Dual Cultures, One Marriage

Thanksgiving is approaching quickly, and so is our upcoming trip to New York. We decided this summer that we’d go celebrate it with the American half of our family, and as much as it weighs on my climate conscience to be hopping on a flight across the Atlantic, I’m really looking forward to going. Before we get started, speaking of flying and living eco-consciously: you all know that we’re doing our very best to minimize our carbon footprint and live in harmony with nature as much as possible. We are both painfully aware of how detrimental air travel is for our climate, but opting out would mean we’d never see one of our families ever again (unless we jumped on a ship to America, I guess – what a journey back in time that would feel like!). Instead, we try to be smart about how we travel – or at least as smart as possible. We go for a longer period of time when we do go, we make sure to combine holidays/birthdays/important events to avoid “unnecessary” trips and we always fly direct. We usually go with Norwegian, knowing that their Boeing 787 (Dreamliner) is at least a tad better when it comes to fuel efficiency than other aircrafts. This Thanksgiving trip, we’re going for 15 days and will manage one wedding, Thanksgiving with the whole family, celebrating my father-in-law’s recent retirement, seeing plenty of friends (some even out of state) and checking out my brother-in-law’s new apartment he just moved into… among other things. I know this is just as much for myself as it is for you guys reading (and potentially judging us a little), but at least this makes me feel a tiny bit less burdened. Enough about that for now though.

I have this idea that this blog should be about the ongoings over here – what we’re up to and what’s new – but then I come up with these “themed” posts that I just cant resist writing! I really need to learn how to write and post quick updates every now and then, instead of just posting these novel-length, in-depth pieces once a month. Anyway… this one will be some sort of mish-mash, I guess – we are in fact going to New York in a few days (as in, legit life update!), which inspired me to jot down a few thoughts on marrying someone from a different country (ah, theme again. Sigh).

I often hear myself saying that I think this world would be a much better place if everyone in it had the experience of living in a different country under their belt. There’s obviously a massive spectrum here, ranging from people like myself who saved up money, packed their bags and went to seek an adventure someplace else, to those who were forced to flee due to war, natural disasters, poverty or other traumatizing events. With that in mind, not all cases of moving from one country to another will be smooth and easy – instead, far from it. The intention here is to be a little funny, a little entertaining and shed light on the more trivial aspects of re-locating, which should not be misinterpreted for downplaying the devastation felt by those forced to do the same. I just wanted to clarify that.

I often hear myself saying that I think this world would be a much better place if everyone in it had the experience of living in a different country under their belt. 

However, being an immigrant is an immensely humbling experience. At least it was to me. Upon moving to New York, I had a strong desire to blend in, assimilate and become a New Yorker with every cell in my body. A few months into living there, I made a conscious effort to get rid of my Swedish accent. Once gone (it took me roughly six months, for those interested!), I could choose whenever I wanted to tell people I was born some place else. I could be a little more incognito, instead of always having people say (friendly and enthusiastically, but still) “oh, where are you from?” as soon as I started talking. I loved this more anonymous identity SO much. It made me feel closer to Michael, too, when we would be perceived as a “normal” American couple, instead of a cultural blend. After about two years, though, I started missing Sweden and all things Swedish for real. The initial feeling of New-York-is-amazing-and-has-everything-I-will-ever-want-and-need started to fade a little, not because it was less awesome but because my Swedish identity was asking for some attention too. Thankfully, Michael has been a big fan of all things Swedish from the moment we met, so he was all over cooking some Swedish food, baking typically Swedish pastries etc. And around here, I started to like telling people I was born in Stockholm. And – brag alert – I should also admit that my ego got a huge kick every time someone commented on the absence of an accent. But this isn’t even what this piece was going to be about – I was supposed to talk about marrying across cultural and national borders. A quick conclusion though: when you’ve spent considerable time being “different”, an “outsider” and simply “new”, you grow humble towards others in the same position. Reminder – it is not always easy to make a new place your home, even if you go there by choice. Then imagine being forced to do it? Abundant kindness and acceptance will make it less hard, I promise.

But here goes. I LOVE being married to someone who was born in a different country, speaks a different language, was raised a different way. Someone who grew up with a different set of traditions, ate different types of food, went through a different kind of school system. Someone with his own set of everything, yet with a heart and soul matching mine perfectly. Marrying someone not from Sweden has enriched my life in countless ways and I wouldn’t want it any other way. There are so many things I never would learned about if it hadn’t been for living abroad and creating a life with a non-Swede. I often say, when talking about this, that marrying Michael and living in New York meant getting two of everything. Two home countries, two home cities, two languages, two sets of holidays and food traditions, two perspectives on the world. There are so many things that never would have crossed my path, if it hadn’t been for falling in love with both Michael and the big apple. He got me sipping on bubble tea, devouring donuts the size of half my head and navigating the NYC subway system. He took me ramen eating, sake tasting and ice cream gobbling, taught me about the NYC water supply system (now that’s a romantic topic) and introduced me to another set of family dynamic and holidays. What have I brought upon him? Cross-country skiing. Running. Vegetarian food. Climate-conscious living. Bun eating. Bread baking. Potatoes. Muesli. And the overwhelming desire to stockpile and work towards self-sustainability. Somehow, all his crazy stuff (as in, for example, he saves every single map he’s ever used) and all my crazy stuff (as in, where do I begin?) just worked with the other person. I was like “this guy has so many maps and that makes him the COOLEST!!” and it just became one more thing for me to love.

Mid run in Cape Cod, summer of 2016 – a wonderful place I never would have gotten the chance to see and get to know, hadn’t it been for this sweaty guy.

Another perspective of marrying someone of a different background is that I’ve come to realize exactly how awesome my own country is (how humble of me!). Hear me out – most of my life I’ve gone looking for adventure far away. I’ve traveled lots and couldn’t imagine myself ever being content exploring what’s within the Swedish borders, but thanks to Michael and us moving here together, I am! The joy I feel as we’re now getting to know Sweden together is immense, and the places we visit and the things we do make me feel so rich. So much beauty to be seen and so much fun stuff to do, right around the corner! I want to celebrate all the holidays as per tradition and I want to go all the places you’ve heard about all your life but never gone to see. I often use the term “re-rooting” pertaining to me moving back to Sweden – because I’m not the same person I was when I left, I need to put down new roots just as much as Michael does. Despite me speaking the language and obviously knowing more about Sweden and the “system” here, we’re in many ways establishing ourselves here as equals. 

Over the years, we’ve accumulated our fair share of cultural clashes and exchanged more funny stories than I can possible recall. No big headlines in this chapter of the story, just endless giggles and lots of wait, what?! While I want to say that this is the best part, I’m not sure I’ll be able to convey the humor here. I just can’t put into words how much Michael cracks me up when he comments on things quintessentially Swedish (it’s like live commentary over here). Like how us Swedes tend to be shy and keep to ourselves, to the point where we come across as standoffish – but as soon as the ice has been broken, everyone is super nice and talkative (makes small talk at social gatherings challenging). Like how we love to stand in line and wait for our turn, but somehow also start queuing borderline aggressively as soon as we strap skis to our feet. Like how we eat buns all the time, love to work on our houses (particularly building decks!), do all the home maintenance ourselves and cover our jackets in reflectors as soon as the darkness arrives in October. And how there’s a system for everything, how Swedes love to get upset about seemingly trivial things (such as a changed package design for a common food item – can get the whole country raging) and how – despite that introverted attitude – we drop our clothes and feel very comfortable being nude if, let’s say, hitting up the sauna. Another thing Michael often commented on early on was how Swedish women of all ages don’t mind getting their hands dirty – it’s by no means out of the ordinary seeing a lady in her 80’s mowing the lawn or getting down on her knees changing car tires – something that made my heart feel full rather than my mouth laughing out loud. I’m proud of the gender equality Sweden represents, whether it means equal pay or that girls are raised to believe they can do traditionally “manly” things.  

A snap shot from our wedding weekend in Sweden – what’s mine is yours and vice versa 🙂

Now, my years in New York (which is much different from the rest of the US) brought a fair share of humor too. Keep in mind when reading that I had the time of my life in New York and loved every bit of it – it’s just that some things took this Swede by surprise… to say the least. The recycling system was a constant “I don’t know if I should laugh or cry”-kind of thing. Light bulbs in the general garbage? Yep! And the bread. White or… brown bread? What is brown bread? (Obviously I know what it is, but Swedes… brunt bröd?) Riding the subway was always a big gamble – you never quite knew if the train would show up at all, if you’d be the victim of service changes (as in, oh no, this is a D train but it runs as a B from here to here and then a C from here to here) and exactly how many performances with ridiculously loud music you’d witness (an introverted Swede’s nightmare). And god forbid, Americans talk to strangers as if the most natural thing! Again, a complete nightmare for a northerner like myself. Not to mention how people drive – being behind the wheel is a suicide mission in my opinion. People fly by you as if there’s no tomorrow, there’s honking extraordinaire going on everywhere, traffic jams can last for hours, giant potholes make for a bumpy ride AND you can have a drink or two and still be legally allowed to drive (as opposed to Sweden, where there’s basically zero tolerance). And while this doesn’t apply to all of America, groceries in NYC cost a fortune. We used to joke around and say whatever you buy at Whole Foods, it’ll be at least 50 bucks. A small bag of muesli for $10? I mean, it had a trendy looking design and all but really? As time went by though, these obvious cultural collisions started to fade away. I grew a part of society and became accustomed to new ways of living AND eating peanut butter on just about anything (although no light bulbs ever went into my garbage bin). Instead, as I got closer with Michael and his family, I had the pleasure of noticing the small things. The food products his parents would always keep around the house (at least two types of olive oil and both Parmesan and Pecorino – an Italian household for sure) what their conversational topics were (lots of art and family stories), how they celebrated Christmas (no 100% set traditions, as opposed to in Sweden, where everything is done the same way year after year). I came to understand that birthday celebrations don’t necessarily have to mean cake for dessert (close to a law in Sweden!) and that plenty of people think sweet potatoes are a million times healthier than regular potatoes (I’m from the land of regular tubers, obviously, and am still fazed by this phenomenon). Oh, and one last thing: it blew my mind when I learned that some Americans don’t think lowering the bar when riding the chair lift (as in when downhill skiing) is necessary. For us safety minded Swedes, this is totally wacko! (Not to mention the one lift we stumbled upon at Copper Mountain, CO, where there wasn’t even a bar to lower!). Above all, though, I’ve learned that there’s often not just one right way of doing stuff – a lesson as important as any. And I’ve opened up and become SO much more forward and less intimated by human contact (I even got comfortable returning things to stores and calling customer service departments to complain about stuff!), which is something I benefit hugely from now.

Point is: differences and contrasts enrich one’s life. I’ll cherish the ones I have in my life forever, and I’ll make sure to absorb every pinch of Thanksgiving vibes this coming trip. Pumpkin spice (what is that? Pumpkin flavor? Oh no, a mix of nutmeg and cinnamon!), all the traditional foods, the endless preparing in the kitchen. I’ll savor every moment of family time, laugh at silly American commercials and eat all the sweet potatoes we can come across (no locally grown ones in Sweden). We’ll run track intervals at Michael’s old high school, devour Talenti ice cream at night (it’s both affordable AND delicious) and huff and puff about the ever-changing weather scene. There will be English all around, Tony’s eclectic music playing, American news on the TV. We’ll talk about photography, Michael’s remarkable family history (he’s modern world history personified), what’s going on in Manhattan right now. We’ll get an update as far the cousins in California, England and Croatia, hear the latest from all the family friends, pose in front of the camera for a new set of holiday pictures and go to Whole Foods at least a handful of times. We’ll go see friends and feel as if it was just yesterday we saw them, hit up some of our favorite restaurants in Manhattan and probably even go say hi to our old apartment (we’ll be the weird people petting the brick façade). The food brands will be different, the road rules will be different, the people will be different – yet, it’ll all be home, and feel as close to my heart as ever before. This holiday, I’ll appreciate the joys of it more than I ever have. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

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