A Black and White night

As a New Zealander living in Sweden probably the last thing one would expect is for the All Blacks to visit town. After all Sweden is a rugby backwater, a speck of dirt on the sleeve of Ritchie McCaw’s battered jersey, a country where the vast majority of the population are not even aware what the game is, let alone that it is actually played in their country.  A visit from the All Blacks would garner about as much excitement in Sweden as a visit from cross-country ski  machine Petter Northug would in New Zealand…. Not much…. So why did three of the men from one of the best rugby teams around come to this rugby void at the top of the world? What would entice them to put off going straight home after a long and tiring season, a five week long tour  and a punishing defeat at the hands of fantastically inconsistent England. What would entice them to make the trip north to the frigid cold of Scandinavia when a beautiful southern summer beckoned? The answer? Well we can obviously cross off by choice. There were no thoughts of an adventure in a snow filled winter wonderland in the minds of the lads when they headed this way.  No the reason was much simpler: Beer.

Steinlager Pure: Welcome to Sweden, the reason why the All Blacks were in town.

Now I don’t want to be misleading when I say this so perhaps the promotion of beer is more accurate. It isn’t like they thought they would have a few days in Sweden getting on the drink and chatting to some of the famous local blond talent after a long season! The three All Blacks came to the frozen,  frigid north to promote beer. Steinlager to be precise. The kiwi beer has officially got a distribution deal sorted with the country’s notoriously strict alcohol people, who rumour has it are actually former members of the Gestapo bought to Sweden after the Second World War to enforce a ridiculously strict alcohol policy. Well what better way to promote the release of Steinlager, major sponsor of the All Blacks for about as long as monks have been putting aside religious study to spend quality time with quality hops, although apparently not as ‘major’ as AIG who emptied Uncle Scrooge’s vault in order to defile the famous black jersey, than to drag three of the team away from their families for a few extra days and have them take part in a number of ‘events’ across Stockholm.

The modern day AB jersey with AIG front and centre. Funny what difference  a couple of years can make to a company.

So who were the lucky three? As an Otago lad I was delighted to discover it was future Highlander, Tony Woodcock, former Highlander Adam Thompson and up and coming second row superstar Brodie Retallick. A triumvirate of beefy All Black forwards ready to tackle a few days in rugby blind Sweden. Word of their visit had been whispered around Swedish rugby and ex-pat circles, which, as far as circles go, rank in size with the onion ring, for sometime but concrete information had been harder to come by than a Scottish victory. It was not until the day before the visit that I stumbled across the confirmation that things were indeed happening. A friend and fellow veteran of the mighty Attila Rugby Gang sent word on Facebook that he had a ticket to an exclusive party which would be attended by the All Blacks. Like a goose in a rush to get its feathers plucked I eagerly put forward my interest and was advised that I would be going. For a moment I realised how Charlie must have felt when the golden ticket revealed itself after he peeled back the chocolate wrapper. My friend, being the reliable sort, told me the events location was, strangely, a small local bar in Stockholm’s Old Town, and at the pre-arranged time I made sure I was there to meet him. After arriving at the bar I queried the bartender about the All Blacks arrival. He stopped still and gave me a bemused look, sort of like I had asked him if he had seen Jesus lately. After a brief conversation I soon established that he knew absolutely nothing about the visit. Something was up. Ten minutes after I had walked in through the door my knowledgeable friend arrived,  a brief period of confusion ensued, followed by some frantic phone calls after which we managed to finally establish that we were indeed at the wrong place. Time to move on. After a 15 minute walk or so and some more confusion we finally found the right place and made our way in.

The lads in front of the Steinlager sign before the big event

Having dressed in casual attire I was somewhat surprised to see a professional looking camera man eagerly snapping all the arriving guests in front of a large Steinlager sign. Apparently what I had been led to believe was a few drinks with the All Blacks was a ‘thing’. Upon entering my friend and I stood behind a couple who were accosted by several more photographers who were snapping away like eager crocodiles. We stood patiently behind waiting for our chance to step into the bright lights of the paparazzi cameras. Our big moment never came to pass however as we were ushered through by one of the photographers who were keen to get to the ‘real’ B grade celebs who were standing behind us. I was even giving it my I don’t care, semi celebrity look, perhaps  the fact that I was dressed like a bum belied my common man existence. We then came into the main area where I saw an eclectic mix of fellow Swedish rugby enthusiasts, smartly dressed Swedes, promoters and several ‘B’ grade celebrities who I can only imagine go to these things as often as possible in order to be ‘spotted’. Not really the kind of scene I was expecting but a nice change anyway. Most of the crowd had no idea who the guests of honour were but stridently partook in the fine art of networking, hoping to secure a spot in the next big reality TV series. We, on the other hand, were determined to make it to the bar and were delighted to find that the beers were free, a just reward for the hard slog through the wintry conditions outside.

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The formal presentation had a brief interview. On the bottom is a couple of Swedish strongmen who tested the AB’s strength earlier in the day.

About half an hour after our arrival, during which time we happily mingled in our own social circles of course, the three guests of honour came out. Thompson and Woodcock, although appearing as if they had just completed a five week long northern hemisphere rugby tour, immediately joined the mingling with the waiting crowds, they were obviously comfortable in this sort of situation having been on several tours previously. Retallick however, was much more reserved, preferring the company of the bar’s edge. It was almost as if he was leaving the open bar area behind him free in case he needed to make a quick escape, and with a bevy of beautiful Swedish girls champing at the bit for some All Black meat that was probably the smartest thing he could have done! As a rookie tourist he was obviously still adjusting to the off field demands of the game.

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Adam Thompson: Otago rugby will miss him, quality player for a number of years.

With the opportunity too good to miss, I was soon casually strolling over to make my introduction. Tony Woodcock was the first I approached mainly because earlier in the day my friend had organised for him to give me a call and invite me to the party. I had answered the call and was immediately sceptical, scanning through my mental index of kiwi accents to try and pinpoint who it REALLY was on the phone. Unable to find a suitable match I hesitantly decided it might actually be Tony Woodcock, which it turned out to be. Woodcock seemed like a nice bloke and we chatted briefly, he said he was looking forward to playing in Otago next year and that he wanted a change of scene (although who wouldn’t want a change of scene when you play for Auckland!), he was a bit reserved as you would expect but a good fella who will hopefully tear it up at the Toaster next year.

I then popped over to Adam Thompson who was perhaps the most popular and outgoing of the three. He confirmed my fear that he would be going to Japan but hadn’t decided which club. He said that with the rugby career being so short it was a late career pay day that he could not miss out on, and who can blame him really. Unfortunately one of the offshoots of professionalism is that many rugby players are simply unable to get a University education like they used to. I remember a few years back when most players in Otago would go to the University while they played rugby giving them another profession once they could no longer get battered week in week out on the rugby field but those days seem to be gone.

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With Adam Thompson and Tony Woodcock

A few beers later I headed Retallick’s way to chat. Admittedly I didn’t know too much about him except he played Lock for the Super 15 winning Chiefs and was a bolter for the AB’s, he had loosened up a little with a few drinks and was happy to chat, I think he was actually a little happy to have another kiwi to talk to. He seemed to be a good guy, excited about the season he had had and the seasons to come. I asked him if he was worried about the Highlanders next year and he said tongue in cheek that all the new guys were too old and they would be no problem, I guess only time will tell if he is right on that front! He even said that he liked Hamilton! Something that I took as being his attempt at political correctness because everyone knows there is nothing to do in Hamilton! Overall he seemed like a good, young fella with a cracking sense of humour, on an adventure, and one can only hope that he keeps getting better and is with the All Blacks for many years to come.

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Brodie Retallick seemed like a good fella

The night wore on and the free Steinlager, which I  was obliged to consume purely because of the prohibitively high prices of alcohol in Sweden means that turning away free ones is tantamount to the most dire of sins, continued to flow . I was lucky enough to also chat with Swedish men’s Handball team coach and legend Staffan Olsson, who seemed like a top guy, very humble and happy to talk despite me being determined to speak English because it was too loud for me to get even close to following the conversation in Swedish. He was interested in rugby although did not know too much about it, rather similar to my knowledge of handball, interested but not enough to really know anything about it.

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Swedish Handball legend Staffan Olsson, a good bloke who indulged my poor Swedish

The hours eventually ticked down to the time I had to make my exit. As I left the three All Blacks, possibly the first All Blacks to come to Sweden on official business, remained chatting to a host of loyal fans. For me it was a little piece of home being imported to Sweden for one night. I gingerly made my way to the exit, struggling to come to terms with my diminished capacity for drinking that having two kids has bought on. As I made my way out into the freezing night I was immediately faced with a snow storm snapping large flakes of snow into my exposed face. A deep layer of snow now also covered the streets in a blanket of glistening white powder forcing me to struggle, stumbling my way to the nearest taxi. The storm would rage through the whole night covering the city in a decent couple of feet of snow, severely disrupting transportation systems, communications and pretty much every other aspect of everyday life. As I watched the next day’s news report which stated that no flights would be leaving Stockholm’s Arlanda airport I could only feel lucky that I wasn’t the guy who had to go to the rooms of the three tired, probably hungover All Blacks, and tell them that they would have to stay another night away from their families in the frozen north of the world, in a country where their sport is only a speck on the radar of the sporting calendar…….It sure was good to have them here though!

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There will be no flights after this. One night’s snowfall!

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An expected inconvenience

Welcome to Stockholm! Public transport struggled to deal with the extreme conditions

One truly knows that winter has arrived in Sweden when you can happily spend the night looking out the window as cars and their hapless drivers attempt to force their way up a snow covered hillside road, only to make it three or four metres before coming to an abrupt halt, front wheels spinning madly and in vain. You watch as they back out and try again, maybe making it another metre if they are lucky before becoming stuck again in the quagmire of beautiful white powder. The scene normally ends with the vehicle, and now hapless and understandably frustrated driver, unable to go forward or back any longer; and the car sideways between the road and the massive snow-bank to the side. Back in the warmth of your centrally heated apartment you laugh at the seemingly insane persistence of the drivers who continually attempt to force their way up a hill that they are obviously never going to summit, watching as they climb out into the shivering night, clenched arms and teeth as they set about trying to dig their trapped vehicle out of the mess it is now in. You watch fascinated as they walk around the car,  to devise the best course of action; maybe clearing a little space in the front and laying down some sand in the hope of gaining some all important traction, perhaps digging out the snow bank a little to allow space to turn; inside the apartment you boldly state what needs to be done to rescue the situation, all the while knowing that if it had been you driving you would obviously never have got in the that situation in the first place. Occasionally you are forced to duck in behind the window as the driver seems to be gazing your way, searching for someone who might be able to offer assistance. A flush of what may be shame courses through you as you hide, knowing that you should perhaps be strapping the boots on and going to help instead of marvelling in the incessant need of man to attempt the impossible. But you remain inside watching as the car is eventually extricated from its hole, normally with the help of some passersby and the driver reluctantly goes in search for another place to lay up for the night. With the entertainment over you return to the TV or computer laughing to yourself and waiting for the next hardy local to try the same thing, a wait that normally only takes about five minutes.

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Oops! Another car has to be dug out of a sticky situation as I watch from the warmth of my apartment

As someone who comes from New Zealand’s South Island I am no stranger to snow and the havoc it can cause, but in the shaky isles we do not experience anything like the snow storm that spread across Stockholm on the morning of the 5th of December. Visibility was only a few metres, driving snow quickly covered the land in a layer, then a blanket and then finally a flood of fresh white powder. Over the course of maybe 10 hours a few feet had fallen, far too much and far too quickly to be able to respond. Unlike in many countries however, Sweden does not stop for snow. It is an expected inconvenience that people know they will have to deal with every year. Cars are fitted with winter tyres, designed to give traction in the icy, slippery winters; airport runways are heated to keep them snow and ice free and allow flights to come and go year round, and a veritable army of clean up men and women can be put in to action almost as soon as the snow settles, making the use of plows, trucks, tractors and anything else that will help to clear the roads, footpaths, walkways and all other places where humans may consider passing through. But these things take time and it is the interim period where all the action happens.

The snow shovel became as commonplace as the mobile phone in the direct aftermath of the storm

With the snow fall occurring early in the morning of the fifth and running until the afternoon, it meant that many Stockholmers had left their cosy apartments with their soft lighting and made their way to their cars. They had pushed aside the tiredness that still clung onto their heavily clad bodies and set about shovelling away the blanket of snow that half buried their cars.  Finally after a tiresome effort which left them sweat covered and a little frustrated they climbed into the cold confines of their vehicles and prepared to make the somewhat hazardous journey to their places of work. The side streets are of course the most difficult part of the journey. The main roads have been cleared quickly and regularly, and the volume of traffic passing on them means that the snow cannot settle quite as well. The side streets are a different story all together. Deep snow clings to them, leaving no indication of symbols, lines or even road itself. Wide two lane streets suddenly become barely single lane swamps where any car can suddenly become entrapped in the slushy mess. It is not unusual to see cars simply abandoned, left idle until a plow comes along to set it free. It is also not uncommon for accidents, not the dramatic head on collisions of the movies but vehicles simply sliding at a snails pace into a ditch, another car, or a wall, to occur as the added responsibility of driving in snow becomes too much for some to bear.

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Who wouldn’t want to spend half an hour shovelling that snow off their car before work!

Perhaps the most interesting observation made by a outsider living amongst a people used to this type of weather event is the remarkable ability to press on despite the numerous difficulties. There is none of the panic and chaos that takes place whenever a dusting of snow lands over England for instance, shutting down airports, schools, public transport systems and pretty much anything else that can be shut down, causing widespread  confusion in the process. The Swedes make the most of it, dealing with the inconveniences of the snow with an almost resigned ambivalence. They sigh as they shovel it away from their trapped car’s tyres, make ironic jokes as the train platform ticker reveals their 10:32 will not actually be arriving until 11:02 and simply shrug their shoulders as they trudge through knee deep powder to the local pizza shop for dinner. It is an expected inconvenience, one that many often look forward to on the basis of its aesthetic value, particularly as the darkness and cold of winter strips most of the landscape of its colour. An outsider can only admire watching the locals adapt their routines to fit the new reality and make their day work.

The storm hits Stockholm. It definitely made for an interesting next day!

Myself? Well I for one would rather not deal with it first hand but stand at my window, watching the struggles of those below as they do their best to make it through a day that is not quite as simple as most other days. One of the few times when you can see nature making a mockery of mankinds best laid plans.