A small rant about things I miss while living in Sweden.

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Being a parent in the suburbs of Stockholm is probably one of the least fancy things you will ever do. In fact life in Stockholm in general is not the most glamorous experience. Unless of course you belong to that special breed of the really affluent, who own an apartment in Östermalm and spend your weekends in your fancy neighbourhood bars, sipping champagne cocktails and nibbling on mussel and salmon canapés – with old school European charm.

I remember when i was a newbie, in town just a couple of months. I and he decided to join and Internations event to meet people, which on that occasion was a movie followed by dinner at a restaurant nearby. I remember I was wearing a  black winter dress and my super comfy 3 inch Camper boots. (Campers in other societies equal orthopaedic shoes). Just before we head to the restaurant which was two blocks away the girl who had organised the event scanned me from head to toe: “Are you okay to walk on those heels to the restaurant?” she asked

My goodness, where am I? I thought.

That Winter I spent it in the most ugly square light brown snow boots, no doubt designed for Hobbit feet. The snow which lasted for several months and crystallised on the sidewalks would not allow any other type of shoe sole, unless you were willing to risk spraining your ankle or worse.

Since then I have made several lifestyle adjustments but if i were to make a list of the things I just can’t help missing the last years, here is the following:

I miss going out to socially interact with people without having to remove my bloody shoes every single time at least once. (often more times.) Whether it is a playground where I take my baby, or a house where i am invited, social interaction in Sweden is often shoe-less. I have given up on looking good in shoes.

 I miss dressing up a bit to go out without feeling that it is “too much” to put on a pair of earnings or a necklace . Or just making a small change to my casual look without having someone commenting on it as if I am dressed to go to the Opera. Which ends up making me feel overdressed again and going back to my “I ‘ll pop to the store to buy some milk” look.

 I miss spontaneity. I want to be able to buy a bottle of wine whenever I feel like it instead of feeling like a dirty alcoholic restocking at Systembolaget from 9am-3pm while pushing a trolley with dozens of bottles of booze for the next two weeks.

 I secretly miss the times and place of the happy non apologetic pub drinking, where everyone was too cheerful to bother about anything. And here is a secret dirty thought: During those times, I dreaded evenings with couples. In fact whenever I saw a couple among a group of friends I was overwhelmed by a feeling of boredom even before i spoke to them. Nowadays we all come in twos.-oh-my-holy-god- and we fight each other for the last baby chair in the restaurant.

Finally, I miss not feeling stressed because the day might not look like the day and the night might not look like the night for half of the year.

an immigrant’s embarrassing thought

When the day is starting to grow in the far north where i live, things look up immediately. Things that appeared dark, industrial and depressing now are not so bad. At the end of the day Scandinavian living spares you of all the little( and not so little) annoying things that invade your life and disrupt your peace back home. The lack of bugs and insects, general anarchy and loud annoying people in your face all the time: there is a lot to be thankful for when living in a perfectly organised, peaceful community.

At the same time there are things you desperately miss like urban vibe and some healthy chaos, spontaneity, variety, thrill, excitement.

Today while I was on the bus on my way home I had this strange thought that I would like to share with you: This is a great place for someone else. I can imagine that person sitting in my seat by the window,basking in the dim winter light of the growing day, perfectly content to have enjoyed a quiet day,undisturbed thoughts and feelings of security. She looks exactly like me, only she is taller and has a straighter, nicer nose.

For a moment I want to be that content person, more beautiful and less educated. In fact I have the sinful thought that I could swap my two largely useless in Sweden Master degrees for something more superficial. The first Masters in Culture I would swap for a perfectly shaped nose. The second one-the hot one-in International Relations I would swap for more centimeters of height, let’s say 10 centimeters taller.

So I would be left with my Bachelor degree in Communications, a straight nose and a hot bod. Not bad at all. I would be a happy immigrant.

I would be content to show off my skills on a daily basis.

(You might think: “What the hell are you thinking about on the freaking bus?”

…I hear you)

Thinking about relocating abroad as a “trailing spouse”? Some things you should know.

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I may use it in the title but I dislike the term “trailing spouse”. To me it describes someone who lets her or himself be carried abroad like a another piece of luggage and from there lives trapped in a semi-stigmatised existence, confined in the role of the housekeeper and the emotional supporter. It might be true that once (you know in the olden days) when couples relocated, the wife was not expected to do much other than support the husband’s career, volunteer in the local community with women in similar situation, and attend weekly get togethers with expat women so she can vent about her expat life.

Nowadays, however, with globalisation having transformed completely the international work dynamics, a spouse should be able to do better than that. First of all, finding work abroad is much easier and much more common. People can work remotely with a laptop and a good internet connection. There is much more mobility, diversity and flexibility. So theoretically the life of the “trailing spouse” has become much easier and uncomplicated.. Right?

In my experience I have met some pretty amazing people living abroad, trying to support their partner’s career while they work hard to find their own decent place in the new society. It usually takes a lot of courage, strength, and dedication to make things happens. Often it is a huge blow to the pride. But you have to work with your self and the personal issues that every one has and find your way.

I know because I am one. Having lived abroad several times for my own sake and ambitions this was the first time I let my partner’s career goals decide where I will be.

Here is the list of things that in my opinion you should consider before deciding to take the leap:

Your motto: good research.

The Country: The country where you relocate can make or break your success story. Being “abroad” in one part of the globe will not be the same as being “abroad” in another. In short, don’t just jump with excitement in the prospect before researching the place. If you move for example in Paris, France you will have a completely different life from if you move in Oslo, Norway. Which means that if Paris is what you have fantasies for and you move in Oslo to have a similar “european” experience you will be disappointed. (the opposite is true as well, desiring to live in the woods and find yourself in the middle of a big chaotic city). Of course in this example i use extremes, Parisean lifestyle is lightyears away from Scandinavian. I know that it does not depend on the “trailing spouse” where the relocation will be but I am only highlighting patterns you should avoid. At the end of the day the connection you personally have with the country and its people will determine your willingness to work hard to integrate.

The Country: Romantic Ideas vs Real facts. You may have already visited the place and find it charming, romanic, refreshing… Only because you have seen it as a tourist. You have done all the cool stuff and somehow that makes you feel that your life there will be like that, a constant amazement. Almost every place in the world can look charming when you are a tourist. But think that once you move there you might not live in the cool city centre because the rents will be just out of reach. You might find yourself in a suburb away from amenities and attractions. When the initial newcomer’s excitement fades, would you like to live in THAT place permanently? Will the transport be convenient to use on a daily basis? What do the people do for entertainment and does that match your expectations? Are you attracted to the culture, people and society?Remember you will be a newcomer there, you need all the conveniences you can get. Is this place what you think it is or a beautiful holiday memory?

The Language: This one is a HUGE HUGE factor. Do you speak the language of the country you are going? If not ,are you willing to learn it? I mean really learn it, beyond ordering “a big cappuccino please”. Your partner will probably be fine speaking in English at work but the same unfortunately will not be true for you. In certain parts of the world many people will look at you in shock,bewilderment and even contempt if you don’t address them in their language. Think that learning the language is not optional when you relocate and especially when you have not already secured a job.

The job: Getting a job in the new country might be easy or difficult. it depends on the place you are, the language, your own field and skills, and in many cases nationality, ethnicity, race etc. (Sad but true. ) If you plan to work asap try to find out what people in your shoes generally say about their experience. Don’t take things for granted. You might be hot stuff in one country and in another get constant rejections. Be prepared, disappointment might come. While volunteering at a swedish shelter I met a girl , a rather fierce go getter from Spain who had moved to Stockholm because of her Swedish boyfriend. She wanted to get a job the next day. You could see she was like a lion in a cage, she was not ready to take the blow to her pride and surrender to the new hard reality where her CV did not get her any interviews. Even the simple task of handing food to the homeless had become for her a competitive task where she had to prove herself. Only a few months later she moved to Germany to work in her field. Having said that there are many well educated professionals who endure much longer than that in order to be with their partners. The reason why I think this example is important is because many people today, especially if they have invested a lot in education and personal growth, lose their sense of identity and self worth once they are removed from their jobs and careers and thus feel lost and disorientated.

Money. This is something you will probably need to sort out with your partner. His or her salary might sound alluring in dollars or yuan but once you calculate your expenses according to the cost of life in the new place you realise that your lifestyle might actually worsen. Plus his salary, if you have no job will be used to support the whole family. Will you be happy to live in a smaller apartment, have no car and depend on your partner for pocket money?

I don’t mean to sound too discouraging. At the end of the day each of us is different and will take the decision considering what they have to give up and what is important to them on a personal level. But you have to be well informed-know what you are in for.

Living abroad can be a very rewarding and unique experience. Plan your “escape” wisely.

And if you try and fail don’t beat your self up. Always kudos to you for having tried.

thinking life as a sitcom.

The Cooper Extraction

Life has taken me to very different places. When I was much younger I used to think that moving countries around the world would always be fun, challenging and exciting. I remember someone telling me before my last move “Yet another move, I wonder how you cope!”

At the time I thought the comment was funny. Lately I think I get what it implied. But the truth is that life is journey whether you decide to relocate or not. There are always times coming and going, things forgotten and things imprinted forever in your heart and mind. There is always people you meet, you connect and travel with. A human relationship reaches its climax and then subsides, transforms or fades.

In many ways other people are my personal journey as my life’s “setting” has been ever changing. The people I have met and shared moments with. And the people that have made a deep impression or impact on me, and of whom I think about almost daily even though I never see.

I think now I understand why people get so hooked with sit-coms like the Big Bang theory or Two and a Half Men. (just to mention two of my own favorites). Life happening in the same unchanged snug setting of a Malibu Beach House or in a book swamped PhD student apartment (with a surprisingly pleasant upmarket living room view), creates the most beautiful illusions for the human mind: the security of consistency and purpose. Personal conflicts, challenges and dilemmas all in the end resolve with a shared order in Thai meal and the company of the same gang in that same homely living room. There is nothing that can shake or challenge the existence of that ideal space: It is in fact the center of life itself: it feeds and keeps relationships alive.

“I don’t want to own anything until I know I’ve found the place where me and things belong together. I’m not quite sure where that is just yet. But I know what it’s like…. It’s like Tiffany’s….” Holly Golightly says in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. That vague ideal place that Holly dreams about is where you simply live. It is your aesthetically compatible microworld where life simply happens and you lose the desire to relocate or travel. In a certain way you are that place.

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This ideal permanent space serves as a point of reference. It might be difficult to understand this if you have not relocated a fair number of times. In our little rented furnished apartment in Sweden for example, (where the majority of things are not ours and where we listen to four languages throughout the day) I realized I used Peppa Pig as a point of reference for my daughter: Every morning while she eats her breakfast I put Peppa Pig on (the original British, no funny dubbing). Very often it is the same episodes where I already know all the dialogues. It can be very boring for me. But strangely enough I am rarely happy to change the show. I want it to be one of the things that do not change in her baby life, at least I can guarantee that as long as I am there and as long as an internet connection exists, Peppa Pig will be playing on the tablet in the mornings.

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Life is not a sitcom. But just as we allow our babies to immerse themselves in magic worlds where everyone is happy, loved and cherished (and who it return loves and cherishes everybody else) to delay the hard truths of adulthood, so we as adults need from time to time to allow ourselves some of this fleeting feeling of consistency. Consistent love, joy and magical transformation.

Life is not a sitcom, but it would be nice if it were.

If I don’t see you again before Christmas Merry Christmas everyone and have a magic holiday!

The Swedish dream: Hibernating in Gratitude.

my neighborhood: an inspiration for poetry

my neighborhood: an inspiration for writing poetry

I was standing at the bus stop waiting for the bus the other day when it occurred to me how uncomplicated life in Sweden is. No fuss, no quarrel and no stress. Everyone will get on the bus calmly using the front door, and the baby strollers will also follow in an order of priority. Since the bus only has space for three strollers, I will be glad yet another time that there is space for baby and me. And that feeling of little gratitude sums up my experience as a foreigner in Sweden, a feeling that I suspect that other foreigners and immigrants share.

building the mall of Scandinavia, it has taken a few years but neither was Rome built in a day

building the mall of Scandinavia has taken a few years but Rome was not built in a day

It is the little gratitude you feel for getting a seat on the bus. Your little gratitude for living in this quiet and functional apartment, where nobody will try to break in if you don’t double lock the door or even knock your door to complain. Gratitude for getting an allowance from the state for being a parent.(even though you did not get the job). It is that half smile on your face, half relief and half resignation to all that is offered and all that is denied.

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Little Gratitude has the face of a white stingy old lady all dressed up-hat and everything- to go for her grocery shopping. She grants favors with a nonchalant,over-entitled grimace on her face; fuchsia lipstick sloppily applied around her wrinkled mouth.

Legoland

Legoland

If the American dream is about mobility and re-invention, the Swedish dream is about staying put, or rather redefining who you are by being molded to fit the one place reserved for you in the Swedish society. It is about little daily gratitudes, “stress free” compromises and staying unchallenged with what is being offered. It is more than anything a Nordic hibernation as you are being lulled to this deep lethargic winter dream.

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dots of red: hope

Whether the deal is worth taking depends on your circumstances, needs and priorities. It can be heaven on earth and it can be your prison. After all there is a lot of joy in small daily pleasures, if little pleasures, security and stillness is what you seek.

If your blood is boiling, however, there is risk that you might explode like an over pumped balloon and splutter your sanitized, dull, perfect surroundings with your deep red audacious guts.

A foreign girl in Sweden confesses

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If you are a foreigner living in Sweden you might find a number of things unusual. Of course not all foreigners have the same experience: it depends where you come from and how exposed you were to other cultures prior to moving to Sweden, but also the city and neighborhood you live, your lifestyle etc. In any case, your list is likely to be different from the list of your other foreign friends.

Here are a few highlights that personally will always feel “alien” to me:

Where is everybody? We have been wondering this for the last two years and there is still no helpful explanation. We live in Solna, a relatively quiet area which however has a significant number of residents and it’s also quite popular among the Swedes. It’s early Friday evening for example and there is no city buzz. No pedestrians, no cars, no motorcycles, no noise. You can see every single apartment in the neighborhood illuminated with these small Ikea window lamps (no curtains usually and the blinds are up.) but almost never do you see people moving in the apartment. If we were back home you would see people coming and going, cooking, talking loudly on the phone and generally making their presence known. The only explanation that I have so far come up with and sounds logical (but it is completely bonkers) is that Sweden is like another version of the Truman Show or a poorly designed Matrix: Somebody neglected to place people in all the right places.

No Shoes Indoors. This is not only Swedish of course but in Sweden it is almost illegal to step into a person’s home with your shoes on. Swedes are generally very self-sufficient, they clean their own mess. Furthermore apartments (that to be fair can be very small) are treated like sacred havens of comfort and relaxation as people spend a lot of time indoors. So leave your dirty snow boots at the door.
I have completely embraced this habit and all the foreigners I know have embraced it as well. Bear in mind however that Swedes, socially, like to entertain others at home. Which means that you will be expected to remove your shoes at the door when going to parties. (Every time I remove my shoes at someone’s doorstep on my way to a social occasion I recall that scene from Sex and the City when Carrie is invited to a baby shower and she is asked to remove her Manolos at the door. Horrified, she points to her dress and shoes and gasps: “This is an outfit” )

Poor quality of ethnic food and foreign “chefs”. In Stockholm so far I have had decent ethnic cuisine only downtown. However, a bit further out the center, the food is notoriously bad. You can tell that the person who does the cooking was neither a chef nor took any cooking classes back in his native country. The other day for example I was served a dish that had pieces of chicken, tzatziki, rice, watermelon and avocado all together on the same plate. Another day I asked for a chicken salad and I got a combination of chicken, cheese, lettuce, tomato and strawberries-all in big chunks- in a mixture that frankly was inedible. The remarkable thing is that these businesses always seem to have customers and never go out of business. I can only imagine how short their existence would have been had they tried to sell food in some other countries.

No pizza or food delivery. That’s right. Swedes don’t order in. It is by far a “do it yourself” lifestyle.

All my observations relate to the Swedish society rules and culture. They are neither accidental nor a sign that the Swedish society “does not know any better”. Sweden has chosen this lifestyle that reflects its socialist structure and fits the idiosyncrasies of its people.

In that sense, foreigners that come to live in Sweden are quickly made to adapt or perish. If you are too much into an international lifestyle and crave the diversity and character of global cities, Sweden is not the place for you. Uniqueness and individuality are not celebrated concepts and it is highly recommended to follow the local way of sameness and try not to stand out.

Having said that there are other reasons why foreigners move here and these have to do with the three “S” that Sweden offers: stability, safety, and security. And it is certain that if a foreigner puts his heart into creating a home here, this will happen sooner or later and he/she will enjoy the security this country offers.

If you are a foreigner living in Sweden or Scandinavia and have a “list” of things you are welcome to contact me. I would love to hear what your experience is!

Living Abroad: Are you an Immigrant or an Expat? Cultural Talk.

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A thing that has puzzled me for a long time since I left my native country is stereotypes regarding the identity of foreigners and the popular terms Immigrant and Expatriate. In London this was not completely an issue. Every other person I met was a foreigner with a different story and circumstances. You could not describe lots of people with just one term: the human mosaic was too intricate and the relationships too complex. At the same time, like everywhere else, people often valued others based on individual judgments related to nationality and popular stereotypes related to nationalities, career and earnings, looks, religion etc.

In Sweden I find things are more straightforward. There is a well defined line between what is Swedish and what is not, and officially foreigners are perceived as belonging mainly in one group: they are Immigrants. There are of course cultural reasons why the average Swede could warm up to an expat more than he/she would to an immigrant. Also there are subconscious classifications of different immigrants that make some more desirable than others.

Let me explain.

An immigrant is described as “a person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country”.
The Immigrant is different from the migrant; the latter defined as “a person who moves from one place to another in order to find better living conditions”.

Even though these two terms have a different definition they are usually used as having the same meaning. Culturally the word migrant often brings in mind images of desperate people escaping war and conflict and trying to reach a safe first world country. The word immigrants evokes more peaceful images, but still is closely linked to poverty, low paid jobs and life in ghettos.

An expatriate is a “person who lives outside their native country”. Another definition that I found online is “an employee who is sent to live abroad for a defined time period”. An expatriate therefore is not perceived as someone who is planning to spend his whole life abroad or get a pension abroad. It is rather someone whose identity abroad is somehow linked to his role in his native country.

An expatriate is usually culturally perceived as someone whose financial potential abroad could well exceed the financial potential of many locals of the country he visits. The word expat brings in mind popular images of white people socializing while sipping gin tonic in membership clubs. Expats don’t really need to learn the language of the country they live in as they work in another formal language and can leave the country whenever they wish. They are very mobile too. Another stereotype about expats is that in majority hold strong passports from financially and culturally “important” countries: the locals can indeed benefit from their presence. (As opposed to the presence of immigrants, whose “foreign cultures” could be seen as a nuisance rather than a benefit).

These silent classifications no matter how inaccurate, superficial and stereotypical underlie the relationships of people. As a foreigner in Stockholm I have been surprised by the various classifications of immigrants and clichés that I have encountered. For example, when I first got here, I was talking to a friendly Swedish woman who was once married to a Portuguese man. When I identified with her experience being married to a foreigner myself (and one that comes from another continent too) she retorted: “But it is not the same! You two are both Latin!” (I am Greek, he is Mexican).

“Latin” therefore is perhaps another definition for the “darker colored Christian immigrant coming from a poor country/hit by crisis with nice beaches to visit on holidays”.

Or maybe it’s much more complicated than that. I never take offense in these observations as I believe we all have our subconscious classifications of people whether they have to do with wealth, career and prestige, gender, beauty and looks, nationality, religion etc. I have seen people in China stop the traffic to let the Scandinavian looking boy pass, staring in awe.

It is a very real and sad aspect of human existence.

The time that it does bother me however is when it messes with my right to compete on equal terms. When I had the job coaching with Arbetsförmedlingen I was promised to be treated like a professional and in the end the person doing the coaching saw no harm done suggesting I became a cleaner. I have the utmost respect for people who clean to make a living a have friends who have done it. But I am not going to enroll myself in a four month job coaching program just to be told in the end that my options are reduced to that. If I need this type of job I can very well get it without fancy ipad coaching.

So even though I absolutely abhor stereotyping I asked myself one day:

“Am I an expat or an immigrant?”

The job coach who read my arbetsförmedlingen post replied in an angry message that I am the latter and came here to steal Swedish jobs. (Ironically she was not Swedish!)

But I, just like so many other people I have met here, I am a number of conflicting things. I am this and that. I am a traveler, a visitor. But I don’t live in a ghetto. I don’t socialize only with people from my country. I am married to a foreigner. Am I here to stay forever? No. Do I have a cleaner and a nanny? No. I live in a one bed 55 square meter apartment.

Living in Sweden as a foreigner you may ask yourself who you are and where you belong. I tell myself I am a hybrid, and other hybrids can feel my identity.

Highlights of parenthood: Confessions of a Gerber mom.

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Since I became a mom I began noticing a million things I never cared to notice before. For instance, all these women walking around pushing baby strollers, wearing sweatpants and make up free faces, carrying heavy bags with milk bottles, baby wipes and who knows what else… none of it was flashy and glitzy enough to make me look twice. For both sexes, the image of these women evokes only one word in mind. Mom. And the interest in them as persons and individuals ends there.

Now that I walk the streets pushing a stroller 99% of the times I realize I too look like a mom. I too didn’t have the time to put make up on (or did not care), and my sweatpants have milk stains on. (which I notice after I leave the house and decide not to go back). And that’s ok. I know nobody will really care, simply because everyone will simply think I am a mom. There is nothing enigmatic or mysterious about me, my milk stains or the bags under my eyes. Everybody can guess how they came into being.

So life has changed dramatically. Sometimes friends ask me if I now feel complete if I have found the meaning of life. I find the question a bit annoying but always refrain from saying out loud how naïve it is to think having kids will sort you out. They are likely however to change the nature or focal point of your problems and worries (your original neurosis staying the same).

I could not quote all the ways life has changed. The question should not be “what has changed?” but rather “what has remained the same?” The answer would probably be only my personal thoughts and things going on in my head.

Among random things I discovered while being a mom and highlights of parenthood are:

The bathroom can become a refuge. We no longer wonder why we feel bliss when we want to use the loo. Very often we take a tablet or a book along to have a few minutes of peace.

I am ready to scream “no more” and cry in frustration and then she does something and I cry from laughter. She is capable of manipulating my mood within seconds and I find myself in awe over my own feelings.

I appreciate going out more. There were times before the baby when we were feeling bored or tired to leave the house and preferred to stay in a watch a movie. If we get a baby free night nowadays we head to a nightclub.

I have embraced an energy saving lifestyle. Control freaks like me find themselves in a situation where they have lost control of things. Life has not gone exactly as planned or imagined and that’s ok. Fretting over it takes up a lot of energy, which is needed for other things.

Healthy stuff for the baby If only I had a penny for every time a parent proudly tells me their child eats “only organic”, “loves broccoli” and “has never used a milk bottle cause he/she is always breastfeeding”. I seriously believe that it is not that all parents have turned into health freaks but that for some reason only health freaks have children nowadays. (The rest of them -you know, the Gerber type- are too busy doing other things. ) Now I never cook broccoli because it stinks and the bedroom is next to the kitchen. I also use formula since day one. But I try to make food as healthy as possible and mix foods and tastes.

Finally, secretly fantasizing about owning a Japanese robot nanny that will do all the hard work: change the diapers, prepare baby meals, entertain the baby with songs and activities, etc. Tired parents can give orders from the sofa with a remote control in hand. What an amazing invention would that be.

Learning Swedish: If you are not feeling it, you are not killing it

So as you know I am a new parent in Stockholm. This carries a number of privileges, including easy access to public transport, lots of parks and nature all around, baby changing facilities literally everywhere. Not to mention every other woman in the street, especially now in the summer, is either pregnant or is pushing a bugaboo. Now that the days are long and relatively sunny I have also had a number of older people in the bus trying to chat with me. (Rarely does this happen in the winter).  They usually start by staring at the baby and smiling and then making some comment. I always feel a bit guilty and embarrassed when this happens: I don’t understand what they say because my Swedish is very basic. However I always smile and nod back at them. They are after all sweet old people and they are trying to be nice. (As long as they really say “Your baby is cute” and not “a booger is hanging on your baby’s nose”).

Every time I speak with someone back home they want to know “how my Swedish is going”. The truth is it is not going anywhere at the moment. It has been stuck at Elementary level since I had my Swedish language course more than a year ago. The only explanation that comes in mind is that my hard drive is full.

Lame as this explanation might be it comes from a person who once travelled to the other side of the world to have a 6 month 8 hours per day intensive Mandarin course . Which meant that when the others finished class after midday and were off to enjoy Beijing, I (together with two other headcases) had another two “ bonus” hours to memorize Chinese characters. And as if that was not enough, to kill time during a heavy Beijing Winter, I read Fallaci’s “Un Uomo” in Italian in the afternoons, (pen in hand to draw lines under unknown words and everything) in order to “clear my head” from the hanzi induced mental fog.

That is how it had been. In and out of language schools to study Chinese, German, Italian, Spanish, English… Always studying/carrying/purchasing textbooks, dictionaries, novels, magazines… So what went wrong? Why am I not feeling motivated this time?

When I try to de-stress about Language and shake off language guilt I think about the following story.

A British friend who met his wife a few decades ago in Greece once confessed that when they first met they did not speak a common language. In the minds of most people this lack of communication would deter any serious relationship. However not only did they succeed in having an intimate relationship but soon after that they got married relocated to Asia together.

“Oh my God that must have been really hard for you both!”. I told the wife in shock when I first heard the story.

“Not really” she replied “For that particular time in our lives not talking was the best thing. In fact It really helped us

Having this story in mind, I figured what a wonderful opportunity I have been given to shut up and shut down in Sweden.

 

If you are not feeling it, you are not killing it

If you are not feeling it, you are not killing it

A trip to Oslo and how Norway compares with Sweden

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Last weekend I made my virgin trip in the Norwegian capital Oslo. In my mind I expected to see a mini version of Stockholm: beautiful high arched older buildings in the heart of the city and in the outskirts gigantic highrises, mainly 70s housing projects of the Million House Programme.
Instead I encountered completely different scenery. My first impression was that nature and urban space seemed to co-exist in balance with each other. During our train journey from the airport to the city I could see small communities here and there existing in perfect harmony with the surrounding nature.
Exploring the city later, I realized that Oslo is filled with neo modern architecture which often uses elements of Feng Shui.
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Residential area art

Residential area art


The presence of water is meant to incorporate natural elements into this brand new community

The presence of water is meant to incorporate natural elements into this brand new community. In this pic Skywalker and little Alia strolling by the water


Feng Shui?

Feng Shui anyone?

So my impressions when comparing Oslo to Stockholm are:

As I just said the city is an oasis of architectural projects that you normally would not expect to see in a place that small (the population of Norway is half of Sweden). In this sense you get to see buildings that stand out, instead of buildings that(like in a place like conformity loving Sweden) all look the same. Generally there was the impression of a more European sense of individuality and uniqueness so unlike Sweden where you strongly feel you should either adopt the ways of the north or die.
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Oslo is more expensive that Stockholm ( at least 20%). Yes, I know we are talking about one of the richest countries in the world. I was amazed when on two occasions the waiter in the place we had dinner appeared to be expecting us to leave a tip. I am sure he earned a huge salary, was fully insured and received something like 2 months of paid holiday leave from his job. (ok I am exaggerating a bit but he surely must suspect that many of the tourists he serves food to are poorer than him. This weird thought struck me after waiting in the queue at a Trip Advisor endorsed restaurant and chatting with two American ladies behind me, who after learning that I am Greek they bluntly observed how expensive this restaurant must be for me. I was too polite to make the same observation about them. )

Norwegian people are friendly and smile to strangers. This is a first in Scandinavia. In Stockholm smiling or talking to strangers makes you a loony. (as it does back home but for slightly different reasons, you are supposed to assault them instead or at least give them angry looks). The people we met seemed so genuinely kind and helpful, even people who looked like they had immigrant backgrounds (and thus kinda expect them to look glum and reserved) seemed chatty and relaxed and spoke to us. (On one occasion in a Middle Eastern supermarket four different people came and spoke to or stroked our baby.) In general people looked happy, there I said it. Also Norwegians had something that I cannot explain well in words, a kind of positive vibe. (Except from that mean security woman at the airport on my way back who declared I was chosen for a random security check and gave me the most intrusive, hostile hands search, she even put her nasty hands in my jeans).

The food was more expensive but it was better. We tried everything, from the expensive to the middle eastern pizza. The bad was much better than the bad in Stockholm and the good was top marks. Whoever says that Norway has no variety of food in the supermarkets because it is not a member of the EU speaks nonsense. We went two times in two different markets and the variety of things like fruits and veg was the same as Sweden. (In the middle Eastern supermarket it was much better in fact.)
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Alcohol is not sold in the supermarkets. Exactly like Sweden’s Systembolaget, there was a special governmentally owned chain that sold anything over 4% of alcohol. Shame, it make you suspect that this sunny fun loving culture transforms into snow covered red eyed monsters in the Winter strolling through the streets in the darkness of the day in search for comfort booze.

We were blessed with excellent weather so maybe that was also a crucial factor shaping the positive experience.

The city center was filled with happy crowds and even a day after the bank holiday it still felt completely like a holiday. (No business looking people walking around and offices were empty, I am best guessing EVERYONE had informally taken the day off, ha!). The parks in the city center were filled with artists and several choirs who performed for people.

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An interesting fact about working in Norway that I found out recently: There is a compulsory unpaid 4 week summer shutdown in July as everyone is supposed to be away on holidays. The staff is however encouraged to save money by having a part of their salary withheld during the year especially to cater for this month.
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Which one prevails?Urban space or nature?

Which prevails more: Urban space or nature?

To be fair with Sweden there seems to be many lifestyle similarities between the two countries from the info I get from expat blogs about Norway. The majority of expats complain about the same things that almost all expat here complain about: They never make local friends as locals sticks to their high school friends, in the workplace people avoid confrontation and instead take problems directly to the boss, and generally people shun initiative and individuality.

So is it a favorite holiday destination? Definitely. I would visit Oslo again if I had the chance in the future and I would make sure to pick a warm month of the year so that I could enjoy this beautiful city one more time.
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