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.

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.

dots of red

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.

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

Expat communities: How it can get awkward

Last weekend I was invited by my friend Maria to an event of a well known international expat community, whose goal is to bring expats from around the world together. Before moving to Stockholm I would probably not consider joining an expat community. Nothing wrong with joining, you actually meet people in your shoes. In fact I met one of my best friends in Stockholm at an expat event. But in other places where I have lived, like London for example, I never had to join such community to meet expats. For one thing in a place like London it is hard to meet locals, not expats. People come and go all the time. There was always something to do and someone to hang out with, even if most times you never became friends with people. (Very often, the closest you would get was to become Facebook friends).

But Stockholm is another story. Much smaller and homogeneous, Stockholm can be challenging and you have to work on building a social network. Random or spontaneous hanging out is not common. In fact you need to plan your social life days ahead and preferably coordinate it with Systembolagets opening hours.  In this sense membership in expat communities in Stockholm makes more sense.

However in last week’s event something was off. It could be that there was the general blah feeling of a fabricated social event. The day and hour to start: Sunday afternoon. Sunday is the day God intended for rest. Giving the introduction speech of who you are and how you ended up in Stockholm times the people you interact is the equivalent of unpaid WORK. I am Greek, yawn. I am here with my husband double yawn. Then comes some comment about the Swedes, how expensive Sweden is, and how do we like it here, yawn, yawn, yawn. Why don’t we just skip introductions and talk about MH370 disappearance scenarios. Or about what we ate for lunch.

The nature of the event also (fika, which means short break for coffee, quick drink), which had everyone sitting in one spot and ultimately you ended up spending two hours talking to whoever was sitting next to you. Of course there were some people who attempted to mingle by changing seats but then again who mingles while sitting at a table.  What thirty- something will actually leave their seat with the naïve conviction that there is something more to be gained than if, for example, they changed seats in the metro or the bus?

Because after ninety-five minutes, (exactly the time when in silent coordination people who were not there to mate decided to leave asap), the impression was just that: you simply had a long anonymous chat with a stranger on the bus and once you reached your stop you simply got off. Only that in our case the stranger  can track you down from your online profile at the community’s site.

Why do I find that slightly weird? Some people had left their partners at home to spend their Sunday afternoon chatting with people they will probably never see again, sitting among strangers at what looks like a wedding party social arrangement .  In other events other people who took a “Me” evening away from their partner.  Scary as it may sound, they had no ulterior motives. They were not there to meet friends, hookups or professional contacts. They were simply there to have a drink and a friendly chat and disappear as soon as the clock strikes 12.

Or perhaps they were there for the same reason I was:  they thought they needed a break.

“The guy sitting next to you was very hot” my friend Maria told me on our way out. “Then why did you spend the last two hours talking to the bald one with the glasses? “

I didn’t mind really” she said.

That’s what I am talking about.

Updates on Life in Sweden:The Stockholm Syndrome

Lately I have reconsidered almost every aspect of my life in Sweden. Everything that bothered and frustrated me the first year when I was child-free has now transformed into a big convenience. First of all I don’t mind living in the suburban multinational company Legoland anymore. True, there is no metro station nearby and not a pub in miles, but it does not matter anymore. For one thing, I rarely take the baby downtown nor have the urge to do so. And as for pubs, it sounds a bit obscene even for Swedish standards to push a trolley into a bar. I no longer whine about the bad restaurant food in the area, as for the last months in an effort to fit in my clothes again I have embraced green vegetables and water.

The only two establishments that I frequent multiple times a week, the supermarket and the gym are around the corner. I am finally giving in to the Stockholm syndrome. It took me a while to get here, but here I am turning into a Swede as we speak. Last year I had all these Whys and WhatIfs that made my marching through the snow even more challenging. Not anymore. I quit reading the Local.se as well. How much better can this get?

Parenthood lessons Chapter Two: Giving up on all the above and the below: sugar, booze, skinny jeans, second thoughts , the Local, ironing and the urge to keep things tidy and clean all time.

Embracing : Chaos.

Urge of the Week:
Claire2

My experience with NGOs and “institutionalized” Help

In the past I have spoken a bit harshly about Ngos. I intend to keep it that way. I suspect that the last thing the human species needs right now is somebody to pick up the pieces. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t support turning a blind eye to pain, loss, or grief. Quite the opposite. I just think that the whole concept of humanity and humanitarian action can no longer be isolated in strict institutional frameworks, manipulated as a political instrument to keep things on an even keel.

Personal virtue, morals, kindness and integrity. These are principles that do not interest anyone anymore in politics or in most professions as a matter of fact. Somehow they are seen as dated principles, linked to dying religious beliefs and truth is they carry an innuendo of embarrassment as well. Yes, embarrassment, because kindness is seen as a form of weakness. Try writing in a job application Cover Letter something like “I am an honest or just person” instead of the equivalent of “I am a corporate slave”. You don’t like where this is going? Ok, let’s move on.

My experience working for a prominent Greek NGO which in this blog I call The Public Sector for obvious reasons has been an interesting one. Its rampant bureaucracy and shocking deliberate isolation had created a surreal Orwellian landscape where extremes of Kindness and Evil existed side by side, making no pretenses. At the same time there was a total absence of grey zones in which a somehow healthy, productive, professional environment can contain the beast inside of us. In there you were likely to meet the most benevolent souls, often ordered around by the ones whose personal demons had found the most fertile ground to run wild.

The good people you met in there were almost definitely good by nature, and their goodness in this restrained and isolated environment was maximized perhaps analogically to the levels of the inhumanity of others. These kind people were kind in all aspects of their lives and obviously treated their friends, spouses and colleagues with respect. Their work helping people in this sense never ended. It was not a mission, a project or a plan but essentially a way of life.

I am thinking that, in fact, this is the only way to go ahead. You simply cannot “help” people 9-5. You can certainly try, but in the long run will not get very far. And once you try to institutionalize kindness, compassion and humanity then you are more likely part of a society that has devalued humanitarian principles.

Another simple example can be drawn from my experience in first world Sweden. A few months living there and I took up a Language Volunteer role for an Ngo helping Immigrants coming from EU countries.(not necessarily EU citizens). At that time, despite my legal rights as the wife of someone who worked full time in Sweden, the bureaucracy was preventing me for months from getting a Personal Number. (The Holy Grail of Survival in Sweden).The majority of Language Volunteers had similar profiles and stories to share: they were mostly well educated multilingual South European (and not only) women who had moved in Sweden to be with someone, either that someone was a husband, a boyfriend or family in general.

They all had more or less the same legal issues that caused great frustration and strain in their lives and relationships. In fact, many of them were not much better off from the immigrants visiting the Center to get food, shelter, clothing, Internet, Communication and legal advice. However what they needed most was a piece of solid legal advice about their pending cases and the shady laws that supposedly covered their rights as EU citizens. I for example turned to the Human Rights lawyer in the Center to ask a simple routine question about how I can deal with my inexplicably pending case. Instead I received no reply. The irony was that, as volunteers, we were asked to perform a number of such phone calls to help visitors to the Center. But we could not get further support for our own cases if we did not give up our status as volunteers and instead ask support as immigrants. Instead we were strongly encouraged every week to attend Free Counseling that was offered to all volunteers. Ironically, venting about our problems for an hour every Tuesday was fully funded and guideline approved, while getting a 5 minute practical advice about how to solve them was not.

Which leads me again to where I started. Personal virtue, morals, kindness and integrity. Can you really be humanitarian by the book? Or does the sole act of helping others conflict with the way our whole system works? Education, experience, planning, funding are always very important. But they are useless when people-leaders especially- lack charisma and integrity.

I don’t object to systematic efforts. But please bring Goodness back in the field and people who genuinely want to help others.

Does your name on your resume matter?

In the last decade various studies and individual experiments have proven that yes, names on resumes do matter when it comes to job hunting in Western countries. Resumes with ethnic, unusual or long names are less likely to be shortlisted and more likely to end up in the trash bin.

A number of jobseekers testify on the web that after months or even years of fruitless job hunting, it took a simple experiment of changing their name on their CV-and only their name- to start getting calls for interviews. Taneesha became Tiffany, and Mohamed became Michael just to find out that the US and Canada workforce need more Tiffanys and Michaels, just as Sweden cannot get enough of Annicas and Svens.

One has to wonder why parents are still inspired by celebrity culture and “uniqueness” if they are not well connected millionaires themselves. Surely when celebrities give their child an outrageous name they don’t expect that this child will ever sit across an HR Manager, sweating under rigid work clothes and hands clasped in mental agony to be asked:

So, your name is Apple?”

Not that it would get that far anyway.

So how do names matter in job search? Given that they imply things about a candidate, which cannot be proven if an interview does not take place, unfortunately they match cultural perceptions and stereotypes. In these short 4 to 6 seconds that a HR megabrain takes to decide if it is a yes or no there is no time for any equality and fairness or “see the big picture” thing at all. In fact there is no time for thinking-period.

Discriminatory as it may be, it is only one in the long list of things that subconsciously or not might matter in the workplace.

The recession world has become the cause for jobseekers to struggle to rationalize their inability to land a job by scrutinizing all their professionally irrelevant traits.

Thus , “Does my skin/eye/hair color or hair thickness and/or height/weight keep me from getting an interview , landing a job or getting a promotion and a salary raise?” Not that this futile self reflection can lead to any real self improvement or any professional and personal confidence for that matter. Instead, realizing how unfair and predictable this world can be will only make you feel paranoid and bitter.

Ignorance after all is true bliss.

Ignore your guilty suspicions and good luck in your job search.