Bye to the Baltic

…continued from Turning Swedish

The tail-end of my trip was partly spent appreciating the simple mundane joys of Swedish life. I went to the church, library and market, and carbo-loaded with hearty everyday fare such as pyttipanna (a plate of pan-fried diced potatoes, vegetables and meats). The stored calories were then walked off around charming parks and neighbourhoods shifting from modern to medieval. In contrast to what may be deduced from the dark and depressing films Swedish directors are renowned for, and also the false myth of Sweden’s high suicide rates (actually lower than France and Germany), the best thing about Stockholm is just how pleasant everyone and everything seems. Even at its summer peak, it doesn’t seem over-run by hordes of package tourists and other itinerants. And you rarely come across the roving gangs of rowdy delinquents that have become worryingly common around some other European cities. Globalization and multiculturalism may have mixed up the city’s cosmopolitan colors, but they have yet to dilute the strong Swedish identity enough to make it seem like Anytown, EU.

Stockholm Stadsbibliotek

Danish sports fans in Sergels Torg

Yet all isn’t sunny in Scandinavia. Stockholm’s heart of darkness may beat in Sergels Torg, a 1960s-tastic plaza carved out by demolishing entire city blocks, the fever for modernity changing the city’s face far more drastically than any war could manage. Now the concrete crater plays host to a raucous collection of troublemakers and rabble-rousers – from militant pro-lifers, Native American and Amazonian tribesmen, Danish footie fans, and campaigning politicos, not to mention the odd grifter or gypsy (terms not mutually exclusive). But their openly flaunted freedoms show that at least in Sweden, socialism and democracy can coexist. It may not be the ideal Asgard for the ages, but while the sun shines it’s a brighter place than most.

Stockholm Arlanda Airport

Getting There: KLM flies between Manila and Stockholm via Amsterdam daily. For this trip, I was able to grab a preferred seat. This means that for only an additional 70 euros, you can choose a seat with extra leg room or a seat in a row of only two seats. On a 14+ hour flight, this can really make a huge difference in comfort.

text & photos by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2009

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Sweden: Almost Asgard

Rush hour at Kungsträdgården metro station

Bleary from a restless night in Amsterdam, I boarded the extremely early morning KLM flight to Stockholm. I encountered a plane that was less than half-full, with the majority of my few fellow passengers being stereotypically calm, tall and blonde. Is this a portent of my days to come?, I mused. Was I about to wander into a real-life version of an Ingmar Bergman film set to ABBA songs, starring Greta Garbo as Pippi Longstocking and the Skarsgards as Vikings? If I drank enough aquavit and ate enough from a smörgåsbord, then jumped into a sauna, would the potent physiochemical reaction turn my Manila Bay black eyes to Baltic Sea blue?

The view of Riddarholmen from Sodermalm. The Riddarholmskyrkan, where Swedish monarchs are buried, towers over the Old Parliament Building and National Archives

I have to admit that Sweden is one of the more unlikely countries on my personal list of possible places to visit in my lifetime. It just seemed too up there and way too out there — the arctically stoic Scandinavians as exotic to us hot-blooded hispanicized Asians as we probably are to them — but that was before I knew any better. I’d had the pleasure to befriend some Swedes in Manila and they’d all been endearingly friendly, warm and welcoming, and now I had the chance to observe them in their natural environment.

A tree-lined path at the Drottningholm Palace gardens

As we descended onto Scandinavia, I wondered if my Holland haze had yet to fully dissipate since the richly emerald land masses below could, if you squint enough, pass for some parts of the Philippine archipelago. It was only as we approached the airport, which was surrounded by sprawling farmland and deciduous trees, that I began feeling pretty sure I wasn’t landing in Manila. Or was I?

As I shuffled into a relatively drab terminal that had seen better days, I wondered again if I hadn’t gone through the looking-glass right back to NAIA 1. Maybe my welcome to the capital of Scandinavia, among the first tier of the First World, land of Absolut and Volvo, may not be quite what I had envisioned. Were there cracks in the Tetra Pak?

A Hogvakten guarding the Royal Palace in Gamla Stan

Walking towards the exit, a series of larger than life-sized posters of Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Nobel lined the corridors as if to reassure us arriving passengers that yup, you’re in Sweden alright.

The airport-to-city bus helpfully displayed the temperature (a balmy 24 degrees Celsius) to confirm the sunny heat streaming through the windows, as furry brown bunnies hopped alongside us on the lush greenery spanning the highway. Where were the ice hotels and polar bears?, my tourist-from-the-tropics brain cried out. While my Swedish companion pointed out some royal estates and old cemeteries that we drove past as Stockholm-proper loomed, I was already wondering if I’d brought enough sunscreen to last the fortnight. But before I had any chance to get my bearings, we were already alighting from the bus at the central station, riding on the metro, dragging my heels and trolley wheels on a two-block walk, until I finally found a place to rest my weary suitcases again.

A nap then some strong coffee was all it took to make me feel ready to get out and explore. With the sun setting at almost 11 pm I knew I needn’t rush to catch the light. My thoughtful host had cleverly provided a week-long pass valid for use with almost all of Stockholm’s modes of transportation. As I flashed the pass at the calm, tall and blonde bus driver, Roxette’s opening line to their seminal Swedish hit Joyride (“I said hello, you fool…”) sparked through my musical memory circuits, and I smiled and thanked him with a sincerely grateful “tack!”

Sweden’s generous social benefits, including 16 months paid parental leave, help make encounters with rugrats such as these an unavoidable occurence around the country

At that odd hour, one thing caught my attention, or more accurately, I caught the attention of more than a few things — bouncing blonde blue-eyed baby things to be specific. I profess to no great fondness for human spawn, and I believe that they sense this perceived failing. Which is probably why as a group, they like to stare at me accusingly as if asking “how dare you not think I’m cute?” I’ve grown immune to this phenomenon among Filipino fetuses, but these Aryan infants were coming at me with a different tact and laser focus. And they were everywhere — strapped into backpacks, pushed in prams, bundled among the groceries. The Swedes were obviously getting it on, with competing teams of more and more attractive couples in a battle to breed the most beautiful babies. Whoever wins probably gets an exclusive Anne Geddes calendar, or maybe the cover of the next Cardigans album. Anyway, all of you fellow pedophobes have been warned.

continued in next entry, Stockholm When It Sizzles

Sun-loving Stockholmers by the waterfront at Riddarholmen

Holland From a Higher Plane

…continued from Bikes and Dikes

Back in Amsterdam, I was in for one last treat. Michael, a British expat and long-time resident of the Netherlands, invited me to his loft apartment atop a 300 year-old 5-storey building right between the Royal Palace and the red-light district. Buttressed by thick wooden beams that make the space feel like a huge, cozy attic, his home has its own rooftop garden where we sipped wine through the long sunny afternoon with the city spread out before us.

Drinking it all in among the flora and foliage of this unlikely spot, I realized how horticulture is such an integral part of the country’s fabric. As sombre as their architecture can be at times, the Dutch sure know how to touch things up with a well-placed row of tulips or spray of ivy. Their charm really creeps up on you, it’s not a massive all-out assault with everything pretty all of the time. Sometimes there’s gloom, and a little bit of doom, but then the country’s beauty blooms through and true.

After one last perfect zero-degree-cold Heineken at the Schipol airport lounge, I got on the plane back to storms and semi-sobriety in Manila. As we took off and ascended, I looked down at the Netherlands’ patchwork patterns, carved precariously from the invading tides and foreign powers, and realized how I’d expanded my consciousness simply by chasing the horizon and keeping my head in the clouds. Try puffing on that!

The Facts of Flight

KLM flies direct from Manila to Amsterdam daily. A nifty way of passing the time on the long journey is to study a few lessons in Dutch or other languages using the in-flight entertainment system. Besides the pampering and other perks (which you really come to appreciate on a 14+ hour flight), World Business Class passengers are also given a Delft blue porcelain figure of old Dutch canal houses filled with jenever. Now collectors’ items (some styles go for US$1000 at auction), there are 90+ different houses, one for every year of KLM’s operation, with a new house style introduced every year.

A Passion for People: AIR FRANCE KLM’s Ihab Sorial

Airline General Managers on the cover of Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine’s 2nd issue. Photo by Richie Castro.

Upon conversing with Ihab Sorial, one is first struck by his openness, then by a series of of pleasant surprises. Sorial professes a fondness even for aspects of the Philippines that most may find unpleasant. It would shock the most jaded Manila natives to hear that he likes driving around the metropolis, “I love the organized chaos, all the complexities and challenges of the country.”

But then Manila traffic may not be much compared to being General Manager for the South China Sea region of AIR FRANCE KLM, the biggest airline group in Europe. Their figures are staggering. Turnover this year was 23 billion euros, an increase of 7 percent compared to the year before, while net income was 1.24 billion euros, a 32 percent increase. “It’s getting from good to better to great,” states Sorial. “Results are very positive despite rising fuel surcharges and costs.”

This upbeat trend extends to the airline’s operations in the Philippines. Flying state-of-the-art Boeing 777-200s with audio/video-on-demand in every seat, KLM is the only airline that flies nonstop between the Philippines and Europe, capturing the highest market share.

Ihab Sorial. Photo by Richie Castro.

“The Philippines should really strive to get more airlines to come in and maintain the ones already here,” advises Sorial. “It’s always healthier for the industry and the country to have competition.”

During the photo-shoot for the magazine cover, the airline men all cast aside their professional rivalries and got along like good friends. “Although we are competitors, we still do like each other. It’s nothing personal. That’s really top-notch professionalism,” Sorial states admiringly.

International air travel is definitely one industry where one has to be adept at dealing with people of different cultures. Since their operations span the globe, airlines need a truly global perspective and attitude to rise above the pack. The successful merger of AIR FRANCE and KLM proves how unity in diversity is not such an implausible concept. As one group, two airlines and three businesses, each airline has retained its individual identity, trade name and brand, and respective hub.

“AIR FRANCE is French and KLM is Dutch, but it’s a nice combination,” says Sorial. “I’m Egyptian-American. So we really don’t distinguish between cultures or nationalities. To be honest, we really value everyone the same way. We do know that expats travel a lot, and they’re a market segment we value. But the best thing to do is to cater to everybody’s needs with the same passion, wherever they come from. Others may use the word ‘customer-passionate’, but we try to we transcend that, to go the extra mile, to do what matters.”

It’s this passionate approach to his work that shows why Sorial was entrusted with such an important position at the airline. During his stint in Bangkok he oversaw the first integrated region in the entire world for AIR FRANCE KLM, while Manila is one of the first countries in the world where the two airline titans merged operations.

Having lived and worked in seven countries and been in charge of more than 15 territories over the past 13 years, Sorial is the consummate pro when it comes to intercultural relations. “In business, we may not always agree on the right ways of doing things. It’s not always easy to build a consensus. But we all share some of the same values, such as the value of common sense.”

Sorial believes in respect, transparency and clear communication as the ingredients for a successful organization, especially in a merger. He stresses how success depends on a company’s people and their convictions. As a manager, his greatest motivator to do well is the team of people he oversees.

“People inspire me. And I hope it works both ways,” Sorial reveals. “Sometimes you motivate people by saying if you work hard you get a bonus, but you won’t get one if you don’t. But genuine inspiration is based on the heart. So if you truly like your people and what you’re doing, you inspire them. As a leader you have to connect with them on a personal level.”

It’s this strong team connection that keeps the AIR FRANCE KLM regional office here running like a powerhouse. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Sorial however. “I’m proud to be an Egyptian,” he declares. “But it also plays a role in my position. AIR FRANCE KLM always had French or Dutch general managers before. It’s not easy. It takes time until people believe in you. Sometimes they may have this perception that you’re too good to be true. It takes a lot of sincerity and heart to really prove to them that you care for them.”

He explains that the way he plays tennis, is the same way he works, and vice versa. “When I feel down I say ‘never ever give up’. For instance, if I reach a dead end or I’m really drained, I just interrupt the pattern. So before I serve, instead of bouncing the ball three times, I bounce it seven times. I really apply my work values to my game.”

Attaining Sorial’s objectives for himself and his team is far from an effortless process as he describes: “You have to be perceptive, notice everything, and try to fill the gaps. You look, listen, and ask questions, then try to be fair, decisive and understanding.  My approach is to be very genuine, straightforward, and pragmatic. One cannot work alone. You have to know when to pull and when to push, and when to share leadership. It’s a balancing act, day in and day out.”

Out of the office, Sorial also does his best to maintain a sense of equilibrium. “I always strive to be consistent in my actions. I learned that from my children,” he relates. “My eldest son once told me: ‘Dad, I wish you would treat me like you treat your staff.’ This really hit me. He said: ‘Even when you come home, you’re always working.” So I try to be as fair and balanced as possible. And I think I manage. I try to be myself everywhere. My staff is shocked when they see me in shorts, because they always see me in a suit, or when I joke. So I say, ‘this is me, I’m a human being’”

But what does elevate Sorial’s humanity, although he may be too modest to draw much attention to it, is his gracious spirit. A strong sense of spirituality imbues his words and deeds. He openly shared his love for this particular quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “My life is my message.”

“Everyone’s life can be his message,” expounds Sorial. “You can do great, even if you start small. I’ve been touched by many people and I hope that many people have also been touched by me. I just hope my message reaches across the world, through every country I’ve been.”

When asked where he’d want to go from here, Sorial shrugs off any ambitions for a loftier, less hands-on job. “I like being close to people, coaching them, making them happy. I don’t think there’s anything better than what I am doing.” There is little doubt though that he will continue to move on and find more people to inspire, and more places to spread his message.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2007

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