Part 1 of an interesting journey into darkest Norskehuvea, a sort of modern version of that Finnish classic epic, The Kalevala. Disappointing as it may be, there is absolutely no sexual prurience of any kind in this travelogue; not even a passing gratuitous comment on the gender of Finnish garden trolls. I realise that this stands in marked contrast to my usual tendency to weave suggestive (or even downright lustful) elements into the fabric of my commentaries, but frankly this and the next 4 installments are about as titillating as the Walt Disney animated cartoon 'Bambi'. Sorry to let you down, folks! [This was written back in the early 90s, more than 15 years ago.] The image accompanying this is from the cover of Finnish artist Mauri Kunnas' wonderfully droll 'The Canine Kalevala', by the way, a whimsical 'must have' addition to your bookshelf if you are into Norse mythology (and dogs and cats).
Saunas and Wartoys:
A Modern Kalevala
THE SWEDISH OPTION:
It has been brought to my attention innumerable times by well-meaning friends that vacations are principally intended for relaxation. Whether purely for a break from the normal work grind or simply to indulge in some quality time for one’s self, the conventional wisdom suggests that holidays are best spent in an unstructured, relaxing environment--preferably, if at all possible, in an exotic locale and surrounded by interesting sights, sounds and experiences.
Well, friends, I have managed to meet the last three criteria, even if the central thrust (no pun intended) of half a month of leave was recently dedicated to an exploration of defense and military concerns in the northern most regions of Europe. I have learned from previous experience to offer simple, uncomplicated and possibly dissembling answers when asked by acquaintances what I did on vacation. These usually consist of innocuous, bland recounting statements of how peacefully the palm trees waved on the beaches of Majorca, or how picturesque the white-washed cottages are on the Island of Mikonos. I usually don’t tell them the truth--that I just spent a week catching up on the latest advances in chemical and biological warfare defense techniques, followed by a week-long Cook’s Tour of Finland’s military and aviation facilities. By setting this forth, I am breaking that precedent simply because those of you who know me know I am prone to some unique predilections, while those of you who don’t could care less (quite justifiably, I might add).
Every three years or so the Swedish National Defense Research Establishment (located in Umeå, and acronymically named FOA) conducts the world’s largest and most respected international symposium on chemical and biological warfare Defense technology in Stockholm. I have attended this conference since 1992, just after the Middle Eastern Gulf War had ended--the 4th such gathering since its inception. In view of the recent conclusion of Saddam Hussein’s NBC threat, there was at that time a particularly keen world-wide interest in this normally somewhat obscure and exotic area of defense affairs.
I had planned to attend the symposium again this year in a nominal capacity as the sole “Saudi Arabian” delegate, although actually a United States citizen. Coincidentally, a very good Finnish friend and associate in chemical defense, living in Turku, had been after me for some time to visit his native country and spend some time taking in the Finnish National Defense Research Establishment as his guest. X, a former Gerneral in the Finnish chemical defense service, is now a respected writer on military topics and is also a teacher, with many ties to people in that country’s defense forces. When I told him I would be spending a week in Stockholm at the FOA conference, X would not let me demure from his invitation to spend an extra week in Finland immediately thereafter. Obtaining the extra week was really no problem so I arranged to make the trip across the Gulf of Bothnia via ferry the day the Stockholm gathering ended. Upon hearing this, X, who is 55 and a very interesting and capable individual with many talents, put together a stimulating agenda of activities for my consideration in advance of my visit--more of which shall be divulged shortly. [Have I ever been able to tell anything simply, bereft of complex and frequently completely unnecessary detail? Do pigs fly through the skies of Saudi Arabia? Does the Pope leave the Holy Toilet Seat up after he takes a Holy Whiz?].
The Scandinavian fortnight that ensued was a whirlwind of fascinating if highly technical and very condensed mucking about in Finnish defense matters. It was so highly structured that there really wasn’t much that was relaxing about it, except that such activities are of remarkable interest to me and I am at my zenith doing such things. Although I was completely exhausted when I returned to Riyadh, there is no question in my mind that it was one of the most unusual and enjoyable experiences I have undertaken in the past 10 years.
The trip started off on 8 June with a British Airways flight from Riyadh to Heathrow, where a linking flight on the same carrier would take me to Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport. SAS, normally the popular carrier for trips to the lands of the midnight sun, was on strike--a first for that established, reputable airline. The BA flight left King Khalid International Airport (Riyadh) at 0030 hours in the morning on what is popularly referred to as the “red eye flight.” After struggling through the usual hassles clearing the Kingdom’s passport and customs control and setting off the severely misadjusted metal detection system with the screws in my eyeglasses numerous time (a royal pain, assuredly, and caused by the extreme ineptitude of the Arab operators), I made it on board the flight. The new Boeing 767-100 was soon in the air and the flight to London was smooth and uneventful, if you exclude the noise of the Brit contingent attacking the alcohol stocks (upon clearing Saudi airspace).
The makeover construction at Heathrow has been going on for several years now, but I was able to negotiate the bus transfer from Terminal One to Terminal Four without much trouble and was soon on my way to Stockholm after a short layover. Arrival on the Boeing 737-400 series aircraft occurred after just three hours, and the weather at Arlanda was just the way I am used to it (being a native San Franciscan): moderately high overcast with some hazy sunshine.
Catching the SKr 50 airport bus into Stockholm’s massive central terminal, I was soon at the desk of the Hotel Wallin, which is conveniently a block away from the Norra Latin Conference Center where the FOA Symposium takes place, and near the Dröttningatan pedestrian mall. My wife was flying out to be with me, but perhaps due to the intervention of the Tomptens her flight had been delayed and wouldn’t be arriving until the afternoon of the next day. (The Tomptens, by the way, are mythical little people much like the Irish Leprechauns, dear to the hearts of the Scandinavians; they are known as ‘gnomes’ in Germany and England). Therefore I had a day and a half in which to indulge myself with some explorations of Stockholm--an aspect of my last trip to this city I had not had much time to engage in.
As usual, Stockholm was seemingly alive with amazingly healthy, robust, vigorous natives. It seemed as if everyone wore shorts and abbreviated summer attire despite the fact that the weather was intermittently rainy and cool for about half of the time I was there. Inquiring about this, I learned that the Scandinavian summer is a scarce and much appreciated commodity. Therefore, cool and windy or not, the hardy Swedes feel that “sidereal summer” mandates summer clothing, and disdain the frequently chilly draughts of fresh air that regularly sweep the Stockholm archipelago.
Of course, quite often the weather is beautiful and sunny, but overall the weather of Stockholm is not all that different from that of the American Pacific Northwest in that rain, fog and cold breezes are constant companions in summer months. In 1992 the Swedish nation had experienced a record heat wave and there was nothing but sun and languid June warmth throughout the FOA conference held in that year. What a contrast this year’s conference was, by comparison! It rained & thundered the second day I was there with a ferocity that impressed me. My 1992 experience with balmy weather had misled me into leaving my umbrella at home, so my first foray was taken to find one. Fortunately, a local Seven-Eleven convenience store (yes, they have them in Stockholm) provided one for SKr 66, and I remained armed with this (disposable) bumbershoot until I was ready to board the ferry for Finland.
Stockholm certainly has to be one of the most beautiful of the world’s capitol cities, as any person who has strolled leisurely along its quays in summer warmth will readily tell you. The Swedes, being an active, outdoorsy people, delight in walking and cycling; accordingly much of the city has been planned to accommodate these activities. Additionally, with a history which dates back several hundred years, much of the interesting architecture has been preserved in the older areas. In some districts more recent structures built in the 20s and 30s predominate, all interesting examples of the edificial styles of that prewar era, but most of the city has been built to accommodate scenic inducement to foot traffic (take note, America!). The heart of the original settlement, Gamla Stan, has been preserved on its island as a living museum, with shops, businesses and restaurants. The sidewalk cafés of Stockholm, at least in warm summery weather, are absolutely wonderful from the standpoint of this life-long, inveterate cappuccino-sipper. Of course in summer hoards of tourists descend upon the Swedish capitol, bent on sightseeing and vicarious enjoyment of the city’s attractions. Sooner or later this urban congestion grates a bit on the nerves, no matter how pleasant the surroundings are. It didn’t escape me that I was far more aware of this aspect of the city on this trip than I was on my first visit, and after a week of elbowing crowds on the main pedestrian thoroughfares I was more than ready to make a break for Finland’s less densely populated interior.
THE LATEST IN DEATH & DESTRUCTION:
My wife finally arrived, her flight on BA through Heathrow from San Francisco (polar route) being a bit further delayed by connection complications. It wasn’t a whole lot of fun, waiting outside the arrival gates at Arlanda, owing to the crowds present on similar business but I managed to snag a Swedish magazine to keep myself amused for several hours until she walked into the lounge and we were able to catch the shuttle into Stockholm.
For her the week was pretty much open time, with most of her days spent sightseeing and becoming a bit more familiar with the city of Stockholm (this was her first visit). My own time was pretty solidly filled up from the 11th through the 16th with the chemical and biological defense technology sessions of the conference, in which all the latest advances in protection against NBC death and destruction were explored, papers delivered, specialty briefings held, and collective and individual protection equipment exhibited.
Probably the single most interesting aspect of this particular conference was the latest informational assessment of the Japanese terrorist Sarin gas incident, in which the Aum Shinrikyo cult released this deadly nerve agent against civilians in the Tokyo subways. Attending the conference to deliver an official technical report on the events and subsequent findings was Dr. Prof. Kazuhiko Maekawa of Tokyo University Hospital. Professor Maekawa presented a fairly adequate overview of all that had taken place, including a detailed accounting of measures which had been initiated to meet the threat and provide aid to the victims. The overall reception from the delegates was that the information was still not specific enough to be as helpful as might have been preferred, but the subject of related concerns centering on use of these deadly nerve agents as terrorist weapons was thoughtfully explored to everyone’s satisfaction. The consensus over the Japanese presentation was that Japan had been truly caught by surprise and was largely unprepared for such a possibility as this attack taking place in a densely populated urban district. One of the most revealing findings to emerge was that due to the unexpectedly rare nature of massive organophosphate poisoning taking place in a non-rural, metropolitan center, the diagnosis and treatment of the injuries arising was severely impeded. Therefore it was far less effective and expeditious than it might have been had the causative nature been suspected from the onset. Many other details of the incident were released, some of which were still marginally classified, but suffice to say it was quite a source of interest for all the symposium delegates.
The next most interesting item on the FOA chemical protection symposium agenda concerned the latest updates on UNSCOM’s efforts in Iraq to destroy the Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction.” I personally dislike that popular press-promulgated phrase, but what the hell. UN spokesman Rolf Ekeus presented a briefing on the 1992 through 1995 activities of the munitions disposal teams and revealed along with other information that Iraq was already starting to show significant evidence of clandestinely developing a precursor base for a new covert biological weapons program. He stated that almost all of the existing stockpiles of chemical-filled munitions (SCUD type warheads, 122mm rocket and 155mm artillery projectiles filled with mustard and nerve agents) had been satisfactorily destroyed; the slide and video presentations which accompanied his talk were quite interesting, as well. As for the vaunted Iraqi “Baby Milk Factory,” the bombing of which was so heavily propagandised by the Iraqis during the war, it was conclusively identified as having contained a Sarin and GV nerve agent processing plant within its site. The Al Muthana CBW facility, Iraq’s largest and chief CBW manufacturing and storage site (located south of Baghdad), had been rendered useless and had now been turned back over to Iraq with an elaborate video and sensor surveillance system installed to monitor future use of the site. Still further remarks were directed towards the future prospects of cheaply made biologicals being developed by Iraq, since weapons of this type are far less complicated in terms of their design, manufacture and storage requirements.
Other segments of the symposium’s agenda dealt with the increasing possibility of further non-national (i.e. non-state-aligned terrorist organisations) use of chemical and especially biological agents, after the Tokyo model. Steps being taken by the world-wide CBW community to deal with this prospect were reviewed. Although the movie thriller Outbreak, featuring Dustin Hoffman, exaggerates the potential of such a problem for cinematic effect, quite a bit of sober thoughtfulness was produced by the film, heightening popular awareness of biological agents as weapons of war. It seems the UN chemical weapons convention (CWC) is pretty much on the road towards bring about an end to the proliferation of chemical weapons, world-wide, but the corresponding convention to control biological weapons isn’t faring as well. Much disagreement among nations as to definitions, terminology, structure of the act, and unresolved issues involving implementation, remains. We might non-unreasonably expect the next major international threat to come from covert use of these biological weapons, since they are far more easily prepared, transported, cultivated and stored than their chemical counterparts--far more so, and in smaller but vastly more lethal quantities. The practical bottom line would seem to be (tongue in cheek, but not very far)--from an expatriate traveler’s viewpoint--to stick to using only bottled water on trips abroad until further notice.
Luminaries, dignitaries and other CBW worthies present at this premier symposium included the head of the English Porton Down CBW establishment and the equivalent counterparts from numerous countries around the world (over 60 nations participated). The Swedish Minister of Defense opened the conference and the new US NBC “Czar,” Dr. Theodore Prociv, brought the attendees up to date on the recent reshuffling of US Defense Department NBC logistics (attributable more to the harsh economic realities forced upon the US armed forces than by a desire to be more effectively organised, I would imagine). There were many similar briefings and papers presented, more research studies detailed, and the usual small private conferences held on stair-landings between sessions. Attending nations from the Middle East included the Iranians, Egyptians and Kuwaitis (the burned child fears the fire), but with Saudi Arabia’s capitol, Riyadh, only 212 kms from the Iraqi chemical threat in 1991, guess what wealthy Arab nation didn’t put in an appearance? The fact that I attended made me the sole ‘token’ delegate from Saudi Arabia, although I was not attending in any official capacity therein. Many of the other symposium delegates were puzzled to see what appeared to be a fair-skinned, blonde and green-eyed ‘Arab’ representing that nation, providing me with great amusement.
Among the non-technical items on the agenda was the official welcoming ceremony for the symposium delegates hosted in the spectacular Stockholm City Hall by the Mayor. The Stockholm City Hall is an immense, soaring, red brick architectural wonder in which the yearly Nobel Peace Prizes are presented, among other things. The welcoming speech was followed by a huge buffet smorgasbord, consisting of table after table of traditional foods, wines, smoked salmon, caviar, etc., while delegates enjoyed a few hours of social diversion in the city hall’s great reception room.
OOPS...THERE GOES THE VASA, YOUR MAJESTY!
Other events of note on the symposium agenda included a bus tour of the greater environs of Stockholm, and a very special evening diner cruise of the 22,000+ island Stockholm archipelago, held on two old Swedish steam-powered vessels of the early 1900s. The dinner was excellent, of course, consisting of traditional Swedish cuisine, and it was great fun to stand up on the upper decks watching the scenic coastlines of the various islands pass in the perpetual twilight of the Swedish summer evening. The nature of the protracted evening-like ambience which is characteristic of the far northern longitudes makes such outings very romantic by nature--the effect is not unlike enjoying a sunset for several hours. This fact is not lost on Swedish couples, who may be seen leisurely walking along the seaside long into the night, and our three hour dinner cruise, although it ended at 11 PM, seemed to take place in a sort of 5PM time-warp. Only after midnight does the sun dip below the horizon, and then only for an hour or two; the effect of this is interesting, but it takes a bit of getting used to by non-native tourists.
As the week’s events unfolded, more opportunities occurred for recreational sightseeing amidst the seriousness of the symposium’s agenda. One such ‘don’t miss this’ activity was a tour of the extremely interesting VASA museum. The VASA, a magnificent royal 17th century wooden hulled ship of the line which was especially commissioned by King Gustav Vaasa as his flagship, ingloriously capsized and sank not far from its construction site almost immediately after it was launched in 1633. This 300 year old singular example of nautical architecture of that period remained at the bottom of the Stockholm harbor in 40 meters of water almost completely forgotten--owing to the vast embarrassment suffered by the King--until the early 1960s, at which time a massive and costly effort was made to recover it. Due to the combination of extremely cold water (almost devoid of oxygen) and thick, tar-like mud found on the bottom of the harbor, the vessel was preserved almost entirely intact for three centuries; when it was rediscovered and salvage attempts made to retrieve it, the world was amazed to find it substantially as it had originally been in that distant time when it sank.
The 300 ton royal baroque masterpiece of maritime engineering went down in virtually calm conditions (taking 18 men to the bottom along with it) due to its being overly top-heavy, overgrossed, and underballisted. The gunports were a mere 4.5 feet above the waterline (partly the result of the King having ordered that an additional gun-deck be built which had not been on the original design plan) and when a slight gust caught the ship’s sails right after launch, it immediately heeled over and went down. Recent study has been shown that the ship as built could not sustain more than a 10 degree list without encountering disaster such as that which overtook it! Fortunately, a multi-million Kroner restoration project begun in the early 1960s after the ship was brought up has resulted in this amazingly preserved ship that is now permanently housed in the VASA museum. It remains one of the most interesting sights which can be seen in Stockholm, and stands alone as the sole surviving example of a 17th century capital ship in the whole world. The King’s extreme consternation in 1633 at having his rather expensive toy sink upon being launched was understandable; fortunately for all of us today, this accident of history has contributed spectacularly to our understanding of 17th century Swedish maritime technology.
At any rate, the brooding bulk of the VASA'S dark hull is an awesome sight as it emerges in the darkened, carefully controlled environment of the special building wherein she is housed. As the eyes become adjusted to the lowered light, the stupendous size of this behemoth creates an impression that is hard to forget.
MEETING THE FINNISH CONTINGENT:
The symposium did not host a formal dinner this time at the Swedish Military Academy, as it had in 1992, so the elegantly slinky black-silk-with-gold trim Cheong Sam dress I had had my wife bring along with her did not get its evening of splendorous display. I continued to hear small muted mutterings of discontent over having brought it along for nothing all week, albeit just slightly out of my range of hearing, and I did sympathise with her for having had to lug it carefully half-way around the world with her just to keep it on a hanger. She looks absolutely gorgeous in it, of course, as the dragon lady of my dreams that she is.
Meanwhile I was busy meeting various delegates and encountering a few of the Finnish contingent who would later host my visit to that country’s defense installations. These included the Commandant of the Finnish NBC Protection School and his aide, the Chief Scientist of the Finnish Defense Research Agency (whose son is a Finnish Air Force Draken pilot), the Manager of the Kemira Oy Company (NBC products), and two Finnish Air Force representatives (the Commander of the Satakunta Air Wing, and a Major from the Finnish Air Force Academy).
This was really my first substantial contact with the Finns, aside from my friend X, and I was struck by their characteristic national personality--explained to me by our Finnish cardiac surgery nurse colleague in Riyadh. There is an old joke about the Finns, apparently, that goes something like this: “When the Finns go to a formal function, they dress seriously, act seriously, and look serious; when they attend an informal gathering, they dress semiformally, act casually, and look serious; when they go to a party, they dress casually, act silly, and look serious.” In all seriousness (LoL), I later was to find out far more about this interesting nature while visiting Finland, and found them to be very, very delightful and warm-hearted people, despite their frequently dour initial appearance.
Meanwhile, the Swedish conference continued. The cost of everything in Sweden in 1995 was quite steep, compared to 1992 (it wasn’t cheap then, either), with the exchange rate being about 1US$ = 7.1 SKr. Despite being an expatriate used to using different monetary units from several countries, it was quite easy to go through Kroner like play money. A Chinese dinner I hosted for seven colleagues in the Gamla Stan old city cost just under a thousand Kroner!...perhaps not much by Tokyo or Hong Kong standards, but a whole lot for this middle-class American. Alcoholic beverages (wines and beer) are quite expensive, with spirits (hard liquor) even more so. Even the usual touristy souvenirs and kitschy gifts are quite pricey. Hand crafted folk-art such as the famous Red Pony, and more elegant items like world-famous Matts Ohlen crystal sculptures are even more so. Swedish and Finnish crystal and porcelains are expensive enough in their nations of origin, but even more so outside them, so some expensive purchases are almost mandatory.
I settled for several expensive, but masterfully hand carved, wooden figurines by Gunarsson, a well known Stockholm artist. Two of the three figures were of a young male and female student, dressed in the customary attire of successful graduates of university exams (the white topped, visored student cap and silver-knobbed walking cane that are the traditional regalia of graduation). They are quite skillfully executed and a delight to behold, but I have always been interested in the old student customs of Europe and Scandinavia so these were especially meaningful to me. At about US$ 90 each, they were costly, but well worth the cost as several of the few souvenirs I took home with me from my trip.
LARS LARSSON, CALL HOME:
Something that caught my attention and interest was the proliferation of cellular phones of the ultra-small pocket variety on the streets, which seem to have swept the Scandinavian countries like wild-fire. Everywhere you look on the streets of Stockholm, you find the characteristic hand growing out of the ear that marks the cell-phone user. Mothers, businessmen, teenagers, street drunks, even children. Everyone had the small cellular phone holster at the hip, and aside from constituting an obvious sign of trendy status, they appear to be as common as personal pagers were in the USA recently. A taxi driver told me that cell phones are very, very inexpensive in Scandinavia (Finland’s Nokia Company is a major player in this market, making small, precise electronic items such as these that compete head-on with the best products Japan turns out). It was amusing seeing this new visible symbol of contemporary world communications progress making such inroads in Sweden. Personally, as an individual who absolutely hates, loathes, despises, abominates and otherwise can’t stand telephonic communications devices (I’ve been on hospital call for too many years like these things, and especially “beepers”), I wouldn’t be caught any other way than dead with one of them. It is bad enough to be tied into the telephonic network by day in an occupational context, but I regard my ‘off-time’ as sacrosanct. Telephones really tighten my jaws, since they are such annoyingly patent violations of personal privacy and peaceful harmony.
Another observation garnered on this visit to Stockholm was the fact that Swedish women all seem to be...and they can be no other suitable word for it other than simply.....healthy. I don’t think I have seen more firmly toned, well conditioned women clustered in one place than in Sweden. Even the non-Scandinavian immigrants in Sweden’s capitol appear to be more body-conscious (in excellent shape) there than in their native countries. I was greatly impressed by the great abundance of well-shaped gastrocs and gluteals, and women on the street seemed all to have beautiful long legs that extended from their chins downwards to their ankles. Very few overweight or poorly conditioned people in evidence, as far as I could see. Not certain how it is out in the country, but I would bet that obesity is not a common problem in rural Sweden, either.
Although there wasn’t a lot of time left between events to explore the culinary aspects of Stockholm, my wife and I did manage to sample a restaurant or two on evening strolls. One of these was an uninspiring Chinese eatery that promised more than it appeared to offer, and another was the somewhat well-known disco called SAIGON, which is a sand-bagged and bunkered bar/café with a subterranean disco floor featuring songs of the Vietnam era. Most of the kids hanging around in it weren’t even born when that unhappy war was going on, but I can’t blame them for being interested in the image in view of the importance of Stockholm’s rep as a major refuge for peaceniks, US military deserters and anti-war protestors in the 60s and 70s. I was reminded that I had briefly considered deserting the US Air Force to fly to Sweden, while on duty in the US ZI, back in 1968. But for a change of heart I could now be living in Sweden as one of the Vietnam peace movement refugees of 30 years ago. Life has an interesting and frequently ironic way of imparting reflection and insight into one’s life, as the trail through it continues.
All things eventually end, of course, and so the 5th FOA International Chemical Agent Symposium wound down with the usual informal business contacts and sessions that spring up during coffee breaks and social hours. The Chinese (PRC) delegates were looking forward to hosting a CBW medical conference in Beijing in the following year; that would be something to attend, since the Beijing Chemical Defense Research Institute would be hosting it and there is much to do and see in China. In two years the next medical treatment of chemical warfare injuries symposium (CBMTS-2) would take place in Switzerland, hosted by the Swiss National Defense Research Laboratories; this is on the doorstep of the Bernese Oberland and a stone’s throw from Eiger, on the western end of the Thunnersee that brackets InterLaken.
Next: Part II, of course!