Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Facing the Fall

The last days of summer in Sweden are slipping away like grains of sand in the proverbial hourglass.  The color gray is becoming more prevalent in the skies over Stockholm, while umbrellas, and wellies are regulars of fashionable residents attires.  I find myself slowing, and looking for ways to linger in the sunny patches of my Swedish dream house. Moving with the golden glow through the day.  Mornings in my eastern facing office, midday in the kitchen, and afternoons curled in the light from western windows in living room.  Some days, if the afternoon clouds and showers delay, I can stretch the sun time even further, through the French doors to the deck. Coveting the final rays of liquid gold, before they stretch out my reach, and hunger reminds me that dinner needs to be made.

It will be only weeks before the direct sunlight stops dancing on my lye, and oil floors, only months, before the sun stops touching my Swedish dream house completely.  I try not to think about the greyness of the weeks...months, that will pass before amber pools swim once again through my windows.  I'm sure at some point I will be reminded of the magic that comes with the frost, and darkness of Scandinavian winters, but right now those thoughts only provide a cotton sheet of comfort against the impending chill.

So this summer, having experienced the darkness before, I celebrated summer much like a Swede. Which essentially is to work very little, spend large amounts of time with outdoors, in nature with family, and expose as much skin as possible, anytime sun, and warmth occurred simultaneously.  Anyone who spent the summer in Europe will attest that in most areas, those days were few and far between. Before sinking into summer in Sweden, we made our expat pilgrimage to the homeland.  I noticed that many expats spend much, if not all, of their summer vacation in their mother countries catching up with family and friends.  

We spent only two weeks in the States surrounded by those who know us intimately, and still love us enough to welcome us into their homes. To be intensely surrounded by so much love, friendship, and camaraderie was probably the most rejuvenating part of our summer. 

It was a drastic contrast to our first winter in Sweden, with mostly my immediate family for company.  Existing in a small bubble that was defined by my staying home with a small child in a foreign land. It was during this time I came to realize, that while being your own best friend in theory is, a lovely sentiment, it didnt work for me.  I need friendly voices outside of my head to quiet the pesky negative whispers of self doubt, that if not kept in check, become chatty naysayers. Without friendship to balance my mental seesaw, I have trouble ignoring the nasty gremlins of my psyche, and eventually even begin believing them.  

When we returned to Sweden from the States, fully saturated from a schedule of social engagements and catching up with friends, the stark isolation of our life here was almost intolerable.  For the first time since our adventure began the girls were asking to go home.  We all longed for the comfortable familiarity of our life in the states.  To spend our free days relaxing with family and friends, not staring at each other on our Swedish Isle.  Gratefully my Mom came to visit to keep us company till the few expat acquaintances we had returned from their vacations.

This year, I swore I would do everything in my power not end up as isolated as last year.  I developed a simple two-fold plan.  First, and foremost, find KC a school where she would be happy, because if she wasnt happy it would indeed be a miserable year for us all. Second I would need to establish some kind of support system for myself. Ideally establishing a network of families to create a sense of community that could be accessed on a regular basis. Like a village of sympathetic expats, to surround me, and my children.

We found an international förskola this past spring, not far from our home, that seemed to meet our criteria and signed KC up for this fall. Of course, there is always a catch.  In order for her to receive 30 hours a week at this school, I need to be a full time student, home with a newborn, or registered in Sweden as actively seeking employment.  Since I already have a Masters degree that I'm not using, and am happily past any desire to procreate, the winner of the next life situation I stumble into, is to register with Arbetsförmedlingen.  Whoopee!  I will be turning in my title of 'Stay at Home Mom' for 'Officially Unemployed'.  Im calling it a 'lateral move'.  One I'm not crazy about, but if KC is going to be able to attend her new school, it's a hoop Im willing to jump through.  

Last spring, as my social deep freeze began to thaw, a friend lent me her copy of The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.  If you havent heard of it, and find yourself seeking more happiness in your daily life, it is a worthwhile read. I dont know if reading it made me happier, but it definitely help me shift back to my more optimistic ways.  Reminding me that being happy, involves first finding my own happiness, and then having the courage to put it out in the world.  Pushing myself to, fake it until make it. An odd concept for me, but it really did help.  

At the end of last winter, I had been hugely unsuccessful in my social networking in Sweden, and was feeling discouraged, with my ability to establish relationships. Growing up with two brothers I have never found myself at ease in groups of women.  It took me years to understand the subtleties of female relationships.  Even now it takes an inordinate amount of my energy to manage interactions, and honestly, Im never certain of my position among a circle of women.  The trip home however, reminded me that there exist a slew of exceptional individuals who are happy to call me friend. At some point Ive done something socially correct.  I just need to remember what that is.  It was time to fight down my anxieties and push out of my bubble. 

At the end of summer we were at centrum having fika. I heard a woman speaking English to her three children.  The Teen also hearing it, and starved for social contact, prodded me to say hello.  I realized that if the school year would be different, I would have to be the change I wanted to see in my life. So after we left the restaurant, we tracked them down and made our introductions.  We hit it off and exchanged contact information. I quietly hoped that it wouldnt end there like so many of social attempts did last year.

I am happy to report, that connection did not end! In fact it served to bolster my confidence to invest more positive energy into coordinating a coffee for some new Moms from my childrens school that live on my island.  We met once and it took off!  It has grown to almost 20 women, and become a weekly event.  Last week we met 3 new women who have lived in Sweden for many more years than the rest of us, who heard us speaking English and asked if they might be included as well.  But of course!

As the delightful escapism of my Swedish Summer fades with the diminishing daylight, I continue to linger in its moments.  The other day I was drawn to my window by the sound of a diesel engine parked outside my house.  I watched a cherry picker arm rising and falling.  As I watched it registered that the workers were stopping at every streetlight, spending time doing maintenance on the lights.  In the States streetlights get no attention unless they are reported damaged.  However here it seems good old Swedish preparedness even makes a preemptive strike to cope with the darkness.  You cant prevent the darkness of Swedish winter from encroaching; but neither do you have to sit idled and let it swallow you with impending doom.

Life wasnt easy our first year in Sweden, it takes more effort, and energy than my life in the states.  Last year, I was caught unaware of all that expat life would require of me. This year I have a clearer picture of the challenges ahead and, like those workman in the cherry picker basket, I have made a preemptive strike while summers sun still lingers. If I am lucky, and I foster the new connections with KCs school, and my Coffee Circle, I may find our second winter in Sweden not quite as desolate, when warmed with the light of friends.


  1. I can completely understand both the hardness of the first expat year and the dread of the coming dark winter (and I was only in the UK which doesn't get nearly so dark). As a fellow-expat you might be interested in checking out my other blog which focuses on expat life rather than gluten free life:

    Enjoy the last days of summer!

    1. As always many thanks Jen! I can't believe I hadn't found your expat blog before! I had time for just a quick look around, and I'm pretty sure I will be going back for more. Thank you for sharing it.