Monday 27 June 2016

DXStockholm Diary

Note: Click on any bold text in blue for a link to further details, a webpage or a Twitter account
           Click on any bold text in pink for a link to an Abba song

Friday 3rd June - Day One: I Wonder (Departure)

Normally when I get to the last day of a week's Half-Term holiday, there's that feeling that it's all gone too quickly. But this one was different, very different. I had spent the week half wanting it to go slowly so I could enjoy the time with my family, and half wanting it to whizz by, such was my sense of excitement and anticipation.

Just a few weeks previously, I had been approached by Abbott, manufacturers of the FreeStyle Libre flash glucose monitoring system, with an invitation to fly out to Stockholm for a weekend, to meet with some fellow diabetic bloggers. As you do.

So instead of a quiet weekend at the end of Half-Term getting ready for back to work, I found myself alone at a deserted Preston Station at 5am on a glorious sunny Friday morning, catching a train to Manchester Airport. I love journeys: I get excited by train journeys, let along plane journeys, which I don't often make. So whilst I was trying hard to look like a nonchalant seasoned traveller, I was beneath the surface a bundle of nervous excitement. The train was pretty empty as it passed first through rural Lancashire, then  my birthplace Bolton, then bustling Manchester Piccadilly and finally the airport. The random Abba song generator in my head alighted on the very appropriate I Wonder (Departure).

Meanwhile, my travelling companion for the flight to Sweden, fellow Type One Lydia, was making her way over the Pennines by taxi from her home near Doncaster. Lydia and I are good Twitter friends and had already met at another diabetes event, but it still felt surreal meeting up in this way. We know each other purely because of a shared medical condition and the fact that we chose to talk about it on social media, but that connection, like that which I have with so many others, is a guarantee of friendship. Going through security, it was nice for once to say "We have" rather than "I have" when explaining the strange devices stuck to our arms. A small but symbolic difference when you spend the rest of your life alone with the disease.

In-flight selfie
I'm not sure if it was Lydia's fault or mine, but we managed to chatterbox non-stop for the next five hours. The flight, with Norwegian Airlines, was entirely smooth and we were soon looking down on a land of lakes and forests as we made our descent to Arlanda Airport. Exhausted perhaps by my incessant prattling, Lydia fell asleep just as the plane was making its scary descent through the clouds, but we were soon safely on Swedish soil.

From the moment you get off the plane, Sweden seems very - well - Swedish. The Arlanda Express which whisks passengers at TGV speed from the airport to the city centre, feels like an IKEA on wheels, all bright, squeaky clean and uncluttered, with teak trim on the windows. The ticket inspectors all look like Bjorn Borg's dad or Pippi Longstocking's mum, speak embarrassingly perfect English but kindly reciprocated my attempt to be polite by using the word "Tack" as a thank you.

Once in Stockholm, we made the very short walk to the wonderful Haymarket Hotel, bumping into a legend of the online diabetic community, Chris the Grumpy Pumper. We checked in, and took the easy option of getting lunch at a McDonalds next door to the hotel. Culinary assimilation could wait.

Ryan, our Aussi-Swede entertains and informs us.
A walking tour of the city was on offer for those of us who had arrived in time, and at 3:30 we were met in the hotel lobby by a thoroughly engaging and entertaining Australian guide called Ryan, a resident of Stockholm, whose confident and coherent storytelling gave a real insight into some of the city's people and places. In particular, his account of the 1973 bank raid which gave rise to the so-called Stockholm Syndrome, by which captives befriend their captors, was both intriguing and amusing.

Stockholm Waterfront in the evening sunshine
With just time for a quick wash and brush up, we then met for the first time as a whole group and a coach picked us up to take us to the Museum of Science and Technology. The tantalising glimpse from the coach of Stockholm's miles of waterfront confirmed to me that I wished we had more time to explore, but no matter, there was stuff to get on with.

We walked through the closed museum to a room in the centre of which was a veritable smorgasbord of food and drink. We were welcomed by Abbott organisers and given a brief presentation on the museum, then left to eat, drink, be merry, and explore the museum. I never got to do the exploring,  but for the nicest of reasons, as I got into earnest, varied and genial discussion with a gentleman from Abbott Sweden whose name I didn't take in. Just the sort of exchange of perspectives and experiences which makes travel such an enlightening experience.

A DJ in a DJ
We returned by coach to the hotel, whose atmospheric public bar was already buzzing, being apparently a place for a diverse and friendly crowd to gather through the long summer evenings. A guy in full evening wear - a DJ in a DJ - was spinning 1920s jazz tunes at a wonderfully civilised volume, and we all sat long into the night exchanging stories, views and banter like the friends we had so quickly become. Entertainment was provided by various of the more cheerful of our number trying to take grumpiness lessons from the Grumpy Pumper, but they failed to frown and he failed to smile. Only the knowledge of an early start on Day Two drove us reluctantly to our own rooms, heads already buzzing with excitement and anticipation.

Saturday 4th June - Day Two: Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (a drink after midnight)

A modest plaque marks the spot where Olof Palme was murdered
I declined the invitation to take part in an early morning run, opting instead for a stroll round the local streets. In particular,  I had noticed that the site of the 1986 murder of Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme was a couple of blocks away, and I wanted to pay my respects to a statesman who had died under those particularly shocking circumstances. Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised that it is marked with the most modest and understated of brass plaques on the pavement where he fell. The Swedes are an undemonstrative lot I guess and I rather admire them for that.

Swedish Breakfast
Breakfast was a splendid spread of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and it was great to share a real breakfast with Philippa, a regular "attender" at the #GBDocBreakfastClub, a Twitter event at which those of us who find ourselves awake too early meet in the virtual world at weekends. I unadventurously made myself a variation of a full English (photo left, with my other favourite Swedish word - Smor - labelling the butter),  but the bacon was gorgeous. Full Swedish for me!

We walked the short distance to the "Conference Centre" at "No 18", a stylishly decorated set of rooms in a city centre building that may have been a private residence in the past. I imagined it perhaps as the home of a Baltic trader in 19th century Stockholm.

The theme of the day's conference was "The Future", and we were certainly given a Smorgasbord of presentations and experiences based around this theme. It felt a bit like the sort of conference we all have to attend in our working lives, except that (a) the subject matter was fun, varied and interesting and (b) the delegates were a group of a diverse range of ages, nationalities and personality types rather than a bunch of people distressingly similar to oneself.

Rabbits ears showing our every thought!
Particular favourites for me were a session on storytelling from Kate Steele and a talk on the Future by, well, a futurologist called Rudy de Waele from Belgium. Now there's an interesting job. We also learned about Snapchat from Geir Ove Pederson, a Norwegian social media superstar, extracted our own DNA and tried out rabbit ears that respond to brain activity (see left). I was left, like everyone, with my head spinning at times, yet somehow reassured that the future is not something to be feared: Sitting surrounded by people who only 100 years previously would have died from their condition, watching many of them fine tuning dosage on their insulin pumps and seeing everyone confidently and discreetly interacting with their phones and tablets made me think how lucky we are to live in an age of such fast technical progress, and how much we have to look forward to. As by some distance the oldest person at the conference,  I felt so glad to be of a mindset that embraces change and technology rather than bemoaning its influence. The same sort of technical advance that gives us mobiles, the internet, Snapchat and the like also gives us insulin pumps, flash glucose monitoring, and goodness knows what in the future.

Three Libs in a row (four with me)
Late in the day, I took this snap (see right) of a line of arms each, like mine, fitted with a FreeStyle Libre sensor. The future's white, round, the size of a £2 coin and stuck to your arm. I love this photo, as it makes us all look like members of some secret society, and I am proud to be part of this society. Two years ago, it would not have been possible - such is the nature of technological progress in the control of our condition.

We strolled back to the hotel in the late afternoon sunshine under skies as blue as the Swedish flag, sharing the busy-but-not-too-busy streets with medal-wearing athletes who had just completed the Stockholm Marathon. A few minutes free before meeting up again to walk the short distance to another unique venue, the Kung Carls Bakficka Restaurant, for a marvellously convivial meal on a first floor balcony lined with leather-bound books. Highlight of a delicious meal was being served toasted cauliflower croutons in an empty bowl, to general mystification until the cauliflower soup was served from a jug.

Dinner at Kung Carls Bakficka Restaurant

The Frenchies
I didn't want the evening to end - and it didn't. Led by our new friends from Abbott, we found our way to an open air bar and sat in the mellow warmth of a Stockholm night enjoying the company of our fellow delegates. I'm quite sure that a lot of the time, Stockholm must have grim, damp weather, but we really struck lucky, and there's something really magical about such a late sunset.

Three English, an Italian and a Canadian
We then returned to the hotel bar (pausing for Grumpy and one or two others to get a McDonalds) then sat in the corner drinking in the atmosphere,  the beer and the camaraderie. I felt as if I was among old friends, not people I'd only known 24 hours.

My inner Abba juke box played Summer Night City and Gimme, Gimme, Gimme (a drink after midnight) as I finally admitted to myself that at my age I should be tucked up in bed, and eventually we all drifted off to our rooms. The hotel, incidentally, was superb, and the beds very comfy.

Sunday 5th June - Day ThreeMamma Mia!

The Swedish Parliament (headless polar bear bottom right)
I woke early and took a stroll through the deserted streets down to the waterfront, determined not to miss out completely on the chance to get to know this cool city. It felt so relaxed in the fresh morning sunshine, with early tourists mingling with revellers returning home from a night out - at least I assume that's why I saw a man in a polar bear costume carrying his head. He's in the bottom right of this picture, outside the Swedish Parliament building.

The Wizard of Libs - Chris Thomas
Back at the hotel, a minor drama at breakfast in which one of our number, Lisa from Germany suffered a hypo and collapsed at breakfast. The crisis was quickly and calmly resolved by her friends old and new (a wonderful example of diabetic solidarity in action) and we convened for a meeting with the Wizard of Libs himself, namely Chris Thomas, Abbott's Senior Principal Research Scientist, to reveal the latest news about the new Libre Link App.

Then it was time for thanks and farewells.

And that was it - or was it? No, because I had sneakily plotted a visit to the Abba Museum with Philippa, her husband James and Baby G (the self-styled #DXFringe) when I found out that Philippa was a fellow Abba geek. Poor Lydia was obliged to tag along, which produced this "tweet of the day" :-

A fine Abba tribute Band
But just as we were about to leave for the museum I found out that some of our new friends from Abbott shared my love of Abba and asked if they could join us. And so it came to pass that on a Sunday lunchtime, I found myself in a karaoke booth singing Mamma Mia with Ollie Mitchell and Fiona Lloyd from Abbott Leadership and fellow diabetic Lydia. The museum is a great celebration of Sweden's most famous export, and brings a smile to the faces of everyone there.

And did I really perform on stage with a virtual Abba?

Yep, and the evidence is here:-

A surreal climax to a surreal weekend. The rest of the day was smooth but increasingly wistful: Taxi back to the hotel, then the Arlanda Express back to the airport with Jen Grieves, who was also on the flight back to Manchester. An SAS Airlines flight which oozed Scandinavian class and efficiency (not able to get seats together, Lydia and I sat on nearby seats tapping away at our respective laptops in a race to post the first blog), then fond farewells to Jen and Lydia and a train journey home under gloomy skies and pouring rain on a clunky Northern Rail Pacer, somehow symbolic of  my wistful mood. I had woken up in Stockholm, danced to Abba at lunchtime and now ended the day back home in the rain. But as one of those annoying but sometimes spot-on internet quotations says:

"don't cry because it's over; smile because it happened"

Disclaimer: I was invited to DX Stockholm by Abbott Healthcare, who paid for all travel, accommodation and subsistence expenses for me and other delegates. Opinions on the FreeStyle Libre Flash Glucose Monitoring System expressed by me are my own and not those of Abbott Healthcare.

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