I moved to Sweden two years ago to go to graduate school. I graduated this past June, and by late July, I’d failed to find a job in either Sweden or the U.S. (I’d acquired Swedish citizenship through my mother, a Swedish immigrant to the U.S.) My girlfriend was working at a bakery on the Lofoten Islands in northern Norway, where she has spent her last two summers with about fifteen of her friends, all Swedish students. By working two-and-a-half months in Lofoten, they could avoid working during the school year and, more importantly, avoid taking student loans.
She offered to find me a cleaning job, telling me if I worked in Norway, I’d become “rich like a troll.” I’d always thought it was the dwarfs and goblins that were rich, but I wasn’t about to quibble. Facing the reality of undergraduate student loans and the nigh-on uselessness of an M.A. in the humanities, I ate my pride, packed my bags, and endured the 30-hour train ride up to Lofoten.
During my month in Lofoten, I cleaned suites at a luxury hotel, a rather garish place whose shag carpet rugs, glass-walled bathrooms, and semi-nude portraits of a former employee gave the rooms a vaguely porn-set feel. The exterior approximated the appearance—and the interior the heat—of a giant greenhouse. I wore a smock, carried toilet-bowl cleaner at all times, and became really good at making beds. Some evenings, I walked across town to work at the shabbier of its two sister hotels, the local Best Western, which the Scandinavians pronounced “Best Veas-tern” in their singsong accents while correcting my American pronunciation. It advertised itself as “an art hotel,” a designation it had conferred upon itself by decorating the halls with napkin-quality Munch prints. I waited on busloads of tourists from Germany, Switzerland, and Norway, serving them whale stew and over-priced fish casserole. (Despite the enormous local fishing industry, the hotel used frozen fish from China.) For my services, I made the equivalent of $25 an hour. After 9 p.m., $27. On Sundays, almost $29.
As an American, it is bizarre to think of modern Sweden, so often lauded as a paragon of social and economic stability, as coughing up migrant workers. Stranger still is that the Swedes migrate to Norway, which has always been regarded as Sweden’s little brother. Often at war, Sweden forced Norway into an uneven union for most of the 19th century. Though politically independent of Sweden for over one hundred years, Norway has remained culturally subordinate to its larger, more-established neighbor. Norwegians watch Swedish television, listen to Swedish music, and read Swedish books. Before the Norwegian translation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest was released, the original Swedish version was the best-selling book in Norway. But in the last 25 years, Norway has added workers to the list of things it imports from Sweden.
In the eighties, Norway became rich off of oil. Its sovereign wealth fund is currently valued at about 600 billion dollars. From 1999-2009, average Norwegian family saw an increase of almost 100,000 NOK, or about $17,000. With its population of only five million, Norway needed to import laborers and service workers for its exploding economy. I once hitched a ride from a retired sailor, and after running out of ways to compliment his RV, I asked him how Norway had changed over the years. He thought Norway had it too good now. As a young man, he’d been at sea for over a year at a time, whereas “the young people today don’t want to work at all. It’s good that we have the Swedes.”
Current estimates of the number of Swedes living and working in Norway hover between 80,000 and 100,000. In Oslo alone, it’s thought that there are 50,000 Swedes, which is about 10 percent of the city’s population. Most of these are service workers. Indeed, the Swede-as-service worker has become something of a stereotype in Norway. The 2010 rap hit “Partysvenske” is an extended mockery of male Swedish migrant workers, who are portrayed as effete drunks who invade Oslo’s nightlife. At one point, the rappers—Jaa9 & Onklp—chide, “Make a mojito, do what you do well.” The condescension towards Swedish migrant workers was prevalent enough for Norwegian television to produce a mocumentary series titled Swedes Are People. There’s a weird power dynamic at play, with both groups exhibiting a sort of passive aggressive bitterness towards the other. For their part, Norwegians seem eager to buck Swedish cultural influence and assert their economic dominance. Speaking to the New York Times in 2007, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Oslo put it rather well:
“When I was young, Swedes had whiter teeth, clearer skin, Abba, and Bjorn Borg. We had lots of fish, and not much more. Today, Swedes have been cut down to size. And I would say that many Norwegians enjoy the fact that so many Swedes are here doing menial jobs.”
When the Norwegian cross-country skier Petter Northug beat his Swedish rival across the line at the 2011 World Championships, he used opportunity to taunt Sweden about the low value of the Swedish currency. The Swedish media, on the other hand, laments the fact that Swedes are reduced to literally peeling bananas in Norway—albeit for about $23 an hour.
Over the past ten years, Norway has taken in more foreign labor than any other European country. While Norway takes in plenty of laborers from Eastern Europe, Swedes are easier to employ because of the similarities in language and culture. The near-interchangeability of Swedish and Norwegian makes Swedes an attractive option for jobs at cafes and bars. I’m told that many Norwegian employers actually prefer to hire Swedes to Norwegians, saying Swedes have a stronger work ethic and commitment to customer-service. (If that’s true, it says more about Norwegians than Swedes; I spent the better part of my time in Sweden feeling as though I was inconveniencing bartenders and servers.) Further, because of an arrangement between the Nordic countries, Swedes don’t need a work permit or visa to stay in Norway.
If there are incentives for Norwegians to hire Swedes, the incentives are even greater for the Swedes. Norway has higher wages, shorter workweeks, and Swedes are granted a tax break for their first two years. The Norwegian krone is also worth more than the Swedish krona. As I write this, the exchange rate is 1 Norwegian krone to 1.16 Swedish krona. Earlier this year it was about 1.2, and in 2009 it was at 1.3. Swedes can go to Norway for a few months, or even a few years, live cheaply, and return to Sweden like Vikings returning from a season of pillaging. Indeed, it’s been estimated that 90% of Swedes return to their homeland within five years.
The stereotype of Swedes in Norway is that they live in dirty “collectives,” packing as many people into a house as possible. We did little to mitigate this stereotype. While some of our friends lived in the hotel where they worked, we lived in shabby two-story summer rental, nine of us in total, though when we hosted friends from Sweden, there were as many as 15 in the house. In Lofoten, the service work is connected to tourism. Swedes are in demand as seasonal workers for the summer. We worked as cleaners, hotel reception clerks, baristas, and cooks. One housemate—the German boyfriend of one of the Swedes—worked as a tour-guide for a cruise-ship company. Elsewhere in Norway, Swedes find summer work filling in for vacationing Norwegians. A Swedish medical student I know worked as a sort of CNA at a dementia ward. The work could be difficult, but he often worked nights, where he sat at the nursing station reading books and watching movies while being paid overtime rates of almost 300NOK ($52) an hour.
Every morning, I biked the 30 minutes to work, the mountains pressing on me from the left, the sea from the right. Sometimes I’d work alone, but generally I’d be working with one of my housemates. After stopping by the front desk to pick up a list of rooms to be cleaned, we went down to the basement to don our grey smocks and name tags. (Martin, my housemate, had made himself one which read “Bruce Wayne,” which prompted one earnest Norwegian to ask if he was American.) We restocked one cart with cleaning supplies and then used a chef’s knife—which we stored sheathed in a copy of The Invention of Murder that a guest had left behind—to cut open bags of sheets and towels, which we then piled high on our other cart. Then we started cleaning the vacated rooms in a frenzy to get them ready by the 3 p.m. check-in time.
The suites that had been vacated were often marked by a vague loneliness, that kind that settles like dust in a house the morning after a grand party. The empty bottle of wine and two glasses sitting on the table, the remains of the shrimp bought from the boat docked outside the hotel, a coffee press still warm from breakfast—each room was like a still life waiting to be painted or a crime scene waiting to be investigated. Sometimes the rooms were unused, which meant the guest(s) was totally decadent or had gone home with someone else. Both options were foreign to the Midwestern Evangelical sensibilities I inherited from my childhood, though I was always happy for one less room to clean. More often, though, the rooms were scattered with the debris of Too Much Fun. In hotels, people become like adolescents, both in their brazen self-absorption and excess and in their assurance—in this case, warranted—that someone else would clean up after them. One guest filled a bathtub full of seaweed, which my colleague then had to clean up. Another guest had the decency, before checking out, to warn the same colleague that he’d somehow cut himself; the sheets, and the towels were all splattered in blood. The tourist’s mantra of “I’m on vacation,” combined with some alcohol, does away with most inhibitions; “I paid for it” excuses a plethora of sins. And paid they had. To rent a room at this hotel would cost 1500 NOK ($260). The problem was, you might end up sharing common area and kitchenette with people you didn’t know. To rent out the whole suite was 2500 NOK ($430). Probably 70% of the guests were Norwegians. The rest were wealthy tourists from The Continent and the occasional Americans.
A vacated room was supposed to take no more than 20 minutes for a single housekeeper. A whole suite, about an hour. The bathtub filled with seaweed took an hour to clean. Smock-pockets filled with cleaning spray and rags, we descended upon the rooms, dusting, wiping, changing sheets, and folding fresh towels like origami. If there were dirty dishes, we did those. The cleaning spray dried out our sinuses and gave us bloody noses. In the bathrooms, there was always a steady supply of hair in bathtubs and the sporadic used condom. When it came time to fold the loose end of the toilet paper into a triangle—apparently nothing says luxury like having someone attend to the aesthetics of your ass-wiping experience—I had to remind myself I was making $25 an hour.
If the whole suite had been vacated, we would brew some coffee and drink it on the suite’s balcony, a view of the mountains and sea so sublime that we forgot we were wearing sweaty smocks stuffed with cleaning spray. More than the money, these views—and the ability to go hiking, swimming, and fishing after work—are what made the work bearable for my housemates and me.
After cleaning the vacated rooms, we moved on to the rooms that still had guests. Sometimes, the guests were present when we cleaned. Even if they were kind—I once received about a $10 tip for fixing a curtain—there was something demeaning about this. If they were rude, it became almost too much to handle. After some angry Norwegians complained about one of my colleagues cleaning—”We paid too much for this to not be cleaned perfectly!”—I had to re-clean their suite then, just to make sure they were appeased, wash their dishes while they sat on their balcony smoking, pretending I did not exist. On their dining table, there was a book on how to find peace by communicating with your pets. In moments like these, it wasn’t comforting to think of the money I was making. It was comforting to know that I wasn’t confined to a lifetime of service work.
While my Swedish housemates constantly complained about the inefficiency of Norwegian society and how backwards the culture was, I found most Norwegians to be delightful people who were laid-back, even bubbly, in comparison to Swedes. My favorite of them was the cook I worked with at the Best Western, a delightful local woman of Valkyrian stature who had cooked there for over 20 years. When Ellen wasn’t foisting food on me, she was asking me about the poverty and inequality in America or making fun of Sweden. When she found out I wasn’t actually a Swede but an American, she asked why I’d learned Swedish instead of Norwegian. She often served Jell-O for dessert—Norwegians apparently love Jell-O—and couldn’t get over the fact that most Swedes hate the stuff. “What’s wrong with these fools?” she asked me. “Do you Americans like Jell-O?”
“College kids do,” I said, and proceeded to explain the concept of Jell-O shots as Ellen’s eyes grew wide with excitement. She decided she would make Jell-O shots for the personnel party for the three sister hotels, an end of the summer thank-you from the hotel’s husband and wife ownership team.
Which is how I found myself holding a watermelon filled with green rum-infused Jell-O in front of a shuttle-bus full of color-coordinated Scandinavians, the Swedes painting their faces the color of their teams and the Norwegians singing the early-nineties Norwegian hit, “I’m not sick, just Swedish.” When we arrived at the hotel owners’ cottage, a beautiful little summer home on the sea, we were met by the owners dressed as judges, draped in black sheets and wearing black beanies pinning down dust mop heads, makeshift judicial wigs. (The husband’s beanie was emblazoned with a bikini-clad woman holding a chainsaw and the text “Swedish Psycho.”)
Scandinavians, awkward and bureaucratic people, love organized fun. Parties have themes, and usually there are games or trivia. Even the drinking is orderly: overdone speeches followed by toasts and later, drinking songs with shots of schnapps. For the personnel party, we had been organized into four competing teams (red, blue, green, yellow) and each team given some money to prepare a course (appetizer, fish, meat, dessert). The husband-owner raised his glass in a toast to the employees for their help, then raised it again to acknowledge the help of the Swedes and to toast their country. Out of the 20-or-so employees, there were only five Norwegians.
I’ll spare you the details of the dinner except to say the Swedes groaned at the sight of the Jell-O, but never ones to turn down free alcohol, ate it anyway. The judges gave it terrible scores. But it didn’t matter. When the judges announced the winner, I was in the outhouse and emerged to find one of my teammates holding out a gold-foiled chocolate medallion.
Returning to the cabin, I looked around at the drunken Swedes and Norwegians, arms around each other, singing each country’s drinking songs; they had become indistinguishable, blurring into one Nordic mass.
Bewildered by the Scandinavian solidarity and unaccustomed to drinking in front of employers, I walked down to the beach to sit by the sea. The number of tourists was dwindling, and in the coming days the people in our group would begin to migrate back to Sweden. It was 11:30, and the dusk would soon be replaced by darkness, a change which my girlfriend would herald as the return of the stars, the signal that it was time to return to Sweden. As I stared out at the sea, my medallion still dangling from my neck, I heard a retching off to my right. My co-worker Martin—”Bruce Wayne”—was puking.
David Michael is the editor of Wunderkammer, a web-based journal of cultural criticism. He lives in Sweden, where he rents a room from some Dominican friars in exchange for brewing and gardening services