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.
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.