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

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