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