Kicka här för hela inlägget på svenska: En New Yorker i den svenska myllan: en intervju med Michael
For a while now, we’ve been daydreaming about putting together an interview series with people we find inspiring and interesting. One thing that defines us both is our curiosity, and that we can get excited about almost any topic if the story is compelling enough, or if the storyteller is a captivating character. Reading and listening to personal portraits and in-depth interviews is something we both love, and this is one of the primary ways we find inspiration and courage to test our wings, try new things and live our dream. There have been many times where the interview object or subject of, let’s say, a podcast hasn’t been an obvious point of interest, but where the outcome has managed to completely capture our attention. Now, we’re total beginners at interviewing people, and really have no clue as to how to put these enchanting stories together, but we’re too curious to not give it a try. We figured that if we just ask the questions we ourselves would love to hear the answers to, we can’t be too far off.
We have a long list of people we would love to learn more about, and will try to put out new interviews at fairly regular intervals. As of now, this project really has no end – because it seems unlikely we’ll run out of interesting people to reach out to, doesn’t it? As a warmup, we thought it could be fun to do interviews with ourselves. You know, just to get ourselves familiar with the concept. Some of the questions were submitted by followers on Instagram, others I (Sophia) came up with. So, without further ado – our first interview object, Michael Miracolo:
Most of the questions that we received from followers centered around comparisons between New York and Yxlan, or the US and Sweden. Good thing that’s one of our favorite subjects to talk about when no one hears us! Let’s dive right in and get to the first one.
You’ve now lived in Sweden for close to three years. How was it to move to here, really, with regards to the language, cultural differences etc.?
It was actually extremely easy. I’ve never experienced much of a cultural clash at all, and having a partner who is from here has helped a lot. You have been able to help me adapt in all sorts of ways. I feel like you actually prepped me for years in advance by baking cinnamon buns with me, putting on Vasaloppet (a prestigious cross country ski race) on TV, introducing me to semlor (traditional Swedish pastry) and all sorts of things when we still lived in New York. Back then, as we had no plans on moving, I think you were really just maintaining the Swedish part of yourself and wanted me to see that as well, but I guess it worked out – I was already very familiar with Swedish culture, sports and food when we decided to move. The language is still a work in progress, but as everyone here speaks English, I can always get by.
“I feel like you actually prepped me for years in advance by baking cinnamon buns with me and introducing me to semlor.”
Haha, I did indeed start working on your Swedish self a long time ago. I would also go as far as saying the most common question you get from friends, family, neighbors etc. here in Sweden is this one: do you speak Swedish?
Well, sort of! I’ve taken two online classes through Linköping University, which have provided me with a good basic understanding of Swedish grammar, vocabulary etc. My reading and writing comprehension is actually quite good, if I may say so. Watching Swedish TV is excellent for listening comprehension, and we have a bunch of shows we watch every week (Vem bor här, Trädgårdstider and Mästarnas Mästare, for example). Speaking is my weak spot, though. As we speak English at home – as in, you and I – and we live so remotely, there really aren’t too many opportunities to practice, so at this point, I’m not too comfortable speaking Swedish.
It’ll come. I think everyone who has acquired a second language can relate to how the speaking proficiency is the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place. If we move away from language a little bit, what would you say is the best and worst, respectively, with living in Sweden?
Well, first: I love how orderly everything is, how there is a system for whatever anyone could ever need and how it’s so clean everywhere. I know many Swedes talk about littering and how it’s a big problem, but based on my experience coming from elsewhere, it’s sparkly clean wherever I look. I also love how I don’t need to worry about how I’m going to pay for my child’s college education, to put it frankly. Free healthcare and education are such privileges that I’ll never stop feeling grateful for. What else? Well, I love how nature is so accessible, and I love how the mentality and the size of the country make quick change possible. I feel like if the people want something changed, it’s actually likely it’ll come true. That has instilled in me a whole new belief in my own individual power to have an impact, and I think that’s a contributing reason to why Sweden is such an innovative country.
Hm, the worst… well, when we first moved here, I’ll have to admit I missed Amazon. The concept of ordering just about anything and having it delivered to your door step the next day and all of that. But as I’ve changed my consumption habits quite drastically over the past few years, I can’t say I miss it anymore. I guess I’ll have to say the worst part is that it costs me more to watch Premier League on TV these days. The conclusion is that life here is pretty good.
Is there anything that you miss in particular from the US?
I’ve been asked that many times, and for some reason, I always find it tricky to answer. I think that has much to do with the fact that I lived a completely different life there. Things that I missed initially, I no longer miss, as I’m in a different place in myself and my life now as opposed to a few years ago. If I were to think of some concrete examples though, I would say that I miss being able to walk into a store or something similar and feel 100% confident with the language. That whatever I say or get told, I’ll be 100% in the know. I also miss my favorite ice cream: Talenti’s “Mediterranean Mint”. And of course my family and friends – that will always be the biggest thing. That, and the place where I grew up. You know, that feeling of the house you spent your childhood in and your home town. Those will forever be very dear to my heart.
I can obviously relate to that myself, as I lived far away from my home for five years when we were in New York together. It’s amazing how another place can give you a true sense of home as well, though, which is how I felt after a year or two in the US. What about you – do you feel at home in Sweden?
Yes, except when I have to speak the language in public places. Otherwise, I feel completely comfortable. I know how everything works – the road system, the TV-channels, the bank-ID, Kivra, how to do your taxes – and that’s such a nice feeling. You don’t realize until you actually move from one country to another that there are so many small things that you’ve got to get the hang of before it feels like home and completely safe. It’s really only when I have to make a phone call to the dentist or something like that where I don’t feel at home. And besides those practical things I mentioned, I also feel very attached to the Swedish culture, and have since a long time back. There are also many likeminded people here that I’ve connected with. Those are all things that make it feel like home, too.
Speaking of people – if we were to generalize a bit, you and I would definitely say Swedes and Americans are quite different from each other. What would you say defines the difference of really getting to know a Swede vs. an American?
I’m afraid I won’t be able to answer this question without generalizing even more – and perhaps even stepping on some toes – but I’ll give it a go. First though, I’d like to say there are good people and bad people everywhere – those you get along with and those you don’t. If I were to compare the two countries though, I’d say it’s more obvious at an earlier point in an interaction with a Swede if there’s friendship potential. I think this is due to Swedes being on the more reserved side of the spectrum, but once you get going, it’ll quickly surface if you genuinely have things in common and a foundation to build a friendship on. Americans are, generally, more talkative and in that sense “easier” to get to know, but that talent for conversing can sometimes hide the fact that in reality, you aren’t made for each other. I was never one to have many superficial relationships though, so I would say I’ve always been quality over quantity when it comes to friends. I’ve made some great friends here in Sweden though, which I’m really grateful for.
Was there anything that was particularly difficult in moving from New York to where we live now?
Oh, it must have been the fact that we could no longer do any impulse grocery shopping. The amount of times we walked down the block to the local corner store after a long run (and realizing dinner wouldn’t cut it) to buy ice cream, wearing pajama pants… well, countless. With that said, living in a place where you simply have no consumption opportunities makes you save a whole lot of money, so I wouldn’t trade it.
“The amount of times we walked down the block to the local corner store after a long run to buy ice cream, wearing pajama pants… well, countless.”
And if you were to describe the transition of pace from city life to farm life, what would that sound like? Did you ever get bored or frustrated, for example?
Absolutely not bored or frustrated. I think I’m still in detox mode, to be honest. New York City is probably the most high-paced place in the world, and I’m still in recovery from that. I’m very much of an introvert, and the constant stimulation from the city can be exhausting. It might seem like our lives are slow as in we sit around and twiddle our thumbs, but when we say slow, we refer more to keeping things as stress-free as possible, and making up your own schedule. We rarely sit around doing nothing. I’m just as busy now (sometimes even busier!), but I do things at my own time, and I do them surrounded by quietness and serenity.
Very little thumb twiddling indeed. You left behind a prosperous future at your previous firm to go live this countryside life we’ve set up for ourselves. For those who don’t know you too well, would you mind sharing some of your educational and professional background?
I have a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering, and graduated from Syracuse University in 2007. I started working for an engineering consultancy called Altieri Sebor Wieber in the construction industry right away, and stayed there until we moved in 2017. I climbed the ranks over the years, and was an Associate when I decided to leave. The easiest way to describe what I did would go as follows: I was in charge of the design of the mechanical (heating/cooling/ventilation/air conditioning), electrical, plumbing and fire suppression systems of buildings, and the coordination of such systems with the architect and owner in question. In other words, I worked with the architect to design it all and put it on paper, which was then handed to the contractor to build. I worked on everything from large university projects, such as academic facilities, to museums and high-end residential projects. Some of the projects I’m most proud of include the Granoff Center (a creative arts center) at Brown University and one of the apartments in the 432 Park Ave skyscraper.
And I can attest you were very talented at what you were doing (and also that it’s a pretty great thing to be married to an engineer. Things just get solved so easily). A flourishing career isn’t the easiest thing in the world to give up though. How did you transition away from that and were there any mental obstacles that you had to overcome?
Well, I left a job that came with great responsibility, and where I was in a position of power and managed large-scale projects. My ego loved that. But it also came with a lot of stress and very limited free time. This has been one of the hardest things for me to deal with, as far as the transition – not being in that position of power and responsibility anymore, and lacking that outside validation that I’m doing “something“ with my life. But once you get past that, and you realize that the only thing that actually matters is how you view yourself and not how others view you, it’s somewhat easy to let go off. I still miss it, sometimes – both the feeling of achievement as well as the regular pay check – however every time I feel a moment of weakness come on and I start to doubt my decisions, I remind myself of how today, I’m the only one in charge of my daily schedule and I can choose to design my week however I want. That’s worth so much more in the end. And as fatherhood approaches, I can’t even describe the joy I feel that I’ll be able to be so present. If this had been my old work life, I wouldn’t have been able to spend a single day at home with our baby. The bottomline is: it’s difficult and challenging to distinguish your ego from what your true passion is and how you’d really like to spend your time, but to me, that’s been the the most important things to learn to do. If you can keep it relatively clear to yourself why you’re drawn to certain things and certain accomplishments, you’ve come a long way.
Well said. It’s a bit of a lifelong mission, but I think we’ve both come far compared to where we started out. If we remain in the US for a little while longer, would you say we would’ve been able to create a similar lifestyle over there? Why/why not?
Yes, I do – but not in or around New York. It would have taken us moving to a completely different part of the country, where real estate and living costs are much less, for that to have been even remotely an option. Even with that, it wouldn’t have been as easy. Here in Sweden, you have the support of the social security system, with free health care and education, as a big safety net. It also would have taken us so much longer to save up the money needed for the transition – and the buffer would have needed to be much larger – and it also would have put us far way from both of our families. When we discussed our options, we scaled it down to one question: where in the world can we, realistically, make as many of our dreams as possible come true? And that answer was and still is Sweden.
I couldn’t agree more, obviously. My appreciation for Sweden and the Swedish system is endless these days, and I’ve really realized what an amazing privilege it is to get to call this country our home. That really didn’t dawn upon me until I moved abroad, and I’m so grateful for that experience. Before we jump over the pond, many were asking for a blunt and honest comparison between Sweden and the US, and New York and Yxlan. It’s a mighty task. Do you want to give it a go?
Haha, I could write an entire blog post on this subject alone. I always dreamed of being a city boy, and I always imagined myself as a city person. I’ve always loved cities, with the bustling atmosphere and the architecture and that feeling of being anonymous. It wasn’t until after I had lived in Manhattan for 10 years that I started to long for a quieter life closer to nature. Where we live now, on Yxlan, really couldn’t be more different than New York. It’s dead quiet almost all of the time (except for week 28-32 in the summer and over Easter, I’d say), we can go days without seeing another human being and it’s pitch black at night (well, half the year). We wake up to birdsong instead of cars honking and we go to the store once every two weeks, as opposed to once or twice every day back then. I might have thought I’d miss the city vibe more, but I really don’t. I think I’ve realized how “little” I actually need to be happy, and we have all of that here. Nature around the corner, fresh air to breathe, the ability to work with my hands outside, go for runs when the sun is out etc.
If I compare the countries, there are obviously more differences than I can list here. But a few fun things would include how you do your taxes – in America, it takes a whole day, actually costs you money and gives you a massive anxiety attack. Here it takes me 5 min and I use an app for it. Another thing is the traffic – driving in America is so stressful. I partly blame that on the sheer volume of cars, but there’s also a level of craziness I can’t even put into words. You have seen the New Yorker in me come out a few times when driving in Stockholm, and let’s just say you felt very uncomfortable with the amount of honking going on. That was still nothing compared to what I’m used to.
Haha, I barely even know how to honk! You’ve leaned over and honked for me a few times, actually. Driving will need to suffice as the transition into the next question, which centers around sustainability, something that’s become a dear topic of ours since we moved. How has your outlook on a sustainable lifestyle changed since you came here?
Thanks to Sweden being such a small, progressive country, I feel like I can actually make change nowadays. In America, even if sustainability is something you care about, it feels impossible for an individual to do anything. After moving, I realized hey, every individual choice can indeed make a difference (of course that’s the case in America too, but it’s much harder to believe and thereby implement). Simultaneously with moving here, sustainability became something I started to care so much more about too. Why I’m not sure, but I believe living this close to nature has had a massive influence. I wasn’t one to ever think about pollinators, for example, but now I find myself watching the bees buzz around our yard for hours on end, thinking it’s the most fascinating thing and wanting to do all I can to give them a helping hand. I’ve also noticed how I’m less “selfish” in my actions, without thinking of it. It just comes more naturally to do the “right thing”, even if it means an inconvenience for myself. It’s a stupid example, maybe, but a few years ago, I would have just killed whatever insects I found inside. Now I’ll scoop them up and carry them outside, even if it’s late at night and I’m about to go to bed.
I’m the first one to say you’ve gone through quite the remarkable change in that regard. When you talk about sustainability, food is an inevitable topic. A bunch of people asked for how long you have been a vegetarian and why?
Well, technically, I haven’t made the official commitment – I will still, on rare occasions, have a piece of meat or fish if someone offers it to me (maybe once or twice a year nowadays). But that has made the transition so much easier for me, as I haven’t felt as if I need to live in complete absence unless I want to. It’s taken the pressure off of me entirely. I started eating vegetarian food when I met you, a little more than seven years ago. We liked to cook and eat together already from the beginning, so it became natural that I only ate vegetarian food at home. I started to feel so much better in my body quite quickly, and I’ll happily admit my reasons initially were much more selfish than, let’s say, for environmental and climate reasons, but hey – it was a win-win right from the start! I had a health check up a few years after I had met you, and my blood test results were significantly better. Now, if that had to do with the fact that I had become an ultra runner, a vegetarian or (basically) a non-drinker, I’ll leave unsaid – but I sure felt (and feel) so much stronger and better now. My advice is therefore: quit drinking, eat vegetarian and run a lot. And take note: that says nothing about whether dessert is allowed (I have a big sweet tooth). Nowadays, I’d say I eat the way I do due to both personal and climate reasons. And the big bonus: it’s dirt cheap if done right.
“My advice is therefore: quit drinking, eat vegetarian and run a lot.”
It is dirt cheap indeed! We often tell people that if health and climate reasons aren’t enough to get you to go more towards vegetarian food, do it for the sake of your wallet. Speaking of advice though – what would you tell the 25-year-old you, if you got the chance to provide him with some guidance?
I would basically want to say “stop drinking, exercise more and stop buying lunch out”. A typical week included buying lunch out every day, and then going to bars every weekend. If I could only take all the money spent on deli sandwiches and beer and put it towards savings… Don’t get me wrong though – I don’t regret anything and I definitely enjoyed myself in my 20’s, but at the time, I thought that was the only way to live your life. It took me falling in love with a vegetarian runner from Sweden to realize there was more than pizza and beer to get excited about. I can’t even tell you how much better my body is feeling now, at 35, compared to 10 years ago. I even have those blood test results to show for it!
I think I would also like to tell myself that it’s totally cool to just be who you are, to let your true passions come to life and that it’s fine not fitting into a norm and being like “everyone else”. I actually remember you telling me about a conversation you had with my best friend Neal, maybe a year or so after we had met. The two of you had been out running, and you had ended up talking about the fact that I wasn’t joining in on the bar nights as often as before, and Neal had said something along the lines of “I think Miro is just living the life he’s wanted to live for a long time”. Many of my close friends call me Miro. I thought that was such a nice thing of him to recognize.
Life has definitely changed a lot in the past 10 years – and it’s about to change a whole lot more in just a few weeks’ time. What are you most excited about as you prepare to become a dad?
Oh, what a fun question! I’m just so excited to have a new person to share everything that I love in the world with. I know it’ll take a while before our kid is old enough to appreciate going for a walk in the woods, skiing, baking brownies etc., but the thought of sharing my joy and see him/her discover the same makes me so happy. I’m also really excited about sitting around the dinner table, the three of us, and creating a close-knit family. It’s all in the small things, for me.
I would say that’s one of the biggest discoveries in our “downshifting journey”, that it’s all in the small things at the end of the day. Nowadays then, when careers and academic achievements have taken a bit of a backseat, what is your biggest motivator in life?
That I want to be able to look back at my life when I’m older and feel that I have made the most of everything I had. And that I enjoyed it. I don’t want to look back and have regrets, feel that I should have done stuff differently and realize I worked my whole life doing something I didn’t love, and find myself with not that many years left to do what I do indeed feel passionately about. Of course that’s hard to know in the moment, if you’re doing the right thing or not, but I believe that as long as you’re driven by what makes you happy and not social expectations or financial gains, you’ll be on the right path.
And speaking of paths – how did you start running?
In my family – as you know, but not our readers – we actually talk about the pre-Sophia era and the post-Sophia era. Much of that is related to running. In the pre-Sophia era, running to me meant an occasional 20 min treadmill jog at the gym or perhaps a 5k run over the Brooklyn bridge while listening to techno music. Let’s just say I didn’t enjoy it. It was more of a means to… no, who am I kidding? It wasn’t enough to stay fit anyway. But post-Sophia, that’s when I fell in love with running. You had always been a runner and would run almost daily around Manhattan. I thought the distances that you were covering were completely mind-boggling, but I guess it must have tickled my interest somehow, because one day I asked to join you. I dug out my old running shoes, and we made it about two kilometers before my knee started hurting. Turned out I was suffering from ITB-syndrome (and that’s a pain in the behind for sure), but every weekend we went together and kept increasing the distance, one kilometer at a time. Slowly, the knee problem subsided, and I found myself really looking forward to the longer and longer runs around the city. Every weekend we went together (there was no time for me during the weeks), either both days or just once, and I can still recall the first time we covered a half marathon distance and how dead I felt afterwards. You tell this story better than I do, but it seems I spent the rest of the day in fetal position on the couch, only to crawl out the door in the evening to go devour double servings of pierogies at the local Ukrainian restaurant, followed by zeppoles (essentially fried dough balls) down in Little Italy. Once we moved to Sweden and we had more free time, we started running together all the time, about 5-6 times a week, and this is when I really started to think of myself as a runner.
If you were to look into the future a bit, what are some of your athletic goals?
I really want to get on a podium in a race. I have come close with a 5th place and a few top-10s, but never made an actual podium. Whether it’s a big or a small race doesn’t matter to me, but it’s just a practical goal I have. Another one is – and this is the reason why I get out the door every day – being able to run a race where I don’t have a mental/physical crash and a feeling of wanting to give up during the race. So far in all races I’ve participated in, there has been a point where I can’t keep up the pace because my legs are too tired or because mentally, I just want to stop because… well, because I simply don’t want to continue. I want to be able to put together a race where those thoughts don’t come. Those are race based goals – another goal I have is just seeing how much I can improve and what I can push myself to. And last but not least – this isn’t as much a goal as it is a desire, I guess, but I also wish for my (our) running to get us to explore more beautiful places in Sweden. There’s so much to see.
There is! And my own enthusiasm towards discovering Sweden has never been greater, much thanks to you. There’s just something about wanting to share your home country with your partner. I was always the one to want to travel to exotic places far away, but now I just want to see all of what Sweden has to offer. We’re about to wrap up here though, but before we do, there are a few quick questions left. First: what’s your guilty pleasure food item?
Even though I only have them once every few years, I can’t get enough of Oreo cookies. When I do have them though, I eat to the point of getting sick. There’s just no stopping.
Haha. I can guarantee everyone there really is no stopping. Next one: as the ice cream connoisseurs as we are (or you’ve turned me into one!), what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?
Mint-chocolate chip, hands down.
And last but not least: what’s the question you’d like to get asked and what would your answer be?
Well, when I got the question about what I would have told the 25-year-old me, I thought of what I would have wanted to tell my 15-year-old self. The answer to that is that I would tell him that it’s ok to fail, and that it’s much worse to not try at all. There’s one specific instance I think of, actually – I loved playing basketball as a kid, and I always wanted to play for the school team, but because it was a popular sport, the team was small and you therefore had to do a tryout, I never gave it a chance because I feared not making the team. I thereby missed out on both potentially playing for the team, and what could have been a very valuable lesson for myself. I would have learned earlier on that the world doesn’t end if you fail. I think I’m still trying to teach myself that, though. It’s a work in progress.
Thank you so much to you, Mike, and to all of you others for reading! Hope you enjoyed this interview, as there’s plenty more to come. Happy Easter!
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