria cannot talk to people from Egypt, in spite of the fact that they all speak Arabic. Now, I speak Swedish and my colleagues all speak Danish. And we can all laugh at a good joke.

I won't say that language doesn't pose any problems, but none I can't live with. Collaborative writing is a problem, though. My Danish is a joke, like the speech of the Swedish chef in the Muppet show. Collaborative writing is worst, since that forces colleagues to translate my gibberish. I usually write documentation in English, and everything else in Swedish. Both will be understood.

Many Danes think that Swedes are formal, moralistic and more prone to bureaucracy than Danes. This is because in Sweden everything that make life worth living, such as tobacco, alcohol and visiting prostitutes, are either prohibited, restricted or somehow controlled by the government. More recently, some Danes have been accusing us for being afflicted by some unhealthy psychological disorder making us inclined to deny any problems concerning immigration and integration. I cannot understand why; just wait a year and we will also have a solid racist representation in our parliament, as in Denmark.

Many Swedes who have little personal experience of Denmark actually believe that everything that makes life worth-while is more free in Denmark and that it is a much more cosy place. All Swedish commuters I've talked to about the cultural differences between Danes and Swedes tell a story which is quite the opposite from the Danish self image. The amount of bureaucracy is less in Sweden and the Danish society is more hierarchical. On the other hand, I think it is true that we Swedes are a moralistic lot, at least when it comes to life in Denmark.

One thing that surprises me is our ever ongoing discussions on responsibility. People here say "this is not our job" more often than in Sweden. Delegation of responsibilities is more widespread in Sweden than in Denmark. As a consequence leaders in Denmark are extremely busy. We also have an endless number of committees in Denmark, which I think is a surrogate for responsible people. That is, when no individual takes responsibility, it has to unwillingly be shared by committees.

A slightly more endless number of shorter meetings

When I started my work, the Danish meeting culture was a relief. In both countries there will be an agenda for a meeting. The difference is that in Denmark we allocate a fixed amount of time, and the meeting ends regardless whether we've been through the agenda or not. It felt as if I had finally escaped from the country of endless meetings. Indeed I had. I had come to the country of an endless number of meetings.

When I think of it, the number of meetings seemed endless in Sweden too, but the number of meetings is more endless in Denmark.

If the Vatican had been situated in Copenhagen, I doubt that they had ever been able to elect a new pope. The College of Cardinals would declare that the meeting is over before they reached that point on the agenda. It is, sometimes, an advantage to lock in committees and tell them that they'll get lunch when they completed their task.

After seven hours and twenty-four minutes I'm free to return to my home country, half an hour for lunch included. In Sweden we work eight hours, and that excludes half an hour for lunch. And if you're in a meeting you'll almost certainly miss it anyway.

Then comes the afternoon

Secure locking is essential

In the afternoon I take the train back home. I embark the train and sit there reading something, or possibly writing texts like this one. I sit there passively being transported. Then I disembark. All of a sudden I'm standing on a platform at Lund Central, having the strange feeling that I cannot recall what happened on the train. I cannot even recall what I thought about while on the train. This frightens me. "I Think Therefore I Exist", Descartes wrote. The central question for me in my life as a commuter is: Do I really exist while I'm on the train.

Ordinary people exist twenty-four hours a day. It's a gift. Is this true for us commuters? I doubt that this is so. I suppose that we commuters live, on the average, as long as other people when the length of our lives is measured in years, but much less if we measure longevity in hours.

When I return to my bike I usually find that some other bicycle riders have lent their bikes on mine, and usually artfully intertwined their handlebars with the wires of my handlebar gear and brake (see image). It is a nuisance, but I regard it as a helpful defense measure against bicycle theft. I thank my fellow bicycle riders and again unlock my two solid locks. I don't envy those who commute to Lund from elsewhere keeping a bike at Lund Central in order to save time -- they'll arrive late to their meetings and miss their their lunches.

In the evening I again patrol the area between Lund Central and my home. The trip is as uneventful as the one in the morning, but the power walking young ladies has been replaced by much older female dog owners, strolling leisurely through the city on their way towards the parks. I suppose power walkers don't like dogs.

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My name is Sigfrid Lundberg. The stuff I publish here may, or may not, be of interest for anyone else.

On this site there is material on photography, music, literature and other stuff I enjoy in life. However, most of it is related to my profession as an Internet programmer and software developer within the area of digital libraries at the Royal Library, Copenhagen (Denmark) and, before that, Lund university (Sweden).

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