Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Winter Swede and the Summer Swede

The sun shone relentlessly, every weekend, and almost every day, during the summer of 2013 in Sweden. It seemed for over 3 months that we were all tipsy on the more extreme version of the ideal Swedish summer life. Phones plinged all the time, whether a Saturday morning or a Tuesday evening, with group chats or various friends messaging to round people up for swimming sessions on Långholmen, picnics on Skinnarviksberget, BYOB happy hours in the middle of Humlegården. It was intoxicating and exhausting. I sometimes needed a break, some alone time spent quietly inside, but my fear of missing out and the ever present hole in my heart from missing California drove me to say yes nine times for every no. It was the same for everyone I knew. Few things define carpe diem like what Swedes do with a vibrantly sunny day.


Swedes know this, in fact. They love the way they are in summer. They seem to believe that in the summer they are their best selves... more positive, more outgoing, more proactive, more tan, and better looking... sporting about in their cream colored cardigans and denim shorts and Ray Bans, sipping rose as the sun hovers on the horizon for hours on end without going down.

The long and dark winters that Sweden experiences are known to have an effect on the Swedish psyche. The colder days do not make one very prone to doing more things, conversing with more people, and they certainly aren't so easy on the stress level when forgetting your gloves makes the difference between a manageable walk home and a quite painful one. Self-reported depressive moods are more prevalent during the winter season. When speaking more bitterly, you'll may hear a Swede say that Winter is spent simply waiting for it to end, and in even more bitter tones, "why would anyone move to cold dark Sweden anyway, where the people are also cold and not so friendly?" Ouch.

After a few seasons of each, I think that the Winter Swede and the Summer Swede are not opposing characters, one as the quieter sadder shadow who is outshone by their happy sociable ideal self. They are more counterparts, where they each exist to balance each other out, and the flamboyant beauty of one side is matched in importance by the introspective comfort of the other.


When it comes to romance, the Summer Swede may...

  • Start seeing someone new without much thought, and let them go as easily, because although that late night city swim with them after leaving the bar was fun, and there was potential in the way the conversation flowed with them while flipping through youtube videos the next morning, vacation is coming soon and after that the weekend trip with friends, and the instinct is that any investment in the new fling costs too much right now.  
  • Have their eyes wide open, to see that there's potential in every corner for love or lust, because the light is there finally to illuminate it. the bar patio is light and fresh in the early morning hours, and they'll see someone floating around who may have rotated in different locations months before. they may meet that friend of a friend at a midsummer party who is not really their type but was so damn fun to sing along with so they'll go for it. where were all these fun shiny people hiding during winter? how will we have enough time to kiss all of them? no one knows. 
  • Revel in being single. 
The Winter Swede may...
  • Try or wish to not be single. Maybe it's the cold and darkness that make them only temporarily long for a partner. And maybe for some of them, it's a time to reconcile themselves with matters of the heart that reveal themselves when there's no distracting sunshine. Many download dating apps, a path they may not have opened up to when there seemed to be potential in every sunny corner.
  • Be more likely to hook up with or go back to or reconsider someone from before.  Companionship is the name of the winter game... and that means that connections aren't taken for granted. In fact, who needs a spontaneous sailing trip where one might meet someone new on a Saturday afternoon? Isn't it more cozy to stay in and make brunch with that familiar face? They sure are fun to look at youtube videos with, after all.
  • Solidify their love. The summer fling lasted in fact, and in the months that follow, the building blocks for something more and deeper may be put into place. During the snow and the rain, the first fights, the missing them when they are away for a week with their family over Christmas, the more nights than not spent together, the getting to know their friends and their annoying habits... it becomes real. What it would be like if the next sunny summer was spent by their side? That could be pretty magical. 


When it comes to friendship, the Summer Swede may...

  • Invite more people more easily.
  • Develop new friendships more easily. 
  • Say yes to new events more easily. 
  • Forget to celebrate their friends' summer birthdays, or not be able to due to vacations and whatnot.
The Winter Swede may...


  • Give deeply to their closest friends, and see mostly only them repeatedly.
  • Limit the social scope of focus and invest more time with family, if there wasn't a chance in the summer. 
  • Create meaningful events and celebrations for friends' and their own birthdays. 



    When it comes to lifestyle, the Summer Swede may...
    • Live in the moment. There is very little that isn't lovely on the five senses in a Swedish summer, and there's little work to be done, usually, and little than anyone else expects from another. Why rush to tomorrow? To the next hour? The sun is here today, this minute. Work lunches out in the sun last longer. A midweek evening beer by the water turns into three.
    • Plan less, think less and go off the beaten path. 
    • Hardly ever be inside, at home or the gym. The oven is rarely turned on, and it's simple outside grilling that makes for most meals. The morning yoga gym routine is brushed aside for perhaps a run by the water, but most likely a picnic with beers. 
    • Be inspired to change. There's things about the brightness and the happiness that can kick one into gear, see the present situation more clearly, and realize what may need to change, what might be dragging one down. "It's time to switch jobs" or "I need to move abroad"and "I can't be with my boyfriend anymore." But that isn't often the time that the change is actually made, just inspired, because...
    The Winter Swede may...
    • Enact change. There is time to contemplate, plan, take steps and move forward in the colder season. Distractions are fewer, so that idea or realization they had in the summer? It gains legs now. Many new jobs are secured, serious relationships ended, and life paths re-directed in this season. 
    • Plan more, invest, and develop routines that help with health or consistency. 
    • Spend a lot of time inside. This going without saying of course, when the weather is cold, but the Winter Swede knows how to do it and do it well. Light candles for any or no occasion. Cook and bake a lot. Work out a lot. Homes are kept so bright and clean and Scandinavianly uncluttered here primarily because of the indoor needs of the Winter Swede. 
    • Live in the future. Thoughts are not as much in the moment, they can be in the abstract. The future of one's business, of one's family, the introspection of self... there's all kinds of processing that the cold dark months enable so well. 





    One side is buoyed by the other. They wouldn't be happy being only one self or the other. I'm grateful when I, and my friends, and everyone else I encounter here, shift from the Winter version of ourselves to the Summer one, but also vice versa. And most of all, I appreciate that for those that I'm close with, generalizations don't really apply so well, and that our loyalty, sense of fun, investment in each other and devotion to quality of life doesn't really shift much at all from season to season. 

    Read more »

    Tuesday, December 3, 2013

    How I learned Swedish: Puss, Upphetsad, Simbassäng and other memorable words

    “A word is dead when it's been said, some say. I say it just begins to live that day.” 
    ― Emily Dickinson


    The way a language is learned, word by word, whether over many years or few, is largely through a collection of moments. I recall doing hundreds of hours of Spanish homework in high school and college, that was the groundwork for my proficiency, but I’ll never forget the moment I first saw the seaside off Baja California in Mexico, and someone told me what a “playa” was. The word is so much more beautiful than beach.

    Swedish has never come to me through a classroom, but through years of moments and personal study. Here are some of the words that I’ll never forget and how they came to me.

    Dansa... Santa Barbara. Five years ago.
    It was some lazy southern California winter afternoon. Probably raining outside. We were laying down and he was showing me old photos and videos from his phone. Still doing some of the getting-to-know-you stuff, of which there is a lot when you meet someone from another country. He came across some songs saved on his phone, and started playing one. The title was “Dansa på min grav.”
    “What does that mean?” I ask.
    “Dance on my grave," he answered. I was quiet and listening. The guitar and piano melody was gentle and melancholy. What could the song be about, I wondered to myself. The lyrics sounded beautiful. The word dansa, at least... like dance, but better. When the song ended, he started it over again. Then he started speaking, but not really to me... it sounded like he was telling a story to beat of the music. I quickly realized that he was translating the song for me on the spot, telling me each line as it was sung. No one had ever done that for me before. The song was indeed melancholy, as I'd thought, but interesting. I didn’t learn any of the other words in the song that day. But I learned dansa.
    It’s strange to hear this song now, and understand every word, when I remember so clearly when it was just the first song in the foreign Swedish language I had ever heard. Just beautiful unknown lyrics.


    Puss/kram ... Santa Barbara. Five years ago. 
    I had gotten the text when I was just leaving a friend’s house. It was mostly in English, but the last part was in Swedish. “Fun!” I thought. I didn’t have a clue what it said. With no smartphone back then, I had to wait until I got home to type in the words on Google translate. I studied the words at each stoplight. But seriously... these were weird words. Puss??!? Um. Odd. Is he talking about cats... or? Then another odd word next to that: Kram. Kram and puss. Kram Reminds me of cramming something into something. I finally got to my place and plugged the words in. Oh.
    Kiss. Hug. 
    I smiled at the sweetness of the words and that he’d texted them, knowing I’d have to look them up. They were odd words to me then. They mean as much when I see them now as they would in English.


    Läget... Queenstown, New Zealand. March 2009. 
    A friend and I sat in a van rumbling our way down to a river, along with some guides and others who’d signed up for riverboarding. Riverboarding meant we were going to go down some Class IV rapids with just boogie boards. It was my main big adventure thing I’d scheduled for the south island of New Zealand. Near the shoreline, as we put on wetsuits, one of the guides and I started chatting. He had a New Zealand-like accent, but he was actually from Sweden. “What Swedish do you know?” He asked when it came up that I'd been hanging out with some Swedes recently in California. What I could recall was random words, many of them silly or dirty.
    “How about this one,” he offered. “Say it after me: läget?
    Lagget,” I said. “What does that mean?”
    “It means ‘how is it going?’” he said. “Surprised you don’t know that one!”
    Well yeah... I thought. Me too. That was the most useful thing I’d ever been taught, after months of knowing Swedes. Thank you, stranger.
    Then proceeded a couple of the most cold and difficult hours of my life, where the wetsuit seemed to not keep out the glacier water, where I was banged up against rocks and pulled underneath rapids, experiencing myself sucking at and hating an activity that I had fully thought I’d be great at and enjoy. Few things piss me off more. After I got over the last, biggest rapid, literally fearing for my life, I paddled the board to the side of the river and kicked my weary legs hard to stay in place as everyone finished clearing the rapid. Swedish riverguide boy came paddling by.
    “Läget?” he asked.
    My lips were blue. My hands were white. My semi-warm hostel bed seemed so far away. I didn’t know how to say, “Shitty.” So I just shook my head to indicate my answer. He smiled, knowing I understood him. Never forgot the word for “how is it going?” after that.

    Smiling was a mistake. I take it back. 


    Höger/ vänster / Sergels torg / Sandhamn... Santa Barbara. Fall 2009.
    I was in the process of applying for grad school in Sweden. I had purchased a Swedish lesson podcast, and took my iPod down to the beach. Besides loving the language, I’d be damned if I showed up in Sweden without some idea of what was going on when people spoke Swedish. I lay on the sand and soaked in the words, and repeated them out loud when it seemed that no one was close enough to hear me. Höger means right, vänster means left, I murmured. I pictured myself navigating around cobblestone Swedish streets. Höger, vänster, höger, vänster... I ran my hands through the sand. Would I be running them through snow in a year or so? I hoped so. That’s a strange thought when you’re sitting in the sun by the ocean, to hope for snow, as a girl who was always so afraid of the cold. That podcast also used places in Sweden to teach you how to ask directions. Sergels torg was one. Sandhamn was another. These place names tumbled their way down my tongue and out to no one in particular, and back then, I had no idea if they were well-known or worth seeing. They are.


    Springa... Santa Barbara. Spring 2010.
    Two of my dear Swedish friends had joined a kickball team with me and some of my friends. Kickball is like American baseball but with a big bouncy ball that the pitcher rolls and you kick, and you can have the ball thrown right at you to get you out when you’re running bases. E had made it to first base. The guy on our team after her kicked a ball that screamed towards right field. He took off sprinting. E looked a bit unsure, though the guys shouted from the sidelines, “run! run!” since they could tell his kick was a winner. She seemed worried that the ball might be caught, so she wasn’t really running.
    “Ah!!! What’s the Swedish word for run?” they asked S.
    Spring” she blurted out.
    Then five big jock American guys all started yelling that dainty and sort of goofy sounding word all at once across the field. “Spring! Spring! Spring!” E began 'spring'-ing... as if her life depended on it. She made it to homeplate. I was laughing so hard on the sideline. I hadn’t known any other Swedish words that are also in English with different meanings. I still think it’s a fun word for run.

    Our team right after winning the championships. We knew how to spring.


    Upphetsad...Lund, Sweden. January 2011. 
    I was texting my thesis partner to tell her that I was super excited for the Australia Day theme party coming up that week. I looked up the Swedish word for excited and used it in my Swedish sentence. "Jag är så upphetsad för festen!!" Well done me, I thought.
    After about ten minutes she wrote me back in Swedish.
    “Um, did you mean to say upphetsad? That word is used more to mean, like, sexually excited. You can feel that way about the party! But just wanted to let you know ;)”
    I died laughing, alone in my apartment. That kind of suggestive mistake was bound to happen sometime. Surprised it took that long! Never made it again though.

    Simbassäng/simma... French Riviera. July 2012. 
    It was the next to last night that I and 14 Swedes were spending in a lovely house on the coast of southern France. We went to a restaurant that sat in a very local quiet little cove, with tables right by the sand. We toasted someone’s birthday and ate lots of seafood and drank many cocktails. After dinner, I went down to the sand with a boy. We held hands and listened to the waves. When we remembered that the rest of the world existed, we went back up to see what the gang was up to. They had come across a sort of bar connected to the restaurant that had a pool. Locals were partying like it was Vegas. Our friends had bought bottles of wine and were jumping in and out of the pool with their sun dresses and khaki pants on. I shouted in delight, and grabbed a glass of wine as I jumped directly into the pool with it held high. We yelled and swam races and drank more wine and had tug of wars with the French partiers seeing who could throw who in first. The air was warm and we were high on the Mediterranean summertime.

    I don’t remember who told me, cause I probably asked, or if the words just surfaced in my brain, never conciously fixed until that moment. Simma means swim. Sounds like a tiny kid having trouble saying swim. Simbassäng. Pool. The Swedish word is more lovely, I thought. That night was lovely. One of the loveliest there ever were. Better than words can say.

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    Tuesday, November 19, 2013

    Power, Privilege and Prejudice: Lessons from being a foreigner

    Going abroad often reveals both positive and negative bias in others towards us based on what we look like and/or where we are from. A blond Swedish guy friend of mine says that during his semester studying near Shanghai, he and his best friends never had to buy any drinks, the locals bought for them, while when I and some other American students passed through Paris in 2003 (French-American relations were not exactly flourishing at that time) we got some dirty looks as we navigated the metro and sat in cafes. Scenarios like these lack much personal impact over the short term for a traveler.     

    Living abroad- trying to establish a solid, happy and integrated life in a foreign country and knowing personally or being aware of other foreigners trying to do the same- has opened my eyes to more than just the types of overt and passing biases I mentioned above.

    I’ve become more attuned to the nature and influence of prejudice, privilege and power; how people handle the presence or lack of any of the three, and how they can establish a smoother or more difficult path for an immigrant/expat (another post analyzing these two terms will come another day).

    My biggest lesson is not really the state of prejudice and privilege in Sweden, but a broader understanding for how such things might play out in different ways in the lives of foreigners, expats and immigrants living in countries around the world, and also, how it relates to my life growing up in California in ways I never realized. That is the intended takeaway here.  

    Prejudice

    Any prejudices against me while I have been in Sweden have, in my observance, been mostly harmless and minimal. They have been primarily about the fact that I am foreign and not Swedish, not based on where I come from or what I look like. If I do not speak, I usually do not look obviously foreign in Sweden. It is not the same for everyone who isn’t from here.

    Some foreigners I know living here appear more evidently non-Swedish, due to clothing style, ethnicity and their language or accent. They stand out much more in Stockholm than foreigners might in some other Western capital cities. A few weeks ago I became startled after a conversation with some of these people on the topic of “how to avoid not being let into a club or restaurant because we are foreign.” The guys were discussing how showing their new Swedish IDs let them walk right into a place, when their previous foreign identification used to result in the bouncers making them wait to get in or not get in at all. One example was of a popular restaurant where a hostess tried to tell them that the nicer outdoor patio bar was closed for a private party, when it was obviously not and some Swedes walked right in past them, and after persistent questioning, the staff person admitted it wasn’t a private party and let them in. The conversation between these foreigners on this topic had been very casual and humorous, and that’s what stayed with me after it was done. Prejudice against them had become normalized, even funny. That didn't feel right. 

    It is a commonly discussed issue in Sweden that sometimes people with foreign, particularly non-Western sounding, names have a more difficult time getting selected for some jobs and for housing. I can’t know if my full name has ever not worked in my favor, but I’ve been told that as it indicates an English speaker, it doesn’t work against me. But some foreigners in Sweden, and even some people born in Sweden with foreign non-Western names have been known to change their names on CVs and rental applications and even on official documents in order to avoid this prejudice.

    I was in a bathroom in a student club one time while studying in Lund and overheard some Swedish girls that were waiting for us mocking my friend and me for speaking English. International students are not high on the social totem pole in Lund, as I’ve discussed before, yet this scenario was still rare for me. But this kind of negative prejudice pales in comparison to the significant benefits I gain in living here as a native English speaker.

    That leads me to privilege.

    Privilege

    There is a great dialogue about privilege going on in articles written about the new show Orange is the New Black, which follows a white wealthy female named Piper adjusting to life in a women’s prison. Here’s a quote that I couldn’t stop thinking about:

    “Piper is repeatedly confronted with the fact that her race, class and other privileges make her experience and perspective fundamentally different from most of the other women she’s incarcerated with.”

    Note: I’m drawing no parallels to life as a foreigner to life in a prison, of course. Only that over the last three years in living in a different context, my realization of how different my experience and perspective can be from that of others due to privileges out of my control has expanded and become more nuanced.

    When I was first looking for a job in Sweden, when I was already in the country and finishing my masters, the main thought on my mind was: I am at such a disadvantage, not being fluent in Swedish. It’s an uphill battle, some employers won’t even look at me, which makes total sense but is still hard to swallow.

    A couple years and jobs later, I have realized that my situation is really not defined at all by this. As a native English speaker, I have the privilege of being a target type of candidate for many jobs in Stockholm, and this fact of my background, for which I have zero credit, lends me an incredible advantage. There are even more things about my background that I had nothing to do with that allow me the privilege of getting more attention for a job, apartment or a number of other benefits and opportunities. So I’ve been told, there is the perceived relevance in being from the San Francisco area for fitting in with the technology and communications industry I work in here in Stockholm. Moving to Sweden directly from Santa Barbara was how I was able to get an apartment secured even before I arrived in Lund, when many international students are lucky to even get a dorm room upon arrival… the student I emailed about the apartment saw where I was from and plucked me out of a couple hundred emails since she had Santa Barbara connections. Would be nice to call this a coincidence, but these types of connections have been helping me along my entire journey in Sweden in a way that most immigrants might never experience, even if they work hard and make the best of their contacts. As I mentioned, there are likely privileges that come with having a Western/anglo first and surname and a non-immigrant appearance, no doubt making it easier for me in Sweden in many circumstances, in whichever order they are made known first. I’ve certainly experienced next to zero issues getting into a club or restaurant in Sweden. And in fact, when I do need to show ID, I don’t mind using my California license anymore precisely because of the positive bias it usually entails.

    In Orange is the New Black, Piper is repeatedly given extra privileges from prison management and guards based on assumptions about her race, class and gender presentation. It’s remarkable the way that Piper is at times indignant when prejudice or privilege in the prison does not favor her; she then understands things as being “not fair.” Yet she (mostly) subconsciously skillfully navigates the privilege that is placed upon her, and in turn, the power that she can wield because of it. Not unlike myself.

    Power

    I recently read a great simple definition of power:

    “The ability to make one’s decisions into reality — to think ‘this should be something that happens,’ and then actually be able to make that thing happen.”

    This is the idea of power I want to speak about, not like CEO or military or intellectual power. The degree of prejudice and/or privilege that one deals with as a foreigner, over time, plays a heavy hand in where one lies on the spectrum from powerlessness to real consistent power. If one were to live in a place where the locals constantly bestowed the privilege on you of buying all your drinks (or offered higher salaries than that country’s natives), this would certainly end up translating into a type of power that allows you to make things happen that you want to happen. Some simpler examples include my earlier privilege references: being the native English speaker in an office is a privilege that lends me power of communication and authority. Being from California is a wonderful thing, but until Sweden I never realized it was an unearned privilege that lends me power in a way because people here find that very interesting, and thus give me their attention. 

    If you were to live in a place where prejudice may not favor you, your spirit may suffer. I gave a presentation at my alma mater, Lund, earlier this year on Working in Sweden for international students. Afterwards I spoke with many of the job-seeking students one on one. A couple of the stories about the difficulties in getting taken seriously or even confronting obvious negative biases against them made me nauseous with guilt. I knew I would likely never confront such issues here, and I honestly believed that had I been in their place, or that of many other immigrants, I would be broken. I wouldn’t make it.

    The times I witnessed the most frustration in my foreign (mostly Swedish) friends when they were living in California could usually be traced back to a lack of power, especially in a situation where they normally would have it in spades back home. There is of course the standard living abroad frustration of, “why are you people so freaking weird in this country!?!” But the more debilitating frustration came from the inability to affect their reality they way they were used to due to a lack of, among other things, having their own apartment, transportation, native language, or a native’s understanding of “the way things work.” Upon moving to Sweden, I experienced the same. Almost any foreigner would.

    When you are living in the culture and area that you grew up in, there could be kinds of power you have that you don’t really see or that you take for granted. When you are in a circumstance that strips of you such, it becomes more apparent to you what you are lacking in order to “make decisions into reality.”

    The difference in how effectively you, compared to someone else, build yourself out of the lack of power that comes with moving abroad lies in two factors:

    1.     How much work you put into it.
    2.     The combination of prejudice and privilege you deal with, based often on things outside your control.

    Everyone deals with their own mix and level of factor 2, and it’s up to them how far they push factor 1. I have worked my ass off to build my life here in Sweden, and feel quite satisfied with my current sense of power to make what I want to happen, happen. But many immigrants/expats have worked harder and have less to show for it. My understanding of the interplay between factor 1 and 2, and the relative effect that one factor has compared to the other in various contexts will continue to evolve, and hopefully my blindness to my own privilege will dissipate. Though, like any scrappy foreigner, I won’t turn down the advantages that it allows.

    Read more »

    Wednesday, November 6, 2013

    Once a villain, now a hero... Swedish Summer Vacation

    The first time I really encountered Swedish summer vacation, I wanted to strangle it. 

    It was the summer of 2010, I was winding down my 10 years of living in Santa Barbara, and I found out that my Swedish student visa was likely not going to process in time for me to make my scheduled flight to Sweden start my masters program. My application was sitting on an empty desk in a Migration Board office somewhere in Sweden where no one but an intern was actually working. 


    My stress those couple of weeks as I dealt with this was sky high. I expressed frustration to friends and family about the lack of logic embedded in the "take a few weeks off all around the same time" Swedish summer culture. It seemed like it was a recipe for ineptitude and a mountain of problems for anything having to do with customer service or business in general. Must be nice for Swedes, but several weeks off at a time... isn't that sort of lazy? 


    Eventually, with the help of a Swedish friend's stepdad who called a friend of a friend of a friend to reach that lonely Migration Board intern, my passport with the visa in it was sent back to me in California literally 3 hours before my flight to Sweden. Within 36 hours I was laying in a jetlagged fog by the Baltic seaside in the far north of Sweden, breathing in the pine tree air and out the stress that a just-barely-made-it international move had caused. The Swedes around me jumped in and out of the water, periodically checking on their salmon smoking away by the trees, and sipping away at their pale ales, closing out the days of their long lazy summer vacation. 




    Here is where I went. Salmon smoke is in the air. 

    **************************

    Swedes are guaranteed five weeks of vacation. Some are offered more by their employers. This does not include the many paid holidays. I know that vacation time in Europe sounds extravagant to any American. And considering that Americans tend to take no more than a week at a time, the predominant practice of taking three or more weeks off in the middle of summer, as many Swedes do, can sound overly luxurious on a personal level and problematic at a professional one. I know that some of my friends and family in the States think I hardly ever work. I don't blame them for thinking this, when the average number of total paid vacation and holiday days for an American is 16 (and none of them guaranteed by federal law). Among developed nations, only Japanese workers have fewer. 

     "America's War on Vacation, By the Numbers" is one of countless articles, among many other dialogues and forums, examining this. The key thing to understand is that the U.S. government does not legislate this area, and when paid holidays and vacation time are in the picture, it is because of the company policies or in some cases, states and local government laws. Therefore, is still the case that 91% of full-time U.S. workers are entitled to vacation as part of their compensation, but there are big variances between small business and corporate policies, full time and part time workers, low wage and high earners. 

    Here's a visual to really drive it home:


    Americans can hardly the point the finger at the lack of government policies for enabling vacation, when they aren't taking the vacation their employers are giving them. A
    bout 57% of working Americans had unused vacation time at the end of 2011, with studies showing anywhere from 2 to 11 days as the average amount of days not used. Hours worked per week in America are longer than other developed more wealthy countries apart from South Korea and Japan. 

    This AskMen article articulates the vacation issue in the U.S. quite well, regarding why the country is hesitant to establish government intervention, and the benefits we may gain from that but also the very significant negatives. "We are at an extreme end of the work-life balance spectrum. And to many, the end is the wrong one...The standard of living in the U.S. may be the highest in the industrial world in terms of monetary compensation, but what about family time, personal time and stress levels? Where do U.S. workers rank with their European counterparts in these categories?"  

    If some European economies are suffering (which by the way Sweden's is relatively not), it's not because of three weeks off in the height of summer, it's other issues. On a travel website article about vacation time and whether Europeans have it better, there were the following comments from Americans:

    "As an American expat in Sweden, the biggest difference I've noticed here though when it comes to vacation time versus the US, is the mentality. My boss takes a lot of vacation and so does his boss. No one is scared to take too much time or made to feel guilty about it. In Sweden, even CEOs encourage vacation time. Swedes realize that a proper work-life balance makes happy people. And happy people make good employees."

    "Companies here in Europe practically shut down for the last 3 weeks of August with the perspective that one needs a vacation to rejuvenate. Heck, even the egg vendor at the market takes a month vacation."

    The U.S. work culture "permeates both our day-to-day family choices and our national laws, creating an up-and-down feedback loop of industriousness." Americans find it stressful to take vacations. They don't want to deal with the work that has piled up once they are back. They are addicted to being involved, answering emails, and/or expected to be even when on a beach in Mexico. They don't take more than a week of vacation at a time, on average. And many suffer because of all this, in ways that even hinder all the productivity.

    But the egg vendor, the Migration board employees, the CEOs that you can't get in touch with during July...lazy? Yes. In the very best and most healthy way. 


    *****************************************

    This summer, my fourth one that I have experienced in Sweden, was the first one in which I felt the best possible effect from the extended Swedish summer vacation. I'd been far away from Sweden on a beach for more than a week. It took awhile, but I remember the afternoon when I had arrived, mentally, at a place beyond laziness. A place beyond pleasure. It was just, stillness. A mind blissfully empty of the details of the work project I'd barely finished before the trip. Empty of the thoughts of the to-do list I'd need to get back to when I was back in Stockholm. Empty of the thoughts of the self-improvement I wanted to undertake in the fall. Empty of the thoughts of that sweet boy I wasn't going to be visiting after this trip after all. Empty of even thoughts about where we'd eat dinner at sunset that night. Empty of anything besides the most minute detail of that present moment... that afternoon I remember realizing that I'd been staring at the salt streaks that had dried in patterns between the blond hairs of my arm, staring and staring, for half an hour. I attempted to bring back all the thoughts, but, they weren't there, they had truly retreated. I wondered if maybe I should listen to music... I hadn't done that in days. I always listen to music. But I didn't. I stayed still. I realized later that my mind probably hadn't been that still, as it was for much of the next couple days, for over a decade. I can't tell you how much lasting good that did me.

    I've been wishing ever since that more of my friends and family in the States could experience the same. There is not always stillness in a Swedish summer vacation, but it is evident to me that people around me, in social and business life, are getting away, at least a couple times a year but especially in summer, from demands, thoughts, and stress, in a way that lends them more mental ease year-round. There's a lot I would trade (and in fact, I have) for more of this.

    That particular sandy beach, July 2013

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    Tuesday, August 20, 2013

    The Dark Side of the California Girl

    You guys see Danielle?" a friend named Anthony said to my best friend and I, pointing down from where we sat on the bleachers to the girls playing volleyball. "Look closely. Ugh. Cellulite. Don't ever get that shit, okay? Don't ever get cellulite." We weren't sure what to say back to that, so we just kept our eyes trained on the game, trying not to stare... not just at our cute and sporty friend Danielle's legs in her short volleyball shorts, but every girls' legs. We were all 16 years old.

    This is the first encounter of its kind that I remember…a brief comment that I don't think I understood, until years later, was one of the endless moments that would establish a shadow in my head, a dark place where something would always be whispering, "You and your body are not good enough unless you are perfect." The terrible thing is that I know my dark side is not nearly as dim or as vast as that of so many California girls that I've known throughout my life. 

    I grew up near San Francisco. I played a lot of sports, namely soccer, and my closest female friends and I mostly had pretty healthy body images. I don't remember even thinking a negative thought about my body until prom photos when I was 16, which was simply, hm, my arm could have looked smaller there, but whatever. I have since known 11 year olds with worse thoughts. I am really grateful that there wasn't much to this dark side for me until I moved away for college, just before I turned 18. To southern California.

    My university was a tiny, gorgeous private school that looked more like a summer camp, with low buildings nestled in the trees on a mountainside that sloped down to the beach about a 5 minute drive away. People would sit outside the dorms in the nearly perpetual sunshine and play the guitar, play spontaneous frisbee games on the vast lawns, and occasionally a class might be held outside in the formal gardens. It was a happy little paradise, in many ways. 

    The dorm I lived in, for freshman only, had 100 girls in one long hallway on the 3rd floor and as many guys on the 2nd. There were extremely smart, pretty and well-dressed girls everywhere; some would say that the ratio of prom queens was higher here than any other university our friends had gone to. It was an expensive school, so there were a lot of students from pretty well off families. You may not know what this is a recipe for unless you know a lot about high achieving upper income females in the US. The rumors were that our school had to pay for new pipes to be installed every couple of years in that dorm due to the excessive amount of stomach acids that were eroding the plumbing because of so many cases of bulimia among the girls. 
    We never knew if this was true, but it's a common story among some college buildings that house a lot of females. 

    After just one semester away at university, I came back to the San Francisco Bay Area for the holidays and met up with a high school friend I used to play soccer with. As soon as I saw her, I thought to myself, "Wow. Has Leanne always been this small? Those must be like size 0 jeans." The thought immediately startled me. Since when had I noticed such things? I tried to dismiss that "sizing up" instinct, but it had only begun. 

    Over the university years, the culture of hyper-body awareness became more and more normalized for the women around me (including those for whom it was already normal). Elements of this fused into an ever-present sort of black hole that followed you around most days. You'd get sucked into it when people would talk about the dreaded "freshman fifteen," the common amount of weight gain in the first year of college, comparing themselves with each other. I remember friends weeping because of the pressure their mothers put on them to become skinnier, at 20 years old, when they were just fully becoming women. The California moms you'd see at Orientation or Graduation Day at our university were often skinnier and more fashionable than their daughters. One friend would, when the rest of us would get a coffee or hot chocolate after dinner in the dining commons, pour herself a steaming cup of... hot water. "Not even tea?" we'd ask. "No, it has calories..." Rebecca would answer. Her best friend told me that Rebecca's boyfriend made it pretty clear that he was concerned about her athletic shape gaining any more weight. A guy friend of ours, from a different California university, would always comment out loud about how skinny he preferred girls to be, so we would always joke around with him, saying "Darin likes his girls malnourished!" and he'd nod with a smirk. Guys at my university were not typically that verbally obvious, thankfully. I'd see girls whose weight fluctuated dramatically from year to year due to rumored anorexia, and a couple girls that had to drop out to go to eating disorder treatment centers.

    After university, although we were no longer daily surrounded by hundreds of female peers, I would say that the messages and pressure from the outside world were stronger than they had been in our little secluded campus… in coastal (and especially southern) California, you are subliminally or obviously directed, every day, that for a woman, being thin is the best way of being accepted and admired. And also, for god’s sake, don’t AGE!

    There was the friend who ate only green beans for dinner for some weeks, and she’d occasionally say that she wasn't the "size she used to be anymore." She was tiny. "Do you mean, the size you were in high school?" I asked her one time. "Well, yeah..." she answered, looking down. We’d discuss how, at age 23, to beat our wrinkles. “That girl’s hot!” a guy would say. “Is she?” we’d ask. We would sometimes not really see how she was, except for the fact that she was extremely thin. And that became the key factor in being hot in our eyes too. I remember distinctly believing that if you were not a size four or smaller, you’d need to have a great personality as compensation if you want a good-looking guy to be interested in you. Some of my favorite boutiques in Santa Barbara, LA and Orange County did not carry jeans that were larger than one size above mine. I remember some of my friends and I, at different and repeating times, having a hovering algorithm in our heads for every single bit of food we consumed. We talked a lot about working out, about our skin, about our hair, about how our clothes were fitting that day. You must understand: my California friends are some of the most amazing, thoughtful, down-to-earth and virtuous people I have ever known. It's just that the whisper, "you and your body are not good enough unless you are perfect" plagues almost all of them to varying degrees, driving them to both good and bad habits, harmful and non-harmful thoughts and ways of seeing themselves and others. 


    Heard this quote?  


    Regarding the good habits thing… I do believe that the “California healthy lifestyle” thing, which often manifests itself in these dark ways, produces some good ingrained behaviors. Straightforwardly, and without obsession: Fitness is a great thing. Eating healthy instead of poorly is a great thing. Attention to your appearance isn't inherently bad. Not totally letting yourself go after you get married and have kids is a good goal for someday. There are perhaps many that would say that some of these things shouldn’t have a place in your head every day. I don’t know. How big a place should they take? How much priority?

    It wasn't until many many months in Sweden that I actually was able to identify the “dark side.” It's hard to see something as twisted that became your normal many years ago. In my long-term separation from California, I slowly started realizing that it had been a long time since I thought about what size each girl was. It had been a long time since any girl around me wanted to talk about hair to the extent I did. I encountered a couple guys from California in Sweden (and then of course many on my visits back to California) and when they would start speaking about girls I felt startled by the conversational focus on body shape and slimness.
    A friend living in San Francisco just recently told me how much she wants to move to London, and one of several reasons was because, “The guys in SF are so obsessed with skinny girls. When I’m in London the men make me feel as if I am so sexy.” A few of my friends back in California had babies and truly agonized over losing the weight afterwards, feeling ashamed that it was hard for them, compared to, say, our skinny friends. My heart ached for them, and the pressure they were putting on themselves felt to me like such a dark thing. A black hole sucking energy, self-esteem and happiness.

    Scandinavia is not the opposite of California in what I’ve discussed. Certainly not. But it’s different enough that it has gotten me to separate myself from it to some degree, to identify the darkness. Whether or not Swedish guys think it, they rarely comment in front of women on their or other women’s bodies. The male and female actors on TV here are not all smoking hot and very thin. This honestly genuinely perplexed me at first.  Ads for gyms are not filled with fit models. Sometimes I would see couples here and wonder how they got together, they seemed “unevenly matched” in a body type way, ie, the girl seemed heavier than what that size of guy would prefer. Even writing this out makes me feel twisted, that this thought was ever somehow established in my head. Though I know that appearance and fashion is quite important to most of my female friends here, they don’t speak much about their bodies and certainly don't seem to be tortured by weight gain when it happens. There are eating disorder issues here too, with males and females, to be sure. I don't have a born and raised perspective obviously, just deep and long term observations.  

    Though I believe I have a much more relaxed and healthier perspective now, having been gone for so long, there are some things, both good and bad, that may never go away. I have to admit that I don't fundamentally believe guys when they say "You're great just the way you are." I just don’t. I can write this out, and know that I should believe them, but then what I really believe is, they just don’t realize that they’d think I was even greater “if” this or that were improved or different. As strong as my sense of self-confidence is, this belief will not budge.

    A Swedish female friend was recently dating a guy from a different part of Europe, and she was casually saying something to him about how she’d gained some weight over the last year that she’d really rather not have. She told me that he immediately started suggesting ways that she could be losing the weight. She’d felt a bit hurt and very perplexed, it was a reaction she was really not used to. “If it were a Swedish guy you were dating, what do you think he would he have said?” I asked her.  “Just… I think you’re fine babe, you are beautiful no matter what!” she said, her eyes looking forlorn.

    The process of breaking down the skinny=beautiful construct continues and I wish I could bottle up my experiences in Scandinavia and give them to my California friends. Recently a Danish guy, who is one of the most handsome and in shape people I have ever known, was telling me about how he had a chubby phase in high school. He was sort of laughing about it. I wanted to empathize a bit, so I said, “Oh well in university I was like 5 or 6 kilos (12 pounds-ish) heavier.”
    “Oh boo hoo,” he teased me affectionately. “That’s not a big deal at all.”
    “Well it’s a devastating thing in California,” I responded a bit quietly.
    His response was immediate and his eyes were serious. “Fuck California.”

    Yeah, actually. He's right. Regarding the dark side… fuck California. 


    ******

    For a macro view, this body/weight/youth obsession does seem to characterize the US more than, say, Europe. But it's on this side of the Atlantic too of course. I don’t believe my friend who went to university in Illinois nor my sister who went to Boston dealt with such issues to even a fraction of the same degree as we in California universities have. I don’t get the sense that people I know from or living in other States experience as much of what I’ve spoken about. But other people have written about such pressures and fixations in the US outside of California, most prominently in New York City, and some of the most interesting pieces I’ve seen are from a famous French fashion blogger that moved there. She writes about dieting among women there, as well as what “New York skinny vs Paris skinny” is. Worth a read. California is particularly plagued, obviously, because of the youth and weight-obsessed culture of celebrity, fame and media that is part of our lifeblood more than anywhere else. And there is not time or space here to address the possibly shifting values towards women with some added shape in that realm, nor the likely large variances in body/beauty pressure across socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds. Also, I don’t bring up how guys are pressured by it regarding their own looks, because I can’t easily speak to that, and I also don’t place much blame on California guys (despite the stories I’ve shared) because they are in fact a product of their culture and environment. And there are plenty of them that have never once thought of asking their girlfriend/wife to watch what she eats, and would be offended at the idea, while I am positive there are some Swedish guys that have done this. 

    ******

    THIS RIGHT HERE is what I'm talking about. "California Skinny" is what this Tumblr is called, and one of its descriptions is "thinspo" ie "thinspiration" (googling the term may terrify you). Super thin supermodels have her dream body and on her daily progress blog there's this entry:

    "Urghh everyone has an off day and today is mine. Totally ate feelings today. Was feeling stressed about starting a new job and having to reschedule a flight on top of juggling some unforeseen expenses. Too much all at once and I caved. Tomorrow is a new day though and hopefully I won't be too tired to workout tomorrow because although I know I need the rest I don't think I'll be able to look at myself if I don't."

    The obsession. It hurts to read. 

    ******
    *Names have all been changed. 

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    Thursday, August 8, 2013

    What I Got Wrong About Sweden

    In some conversations lately, as it comes up that I've been living in Sweden for almost three years officially, friends have asked what I thought about this country before I moved here, and how that may have changed or been confirmed. They know there's been relatively enough time for me to really soak in my observations and strengthen, change, or develop perspectives. Unlike the few expats I know living here, I knew a great deal about Sweden before I moved here. I had spent a significant amount of time with Swedes for the two years beforehand, studied the language, had read countless articles, blogs, and books about the social, educational and business culture, communicated with Swedish professors, business and administrative people over email, and even had several different Swedish musical artists on my playlists.

    But indeed, I had never lived, or even visited, Sweden before. I had, and still have, a lot to learn.

    Here's what I thought about Sweden and was wrong about, or at least not quite right... 

    1. Sweden doesn't have a very affectionate culture. 
    In fact, they can be quite physically affectionate, between all kinds of family, friend and romantic relationships. From my first weeks in Sweden, I noticed the difference, and I only continue to realize how wrong I was. I guess I got my misconceived idea from general descriptions of Scandinavian culture as being more reserved and needing more physical space than many other cultures, but it does not carry over into close personal relationships. Yes, most all of my single friends live in apartments alone, there is a strong culture of spacial independence in some ways here. But when they meet up with people they care about...each other, me, or their little nephew, they're likely to sit close, give big hugs, kisses on the cheek, and, quite often, generally radiate affection. One of the first times I was at a pre party in Stockholm, a guy arrived a bit late and as he passed by one of his best guy friends he gave the guy a bear hug and grabbed his head and gave a quick enthusiastic kiss on the cheek. That's pretty common here, and way less common (but not unheard of) in the States. I love it.

    2. Sweden is a model of efficiency in every way. 
    Eh, no. For the ways in which Sweden is efficient, I am truly grateful. When I stood last week in sweltering heat waiting and waiting for a long line of people to pay with loose change to get on a bus in Spain, I missed the efficiency of pre-paid tickets that often eliminates any waiting time at all in such situations in Sweden. But from what I heard about Sweden before I went, and from the dozens of ways that I heard from Swedes about how the States ran inefficiently "compared to Sweden," I was often startled by inefficiency in a variety of contexts. For many (not all) bureaucratic and/or administrative processes, one is often redirected to all sorts of people, sites, numbers, others who don't want to help or to answer. Some Swedes have some disdain for the corporate model of a Starbucks-type coffee shop, but that chain's multi-person efficiency is all I want when I occasionally stand in a cafe here and just one person is working: taking orders, making the drinks and sandwiches, refilling empty supplies... with a line of ten people waiting and waiting. And there is a lot of patience needed at times to work/play within the group consensus processes here. But honestly, I do understand that the States can frustrate in other ways on this topic, and then I know that things are all relative... my sister currently lives in South Sudan. They don't even have a mail system and at times she hasn't had clean water. So.

    3. Jantelagen is obvious to recognize but easy to avoid.
    I was not really on target with this expectation. If you don't know much about Scandinavia, you should quickly go see the wiki on this concept. I won't take the time to break it down now, but soon I will in another post. Basically, it is a cultural norm of discouraging individual achievement, preferences or talent in favor of the collective standards. I thought before I moved here: it is more present in older Swedish generations than mine and younger. That is true. And it will continue to become a weaker cultural norm. But I thought it would be more directly evident and therefore easier to personally stand against... like direct, jealous and petty statements/requests/behavior from people that are not my own high-achieving and extraordinary friends. That has not really been the case...and I don't think I've even much noticed the Jantelagen that surrounds me until this last year, it's been so subtle. I experience it in the way that friends say things against one another because of perceived "showing off," in how some people, ideas or situations are labeled "unfair" or "arrogant," and in what things are questioned or thought to be weird. The good thing about Jantelagen is that it creates a culture that is opposite to, say, The Real Housewives series, as this expat writes.  But mostly I think it is an insidious vapor that tears people down and inhibits individuality and acceptance, and I don't want to inhale even a breath of it. Humility can be found without Jante. I need to write about this soon, for there is too much to say and I fear this brief paragraph may even be misconstrued.

    4. I will be free from offensive pervy male behavior.
    Unfortunately, I was a bit too idealistic in this aspect about Sweden. I like interacting with Swedish/Scandinavian guys because from day 1, they have shown themselves to be generally respectful, unintrusive and gentle, ie, as I said before, I feel safe.  This remains true among my peers.
    Back in high school and university, I believed that one day I would live for a couple years or travel regularly to Latin America. I made many trips there and studied Spanish for all of that time. One of the main reasons I'm not in Costa Rica now instead of Sweden is because I was continually turned off and frustrated by the machismo culture of the men there. I cannot stand the way they make sounds at women passing by, for example. Sweden would be blissfully free from anything even resembling that, I thought.
    So I was in total shock that in my second week in Sweden was the first time in my life I was ever grabbed in an offensive way by a man. A sort of sloppy looking blond middle aged man was staring at me from a short distance and then got up and squeezed by me while I was in line for something and grabbed my ass. If anyone saw it they didn't indicate it. He was gone before I recovered from my shock, and I stood there, eyes starting to water, a deep fury building up inside, and nothing to do about it. Disillusionment filled me as well, for out of all the places around the world I've been and felt tense from the possibility of such a thing happening... it first happened here before I'd even finished unpacking. Such a thing has happened a second time here as well, while waiting for the subway, with a similar type of man and in a more gross and startling way, and again, I was in shock, but did nothing in the moment but jump away and then moments later begin seething in rage. It was only yesterday that I realized how the disillusionment has finally switched to a change in behavior and awareness for me, as I was sitting on a bus and that same type of man plopped down next to me a bit too close for comfort, and I had a skirt on, and while my heart started pounding out of anxiety that he might try to touch my leg, my muscles tensed into fight mode, ready to knock him the hell off the seat if he did so. My stop came, he got up and out of my way, and I got off the bus. Nothing happened.
    I stand by the fact that Scandinavians are generally more respectful towards women than in many other cultures around the globe. It was in Italy that my friends and I were chased by strange men to the point we were genuinely terrified, and in Spain last week some American men (normal looking professionals) we briefly talked to blatantly stared at the chests of my friends and I repeatedly in a way I have never encountered before and don't believe most Scandinavian men would dare to attempt.

    5. Swedes aren't super sentimental. 
    They are so deeply and sweetly sentimental, in fact. Some of the Swedish friends I had in California before I moved are also quite sentimental, but I had guessed them to be the exception to the rule. In fact, they are not. There is not as much public/media sentimentality as in the US (think of Olympic montages and massive public outpourings after a high profile death or tragedy), but otherwise, gratitude and emotion and nostalgia and tender acknowledgment are frequent. Swedes are fantastic at elaborate plans for making people feel special on their birthdays, for example. And at Swedish wedding receptions, as opposed to the American 2-4 standard number of toasts from just a parent or two and the best man and maid of honor, there are toasts upon toasts... the spontaneous, planned, or surprising sentimentality is heavy and much more important than when the cake gets cut, when the dancing starts, and when the photos get taken. I don't care where the person will be from that I marry, I'm doing my wedding Swedish style someday.

    The most important things I thought about Sweden I got absolutely right.

    I thought I would love the people. 
    The country would be beautiful. 
    It would feel like home. 



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