I am asked all the time why I live so far from “home” – but people don’t understand when they ask that “home” is a relative term. Where is home? I feel at home in Sweden now. Iceland was always home in my heart. But time does change things.
Sooner or later everyone asks how I would end up in the woods of rural Värmland, western Sweden – most of the people native to this region think I am weird and/or exotic… the neighbors apparently could never work up the nerve to talk to me so they just talked to each other about me, making up stories. They were convinced I was German because of my name (and there are a lot of Germans and Dutch people around here in the summertime). Eventually one neighbor came by and told me all the “theories” the neighbors passed around. I can see how they thought I was quite an anomaly since everyone here seems to have been born within a 30 kilometer radius of this place. And my moving here a handful of years ago was the most dramatic thing to happen in ten or more years.
I had a little fling with a local guy – never met people more vanilla in their tastes and experiences – and so in awe of the smallest things that they perceived to be outside the norm. The local yokel tells me, years after the fact, that he was also in awe and still sometimes looks back on these little dalliances together as though they were some kind of dream. It was so “Hollywood” for some glamorous (HAHAH) American to turn up and actually express some kind of interest in him. And to his delight – not even interest in him for something long and drawn out but rather just in a few light-hearted conversations and a bit of casual sex here and there. I didn’t need or want something else, nice as he was. Sometimes he agonizes that maybe he used me, even though it has always been clear that I took and got exactly what I wanted from knowing him. It was mutually beneficial, and apparently this is outside the norm as well. It seems people in this neck of the woods jump into committed relationships with everyone they sleep with. That would explain the inexperience and the awe.
My ending up here is no mystery. I am a practical and pragmatic person. I lived and worked in Oslo. I disliked it. I started looking for places to live outside Oslo, and the area I covered in scoping out suburban and rural areas within a reasonable commuting distance from Oslo grew wider and wider until I might as well have been in Sweden. Sweden offers an abundance of benefits – much lower cost of living in every way. Being part of the EU, it also is not subject to all the taxes/customs when buying stuff online from other European countries (one of the banes of my existence in Iceland and Norway). Also, as a citizenship collector, I could get Swedish citizenship (since Sweden allows for multiple citizenships) but Norway is one of those countries that makes you choose either/or – Norway or “nothing” (whatever you have already). I found a liveable house and land not far from the Norwegian border. I worked at home most of the time. It was the best of all worlds. Many years into what started as an experiment in cross-border living and working, despite not working in Oslo anymore (for the time being), I have not once regretted this choice. If anything, my connection to this place has become so much a part of me that, despite my wanderlust and nomadic tendencies, I always long to go home. And when I think “go home”, I think of this little house in the Swedish woods.
Part of the torment of the nomadic mind is that it can occasionally fool me and make me start to wonder whether I should try out some other place. For a while I thought maybe I really wanted a balance of country and city life. So I took a job in Gothenburg (which is not a huge city but is a big enough city to qualify in my experience) and originally planned to live in both places (coming home on weekends). Things have not worked out quite as planned, so I have spent much of the last year living in hotels and succumbing in every unfortunate way to a life of commuting misery. At this point it is not just the hotel life and lack of “settling in” for me – I realized that I just don’t want to be there. At all. No matter where I lived in the city, I just want to be at home.
Who could ever have imagined that this concept of home – this longing for home – would mean a life in Sweden? As I discussed and wrote about recently, I used to laugh at people who opted to be Scandinavian studies majors at university – what on earth could they possibly do with that? Turns out, seeing as how I have spent almost my entire adult life living and working in Scandinavia or for Scandinavian companies, I might have benefited from studying Nordic languages rather than Russian and Serbian-Croatian (as I did). Sure, I can read Anna Karenina in the original now – but speaking everyday Swedish is a silly challenge. I had a couple of pen pals from Sweden in my high school years – seeing written Swedish and hearing all these place names, it felt even more far off than a place like Vladivostok or Khabarovsk, which were like second nature in my academic brain. When a college classmate (which almost makes it sound like we were friends – she was hostile toward me from the beginning for absolutely no reason) told me she had been an exchange student in Sweden during her high school years, it struck me as perplexing – why Sweden? (Of course I remember that everyone I know who became an exchange student had the “dream location” for their studies abroad – and all of them ended up somewhere else. The girl who dreamt of fluency in French was sent to Adelaide, Australia; the guy who wanted to advance his Japanese studies was sent to Germany….)
It’s funny now when I talk with Swedish people about locations in Sweden, it dawns on me now that I know exactly what they are talking about and where they are talking about. First and foremost because I live in just such a remote place and thus have become intimately familiar with a part of Sweden that a lot of Swedes don’t even know particularly well. Secondly I suppose this is just because I am so portable – carrying bits of my life to and fro, driving all over Sweden, discovering all its towns and hidden places. It is like my experience of Canada – most Canadians have not even seen as much of Canada as I have. Sweden, despite being so much smaller than Canada, seems to suffer the same fate. Swedes seem to know where they came from and then seem to know the place where their summerhouses are. I suppose that is one way to know one is at home.
And the living is easy …
On a similar note, you can always tell how “Swedified” a foreigner is by what prepositions they use when they speak English. When a native English speaker repeats, “He is on the table” instead of “at the table”, you know they have been here too long and their native language has been infected (and inflected) by their adopted language. I’ve been saved from this – slightly – by the fact that I wasn’t a Scandinavian studies major and spent so much time reading stuff like Sholokhov’s And Quiet Flows the Don (Тихий Дон) or Ivo Andric’s The Bridge on the Drina (Na Drini ćuprija/На Дрини ћуприја).