One year ago today I got on a plane, and when I got off, I lived in Sweden.
The one-year landmark is significant because that was the time I gave myself to figure things out, to make it work. It was what I told everyone in the build up to moving: “I’ll give it a year, and if I can’t make it work, I’ll move back.” I think it was partly a self-defence mechanism. I knew that moving to a foreign country with no job prospects was inadvisable, and if I started thinking of it as permanent, it suddenly started to sound like a huge risk. Living somewhere else for a year, though? That’s not such a big deal.
Well, I’ve made it this far, and I think I am making it work.
It’s difficult to summarise a year’s worth of experiences in any meaningful way. But I thought I would share a few things that I’ve learned over the last year.
1. Change is not linear
You know how time passes quicker the older you get? Try moving to another country. My first week in Uppsala stretched out like a lifetime, while the last two months have flown by. My couple of weeks at SFI were a constant challenge, while now it feels like my Swedish skills move at an ever more glacial pace. The journey from “new in a foreign country” to “at home in a foreign country” isn’t a straight line – it can take you all over the place.
2. Give me a routine or give me death
If there’s one thing that’s kept me from losing the plot completely over the last year it’s having a routine. Thanks to language classes, and more recently my praktik placement, barely a week has gone by over the last year that I didn’t have something to get up for in the morning. That structure has made all the difference.
I also need to give a massive shout out to my old boss Lisa who has contributed immeasurably to my sanity levels over the last year by keeping me busy (to varying degrees!) with freelance work I could balance alongside my language courses. I’m certain I would have lost track of myself if I hadn’t been able contribute to something during my long period of job-seeking. Plus, not being technically completely unemployed is a useful self-esteem boost.
3. Making a new life from scratch takes everything you’ve got
I can’t count the number of times in my first few months I found myself thinking: what the hell have I done? Why have I thrown away my entire life?
That’s how it felt sometimes. There was very little good news to be found in those first three months; I hadn’t yet built up a network of friends, I could barely speak Swedish, I was dealing with a dismally grey winter. I remember Boxing Day last year so clearly. All my feelings of failure and insecurity had come to a head and I felt an absolute, terrifying certainty that moving to Sweden had been a mistake.
Picking up and carrying on when you feel that way is no easy thing. It takes every last little scrap of self-belief you have, plus, if you are lucky, someone who really believes in you to fall back on when you can’t do it for yourself any more.
4. Leaving means making peace with what you’ve left
This summer I could only spare a few days to visit the UK and I almost planned the trip entirely around the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhibition at the V&A. While I ummed and ahhed about flights and dates, the tickets for the exhibition became more and more sparse, until eventually I gave up and decided to come the weekend after it closed. Then the V&A announced that for the last two weekends of the exhibition the museum would be open 24 hours a day to accommodate the unprecedented demand for tickets.
At first I was annoyed with myself for missing out so narrowly on something I had wanted so badly. What I hadn’t fully come to terms with was: I didn’t live in London any more. It was no longer realistic to take it for granted that I would get to be a part of the big cultural happenings that make London amazing. Realistically, I often failed to make it to the latest rave-reviewed play or one-off pop-up event even when I did live in the right city – and I certainly never paid much attention to any of that when I lived in York, two hours away on the train.
Uppsala can’t compete with London in terms of culture; even Stockholm pales in comparison. But I don’t live in London any more. I live here.
5. The hustle never ends
I have put a lot of effort into this first year. I have spent a lot of time trying to learn Swedish, trying to get a job, trying to build up my social network, trying to blend in. I’ve had some level of success in all of these areas, but that doesn’t mean I get to stop trying. Any day that involves more than lying on the sofa watching Netflix will generally require me to make the kind of extra effort that you don’t have to put in when you’re in your home country.
One of the women I know through the English Bookshop reading group is an American who has lived in Sweden for about 40 years. I think she’s probably stopped having to try. I’ll let you know if I get there.