July 26, 2012

Prior posts here mention a recent trip I took to Sweden. I was fortunate to have close relatives put me up and show me around so, in addition to experiencing the “must see” tourist attractions, I also was exposed to day-to-day Swedish life and regular people.

Sweden struck me as an affluent, technologically forward place. It was more diverse than I thought, with many people of color, though not as many as in the US. People’s basic needs appeared to be met (I saw very few homeless people, and those I did see my cousin called professional mendicants). I was told that medical care is readily available to everyone for a modest co-pay, and that people generally are satisfied, though there is a wait for non-essential procedures and dental and vision care services are not covered. The cost per capita, infant mortality and other statistics seem to bear out the success of the program. Two of my cousins are doctors, and they did not complain about the amounts the government paid them for their services, and they appeared to me to enjoy a level of affluence similar to that of doctors here.

Despite the high taxes, I saw a lot of evidence of wealth in the form of yachts, private aircraft, luxury housing, and the like. Apparently, there still is enough left after paying taxes to make it worthwhile to try to make some money.

It is not fair to compare Sweden to the US, a much bigger country, with a much bigger role in the world. However, it seems clear that Sweden’s ability to invest its tax revenues in its people has paid off — they seem healthier (though they looked well-fed, I didn’t see the scooters and oxygen tanks driven by morbidly obese people that are common here), the absence of the wolf at the door allows them to be very interested in healthy eating and promoting environmentally sound practices and policies, and the public infrastructure is in good shape with adequate services, such as police, fire, education and transportation.

Sweden is the most technologically advanced place I have seen. It seems like everyone has an i-phone, and every gadget I’ve seen here, plus more.

Land use appears more reasonable, with rural and urban areas not separated by miles and miles of sprawl. Most suburban development centers around railroad stations, and is more dense than ours. In the cities, my cousins did not use their cars, and we found the transit services in Stockholm and Gothenburg safe and reliable, with very frequent service, even at night.

Except for the small differences noted above, and a few others (more expensive gasoline and higher prices, to name some), life for the upper and middle classes in Sweden is not that different from those of similar classes here. I suspect life is better for the poor, though I did not see any what I would regard as “bad” neighborhoods (my cousin said there weren’t any, and he claimed there was no place he was afraid to walk alone after dark).

Of course, the quality of life is not determined only by economic factors. The environment in Sweden is pristine (though they do have many nuclear and waste-to-energy plants), it’s cosmopolitan, due to its proximity to the rest of Europe, and there’s lots to do, both outdoors and in the cities, which have very high-end museums, theaters and concert halls.

In sum, I was very impressed, and from what I saw, I could easily live in Sweden (which would help me learn the language, which I found very difficult, despite some prior study), provided I could find a way to make a living. In many ways, it’s a better place to live than the US, though I think the US still offers great opportunity (at least for some), and a more richly diverse population.

Travel tips

July 25, 2012

I tried to be as prepared as possible for my recent trip to Sweden. I inquired about use of my ATM cards, credit cards and cell phone, and received incomplete or inaccurate advice.

I have a Verizon cell phone. I learned from the Verizon web site that my phone will not work in Europe (many models don’t – you need one with a sim card), but I was able to borrow one that would. When I called to activate it for roaming in Europe, the customer service rep I spoke with said he needed the sim card number, which appears on the card. While removing the card, I disconnected the call.

When I called back, I reached another rep, who told me my phone would work in Sweden without any further ado; he insisted he did not need to know the sim card number, even after I told him the first guy I spoke with said he did.

Suspicious, I called again, and reached a third rep, whom I determined would be the tie breaker. She agreed with the second rep, told me she didn’t need a sim card number, and assured me I was all set.

Needless to say, when I got to Sweden, the phone wouldn’t work. Verizon has a number in the US for foreign support (you pay for the call; a prepaid Skype account is a good, cheap way to call the US from abroad if you have a computer or smart phone with internet access) — (908) 559-4899. I called, and talked with someone who knew what he was doing. He did need the sim card number, and told me how to locate it in settings without taking apart the phone, and he got the phone working very quickly.

The moral of the story is to call the foreign support number before you leave the country – the reps there know what they are doing, unlike the regular reps you reach through 611, who clearly have not a clue.

I had read that credit cards in Europe use an embedded chip to store data, rather than the obsolete magnetic stripe technology used in US cards. I had heard using a US card in Europe could be problematic, so I called Bank of America, issuer of my Visa card, and was assured I did not need a card with a chip. I was told that if my card was refused, I could ask the merchant to enter the digits manually, and there would be no problem.

Well, there was a problem, but not the one I feared. In Sweden (I don’t know about the rest of Europe), many stores, especially outside the tourist areas, that take credit cards use a machine that will read a card with a magnetic stripe but that requires entry of a pin number. Since in the US, one needs a pin only to take cash out from an ATM (from which time interest at an exorbitant rate starts to run), I did not have one associated with my credit card account. Fortunately, I was able to use my Visa ATM card at these terminals, and I had prepared by making sure I had money in my checking account. Therefore, if you wish to use your credit card in Europe, make sure you arrange in advance (it takes several days) to have a pin number assigned to it.

A few other tips:

Let your credit and ATM issuers know in advance the dates you will be out of the country and where you will be traveling. That will prevent a security block from being placed on your account.

If you are taking electronic devices with you, check to see if they work on dual voltage (most modern phone, computer and battery chargers do). Dual voltage devices require only a small, inexpensive plug adapter, not a bulky power converter transformer.

Second trip follow up

July 24, 2012

I recently wrote about my plans to take the airport train from Jamaica, New York to JFK airport (https://capitolview.wordpress.com/2012/05/09/second-trips/); here is the promised follow-up.  On my outbound trip, upon arriving at the mezzanine in Penn Station (the level from which Long Island Railroad trains run), I saw a ticket machine, and I purchased a one-way off-peak ticket to Jamaica for $6.25 with a credit card.  A nearby monitor showed the next train leaving in a few minutes; knowing that most if not all LIRR trains stop at Jamaica, I quickly found the departure gate, where a sign confirmed that the train did indeed stop there.  Within a half-hour from the time my Amtrak train arrived in Penn Station (late, of course, and, by the way, the onboard wi fi worked very poorly), I was in Jamaica.  Getting to the airport train required going up an escalator and buying a $5.00 Metrocard.  People were leaving the train through the same turnstiles those entering were using, creating a few stand-offs.  Although airport trains were supposed to be running every 10 minutes, I waited longer, but the train eventually came and the short ride to the airport was uneventful.  Signage was good, and, as long as you know the terminal you are looking for, you should be able to navigate the system with the information provided, at least if you speak English.  As I predicted, the worst part of this service is the need to change in Jamaica, where you must go to a different level platform, and where there are no porters to help the disabled or overwhelmed.  I was travelling light and am relatively able-bodied, so it worked out well for me.  I was at my terminal well within an hour after leaving Penn Station.

Coming back, the trip also worked out well, except that I had to walk outside a little bit (in the rain) to reach the train station serving my JFK terminal..

Overall, I give this service a B-.  The cost is very reasonable ($5.00, plus subway or LIRR fare) and service seems frequent and reliable.  The combined trip, at least the two times I took it, was quick, and being out of traffic and the delays it can cause in the New York City area is a huge advantage.  The big knock, as I anticipated, is the hassle of changing trains, buying two tickets, and having to navigate two separate transportation systems.  However, if your circumstances allow you to manage the logistical and physical challenges, this is a very nice way to get to the airport.

My destination airport, Arlanda in Stockholm, Sweden, offered a much nicer option – the Arlanda Express, a first-class train that travels directly from the terminal to the downtown Central Station in about 20 minutes (it’s a 30 mile trip).  It was expensive (almost $40 each way, though those traveling with companions could take advantage of a 2-for-1 summer offer).  Direct bus service for $15 also was available.  Arlanda is a relatively new airport, and the railroad link was not added as an afterthought, so direct comparison may not be fair.  Better to compare the train to JFK with some of the direct airport to center city transit links in this country, where the need to change trains leaves it wanting, though still worth considering.