Monday, 30 April 2007

Happy Valborgsmässoafton!

Today is Valborgsmässoafton (or Walpurgis Night in English). It’s a public holiday here in Sweden. The custom is to hold a large parade through the streets at night and light large bonfires, meanwhile teenagers loiter in public parks indulging in a bit of underage binge drinking. (I’ve noticed fears of underage binge-drinking is a constant theme in the Swedish media.) Today is also the King’s Birthday (pictured right). As an aspiring son-in-law, I made sure I sent him a card.

In some brighter news since my last blog entry, it looks like I’ve got a job. On Wednesday I’ll start work at a labourer at a construction company. Five years at university, and soon I’ll be sweeping floors at a building site. But you know what they say about beggars, and from what I gather, anyone in Sweden looking for work is a beggar. Last Saturday at the Berserkers football match (we won, match report to follow shortly), I was chatting to some of the other Australians living here, and the consensus is that finding work in Sweden is exceptionally hard. Some had been looking for 2-3 months, and all talked of going through a stage of depression where they were convinced they’d never get a job.
Language is of course a big barrier. Some of the ads I was looking at, which were for menial jobs like washing trams or lifting boxes, still required applicants to speak good Swedish. But language is not the only barrier, and many Swedes will also testify to the difficulties of finding a job. Unemployment is high, and the competition is intense. Last week there was an article in the local paper about Zara, a chain of clothing stores. They’re about to open a new store in Göteborg, and received over 1000 applicants for 85 positions as sales assistants. Last year the main conservative party got elected to government because of the wide-spread discontent over unemployment. Their first act was to slash taxes for high-income earners, and increase fees for union membership.

People I’ve been talking to seem to think unemployment is high because of the high taxes, as it is just so expensive for a company to hire anyone. One friend of Ankie’s reckons that what a company pays in an individual’s wages, they’ll have to pay again in taxes. The upside of this is that the work conditions are unbelievably good. Life might be tough if you’re unemployed, but it seems that once you do get a job you’re just showered with money and perks.

I got this job through Chris (Ankie’s sister’s fiancé), who moved here from America two months before I arrived. He tells me they get breaks every two hours, sick pay, holiday pay, all work cloths provided, and transport costs covered. They also help out with Swedish lesions, and hold regular social events. The company is also a major sponsor of the local football team, IFK Göteborg, and often gives employees free tickets to matches. Chris also says he’s often pulled aside by the foreman concerned that he is working too hard and told to take it easy. Compared to Chris’ work conditions in America, it is practically a dream job.
The company, TA Bygg, is run by a guy called Niklas, who is attempting to build up an international workforce. At first he seemed a little reluctant to hire me as I had no experience or skills, but in the end I suspect he did so because I was Australian and he didn’t have any other Australians working for him. At the interview, he said he’d spent some time working in Gold Coast a few years ago, and loved it. Claimed Australians were very friendly, and it was the second best country in the world after Sweden.

For me, finding a job is a big relief. I can still look for other work on the side, but it’s not so urgent and I’ve got time. It’s also good to get out of the International School, as some kids had taken to calling me ‘The Hangman’, because they knew that’s what they’d be playing if I took over their class. I’m also hoping to write freelance on the side too. Ohh and I’m still hopefully of convincing Princess Victoria to marry me.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Red Tape in the Welfare State

I have now been in Sweden for a month, and I am still without a full-time job. Finding work in a country with high unemployment was always going to be hard. Not speaking Swedish or having any vocational qualifications also obviously limits my options, but I’ve also been hampered by Sweden’s love of red tape.

Despite a reputation for efficiency, I’ve noticed a lot of things in Sweden are actually very slow and very bureaucratic. Ankie and I are still waiting to be connected with broadband internet, having ordered it eight weeks ago. We’ve called them up numerous times but each time get a different story. The first time they claimed we were already connected. Another time they offered to re-order it, meaning we’d have to wait another 2-4 weeks. This was also going to mean we could no longer claim the special deal that they were advertising when we first ordered broadband. After a while we decided to use the threat of cancelling and switching to another provider. But the operator just called our bluff claiming, “Well, if that’s what you want do.” Customer service is typically very apathetic, with no sense of urgency.
We have also been trying to subscribe to the local newspaper. After three weeks we were yet to receive a single copy so we gave them a call this morning. Turns out we haven’t been receiving the paper because the name printed on our door isn’t us, but the previous tenant, and we hadn’t got round to changing it yet. Would we get a refund for the past three weeks? No, because despite the fact we haven’t received a paper, the delivery boy has actually been calling into our apartment block everyday with our newspaper since our subscription started. But until we change the names on our door, he is not going to actually deliver it. Did they think to contact us? Maybe a phone call, or get the delivery boy to ring our doorbell since he is there anyway? ‘No, that’s not really our problem.’

Yet despite this inefficientcy, Sweden does strike me as a very orderly society. I’ve noticed Swedes love queues, with every single shop having long patient queues outfront. There is an ice-cream stand near the Central Station that I walk past nearly everyday, and every time there is a 15-20 metre queue out-front. And everyone just stands there patiently, seemingly unperturbed at having to spend half their lunch break waiting for an ice cream.
Those machines issuing numbered tickets are popular, with even the smallest business insisting all customers take a ticket before they can be served. Last week Ankie and I went into an electronics shop, where Ankie had to get a ticket not only to speak to a sales assistant to ask for advice, but later on in the same shop had to take another ticket to be served by a cashier afterwards. The upside is that when you’re just browsing and really don’t want to be hassled by a sales assistant, staff won’t touch you unless you get a numbered ticket.
Every purchase requires a receipt, no matter how small. The other day I was given a receipt after buying a take-away coffee from a cafe. Why? I am I expected to claim it back on tax? Or return it if I’m not happy with it?
Things are so orderly that everything is calculated in very exact measurements. If you want a hamburger, it’s not a choice of small or large, but 90g or 150g. Beer doesn’t come in pints or pots, but in 40cl. I was even watching an American film on television where one of the characters said something like, “it’s hot, it must be 100 degrees.” So what do the Swedish subtitles say: “It’s hot, it must be 38.6 degrees.”

As for job hunting, it isn’t as simple as just sending in your CV and waiting for a reply. Often I’m asked to register my details on a database, providing every detail of my life to date. Then I can submit my CV, only to be told that someone might contact you in regards to the job in 3 - 4 weeks time. These aren’t applications for big corporate jobs, but basic menial jobs. Even when I handed out my CV in person to pubs and restaurants, I was generally told I might be contacted in a few weeks.

But I’m making some progress. I now have a Personal Number, which is integral for doing anything and everything in Sweden. I’m now on the population registry and in the system. In the eyes of Swedish bureaucrats, I now exist. Finally I can enrol in Swedish classes, borrow books from the library and set up a bank account. And it only took four weeks!

Wednesday, 18 April 2007

Sun and Snow

Today it is 18 degrees and sunny. Every spare patch of grass has been taken over by a half-naked Swede soaking up sun rays. In fact it has been sunny ever since I arrived here. Cold, 3 degrees sometimes, but still sunny. However, last Sunday week was an exception, as it was cloudy, and rained all day. Then suddenly it started snowing. Withing an hour eveything was covered in snow. Then just as suddenly, all the snow melted and by the following morning it was sunny again. The took this video from my kitchen window:
If it hasn't uploaded, just use the following link:¤t=Snowoutfront.flv Otherwise, below are some photos.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Good Ol’ Göteborg Forever.

My football career to date is best described as pitiful. I played two seasons with East Brunswick Under 14s, and two seasons with Moonee Valley Under 16s. My personal highlight was once scoring a goal, 10 metres out, right in front. In another game, I once made it to three kicks. Although to be fair I was better known around the club as the kid who burst into tears at training after being hip-and-shouldered. My trophy cabinet has three Encouragement Awards, as my coaches always admired my persistence. Not many kids would happily tolerate being left on the bench every weekend. As an acknowledgment of my perseverance, I was allowed to play the last five minutes of the Grand Final, in the forward pocket when our team was down 15 goals.
By my final season at Moonee Valley a combination of factors (i.e. gradual improvement of skills, strength, and absence of more competent team mates) I finally became a regular starter on the halfback flank. I even stopped counting all my kicks and handballs. But by this stage I was 16, had my first job, improved social life, and started evaluating how I was spending my time. Then early one Saturday morning in the middle of winter, as I stood in the mud and rain in ridiculously short shorts, watching another team hammer us by 10-20 goals, I had a good long think. I thought about all the other things I could have been doing instead.

But now I’m back! As of last week, I’m playing football again, this time with the Goteborg Berserkers. I’m told games are played with reduced numbers and rarely 18-a-side, and our home ground is actually a Rugby pitch. But it is still an Aussie Rules football club, in a place where most would expect to find none. And not only do cities like Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö have teams, but so too do smaller towns like Helsingborg, Borås and Karlstad.
Training started this week, with a healthy turnout of 15 people. Contrary to expectations, most of the team are not Australian ex-pats, but are actually Swedish, who have never even been to Australia.

Our coach and founder is Martin Språng. After seeing a glimpse of an AFL match on Swedish TV, Martin started looking up the game online, and from there he started up his own team. (He has written up a complete history on the web site, highlights including the day four people turned up to training, rather then the usual two.) A big portion of the team is made up of Martin’s friends and extended family. Others have joined after seeing recruitment posters (pictured below) throughout Göteborg.
At training Martin comes up with the same catch phrases heard at any other Australian football club training session (e.g. “More Talk”, “Keep it tight”, “Bring it in boys”) but in a Swedish accent. From what I gather, he spends most of his spare time downloading AFL matches off the internet, and watching them all. Before training, everyone sits around talking about the weekend’s AFL results. For the non-Swedish speaker it sounds like incomprehensible Swedish broken up with terms like “Sydney Swans” or “Chris Judd”. It’s pretty surreal.
Our first game is one April 28, vs. the Karlstad Dragons. Karlstad is only a small town (pop. 80,000) in central Sweden, but since Martin’s younger brother Joel moved there, they too now have their own footy team. Just in case Channel 7 and the Herald Sun forget to cover the big match, I’ll make sure a complete report is published here on this blog.

Monday, 2 April 2007

Brazil v Chile in Sweden

Last Saturday week I went to see Brazil play Chile here in Gothenburg (I don’t understand the logic behind it either). It was quite surreal watching players like Ronaldinho. It was hard to believe that the guy we’ve all seen so many times in Nike and Pepsi commercials is the same little man running around in front of me. I took the following video of Ronaldinho scoring a goal from a free kick, although he looks like a blurry yellow dot. This is an exclusive to My Life As A Swede, and you won’t find it on You Tube. For one, the videos on You Tube are much better quality.

(Note: I've tried to insert the video into this blog entry, but if it doesn't appear, just try the following link:

Those that can't...

Apologies for not updating this blog for a while, but I haven’t had internet access. Since my last entry, Ankie and I have moved from her mother’s place, and now living in our own flat.

I’ve also started working as a substitute teacher at the International School. The place seems really disorganised. Last Tuesday I got a phone call, and with only 30 minutes notice, was asked to take over some classes from a sick teacher. No interview, no request for my CV, and no background check. Despite having no previous experience or training as a teacher, I was put in charge of 30 teenage kids. It didn’t help that the teacher I was taking over didn’t have a chance to leave a class plan. Karin, the woman responsible for finding substitute teachers, suggested I just ask the students what they were studying, and take it from there. The problem with this plan of course is that students know it is not in their interest to inform me of what they should be doing.

As any one can remember from school, kids see a substitute teacher as someone to take advantage of. I tried asking them what they were up to, but naturally they claimed they didn’t know. Most of my time was spend just getting them to sit down, turn off their phones and keep quiet. When I finally calmed them down, they just looked at me expectantly and asked what they were supposed to do. When all I could do was shrug and say I didn’t know, they just started talking to each other again.

At first it was quite stressful, but part of my problem was that I assumed I was expected to take over from where the regularly teacher left off. I thought I would be accountable if classes didn’t progress through their normal curriculum. In short, I thought a substitute teacher was expected to actually teach. However, after a couple of days I came to realise I was basically a glorified babysitter. Karin and the other teachers couldn’t care less what I did with the students, as long as I kept them in the classroom, and kept them quiet and occupied. As Karin said to me herself, “If you don’t know what their doing, its not your problems. Just wing it.” With this in mind, my last few lessons were just spend playing hangman and celebrity head. Another great trick was having a quiz. I’d get each student to write a question about the class’s topic, accumulate them together, read them out to the whole class and have a competition to see who got the most right answers. This kept students occupied, and gave the appearance of doing something educational and relevant. When I was in school, whenever the teachers broke up the day with a game of hangman, I saw it as a rare act of benevolence. I now know it was always out of pure apathy.

It’s an interesting experience, and a pretty easy way to earn some money. The only problem is the irregular hours, as I can only work when someone else is sick or away on holidays. At most I might do 3-4 hours on any one day, but often spread over a 6-7 hour period. Breaks are never long enough for me to do anything in that time so essentially its full-time hours, but with part-time pay. And of course there will be no work during holidays, with summer holidays lasting two months. It will be fine short-term, but I’m still going to need some other work.