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
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!