Vicky is a wonderfully gregarious woman. She has a broad and warm smile and is able to chat on and on about nearly anything, while also making sure to listen to others. Vicky is a Swede. In fact, she was the first Swede I have met, though I did not meet her in Sweden. Vicky lives in Burma and we became friends largely due to corresponding pregnancies. My wife was pregnant with M and Vicky was pregnant with her second son as well. As expats in Rangoon, the pregnancy community is quite small and once we realized that both her older son and K were of the same age, it was quite natural that a friendship developed out of a few play-dates.
Vicky painted a gorgeous picture of what Sweden would be like, the beautiful outdoors, the healthy living, and paired with her open and friendly personality; Sweden was definitely the ideal place to be. So, I have been in Sweden for two months now and the question I keep asking myself is, “Where are all the Vickys?”
Open, gregarious, and friendly are not at all the synonyms I would use to describe the Swedes that I have met. In fact, I have a hard time saying that I have met any Swedes thus far. As a stay-at-home parent, I do not have a workspace that brings me into contact with Swedes, nor have I been able to really meet any Swedes while I am out and about the town, which I am nearly every day. In the past two months, I can think of only one encounter I have had with a Swede, outside of a business engagement (aka opening a bank account or choosing a phone), where the conversation lasted more than three sentences. Three sentences, and I am not exaggerating!! That one conversation took place just last week at, of all places, the Systombolaget (the State run liquor store), where I essentially forced another stay-at-home daddy into a conversation with me.
In the two months that I have been here, not once has a Swede initiated a conversation, and a few even get a pained look on their face when I call out “Hej Hej!” to them while I am walking down the street or in the forest, or standing with them in line. Of course, they are very polite and respond in kind…but then nothing. Nothing at all. In the book ‘Culture Shock! Sweden’ by Charlotte Rosen Svensson, she shares an exchange between herself and her nine-year-old houseguest from England; “What do you think of Sweden so far?” “There are a lot of trees.” And I have to concur. There are plenty of trees here in Almhult, and a very beautiful forest to walk through. During one of my walks through the forest last month, I happened to pass by many Swedes, and not one of them ever initiated a greeting or pleasantry, and perhaps I am being culturally insensitive when I smile and say “Hej” to them; but come on…a little friendliness would be nice.
Later in the ‘Culture Shock!’ book, the author states, “The quite Swede is a very common stereotype, and often a very valid one.” (p 47) Which is all well and good, but how is a recent immigrant/expat supposed to integrate and adjust to the local culture when that person (aka me) cannot seem to make contact with a Swede to help out with this transition? In the section titles ‘Making Friends with the Swedes’ the author says, “…it isn’t especially easy to make friends with them. Between their reserve, quietness and general contentment with the status quo, many seem happy to stick to the friends they have had for years.” (p 73) This same sentiment has been reinforced by the expat friends we have made here in Sweden; essentially, if you didn’t know them in high school, don’t expect to become friends with them now.
Well, I hope that does not continue to hold true. Lovely walks through the forest will only keep me sane so long. In fact, half way through September my wife noticed my sanity beginning to crack and issued orders that I find a way out of the house and into something social. Not an easy assignment; but, luckily they have Almhult Disc Golf Klubb here, and I now play disc golf twice a week…and I do it with all Swedes. Now, in this context, things have been easier and I quite enjoy the company. Though, on many rounds, I will find that I am pleasantly walking along the course with two or three other Swedes happy to simply listen to them talk in Swedish. On many rounds, the players will use English to be polite and I have been able to make some connections; but again, those connections thus far are strictly limited to the course. I have been playing for three weeks now and yet to have any invite out or an arrangement to meet outside of golf. At the end of a round, I first had expected some of the players to go out for a drink (be it beer or coffee), but everyone just seems to go home. In fact, I don’t even think there is a pub in this town. Just not part of the culture I suppose.
Remember that other stay-at-home dad from the liquor store? Well, be the end of the conversation I cornered him into, I was able to get him to share that every week there is a sort of “Free Preschool” where parents can come and hang out and let their young children play together. I further got him to detail when he goes, and come Wednesday at 10am, I will be there waiting to make a new friend…if he likes it or not!
For those of you looking to come to Sweden, I don’t have any good advice as yet on how to make friends with the locals; but, I am going to try the aggressive approach and just hope that they are too polite to say no. If you are a Swede, or an expat that has been living in Sweden, I would love for you to share some tips on how to get to know the locals; especially, for those of us who are stay-at-home parents and cannot not rely on a work environment to help with making some good connections.
Also, if you want to read more about the fabulous Vicky, please visit her blog.
And thanks for reading.