Home Sweet Sweden – on the nature of home and memory


I live in California now, though we still spend summers in Sweden.  All this moving made me think hard about the nature of home in a restless age.  This is what I came up with for The Morning News:

At naptime I lie with my toddler son in our brand-new IKEA bed in a very old bedroom of a red house in the Swedish forest, with peeling floral wallpaper, rough, unfinished floorboards, and a white-paneled ceiling. My son rolls all over the bed—back and forth, up and down—while I sing night songs to him as he tries to peek through the holes in the paper-thin blinds. And then, mid-roll, he sleeps suddenly, and I let my guard down and join him almost as dramatically.

These sweaty naps break the spell of adulthood, and I always wake in the same half-dreamy state as my child. We are cozy, then grumpy, and I am unable to adjust to the world outside—to my other kid or my wife or the fact that I have anything to do but sit on the kitchen sofa and look at dust particles swirling in the air.

What do you do when, in the middle of a life of perpetual movement, you find yourself desperate for a place of stillness? And what if you’ve already moved across an ocean for your daughter’s sake, but it hasn’t been quite enough, and now there is another baby, too?

These are questions that focus the mind. At least, they did for my wife and me. And as I searched for any good answer—after a dim and dreary Nordic winter, facing a long Swedish paternity leave, still at the start of a new career, with no network in the city, no place to go home to—I was drawn into a kaleidoscope of places and moments. I was left grasping into my past, one that had receded and washed away, both by my actions and by pure chance.

And what I found in my past became one reason why my wife and I decided against upgrading from our claustrophobic 590-square-foot apartment in Stockholm’s suburbs but instead bought a 115-year-old summer cottage of about the same size in a clearing near the hamlet of Marma on the banks of a manmade fjard of the River Dal.

In our purchase, we hoped to condense the stillness of a score of forests we’d seen the world round (even, in my wife’s case, this very one, many years ago) into a narrow stretch of trees two and a half hours north of Stockholm by two commuter trains. We were not searching for just more space, though; instead we needed to bring time into our space, and bring spaces into our time.

You can read the rest of the essay at the Morning News:  www.themorningnews.org/article/home-sweet-sweden


Yearning for the summer

Yearning for the summer

June is crazy in Sweden because everyone is in a mad rush to finish all their work before Midsummer (though this is shifting for some to mid-July). This makes it hard to stay inside during the most glorious June I’ve seen here.

But then you think that you’re headed for this for 8 weeks (I’ve got paternity leave days left).

Are quotas the way to break the glass ceiling?

Progress for Women in Norway, but a Long Way to Go – NYTimes.com.

This is a link to a story about female quotas for corporate boards in Norway.  Quotas are a big topic of discussion in Europe, and in Dagens Nyheter today, there were new figures that showed the number of Swedish women on boards hasn’t moved much in the past year, though the fear of quotas is still driving the numbers up over the long haul.

I wrote about this topic for Quartz a few months ago.  This is from near the end:

What seems to set Sweden apart—both in its achievements and in the frustrations over a lack of progress—is the fierce commitment from broad swathes of the population towards equality.

So even when the country is breaking thousands of years of tradition in getting men to take a quarter of parental leave, it feels stuck because it’s not changing fast enough. Haas brings up a Swedish phrase translated as “in principle and in practice” that is often mentioned in situations like this.

But it is this very commitment that has brought women so far in the Swedish public sector, and that drives women like Blomquist to fight for equality. She doesn’t want to wait 52 years for corporate gender balance. She sees the issue as key to small Sweden competing in a globalized 21st century.

Giving men the chance for parenting joy

I am insisting that if we women truly want equal partners in the home, then we can’t ask our husbands to be “equal” on our terms. They get equal say, even if we disagree. And indeed, if we can discover the joys and satisfactions of professional success, why shouldn’t men be able to enjoy the rewards and satisfactions of parenting and homemaking? For years, mothers have gotten that special rush when a child reaches for his mommy and says no one else will do; do we really think a father doesn’t get the same wonderful sense of being needed and valued when a child insists on his daddy?

via The Immense Value of Giving Men More Control of Household Tasks – Anne-Marie Slaughter – The Atlantic.

This article focused on a now widely discredited New York Magazine story on feminists giving up on work to enjoy the bliss of being a housewife.  I won’t get into that, but the story led to some nice articles surrounding it, with this included.  Things have definitely changed just since I started this blog three years ago.  Men get included in the conversation, even if near the bottom and still not totally in the mainstream.

Needless to say, after all my paternity leave, and my shorter working hours, I do get that rush from being equally bonded with my kids.  And I wouldn’t trade it for the world, even if it comes with all the grind as well.

Sweden, immigration and a lack of smiles

I just wrote a short essay for Quartz on being an immigrant in Sweden.  I got a little nervous in the writing – since I*m such a privileged American – but I’ve had some feedback on Twitter which confirmed I was on the right track …

Here it is.  Since this gets to directly to what I write about here, I’m posting the whole thing:

To see the new Sweden, go to the mall in Kista in the late afternoon. Kista is a neighborhood far north of Stockholm’s historic center on the “blue” subway line, and it is both a world-renown tech cluster, known as Sweden’s Silicon Valley, and an immigrant neighborhood only one stop from Husby, where police shot a 69-year-old man a few weeks ago, sparking a week of rioting across certain Stockholm neighborhoods.

It used to be that the tech guys and the immigrants would trade off possession of the once-desolate, now glitzy mall through the day—at lunch it was thronged with middle-aged men in pressed jeans and blue blazers, while at night it was occupied by women in chadors, old men clustered on benches and diverse groups of teens laughing and bouncing where business deals were struck just hours before. Now it’s more of a diverse mix: the mall is so nice, it draws people from all over Stockholm, but you can still see the old patterns right at lunch time and on some evenings.

These are the two streams of the new Sweden: the innovative tech world and the incredible blend of immigrants from Iraq to Somalia, Bosnia to South America.  There is no conflict between the two groups, but there is also little positive interaction. It’s in this atmosphere that the kids from Husby hang out, in the shadows of glittering hotels and rising luxury apartments.

Maybe I pay special attention to Kista because I also live on a border of new and old Sweden, two blocks on the “right” side of a big street separating “us” from a series of gargantuan apartment blocks built in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Million Programme, a much maligned effort to provide a million new apartments for working class Swedes, now largely housing immigrants and refugees.

My daughter goes to school right under the blocks, which, during the riots, were on a list of places to avoid sent out by the US Embassy. I love the school and sing its praises in our neighborhood, which has drawn more than a few quizzical looks, as if people didn’t even know it was possible for kids from our middle-class neighborhood to go to that school. Everyone knows—just knows—it’s horrible but can never explain exactly why.

Or maybe I’m fascinated by Kista because I’m an immigrant, albeit the most privileged sort. I’m American, married to a Swede and get to work at a white collar job in my native tongue. I’ve taken around 18 months of paid paternity leave, at seemingly no cost to my career (in fact, I’d say it’s helped). I’ve had Sweden at its best.

But, still, I get hints. I have a foreign sounding last name and look or sound neither obviously American nor obviously Swedish. While on all that paternity leave, I spent a lot of quiet moments being ignored by other Swedish parents, and my closest acquaintances from my first paternity leave came from the US, Iran and East Africa respectively.

They made fun of this Swedish reticence at the recent Eurovision Song Contest, hosted in Sweden. During a very funny song and dance, the host, Petra Mede, sangthese words:

Proper and polite and private is our style / Never, ever talk on a train / And if we see a stranger throw us a smile / He’s either a drunk or insane.

Being an immigrant is hard, and no society can have 15% of its population foreign born without friction. And when it comes to the integration “question,” there’s the welfare state, the Swedish job market, and the tight urban housing market to address. But I think the root of the problem goes beyond all that.

In my experience, Swedes want to be friendly; they want you to like living in their country; and they want to support refugees fleeing the worst places on earth.  And they are willing to put their votes and their tax money behind these beliefs. This is why Husby looks nothing like Detroit, but instead, a pleasant, if oddly isolated housing complex set quite close to some beautiful forest. This is why the schools there get extra funding and why the city of Stockholm just announced it would move many of its municipal offices out of the city center and into the suburbs.

But as a society, Swedes aren’t yet willing to renegotiate what “Swedishness” means, and they aren’t willing to break up a stable social structure built on close-knit groups of family and old friends. Sweden gives the immigrants and refugees of Husby an adequate place to live. But it doesn’t give them any Swedish neighbors or any Swedish jobs. And it certainly doesn’t give them many smiles, which sounds silly until you live in a place where no one smiles at you or your children.

My daughter’s school had a little spring festival this week, and as I stood there watching kids, with roots reaching into every corner of the earth, chatter in Swedish in utterly blended groups, I could only think about what all the Swedes who avoid the neighborhood, as well as Husby and the residential half of Kista, are missing: their future.

Why can Swedes take on so much college debt?

College in Sweden is free. But rent isn’t. And food isn’t. Neither is the beer that fuels the relatively infrequent, yet legendary, binges in which some Swedes partake.

via College in Sweden is free but students still have a ton of debt. How can that be? – Quartz.

I write often for Quartz so was a bit chagrined to find that this basic element of Swedish life – the huge level of student debt – was noteworthy.  It’s just part of life here.  The article is interesting because it also gets into why northern Europeans are willing to take on so much debt to get out of the house early, in comparison with southern Europeans.

It’s also interesting to ponder that student debt in Sweden is not considered the crushing burden it is in the US, even though it’s a lifetime thing.  Maybe it’s because the rest of the safety net makes it possible to live with the debt without fear of crashing into a dark hole.  Just a thought.