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.