Five Years in Sweden, Ladies and Gentlemen! (Okay almost 5 1/2 now...)

Trying to summarize five years of living abroad is potentially the hardest thing I've ever tried to summarize. And that's why it's been almost now five and half years! I guess I just couldn't determine what my main conclusion was.

Living in Sweden for that long doesn’t sum itself up in my head as a series of lessons, really, like so many living abroad blog posts I've read. No list of “things about Swedes” or “things about being a foreigner” or “things about America that I'm so wise about as an expat now blah blah”. There’s thoughts I have about that stuff, of course, and a lot of people in my life get the absolute pleasure of hearing them! ;) Living in a foreign country for years could be transformational for anyone, and for me it included grad school, a new career post-grad school in a capital city, turning 30, a wide variety of romance, and several of my worst fears and great wishes in life coming true. 

So when I think about these 5+ years, I think about a variety of moments, events, realizations and conversations....no tidy summary. When I set myself on that plane in mid-August of 2010, I knew I was headed for the adventure of my life, and I was right.

But I had severely underestimated adventure.  



Here's some of those moments and events and things that tell a fragmented and incomplete story of this grand adventure.

Some things were totally unexpected. Like falling utterly in love with snow. I walk around like a heart eyed emoji when the snow is blanketing the ground. I also wasn't prepared for Septembers, the way the chill comes on somewhat quickly here during a month that often still felt like summer back in California, the way that work envelopes you after the lazy summer, and social life shifts its shape, the darkness comes on, and all of this combines to make me surprisingly California-homesick during that month. Though by the time October comes around I'm all good and in love with all the fall colors, always thoroughly convinced that autumn is best. It surprised me that on my first day of school in Lund, August 2010, I saw a boy I liked, and that he became the only boy I liked (it was mutual) for the rest of the school year, which in crazy-party-student-singles-scene Lund was quite unexpected. He is still one of my favorite people, but I'm not surprised about that. And I used to be surprised that at every party with arranged dinner seating (with the customary placements next to new people, common here), no matter the context, I had a fun and hilarious time as well as often very fascinating conversation with anyone I was seated next to. So consistently awesome (drinks help) -who are you people!? But I'm not surprised anymore. I love Swedes. I was surprised when on the first weekend in my new (current) apartment I realized what I hadn't when I first checked the place out and signed the lease, which was that I could watch boats go by on the water from my bed. I was surprised by how much I fell in love with my neighborhood, one that a few years ago I had sworn I'd never live in. Hm. This paragraph has a lot of me being surprised by falling in love with things.

Some things in Sweden have been easy for me. Like throwing theme parties for my birthdays and various holidays that I missed from the US and invite whoever I felt like, confident it would be fun. And be a toastmaster at a friend’s 30th birthday party. And make new friends. Or find new apartments when I needed to, which for many is an unhappy adventure in Stockholm. Or end up with the absolute best flatmates in the world, those 3 times I've shared an apartment (Sarah, Allie and Erik!)

I think of things that were extremely hard. It was torture to walk up to other students at an activity faire at my university and ask if one had to be fluent in Swedish to participate. Gets at some deep seated shame I have about asking for things and being turned down. Or when I dragged myself down to the garden for my building’s spring cleaning day, by myself, knowing no one, to try to make myself useful and meet new neighbours (high on my list of least favorite things to do especially being a foreigner, and it's totally different from being good at making new friends), and then though things went pretty well, two old ladies started obviously whispering about me, quite loud in fact, and in Swedish, assuming I didn't understand. I was probably extra sensitive during that season of my life but keeping my crying inside until I reached my bedroom was nearly impossible. Also torture: telling a guy that I liked him when I didn't really know how he felt about me. For the first time in my life. Unbelievably excruciating. Ughhhh and then... when I did it again!!!! Horrible. Or when I went to a try-out practice to join a soccer team, after having taken a 4 year break from playing, and didn’t know the skill level of the players, didn’t know anyone, and felt (cause I’m dramatic or something) the burden of representing the fact that Americans can actually play soccer on my shoulders. I was sick to my stomach, teary eyed, and literally shaking on the bus on the way there. It went fine. 

I think about particular moments that I will hold close to my heart forever. That after party in Filip’s room on shrimp party night at the end of the Lund school year in 2011, where it finally occurred to me that I'd just achieved everything that I'd wanted and dreamed about so deeply for the last couple of years; exactly the degree, job and student experience; with fistfuls of grand memories that I had carpe diemed the hell out of that year. I was so utterly fulfilled and triumphant. How many times in our life do we really feel that way? I knew it was rare, and treasured the moment, dancing and singing out "my heart is beating and my pulses start, cathedrals in my heart" to the Coldplay blaring into the midnight twilight sky of June in Sweden. I don't even care that this sounds cheesy. Or those birthday moments... my first birthday party in Stockholm, where over a dozen friends surprised me by getting me a bike so I could "make the city my home" said their card. I cried and felt so welcome. Or my second birthday in Stockholm, when in the month leading up to it, my job, apartment and developing romance all stopped working out, so my friends took charge, whisking me away to an island, making me wear my German beer maid costume, blindfolded on a ferry, to get there. A bunch more friends were waiting for me on this island, all costumed up, just like I like it, celebrating for me, when I wouldn't have had the energy to celebrate for myself. And then that third Stockholm birthday... I had summoned the energy that year, October 2013, and I threw a massive party on a boat. My friends one-upped me again, and while onstage in that boat, presented me with a canvas signed by 40 of them, indicating that they were giving me a Vespa. My bucket list dream, as a birthday present. I sat down on that stage in my Khaleesi outfit in disbelief, I couldn't even cry. I have never been more humbled in my entire life. That moment... not just held close to my heart, but has become a part of me, sustains me when I feel down. 

Oh... about that. Moments when I feel down. The bad things. Not "hard to do" stuff... but the horrible stuff that has been part of my five years of living in Sweden. Like "the company is in deep financial trouble and the most recent ten people hired have to be let go." Yeah that. The company I was so happy about joining after graduation. Or the outright weeping I did one day at lunch in a Chinese restaurant with two of my friends, as they helplessly listened to how a relationship had just ended. All the weeping I did on my shower floor that whole month in 2012 actually, about all the things that weren't okay (hence the island surprise party above). That day playing beach volleyball the following year, when I pretended to be having fun but was actually fighting off waves of anxiety-induced nausea about the foreseeable end of a short but sweet long distance relationship. That summer I started to realize that the nausea had actually been around for awhile. So had recurring headaches. So had sort of a slight sense of melancholy. Had it always been around, like since I've been a grown up? Or when did it come? What causes it? I wasn't sure, but it wasn't really about guys. That summer of 2013, one of the greatest and most fun in the history books for my friends and me, still led me to believe that maybe I needed more help than I could give myself to not feel that way, that way that shouldn't feel normal to anyone, though I had normalized it to myself.  That horrible time I finally did what I never wanted to do, which was make the call to get a therapist. I sat crying in an empty conference room at work, telling the nurse on the phone why I thought I needed one. It was a horrible moment that I will always be grateful that I managed to make happen. That I went to therapy (and started yoga) made a tumultuous 2014 actually manageable. Oh 2014! Visa issues, job searching, two apartment moves, and other shitty things I would rather not talk about. You made me more resilient and you helped me conquer my fears and you eventually brought great things, but you were kind of a bitch! Adventure can be that way, can't it.

I will end this post's collection of memories with these few:

Friends curling themselves around me as I cried on the bed at a party, about to head back to the US to sort out the visa thing, offering to marry me (both a boy and a girl), if needed so that I could come back. Jokingly, but meaning with all their hearts that they were watching out for me. A first date that was so genuine and sweet and promising that I walked home in the snow with tears in my eyes. I had so needed that then. And a different first date, where I laughed my ass off, I literally still laugh about the jokes he told on that date, though I had texted a friend days beforehand, after a variety of uninspiring nonsense, "I want to give up on guys." That never works, Corinne. No one believes you, Corinne. I think about a wine-soaked evening in Barcelona full of deep conversations with colleagues that I realized were a little bit my soulmates. I think about the Whatsapp threads of some of my best California girls who write me about their lives and their fears and their happinesses and send pics of their kids or their vacations or whatever, and make me feel complete. I think about exploring the medieval city of Visby with my parents, the way all three of them in their own ways delighted in this adopted country of mine. I remember how, in spite of losing (temporarily) my beach bag with my phone in it at a music festival this past summer, I set my cares to the wind at that dance party on a dock by a forested beach, watching the sun go vibrantly down, surrounded by those beautiful, hilarious and adventurous people in my gang; my joy was flawless and all-encompassing. 

These moments came to mind when I thought about how great adventures, of course, include so many moments that remind you that you though you may try to make your story go a certain way, you don't really have control. You better just seek the people out that will make it better. That will make you better. 

Maybe that's my conclusion about my five years in Sweden. I didn't know it until I finished writing this post. But that's it, no doubt. 




My epilogue is this, a quote from, haha, myself, from my graduation speech I gave in Lund. Because I still believe these words, but it has been a battle to believe. Good that I didn't know then just how much they would apply to me.

"Let’s not live by accident, or by reaction. Let’s live intentionally, proactively, turning our moments into more than just a collection of photos and into a narrative that has a purpose. Treat people right. Make thoughtful choices. Get to know yourself. Turn your ‘what ifs’ into ‘why nots’. Things won’t always go our way, and things will get messy. But what kind of a story is a perfectly ordered, tidy, and neat one? I don't thing it’s one where you grow very much."


Comments

  1. So glad you're back on your blog!
    It's humbling how you opened your soul so wide to share with us. Thank you. I really love this.

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  2. Thanks for sharing all this Corinne! I love hearing about your adventures over there :-)

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  3. Gustavo Woltmann thinks that this is great blog! - Gustavo Woltmann

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  4. Hi Corinne, really cool blog! I bumped into it after doing web-search for info on Stockholm - applied for a job there, and really hope to get it and move from NY. Any chance to chat with you and ask a few questions? I'd appreciate that! Thanks! Muzaffar

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  5. Your writing really resonates with me! It’d be an honor to have first date filled both with deep authentic communication and humor :) Det är väldigt imponerande det du gjort att åka själv och bosätta sig i ett nytt land och en ny kultur!

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  6. Hi Corinne. I really enjoy your blog posts and your perspective on living in Sweden. As a black woman from America I really appreciated your post on power, privilege, and prejudice in Sweden. I am interested in obtaining my Master's degree in Sweden. I am currently working in the legal field and may pursue law school, although I am also interested in public health/health policy as I obtained a Public Health minor in college. If you ever have the time I would love to speak with you more through e-mail about how and why you decided to study and settle in Sweden, what it was like finding a job, culture shock, etc. For example, did you always know that you wanted to study in Sweden? Are there certain industries in Sweden that are more viable for foreigners (such as health, law, and technology)? Did you have to adjust to the cost of living? If you ever move back to the US will your degree be valid? If possible I would love to hear from you.

    Sincerely,

    Amanda

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