So, I’m an ‘expat’. I’m a British expat at that, and living in a sea full of ‘immigrants’ who are also fresh to Scandinavia, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with my newly acquired label. To tell you the truth, it feels a very sodding white way of being addressed, but that is a whole other rant for another day…
Being an expat has its pros and it definitely has it cons, of which I thought I’d list so that every time I feel like running home like the chicken-ass I am, I stop and pause and so that anyone considering Sweden has a real insight into life here.
The power of anonymity.
Yup, this has to be my favourite part. Being from, well, where I’m from..The fairly large town of Barnsley in Yorkshire where everyone knows everything about bloody everyONE (including but now not limited, thanks to social media, what they had for tea that day) this has been a true luxury. It’s meant I’ve almost been given a chance to ‘re-create’ myself.
Nobody here knows Siobhan, at least not the Siobhan everyone back home does… I’m free to parent, dress, behave whichever way I like without anyone who knew the ‘British’ version of Siobhan batting an eyelid. It’s a rare and strange opportunity, but I think I needed it. I think that this part of expatting has allowed me to grow in the most positive way.
The Family Focus.
This one is quite a heavy basis for why I decided to stay in Sweden. From what I have witnessed in my short five months, the consensus does very much appear to be ‘families first’. Children walk and bike to school alone without the looming fear of abduction or interference and there is a distinct difference in the social etiquette of the country.
The drink-linked-to-social-activity culture appears much less prominent, and as such, public outings as a family for those with young children are less stressful, more inclusive and overall more enjoyable. I do not worry about the drunk, loud lout in a pub or foul language when in or around town, as it just is a given here that it wont happen and it is refreshing that people do seem to respect the right of one another to peacefully parent/exist.
So, the public transport here is a-ma-zing. For someone who had a car for a little short of two years back home (and adored it, I mean she was literally my bloody life..!) I can honestly say that I don’t miss having one so much. The cost is good and service equally so, I am genuinely impressed.
The buses are clean, large, have security belts for wheelchairs and buggies and centre-opening doors which allow parents/those with disability the luxury of avoiding the awkward bashing everyone shoulder as you make it up the narrow aisle of a Stagecoach Volvo. The buses have built-in speakers which, granted, do sometimes wake up Eryn (and I die a bit inside)..But as a foreigner who is simply waiting for the right stop to come up as I often have no clue where I am, the spoken and visual announcements are a blessing. The tram and bus stops are nearly always clean, the glass is not broken and there is a distinct lack of graffiti, it feels as though people respect the right to clean public services here of themselves and others, and I do thoroughly admire that.
Waste Management/Renewable Energy.
By waste management, I am mostly talking about the lack of visible litter on the streets but also the way that Sweden has revolutionised how I see garbage and its value. (Okay so I’m ’bout to go full nerd here, buckle up…)
Sweden recycles almost 99% of its household waste in one format or another. The country has taken itself through a massive recycling evolution when you consider that in the late seventies only 38% of public household waste was effectively recycled. This isn’t just about clean streets, it is about recognising the potential for renewable, clean energy that is derived from the items we don’t want, rather than draining on resources we unquestionably need.
Recycling stations are available typically within a 300 metre radius of residential areas and most Swedes are admirably conscientious when it comes to recycling their trash. Not only is the fact everyone seems willing to recycle amazing, the fact that Sweden creates energy in the form of central heating from our garbage manages to make me feel hopeful for the ecosystem and its future. Imagine the potential if every country took the revolutionary approach into adding value to those things they ordinarily do not, such as trash? The positive outcomes for the environment could be astounding.
Heres a brief diagram of how recycling areas generally work within Sweden, due to the climate of the country, sidewalks are often frozen (meaning potentially dangerous) but the way the system works means, as heating is being delivered TO homes, it is discreetly multipurpose as just below the pavement it works to thaw out hazardous ice spots. I’m not an engineer, or even really interested in engineer-ing but this stuff gets even me excited.
Boring shite, I know..But come on. Your burger wrapper heats your damn house.
I think above all else this part has impressed me about the public services the most. The way that my view on ‘council’ estates has shifted. Far from the island of Styrso where I began my expatting journey I now live in Molndal. We live on a cosy, family orientated estate and I genuinely love it.
The estate consists of around I’d say 300 houses, grouped into rows of around twenty in a format that I can only liken to terraced/town houses you’d find in Britain. Each house has its own front porch and a small to middling size back yard and are all made of wood. There is no through traffic, a feature which I love.. Not only does no cars passing through mean the air is cleaner, it means that children (including my ass-hat of a six-year-old) are safe to ride around the estate on bikes/roller blades without being pancaked. For those who own cars, which lets be honest, is most..there are garages which belong to the houses down by the roadside and plenty of outdoor parking.
The public school which Eddie attends is around 800m from our house (five to ten mins walk with a screaming baby in a buggy) and is populated by, you guessed it, kids from in and around the estate we live on. Not only does this promote good, close relations between the children, it has that ‘holiday camp’ feel, the parents appear relaxed and friendly and the children of a happy, secure temperament (naturally you get the assholes that are the exception, this is real life, after all!). Eddie was quickly accepted into his new class and he attends afterschool club every day to help him adjust more quickly. Both he and I are thoroughly enamored by the different, relaxed approach to education and socialising that Sweden are somewhat famous for (that and we are both lazy shits and hate homework, winning).
The estate also has tonnes of greenery, wildlife, and best of all, public parks. There are so many types of bird living here I’ve lost count, and the trees…The beautiful trees. (Side note: Christ I’m becoming a naturalistic sod in my older years). We live right beside what appears to be a small running river, and so far I’ve found countless places where in summer I know it will be ideal to sit with the smallest-fry and read, or even draw together when the sun is shining. Pictured below is my favourite one so far (look at the wee log burner, lush!).
On the end of almost every row of houses there is a park, each differs in its targeted age range and has a good range of (non graffiti covered) equipment. I think this is my favourite part of living here. I like that the children have somewhere very close and safe to play and each day, whether rain or shine, me and Eddie visit at least two different parks to burn off some energy. This is the good life.
Gender Equality is important.
For real, these guys take equality seriously. The fight for equality has always been fierce in Scandinavia, with political parties now legally obliged to be 50/50 in terms of gender representation, and work forces such as those within factories and labouring jobs opened up to either gender, life as a woman and particularly a working one, is great.
As a woman I feel safe, I feel respected and I feel valued and I expect and am glad that men also feel the same. I feel less like a purely aesthetic part of society and more three-dimensional than I have in other places. Gender fluidity, along with being gay and any other variation of sexuality (within the legal limits) are respected and appear genuinely accepted in line with the Swedish thoughts and feelings surrounding equal rights.
Feminism in its very basic form is intertwined within schooling from the get-go here as children are taught that within academia, sport and any other arena that gender simply is not important, nor relevant. Men wear pony tails, girls get a crop-cut, none of it problematic other than it is a sign of an individuals expression of themselves (and I can never find a f*$cking bobble for Eddie on a morning, the struggle is real).
The Language Barrier (!)
Yes this one is very obvious I expect, and a real pain in the arse. It’s not even frustrating for the reasons you may initially think, it is purely that I despise sounding/feeling ignorant. Yes, be prepared to feel completely inadequate when at a till in a mall you turn to the cashier and say ‘Sorry, my Swedish is terrible’ and they reply ‘Oh, it’s no problem’ and repeat the question they asked in almost-every-time near perfect English…Sigh.
You’re probably thinking “Well, if they speak English, whats the problem?”, the problem is you feel like you don’t belong, and frankly that the country you’re from is an ignorant piece of turd for not ever considering (beyond a bit of memory-games in years 7-11 in a feeble attempt to have you learn French) making you bi-lingual, we are obviously far too superior for that. Insert eye roll.
So, my biggest and most irritating and sometimes damn-right upsetting drawback to being here is I don’t speak Svensk, but I am trying. Obviously my circumstances are quite unique, I was slightly unprepared when moving here due to my unexpected bloody pregnancy, you know (dammit Microgynon, you failed me..) but I’m trying, I stick my head into Duolingo when I can, but I am a bit lazy, so I need to step up my game or accept feeling dumb and/or rude every time I leave the house. Urg. England you self-centered mofo.
You know the British, we apologise for everything, make obvious comments about weather situations and chunter to one another about public transport failures… But the Swedes? Oh no. You are exceptionally lucky if they give you a glance and/or a friendly smile.
I am pretty heavily socialised in a British way, unlike my husband who has a Norwegian dad and Irish mum and has lived far more places than I’ve ever been on holiday. This means that silence makes me slightly uncomfortable, and smiling broadly at strangers to ease the discomfort is my norm, you know?
Fast forward to living in Sweden, can we get a loudly resounding ‘NOPE’ when it comes to interacting with strangers. They will point-blank bump into you, without an apology, occasionally you get ‘OY’ which means ‘oops’ but very, veeeery rarely do you get an actual spoken acknowledgement. When you get off the bus, do you say ‘thank you’ or ‘ta’? Well, forget that too. You hit a button, the automated speaker tells the customers aboard that the bus is going to stop at X location, and you exit the bus via either the middle automatic doors or the front. Nobody, I mean nobody, acknowledges the driver. You can’t even pay with cash.
Another thing about cash, nobody uses it, and Sweden are striving to be the first cash-less nation in Europe. By cashless, they mean..basically change nothing since even to buy a packet of chewing gum you see people using debit cards, it is (to me) absolute bloody madness. I’m still not used to this, and my mother found it unbearably strange when she visited. You odd sometimes Swedes, you odd.
Basically, I miss over apologising, using germ-ridden cash that a homeless mans bum has likely been on and saying thank you when I alight buses. That’s a pretty big part of who I am, so I’m working on accepting that I don’t need to acknowledge every persons every action, but it is rough. So rough.
Now, this may impact me more than the average expat. Fact is, I’ve just had a baby and I don’t as a result goto work. This means my social outreach is limited, beyond saying ‘hej’ awkwardly to mothers in Eddies school as I drop and collect him, and brief, again limited conversations revolving around Eddies progress with his teachers, my social life does not exist.
Again, had I moved here as just me – able to go straight out into the work place and meet people/do more outside of work hours with said people, then things may be different.. So I’m thinking this will become less of an issue as my Svensk picks up and my time is less consumed with nap-feed-sleep-amuse with rattles-repeat, you know?
I did goto a moms group, and I’ll continue (once this patch of anxiety surrounding Eryns passport and potential trip to England in December has eased off..) to go to them, if nothing else to observe and learn how Swedish mums go about parenting, so that culturally I can try to integrate, but in the meantime it is a bit scary and a little bit lonely.
The exclusion can at times mean I’m envious of my husband who gets to have normal conversations in his better-than-mine Swedish with those at work, etc, and feel he fits in socially, but my time will come. Just right now the lack of inclusion makes me a little bit uneasy, but it’s changeable.
Primark..My love, I miss you. I miss three-pound a pair leggings and basic v-neck t-shirts for about the same price. I miss the bad quality, but the price was so good you didn’t mind chucking them after several washes. My heart aches for Primark, also for smart-price and equally as cheap goods. It aches.
The food is beautiful here, beautiful, lots of choice and options but so bloody expensive. Everything is at least double the price of food and clothing in England and since we are not particularly wealthy with only one income being brought into the house right now, it can be annoying and somewhat depressing.
To give you an idea of what I mean by expensive, a loaf of bread can range anywhere from 2 to four pounds equivalent, and milk is around the 2 pound mark for a litre (in kronor, obviously). Items such as cheese and meat are also expensive and it is a bit daunting when you get to the till with your basket full of shopping, I could cry sometimes..I could.
But guess what is quite cheap guys? Ah yes, junk. Chocolate, my nemesis and first love, is ‘cheap as chips’, literally, and it is delicious..but it isn’t about to feed a family of 3 and a half. We tend to exist on items such as potatoes, fish fingers, meatballs etc and generally manage to keep food costs down..But clothing? Expense is unavoidable.
Thankfully they have H&M, which I feel is about as low-market as they will go, but it means that we can actually buy clothes for the kids without being bankrupt.Everyone here is usually on two incomes, which means designer clothes, bags etc are a go..So obviously, eventually we will get there, too..but for now, it is a pain in the hole and I cry every time Eddie rips the arse wide open on his jeans playing outside (which is every other ‘effing week, I should add).
The Bereaucracy and Big Brother Complex.
Ah yes, my final rant about Sweden, the damn pen-pushing. Now, aside from malign interventions from people I shall not mention (okay, my MIL, I’m shit at secrets) I cannot help but be frustrated at the lack of urgency about the Swedish administrative system and the sheer amount of damn paperwork AND time everything seems to take.
Eryn is now 15 weeks old and has JUST received a form which will give us her equivalent of a birth-cert so that we can (finally) get forward with a British passport for her. Insane. Nearly four months old and no official documentation, not only that, it’s me that’s had to check and harass them for forms, nobody else seemed to give a shit. Crackers!
Everything is a form, and everything must be linked to your personal number, which I can only liken to your National Insurance/Social Security number. This number is like your stamp, it tells everyone everything they need to know about you, from height to personal details such as place of birth and favourite bloody colour (okay exaggeration, but you feel me). The number is linked to every membership card you have for supermarkets, your car insurance, your address, your workplace. You are seen everywhere that this number is entered, and it is a little bit frightening aaaand I’m not entirely sure how comfortable I will ever be with being given a ‘number’ it always feels a bit Big Brother/Auschwitz-y for my liking, but it does seem to work.
Basically, if you want any privacy or to commit crime? (Not suggesting the average Jo does, but you know..) Go elsewhere, this place is far too efficient and will bite you in the ass.
Do I love England? Oh so very much, BUT would I go back? No.
The schooling system for Eddie is much more up his alley here, I feel good and excited to be somewhere new and it has instilled me with much-needed confidence and re-invigorated my love for travel. Do I think some things will take a looong time to get my head around as a Brit? Yes. Am I likely to take to drinking heavily if my Swedish doesn’t improve? Maybe, but time is a teller, and we shall see.
Over and out,