Life in the Forest of Fika - a New Yorker moves to small-town Sweden

How is a big-city girl like Amy finding small-town life? New Yorker Amy shares plenty of her observations about living in Växjö, Sweden, which seems thousands of miles away from the Big Apple, and not just in terms of physical distance. Read on to think what she thinks of the Swedish people, speaking and writing the language, and the prospect of raising children there.

Amy J.

-Where were you born?

Somewhere between Tatooine and Middle Earth. Ha! No, seriously in a NJ commuter suburb of New York City.  

-In which country and city are you living now?

I live in Växjö, Sweden, which I have to tell you, is very far away from Stockholm! (Many Americans automatically assume that if you live in Sweden that you live in Stockholm. Um, nope.)

-Are you living alone or with your family?

I live with my Swedish husband, our son and am currently pregnant with our second child. 

-How long have you been living in Sweden?

A little over 3 months.

-What is your age?

I am in my early 30s. (See-- evasive but honest + polite) 

-When did you come up with the idea of living in Sweden?

My husband and I met in Sweden when I was here 8 years ago. We fell in love and eventually he followed me back to NYC where we got married and lived for 7 years. After our son was born 3 years ago, we decided that Sweden was probably a much easier and more sane place to raise a family. In the meantime, I had a training grant sponsored by the US Embassy in La Paz, Bolivia, so we moved the convo to the back-burner for the 5 months we lived/worked down there, but when my husband was offered a position with a firm in his hometown in Sweden, we decided to give it a go. 

-Was it hard to get a visa or a work permit?

As a wife of Swedish citizen and as a mother of a dual Swedish-American citizen with a future Swedish citizen in-utero, and as an American citizen, no, the process was extremely simple for me. 

-Was it difficult for you to get medical insurance before you went there or when you first arrived?

Sweden is THE epicenter of socialist universal healthcare, so in a word, no.  

-How do you make your living in Sweden? Do you have any type of income generated? 

I worked as a copywriter and publicist in advertising for nearly a decade in NYC. I have retained a few clients for remote, freelance work. I also have my MLS (Master of Library & Information Science) that I completed recently (and for which I was awarded that grant in Bolivia) that I had gotten in the hopes of one day becoming a Young Adult librarian. 

Alas, although I do speak Swedish fluently, my writing and reading skills are not professional-grade yet. I actually started an intensive Swedish grammar/writing course with the hopes of improving my level significantly. Once I have taken this course, after giving birth and after the standard 480 (paid!) days of parental leave will I really seriously start to think about my professional future in Sweden. Sweden is nice like that after New York - no rush! Social safety nets! Yay! 

-Do you speak Swedish and do you think it's important to speak the local language?

Yes. I do speak Swedish fluently. My husband and his family are fantastic teachers, I must say! I also have a deep love of language and linguistics - both of my native tongue and of new languages. 

I do know of lots of English speakers living in Sweden who do not speak Swedish. This generation of young Swedes are really marvelous at English and more than eager to practice/show-off their fabulous English skills, so it is indeed possible to live here without Swedish. That said, it's much harder to get a job without Swedish. It's harder to make Swedish friends. And there are many older Swedes who are not comfortable or fluent in English, so the non-Swedish speakers will miss out on getting to know a lot of nice older folks here. 

This is my opinion, but Swedish is not a terribly complicated language (like Finnish or Thai or German) but the most serious difficulty that native English speakers will encounter is that once a Swede learns that you are a native English speaker, they will want to speak English with you. I had to fight a lot through my first years of learning Swedish to get past that barrier. But now my fluency and speed in Swedish is such that I do not have that challenge anymore. That said, if a Swede has lived abroad in an English-speaking country (someone like my husband), I will usually speak with them in English. 

-Do you miss home and family sometimes?

In a word, yes! There's a lot I don't miss about my life in the USA, but my family and friends - absolutely. Thanks to email, Skype and Facebook though, the distance is a lot easier to bridge. 

-Do you have other plans for the future?

In the future, I'd like to be able to write with the same ease and fluency in Swedish as I do in English. I think it would be fun to write a column (in Swedish) for a local newspaper here about an outsider's perspective on current events. 

Generally, I feel a lot of freedom here about the future. Contrary to what some people believe, the social safety nets in place here make taking professional risks a lot less intimidating. That's how I feel, anyway. 

I also plan on continuing to do a lot of international travel with my family.  Having significantly more vacation time from work is awesome! 

-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?

We have a beautiful 3-bedroom apartment in the "downtown" (in quotes because I'm still a big-city biased New Yorker). It's in an old courthouse (Swedes call it a "tingshus") that has been renovated into apartments. We rent and I think that the cost is a bit below market rent. In any case, it is MUCH cheaper than what we paid for a lot less space (and a lot fewer amenities) in New York. I guess with the USD/Kronor conversion rate, it's about $1000 USD a month. I've heard horror stories about the queues for apartment rentals in Sweden but thanks to my husband's family's local connections, we lucked out. I love our home! 

-What is the cost of living in Sweden?

It is much higher in some aspects (food, clothing, electronics, toiletries) and much lower in others (childcare, healthcare). 

-What do you think about the locals? 

I am very fond of the locals here. Many Americans and other expats in Sweden mistake the Swedish shyness and reserve for arrogance, or are offended by it. Me, I'm over the New York in-your-face types of interaction. I think Swedes are just lovely, in general. I value personal privacy and really appreciate the lack of unsolicited "helpful" advice from strangers as a visibly pregnant woman. That drove me up the wall during my first pregnancy in New York. 

Contrary to popular stereotype, Swedes absolutely do strike up spontaneous conversation with me, often in the playground when they hear me speaking in English with my son. English is definitely an ice-breaker with many young Swedes. Though I often switch to Swedish afterwards. I can be a showoff sometimes. LOL! 

I do acknowledge that I have a different experience as an American who speaks fluent Swedish. I can imagine that people coming from other countries might have a different experience. 

-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Sweden?

Positive: Social safety nets, very safe in our town, strong regard for personal privacy, very pro-woman policies, seriously awesome pre-natal and post-natal care/childcare, lots of vacation time, clean air, clean streets, high quality food, lack of corn syrup in food, beautiful lakes and forests and nature, children have a real childhood here, teenagers seem respectful in general and not like knuckleheads, significantly less materialistic society, terrific bike paths. Oh and I like how you're allowed to be humble and unsure here. I am very sensitive to some of the aggressive hubris in [some not all] Americans. 

Negative: I am not a fan of the weather where we live. The clouds often gather here in the forests of the Southeast. I do not like passive-aggressiveness and am clueless how to respond to it (sorry I learned to argue like a New Yorker). It can be very hard to get a straight answer out of people in the more bureaucratic organizations. Oh and also the groupthink mentality can get on my nerves at times. I am totally fine with agreeing to disagree. That's not so popular here. 

-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Sweden?

This is the place to be if you are a woman and/or a person with a family. 

-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Sweden?

You can read my blog for an account of my daily life in the forests of southern Sweden. It's not a pretty or slickly designed blog, but if you are curious or even just a little nosy, come and have a read! :)