From Omaha to Umea: Adventures and misadventures

Some time ago I was contacted and asked whether I would be willing to fly to Umea, Sweden, and deliver a seminar. Rhetorical question for someone who loves to travel to new places, and had not yet had the opportunity to visit Scandinavia or Northern Europe. In fact, my infrequent visits to Europe (especially compared to S. America, Central America and Israel) are mostly due to economic reasons—the fact that it is so expensive.

umea airport
Umea airport, recently. In fact, a long morning ago.

Let’s see: I have been to London a number times, having considered doing a Ph.D. years ago at the Imperial Cancer Research Center, and later hiking and backpacking through England and Scotland. So cheap that we bussed it from London to the Lake District and then on to Scotland to “bag some Munros” including Ben Nevis. Everything by bus, buying food in supermarkets and carrying it for miles to the, youth hostels to cook it. But great fun.

Later, in my capacity as a scientist, I was invited to several meetings in Italy and Portugal. But unfortunately, that is about the extent of my European travels. Except perhaps a night in Madrid.

So being asked the rhetorical question about traveling to Umea, my answer was obvious—so when do I want to come? Well, they were giving me dates between Sept. through Dec. Consulting the map, I realized that Umea was even farther north than that coldest of cities in which I spent my childhood, Winnipeg. In fact, much farther north. In fact, arctic circle north. I then found out that although I had no fear of visiting Umea in its natural, snow enveloped element, if I flew out in Dec., I might not see anything. The daylight hours, apparently, are about from 10:30 am to 1 pm, more or less. To me that was a lot of ‘less,’ and I opted for September. Temperatures mildly in the mid-teens Celcius with decently long days.

I managed to work in a 24 h whirlwind visit to Stockholm, found a reasonably priced and decent hotel with rather interesting translations in the room, and had a fantastic time walking through beautifully warm and bright Sept. weather.

hotel sign
Good thing I’m a wash-n-wear guy, and don’t have much use for squeezing pieces of rags and ironing boards.

I walked close to 40 km in my lone day in Stockholm, managed to see the famous Swedish Academy of Science where Nobel prizes are awarded, and enjoyed the Old Town (Gamla stan) and the famous Vasa Museum at Djurgarden, where the unbelievably well preserved Vasa ship pulled from the river (after sinking on its maiden voyage) now stands. All in all, a great start.

swedish acad
Visiting purely as a tourist.

Stockholm old city
Gamla Stan, the old city.

The next morning, I took a bus back to the airport, scheduled to fly out of Stockholm to Umea (about an hour’s flight north) at 7:30 am. Thus began the start of my flight troubles. We sat on the runway for 3 hours, along with 15 other domestic planes, because apparently a large poodle had wandered onto the runway and they were unable to catch him. Or her. I don’t want to be biased. I say apparently, because on such a domestic Scandinavian Airlines flight, the crew most likely presumes that it’s unlikely to have non-Swedish speaking foreigners on board, and the play-by-play announcements of the dog’s escapades were kindly translated by a fellow passenger. I emailed my gracious hosts that due to dog troubles, I would be arriving late, and my first meetings would have to be rescheduled.

When the flight finally began to descend towards Umea, I sucked in my breath at the beautiful landscape. Strips of forested land, green at summer’s end, surrounded by blue coastal waters and often sprouting a few isolated wood cabins, sometimes a bridge linking to the next strip of land. For an introvert like me, I thought this could be paradise.

Umea University, perhaps the northernmost university in Europe—or anywhere on the globe (?) is set in a heavily wooded area along a gentle, wide and picturesque river.

umea river

umea flower
Walking from my hotel in town along the beautiful river to the campus.

An unusual but extremely attractive setting, and Umea is apparently a haven for lovers of winter sports, especially cross-country skiing, skating, hockey and so on. And even more surprising, not particularly cold, at least by Winnipeg standards. Apparently both gulf stream and coast significantly influence the temperatures in winter, and the -40 days (same in Fahrenheit and Celcius, don’t ask) of my childhood are atypical in Umea. Snow, yes, but a dry and not severe cold. Hmmm, not a bad combination, and it must be fantastically pretty in winter. I’m told that the snow does not at all deter the thousands who ride their bicycles to the university everyday. I know this isn’t statistical, but I didn’t see an overweight person anywhere in Umea during my entire visit. I’d be willing to bet diabetes and heart disease are well below N. American rates.

clothes pin umea
Umeans have a sense of humor. What is it with laundry and ironing in Sweden, anyway?

In summary, I had a terrific time with wonderful scientist-hosts. I even had the opportunity to sample baked reindeer for dinner, a local specialty. I would love to return to Umea, especially in the winter. But I would not love to encounter the same flight issues I had heading home!

Now for the misadventures part; poodle on the runway was only a warm up…

I left my hotel in the town of Umea for the airport by taxi at 6:30 am for a 7:20 am flight. I was told that even with the 8 min. ride, that was ample time. And it was. I boarded the plane for Stockholm, with a connection to Chicago and later Omaha (all the same long day due to a 7 h time difference) and then waited as the plane sat on the runway for 3 hours with no air-conditioning. Despite the proximity to the arctic circle, it was HOT on the plane.

Relying again on translations from fellow passengers, it turns out that the engine would not ignite. 3 hours of attempts until it was announced that it would be necessary to bring in an expert maintenance crew from Stockholm. By then, about 30% of the passengers had already got off the plane and went back home. My nearest neighbor told me that she already missed her meeting in Stockholm, so there was no point for her to wait for some kind of solution. My own watch showed that—unless my Stockholm-Chicago flight was significantly delayed, I had already missed my flight. Bugger.

broken plane umea
Anyone have a Swedish wrench? My engine is broken…

In the meantime, all the remaining passengers hung out on the runway as one of the agents came back and forth calling passenger names to board the few remaining slots on the next (10:30 am) flight. I guess my status as an international traveler gave me that privilege, and eventually I walked down the runway and climbed up the stairs of the neighboring plane and found a seat.

Arriving, finally in Stockholm way after my flight to Chicago had departed, I was told to talk to someone in the service area. I waited in line for some time, and finally a very pleasant and efficient gentleman arranged new flights from Stockholm to Copenhagen, then to Chicago, and finally to Omaha still in the same day. Just my arrival would be at midnight instead of 4:30 pm. I was pleased, though, as I want to get back to my family.

My next station was to get the newly printed ticket. I walked several km to the place that I was told, only to find a long line. It was necessary to hit a computer screen and get a number. Nothing was moving. Even when occasionally a new number was called, I had B137, and the numbers were all K-series. A local gentleman also in line took a new number and suggested I do the same. I did. I received a K-number, and 15-20 min. later, my number came up. Still no B-series, so it seemed like good advice. However, the agent didn’t think so.

She looked at my number and told me that’s only for excess baggage, and that I had lots of time until my flight and could wait. I patiently explained to her that I had already waited nearly 45 minutes for the agent earlier who had sent me here, and that nowhere in English did it say which button to click on the screen, and that unfortunately my Swedish was not up to speed. She made a few snarky remarks that reminded me of the ‘trolls’ who anonymously frequent Occam’s Corner. And I began to lose patience.

This was the first time in Sweden that I had met someone unpleasant, and I had the distinct feeling that she viewed me as some American cowboy who licks George W. Bush’s boots. I mentioned to her that I am not looking for special treatment, but have needed the toilet for the past 2 hours and hadn’t eaten since 5:45 am. Then I pulled the “S” word—supervisor. If SAS had trouble taking care of its passengers, perhaps I could speak with her supervisor. I got my ticket.

I have to say, for you Europeans, that in a continent so technologically advanced and so considerate of the welfare of its citizens, the lack of restrooms in Arlanda (Stockholm) airport—and Copenhagen too, is pretty mind-boggling. Lines everywhere. There airports are beautiful, wide, architecturally modern, but it’s as though no one intended for passengers to void during their voyages…

By then, I thought I was out of the woods, but no! I made it to Copenhagen more or less on time, but all the passengers were waiting to disembark when the captain informed us (this time in English, too) that the sky-way to connect to the aircraft was broken, and they needed a maintenance team to fix it. I had about 45 min. to make my international connection. 10 min. went by. 20 min. 30 min. Finally we disembarked by manual stairs at the back of the plane (I wanted to suggest the plastic inflatable rafts at that point). Down and up. No elevators, escalators. I was fine with my back pack and carry-on, but how do elderly people fly? I finally got to the terminal and realized I need to get from A to B in 20 min., otherwise I miss my flight. Rather from B to C. I got into speed-walking mode and took off, zipping around strollers and dodging employees on scooters.

It seemed like a long way, and was in retrospect at least 2 km. Just as I was gaining in intensity and could see the C’s coming up, a major and unexpected roadblock. Smack in the middle was a line to passport control. 10-15 people ahead of me, and 1 person working. I snapped a photo of the depressing site.

passport control
Passport control. In the middle of nowhere.

Uggghh. While standing in line, I heard the second “final boarding call” for the flight to Chicago. I had my passport stamped and took off again, with fresh energy. As I approached gates C32-33 (I needed C39), an attendant approached me and said “Hurry up, you’ll miss the flight.” I said, between gritted teeth, “This is as fast as I can go.” She then said. “It’s inconsiderate—you’re keeping all the other passengers waiting.” If I had had a bowling ball, I might have dropped it on her head. The only two unpleasant Scandinavians that I met…

Well, I am firmly entrenched in my seat on route to Chicago, and although we were delayed 45 minutes in take off (so my “lack of consideration” of the other passengers was really meaningless), I should have ample time in Chicago to make my connection. But given the luck I’ve had so far on my return travels, as they say, it’s not over until the fat lady sings.

Final note: It’s almost 9 pm US CST, and I am waiting to soon board my flight to Omaha. Goodnight!

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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10 Responses to From Omaha to Umea: Adventures and misadventures

  1. cromercrox says:

    Now is probably not the time for me to relate the horror story about almost missing a connection at O’Hare.

  2. John Gilbey says:

    Sorry that your European experience was sub-optimal, Steve. We do TRY to be nice to folks who are visiting, honest, but sometimes our ambassadors don’t live up to our expectations…

    The giant clothes-peg interests me. I suspect it is an experimental design intended to slow movement at plate boundaries, thereby preventing unwanted geological change…

  3. Mike says:

    Apart from the travelling, your description of Umeå makes me long for my time working in Finland (which is host to the northernmost university in Finland and in the European Union“; begging the question, which is the nothernmost in the World? Siberia? Alaska? Ahhh, Tromsø!)

    I hope you managed to find time to take a sauna and a swim. One of the Nordic countries most civilized past-times.

  4. Steve Caplan says:

    Interesting! Must have been fascinating at Lapland University. With regard to saunas, growing up in Winnipeg, Canada, we had our own sauna in the basement, so I don’t really miss that. I have an acquaintance who worked with a group of Finns who were stationed in the Sinai desert (as part of the UN peacekeepers), and they apparently did not pass up on their saunas even in the intense heat of the desert!

    • Mike says:

      Actually, I worked at Helsinki Uni, much further south, but I did get a touch of snow blindness during one winter visit to Lapland. Go figure. 2 hours of daylight and I came out of it badly. Shoulda stayed in the bar.

      And I can totally believe the desert sauna story. I’ve seen a variety of Finnish mobile sweat ‘boxes’, from army tents to converted VWs. I am extremely jealous of your Winnipeg sauna!

  5. I have to admit, the washroom thing would be very off-putting. I’m still fuming about they prevalence of pay-to-pee toilets in the UK.

    Otherwise, I’d love to visit Umea. Or Stockholm. Or Copenhagen.

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