Archive for the 'Assorted' Category

Not at all dead

1 September 2014

I know it’s been a year since I last posted, but it really doesn’t feel that long for me, in good part because I still get comments pretty regularly on what has turned out to be my iconic post, Why I hate living in Sweden. While I still remember with bitter clarity how I felt when I wrote that entry a year and a half ago, and feel intense sympathy with people who recognize themselves in that post, I no longer hate living in Sweden. My life in Sweden is going really well right now, actually. I no longer think Swedes are boring and close-minded (not as a rule, at any rate). I no longer hate speaking Swedish; sure, I still find it irritating when I say things wrong or can’t find the right word, but it’s not the biggest deal ever anymore. I no longer have to try to follow a complicated set of foreign-feeling rules to interact socially with Swedes; it just comes naturally, and I am Swedish enough now that when the American shines through, I think they just find it refreshing. And fuck them if they don’t. 

 But wait, go back a second, why did I stop blogging? I started to feel weird about posting about my kids. I felt even weirder about the growing share of Swedes among my readers, and became half-convinced people I knew were reading the blog, and that my blog was somehow the reason I was having trouble making Swedish friends. And then I got a government job and, while it certainly gave me a lot of really fabulously good stories, I didn’t want to write about them online. And I just plain got really, really busy.

That’s because I didn’t just get that government job I mentioned; oh no. During the same early autumn week last year, I got three paying jobs all at once. There was a lot going on. Now I am down to just one job, but it is full-time, and it is the perfect job for me, you guys: research at a university on the topic of schoolchildren with immigrant background. Let me repeat: I work at a university. As a researcher! It may not be a permanent position (that is my next goal) but I am almost there, almost back to where I was career-wise in the US. It feels like such a major accomplishment. And I am kicking ass at my job, too. I have brought my corporate American effectiveness and put it together with my practical experience as an immigrant, research background, and teaching degree and experience, and am just hitting it out of the park.

 The puzzle-solving element of all this working and simultaneously having two kids has been a new challenge for us as a family—I hadn’t worked full-time since having children—but it has been so wonderful for my self-esteem and my feeling of belonging and purpose in Sweden that it has been totally worth it. And the kids love daycare/after school care and time with their grandparents. What is particularly great about the work that I have gotten is that it is precisely because of, not in spite of, who I am that I am good at it, like my being an immigrant and having foreign work experience and a different native language than Sweden. My problem before was seeing those essential elements of myself as a problem instead of as a advantage. (To be fair, in most contexts in Sweden those things actually are a disadvantage: I am lucky as all get out to have found work that values them.)

While the main reason for my feeling much more at home in Sweden is because of having meaningful work where I am appreciated for my unique and professional contributions, things have improved on the living-in-a-rural-village front, as well. It is at this point that I have to give thanks to the school bully (now reformed). The ONLY reason we had moved to Sweden was for a better life for my kids, and they were not getting it. I had had enough. It was a circuitous route, but if that kid hadn’t been running around wreaking havoc on that school and harassing my kid in specific, I never would have spent the summer of 2013 rabble-rousing the other parents and (sort of) suing the school. And winning! And thus effecting real change, from getting the school to bring in new teachers and student aides as well as changing the entire climate of the school with regard to bullying. I have much closer connections now to many other families out here through this process and also as a result of their gratefulness to me for being, in effect, NOT Swedish, not conflict-averse, but being American, with my native-born get-shit-done don’t-take-crap from others approach.

This is why I no longer hate living in Sweden: I have had the great luck of finding a way, a context, to participate in Swedish society while still being myself. 

Fully-documented

11 July 2013

Today I received a letter from Migrationsverket granting me Swedish citizenship. Now I am a citizen of Europe! This automatically makes me like ten times more sophisticated. I should probably buy some tighter pants; I can pull it off now that I am a European.

The agency’s website says the current wait to process applications is ten months, but it only took three business days. In July! When nobody in Sweden works! Bizarre! I guess my application was quite straightforward as I meet all the requirements and didn’t have any problematic answers on my application, which wanted to know things like had I been convicted of a crime in Sweden or did I have any outstanding debts.

I applied for Swedish citizenship because it is my right having lived here on my permanent residency permit for three years; because there’s no downside I know of (I retain my American citizenship); so I can go in the shorter and faster passport control lines for EU-passport holders at airports with the rest of my family; and if we move away from the EU and then back again, I won’t have to reapply for any permits. That’s not a bad exchange for having to keep track of an additional passport. Congratulate me on my lifetime of free health care!

Back home from my trip home

27 June 2013

Our two-week trip to the US was way too short, a topic I repeatedly picked fights with my husband about during the actual trip, further diminishing our enjoyment of the time we had. Part of the problem was that the first week was mostly taken up with driving places; seeing my mother’s friends; injury; and illness.

The very first morning I set foot in the ocean, I got attacked by a sting ray and required various forms of emergency medical care. I was holding Baby Brother at the time I stepped on the sting ray, which then whipped around to stab me in self-defense with his venomous barb, so Husband had to pull both me and our heavy toddler out of the ocean. His back went out. Then several of us had a cold. It felt like by the time we were starting to relax and enjoy ourselves and I made some headway overcoming my new fear of the ocean, it was time to go back home. Next time we’ll just have to stay longer.

While we were in America, everything felt so natural, like I had never left. It was weird how I had naturally, without consulting or being around any other Americans, prepared for the trip by ordering from Amazon, to have shipped to my mom, the same exact swimming gear all the other Americans around me had, but which I have not seen used in Sweden at all. I just fit right the fuck in. It felt like the last three years in Sweden quickly faded and details were difficult to recall. People would ask me about Sweden, and I’d be like, “uh, it’s green?” At one point I wanted to say something in Swedish, and it came out in Spanish. That was weird. My brain was evidently on a total vacation from Sweden.

My mother’s neighborhood is full of young families and Little Girl made friends with a girl across the street (she played fabulously with all the American kids we met, was hardly shy at all like she is in Sweden, and was totally outgoing at the party my mom through for us with a bunch of people Little Girl had never met; it was shocking, really. She’s such a different kid in America/English). The little girl’s mom and I chatted a bit, and it was just like looking at what my life would have been like if I had, well, to put it frankly, married a different man and not ended up moving to his foreign land. (In related news, tomorrow is our tenth wedding anniversary!)

The good news is that I am glad I don’t have her life, even with all its comforts and ease. It would be just too insular to have stayed a nice upper-middle-class white Southern lady surrounded only by other nice upper-middle-class white Southern ladies. Difficult though it can be, I feel like it is ultimately beneficial to my character, my broadening perspective on life, and my brain activity to be a fish out of water at times and continuously adapt and grow as a person. I guess that sounds like a snide remark about that woman, who was lovely; that’s not my intent. What I realized was that I never really fit in with that kind of lady to begin with. That’s probably why I married an outsider and moved away. I’ve never cared about hairspray and azaleas and hosting cocktail parties. I didn’t know what life I wanted, and I’m not sure the one I have right now is the best fit, either, but my mother’s wasn’t it. Expats are expats for a reason.

And I don’t quite know how to put this, but I like not living surrounded by the remnants of slavery and racism. It weirds me out that all the nannies and household help and yard workers and elder caregivers we came into contact with were black (or, closer to the coastline, Hispanic). I have a newfound appreciation for Sweden’s more egalitarian society where class features much less prominently and there’s no unquestioned tradition of cheap labor with darker skin to take care of the dirty work.

Enough with the heavy stuff. The children were good travelers, we loved the food (mostly lowcountry and seafood), we swam a lot in various pools, Little Girl adored time with her grandmother fishing and gardening and biking and generally tagging along, we rode boats, Baby Brother was game for most everything, we saw a lot of friends and family. It was a good trip. We’ll have to do it again. (We have a billion great photographs, but here are some snapshots from the waterproof camera as proof of our trip.)

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The sounds of America

9 June 2013

Sure, America and Americans look different from what I’m accustomed to in Sweden, but what keeps striking me since we got here two days ago is what I hear. Trains whistling in the night. Thunderstorms. Cars idling in Starbucks drive-thrus. Southern accents with their “ma’ams” “sweethearts”. Store clerks offering assistance. The tinkling of ice cubes as the waiter refills my half-empty drink of his own accord. These are things I never hear in Sweden.

At first I thought my hearing had suddenly improved; I could understand everybody at the airport so well! But no, that’s just what it’s like when everybody around you is speaking your native tongue; there’s no veil of doubt.

And then I wondered: were my children being extra super duper cute? Was I too tired to see what everyone in the long passport control line was seeing? Because every third person had a chuckle, a compliment, a joke, a high five, a benevolent smile for the kids. They never get any attention from strangers in Sweden, except rarely from the occasional elderly woman.

In America, where strangers talk to one another and especially to children, it felt so special, like we were beloved celebrities. (I wonder how it feels for the kids.) And I had to coach myself to be friendly back. I had to shrug off my years of training in Swedish standoffishness and put on my Americanness again.

Year in Review

3 June 2013

I write posts all the time and then don’t post them because I feel conflicted about sharing feelings with the public or I just can’t figure out an elegant way to express myself or I’m just being lazy and watching a lot of pirated TV instead. Now a lot of my posts are no longer timely, so here is a summary of what I really should have posted since February.

My English storytime that I give as a volunteer at the library started taking off and now there’s a spin-off English-speaking playgroup in our city. At this playgroup, Little Girl is about a million times better at English than the other kids. This has given strength to my decision to keep Baby Brother home with me (instead of starting daycare) at least another school term. It’s important to me that my kids be well-established in English as their mother tongue. Besides, his Swedish is not behind at all either, so I don’t think it’s to his detriment.

I gave up on trying to be a part of the village mommy-group because they always wanted to take two-hour stroller-pushing speed-walking forest treks in freezing rain. This torture combined with speaking Swedish in a high-stakes social setting stressed me out too much. Then, I tried attending their coffee/pastry get-togethers, but since all the other babies were pre-walkers (because the mothers disappear back into the workforce once their kids turn one) my toddler was having a very, very boring time at their homes not being allowed to interact with their un-baby-proofed coffee tables full of knick knacks and remote controls.

My psychologist fixed me right up! That and the reappearance of the sun. Perhaps hating living in Sweden is seasonal? Also, when I wrote my post all about hating Sweden, I was very sleep-deprived, being at the end of an (unsuccessful) week-long attempt to get Little Girl to stay in her own bed all night long.

I joined a volunteer group that visits elderly shut-ins. I got assigned to someone who was neither elderly nor shut-in, but was very lonely. It became quickly clear why nobody wanted to have contact with him. Now I don’t, either.

My very own evening English courses, with assorted specialties, are being offered for the fall!!! My name is on the school’s website and everything! This does not equal certain employment because it depends on how many students sign up, but it’s close!

That problematic seven-year-old boy at Little Girl’s school threatened her with a knife and nobody at the school thought this was worthy of a mention to me. Husband and I went nuclear and let Little Girl stay at home a while (she was too scared to go back), and then I attended at her side for a few days to help her feel safe and see what was going on there exactly. Mostly, I have to say, I concluded her kindergarten experience was good, if shockingly un-academic. Since my time was a kindergartner, Little Girl reported they had “fixed” this boy, which I guess meant they were making some kind of effort at the school to keep her safe from him. In recent weeks, however, she has said he has called her names and spit on her face and kept her from being able to get food. I would take this up with the principal again, except that he, the fifth principal for this school in three years, is taking sick leave due to being stressed about dealing with the school’s many problems. Yes, what a typically-Swedish solution to having too many work problems: claim you are “stressed” and fix none of them at all and don’t worry about how this affects other people. We are pissed and powerless.

I became alarmed that I have so many Swedish readers and felt worried I was offending them/you guys whenever I bitch about Sweden. I was grateful I have never gotten any dickish comments from anyone anywhere.

My in-laws are lovely people and my kids think they are the BEST.

I lost my mind over the winter regarding Baby Brother’s name. I decided I hated how it’s pronounced differently in English and Swedish and this turned out to be related to a bunch of issues I have about being an immigrant. Now, thanks to the psychologist, I am back to having a delightfully uncomplicated relationship to his name, which is a relief.

I tried to join Little Girl’s school’s version of the Parent-Teacher Association, which actually is just the P, since there are no Ts in it and thus no A. I was going to make the school better! It turns out their focus is on party-planning in order to do things like raise money to purchase McDonald’s for the kids while on a field trip. There is nothing at all about improving the actual school. Also, it was fascinating to see how they planned their events. I couldn’t follow the logic at all when it came to, for example, how much to charge per waffle and how many waffles to prepare. I am going to call it a cultural difference because the alternative is concluding those ladies were morons.

Baby Brother is 21 months old and just totally amazing and delightful and deserves not to be a footnote so he’ll get his own post.

Husband and I took a long weekend trip to Prague to celebrate our ten years of marriage. (In other news, TEN YEARS? WTF?) The kids were cared for by their grandparents and benefited from the Swedish-language immersion, meatballs, and ice cream. We particularly enjoyed swimming in a pool without trying to keep anybody from drowning; both drinking alcohol at the same time; and flying on an airplane without trying to keep anybody else from kicking the chair in front of them. We fly to America later this week where we will have none of those luxuries, but the consolation prizes are Mexican food, cheap clothes, and a large assortment of over-the-counter pharmacy goods.

I took over dropping Little Girl off at school in the morning, where I am the only parent of a child under ten who does not park his/her car and walk his/her child into the building, down the hall, up the stairs, to his/her cubby, and into the classroom every single morning. Look, the school only has like 80 kids in it and it is no mystery to Little Girl where she is supposed to go. I can’t figure out why everybody walks their kids into the building every morning. The school has a pull-through driveway at the front door for, I can only assume, the precise purpose of dropping/picking kids up. Despite early protests from Little Girl, walking to her classroom herself has turned out to be a good step in regards to her self-confidence and independence. Sometimes they grow up on their own; sometimes you have to give them a push.

Naked Swedes

3 May 2013

Swedes are a lot more laid-back about nudity than Americans. It starts from childhood. It’s perfectly normal for little kids to run around naked at the lake in the summer, which I find cute but tend to find myself concerned about their sun exposure.

At school, since age five, Little Girl has taken group showers once a week after gym with the other little girls. Personally, I think this is kind of weird—it’s not like they get sweaty—but I imagine the idea is to get them accustomed to being undressed around and showering with each other so it won’t be as big a deal in middle school. (I suspect it is still potentially a big deal, but what do I know?) You know, I bet it’s also a way to make sure all the children get bathed at least weekly; that would be a typical Swedish institutional thought.

Grown-ups are naked in front of each other, too. In the ladies’ locker room people saunter about, no towels in sight. Once, while I was helping Little Girl get into her bathing suit for swim class, a totally naked person started talking to me. It turns out I knew her, but since I generally make it a point not to take a good look at naked people around me in the locker room, I hadn’t noticed. And that lady just stood there, chatting, nude, like she didn’t care at all that I was seeing her without her clothes. Which I guess she didn’t!

You are also supposed to be naked in the saunas. They even have a sign, “For everyone’s comfort, please do not wear your bathing suit.” I don’t know about you, but if comfort is what we are after, I would in fact prefer a bathing suit. I’ve been on pool/sauna outings with friends, and just cannot bring myself to sit around naked with them. So, I wrap up in my towel, which obviously just calls even more attention to me than if I were naked like everybody else. And I know nobody actually cares what I look like naked, but I just can’t bring myself to do it.

Since everybody is so comfortable with nudity, at public beaches there are no changing rooms. Instead, Swedish people are skilled at simultaneously having a towel wrapped around them and changing in and out of their bathing suits. Well, I say skilled, but some people are definitely better than others. I have seen assorted bits of people exposed during the process. And of course it doesn’t matter. They’re just body parts; everybody’s got them. But I still prefer to wear my wet bathing suit home, instead, and change there. There’s only so much acclimating a person can do.

Three years and a lot of ruminating

23 April 2013

Well, it’s definitely time to put that last post behind us. Besides, the universe seems to have responded to my complaints and is attempting to shape up and I am actually, well, not hating living in Sweden at the moment! Life’s not so bad, after all.

That said, today marks three years since we moved to Sweden, and the first time I ever remember tearing up with homesickness, thanks to “Summer of ’69” on the radio. With its themes of nostalgia and longing for summer and the carefreeness of youth and its classic American vibe (I know Bryan Adams is actually Canadian, but still), it really conjured up some feelings. And next some Europop come on and I felt better, because I love Europop.

Magically, in the two-and-a-half weeks since my anti-Sweden diatribe, spring came, Swedish people started lining up to spend time with us, I got hired to teach some interesting classes this fall (!!!) (if they make, that is), my volunteer work has gotten even more fulfilling, Little Girl learned how to bike on our quiet little street, my sister-in-law had a healthy baby girl whom we’ll meet soon, and my husband and I booked a luxury trip to Prague next month to celebrate our upcoming ten years of marriage. All this bodes well and reflects why we were supposed to be living here in the first place.

I Have to tell you, I have very much appreciated your support and insights about my situation here in Sweden. There are lots of terrible things about blogging but the feelings of connection I have to people who understand me isn’t one of them. It’s always amazing to me how writing here improves my spirits and outlook, and not just because it’s as if I have divested myself of my problems by dispersing them into the ether of the internet, but because of knowing you guys are out there, giving a shit. Thanks, you guys!

I’ve had time to think about everyone’s comments on my last post, and I want to clarify that my complaints about Swedish society and people were not particularly directed to the people in my village. They were the culmination of every negative thought I’ve had from any Swedish source these last three years. And I don’t say that just because of my terror that someone in this village will happen upon my blog and tell everyone else about it, probably at a party to which I wasn’t invited.

No; people are perfectly nice to me. Acquaintances chat with me when we run into each other while walking our dogs; strangers ask friendly questions at play places; friends text me to make plans. Just because not everybody is clamoring to be my best friend doesn’t mean they aren’t perfectly lovely people, different as they may be from me. One again I remind myself: Swedish niceness is not American niceness, therefore a lack of American niceness does not equal Swedish rudeness. It’s just…something else. And the locus of my social life can be elsewhere without its meaning that I am shut-out from the village. I guess I have just had some idea that living in a village where you could get to know everybody and walk to your friends’ houses meant that you had to get to know everybody and have friends there to whose houses you could walk. But really it can just be an address.

These realizations are one thing leading to my feeling better, but probably the change in the weather, the sun’s reappearance, is really the main thing. Six months of winter are more than enough, thanks. Of course, now I think that 52 degrees Fahrenheit is a lovely, warm day, worthy of shorts and bare feet. I have no idea how I’ll survive South Carolina this June. Maybe then there will be some homesickness reversal!

Paris!

10 February 2013

My mother is visiting from the US and she, Little Girl, and I just got back from a long weekend in Paris! When visiting major cities I am very goal-oriented and, subway map in hand, I run around trying to see All The Things. While I had been to Paris before and checked a bunch off my list already, there were places I wanted Little Girl to see and which she, a fan of the Madeline books, had an interest in (like the Eiffel Tower). And of course there were sights that would be new for both of us.

Little Girl is a great traveler. She likes any form of transportation, and on this trip we did almost all of them: plane, train, taxi, subway, tram, boat, funicular, bus. It’s really fun to travel with her because she pretty much just goes, goes, goes, eager for the next experience.

Loves the metro

Loves the metro

Boat tour of the Seine

Boat tour of the Seine

Planes are her favorite because they keep bringing you food and you get to watch videos!

Planes are her favorite because they keep bringing you food and you get to watch videos

We saw, among many, many other things:

The Louvre

The Louvre

Versailles

Versailles

Arc de Triomphe

Arc de Triomphe

The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower

She came home talking about all the 4,000-year-old Egyptian household items she found intriguing The Louvre, as well as her plan to set up shop as an artist selling her works along with all the painters at the Place du Tertre, where I bought a terrible charcoal portrait of her (if she were 25 and Barbie). She ate raw oysters and pain au chocolat and escargots and crêpes with Nutella and said “Bonjour” and “Merci” and “Ça va bien” to the people of Paris. She loved the topiaries at Versailles and seeing the Eiffel Tower from different distances, perspectives, lighting, and heights all around the city. She thought the Easter-themed Hermès window display on rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré was awesome and the interior of Sacré-Cœur beautiful—and fascinating due to the presence of real live nuns in habits! Little Girl enjoyed chasing the birds in The Tuileries and checking out the decorations on the bridges crossing the Seine. It’ll be interesting to see which are the enduring memories for her of our visit.

Taken on the Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde

Taken on the Ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde

I’m not sure yet what the highlights of the trip were for me since we just got back tonight. I still can’t believe how close Europe is when you actually live in it; previously all my experience with trips to Europe involve time disorientation and exhaustion on both sides of the visit, but now it’s so easy*. And coming back to Sweden is increasingly feeling like coming home, if only because this time my husband and baby were waiting for us at the airport. For now I’m basking in seeing Baby Brother again, who managed to learn new things in just three days away: now, instead of waiting for someone to stack blocks so he can knock them down, he’s building his own towers. And his cars now jump off the ground and say “vroom vroom!” But I can’t help but notice how much he looks like a cherub in an 18th century painting, all fat thighs and golden curls, and wonder what he’ll like about traveling, once he gets bigger.

* Nobody looked at our passports even once! And we flew on four flights involving four countries!

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Problems

1 February 2013

The substitute teaching so far has been fairly terrible (I’ve worked three full days with grades 5-9). A few classes here and there were enjoyable and productive—the ones where I actually got to teach rather than try to follow an absurd lesson plan consisting of “make them work quietly by themselves for an hour”—but largely the subbing has been a combination of babysitting and police work of classes populated by disrespectful, unpleasant, entitled tweens and teens. I’ve turned down requests to sub for now and am giving it some thought before I ever consent to put myself in that situation again. As I saw the students behave decently enough towards the regular teachers I guess the problem is me and not them, which is dispiriting. I’ve never had trouble with classroom management before when I taught adults (and I did follow y’all’s tips and the rules of the school). Perhaps I am not suited to the teaching of children.

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Baby Brother fell again and cut his lip again in the same damn place. This time didn’t require stitches at any rate.

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I’m an anxious wreck, to be honest. I feel like it’s sort of been building since we moved to Sweden and has been especially troublesome in the last year, but I’m not sure if I’m just reacting to the uncertainty of cultural and linguistic ignorance coupled with (what feels like) social and professional failure or if I’m actually suffering from a psychological disorder. Frequently I stay awake half the night obsessing about topics including, but not limited to, Little Girl’s school experience, Baby Brother’s name, social mistakes I have made and/or fear making in the future, and my professional and personal development. Why does everything seem so worrisome and hard when, in practical terms, I and we have it easy, have it good? Anyway, I made an appointment to talk to a doctor about it.

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It’s been almost two years since I was last in the US, and I feel like we should go there this summer and see people and eat stuff and swim in the ocean, but I just can’t seem to feel strongly enough about going to buy tickets. (Husband consents to going but doesn’t really want to). It feels disturbing that I don’t want to visit my country when we have the time and money to do it, but it’s just so far away, and traveling with toddlers is hard, and it wouldn’t be as relaxing a vacation as in Greece (where I actually want to go) because we’d have to, you know, clean and cook and drive around, and plus what I miss about my life in America—mostly knowing how things work and fitting in—wouldn’t exactly be fulfilled in two weeks of visiting. My friends mostly don’t live where we’re going so there’s not many we’d see. It all seems kind of too difficult to be worth it. And these are my feelings and I should respect them, I guess, but it seems pretty fucked up not to want to visit my country. Surely it’d be fun if we went, right? America is still fun?

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A month ago my dad emailed me about dates for his buying a plane ticket to come visit, and I kept trying to write him back that they were fine, to be nice, but instead was overwhelmed by anger over issues of my feeling he was either absent or inappropriate during my childhood, and is a mediocre father and grandfather (and terrible houseguest) now. All these feelings seem triggered by the life stages of my children and likely by my own less-than-stellar psychological state. So I wrote him a whole long letter telling him all this, and he responded with a bunch of non-apologies that amounted to “I’m sorry you feel badly about things that did not actually occur,” and proceeded to point out parenting mistakes he feels Husband and I make. I really have no response to that, but I guess I should come up with one.

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Last June I high-pressure-washed all the patio and walkway pavers and got what I guess is tennis elbow and it’s still bothering me. I guess I can bring this up with the doctor, too. Speaking of the doctor I’m going to see, she’s my GP, but I don’t like her at all. Once I saw her out and about and waved a friendly greeting and she looked frightened and backed away. Swedish people, man. Sometimes they drive me totally nuts.

Celebrating traditions

25 December 2012

We celebrate Christmas both the Swedish and American ways. This makes for a lot of celebrating!

For us, it all begins the day after Thanksgiving, which we usually celebrate on the Saturday afterwards, because, of course, Thanksgiving is not a work holiday here. If they are selling trees we’ll get our Christmas tree, but usually they aren’t yet, so we put up some minor decorations. As time passes we put up a lights display outside on the hedge and upstairs balcony and front gable, plus some lighted up polar bears in the yard. It’s not very many lights by my American standards, at least what’s visible from the road, but there’s only one other house in the entire village that has outdoors lights at all, so it ends up making a statement (imagine if I could get a Santa and a sleigh for the roof!) The common Swedish decorations are stars and advent lights, which look kind of like menorahs, which shine in most windows. We have those, too, and a bunch of other Christmasy crap in nearly every room (Little Girl even has her own small tree.)

Santa Lucia, on December 13th, is the first Christmas event. Swedish children dress up as a martyred Sicialian saint or a limited assorted of other characters (e.g. Star Boys, who look like KKK members, Santa, or Gingerbreadmen/women) and wear/hold battery-operated candles while singing in a procession a limited assortment of Santa Lucia songs. This year Little Girl was in two such events and we ended up unwittingly attending a third.

Meanwhile, during the month of December, our elves, one of which is an official Elf on a Shelf, are spying on the children during the day and moving around by night to different perches in the house. And every day Little Girl opens a window on the advent calendar (this year’s was by Playmobil) and we watch Sweden’s public television advent show, which is a mini-series, different every year, for children. We actually stopped midway this year because it was too frightening for Little Girl, featuring ghosts and talking skeletons and dead pet mice and bullying and aliens. Christmas has been sort of involved in the plot (e.g. you can use Sweden’s traditional Christmas soda, Julmust, to melt bones, on the pretext that soda unhealthy for your body) but there’s a lot else going on, too. (Husband says one year it was all about the different constellations and it is not weird it is not very Christmasy.)

We also like to fit in one public dancing around the Christmas tree singing the same folk songs you sing (e.g. about small strange frogs or doing the laundry) when you dance around the Maypole in the summer. We did this at another traditional Swedish Christmas event, an outside old-fashioned Christmas market, where you can by handicrafts and glögg (mulled wine) and locally-produced flour and see an old-fashioned Santa (known here as Tomten) who disconcertingly is wearing grey and not red. (This was the first year Little Girl could not be cajoled to sit on Santa’s lap.)

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We do a full celebration of Swedish Christmas on Christmas Eve with all the cousins at the grandparents’ place. This involves food and a visit from Tomten, which the children’s grandfather sadly misses each year as he happens at that moment to be out “buying a newspaper.” At home that night we put out milk and cookies for Santa, and the next morning we go downstairs to see he has eaten his snack, filled the stockings, added a present each for the children, and left footprints by the fireplace. It is a lot of Christmas, frankly, but the two Christmases seems unavoidable now that Little Girl is used to both. And it’s also fun!

I have a weakness for Christmas music and insist on its being played throughout the house non-stop at all times for the entire month of December. It’s a real bummer that they don’t play Christmas music on the radio here (occasionally they’ll sprinkle something in with the usual boring stuff). This year we had some perfect timing: Little Girl lost the second of her two front teeth and could sing the classic kids’ song “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth.”

While I do enjoy some religious Christmas music, otherwise my celebration of the holiday is entirely secular. At school Little Girl has learned about, and done crafts featuring, Jesus. (Also, the entire school walked down to the village church twice in the month of December for religious events, which drives my American separation-of-church-and-state-self nuts). Following Little Girl’s informing me of the goodness and importance of Jesus I felt I had to let her know that some people (like Mommy) think that the story of Jesus is a nice idea, but not necessarily true.

However, I take the opposite tack what with the magical elves and Santa and so forth, actively encouraging her belief in something that, unlike Jesus, has absolutely no factual basis, and I wonder why I do this. If I want her to value facts and good sense and to avoid magical thinking, then why do I not take a hard line on Santa, too? If I think it’s harmless and comforting fun to believe in Santa for a while as a child, as I do, then it seems I should treat Jesus and Christianity the same…right? This conundrum is related to my wondering whether religious Christians get irritated by the enthusiastic celebration of Christmas by non-believers, who happily leave the entire “reason for the season” out of the equation.

Of course we do have a reason for the season. Tradition for its own sake, family togetherness, an excuse to spoil each other and brighten up the winter, the passing along of cultural knowledge, the sheer fun of it. I don’t think those reasons are too bad.

Snow and snow and snow and snow

7 December 2012

A whole bunch of snow has been falling on us in the last week and today it was -20 C (-4 F), making everything good and wintery around here. I do prefer it under freezing to over freezing this time of year, if given a choice, because it’s no fun going out in the rain and the snow is pretty and lightens things up a bit (next week will be the shortest day of the year). It doesn’t need to be quite this cold, exactly, but at least there’s no danger of this lovely, fluffy snow melting and then refreezing and being my arch-nemesis, ice. And we did spend all kinds of money on proper winter clothes so it’s at least nice we get some use out of them.

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When snow’s on the ground children take their sleds and helmets to school to go sledding at recess. They even canceled gym one day for extra time sledding.

Snow also provides adults with exercise via the need to shovel it. I always think of winter as a time which is a break from yard work, but when the snow never stops coming down, endless physical labor is involved in removing it from your car and your driveway and your walkway and your steps.

The consolation prize is the fun for the children, the beauty and quiet of it, the change of pace and scenery and season.

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Therapeutic

29 November 2012

We finally got a time with the child psychologist to talk about Little Girl’s social anxiety. Of course, it took so long to get that appointment that she had moved into a relatively good place, but we still had the visit. But “we” I mean Husband and me; the idea, evidently, is to help us to help her, rather than for them to help her.

And it was quite informative. I learned about a large number of things I am doing wrong as a mother to a shy, sensitive, creative, six-year-old: I should stop nagging her about sucking her thumb. I should not try to teach her to read if she’s not interested. I should not insist that she greets people politely and not crawl around under the table in public places pretending to be a cat. I should arrange it so she mostly spends time in situations that are totally comfortable for her.

In short, I should show her and tell her that being who she is great and important and wonderful just the way she is. This sounds really good and makes total sense, is so very obvious, except I also think part of my job as a mother is to help her to stop relying on thumb-sucking for comfort, encourage academic skills, act appropriately and politely, and be able to handle a variety of environments.

However, because I do think her long-term senses of personal and familial security are important, and appreciate the unique opportunity she has in Sweden to a relatively long childhood free from academic pressures, and recognize that nagging about thumb-sucking isn’t making any difference whatsoever, I’m trying to follow the therapist’s suggestions of basically not saying 75% of the things I usually say to her, and let her just be, and convey to her absolute acceptance.

But it’s so hard. I just don’t get Little Girl, I think is the issue. She says and does astounding things every day; she’s so clever, and so interesting, and yet so confusing and infuriating. She’s an innovative introvert, a stubborn creator, and I just don’t relate at all.

And I want to be nurturing and understanding and empathetic, but, especially as I’m not in the best state of mind at the moment anyway (the weather, failed job-searching, unsuccessful volunteer attempts, an inaccurate but nonetheless present feeling of not having any true friends, weight gain) I’m not able to mother in the style that, experts all agree, would best benefit Little Girl, a special person who deserves the best. I lose my temper about small things, I spent too much time pouring over my phone, I prefer chores over play, I choose pursed lips over an encouraging smile. What bothers me most is knowing exactly how I want to be as a mother but not being able to achieve it, not having the wherewithal or the motivation or whatever it is that I am lacking.

This failure is cast into relief by my mothering of Baby Brother, a cheerful and busy fourteen-month-old. Playing with and delighting in him and praising him comes so easily, feels so simple,and requires no effort or thought or coaching. And then I turn around and glower at Little Girl for still not having put away her laundry, even though I have asked her all day, and have to talk myself into, instead of yelling or bribing or punishing, doing what will work and is arguably better for her: making it a game for her, a sorting challenge or a race. Or just letting her go finish building a miniature working replica of the recycling station and put away the laundry myself.

Why does it feel so hard to choose the empathetic course with her, and, worse, sometimes feels not quite worth the enormous effort, especially when mothering her, and of course her less-complex brother, is essentially all I have to do in life?