Sweden-town in London

Sweden-town in London

Sweden-town in London
Sweden-town in London
I’ve written before about my love of London, or more specifically the love I have for London’s diversity and especially my particular part of east London.

Until fairly recently, I had no idea there was an active Swedish community in London — not until one of the girl‘s friends from her show choir invited us to celebrate Swedish Midsummer at the end of June.  Rotherhithe park was filled with Swedes in white dresses and green leaf headdresses picnicking, drinking schnaps (complete with the obligatory drinking song and toast with each glass), and celebrating the midsummer in a traditional sort of way.  Even though the event was organised by the Swedish church, it was still very traditionally pagan.

It’s one of the things I love about London at this time of year: all the different Christmas markets popping up in the various parts of London — who knew there was a small part of the city around Marylebone referred to as “Sweden town”?  Almost six months later, we were back in the Swedish community this weekend with a Swedish Christmas market.

We found the Swedish church without trouble and were amused that the sign outside specified “English spoken”.  Apparently it’s been the centre of the Swedish community in London for several hundred years. The girl had opted to wear her red-and-white knitted Christmas poncho and a matching woolen hat: as we entered the church, the rector admired her knitwear and commented how she looked very Norwegian — our Swedish friend Linda later explained that this kind of chunky knitwear is very common in Norway.

Off-topic, I didn’t see a whole lot of people when I was in Norway (other than the adventurers I was with) but one place where we were staying was a popular spot for snowmobilers to stop and eat before moving on.  These people all wore the kind of ugly Christmas jumpers that are becoming very fashionable in the UK in recent years.

Inside the Swedish church, the market was largely being held in the basement — each stall had a handmade wooden sign, indicating in Swedish what they were offering, and the place was packed.  Better yet, you’d occasionally hear snatches of conversation like “It actually gets busier than this” and “I had no idea it would be this crowded, is it always like this?”.  While at some stalls you practically had to push your way to the front or push your way through the crowd, it was a good kind of crowded — with a positive atmosphere, rather than one of impatience or stress (unlike a busy shop around Christmastime).

The market wasn’t very big, and after I saw it as a prize on the tombola I probably spent almost as much time searching for a particular wooden decoration (a wooden heart with a picture of a black cat inside it) for sale than I had walking around and exploring the market originally.  Nobody seemed to be able to tell me for sure where I could buy this ornament from — the stall especially for Christmas ornaments (like the traditional Gävle goat) almost laughed at the idea they had anything with cats and pointed me to a different part to try, who in turn pointed me back to where I started.  Just the same, I came away with a Swedish “jultomte”, a Father Christmas made of felt for our tree — a man consisting of just a hat, nose and white beard.  Some had grey beards instead of white; this is something I should look up.

I don’t know where my work will take me next on my travels, though I am tempted to try and contrive a visit to somewhere with a good Christmas market — but even if I don’t make it out of England again before the end of 2012, I know there will be more interesting Christmas markets to be found in London.

The intervention

Life's a game

Life's a game“Most people think life sucks, and then you die. Not me. I beg to differ. I think life sucks, then you get cancer, then your dog dies, your wife leaves you, the cancer goes into remission, you get a new dog, you get remarried, you owe ten million dollars in medical bills but you work hard for thirty-five years and you pay it back and then — one day — you have a massive stroke, your whole right side is paralyzed, you have to limp along the streets and speak out of the left side of your mouth and drool but you go into rehabilitation and regain the power to walk and the power to talk and then — one day — you step off a curb at Sixty-seventh Street, and BANG you get hit by a city bus and then you die. Maybe.” – Denis Leary

I’ve been very interested in Derren Brown’s tv shows on “Fear & Faith”, exploring how a faith in something can be created, and how having faith can be a good thing. People with phobias are unknowingly given a placebo to help them overcome their fears and told to keep a video diary documenting the changes they feel. It’s pretty straight-forward stuff: the placebo works, but is reinforced through, effectively, cognitive behavioural therapy.

What interested me more was a very short segment where a girl was told she was going to take part in a show called “intervention”: as she went about her day to day life, in among the normal strangers she met would be people and situations deliberately placed to teach her something.  She would have no idea who or what they were.  As with the phobias, she would keep a video diary discussing it and speculating what the perceived interventions were trying to teach her.  She came away from it resolving to be happier, more confident and to worry less.  The twist, of course, was there were no interventions.

The idea of this intervention show reminds me a bit of the film The Game with Michael Douglas, where a wealthy businessman becomes embroiled (I love that word: embroiled. You only ever see it in a plot synopsis) in a live-action game that takes over his entire life.  Either that or what he initially thinks is a game is an elaborate and all-consuming con.  Or possibly just his descent into madness.  Either way, his life becomes interspersed with people and situations who are part of “The Game”.

In a more convulted way, David Cronenberg explores something similar in his film eXistenZ, where an inexperienced player is introduced to an all-immersive game where the characters are “stumbling around together in this unformed world, whose rules and objectives are largely unknown, seemingly indecipherable or even possibly nonexistent, always on the verge of being killed by forces that we don’t understand”.  To make things worse, he is told you have to play the game to find out why you are playing the game.  Once again, some “game characters” aren’t important, while others have specific roles to play.

But what does any of this have to do with anything?

A colleague told me over dinner recently, on a business trip, that she thinks everything happens for a reason — and that if one thing doesn’t work out, it’s because something better is waiting.  I responded politely that I think it’s a nice philosophy, but I don’t agree: I don’t think things happen for a reason, and if something you want doesn’t happen it does not mean that something better is around the corner.  Sometimes, things get worse.  Sometimes, life sucks and then it gets worse. And then it gets better, and then it gets worse. And, like Denis Leary says, “Then you die. Maybe”.

I don’t think this is a pessimistic approach to life.  Because I don’t think a lack of meaning or a lack of intervention doesn’t mean we can’t choose to learn and strive to be better.  Do people come into our lives for a reason?  Or “a season, or a lifetime” as it is popular to say?  If you put it like that, any interaction with anyone can be described: a “season” could be 5 minutes on the bus.  But what about “a reason”?

That suggests a plan, and as far as I’m concerned there is no plan. There is no plan, no plot, no rules, no game.  If you are in a relationship with someone who becomes physically or emotionally abusive they have not come into your life “for a reason”. You can learn any lessons you choose from it: that is up to you, but nothing was planned — and it does not mean something good is “waiting”.

On the other hand, free will is a very complicated and contentious issue. How much of our choices are really free, and how many are made acting on unconscious decisions that have been knock-on effects of other things? Our environment, our upbringing, our emotions — even marketing — can affect or predict the choices we will make.  When someone gets into a lift with other people, there are models that show where they will stand — and how the other people will move.  This can be applied on a much larger scale: it’s not bad and it’s not good. It doesn’t mean that even if our choices and reactions are largely the result of things beyond our control that there is any coherent plan: or that things as a whole are either good or bad.

It’s only what we choose to learn from.

Sometimes fires don’t go out when you’re done playing with them

The Mongolian Derby

The Mongolian Derby
Source: http://bit.ly/SkQxxb
Adventuring has been quiet of late. For the entire month of October, I didn’t leave the country — and it seems strange that it has become normal for me to be packing up and flying out, dashing from one place to the next, waking up in the night and feeling a sense of panic when I can’t remember where I am.  As I say, October has been quiet.

But November is back to business as usual: this week holds a last minute trip to Paris for a couple of events, and some time digging stuff, then a couple of days at home before I board the Eurostar again to Antwerp  These are a bunch of first times for me: my first trip on the Eurostar, my first trip to Paris (as a disclaimer, I have visited France before, and even driven my car to Lille on one occasion, just never Paris), and my first trip to Belgium. We can expect more blog posts with pictures and journal entries from these new cities: and I should really brush up on my French.

In other news, last month I presented to a crowd of about 500 people at the Hacker News London meetup.  As I had arranged for my company to be a sponsor, I got to have two minutes just to say a few words about us.  I had planned my presentation carefully to be almost exactly two minutes long and cover all the important points I needed: but on the night, I changed my mind. The sponsor before me said only a few words, and I didn’t want to look out of place giving a more prepared and much longer intro — so I followed suit, just explained who I was, who my company are, and told the crowd to come to our next user group meeting.  I regretted this when the two sponsors who followed me did give longer intros.  I have resolved to do better next time, and to somehow make it interesting and if possible slightly funny. It’s not beyond me: I can make people laugh with self deprecating humour when I perform at open mike nights, I just have to work on it.

At this Hacker News I was lucky enough to see a presentation from Linda Sandvik on, in her words, “Making things better”.  Linda was inspirational to me as an adventurer: she takes Mondays as an opportunity to force herself to do things she wouldn’t normally do, from little things like making phone calls to much larger things — such as the longest, toughest horse race in the world, the Mongol Derby.

Linda decided one day to enter the Mongol Derby, despite not being a professional nor having ever competed in anything more strenuous than gymkhanas and openly admitting to not having been fit in several years.  Linda just decided she would enter — and what’s more, she did it, too.  She didn’t just talk about it, she didn’t give it up as a bad idea: she actually went ahead and competed in the Mongol Derby.

Admittedly, she didn’t complete the race and was hospitalised for several days with a collapsed lung, and other injuries, but to me it’s the taking part that’s important. Linda is the kind of person who would enter the Dakar, even if they had never ridden a motorbike before — and even if people said it was crazy and dangerous.  After all, when I first started talking about it people said that my dog sledding challenge was crazy and that I’d freeze to death.

For the minute, I have slightly less lofty goals: as well as the year of the dragon (which is progressing well, even if I think it will take many years to master the art of dragon boat paddling) I’m discussing the idea of presenting at one of my work’s conferences some time next year.  Not being technical, all I could present on would be community management. My boss is fully supportive of the idea, to the extent that with her encouragement I am founding a meetup group for community managers: just a place for people like me to discuss their experiences, and on opportunity for me to learn what I have to offer.  I would also like to present a whole talk to the Hacker News London meetup, rather than just the two minute intro.

These might not seem like big adventures, but they form a part of trying to be a better person: as well as getting fitter (I am now visiting the gym several times a week, as well as dragon boat paddling), and trying to be more positive (to be happier), I am also trying to be the person that does things, and doesn’t just talk about them.  I also have to balance this with trying not to take on too much or risk burning out: so there’s an adventure in trying not to have too many different adventures all at the same time.