When I was still living in Sweden (in the 1990s, not that it matters), in the department where I worked there was an American grad student taking classes on some kind of visitor’s visa. She had a Swedish last name and Swedish ancestors. She felt at home in Sweden, and I think she’s still living there 20 years later.

As an American in Sweden she experienced cultural shock, of course.  There were things that irritated her, like the non-itemized phone bill. She couldn’t understand how you were supposed to pay a phone bill if you couldn’t check that the calls were actually made by you. (Never having seen an itemized phone bill I didn’t understand what made her so upset.) She struggled learning, and speaking, Swedish, and did pretty well. But as all immigrants know it was tiring for her to speak and hear a foreign language all day.

Out of desperation she had created a fantasy that has stayed with me. She said that she had moments when she felt it was all a game, and that if people only wanted they could just snap out of it, start speaking English, and be normal. She felt that the Swedish culture was like a veil covering the real world. A veil that could be lifted.

As a Swedish immigrant in the US I don’t think I’ve ever felt like that. Partly because in a way her fantasy was true, Swedish people do speak English for the most part. And American culture, not to mention pop culture, is an important part of Swedish culture. To some extent Swedes like to think of themselves as American. As an immigrant in the United States, on the other hand, I know I’m the one who has to learn, and adapt. Americans don’t speak Swedish and often don’t know the first thing about present day Scandinavian culture.

The north American reviews of Welcome To Sweden, currently on NBC in the United States, and broadcast earlier this year by TV4 in Sweden, have been mostly positive. I enjoyed the first couple of episodes of the series when I saw them this spring, mainly because Swedish Americans got to see what Americans look like to the Swedes, and what Swedes look like to Americans, at the same time. There were some funny bits, I thought.

Reviewers seem to agree that the premise of the show (a man leaves his life in New York to move to Stockholm to be with his girlfriend) is OK, the stars are OK, and the are jokes at least mildly funny.  Alessandra Stanley, in the New York Times, has this to say:

Scandinavians don’t complain. Not even about ethnic stereotyping. Apparently it’s not a slur to paint an entire people as tall, blond and briskly self-sufficient.

some words of advice for my dear daughter, if I had one

I read a story in the Huffington Post the other day, advice for women, listing things they should make sure to do in their 20s. I tried to find the article right now, but it wasn’t easy. If you want a taste, any of the many stories that came up in this search will be roughly the same.

I am admittedly tired and cranky right now. I’m teaching summer school and I haven’t had a break since Christmas. Many things irritate me.

But. These articles telling women what to do (because, let’s be honest, women are told what to do way more often than men) are annoying, irritating, and false. The gist of the advice for women in their 20s that I read was to make sure to travel, and to be spontaneous. It sounds, to me, like thinly disguised advice for women before they become moms and wives. Because, like everyone knows, no more travel, no more spontaneity, no more anything for women after they marry. Right?

In 1794 Anna Maria Lenngren (1754-1817), a Swedish contemporary to the Bronte sisters and to Jane Austen, wrote a poem titled Some Words of Advice For My Dear Daughter, If I Had One. (In Swedish, here: Några ord till min kära dotter, ifall jag hade någon.) The poem is satirical, and reflects the tension between a professional life and the life of a wife and mother that Lenngren herself must have experienced. An acclaimed writer, Lenngren was married to a newspaper publisher. After her marriage her work was only ever published anonymously in her husband’s paper.

220 years later, the big secret is this: Educated middle class women, the target audience for both Lenngren’s poem and the HuffPo piece that I read, can have whatever life that they want. They can travel if they want, they can have children if they want, they can marry if they want. They can publish under their own names, and they can run their own newspapers and websites. (Well hello, Arianna Huffington.)

Here are my words of advice for my dear daughter, if I had one: You don’t have to get your traveling, or your spontaneity, done by your 30th birthday. You don’t have to read advice columns. You don’t have to get a business degree, or play soccer, or minor in communication. You can do whatever you want. You don’t have to answer to anybody, but yourself. But, you need to know what you want. Meaning that you need to spend some time figuring out what it is that you really want. Even if no one except me will ever tell you that’s what you should be doing. And, if it’s difficult to hear your own voice for all the chatter, you will have to try harder.

That’s it. You can do it.