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.