The Last Fika
My associations with Sweden are pretty simplistic: the Swedish Chef, Ikea, beautiful blondes, edgy fashion, no daylight/all daylight, and the most flattering one, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. When my cousin and her husband invited me to come stay with them in Stockholm during my trip, I was thrilled I would get to see this curious place and to have some family members to visit after months without seeing anyone of blood relation.
Ariana, her husband Stephan, and their thirteen month old, Maya, moved from New York City to Stockholm in August when Stephan was offered a promotion to the Sweden branch of his company. In the spirit of adventure, they picked up everything and moved with a three year contract.
I flew in to find a blanket of snow covering the airfield. Thankfully, Ariana had come prepared with a down jacket and scarf for me to borrow during my stay. We hopped on the train and she took me to her lovely home. There was a warmth that was palpable the second I walked in the door of their top floor condo. Despite the limited hours of daylight at this point in the year, the space was full of windows and light. Ariana pointed up a spiral staircase and said “That’s your room!” When I made it up, I was thrilled to find a bed under the crux of the building’s roof, with skylights on either side.
Even after a week of taking it easy and trying to nurse myself back to full health, I was not any better when I showed up to Stockholm. As it turned out, Ariana and Maya had the same thing I did. So we were all sick together and it gave me the excuse to get to spend lazy days in pajamas, making more fresh ginger and lemon tea for us, and soaking up the feeling of being with a family in a home.
Over my time in Sweden, I was able to glean a lot of interesting information from Ariana’s experience thus far. It was early November and it would get light around 8:30am, dark at 3:30pm (and by the time I left it was closer to 3)! At the dead of winter, apparently the sun will rise at 10:00am and set at 2:30pm. Even when the sun is up, it tends to be pretty gray. Ariana even told me that she heard on the news that in the last three weeks, there has been a total of two hours of sunshine. This kind of information makes one wonder, why would anyone want live in Sweden?!
As it turns out, there are a lot of reasons you should want to live in Sweden. The main one is that in the summer, the weather goes to the opposite extreme: light at 3:00am and dark at 10:00pm. I can’t imagine the emotional toll this takes on its residents, but I am fascinated to hear about my cousin’s experience with it as the weather progresses.
The coffee break or “fika” is a social institution of Sweden. Stephan told us that his entire office stopped working, usually once in the afternoon to drink a coffee and eat a “kanelbulle” a.k.a cinnamon roll. Sometimes there may even be a morning fika as well. Ariana and I took Maya to a fika playdate over my time there and went to the home of a beautiful German woman. We ate kardemummabullar, or cardamom buns, and talked about Sweden.
Jana was at the end of her 12 months of paid maternity leave. Her husband had been using his six months of paid leave by working an increasing percentage of his job. For example, he has the option of starting out working 25% of his job and increasing to 100% slowly, therefore using his leave over a longer period of time.
This leave, which can vary in length, is given for every child a couple has. As a result, Sweden has lots of families out and about, enjoying the city and all it has to offer. There are amazing playgrounds and cheap daycare centers all over the city. These daycare centers even have free open hours, which we went to on a different day and got to sing the classic, “Imse Vimse Spindel” (The Itsy Bitsy Spider). All this is only possible because of the high, high tax rates. However, they have managed to create the infrastructure that, despite the crazy weather, makes every other aspect of life easy and sustainable for the long-term. To be completely frank, to me, it made what we have in the U.S look pathetic.
My time in Sweden showed me how orderly a country can be, to the point of trying to eliminate the use of cash all together. It showed me how slobbish I look in comparison to the well-dressed locals on the streets of Stockholm – I didn’t have the uniform: a baggy sweater, skinny black jeans, white Chucks, and long straight platinum blonde hair. It showed me how expensive a place can be – a beer will easily cost $10. It showed me the realities of being a parent – during my night of babysitting I got the full range of Maya’s emotions, most notably her love of dancing (we chose St. Lucia as a soundtrack) and her hatred for going to bed. It showed me what it’s like to relocate to a new country and a new culture – I heard about a lot of the random details that Ariana and Stephan had to deal with regarding their residency, house search, and other items. It was a really interesting week and it felt different from the rest of my time in Europe.
Thanks to Ariana, Stephan, and Maya, I got back to full health after a month of non-stop sickness. They put me in good spirits and helped me lighten my load (literally, my bag is several kilos lighter) before sending me on my way to Bangkok.
This ends Chapter 1, the Europe portion of my trip.