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.