Time to Celebrate a Year in Sweden

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I am at one of my favourite places: H’s parents’ summerhouse. Many people in Sweden have a second home in the country, usually a cabin/cottagey type thing. This one is gorgeous – slap, bang in the middle of the woods, five minutes from the beach; it is a little slice of tranquil heaven. I haven’t spent any time here since we last lived in Sweden, so it is lovely to return; even better that H and the boys have gone canoeing and won’t be back until tomorrow – the stillness settles the soul; the calmness soothes the brain; the perfect place to step back and regroup.

We’ve just celebrated one of the most important holidays in Sweden: Midsommar, so I thought that as we are approaching our first year anniversary of moving back, that I would compile a list of some of the negative aspects of living in Sweden. It’s not going to be a Swede-bashing exercise, because I could wax eternally lyrical about the great aspects, including schools, beautiful nature, and the general excellent quality of lives we have, but it is always fun (and therapeutic) to talk about niggles and bug-bears!

 1. Customer Service. This, in itself, is an oxymoron. Yes, we’re the customers, but the service is usually non-existent. See here for my mini meltdown rave about some of my experiences. I find it very odd: for a country that is so PC it is almost torturous, and as a nation that avoids confrontation at all costs, I find it strange that there are so many public servants unwilling to provide customers with help. That said – because of their dislike of confrontation, the staff can behave as they like because nobody would ever complain. So, the customer service can be as crappy as hell, and it wouldn’t matter. I am a bit of a customer service freak: if I pay for service, I expect to receive adequate help if I need it. So, this bit about living in Sweden is somewhat irksome to me.

2. Swedes often enjoy a little bit of one-up-manship. They like to boast (very gently, of course – they are Swedes, after all, and don’t go in for vulgar gloating), about what they have. They buy expensive houses way out of their means, and only pay off the interest. So, they don’t (and won’t ever) own them. They are very materialistic, and I think, pretty judgemental. Only, they would never admit to that (not even to themselves).

 3. The Swedes are very proud of their healthy lifestyles: they exercise, eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, and limit their kids’ sugar consumption. However, there is an undercurrent which is either hypocrisy or ignorance, and I am not sure which: they eat copious amounts of sausage and other processed meats that are absolutely jammed-packed with E numbers and artificial ingredients. In fact, pick up any random grocery item and you would be amazed by the contents, the majority unfavourable. Kind of like the UK 20 years ago, before we realised the dangers artifical addititves presented. So, banging on about kids only having sweets on a Saturday is somewhat redundant when you feed them food full of crap every day.

4. They like herring. Lots of it. I don’t like it, and this seems to rankle with Swedes. In the 15 years H and I have been together, his family have tried to persuade me to eat it; even so far as one Midsommer trick me into it eating it! It just doesn’t sit well with them that it’s not for me. My boys like it; thank goodness – otherwise could you imagine the grief I would get then? They would assume that I was cheer-leading my own “We hate sill” campaign. And while we are on the subject of food – most of theirs is bland. And that’s coming from an English woman; we’re not exactly adventurous in my part of the world.

5. They don’t shout. Ever. I do. Lots. It makes me feel as though social services are going to come pounding on my door at any given moment, after receiving a complaint of continued shouting at children! I am not that bad, promise, but when they are all so held-together, it makes you feel like that!

6. They don’t queue. They just seem unable to grasp the concept. In the same token, they don’t let you out in traffic either; they also don’t wave thank you when you do let them out. As a polite nation I find this a rather odd phenomenon. To help with a lack of queueing, everywhere you go there are ticket systems in place, where you take a ticket and wait for your number to be called. Very handy when there are numerous people all jostling for service, kind of redundant when it is just you, but you still have to stand their like a numpty, waiting for your number to be called.

7. It’s expensive. God, is it expensive. Everything is two or three times as much as in the UK. Okay, wages are slightly higher, but not that much in comparison to the UK. Come back, Primark; all is forgiven!

Phew. Okay, I think I will give the Swedes a break now. I would love to hear other expat’s views on our lovely adopted homeland, and the little things they find annoying.

It’s been a LONG time

I’ve been missing in action.

Well,  not when I say action,  I mean spending my spare time writing another blog.  I know.  How unforgivable of me.  It’s here if anyone is interested!

Things are really great for us in Sweden. I have not had one moment’s regret since coming back almost a year ago. Yes, there have been the odd twinges of annoyance:  when H’s parents over-step the mark (which have been surprisingly few and far between);  quirky, infuriating Swedish rules (how a British person can’t use her passport as a proof of ID if it is more than eight years old);  and appalling customer service (“oh, I’m sorry….the person you want is off to a meeting in 30 minutes, so she won’t take your phone call. Call back next Monday”).  Other than that,  it’s been just fab!

My kids are very settled at school,  especially my seven year old.  Every day I pick him up,  he’s with a different child,  and they are queuing up to come and play. It’s very reassuring.  He’s just had his first party in Sweden,  and it was a big hit;  other than the fact the Swedish kids don’t much care for chocolate birthday cake (home-made, too).  We also found several (okay then, most)  of his friends rather odd.  There were very little manners between them,  and they spoke in a way to us that I wouldn’t ever want my kids to speak to adults.  I think a big problem these days,  and not just in Sweden,  I might add,  is parents being afraid to be parents;  they are so terrified of making their child cross, or sad, that they are failing to lay down rules, and ultimately, respect towards others is sadly lacking.  Sweden was berated a while back for being “helicopter parents”:  always hovering,  and never allowing their kids to be just kids.  I have seen that over-protective parent thing a lot here in Sweden.  I’m a protective parent,  believe me,  but there are times when you need to let your little boy jump from that tree,  or let him walk to the playground two minutes away from your house.  I am not saying this is okay for every family,  or every area;  but we live in such a quite,  peaceful village, and sometimes you just have to let your kids gain a bit of independence.

My nine year old is slightly different:  he is undergoing evaluation for ADD/ADHD,  after the school noticed that his attention and concentration were a little off.  We’d noticed it at home,  obviously,  but had always been reassured by his school in the UK that he was  a model student.  Sadly, it seems that his “model behaviour” was actually him just sitting back,  right under the radar.  We had a lot of beef with his school,  and we are trying to be diplomatic and bear in mind that in the UK,  he had one teacher and a part time assistant for 30 pupils;  in Sweden,  he has two full time class teachers and an assistant for 18 kids,  plus he has two special teachers for maths and Swedish.   The important thing is that they are on the ball here,  and we are now aware of it,  so hopefully we’ll have some answers,  and a confirmed diagnosis. He’s always been such a sensitive little boy,  and I’ve been reading a lot about Highly Sensitive People (I am one, myself);  he really does fit the criteria for that,  too.  So,  his time at school is not as easy his boisterous younger brother.  He has one best friend,  and doesn’t seem very interesting in making any others.  Some of the kids seem a bit mean in his class,  but I can’t determine whether that is just a mix of him being very sensitive,  and them being nine year olds,  or something more.  But, generally,  he seems very happy,  which makes us very happy!

There just isn’t the same feeling of stress here.   Yes, it is confusing to know whether they need indoor our outdoor PE shoes (yes, the have two separate pairs),  and some things are simply done differently,  but on the whole,  everything feels a lot calmer and relaxed.  I am sat in my garden as I type,  and all I can hear are chirping birds.  It’s bliss!

I am also on a health kick – detoxing today, as I write!  Man,  it’s tough,  but I feel it’s a necessary evil.  The first time I did it (a few months ago), I went from eating a full-fat,  crap diet to a complete detox.  I nearly killed myself!  I have never felt so ill in my life!  This time around,  my diet is so much better:  I make my own bread;  rarely eat anything processed (instead, preferring to cook all meals from scratch),  and have kicked all the junk food (which has become surprisingly easy over time).   I have even got into the spirit of all things Swedish, and started running.  They all do it here,  so if you can’t beat them….This I would never,  not in a million years,  have done in the UK.  I am nearer to 50 than 40,  and I think people in England would have found the sight of me puffing down the street beyond hilarious!

So, that’s a little update from me!  I guess you could say I am happy,  and so is my family.  And that’s all we wish for, isn’t it?

An Odd Phenomenon….

An odd phenomenon is gaining momentum in the village we live in. It’s one that I am not keen on, but seems to be spreading like wild-fire.

Joint birthday parties.

Okay. What’s wrong with that, you may be asking?

There have been a couple of joint parties this year, where two kids have got together for their birthday celebrations. The school allows private parties in the hall for free, IF all children in the class are invited. Bear in mind that it is actually two separate Montessori years that work very closely together, so a total of around 40 children. I never gave it a great deal of thought, thinking that perhaps the kids or parents were friends, and they just found it easier to combine parties.

That was until I received an email from the father of a child who has recently had a joint party with another boy. He was bemoaning the fact that the party generated too many presents. I know. How horrible. Evil parents of party-going children, you should be ashamed of yourselves!

His email declared his intention to wage a one-man campaign against joint parties involving only two participants. He wanted there to be one joint party every season; so we’re talking about celebrations for 10 children per go. This made us scratch our head a bit. Surely, ten children generate MORE presents, and not fewer? Each child would still get one present from every guest. Wouldn’t they? So, the logistics would be horrific. Yes, admittedly, one party a season might be easier to organise if you all pitched in – but could you imagine turning up with (and paying for) ten presents? You’d need a wheelbarrow to transport them all!

Anyway, we dismissed the whole thing as faintly ridiculous, had a little laugh about Swedish people, sent a thanks, but no thanks, email, and then forgot about it.

Until the next email arrived. This time from someone asking if anyone would like to have a joint party with their daughter.

And then another one, this time, more specific – they asked, as my son’s birthday is in May, would we like to join in with their child. How do they know my son’s birthday is in May? He has only been in the school since August, so he has not had any other birthdays. Where have they got his personal information from? Granted, them having his date of birth is not going to crumble national security, but even so; it’s not something I feel particularly comfortable with.

So, the whole thing has moved from being ridiculous to rather annoying.

Firstly, what kind of party we have is up to my son. He doesn’t want a big party full of kids he doesn’t particularly like. He wants a small party at home, with some of his best friends. And you know what, I have to agree with him. When your six, you deserve to have a special day, where the emphasis is on you, and not shared with several other children. So, he will have his little party, and I am sure he will enjoy it.

I have replied to two of the emails, explaining my take on things, but received no response. I guess if your face (or party etiquette) doesn’t fit, you’re not deemed worthy of a reply!

This got me thinking about Swedish mentality. They remind me of sheep. They follow anyone they perceive to be a leader – and in this case, the guy brazen enough to send a circular email with his views to 40 other parents. There is a real feeling of one-up-man-ship here. Or, it would be more accurate to say that it is all about keeping up with, although not necessarily better than, the Joneses (or Johanssons). There is a tangible need to fit in, to be on the same level as everyone else; it doesn’t seem okay to stand out of a crowd, figuratively speaking, or be different. They can also be incredibly anal, everything is done to the letter, correct and in its place.

As a token Brit, I am determined to fight it, stand up for myself, walk my own path, and be who I am (strains of Land of Hope and Glory heard in the background).

Seriously though, this shouldn’t actually be life or death. It’s parties, for goodness sake! Come on Swedes – throw caution to the wind, and throw your child their OWN party!

http://theswedishlife.yuku.com/

Leave your hat on..

So, let’s talk about a Brit’s favourite subject: you’ve guessed it, the weather!

We live in the south of Sweden, and the weather is very similar to the north of England (where I originate from). I think most people are under the impression that all of Sweden is covered in snowdrifts as high as houses for most of the year, and seem rather disappointed when I explain that’s not the case. However, despite not having to withstand conditions as tough as they do in the far north, the southern Swedes are still very adept at wrapping up warmly. They wear all-in-one overalls, winter boots, big furry hats and huge mittens – and that’s just the adults! They take keeping warm very seriously indeed.

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Therefore, it probably doesn’t come as a great surprise to learn that it embarrasses me no end when my kids refuse to wear their hats and gloves. I watched my nine year old walk home from school today – he came skipping down the road (I can see the school from my house), with his coat wide open, no hat, and no gloves; nose as red as Rudolph’s, and hair flapping in the wind. He didn’t have a care in the world. I, on the other hand, urgently scanned the periphery for the hoards of neighbours muttering to themselves about how English people can’t dress their kids appropriately.

I picked my six year old up from school a few weeks back, and it was a particularly cold day. They were outside playing, and every single child was dressed up as described above, apart from my lad. I was somewhat miffed, because he’d gone to school with snow trousers, coat, hat and gloves. Apart from the coat, he was wearing none of the other items. I whizzed up to the teacher to ask why he wasn’t wearing them, and she told me he’d apparently said he didn’t have a hat or gloves. I was most indignant that of course he had them with him, and that next time they should ensure he was wearing them. My little lad got a bit of an rant on the way home about the importance of wearing his winter clothes! Did it work? Did the message get through? No, unfortunately not; it seemed to fall on very deaf ears.

In our house, we have a hat and glove eating ghost. We must have. Where else would they all go? At the start of season, we had hundreds of both, and we are now down to one hat that doesn’t fit either of them. So who knows where they are – the kids have probably lost them on purpose to stop me nagging at them to put them on! Either that, or they are laughing themselves silly, at our expense, with the odd socks that have also vanished.

So, why are my kids so unconcerned with dressing up warm, when every other child in Sweden seems to have it ingrained in their DNA? I blame the UK – we just don’t dress our kids appropriately. When it snows we put wellies on them, when really it should be hardy winter boots; and when it is raining, we make no provision whatsoever – they walk to school with no rain clothes, get soaked to the skin, with no other dry clothes to change in to. Not only do kids in Sweden have warm winter outer wear, they also have rain clothes. This means that they are allowed to play outside come rain or shine; none of this ridiculous, namby-pamby business about schools following absurd health and safety guidelines here, and quite rightly so. In Sweden, they’ve got it just about right – provide your kids with rain clothes, and everything just works! But it’s not only the kids that wear rain clothes in Sweden; the adults partake in a little protective gear, too. Although I completely agree that it is the practical and sensible thing to do, it does look faintly ridiculous to see a grown man wearing rain clothes!

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Going back to health and safety (a favourite subject of mine, can you tell?), the UK have got themselves so tied up in knots trying to prevent accidents from happening, that they only thing they are succeeding in preventing is kids be kids. It’s a very rare day when my kids are not allowed out to play at break time, and that’s how it should be. Let them get some fresh air to blow away the cobwebs!

My eldest was eight when we left the UK, and had been at school since he was four – however, in all those years, I never once got the chance to see him participate in a sports day – every year, they were cancelled; either because it had been raining, was raining or was forecast to rain. To me, that is policy gone mad! I guess their fear is that someone is going to fall over and hurt themselves; ‘cos, like, kids never do that, do they? And even if they do fall over because it’s wet? Well, then that’s called an accident, and life goes on. Wrapping kids up in cotton wool will do them no favours in the long-run.

In a similar vein, I remember walking to pick my kids up from school the first day. There were kids everywhere, hanging off trees, knee-deep in sand, and hidden away in every conceivable corner you could imagine. The cacophony of noise was deafening, even in the open air, but one thing was unmistakable: the laughter and the joy. There were no teachers yelling for them to get down from  high trees; they were merely allowing the children to explore, possibly make their own mistakes, but ultimately, just be themselves. I found that just wonderful, and so liberating.

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We need to encourage our kids to just enjoy life; adulthood will have enough for them to worry about. Let them live in the moment, without instilling worry about how they might slip over if it is wet. Let them run free. Let them be kids!

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It’s been a while….

Hello everyone!

Just checking in from rainy (although not cold) Sweden. It’s hard to believe that the last time I wrote, the sun was baking down, way back in August!

So much has happened, yet so little, if that makes any sense? I am working pretty much full time as a freelance writer*, and there have been times when I was so busy that I couldn’t think straight. In the beginning I took on so much work, trying to prove something (what exactly, God only knows) to myself, my clients, my in-laws, but pretty soon burned myself out! I took two full weeks off over Christmas, and have come back with a new attitude: do as little as possible! Seriously though, I don’t need to kill myself over it (and certainly don’t need to prove anything to anyone), and from now on, will just take on enough to work to put some pennies in my pocket and keep the wolf from the door.

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The kids have settled into their schools so well, and their Swedish is coming on leaps and bounds. Mine isn’t, unfortunately. I always say to H that if people speaking to me came with subtitles, I would do great; I am pretty much fluent in reading and writing, but speaking and listening? Oh, goodness! Panic is the culprit. It makes your brain turn to fluff and you sound like a moron. This time around, I really don’t care. Well, not as much as I used to. I try to laugh at myself, and that seems to work. Prime example:

We get our eggs from a neighbour, and the last few times he has come with them, H has been out, and I haven’t had any money. Up until recently, I haven’t been shopping alone, so haven’t needed to have any spare cash in my purse; but after doing this several times, I was embarrassed to look like the little kept-woman, so when he came with the eggs, I remembered that H had put some coins in a jar in the kitchen. Panic set in – he was stood at the door, my six year old was balancing 24 eggs like a juggler in a circus, and my dog was howling hysterically in his cage. I looked in the jar, saw two coins, one with the number two, and the other with the number one; in my moment of panic, I picked them up and handed them over. He just looked at them, with puzzlement in his eyes. In my dazed state, I had picked up three Euros. The eggs were 35 Swedish Kronor. In my defence, I had thought the eggs were 30 Kronor, and I had seen the two and the one, and tried to make them miraculously add up to 30. What I was thinking, God only knows. More to the point, what on earth was my poor neighbour thinking: a deranged English women who stumbles out with a random amount of foreign currency in her hand to pay for eggs? Previously, I lived in Sweden for six years and their money is simple; and, there is no 20 Kronor coin, only a note.  I was so mortally embarrassed that I laughed so much I nearly wet myself (after he’d gone, you understand), and then cried hot tears of shame. All I could think about was how idiotic I must have looked. H laughed like a drain when I told him, and it is so beyond ludicrous, that thankfully, humour is the only thing I now recall when thinking about it.

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The in-laws are starting to encroach on our space a little more – turning up unexpectedly, or hovering around in the garden doing maintenance work. H’s dad is bored and does things to occupy his time. They mean well, and deep down I know that, but I am a private person, and it throws me a little to be sat in my pyjamas and suddenly see his dad washing the windows!

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I also pretend to have a clean and tidy house, a bit like a show room: I clean within an inch of my life when visitors are looming, but tend not to worry too much when they aren’t. People dropping by unexpectedly unnerve me. H’s dad is fine – he never comes in the house, or even knocks. His mum is a little more forthright, shall we say! Last time she came, she knocked on every window, and sometimes just opens the door without knocking. I need to be careful what I say, because last time she did that, my nine year old rolled his eyes and said in a dramatic stage-whisper “can’t she KNOCK?”. Ah, the sins of the fathers (or rather, the gobby, outspoken mothers).

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I was talking to a mum at school yesterday who told me that in my eldest boy’s class there are two children with English speaking parents, and that her little girl is best friends with a child whose mum is from Wales. This is a small village! What are they all doing here? It just amazes me how many English speaking ex-pats gravitate towards this quiet part of Sweden (or any part, come to that).

So, that’s it for now! I really need to keep in touch more often – this blog was a huge outlet for me when I first arrived, and there are so many lovely people who read my entries! Hope everyone is well, and all the best for the New Year!

* Disclaimer: this blog entry is for fun purposes, so there may be errors. Unlike the writing I do in a professional capacity, I have not gone through this with a fine-tooth comb *wink, wink*.

http://theswedishlife.yuku.com/

Keep On Climbing

So, we had a BBQ this afternoon with some Swedish friends and their kids.

To start off with, when sentences were short, I held my own. I understood most of what was being said and it felt great.

But, as the afternoon wore on and anecdotes became more embellished, I could feel the familiar tingle which I now recognise to be my brain actually frying.

Brushing my teeth just now, I came up with a great analogy:

Imagine being a rock-climber: At the beginning of your climb, your muscles are strong, you glide your way up the rock-face with little effort, taking care to watch where your feet are. You are smiling to yourself, pleased at your progress.

About half way up, your legs start to ache and you miss a few foot-holes. But, your spirit is still strong and you are determined to do it.

Then, right at the top, you lose concentration and slip, falling down into a deep abyss, to a certain death.

That’s me and Swedish.

The more tired your brain becomes, the harder it is to digest what is being said and to do it quickly. Thought processes slow so much that they nearly stop and you find that you are working so hard to translate one, often insignificant word, that when it finally clicks, you are two sentences behind.

Then panic sets in. And the more you panic, the more you strain to listen for a word (any word) that you recognise and before you know it, your broken body is banging its way down Mount Everest.

I often wonder if my friends actually see my eyes glaze over.  Is there a point where they think “Ah, yep. She’s a goner”?

Because for me, I can’t imagine how they would fail to notice. They must see the lolling head; the fixed, pupil-dilated stare.

The most excrutiating thing for me is that I begin to pretend. Pretend that I understand. I listen to the cues of the other people around me and nod my head in agreement when there is a break in the conversation, or a slightly different intonation of the voice. My biggest fear is that my body language is not mirroring their conversation. That I might be raising my eye-brows in exaggerated disbelief when they are talking about some great achievement they have made. Or that I might be nodding and smiling while they are talking about the death of a beloved animal.

That absolutely mortifies me.

But you know what, I am sat here laughing at myself. Because, in reality, it is hilarious.

What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

And as the rock-climber fell to what should have been his undoubted death, his fall was saved by the cushioning canopy of a tree. And so he lived to climb another day.

My Writing Mojo

Seems to be back. Three posts in as many days.

So, today, I am going to talk about exercise. Or, in my case, the lack of it.

Up until moving back to Sweden, I had become a bit (okay, a little bit) of an exercise freak. On any given day you would see me jumping up and down to my Beverley Callard (Corrie’s Liz McDonald) video (yes, video – it’s about a hundred years old), face a putrid purple, sweating like a chav in Poundland.

Not a pretty sight.

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But, it helped keep mid-life spread at bay and it made me feel like I had accomplished something (other than giving myself a hernia).

But, after being here for just one short month, I have already got enough spare tyres to put Pirelli out of business.

I don’t do a great deal, you see. Other than spend most of my day sitting at a keyboard.  And eating cake. That’s the problem with suddenly not working (in a “proper” job, that is) –  you have time to crave cake. And time to bake it.

I was strong, so strong. For all of a week. Kept up with my rabbit-food munching, didn’t touch bread (and if I did, it was multi-grain) and walked a fair bit. But now, I have slipped well and truly out of what I call “The Zone”.

Swedish people are notoriously fit. They do aerobics classes for fun. Can you imagine?

But, that said, a lot of the food the Swedes eat is not that healthy. The love they have for sausage (every kind you can think of) borders on obsessional and as for cheese, well, let’s not go there. The difference is that they eat a balanced diet. For every sausage they eat, three carrots are consumed. They have unique ways of eating their veggies, too:  101 ways to cook an artichoke being one of my particular favourites.

So, for the last three weekends, I have told myself that when Monday comes around, I will start meeting up with my old pal Bev again. And as yet, I haven’t.

But, next Monday is going to be different. I can feel it in my bones (well, my knees, to be precise).

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