I was thrown out of the Scouts. Corporate team building exercises always left me liking colleagues less. And as far as I’m concerned, networking is not working.
Which meant that when, shortly after I moved to Sweden, the concept of apartment block cleaning days was offered to me, I politely declined.
One evening, a sheet of paper was slipped under the door. I didn’t understand any of the Swedish gibberish and the two pieces of clipart, one of a hammer and the other of a pair of hands clapping, left me none the wiser.
A handiwork competition? A tool fair? It was an early start – so perhaps some sort of ‘hammer in the morning’ singalong?
All of those, it turned out, were preferable to the reality: a group cleaning session.
When friends explained the deal to me, I was unimpressed. It sounded like my own personal hell.
One person from each flat in the building shuffles grumpily down to the garden at the allotted hour, I was told. After a few minutes they begin introducing themselves as if for the first time to people they’ve been living metres away from for years, only afterwards realising that they met at the last cleaning day.
Someone takes control and produces a list of ambitious tasks for the next couple of hours. It starts with tame jobs like “sweep and mop the staircase” (sounds dull, won’t volunteer for that), moves on to more energetic jobs like “empty all the junk out of the attic” (nah, the old back’s been playing up a bit lately) and ends with “and the rest of us can put on a new roof” (dammit, should’ve done the stairs).
Everyone drifts away, dissatisfied with the job they’ve landed. A surprisingly high number realise that they’re wearing the wrong T-shirt for wiping down the garden furniture and need to pop back into their flat for a half-hour rummage for the perfect top for the job.
Over the next couple of hours people do their best to appear busy until they feel that they can slope off unnoticed, their existence forgotten until next time.
But it wasn’t just the prospect of giving whole hours of my life to this social agony that I objected to, it was the principle.
Living in a Swedish apartment block means paying several thousand kronor each month into the association. Surely, I reasoned, they could afford a cleaning firm for a couple of days a year?
And I’d heard about the guilt trip that other residents lay on those who, for whatever reason, duck out. Funeral? Skip it. Wedding? Yours, you say? Well, that’s bad planning, eller hur?
So for several years I’ve avoided the whole business. Like indoor bandy and leaping naked through a hole in the ice, it was an aspect of Sweden I thought I would be able to avoid. Until last Sunday.
It was all agreed – Mrs Syndrome would be our representative as usual. In return I would redecorate the living room.
But on Sunday morning she woke up ill. Fever, sore throat, the usual sorry excuses. And I had to stand up and be counted.
When I arrived in the garden I was astonished to find a rather festive atmosphere. Everyone was chatting and laughing, sharing fresh coffee and warm cinnamon buns. Our dynamic residents’ association chairman, Stina, distributed the tasks with a dose of good-natured teasing about past cleaning day performances.
As an Englishman I was considered to be something of a novice at the whole caring-for-property lark so was paired up with strapping Anders, who moved about three times as much junk from the cellar as I did and who, after a couple hours’ joking about the other residents, seemed like an old buddy.
Was I enjoying it? Youbetcha! And then I realised: this is Sweden. This is the Sweden I had in mind before I moved here, the Sweden faded by familiarity.
A collective spirit. Care for your surroundings. Efficiency. A diverse group of people, a young female entrepreneur and a gnarled trade union man, a couple of teachers and students, a writer and a security guard and an electrician – mucking in, breaking sweat and then gathering for a chat over hot dogs and soft drinks.
Rather than drifting away, more people were joining us in the garden – partners and kids who had missed out on the fun. It was dry, so Stina ordered Anders to fire up the now-pristine barbecue. From nowhere, burgers and sausages appeared and my conversion was complete.
Hours later, fuelled by wine from a plastic cup, I staggered back up the gleaming stairs to our flat. Bring on spring cleaning.