Monday, July 8, 2013

A very rough summary of my last semester at Uppsala

Sooo... are you guys still there? I am still alive in case you were wondering. My plan to update my blog every week has failed miserably. My excuse is that when you are studying abroad it is a lot harder to find motivation to write a blog. Because you are actually living in a place. Despite it being new and exciting at the start the motivation and inspiration dies down just as the initial excitement died down. Writing a blog about being abroad started to feel more like writing a blog about just living, a concept I am not entirely familiar or comfortable with. Nevertheless I am going to try to write a recap of my semester in this post. I will probably glance over details and feelings that came up during the moment but I think it will be good for me to write down as much as I can while I am still in Sweden and the memories are relatively fresh.

My second semester experience was dominated pretty much entirely by working as a “klubbvärd” or “jubileumsklubbvärd” because it is the the 350th anniversary of Kalmar and saying jubileumsklubbvärd makes me feel all european and exotic. The position of klubbvärd (in english club worker) means that you are in charge of the pub on certain nights. Every night there are two klubbvärds one who works in the bar and whose duties include; prepping the bar, counting the money, taking food orders, mixing drinks, dealing with drunks and training new people to work at the bar. And one who works in the kitchen, this position is slightly more hectic as you mange 4-6 temporary student workers of various levels of experience and motivation, you also had to make sure all the orders were going out in a timely manner, train new workers, keep records of hygiene, keep things clean and whenever there was a problem with an order you were responsible to fix it. You also have to make the kitchen somewhat fun. The pay for working a full night which usually lasts from 4PM to 1AM comes out to be 84 SEK after taxes, which is a whopping $12.57. For reference a meal at McDonalds or Burger King will run you 62 SEK and the cheapest beer at Kalmar is 28 SEK a pint. Clearly most people working are not doing it for monetary reasons, so we have to provide a fun environment so people will want to come back. Honestly it is a tough sell “come and work for ten hours setting up a pub, doing dishes and then cleaning that pub, no seriously guys it is fun!”

When I was  a temporary employee, or a resource as we call them, I worked exclusively in the kitchen. This was mostly due to my fear of having to learn how to pour drinks, use a Swedish cash register and count all while customers stared at me. Also because I found the kitchen to be a more social place.  During my first semester I slowly grew to prominence as a leader among the resources in the art of hamburger creation. So I had a pretty good idea of how the kitchen operated. That still didn’t prepare me for my first day being a club worker in the kitchen. Working as an employee and working as a manager has two completely different mindsets. When you're working as an employee you simply focus on the job that you are doing and you make sure that you do it right. You only need minimal awareness of what everyone else is doing. But when you are a manager you have to know what everyone is doing and have a rough idea of what everyone should do next as well as delegating some tasks that you yourself have to do. The abrupt transition from the two ways of thinking is quite hard. On my first day as a club worker I was shadowed by a former club worker who I could ask questions to but wouldn’t explicitly guide me. I was the one in charge. To make things more fun the beginning of the semester is not only the time when new club workers start working it is also the time that new students who want to work at the nations decide to try something new. This meant that in addition to telling people what to do you had to explain how they had to do them.  This was slightly difficult especially when I didn’t know how to do what I was explaining. At this point I realized how much of being an authority figure is just pretending you know what you are doing.  Learning how to work the bar was a daunting task for me. Like I said earlier I didn’t ever work the bar as a resource. I decided it would be best to just jump in the deep end and pick the first open mic night (Spela) to do my first bar club working shift.  For some reason I thought it would be a good idea to go to a friends party the night before “just to check it out” so naturally I ended up going to bed at 5 am and waking up feeling a bit “tired”. Working Spela was hell. I didn’t know where any beers were, kept messing up the register and I am pretty sure I regularly shorted people about 20 SEK each transaction. On top of that the ventilation system in the kitchen decided to go out so the fire alarm went off... twice. This meant I had to refund all the orders for burgers which meant a lot of angry customers demanding food. It was easily the worst night I ever had working at Kalmar. Which was kind of a nice groundwork to lay the semester on. No matter how bad a night went it couldn’t be worse than my first bartending shift.

Despite the difficulty of the first few nights I fell in love with working at Kalmar. In the beginning of the semester I gladly filled in for different shifts and took up extra work just because I enjoyed it so much. Working gave me a sense of community along with a sense of accomplishment. It was a sense of community and belonging that I really have never had before this experience. In high school and my first two years of college I didn’t put myself out there simply because I presumed that I wouldn’t like the groups available to me. That mindset lead to a lack of community and I that void had a negative influence on my wellbeing. At Kalmar I got that community that I so craved in insane amounts, and I think during those first months I just wanted to lap up as much of it as I could. Even on nights off I would stop by the kitchen to say hello or go to the pub for a beer. Anytime I wanted to see a friendly face I could dip by Kalmar. It was like Cheers. I actually have no idea if it was like Cheers I have only heard the theme song, but it is what I imagine Cheers to be like.

Working at Kalmar also gave me the ability to really experience the traditional Uppsala student life. I was able to go to a number of gasques (formal dinners) where I could mumble along to the Swedish drinking songs and try to remember how to toast right. The gasques were fun the first few times but could get dull quick. Sitting through multiple speeches in language you don’t understand isn’t the most stimulating thing. But nevertheless they were still amazingly fun and interesting. There was always a point, usually towards the end of the night when we all were locking arms and swaying back and  singing a song to commemorate the after drink where I would start laughing at how surreal it felt. A year ago I didn’t expect to be wearing a tail coat eating a formal dinner while singing about snaps. It is pretty much the opposite of what I did at Sonoma.

The pub closed for the summer on June 1st. I worked the last pub night, it was a nice feeling to have a little closure, but the truth was during the last month of club working I had started to get burnt out. Working one or two nights a week takes a toll on your psyche. Especially when the sun is out until 10 PM and it is warm spring weather and everyone is outside having barbecues. The first week of June was incredibly hectic. I spent most of my time preparing for the staff party, saying goodbye to friends, moving out of my apartment and into my girlfriends and preparing to go to London. Oh and the paper I had to have done by the seventh.  It was a stressful but rewarding week, and finally being done with having any responsibility was liberating.

The last year have been by far the most meaningful and constructive time period of my life. I have become more confident, more open and overall more comfortable with myself. I hate stating things like that because it makes me sound like I am on the CSU International Program pamphlet, but it is completely true. It has helped me figure out who and what brings me happiness and what or who brings me unhappiness. At this time last year I felt like like an amorphous blob. The components were there but I had not really been able to develop them into something solid. Now I feel more defined. And I know myself better.

Right now I am writing this from Prague. I decided I needed to do some actual traveling while I was in Europe and took advantage of the fact that my brother Tommy was planning to live in Berlin for a few months. We decided to take a trip where we bought the outward tickets on a certain date and sort of figure out how to get to where our plane departs. We decided on Split, Crotia. So right now we are in the process of getting there. Our rough plan is to go Berlin-Prague-Krakow-Budapest-Belgrade-Sarjevo-Split. I thought that this would be an interesting area to explore because I don’t really know what it is like in most of these cities. I find it more interesting then doing more of western Europe. I will try to do a write up on Berlin and Prague on the way to Krakow so I can finally (somewhat) catch this blog up.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Working a Gasque on New Year’s Eve

Updates on Working at Kalmar

So I have been working at Kalmar Nation a lot this semester, probably about once or twice a week since October.  It has been awesome. I mostly work in the kitchen where I have become an efficient burger grilling machine. I mostly work because of the social aspect. Working at a nation is a great way to meet new people and eat free food. It is also the only way that I managed to meet any Swedish people. It seems like it is a common problem with studying abroad is that exchange students are usually isolated socially from the native student population. On top of that Swedes tend to be quiet people who keep to themselves. The nations break down these barriers. I think that pretty much all of the Swedes that I know I have met through working at Kalmar.  

As the first semester was drawing to a close I was encouraged to apply for a position in the pub called “klubbvärd” or club worker. These are the workers who manage and run the day to day operations of the pub and kitchen; they were the ones who would tell me what to do when I was frying fifty burgers. I decided to apply for one of the positions next semester because I really enjoy working and working as a club worker is one of the best ways for someone who doesn't speak Swedish to get involved in a nation. There will be nine other club workers that I will work with next semester. What is interesting is that of the ten club workers only three of them are Swedish. The other seven are from Estonia, Germany, France, Bangladesh, Australia, The Åland Islands and of course The United States. It is pretty amazing to have such an international workforce, especially with this year being the 350th anniversary of Kalmar Nation. I don’t think the founders would have thought that in 350 years their pub would be run by mostly non-Swedes. I am really excited for the next semester despite the amount of work I will have to put in I think it will be a unique experience.

Working the New Year's Eve Gasque 

Anyways on to New Year’s Eve. I decided to work on New Year’s Eve because I usually don’t enjoy going to New Year’s Eve parties they are usually overhyped and anti-climactic. I wanted to make my only New Year’s Eve in Sweden more memorable than drinking excessively in Flogsta and lighting off fireworks. I figured working was the polar opposite of what I usually do so I volunteered to work at the Kalmar New Year’s Eve gasque. A gasque is a Swedish student tradition. Basically it is a formal dinner where you sit down for a three course meal sing songs in Swedish and slowly get drunk off of Swedish schnapps. You can read a more detailed explanation of a gasque here.This was my first time working at a gasque, it was also my first time being at a real gasque. I went to the international gasque in October, but that didn’t really count. It was all in English and none of the internationals knew the procedure, the vibe was all off. So I was excited, it was my both my first time working at a gasque, being at a real gasque, and the gasque was to count down to the 350th anniversary of Kalmar.

The work was pretty standard. We set the tables which was harder than you would think because the setup had about six glasses and eight utensils along with napkins, songbooks and decorations. This made the table space extremely limited but it worked out fine. Once the guests actually arrived we brought them food, water and wine at set intervals. Everything was scheduled. That lead to a fair amount of downtime in between brining out food. During this time we would sit in the kitchen and twiddle our thumbs or ate delicious left over food. Since I usually eat noodles eating well marinated lamb was a welcome change. Towards the end of the dinner it is traditional for the guests to sing the kitchen staff a song of which we sing the last line and toast back. The line was in Swedish so I do what I always do whenever I have to sing in Swedish; I provide melodic humming in order to create a truly harmonious song. It is pretty bizarre experience having one hundred and fourteen people drunkenly sing to you. I didn't really know where to look or what to do. After the song we had to hurry to the entrance hall and fill glasses of champagne for our guests we had fifteen minutes to set up the tables and fill the glasses. We pulled through with time to spare.

The guests were ushered outside to the courtyard in order to bring in the New Year and the wait staff began the long task of cleaning the ridiculous number of dishes that we had laid out earlier that night. But at eleven fifty five we took a break to grab a glass of champagne and went out to the courtyard to countdown to 2013. The countdown was definitely the coolest New Year’s Eve countdown I have ever experienced.  Everyone was dressed formally in the courtyard. Atop the steps of Kalmar a top official dressed in a tuxedo adorned with a medal which signified his position in the nation was addressing to the guests of the gasque. He was passionately speaking, yelling to have his voice heard while gesturing madly with his hands. As it drew closer to midnight fireworks began erupting all around us. There is no coordinated fireworks show in Uppsala, rather anyone who wants can purchase fireworks and shoot them off. This is Sweden everything is permanently wet anything that is outside will never catch on fire. Because it is uncoordinated this gives the fireworks a random chaotic feeling. We were surrounded by the pops of fireworks. This coupled with the speech and the suits made me feel like I was in the eve some sort revolution from the 1870s. I was waiting for hoards of the working class to come and destroy the bourgeois feast of excess that had just taken place.  Of course this didn't happen and I was forced to pick up dishes rather than participate in a workers revolution.

We finished cleaning the dining hall at about one thirty in the morning. This meant that we could go downstairs and participate in the last hour and a half of celebrations. So I changed out of my work shirt and into my t-shirt and went down to the pub to celebrate the New Year in a wonderfully under-dressed fashion. It was a nice party afterwards. Since most of the people at the gasque were involved with Kalmar I probably knew about thirty percent of them. Overall I had a great time. It was definitely the most unique New Year’s Eve I have ever had and it was definitely my favorite New Year’s Eve.