We took the last train from Linköping to Årlanda Airport in Stockholm on Friday afternoon, spent the night at the Radisson SkyBlu Hotel inside the airport, and left for Chicago in the morning. As our plane made its way across the North Atlantic on June 30, bringing our adventure to a close, I took time to reflect on our whole experience. What would sum up our adventure, that had so far gone unsaid?
First, and possibly greatest, is how very relative is that thing we call distance. I often noted, while sitting at my study window, that three very different things looked the same at first glance: a jet fighter in the distance; a bird flying past the neighbor’s house; and a bug on the window.
An inside joke for us was, “It’s a very short walk.” To Swedes, maybe; they not only walk more often than we, but a whole lot faster! At first, Hemköp in Ryd Centrum seemed pretty far away: a 32-minute brisk walk for me, while listening to Irish jigs on my iPod nano…and an exhausting 45-minute slog home, with a too-heavy wheeled shopping bag, while listening to heavier tunes from Les Miserables. After we’d lived there a couple of months, I was at Hemköp “before I knew it;” I thought nothing of hopping on my bike and dashing off to pick up a missing ingredient before supper. It was only 3 km away, while the library or the salon were more like 5-6 km, and the tennis center was 8 km. In late March when I took my first tennis lesson, I didn’t trust myself to bike there…or, more to the point, to bike back after playing tennis. But in mid-April, I found that it was relatively easy. I didn’t go quite as fast as I had before tennis, but the ride was still pleasant; and I could stop off for errands on the way home. Yes, it was mostly uphill on the way home, but it was a gentle grade.
I’m glad we decided to do things “the Swedish way.” It gave us a better appreciation for our surroundings. While it might have felt at first like we were “roughing it,” doing without some of the things we take for granted in the US, it was less frustrating in the long run…as I learned while trying to make American foods with Swedish cooking implements. Also, if we had continually tried to re-create our American lives in a Swedish setting, I believe we would have felt more like strangers in a foreign land. As it was, we were taken by the many ways we were the same as our hosts, even as we marveled at the differences. I wonder how our experience compares with undergraduate study-abroad opportunities?
The change of pace gave me a rare opportunity to re-think the priorities in my life. In Sweden I got a full night’s sleep almost every night.
I couldn’t schedule as many activities in a day, because I had to allow time to walk, ride my bike, or take the bus. I liked the lower stress level. It gave me more time to reflect, to learn something new (in this case, svenska), to think things through, and to take care of me. I would like to act on that when I get home, and simplify my life there. I dread returning to a full set of demands on my time. Unfortunately, the things that are easiest to set aside are the direct-service activities (Faith in Action, Meals on Wheels), which I value more highly than the more time-consuming ones (UK Woman’s Club president, Friends Meeting treasurer) to which I’m committed for the next several months, so I don’t know how I will act on my resolve. I do plan to ride my bike more places than before, which will require setting aside more travel time between appointments and will give me more thinking and breathing space.
Harry’s life slowed down somewhat,too, and when his family visited they commented on how well-rested and relaxed he looked. He worked 8-hour days, with a lunch break, instead of 11-1/2-hour days with no lunch. He never completely embraced that change, however. He expressed frustration at not being able to start work earlier and finish later, as he would have done in the US. The Swedes, though, talked about the American way of work in the same tones of disbelief that we use to refer to the Japanese system. They take for granted the extended parental leave, the 5 or more weeks of vacation per year, the 8-hour work day, the break times within the day. It occurs to me as I write this that even though Harry doesn’t use them, and I didn’t either when I was in the workforce, some of them are written into our labor laws. Managers and professionals, though, are “exempt” from such considerations, unlike in Sweden.
Harry commented several times on the spontaneity of the Swedes. Both his co-workers and our neighbors tended to plan events, and extend invitations, at the last minute. Near the end of our stay, we had to decline a Friday invitation to spend Sunday afternoon with his co-workers at the river-side home of one of them: that was the day we were having our neighbors over to thank them for their Swedish hospitality. When I asked on Monday how the Sunday picnic had gone, I learned that it hadn’t happened: it was special for us, and since we couldn’t come it was canceled. Is this spontaneity characteristic of Swedes, or was it a coincidence?
Other, smaller reflections: We packed for 3 seasons: winter, spring, and summer. One or two summer outfits would have been plenty. In fact, it never got too warm for spring clothes! The full week’s supply of summer things seemed excessive as I packed them up for the return trip. Turtlenecks, on the other hand….Now I have a slightly better appreciation for the pregnant woman’s hatred of maternity clothes.
We came to Sweden in the middle of winter. The days were short, but no shorter than ours a few weeks earlier (at our winter solstice). The temperatures were fairly close to ours in Kentucky, so our early adaptation wasn’t too shocking. Now, though, for our return trip, we’ll be going from highs around 70°F to a record-breaking heat wave in the States, with local highs between 100° and 105°. The busy-ness will pick up right away; the noise in O’Hare, annoying under normal circumstances, will probably be all the more jarring for our 5 months of relative quiet. We’re braced for it; will that be enough?
When can we go back to Sweden?