The Unbearable Lightness of Sweden

pic of sweden sea

One of the more interesting lessons I learned about living abroad is that, no matter what your experience of the country in question, it claims a portion of your soul and becomes a part of who you are so that, when I don’t make it back to northern Europe for a few years, I start longing for things I never knew I loved – the smell of snow moments before its dry flakes appear in the sky; a sun that’s too lazy to move from the horizon but instead waits distractedly for clouds to hide its face; forests so thickly green they retain centuries of rain. And as we cross the Öresund Bridge from Denmark into Southern Sweden it doesn’t feel like coming home, exactly, but the feeling is one of warmth and familiarity; kind of like putting on a favourite sweater or a thick, comfortable pair of socks. And driving through familiar suburbs I remember days and moments and feelings and a time where I was lost and had to look for myself in foreign-sounding parks and on streets and squares where my feet clocked endless miles as I walked in search of direction and meaning in a city I’d never heard of until, by chance, I found myself living there with a man who had somehow become my husband and children who – bizarrely – belonged to me.

And on this recent trip to midsummer Malmö I was made aware of something else, too – how lightly people live in this stylish, wealthy part of the planet. In a place where everybody has everything one is allowed the luxury of believing human beings to be inherently kind and inherently good. The world up there is gentle, and while it’s not without its problems, life makes sense and justice – for the most part – is a concrete, dependable concept. Behind triple-glazed windows its citizens are shielded from some of the harsher realities of the world; facts of life we South Africans are not at liberty to ignore because they knock on the windows of our cars while we wait for the lights to change and huddle under blankets in doorways through the wet Cape winter. And – especially as I grow older, less certain and more acutely aware of the contingency of life and how, at any moment, everything I love could be taken from me – I understand the seductiveness and the temptation of leaving this school of hard knocks with its illogicality and relentless sunshine to merge, instead, with the soft greyness of Europe or elsewhere; to live in a place which cares for its people; where you aren’t looking over your shoulder all the time and it’s not always a pleasant surprise that your car is where you left it.

I understand in a way I didn’t before why people make this choice, and in a way I envy their ability to leave and put Africa behind them because, God knows, there are places to spend your days that are easier on the psyche. Where not everything is political; where at any given moment you are not wondering when the house of cards will come crashing down; justifying your (obviously sado-masochistic) decision to return when you could have left for good. And as I swam in Sweden’s warm, clean ocean where the scariest thing I might encounter is a pair of beautifully groomed swans and cycled through greenly manicured parks where the flowers are changed along with the season I wondered to myself why I couldn’t find peace in the wonderful peacefulness of this place; why – like so many others have done – I couldn’t surrender to its beauty and grace but had to fight so hard to return to a country I have no right to love as much as I do, nor will ever love me back.

And – truth be told – I didn’t want to go back to South Africa this time. I loved the summer sun, hotter than I’ve ever felt it; not like the burning spear sun of Africa, but like a thick, warm blanket, both delicious and a little too heavy; I reveled in the long, sultry, champagne and salmon-filled evenings and the sophistication of the supermarkets and the cleanliness and how courteously people drive and how you can cycle everywhere and how good the water tastes and that soon it’ll be time for the annual round of crayfish parties and for picking mushrooms in the forest and the trees in the parks will be set alight with the colours of autumn. And yet I continued to experience a sense of mutedness; like swimming underwater or walking through thick fog. A feeling – for better or worse – of being somehow removed from reality. Like the ‘real’ world was happening elsewhere, on some other part of the globe. High Level Road as you drive towards Sea Point. And I suppose this is why – as much as those climes charm me – as I gazed out of the aeroplane window and saw the blue of the African sky and the ugly façade of Cape Town International Airport I felt unexpected tears prickling my eyes and, from nowhere, a sob rising in my chest. And for this reason, I guess, I am destined to stay here on this ship as it veers, off-course, into scarily unchartered waters and hope, like the rest of my kind, that somebody, somewhere will save us.

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97 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of Sweden

  1. Your writing is incredible, I felt as if I was standing right next to you as you described the landscape, the smells, the sounds – exceptional!

    My husband and I have just come back from a mini holiday in your neck of the woods – Cape Town for me is a magical place and a great place to soothe some rather exhausted spirits.

    Africa is a tough place to live but it also makes it tough to live anywhere else.
    Quoting my husband’s T-Shirt: “Africa, is not for sissies”
    Looking forward to your next adventure xxx

  2. I know exactly what you mean. I live in Stockholm but am originally from Cape Town. Africa never leaves you & as beautiful as other places are Africa is so alive in a way that other places are not. It’s like living in a constant shade of a pastel over here :-)

  3. Susan, I hope you read this and reply. After 12 years in Belgium (another pastel-shaded country, to paraphrase Lynn Greenwood’s wonderful comment), my Belgian husband and I are moving back to South Africa in 8 weeks. I vacillate between being super excited to be back in the country and among the people that I love and being petrified that I won’t be able to adjust to the poverty and crime. I’m scared that Europe has made me soft and I won’t be able to get hard again. Did you feel that way? How did you cope?

    1. Yes, I did, Megan. I would phone my mom in tears saying, what’s it really like there now? Will it be okay? And it is an adjustment, and I did suffer from a kind of culture shock for a while but the poverty and the crime are just one, small aspect of living here. Be excited. It’s super wonderful, and I am happy and settled beyond my wildest imaginings. We have the best life under the sun. It’s not really about getting hard, it’s about getting un-naïve about the many aspects of life in this world we live in; the different experiences human beings have on this planet. This is not the only country in the world that has poverty. Find ways of giving of your time and resources, talk to everyone, immerse yourselves in lives unlike your own and you’ll find it the most rewarding, joy-inducing, LIVED life imaginable. Pale, pale compared to Europe. Please let me know how you do, okay? Sending love and luck xxx

  4. Susan and Megan. I sit here amazed at the immeasurably difference between our experience and what the two of you are talking about. Admittedly we have only been in Sweden since August thus the weather and vistas are still new and exciting to us. Previously we loved living in Uganda and Tanzania but we could never make the life that we wanted in South Africa. We could never take our place in our community as we did elsewhere and emotionally we simply couldn’t do the anger and racism in South Africa any more. Here in Vilhelmina, Sweden we got exactly what we wished we could find in South Africa when we returned there. We have been accepted with warm hearted open arms even though we can not speak the language and do not understand the culture. Where ever we go we experience this. We already have more and closer friends here than ever in South Africa. Our gifts and abilities are appreciated and we are given the chance to serve and love people as is our nature. We feel that we have come home to a place where we are not only safe but appreciated. A place where we will not just survive but will thrive. The place where we are supposed to be for a purpose we do not yet understand.

    1. That’s so lovely to hear, Deon. When you wrote to me the first time I was very sceptical about whether you would be able to settle and feel at home in the way you hoped for, and this comment is a reminder that we are all on such different journeys, wanting and needing very different things. And also that we see the world through the lens that best makes sense to us. Sweden is a magical country in many ways, and will always feel like a second home to me. Wishing you every happiness.

  5. Excellent piece. This (amongst other things) is why I live where I do but, believe me, one can’t put SA behind one completely but sadly the worsening situation makes it easier for us. But I suppose we’re in love with our memory of SA. I doubt I’d be able to live there again, sadly!

  6. It’s interesting, when going to Sweden, reflections on nature and cleanliness, forrests and pictoresque suburbs are made and they are true, it is also true that across the road of my mothers flat in one of the suburbs, a man mysteriously ‘took a fligt’ from his balcony…ten or so stories up, needless to say, he died. And this happnes a lot inSweden, suicide by jumping off the balcony..the gang of russian men that leve shortly behind never mentioned. Suicide, funnily enough, is very common in Sweden but people who commit them don’t live on ‘tourist street’. They live in piss poor high rises outside main cities because that is all that is available while rest of the city is redeveloped in apartments few can afford…I am sure this is nothing in comparison to problems of SA, on the scale of misery im sure Sweden scores low, but we are people and life is difficult for us too…i am also sure that the colors of Africa are beautiful, i will have to go on what i have seen on telly because me and majority of my fellow Swedes will never be able to afford to see it in reality. I am glad you had a nice break.

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