Monday, 8 April 2013

The big empty north and assorted geographical musings

One thing I failed to comprehend before I moved to Sweden was the sheer size of the country, and the seemingly endless kilometre after square kilometre of dense forests.  According to my feeble research on Wikipedia it is the 55th largest country, and the 4th largest European country and some 53.1% of of it's surface is forest. 

Some weeks ago whilst cycling home from the train station I tried to think about what was west of the town. The simple answer, Nothing. The more complicated answer is deepest, darkest Dalarna. I was able to satisfy my curiosity some weeks later as we headed west to the ski resort of Idrefjäll for some well earned holiday. The route we took more than confirmed my suspicions. 

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Dalarna is the fourth largest län (I suppose a län is what might be a county in the UK and quite possibly a state in the US, excluding the political ramifications of course) and its geography is composed of three things: forests, a sizeable lake and mountains. It's principal claims to fame are the iconic Dalarna horses and the cross country ski race called the vasaloppet. The main cities of the län aren't exactly huge by any standards, the largest is Borlänge, followed the the län capital, Falun, and their populations could easily fit into most modern premiership football stadia. 

Once past the heady metropolis of Mora, notable, principally, for being the finish line for the Vasaloppet, and which boasts a population of around 10,000 our next significant point of civilization was Älvdalen. Älvdalen, with 1,900 inhabitants is famous for, put as politely as one can, isolationism. The town is famous for speaking and continuing to speak their own dialect.

Once past that, you're into another big empty nothing, and our route ran parallel to the dalaälv river and took us up to Särna, which proclaims itself "gateway to the mountains". 

I'm saddened to report the the world's sorriest and most incongruous strip-joint seems to have vanished, I guess the business plan didn't quite work out. I mean, who'd think a strip bar in the middle of nowhere, near a ski resort famously family-centric would fail? Given the appearance of the place, it's just as likely the the owner was arrested for human trafficking. 

Past the Ski resort of Idre, the only thing left is a further 100km or so of beautiful rugged mountains and the then the border with Norway. 

If you look at a map of Sweden, and draw a line across the country at Stockholm and then look north and west. You'll notice something I think is impressive. Saving Falun, and Borlänge and Östersund, there isn't a major city or town (let's call that above 20,000 people) that isn't on the coast. That's a massive amount of ancient quiet forest...

Sunday, 17 March 2013

More bad luck

A quick update just to keep in the habit of blogging, as I've found it's way too easy to think, "oh I'll write something this week", and never get around to it.

My major news is that my bad luck with employment in Sweden has struck again. I've been working, very happily, for a global IT company as a consultant software developer down in Gävle for the last five months. In Sweden the first six months of any new job is essentially an extended trial. It's called a provanställning and allows both parties, although mostly your employer, to work out if you're still who they thought they hired and not an incompetent oaf or a dangerous lunatic.  The consultancy arm of the company I was working for essentially acts as a skills bank, and consultants are matched to clients and prospective client's resource / recruitment needs. I was informed last week that due to the state of their current order book (totally empty) for application development work and their disappointing general financial state for the past year they couldn't justify the cost of keeping me on past my six month probation.

This sadly is the downside of working for a consultancy company and the disadvantage of being the last person through the door during tough times. They told me that they were very happy with the job I'd been doing, and will contact me as soon as anything new shows up, but the reality of the situation is that the economy of the region is very reliant on several very large global companies and those companies are looking to drastically reduce their costs. I was and am still very disappointed. It was a great company to work for and was staffed by very pleasant highly able colleagues.

Shitty timing, and once again it's back to the job market. It's all to easy to get caught up in the disappointment and wallow, but I can see that they are struggling at the moment. The few positives I've tried to draw out are that:
1. I have a great employer's name and despite the short period of employment, a glowing reference for my CV
2. I have an up to date  CV ready to be sent out (something we needed to have kept current as a consultant)
3. I have a much better understanding of the local labour market and what sort of commutes are viable from my home
4. I'll be home to help my wife through a tough time managing our two girls (aged 2 and a half and seven months)
5. I've proved to myself that my language skills are up to the task of working in an all Swedish language environment
6. Should they receive something suitable and I don't have a new job they'll contact me and propose me as a sub consultant.

Saturday, 2 February 2013

Melodifestivalen Rides Again

Happy days, Melodifestivalen,the annual and only-ever-so-slightly-totally fixed national precursor to euro-vision is back.  

Needless to say I'm a big fan. There are many reasons: the oft repeated, and unintentionally hilarious choreography, the bizarre band names, and the wide range of musical styles. Sadly it's normally all too easy to see who'll get voted through to the final, but the strange assortment of acts always amuses and horrifies in equal measures.  

Tonight for example we had power ballads, boy bandery, an ageing soul artist, a scattering of ex-talent show kids, and a Manga obsessive from Sundsvall who sang a song which had more than a passing debt to the Manic Street Preachers "Generation Terrorists" sound. 

As it was only the first show we didn't see any Swedish Dance bands or Timotej (yes they've entered every year I've seen it so far) and no serious novelty acts like Dancing bear or the Liquorice Allsorts backing dancers of two years ago. We did however get to marvel at some truly madcap backing dancer action (the usual single line / octopus of recent years and followed by some weird vogue style hand waving) and odd preppy stylings courtesy of David Lindgren. 

Anyway, the show seemed to go mostly to my expectations except for manga wannabe Yukio going through to the final and the obvious second choice coming in last postion. The fickle Swedish general public...

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Winter assimilation

I was recently talking to an online friend on mine, a Welshman who was complaining about the 'plunging temperatures' and dusting of snow they'd received where he lives in southern Wales. It was, he confided -2c yesterday, and the sprinkling of snow had caused great consternation to road traffic. Just before chatting to him, I'd been nosing on Facebook and chuckling at the 'oh-my-god-we-have-snow' pictures posted by various English friends. Ha, I pointed out, we have had a covering of snow of at least 30cm since late November. Minus two centigrade I scoffed and then proceeded to tell him how that morning I had cycled to the station in -25c, and even dressed in my massive winter parka and ski pants over my jeans, I had to admit that cycling in those temperatures is pretty chilly and slightly a 'mad dogs and Englishmen' type pursuit.

You realize you've gone native when you can chuckle at "low" temperatures back home. When you step outside and -5c feels like a nice balmy winter day. When the sun is shining in January, it's under -10c, and you can feel the moisture in your nose freezing slightly and you like the sensation. When you nip down to the shop on the 'spark' with your daughter.When you have at least four pairs of gloves for the season.When you stand on the train platform on your daily commute and the train arrives right on time day after day regardless of how low the temperature sinks or how much snow falls. When you scratch your head at a nation who doesn't equip winter tyres, or have engine and cabin warmers, or bum warmers in the car seats. When you have three types of shovel for clearing the snow and you look over enviously at the neighbours snow blowing machines. That's when you realize that the place you now live has begun to warp you...

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Habitual reprise

 Hello anyone who visits this dusty old blog in the vain hope that the lazy author has written something new, Thanks for stopping by, and well, you know, we're in this together. Occasionally I feel inspired and once again things have happened in the quiet little life we lead up in the the southern tip of Norrland.

To recap, we need some kind of flashback sequence, well here goes:

Scene one: main character enters one of his periodic funks, feels isolated, struggles with his wife's ill tempered pregnancy.

Scene two: Finishes paternity leave, schools first daughter into the Swedish Nursery (Dagis to those in the know)

Scene Three: confounds the Arbetsförmedlingen by getting the first job he applies for (excellent company btw) and providing them with an unlikely success story. Comic interlude between main character and the C.V. 'expert' who'd only worked at one place (yes you've guessed it, the Arbetsförmedlingen, and who had the most laughable C.V. you've ever read)

Scene Four: Slacks off for the rest of the summer preparing for daugher no.2's birth and the start of his new job in October. Drives down to Gävle in peasouper fog with a wife in labour. Crazy sadistic midwife decides the labour wasn't painful enough for the wife and invents an especially painful finish. 

Scene Five: Struggles manfully and at times ineffectually with the logistics of a dual child household. Hangs on for dear life

Now the story unfolds again.

Thursday, 29 March 2012

Hit the north part 2

The second force that propelled us North was the Swedish welfare system, the Försäkeringskassan. 

In Sweden every parent has the right to take time away from their jobs to look after their child or children. Fathers are entitled to 180 days, or six months. During your maternity or paternity leave, you can resign at any point, and your period of paternity leave counts against your notice. 

After consulting with my union for advice on how to handle the matter, and then promptly ignoring what they had to say (the advice seemed at best ill thought out and at worst designed to anger my then employer in Malmö) I decided that I would be as open and honest, although it was quite awkward. 

They were a small software house, and during the year I was there three staff (four including me) of a total of ten had decided to move on. It came as quite a shock to the owner of the company, but as I stated to him, this wasn't about my position, although I wasn't really happy there, but my decision concerned my family and the environment we wanted out daughter to grow up in.
I sympathized with his position, and felt like I was letting him down, but I reminded myself how much I'd done for him, including rewriting most of his software development process, and designing and implementing a recruitment and training process. It was a difficult conversation, but I hope I handled it, and my last months there with professionalism. 

Being able to take six months off work to look after my daughter has meant that we were able to relocate to our new house, and that I have been able to build a much stronger relationship with my daughter. It has also allowed my wife to go back to work and to find a great position on the emergency ward of our local hospital. 

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Hit the North part 1

As promised a short synopsis of the last few months and how we left the godless wastelands of Skåne, and hit the north.

It all began just before our wedding, I was idly looking at a web site for estate agents(real estate companies for anyone from the U.S), and saw an interesting house in the town my wife grew up in. It matched all of our criteria: it was the right size, centrally located and pretty.
We rang up and booked a time to meet the agent and have look around the house just before we left town to drive back down to Malmö after our wedding / holidays. On the long drive south, and stopping off at the excellent Kolmården Safari park we talked about the feasibility of making a bid for the property. I'd sold my apartment in London by that time and we had a reasonable amount of money sitting in a bank in England waiting for the right opportunity, so we knew we had the means. After two days of exotic wildlife, perhaps emboldened by the lions and tigers and somewhere between Linköping and Jonköping we decided we'd bid for the property.

We contacted the estate agents and let them know we wanted to be involved in the auction for the house. Whilst wandering around doing our grocery shopping the day before, we'd agreed what our maximum bid would be, and we felt we had a good chance of getting the property. It was hard to try not too hopeful, as we had no idea what sort of budgets our rivals would have and how much over the asking price we'd have to go. 

One week later on a Friday evening we held our breath and placed our bids in a telephone auction. Approximately thirty minutes later, we won the auction and had bought a house. 
The following two weeks were a real eye opener, the speed at which we completed all the legalities were a whirlwind compared to how long it takes in the UK. All in, I think it took about six weeks to sell my flat in the UK and have the money sitting in my account, and it cost almost a thousand pounds in legal fees. In Sweden, ten days, and not a single kronor  went to a lawyer. All of the legalities were handled by the local branch of Nordea, and dealing with them was very straight forward. My wife had to travel up to sign some documents, but other than the cost of a train ticket we had activated the first step of our escape plan.