Step one: Marry someone who will go to Sweden as a visiting researcher and therefore be entitled to a work permit. This is not actually why I married Amanda but is just one of the many perks gained through marriage to her, among which include dealing with her constantly cold feet, especially important now in the minus 30C weather.
Unlike France where bureaucracy can slow things down for months or even years, I was able to obtain my work permit and residence card in about 20 minutes. We also were eligible for a personnummer (basically a Swedish Social Security number) that not only allows access to their socialized healthcare, but also is necessary to do almost anything, such as buying car insurance, mailing a package internationally, owning a car, or renting an apartment. In Sweden they make no effort to conceal the fact that people are in fact numbers. Just as we also joke about the US healthcare system, Swedes often say that even if you arrive at the hospital, dying of blood loss and making sounds akin to an espresso machine milk steamer, the hospital personnel will first calmly ask you for your personummer. Though belittling, one seems to receive all kinds of benefits from being a number.
Step two: Move to a really small town. The town of Jokkmokk has a population of about 3000, but the district of Jokkmokk has a population of 5000 and it is about the size of New Jersey. Start asking around for work in your field, in my case cooking, farming, construction, teaching, outdoor leadership, delivery driver, and anything else I can get away with.
Step the third: Take free Swedish classes (if you have a personnummer) at SFI (Svenska för Invandrare or Swedish for Immigrants) to improve language skills and meet people from Bulgaria, Iran, Spain, England, and Somalia. I love learning new languages and meeting people from other countries. One person of note is middle-aged veterinarian who is either from Bulgaria or Serbia depending upon the day and the whimsical political impulses of the two neighboring countries. His name is Vladin and he has a great sense of humor, helped by the fact that he is continually mixing up “she” and “he” in Swedish and that he is very adept at forming rhymes in a language that he has not yet mastered.
Step four: Go to the Arbetsförmedlingen (unemployment office) where they will help you look for work and even pay you to do internships. I almost took an internship with a local restaurant that serves wild foods (reindeer and arctic char for example) and I would have been paid by the Swedish government, not the restaurant. There is also an option to get hired part time by an employer who will pay 20% of your salary and the Swedish government will pay 80% as long as you are enrolled in a Swedish language class specific to your job (as long as you can present your personnummer).
Step five: On Saturday, invite the guy who sold you used touring skis over to your house for “fika” (both a noun and a verb meaning “improved coffee break”) along with his wife and two kids. Network.
Step 6: Answer a call at 9pm on Sunday evening from someone whose first name is “Olof Thomas” who says he has a business selling reindeer meat and needs help cutting up reindeer and making reindeer charcuterie. Can I come for a try-out the next day, leaving at 6am to ride 40km north to an even smaller town where the business is located?
Step 7: Yes.
So now I have a job for a few months at least while the reindeer harvest is in full swing. My first day I got to eat reindeer for lunch (it is incredibly delicious, dark red, lean, tender, full of taste but not gamey) and the people I work with are wonderful. My Swedish may not improve as quickly as I thought though. Their English ranges from very good to flawless, but also they speak Sami (North Sami) between themselves. I have tried to pick up some words, but the language is extremely complicated (Sami is part of the Finnish-Ugric branch of languages) and I can’t even get an answer for something as simple as “goodbye,” which has many variations, accounting for expected duration, who is leaving, how many they are, etc. In the first three days I made cured, smoked, and dried sausages, Suovas (smoked reindeer meat meant to be cooked), Torkat Renkött (dried and smoked reindeer meat), Renskav (basically philly cheesesteak meat that cooks very quickly and is very tender “Sami fast-food,”) as well as many other things.
I work with two guys in their early to mid thirties (Olof Thomas and Nila), and their cousin (Sofia) who is in her mid twenties. Uncles and fathers and other cousins are constantly stopping by and lending a hand, tending to the smokehouse, or sharing a cup of coffee. You can check out the company at www.utsiren.se. Olof Thomas and Nila buy choice reindeer from other herders (often their relatives and friends) but each of them also has their own herd of reindeer, which they must tend to in addition to running their business.
So now I have a job where I get to continue my education with meat cutting, curing, and smoking, but also I get to experience Sami culture and food traditions (I am beginning to sounds like an anthropologist). While we drink super strong black coffee and nibble on sweet saffron bread with raisins and pearl sugar we discuss topics such as winter grazing grounds, blood pancakes, the taste of moose, how to cook reindeer feet, and tanning reindeer hides. Utsi Ren’s market it for mostly Swedish customers, as most Sami have other, less expensive, ways of acquiring reindeer meat, so Olof Thomas and Nila are interested in any suggestions and feedback I might have to improve their products. I am very excited to be a part of what they are doing, and in addition to our freezer filling up with reindeer meat, I am collecting lots of stories as well!
A business based on reindeer can be a bit tricky because the reindeer are not always where you expect or want them to be, which can make it difficult to fill orders. This year they are behind on processing reindeer so it looks we will be processing a load of 75 reindeer right before Christmas. I can’t help but wonder if these were the reindeer that didn’t get a callback for pulling the sleigh!