Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Five Years Later

It is a bitter-sweet thing, knowing two cultures. Once you leave your birthplace nothing is ever the same.
— Sarah Turnbull

I really can’t believe I relocated to Sweden five years ago today.

Just a few months after graduating college, I packed my life into boxes, put a 10-year sports writing career on indefinite ice and moved across the Atlantic with the Swedish au pair I had met in California.

In retrospect, it was a much larger leap than I realized at the time — leaving home for a country I had only briefly visited once and knew virtually nothing about, one where I had less than limited job prospects and where English, although spoken by the vast majority of the native population, isn’t the primary language.

We originally planned to spend only a few years in Sweden while Amanda finished university, but good jobs have played no small part in extending our time here. Even after five years, everyone I meet for the first time still questions my move from sunny California to one of the darkest, coldest places on the planet. My journey has had many ups and a few downs, but I can still say without hesitation five years later that moving here is the best decision I’ve ever made.

When I decided to relocate to Sweden and leave my journalism career behind in the States, I found myself unemployed for the first time since age 12. That continued for my first few months here as I was swiftly rejected for many English teaching and communication jobs. I was then underemployed for even longer as a freelancer and finally broke into my first agency as a vacation fill-in.

Once earning even steadier employment I survived a now-incomprehensible roundtrip train commute of six-plus hours across the country and back most weekdays for the better part of 14 months, during which I circumnavigated the globe by rail three times. I ultimately toiled my way from another agency over to the customer side of marketing communications, where I couldn’t be happier working alongside some talented colleagues for one of Sweden’s oldest and proudest engineering companies.

But hard work and perseverance only get you so far, particularly in a country whose business climate is notoriously challenging for foreigners – especially those who, like myself, don’t speak Swedish. I’ve had some incredibly good fortune in establishing myself professionally and building a new career here. For most well-educated expats and other immigrants, landing gainful employment is solely dependent on first mastering the language.

As I reflect on these five years in my adopted country, not making more of an effort to learn and speak Swedish is probably my only true regret — albeit a shortcoming I can still choose to reverse if truly determined.

I had hoped to be able to focus only on learning Swedish for my first full year, and I was set to start my fifth week of government-funded Swedish classes for immigrants and move up to a more advanced course when I got my first short-term employment offer, which ultimately derailed my language studies. Since then, I haven’t been disciplined enough with self-study and while my comprehension after five years is not surprisingly “accidentally” extremely good, I very rarely speak any Swedish.

While I’ve been here long enough to develop a firm understanding of the language and there are people both in my personal and professional circles who speak Swedish to me and I answer in English, my own resistance to speaking the language has impeded my integration. I could likely live the rest of my life here without ever speaking Swedish, but people would always view me as a “foreigner” speaking English. Fluency in Swedish is vital to social integration, and that’s the real disadvantage about not speaking it. I would surely have more closer friendships here if I spoke Swedish fluently.

I could have never imagined even quite six years ago that I’d ever live in another country for an extended period, but I’m very thankful for these rewarding years as an expat. Few things are more enriching than experiencing life outside of the comfort zone that is your birth country. It’s something even extensive travel can’t replicate. Living your whole life in one place is insanely limiting, in my humble opinion.

After spending my first two years in Sweden in my girlfriend’s small hometown in the western Sweden countryside, we’ve since lived in the heart of Stockholm, one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals and a city that routinely ranks among the world’s most livable. It’s surrounded by water and offers remarkable green space for a major city. In what other capital can you hop in a boat and be wakeboarding among beautiful nature 15 minutes later?

We enjoy a high quality of life in Sweden, which has earned its reputation as a global leader in work-life balance. Although I still haven’t applied for dual citizenship (though being able to carry a Swedish passport would certainly simplify and expedite my many border crossings) my permanent residence permit affords me the generous social benefits all Swedes enjoy, including healthcare and childcare that are heavily subsidized by the government, as well as a guaranteed pension.

When you count generous minimum vacation allowance and public holidays, salaried Swedes enjoy a minimum of around eight paid weeks out of the office in total every year, and some of us are fortunate enough to enjoy even more.

Sweden has taught me to appreciate a very different pace of life. In five years here I’ve also grown accustomed to a lot of things that once felt so strange and embraced some Swedish ways I never thought I could. I drink an absurd amount of coffee. I talk about the weather too much. I take my shoes off indoors, even when I’m visiting the States. I’m used to taking a number instead of standing in line. I stopped complaining about Systembolaget, the infamous government-run alcohol monopoly, long ago.

No matter how many things you love about any place you call home for any period of time, there will inevitably be something you can’t stand. I still struggle with things like the restrictive business hours and I’ll never get used to the perennial darkness during winter caused by our extreme northern latitude. It’s hard to be awake at all hours of the night to follow my beloved Dodgers from nine time zones away and I still haven’t completely come to terms with paying “ballpark prices” for beer at even the cheapest bars.

People on both sides of the Atlantic often ask me, “Do you feel Swedish?” It’s usually somewhat of a loaded question, but my honest answer today is “no, not very much at all.” I do feel very “international,” though, and even if I don’t feel Swedish myself, living here for several years has enabled me to develop a deep understanding of how Swedes “are” – how and why they think or act in certain ways.

I’ve also been extremely blessed to explore so many corners of the world these past five years. Living in Europe has allowed me to travel extensively, both privately and professionally. Before moving to Sweden I had only visited five countries. I’ve since traveled 28 more – a new country about every nine weeks.
It really boggles my mind how on top of all that travel I’ve also been back to the States 17 separate times over these five years – no doubt another disservice on the assimilation front returning to visit the U.S. every few months.

Friends stateside frequently ask us when we’re moving back, and it’s still a very valid question without an answer. We only intended to spend a few years here, and it’s not at all certain we’ll remain in Sweden for the long run. We probably peruse U.S. real estate listings twice as often as we look at property in Sweden, but if we have kids here it would be very difficult to move away from the generous parental leave policies and family-oriented social welfare society.

I’ll miss the States for as long as I call Sweden “home,” and my heart is and always will be in California. No place is perfect and Sweden is definitely not the utopia it has long been portrayed as, but I’ve built a pretty nice life here and the pluses of living in Sweden still far outweigh the negatives.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Gävle Goat

Every year for almost a half-century, a giant straw goat has been erected in central Gävle, a city of 75,000 by the Baltic Sea about 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Stockholm.

Since the first Gävle Goat (“Gävlebocken” in Swedish) was built in 1966, it’s been an attractive annual target for arsonists and other vandals. The city’s massive version of a Yule goat — the established Christmas symbol in Northern Europe and particularly in Scandinavia — was burnt down for the 26th time in 2012.

The iconic goat weighs 3.6 metric tons (8,000 pounds) and stands 13 meters (about 43 feet) tall, towering over the city’s main square. Erecting it, according to a 2012 interview in New York Magazine, costs around 200,000 SEK — close to $31,000 USD at today’s exchange. Paying humans to guard the goat isn’t cheap, either, but supposedly the most effective in ensuring its survival.

It’s constructed over two days every winter in time for the first Sunday of Advent, the countdown to Christmas. The city celebrates its arrival with a fireworks show — somewhat ironic in that pyrotechnics have caused its demise on multiple occasions.

The goat is synonymous with Gävle. It’s earned the city a lot of global attention. But while the goat may have helped put Gävle on the map, it feels like the arsonists are playing a larger role in keeping it in the international headlines virtually every other December.

The town trademark has evolved into two-way taunting. The English portion of the goat’s Twitter bio reads “I’m the biggest straw goat in the world, follow my struggle to survive arson attacks.” Last year, photo of four ankles tattooed with a burning goat and the time and date the 2012 version went down in flames was posted online.

Here’s a time-lapse of that goat’s final moments:

The Goat Committee (yes — there is one, founded in 1992) insists they don’t condone its burning. But in my humble opinion, if it weren’t such an annual game, not nearly as many people would pay any attention. The torching tradition keeps it interesting.

It doesn’t look particularly challenging for would-be arsonists to access the goat. The fence at left would probably deter only the least-committed attacker, but the Committee has stated it doesn’t want to sacrifice aesthetics to improve security, spurning the suggestion of a better barrier.

The hay used for the 2013 goat, which has now survived its first week, was soaked in an anti-flammable liquid — a tactic that has yielded historically mixed results.

Only 10 goats have stood past Christmas Day. The majority have burned, sometimes within hours of being built.

The first few years in the late 1960s, kids would apparently play hide-and-seek in and around the goat. Today, anyone inside the fence who isn’t a paid guard is probably up to no good.

The 1976 goat was hit by a car, while the 1997 edition was damaged by fireworks. Flameproofed goats in the 1980s were still successfully burnt down, and English bookmakers started taking bets on the goat’s fate during that decade.

Over the years, it’s been guarded by volunteers, paid security companies, taxis, cameras and even the local Swedish infantry.

Although perpetrators risk jail and hefty fines, only a handful have ever been caught. Included in the busted, though, is an American tourist from Ohio who got drunk while visiting a friend in Gävle and burned the 2001 goat down. He spent 18 days in jail but fled back to the States upon being released without paying 100,000 SEK ($15,400 USD) in damages.

In 2005, the goat burned down when arsonists dressed as Santa and a gingerbread man reportedly launched an aerial attack of flaming arrows. For the goat’s 40th anniversary the following year, it was fireproofed with a substance used in aviation and survived through to January 2, when it was dismantled on-schedule for storage.

Then a few years ago, just four months after I moved here, I read this story about two men trying to bribe a security guard in the hopes he would let them kidnap the goat by helicopter and bring it to a well-known square in the heart of Stockholm. I can only imagine how drunk you’d have to be to believe every part of that plan could work — especially transporting an 8,000-pound goat that distance by chopper.

The city of Gävle is quite good at marketing the goat — it has its own bilingual social media accounts, blog and webcam, which updates every several seconds and enables spectators from around the world to keep tabs on the goat’s fate.

While the webcam attracts thousands of visitors from all over the world, the goat itself draws an impressive number of tourists to the city each December who may have no other reason to venture north of Stockholm. I was fortunate to be passing through town on business last week and got to see the goat for the first time. If you ever find yourself in Stockholm in December, I would recommend taking the short train trip to check the spectacle out for yourself.

Information in this blog comes from Wikipedia and a variety of news sources/articles. All photos and opinions within belong to the blogger.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Three Years Later

I relocated to Sweden three years ago today. I could now apply for citizenship.

To become a Swedish citizen, most must have been living here for a consecutive period of at least five years. That period is reduced to three years, however, for those of us who are cohabiting with a Swede.

Having a Swedish passport would certainly simplify crossing EU borders, and there are more than a few world countries I’d like to visit that would be much easier (and cheaper) to enter with a Swedish passport than a U.S. one.

That said, while I am now theoretically allowed to carry dual citizenship, the U.S. really frowns upon it, particularly in this situation. Many Americans who voluntarily apply for Swedish citizenship have lost their American citizenship — and they didn’t even consider that possibility when applying.

Furthermore, the vast majority of generous benefits enjoyed by Swedish citizens — including healthcare and childcare that are heavily subsidized by the government and a guaranteed pension — are also afforded to those of us who hold permanent residence permits. I’m not chomping at the bit to vote in Swedish national elections, so that doesn’t leave much motivation at all for pursuing dual citizenship, considering the circumstances — as appealing as the idea may sound. If Swedish citizenship is someday offered to me unsolicited, that may be a different story. Swedish citizenship, unlike American citizenship, can’t be revoked.

The Swedish government probably assumes that someone who has cohabited with a Swede in Sweden for three years has fully assimilated and deserves the privilege of citizenship.

I’m not so sure I would even deserve it, though. My integration has been stalled for months by my own resistance to speaking Swedish. I’ve been here long enough to develop a respectable understanding of the language, and there are people both in my personal and professional circles who speak Swedish to me and I answer in English. It seems to work well.

For the vast majority of immigrants in Sweden, securing gainful employment is completely dependent on first mastering the language. I’ve been fortunate enough to grow myself professionally here in a way I sometimes doubt I would have even been able to if I had never left the States, relying on my skills, experience and education. While it hinders others, I truly believe that stubbornly sticking to English in Sweden has actually helped advance my career.

I could likely live the rest of my life here without ever speaking Swedish, but people would always view me as a “foreigner” speaking English. Fluency in Swedish is crucial to social integration, and that’s the real disadvantage about not speaking it.

As I reflect on these three years in Sweden, not making more of an effort from day one to speak the language is probably my only regret — and a shortcoming I understand I can choose to improve at any time.

Each of my three years in Sweden has been better than the last. This year, I was granted permanent residency, put a ridiculously long train commute in my past, moved to one of Europe’s most beautiful capital cities and secured a second-hand contract for an ideal apartment in one of the world’s most notoriously frustrating rental markets. I’m also two weeks away from starting my new career with one of Sweden’s oldest and proudest engineering companies.

I’m still happy that I chose to relocate to Sweden. Quality of life is very high here. I’ve really learned to appreciate a different pace of life, the breathtaking nature and the warm people as I’ve spent more time in the country this year. After seven trips back to the States in my first 26 months, I’ve visited only twice in the past 10.

As the summer starts to wind down and we prepare for a fall that always seems to be too short, I do wonder how I’ll handle another cold, dark and depressing winter ahead. I used to live for the snowy months — I even had the vanity license plate on my Subaru to prove it. (God, I miss that plate.) Maybe it’s that I’ve been snowboarding a whopping three times in three winters here — after tallying as many as a few dozen days a season in Tahoe several years ago? I’m not sure.

I do know that the benefits of living in Sweden still far outweigh the negatives, and until that changes, I’ll continue to enjoy life here as an expat.