ABBA

ABBA Photographic Reunion

There’s a fair bit in the papers today about ABBA’s “photographic reunion” when they appeared together overnight in Stockholm. Being ABC Local Radio’s resident “ABBA Expert”, I was asked to come on the radio in NSW and chat about this. You can listen to the audio below, or read my interview preparation notes below.

What’s the significance of this appearance?

It’s the first time they’ve appeared in public (all four of them) since the premiere in Stockholm of “Mamma Mia” in 2008. For the last thirty five years, all four members of ABBA have appeared in public together, but very rarely all four of them together. I was at the opening of Stockholm’s ABBA Museum in 2013, when Bjorn, Benny and Frida attended the opening. Agnetha wasn’t there, and the reason given was that she had already made plans to be in the UK to promote her latest album. Benny and Frida appeared together when ABBA were inducted in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame.  Frida and Agnetha appeared together when they received a Swedish music award.  There’s a video clip on Youtube of them on stage together, and it’s quite lovely to see Frida holding tightly to Agnetha (given all of the newspaper reports about Agnetha’s anxiety appearing in public).  My favourite moment from that appearance was when the presenter asked Agnetha and Frida what they talk about when they come together after such a long time. Agnetha replies, “mostly tonight it was about money!!”. And the reaction from Frida is hilarious – she can’t quite believe Agnetha was so honest.

So it’s not a sign the feud between them is over?

Was there ever a feud? I don’t know there’s any evidence of a feud. I think they just moved on with their lives. After a decade or so together, including as married couples, and then with divorces, they simply moved on. Agnetha is the one mostly commonly described as being reclusive. Her ex-husband Bjorn has reflected on that, saying he thought she would have been happy raising a family. He said she liked to sing and record, but touring wasn’t something she enjoyed. I think there’s probably evidence the Australian tour, in particular, freaked her out a little bit. There was also a particularly scary flight in 1979 in America, and after that I think she didn’t think it was worth it any more. I also think the idea of a feud comes from the fact there were divorces, and I also think this might be evidence of a bit of deep sexism. The idea there can’t be room for two fairly strong women in the same pop group without “cats fights” and so on. I think a key thing to remember is all four members of the group are now in their mid 60s to early 70s. For them, this whole thing was such a long-time ago.

So what is this new Mamma Mia franchise?

After the musical and the movie, comes a new incarnation of Mamma Mia. Basically, it’s theatre restaurant. It’s currently in Swedish, but they’ll be performing it in English during Eurovision this year, which is being held in Stockholm. By the way, last year’s winner, Mans Zelmerlow actually appeared this week at the Australian Open in Melbourne.

What are they all doing now?

Frida has been living in Zermatt, Switzerland for about thirty-five years. Occasionally she records duets, mostly for charity. She’s a Princess (she married a Swedish/German prince, who later passed away). And now she’s in a relationship with Henry Smith, one of the heirs of W.H. Smith. She has both a son and a grandson who are musicians. 

Agnetha has been living on the outskirts of Stockholm for the last forty years. Her daughter, son in law, and grandchildren live with her. She’s had a few relationships, including one rather disastrous relationship with a fan who became a bit of a stalker. She recorded and released a new album a couple of years ago, appeared on television a bit, as well as stage events like Stockholm Pride.

Bjorn continues to live in Stockholm. He’s become a fairly outspoken figure on atheism in Sweden, as well as the move for a cashless society.

Benny continues to perform music regularly. You see him on Swedish TV two or three times a year. His children and grandchildren have mostly followed a musical career also.

Katarinahissen view of Stockholm

Stockholm for a Week or Two

There’s a couple of people I know who are planning to spend between one or two weeks in Stockholm next year, during the months of April and May.

Based on my own experiences of being in Stockholm during that time of the year (and other times of the year), here are a few handy tips I’ve prepared for them, which you might find useful also.

Where to stay in Stockholm: Where you choose to stay depends on a whole range of things: do you like city-life, do you like the countryside, how much you’re prepared to pay etc. My biggest best advice would be to stay near a public transport stop, especially near the subway/metro system, the Tunnelbana. You can buy affordable transport tickets that give you unlimited travel for 7 days, a fortnight or a month. When you don’t have to worry about how you get around, you spend a lot less time worrying about the dailies. And besides, trains and subways go exactly where they’re supposed to. My other piece of advice would be to make sure where you’re staying has a washing machine in your apartment. There are so many awful stories of conflict over “the washing room” in older Swedish apartment blocks, so if you’re using AirBnB, just double check the washing machine is actually in your apartment.

Personally, I really like the southern island, Södermalm. Traditionally a working class suburb, it’s now become quite fashionable. There are two things I really like about Södermalm: first, it’s a cool, funky, and interesting place to walk around; second, it’s close to the city, so you can actually walk to lots of great tourist places. You also look back over the water to the Old Town, Gamla Stan which is fantastic.

What Clothes To Wear: Earlier today when I was chatting with my friend and colleague who’ll be in Stockholm in mid to late April, she asked what clothes she should wear. She doesn’t want to pack too much clothing, and is concerned the warm clothing she has (she bought in New Zealand) might actually be “too warm”. Going back through my blog posts from March/April/May 2003, I noticed I needed to make a similar transition, and so went to a second hand clothing store on Södermalm and picked up (for about $30-40) some clothing which kept me both warm and dry. Stadsmissionen is probably the best known second hand clothing store in Stockholm, though the store I bought these clothes from was called Emmaus Stockholm just off Götgatan.

Getting to and from Stockholm Airport (Arlanda): Of all the options you might consider – regular taxi, fast train (Arlanda Express), public transport (connecting train and bus), airport buses, I’d recommend the airport buses. For around $15-$20 AUD, it will take you roughly 45 minutes from the airport to central. This is slightly longer than catching a taxi, and twice as long as catching the Arlanda Express, but it’s much cheaper, and you get to see a little of the countryside. http://www.flygbussarna.se/EN You can buy your tickets before-hand and just show them on your phone, though noting you shouldn’t buy them too early as they can “expire”.

Getting a Swedish SIM Card:  If you’re going to be in Stockholm for more than a week or so, I really think it’s worth getting yourself a Swedish SIM Card. As well as things like Google Maps, you can access email, social media, and not have to worry about international roaming. WIFI is everywhere, and Swedish homes generally have high-speed broadband, but for the sheer convenience, I think it’s worth spending about $40-50 for a casual plan which is often unlimited but usually has more than enough to do everything you’ll need. The last few times  I’ve visited Stockholm, I picked up a SIM Card from 3 at a fairly reasonable price. Though the website is in Swedish, I found it was pretty simple to go into the 3 shop on Götgatan, and explain my situation. They asked me a few basic questions about usage patterns, and they even set the phone up for me.

https://www.tre.se/privat/handla/bredband/abonnemang/

Some Great Things To Do

Stockholm Rooftop Tour: I’m not sure if actually operates during April, but the rooftop tour is amazing. Stockholm is a low rise city, and you’ll see a whole lot more if you’re just above the city, not far, far away at Kaknastornet, the radio and TV transmission tower.  I’d also really recommend Katarinahissen.

The ABBA Museum

Vasa Museet: A massive Swedish warship inside a museum. Amazing.

The Millenium Tour: A walking tour of Stockholm, as seen through the eyes of the books/films by Stieg Larrson.

The Nordic Experience Food Tour: Swedes eat all kinds of food, reflective of their increasingly multi-cultural society, but this tour takes you on a journey of pickled herring, bear and all kinds of great stuff.

Monday Night at Victoria’s: Swedes love pop music and drinking. If you’re skeptical, read the the story of a guy I met who was VERY skeptical, and ended up having a great time.

Valborg: A pagan festival at the end of April. Bonfires in the centre of Stockholm.

Kulturnatt: The night when galleries and museums are open during mid-April.

Walking On Ice: Hopefully there will still be some snow and ice around during March-April, and so long as you follow in the footsteps of others, you should feel confident about walking on ice.

Booze: Swedish bottle shops operate only 9-5 Monday to Saturday, so if you’re looking for take-away alcohol, you’ll need to plan. Supermarkets which are generally open until 10 or 11 at night, sell low-alcohol beer in case you get a little desperate.http://jamesobrien.id.au/2013/05/05/systembolaget-saturday/

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Jumaadi 2016 Confessions at Watters Gallery

Jumaadi at Watters Gallery

Kate, a friend of hers and I went to the opening of the Jumaadi exhibition at Sydney’s Watters Gallery. I first met Jumaadi a couple of years ago, as he was part of the exhibition, Crossing Boundaries curated by Kate, as part of Lunar New Year celebrations in Sydney. Jumaadi is from Indonesia, but has lived in Australia for a number of years.

Though I wasn’t a fan of the paintings in this exhibition, I REALLY loved the papercuts, and I REALLY loved the installation work. The papercuts were beautiful. As they were hanged throughout the exhibition space, there were lots of opportunities to “engage” with them.

And the installation? There was so much to see. A wonderfully engaging work of faces, limbs and even shoes! As there were lots of people taking photographs of the installation work, I really hope the exhibition is successful and he makes lots of sales.

The Paddington

The Paddington

“We were the oldest people there”, I said to my friend as we left The Paddington last night. “No, there were some other oldies there”, she argued. Yes, she was right, but overwhelmingly The Paddington attracted a hip and happening younger crowd. And no wonder, it’s the latest Sydney hotel to be “Hemmesphied”. Justin Hemmes has had a terrific record in transforming bars into terrific new spaces. And it’s my feeling he’s done another great job.

“You really must go”, I told a colleague this morning. “For $50 each, we shared a bottle of wine, a whole chicken, salad and chips. It was delicious, and there was chicken left over”, I added.

We were lucky enough to be given a quieter spot overlooking the main serving area, as it was a reasonably noisy space. In part, because it was so damn busy. It was nine o’clock on a wet Wednesday night in Sydney, and the place was jumping. Highly recommended.

Jackson Pollock's Paints at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

One of my absolute favourite things from my overseas trip last year was my visit to the Peggy Guggenhem Museum in Venice.

As I wrote at the time

According to the audio tour, Peggy was an American heiress who came to live in Venice in her early twenties. With gazillions of dollars behind her, the audio tour explains, she needed to find a purpose in life. Aside from being married, and apparently shagging lots of other blokes which I’m sure could be a “purpose in life”. And so she began collecting contemporary artists: artists like Pollock and Kandinsky. She lived in the house where the museum now exists for over thirty years. And what a house! Located right on the waterfront, it was both spacious and had spectacular views. But aside from the views, the museum contains some of the most spectacular contemporary art of the twentieth century. I loved it.

And so when I saw a review in The Australian the other week of a new documentary film about her life story, I was very excited. A friend and I, who had also been to the museum, hit the Chauvel Cinema last night to see the film.

At the heart of the documentary was the discovery of some previously hidden recordings she had made, as part of a biography project. Over the top of these recordings was some wonderful archival footage.

“Having seen the documentary, I don’t think I really know her any better than when I visited the museum”, I told my friend as we left the cinema. “It’s like they couldn’t decide if the film was about her personal life or her art gallery”, my friend said, saying it failed to satisfy on either level. I agreed, it was interesting, though not stunningly amazing. There were no real “insights” for me which I hadn’t considered previously.

All of that said, the small cinema was close to full, and so there’s obviously a market for learning more about the life of a pretty amazing person.

I’m sure, one day, it will end up late at night on either SBS or ABC.

Jackson Pollock's Paints at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Jackson Pollock’s Paints at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Marino Marini’s The Angel of the City at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
Marino Marini’s The Angel of the City at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection
I Love Rome Bag

WordPress 2015 Stats

Here’s an excerpt

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 53,000 times in 2015. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 20 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

There were 485 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 914 MB. That’s about a picture per day.

The busiest day of the year was May 4th with 428 views. The most popular post that day was Cocktail Frankfurts.

So there you have it. Despite all my world travels, my insightful posts, the busiest post for me on my busiest day was a post about whether or not it was safe to eat uncooked cocktail frankfurts, which I should point out, was actually a post from 2013.

Cocktail Frankfurts
Cocktail Frankfurts

For the rest…

 

See the fireworks James O’Brien created by blogging on WordPress.com. Check out their 2015 annual report.

Source: See the #fireworks I created by blogging on #WordPressDotCom. My 2015 annual report.

Times Square

Yearly Review – 2015

2015 has definitely been a year of ups and downs. Highlights/lowlights of the year have included some wonderful overseas travel, a life-changing meeting with a family member, the near-loss of one close family member due to a heart-attack, and sadly, in the days before Christmas the loss of another close family member due to cancer. In all the years I’ve been writing this “year in review” (since 2002), I don’t think there’s been a more significant year in my life for the highs and lows involved.

Let’s start with the good stuff. Half way through the year I undertook a wonderful overseas holiday, visiting Tokyo, Stockholm, Rome, Venice and New York. Of course I’ve been to Stockholm many times, and love it as much as now as when I first visited in 2008, but visiting the other cities was the first time for me.

I really loved Tokyo. There are many strong memories. For example, I went to an onsen which was an amazingly sublime experience. I also undertook a 26 kilometre cycle tour of the city. But it was the food that remains one of my strongest memories of the place. The Japanese food we have in Sydney is pretty good, but nowhere near as good as the Japanese food in Japan. I booked to take part in the Tsukiji Fish Market Food Tour.

Over the course of three and a half hours (starting at 8.30am), we wandered around the markets, and tasted dried bonito, Japanese tea, fresh oysters, fried fish cake, sake, and also witnessed the art involved in making Japanese omelettes. And I learned so much on this tour. I never knew, for example, fish with bigger eyes were the ones which you’re most likely to found in deeper water (though of course it makes total sense). I’d also never seen the wasabi plant before, and noted when I shared the photograph earlier today on social media, many others hadn’t either. The tour ended with sushi at a stand-up restaurant called Chiyoda Sushi. There are quite a few of them around Tokyo, and Nori described them as places where you can obtain good sushi at reasonable prices. I thought it was probably the best sushi I’ve had in my life, to be honest.

And once you’ve had “real wasabi”, you’ll never be satisfied with the green-coloured horseradish which we mostly consume.

Rome and Venice were also amazing places to visit. Both were visually spectacular, but also, amazing because of the history.

“You have to remember that for many many years, The Colosseum was like a very big quarry for Rome”, our guide, Alessio told us… on the “Rome In A Day Tour” run by “Real Rome Tours“. “When it was fully functional as an arena, the walls were painted, and there was rock, and bronze and marble everywhere. So that when it was no longer used in that way, they took rock and the bronze and the marble and used it in other buildings projects”, he went on to say. This was possibly one of the greatest personal revelations for me on today’s tour. That, and the fact the modern Rome is built on top of Medieval Rome, which is built on top of Ancient Rome.

And Venice? I vividly remember waking up early on one morning when the alarm went off. For a moment, I struggled to get out of bed.

When the alarm went off at 5.30am, I thought myself “Why am I doing this? Why am I getting up so early on a Saturday morning when I could just stay in bed?” The answer is simple: I wanted to experience the sunrise, and to see Venice before the tourist crowds woke up. I hesitated briefly, and then reminded myself I would otherwise regret this. As I made way down the stairs of the hotel I was staying in, I encountered another guy doing just the same. He also had that early morning “bleary” look about him. But the both of us, with cameras hung around our necks, headed off to the nearby waterfront. It was well worth it, I can assure you. The only people I could find were “locals” setting up for the day, “locals” coming home from the night before, and tourists like myself who like taking photographs. There was a lovely intimacy about being there, as people genuinely stopped to say hello to each other. It must be hard to live in a place like Venice, when there are so many tourists around. But at this time of the morning, before the tourists (mostly) have woken up, it all seemed so much different. There was just one cafe open at this time, and along with two other tourists, we headed in for a coffee, and were “treated” by the woman behind the counter. “It’s no problem”. one of my fellow tourists explained to me was what she was saying.

New York was also amazing. On top of all the iconic spots (Statue Of Liberty, Empire State Building etc), I really loved hanging out with my friend Michaela who joined me for a week. We took an an apartment in Brooklyn which we both agreed was a really fantastic place to stay. A particular highlight was visiting Harlem. As I wrote at the time

Honey, you’ve come at just the right time…” we were told by an fantastic looking older woman. “This is Harlem Week” she said with a great deal of passion and enthusiasm. Even though she no longer lives in Harlem, she came back especially for this, she told us. Though we had no idea it was on, it was a wonderful discovery. “If we’d gotten off at 125th street as most people do, we would have missed this completely”, Michaela added.

We had in fact planned to come to Harlem for two main reasons: for Michaela to revisit some of the places she used to live, and to have a meal at a place called “Red Rooster” which had been recommended to us both individually. Though the phrase “Red Rooster” conjures up images of barbecue chicken in boxes, this restaurant has a “modern take” on “soul food” (watermelon salad, fried chicken etc) as well as Swedish meatballs. Yes, köttbullar. More on that later.

It wasn’t long after arriving in Harlem that I discovered the main difference between it and Manhattan. Manhattan seems to have a pharmacy on every corner. And when I say pharmacy, I mean places that also sell cigarettes and beer. Go figure. In contrast, in Harlem we only saw a few pharmacies, but we lost count of the number of hairdressing salons.

And upmarket restaurants and bars, as Harlem is going through a gentrification. I won’t share them here, but I took some photographs of a couple of signs which angrily protest the change.

We were so pleased to have timed this visit with Harlem Week, a massive street fair with food, music, dance, history and fashion.

My friend Colin once told me about New York: “You will love it. You will gobble it up”. He was right, you know. I’ll be back.

And Stockholm, beautiful Stockholm. This time around I took an apartment for four weeks which gave  me a sense of “permanence”. Along the way, there was Stockholm Pride (including a performance by Måns Zelmerlöw), sight-seeing, and generally hanging-out. I also got to play “host” to an old school friend who was in Stockholm for a few days. I also met an online buddy called Mattias who I’ve been chatting with for a few years. And of course it was wonderful to see Robert and Sandra again. “Did I just hear you make another little sigh…? Sandra asked on my final day in Stockholm. As I wrote at the time

With only a few hours left in Stockholm before heading to New York, I’d apparently developed a bit of a “sigh” whenever I saw something really wonderful. I wasn’t consciously doing it, though clearly the thought of leaving Stockholm was weighing on my mind. I really love it here, and though I’m looking forward to travelling to New York, I’m a little sad to be leaving. “Sometime we’ll both live in the same city”, I said to Sandra.

A few weeks later I was back in Australia, and I appeared on ABC Local Radio’s “Nightlife” with Tony Delroy, in his “Travel Spot” talking about Stockholm. There’s a few tips if you’re ever planning to visit this amazing city.

There were lots of other wonderful things about the year, including visiting lots of galleries, and generally “hanging out” with Kate, seeing my friend Michaela on a regular basis, and it’s been wonderful having Sue just a few kilometres down the road, instead of half way across the country.

Work has also been really enjoyable and interesting, and in March I was presented with a 25 year service medal which was very exciting. At the “ceremony”…

I told the story of how I’d once dated a guy at work. A few years later, having broken up with him, I caught up with him and he asked if I still worked for the ABC. When I told him I did, he said, in a very negative tone “I always knew you’d be a lifer”. I told those attending I didn’t see it as a negative, even though in this modern world, it’s generally regarded as odd that you should work for the same organisation for such a long time. I told everyone I’d had so many wonderful opportunities to do so many different things, to live in many different parts of the country, and genuinely love my current job and the people I work with. Receiving the medal was a very proud moment for me, and something I’ll really treasure for many years to come. “It’s my Matthew Mitcham moment”, I joked.

On top of that, I work with some really amazing people.

As I look back at 2015, there’s lots of to be thankful for.

But it’s also been a year of highs and lows. It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride for my family this year. Half way through the year we almost lost Nancy. Aged 69, she had a serious heart-attack, and there were a couple of days when we thought she wouldn’t make it through. Thankfully, she survived. In the days leading up to Christmas, however, we lost Margaret (aka Tootsy) after an eight-week battle with pancreatic cancer. Of the four “O’Brien Girls”, there are now only two left. There have been various other family problems throughout the year which I won’t go into here. Suffice it to say, it’s been a tough year on the home front, and I’ve found myself increasingly providing advice and comfort to my family.

How did this happen? How did I suddenly become the wise, older member of my family? Is it because I turned fifty this year? :)