Tuesday, 10 November 2009

BBC's Sweden

The BBC has just made a television adaptation of Henning Menkel’s novels, starring Kenneath Branaugh as Kurt Wallander. I’m not sure now the rest of the world views it but from Sweden it looks completely bizarre. This is a TV series set in Sweden, filmed in Sweden, where all the characters are meant to be Swedish, and yet the whole thing is in English.

The contradiction is hardly seemless with Swedish names constantly being mispronounced. For example “skana” for Skåne (actual pronunciation is “skor-na”) and “nor-co-ping” for Norrköping (“norr-sha-ping”). Having gone to the trouble to film the series on location in Sweden, why didn’t they just ask someone for advice on pronunciation?

Another glaring inconsistency is when the characters watch TV or listen to the radio it is in English, but newspapers and Internet sites are in Swedish. When Wallander is on his computer he talks in English yet simultaneously types in Swedish.

Language is not the only thing that has been changed. The last episode I saw was about a young boy from an impoverish family who was going around scalping people. In the Swedish television adaptation of this same book the young boy lives in a glum urban housing estates as would be expected of an impoverish family. But in the BBC version they are transported to a typically Swedish wooden house in the countryside, the sort most commonly inhabited by wealthy Swedes on summer holidays. The only indicators of a less affluent lifestyle is a slightly messy living room. I cannot think of any good reason for this change other than it is more in accordance with how British people view Sweden.

I suppose when you’re living in an English speaking country you don’t think about it. Wallander speaking English is no more bizarre than Roman soldiers in Hollywood epics speaking English. Or aliens from over a million light years away speaking English. “’Allo ‘allo!” would have you believe that the French speak English with bad accents. And I’ve seen plenty of Swedish television shows where characters end up in 18th century China, or meet Amazon hill tribes, to find everyone speaks fluent Swedish.

But having said that films do not have to be in the native tongue of the audience to be enjoyable. I always thought it was a shame that Mel Gibson had to go on his drunken fascist rant right after he released Apocalypto as this ensured the film never received the praised it deserved. To make the film as authentic as possible he revived the dying Yucatec language. Even Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, a film so fantastical that it involves a small band of American soldiers single-handedly killing Hitler and ending the Second World War, ensures characters speak their native languages until a convenient (if sometimes lame) excuse is found for switching to English.

The BBC could have solved all these language issues by relocated the series to England. There is nothing distinctively Swedish about Menkel’s novels and they could easily have been transported. The only sign of Swedish culture is the fact that the characters are often carrying a thermos of coffee and constantly stopping for coffee breaks, but again this has been removed from the British version. The BBC is essentially relying on Sweden to create an exotic location. Hence the reason for the change in setting: Red wooden houses next to lakes are exotic, council estates are not. Typing with letters like Å or Ö is far more interesting than A and O. Once you remove the location you’re just left with another Sunday night crime drama.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

God is Swedish

Contrary to the views of some, God doesn’t hate Sweden. In fact he lives in Sweden and even has a mobile phone here. A church in Helsingborg are pleased to report that they've uncovered a phone number for the big man that people are more than welcome to text. God doesn't mind, always has time for his fans. Soon he’ll also be on Facebook. No joke, so get those friendship requests ready.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

A Midsummer Treat

Yesterday was the Swedish Midsummer, a big national event here. Despite being a celebration of summer, the weather is always inevitably gray and wet. Below is an advertisement made by Ikea Germany making fun of the Swedish Midsummer traditions. Ikea HQ in Sweden didn't find it so funny and banned the ads, yet they've made their way onto youtube.com.

On the Other Side of the Bar

I’ve just been going over my previous blog entries and realised it has been a while since I wrote about my work and what I’m actually doing here. Since I left the construction site I’ve barely mentioned my experiences with the market research company. Partly this is because this blog has gained a readership much larger than my friends and family, and that because I don’t write anonymously it would only take one work colleague to stumble across my blog before I’m potentially in big trouble. But the good news is that the market research company is slowly going bust in this economic crisis and when it does I have a truckload of amusing anecdotes and stories about the market research industry.

In the meantime I’ve finally succumbed to the typical Australian expat occupation and started working in a pub. Because of the low pay and unsocial working hours this was one line of work I’ve been looking to avoid but it has actually turned out to be one of my more enjoyable occupations since moving to Sweden. For one in Sweden bartender pay isn’t particularly low at all. In fact when you add in tips and the penalty rates I get for working after midnight and on weekends, my hourly rate is actually double what I was earning at the construction company. And then there are regular free pints just to sweeten the deal. It’s actually a logical job for me to take since most weekends would be spent in a pub anyway, except this way I’m making money rather than spending it.

In many ways working in a pub is not dissimilar to working as a substitute teacher as drunken adults are a lot like children. For one they’re both oblivious to reasoning. It’s futile arguing with them as they’re not in a state of mind to think rationally. Like children they can’t engage in an intelligent argument as they’re only counter arguments are to simply refute whatever you say, and failing that to resort to insults and personal slurs. Almost every Friday night at around 2am I have to endure a conversation along the lines of: “Can I have two beers?” “Sorry but the bar is closed now.” “…But I want two beers.”

In the same way a child will ask their father for an ice cream when their mother has already said no, a drunkard will keep trying to order a drink from another bartender even when they’ve already been denied. I’ve had people swear to me that they’re only buying a drink for themselves and not for their drunken friend who has already been refused more alcohol, while simultaneously buying four pints and four shots of tequila for a group of only four people. Drunk people really have no idea of their own state. Some will swear to that they’ve only had one pint despite the fact they need to hang onto the bar just to stand up and push their phone right up to their face to read a text message. Neither drunken adults nor children have any self-awareness. They have no concept of the noise they’re making or chaos they’re causing. When someone is really drunk they genuinely don’t understand why staff might object to them carting our furniture out onto the street, or why they’re not allowed to step behind the bar uninvited to change the music.

I probably make bar work sound quite tiresome but it isn’t that hard. You just have to treat drunken adults like children. When you’re a teacher you don’t argue with a child, you just exert your authority and dictate the terms. “Put it back and sit down! Alright then, I’m taking your drink away! If you want it back sit down and behave! Okay I’m taking your drink away now. I’m not going to argue with you. Sit down! That’s better, here’s your drink back.” Drunkenness allows you to exert a level of authority that would be unaccepted in any other line of customer service. A few weeks ago we had a couple of pissed-up businessmen whistle at one of my colleagues in an attempt to get some service. She just marched up to them with her hands on her hips and said, “I beg your pardon! Have you lost your dog or something?” The two businessmen sheepishly looked at the ground and were forced to apologise. You can’t do that in restaurants or retail.

Bar staff can get away with this because consuming alcohol puts in you in a serious disadvantage in any argument. If you think about it in any dispute between a sober person and drunk, one is naturally going to lean towards the sober one. If someone did come back to complain the question of how much they've had to drink is inevitable going to come up and from that point onwards you’re fighting a losing battle.

People generally know this and this is why they often avoid returning to a place where they had consumed a lot of alcohol the night before. I suspect there is always a fear that they can’t quite remember everything they said and did, or how they would have come across, and there is a degree of embarrassment with being confronted with someone who was stone cold sober and remembers everything about the night before. Thus the funnier experiences are when customers, for whatever reason, are forced to return the next day when they’re sober. Examples such as “I was here having a few drinks here last night and it seems I accidentally left with the wrong jacket.” It often then transpires that they’ve done something like mistaken their black leather jacket for a brown trench coat, all the while maintaining it was a honest mistake and not at all related to the ten pints they consumed prior to leaving.

This is also the first job I’ve had that requires me to speak Swedish, and already I’ve improved dramatically. From all the expats I’ve meet since moving to Göteborg, a common thread amongst all those that have learnt the language is that nearly all of them have worked in bars. Since the bar has an English theme I can get away with English, and often customers can tell from a Swedish dialect that my native language is English (all English speakers, whether from Canada, Australia or Scotland, always speak Swedish in the same broken dialect), and will willingly speak English themselves. Although I’m gradually getting through more and more shifts without having to resort to English, there is still one notable area where I’m still struggling: differentiating between nötter (nuts) and nota (bill). So when people ask for their bill I keep offering them bowls of peanuts.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Svensk Stad

I’ve just spent the weekend in a town called Falun up in the north of Sweden, and I’ve returned to Göteborg with the realisation that nearly all Swedish towns are the same. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making this conclusion based on Falun alone but from my experiences in a number of towns and small cities. Obviously the bigger cities like Stockholm and Göteborg stand out, and of course there are some regional differences. For one towns in Skåne definitely have a distinct Danish influence in some of their older buildings. And there are certainly cultural variations, with each region having their own distinct dialect. But in terms of how places look, how street are laid out and how they are named, there is remarkable uniformity.

Every town will typically centre around a large public square and 99% of the time that square will be called Stor Torget (The Big Square). I can confidently say there is not a town or village in all of Sweden that doesn’t have a Stor Torget, even if it isn’t the main square.
On the main square there will be a Rådhus (Town Hall) and in close proximity there will be a church, often called Domkyrkan. Streets will be arranged in a grid like fashion. There will always be a street called Storgatan (Big Street), Kungsgatan (King’s Street), Drottinggatan (Queen Street), Nygatan (New Street) and Vasagatan. There will almost always be a Lilla Torget (Little Street), Järntorget (The Iron Square) and Linnegatan, There will be a district called Gamla Stan or Gamla Stad (both mean Old Town). The street by the train station will be Järnvägsgatan.
There will be a few well-preserved 18th and 19th century buildings in the city centre, especially around Stor Torget. But most buildings will be brick and cement constructions from the 1970s and 80s. Inner city apartments will be in drab four story blocks painted in uniform colours. The wealthier suburbs will be compact wooden houses in bright reds, yellows and blues. The outer suburbs will consist of the monotonous grey towers of the Million Programme era. On the very edge of town, just out of range of public transport, there will often be a massive shopping complex surrounded by an endless car park.
The main commercial district in town will house all same chain shops: Åhlens, H&M, KappAhl, Dressman, Stadium, Intersport, Hemköp, ICA, a Systembolaget, Apoteket, etc. They have the same pubs: there will be Harry’s, or an O’Leary’s, probably a Bishops Arms, and a couple of smaller places frequented by the local alcoholics once the Systembolaget closes. There will be plenty of kebab/pizza take-aways and Gatuköks (street kitchens). There will be a Pressbyrån at the main bus stop.
There is a 95% percent chance the name of the town will end in either “köping”, “berg”, “borg”, “stad”, “stan”, “hamn” or “holm”.

In a way Swedish towns are like little Legoland towns. Buildings and streets are symmetrical, monotonous and clearly defined by bright colours. They’re both surgically clean and neat, but with nothing particularly stimulating or interesting

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Guide to Swedish Football

In case anyone is interested I've just written an expat's guide to the Allsvenskan, Sweden's domestic football competition. My adopted team is GAIS because they remind me of St.Kilda: perpetually hopeless, incapable of winning but with a loyal and committed fan base.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Keeping It Wheel

What is it with ferris wheels at the moment? I’ve just returned to Sweden after a holiday back in Melbourne, where the most visible sign of change on the skyline of my native city is a giant wheel. On my return I learn that Gothenburg are planning on building a giant wheel too. Why this obsession with glorified amusement park rides?

Melbourne’s wheel, the Southern Star, cost A$100 million to build. A littler over month after completion it suddenly stopped working. During my visit a delegation of Japanese engineers were flown in who subsequently ruled the wheel inoperable for at least the next six months.
Naturally people are asking why, during a world financial crisis, was A$100 million spent on something the city arguably really doesn’t need and doesn’t even work anyway. Well according to their website a “flight” (this is their word for a ride) on the wheel is “…an experience like nothing on earth.” Maybe no one has told them about the taller London Eye. Or the Singapore Flyer. Or the Star of Nanchang, Great Berlin Wheel, and Great Beijing Wheel, as well as a host of other structures all taller than the Southern Star.
But the Southern Wheel does have some advantages. For one it is the only permanent observation wheel in the southern hemisphere. And it also has the world’s first LED lighting system. Just in case you’re into that sort of thing.
The Southern Star will supposedly attract 1.5 million visitors a year, presumably after they’ve already seen all other wheels mentioned above and still have some change left over to see some more.

Gothenburg’s proposed wheel isn’t quite as grand, coming in at a lazy 60 metres. (The Southern Star is 120 metres, the London Eye 135 metres). But assuming that the whole point of a giant observational ferris wheel is to provide a good view of the surrounding area, Gothenburg’s planned wheel makes even less sense. The truth is Gothenburg is not short of lookout points. What they lack is something to look at. It’s a small compact city with a low-rise skyline. Any elevated spot above a fifth floor usually provides a good view of the city and its surrounds. At present they already have one ferris wheel, which at 25 metres is sufficient for seeing right out to the city’s outskirts. On top of this they also have an 80 metre high skyscraper, and a 116 metre tower each with their own viewing platforms. Considering there is nothing much to see from either of these places other than rooftops, what can a 60 metre ferris wheel possibly add?

According to a poll in the Göteborg Posten, 54% of the public think it’s a great idea. As with the Southern Star the potential pull of tourists is the motivating key. But who are these people who travel large distances just to see ferris wheels? Even Facebook, where fan pages exist for things as banal and irrelevant as duct tape, dried leaves and Bono, lacks any evidence of ferris wheels’ supposed mass appeal. A group called ‘Ferris Wheels are the Greatest Things Ever’ has 53 members while another called “I Love Ferris Wheels” has one. Basically vast sums of money are being spent trying to attract a demographic that doesn’t even exist.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

When Fox News Came to Sweden

I recently came across this clip from another blog (Daniel Lampinen’s Stockholm 2009, I can highly recommend it.) It’s a report from Fox News about migrants in Rosengård, the famous Miljonprogrammet suburb in Sweden’s third city Malmö. In typical tabloid fashion the report is sensationalist and misleading, yet I still found it quite interesting to watch.

Sweden does have a large migrant population but it is interesting to note that both of my parents, who visited Sweden on separate occasions in 2008, remarked on how homogenous Sweden appeared. As I’ve said countless times in this blog, Sweden is very segregated with the majority of migrants living in satellite towns like Rosengård. Out of sight, out of mind. But tension does seem to be bubbling away and if I’m bold enough to make one prediction about Sweden’s future it is that racial tension will become a big issues in coming years. Already there have been minor riots in Rosengård and reports of a rise in Muslim extremism.

In many ways Sweden reminds me of pre-1996 Australia in that there seems to be a lot of racism and prejudice simmering away, which the media and political establishments don’t want to acknowledge. Like Australia, all it needs is either a Swedish Pauline Hanson (a bigot who can successfully portray themselves as average Joe Public and ‘voice of the silent majority’) or a John Howard (an opportunistic politician not afraid to exploit racism for electoral gain) and suddenly racism will be out in the open, wreaking havoc and tearing the place apart. You heard it here first.

Friday, 23 January 2009

Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared (A book review)

Books about Sweden, in English, aren’t that common and one’s written by English writers are rarer still. There is the odd English translation of a Swedish history book, and plenty of books about Vikings, but I’ve seen very few books about contemporary Swedish politics and society, or much in the way of travel narratives. Until now the most extensive written material I’ve come across from an outsider were the two chapters on Sweden in Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There. So when I heard about Andrew Brown’s Fishing in Utopia, a book written by an English journalist who used to live in Sweden, I was pretty quick to get a copy.

Part travelogue and part personal memoir, Fishing in Utopia is Brown’s attempt to document the changes Sweden has gone over in the past 30 years and to find out what happened to their famed welfare state, while simultaneously indulging in his love of fishing.
Like most expats Brown was lured to Sweden by a spouse. In the late 1970s they married, had a child, and moved into one of the miljonprogrammet suburbs outside of Gothenburg. His first job was working as a labourer in a factory making wooden pallets for Volvo. His only escape from the drudgery of manual labour and lifeless concrete satellite towns was his passion for fishing and writing. Brown later moved back to England but work and his son kept dragging him back to Sweden regularly, and in 2006 he returned to drive the length of the country from Skåne to Norrland.

As Andrew Brown makes quite clear Sweden in the 1970s was a different place from the Sweden of today. With the welfare state in its prime it was a safer and more egalitarian place. Poverty and crime were practically nonexistent and even the Prime Minister lived an ordinary life equivalent of a schoolteacher. But it was also more oppressive and insular with a mood of voluntary conformism making life stifling and restrictive. Brown tells of having to travel 10 miles on a bus to the nearest Systembolaget, and then having to smuggle the empty wine bottle out so as to hide it from the neighbours. Life was completely ruled and regulated by the state and the union movement. Everything was done collectively, for the collective whole, with little room for individuality. “It was the life of a battery salmon: packed into a crowd in the middle of a boundless stretch of water by a cage of netting that you could not see at all. It appeared to be part of the sea.”

By 2006 Brown returns to find a far more open and cosmopolitan society, with trendy bars and gourmet cafes. The country has since been opened up to migrants with one in nine being of non-Swedish heritage. “It is one of the marks of modern Sweden that you cannot fine anywhere so remote that it does not have a Kurdish family running a pizza restaurant.” But in the same space of time many of the shipyards and factories that kept so many Swedes employed have been shut down. The welfare state has been significantly dismantled, state industries have been privatised, and both crime and unemployment have risen rapidly.

The central thesis of Brown’s book seems to be to answer the question of what happened. What are the underlying courses for these changes? Unfortunately Brown doesn’t seem to offer any concrete answers; quite possibly because there aren’t any. It seems Sweden has been opened up and exposed to the outside world, allowing new luxuries and experiences but also exposing them to new perils outside of their control. But is it a case of Sweden reaching out and willingly abandoning their third-way quasi socialism, or have the forces of globalisation invaded and dragged Sweden out of its safe insular naivety? Is the welfare state dead, killed off by an over-feed, under-worked generation with no appreciation of their ancestor’s poverty and hardship? Was the welfare state a concept that could only have worked in Scandinavia in that particular time frame? Or will history show that the past 15 years were just a minor blip in the creation of the most equal and prosperous society on earth? All big questions.

Personally I enjoyed Fishing in Utopia because Andrew Brown’s personal experiences are so recognisable. Anyone who read my earlier blog entries on my time working as a labourer on construction sites will instantly see parallels with Brown’s experiences at the timber factory: The initial exhaustion of manual work, slowly learning enough Swedish to listen in on conversations, lazy and apathetic work colleagues who think manual work is beneath them. We’ve both used the crime novels of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö to educate ourselves on Sweden.

I also share his simultaneous derision and admiration for Swedish society. Like most other expats (including myself) Brown initially derides Sweden’s rigidness and conformity but on returning to Thatcher’s Britain, with an ethos of no-such-thing-as-society, Brown starts to appreciate what Sweden offered. “I had mocked Sweden for failing to live up to its own ideals, but I had always supposed these were ideals that everyone shared. I had not considered the possibility that some people could want a less equal society.” I couldn’t agree more and despite all its faults and odd novelties, there is still a lot to admire Sweden for.

My only real criticism would be Brown’s sections on fishing and fishing equipment that I found so dull and tedious I ended up skimming pages just to get through it. This is because I have no interest in fishing but admittedly anyone with any vague understanding of why sitting by a lake for hours on end with a long piece of string dangling in the water might be entertaining, may think quite differently.

Brown doesn’t glorify Sweden like so many left-wing progressives: It has its faults and it’s far from utopia. Nor does he demonstrate the outright disdain and ridicule common amongst frustrated expats and right-wing conservatives. Instead he offers a very honest, personal, grounded analysis built upon his own personal experiences. He provides a clear picture of what life was like in Sweden in those early days, and despite the changes the country subsequently goes through, it is a narrative that most expats can still relate to today. Even if he can’t stop talking about a handmade fishing reel he once owned, it was still a great pleasure to read an account from someone who, thirty years ago, conducted a similar journey to my own.

Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared, by Andrew Brown, Granta, London, 2008.