5 Years in Sweden - No Place I'd Rather be...BUT

This past Thursday, I celebrated my 5th year in Sweden. As an adult, I have only lived in one other place for a longer period; New York City (NYC) where I spent a decade. I never compare any city to the Big Apple because it wouldn’t be fair as I can’t imagine a more fulfilling city! Living in Stockholm, Sweden has been frequently interesting, sometimes disappointing, often intriguing, at times wonderful and in many ways sour and sweet. As the title indicates, life is good...BUT; we will get to the “BUT” part later.

I will touch upon 4 main areas as I paint my picture for you; 1) Opinions about Sweden, 2) Advice I was Given, 3) My Expectations/Experiences and 4) The Reality Now.

1) Opinions about Sweden

Before coming to Sweden, I did my homework and talked to people living here, those who had lived in Stockholm previously and Swedes living in NYC. Most of the Swedish people were positive on my move although I was more concerned with the thoughts of ex-pats living here since I was making the move as a foreigner. What I heard surprised me.

The ex-pats I talked to were consistent in their message about how difficult it would be for me to find quality work as they found the business environment to be anti-foreigner. That was disappointing to hear but I believed and remembered it as that same theme would be the focal point of every conversation. One time, the Swedish wife of an American ex-pat said, “don’t be so negative” when he was talking to me on the phone. I actually appreciated his honesty as I wanted to know the reality. With every conversation, the tone of voice changed when the subject of finding work came up. There was no doubt in my mind that the career I had carefully and successfully built in America would take a blow.

During the job hunting process in my early years, I rarely received an interview from a Swedish company. When I did, it was clear that I was not going to be a finalist for the job. Ironically, one of the few and best interviews I secured occurred before I moved. It was from a top non-profit organization that did fundraising work with corporations, much along the lines of the fundraising work I was doing in NYC.

I was excited even though I had those ex-pat voices spinning in my head. I had the interview when my wife and I visited one month before our move. It was pleasant, enjoyable and obvious that I was the most qualified candidate. The VD (CEO) of this very well known organization said after, “You have more experience than all of the other six candidates combined”, which was nice to hear. He later said, “I can’t hire you because the employees wouldn’t be comfortable with a non-Swedish speaker”. Keep in mind that everyone spoke English. That was a bitter pill to swallow as I could have helped them immensely despite the language discomfort but they were more concerned with what I call “Comfort over Improvement” in hiring; something that occurs far too often here in regards to employing foreigners.

This mindset has become prevalent in some American Companies in Sweden as well. I asked an American CEO (over 300 employees) a few years ago if he would ever hire a person who didn’t speak fluent Swedish. His reply was “I could never do that George because my employees would never accept them”. And he was the boss! There are companies (Swedish and non-Swedish) in Sweden that do hire workers that don’t speak the language but mostly out of a real need as their business is international.

Always an optimist, I battled on hoping to find fulfilling work. I had some interesting consulting projects along with a few jobs that I was overqualified for. I also had the opportunity to work as a substitute teacher (typical work here for foreigners) which I really enjoyed. One of the best experiences was being hired by UNICEF Belgrade for a two month fundraising job in Serbia. After viewing my qualifications, the Belgrade office hired me within weeks. With UNICEF in Sweden, I have barely made any progress and it is not for lacking of trying. Fortunately, I was hired by a British company in 2007; just in the nick of time as I needed a quality job for my well-being and to build a meaningful life. It is no coincidence that the company I work for currently is one of the strongest in its field despite the economic crises. From the colleagues I know, their hiring process is based on merit and not comfort level.

2) Advice I was Given

I wanted an international experience and now that I have it, I firmly believe that when one lives in their home country for a lifetime, they miss out on one of the most rewarding and precious gifts; experiencing another culture. In addition, after ten fabulous years in NYC, most American cities wouldn’t have been the least bit enthralling.

I received good advice from a dear American friend living abroad, who told me to “be yourself, don’t try to be like them and embrace the culture of Sweden”. Her advice was not anti-Swedish; she was only telling me to appreciate my uniqueness and be open to the lifestyle which I’ve done. I have never tried to be anyone else but George and that has usually worked well for me.

Like most people moving abroad, one usually has some doubts and I had my moments of uncertainty as NYC was so intoxicating. My wife and I were visiting a friend (and mentor to me) in Washington, DC when the doubts were swirling in my head. When we had some private time, I asked him what he thought about my imminent move as I value his opinion immensely. Knowing me well, it didn’t take him long to answer the question. He looked at me, smiled and said “You have to do this George; it will be a great experience”. His simple and honest words comforted any small doubts remaining.

Two close friends told me to learn the language as soon as possible although they had it easier in their ex-pat experiences as English wasn’t spoken much in their country. In Sweden, one can get by without uttering one word of Swedish as English is taught at an early age. While I am disappointed that I am not fluent yet I am pleased in being able to hold a conversation and occasionally a meeting entirely in Swedish. The smart move would have been to do what a Canadian acquaintance did; she focused solely on learning Swedish in her first year.

3) My Expectations/Experiences:

I expected Stockholm to be an easier life and it has proven to be. Even though it is a big city to many Swedes, it is similar to a small town in my view. The subways and buses are great, getting appropriate Swedish papers was a breeze, healthcare is wonderful, the air is fresh, cultural activities are plentiful, the city is beautiful and there are abundant areas of forest and water surrounding Stockholm. In addition, numerous friends and family members have come to visit us.

Other than the aforementioned, I didn’t have any expectations as I hardly ever do. I wanted the city of Stockholm to come to me and have nothing clouding my experience. One thing I do remember is sleeping extremely deep in the first months as the city was as quiet as a mouse in our part of town, especially when you come from noisy Manhattan. It was hard to wake up in the morning! The weather outside of summer is generally crappy and sometimes the sun is not out for weeks. The darkness in winter (15:30pm/3:30pm pitch black at times) has never affected me although it does disturb many people.

Socially, Stockholm needs a major makeover. The best times I have had were events that I created or were a part of organizing. Even though the Swedes I know are likable and interesting people, one might never discover that as they tend to socialize with their friends primarily and not with Swedes outside of their circle or foreigners. I wanted to break that ice a bit and show them how to network and enjoy the company of new and different people. We have had some great nights mixing a variety of cultures in Stockholm, one being our 2006 Halloween party which people still talk about.

In my opinion, for a city to shine socially it needs to sizzle on its own without events being put together or having close friends nearby. Most of us could have fun with friends and people we know anywhere in the world! I need to feel a city without any easy comforts. One should be able to walk into a bar, jazz club, restaurant or nightspot and feel the vibe, meet some new people and get a bit of electricity in your body! Stockholm lacks that thrill socially unless you are 18-24 and like the mindless sizzle of primarily drinking.

To put things in perspective, I had more fun SOCIALLY in Belgrade, Serbia for two months than I have had in 5 years in Sweden. With the history of Serbia, I never thought the capital city would be so alive and open to other cultures. It was one of the best times of my life. Stockholm could learn a lot from Belgrade.

One of the main reasons we moved here was to have children. My Swedish wife and I knew it would be easier and more enjoyable to raise kids in this social welfare society as it is very pro-family. The system of day-care is efficient, has a low cost and is open to all toddlers. The government gives each family a monthly monetary amount (per child) which essentially covers most day-care costs. In addition, my wife is on her second maternity leave, this time for 1 year while I will be taking my second later this year. I was off full-time with my son for five months in 2007 and expect to do the same in 2009 with my daughter. My friends in America cannot even comprehend a man having time off with their kids and one is in disbelief every time we discuss it. I loved it as you get to know your child so intensely and get a sense of what mothers go through. I can’t wait until my daughter/father bonding time later this year.

I must thank Sweden for increasing my reading knowledge and sparking my entrepreneurial spirit. The years of inconsistent work gave me a chance to do things I might have never done. While I’ve frequently read books, I never would have read over 150 books in a 3 year period! The weekly blog you’re reading arose in this country and is the passion I enjoy the most. In addition, my “American Basketball Coach in Sweden” program began in 2005 and is in its 5th year of impacting youth utilizing basketball as a tool.

4) The Reality Now

I am a happy man and first and foremost, a family man. It would be hard to beat Sweden for the family-oriented luxury it provides working men and woman especially in this economic crises. We get to enjoy a family summer home located a stone’s throw away from the sea and sandy beach; an absolute treasure for our children. Most importantly, my kids are healthy, my wife is exceptional and I have a strong network of Swedish and international friends; I am grateful for that.

I like living in Stockholm. I can go outside my back door and go running, see horses, watch volleyball, enjoy hot air balloons in the sky, take a bike ride, see boats breezing by, have a picnic and go sledding with my kids in winter. How many major cities would that be possible in? Socially, one can only hope that things will improve especially for the 32-55 year old crowd and not just be a bright spot for giggly and unfocused youngsters.

The sour taste that will remain until improved is the dire straights that many decent and competent foreigners find themselves in after moving here. I know people who would compromise fiercely to find a job remotely close to their level of experience yet the sad truth is that most will never get the chance.

Americans surprised me as well as many people in Sweden when we elected a qualified and admirable minority man to be President of the United States. Times were tough and we were not afraid to do something extraordinary; something that probably would not have happened if economic times had been good.

The question I am wondering about is this:

If the good times begin to fade (already begun) for Swedish companies, will the leaders of these organizations do the extraordinary; have the wisdom and courage to break away from their comfort zone by embracing diversity and hiring foreigners who can help the business improve? Being an optimist, I remain hopeful. Not only is it the right thing to do but smart business as well in our increasingly diverse world.

A creative American who has lived in Sweden for over a decade wrote to me about the opportunity for qualified foreigners which included some wise advice:

“The phrase “wisdom and courage to hire” is foreign to the phrase “Swedish-owned businesses”. The inherent tradition of “not sticking out” aka Jante Lagen, discourages winners and subsequently the business community at large. The key to success for foreigners is to network; money is for the privileged so establishing a relationship is the only means of survival”.

Finally, these parting words:

There is no place I would rather be with my wife and two children than Sweden

BUT…

If we didn’t have children, Sweden would be near the bottom of my list of countries to live in.

Happy Gswede Sunday!



One of many activities outside of Gswede's home in Stockholm!

6 comments:

Manfred said...

George,

My first reaction to your blog was this…”learn the language”. When I left for Madrid back in the 1980’s, all I had was a high school level of Spanish. I was seeing a girl at the time who only wanted to speak English with me but I learned fairly quickly that in order to give myself a chance there, I had to learn the language quickly. Unlike Sweden, I think, Spain had a word I learned rather instantaneously, “el enchufe”. It means “hook up”. I arrived there and already had a job lined up in my field of expertise through a dear friend of my ex at the time. But the thing that was key to my keeping the post was that my Spanish had to improve immediately. So, I was forced to learn Spanish while making sense of construction documents and Spanish means and methods that were quite different from the US. I could remember meeting clients who would ask my bosses at the time, “Why hire him? Why not a Spaniard? What can he do that we can’t?”. The response was simple, “Just to be different and he brings a distantly different point of view that is beneficial to the work we do”. I remained at the firm the entire time lived in Spain…4 years. I was even obtained legalization papers through another “enchufe”. I any event, you would think that Sweden, considered one of the most advanced and avant-garde of all the European nations would have a vested interest in luring in foreign people to help enrich their culture and way of life even more but I learned during my 4 years in Spain, where many Swedes vacation in the summer, that they are more about keeping traditions very dear and near. I found that only multi-nationals were willing to hire from abroad but you got the sense that it wasn’t just anyone. You got the sense that they were let in from the back door. Very little positions were given on merit and from a competitive pool.

In any event, apart from learning language, which I think is key even hear in the US, I would even venture to say that race would have something to do with it on a certain level. Although, I was hired on the spot, I was always considered the exotic touch to the studio while working in Madrid and I’m not talking about my conceptual ideas. I don’t regret my stay in Spain but in the end I never felt like I would be properly assimilated into Spanish society without constantly being reminded that I was not a Spaniard. I think it takes years of immigrant influx like the Netherlands or France, for locals to get it. What shocks me the most about Sweden is that despite non-whites and women in key governmental positions, the country still has a lot of work to do when it comes to gender equality (equal work for equal pay) and I doubt any of the female parliamentarians will make it to the top spot? I could be wrong.

What I’m getting at is this, despite you making sure that you did your homework before arriving to Sweden, you and other ex-pats are still running into major road-blocks, I agree, despite my love for the country, Sweden is as colloquial as Spain or Portugal. It suffers from the same small town mentality that other European countries do where they are more keen to sticking to tradition than take any type of risk even if that risk has proven to have great rewards for others who have dared. We all have our levels of comfort and we tend not to stray simply because we don’t want to deal with change. Swedes are among the most stubborn peoples I know, it’s a testament why their country is so accommodating and comfortable the minute I arrive. But I think there is a major disconnect when they go beyond their borders, suddenly their far more understanding of foreign markets are masters of pushing their brands (Ikea, H&M, Volvo) but the won’t stand for anything foreign in there backyard. They are advocates of assimilation rather than diversification and this will hurt them in the end. As the number of foreigners continue to grow and the chancing face of Sweden becomes more apparent, they will suffer the harsh winds of nationalism at a greater scale despite their economic status. People will complain more and more about “those foreigners” who come from poor parts of the world in search of a better life, and make the ones who don’t come from those third world countries pay the price of admission.

We do have examples of foreigners who have and continue to buck the trend despite this reality about Sweden. We have a common friend from a neighboring European country, far more diverse than Sweden, who had the audacity to start his own business in Stockholm and show Swedes that it can be done differently and still remain successful. Of course, he came with some pretty good outside support but he has proven that it can work and one can live a good life but he still holds bitter feelings about certain aspects about Swedish life but he doesn’t allow those feelings to cloud his judgment. In his mind, from my point of view, he sees it like this…it’s a great business opportunity to turn this reality into a profitable source. Yes, easier said than done, but the proof is in the pudding nonetheless. The bottom line is this, if you claim that Swedes are overlooking the very talent that they need to improve their business practices, than show them that exactly. Team up with other ex-pats of similar levels of experience and start a trend and compete with them and beat them at their own game. Think of the it, showing Swedes how it should be done in their own backyard…what greater thrill…what greater reward if you succeed!

Here’s an example. While I was living in Spain, it suddenly dawned on me that bartenders were painstakingly serving drinks, all over the country, not just Madrid, the same laborious manner. I spent weeks observing different locations and coming up with the same conclusion. I became more and more convinced that if I were to design a simple contraption that would alleviate the problem, and mind you I did ask a bunch of them if there was an easier way would you buy into it and the answer was a resounding yes. So, I finally narrowed down my options on the design. I’m not even an industrial designer but I’d like to think that being trained as an architect gives me great insight into other design disciplines. I let a local Spaniard in on my little secret, primarily because I could trust her and she always had a different point of view. She loved the idea and wanted to become partners. I researched the Spanish patent office to avoid any infringements and then we were about to seek legal help and take the idea to Coca Cola or Pepsi. My stay came to an end but I did take the initiative to put my skills to the test even though Spaniards, especially those from Cataluña, like to think they’re the best.

With your level of expertise in your field of Fund Raising I would expect you to setup shop in Stockholm and show Swedes how it’s done. They still have to answer to their own for what happened to those that got hit by the Tsunami a few years ago. And the concept of charitable organizations is still foreign to them. The reason they do so well here in the US is because it’s a great tax deduction for huge corporations and with 300 million people in the midst, there’s always a preferential cause to support. I still think if you hook up with key women in similar fields who have an ax to grind about gender equality and few foreigners you’ve met in your networking parties, you could put together a killer team to show Swedes a success story to learn from. You may find out a little bit more about yourself in the process…like if you have the entrepreneurial spirit to launch such a venture and there may very well be a huge sector of the Swedish population willing to embrace it.

You may very well owe it to your lovely wife and two lovely kids to give it a try. What makes “us” different from the rest is insisting to others that change is a good thing and taking the initiative to show them how.

M.

Drew said...

Sir,

I find it fascinating that a USA ex-pat resident of Sweden for many years observes the same kinds of cultural differences that a "semi-frequent" visitor to Sweden also observes. I can't comment much about the work-a-day life of living in Stockholm, but all of the social nuances to Swedish behavior mentioned in this blog is all too familiar to me.

I too, have often wondered how anyone single over the age of 26 could possibly stand to live there. My first impression upon arriving in Stockholm about 10 years ago was that nobody seemed like they knew each other. Coming from Boston (which by the way is no huggy-kissy metropolis either) it seemed odd that people who seemed so friendly upon meeting a stranger, kept so tightly to themselves.

Yes, Swedes are a cliquey bunch. There's been many a dinner party I've attended where the unease of a low-volume Swedish conversation has left me a bit blank - for hours on end. In stark contrast to similar situations in other cultures, at some point someone at the table figures out that there's a non-fluent in the room and makes an effort to make one feel inclusive. Not so in Sweden.

Which leads me to the point of cultural manners. All of us, no matter where we come from, have been brought up with a code of behavior that's more or less universal. Like don't puke on a girl in a party, or don't answer someone else's cellphone without permission and say "Who dat?" I think Swedes have a totally different outlook on these codes of social behavior. I'm not saying that Swedes are rude, I'm just saying that there's a pervasive cultural immunity to being sensitive to other peoples social sensibilities.

I remember hanging out in the Stureplan one night doing the usual, and this tall blonde guy stumbles up to me at the bar, practically bowling me over (another swedish trait - unnecessary drunken body checks without acknowlegement). In a jovial, but loud voice he looks at me and shouts "I love the nig*ers!!!, I do!!!" As I look around at other patrons within a earshot, half-expecting at least a hint of compassionate understanding of this coarse personal encroachment, I observe only a couple of passive nods.

It's immediately noticeable as a foreigner to observe that almost everything is marketed, packaged, and sold to the sub 26 year-old or married 30+ year old. There seems to be a "socio-political pressure" to team up with a mate and have children. This pro-family attitude is exemplified by the government incentives that George mentioned for having children - among others. Not only that, but the limited urban social activities for 30+ un-married adults are few and far between. Maybe this is why nobody knows each other.

I like going to Sweden. It's a beautiful country with wonderful people and I have some great friends there. However, any change in their way of viewing diversity, whether it be in employment equality, immigration reform, or age/marital status activity, will have to start with their recognition of their incongruent social behavior and then citing a willingness to align this behavior with their foreign counterparts.

-drm Seattle

Anonymous said...

George:

I read your comments with great interest and was without a doubt saddened if not surprised. I would offer, however, that cultural myopia is not just a Swedish trait but may be a broader reflection of life outside the USA in Europe, Asia and parts of Latin America. Your ex-pat experience is all too similar to what others have experienced in the UK, France, Spain, Japan etc.

All of this leads me to the strange feeling I had watching Europeans and the rest of the world celebrate Obama's victory. Yes strange! In my heart, I dont believe many Europeans view the Obama triumph the same way we as Americans and black folks view it. Obama is BOTH the exception and the rule-- first Black President for sure but just another Brother breaking barriers and making his mark on American life. Europeans saw the former but cannot understand the latter.

Despite the challenges, change will come to Europe as well, but it's going to take lots of time and soul-searching-- and more European Obamas making noise and taking names.

Last note: Its all about family and no matter the location, you are abundantly blessed

Zeke-NYC

Barbara said...

hi George!! I am sitting here in Trosa at Chris' parent's summer house and finally have some extra time to enjoy your blog. It is so amazing how two people can have such similar stories. Besides the children & language part, I could have easily thought that I wrote that entry!

I also enjoy living here very much, but the social aspect is really tough to deal with. Since moving back here in November, I have had a really limited social life in comparision to what I would like to have or to what I had when I lived in the states, London, Malta, Cannes and Paris. I met people all the time, on the train, at bars, in the park - it didn't matter. I felt comfortable to go up to people and people felt comfortable to come up to me.

What I always say is that I don't understand why people are scared of other people. And that is the exact impression I have of Swedes. My dog is not scared of other dogs, he is always polite and sniffs to say hello and that is how human should be too, regardless of country!

About working in Sweden. I had a similar experience ...until now at Clarion Sign Hotel. We have employees that do not even speak Swedish and the hotel respects that. I almost cried when a girl who just got out of SFF got a job at the hotel because I remember how hard it was for me. Instead of looking through CVs they have auditions where you tell a little bit about yourself - and it doesn't matter if you do it in English. It is such a supportive environment and I hope that other Stockholm companies learn from them! ...I am starting to see a change!

TheresNoTylerDurden said...

George it was great to meet you today. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights on this blog and some further suggestions in our conversation today. I've not reached 50 books this year but seems like time is a valuable commodity. My spending not only the quality but quantity time with those who matter most is a blessing. Looking forward to further meet-ups and deep learning from you. Looking forward to your forward thinking and blogpost on the elusive "Swedish Dream".

Anonymous said...

Great post. Interestingly enough. I am finding it that I would want to go back to the US, for the sake of the children! More freedom of choice for the fam. ;-)