Month: August 2013

Summer memories: canoeing on Lillsjön

Samuel and Hanna paddling on Lillsjön
June 2. Samuel and Hanna paddling on Lillsjön

Raoul Wallenberg Day

Sweden does not have many war heroes, largely as the result of a policy of avoidance over the last hundred years or so, while the rest of the world plunged itself into conflict. It managed to avoid getting drawn into the First World War, despite its links with the rest of Europe. Its hard for me to understand whether Sweden during WW1 was closer to Germany or to England. The queen of Sweden at the time, Victoria, was German, and even though she was married to the Swedish king she managed to spend a good deal of her life outside Sweden, a country which she apparently didn’t like much. She died, however, in Sweden between the wars. The next queen of Sweden was an English girl, the sister of Dickie Mountbatten (First Lord of the Admiralty), though her father was German.

In WW2 it would seem Sweden was ambivalent about which side to join, having strong links to Germany, but not really wanting to commit herself, unlike Norway which resisted Germany from the beginning and suffered much hardship as a result. Sweden thought it would be better to remain neutral and keep her options open. But there were many in Sweden who did not agree with the government’s decision. A recent book tells the story of “the forgotten agents,” volunteer soldiers, farmers, policemen, customs agents and others who helped the Norwegian resistance movement (De glömda agenterna, by Anders Johansson). Other Swedes took action by sheltering Jewish refugees escaping from the war ravaged continent. Such individuals recognized the evil of the Nazi regime and resisted in whatever way they could despite the strict neutrality of their national government.

There is one Swede that stands out, however, as a real war hero: Raoul Wallenberg, who was a Swedish diplomat in Hungary during the Second World War. In a report yesterday in the English language newspaper, The Local, it was observed that “Wallenberg is credited with saving 100,000 Jews while he was stationed in Hungary during World War II. He was last seen in Budapest on January 17, 1945, when Soviet forces took the city from German troops. Soviet records state he died in a Moscow prison in 1947. However, his exact fate remains unknown, much to the frustration of his surviving family.”

Earlier this year the Swedish Academy decided to dedicate August 27 to his memory. Sweden is not very big on naming days after people. Indeed, it is rather un-Swedish to celebrate people as heroes at all. Raoul Wallenberg has however been honored in many other countries of the world, not least Hungary, and Australia (where, according to Wikipedia, he was named Australia’s first ever honorary citizen in 2012). In 2001 Sweden also decided it was time to publicly recognize Wallenberg’s achievements, and since then two memorials to him have been unveiled in Sweden, one in Stockholm and the other in Gothenberg. Finally, yesterday, Sweden celebrated the first Raoul Wallenberg Day.

Memories of summer

The days are still warm and sunny, but the mornings are chilly, and there is a sense that summer is coming to an end. It has been a specially good season this year: blue skies, green grass, long days of warmth and light. Just a few more weeks, summer is always too short in Sweden; no-one speaks of it but the autumn colors cannot be far off and before we know it winter will engulf us again.

So I thought that I would do a blog series over the coming weeks with mainly photos, memories of the summer that has been. It has been so lovely I can’t wait to share it with those of you who happen to look in.

June 1 - tulips
June 1 – tulips

Swedish health care needs us foreigners

Läkartidningen (the Journal of the Swedish Medical Association) published on the web today contained an article entitled “Overseas trained doctors keep Swedish healthcare going” (Utlandsutbildade läkare håller igång svensk sjukvård, Läkartidningen, 20 August 2013). Since 2003 more than half the doctors receiving their registration in Sweden every year have been educated outside Sweden: the latest year with figures available is 2011, when 1010 Swedish educated doctors were newly registered and 1239 doctors educated outside Sweden were registered.

These doctors fall into one of three categories. First there are non-Swedish doctors who come from other countries within the EU and which is the biggest group, accounting for up to 1000 doctors per year. The reason for this growth is likely the extension of the EU to include several new member states where doctors earn significantly less than in Sweden. It is hardly surprising that such doctors move to Sweden, where the pay and the living conditions are better. Legally doctors from the EU are allowed to move freely between the member states. Their qualifications are recognized in Sweden and the only requirement for them to work here is to learn the language to a certain level and find a job.

The second group, which is also growing rapidly, is Swedes who go abroad to get their medical degree, in countries offering English language education such as Poland, Rumania and Hungary. In 2010 this accounted for 140 doctors who had gained their degree in an EU country.

The third group is doctors from non-EU countries, and this is the group to which I belong. In the last 10 years the number of these so called third country doctors has varied between 100 and 300 per year. It appears to go up and down from year to year dependent on a number of factors, one of which is the conflict situation in the world. The largest numbers appear to come from Russia and Iraq. I have yet to meet another from Australia. This group has the longest and hardest pathway to Swedish medical registration and specialist recognition.

For me the process has not been difficult but it has been long. My Australian qualification was recognized and I received Swedish registration after a provisional period under supervision for 6 months. However, to be recognized as a specialist GP, which I have been in Australia since the early 90s I was required to go through the full five year training program in general practice, a process in which I am still engaged. Training in general practice in Sweden is very enjoyable and very comprehensive. However, it has been hard psychologically to be a trainee again after so many years practicing, and it has had a very significant financial cost for me.

Swedish medical care, however, could not survive without us foreign trained doctors, and it appears to need more. In general practice there is a desperate shortage of specialists, but the reasons for that are more complicated than a lack of Swedish trainees and the length of time it takes foreigners like me to be recognized as specialists. But that will have to be the subject of another blog.

Swimming in Provence

Jumping at Le Défens

The idea of a holiday in the south of France was to swim. Some time back I found a book on Amazon called Wild Swimming France, a companion volume to a book I had earlier bought about wild swimming in Britain. Wild swimming refers to swimming in rivers and lakes: neither of the books focuses much attention on coastal swimming. It is what the Swedes so delightfully call “sweet water” swimming, as opposed to the salty sea. The wonderful pictures in the French edition caught my imagination and the seed of an idea for a swimming holiday began to germinate in my mind. Traditionally, the south of France evokes thoughts of lavender fields and vineyards and mediaeval villages; swimming is usually thought of in terms of bikini clad girls basking on the crowded beaches of the Cote d’Azur (remember the Cannes scene from Mr Bean’s Holiday). But as I waited through the Scandinavian winter and spring I dreamed not of these but of little rivers gurgling through wooded mountains, and deep blue lakes lying peacefully between the hills.

Maria found a beautiful place to stay in the hilltop village of St-Julien-le-Montagnier. Some of the swimming spots in the book, we thought, must surely be around there. We discovered that the Verdon river runs from east to west just north of St Julien, which is in the Var region of Provence. The Verdon has carved out a spectacular gorge system, the so called Grand Canyon of Europe. In the seventies the French government decided to dam the Verdon in several places, for hydroelectricity and a reliable water supply for the region. One of the resulting lakes is Lac d’Esparron, close to St Julien. A little further to the east is a much bigger lake called Lac de Saint Croix, backed up behind another huge dam.

Midway between the two lakes on the Verdon is a little town called Quinson, and it was there we had our first swim. It was late in the afternoon when we jumped into the deep waters of the river, far below the soaring peaks of the canyon. The water is an extraordinary milky blue, as it is all along the Verdon river system, pleasantly cool, but not the shocking cold of our Swedish lakes. The kids jumped from the rock walls. We swam downstream, into the canyon. The water is still, backed up from the Lac d’Esparron at the other end of the gorge. By the time we climbed out of the water, the river was in deepening shadow, lying as it does at the bottom of a deep canyon.

Gorges du Verdon
Gorges du Verdon

Our next lake swim was a few days later at Bauduen, on the bigger Lac de Sainte Croix. It was hot on the beach by the village, and a dip was welcome. There was a high rock beside a rocky promontory there too; it was becoming clear that for the kids jumping was the biggest attraction of “wild” swimming, the higher the rock, the better. Later we drove and walked along a dusty road that followed the lake shore away from the town. After perhaps a kilometer we threw our stuff on a small stony beach with still, cool water, and swam delightedly out into the lake, the water clear down to four or five meters. Refreshed we continued along the road to its end another kilometer into the wilderness, and from there we followed a narrow track through the forest. We had read about a great jumping rock called Le Défens, and eventually it came into view around a headland, a rocky outcrop to which we could wade just off shore. On the lake side the water was  apparently bottomless, clear, deep blue, and we spent a lovely hour swimming around and leaping from its heights before hiking back to the car.

Pont de Galetas is a bridge over the Verdon River where it flows into Lac de Sainte Croix. The river backs up into the spectacular Gorges du Verdon, with its soaring crags and old forest ledges. Far above there is a narrow road that twists and turns along the canyon wall. Downstream from the bridge, on the shores where river widens into lake, a motley collection of hire companies offer canoes and pedal boats and even electric motor boats (“bateau electrique”), so we hired a one big enough for five and pedaled away, under the bridge and up into the gorge. There were lots of jumping spots, but we were determined to get as far up the gorge as possible, so the swimming was short. There was a downpour shortly after we entered the gorge, and the whole two hours we were pedaling clouds scudded across the sky, threatening more rain. We huddled at one stage with several other boats under a rocky overhang as the rain fell. There was a waterfall on the left side of the gorge under which the kids swam on the way back. We made it to a point where the water had become too shallow to navigate further and there we turned and pedaled back. It was raining and late when we arrived back at the beach, all the other boats were tied up. We gathered our wet belongings, bundled into the car and drove home.

Our only other wild swim was in a narrow wooded valley with a high waterfall at its head and cascades of milky blue water falling through the forest at its base. The water was cold and there were lots of people on the trail, though few in the water. We swam and rock hopped and climbed the rapids. The nearby town, a delightful medieval stone village, is called Sillans-la-Cascade.

We had decided to visit the coast at least once while we were in France, and dreamed of snorkeling in the Calanques between Marseilles and Cassis. So on our final day we drove to Cassis, glimpsing the picturesque harbor from far above as we came down from the coastal mountains. But a stop there and a boat to the Calanques was not to be. There was, quite simply, nowhere to park. After driving around for half an hour we gave up and drove on, eastward to La Ciotat. We managed to find a place for the car, and we had lunch in a beachside cafe, but there was no space on the beach for us, the sand was covered with a sea of humanity and the water was uninspiring. Eventually we drove on, even hoping for a place to stop in Saint-Cyr-sur-Mer, another delightful little seaside village, but even there we were unsuccessful. So we went home, aborting our plans for a dip in the Mediterranean. Home for our last three days was a 17th century coaching inn near Mirabeau, north of Aix-en-Provence; the old stone structure, on the land of a local wine grower, who lived in a chateau nearby, had been rebuilt and converted into a holiday apartment complex. In the beautifully landscaped gardens there was a lovely pool, and it was to there we retreated after our day at the coast. It was quiet and peaceful, cool and refreshing. That was our last swim in France, not wild perhaps, but wonderful nevertheless. The next day we drove to Nice for the flight home to Sweden.


St Julien-le-Montagnier

DSC_2273A few days back we returned from our summer holiday in France, in Provence. We stayed a week in St Julien-le-Montagnier which is a quaint little hilltop village not far from Aix-en-Provence. Maria had tracked down a beautiful apartment owned by a Swedish family which we could rent for a week. We flew to Nice and drove a hire-car the few hours from the frenetic Cote d’Azur up into the peaceful countryside. St Julien is quiet and peaceful with a beautiful view over the surrounding wooded countryside. It was exactly what we needed: a complete change from everyday life, in warm sunny Mediterranean climes. We have returned refreshed and ready (almost) for a Swedish autumn. I wrote the following on the last day:

The morning is beautiful, the sky is clear, a cool breeze drifts in. Beyond the windows is the narrow street, but it is below my line of sight and is only evident by the occasional passing car or pedestrian. I look over the street to crooked houses of stone and render, with orange roofs of terra-cotta tiles and random chimney stacks. Pencil pines are scattered around the village, which like much of the vegetation and the climate, remind of Tamworth and northern NSW.

St Julien le Montagnier is set on a hill and our little cottage, joined in a ragged row with the others in the street, is close to the top.  So from our windows we look over the rooftops of the houses on the other side of the street, which are lower down, and beyond we see the valleys and ridges of Provence. Far off in the distant valley of the Verdon River a collection of houses marks the town of Vinon-sur-Verdon, where we have shopped for supplies during our week here. There is a new Carrafour supermarket there. The river itself is shallow and wide, running over stones, a stark contrast to its dammed majesty in the lakes where we have swum these past days.

This region of France is called the Var, and is the part of Provence which reaches down to the Mediterranean coast. To our west but invisible to us is a big road running north from the coastal strip of the Cote dAzur to Aix-en-Provence and onward up to Avignon. To our north is the Verdon River, which has been our recreation this last week. The dam closest to here, directly north of our little village, makes the Lac d’Esparron, which backs up into the Gorges du Verdon at Quinson, to the east, where we swam the first day after we arrived. The much bigger Lac de La Croix is further to the north east, formed by another huge dam. It backs up into the Gorges at Port de Galetas, near Moustiers Saint Marie, where we hired our paddle boat a few days back to explore the spectacular gorge.

The village itself has a church crowning the hill, with a tower and a bell which rings on the hour, and once at the half hour. There is a restaurant and a little square where serious looking groups of Frenchman gather to play boules. There are spectacular views on every side. There is a sister village at the bottom of the hill called St Pierre which has a school and some shops and a public swimming pool. It is reached by a stony zigzagging footpath down the terraced slopes on the northern side of our hill. Distant in the forested valley on the southern side is a little stone chapel, Chapelle de la Trinité. Catholicism runs deep in the veins of these hills and valleys.

There are lots of villages and towns called St-Julien in France. Exactly who they are named for I am not sure. I don’t know why he features so frequently in town names. One website mentions an Italian saint, Sanctus Julianus Montanarius from the 12th century, but exactly who he was I don’t know. The le Montagnier suffix helps differentiate this St Julien from the others in the immediate region, which can be readily identified on a map of the Var region. It is fitting for a city set on a hill, Julien the mountaineer. St Julien is visible from miles around, and we saw it long before we drove up the steep narrow road. It raises expectations and attracts the eye. It is a pretty place and brought joy and rest to us.

You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden… In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Jesus)

Sunshine in France


For Australians the south of France is attractive for its culture, its castles, its picturesque villages, its art and wine. Provence brings images of vineyards and rows of lavender and stone cottages to mind. For Swedes the south of France is all about the climate: warmth, blue skies, beaches, sun – things that Australians really don’t notice. After all, Australia has the best (and perhaps the most) beaches of anywhere and hot sunny days are not exactly a rarity.

My brother Stephen has been very excited about us having a holiday in the south of France, since it is a favorite haunt of his and a regular holiday place. When we said we would be there for 10 days in August he positively overflowed with excited suggestions about places to go and things to see. His love of France is about the culture, the art, the language, the history. When I told him that my vision was to have a swimming holiday he was possibly a bit bemused. However, I sent some pictures and he was persuaded that there is more to France! He wrote the following in an email the other day:

I can cope (just) without seeing castles and art and stuff – actually the idea of floating down a river with you lot is rather appealing! France is pretty fab, n’est pas!

For our family, with our strange mix of Australian-ness and Swedish-ness, the experience of France has been different for all of us. I love the little villages and the Provence countryside. Maria loves the vineyards and the fields of lavender. The kids love the rivers and lakes. And coming, as we have, from the chilly north, we all love the warmth, the sun and the blue skies.

Sweden is our home these days, and we identify with several of the entries in the guest book of the apartment we rented in St Julien-le-Montagnier, a regular rental for Swedish travelers. Those entries observe that Provence is wonderful, and that a week or two here is treasured not just for the culture and the landscape, but for the climate. Repeatedly these entries speak of recharging, of absorbing the sun and warmth in preparation for the winter ahead. Scandinavia has its charms, but anticipation of the cold and dark brings a subconscious, niggling anxiety.

For now I push it aside and bask in the warmth of the southern French sunshine.