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Saturday, August 9, 2014

Welcome to Sweden: Episode 5

This week's episode cut a little deeper than the past episodes as it explored the perilous road of trying to fit into a new culture and social environment. While it was filled with funny things, the underlying reality for those of us who have sought to acculturate to a new place is that it is hard and at times very lonely and painful. One of the most difficult ways to fit in is through humor!
That's me, being funny. Get it?!
Humor is a very nuanced form of cultural expression and is often missed by those of another ilk. Plays on words, expressions and colloquialisms are the last things a second language speaker begins to understand and yet, they are so often what make up the fabric of an interesting social conversation. Given that both Doug and I like humor and often use it, this has been a very tough road for us. At one point, I actually asked a Swedish staff person who I knew well and enjoyed to laugh at my comments during our all church staff meetings just in case no one else thought they were funny! It got to be a pretty good joke between us. Sadly, he no longer works at Immanuel! But here's a good example of something we thought would be hilarious but fell totally flat.
At Christmas, we always receive a lovely gift from the board. One year, the staff received plush, luxurious bathrobes. It was a nice gift but also a little personal given that it was an employee gift! None the less, we've enjoyed them through the years! But since we all got the same thing, Doug and I thought it would be hilarious to wear them to the first staff meeting of the new year! We even convinced a Swedish colleague to join us but she even warned us that this would not be funny. We prevailed because we are just THAT funny! We walked into a room of about 40 people to incredulous stares and silence. Finally, one Swede broke the silence by asking, "Are you cold?" with a completely straight face. Oj. We realized then that our very sophisticated and subtle humor was completely lost on them. Oh heck, even our obvious baseline humor is lost on them! Which is really sad when you like being funny!
But I digress. Here are some thoughts from this episode! I laughed when Bruce gets the spa bill and it's for like $700.00! And then he tries to talk the clerk out of charging him for certain things! Sweden is expensive and you can be caught off guard by a bill if you don't know going in what things are going to cost. I did have to laugh when he kicked the masseuse when he touched his feet! Doug is so ticklish that he could never go in for a foot massage! One subtle thing that Americans surely missed was when the mom ends up paying and says in Swedish keep the rest for dricks. It translates as tip but Bruce thought she said drinks and said we didn't even have drinks!
I did feel actual pain as Bruce was mulling around that dinner party, trying to listen to the Swedish, desperately wanting to fit in. And then when he reads from google translate in order to get them to invited to the next party. Oh, that Swedish accent is tough! Then he keeps his shoes on and high fives everyone! One cultural misstep after another! The shoe thing is perhaps one of the highest cultural expectations going. I have learned to carry an extra little bag with my "indoor shoes" because I really hate being at a party in my socks or bare feet. But if I don't feel like bringing my shoes, then I double check that my socks are clean without holes in them! I will admit, this practice does keep your house cleaner but in our home, unless the weather is dodgy, you can keep your shoes on.
The whole scene of Swedish burn-out is pretty weird for us. Swedes overuse the term burn-out  and get burn out rather quickly, in my humble opinion. One thing that I find amusing is that when speaking of their passions, they say, "What do you burn for"? Guess you should't burn too brightly or you will get burn-out.
So, at the end of the day, Bruce's default relationship is Hassan, who he has little in common with but shares this core experience of being a foreigner. Too bad he dumps Bruce too! But the truth of the matter for us is that our closest friends are other foreigners. The close Swedish friends we have are married to a foreigner. It's just hard to break into people's social circles and while Swedes do speak English, often they aren't that comfortable doing so so would also rather be in a social setting where they can speak Swedish and not worry about it. And for us, we don't want to put Swedes in an awkward position of having to speak English so you just keep a little distance socially. And at the end of the day, you do have to try to find this fine line between fitting in and being yourself...which are sometimes opposing goals because your personality is very different than the culture that surrounds you. Swedes would not walk into a party and high five everyone! They will however, in a very rigid manner walk around to every person present, look them in the eye, shake their hand, and say their name. Then move on and perhaps never speak to you again for the rest of the evening! But at least they do formally introduce themselves upon arrival. Of course, this happens after they have taken their shoes off!
I understand that a special report interrupted the end of the show in some parts of the US. Bruce's parents call, at a ridiculous time of day in Sweden because Americans do often forget about the time change. We've had 2.00 a.m. calls from someone who just wanted to say hello. When we sound a little groggy, they yell into the phone, "Oh, what time it is there?!" For the record, we're 9 hours ahead of the west coast, 6 hours ahead of the east coast. Everyone else in between, do the math!
But the big news from Bruce's parents is that they are coming to visit! They've booked a cruise and will be in Sweden next week! Stay tuned for more shenanigans when Bruce's parents land in Stockholm.
On another note...I did think the long shots of our fair city this week were just spectacular. Stockholm remains one of the most beautiful cities on earth.