J. Nehru 1889-1864
first prime minister of India
Moving to another part of the world can be exciting! It can also hold some frustration. When you experience a new culture – a good advice is to just take it all in. Try to leave interpretation and judgment behind for a while, until you learn more about the rules, norms and values. It will save you some emotional rides. I know it sounds easier said than done, but from the top of my head I can think of situations where I have felt indignation and later learnt that there was no such intent behind. It was just a matter of cultural difference.
This is not only valid for expatriation but for all encounters with a, to us, new culture.
Yesterday I had a conversation on twitter about caviar. Not the expensive one, but the Swedish breakfast spread that comes in a tube. Yes, you heard me; we eat it for breakfast, and yes it is tube-food. This means all the colorful tubes in the grocery store are not necessarily toothpaste but food. There is also soft cheese on tubes.
The caviar looks like a cream somewhere on the color scheme between pink and salmon. It is salty. It goes well with boiled eggs. Either you slice the egg and have a caviar and egg sandwich, or you simply put some caviar on your egg and eat with a spoon. Cold potatoes are also a perfect match for caviar as is in my opinion chives.
Swedish people that relocate abroad often miss the caviar (find out what else they miss here). There are probably not many shops around the world selling Scandinavian food that don’t carry the product. In the Us I could buy the Swedish version in a tube at a Russian supermarket (there was no IKEA at a decent distance).
A non-Swedish friend of mine told me of the first time she experienced caviar. It was on a visit to Sweden. We all know how lovely a hotel breakfast can be, and this proved to be no different – there was a lovely pinkish spread that to my friend couldn’t be anything but strawberry flavored. It wasn’t. Imagine her surprise, and may I say shock, when it was all salt and not sweet at all.
But there has been some flirting with sweet flavors from one of the producer´s. In 2007 banana caviar was introduced, and this was mentioned in my twitter feed yesterday. I had fully forgotten about this. Deliberately, I suppose. Though I must admit, I haven´t tried it.
Another thing that I had put on my list of first impressions moving to Sweden was the mail and parcel service. Abroad I had parcels and boxes delivered to my door, by the mail company. The postman would ring the doorbell, I would open and scribble my signature on some electronic gadget and I would get my stuff. The Kavat shoes for the kids! The handbag that I had had to return since the shop assistant had neglected to remove the alarm device. The DVD player. The contact lenses ordered from Sweden (yes – cheaper than buying on location). Here there is a slip in the mailbox urging me to go to the grocery store to pick it up, or a text message. Few people are at home during the day in Sweden. People can’t open the door to the mailman.
Queuing is special in Sweden. If you feel Swedes are being distant and you want some physical closeness – join the lines for the ATMs. There you will find it. Even when it is your turn to withdraw the money you can be sure of having someone behind you, just an inch away. I have never seen the painted lines on the ground here, marking the private zone. Not sure it would help though. Why? I keep thinking it’s because in Sweden queuing might not have been practiced enough. In our culture there is usually always queue numbers. You can use this system for buying the softest prosciutto and tasty cheddar, for getting tampons and ibuprofen, for that annoying bank and post matters, for the weekly white tulips, for the cardamom laden cinnamon rolls, for that hot new too expensive dress and for inquiring about the cost of traveling to a far away resort. Not long ago it was also used for buying chardonnay. There is simply a system telling you when it is your turn.
What happens when another check out counter opens up in the grocery store in Sweden? Usually the last person in line for the already open one runs to the newly opened counter. This is apparently not a question of who has been waiting the longest, but of who is the fastest runner. I have to admit I never really thought about this until I expatriated to the US. There it was always the next in the existing waiting line that was served by the new counter. No exceptions. Once a man behind me darted out of the line and went for the new check out. The sales girl said with an icy, stern voice (think about immigrant control at an American airport and you get the picture) “Sir, I said NEXT IN LINE pls.” Don’t think he ever dared to shop there again.
On the other hand I have seen yet other systems. Let me mention to you when I tried to get lunch at a much known hamburger/fast food chain in Turin, Italy. It was like going to a rock concert where the counter would be the stage. Oh, did I mention I had a toddler and a giant (robust thank God) Swedish stroller with a hungry baby in it? Imagine trying to squeeze the stroller and the kids through the masses of hungry teenagers shouting their orders in loud, beautiful Italian. And then back out again after what seemed an eternity. I wish I could say it was the best burger I’ve had. At least it was the most memorable.
The first few days back in Sweden I noticed all the dads out walking babies and toddlers in strollers. Weekdays and weekends. I was used to seeing women with strollers. Even when the parents were out walking together the men usually did not push the prams. But because I´m Swedish I didn´t really find it weird; I did not jump to the conclusion that Sweden must attract an enormous amount of male babysitters; it was just such an unusual sight. Dads on lengthy parental leave was something I had never experienced. And here they came in groups.
Another child related observation was all the snow suits. We arrived in December and every single toddler was dressed in beaver nylon fabric. Even relocating from Switzerland this looked funny – I only really saw snow suits in the ski slopes there, but usually a two piece winter gear seamed more popular. The winters in Sweden are not always snowy and white but quite often just wet. So we made another acquaintance – fleece lined rain gear. When we lived in the US we could not even find normal rain gear in kids’ sizes. A nice grandmother had to carry it over on visiting. Because Swedish people go outside in any weather, which was confirmed by another first impression – zillions of people out walking in the rain.
Tomorrow I´ll continue down my list of first impressions upon returning to Sweden after expat life. Ciao!
A visual reminder to embrace living in a different climate – it´s a lot easier if you dress accordingly! “There´s no bad weather, only bad clothing” is one of the proverbs we grow up with in Sweden. I know expats who hate this saying, but truth is I guess we need it to survive! 🙂 Swedes are usually outdoorsy people; we need good and proper clothes for snowy, cold, rainy, windy, wet days. The first winter I spent back in Sweden after several years abroad I was constantly freezing. I had a winter jacket, right? The following winter I bought a new winter jacket – a Swedish one! Thick, fluffy and a fake fur lined hood. What a difference it made! I had failed to see the climate from the right cultural perspective.
One of the ladies in my expat network told me it is so easy to spot Swedish people in the alps – it´s the ones with the most appropriate winter wear! And not only in the slopes.