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.



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!


Kids as translators

When we started talking about moving here and putting Anna and Simon into Swedish schools, everyone told us that it would be easy for them to learn Swedish. I heard many stories about kids who started school in August not speaking a word, and then magically just started babbling away in Swedish (or another language) by Christmas.

I believed them, but I was skeptical.

Last summer, after we had arrived but before school started, we downloaded some Swedish apps for the Ipad. We practiced the names of animals, colors, and numbers 1-10 in Swedish. Anna and Simon started school. We learned some songs. We practiced saying things like “Happy birthday!” and “Do you want to play?” We began keeping a list of random Swedish vocabulary words on the fridge: police, puppy, rainpants, octopus. Simon and Anna learned a few Swedish songs.

But progress was slow. We knew that Simon was starting to understand Swedish, but he was nervous to speak it in school. He told us that he thought that kids would laugh at him. He played mostly with a handful of kids who spoke English (and Swedish). Anna wasn’t so nervous, but she played mostly with Canadian kid in her class, and her teachers told me at the parent-teacher conference that they often ended up speaking English to her, even though they “weren’t supposed to.”

Things started to change in January, but we didn’t really notice. Simon started playing with some new “Swedish best friends.” Anna switched schools and began hanging out with a pack of girls, none of whom spoke any English. Simon and Anna started correcting our pronunciation (when we actually said something in Swedish!), and we heard them debating how to say different words. (One topic of debate: Doorknob). We still rarely actually heard them speaking Swedish, though, although we suspected they were doing it at school.

And now suddenly, in May, it feels like everything is different.

Two weeks ago, Simon and Anna and a friend from the United States and I were sitting outside at a cafe. A man approached us. At first I didn’t realize he was talking to me, so I ignored him. Then he started asking me the same question over and over again – something about a “bun” (like a cinnamon bun). His tone was a little odd, and I didn’t understand, so I ignored him. He asked again. And then Simon intervened. “Say ‘ja’ (yes), he whispered. I said “ja.” The man asked something else. “Say ‘nej’ (no),” Simon whispered. I said “nej.” The man said something else. “Han vet inte mycket svenska,” Simon said, loudly and clearly. (“She doesn’t know a lot of Swedish”). The man and I talked for a minute in English, and then he left. He was asking if I was eating my cinnamon bun and if he could have it. The moment was over, but I was shocked. Simon sometimes refuses to look adults in the eye, and here is is speaking on my behalf, in an uncomfortable and awkward situation?! I was proud and maybe a little embarrassed that my 7-year-old was the one who’d cleared up the confusion.

The following weekend, we went to dinner with a family from Simon’s school. The kid is in Simon’s class, but they aren’t super close, and he only speaks Swedish. We told Simon and Anna that they had to make an effort, but we weren’t sure if they would. And the kids spent three hours playing and babbling in Swedish. The next day, we hung out with another family. More of the same. People started telling me how Anna, in particular, spoke really well and even had a Gothenburg accent!

Last week, Simon’s teacher stopped me after I dropped him off. She said that she had stopped doing private Swedish lessons with him, because he was doing so well at speaking. “He raises his hand and answers questions, even when the other kids won’t,” she said. “He is speaking a lot of Swedish!”

Anna is always babbling away to her friends when I arrive at school to pick her up. I usually have no idea what she is saying. Last Friday, we went to the toy to buy a present for Simon to bring to a birthday party. Anna chattered away to the clerk, telling her that it wasn’t a present for a party she was attending, but one her big brother was going to. She continued talking in Swedish at the grocery store. And she let me take a video of her speaking Swedish! In it, she is telling a long and complicated story about how she got to eat candy that day and she’s going to eat candy the next day, and she and Simon stole all of the pillows out of our room the night before and… I honestly don’t understand most of it.

Mark thinks that if we stayed here for a few more months, Swedish would start to become dominant for Anna. I think it’s true. It would take a few more months for Simon, but probably not much longer. I am so proud of them. Watching them learn Swedish has been fascinating and gratifying.

At this point, if they had Swedish homework, we could help them, because we can read directions (more or less), but basically, there is nothing we can teach them in Swedish. Instead, they are teaching us. And this is both amazing and super strange, because although I learn from Simon and Anna every day, there is no other area in our lives that’s like this. The power dynamics have shifted.

In a few months, we’ll go home, and although we’re hoping to help Simon and Anna “keep” their Swedish, we’ll mostly go back to our old lives. I’ll do more of the talking when we’re out and about, and I won’t have to ask them what certain words mean. But all of this has me thinking, over and over again, about all of the immigrant families who can’t or don’t want to go back to their home countries – about the parents who rely on their kids to translate during school meetings and doctor’s visits and shopping trips, and about the kids who spend a lot of their free time helping their parents. They are all amazing. As for those obnoxious people that like to talk about how “if you really cared about living in the United States, you’d learn to speak English,” I am going to guess most of them have never had to express themselves on a daily basis in another language.

Anna demonstrating her Swedish-speaking abilities!



Kid-centric traveling – our trip to Lego’s origins

When we were getting ready to go to Sweden last year, we decided that everyone could pick an excursion, within reason. Simon didn’t need to think about it for long. He knew he wanted to go to (the original!) Legoland, in Denmark.

What we didn’t realize is that the Legoland in Denmark is not so easy to get to. It is in Billund, a tiny Danish town where Lego started with a Danish carpenter who began making toys in the 1930s. There are ferries from Gothenburg, but you still have to drive or take a very slow train once you get there. We decided to drive, which (since Denmark is a bunch of islands) involved going over two very long toll bridges.

Mark and I considered trying to back out of this trip more than once. We’ve never been to a big (destination) amusement park with the kids, and the whole process seemed sort of daunting and stressful. We didn’t really feel like driving 7 hours to go to Legoland, and as it turned out, we ended up staying within 30 minutes of the Legolands in England and Germany. But we knew that Simon really wanted to go to the original. He has been talking about Denmark since we arrived in Sweden.

So we booked our tickets for the last weekend in April (an iffy time of year, weather-wise), packed our outerwear, and set off on a Friday morning.

On the way, we stopped at an outdoor museum showing what life was like in Denmark in the 1800s – they also had baby pigs and a 6-day-old calf!


Simon and Anna liked it, but mostly kept asking when we were going to get to Legoland. Not until the next day, we kept telling them. As it turned out, the Legoland campground (part of the Legoland resort) where we stayed was like a mini Legoland, with Lego sculptures everywhere and some very cool playgrounds. (This one was Ninjago-themed).


We stayed in a very basic cabin. It had bunk beds and a sink and refrigerator, but no bathroom. We had to walk to the shared bathrooms about 100 meters away, which didn’t turn out to be so bad. There were also cabins with bathrooms (and separate bedrooms) and spaces for campers and tents. I don’t think the other Legoland resorts have their own campgrounds (at least California does not – I checked) but it is such a nice option for families! Even with the shared bathrooms, staying in a campground was more relaxing and fun for us than a hotel would have been. There were a lot of playgrounds and amenities for the kids, and Mark and I could sit outside and drink wine after the kids went to bed. (We had to wear our coats and hats, though – it was chilly!).


(After dinner activities – I think they are trying to bounce pinecones off the roof).

The next day, we enjoyed a (chaotic but reasonably good) buffet breakfast at the campground. (Really bad coffee though – my Swedish self was personally offended by this!). We arrived at Legoland just as they were opening, at 10:00.


(The entrance!).

We had the strategy of going straight to the back of the park and starting there, to avoid the crowds, and this worked well. We rode many roller coasters two times in a row. Simon was surprisingly brave about the rollercoasters, and loved one that involved a 5 meter free fall. And Anna was able to go on most of the rides.

It was an overcast day, with showers predicted in the middle of the day, but we brought our rainsuits (the adults too!) and told ourselves that we’d have the Scandinavian advantage, since we’d be prepared. As it turned out, it never rained that much, but the weather kept the crowds away, so we never had to wait for any rides. (The next day, the weather was better, but the lines were longer – around 15 minutes for many rides. We decided that the rainy day had been an advantage!). Also, a tip: Rainsuits are useful in an amusement park, no matter what the weather is. I have many memories of going on the water rides as a kid and then having to walk around in wet clothes for the rest of the day. We all wore our rain pants and coats on the water rides, and we stayed dry. Mark and I vowed that we would bring our rainsuits to any amusement park we went to in the future, just for the water rides.


(Simon and Anna are modeling their rain gear).

I’m sure that many things about Legoland Denmark are similar to Legoland in other places, but one thing that is different is that they allow (and even promote!) bringing your own food. They had picnic areas set up all over the park (including many with awnings – important if it is raining!). There were also signs at some of the restaurants explaining that you can eat your own food there. We brought sandwich stuff and pretzels and fruit for lunch, but we saw people wheeling around big coolers of food.


They also had an enclosed baby room where you could feed your baby, change diapers, and heat up bottles or baby food. I would hope that they have this in all Legolands, but I don’t know.


One of the coolest rides was the Lego driving school, which Simon was able to do. They get their own driving licenses and learn the rules of the road, and they they set off! It was only for kids over 7, but Anna took it pretty well.

(They had flags representing their countries on their cars. Simon was the only American that I saw).

After spending the whole day at the park (and picking out a souvenir Lego set!), we went back to the campground. We had brought pasta to make for dinner in the shared kitchen, but didn’t realize that you had to bring your own pans, so Mark managed to cook the pasta using the coffee pot and electric tea kettle. I don’t really know how he did this.

We went back the next day, just for a few hours. We had not seen much of Miniland, the coolest and oldest part of Legoland, so we started there. Simon liked the miniature airport, and I liked the miniature versions of different countries, including Denmark, the Netherlands, and (of course!) Sweden.

We left around 1:00 to drive back home, stopping at my favorite truck-stop restaurant ever (in Sweden): a salmon-themed restaurant. Simon and Anna shared the kids salmon/lox plate, and we bought some salmon to take home from the salmon vending machine!

(Salmon vending machine on the right. You swipe a credit card to get in, then use the self check-out to pick out your salmon, then swipe the credit card again to get out. I was imagining what would happen if the doors malfunctioned and you got stuck in the refrigerated room all night!).

Concluding thoughts: It was fun to go on a trip that was all about the kids, since we don’t usually do that. Simon and Anna have had to do a lot of adjusting this year, and these trips have been a good incentive for them. (We are doing Anna’s trip in June). Legoland Denmark is a great low-key amusement park, since it’s smaller than most and oriented mostly to young children (although it does have a few bigger roller coasters). I LOVED the Scandinavian touches, like making a campground part of the resort and allowing people to bring their own food.

Although we were initially reluctant to go on this trip, Mark and I were both really glad we went, and we would do it again. It’s worth pointing out, at the same time, that even with staying in a campground, sharing a bathroom, and bringing our own lunches, this 3-day trip was only slightly cheaper than our 8-day trip to Latvia and Estonia, which involved taking a ferry (similar to a cruise!) and staying in very nice apartments. This is largely because Denmark is very expensive and Latvia and Estonia are not, but also because this kind of travel (oriented around an amusement park) is expensive. But the splurge was worth it, and we were all glad we got to go to the original Legoland. I hope it is something that Simon and Anna remember when they look back on this year.


Gender equality, in preschool and beyond

I have been meaning to write this post for month, and I was inspired to finally do it after reading this New York Times article on Sweden’s gender-neutral preschools.

When we moved here last summer, we were excited to learn that Anna would be attending one of 16 preschools with a certificate in “gender equality” in Gothenburg. Anna switched schools halfway through the year (to go to a school that is closer to our house), but her new school also has the gender equality certification.

So what does this mean? The principals and the teachers participate in training activities, develop a plan for their individual schools/classes, and then continue to meet with teachers and staff from other schools to exchange ideas. According to this article (in Swedish), these schools are a pilot program that may be implemented across Gothenburg eventually.

Gender equality.jpg

Based on this poster, which they had hanging at both of the schools that Anna attended, here are some of the key ideas:

  • They call children by their names (Anna/Anna’s) instead of categorizing them by their gender (she/her).
  • They organize groups according to children’s interests and needs instead of by gender or age.
  • They talk about different types of families in conversations and in place.
  • They focus on and talk about kids’ interests, preferences, and needs instead of their appearance or clothes.
  • They celebrate children’s differences and work to widen stereotypical norms to make everyone feel included.
  • They make conscious choices in terms of toys, literature, and games so as not to reinforce stereotypes and gender norms.

In various informal conversations, I have asked some of the teachers at Anna’s schools about it, and they mentioned many of these same points. One teacher said that tried to call kids by their names instead of using she/he. Another one said that when she read books, she would often refer to the characters using the pronoun “hen” (a gender-neutral alternative to “han” (he) or “hon” (she) – I’m not sure how widely used this is in everyday life). Another teacher talked about how they try to mix the kids around so that they all play together rather than playing with the same kids all the time.

I can’t really imagine the outcry that we would hear if someone tried to implement something like this in the United States. For a preview, you can just read the comments on the New York Times article: lots of talk about “ideologically-driven, authoritarian child abuse” (!) and “brainwashing children to ignore their nature.” Maybe some of this is related to the specific content of the article, but I think most of it is a reaction to the very idea of teaching or even allowing kids to question gender norms in schools.

To be clear, although I think it’s probably very difficult to do what they’re trying to do in these schools, it also shouldn’t be that controversial. They’re not forcing kids to play with toys they don’t want to. They’re not doing away with gender. They’re mostly just trying to focus on kids as kids, rather than as girls or boys.

Most 4 year-olds, including Anna, talk about gender all the time. They are thinking hard about what it means to be a girl or a boy and what girls and boys can do. I think it’s great that Anna gets to be in an environment where they are thinking hard about how to ensure she knows that she can wear the clothes she wants to wear and do the things she wants to do, and where they are trying to model that we should choose our friends based on their interests and how they treat us and not their gender or appearance.

There is evidence of this gender neutral approach in other places in Sweden, and I love it. Children’s clothing comes in a wider array of colors, and there is more clothing that is not clearly designated as being for boys and girls. Here is the baby section at one department store:


There are plenty of pink options, but there is a lot a lot of gray and green. Older kids tend to dress in bright primary colors, with fewer gender-stereotypical prints or colors.

Sweden’s gender neutrality also extends to adults. Swedish parents get a lot of parental leave after a baby is born, and Swedish dads take about one-quarter of that leave. You see Swedish dads everywhere: pushing strollers, on the playground, at the library. The health department organizes support groups for parents after their babies are born, and they are called “parent support groups” rather than “mothers’ support groups,” even though mothers are still the main participants (because they are more likely to take parental leave in the early part of a baby’s life).

Anyway, back to Anna’s experience. Anna has been thinking deeply about gender for a long time. When she was 2 or 3, she decided she didn’t want to wear dresses or bows – ever. Sometimes she would say she wished she were a boy rather than a girl. She prefers to be called “handsome” rather than “beautiful.” Most of her closest friends in school in the United States, and at her first school in Sweden, were boys.

She’s still going back and forth on dresses. But at her new school, she seems to be hanging out a lot with a group of girls. At a birthday party that she attended a few weeks ago, their moms talked about the same thing I’ve heard many moms in the United States talk about: how their girls were really into princesses and they weren’t sure it was a good thing. Anna is not super into princesses, but she has been talking about it more, and recently she announced that she wants Barbies (!). So ironically, during the year that she is attending a gender-neutral preschool, Anna is expressing more interest in things that she had previously shunned as too girly.

Probably this is all just a coincidence or a consequence of getting older. Who knows? But part of me wonders if Anna feels more open-minded about dolls and princesses because she’s in a place where the expectations of what it means to be a girl or a boy are a little blurrier.


Making it easier (or harder) to be healthy

For the last six years (until this summer), I directed a big USDA grant. It was funded under their “reducing childhood obesity” initiative, and the basic idea was that decisions related to food and health are not just the result of individual priorities/motivations, but are also linked to structural factors like the neighborhoods we live in, the foods that are available, and the amount of money and social support we have.

This is all to say that I have spent a lot of time thinking about how our environments can make it easier or harder to make “healthy” choices. But it has been interesting to see how this plays out in my own life.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about the ways Sweden makes it easier for us to eat healthy(ish) and be more active.

For the kids:

School lunch. This is a big one. It makes my life easier AND it helps Simon and Anna eat a wider variety of foods. At preschool and elementary school, everyone eats the school lunch, and it is free. No one brings lunch from home. There is always a vegetarian option. They have fish (and usually potatoes) at least once a week. Anna has soup every Thursday, and now proudly proclaims that she’s “a soup girl.” There is always a vegetable side; carrots seem to come up a lot. The drinks are simple: water or (regular) milk, which they serve themselves from a big dispenser at Simon’s school, and from pitchers/cartons at Anna’s. Unlike at Simon’s school at home, there are no options to buy or take chips or treats, and there is no flavored milk. They never have dessert. If they finish their lunch, they’re allowed to have a cracker with butter. Simon just earned crackers two days in a row, and he was very excited about this!


Simon’s menu for one week (translated to the best of my ability): (1) farfalle pasta with tomato-lentil sauce, (2) sausage-cheese casserole (loosely translated) with mashed potatoes, (3) broiled fish with buttered potatoes, (4) “heavenly mess” (! – my googling suggests this is something like stroganoff) with macaroni, (5) potato dumplings with lingonberries and cottage cheese.

School snacks. At preschool and elementary school, the morning snack is always fruit. They provide it at preschool; Simon has to bring his own. Once we sent him with a granola bar or something and he was admonished! The afternoon snack, or mellanmål, is bigger. It is often crackers (crisp bread/knäckebröd) with their choice of cheese, ham, or other toppings. Sometimes they have yogurt or smoothies.

Lots of outdoor time at school. I’ve mentioned this one before, but Swedish kids have a lot of time to play during school, and there is an expectation that they will go outside for much of that time, even in bad weather. Yesterday the high was around 20 degrees F. Simon’s playground has a 2-inch thick coating of ice over most of it. He went outside three separate times. Today was the coldest it has been since we got here. It was 15 or 16 degrees F during the day. And his class took a walk! I asked him where they went. “I think we went in a circle,” he said. “The teachers told us to look for things and tell them what we found.”

For all of us:

Lots of crosswalks, responsible drivers, and good public transportation (trams/buses). I noticed this as soon as we arrived. I walk so much more here, as you can see from the graph. (We moved in mid-June). In most months in the fall, I was averaging around 8,000 steps, compared to 4,000 in Raleigh. This is partly out of necessity; we don’t have a car. But Sweden makes it easy to walk. When I walk to Simon’s school, every street we cross has a crosswalk. (In contrast, I complained to the Raleigh City Council because walking to Anna’s old preschool, 0.3 miles from our house, involved running across a very fast stretch of Glenwood Avenue and literally putting our lives in danger every time). Swedish drivers are very cautious. And the trams help, too. I can march the kids halfway across the city because I know we won’t be trapped; we just take the bus or tram back. I am amazed by what a difference walking makes in my quality of life (even though the weather is often– shall we say– not ideal).


A bring-your-own-lunch culture. This one is small, but I think it makes a difference. There are very few places where you can’t bring your own lunch or snacks if you want. Museums almost always have a lunch room with tables and a microwave for heating up your food. This makes it easy to eat out only when you want to, instead of being basically forced to. It’s also much cheaper, which is good, because restaurants in Sweden are expensive!


Water in restaurants. Swedish restaurants usually have a big container of water and a bunch of glasses, so that you can help yourself to a glass of water. I love it. You don’t have to ask anyone. No one pressures you. Intriguingly (to me), the norm when you go to a restaurant, especially for lunch, is that you will get water, instead of soda or another drink. As is true in many countries, many Swedish restaurants offer lunch specials. They usually come with something hot (like soup or pasta), a small salad, and coffee or tea at the end. And they don’t even ask you if you’d like something to drink. They assume you’ll have water, unless you tell them otherwise. I just realized this last week, as I was looking around and noticing that almost everyone was drinking (tap) water. And I realized that although this is a very subtle thing, I think it matters. Obviously I can choose water in any restaurant. But when servers in the United States ask me, “What will you have to drink?” and look at me expectantly, it makes me feel I should just treat myself to a soda! Not doing so makes me feel like I’m depriving myself. It’s easier when it’s the norm.


Serve-yourself water in the front, and coffee and tea in the back. The big crock pot in the back is a huge thing of miso soup. Sushi restaurants usually have do-it-yourself miso soup. I love this because I get to add the extra ingredients myself!

These are some of the ideas I can think of off the top of my head. It’s important to note that Swedish “nudges” aren’t universally healthy. There are ton of candy stores, and not surprisingly, we eat more candy than we did in the United States.

Overall, though, I think we eat better here, and we are definitely much more active.  And isn’t because of anything we consciously tried to do. It just kind of happened. In the United States, we hear a lot about how health involves making resolutions, trying harder, making better choices. I wish we would talk more about how we can make it easier for people to be healthy AND happy, and what we need to do to get there.

School, and conducting experiments with your own child

When we moved here, we decided to enroll the kids in the Swedish public schools rather than one of the international (English-speaking) schools. This is not the norm among our expat peers; most of their kids go to the international schools. Swedish people are also usually a bit surprised when we tell them that Simon and Anna go to Swedish schools. We always say that we wanted Simon and Anna to learn Swedish and that going to Swedish schools teaches us a lot about Swedish culture. Also, as we remind Simon and Anna, their expat friends are not from English-speaking countries, so they’re also learning two languages: English and their native language.

All of this is true. And I’m very happy with our decision. But sometimes, like today, I remember that this is a bit of an experiment, and we don’t know how it will turn out.

This is especially true with Simon. Anna is missing her final year of preschool, but she already knows her letters and numbers. I think she’ll be fine. Simon is missing first grade, and first grade in the United States is serious business. They’re learning place value and parts of speech, and they’re writing a lot and doing word problems.

It became clear that Simon might have some catching up to do when a parent from Raleigh posted (in relation to a completely different topic) a photo of her first grader’s homework sheet. Complicated word problems! Multiplying 3 times 10!

In contrast, Simon mostly spends his days… playing. He is learning a lot of Swedish. He even gets one private Swedish lesson per week. And he does reading and math with the rest of his class. But his class in Sweden is far behind his class in the United States.

Part of this is because they start later here; even though Simon would be in Grade 1 at home, he’s in Grade 0 (kindergarten) here. Part of it is because they dedicate less time to reading and math and more time to social skills and playing. Part of it is because they are less focused– at least at this stage– on milestones and benchmarks. Part of it is because they have a much shorter school day; school gets out at 1:00 here (and then most kids go to after-school care, also at the school).

In any case, Simon has a lot of time to play.  I color-coded his schedule to illustrate just how much free time he has. The red blocks are recess/free play. The yellow blocks are “traditional: academics (math, reading), and the orange blocks are what we might call “electives” (art, music, gym). Green is snack/lunch.


That’s a lot of red (free time)! Almost 2 hours per day during school (which is from 8:00 am to 1:00 pm), and then another 3 hours per day during “fritids” (after-school care, which literally translates as “leisure” or “recreation”). They have two 30-minute recesses a day, during school. I’m pretty sure there has never been a day when they didn’t go outside; they go outside in the rain, sleet, and snow (and in the sun, but we don’t see sun very often here!). They also have a period of free play in the classroom. And during fritids, they can choose to do almost anything they want. One day, Simon spent the entire period making paper airplanes. One day, he spent three hours playing “Just Dance.” They have learned to play chess and table shuffleboard (!), but he also spends hours playing Legos with his friends.

In contrast, they only spend between 2 and 2.5 hours doing “academics,” which includes the electives. They don’t have math every day – just once a week. They have done a little bit of STEM, but not very much. They did spend several weeks reading and learning about the books of Astrid Lindgren, Sweden’s most beloved children’s author. They have a kitchen in their room (which may be a bit of a coincidence; the school used to be an apartment building), and they do a fair amount of baking together. A small group takes the tram (!) to the public library once a week and picks out books for the rest of the class. And they go on field trips fairly often.

Simon does have some homework, mostly related to his Swedish class. He doesn’t love doing it, although I think he’s proud of his Swedish progress. But in general he is quite happy with his Swedish school. And if you ask him why, he will tell you that the main reason is that he has a lot more time to play.

I’m curious how things will go when Simon gets back to the United States. I know it’s going to be a bit difficult for him to get used to the pace of school again, but I don’t think it will take him that long to adjust. I honestly don’t know, however, whether it will be a difficult academic transition or whether he’ll have a lot of catching up to do.

As a sociologist, this is the part that is most intriguing to me, because Simon is a one-person comparative study.

I want to acknowledge, first of all, that I am incredibly privileged to expect that this “experiment” will work out fine, and that many parents (and kids) aren’t in this position. We have relatively flexible jobs, and we have time in the summer to help him catch up if he needs it. As a white, middle-class kid, Simon will probably get the benefit of the doubt from his teachers. He does not have special academic needs that would make this much more difficult.

Second, I don’t think that Simon’s Swedish school is necessarily better than his U.S. school (and I don’t think his Swedish school is necessarily worse either). There are things I like about both. (If you look at aggregate trends, Swedish and U.S. educational outcomes are actually pretty similar— not terrible, but not great, with increasing inequality. They are both far behind Finland and Estonia, for example). I loved his kindergarten teacher in the United States. He learned so much in kindergarten. I loved that they did a lot of writing, and that he had super in-depth electives (an entire class on birds, and another one on book-writing). I also love his teachers in Sweden. I love that he has so much time to play. I adore how they spent weeks reading Pippi Longstocking and other stories. I love that they are teaching them independence by having them walk and take public transportation. I love that he gets so much physical activity during the day.

Anyway, I really don’t know how this will all turn out. On the one hand, I know that all of this free time is great for Simon’s happiness, confidence, and creativity. In a sense, this year is a sabbatical for him, too. Sweden is an easier place to be a parent, but it’s a GREAT place to be a kid. I also know that Simon is learning a lot about things that are important but won’t show up on standardized assessments: that people in other places have totally different social norms and customs, that learning another language is hard, how to make friends when you’re totally out of your element. I’m so proud of him, and I’m so glad he has this opportunity.

On the other hand, I don’t assume that all of this will necessarily translate into academic achievement back in the United States. Maybe he will be behind his peers when he starts second grade. As a parent, I have to acknowledge that this makes me a bit nervous. I want Simon to do well. And I will do what I can to ease his transition.

But I think it’s also good for me to experience this feeling of uncertainty, and remember that Simon’s childhood is not just about what he achieves. It’s also about making new friends, creating new memories, and sharing new experiences. I know this, but it’s easy to forget sometimes.

Ice lake

(One of my favorite recent memories: walking across a frozen lake in Abisko, Sweden– almost as far north in Sweden as you can go!).