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.

97 thoughts on “The Unbearable Lightness of Sweden

  1. How lovely. I grew up in Kimberley and travelled the world with my husband. We have been living in the Uk for the past 18 years, have the opportunity to go back, but I don’t want to for all the reasons you mentioned .

  2. Beautifully put, Susan – a wonderful post. I’ve made a different choice to yours but know exactly what you mean by mutedness …. I have come to love OT international airport as being – on my trips “home” – my first submersion into unmutedness, back among “my” peeps and sounds and colours and smells. I always feel slightly giddy when I land there! It is my absurd paradox that SA is the place where I feel I belong even though I choose to live elsewhere.

  3. Hi – you have absolutely made my day. I often quote this movie/book when trying to explain to people why I continue to stay in South Africa, despite overwhelming evidence that yells ” Flee”.
    Most people look at me with that pitying glance that suggests- “okay she’s not well,just humour her” BUT finally I know someone else gets what I have been alluding to. Thank you.

  4. Except it’s not really about being saved it it? It is, for me, about understanding that we have a soul contract that we are not necessarily aware of but, when the tears start to fall and the sense of joy rises, we know we are living it. Perhaps our soul contract is to learn that we do not need anything but to rather serve, and perhaps that has to be forced on us for us to learn it. Or not. Perhaps something else awaits us. Whatever it is when you march to the beat of your soul you know you are on track to fulfill your contract.
    For me it makes the call to stay louder than the call to leave. For others the call is different and that too is okay.

    1. Love this and your wise words, Helen. I wish I could get all of you, my favorite commentators – who add such insight and cleverness to the comments section – in one room for a big, fat party :-)

    2. I wish I could feel the way you do. Perhaps it’s because you live in Cape Town where things are still relatively ‘easy’ to live with. Me, I returned from the UK optimistic willing to roll up my sleeves and force our wonderful new rainbow nation into being. And I was knocked down time and again by a nation so distressed there is nowhere to turn. I see so much negativity and yes I whine a lot (perhaps in a misguided attempt to enforce some kind of change) but I think it’s because I feel a sense of overwhelming futility. For every baby raped and child abandoned, for every scandal on corruption that just gets pushed aside for the next one, for every family member murdered whose killers still roam free, for every person I know whose children are traumatised by crime, for every striking worker’s wife who has to make ends meet on nothing while her husband unknowingly contributes to the rise in inflation that is going to swamp her next month. I can’t help anymore. I have to help myself. I have to get out of here before I turn my children into bitter and twisted haters too.

  5. Wow! What an amazing piece that touched a deep chord. So insightful of our “plight” in Cape Town and elsewhere in South Africa. But the smell and the sounds of Africa are like no other. They alone will keep you coming back.

  6. Wonderfully written but once SA is in your blood it is there forever in spite of everything.There is so much to love in this country, so much to do to try and make a difference and deep down there is hope,without it where would we be??

  7. The pull between two (or more) places can be schizophrenic-making and lonely and homeless-feeling, or it can be another opportunity to understand more about ambiguity. Or both. Or all. Beautifully written. Thank you.

  8. One of your best blogs, so difficult to explain to others how Africa gets under you skin in the most insidious way, I was born in England but would feel as if I was smothered if I lived there now, someone once said to me that Europe and the first world are the past and Africa and S.America are the future, living here is not easy but perhaps even this has it’s own rewards

  9. I dont want to go back because I can’t bear the ‘knocking at the window’, the suffering and the poverty and effects of ‘apartheid’ on its people – those who still think they are not equal to the white people and behave with too much humility – subservience. When I am lying in my warm bed in South Africa in the house built by people who get paid not enough and it is storming outside I can’t sleep comfortably because of those who live in shacks. I want to live in a country where taxes are perhaps too high but are being used to take care of people and not put into pockets.. I don’t want to be aware anymore..

  10. Not in a long time has a blog moved me so much as this one…. Goosebumps, tears, smiles and so much more. It was as if you put my thoughts into words, just perfectly. I am an absolute European addict and came back recently from a trip through Germany and Austria. This time, like for you, I also did not want to come back, but when that plane landed and 5 warm African smiles greeted me just as I stepped off the plane… I felt a fuzzy feeling of “home.” It took me so much longer than usual to get my head back to reality of life here this time, but yes, for some strange reason and with everything scaring the hell out of me at times, by what is going on in South Africa… it seems, this will always be home.

    1. Thank you, Mariette! It also took me longer than usual to settle this time. But then I did and now that I’m back in the swing of things Sweden feels far away again and I am grounded, once more, and home x

  11. I have hope for the future of South Africa. I don’t believe we need to be ‘saved’, I believe that as SA’ns we are inclined to complain a lot. In SA crime get top media coverage. Not so in other parts of the world and yet, just yesterday, I read of a woman who lost her eye in the UK, after an assault and an attempt to steal her car.
    I think of war and I feel for all those on whom it is forced and how lucky we are for our peaceful transition. I read of all the instability in other countries and wonder how those together with their allies who instigate the trouble while looting same for the resources, can carry on in their peaceful countries.

    South Africa is far from perfect, but when I look out the window of the plane and my eyes settle on Table Mountain in the distance, my heart swells with pride and love for my beautiful city I will always call home.

    Is it any wonder that our estate agents have in the last year sold R6.5bn worth of property to foreign buyers.

  12. This is so spot on and so well written. I return to beautiful Cape Town in September because I just can’t stay away. I know I will sob when I see that bloody mountain. Thanks for a great article.

  13. I know exactly how you feel,. I had the same feelings when I was recently in the UK. While I was living in the UK I could not wait to get back to S. Africa, and then after a while here I went to the UK for a visit, and I actually thought how nice it was to feel less ‘alert’ all the time. I actually thought I could be happy there again….despite being so unhappy when there. Of course as soon as I was back in Cape Town I was so happy to be ‘home’. My roots are here, entwined in the soil.

    1. I understand completely! Like an earlier commentator on the blog said, maybe it’s about appreciating ambiguity – loving two things and seeing the value in each and that’s a positive thing. I was very anti Europe at a time because I was so unhappy there. I’m grateful that my view has become more nuanced. But also that I know where I need to be. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

  14. You DO write beautifully! I love finding a few minutes to focus on your words, to transport myself far away from what issues and chores call me back….I love your unashamedly proudly South Africanism! Bravo.

  15. Dankie Susan! As I read it a third time, I cannot stop the tears. What is it about that/ our continent.. and my hope to one day return…..

  16. The “soft greyness of Europe” has given me a lot in the 12 years I have lived here: a sense of being safe from crime that I have never known, welfare support that got us through my husband’s 1.5 years of unemployment after he was made redundant, medical care that is so cheap it is almost frightening, free language courses that made me viable option for Flemish employers after I first moved here, free transport to get to the language courses, the list goes on.

    And yet, in the 12 years I have lived here have never once felt as alive as I do when I sit on Blouberg beach and wonder at Table Mountain.

    I am grateful for the soft greyness and all the opportunities it has afforded me, how it has changed my perspective on life and the world we live in, but I don’t belong here. I belong in South Africa with the crime the and the hardship, but also with the humanity and the humour that I miss more than anything else.

    1. I hear you, sweetheart! I was also given so much by Sweden, and I’ll always be grateful for the largesse of that country. Like one of my readers said, I think there’s a place we’re supposed to be and, one way or another, we find our way back here if that is our calling x

  17. Susan – you make me cry too, and make me remember things I forget in my day-to-day life in the UK. You have put your finger right on it, you are so clearsighted. I am too old now to go back, but I need reminding about this. I need you to jog my memory. Thank you.

  18. I’m not sure in the end whether we choose places or the places choose us. The feeling of belonging somewhere is as undescribable as the attachment one has for someone: it just gets you and you have no other choice but to follow…Beautiful post and perspective, thanks!

  19. Beautifully written again Susan. You are blessed to have the chance to experience and write about both worlds. I to love the summer in Europe it short and oh so sweet. I just can’t bare the 7 months of winter darkness and a longing for warmth. I always find it amazing that when summer comes the long winter is briefly forgotten. Then come the end of September when we put our outside furniture in the shed I start to cry. There are days in the bitter, cold and lonely January where I physically cannot go on and I yearn for the people ( family and friends) and sunshine of Africa!

    For this reason and many others I cannot contemplate growing old here in Europe. Yes it is a risk to return home after 16 years in Europe but I’m much to fearful of growing old without my family and true friends and of course the sunshine of Africa. Getting to my grave safely would be no reward what so ever. Home is truely where the heart is and having beautiful experiences whilst travelling is just that moments that will always be precious but its never home.

    1. I hear you! What I also think is that the thought is scarier than the reality of returning. I worried too and then we were here and everything made sense and I’ve never looked back. I remember those Januaries well, yes! :-) come home. You’ll find your smile xxx

  20. Wow Susan you speak from my soul. The tears welled up and then I read some of the comments and they just started rolling down. Thank you for finding these words and sharing them with us!!

  21. Thank you so much for writing. I loved the read. I could never embrace the “soft greyness” for an extended time as it’s a metaphor for so much more than just the weather. I need to really live and not just survive, and sometimes this means taking risks. I still enjoy visiting my parents even though these relationships are sometimes strained. I still enjoy cycling on our dangerous roads, because even though spinning at the gym is safe I have never enjoyed a sunrise within a gym. For many that stay or choose to return I believe there’s a hunger for authentic life.

  22. Great blog and thank you to ‘Good News South Africa’ for republishing it! I am an ex-pat in the USA for the past 20 years and have a slightly different view: the incredible lightheadedness of assimilating into two cultures in one life time. Both with good and bad. And both equally promoted to others in an effort to encourage a broader view of the world – if not just in a quest for personal growth.
    I remember a saying to the following effect, ” Home is the place where we grumble the most and are treated the best”. It is true whether you have one home or multiple places called home. As much as you can’t remove the ‘bush’ from my psyche, the ‘Yankee’ is now part and parcel as well. And while we are blessed to see Table Mountain from time to time, the blue hues of the Caribbean can’t be replicated either.
    Returning or not returning to our place of birth, the journey thus far has been incredible – and isn’t life but a journey?

  23. Lovely post – I left Cape Town for Scotland four years ago and next year I’m getting married to a Scot. So much of what you wrote resonates with my experience – especially the non-political, comfortable, wintry life. Sitting here with a lump in my throat!

  24. I loved this post!
    I think that your new insight will just add a new dimension to your life; the fact that you can appreciate the charms of Sweden, the bliss of living in a carefree, elegant way but that you will always answer the seductive call of Africa.
    I have just spent a very happy time in Europe, with Swiss friends and, indeed, their uncomplicated lives can seem very attractive. However, I too, am captivated by the gleaming smiles, the warmth and the openness of our people. I think that our constant exposure to those who have so little the realisation that they are able to reach out with such generosity of spirit is always uplifting and heart warming. I will always, only feel fully whole when back in this country.

  25. I just love your well-written blog, and since I am a Swede and live i Lund not far from Malmö, Ribersborg and Kallbadhuset, I particularly enjoyed your blogs about your recent visit to Sweden. However, you don’t mention the fact that people from the less fortunate parts of our planet are arriving in Sweden by the tens of thousands every year and that we, the lucky ones, are made aware of the sufferings, poverty, torture and traumas that they have been exposed to. Today, there are Roumanian beggars even in the small towns and villages in the countryside, hinting at the realities that are so close to your everyday Life in Cape Town. Some of us close our minds, some of us hand out a few fivers and tenners most days, most of us are beginning to feel uneasy about the future awaiting our children and grandchildren. However, we shall close our minds and fly to South Africa in October.

  26. Such a beautiful and ‘on point’ piece: I totally loved it – thank you :-) My real sadness is that it’s becoming a battle every day to live with a sense of consciousness and purpose (let alone joy) in a country where there is more and more hopelessness / cruelty / hunger / desperation and the more I care really doesn’t seem to make anything any better. But, I can’t imagine where else home would be..
    Looking forward to your next post! Angela xx

  27. Susan, I can understand the hold that SA have over us who were born there. It is the country of my heart, It is in my veins – but I can no longer live here. There is simply no longer a place for me here. In the past few years my wife and I lived in Uganda and Tanzania because that was the only option open to me to make an income. Every time we returned to SA I started out feeling the great joy of being back where I felt I belonged but within weeks the constant gnawing of horrible news, crime, bad infrastructure and corrupt/immoral leadership robbed me of this joy. I saw the same thing happening to my brother in law when he returned to SA with his young Swedish bride.

    On the surface SA is still looking the same, particularly in the south, but inside it is dying and we are mourning this slow death which is robbing us of a place where we can belong and serve, as is our nature.

    In a few days we will be leaving SA to go and live in a small town in the north of Sweden. Yes it scares me because we will be challenged by the greatest change that we have faced yet. But my instincts tell me that to keep one foot in SA will cause us more pain than fully embracing this change that we can not avoid. I want to not compare my new country to SA, nor seek the fellowship of other South Africans. I want to not remember the sun on my back or the laughing faces of poor and rich South Africans alike. I want to focus on becoming a Swede, embrace “jantelagen”, stand in queues to be served and never find myself being perpetually angry any more.

  28. So funny , we went to Bali for a month now in the holidays and I was also feeling ready to pack in SA and move to a safer country. The first time ever that I felt this way. It took me a week or two to settle back into life in Cape town but a few walks on Camps bay beach and then a nice long one on the promenade , through the urban park and back along the main road and I felt like I was home and how much there is to love and be thankful for in this beautiful place we live.
    I LOVE CAPE TOWN xxxx

  29. Dear Susan thank you for a very well written piece. It made the place come alive. I also agree that when one visits a country like Sweden or Germany or New Zealand and experience the fact that things work and that people actually care for each other and have respect for what makes society work you wonder why you stay in old SA. By the way I am too old to make a move now. But in my experience when you are in places like those for a few weeks you start to miss the crackle of SA or Africa I am not sure and that makes coming home feel good. Perhaps we are so used to an adrenaline high because of the issues we have to deal with that we start having withdrawel symptoms after a while. Good one though. Thanks At

  30. I have just been tipped about your blog and reading this post takes me back. My family & I, Swedish husband in tow, returned to Cape Town 3 years ago now but when summer hits Europe my heart sighs as I miss miss miss the wonderful Stockholm summers – the long hours of daylight and all that accompanies.

  31. Lovely post, Susan. I was in the UK last week and experienced that feeling of safety wherever I went. However, I started reading ‘Good Morning, Mr Mandela’ while there and then finished it on the plane home……….. crying all the way. I love South Africa, warts and all.

  32. egzackly! my daughter, just back from four years in England, calls herself “fractured”, that she has left a small piece of herself back there, almost like she can never now be completely happy in either place, but sooo glad to be ‘home’! hamba gahle

  33. I love , love, love your writing and this post in particular made me cry…I cried because I am so sad that so many of us have had to leave for a variety of reasons. I left because of work and the fact that I was physically threatened by my 16 year old neighbour. I will probably never go back, despite the fact that SA is where I used to feel most at home.
    Dubai is currently my home, albeit a temporary one, and ultimately I will probably end up in England, where strangely enough, I feel very much at home now when I visit my mum every year. Perhaps the answer is to not consider one place home but rather have ” home” as an evolving place where you feel settled and comfortable. at different times of your life and as your requirements change. Thank you once again for making us feel and think so beautifully!

  34. This post made me feel like being South African is sometimes like being in love with the bad guy – you know the one! The guy who you know will break your heart but you can’t stop yourself from going there because the love seems just that much more sweet, making the heart-break that little more tragic.
    I live in Switzerland at the moment and I have days where I long so desperately for the smell of the veld that I push tears out with the effort, but then I have days where things just seem so easy and relatively carefree that I feel like a traitor – but I know in my bones that I will fight to get back to SA, regardless of the distress.
    Thanks for sharing Susan!

  35. Today the sun shines brightly in Upsala. People in shorts an t-shirts are walking purposefully into town to go about their business or sitting chatting next to the river. Last night after 9pm young girls and boys, families and groups of old people were sitting on the wooden jetty at the harbour chatting and listening to a concert on the stage in the park. It is breathtakingly beautiful. This South African is starkly aware of the absence of fear and anger, so prevalent in SA, in myself and the people around me. It makes the title of this blog so much more personal. This is what I want. Yes I know that the snow and ice will come but in that too we will find beauty and joy.

  36. A South African friend of mine recommended your blog to me as he realized you often mention Swedish life and my hometown Malmö. I find your posts about South African life interesting but it is not until this post that you have really grabbed my attention. I very rarely comment on blog posts but after reading this post I feel obliged to do so. I guess I feel proud when you describe Sweden in such a splendid light and talking so vividly about my world. My family is, just like yours, an international family. In my travels 15 odd years ago I met a SA guy and spend 3 months in SA. I loved it there but things did not work out with that guy (thank God I might say now, although I was devastated back then). I continued in my travels and ended up in New Zealand and a different kind of life (and guy!). I am now married to that kiwi guy, we have two gorgeous boys and live and work in Malmö. I know what you are talking about when you describe how you want the best of two worlds and how you sometimes feel that the grass is greener on the other side. I know I am proud and blessed that we have two worlds present in my family and that my kids grow up traveling the world, becoming bilingual (or even trilingual) and having a bigger perspective to this life. Hopefully living like this and spreading the love worldwide will help the world becoming a better place! Keep writing Susan and I will continue reading! And, who knows, maybe our paths have crossed once or twice…

    1. Hi Emma, and thanks for this lovely comment! I might come back to Malmö in October as our stuga needs painting – and, as you know, it’s cheaper to fly up and do it yourself than hire somebody :-) If I do I’m going to look for up to meet for cup of coffee, yes? Have a great day, and thanks again! x

  37. Hi Susan
    I just wanted to say I love your blog..your writing is superb and I love its simplicity.

    My husband and I lived in the UK for 10 years and have come back to SA about a year ago …and for the decade I lived in London with all it had to offer us and for all the opportunities we had in Europe(for which I will always be grateful)…I have not felt so alive as I have since being back home.

    Yes it has been a shock with the shocking social divide between rich and poor..it has been sureal seeing the lamborginis at the traffic light and the women with their babies begging for monies at the same light..that social class divide is so massive and just appears to be increasing..we have been victims of petty crime..we have experienced the notorious lack of customer service in government institutions…we have witnessed the consequences of horrendously bad driving…yet for all of that there has been so much good keeping us here..the friendliness of the South african people..the eternal sunshine..the lower cost of living(comparatively to the UK) and of course the biggest reason..our families!

    All in all it has been hard adjusting but for now best decision that we had made!

    Keep on writing…

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