Travel, USA

U.S.A. here I come

In January, I had a great opportunity to join the NRF Big Retail Expo and Microsoft LEAP on behalf of the Gunnebo Business Solutions Retail team. In the gap between the two events, I had a week of spare time that I spent roaming around the Eastern part of the country.

In my adventures, I was joined by my son Sondre and my brother Vidar.

While I was working, my traveling companions spent a few days in and around New York center. I managed to have an express city tour by bus on the last day of the exhibition and I even found the cheapest Manhattan beer in Johnnys Bar.

We also took a ride from New York to Lakehurst to see the Hindenburg crash site.

The 20th century was marked by an impressive list of disasters. But the crash of the German zeppelin Hindenburg surpassed many of them, having provided a never-before-witnessed visual spectacle. The zeppelin was a pride of the Nazi airship fleet. Being 804 feet long, it was the biggest aircraft ever built. On May 6, 1937, it was landing at a navy base in Lakehurst, New Jersey, on the biggest empty site close to Manhattan. The Hindenburg was handling an immense flying bomb. Suddenly it burst into flames and crashed. As a result, thirty-six people died. So did the popularity of zeppelins as means of transatlantic transit.

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© pict rider – stock.adobe.com

The site where the Hindenburg crashed is still deserted and windswept – just crumbled asphalt and occasional scrubby weeds. And it’s still a part of an acting navy base, which means that everyone who wants a tour has to be screened weeks in advance. Unfortunately for us, we were civilians and foreigners. So, after a thorough investigation, we had to make a u-turn out of the base.

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© michaeljung – stock.adobe.com

Having been politely rejected at the navy base, we decided to stop for a beer before driving through Philadelphia. Our choice fell on the themed Paddy’s pub based on “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”,  an American sitcom created by Robert McElhenney and Glenn Howerton. The series tells about a group of antisocial and self-indulgent friends who call themselves “The Gang” and run the Irish bar in South Philadelphia.

Alack, my son is only 20 years old and in the US, it is not permitted for minors to sit at the bar until they are 21. So, we were rather rudely rejected.

But every cloud has a silver lining. Having been expelled from Paddy’s pub, we moved on to Max’s Tavern which is actually run by Robert McElhenney and Kaitlin Olson. We were warmly welcomed there and really enjoyed our evening in a spirit of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”.

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The next day we went on the road again, heading for Washington, the District of Columbia, commonly referred to as Washington D.C., the capital of the United States.

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We started from the White House, but were abruptly shuffled away by the Secret Service due to a security situation in which they could not guarantee for our safety. The United States Secret Service (also known as USSS or Secret Service) is a federal law enforcement agency under the Department of Homeland Security.  It conducts criminal investigations and protects the nation’s leaders – so, quite a great deal for us to have been fussed by them.

Politics will only get you so far, so we felt like changing the scenery and listening to some music. Nothing better than Nashville,  the capital and most populous city of the American state of Tennessee. The city is famous for its country and rock music, so, we really enjoyed our time there.

After enjoying the Devil’s music in Nashville, with an “obscene belly and shaking that notorious leg”, we needed some religious fuel.

The Ark Encounter in Petersburg, Kentucky, where we headed next, is a reconstruction of Noah’s ark, built to biblical specs. It is one of the largest timber-frame constructions in the world. Simply imagine the structure longer than 1.5 football fields and higher than a four-story building – and that will be just the thing. Inside, there is a Creation Museum with numerous exhibits, botanic gardens, planetarium, zoo, zip line adventure course, and much more. No wonder it attracts millions of guests.

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Being an atheist, this impressed me in quite a few ways. The effort and money spent to prove the biblical and question the scientific approach to history – but also the number of people actually believing in Creationism.  Hopefully, progress does not stand still. Even Pope Francis has stated recently that the evolution theory and the religious teaching on creation don’t actually contradict each other and has cautioned against portraying God as a kind of magician who made the universe with a magic wand.

We enjoyed ourselves in Cincinnati for a few hours, and then the trip continued to the former automobile capital – the city of Detroit, Michigan. The city has gone through a dramatic economic and demographic decline over the recent decades, so, now it can hardly be called the most pleasant place to visit. Local crime rates are among the highest in the United States, and vast areas of the city are in a state of severe decay. My son Sondre insisted on getting out of the city as soon as possible, and we all felt really uncomfortable among the abandoned neighborhoods.

Abandoned Packard Factory 9
© Atomazul – stock.adobe.com

Our journey continued to Canada. We visited Toronto, the capital of the province of Ontario and the largest city in Canada by population (almost 3 million residents).

Toronto's Winter skyline, the view from Cherry Street, Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
© Roland – stock.adobe.com

When we arrived, the weather was terrible and we urged for some entertainment. Vidar found a tribute band performing the songs of Thomas Alan Waits.  For those who are unfamiliar, it is an American singer, musician, and actor. He primarily worked  in jazz but also wrote blues, vaudeville, and experimental music, and his lyrics focused on the underside of U.S. society. In 2005, a group of musicians from Toronto started to perform renditions of Tom Waits’ songs – and they are still doing it. We spent the evening with this great tribute band having Little Norway beer.

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Next day, we rushed off to Niagara Falls (the collective name for three waterfalls on the border between Canada and the USA. The site is really tremendous and worth seeing.

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After so much water, we set our minds to fire and decided to visit a coal seam fire in the borough of Centralia, Pennsylvania, back in the USA. The fire is burning in underground coal mines at depths of up to 90 m.  It started yet in the sixties, most likely, from the deliberate burning of trash in a former mine. Now it covers about 15 square kilometers and is the major reason why residents are abandoning this area. The population of Centralia dwindled from around 1,400 at the time the fire started to 10 in 2017. Most of the buildings have come apart. They say the fire can continue to burn for over 250 years at its current rate.

Having made a circle, we finally came back to New Jersey for a short final trip around the peninsula. A cozy family dinner with Sangria, steak and a lot of good conversation was a wonderful last chord in our adventures.

Now I am off to Seattle, where more posts will follow from my visit to Microsoft in Redmond and attendance of the LEAP program 🙂

Communism, Reflections, Travel, Ukraine

Fire in Chernobyl Zone Again

The news about wildfire raging in Red Forest reminded me of my visit to Chernobyl this February – and of even more distant past when I first learned about this place.

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/chernobyl-fire-2018

https://www.vg.no/nyheter/utenriks/i/1kGA1B/skogbrann-herjer-i-tsjernobyl

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Newspaper front page from 1986

I was eleven then. The news about the disaster was shocking. It got etched in my memory forever. Together with the first disgraceful truth that I learned about communism. For several weeks, people in the Soviet Union were unaware of the accident, which led to thousands of needless untimely deaths. And who knows if they would have learned at all if the radioactive cloud hadn’t crossed the borders of the USSR. It was an unforgivable lie.

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The hotel where we stayed during our summer holiday of 1987

And the lie permeated the communist regime through. I learned even more about it a year later, during my visit to Bulgaria. The country belonged to the Soviet bloc then. There, for the first time, we violated the law by participating in illegal currency exchange – well, there actually were no other options, as the regime exchange rates were half than we could achieve on the black market. Communism forces people to lie and makes the crime the only way to survive: it is much easier to rule the people who feel insecure, scared, and guilty.

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Me, my brother Jon Helge and my cousins Svein Erik and Hanne

“Divide and conquer” – that’s another motto of this regime. The Iron Curtain, which separated the countries of the Soviet bloc from the rest of the world, created myths. It stressed and exaggerated differences. For decades, people of the Soviet Union were limited in their contacts with the rest of the world. Neither Europeans were welcomed in the USSR. We also could learn about many things only from the newspaper.

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LADA, most probably the same model that my grandfather Asbjørn owned

That’s why when, during my visit to Kyiv this winter, I was proposed to visit Chernobyl zone, I agreed, of course. The visit started like any other work-related trip. Meetings all day with our partner Trembit in Kiev. Trembit works with large organizations as well as startups utilizing Agile methodologies to deliver full-featured functionality. Trembit has been a partner for us in Node-RED for quite some time, and you will find many of our projects here on this blog.

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Duga (Russian: Дуга) was a Soviet over-the-horizon (OTH) radar system used as part of the Soviet anti-ballistic missile early-warning network. The system operated from July 1976 to December 1989. Two operational Duga radars were deployed, one near Chernobyl and Chernihiv in the Ukrainian SSR (present-day Ukraine), the other in eastern Siberia.

After thirty years, the place still reminds the desert. Very few people live here. Dilapidated houses, derelict yards… looters stalking in the search of pickings. It’s a post-apocalyptic world in the miniature.

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Fair at the Pripyat city outside Chernobyl.

Though, very slowly, Chernobyl is coming back to life. The nature revives. Wild animals here have forgotten about danger and aren’t afraid of humans at all. You can see a fox or even a deer crossing the street in a broad daylight.

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And when I recollect my visit to Chernobyl and my childhood memories, the question arises in my mind again and again: can we totally prevent such disasters in the future? I believe the only way to it is by joining forces to spread and strengthen European democratic values – openness, collaboration, and freedom of voice all around Europe and around the globe.

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I have worked in Bulgaria, Serbia, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, and Poland – most countries of Eastern Europe. People are the same everywhere. Of course, post-communist echo can sometimes still be heard in the countries of the former Soviet camp. But there is a great potential for cooperation. Western and Eastern Europe working together is our only chance to build the society in which Chernobyl will never repeat.