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The Phone to Nowhere: Swedish Frustration Stage

There is a phone, next to our bathroom, that has puzzled me for the first month living here. It doesn’t have buttons or a dial tone.

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The Phone in Question

I’ve checked it a few times and marveled over its uselessness, wondering what kind of game our apartment building was playing with us. After a month, it dawned on me that the phone could be a way to buzz down to the front door of our building. I haven’t tested the theory, but I’m certain that’s what it has to be. In short, the phone is a metaphor for all of the tiny Swedish bullshit that I should just know.

I realize that I don’t know every tiny culture difference. I realize that it’s pissing me off. Like the phone situation, I feel like Sweden constantly playing with me. This is commonly known as the Frustration Stage of Culture Shock.

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World Relief Durham lists my stage as the “Rejection Phase”

Noah and I felt the Honeymoon Phase for the first two weeks of living here. Which wasn’t a surprise, because that’s about how long most of our vacations last. Two years ago, we spent a couple of weeks in both Helsinki and Tallinn, just enough time for us to bask in European charm, fall in love with each city’s quirks, all that shit. Last year, we spent nearly a month in Ireland and were ready to cast everything aside to become sheep herders.

This time it’s different. We live here now. The time for enjoying the European sidewalks and quiet parks is taking a backseat to the many mounting frustrations that plague me daily. Just so I can bitch about this and then let it go, I’m going to write a list of things that I’m struggling with. Understand that Noah and I knew that the Frustration Stage was coming; we tried to prepare for it as best as we could. We know that we’ll get over this, look back, and laugh at how rough it was. . . but I need a good whinge right now.

  • Being recognized as an actual person in Sweden: I don’t think I fully understood the importance of the personnummer before coming here. It’s the Swedish social security number and you need it FOR EVERYTHING. What’s more, you really need a personnummer to get a Swedish ID card. Here are the simple steps in order to secure your own Swedish personnummer:
    • Go to the Immigration office to get your biometrics recorded. Photo, fingerprints, and signature (it obviously helps to have work permits like we did).
    • Wait about two weeks to receive a Permanent Resident Card.
    • Take your Permanent Resident Card to your local tax office, fill out an application for your p.nummer.
    • Wait about a month to receive your number in the mail (you’re not done yet)!
    • Book an appointment apply for a Swedish ID card (pay $40 in advance).
    • Return to your local tax office with p.nummer and payment receipt in hand
    • Wait about two weeks for a mail notification to return to your local tax office to pick up Swedish ID card!

 

(Note: Noah and I are extremely lucky that this process has not taken as long as the average immigrant. We have had help from a relocation office. We also know that in the current U.S. political climate, we have absolutely nothing to complain about.)

  • Signing up for a bank account is a headache: Sweden recognizes that the United States has it’s issues with tax evasion and fraud, so everything must be checked and then double-checked. I get it. But we won’t have full bank services until we get Swedish ID cards. Our current account is a very temporary “fictive” place to put Noah’s salary. It was explained to me a few times, but I’m still unsure what “fictive” means in regards to our money. Also, we have to pay for the pleasure of a debit card.
  • The grocery store is stressful: This sounds lame, but everyone seems to know where they’re going and there is no idle strolling through the bread aisle. Every time I got to my local Maxi ICA, I feel like I’m competing in Supermarket Sweep. Shoppers do not say “excuse me” (ursakt mig) when they move around you, which is hard for me to get used to. I end up shopping so quickly that I always forget something.

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  • Making an appointment to do laundry: Swedes love to form an orderly line and my apartment building’s laundry facilities are no different. We’re lucky to finally have laundry services so close to us (no more coin-op laundromats!), but the appointment system is divided into two hour blocks. For example, if you need to use a washing machine, you have a full two hours. Why so long? Because the machine is so small. Like, 3×3′ small. There are two washers and two dryers, so we have to plan ahead. Don’t plan your dryer time at the same as your washer time because you are literally locked into those times. The doors lock if you accidentally spill into someone else’s time and they’ll have to unlock the machine for you.
  • State monopoly on alcohol: If you come from the Southern Bible Belt or Utah, you already know about restrictions on alcohol purchases. Even in Ohio, hard liquors were only sold in state-ran stores and open at certain times. In Sweden, this monopoly is call Systembolaget, it’s regulated by the nation’s government, and ALL alcohol over 3.5 abv. is sold there. Nowhere else. These stores usually close at 7 pm, Monday thru Friday and completely closed on weekend’s, so plan ahead.
  • Everything is expensive: Food, alcohol, clothing, and electronics are all expensive. All I can say is: Taxes. If you want a socialist country to give you universal health care, free education, and dependable infrastructure, you gotta pay for it.
  • The sun won’t go down: It’s summer time and the it still looks like dusk at 1 a.m. The sun “comes up” (I guess) at 2 a.m. On the flip-side, the sun will hardly be out during winter, so. . .

So that’s the short-ish list of things that have been bugging me. These complaints are just the growing pains of being in a different place and learning life all over again. I have to come to grips with not being the same Charish anymore. These complaint are also not life-shattering abuses. I’m not being oppressed, I’m just being pushed out of my comfort zone. Which is the beautiful thing about travel: It forces you to see the world in a different way.

Like the “Phone to Nowhere,” these things will eventually be sorted out. We’ll eventually get past the Frustration Stage and onto something a little less irritating. And when that happens, I’ll have fun and happy things to report on.

Until then, I’m going to grouse a little.

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My First Swedish Apartment

If I ever lamented the fact that I never had the “university experience” of living in a dorm, getting coffee in my building, etc., I can relax now. I’m 33 years old and I’m living in a shoe-box apartment with my husband. It’s a completely new start.

As we wheeled four suitcases, and three carry-on bags into our apartment, Noah’s colleagues were supportive and perhaps a little anxious about our first impressions. We knew it would be small, but my god. . . In three easy strides from the front door, you’ve passed the bathroom, dining table, master bedroom and now you’re standing in the kitchen? The only thing after those three strides is the “living room” and the guest bedroom.

I can safely say that I’m now living in a dorm with my best friend.

We murmured our amazement, which I hope didn’t sound like shock to my husband’s new co-workers. It was actually relief and awe. I was still getting used to the idea of living in another country for the long haul. The apartment would easily figure into that.

It has no air-conditioning, but plenty of windows. It’s small, but the excessive white and spartan Ikea furnishings make it spacious. There is no television, but we have two laptops and Wi-Fi for Netflix. The kitchenette is about 8 feet across, it comes fully equipped with a fridge/freezer, sink basin/drying rack, and stove/oven. Oh yes, and of course, a microwave. Small (very small) blessings.


Later that evening, after a quick trip to the nearby grocery store, we watched Arrested Development on the laptop and drinking whiskey. Below us, we could hear the laughter and chatter from the students. Around 10 p.m. the sun finally set on our first night in Orebro, Sweden. Our new home.


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The Things We Carried (to Sweden)

How did we convert three floors of townhouse space into the four suitcases?

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Our friend, Kate, sending us off at the airport!

Our possessions have always stressed me out. The clutter in our apt/townhouse was spread over two floors and a basement, mostly out of sight and out of mind. But occasionally, in the back of my mind, a small voice whispered: “Psst! You’ve got far too much shit.”

It was impossible to ignore that voice when we got the news about Noah’s job opportunity in Sweden. With three to four months away from our official departure, our home felt like a constant combination of DEFCON 1 and hopeless malaise. When we learned about the high cost of international cargo shipping, we needed a much cheaper option of getting our belongings to Sweden. Noah suggested that we get four of the largest suitcases we could find and makes some hard decisions.

“Hard” decisions were actually painful and somewhat traumatizing. Between the two of us, books are probably the most prized possessions we own. And let me tell you, two academics know how to put away some books. I don’t know just how many we gave away (many plastic tubs and boxes full), but I can say that we only took about 20 texts with us.

Picking clothes turned out to be difficult as well. For me, I had plenty of items hanging in the back of the closet or stuffed in a bottom drawer. But If I hadn’t worn them in the last 8 months, there wasn’t any use in keeping them. Luckily, we arrived during Sweden’s unseasonably warm spring. We can buy winter coats and sweaters here; hopefully at discounted prices.

Hair and make-up was the last thing I thought about, when it probably should have been the first. I don’t know how well Sweden accommodates darker shades of foundation and concealer. Could I find a MAC counter or Sephora in my town? How long could I make my products last? I can’t answer those questions yet; I still need to do my research. As for black hair-care products, I knew not to depend on chance. I can probably find coconut oil in the supermarket, but what about a green tub of ECO-STYLER?? I pack the necessities, even though they were weighing down my suitcase: Marley-braiding hair, flat-iron, sponge-rollers, end-paper, bobby-pins, hair-ties, and oh my god, Blue Magic. . . don’t ask.

Everything else had to stay. Furniture and appliances were given away or left at the curb (for unlimited refuse week), smaller, boxed items were donated to Goodwill, the car was sold, and the rest went to the dump. I was putting things in garbage bags like a madwoman. We threw out so much stuff that it really bummed me out. After awhile, Noah and I had to asked ourselves why we had schlepped this much in the first place. We knew that we were both pack-rats, but this was a wake up call. It wasn’t hoarder status, but it was almost just as overwhelming. With our lives being disassembled and carried overseas, we had to rethink our priorities. What was truly important?

Honestly, I’m surprised I didn’t cry anymore than I thought I would. This kind of stress breaks me down rather quickly, but I’ve managed to remain pretty stoic. The only explanation I can think of is that I had Noah and there wasn’t time for the both of us to have meltdowns. I also believe that part of my strength came from assuring my loved-ones that we knew what were doing! Their concern for our well-being prompted me to convince them and myself that everything was going to be A-OKAY. Sometimes you have to fake it make it.

In the end, the four bags were a blessing in disguise. Stressful as it was, we really needed to be reminded that our possessions were just things. It is very possible to start over and rebuild. We’re now lighter, more mobile. . . free to roam. As I look around our tiny apartment, I know that we have exactly what we need. We are now what the Swedes call: Lagom.

 

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A Black Girl in Sweden

My husband and I have done something fairly reckless. We pulled up stakes and left America for a new job opportunity. . . In Örebro, Sweden. Noah is teaching at city’s university as their new Rhetoric professor while I plan to write full-time.

Toledo, Ohio is in our rear-view mirror as a closed chapter. My days of teaching Freshman Composition have also come to a close. From now on, I’d really like to spend my days writing more blog posts and editing my NANOWRIMO novel (possibly publish it this summer/fall). Not working will be strange, but I believe I’ll have more opportunities for adventure and fulfillment elsewhere. Exploration in Örebro will be easier when everyone walks, bikes, and ride buses.

So as I acclimate to a new land, my blog posts will probably be more frequent and revolve around my traveling experience as a black American woman in Sweden. While I understand my husband and I probably left the United States at a perfect time, there will also be challenges regarding race and nationality here in Sweden. I will report on those as well.

All in all, your girl is a unemployed, non-Swedish speaking wanderer. Please wish her luck, lol!


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Post #Nanowrimo Depression

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I’m depressed because I wrote a book. As I write this, I’m listening to Pink Floyd’s “Brain Damage/Eclipse” and feeling sluggish. This doesn’t make any sense. I’ve accomplished the thing I set out to do and I’m punishing myself for it. I had ample warning though. My husband reminded me, “When you finish #Nanowrimo, you will feel depressed.” I believed him because this is how I react during transitions. The blank period in between stressful moments is typically confusing and aimless for me.

There is an uncomfortable blank period of stillness between November 30th and January’s editing phase. The early coffee-driven mornings and the late-night writing session are suddenly over. You are done. If you actually wrote a novel in one month, you’ve been through the emotional/mental wringer. Now can you turn your brain off? That’s the question.

The first couple of days of December consisted of me resting on my fucking laurels. I could say that I was a goddamn novelist. I printed the book off and put it in a paper box, weighing it in my hands and running my thumb across the pages to hear the rustle. I created this thing, I could hold my work in my hands and feel its heft. I built this.

A week later, I started to ask the familiar questions: What’s next? What should I write now? When can I start ripping my manuscript to shreds?

That’s part of the reason I’m writing this essay. I can’t let my Protestant Work Ethic rest. There’s a full-on Calvinist flogging in my home right now. I SHOULD BE WORKING! MY LABOR WILL SET ME FREE! IDLE HANDS ARE THE DEVIL’S WORK! The pressure, that I’ve unnecessarily placed on myself, is worse now that my semester is over. I don’t even have that work to keep me distracted.

I have fifteen days before I can even touch my manuscript, so I’m forcing myself to rest. It feels odd to admit, but I’m conducting a forced shutdown of my brain and returning to the things that make me happy. Here’s a short list of how I’m combating Post #Nanowrimo Depression for the month of December:

  1. I started reading again. The constant writing prevented me from looking at anyone else’s work. Of course, there was the fear of another author’s voice popping up in my own work. Also, there simply wasn’t time for me to enjoy the act of reading. Now that I’m done with #Nanowrimo, I’ve already read two mysteries, skimmed through a literature anthology I plan to teach from, and started an audio-book. I’m hoping the cool down period of reading will help me with the January editing process. I’m looking at examples of dialogue and description that I neglected in my own writing (speed and quantity over quality) and finding inspiration.
  2. I started watching documentaries again. “Time: The Kalief Browder Story,” helped me get back into that groove of learning while I watch. Since I’m a visual learner, I benefit from getting a snapshot of humanity through these films. I even watched about “The Greely Expedition” on PBS’s American Experience. I have no idea how this will help me in my future edits or writing, but now I know how fucked up the Bronx judicial system is and how to NOT sail to the North Pole without a plan.
  3. I’m learning a new language. I’m trying to set aside a little time each day to learn Swedish. I’m afraid I can’t say why that particular language, but it can say that it’s keeping my mind limber. Language acquisition is not easy for me like my linguist husband, but the challenge of memorizing words and phrases, does block out the obsessive thoughts I have for my novel.
  4. I’m taking more walks. I didn’t exercise for the entire month of November. I either sat in the study or on my couch, hunched over a laptop, clacking furiously. Obviously, some kind of cardio activity will combat depression. I don’t like it, but I know it works.

I’m sure there’s something else I could be doing with my free time, but I’m starting with these things and trying to keep my shit together before the next stressful period. I realize I shouldn’t over-think the idea of RESTING, but I’ve been taught that it’s only for the wicked. I’ve got a ways to go.

If you’re experiencing the depressing come-down from #Nanowrimo, please comment with your own remedies. How are you taking care of your fried brain? What does your self-care routine look like?