Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Repatriation Act II

(This essay was originally published as a guest post on my friend Lana's blog Spare Change in January.)

Repatriation 4 months back in the states: Two months back in our Borough…

I slipped from the confines of my neighborhood early this morning, positioning the minivan at the bus stop to make a clean get away, keen on avoiding the chatting social cliques I'm no longer a member of in good standing. I wave to my kindergartener as the bus pulls away, extending maternal love, strength, and confidence with the steadiness my children illicit, secure in my knowledge that my most important role right now is to be their anchor until their transition is complete. It's where I focus my energy, and the one way I refuse to fail due to lack of effort.

This morning, however, she was already deeply engaged in excited conversation with her new friends as the bus pulled away. The reassurance of the routine was mostly for me, a feigned slice of normalcy, a brief victory in my repatriation related angst--one I gratefully acknowledge to myself before I depart the scene. Quick beeline to the suburban mom-mobile and I head to a cyber cafe a couple towns away where I can sink into the safety of anonymity and refuel for a while.

In the parking lot, near the café, I sit in the van rummaging through my wallet for change for the parking meter. I look up. Across the street is a bakery with a bright blue awning in large white letters, the words: 'Viking Pastries'.  I wonder if they even know what kind of pastries modern day Vikings eat?  Kanelbullar, semla, cardamom infused twists of bread, or colorful gluten-free macarons. In the US there is nothing for a gluten-free girl like me in that bakery, which inadvertently goes against its name.  In Sweden, special effort is made in most establishments so that everyone had a little something to eat when friends met for fika. This bakery doesn't even have tables or chairs...another mockery of its name. In Sweden, we rarely took our pastries to go. We enjoyed them in a civilized manner with friends or colleagues, engaged in conversations wrapped in candlelight and warmth.  As the memory melts away I return to the scene around me--suburban parking lot, behind a strip of stores, definitely no candlelit cafes here. Dissonance…another square peg I try to force into a round whole in my mind.

I turn my attention away from my mental discord and back to the wallet in my lap.  These moments are not uncommon in my readjustment. It is my mind trying to wrap itself around the end of my Swedish adventure and return to my “before life” in a sleepy little Borough outside Philadelphia. Most days, traces of my Swedish life feel more real to me than what I have returned to, like spirits of lost loved ones I cling to them in my melancholy.

Lingering signs of my life in Sweden:

-48 kronor in my wallet.
-My sensible sleek German designed messenger bag, purchased in Amsterdam.  Understated and designed to blend in on packed morning tunnelbanan rides. Quiet and small compared its garish American counterparts.
-Up-dressing:dressing myself nicer than I need to by American standards because dressing down ignites fashion insecurities unknown to me prior to my time spent in Stockholm.
-Swedish words falling out of my mouth when I’m relaxed and comfortably speaking to my children
-Eating American pancakes with butter and jelly
-Still calling them 'American' Pancakes
-Loud pulsing Techno pop playing on my car radio...with no desire to flip the dial
-Reluctance to get in my car to travel, and upon arrival to destination feeling life experience has been diminished because there was no bus, train, walk through nature, or other human beings involved in my journey.
-Recurring phrase being uttered in my head and under my breath...sigh, 'I want to go home'.
-Irritating longing to sip tea surrounded by the smell of coffee, flakey pastries and the laughter of friends aka:fika.

Most days, it feels like my life in Sweden is slipping off me too fast…

But then…the Scavenger Hunt.

Rewind: Two years ago we were four months into our adjustment to our expat life in Sweden. I was exhausted and home sick for America, spending inordinate amounts of time on Facebook trying to stay connected. When a friend added a new event--a scavenger hunt of townspeople in our borough, the proceeds going to a local charity--I watched from 4000 miles away wishing I could be there too. They posted photos of the smiling faces, bottles and cups raised, fifty or so townsfolk wearing cheesy Viking helmets whose horns lit up. They looked so happy, innocuously connected to each other and our old community. I was unhappy and isolated, surrounded by a fabulous foreign adventure, but zero community. I promised myself there and then, if the opportunity ever presented itself I would be one of those crazy, happy people running around the streets of our Borough.

Fast forward: Four months into our repatriation, the call went out for teams for the Third Annual Scavenger Hunt and Finance Guy (my husband) and I, wanted in. We knew that finding fun was essential to our readjustment, even if it served no purpose other than distraction. But after being gone those two years in Sweden, we no longer had the social resources to pull together a team. The night before the hunt my friend, knowing how much we wanted to participate, made a last minute match, introducing us to one of the team captains via Facebook. This captain, it turns out, was born and raised in Stockholm and lived just one street over from me in our little borough. When she heard we just returned from living in Stockholm she didn't hesitate to welcome us aboard, her team, the 'Mostly Swedes'.

We enthusiastically joined, gathering the night of the event in my friend’s back yard. The mood was festive--trees strung with white bulb lights, coolers full of beers standing at the ready. We signed in and we were handed plastic Viking helmets, like we’d seen in the Facebook photos. Meanwhile, Finance Guy and I tried to piece together familiar faces and how we knew them, it was a little disorienting.
Luckily, our teams had agreed on Facebook the night before, to wear Swedish Blue and Gold or Tre Kronors Hockey jerseys. As members of ‘Mostly Swedes’ team arrived we immediately recognized them. Our team consisted of: our Swedish captain and her native Borough born husband, two Swedish expats from Göteburg and ourselves. Each team was given a manila folder along with instructions for clues of places to video. We had two hours before we had to meet at the pizzeria. Our captain had come in second place the year before…she was in it to win!

When the signal was given, we hurriedly looked at the clues inside our folder. There were five pages! We’d have to run to get everything we needed. As teams exited the yard, Finance Guy shot off a couple good-natured insults to the teams we left behind. I cringed. So much for keeping to the Swedish norm of quietly blending in. 
We hit the streets in full stride and it occurred to me, half our team was not native English speakers. Which led to some odd things getting lost in translation. Like the “Water Fountain.” To my knowledge my town had never had a water fountain. But when we stopped to ask two little old ladies walking their dogs, they told us there were multiple fountains down by the park. I thought they’d been hitting the peach schnapps till I realized the clue meant DRINKING fountains! Oh!
Then there was the thing about the “Garden Gnome.” My Swedish friend had never heard of a, “ga-nome?” I told her it was a little bearded man with a tall hat, usually in red, blue or green,” and she shouted, “Oh! A tomton!! Well why didn’t you just say that!?” Why indeed?

We finished out our scramble for points then met up with the other teams, kicking back at the pizzeria, as points were totaled. By dumb luck, Finance Guy’s perseverance, and a rubber chicken our captain sprinted for (don’t ask), we won first place!

Our motley crew of foreigners, transplants, repats and one native had won the whole stinking thing! The night was like swimming in some surreal synergistic soup where two worlds, Swedish and American, merged. Maybe it wasn’t the best of both my worlds, but they were, my worlds. For me the win wasn’t in the points, or the gift basket, or even in the bragging rights, although those are pretty sweet. It was in experiencing one crazy night where my life made sense again. Maybe I won’t ever fit the same way with the other parents at the bus stop. Maybe I won’t ever stop missing my Friday Fikas and the multi-national friends I shared them with. But like the Scavenger Hunt, repatriating has given me pages of odd challenges for my brain to prioritize and sort. Merging two existences into a new one in an old place that comes with its own baggage, many days feels impossible. I’m still not certain how it will all work out, but for one night I had a sweet affirmation of hope that little by little, point-by-point, with enthusiasm and a healthy sense of fun it just might be possible.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post. And can so relate to the concept of "hiding out" from social circles we're not quite in the mood to interact with yet.

  2. Thanks Jen! It's Spring, the time of expat migrations. Who's staying, who's going? I will be stopping by your blog soon to catch up and see if you have any changes coming this season.