Spring Writing

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Sometimes I forget how lucky I am to live in a coastal city with the sea only steps away. It is something I longed for as a child and although I long for more sun as an adult, the west coast archipelago of Sweden is undoubtedly something to be treasured.

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Its riches for me come in the form of stories. How easy it is to set the imagination adrift whilst sitting on the rocky shore gathering a hot cup of tea into my hands. Those beaches of rock, more like walruses lazing about after a good meal! The blustery winds that catch my breath until it all settles once again. The sunset of surprising colours!

IMG_3804I’ve been working on story ideas for my new novel while my latest work of fiction is out there trying to find its way across the North Sea. My hope is that it will settle into the right hands so that one day readers will be taken away to 1917 maritime Canada and a lost girl from the Borough of Lambeth during WWII, yet still be connected to the present. Three storylines weave in and out of each other like tapestry woven over generations—each silk thread knotted until the next colour is introduced. When you step back, the whole picture is revealed.

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My new novel will also be set in a few places, rugged in their geography (by the sea, of course) and historical. I’ve been debating whether to bring Scandinavia into this one in some form, since I have lived here for nearly twenty years and know it rather well. The possibilities are intriguing to me.

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Yet as I watch two (skator) magpies building a nest in my raggedy old apple tree, those possibilities become clearer. I am fascinated by the birds’ ingenuity, vision and communication skills. They’re not bothered by the dreary weather today. They do what they need to do to get the job done. They targeted my apple tree, my ugly yet beloved tree in which my children’s swing still hangs beneath and decided that it would be the perfect home for a new baby. So, I shall go to the seaside for my cup of tea where my inspiration lies, build my new story and make it a home.

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Wishing you a happy spring with wonderful reading and writing!

Susan

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Novel Setting vs. Writer Personality

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Everyone knows the right setting can anchor a novel and its characters, don’t they? If you have intimate knowledge of a place, the story will be richer, right?

I’ve been thinking lately that perhaps a better question to ask is, how does the setting make an author feel as he/she writes? In other words, how does the author connect with the setting emotionally regardless of whether or not he/she has intimate knowledge of the place?

Recently, I read a very good post in Women’s Fiction Writers written by Yona Zeldis McDonough titled, A Sense of Place.  In her view, the setting of a book can function very much like a character. I couldn’t agree more. She writes;

“To make that “character” come alive, you have to know it well—the sights, sounds and smells of a place, the nuances of the neighborhoods, the landmarks and the hidden spots that are off-the-beaten track.”

When I read this, I immediately knew exactly what she was saying. I understood those nuances, the smells and how they made me feel. Yet I can’t help but wonder how a character in a book comes into being. We might have an idea of their personality before that character is written. Perhaps we model the character after someone we know in our lives. Even if that’s the case, characters tend to evolve as we write the story. Their layers begin to unfold, often surprising writers. At least they do me. When I think I know them well, they turn a corner on me and something changes. Sometimes that change is minor and sometimes it can shift the storyline completely.

We don’t always know our characters thoroughly and intimately. We don’t always know their nooks and crannies until we discover them through our writing. Can that not be said of our setting as well?

For me, personality, my personality comes into play here. Over the last half year, I have struggled with the issue of setting for my current novel. I knew that I wanted the story to encompass Canada and England. I have been drawn to the east coast of Canada since I was a child but have never actually been there. Of course, growing up in Canada, I was familiar with all the provinces. Prince Edward Island has always been on my to-do list and I was convinced that I should write a story that took place there. I’ve read countless books about PEI. Of course, Anne of Green Gables has special meaning, being set in a time period I love, in a place that I’ve imagined many times over, and a story revolving around the life of children. Being a teacher, I can relate intimately to all the bits and pieces of children that make such a story magical.

There are parts of the history of Prince Edward Island that I knew I wanted to encompass in my story, but the more I researched the more I started to see how the Maritime Provinces connected. In ways, a shared struggle and hardship they have endured through history and specifically in the time period of my novel. As I researched, I became more drawn to Newfoundland than I had expected. The pull was something I couldn’t ignore, leaving PEI ever so slightly in its wake. The idea of shifting my story to another province seemed altogether crazy, but somehow the idea grew on me. Fortunately, I was early enough into the writing to begin to play with the idea.

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As I began, there was a nagging question that hadn’t been answered. Why? Why did I feel pulled toward Newfoundland? Why didn’t I want to set my story in PEI like I had planned? When I read Zeldis McDonough’s post, I had agree with everything she wrote. Of course, you should know your setting intimately. But hold on! There is something I know intimately, and that’s myself. I know what inspires me. I know what makes me tick as a person and as a writer. I know what makes me feel passionate. I know what makes me feel alive and driven.

When I wrote The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley, and learned that there were internment camps on the Isle of Man during WW2, I knew I needed to investigate this, since my gut feeling told me this would be the perfect setting for my character. What I found was something altogether unexpected. I was pulled there, to this small island in the middle of the Irish Sea. I was spellbound. All of this from pictures and books and copious research. I wrote that novel having never stepped foot on the Isle of Man, yet I felt a passion for it that was inexplicable. I knew, however, that I couldn’t release the book into the world without having been there. I wanted… No, I needed to prove to myself that those nuances and smells and feelings were real to me. Did I connect with the real island or was it all in my imagination?

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What I found was something quite remarkable. When I arrived on the Isle of Man for the first time, during the editing process of my book, immediately, it felt as though I was coming home in ways. I felt instantly as though I knew the island intimately. I realized that through my research and writing, the character that the island had become in my novel had developed and grown. I had nurtured it and when it was time to meet the Isle of Man for the first time, it was as though I had met my twin, separated from birth but joined later in life. As I turned corners on the island, I knew what was there. Somehow I knew what to expect. I actually saw Gillian Pugsley walking down the pier to meet Christian as she does in my story—a ghost-like Gillian. Hard to explain perhaps except to say that it just felt right. IMG_3515

So the question still lingered, why? Why was I drawn to the Isle of Man? And why am I equally as drawn to Newfoundland? Landscape.

There is a similarity between Newfoundland and the British Isles—a rugged, brutish landscape, sensual, almost carnal, particularly the coastline. It is a landscape that makes me feel alive. This kind of beauty evokes feelings that at least this writer needs in order to write with passion and conviction. Prince Edward Island is known as a province with outstanding natural beauty, but the pastoral landscape was not captivating me quite like I thought it would. Strangely or not, the coastline of Newfoundland seems to mimic my personality. I haven’t been there yet I know it, just as I did with the Isle of Man.

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So, isn’t it possible that if our personality resembles a setting, and after a great deal of research, we can as writers become familiar and even intimate with that setting? And if so, isn’t it possible that that setting can grow and function as a character even if we haven’t set foot there except in our imagination? After all, had Lewis Carroll intimate knowledge of his fantasy world of Wonderland prior to writing Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland? Probably not. What is likely, however, is that Wonderland mimicked a part of his personality. That can be argued no doubt. But I do tend to believe that personality comes into play when writers choose a setting. I believe some people would describe my personality as vibrant. I know I’m not shy and truth is, I rather like being noticed. I love to smile. I can even say I’m fiery at times. For me to choose a dull, lifeless setting would be a painful writing experience I’m sure.

I’ve always said, “Put me by the sea with crashing waves and I could write a book.” It’s true. My personality comes alive by the sea so why wouldn’t I want a setting there? It reminds me of my on-going love/hate relationship with Sweden. I’ve lived here for nearly two decades. I live ten minutes from the sea. In sunny, warm weather, I can think of nowhere else I’d rather be than floating in a boat in the west coast archipelago. But it’s more or less flat water kept in check by a series of rock islands. It’s truly beautiful when the sun shines but most of the time, the skies are grey and as drizzle fills the air, the water and islands sit lifeless to me. IMG_3425I know my husband, having grown up here, feels quite the opposite. It is paradise to him. I do understand and appreciate that. But I need movement. We had taken a walk on a small island called Amundön a couple of weeks ago. It was an unusually windy day and the sea was on my side this time. I was in heaven as we sat with a hot cup of tea on the rocks watching the waves crash against the rocks. Just the way I like it.

I don’t think many people would argue that setting is important to a novel, but I am curious if other writers also feel as I do; that a writer’s personality can be a factor in choosing a setting. The wavering I’ve experienced regarding setting with my current novel has finally settled into something that makes sense to me, that makes sense for me. If I feel passionate about my setting then surely it will show in my writing and ultimately draw my readers into the story and captivate them.

How does your setting match your personality?

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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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Finding Inspiration

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Writers find inspiration in the most unlikely places. For me, yesterday, I found it when Halloween fell over the sunset in Sweden’s west coast archipelago. Although Halloween isn’t celebrated in Sweden in the way that it is in North America, (no trick or treaters, no witches or ghosts or candy), the orange sky melted its way over the small fishing village of Grundsund as a truly lustrous charm. It was as though all the pumpkins turned Jack-o-lanterns in my childhood had flickered their flames across the water, bringing me home once again. I was grateful. It felt as though the sun had given me alone something special to remember Halloween by.

I’d had a lovely day trip with my family up the coast with lunch at Brygghuset IMG_8785in Fiskebäckskil, where I was once again faced with the dilemma – to reap the rewards of the sillbord or not. In plain old English, herring buffet or no herring buffet before the main meal? That was the question. Please don’t get me wrong, I have the utmost respect for my Swedish family, friends and their Viking ways but “sill” is not one of them. Not for me, not ever. I may have dual citizenship now, but I am Canadian through and through when it comes to keeping some order to my plate of food. Let me present my husband’s appetizer plate: pickled herring (stekt inlagd strömming), boiled eggs, pickled fried herring, pickled red cabbage (rödkål), pickled mustard herring (inlagd senapsill), pickled in a different way herring (matjesill), herring cake (silltårta), herring potato salad (potatissalad med sill).

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Are you inspired?

That’s what I thought.

How about my son’s plate?

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No, didn’t think so. Whereas my very Viking boy was licking his lips when he sat down to eat this feast for the eyes. His eyes, I reiterate. In fairness, I have to add that the food at this restaurant was otherwise absolutely delicious and I would recommend it to anyone. And who knows, I’m sure there is a herring lover somewhere in Canada, too.

Now where is this all going you might be asking yourself? A writer’s inspiration. How can a plate of Swedish food inspire a writer? Well, all I will say is that I am absolutely certain there is a writer somewhere in Sweden who is inspired by this food enough to win a Nobel prize in literature, but not me.

As we sat in Brygghuset mulling over our options for the afternoon, I peered out the window to find inspiration headed straight toward me—a twenty-three meter luxury yacht from Norway. All that oil, you know. Before it made it to the dock, I was already conjuring up my next novel, taking place on a tiny island in the South Pacific and arriving on that.

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A few photo bursts later, we were walking along the newly built dock in Grundsund, the one that wraps around the shoreline hugging yet another of Sweden’s lovely fishing villages. IMG_8812 The orange sunset was the crowning glory to a perfect day. How could it not inspire you? As we drove off, not exactly into the sunset, but rather in the dark to the ferry to Orust, a sea of flickering lights all over the local cemetery, on all the graves of loved-ones, reminded me how Halloween is Allhelgona (All Hallows’ Eve) here in Sweden. It is a “gentle remembrance of the saints and of those loved ones who (have) died.” Once again I felt inspired and know that somehow that sea of candle light will work its way into my writing.

What I love about writing is how those lovely moments of inspiration seem to come when you least expect them. As I sat writing this post, my son shouted across the house for everyone to look at the sky. What had been unusually and completely orange on Halloween, tonight on November 1, the sky was a stunning purple.  No, not just purple, it was amethyst! I’ve never seen anything like it. Click, click went the mobile phone. It was something I simply had to capture—a moment that was gone as quickly as it came. But what a jewel!

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I would love to know where and when and even what inspires you. Please feel free to comment below.

Is Midsummer a Writer’s Dream?

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Now that Midsummer celebrations are winding down here in Sweden, it gives me time to reflect on the weekend. Swedes cherish Midsummer festivities, an occasion to celebrate the longest and lightest day of the year. This is not to be taken “lightly” in Scandinavia since much of the year is dark and dare I say dreary. Although it was calling for rain, that never stops Swedes from a having a fabulous time. If that means dancing in a downpour in rubber boots, flower crown and traditional blue and yellow dress around a May pole then so be it.  FullSizeRenderMidsummer10

This year, my family decided to try to outrun the rain and head to the islands in the west coast archipelago where the clouds are often pushed aside just for us it seems. Smart decision. The weather was glorious, not hot but pleasant—so pleasant you could go without a cardigan and feel the sun on your skin. We borrowed farmor and farfar’s (grandma and grandpa’s) boat and headed north, first to Mollösund—a seaside town that never disappoints. From the distance, you can actually feel it pulling you toward it. It is a happy fishing village with white or red houses with traditional clay tile rooftops. People are friendly. What I’ve always liked about Swedes is that you can trust their behaviour. They are either genuinely happy to greet you or they’re not. And if they’re not, you’ll know it straight away. Believe it or not, there is some comfort in that. They mean what they say and don’t put on a front. Mollösund is no exception—only in its case I have yet to meet a miserable soul.

Truth is, Midsummer brings out the best in Swedes. In a country where it’s the norm to walk right past a person on the street and not only not greet them, you dare not look into their eyes. What will happen? Well, that’s another blog post altogether. But on Midsummer, boaters are waving to each other from a distance, shouting “Hallå” and smiling from yacht to rowboat or even from water scooters.IMG_3549[3]Misummerseadoo National flags are flapping in the wind and people are people-watching. Oh, the people-watching is so much fun. Children are racing around with their friends, jumping into the freezing sea and laughing like true little Vikings. There is a feeling that I truly love about Sweden during vacation time. You simply know that everyone is relaxed and happy. Yes, of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but in Sweden’s case, vacation time is met with sheer, utter glee. It is cherished in this country and you can feel it in the air.

In our case, albeit happy, we were on a mission to find the perfect island to stop for the night. Of course, one island looks like the other. The archipelago is a series of scattered islands that look like giant sleeping walruses. Don’t you think?  The writer in me sees it anyway. We weren’t disappointed either. We have always managed to find just the right spot. This time, we were tucked into a lovely bay with only a few sailboat neighbours moored on the opposite side. We didn’t discover them until we hiked to the top of the rocks to get a view of paradise. And boy, were we met with a view—the brightest rainbow I’ve ever seen. We stood in awe as it slowly wrapped around a lovely seaside town called Lysekil. I’m sure our neighbours in the distance we watching it, too. Of course being Canadian, I enjoyed for a few moments kidding myself that we could go without Swedish traditional Midsummer food being on our own out at sea. NO! Forget that, Susan! As soon as we set the anchor, had our little trek, IMG_6901Midsummer6 there was hubby, boiling his beloved potatoes and pulling out the herring. Yes, herring of every kind and flavour. Our son, clearly inheriting the dominant Viking genes, later licked up the herring juice that was left over! Seventeen years married and it still makes my skin crawl. That said, I reveled in the smoked mackerel and devoured the fresh shrimp. Shrimp in Sweden is truly the world’s best!

IMG_6906Midsummer7  Apart from the gnats enjoying their Midsummer feast on us later that evening, we enjoyed our engångsgrill and summer sausages as we watched the sun set on the horizon. Well, I just added that for full effect. The truth is the sun doesn’t really set this time of year in Sweden – but I could imagine it. So the boat lulled us to sleep in the land of the midnight sun.

The morning scooted along those gnats and they were nowhere to be seen. The sea was calm and it was stunning weather. We spent the day visiting other islands and seaside villages—Smögen being one we like in particular. Although it is a party place during Midsummer, it brought happy vacationers. To me, that’s what Midsummer is about—the people. And if the sun shines, there’s no one happier than me.

So is Midsummer a writer’s dream? It’s certainly a time when the senses are on overdrive; the smell of the sea, the glittery swells, the taste of tradition, and human behaviour that explodes with joy. What better way to observe tiny moments that one day may work themselves into your next novel? In ways, Midsummer is a writer’s dream, but here in Sweden, it is very much a writer’s reality, too.

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9 Quirky Moments that have Inspired My Writing

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1. The Naked Cowboy in Times Square playing his guitar on my first trip to NYC.

Anyone that confident can drive me to test my own limits – in my writing, thank you very much.

2. The sea lion that kept following me along the Isle of Man’s shoreline last summer.

Its curiosity and downright cuteness reminded me that everything has a different perspective and to keep testing those POV’s until I get it right.

3. The moose in my garden grunting only two meters behind me when it occurred to my husband to tell me that she was there in the first place.

Nothing will light a fire under you like an enormous wild animal on your doorstep. Now I have the power to write exactly what it feels like, sounds like and smells like to be nose to nose with the “Queen” of the Forest.

4. When I unexpectedly met children’s author Suzanne Tate for the first time and she said there was one book that I just had to read. It was already sitting on the front seat of my car on that same trip!

Are there really coincidences? I think not. Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye brought two writers together that day, enabling me to weave with even greater conviction fluky circumstances into my own stories.

5. The stoplights when I was caught singing in full, theatrical motion by the driver and passenger of a neighbouring car.  

A little humiliation from time to time does a writer good. Keeps us grounded. Best part was not stopping when they saw me. That’s what made them laugh! So that’s how I can make my readers laugh – be honest in my writing and open and free and spirited and the “fabulousness” in my words will shine through.

6. When an old Italian farmer clip-clopped up to me on his donkey under the Sicilian summer sun and began a full-out conversation with me in Italian – and I didn’t speak a word of it.

No matter who you are, where you’re from or what language you speak, you will always find a way to communicate. It was the perfect opportunity for the writer in me to observe hand gestures, facial expressions and even breathing – to become completely absorbed in our “conversation”, which I’m sure to the onlooker would have appeared ridiculous. It is a 20 or so minute moment I will always treasure.

7. When I looked into the eyes of the woman who had been sitting outside our local shop with a tin cup next to her, having passed her many times before.

It was humbling – that moment. It was revealing, yet secretive. It was a bucket of emotions all twisted tightly yet let loose. It was an odd sensation as though I was reading a story that wanted to be told but wasn’t. It reminded me that stories can be deeply rooted and to tread respectfully down the writing path. Everyone has a story to tell and I better darned well be authentic in voicing mine.

8. Florida’s sky on the Gulf of Mexico and its magical cloud formations.

Anything that can whisk me away like that to Never-Never Land will show up soon in my writing. Look for the cloud formation in Gillian Puglsey and how it takes my characters to another place.

9. Singing, dancing, posing, walking, thinking and staring out to sea on the rocky shoreline of my adopted home – the west coast of Sweden.

A bundle of quirky moments that time and time again teach me that I am just one person in this big world for only a drop in time – but a person with a big imagination and something to share – my stories. The sea reminds me that, like all writers, we are just trying to make it, to do our best, to tell a story that will resonate with someone and take them to another place. Most of all, the sea brings me peace and makes everything clear again. It’s a place that I feel like a child again wanting to discover, with a hope that that same feeling translates into my writing.

What are 9 quirky moments that have inspired your writing?

 

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