Two Years In Sweden
On a particular day in June of 2014, I celebrated a two year anniversary. Two years of living in Sweden. It seems like forever and it seems like yesterday. It’s been a journey. Much of it extremely challenging. I’ve packed my bags many times. I’ve learned a great deal. I’ve adjusted and compromised. And I’ve stood firm.
There were days of sadness and loneliness to the point of where I thought my heart was breaking. There has also been surprise, contentment, confusion, anger, hope, and finally understanding and peace. A two year anniversary of life in a foreign country is a milestone deserving of reflection. So here we go …
I’m wondering if “two years” is a sort of ingratiation period. A magic leveling-off number, if you will. I think so because things seem much easier now and in speaking with other expats it seems this has been their experience as well.
I sit and write, I try recall a time over the last twenty four months when I have felt like my old self. I can’t recall … unless it’s been only most recently. Even so there have been changes. I am not the same person I was in the United States. I think I’d be safe in saying, it’s hard to feel the joyful and self confident emotions one had in their home country while trying so hard to adjust to a new one. Life in a foreign country alters you. No one ever tells you this because it’s assumed that moving to a new country is so very exciting and glamourous. Well, it is. But it’s a lot of hard work … sort of a deer-in-the-headlights type of mentality which an expat can experience almost on a daily basis.
I’m mostly over that now. Establishing yourself in a new country is a lot like peeling the layers of an onion. First you are enchanted by the newness of the place. Then you start to notice the smaller details. And then the differences. And then the integration. And then more learning about history, everyday life, and the people, places and philosophies which make a country full and rich. I feel myself settling in, recognizing the adjustments, the differences and similarities. I have begun to embrace many Swedish mores and integrate them into my own identity. I also realize the parts of my personality which I will not compromise, and the aspects of my culture and my own personal experiences which I wish to share with others.
My friend and co-expat, Nelson Nevill said, “You have to fight hard to want to stay here.”
It has been hard, and often heartbreaking, to watch as the Swedish system worked so efficiently at erasing the person whom I spent a lifetime trying to develop. Here one’s background, education, and professional experience means nothing until you reprove yourself. The challenges in finding new clients and work has been the most difficult part of integrating. It’s soul stealing for an established independent person to face assimilation and personal extinction. But that’s ok. I learned a lot about my new city and it’s attitudes, and I’ve managed to still somehow land on my feet … albeit a bit bloodied and bruised. I will succeed through perseverance.
But maybe starting a new life is a fight. Something akin to being in the military where they break you down so that they can build you back up, but stronger and better.
A month ago I interviewed a Chinese expat, Xiaodi Cai, who has been living in Gothenburg for the last three years. At only age 27, she provided me with insights that I thought were beautiful and remarkably wise. Like me, and I think like many expats, Cai had packed her bags many times. But she didn’t give up.
“Be grateful,” she says. “Good things take time. It’s the challenges and adverse experiences that make you a stronger person. So no matter if you are experiencing difficulties … remember, it is a very good learning day for you. You have learned to keep your feet on the ground. Every day you are here you are learning. You are becoming a better you.”
For all the bitching I’ve done in essays, articles and blog posts, you might ask, “Why then are you still there? Has the move been for the better?” That is the hundred dollar question, isn’t it? And I think I finally can answer it. I remain because I believe that one day soon I will find that the move has been for the better. I think, in fact, I’m actually in that place now. I honestly believe, despite the challenges, it is up to the individual to make their life complete and satisfactory. A great deal of personal responsibility is required. Fighting a system will only exhaust you and there are better things to do with your time. There are still things here which I wish to accomplish. And I wish to accomplish them with grace and dignity.
“No Viking believed he could change his destiny, ordained as it was by the Norns who wove the fates of gods and men alike but, for all that, the way in which he lived his life was up to him. This sentiment is perfectly expressed by Skirnir in ‘Skirnir’s Journey’: ‘Fearlessness is better than a faint heart for any man who puts his nose out of doors. The length of my life and the day of my death were fated long ago.’ –
Since men who become embittered never win respect or admiration, those who sought fame did not rail at the undoubted hardship of their lives and the inevitability of death. Rather, they endured it or, even better, laughed at it. This accounts for the ironic tone in the fabric of the myths and explains, for example, the reaction of the gods when Tyr sacrificed his hand in the interests of binding the wolf Fenrir. Men and women expected their share of trouble and the best of them attempted to use it, to rise above it and carve out a name for themselves through bravery and loyalty and generosity.” – These are the leitmotifs of Hávamál, The Book of Norse Myths, Kevin Crosssley-Holland.
Remember your Mission:
I, like many others, came to Sweden for love. But I also made the choice to move because I had a vision of my future (outside of love) and what Sweden could contribute to that future. Indeed, this works both ways because I also wanted very much to contribute in some meaningful way to Sweden. However, you can’t force a city accept you. And for me? My bad. To judge an entire country based on the attitude of one city was wrong. So after two years I’ve come to realize that it’s up to me to move on and find those people and cities that will appreciate what I can bring to the table and that is very exciting.
But it’s about more than just work, I’ve come to realize. Sweden is very much about life. As a work-alcoholic American, this was oddly difficult for me to adjust to. Here you don’t define yourself based on what you do for a living. Here you have the opportunity to embrace your other desires. You have the ability to become a fully realized person … If you are brave enough to take that risk. So Exercise. Hike. Take up yoga. Go for picnics in the park. Watch the clouds. Learn a new language … or two. Maybe even write that book you’ve always wanted to write.
So whether you are an expat living in Sweden trying to find your way, a expat living somewhere else, or an American reading this post just because you are my friend … I say to you, smile. Your good attitude is what will ensure a happy life. Keep your heart light and practice understanding … especially with yourself. Find your bliss. You can have it anywhere.
Writer/photographer Lisa Mikulski. Available for print or online publications and business in the Nordic region, Europe, and the U.S. Editorial, features, marketing copy, and public relations. Contact me here or at lisa @ 2sweden4love.com