Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Swedish Xmas

Updating my blog isn’t something I would ordinarily expect to do on Christmas Day, but such is the strangeness of Christmas in Sweden that I’ve ended up doing a few things I wouldn’t normally do, and eating raw herring is just the start of it.

The first odd thing about Christmas in Sweden is that it takes place on Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day. The food, the presents, all the festivities are on Christmas Eve, meanwhile on Christmas Day nobody does anything except maybe go to a church service, or in my case write a blog entry. This of course begs the question: What is the point in having a Christmas Day when the actually festivities take place the night before?
I have since learnt that this practice derives from an earlier time when Sweden was far more religious and conservative place. As a religious holiday, it was forbidden to do anything remotely fun and enjoyable. Everything was closed and everyone was expected to attend the local church, thus all festivities had to be confined to the previous night. As time has passed and Sweden has become radically more progressive and educated, Swedes have gotten over this religious guilt complex and suddenly found themselves with a free day. Today Christmas Day has become a day to go out drinking with friends, and quite typically Swedes use this day to drink the only way they know how: to excess.

Another bizarre Christmas tradition in Sweden is watching Disney cartoons. At 3pm every Christmas Eve the local TV station broadcasts old Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. The story behind this oddity is that when television was first set up in Sweden in the 1950s, there was much debate about what it should be used for, and what should be shown to the nation’s youth. Cartoons were considered detrimental and destructive for young minds so Disney was banned. However one exception was made: for one hour every Christmas Eve Disney would be screened and thus a new Christmas tradition was born. Of course the ban on Disney has long been lifted, but the tradition remains, and for older Swedes it is a nostalgic reminder of an age when Mother Sweden protected their innocence.

To counteract this capitalist American propaganda, Disney is always followed by a Swedish made cartoon called ‘Karl Bertil Jonssons julafton’ (pictured below). It’s a short cartoon about a weedy looking kid who spends Christmas Eve stealing presents from the rich, and redistributing them to the poor. Some of Karl’s more bizarre acts of social justice include giving a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre to a homeless alcoholic, and a tie to a prostitute. Karl’s father, a successful sales executive, obviously gets upset when he finds his presents in the hands of whores and drunks and thus makes Karl go round and apologise to all the rich people he stole from. But much to everyone’s surprise all the upper class toffs they meet are actually getting more enjoyment from seeing poor people with their new gifts than they ever would from the gifts themselves. Hence they all pledge to continue to redistribute their wealth to the less well off, and the Swedish welfare state is born. Young children all over Sweden are left thinking “Sure we’re forbidden from watching Mickey Mouse, but isn’t it great to live in a country where we’re taxed 50% of our wages.”

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Xmas in Göteborg

There is a lot to be said for spending Christmas in Sweden. It’s freezing and it gets dark by 3.30pm but it somehow makes Christmas more enchanting. Hot dinners become far more appetising. The man dressed as Santa Clause at the local shops looks more welcoming because unlike his counterpart in Australia he isn’t sweating like a pig. People are ice-skating and singing songs by candlelight. Real Xmas trees that have been freshly chopped down from a forest are sold outside petrol stations. There is always half a chance you’ll wake up the next morning to find the street full of snow. And finally, the fact that it’s dark for 20 hours of the day means people really make an effort with Xmas lights.
In Göteborg just about every lamppost, tree, bridge, window or any other vertical structure, is decorated with Xmas lights. The power being drained to feed the city’s ornamentation would give Al Gore a fit.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Another Lazy Blog Entry

I was going to write a blog entry about my new job, but I felt I couldn't quite capture how repetitive, tedious and mundane it is. So instead I'm posting the following clip, which articulates more then I ever could in writing.

At its worst my job really is like this. The only difference is that our interviews are over the phone, and I’m not as enthusiastic as David Brent. Generally I’m just as apathetic as Keith.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Job Number Three

Eight months in Sweden, and now I’m onto my third job. For the past two weeks I have been working as ‘Data Collector’ for IMS.
Essentially IMS is a company that conducts medical market research on a worldwide scale. Pharmaceutical companies commissioned them to determine the prescriptions habits of doctors in various countries, as a means of better marketing their drugs. As a ‘Data Collector’, I basically sit around on the phone booking and interviewing doctors in English speaking countries. According to the company’s literature, there can be as many 100-200 data collectors working at any one time. Obviously I work in the English department, where there are only 20 of us, but there are dozens of other departments too. Walking through the offices is like going through the UN. Walk past one room where everyone is on the phone speaking Spanish, then in the next everyone is speaking Finnish.

The work can be quite interesting, and even educational. Before each assignment we’re given a run down on the diseases we’re looking into, and its various treatments. I’m also learning a little about how the pharmaceutical industry works; such as the exorbitant amounts of money such companies spend on marketing and promotion, rather then on actually developing medications. But above all it is so nice to work indoors, sleep in after 5am and be free of the physical labour.

Having said that, there are some drawbacks, which could see me back working in construction sooner then I like to admit. For one it is all short-term contract work. I’ve been given work right up until Christmas, but I’ve also been warned that work cannot be guaranteed after that. January is generally very quiet, and things can pick up in February, but it can be as late as April/May.
This not only makes for very little job security, but also creates a very competitive work environment. December is a particularly busy time and there are more workers now then normal. We are all painfully aware that when work does pick up again, not all of us will be called back. Consequently everyone is doing what they can to prove what hard diligent workers they are.

This fact alone should make the place competitive enough, but our boss Clare likes to add petrol to the flames by putting us into direct competition with one another. She keeps statistics of how many phone calls we’ve made, how many bookings we’ve taken, and how many interviews we’ve completed. Thus our work rate has a numerical measurement, which Clare isn’t afraid to make public.
On a weekly basis she’ll go over all these statistics in front of us, offering praise and criticism in front of all our work colleagues. A typically session will begin like this: “Well done Mike! You completed 65 tasks this week. Lets give him a hand everyone! Let’s all try to work as hard as Mike!” This is then followed by “Oh dear Nic, you only completed five tasks this week. I know you’ve only just started but let’s try a little harder next week shall we?” I’ll then be left to wallow in my humiliation, while Mike smugly boasts to Clare that he can work even harder and that next week he reckons he’ll even break his own record.
Throughout these sessions Clare always gives her criticisms in the collective ‘We’ even when it’s clearly being directed at one person. Before she finishes she likes to give a little speech about the importance of teamwork. Despite that fact she has openly ranked and compared us to one another like some sort of competition, and made it clear we’re all competing for limited work, it isn’t in fact a competition. We’re all a team.

It is kind of ironic that I end up working on an AWA-style contract in the same week that my country of origin decides to abolish them.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

A New Chapter

After six months of sweeping floors, demolishing walls, ferrying building materials around sites, and occasionally buildings something, I am finally free of what has possibly been the worst job I’ve ever had. In fact it was the worst job I’ve ever had. But now it’s all over. I have a new job, and so ends my career in construction.

I’d be lying if I said working as a builder’s labourer was in any way a pleasant experience, but it certainly has been an interesting one. I’ve learnt a lot, from how to install doorframes and skirting, to the daily work conditions of unskilled migrant workers in Sweden.

There will be a few things I’ll miss. For one I could be a bit short on content for this blog. Where would I be if I didn’t have stories of rorts, thefts, and Polish workers getting shafted? (I’d probably still be stuck trying to stretch out my worn out gag about wooing Princess Victoria.)
I’ll especially miss witnessing the fine art of bludging being performed with such distinction and fineness. (At my last site, one of the workers would start up the coffee machine five minutes before our break, so the coffee was ready as soon as break time started. After all coffee breaks are for drinking coffee, not making coffee.)
And for what ever damage such work was doing to my mind, it has certainly hasn’t harmed me physically. For five days week for the past six months, I’ve been getting the sort of work out that many people pay good money for at a gym. Another six months and I’ll look like guy pictured on the right. Having said that, I’d be more then happy to reclaim my old puny arms if it means never having to set foot on a construction site again.

As of Monday morning, I’ll be sitting behind a desk in a warm office, drinking a nice cup of tea while I interview doctors over the phone. I’ll be working for a company that conducts research of medical practices amongst doctors the world over. Pharmaceutical companies, looking at the best way to market their products, commission most of their work. My job will be to interview doctors in the English speaking countries. And so begins the next chapter of My Life As A Swede.

Thursday, 15 November 2007

Weekend In Stockers

Here are a few photos from my trip to Stockholm last weekend.

Friday, 9 November 2007


I’m starting to worry that my job is dumbing me down. That so much mind-numbing manual labour has caused large parts of my brain to completely shut down due to inactivity. Certainly something must be going on, for I cannot find any other reason why I have made so many stupid mistakes over the past six weeks.
It all started when I accidentally put my iPod into the washing machine. I had it in a side pocket of my work trousers, and those things are so small and lightweight. Easy mistake to make, could have happened to anyone. Although you’d think that losing a $300 iPod would be a good lesson in the importance of checking your pockets before washing. Yet two weeks later I managed to put my passport through the wash too.
Losing a passport abroad is a real hassle. To get a replacement I have to travel to the Australian Embassy in Stockholm to be interviewed. I also need to provide my birth certificate, proof of address, and my application needs to be signed by guarantor who can certify my identity. The guarantor must be either an Australian citizen, or from an approved occupation (teacher, police officer, etc). They must have known me for at least 12 months, however they cannot be related to me either through birth, marriage or a de facto relationship. Seeing as I’ve only been here 7 months, the only people who have known me for more then a year are Ankie and her family. Although when I spoke to the Embassy they said they’d let Ankie’s mother be a guarantor if I couldn’t find anyone else.

Luckily I had the foresight to bring my birth certificate with me when I moved here, so the rest of the application was pretty straightforward. I had all my forms filled out, signed by a guarantor, along with all my documents ready to go. I booked my trip to Stockholm and organised a day off work. I was even able to time my trip with the federal election so I could vote at the same time.
Then last Saturday, and this is where I really hit the heights of stupidity, I noticed all my forms and documents were missing. Somehow I managed to lose them. The previous day Ankie had been cleaning the flat, and the obvious guess would be she chucked them out my mistake, but she swears she would have noticed them and wouldn’t have done that. What ever happened to them, they are definitely not in our flat. I’ve spent the whole week tearing the place apart, only ever stopping to punch the wall and scream four letter words starting with ‘F’.

So now I have to start the whole application again, expect this time I have to organise a new birth certificate too. To do this I need to post my drivers licence back home to my mum, as she cannot get a copy without it, and a letter from me giving her authorisation. When that is all organised then I can make another appointment at the embassy and organise another trip to Stockholm. Maybe then I might finally get a new passport.

Seeing as I’ve already booked my train trip and it’s non-refundable, I’m going to Stockholm tomorrow anyway. But now I’m basically going all that way just to make a very lacklustre decision between Kevin Rudd and John Howard. It’s the sort of uninspiring choice a moron like me deserves.

Saturday, 3 November 2007

Politics and Scandals

I’ve tried to keep up with the Australian election. I’ve checked the news daily but to be honest I’m bored. Everyday it’s the same. Rudd says this, Howard says that, Rudd responds by saying something remarkably similar but opposing Howard on some minor trivial point. ALP goes up 3%, then down 2%. Columnist after columnist offers tedious analysis of every word and action, all claiming they were the one that always had faith in Rudd’s ability, even when everyone else doubted him. How does the election coverage drag itself out for six weeks? So much fuss when we already know that a bland conservative politician who wears glasses will win it. So instead I’ve been following Swedish politics in what has been a week of full scandals.

But firstly a quick run down of the political situation in Sweden. The current Prime Minister is Frederick Reinfeldt (pictured right), who was elected last year as part of an alliance of various right-wing conservative parties. Swedish politics has traditionally been dominated by the Social Democrats (hence the large welfare state and strong union movement) and the centre-right parties have only ever received enough votes to form government on four occasions. So Freddie’s election win last year was a pretty big deal as conservative PM’s in Sweden are as rare as Liberal voters in Brunswick.
But from the minute Reinfeldt assumed government, his government has been plagued with scandals. Literally within 24 hours two ministers were already in trouble for hiring nannies under the table, and not paying their TV licence fees. Two weeks later they both resigned. A month later, another minister was exposed for hiring personal staff off the books. Since then there have been regular incidents of ministers misusing government credit cards, avoiding tax, and not fully disclosing their personal shares portfolios.

But the big scandal this week is probably as close as Sweden gets to a sex scandal. It involves one of Prime Minister Frederick Reinfeldt’s personal aides, Ulrica Schenström, who last Friday night went out on the town in Stockholm with a journalist from one of the main TV stations. They had a few glasses of wine and were later seen kissing (pictured left). The photos have since been splashed across the front page of every newspaper.
It’s a bit hard for opposition parties to criticise a single woman for having a few drinks in her free time and kissing someone in public. So instead they’ve made a big deal of the fact that she was supposedly on call in case of a national emergency, and that by being out drinking in a bar she was neglecting her duties.

Much media analysis has been dedicated into determining how much she had drunk, and whether she was drunk or not. She has denied she was drunk and insists she could have still performed her duties if called upon. Reinfeldt has accepted this, and didn’t want to pursue the issue further. However it was later revealed that their bar tab was Kr945 (A$160). It might sound like a lot for only two people, but keep in mind that alcohol is very expensive in Sweden, wine is particularly expensive, and in their circles they were probably drinking at a pretty upmarket bar.

Yet this new piece of information has led to an outcry from the media and opposition parties. Some articles have used words like “wine-fuelled” and “heavy consumption”, and the assumption seems to be that she was drunk rather then simply drinking a very expensive bottle of wine. Both Schenström and Reinfeldt have been hounded all week, until finally she resigned. And if that wasn’t enough, it was also revealed that the journalist in question paid for all the drinks, thus constituting a bribe. She may be facing criminal charges soon. If it wasn’t for the fact she was a right wing, union-bashing neo-liberal scumbag, I’d almost feel sorry for her.

Nor do the scandals don’t end here. Ulrica Schenström’s replacement, Nicola Clase, has already got into trouble. Apparently she hired a carpenter under the table to do renovations on her summer home.

On the whole this week Swedish politics has been providing far more entertainment then either Howard or Rudd. However, having said that, Sweden hasn’t quite provided the same scope of scandals as Australian politics. They’ve never had an ex-PM getting caught wearing nothing but a towel in a seedy bar in Memphis. Nor have they produced a minister like Tony ‘I gave up a son for adoption, now I’ve found him, now I’ve learnt he was never actually my son and my ex-girlfriend liked to sleep around’ Abbot. And unlike Australia, Sweden isn’t about to elect a man who likes to get absolutely hammered and go to strip clubs.

It Could Only Happen In Sweden No.4.

Following on from my recent blog entry on the Swedish drinking culture, here is another hilarious example of the country’s rigidness when it comes to their alcohol laws. In a perfect illustration of bureaucracy triumphing over common sense, a 77 year-old man was recently asked for ID when buying a slab of low-alcohol beer. Both the cashier and the store manager refused to accept that the elderly pensioner was over 18, unless he could prove it with sufficient identification. Not only that but the local council have backed the store with one councillor stating "They are not supposed to sell alcohol and tobacco products to people under 18 and it's not always that easy to tell."

Monday, 29 October 2007

Proud Day To Be A Gothenburger.

The city of Gothenburg is celebrating this week, after IFK Göteborg, one of our local football teams, won the Swedish premiership. Last weekend was the last round of matches for the season, and until yesterday three teams still had a chance of winning the cup. However, if IFK could beat opponents, Trelleborg, then they would win the premiership regardless of all the other results. The whole city had been gearing up for this match all last week, and I was lucky enough to get a ticket.

In the end IFK Göteborg won 2-0, in front of a sell out crowd. Once the final whistle went, the whole crowd invaded the pitch, and lit up flares. Within minutes of the match ending, hawkers selling ‘IFK champions 2007’ souvenirs suddenly sprung up. Within an hour, a special edition of the local newspaper had been printed and distributed, complete with photos and match reports. For the rest of the night, people were celebrating in the streets and bars of Gothenburg. Today the team will make an open-bus tour through the city.

Historically IFK are one of the strongest and best-supported clubs in Sweden, however of late they’ve been struggling. While this is their 19th premiership, it’s their first in 11 years. Below is a video I took.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

You Booze, You Lose.

Swedes have an unusual, and often conflicting attitude towards alcohol. One that is both very liberal and very conservative. As anyone who has every seen drunken Swedish backpackers/students/tourists knows, Swedes like to drink and they like to get drunk. Yet in Sweden itself, alcohol is often portrayed as an illicit drug on par with cocaine. Advertisements for wine include health warnings similar to those found on cigarette packets. As I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, the Swedish media love running fear stories on teenage binge drinking as much as A Current Affair love stories on unemployed youths and Lebanese gangs. There seems be a very sizable and vocal portion of the Swedish population who are convinced the whole country will descent into a bunch of alcoholics if their strict laws on the sale of alcohol are relaxed. This week there was even a protest march against teenage binge drinking.

Of course everything in Sweden is expensive, but alcohol is particularly expensive as the whole market is heavily regulated. Prices are artificially inflated through high taxes, and the government has a monopoly over the industry. Outside of pubs and restaurants the only place where you can buy wine, spirits and full-strength beer is at the Systembolaget: the state-owned chain of bottle shops.
Systembolagets are pretty much like any ordinary bottle shop, except queues are a lot longer, you have to show your passport to the cashier, and when you leave you’re offered a booklet (not a leaflet, but a whole 36-page booklet) on the dangers of alcohol. (The pictures below come from this booklet.) They’re open 9-5, Monday to Friday, and for a few hours on Saturday morning. Queues on Friday afternoons and Saturday mornings are even longer (even by Swedish standards), as anyone planning a dinner or party the following weekend tries to get in at the last minute.
However at least these days you can browse through the stock like a normal shop. I’m told that in the past, they resembled something from the old Soviet Union, with everything locked away in storage. You had to read through a catalogue, and write down the reference number of what you wanted on a slip of paper. You then handed in your slip to a cashier, pay, and then wait for your order to be retrieved from the storeroom.

Another rule stipulates that pubs and bars must serve food, so most drinking holes are just as much restaurants and cafes as they are bars. Pubs that prefer to concentrate on drinking will often offer a bare minimum menu. For example Gothenburg’s only Aussie pub, the Dancin Dingo, offers four dishes (one of which is a bowl of chips) in what is definitely a “I’m legally required to sell food” menu.

Swedes have responded by invented various ways to get around such high prices. For one there is a big black market in homemade alcohol. I’m yet to get that desperate for a drink, but I hear such beverages are pretty putrid and the hangovers are even worse.
Pre-parties are also popular. That’s when people meet up at a friend’s place and drink before going out to a bar or pub. My friend Marte in Oslo used to buy a cheap cask of red wine whenever she went out, and hid it in her handbag. She’d then buy one glass of red wine, and just keep topping it up under the table.
Pre-parties also mean that many pubs and bars remain practically empty right up until 12-1am, as everyone is still at home indulging in cheaper booze. Then in a space of an hour they can be full to capacity with a long queue out front.

The idea behind Sweden’s strict laws is to discourage binge drinking and alcoholicism. But for all the effects such laws have had on Swedish drinking habits, as far as I can tell they have done nothing to reduce either. I see more drunkards in public here then I have in just about any other city in the world. Barely a week goes by that I don’t come across packs of boozed up derelicts throwing up on a tram, or passed out in a public park.
As for binge drinking, Swedes don’t drink any other way. No one has the occasional glass of wine with their meal, or meet up for a beer or two. Generally people drink with the sole intention of getting drunk. It’s either don’t drink at all, or drink to excess. No middle ground. If you arrange to meet up with a friend for a drink, you might be thinking one or two then home, but they’ll be preparing for a big night out. They arrive all dressed up, and have had drunk a bottle of wine beforehand. They’ll then proceed to order drink after drink, with the occasional shot thrown in. And they won’t stop until the bouncers are throwing them out covered in their own vomit.

Yet for all their excessiveness on a Friday or Saturday night, many Swedes also have a tendency to suddenly convert to a life of purity the rest of the week. Suddenly alcohol becomes a sin again. I came across a typical example just recently. I was on the way home from football training with one Australian and one Swede. The Australian asked if we wanted to go for a quick beer. I agreed but our Swedish teammate looked at us in disbelief. “What? On a Monday night?” he screeched, “No way!” The previous Saturday night I had seen the same guy knocking back whisky and cokes like his life depended on it. He obviously thought an invitation to the pub entailed a repeat performance, and could not even conceive the possibility of having one beer and leaving.
Judging from the local pubs and bars, this attitude is typical in Sweden. They may get crowded late on a Friday/Saturday night, but anyone drinking at any other time of the week is often an alcoholic. Sweden is the only country where I’ve been told it’s inappropriate to bring a bottle of wine when friends have invited us to a dinner party on a Sunday night. Or where I’ve gone to the local pub on a Sunday afternoon to watch the football, and found myself the only person drinking a beer rather then bottled water.

Sweden’s alcohol laws have been in the news a lot recently, as they have triggered a confrontation with the European Union. It appears they contravene a number of EU regulations on trade and movement of goods. The Swedish government have responded by making a short video explaining and justifying their laws, to be presented to the EU Parliament. You can watch it at http://www.dearmrb.se/. It’s in English, only goes for five minutes, and has some hilarious footage of a man injuring himself with a stick of rhubarb.

Friday, 12 October 2007

And You Thought He Was Just A Big Fish In A Small Pond

For some reason I thought John Farnham was only known in Australia. But it seems he is more famous then I ever gave him credit for. A clip from this week's Swedish Pop Idol:

Friday, 5 October 2007

Being My Own Boss

For the past fortnight I've continued working at Canon House, although there haven't been as many dramas as before. After one flare up too many, Bjorn was sent to another site. A week later, as there was less work to do, Robban was also transfered. Then on Wednesday Peter pushed himself too hard by actually attempting to do some work and ended up hurting his back. I guess years of inactivity had left his body unprepared for physical labour. When he first did it, he told me he was only going upstairs to rest. I didn't see him again for the rest of the week.

As a result, for the past two days I've been the most experienced (and only) carpenter on the whole site. There might be a skills shortage but you know the construction industry is in trouble when someone like me ends up in this position. I'm still too timid to use the nail gun.
At this stage just about everything is finished, and it is mainly just the painters and electricians working. But there are a few odd jobs around, and as the head carpenter, I'm the first person the painters and electricians go to if they need something done. There have been a few situations where I've not been quite sure what to do and just guessed, and tools I've learnt to use as I go. As a result there are little flaws and imperfections in just about everything I've touched. But on the other hand a lot of my time has been spent fixing flaws in Peter's and Robban's work. At least I've got inexperience as an excuse, where as they just like to cut corners. Besides today was my last day at Canon House so it will be up to Peter to fix all my mistakes.

Today was an even easier day. By lunch time I had run out of materials, and had no one around to tell me what I should be doing. As head carpenter I let myself go home early, but as a reward for another week of hard work I still signed off for an 8 hour shift. I'm really starting to get the hang of this Swedish work ethic.

It Could Only Happen In Sweden No.3.

In terms of gender equality, Sweden is light-years ahead of the rest of the world. There is even a law here that states that hairdresses must charge the same amount for men's and women's haircuts. I think the idea behind the law is to prevent women getting overcharged, although in reality it actualy means men get overcharged. A simple short-back-and-sides job, that usualy takes 10 minutes to do, will generally cost between $A40-$A50. But I've found a place run by an Iraqi couple who, if you pay cash and don't need a receit, only charge $A20.

So, what does an Equal Opportunities Ombudsman do in a country with practically full gender equality? They deal with cases like this.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

The Perils of Live Television

Swedish TV is pretty much the same as Australian TV. They show the same crap but obviously in a different language. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Pop Idol, Big Brother, etc. We’ve even got those phone-in quizzes in the middle of the night, although I don’t think I’ve ever seen this before.

If you want to know the full story, read this. She must love Youtube now.

Friday, 21 September 2007

The Jokers and the Thief.

I’m pleased to say that work has been relatively entertaining of late. More demolition work? No, just my work colleagues.

Regular readers of this blog may remember me mentioning a guy called Peter, who I worked with at Vasastaden in June. To refresh your memories, Peter was like a half-man, half-pig hybrid. He was exceptionally lazy, even by Swedish standards. The past two weeks I’ve been working with him and his equally slack accomplice Robban. Whenever I look in their direction, they are very rarely doing any actual work, and more often then not will be standing around chatting, or finding some other fun activity to do instead. For example today Robban made a Ned Kelly-style helmet with some left over metal tubing. Yesterday Peter and Robban were having a knife throwing competition against a soon-to-be demolished wall. The two of them seem incapable of working for more then 15 minutes at any one time before getting bored and distracted. When its break time, you can guarantee they’ll be the first in the tearoom, and they’ll also be the last to leave.

My other co-worker is Bjorn, the suspected alcoholic I worked with in Eriksberg. He is not nearly as lazy. In fact he is as busy as a beaver, and I mean like a beaver. He is constantly collecting and scrounging together tools and materials to take home. Last week he was using an electric drill he borrowed from the storerooms. “Hmm, this is a good drill,” he said, “I should get one like it.” Five minutes later I see him scratching the initials of the previous owner off, and replacing them with his own. Often he can be seen rummaging through the skips picking out bits of wood or metal he thinks he can reuse. The other day he took home a whole bucket of light switches and power point sockets, as well as some curtain railings. On Monday, he even took a green plastic “Exit” sign. He reckons they’re worth 700 Kr (A$125). I imagine half his home consists of DIY renovations with second hand materials. And as of this week his back door probably has an “Exit” sign too.
Bjorn isn’t too subtle either. He tries to be and thinks he succeeds, but it’s blatantly obvious to everyone in the whole building. You know he’s up to something when he turns up to work with his large rucksack. Rest assured he’ll leave that afternoon with it looking noticeably bulkier and heavier.

Certainly Peter and Robban have noticed Bjorn’s thieving, and their not impressed. Despite hardly being role-model employees themselves, they’ve been quick to take to their moral high horse, and denounce Bjorn’s light-fingered side work. “It’s okay to take some things from the rubbish if you do it after work”, Robban told me last week, “But when you’re at work, you work.” This was followed by a brief pause, where Robban must have become aware of how much work he had actually done as he then added “And talk. Sometimes we talk, but we don’t take things like he does. It’s wrong.”
Conversely, Bjorn is equally unimpressed by Robban and Peter’s idleness. “I’ve never had to work with people so lazy,” confided Bjorn the other day, also assuming the moral high ground. “When we finish here, I refuse to ever work with them again.”
Thus this week I’ve been stuck between conflicting sides, as each cannot help but gripe to be me about the other. I have to admit I’ve enjoyed watching them bicker and argue, while being completely oblivious to their own misdeeds. I probably would have enjoyed it even more if I understood more Swedish.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

Still Here

Since my last blog entry, I’m afraid there hasn’t been much luck on the job front: I’m still dying of boredom in construction. I’ve applied for one other job, at least got an interview this time, but again missed out. The depressing thing isn’t so much getting rejected, but that fact there are so few jobs to get rejected from. In the past four weeks I’ve checked the newspapers and various Internet sites everyday, and still only found two positions I could realistically apply for.

So my life as a construction worker continues, with no end in sight. Although at least this week I can find solace in the fact that I’ve been assigned to one of my favourite jobs in construction: demolition. Nothing relieves stress and frustration like standing in a room with a crowbar, tiger-saw, and orders to destroy everything in sight. Sometimes I like to take the crazed psychopath approach, where I just grad a crowbar and hack away at the walls with all my energy until things start to fall apart. When I really get into it, I feel like a rock star trashing a hotel room. But it can be tiring, so other times I take what I like the call the surgical approach. This is where I analyse a structure and identify its weak points. I then cut away the bare minimum from a few sensitive areas, give the wall gently push, and watch it all come crashing down in one hit. It can be quite empowering.

At the moment, I’m working in an office block called Canon House. A company has just bought a floor of office space and wants it renovated. Apparently this is a common line of work in this industry as corporations are constantly moving premises. Often they can never accept a new place as it is, and feel the need to have it renovated to suit their needs. As a result such projects often involve renovating places that are less then a year old.
This current site is a good example, as we’re basically tearing down recently built walls, and ripping up brand new carpet. The walls I’m tearing down are almost indistinguishable to the ones that my co-workers are putting up.

In this particular office space I’m working on, one half is portioned into individual offices, while the other half is open-plan. The new tenants want us to tear down the partitions in the first half, so it is also open-plan. Meanwhile in the other half, the half that is already open-plan, they would like us to build partitions to make it into individual offices.
In the end they’ll have an office that is pretty much identical as it was before, expect facing the other direction. Then they’ll probably move, and another construction company will be called in to renovate it once again for some other company. Corporations really are bizarre entities.

Friday, 7 September 2007

It Could Only Happen In Sweden No.2.

For the most part living in Sweden doesn’t feel all that different from living in Australia. But then I read an article like this, and suddenly feel like I’m on a different planet. For those too lazy to check the link and read the whole article, basically a school in southern Sweden has just banned students from wearing Swedish football shirts for its annual school photos. The principal argues that anything with the Swedish flag can be interpreted as xenophobic, and therefore racist.

Imagine a school in Australia banning Wallaby rugby shirts on the basis they could be construed as racist. Our government is making immigrants confirm to supposed ‘Australian values”. The population gets ever more jingoist and the flag ever more sacred. Even when a group of young white men dress themselves in the national flag and run round bashing anyone that looks Middle-Eastern, our Prime Minister refuses to admit they might be racist. Yet in Sweden, adolescent school kids are being accused of racism for wearing a football shirt. In complete contrast to the rest of the world, patriotism really isn’t a virtue here. Any outwardly demonstration of nationalism is generally viewed with suspicion.

The other big news story here is a small newspaper in Örebro has published some controversial cartoons depicted the Prophet Muhammad, not dissimilar to the ones published in Denmark last year. The reaction hasn’t been anywhere near as strong as that towards the Danish cartoons, but there have been a few Swedish flag-burnings in the Middle East. Are Swedes offended and hurt at seeing their national flag destroyed and desecrated on national television? They couldn’t care less. The strongest reaction I’ve come across has been mild amusement.

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

No Escape!

Judging from some of the emails and comments I’ve been getting, I’m worried some of you are under the impression I somehow enjoy my job, or at least find it tolerable. I just like to get the record straight: I hate my job. I really, REALLY hate it.
I know its slack and easy going, and the idea of being paid to stand around with your hands in your pockets does sound appealing. But it is also excruciatingly boring. Most jobs I do get assigned are basic menial tasks, well within the capabilities of anyone with half a brain cell. On some occasions I feel like they’re just inventing jobs to keep me busy.

Things have improved at this new site in Eriksberg (pictured above, the site I work at is just right of the big orange crane). Bjorn, the alcoholic who was supposed to be showing me what to do, has been sick for the past week. Thus I’ve been left completely alone and unsupervised, to build internal walls inside this apartment block. About once every two days the foreman has checked up on me to make sure I’m okay, but otherwise I’m just left to my own devices. In a very short period of time I’ve gone from not being trusted enough to do anything more serious then chip away old tiles off the floor, to actually building stuff. Most importantly the best part is actually having some to do. Now an 8-hour shift actually feels like 8 hours, not 8 days.

But it won’t last forever, and I fear soon I’ll be back to sweeping floors or sorting 3mm nails from 5mm nails. And as the days get shorter and colder, the prospect of working outdoors looks less and less appealing. Thus I’ve stepped up my attempts to find another job. As I’ve said previously on this blog, finding employment is hard work in Sweden, especially if you’re limited to English-speaking jobs. Many multinational corporations based here employee English speakers, but generally only skilled workers such as accountants and engineers. Having done an Arts degree, and only worked in retail and hospitality, there aren’t many jobs I’m particularly qualified and/or experienced for.
But last week I found a job advertised in the paper that looked perfect. It was a customer service/office admin job, for a company that sold cycling/skiing/outdoor clothing online. It practically looked identical to my job at the Hill of Content Bookshop, and after sending off my application I even got an email saying it looked good and that they’ll be in touch.
Naturally I was feeling pretty confident, and took it for granted that I’d at least be called in for an interview. But then last Friday afternoon I got an email saying they had received a lot of applications, and as good as mine was, too many other applicants were deemed more suitable.

This was really quite depressing. It was the first time I’d found an English-speaking job that matched my work experience so perfectly, and considering how I fared, how well can I expect to go when applying for other jobs less suitable. The fact I couldn’t even get a look in has made me realise I’m going to be stuck in construction to quite some time yet.

Last night I was retelling my recent experience to a friend of Ankie’s. She is a disciple of the self-help book, The Secret, and started telling me that maybe the reason I didn’t get the job because of a lack of belief on my behalf. I told her I was pretty confident of at least getting an interview. “But it’s not enough to be confident, you have to believe it’s already yours. Think of your dream job and tell yourself it is you job, act like it already it your job, and it will become your job.”
In desperation I’ve decided to take her advice. From now on I’m an international playboy, living off the assets of my vast business empire. We’ll see what happens.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Work? I’d Rather Play Chess: The Death of Ingmar Bergman

Bergman, Bergman, Bergman. That’s all that’s been in the Swedish media for the past fortnight. For the first week every night on television was either another documentary, or an old interview, followed by one of his films. Last Friday night they showed his five-hour Fanny and Alexander. There was even one particular documentary that was screened three nights running. Every newspaper had pages of coverage, and had finally been able to rehash all the obituaries that were probably written twenty years ago. The King and the Primer Minister both gave tributes, as well as every actor and director in Sweden. But with his funeral yesterday, maybe the Swedish media will get back to what they do best: reports on teenage binge drinking.
I was certainly shocked by his death: I thought he died years ago. For me, Bergman’s genius lay in his ability to capture the Swedish attitude towards work, and their susceptibility to procrastination. Just watch this:

In Sweden, even Death is happy for an excuse to avoid doing his job.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Back From Holidays, Back To "Work"

I’ve just come back from my holidays. It was tough but I’m back to work now so I can take it easy again. Unfortunately I’ve been moved away from Karl Gustavgatan, and now I’m at yet another different site. This time it’s in Eriksberg, an area once encompassed by Gothenburg’s massive port, but now being transformed into a colony of ultra modern apartment blocks. Barely a single building in the whole area would predate 2004. Every block is either a recently built apartment building, or a construction site for an apartment building. Unfortunately in their haste to construct so much accommodation, no one seems to have thought about things like shops, public transport, and other services, but they do get great views of the city and the river. Think Docklands in Melbourne, but spread over a 2 km stretch of the Yarra, and not quite as accessible to the CBD.
The biggest difference from every other site I’ve worked at, is that it is much more like what you’d expect a construction site to look like. Everyone wears a hard-hat, lots of huge cranes, forklifts, scaffolding, and all that sort of thing. Every other site I’ve been at has essentially been renovation work inside an already existing building, whereas Eriksberg consists of six brand new buildings built from scratch.
The work pace at Eriksberg isn’t as relaxed or as easy-going as Karl Gustavgatan, but only in the same way that say, scratching your back takes more effort then scratching your head. I’m now forced to make do with half-hour breaks every two hours. The good part about this site is that I’m getting a lot of opportunities to learn new things and develop my skills. I’ve basically been assigned to be an assistant to another more experienced carpenter called Bjorn. There are no dull cleaning chores, just following Bjorn around and listening to everything he tells me. Although I’m also starting to suspect that Bjorn might be an alcoholic. While not 100% sure, I’m pretty certain I could smell booze on his breath the other day, and he does have a habit of disappearing for a suspiciously long time just to do something simple like get more screws. He certainly seems to be prone to addictive substances. Not only does he smoke a pipe during breaks, but he also regularly smokes cigarettes during shifts, AND still constantly has a lump of snus under his upper lip. That’s three different ways of absorbing nicotine, all used concurrently! No wonder he needs the odd drink.

Pole-axed II: Scotland

On my week off, I spent a few days in Edinburgh, to catch up with old friends and work colleagues. Not much has changed there (Edinburgh is the sort of city that will always look the same: its too old to change now), but one of few differences I did notice was the sudden abundance of Polish cafes, delicatessens and other Polish businesses.

When I first moved to Edinburgh in late May 2004, Poland had only just joined the EU three weeks previously. The hostel I was staying in was full of eager Poles who had just arrived, and looking for work. Within months, it felt like nearly every kitchen in every restaurant was full of Polish workers. By the time I left in November 2005, many of these Polish were starting to speak fluent English and really starting to settle down and integrate into Scottish society. One guy I worked with was about to get married and buy a house. A Polish pub had even opened.
When I went back last weekend for the first time in nearly two years, it was immediately clear the Polish population had continued swelling.
While happy to hire Polish and other Eastern Europeans in the kitchen, none of the restaurants I ever worked for would ever consider hiring a Pole as a waiter simply because of the language barrier. But at both restaurants now, not only were nearly all the kitchen staff still Polish, but so too were many of their floor staff. And of course, there are now all those Polish-owned businesses I saw.
One of my old supervisors told me that there is a constant stream of Polish moving into Scotland. Of the newer arrivals, many are relatives of those who came in the first wave, and use their family connections to get jobs. Consequently many restaurant kitchen staff not only share nationality, but genes too. Meanwhile those original Poles who migrated in 04, will now qualify for British social security, as they’ve lived in the UK for more then three years. Consequently it’s expected (or feared by tabloids) that many will start claiming the dole, or take out student loans and enrol in university.
In Sweden, the Polish workers generally stuck to themselves, and didn’t mingle with the Swedes, and/or Swedes didn’t attempt to mingle with them. But in Edinburgh, many Poles seem to socialise with their other work colleagues, have Scottish friends, and just generally seem far less segregated then in Gothenburg.

It is incredible how quickly the whole demographic of a city has changed in such a short period of time. It is particularly incredible considering that, as far as I could tell, it has taken place with very little dissent or opposition. In contrast to Sweden, nobody I spoke to had any hostility towards the Polish. This is despite the fact that the migration into Edinburgh is on a much larger scale then in Gothenburg. This might change when more Poles start claiming welfare, but in the meantime, many can at least see the economic benefits of having so many willing workers. One of my old managers thought it was great: They’re hard-working, obedient, do all the chores that you’d never get a Scot to do, got no aspirations for promotion, and whenever you’re in need of new staff, they always happen to have a cousin who needs a job.
Not the most puritan of motives for embracing your new European kinfolk, but I’m sure Poles prefer that then getting sacked with two days notice.

Photos from Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle and the Old Town, from Arthur's Seat.

Scottish Parliament House, and Calton Hill.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007


Last week I went on a day trip to the town of Trollhättan, about an hour north of Göteborg. It has traditionally being an industrial town, and important for its hydro election power plants, and its locks which help ships pass along the Göta Alv river. It also has a very scenic location, right on the river with forests and steep cliffs on both sides.
More recently, Trollhättan has reinvented itself as both a centre of tourism, and movie making. It now hosts Sweden’s largest film studio, where Dogville and Dancer In The Dark were both shot. Consequently, Nicole Kidman features heavily on all tourism promotions. A lot of the old industrial buildings now act as tourist attractions, and film sets. But for me the highlight was walking through the forests, and looking at the great views of the Göta Alv and surrounding countryside.

One of the locks.

The Göta Alv south of Trollhättan.
What used to be a factory, now a tourist attraction and potential film set.
Trollhättan's big attraction is its waterfalls. This is when the hydro plant diverts some of its water by opening up its dam doors , and flooding a section of the river that is practically dry. The picture below was taken before the doors were open. The ruins on the right are from old factories from the 18th and 19th century.
This is the same area five minutes after the dam doors were open.

Friday, 3 August 2007

An Easy Days Work Never Hurt Anybody

I didn’t think this was possible, but I’ve reached a new low in idleness at work. I’ve just been transferred to a new site, this time in Karl Gustovgatan. In terms of laziness, it has surpassed all other sites I’ve worked at, and makes The Avenue look like a sweatshop.

Part of the problem is that it’s a large sight, with lots of rooms. It’s easy for people to hide and slack off. There is only one foreman, which is unusual for a site this big, who cannot possibly keep an eye on everyone and keep them accountable.
But the main reason why it is so relaxed is because of the apathetic and equally lazy foreman, Tony. When I first arrived, I started asking around for him, so I could introduce myself and find out what I should be doing. No one seemed to know where he was, and I was forced to trek throughout the building, trying to track him down. I felt a bit like Captain Willard looking for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. As I was searching I could tell things at this site weren’t quite right, that strange twisted things had taken place here. There were people everywhere, yet no one was working. Materials and tools in every room, yet everything was only half finished.
Finally I found Tony. I then spent the next half hour following him around the site, while he tried to think of something I could do. All around us people continued to slack off, not even offering pretence of doing work, yet Tony said nothing. We walked into rooms and saw workers lounging around like it was happy hour in Club Med, and he thought nothing of it. In fact he often joined their conversations while I stood on the sidelines still waiting for some instructions.

Trying to get Tony to assign jobs was a constant problem. Over the week, whenever I asked him for something to do, he would sigh and give me a “why-are-you-asking-me-for?” look.
Eventually Tony told me to find a guy called Aba, and help him out with whatever he was doing. The problem with that plan was that Aba wasn’t really doing much. He spent practically the whole day standing around chatting. He made sure he was always holding a broom, so if Tony did walk in he could just start sweeping, although I don’t know why he bothered. Whenever I tried to do anything, he gave me a disapproving look. “Take it easy. Don’t stress,” he kept telling me, “We need to stretch this out until 3.30.” He also showed me a way of sneaking onto the roof, where we could go to hide from Tony. He then told me of the time he went up there and feel asleep. When he woke up two hours later, he just climbed down, went back to work, and no one even noticed he was gone.

During our long chats throughout the day, we started talking about all the Polish workers. As with The Avenue, this site had up to 20 Poles working there at one stage, but again nearly all were sacked quite recently. Aba had a whole list of disasters at the site directly (and indirectly) caused by the Polish. “They’re useless,” he told me when we were sitting on the roof, “They don’t do any work.”

To give you some idea how slow it is at Karl Gustovgatan, I’ve written up a plan of what an average working day should entail, and a rundown of what I actually do on an average shift.

My Day As It Should Be

6.45: Start work
8.45: Breakfast
9.15: Back to work.
11.15: Coffee break
11.30: Back to work.
1.30: Lunch
2.00: Back to work
4.00: Finish for the day.

My Dad As It Is.

6.45: Arrive at work. Begin the day with a coffee in the staff room while I wait for everyone else to arrive.
7.15: Finally everyone has arrived, so we make our way onto the site. Ask foreman what I should be doing.
7.30: Find tools/materials, and set up my work area.
7.45: Have a general discussion with colleagues about what it is I’m doing, and how I’m going to do it.
8.00: Discussion gets side tracked into a completely irrelevant conversation.
8.15: Actually start working
8.30: Stop for Breakfast
9.15: Return to the site, and resume working.
9.30: Someone starts telling amusing anecdote. Everyone stops to listen.
9.45: Back to work.
10.00: Stop for a cigarette break, or in my case, a stand-outside-and-get-some-fresh-air break.
10.15: Suddenly realise I’m missing a tool. Go to storage to get it.
10.30: Back to work until I run out of screws. Back to storage.
10.45: About to resume working until I discover I’ve got the wrong screws. (5mm flat heads on gips and plywood? What was I thinking?) Back to storage.
11.00: Decide my workspace is a little cluttered so go and get a broom to give the floor a quick sweep.
11.15: By the time I find a broom it’s time for our coffee break.
11.45: Back to work, resume sweeping floor.
12.00: Get distracted by a work colleague showing me funny videos on this mobile phone.
12.15: Another fresh air break.
12.30: Back to work.
12.45: Work colleague starts asking me questions about life in Australia.
1.00: Lunchtime.
1.45: Ease our way back into work with another discussion about what we are doing, what still needs to be done, and how we are going to do it.
2.00: Two co-workers start play wrestling. Everyone stops to watch and egg them on.
2.30: Stop, stretch, and stand around with my hands in my pockets for a while.
2.45: Realise how little I’ve done so work solidly for 30 minutes to make it look respectable.
3.15: Start packing up.
3.30: Sweep the same floor repeatedly to kill time, or alternatively go hide on the roof.
3.45: Try to sneak out early, until I bump into the boss. He’s sneaking out early too, so I drop the pretence and just go.
4.00: Already on the tram home.

Tuesday, 31 July 2007


In just about any city in the world, the construction industry is a haven for migrant workers. It’s physically exhausting work, and not particularly well paid. Most tasks require little formal education or experience. Demand for workers is also often high, as few local people will do it if at all possible. It is the sort of work that people only do if they have no other choice. Employers are desperate for workers, and the workers are desperate for employment. No matter where you’re from or what language you speak, as long as you’ve two arms and two legs, there is work for you.

Ever since Poland joined the EU in 2004, there has been an exodus of young Poles into Western Europe, and not surprisingly many have ended up working in construction. Sweden is no exception, and my company has plenty of Polish too.
The first Polish workers I meet were at my first site in Hammarkullen, where we had three. Whenever something went missing, it was blamed on the Polish. “Have you seen my cigarettes?” someone once asked me. When I said no, he turned to his friends and with knowing nods said, “The Polish guys must have taken them.” If the foreman noticed something wrong with a wall or something, and made enquires, the general reply was, “Weren’t the Polish guys working on that?” And so on.

Then this week nearly all the Poles got sacked. The reason given was that there is no work for them. Most worked as bricklayers or stonemasons, and all that type of work is finished. In fact the whole site is nearly finished and there is increasingly little to do. We could all see this and knew the work force would need to be reduced. But we also assumed people would just be transferred to other sites. If they couldn’t keep us on, surely they’d tell us in advance. But the Polish guys were sacked with two days notice, without any warning. The company will start work at another site in September. Some of them might be reemployed then, but there is no guarantee, and even then it still means at least six weeks of unemployment.

Whatever excuses the company might provide they don’t hide the fact that all the sacked workers were Polish, and no one is even pretending this is a coincidence. All the stone and brickwork might be finished, but many of Poles have showed themselves willing and able to do other work too. In fact, some of the guys sacked hardly touched bricks and mortar. I can see why the company needs to reduce its workforce, but there are other workers (such as myself, but shhh) with less experience. We’re all keeping our jobs. It’s pretty clear that nationality played a big part in the company’s decision, and is reflective of the general view management have of Eastern European workers. They must have known they wouldn’t need its Polish workers earlier then last Wednesday, yet they allowed them to keep working falsely assuming they had jobs.

After the events of this week, I suddenly find myself feeling far less secure about my own job. If work does dry up over the next few months, I could also just as easily lose my job due to no fault of my own. In my mind, my co-workers should feel the same way, and see the whole episode as an example of how disposable we are. But instead most have expressed sympathy and support for management’s decision, and now the anti-Polish prejudice is epidemic. All of a sudden everyone is complaining about the fact the Poles couldn’t understand Swedish or English, or about their shoddy workmanship.

The way many Swedes talk of Polish workers suggests they should be grateful for the opportunity to work in Sweden, as opposed to people prepared fill job shortages, and do work that many Swedes refuse to do. As I often hear people say, it might be low pay but it’s a fortune in Poland. If they don’t like it, they can always go home. Short-term employment is better then no employment, and as long as they are in our country, they should be happy with whatever they can get.
This of course goes against Sweden’s image as a tolerant compassionate country, yet some Swedes still manage to weave this image into their arguments. So often I’ve heard people complain without any sense of irony “We are a trustworthy and generous country, and immigrants exploit that”.

Saturday, 21 July 2007

Note On The Swedish Language

After four months of living here, it’s time to evaluate my Swedish. While I’m gradually picking it up, progress has been very slow.
Part of the problem is that everyone speaks excellent English. A couple of times now I’ve tried to memorise a few questions or requests when I’m buying something. But more often then not, after clumsily muttering my request, I get the reply “Sorry, what do you want?” in perfect English.
Native English speakers also speak Swedish with a distinct accent, which Swedes find hilarious. It doesn’t do much for your confidence when everyone you talk to starts giggling.

As far as learning a second language goes, I suspect Swedish is easier than a lot of other languages. There are lots of words which are either the same or very similar to their English equivalents. This is mainly because of the close relationship between the two languages, but other English terms have creped in over recent years. As far as I can tell, any new word or term that has come into existence since WWII has just entered the Swedish vocabulary exactly as it is in English. No one has bothered updating the language or invented any new words. (Only one Swedish word has managed to make the journey in the opposite direction and become an English word: Smorgasbord. In Swedish it means Sandwich-table.)
Although while the spelling of many words might be identical to English, pronunciation can be very different. Swedish has more pitch and tone, and some letters symbolise completely different sounds. For example, many Christian names used in English are used here too, with the same spelling, but again pronounced differently. Jonathan is pronounced ‘yun-a-tan’, and David is ‘Dar-vid’.

Consequently I’ve found it much easier learning to read Swedish. When I can see the words, and go at my own pace, I can often work it out. But when people talk, I can barely catch a single word. Often a term will register in my mind, but by the time I can recall what it means, the person talking is already 10 words ahead.
Whenever I attempt Swedish in shops and cafes I’m worried about what I’ll do if the person serving me asks a question or attempts a conversation. One factor working in my favour is that Swedes are typically very reserved and uncommunicative. So I can go into a shop, ask for what I’m after in Swedish, receive, and leave. No small talk or chitchat: just the bare minimum service.
Conveniently for reserved Swedes, Swedish happens to be a very economical language with a comparatively small vocabulary. Some terms can be used in place of three or four English terms. Sentences are also very short, and direct. If I’m watching an English-speaking show on TV, the Swedish subtitles will often use two or three words to translate a whole sentence. A whole passage of dialogue can be condensed into a few sentences. This of course can really kill any poetic artistry in film or literature. It's hard to capture the same emotion and feeling of a well-thought out piece of writing when it has been reduced to the minimum number of words needed to convey its literal meaning. Someone once told me that Shakespeare doesn’t work when translated into German. I can now understand why.
I'm not sure if Swedes are reserved because of their language, or their language is economical because Swedes are reserved.

As a migrant, I am entitled to free Swedish lessons. However the first level of classes are only offered on weekday mornings, making it difficult to work as well. Only after 23 weeks can I qualify for evening classes. Many expats I’ve meet enrolled for the first few weeks, but dropped out soon afterwards. They all complained about classes moving at a very slow pace, and most claim they’ve learnt more Swedish in their jobs anyway.
So instead of taking classes, I’m been reading Pippi Longstocking books in their original language. Soon I’m planning on moving on to Tintin. He helped me read English, so maybe he can help me read Swedish.

Thursday, 12 July 2007

Ladies’ Day

Exciting times at The Avenue this week: we had a woman work at the site. But before I elaborate, firstly a quick run down on the prevailing attitude towards women in my workplace.
We’re all familiar with the popular image of construction workers whistling and harassing women walking past. Well from my experiences the image has strong grounding in fact. This is precisely how my work colleagues act. It’s particularly embarrassing when I just happen to be the one standing closest to the targeted woman, who in turn automatically glares accusingly at the closest male in work cloths.

Until this week, the only women I’ve seen at any of the sites I’ve worked at have been clients checking up on their properties. My work colleagues are always polite and courteous in front of them, but as soon as the woman in question leaves the room, they all start to smirk, giggle and exchange knowing glances. Not unlike 14 year-old school boys.
The company that supplies us with storage containers and skips, have also very kindly given us a calendar of topless women, which adorns the walls of our coffee room. The highlight of every month, after payday, is changing the calendar page and seeing what’s next. Once we see the new page we all look on in amazement, as if a picture of yet another topless woman was the last thing we expected to see. We then all discuss what to do with the page we have just ripped off. Should we just chuck it out, or is it worthy of displaying on the wall so we can continue to stare at it for months to come? So far, after seven months, our hall of fame consists of five pictures, meaning we could only bear to depart with two.

In short, the opposite sex is an exotic novelty, and source of much amusement. So when a team of workers showed up on Monday to install the lift, and one of them was a woman, I naturally expected her to have a pretty tough time. I should point out that she wasn’t some big butch lady with tattoos and a crew cut, capable of rearranging a man’s face before he can finish saying “Get us a cup of tea love’. She was a tall, slim, very attractive young woman, who during breaks liked to braid her long blonde hair and reapply her makeup. She looked completely out place amongst thirty grotty uncouth men.
I expected her to be subjected to the same whistling and jeering dished out to passers by, as well as constant stares and bad pick up lines. Only she wouldn’t have the option of walking away and would have to endure it all day. But in actual fact, my work colleagues were on their best behaviour. She did very little work as whenever she attempted to do anything, someone would step in and offer to do it for her. She just had to stand back, flutter a smile, and relish all the attention. Despite all the grease and dust inherent in our line of work, at the end of the week her blue overalls were still immaculately clean.
Of course once she left, everyone descended back into chauvinistic misogyny. We argued about which one of us had the best chance to pick her up. We speculated on her sexual past, and finally we collectively fantasised about her sexual desires.

The bigotry doesn’t end there either. My co-workers are as equally racist and homophobic. I’d be lying if I said these situations presented a personal dilemma, as I’ve never even considered doing anything other then keeping my mouth shut. The last thing I’m going to do is stand up and deliver a lecture on political correctness, as you can imagine how popular that would make me. But it is still quite alienating. One of the hardest things about this job is the fact I feel I have very little in common with any of my work colleagues. Last week, after I spent the day shovelling rocks into a wheelbarrow, one of my work colleagues quite sympathetically said to me, “I bet its days like this you wish you went to school?” Most people in this industry have been working since dropping out of school at a young age. I wasn’t quite up to telling him that not only did I go to school, but I also spent five years at university and have two degrees. Oh yeah, and last year I won the Walkley Foundations Student Journalist of the Year Award. Don’t get me wrong, most of my co-workers are friendly, helpful, and I generally manage to get along with them. But we come from different worlds, and I don’t mean Sweden and Australia. Whether I like it or not, I’m quite clearly a politically correct, inner city, latte-sipping, middle class university student, and there aren’t many of my kind in the construction industry.

PS. I found the photo above through a google image search and originally comes from a website that sells erotic costumes. A few of them seem to have a ‘construction worker’ theme. I’ve heard of school uniforms and nurses, but construction workers?

Friday, 29 June 2007

Money, Money, Money. (IT IS funny to live in a rich mans world)

Another eventful week as a builder has just passed, seeing me work at yet another different site. This time I worked on a millionaire’s holiday home on the coastal summer resort of Marstrand (Note: photos below not taken by me).

Marstrand is the beginning of the Bohuslan coast, the region between Gothenburg and the Norwegian border. Just like the Southern Archipelago (see previous post), the area is dotted with traditional fishing villages that have been converted into summer resorts.
Marstrand occupies its own island that can only be reached via a short ferry trip. It’s a very old town, with lots of heritage-listed buildings, cobbled streets, and a large castle as its centrepiece. It has always been a popular holiday spot for the rich and famous, most notably Sweden’s King Oscar II. Further up the coast, Ingrid Bergman once had a holiday house too. Today it hasn’t changed, and is still the exclusive domain of the super rich.

The house I was working on had just had a Kr 20 million (A$3.6 million) renovation. In total the whole property was valued at Kr 50 million (A$9 million). It was not the most lavish house I had ever seen, but it was certainly the most extraordinary. The owners had gone to a lot of trouble to maintain a traditional fishing village aesthetic. All the furniture was antique, and slightly dilapidated. The floorboards were slightly cracked and uneven. All the electrical appliances were modern, but retro looking in design. From a distance, the stove looked like it needed to be stacked with wood and lit manually, but actually had a modern hot place inserted on top, and oven inside. There was incredible attention to detail, with even coat hooks and door hinges made to conform. Instead of light switches, they had porcelain knobs.
Despite the house’s rustic appearance, it actually cost an incredible amount of money. On the day I was there, the plumber was installing antique-looking steal taps and shower fittings, with porcelain handles. They cost Kr 75,000 (A$ 13,000)!
But the best bit is that this was just a holiday house. The owners stay here for three weeks every summer, and the rest of the year its completely empty! Imagine what they spend on their regular house. It’s the sort of wealth and extravagance that borders on the obscene. It is just incomprehensible to me how people can live like this.

I don’t think the urge for class warfare is ever stronger than when your literally on your hands and knees scrapping tiny specs of paint off the floor for minimum wage, while your employers are spending the equivalent of six months wages on shower fittings. I was very tempted to assist them with their efforts to develop a rustic old-fashioned ambience by relieving them of their plasma TV and DVD player. (But I didn’t!)
In the end I just had to remind myself that there are many people a lot worse off than me. Such as these guys.

Photos from the Southern Archipelago

Here are some photos from Gothenburg's Southern Archipelago. These islands are very close to the city, accessible via public transport and make for an easy day trip. They can only be reached by boat, and most are completely car-free. Traditionally these islands have been home to fishing villages and retirees, but more recently they’ve been taken over by summer holiday homes for wealthy Gothenburgers. Some people even live here and commute to Gothenburg each day for work.
Even in the middle of summer, when the area is teeming with tourists, the archipelago is large enough to still find small quiet places. There are so many islands I can always explore somewhere new. This is where I often go when I've got a day off and the weather is good.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Only in Sweden

A man in Sweden has just been granted disability payments from social security based on the fact that he is addicted to heavy metal music. He has successfully argued that this ‘disability’ means he is discriminated against in the workplace as many employers won’t tolerate loud music, or employees missing work because they slept in recovering from a rock concert the night before. So rather than look for a job, he is now free to live his heavy metal lifestyle, and the Swedish government will pay the bills. If you don’t believe me, read the full article here.

I know I say this in every blog entry these days, but I still can’t believe what Swedes can get away with. Surely it doesn’t get better than this.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Another Day, Another Kronor

Tomorrow is Midsummer, one of the biggest days of the year second only to Xmas. In most countries, a public holiday would suffice. But this is Sweden, where public holidays are so common you could hardly call them special occasions. So a day like this gets two public holidays!
This is also my final week at Vasastaden. As we’re nearing the end, the bosses from Astor have been paying more regular visits, and so our break times have started to correspond closer to what they’re supposed to be.
Yet everyday I still see new instances of Swedish slothfulness. For example, I’ve noticed no one seems to use the toilet during one of our designated breaks. After all, why would you waste a toilet break when you’re already on a break? Far better to wait until you’re back at work and take an extra break. My favourite is the smoking break taken five minutes before finishing for the day.
Yesterday, Peter told us with great relief that we’d been given a week’s extension, “…so we didn’t need to panic anymore.” Panic? If the past three weeks have been panic, than what will things be like when we ease back into regular work pace? Two hour breaks after every 15 minutes of work?
Chris reckons if he started up his own company and brought a dozen of his old work colleagues from the US, they’d get things done so much quicker than the Swedes that he’d have TA out of business in no time. I know Americans like to boast, but I find his claim believable.
Once again I have to stress this is not unique to the construction industry. It appears to be a part of Swedish mentality. Last weekend I offered to help Ankie’s father Jan-Erik, move apartments. He had hired a big truck, and was moving a distance of 500 metres. It required two trips, and should have taken three to four hours. Instead, I was there all day and we still didn’t finish it all. The slow work mentality is great when you’re getting paid by the hour, but not so great when you’re giving up your free time. The whole day Jan-Erik kept stressing that “we had to take it easy” and insisted on regular breaks. His theory is that life is too short to stress and worry, and that it is far better to do things at a leisurely pace. “I think we must have time to smell the roses”, he often tells me ever since he first heard an English phrase to describe his philosophy. I felt like telling him that my idea of living isn’t sitting in half furnished apartments drinking instant coffee from plastic cups, and that I’d far rather we got this moving done as quickly as possible so I could enjoy the rest of my weekend. But as usual I only ever think of saying these things long after the occasion passes.

PS. I didn't take the photo above. I don't know where it was taken, but it's the sort of thing a Swedish worker would do.