So, I have something to tell you.
We're moving! In August, we will leave our beloved seaside apartment in Sweden and head to Corvallis, Oregon. James was offered a tenure-track professorship at the university there, and the Pacific Northwest has been on our shortlist of dream locations, so off we go! We are all of the things you normally experience in anticipation of a major move: excited, anxious, hopeful, sad, sure, and doubtful.
We always knew Sweden was a temporary home for us (James's job contract was for five years). On the positive side, there are so many reasons we made this decision. James was offered a really great job (and in contrast, his job situation in Sweden has been difficult), and I will be employable again. We'll be living in a great small town not far from a great biggish city (Portland), and we will finally have walk-/bike-able lives. We will be fairly close to mountains, wine country (!), and the Pacific Ocean. We will be closer to family (cousins!) than we are now.
Since having children, I've dreamed of taking them camping and hiking in America's national parks, and I'm thrilled to have that chance now (well, assuming America still has national parks by the time we get back). I've had some of the most moving moments of my life on the trails and mountain peaks of the American West, and I long to be immersed in that geography again and to share it with my children.
There are some more difficult reasons we made this decision, too. While Sweden has been wonderful for our family, it can also be a really difficult place to live. There are the winters, of course. More insidiously, it's very closed-off socially. I wrote a lighthearted post about that once, and have on my editorial calendar to write a more serious post about the difficulty of being an immigrant in Sweden. For example, Sweden ranks 61 (out of 67 nations) in personal happiness for expats in an Expat Insider survey from InterNations. It ranks 64 of 67 in finding friends, and 61 of 67 in feeling welcome. Quite frankly, it's not always an easy place to be.
I'd go so far as to call our first year in Sweden our "dark year" as a family. Despite living in a really hip, family-friendly part of the city, we made no close friendships. We were all a little depressed. Not coincidentally, that's also when James began applying for jobs back the U.S. Our lives changed dramatically when we moved to a beautiful apartment in a small town outside of Stockholm, but it's still taken us two years since that move to feel that we've made Swedish friends. (In contrast, the closest friends we've made since moving to Sweden are Finnish, American, and American-Swedish.)
The decision to move was largely about the kids, of course. Sweden is a fantastic place to be—maybe the best in the world—when kids are very young. As they get older, though, we're less convinced it's where we want to raise them. We want them to grow up feeling that it's okay to be outgoing and it's okay to make friends (there's this feeling, especially in Stockholm, that it isn't worth even talking to someone unless you are going to become best friends); that it's okay to help other people; that it's okay to smile in public. We also want them to know that it's okay to work incredibly hard and to excel at something if they want to. We want them to be encouraged and supported to work hard at school. (More thoughts on those statements in a future post.)
But despite all these reasons, we are more than a bit hesitant about our impending move. I've heard that repatriation is incredibly difficult, and that we should expect the first year to be hard. In addition to the general difficulties of repatriation, we feel that Swedish values, as reflected in national policies and the culture at large, are more in line with our own values than the United States'. Work-life balance isn't just a joke here, it's the reality for most people. Family life is valued and supported. Health care is a fundamental right, as is education. Not a single one of these things is true in the United States.
For all of these reasons—and more—it's been an agonizing decision-making process. James applied for the job during that difficult winter when we made no friends and were certain we wanted to leave Sweden as soon as possible. He was offered the job within weeks of us moving to our gorgeous seaside apartment, when we started making friends and found a great preschool for August and the endless summer light began. James asked if he could delay his start by two years, and to our shock the university said yes. So we thought that two more years in Sweden would be great, and then it would be a good time to go back to the U.S.
I have to admit that there was a long period when we thought we wouldn't end up going back after all and that we would stay in Sweden long term, but something changed late last summer and we realized we were going. (And then, you know, winter happened, and there was no question that we wouldn't be staying in Sweden for another one of those.)
While we have serious reservations about American culture and society at large, we feel good about the local community in Oregon that we'll be moving into. We will make friends who share our values. We will be surrounded by other multi-national families with broad perspectives (one of the joys of being in a university community). The challenge for us as a family is to take with us what we've learned from living in Sweden for three years, lessons about the value of community and work-life balance above all else. That time is more important than money. That being together is more important than getting ahead. That contributing to the community is vital and life-affirming.
We hope to spend the next few months having the best Swedish summer we've ever had. We have a number of visitors coming and lots to do to prepare for the move. I'm trying very hard to balance the stress of moving a family internationally with the joy of having beautiful, quirky, wonderful young children and the time to enjoy them. To balance being here now with getting ready to go. It's not easy, not at all.
Have you ever made a life-changing move? What made you decide to do it? Or, have you ever said no to a life-changing move? What made you stay? I'm soooo curious.
If you're looking for more to read, here are some thoughts about family and geography, and why we moved to Sweden in the first place (my first ever post!)
Top photo by Caleb Jones; middle photo by Abigail Keenan; last photo by Zack Spear.
I'm so excited to see how this all unfolds. It will surely give you SO much fodder for writing and photography and reflection. You know our move story already so there's no need to re-share it, but I can honestly say that despite moving somewhere less progressive in many ways compared to where we were, it's been everything we hoped for and more. I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever about making this leap. Wishing you the best Swedish summer and a low-stress move.
Thank you so much, Dava. And it's so encouraging to hear that your relocation has been even better than you hoped!
It's almost my one-year repatriation anniversary, and your story brings to mind sooo much of the feelings and anxieties of leaving a beloved place and moving to where everything (seemingly) is familiar again. Like you, we lived abroad for almost 5 year...in the most incredible, crème de la crème possible city, Paris! It was always a dream of mine to live abroad for a year or two, just to experience another culture; not to try to become Parisian (or Italian, as I'd hoped as in university), but to just see how other people live. Oddly enough, as my husband and I dipped our toes into the possibilities of becoming expatriates, I thought we'd go along the process to move to Paris and then be rejected, and my first reaction was, "Cool! Now we can try for Stockholm!" So, your blog has been interesting reading into "what might have been" for me. Alas, Paris was a marvelous experience, and I'm tremendously grateful to have achieved a dream of mine; not many people can say that they've had their dreams come true.
I suppose, secondly, I ought to offer congratulations to you and your family on your move! While it is a stressful time and full of worries about this, that and other things, it won't be as bad as you might imagine. Similar way to your experience, we didn't really ever make friends with French people, but rather with other expatriates. One of my closest friends is Australian, and she (and her family*) repatriated to Australia about 3 months before us. We did a lot of "profiter!" (to take advantage of) outings together before she left. We also compared notes about stockpiling French pharmacy skincare, beauty, children's clothing (oui, Petit Bateau!), as well as furniture and handbags from favourite shops! ( I do suggest stocking up on kids' clothes that you like in Sweden!) I can say that I'm just now, almost 10 months later, I've still not made a significant dent in my French pharmacy stash.
* Our son was born in Paris; my friend's son was born 8 weeks (to the minute) after our son, so we have had a LOT to talk about as parents! We thoroughly enjoyed having wonderful healthcare for that experience. Don't panic too much about the healthcare in the US; it's still possible to find a good niche and good providers!
One thing you might experience is an odd feeling: that your life abroad never happened. Moving back to the US, or Australia, put both my friend and I back into the world of the most familiar: the language was easy, talking to people and making friends was easy, and you already understand how things work in your native land. It may not always be pleasant (we moved before the 2016 election), but it *is* familiar. But, it does make your time abroad seem much, much farther away. Incorporating the habits you adopted in another culture is not always possible (au revoir, daily baguette!), and you encounter multiple times a day the ways that you are used to living are not the ways that people live in Corvallis.
If I may offer some humble suggestions: DO take advantage of your last Swedish summer, but don't beat yourselves up for not crossing everything off your "We should do this before we leave Sweden" list. It's impossible, and it will only add to the feeling of "we need to hurry up and enjoy what we have in Sweden". Even in travel, you can't see everything; there are always things left undone, but it certainly gives you motivation for what to do if you go back to Sweden to visit! As you said, be here now with your family; that will always be a priority for me, no matter where we are!
Another tidbit of advice: don't compare. Before we moved to Paris, our former landlord in Oakland, CA - who had moved to Paris for 2 years in the 70's with his family - advised us not to make comparisons between Paris and California. They spent two years saying, "Oh, such-and-such is so much better in California. But, this-and-that are better in Paris!" It's terribly difficult. We lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, with amazing restaurants and every type of cuisine you could imagine or desire. I'm fortunate that I never tasted the "guacamole" made with crème fraîche, as my husband described served at his workplace! I'm grateful that we can, once again, eat decent Mexican cuisine...or at least find the ingredients to make it ourselves at home. No, our current location in Tennessee is not what I ever expected, but it does provide us with an affordable place for our son to grow up, and move on with his life. Granted, we live very far from the coast (not a lot of fresh seafood options here), we have to get used to driving (again) everywhere, even just to pick up groceries, and we have to adjust to culture shock. I have to say, I felt more culture shock coming back to the US than I ever felt in Paris, or any of my travels. Ultimately, you will be moving to a lovely place (sadly, the university in Corvallis didn't want me as a graduate student, but it was a lovely town!) and you will have your beautiful family with you. Don't be surprised if, even before any of the things you may be shipping from Sweden arrive, you find yourself thinking that you have everything you need, right now. It's a lovely feeling!
I hope your move goes smoothly! If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to email me! And, if our experience is anything to go by, it will all work out eventually.
Best wishes, and I love your daughter's hair!
Elizabeth in Tennessee
Elizabeth, thank you so much for this thoughtful comment—and all the encouragement and gentle advice. You really nailed two of the lists I've been (mentally) writing: what should we do before we go, and what should I buy before we go? I appreciate the reminder-in-advance to not sweat all the places we won't make it to - thank you! Just having your permission makes me feel better already. =)
I expect you are right about the reverse culture shock being much worse than the initial culture shock of moving abroad. That's one reason I'm so grateful that we are moving to a university community, and my husband's department has several young international families there already. That's an incredibly helpful reminder not to compare Corvallis to Stockholm, too, but I"m sure we'll be doing some amount of that anyway. However, I'll say without doubt that we can't wait for local farmers' markets (which don't exist here) and Trader Joe's! Quality of food ingredients is one area in which we'll be happy to compare.
And thanks for the compliment on Zoë's hair!
Thanks for an interesting and thought provoking post, Jodi! We are really going to miss you when you move. A big loss for us!
It will be fun to read your upcoming post where you wanted to go more in-depth on these issues. I was wondering what you think about the school system when you contrast it with how well Sweden is doing, at least when compared on many neo-liberal indices (such as innovation, technology, economy) - I think about this myself at times. Also, when I have voiced some concerns myself regarding the quality of Sweden's universities, one professor said that those who want to work hard will do so and will excel in any given system. I hadn't considered that point of view before. Some feel that Sweden's more "relaxed" attitudes at school lead to more creative and better innovations later on (e.g. within entertainment and new companies). Also, perhaps a school system that emphasizes teaching values and community is, in part, why community-based values and work-life family work later on in a person's life here? That said, I do have my own concerns about Swedish schools, but just wanted to throw that in the mix. Oh, and some inspiration perhaps (or some food for the private vs. public side of the things as well): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ZbGlDMF7HQ
Regarding Swedish values, while helping an individual in public may be coded differently here, I do find that they tend to want to help people more broadly - I'm specifically thinking of their comparatively generous immigration policies.
I understand that you have mixed feelings about the upcoming move. I'm sure it will be both a loss and a gain, both painful and exhilarating. It's probably difficult to contrast Sweden with the US and decide which one would be better to live in - they will have their own set of ups and downs, and it's probably best to concentrate on the ups of whatever place one ends up staying in at any given time (not that one can't be critical, but perhaps with that emphasis). The countries are also relatively similar, at least if you think of it globally. The Western US is one of Ninad's all time favorite places - your nature experiences will be beautiful, and the university should be such a vibrant environment for James. I will follow with great interest your lives there via your blog! Many hugs!
You make some really great points, Lotta, and thanks for bringing them to my attention.
I am also fascinated by the seeming lack of intellectual rigor here, while at the same time Sweden is a leader in innovation. Obviously, they're doing something right! And a focus on egalitarianism and participation in the community is a part of the school system here that may make it seem less rigorous (whether it really is or not). I had a number of discussions with mothers, both American and Swedish, whose children had been exposed to both systems, and they all expressed concern for their children's academic development in the Swedish system. I do realize that's a small sample size, but it seemed to echo what I'd been reading in online forums and overhearing from mothers.
When the professor said that those who want to work hard will do so in any system, I agree. However, I don't think it's that simple, and that means that only naturally hard-working people will ever do well. For example, I was academically lazy in college, and I aimed mostly for easier classes in my major. I did fine in the easy classes and remember almost nothing. I also stumbled into some more difficult and thought-provoking classes, and I was so turned on intellectually that I worked my butt off and deeply enjoyed my studies. If the professors hadn't demanded the best of me, I would never have given it to them. I still remember that semester as one of the most exciting periods of my life.
As for helping, I agree that it shows up differently in different cultures. Here, there seems to be a larger understanding that people may need help throughout their lives, and society as a whole steps up to give it to them. Most people accept this, and alternately offer and receive help, but often in an indirect way (taxation, benefits). I *love* living in a society that believes in helping its citizens. It's hard for me, though, to get used to the idea that people are less likely to help someone standing in front of them who obviously needs help, especially if it's only a simple task.
We can't wait for you guys to come visit us. =)
I agree that there is less rigor, discipline and also hierarchy here when compared to Finland (which I have experienced) and many other countries. I also have enjoyed it the most when my professors have demanded a lot of me, and perhaps mostly when they have engaged with my work seriously and pushed me further. On the other hand, while Finland tops the ranks in terms of its schools, we are behind in innovation -- I sometimes think that this kind of a disciplinarian system may come at the expense of creativity. Well, it's a complex topic, but I've come to think that there may be many ways to leading a full and rich life on a personal as well as country level, and that different systems will come with their own pros and cons. Not that it's all relative either, but at least when it comes to well functioning countries with relatively well-off to do people (in terms of happiness and basic necessities, such as Sweden, Finland or the US).
Indeed, I remember when I was nine months pregnant and those who gave me a seat in packed trains were mostly immigrants. I told about this at work, where they felt that one shouldn't see pregnancy as an illness or give unwanted attention to it (!). I also find it meaningful to offer help to strangers, and hope to foster this kind of thinking and behavior in our children as well. That way one can cultivate important sub-cultures (of larger and smaller sorts) to dominant ones, as I believe we do in all countries.
Maybe we can make a day of it, go to the Aspudden park and then food and market at Trädsgårscafét (in Vinterviken)? That would be fun! And yes, we would love to come and visit you guys, I hope we can make it happen. Ninad is always speaking of the Western US, one of the best places on earth if you ask him.. although I think he especially refers to the rocky deserts where he did his thesis work and has a profound romantic about it 🙂 I've been to Oregon with my mother, it was ages ago, but I still remember it to be one of the most beautiful cost sides. Lucky you!
PS. I saw the comment about farmers markets - while it's not as widespread here, you can find some local ones here and there. If you feel like visiting one before you leave, you could try this one, it's quite sympathetic: http://vinterviken.com/event/skordemarknad-11-00-16-00-3/ It on Sunday's between 11AM - 4PM, we would love to go with you if you have the time before you leave!
I had no idea about the Vinterviken market - we'd love to come if we can manage it!
Anne Marit Tynes
So special to read this post. We had a year in Sweden and we had the same feelings when moving back home to our family and friends. We have some og the same experience here as well sadly but we try to stay true to ourself and meet people on the playground with an "hei" no matter what. Even parents in kindergarden dont say hello in the mornings here, and for me that is so strange. We remember your as such a nice family, n sosial and helpfull. We wish you all the best og good luck with moving back "home" .
All the best/ Anne Marit.
I'm so happy to hear from you, Anne Marit! We remember you guys also as being warm and friendly in our first months here. I'm so curious - did you find there to be a large cultural difference between Oslo and Stockholm?