Winter is Coming….

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Oh, wow. It’s been so long again. Too long!

The weather has finally turned to autumn. We’ve had an amazingly brilliant summer and up until very recently, an unusually mild autumn. Inevitably, the afternoons are darkening earlier every day, and there is a distinct chill in the air. It’s dull, insipid, and grey. I literally ache for the everlastingly long, warm days to be here once more. We had such an amazing summer, and I miss it. But, Christmas is creeping upon on us, bringing with it alien Swedish traditions. I don’t like Swedish Christmas fare, and really can’t get used to Santa coming on 24th, in the afternoon. Part of Christmas excitement for me has always been waking up in the morning of the 25th, and opening presents immediately – having to wait until the afternoon is beyond torturous; and that’s me, never mind the kids! I miss crappy British telly, turkey, selection boxes and slumbering relatives adorned with rustling cracker hats sitting lopsidedly on their heads. It’s hard. However, next year, we plan on spending it in the UK – and I can’t wait.

Christmas is not the only way Sweden and Britain do things differently – every now and again, I am struck by how very dissimilar we are. And this week, this has been glaringly apparent.

Firstly, customer service. Yes, it’s a drum I’ve already battered on before, but customer service is one thing Swedes do really badly. For example, we booked a high-speed train as a surprise for my son’s birthday. He’d never been on it, but had always wanted to, and so we decided to go to Göteborg and spend the night. However, 20 minutes into our journey, the staff announced that a train in front had broken down, and we would have to go via bus. ALL the way to Göteborg. As you can imagine – not happy! Our two hour journey turned into over four hours on a bus without a toilet, or any other facilities. So, understandably we complained – they offered a paltry 25% refund. So, I complained some more – they kindly offered 50%. I complained just a wee bit more – silence. Absolute silence. They obviously had enough of my complaining that they just ceased communication.

That just would not happen in the UK. What also wouldn’t happen is me giving up. By nature, I am not a complainer – I worked in customer service myself for way too long to moan in poor people’s ears unless I have to. However, when you book a special trip which you don’t get (we booked a high-speed train, not a clapped out bus), I would expect a full refund. But, for some reason, their silence speaks volumes to me. Their silence absolutely shouts that they are not going to be cajoled, badgered or shouted into submission. We get 50%, and we need to take it or leave it!

The other delight we’ve encountered this week was the clever workmen, installing optic fibre broadband cables, accidentally cutting through our phone lines, leaving us with no internet – ironic, eh? So, H happened to be walking past the workmen, the day after our internet and phone stopped working, and just thought he’d ask if they knew why there was no internet. They jovially informed him that they’d cut through the cables the day before. No apology. Just fact. So, H rang the phone company – again, no apology. Five days later – still no internet or phone. Apparently, we are not due any compensation until we’ve been five working days without them, so bet your bottom dollar that they will miraculously solve the problem on Tuesday!* It’s so irksome. I work from home, and have lost earnings because of this. Again, in the UK, they would be on it like a car bonnet! And even if they weren’t, they would say sorry!

H thinks Brits say sorry too easily. That we say it even when it’s not our fault. And we do – God knows how many times someone has bumped into me, and it is me that has apologised! But you know; I like that. I like that politeness. It is so uniquely British, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. We went to Scandinavian’s largest store last week, and it was unbearable: Swedes pushing and shoving, without a glance around them. No eye contact, just out-and-out trolley war-fare! In the UK, we do this little dance thing, when you are trying to get past someone, they move the same way as you, and when you try to go past in the other direction, they also move the same way. Brits laugh when that happens – there is a brief locking of eyes, a minute sense of connection. In Sweden – zilch, nada, absolutely nothing. I find that hard, really hard. Like there is no bond – everyone is out for themselves. Swedes are often described as cold, and in my experience, they really are. In reality, I know that’s not true – at home with their families they are as warm and open as anyone else. But on the street, among strangers? They are cold.

They also don’t know how to queue. Simply don’t know what to do. All shops have a ticket system, so that when you arrive, you take a ticket and wait for your number to be called. Take that away, and they flounder. Prime example, I went into a public toilet, and there looked like there was a toilet free; however, the door was closed. As a Brit, I waited a few seconds to see of any sign of life before pushing the door (again, we are so polite we don’t want to disturb someone taking a pee). But, just as I was about to try, a women came bursting in, pushed past me, and went into the cubicle. That would never happen in the UK. Whenever you enter a public restroom (or anywhere else that warrants queueing) it is mandatory to ask anyone stood there if they are waiting. Most of the time you know they aren’t; but you have to ask! The Swedes don’t. The way they see it is, if there is no ticket system to guide you, then you just barge right in!

I know that sometimes the Brits are a laughing stock with the rest of the world for this kind of behaviour, but I like it. I like that you can stand at the bus-stop, and everyone knows who got there before them, and silently, without acknowledging it, they let those people on before them. That doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world – but it should.

However, despite a few little niggles, rolling of eyes, and bewildered head shakes, I am still loving my life in Sweden. We are lucky to be here, and I am grateful for that every single day.

*Just call me psychic! That’s exactly what happened!

Vad Härligt det är i Sverige i Sommaren…..

…..which, for the non-Swedish speaking among us, means “how lovely it is in Sweden in the summer”. And it really is.

We’ve been at the summerhouse for two weeks, which is a week longer than I’d planned. H went back to work, and the kids and I just stayed. How glorious to be able to be so spontaneous, without plans, just taking each day as it comes. Doesn’t get any better than that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a sensitive person which means I need my space, so having the kids with me literally 24/7 has been tough at times; we’ve had our moments, but the good bits have been so good that the negatives just fade into the distance almost as soon as they happen.

Swedes are good at doing summer; they launch into a never ending supply of BBQs, and relish just being outside. As clichéd as it sounds, they are at one with nature, which is how they seem to like it most.  The whole vibe becomes so relaxed, and it isn’t hindered by the fact that kids get ten whole weeks off school;  it feels like an eternity; it feels so liberating.

The weekend has been red hot, and just wonderful. The beach was buzzing more than the French Riviera (and just as nice), and the sea was blissfully cool and refreshing. We’d talked about booking a fortnight in Greece next year, but have decided that there really isn’t any need. Why go so far when we can get all this for free. Granted, the weather can’t always be guaranteed, but you just make the most of it when it is good.

I really do love summer in Sweden; it is beyond gorgeous. We are truly lucky.

Pling….

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…I’ve just had a blinding light-bulb moment:

I am pretty good at Swedish! Yay – let’s get the flags out, and set the brass band going!

For those that don’t know me (which is around 99.99999% of you), this revelation is not me ridiculously blowing my own trumpet. Usually, I am pretty crappy at bigging myself up.  No, this is the sudden dawning that I am doing okay.

The revelation has come after speaking to another expat that I can truly see myself in, the first time I lived in Sweden: the continual beating yourself up when you perceive that you are not quite good enough, when in reality, you should be patting yourself on the back. Learning another language, whilst simultaneously trying to integrate into a foreign society, is tough; morale and confidence take a bashing on a daily basis, particularly if you are equipped with low self-esteem. I remember last time that I stoutly refused to speak English, anywhere. I would rather struggle in pigeon Swedish with a supermarket cashier, than revert to my native language. I felt an enormous pressure to try to speak Swedish. H would just gaze incredulously at me, saying that everyone speaks English, that they didn’t care if I didn’t speak Swedish. But I cared. I cared way too much.

This time around, the pressure is off. When we have Swedish friends and family round, they speak Swedish, and I respond in English. It’s okay. It works. Many Swedes feel just as uncomfortable speaking English to a native speaker, and so this suits everyone. When I am relaxed (or with those that don’t speak particularly great English), I use Swedish. I was surprised to realise the other night that I don’t translate from English to Swedish before speaking; it flows naturally. That threw me for a second, but then it gave me the biggest boost imaginable: can’t be too crappy at Swedish if you don’t need to translate the words in your head before you speak, eh? Don’t get me wrong, I am not brilliant nor perfect.  But I don’t need to be.

So my advice to anyone beginning to learn Swedish is take it at your own pace. If you feel comfortable trying to speak Swedish from the word go, then that’s brilliant. If you don’t, then don’t. Listen to the people who tell you how well you are doing; my father in law always tells me that I speak very well, but up until now, I have just scoffed. But why would he say I was good, if I wasn’t? No reason. So, it makes sense that I probably am. Try not to set your bar too high: if you have been here for six months and know only two words, then perhaps it isn’t going too well, and you should try Spanish instead. However, if you’ve been here six months and you can write and speak Swedish, then give yourself a high-five.

I also no longer apologise for my shortcomings. I used to begin every sentence with “I don’t speak very good Swedish”, in Swedish. So, not only was that setting me up for feeling inadequate, it also made me look like an idiot. Had I said it in English, then fair enough; but to say you don’t speak Swedish in faultless Swedish is just ridiculous. Also, telling people you are not good at something just reinforces the subconscious belief that you are rubbish.

I accept and acknowledge my weakness. I have seriously trouble when I suddenly need to speak Swedish unexpectedly. For example, the dog ran off this morning, and a woman found him; although I managed to speak to her, it was basic and grammatically incorrect Swedish. I felt an idiot, but much less than I used to. Swedes are tolerant people; they accept your attempt at Swedish with good grace, warts and all.

Så mina engelskatalande vänner – vara stolt! Lyssnar på och tror de som säger att du är duktig på svenska, för det är absolut sanningen! Om du kan läsa detta, har du klarat det! Stå stolt!

So, I welcome my eye-opening light-bulb moment with open arms. It feels good.

When in Sweden…

Knäckerbröd. Staple of most Swedish households. Dry, unappetising, rectangle shaped cardboard. Yet, despite this, since my return to Sweden last week, I can’t get enough of them (admittedly, slathered in Sweet Chilli Philadelphia – come on, cardboard, after all). When not in Sweden, crisp-breads were avoided unless on a strict 100 a day calorie diet, so why the big about turn? Who knows? Maybe I am trying to dive in this time with a completely different attitude: embracing Swedish life rather than fighting tooth and nail against it. I can either accept that we will live in Sweden for the rest of our lives (that’s the plan, on last count we’ve lived in 10 different places together and are quite literally all moved out) and immerse myself or, alternatively, allow negative thoughts about everything Swedish to fester.

Last time we lived in Sweden was hard. I put a lot of pressure on myself (and felt pressure put upon me by the in laws) to learn Swedish fast and to integrate quickly. I did very well at school and sailed through my SFI, progressing onto SAS (Swedish as a second language), however, I always lacked confidence in my abilities. It didn’t help that my written Swedish was so good – whenever I had a test to decide which class to be put into, I would always be placed at a level I felt uncomfortable with. All nonsense really. I could do it and wasn’t out of my depth at all, just felt as though I was.

I also developed a weird thing whereby I felt I had to speak Swedish wherever I went and to whomever I encountered. It was almost as if I had a huge, neon sign above my head proclaiming “she can speak Swedish, she can. Don’t let her pretend she can’t”. It got so bad that it almost developed phobia like qualities. I would go to the supermarket and be literally terrified that the check out operator would suddenly need to speak to me in Swedish. Hmm, like I couldn’t just say “sorry, I don’t understand” in English. But, I really couldn’t. It was as though I knew I could speak Swedish and therefore, had to. I would try to explain this to H and he would be incredulous. He would remind me that I had worked in several different foreign countries and had never been remotely bothered about speaking English to people. He was right. I couldn’t (and still can’t) explain why I felt as I did. The in-laws didn’t help. Whenever I showed any worry over speaking Swedish, they would mutter the magic mantra “practice. You must practice”. So, I think that I felt no choice but to practice. Even when I didn’t need to. That’s some kind of pressure. Mostly in my own head, but still pressure.

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This time around, I plan on things being different. But old habits die hard. If you’ve read my previous posts, you will see that having to interact in Swedish really does turn me into a jibbering wreck. I need to learn that it is okay to speak English (while I am learning, of course. Don’t plan on being 80 and still can’t speak Swedish fluently) when struggling. Here lies the problem: by doing that, I will be failing. I will be a failure. That’s the crux of it. It’s all about me, you see. But, I am 5 years older and wiser, now have two beautiful little things that are way more important than any of this stuff will ever be and I have learnt by my mistakes. This time around, things are going to be different. And if they aren’t? Then I only have myself to blame.