A Castle by the Sea

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In the wake of all that’s been happening in the world over the last week, the atrocities, the deluge of grief, anger and compassion, I was reminded yesterday of simpler times. I was reminded of the beauty that sits just down the road from me when my daughter asked us to go to Tjolöholms Julmarknad (Christmas market) at a nearby castle by Gothenburg’s archipelago.

As we strolled through the barns, I watched regular folk who had lovingly crafted their art; beautiful pendants made with glass, earrings and necklaces made from old silver cutlery, knitted garments, and baked goods made that morning. I watched little Swedish children scurry through the crowds, some crying because of this or that, some chasing their siblings, toddlers on their dad’s shoulders. Roasted almonds and cashews filled the air with sweetness outside where the frost was sparkling on the ground. IMG_8898

The old carriages that stood proud in another barn hooked me straight away. I imagined myself a hundred years ago stepping into one—stepping into history. For a writer, this is such a wonderful feeling. The seeds of a story get planted whether we want it or not.

Christmas lights festooned along the walkway toward the castle, and the cold breath puffing from our mouths as we weaved in and out of visitors, pulled us toward the grand castle that was once home to several distinguished families. A truly remarkable building.

Christmas music sounded in the air and people were happy. As I wandered the halls of Tjolöholm, I couldn’t help but imagine a child running through the corridor, playing hide and seek in days gone by. Petticoats and crinolines whooshed through my mind. I could almost touch them.

IMG_8932As we rounded the corner outside, heading toward the sea, the sunset met the arched bridge under which the carriages must have stopped all those years ago. It was magical.

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On our way out, we stopped in one of the barns for a little evening fika (snack), sipped on warm glögg (mulled wine), ate pepparkakor (gingerbread cookies) and Lussekatter (saffron bun) and always some julmust (Christmas pop), beloved by Swedes.

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Just three hours there, but it was enough to enchant me once again. It was enough to remind me that we need to enjoy simple moments. A grand castle perhaps, but what lay within its walls, was the ability to stir my mind into tiny stories that may one day make it into one of my books. It carried me into a time that I’ve always wanted to visit. It made me look at my family and appreciate a lovely Saturday outing with the people I love most in this world.

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Repatriation – Easy? Not really

My intention for this blog initially, was to focus primarily on writing, but each week, I find myself reflecting on my family’s move back to Sweden. I have read several articles on the subject of repatriation, one in particular from the Wall Street Journal, http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB123745981080883001 in which it makes clear that most people find moving back home to be more difficult than moving abroad. This was echoed in the cross-cultural course that my husband and I took prior to our move three and a half years ago.

The problem is that those at home, who haven’t experienced the same, tend to think it’s no big transition to move back – after all, it’s home, you should be used to it. Of course, when we first arrived, most people asked the proverbial, “how does it feel to be back?” However, as the weeks rolled past, the question disappeared altogether. Certainly no one has asked five months later. Why? Don’t they realize it’s only a honeymoon stage when you first return? No, of course not. They don’t know that. They haven’t gone through it themselves unless they’ve lived abroad. Perhaps this is why very few people have asked us how we’re doing now.

I’m beginning to understand that in order to combat the loss that is creeping into your skin as the months roll past, you begin to crave interaction with others who have experienced moving back home. Perhaps this is why we’ve noticed our son shifting his attention to classmates who have also moved abroad and finding a natural connection to them.

BUT — and it’s a big but. Although I have found several articles on expats and what to do when you return home, I have yet to find a single article on what to do if you are returning home to a country that really isn’t your home at all. Rather, it’s the home of your husband, the home away from home, the place you thought was home until you stirred things up by moving abroad again — only to come back and find that what you thought was home, you’re not so sure about anymore. The length of that sentence surely mirrors the confusion of it all. Yet if you go back to your real home, your birth country, the country you grew up in, you know darn well that you’ve lived away so long that it doesn’t feel like home either. So, again the conundrum returns. You’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Hence, my blog post last week. Perhaps I need to keep in mind Pico Iyer’s words that “Where you come from is becoming much less important that where you’re going.” Though this is one way of looking at it, we all crave being understood. I had tea recently with an American who had just returned to Sweden after several years of being back in her homeland. Prior to that, she had lived in Sweden. Like me, she is married to a Swede. The simple joy in that meeting was in not having to say a single word about the experience if we didn’t want to, we knew. We knew how the other felt. We knew the tiny losses that snowball into something more. Even though both of us are happy with the choice to move back, that lingering feeling of sadness, sitting there like a wallflower at a high school dance while the perfectly satisfied parts of you are dancing up a storm, doesn’t go away.

Is there a cure to this dilemma? You can’t make the people around you understand if they haven’t moved abroad. Certainly, no one wants a sourpuss at a party. Somehow over time, you gravitate toward others who have been through the same. It’s not a question of misery loves company but rather a soft place to settle. I am blessed with such a diverse set of friends, many who are living abroad permanently, who have, like I had, settled into a comfortable life. I have all the best ingredients; a happy marriage, great kids and wonderful friends in just about every port so it seems. So why all this disorientation? I suppose it comes with the territory, it comes with being vulnerable. I suppose in some twisted way, it’s what keeps me ticking. It’s what keeps life exciting and fresh for me – always trying to find new bits about me.

Looking out my window seeing the first snowfall this season, I can’t help but compare myself with one of those snowflakes out there, happily falling but just a little confused in finding the right place to settle.

16 Things That Change When You Live Abroad

1. The hardest part is making the decision to go. — After weeks of teetering, “should we or shouldn’t we?, once you finally say “yes”, you realize it’s just to get on with it and take each hurdle as it comes. Then you wonder why on Earth it took you so long to decide in the first place.

2. Your family of four instantly becomes the four musketeers. — You depend on each other, especially in the beginning. Evenings and weekends once again become real family time with lovely family day trips – discovering your new world together.

3. You learn that home is wherever your family is. — Over time, you come to realize that you can find happiness and make a good life just about anywhere as long as you have each other.

4. You become an expert at hellos and good-byes. — While you make new friends in your new country, you wear an invisible shield of armour – one that you don’t realize is there, because you know that one day soon, you will need to part ways. It’s a form of self-preservation in ways, one that perhaps your new friends cannot understand unless they have lived abroad themselves.

5. Genius becomes defined as juggling annual tax season in two countries simultaneously. — There is only one word for American tax season, “paperwork”, plus “OMG, more paperwork”.

6. Applications and forms take on a whole new meaning. — Same as above, but you can add another OMG to that!

7. You find yourself mixing languages. — Especially when you live in a household with two languages at all times. “Please pass the hallonsylt, snälla?” Or “Do you want gräddfil with that?”

8. Your accent changes depending on who you are talking to. — In the US, I apparently sound somewhat English, though I’m sure a hint of North Carolinian twang is in there somewhere. My English friends in Sweden laugh at that and when I meet my family in Canada, it goes right back to good ol’ Canadian again. I’m just waiting for someone to mistake my accent for real Göteborgska. Stop laughing now – it could happen!

9. Longing for home is never satisfied. — Even when you visit, you know your visit is only temporary. It’s sweet while you are there. You indulge in all the things you’ve missed while abroad; the food, the people, the scenery, but then the itch to get back to your new world comes creeping into your skin again. Then #4 comes calling again.

10. You become more patriotic abroad. – Everything is wonderful about your home country; the food, the people, the landscape, the culture. You nearly have a coronary when you see a packet of Singoalla, or Kalles Kaviar on a store shelf. Not only do you grab every single one but you try to order more.

11. You discover that your very Swedish husband’s Spotify playlist is now dotted with country music. — Yes, I believe it was the Keith Urban concert in NC that was the culprit. I’m sure somewhere hidden in our unpacked boxes there lurks a cowboy hat waiting to be donned!

12. The simplest task becomes a monumental challenge. — Try walking into a shop without being bombarded with “hello, can I help you find something.” Let me at least get through the door… please. Ordering “milk” in a fast food restaurant isn’t something to be taken lightly either – at least not when you ask for it with a Swedish accent. I was the translator on site – I asked for it with my Canadian accent. No problem. Now my husband knows how I feel in Sweden when I ask for something (in Swedish) and they just stare blankly as if I’ve spoken Russian. Hello!

13. Going home doesn’t feel quite the same anymore. — While you’ve been living a harried life with a constant set of new challenges and cultural changes, everything back home feels as though it’s stayed the same. Nothing has changed while you have changed in ways you can’t even define.

14. You discover who your real friends are. While friends come and go, there are those amazing people in your life who don’t take notice of the ocean between you. It is something you will always be grateful for.  And what a lovely surprise when you realize the seed of a friendship that began in your new world continues to blossom once you’ve moved away.

15. Things are just things and people are just people wherever you go — no better, no worse, just different, even though some customs hit the weird list easier than others.

16. You feel like a real Viking — When you return to your home country again, you realize that you could do it all over again, that you want to do it all over again – only somewhere new – that there’s no mountain you can’t conquer. Hear me roar, I am Thor!

/Susan

Not Very Swedish or Am I?

Let’s face it, Swedish is not the easiest language to learn but if you trudge through the mud enough, you’re bound to find green grass somewhere. And so is the life of yet another, dare I say, foreigner.

Being back in Sweden after three years in the United States, I’ve got culture and language on my mind – hence another expat and not-so expat blog post. It’s one of those things you can’t avoid. It was lovely the other day, having fika (coffee time) with two friends from England. One has only been living in Sweden for eighteen months so we were teaching her how to manage with the language. “Say plenty of Ah’s and Mmm’s and learn how to suck in a sudden gulp of air into your throat as though you were choking in the middle of a conversation, and you will manage just fine.”

I once counted how many “Ah’s” I heard in a short Skype conversation between my husband and his father. Twenty-two! Twenty-two times of letting the other person know you are still alive, that you either agree with them, mean yes or haven’t quite decided while bobbing your head sideways just a little. Some Swedes gulp air more than other Swedes. Thank goodness my husband very rarely does this, but having a conversation with the women in our extended family here makes me jumpy, as air is gulped far too often for comfort.

So yes, Swedes have some interesting features. The question is, “Do they rub off on the non-Swede?” Of course they do. When our fika was over, one friend said that she had had a wasps nest under the deck, and without realizing it, apparently I responded by saying, “Jahaaa…”, which was quickly pointed out to me by Sweden’s latest newcomer. It goes without saying that I brought some of those traits to the United States with me when I’d reply in a shop with “Ah” and I’d get a blank stare from the cashier that somehow meant, what does that mean? Surely the world knows it means, “yes” – NOT!

In the grand scheme of things, are we really that different? Yes, I could go into how the Swedes glare into each others’ eyes when they first meet while shaking feverishly the hand before them while saying their names clearly so as not to misinterpret, only to find that it is repeated by the receiver. Or how the Americans toss out a, “Hi, how ya’ doing?” and never actually learn the receiver’s name, and how Canadian are somewhere in between. No, I won’t go into the nitty gritty – not today. Instead, I will wrap up all those glorious differences between the Swedes and us English speaking folk and leave this post with a lingering question for those other brave souls who have ventured abroad. “What were we thinking?”

Your very happy, almost Swedish Canadian

Not Very Swedish – for all the expat and not-so-expat people out there

The question of identity has long baffled many a folk who have thrown a backpack over their shoulder and found themselves living in countries where, let’s face it, it’s not English! This perplexing phenomenon has weaved itself into my life, leaving me with tangles of hairy dilemmas to sort out, all under the umbrella question of who am I?

It’s simple really – I’m Susan from Canada. Oh, well, Susan from Canada who happened to fall for a Swede. Okay, let’s try this again. I’m Susan from Canada who happens to live in Sweden. Been here for sixteen years. But what about our first two years of marriage living in Norway? Susan from Canada whose son was born in Norway. Does that make him Norwegian? No silly, of course not, everyone knows if you’re Scandinavian, then you’re pretty much entitled to free rein between the countries. Hmm.

Okay, let me start again, Susan from Canada living in Sweden, except for the last three years of living as an expat in North Carolina, USA. No wonder the airport check-in machines were mixed up every time I’d travel – a Canadian passport with Swedish permanent residency but an American L2 visa. What should the machine do with that? Reject me, that’s what. Off to a real human being behind a counter seemed like the best solution. Surely, I wasn’t the only person on earth in such a situation? Sounds simple – NOT!

Now I’m off track. Susan from Canada married to a Swede, back here living in Sweden again. What about those years I lived in France and Australia, do they count? No, that was pre-marriage Susan. HELLO – of course they count! It’s Susan with a degree in French, have you forgotten about her? Okay, Canadian Susan with a French degree, rapidly losing her vocabulary and stuck with the dilemma of the Swedish language. Yes, yes, I’ve studied Swedish. I speak Swedish but still get headaches when everyone seems to be talking at the same time. Try attending a dinner party, sitting at the table where everyone is speaking a language other than your own. After two or three or four hours of my head spinning, all the voices start to fade into one incessant buzzing during which time I start to notice how lovely someone’s dress is or how they shouldn’t wear that colour eye shadow. Maybe I notice the moose outside in my garden or simply begin to daydream. The buzz finally begins to fade when I land in my own safe little world – my imagination. Oh, how comfortable that safe world is, free from language barriers, free from social faux pas. It’s there in this world, this moment in time where some of my best stories are sown. I’m free for that fraction of time to be myself until the dreaded, “Vad tycker du, Susan?” when I haven’t listened to a single word.

That’s the moment when my little world is crushed and I’m required to crank my brain back into Swedish mode and formulate thoughts again. The comfortable place; my little English world has been snatched from me without regard by my fellow Swedes, those whom I love, my Swedish friends and family. Yes, I am back in Sweden. Yes I am Canadian and will always be. Yes, it’s true, my accent may have altered over the years – somewhat.  Yes my children are Swedish but they are also Canadian despite never having lived a day there. Sweden is our family’s home and it makes me happy. But I’ve grown to understand that when you spend your life living in different countries, struggling with learning foreign languages and reveling in those moments when you feel as though you completely fit it, everywhere becomes home yet in the very same breath, nowhere does.

So the question of my identity? Who am I? I am a writer at heart, even when no one else believed I could be. I’ve escaped into my own world of stories while loving the real world I live in – my real world of being a wife and mom, a friend and teacher, whether I am speaking English or Swedish, or writing stories that fill all those gaps in what makes up a person. I’m hardly a philosophical person, but I am one who has needed to deal with the constant question of where do I belong? But maybe, that’s a question we all ask ourselves from time to time.

Susan