Acknowledging our past

(This is not about Sweden, or Swedifying. I’m in Montgomery, Alabama, visiting the National Memorial for Peace and Justice and several Civil Rights sites/monuments, and this is what I’ve been thinking about).

I grew up 30 miles from Gettsyburg. I camped near Gettysburg with Girl Scouts and went to the battlefield with my parents. We were taught that the good side had won, of course, because we lived in the North. But we spent a lot of time covering the Civil War in 8th grade, and our teacher told us that it was about state’s rights, not slavery. We didn’t question it.

In high school, I went to Atlanta for a big youth meeting with my Lutheran church. We did not go see Martin Luther King’s home or the church where he grew up (and later co-pastored with his father). We did go to the Coke museum.

In college I had a summer internship in Huntsville, Alabama. We took a few weekend trips while we were there. We went to Ruby Falls, an underground waterfall in Tennessee. (This is the first and last cave I ever visited – it turns out that I’m not a cave person). We went to Atlanta for the weekend and walked around in the Olympic village. We did not go to Montgomery, Selma, or Birmingham, all major sites in the Civil Rights Movement. We never even considered it.

I am deeply ashamed about all of this this. In school, I learned almost nothing about slavery, the Jim Crow era, or the Civil Rights movement (and the backlash against it). We went to the Holocaust museum in high school, and I am glad that we did, but I wish we would have also talked about the atrocities taking place in our own country.

I am writing because I suspect my experience is common among white Americans. Like me, many people know so little about our country’s history, the terrible injustices that African Americans have suffered, and the amazing forms of resistance that have emerged.

I am in Montgomery this weekend mostly to visit the National Peace and Justice Memorial – the lynching memorial. It only opened six months ago. The memorial is centered around remembering the more than 4,000 documented lynchings that have taken place, mostly in the South, but also in places like Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, and Missouri.

Each column represents one county and lists all of the people who were lynched in that county. Outside, there are copies of each column. The goal is that eventually all of the copies will eventually go back to their local counties as memorials, but to date, there are almost none.

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In general, Americans seem a little more comfortable talking about the Civil Rights movements, because these are the hopeful stories (especially when you gloss over the violence and backlash that participants in the Civil Rights movement faced, which many people do). But here, too, we are surprisingly ignorant. If I had tried to visit Montgomery or other major civil rights sites in the 1990s, I wouldn’t have found much. The Rosa Parks museum, which I visited today, only opened in 2000. The Freedom Rides Museum opened in 2011. The International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, the home of the Woolworth’s lunch counter that sparked the sit-in movement, opened in 2010. Given that these museums are commemorating events that happened more than 50 years ago, I find it horrifying that it took this long.

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Simon and Anna at the International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro a few years ago. It is a great museum, and they could understand it even at very young ages. (There is one room that the guide suggested we skip, and we did).

In Raleigh, we also have a lot of historic sites that very few people know about. Shaw University (established in 1865) was the first historically-black college in the South! St. Augustine’s, another historically black college, was one of the only hospitals serving black people during the Jim Crow era between Washington, D.C., and New Orleans. Raleigh has one of the oldest and best-known parks for African Americans (Chavis Park) in the country. In the 1910s and 1920s, Raleigh was home to a “Black Main Street” (on Hargett Street), with more than 50 black-owned businesses. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, which played a central role in the Civil Rights movement, was established in Raleigh (at Shaw).

All of those landmarks are just a few miles from my house. And although you can learn about them if you do a bit of searching, they aren’t well-publicized. Of course, many of these landmarks are legacies of segregation and the Jim Crow era. The reason there was a park for African-Americans (Chavis Park) is because black people were banned from the white park (Pullen Park). The reason we don’t talk about these historic sites is that we can’t talk about them without acknowledging the injustices that led to them. My neighborhood – Glenwood-Brooklyn—was one of Raleigh’s first suburbs. Established just after the turn of the century, it is also one of the first neighborhoods (along with Cameron Park and Boylan Heights) to use covenants to exclude black people from owning land or residing in the neighborhood. Our neighborhood has a designation as a historic landmark, but we don’t talk about this part of it.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is built around the idea that justice is only possible if we acknowledge our collective history. We need to learn about it and talk about it. I have been ignorant of it for way too long. So I am committing to do better, in my own life, in the way I raise my children, and in my interactions with others. (And I’ve already started lobbying Mark to bring Simon and Anna to Alabama for a family vacation – there is so much to see here!).

Show up. And sit down.

It’s the first day of Sunday School. I take Simon and Anna to their class and then go to a room on the second floor, planning to read my book. The church has recently purchased new couches and chairs for the room and is calling it a “café.” I interpret this as sanctioning the room as a place where I can hang out and do nothing for an hour a week.

I walk in, say hello to an acquaintance (I know her, but barely – we’ve only had one previous conversation), and start making my coffee. As I am fidgeting with the machine, I notice she is crying. “I’m sorry,” I mumble awkwardly. She walks closer to me and explains that she is having a bad day and why. (I’m not giving all of the details of these conversations, for obvious reasons). Within minutes I am talking about my mom’s death and my theory of grief, and I’m crying as my coffee spills all over the place. We sit down on the couch. Another person comes in. We continue talking. He shares something that happened 30 years ago. We keep talking: about grief and stress and the things that stay with you. Another person comes in. We keep talking, but move on to more mundane topics, like the hurricane and whether the kids will have school tomorrow. And then the hour has passed and it’s time to go get the kids from Sunday School.

For the rest of the day, I keep thinking about this conversation, and how strange it was. I know all of the people in the room, but not very well – as in, I would find it difficult to say the names of their children, and I have never been to their houses. And yet we talked about things that I don’t talk about with people I see all the time. I don’t know how everyone else felt about it, but for me, it was a gut punch in the best possible way: a few minutes where I was honest, where I talked about what mattered, where I remembered a person who was and is important to me.

I’ve been wondering why this conversation happened here, in this room. And of course, part of it is just coincidence, but there’s more to it than that. We wouldn’t have talked like this while picking our kids up from Sunday School, or in the hallway on the way to church, or as we filed out after church. We talked because we were there, in a room, with nothing else to do. We talked because we sat down.

And this realization makes me think of food (of course), and about things I’ve been pondering for months. People put a lot of stock in the dinner table as the place where all of our problems will be fixed. My coauthors and I have just written a book arguing that family meals will not solve all of our problems, that we need to look “beyond the kitchen” to address the inequalities in our food system. But I just read something about family meals that makes sense to me. In her book How to be a Happier Parent (which I recommend!), KJ Dell’Antonia writes that family meals are important, because they are a place where kids absorb ideas about how we eat, how we talk to each other, and what our values are—but not at any one meal. It’s okay if a particular meal is terrible. It’s okay if no one eats dinner or everyone’s distracted or you start nagging your kids at the table. It’s okay because “eating together is cumulative.” What matters is showing up, day after day. (Caveat: I’d still like to note that I don’t think this HAS to happen at the dinner table. But dinner is one of the most common rituals, for many families).

This leads me to my theory: In order to connect with people—really connect with them, beyond the surface—we have to show up. And, importantly I think, we also have to sit down. I think we’re reasonably good at showing up in the United States. But I think we’re really bad at “sitting down.” Americans are very friendly. I mean this very sincerely. At our best, Americans have a sort of exuberant, cheerful openness that I missed while I was in Sweden—Americans will talk to you and ask you how you’re doing in the grocery line or when you sit down on the bus. They will tell you how adorable your baby is. They will grab the door for you. But we have few opportunities to get beyond that.

When I think about the things I do in a normal week, I realize it would be easy to go through the week and never sit down with anyone outside of my immediate family. And meaningful conversations are not going to happen in the grocery line, in the carpool line, at the water cooler/coffee maker at work, or even as people come in on Sunday mornings at church. They’re just not. And this matters, because a life without meaningful conversations is lonely. When my mom as diagnosed with cancer and then after she died, one of the hardest parts for me was that I had to keep seeing people, and they wouldn’t talk about it. I think people sometimes do this to try to protect the person going through a crisis. But it’s also because there’s no time to talk about it. It would be strange to start a conversation (in the hallway, for example) that you know you can’t finish. So we say nothing. And sometimes that feels suffocating. (Peter Kaufman also wrote about this, in a powerful essay about living with a terminal illness).

In contrast, I wouldn’t say that Swedes are known for being particularly social or outgoing, and I don’t think they would either. In the Facebook group of “immigrant moms in Sweden” that I belong to, the most common complain is that it’s hard to get to know people in Sweden. One of my Swedish relatives told us a joke about how people in other countries look out their windows so that they can go outside and say hi, but Swedes look out their window so they can make sure to leave the house when no one else is there. I don’t think this is literally true (although I get it, because I have done this!), but Swedes tend to keep to themselves. They will definitely not talk to you on the bus. One person—ONE, in a whole year—made conversation with me in the checkout line at the grocery store, and I was so excited by this that I came home and reported it to Mark.

But despite this, I would say that Swedes are better at sitting down, at making space for people. They don’t eat lunch at their desks. At my office, we had a huge lunchroom, and people would take their lunch there, eat, and talk to the person next to them. Some Swedes have fika—coffee and cinnamon buns or other sweet treats—every morning. Again, it’s a time where you sit for a few minutes and you talk. And although it took us a while before we made Swedish friends, once we did, I felt like we were more honest with each other at an earlier stage of our friendship.

I actually think that people in most countries are better at sitting down. I am thinking of the one funeral that I attended in Mexico. My roommate’s dad had died, and I went with the older woman who owned the house where we lived. We left in the middle of the night and arrived early in the morning, and we just sat with the family, for a few hours. We ate something, but mostly we were just there.

It’s hard for me to show up and sit down. I failed at my attempts to embrace the Swedish lunch and fika, and often went home or went outside to eat by myself, because it seemed so awkward to sit down next to people I didn’t know. I am introverted by nature. But this year, as part of my Swedish resolutions, I am trying something new: Show up, first of all. And sit down. I’m going to return to the church “café” on Sunday mornings, and see what happens. Probably nothing too dramatic, but that’s okay. I am having lunch with all of the graduate students in my class – I actually made it a requirement. And Mark and I are renewing our commitment to have people over for lunch/dinner – not just people we already know well, but people we know a little and want to know better.

We’ll see what happens. This is an experiment. But I am excited to see how it turns out.

Christmas.jpgI was looking for a picture of a table. I found this one, from the international Christmas feast we had with the neighbors in our apartment building. I miss these two kids– Libin and Chico– so much! (And their families too). 

Schools and what “counts”

Anna’s first day of kindergarten is tomorrow. They have a “staggered entry” system here, which means that the kindergartners only go one day out of the first four days of school. This gives the kids a chance to adjust, and it allows the teachers to get to know them in smaller groups and do some assessments before they divide them into classes.

Based on Simon’s experience, we are pretty sure they will ask Anna to say the alphabet and count to 20. And here’s the thing. She can count really high in Swedish– I think she might even be able to count to 99 or 100– but in English, she gets messed up in the teens. So I doubt she’ll be able to count to 20. And for some reason I am feeling a little weird about this. There is a standard, and Anna won’t meet it.

It doesn’t really matter – at all. It’s just a way for the teachers to make sure the classes are relatively balanced. But as Anna’s mom, I can’t help but feel kind of… mad, or incredulous, when I imagine the teachers checking off a box that says that she doesn’t know how to count. (I don’t know if they actually do this. It’s my imagination!). “She DOES know how to count!” I imagine myself saying. “In fact, she’s a great counter, because she can count to 100 in her second language and almost to 20 in English!”

Anna will be fine. There are literally no consequences here. It’s not a test, and I’m sure she’ll sort out her counting troubles very soon. But what I’ve been thinking about is that there are so many kids like this, kids whose talents and skills are easy to miss, because they speak a different language, learn a different way, or just know things that don’t translate as easily into academic success. And sometimes this does end up mattering, for them.

I’m thinking about a kid in Simon’s kindergarten class. Her parents were from Mexico, and she didn’t speak a lot of English when she started, but in a few months, she was chattering away with all of the other kids. She was really nice, and she liked Simon. I came to their class to volunteer in the spring, and I read with her. Her books were a bit easier than most of the other kids. I’m not sure, but it’s possible she was reading “behind” grade level. But this only makes sense if there is one standard that we expect all the kids to meet. If we look at how much this girl had learned that year, she is doing great! She is fluent in Spanish and almost fluent in English, and she is reading in her second language!

I’m also thinking about some of the kids in low-income and working class families that we interviewed for our research project (in North Carolina). Some of them were not doing very in school, but they were way ahead of many other kids (including mine) in terms of other things, like being able to prepare their own snacks (or even make dinner) or take care of their younger siblings. But those things don’t count in school.

I’m not blaming the teachers or the schools. In Anna’s case, they are teaching in English, so it makes sense that they are evaluating her in English, not Swedish. And I know that the state requires that the schools assess kids (using very specific metrics) on a regular basis. I also know many great teachers who try very hard to see all of the things that make kids special.

I’m just thinking of all of those parents of kids who do things a little differently, and how demoralizing it must be to be told again and again that their kids are “behind,” in a system that doesn’t recognize how great they are. I hope that their teachers and the other adults in their lives see those unique qualities, and I hope that I– as an adult who meets lots of kids (at church, when I volunteer at Simon and Anna’s school, and when I interact with their friends)– can see them too.

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The almost-kindergartner during her “week of fun” while Simon is in school. I think she’ll be fine!

Swedifying my commute: Taking the bus

(Forward: The second way I am trying to Swedify my life is by walking or taking the bus instead of driving). One of the things we loved most about Sweden, surprisingly, was not having a car. I loved that we could get almost everywhere via public transportation. Even though we purposefully bought a house in a walkable neighborhood and live only 1 mile from NC State, we drive a lot. So, we decided to not renew our employee parking pass (to NC State), which means we mostly need to walk, bike, or take a bus to work. Mark bikes, but I’m not into it, so I am walking or taking the bus. I kept a diary of my experiment, which started on August 15, my first official day of work.)

Day 1: Today’s the day! I am optimistic. I haven’t ridden the bus in 9 years, and it was terrible then, but now there is an app and Raleigh has been doing a lot of marketing. I check the schedule three times, make sure I have exact change, and walk a few blocks down the street. I arrive two minutes early. The app on my phone says the bus should arrive in 9 minutes. Okay, it’s running a bit late. I sit down on the bench to wait. A few minutes later, I look down at my phone again. The app now says 31 minutes until the next bus. “I guess it came early today,” I think to myself. I am now extra hot because I’ve been sitting in the sun for 5 minutes. It’s a hot day. I stand up and start walking to work, arriving there thirty minutes later, hot and sweaty.

Day 2: I arrive 5 minutes early for the bus, and it comes on time. I fumble with knowing where to put my money and whether I can use bills or just coins. Yes, I can use bills. It costs just $1.25. The bus driver is very nice. I am the only white person on the bus. Most of the people on the bus are senior citizens. The bus pulls up right in front of Mark’s office. The whole thing takes 20 minutes, door to door. I am delighted and tweet about the bus service. When I try to go home in the mid-afternoon, to get the car and pick Simon and Anna up from camp, the app shows no bus at all, so I walk. It is hot but somewhat pleasant. I like my neighborhood more when I walk, because I notice more. Even being hot is not so bad. It’s kind of therapeutic to be really focused on your physical state for a few minutes and nothing else.

Day 3: I don’t go into the office, so I don’t take the bus. I do end up taking Simon to and from camp. This week, they are going to camp in a state park. I have to take the highway during rush hour, which I almost never do otherwise. There seems to be an accident almost every single day on the highway. It makes me glad that I don’t have a real commute.

Day 4: It’s Saturday, and we are meeting friends downtown for breakfast. We decide to that we’ll try to take the R line, the free bus that makes a circle around downtown, but only if the timing works out. It runs every 10 or 15 minutes so this is easier to do. We are walking out of the house when we realize the bus is about to arrive. I tell Simon and Anna to do their “Swedish hustle” and we run for the bus, getting there just in time. The bus ride is very quick (5 minutes), and we get to the restaurant early. After breakfast we walk a few blocks across town to the children’s museum. The R line is not coming for 15 minutes, so we duck into a bookstore. When we come out, it’s just arriving. When we get home, I realize that it was actually easier to take the bus in this case, as opposed to looking for parking at the restaurant, then driving to the museum and finding another place to park.

Day 5: Mark asks if I want to walk to church. I woke up in a bad mood and snap, “I’m not walking. You can walk.” So we drive. Later, we decide to walk to Cameron Village to get ice cream, which, as Mark points out, is the kind of thing we did in Sweden all the time but never do here. I have never walked to Cameron Village. Maybe I once did by myself. Anyway, the walk is surprisingly short. We stop at a few stores, then decide to eat dinner and then get ice cream. I notice that the cars don’t always stop when you’re in the crosswalks, which makes me mad. This is why I would be nervous about letting an 8- or 9-year old walk by themselves (whereas I would not be as nervous in Sweden) – it’s because of the cars. Later, after we get back and the kids are in bed, I realize that they never whined about the walk. (And I would say that they are being above-average in terms of general whininess today!). They seem to harbor a suspicion that we might walk at any time. In fact, Anna seemed pleasantly surprised when I said we were driving to church today.

Day 6: I check the app and leave 10 minutes early for the bus. I arrive with plenty of time and sit down. There is a tiny bus icon on my phone, moving towards the stop. If I want, the app will even send me a text to notify me when it’s about to arrive. The app counts down: 5 minutes away, then 4, and then finally 0. I stand up and peer down the street to see if it’s coming. Nothing. I wait a few more minutes. Still nothing. The app now says the bus is 28 minutes away. I check the printed schedule (online – they do not post them at the stops, annoyingly), and learn that there is no bus at this time of day! There is a sign at the bus stop with a number that you can text to find out when the next bus is coming. I try it, and receive a reply asking if I want to click the link to get free devotional Bible messages. I guess the number has changed. Having now wasted 20 minutes, I get up and walk to school. At least it’s a bit cooler than usual this morning. Mark picks me up on the way back. I’m still so annoyed about the bus that I write an op-ed about it and send it to the Raleigh newspaper, the News and Observer. I mapped out the op-ed while I was walking to work.

Day 7: I had planned to be a good departmental citizen and go to the lunch welcoming new graduate students, but I can’t bear the thought of trying to navigate the bus, so I work from home. Sorry grad students.

Day 8: I have a meeting in another building, about 1 mile from my office, so I decide I will drive there after dropping the kids off at camp. “Doesn’t the 12 (my normal bus) go there?” Mark asks. “Yes,” I answer. “But I’ve only successfully mastered the bus one time, so I’m not ready to go somewhere where I can’t walk as a backup.” The car ride to the kids’ camp is surprisingly pleasant, even though there is traffic (as there is every day). As I’ve heard from others, the car is a good place for talking, because you’re not sitting face-to-face, which often makes kids uncomfortable. We are all in good moods, talking about what they’re been doing in camp and the back-to-school night the next day.

Day 9: I’ve decided this is the last official day of my experiment/diary (even though I’m going to keep trying to take the bus). It is a glorious day, in the 70s for the first time since we’ve been back. I arrive 7 minutes early for the bus and say hello to the man waiting on the bench. We joke about the driver of an extremely loud car, who keeps revving his engine. The bus arrives exactly on time. I get on with only a minor snafu. (I try to put my quarter in the wrong slot. The bus driver gently corrects me). There is a man on the bus with 3 huge black trash bags of stuff. He realizes after a few minutes that he’s on the wrong bus. He’s going to have to transfer and go back. The bus driver calmly explains what he has to do and gives him the bus number, but I feel terrible. It’s going to take him a while. I get off the bus with 2 other men, then get an iced coffee and go to my office. It is a really beautiful day. When it’s time to go home,  I don’t even bother looking up the bus times because the bus only runs once per hour in the middle of the afternoon and I don’t feel like dealing with it. I walk home. I sometimes feel distracted and fidgety when I walk, but not today.  I am content to be walking through this neighborhood, taking note of everything that’s going on.

Concluding thoughts at the end of my experiment.

The bus system in Raleigh really doesn’t work, and I think it’s because no one chooses to ride the bus. If people have another option (driving, carpooling), they take it. Because of this, most people don’t realize how bad it is. And the people who ride the bus are not the people making the most vocal demands around how Raleigh spends its money. I got so mad about this that I wrote an op-ed about it, and they said they’re going to run it soon! I’ll let you know.

That said, I love having time to let my mind wander. When I am stressed about walking/busing to work, it’s because I feel like I don’t have enough time. But time to think is time well spent. In Sweden, I walked because I had to, but I loved it. I was writing a book (with two friends) for most of the year, and most of my good ideas for how to revise the book or reframe an argument during a walk. The only reason I wrote an op-ed this week is because of my walk to work. My workday is scattered and chaotic. Walking stands out because it’s not. It’s meditative.

I thought a lot about something else this week. I don’t want to overemphasize this point, because taking the bus is not going to save the world, but it’s easier to be compassionate to people when you interact with them, even in a small way. The other side of the coin is that it’s harder to care about people when you can stay in your bubble. When you take the bus (or any kind of public transportation), you interact with people who are not exactly like you. They don’t live in your neighborhood or work where you do. If you don’t, it’s possible that you might go for days and only interact with your family, friends, coworkers, and people who are being paid to help you (in restaurants, stores, or gas stations, for example). It’s possible to get out of the bubble in many other ways, of course, but these ways take more effort, and lots of people don’t do it. As I think about this, cars start to seem almost creepy. When you think about it, it’s a bit weird the way we move around town in a car. We all jump in these little air-conditioned pods that allow us to zip from our house to work and never interact with anyone outside of these small circles of people. Even my realization about how nice it was to talk to Simon and Anna in the car is about something that is very insular – my family, talking to ourselves.

Again, I don’t want to make too much of this point. I’m not doing something great by taking the bus. But I think a lot of the problems we have in Raleigh, and in the United States, are tied to people’s inability to get outside their bubble. And I mean almost everyone’s inability to get outside their bubble. (I’m including myself!). Most people don’t even know they’re in a bubble. We think that most people live kind of like we do, believe what we believe, or want the same things (for Raleigh, for example). And it’s hard to get out of our bubble and really get to know people who are very different from us. The bus is not going to do that. But it’s a tiny step.

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The Raleigh bus. They redid the look of the bus a few years ago, and I admit they look nice. Image from https://www.raleighnc.gov.

Swedifying my life: Vacation

Since I got back (and even before), I’ve been thinking about how I can “Swedify” my life. Today, I’m going to write about the first thing I tried: Swedifying my vacation.

July is vacation month in Sweden. The schools close, and although there are camps and other options for kids, many families take the whole month off. (Many people expressed their belief that you have to take at least 3 weeks at a time, because it takes a week or more just to relax). Lots of people go to their summer cabins (often very rustic, as in no running water!). Some people just stay home and have a staycation. Many restaurants, bakeries, and stores close for the entire month (even though the summer is tourist season in Sweden, which means they are forgoing lots of income). Even Volvo shuts down its factory for a period during the summer. Not going on vacation is not really an option. I know several people who were reprimanded by their supervisors and told they needed to take MORE vacation.

In contrast, in the United States, going on vacation feels counter-cultural– even for academics like us, who are technically unemployed in the summer. (We have 9-month contracts). Most people I know take vacation, but usually just a week (or possibly two). Because most academics do work in the summer– writing articles, prepping classes, and other things that are hard to do amid the chaos of the semester– people end up humble-bragging about how busy they are.  And there is an unspoken but persistent norm that you should never be completely out of touch, even on vacation.

Anyway, Mark and I arrived home determined to have a “real” vacation. So how did we do?

Step 1: Clear the decks.

We made a plan. During our first few days (spent in a hotel room in Illinois, and then en route to Kentucky,) we would tie up loose ends if we needed to, but then we’d try to go off the grid, which mostly meant not checking our work email or doing any lingering work projects (writing articles, reviewing articles, reviewing graduate students’ dissertations, prepping for classes).

It felt hard at first. As we got closer to Vacation Day, I felt like I had to keep saying no. I had done this, to an extent, in previous years, but this time I was more aggressive. I told my students that I’d be unavailable for a few weeks. A few people emailed to schedule meetings. I said I could do it in August. A coauthor asked me to work on an article that we’d been writing together. I said I could do it after August 1. A grad student asked me to review another article. This one was difficult, because she is applying for jobs this fall, and she needs to get the article out, but I told her I would put it at the top of my list in early August.

As for our actual vacation, I’d say we did pretty well. With a few exceptions, I ignored my email. My lingering to-do list faded away. I made an exception for a graduate student who was defending her dissertation in August. (By “exception” I mean that I sent and read a few emails about her defense). But for the most part, I ignored work. And it was pretty great! We saw friends and relatives in Kentucky, Missouri, and Indiana. We went to my cousin’s wedding. And then we spent 10 days in northern Michigan. I read a really good book (The History of Bees – try it!). I spent a lot of time sitting on the beach. I went for a few walks (not as many as I would have liked). I ate corn on the cob and tomatoes.

This brings me to Step 2 of vacationing like a Swede: don’t do too much.

I have gone to Michigan almost every summer for the last 40 years. This town has been in our family’s history for 100 years, since my great-grandfather, a Methodist minister, was posted there. It’s my favorite place. And although a few things have changed since I was a kid (the addition of air conditioning, cable, and Wifi, for example), much is exactly the same. I think that’s what I love most. The kids run around on the beach and splash in the water (when it’s warm enough). We have bonfires and roast s’mores. I eat ring bologna sandwiches, and my grandma buys the special sugar cereals we don’t eat the rest the year. I talk to my sisters, dad, grandma, aunts, uncles, cousins, and second cousins (and third-cousins!).

Vacations like these are dreamy for kids, and Simon and Anna were in heaven. They rode around on my dad’s golf cart. They played make-believe with their cousins, the children of my cousins, who I spent my summers playing with in Michigan. They took rides in my dad’s motorboat and made sandcastles. Over a period of ten days, they only wore shoes twice. Twice! (Once to go out to dinner and once to go to the grocery store).

 

 

(Frolicking in the lake. S’mores! Playing with cousins. And yard games – the Swedish game of Kubb! – after dinner).

As it turns out, this kind of vacation is also easier for parents. We still had to prepare meals (although we take turns with my cousins/aunts and uncles) and do laundry and make sure teeth were brushed. But it’s much easier to be a parent when you have no itinerary than it is when you are dragging the kids from one tourist attraction to the next (which involves, of course, planning, packing the bags, herding kids through crowds, figuring out where to go for lunch, and distracting them when things start to fall apart). I like visiting new places with Simon and Anna. That’s one of the main reasons we went to Sweden. But when it comes to really relaxing, I like to do as little as possible. And I’m happy to say that I did.

Just yesterday, I was talking to my graduate student about my vacation. This is the one who I felt like I had let down, by delaying her request to look at her article. As it turns out, she said that after I told her that I was taking a 2-week vacation and not checking email, she decided to do the same! She had just gotten back from a long weekend away, and she had turned off her phone. What had started out as a bad thing (guilt over letting her down) turned into a good thing (showing a graduate student that it’s okay to take breaks).

As I Swedify my life by taking vacations, I realize that I am lucky, in that I have a flexible job and I get paid enough that I don’t have to work a second job in the summer. Lots of people in the United States don’t have 2 or 3 weeks of vacation to take. I wish that all people in the US had guaranteed vacation, regardless of their job. At the same time, this wouldn’t fully solve the problem,. There are lots of people in the US who don’t use the vacation time that they have, because doing so means breaking all of these cultural norms about working hard and being committed and responsible. I think I am a healthier and happier person when I make time for breaks. I wish that for everyone.

Sweden: What will we miss? (And what did we miss from the United States?).

I am writing this from a hotel room in Joliet, Illinois, where we are starting our Midwestern tour. We flew into O’Hare two days ago and will be visiting relatives in the Midwest for the next 3 weeks, then making our way to Raleigh in early August.

I wanted to write this before we left, but as it turns out, it takes a lot time to pack all of your stuff into suitcases (not more than 23 kg each!) after living in another country for a year! So I’m going with the next best option and writing it now, while Sweden is still fresh in our minds.

Mark, Simon, Anna, and I have talked a lot in the last few weeks about what we’ll miss most about Sweden and what we missed most about the US. Here’s my summary of the most important things.

What will we miss most about Sweden?

Not having a car (and doing a lot of “everyday walking”). I have written about this many times, but I have LOVED not having a car for the year. Of course, this is only possible because Gothenburg has a good public transportation system. We can get almost anywhere – including walking trails, nature reserves, and even the islands of the archipelago – via tram, bus, or ferry! Beyond the health benefits, walking everywhere has given me more time to let my mind wander. I recently read a book (Bored and Brilliant) that argued that most people don’t have enough time to “space out” and think creatively. That was definitely true for me. Walking everywhere – to work, to school with the kids, to the store – gave me that time. I spent many Saturday afternoons running errands, just like I did in the United States: buying a birthday present for someone, buying new clothes for Simon and Anna, returning books to the library, going to the post office. But in Sweden, I did it all on foot! Sometimes I would treat myself to a podcast while I did errands. I would come home refreshed and happy, rather than just tired and annoyed. And although we all grew tired of the walks to school during the dark winter days (and the fact that there was no other option!), I had many of my best conversations with Simon and Anna on those walks.

Spending lots of time in nature. I talked about this in my last post. I don’t know what happened, but Sweden somehow turned me into an “outdoor person.” Sweden makes it really easy to get outside and explore. The Right of Public Access (Allemansrätten) means that you can walk/kayak/pitch a tent almost everywhere, and public transportation can take you from our house in central Gothenburg to what feels like the middle of the forest, in under an hour. We spent a lot of time hiking – in parks near our house, above the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter, and in Norway, where we hiked up a mountain and then back down the other side. This is what I might miss most about Sweden, but of course there are beautiful national/state parks right in North Carolina that we’ve never visited. So I am hoping we will turn over a new leaf and start exploring them!

The famous “King’s Trail” in northern Sweden, and hiking across a mountaintop in Norway.

Taking real vacations (and knowing that other people are too). We’ve actually always tried to take real vacations – by which I mean spending a week or more doing something fun, and not having to check email/work/be reachable. When Anna was 1 and Simon was 3, we went to France for 3 weeks. Mark and I both did some work (Mark was doing interviews and I had a conference), and then we had arranged to stay in a cabin in rural southern France for about 5 days. What we didn’t realize was that they didn’t have Wifi (and we didn’t have cell phones), so we were totally off the grid. This was a really stressful time in my life. We had a baby and a 3-year old, and my mom had been recently diagnosed with brain cancer. And the trip turned out to be the most relaxing and restorative trip I had taken in years. It made me a believer in going “off the grid.” I joked that I could go on vacation to Cary (the city next to Raleigh) and as long as I didn’t have my phone/email, it would be a real vacation. Okay, so back to Sweden. What I love about Sweden is that everyone does this. Many stores and restaurants close for 4, 5, or 6 weeks during the summer. The daycares close for all of July, and although parents are allowed to send their kids to a central daycare if they need to work, lots of people take the month off. Some people stay home, but we know lots of people who go away to their family cabin for a month – or more! (And these cabins are usually not fancy – lots of them do not have running water). We know several people who were told by their employers that they HAD to take more vacation (meaning at least 4 weeks at a time). When you live in a place like this, you don’t feel any twinge of guilt when you tell people you’re on vacation. No one expects you to check your email. When I met (in May) with some colleagues from Denmark about an article we are planning to write, the senior person said, “Well, I’m going on vacation for most of the summer and I’m sure you are too, so we’ll just meet again in September.” And taking a vacation is so much better in this context. Not only are you allowed to really detach from your job for 3 weeks (or more!), you are expected to.

Having more time together. We spent a lot of time together, as a unit of 4, this year. (Usually this was a good thing, although sometimes we needed our space!). Part of this was because we were on sabbatical, so we didn’t have as many commitments. Part of it was our travel (to other places in Sweden and Europe) – we were together basically 24-7 on those trips. But part of it was specific to Sweden. I think they do much better with work-life balance than we do in the US. Swedish people work hard, but most people don’t stay at the office very late – especially if they have kids. The kids don’t spend as much time in school, either. Simon’s school went from 8:00 to 1:00. After that was “fritids” (afterschool recreation/playtime, which is optional). Anyway, our schedule was more relaxed in Sweden, and it was nice. We usually picked the kids up around 4:00, and then either went to a park or home to play/relax. I interviewed 27 mothers in Sweden, and this schedule was pretty typical. A lot of moms told me that they tried to take their time when walking home from school, to give their kids time to explore. I didn’t always succeed with this, but I think it’s a great ideal.

Living near friends. We really lucked out with our apartment building. Besides Simon and Anna, there were four other kids in our building: two from Greece, one from China, and one from Brazil. They played together almost every day – often riding bikes or playing soccer in our small courtyard, but also playing with Legos, doing crafts, or pretending to be cats/spies/whatever they were in the mood for. We did an overnight babysitting trade with one of the families (which was great, and so easy!), and we hosted parties sometimes. I loved being able to go to a party and not having to put on my shoes! But mostly I loved that it was so easy for Simon and Anna to play with their friends. It wasn’t parent-driven. It didn’t take coordination or effort from us. They decided when they felt like playing with each other (and when they didn’t), and they decided what they wanted to do. I will miss these kids (and their parents) so much!

Costume party for Brazilian Carnaval, and all of the friends together!

Being in explorer mode. I think that the reason I love to travel so much is that I love to think about things from a new perspective. When you move to a new country, everything becomes an adventure: navigating the grocery store, learning how to communicate with people, figuring out social norms. We had to learn what to do when you are invited to a Swedish person’s house (take off your shoes, bring flowers), what you wear to school on St. Lucia Day (a white dress and crown, a gingerbread costume, a Santa costume, or one of a few other options), how to deal with the Swedish laundry system, and how to choose between the 50 or so varieties of hard crackers at the Swedish grocery store. Sometimes all of this learning is frustrating and exhausting. But mostly, it was exhilarating and fascinating. In my “regular” life, it is easy to get stuck in autopilot. Living in a new place makes this impossible. I hope that we can preserve this sense of exploration when we go back to Raleigh.

Meeting new people and reconnecting with others. I have cousins in western Sweden, and it was so nice to spend holidays with them, invite them to our house, and go to their houses. Mark and I were also lucky to have two great “academic sponsors”: one (Mark’s) that we had known before, and one (mine) who was willing to take a chance on a stranger! It took us longer to make friends with other people, but we eventually became good friends with several of the parents of Simon and Anna’s friends. We have spent the last few weeks saying goodbye to people – having one last dinner or fika and taking trips to visit people. It was tough to say goodbye. “I’m having a really hard time!” Simon told me a few days before we left. When he had to say goodbye to one friend, he tried to hide so he wouldn’t have to. I felt the same way, but as I told Simon, it is an amazing thing to have friends in all of these places. I hope we’ll be able to come back and visit them again, and I hope some of them will visit us.

Photos: Our last dinner with my cousin Annette and her husband Janne, who lived very close to us. Going “crabbing” with friends. Getting ready to leave for the soccer/football game of the Swedish National Team. My cousins Camilla and Cecilia, who are the same ages as my sister Betsy and me. I feel like we were living parallel lives all of these years!

What did we miss in the United States?

People. We knew we would miss our friends and family in the United States, and we did. My dad and sisters and Mark’s sister and her family all came to see us. But we didn’t see them as often as we would have if we’d been in the United States. And we didn’t see our grandmas or other relatives, or any of our friends in Raleigh (or other places), for the whole year. We’re excited to see everyone now that we’re back in the US.

Church. We go to a really special church in Raleigh, and we missed it a lot. I missed the weekly ritual of going to church and having a dedicated time to be still and reflect. And we missed all of the people. It is really nice having a whole community of people who care about you and look out for you.

American drugstores. At one point I joked and said that if I was given just 15 minutes to spend in the US and I couldn’t use it to go see a specific person, I would spend it at Rite Aid. Over-the-counter medicines were one thing that I found difficult to navigate in Sweden. As far as I can tell they don’t have Nyquil or Vick’s VapoRub, two products that I adore during cold season. Regarding shopping in general, though, we managed just fine with Swedish stores, and the slightly higher prices weren’t a big problem, because I think we were more thoughtful with our purchases. I’ve been back in the US for less than 2 days and I already spent $100 at Target. (And I really didn’t buy that much). So I would say that although I did pine for Rite Aid, Target, and Amazon at times, I didn’t miss American retail stores very much at all.

Farmers’ markets and local produce. I did, however, miss farmers’ markets. I don’t know why, but Sweden doesn’t have many. There was one farmers’ market that ran on Saturday mornings in the fall, but that was it. When August rolled around and I didn’t know where I could buy local tomatoes, I felt sad. We did have access to a different type of local food in Sweden, though: foraged food. Foraging is a big thing in Sweden. When we visited our friends in Dalarna, Simon and Anna loved going blueberry picking. And my cousin treated us to some homemade lemon-elderflower saft, made from elderflowers she’d gathered herself. I’m looking forward to tomatoes and sweet corn this summer, and apples this fall, though.

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Blueberries!

Certain foods. We sometimes talked about the foods we missed. Simon missed donuts, especially the maple bacon donut at the fancy donut store in Raleigh. Mark and I missed corn tortillas and good Mexican restaurants. We didn’t miss that many foods, though – partly because it is easy to get most of the foods you want and partly because we discovered new foods that we loved, like plättar (tiny pancakes that you can top with savory or sweet toppings), knäckebröd (crispbread/crackers), and of course meatballs!

Eating and hanging out in the yard. Mark, especially, missed the yard and the opportunity to grill and eat outside. One thing I like about Sweden is that they make good use of public spaces; when it first started getting warm in May, it seemed like every single person in Gothenburg was having dinner in the parks. They even have one-use, portable grills that you can buy so that you can grill almost anywhere! We eat outside a lot in Raleigh, though, and it will be nice to have a yard again. I’m also pondering how we can make it more fun for Simon and Anna.

That’s all I can think of for now. We know we are super lucky to have had such a good year in Sweden, while also having so much to look forward to in the United States.

Some reflections over at Fulbright’s blog

Sarah’s done the lion’s share of work on the blog this year, obviously. I’ll make up excuses for that and try to make up for a bit, too, perhaps. In the meantime, I thought I’d link to a post I wrote for my funders, the Fulbright Schuman program. And while I’m at it, I’ll give the program my full endorsement. The Fulbright program is always on the chopping block when federal budget writers start looking for places to cut. I think it’s a mistake, for reasons I explain a bit in the post. But if you’re looking for a way to spend time abroad in order to better understand another part of the world, you should consider the Fulbright program. It’s a lengthy application process, but it brings name recognition and funding that are useful! And you dont’ have to be an academic to receive them. There are always several “independent scholars” that receive them. And if you’re familiar with the traditional Fulbright program but haven’t checked them out in a while, have a look at the website. They’ve diversified the program a lot, with multi-region grants, multiple visits, ones targeted at journalism, and so on.

As the US government at the moment is busy convincing the rest of the world that they don’t need us (NATO, WTO, and more), the Fulbright program remains a symbol of American leadership and cooperation. It was an honor to be a part of that tradition.

Thinking back: What we did right (and what we did wrong)

We’re leaving in less than a week. We are packing, saying goodbye to people, and trying to fit in our last traditions (last fredagsmys, last Saturday candy, last trip to the archipelago). It’s been a really good year. I’ve been thinking a lot about all of the things we’ve done, and what I think we did right (and wrong).

So here is my list. First, the things we did right.

Starting early. We did a scouting visit a whole year before we came. Mark and I met with people in Stockholm and Gothenburg and took turns touring playgrounds. (We had a memorable hand-off outside the Stockholm School of Economics, which has a very nice playground right next to it!). This helped us make connections for our work (and it is how I found the person who became my “academic sponsor”), but I think it was also good for Simon and Anna. They learned how awesome Swedish playgrounds are and tried their first meatballs and cinnamon buns, and it gave us something to talk about (and look forward to) in preparation for our big year abroad. We also started the process of dealing with the Swedish bureaucracy early – about 6 months before we came, which was enough time. (I don’t think it would hurt to start earlier, though) We were able to apply for schools for the kids before we left. Both kids went to public schools, which are guaranteed, but you have to wait to get a place (for preschool at least), and if there isn’t a space near your house, you might have to go somewhere far away. By applying a few months before we left, they were able to start in August, as we had hoped. And finally, by starting our search for housing six months in advance, we were able to get an apartment through University Housing, which was incredibly helpful, since our apartment is right in the center and fully furnished.

Arriving early. We came to Sweden in mid-June, even though we weren’t starting our research (and the kids weren’t starting school) until mid-August. I think we mostly did this so that we could spend Midsummer here, but it turned out to be a great decision. We had lots of time to explore the playgrounds and museums of Gothenburg, go hiking at the archipelago, meet up with our Swedish relatives, and go on a few short vacations – to Bohuslän (on the Swedish west coast, a few hours north of here) and to Dalarna (home of the Dala horse!) in central Sweden. We spent a lot of time together. Simon and Anna (and Mark and I) got better at walking long distances. We untangled some of the Swedish traditions. After school and work started, we got into our routines, and although we still made time to go on a lot of vacations, we didn’t do as much exploring in our own town, so I was glad we had this time. I also think it was nice for Simon and Anna to be able to adjust to Gothenburg and Sweden more slowly – to hear a little Swedish, try some new foods, talk about some of the holidays and traditions – before we threw them into school, where they had to speak Swedish all the time.

Putting the kids in Swedish schools. We went back and forth on this one before we left. We wanted to put Simon and Anna in Swedish schools (instead of an English-speaking school) because we wanted them to learn Swedish. We also thought that this experience would help them be more compassionate towards others at home (especially people who don’t speak English). But we knew it might be hard for them. We talked about how we’d have to be ready to leave work early to pick them up, if it seemed like they needed shorter days. And we talked about how we could put them into the English-speaking school if it didn’t work out. It did work out, though. They had a period of adjustment, and they weren’t able to communicate very much at the beginning, but they never seemed unhappy. Their teachers did a great job of helping them. The other kids in their schools were super nice to them. They both speak Swedish now, and they’ve made Swedish friends, who I hope we’ll come back and visit! It has been so fun watching them babble away in Swedish this spring. And as a parent, having kids in the schools here gave me a window into Swedish life and culture that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It also helped me empathize more with how hard it must be for immigrant parents in the United States, and I hope I’ll take that back with me.

Letting everyone pick a special trip. Before we left, we talked about how everyone could pick one place they wanted to visit, mostly so that Simon and Anna would feel some ownership over the planning process. Mark and I both chose to go to the far north of Sweden, above the Arctic Circle. Simon picked the place we knew he would pick: the original Legoland in Denmark. Anna didn’t pick anything at first, but eventually we steered her towards something that seemed up her alley: Astrid Lindgren’s World (a park oriented around the stories of Sweden’s most famous children’s author, who wrote Pippi Longstocking and many other books). Not surprisingly, Mark and I were very happy about the trip we picked. It was fun for everyone. We played in a playground made of ice, went dogsledding, hiked across a frozen lake, and fed reindeer. But this spring, as we realized we were running out of time, we started hemming and hawing (to each other, not to the kids) about the kids’ trips. I didn’t really want to drive 7 hours to Legoland! As it turned out, the Legoland trip was super fun for everyone, and I was glad that we went on such a kid-centric trip. And Astrid Lindgren’s World (or Pippi Land, as we called it) was just as fun. Mark and I have expected a lot from Simon and Anna on this trip: leaving their friends/home/school, learning to speak Swedish, behaving when we’re at restaurants and (more often) people’s houses, “rallying” when we’re in travel mode, walking to school every single day. They deserved their own special trip, and I think it was good for Mark and me to adjust our travel whims/style to theirs. I hope we’ll continue to do this sometimes even for small trips or just choosing something to do on the weekends.

Budgeting for travel and then not worrying about money. Since we are taking a year-long sabbatical, we only get paid half of our salaries from NC State (which is still very generous, I know! It’s basically the reason I wanted to be a professor). Mark has a fellowship, but we are still making less money this year than we normally do, and Sweden is an expensive country. But we decided, before we left, that we should be willing to dip into our savings as necessary. We didn’t want to go crazy, but we wanted to be able to travel a lot, to take advantage of our proximity to so many interesting places. As it turned out, Sweden was not as expensive as we thought, because even though it is very expensive in certain ways (example: a normal beer is at least $8), you save a lot of money when you don’t have to pay for health insurance and childcare is almost free. But I was so glad we’d decided in advance that we wouldn’t forgo traveling in order to save money. (Note: We ended up making pretty economical choices anyway). We went to Latvia, Estonia, England, Spain, Germany, and Norway – and many parts of Sweden, including the far north. We mostly focused on seeing people we knew and going to places that were new to all of us. So we saw my high school friend in London, Mark’s friends (artists who talked about what it was like during the Spanish Civil War!) in Madrid, and a bunch of Mark’s friends in Germany. And we visited Latvia and Estonia for the first time, which was totally new for all of us, and we went hiking in the Norwegian mountains, which was my favorite vacation I’ve had in many years – maybe ever.

Embracing a new travel style. We didn’t set out to embrace a new travel style; it just happened. Back in our pre-kid days, Mark and I traveled a lot, and our trips always revolved around food. We spent lots of time looking up restaurants (sometimes fancy, but often not) and seeking out interesting bars and markets. (And we went to some museums and on some scenic walks as well – but it was all about the food). Then we started traveling with Simon (and eventually Anna), and our travel style shifted. I joked that I was becoming a connoisseur of playgrounds (and I honestly do love to check out playgrounds around the world – both the playgrounds themselves and the way the parents and children interact in them). We had a lot more picnics and ate at a lot fewer restaurants. We didn’t just go to playgrounds – we’ve taken Simon and Anna to a lot of museums and historical sites. But we balanced this out with plenty of playgrounds (and ice cream). It was fun. We were in a groove. This year, we’ve found a new groove. Sweden has a lot of open space, and it is accessible and beautiful. We started going on hikes last year when we went to the Bohuslän coast, and it blew me away.: huge pink granite rocks, with a crashing ocean behind it. I loved it so much, and Simon and Anna did great. They loved “rock climbing.” (Note: Simon and Anna are in great shape now, but it took time. We walked around Gothenburg a lot when we first arrive, and then we started taking hikes near our house. But there was a lot of whining at the beginning). So we kept hiking – sometimes near our apartment, which is very easy to do, and sometimes in other places. We hiked on the “King’s Trail” (one of the most famous hiking trails in Sweden) above the Arctic Circle, in February. Most of these hikes were just day trips, but then we decided we were up for a new challenge, and we did a 3-day cabin-to-cabin hike in Norway. The longest day was 14 km (8.5 miles), and the next day we hiked up and down a mountain! Simon and Anna really liked it. I am just amazed that,, at 40, I am turning over a totally new travel leaf. I didn’t consider myself a “hiking person” before, and now all I want to do is figure out where we’re going to hike once we’re back in the US. We might even buy a tent! We’ll see.

(On left, Simon and me at the Bohuslän coast last summer. On right, Mark and Anna in Norway last month).

Things we did bad:

Bringing too much stuff (not that much). I think we did pretty well with our packing, but I wish we’d brought fewer toys and no outerwear. We didn’t bring that many toys, but I kind of wish we’d brought almost none – maybe just a stuffed animal, some books, and a few Legos. What I didn’t anticipate was that of course we would want to buy some Sweden-inspired toys, like PlusPlus (all the rage here!). We still don’t have a lot of toys, but as I pack everything up to go home, I kind of wish we’d just decided to buy what we needed once we got here. As for outerwear, I had this idea that I would save money by buying Simon and Anna’s coats in the US, because they would be cheaper. BAD IDEA. Not surprisingly, Sweden has great outerwear, and because they have the expectation that kids will play outside every day, no matter what the weather is like, the schools also have very specific expectations for what kinds of clothes the kids should have at school (rain pants, rain coat, rain GLOVES; then eventually snowsuit, hat, mittens), and we ended up buying new outerwear anyway. Oh well.

Not documenting our experiences better. I think we did okay with this. We have this blog, and we have a ton of pictures, and we did write in a journal – sometimes. But it’s quite spotty. We have done a lot of amazing things, and even more than that, it has been so cool to watch Simon and Anna change and adapt over the course of the year: learning Swedish, making friends, adopting Swedish traditions. We have a lot that will help us remember, but I wish we had even more. Mostly, I wish that I’d committed to writing down 2 sentences per day – and then stuck to it.

Not finding a babysitter early on. I think that the hardest part of this year for me and Mark has been that we don’t have a lot of time by ourselves. We have gone on a ton of vacations, but they are all family vacations – with LOTS of togetherness. (Luckily, Simon and Anna are at an age and of a temperament that they’re still pretty relaxing… but still). When we are here in Gothenburg, we have our own time/space to work during the day, but we don’t really have a way of going out at night. We called in a few favors from visiting relatives (thanks, Dad and Betsy!), and we did a few trades with our neighbors, but that was it. We had our first paid babysitter 2 weeks ago. I think this is totally normal– we were new to a city and didn’t know anyone, so it was hard to find a babysitter. But we probably could have found one sooner if we had tried, and I wish we had. It would have been nice to have been able to go out and explore without the kids (go to restaurants, go to museums, walk around since it never gets dark in the summer!). And it would have been even better during my personal low period: a few weeks in the winter when Mark had to travel for work and I got totally burned out walking both kids to and from school. (It’s very manageable when we share this job, but walking them both – to separate schools – was really tiring).

Anyway, this is all I can come up with for now. As I said, it’s been a great year. It took a lot of work on the front end to be able to come here for a year, and I doubted myself a bit last spring when we were packing up our entire house (to rent it out), after having moved in less than a year before. But it has been so worth it! I think it has changed all of us, forever.

 

 

Swedish National Day.

Today, June 6, is Sweden’s National Day. We went to an outdoor concert in Gothenburg’s largest park. Before the concert, there was a ceremony in the park to welcome the new Swedish citizens in Gothenburg. I went to the ceremony while Mark (and his sister and brother-in-law, who are visiting) took the kids to the playground, and it was one of the most moving things I’ve experienced. Some observations from today:

Everyone is sitting in front of a large stage. Some people are eating cinnamon buns or drinking coffee (which they are giving out from a tent in the corner), and others are just hanging out. The host welcomes us by announcing that there are 4,903 new citizens representing 140 countries, including (in order of importance, I assume): Somalia, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia, India, Thailand, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Poland, Macedonia, and England.

A blond mom with a gaggle of blond kids, all dressed in traditional Swedish folk costumes, is rebraiding her daughter’s hair. A couple comes in with an infant in a stroller. The baby could not be more than a few months old. There are two Swedish flags sticking out of the stroller. A mom and her kids are sitting on a blanket behind me. They are all very dressed up.

A speech on stage is ending. I didn’t understand much of it, but the end is: “Welcome to Sweden. Welcome home.”

The first musical act is 3 blond fiddlers in traditional folk costumes and a lead singer in regular clothes. The singer has curly brown hair and bright pink lipstick. She says she is from Syria. The members of the band have very Scandinavian names, like Ebbe and Tove.

Several moms in headscarves greet each other and sit down in the grass in front of the stage. Their kids twirl, jump, and sway to the music, which is some sort of Swedish folk song. They are all holding green helium balloons, which bop up and down as the kids dance. They gasp with glee and point at a green balloon that has escaped from someone’s hand and is floating up into the clouds.

It’s time for the folk dancing. About 20 people of various ages, all in folk costumes, are waiting at the side of the stage. Many of the dancers seem to be families, with parents and children all dressed alike. The dancers make a chain and start snaking through the crowd as an older man plays the accordion. They pick up more and more people until they have a chain of at least 100 people. Then they make three concentric circles and start teaching everyone folk dances, which are like the Midsummer dances that we learned last year in Halland, where my Swedish relatives are from.

I look around. In general, I think that Sweden is a lot more racially and ethnically diverse than its reputation (of being a country of tall, blue-eyed, blond-haired people), and that is especially true today. There are people in Swedish folk costumes and people in headscarves. There are people who are blond and pale and people with brown skin and black hair. Some people are wearing Swedish soccer jerseys, some people are wearing fancy party dresses, and some people are just wearing jeans and T-shirts. Many people seem to have dressed up for the occasion. Some women have managed to find dresses with blue-and-yellow prints, in honor of Sweden.

There is a table covered with fresh flowers off to the side. A bunch of people are huddled around it, making the flower crowns that my cousin taught me to make at Midsummer. Little girls come running over with flower crowns in their hair.

The folk dancing is done. The next singer is a “feminist afropop dancehall” artist. She says she was born in Mölndal, a suburb of Gothenburg, but her mom is from Ghana. She congratulates the new citizens, then teaches us the hand motions for a song that is about casting away negativity and prejudice and leaving only love.

The last musical act is a children’s choir from Hammarkullen, one of the neighborhoods with the highest proportions of immigrants in Gothenburg. There are 5 girls in the choir: one with pale skin and frizzy blond hair, and four with brown skin and hair. They wave satin streamers as they sang. They are very enthusiastic about their songs. A bunch of other kids dance in front of the stage. One girl actually climbs up on the stage, and one of the fiddler gently tells her she has to return to the grass after a few minutes.

The last person on stage is the City Council Chair. She gives a brief speech. I don’t understand all of it, but I get the main points. The people here have come from all over the world – from 140 countries. Some of them have left wars and violence and terrible things. We are glad you are in Sweden. You will make Sweden, and you will make Gothenburg, a better place.

After her speech, we all stand to sing the Swedish national anthem. They hoist the Swedish flag over the stage. Many people are waving the little paper Swedish flags they handed out as we entered.

Thou ancient, thou free, thou mountainous north
Thou quiet, thou joyful [and] fair!
I greet thee, most beautiful land upon earth,
Thy sun, thy sky, thy meadows green.

Thou rest upon memories of great olden days,
When honored thy name flew across the earth,
I know that thou art and will be as thou were,
Yes, I want to live, I want to die in the North.

I think about all of the adults here, who have come from so far away. In Sweden, many immigrants are asylum seekers, meaning that they made their way to the Swedish border and applied for asylum. Their journeys took them over land and sea. Many probably lived in several other countries before getting to Sweden. Then they had go through the asylum process and wait to hear the decision. And now, they are citizens. They look happy and proud as they watch their kids run around.

And yet, it must be so weird for them. Many of these adults can’t go back to their countries. Their kids might never see the places where they grew up, fell in love, and started their adult lives. Their kids will speak Swedish. They will go to Swedish schools and learn to love strange Swedish foods. They will correct their parents’ accents. They will celebrate Midsummer. And hopefully they will also be proud of the places where their parents came from and their families’ stories, which are also their stories.

I can’t think of a better way to celebrate a country’s “National Day” than to honor all of the people who have given up so much to move there. Sweden has a lot to figure out regarding immigration, and I don’t think it’s perfect, but today, it was beautiful.

National Day 1

National Day 3

National Day 4

 

 

The world is big.

Simon and Anna (and Mark and I) have learned a lot this year about what life is like in another country: food (candy on Saturdays, cucumbers on tacos, ketchup on spaghetti – !), holidays (St. Lucia day, Midsummer), social norms (taking off your shoes when entering a house, bringing flowers when you go to someone’s house for dinner for the first time).

This is what I expected and hoped for. It’s one of the main reasons we wanted to move to a new country for a year.

It’s gone beyond that, though. What I didn’t quite expect was how much Simon and Anna would learn about just how big the world is, way beyond even Sweden (and the United States).

Part of this is through our travels. We decided at the beginning of our trip that we wanted to take advantage of ability to get to other places in Europe relatively cheaply and easily. We’ve gone to Latvia, Estonia, England, Spain, Germany, and Denmark. (And Norway soon!). Simon and Anna have noticed that every country is different: money, language, food. They know Mark can speak Germany, we both speak Spanish, and no one speaks any Latvian. In the last few months, Anna has developed an alter-ego named “Frida” who lives in France with her 10 (or more – the number changes every day) brothers and sisters and only speaks French. All of the books in the library are in British English, so we’ve talked endlessly about British and American words: pants vs. trousers, jumper vs. sweater, and on and on. Simon and Anna definitely understand that you have to use different types of money in different countries, and they kind of get that money from one place can be converted into money from another place, because they received (American) birthday money that I converted into Swedish or Danish kronor so they could spend some of it at Legoland or the toy store. We have stayed with friends with kids on a few of our trips, and they have realized how playing is basically the same everywhere. Even if you don’t speak the same language, you can always play Legos together or run around outside.

Part of it is through their schools, especially Simon’s. His school is very diverse. The first friend he made has a mom from Malaysia with a Chinese background. She came to Simon’s class to tell them about Chinese New Year. Another friend brought in treats to celebrate Persian New Year. A third friend’s family is from Mexico City. All of these kids were born in Sweden, and most of them, at 6, speak two (or three) languages.

Part of it, oddly, is through our apartment building. We lucked out when we found this place, managed by the university. All of the apartments are furnished, and it’s super close to our offices, which is why we chose to live here. An unexpected bonus is that there are four families in the building with kids around age 5 or 6: one from Greece, one from China, one from Brazil, and us. The kids play together almost every day after school. In the winter, they ran from apartment to apartment, making huge Lego creations and even bigger messes. Now that it’s warm, they spend most of their time playing soccer and riding bikes in the courtyard.

Simon and Anna don’t think so hard about where their friends are from; they think about the kinds of things that kids always think about, like how Konstantinos is good at soccer and Kallie is always nice to Anna, how Chico likes to dress as Catboy from PJ Masks and has super fun toys, and how Libin knows everything there is to know about the trams. But they know that eventually, like them, all of their friends will go back to other countries. (Because it’s a university building, everyone is here temporarily, like us). And this makes the world seem even bigger.

For Anna’s birthday, someone gave her a puzzle with a map of the world. All of the kids started looking at the picture, and I loved hearing the stories they were making up. They decided they would start by picking up Libin in China (where Simon knows there’s a really big wall – he was just asking about this yesterday at breakfast!), then fly to the US, and then go to Brazil, where they could celebrate Carnaval (which they know about from a party that Chico’s family hosted). And then maybe back to Sweden, with perhaps a stop in Greece or Spain or France. They talked between themselves about this round-the-world trip for at least 10 minutes! They really got it.

Libin’s family will be the first to leave. They are flying back to China on Thursday, and I can barely bring myself to think about it. We have all grown so attached to him – partly because we spend so much time with him (and with the other kids). We have talked about someday going to visit Libin in China or Chico in Brazil, and I hope we will.

I’m so thankful for this year, and for our friendships with these kids. I love living close enough to neighbors that our kids can just run over to their houses and play – this is what Mark and I had growing up, and it’s a lovely thing for the kids – and the parents! Beyond that, I am so glad that Simon and Anna are learning at a young age that the world is a big place and that other countries are not vague, mysterious boxes where people “aren’t like us,” but places filled with people and families and new foods/words/traditions.

This is a hard thing to learn. I think it profoundly and forever changes your world view when you realize that the way you grew up is just one way of doing things and that we are all more alike than we are different. I hope so, at least. I hope this is something Anna and Simon will remember, and that it will make them more compassionate and curious about the world around them.

CourtyardCourtyard kids. I love them so much!