Why I chose to say goodbye to Sweden

In her last column for The Local, US-native Rebecca Ahlfeldt explains why she is saying goodbye to Sweden for San Francisco, and how having a bi-cultural family influenced The Decision.

Why I chose to say goodbye to Sweden

The movers came today. Again.

Looking on the bright side, we still haven’t unpacked all our boxes from our move last October, which means fewer boxes to worry about. Of course, if we went without the contents of these boxes for the last eight months, there’s a good chance we don’t really need them. My inner minimalist wants to just get rid of all this stuff we’ve been lugging around, and yet my inner sentimentalist, so conscious of living an ocean away from my birth country, wants to hold on to it all.

So we have a large heap of boxes. I’ve been advised that if I can’t remember what’s in them, I should just give them away, unopened. I’m tempted, but I peeked in the first box anyway: My deceased mother-in-law’s hand-embroidered linens which we do, in fact, use (when they’re in sight). Enough of that idea.

Instead, I sat down on my staircase and contemplated how I got here, so far from home, in the middle of yet another move. That’s right — I fell in love. And I am still very much in love. But marrying and having a family with someone from another country is much more complex than I ever imagined. I failed to really grasp one the most obvious facts inherent in this kind of relationship: Marrying someone from another country means that one of us will always be living in a “foreign” country. At 26, that idea sounded more fun than anything else, but now, a little farther down the road, with kids and aging parents, things are a little more complicated.

We all have our alternate lives, our roads not taken. What if I had married my college boyfriend and stayed in Nebraska? What if I had followed my dreams and pursued a career as a rock star/actor/professional wrestler instead of wasting the last few years as a campground manager/corporate middle manager/7-11 cashier?

But as a bi-cultural family, our particular road not taken still exists — in fact, we can visit it: what if we lived (in our case) back in the US? And unlike the college boyfriend, our alternate life is still waiting for us, even calling us: “Try it, just for a little while. Your life might be better here.”

After our unexpected move last fall, my husband and I have spent an inordinate amount of time contemplating our future. The new rental we found would hold us over for a while, but it was time to make The Decision: Do we buy a house in Sweden and plant ourselves here for the foreseeable future? Do we move back to the US and do the same? Or was there some sort of middle road that didn’t require independent wealth and wouldn’t traumatize our kids forever?

We made the chart, with pro-Stockholm on one side and pro-San Francisco on the other. We put down everything we could think of: schools, walkability, diversity, acceptance of difference, friendships, future work possibilities, relationships with relatives, climate and many other factors, large and small. But when we finally finished the list, there was no clear winner. If anything, the chart showed that, after experiencing both countries, our decision had become more complicated. We now knew we could be happy in both places for very different reasons.

When we moved here over three years ago, I assumed that the answer to the puzzle of our family’s future would become clear to us. The chart would show us an obvious answer. All lingering what ifs would be resolved. We would then make The Decision and then live happily ever after. Of course, real life doesn’t work this way. Even after we had come to an answer, new information kept cropping up, clouding our resolve.

We finally came to our own Existential conclusion, though admittedly a little more mundane than Sartre’s version: In the end, whether we choose San Francisco or Stockholm matters less than the fact that we’re (finally) making The Decision.

So we just did it. We made a choice. We are saying goodbye to our alternate life forever.

But that’s not the hardest part. Most painful is the knowledge that, in choosing San Francisco, we will cut ourselves off from the close and deeply rewarding relationships we have formed here. I will always feel the ache of missing my Stockholm friends in the same way I still feel the absence of the people I left behind in San Francisco, New York and Michigan so long ago.

This was all part of the package when my husband and I got married; it’s a piece of every bi-cultural family we know. At a cocktail party we attended a few weeks ago, every couple there had their own version of this same story. And even the “lifers”, as one woman called herself, still felt the pull of their family and friends in their country of birth long after The Decision.

The pulls of both countries will always be there. It’s time for our family to make peace with this knowledge, put one foot in front of the other and take the next step forward.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American expat writer, translator, and editor who is now saying goodbye to Stockholm after three years. Follow Rebecca on Twitter here

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Why I finally decided to seek Swedish citizenship

With three years in Sweden under her belt, US-native and parent Rebecca Ahlfeldt debates the pros and cons of taking Swedish citizenship.

Why I finally decided to seek Swedish citizenship

The end of April marks the three year anniversary of our family’s arrival in Sweden. From this day forward, my visa tells me, I am eligible for Swedish citizenship. I have come to understand that this isn’t always the case. For example, I know a woman who arrived as an asylum-seeker 14 years ago and still isn’t eligible. So I should probably just count myself lucky and send in the papers.

Yet, I’ve hesitated. Again, I’m aware that the ability to hesitate makes me lucky. Strictly speaking, as a “love refugee” (as I think we’re called) and not, for example, an asylum seeker, I don’t need citizenship. And since both the US and Sweden allow dual citizenship, I don’t have to choose.

From a practical perspective, there only seem to be advantages. I’m the only one in our nuclear family that does not have dual citizenship; becoming Swedish would mean avoiding visa hassles, both for living here and for travelling. I would also be able to vote on a national level.

According to the US government, the ostensible downside of dual citizenship is what it cryptically describes as “the problems that may arise from it”… like if Sweden suddenly erupted into civil war, the US wouldn’t have the same authority to negotiate for my escape? Hmm…I think I have more to worry about on the other side of the Atlantic. Besides, the rest of my family would be stuck here, too. I’ll take the risk.

So there’s not much speaking against my becoming a citizen. But still there’s something that’s holding me back, a question that keeps nagging at me: Do I feel Swedish? What would it take for me feel like I am a part of this country?

Even stripped of the country’s blond-haired, meatball-loving stereotypes, my instinct is to answer a somewhat ambivalent no. On one hand, I’m not entirely un-Swedish. I am, for example, now well versed in the Nordic art of preparing Jerusalem artichokes, “black root” and other obscure, previously unidentifiable root vegetables. I follow Zlatan’s career with a sense of pride and hope, and I have overcome an instinctive fear of eating mushrooms not purchased from the store. Most notably, our increasingly lenient parenting has more in common with Sweden than with North America. But the only time I’ve felt remotely Swedish was on visits back to the US.

But here’s where things get tough. I can also ask myself the citizenship question from another angle: Do I want to live in a country indefinitely where I am not a member? My answer is no, a definite no.

For many people, citizenship is intricately connected with identity. When I think harder about my own identity, calling myself American seems too simplistic. Aside from living for periods on the Midwest, East Coast and West Coast of the US (which can be as culturally different as bordering nations in Europe), I’ve lived in both Spain and Sweden and have spent every summer of my life in Canada. All of these experiences have shaped my identity and perspective, not just one of them.

In fact, identity is also a choice to some degree. This becomes apparent the more I talk to other immigrants, all who have widely varying perspectives on how much they identify with their new home as well as their place of birth. Many have used dual citizenship as an opportunity to incorporate the best of both worlds into their identities. So the answer might be this simple: If I decide I’m going to be Swedish, I will be.

Maybe I need to frame my citizenship through an entirely new lens. Instead of asking myself if I feel Swedish, maybe I should ask myself this: Do I want to be a part of Sweden? Do I believe fundamentally in the values, priorities and future of this nation? Do I want to be a part of its future?

That’s easy. Yes, I do. In fact, on many issues, I agree far more with the direction of Sweden than I do the United States. Sweden is a country that prioritizes taking care of its people in policies that span gun control, environmental priorities, family support, gender equity, and much, much more. The society, like all others, is not without problems, and racism and xenophobia continue to drive a wedge into the society. But by this measure, just about any other nation in the world is a glass house.

Sweden is offering me this chance for citizenship so that I, too, take responsibility for the future of this society. That’s why I am allowed apply, despite my short stint as a permanent resident. And, in the end, it’s why I decided to send in my papers.

After much consideration, I’m applying to join the club. Now it remains to be seen if I’ll be accepted.

Rebecca Ahlfeldt is an American expat writer, translator, and editor currently based in Stockholm. Follow Rebecca on Twitter here