Gay pride, and lots of it, in Stockholm

What one event could bring together 35,000 people representing the church, the police, the army, doctors, the city’s transportation authority and almost every political party in Sweden, including the country’s finance minister?

Stockholm’s Gay Pride parade.

The shock of seeing boobs, butts and an assortment of body parts that should be reserved for private time was nothing compared to the sight of the army and the church marching in open in support of homosexuality and an assortment of other lifestyles that even bent my liberal morality barometer. When the pony-tailed finance minister Anders Borg walked by, proudly marching with his party, I moved from a feeling of ease and merriment to a deep welling of pride. This is a country that affords its people all of the rights they are fair to expect. Gay people can marry, adopt children and can openly serve in the military. Most importantly they are openly supported and accepted, with very few people taking aim at their lifestyle.

The parade, held at the end of July, is a reminder of how far countries like the U.S. have to come to make good on their promise of “freedom.” The Stockholm Gay Pride parade is an event that celebrates their right to live as they please. And celebrate they do. It was simply the most fun I’ve had since I came here. It gave me this blooming warmth in my belly to see these wonderful people so proud of their lifestyle and their community. And I just could not stop giggling at the trannies in garish platform heels and makeup reminiscent of Tammy Faye Bakker as they hammed it up for the camera.

(WARNING: There are really boobs and butts in these photos. As well as an unfortunate looking man in a Borat mankini. You’ve been warned.)

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It is a day that makes me proud to live in Sweden and be among the open minded and kind who believe that your life is yours. It is also a day that makes me look at those in the United States too small-minded and closeted (ironically) to embrace a different lifestyle and tell them to, well frankly, “mind their own fucking business.”

It’s unfortunate that these sorts of parades in the U.S. are at its heart a plea for basic rights. And I am afraid that the day Tim Geithner or any other U.S. Treasury Secretary marches in a Gay Pride parade, Borg and other progressive politicians in Sweden will have taken to marching with a tranny on each arm, dressed in a pair of chaps or platform heels and swinging their hips to the Village People.

Lonely summer in Stockholm

Parking on the street? Check. A seat on the subway? Check. Empty tables at outdoor cafes? Check. Uhh … what is going on?

Empty subway platforms during rush hour

In a country where a generous six weeks of vacation is the norm, it is only natural to assume that there will be times at which the city feels empty. But here in Stockholm, it seems the Swedes all schemed to choose the same month to go on vacation and leave the city’s restaurants and shops shuttered. July was that such month, where the city’s inhabitants, having shucked off their winter coats and saved up their holiday time, all left. Perhaps 40 percent of the shops on my street closed. Rush hour looked more like nap hour. And my office felt like a graveyard, save for the few of us stuck there desperately dreaming of ways to pass the time.

I have enjoyed the city’s emptiness. There are tons of perks and Mondays feel like Sundays. But try to get anything done in summer and you’re going to be s#&% out of luck. Looking for a job? Forget it. Waiting to hear if you got into graduate school? Sorry. Need to see the chiropractor for a neck injury? He’s at the beach!

In America, where your number of vacation days is similar to what you would take off to battle a severe flu, we are experts at portioning out our holiday time to relieve us from the doldrums of each intense season (Blinding snow? Hello Caribbean. Blistering heat? Oh hello London).

But these Swedes are a hearty bunch. They battle through the arctic temperatures and depression-inducing darkness, and save up the days for summer, the time of year that turns Stockholm into an outdoor paradise. Then they motor off to their summer homes in the archipelago to enjoy an uninterrupted month (or more) with family and friends. And it is all done without a hint of remorse or concern that things still need to be done. It is such a part of the culture that only the government would have the power to alter this practice. And they won’t do anything about it; the prime minister is on vacation.

Vasaloppet: The biggest ski race no one’s ever heard of

What do you get when you line up 16,000 skiers to race 90 kilometers (56 miles)? Tired. No really. Tired just watching it.

Participants in this race in northern Swedish town Sälen, near the border with Norway, range from professional cross-country skiers to anyone who would like to have a heart attack wearing skis. Most take about 10 hours to finish, but Swede Jorgen Brink won the race in just over 4 hours. Varying reports say that because of the sheer amount of participants, the folks in the back have to wait about 45 minutes before even crossing the starting line. It’s at least partially an excuse for not finishing the race before everyone goes home.

This annual marathon is named after Gustav Ericsson Vasa, a Swedish nobleman and the first king of Sweden, who was believed to have jumped on skis to escape from a murderous Danish king. He stopped in the town of Mora for help mounting a revolt, but with no support from the men there, he skied to Sälen. Then men in Mora then changed their minds and brought Gustav back to lead a rebellion. The route they ski in the race today mirrors the route he supposedly took from Sälen to Mora. Most think it’s just a tale, as reports put Gustav somewhere else at the time.

I briefly entertained the idea of traveling up there to see the race firsthand, but sub-zero temperatures and a strong sense of laziness kept me at home. Given my inclinations to pick a wine-fueled dinner over exercise, I can’t imagine laboring across 90 kilometers with frozen limbs. Thank you Swedish public television for letting me stay on the couch.

(SVT, Swedish public television has a fantastic video of the start. Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t like its video, so check it out here: http://svtplay.se/v/1917939/starten)

Miss me?

After a month-long break to concentrate on work and some other matters I am back! Despite my busy schedule I have missed telling you about my adventures and have a few new stories to tell from my trip to Vietnam.

But not yet. The extensive video I shot of a motorbiking (suicide) excursion in Ho Chi Minh City is too long for an edit this week. Instead, I leave you with these (not shot by me). Grab a tissue and a friend and get ready to howl.

The best party… EVER

I have never quite experienced anything like Songkran and by far it was the best party I’ve ever been to. As I wandered (or was pushed and cajoled) down the street, yelling “Happy New Year” to the smiling faces of hundreds of thousands who were soaked and covering everyone in sight with white clay, I began to love the Thai people more. I forgot my occasional frustration with the language and culture barrier and enjoyed myself more than I have in years. I found myself sticking my cheeks out for people to smear clay on me and screeching in delight as freezing cold bottles of water were poured down my back. It was an opportunity I grabbed with both hands to really spend time with the Thai people, something I have not done before.

And let me tell you, they know how to throw one hell of a party.

Pilgrim Tweet: Police paraphernalia

I keep noticing a strange trend: Thai people wearing t-shirts, jackets and hats that say “POLICE” in big white letters. I’ll see men on motorbikes with regular old black jackets on that say it across the back who are clearly not officers of the law. And stalls selling “POLICE” t-shirts and hats abound on Silom Road. Most don’t even try to resemble a uniform or an official piece of gear. Often times it is a simple logo t-shirt that has the word randomly emblazoned on it, as if it were an afterthought.

I wish I could provide an intelligent explanation for this but it baffles me.

Chaos intensifies in capital. Water fight!

Chaos and crisis are the two words most frequently used to describe the anarchy that has besieged the capital. Another word, uttered more quietly and with reserve, is revolution.

Monday in Bangkok saw early morning clashes that have continued into the afternoon between protesters and the army in several main intersections of downtown. Soldiers have opened fire on the crowds of demonstrators, who have responded by throwing gasoline bombs (Molotov cocktails) and setting at least one city bus on fire and sending it toward a line of troops. There have been no reports of casualties thus far, though at least 74 people have been injured, mostly because of tear gas fired by the troops.

A midday speech by the prime minister promised that the airports, train stations and major ports would be secured. But faith in his leadership is waning quickly as security forces struggle to contain the raging mob.

Another concurrent event that could also be called chaotic? Songkran _ the Thai water festival that ushers in the Buddhist New Year during the hottest month of the year.

On some Bangkok streets, you would never know there is political upheaval of this magnitude. Everywhere Thais are jubilantly dousing each other with hoses, buckets and squirt guns filled with water, and covering their bodies with white powder. Oh and dousing the foreigners despite my pleas to spare me (I got a big bucket of cold water down the back just 15 minutes ago).

It also might be helping to mitigate more severe disruptions, as many Thais use the extended holiday to see their families in provinces around the country, creating the emptiness we might experience in the States on Labor Day. Lines of cars aren’t parked on the side of the street and traffic jams have been minimal (which is a huge feat for this city). The lack of people in the city until Wednesday means that the intersections blocked by commandeered public buses and lines of troops to stem the tide of demonstrators won’t create disruptions of the magnitude it might on a regular weekday.

In a country so plagued by instability it is refreshing to see Thais still take the time to enjoy this revered national holiday. Now if only the protesters would join in, maybe some of the fires and anger could be doused.

Music by Andre Rieu & The Johann Strauss Orchestra and Byron Stingily.