Lifer

I wrote the following piece about 10 years ago. I recently put it up on my Facebook page because so many old/new friends, who hadn’t been along on my journey, asked me how I happened to end up in Sweden and I didn’t know how to compress 30 or 40 years into a few paragraphs. I havent changed anything in the piece. But keep in mind that its now been 22 years since I moved here and my son is now 18 and on the verge of taking those first steps into adulthood.

“Oh, I’m a lifer.”
That’s what I usually say to describe myself to other Americans regarding my relationship to Sweden. To most people, being a lifer connotes being under a life sentence, as a prisoner in a jail would be. I don’t see it that way. Whenever I meet other American women here in Sweden, the conversation sooner or later comes around to how did we get here, or why are we here, or how long have we been here or how long will we be staying. The statement “I’m a lifer” seems to answer all those questions for me, short and sweetly. I’ve started seeing it more as being committed to a life. The fact that the life that I have committed myself to is a life in Sweden instead of my beloved New York City is finally starting to not amaze me. Normal life is now my life here in Stockholm. It wasn’t the easiest journey to finally be able to say that.

But of course it needs to be explained

I grew up in New Jersey, in the middle of nowhere, in a working class family. Though there was money for what we needed there was rarely anything left over for luxuries, and from the time I was 10 or 11, I knew that I wanted to be an artist and I wanted to do it in New York City. By the time I was 18, my plans were laid. I was on my way to Art School, Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn and The City was just next door. For me, The City was synonymous with Possibilities. You could be anything in New York. However odd, unusual, different, individual, crazy you wanted to be, it was OK, acceptable. And that was what I wanted. I wanted to be everything that I thought my Mother was not. Irresponsible, daring, spontaneous, erratic, inventive, irregular, unusual, and most of all, Interesting, with a capital “I”. “Make Love Not War” was the slogan of my generation and we were out to have fun and change the world while we were at it. Along the way, I refined my idea of art. Creation, design, graphics and advertising, became keywords along with the concept of earning a living. I developed close friendships but still managed to steer free of entangling, “serious” relationships. I lived for myself.

When I was almost 30, a good friend offered me a chance to come to Sweden and work with her on a big project. I had worked with her a lot in New York. While I prided myself on, outwardly, having become all those things my mother was not, deep inside, I was still the same insecure kid who, at 18, decided to remake herself into the person she wanted to be. But since my friend, Wendall was the kind of person who could say “Don’t worry about anything, I’ll take care of it” and you could believe her, I went to Stockholm without a second thought, on one week’s notice.

I came knowing nothing about Sweden or Stockholm and Wendall did take care of everything – until I met Håkan. He worked at the same company. He was tall, like me, and spoke excellent English and also liked to take care of things. I spent 3 months here, May, June and July. I worked my butt off the first 2 months and in July, Håkan took me sailing in the Stockholm archipelago for a week. It was a wonderful summer, but as with Cinderella, time ran out and it was time to go home.

For the next 6 years, Håkan and I kept in touch and I traveled back to Stockholm an additional four times, to work and to see him. Each trip ended with me running back to New York, almost convinced that I didn’t want the man and I didn’t want the city of Stockholm. I didn’t know which I didn’t want more, the man or the city – they were too closely connected. New York was the place I loved. The life I had created for myself there fit me like a glove. I had my cozy apartment. I had my own company and worked as a freelancer when I wanted and how much I wanted. I had my favorite places, my best friends, my small pleasures. Like buying the Sunday Times on Saturday night and fresh bagels from H&H and spending all Sunday on my sofa reading and chewing. Like Dagostinos at the end of my block with all the world’s foods at my fingertips. Like the Clermont Riding Stables’ horses, whose hooves clip-clopped past my open window all day long during the hot summers. I had it all. Or at least I thought I did. Till my biological clock started ticking louder and louder. I knew I wanted kids. I liked kids. My friends’ kids all liked me. I guess I was still a kid myself. But most of all I wanted someone to come after me, not just to have a generation of family before me.

So 6 years after I met him, Håkan and I decided that I would come, once again, back to Stockholm, and instead of just for a few months, I would commit to being here for one whole year. Then we would see where we were in our relationship. When the year was almost over, Håkan needed to undergo major surgery and I decided to stay longer to be with him then. After his recovery, we began a long round of intense negotiations regarding marriage or splitting up. We got married, with exactly the type of wedding that I wanted, in New York City. A few years later, we had our son. And now, incredibly enough, 12 years have gone by since I took that step to move here. I speak Swedish. I read Dagens Nyheter and Expression. I watch Swedish TV and know who various Swedish celebrities are. I almost always had work here so I have never had to figure out what to do with idle time.

The first 5 years though, were sometimes hard. During the 6 years that I first was “commuting” back and forth to Stockholm, I didn’t really notice the difference in cultures between my American one and the Swedish one. On the surface Sweden and New York looked the same. Both had Macdonalds and Volvos. Movie theaters showed films in English. People wore clothes made in the orient. There were subways and sidewalks and buses and traffic lights.

It wasn’t until after I moved here I started to feel how the two countries and their inhabitants were very different. Back in the States, we always talked about our private lives – personal and work lives were not separated. Here, the people I worked with never talked about their private lives while at work, at least, not with me. While I met on a daily basis other women in the company I worked for, when I was feeling lost and blue and needed to talk, I always called my friends back in the States for those long talks. Håkan and I just accepted the large phone bills as an absolute in our lives. But as time rolled on, my life, separated by more than just an ocean, started becoming more and more distant and removed from that of the friends I had left behind. They had never been here to Sweden, had no idea where I lived or how and if they had moved since my coming here, the same applied regarding my knowing how they lived. More and more, things had to be explained.

My first 2 years here, I special ordered the Sunday New York Times delivered to my door, one week late, at a cost equivalent to about 16 dollars an issue. It had been one of my small pleasures and I still wanted it but after 2 years I started to feel schizophrenic –I knew all about what was happening in New York but was unable to go to anything while here in Stockholm I knew about nothing. So I learned to read Dagens Nyheter instead. And started to seriously speak Swedish, regardless of how bad I was in the beginning.

My unhappiness here in Stockholm had, of course, repercussions on my relationship with Håkan and how I treated him. While I suffered through acclimation pains, the poor guy had to hear more than once, “I’m unhappy and it’s all your fault!” Even to this day, if I complain about something, he automatically jumps to the conclusion that it’s his fault and up to him to fix it and make it all better for me. That’s very nice of him but after living here more than 12 years, I find that I have finally reached the point that I was at 12 years ago in America. I am once again a grown-up and I can finally take care of most of life’s little complications by myself, as I did before. Of course there are things that are much easier for my husband to handle than for me – letters from the Swedish tax authorities for example. So I let him take care of those things.

The truth is that when I go back to New York, I feel a little like a tourist. The city stays the same but so many of the small details change. I love being there, breathing the pulse, feeling at home, but still just a visitor not an inhabitant. And I of course have changed. I no longer can live just for myself. I find it difficult to imagine raising a child in The City especially after living in a city like Stockholm that is so child-friendly. So I am satisfied living my life here in Stockholm with my husband, my child, my work, my friends. I have my small pleasures here too. Some of them are the same as before – raw cashews, sesame and honey candies, Ocean Spray cranberry juice, Celestial Seasonings tea and even decent Chinese food; while some of them are new – Midsommer poles, Bordsvatten, Landet, Kanelbullar. I have a life here and I guess that makes me a Lifer.


2 Responses to “Lifer”

  • Eva Says:

    Wonderful to get to know you more, like suddenly running across each other at a NY café instead of at a Stockholm köksbord. Wish you an inspiring and empowering continued journey into the world of writing.

  • Janet Says:

    I’m glad you’re a lifer too!

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