“Rooolllll, roll, baby, roll!”
The tune Roadhouse Blues blares from speakers and laughter echoes as a woman in a cowboy hat hits the high striker hammer game. Swedish politicians mingle with American expats, leaders of the American business community and visitors from all walks of life, and the scent of country-fried potatoes and pulled chicken sandwiches fills the air.
“I feel very American today,” Peter Dahlen tells The Local with a grin.
It’s hard not to. Throngs of people clad in red, white and blue roam the yard of the US embassy in Stockholm, dancing, networking, and simply having a good time. It’s a classic American State Fair – Stockholm style – organized by the embassy to celebrate US Independence Day.
The day is all fun and games – quite literally – but Dahlen keeps busy. For the past year the American lawyer has been Managing Director of the American Chamber of Commerce in Sweden, overseeing a small team and spearheading a wide range of activities ranging from member outreach and networking to advocacy and policy promotion.
“It’s been great. It’s much more fun than I ever could have imagined,” Dahlen remarks. “I started working at AmCham through a recruitment process last spring, and it’s the most fun I’ve had since working on Capitol Hill.”
But even for a top-notch lawyer fresh from Washington, making the transition to Sweden had its rough spots.
A native of Delaware, Dahlen was doing policy work for his state’s then US Senator (now Vice President) Joseph R. Biden, Jr. in Washington, DC when he met the Swede who would later become his wife. Despite his Swedish ancestry and surname, Dahlen never felt any particular connection to Sweden – up until that point.
“I’m like many Americans and have many backgrounds. My father’s father was Swedish, but I’m mostly Irish and a little Belgian,” he says. “So I knew of my Swedish ancestry but I didn’t have a strong connection to it.”
But when his Swedish girlfriend wanted to move back to Stockholm to finish her education, and Dahlen also had to choose between committing to another two years working for Senator Biden or trying something new, the couple chose Sweden.
“I had travelled here a few times, and my wife did make me travel here once in the winter before I made the final decision – that was wise,” Dahlen quips. “So I knew what to expect from a weather perspective and somewhat from a cultural perspective, but I didn’t know what to expect career-wise.”
It was much different than he expected.
“It’s tough as an American lawyer to find work here,” he says. “I worked in public policy – at the confluence of law, policy and politics – and it was very difficult to find something similar here.”
He wound up as general counsel at an internet startup company – “back when that was fashionable” – and soon joined a group of American and British expat lawyers offering services to Swedish law firms and the government.
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“Overall, I think I was quite lucky,” he says. “I got these jobs in quick succession and I wasn’t in the market so much – and I actually never had to learn Swedish. Everything was in English.”
Dahlen admits that he still doesn’t “speak Swedish professionally”, but that he understands and can read Swedish.
When asked if that’s proof that Sweden is “too Americanized”, Dahlen laughs.
“Well, I’m American. So I don’t think so!”
But Dahlen has always felt at home in Sweden, largely thanks to a wide support network of Swedes and expats alike.
“I had my wife’s family here and her friends, and I made my own friends,” he explains. “When I worked at TransLegal with other British and American lawyers, we were all love refugees, and it was almost therapeutic. It was great to work with other immigrants.”
The hardest part of adjusting to life in Sweden was the darkness in the winter months, but other than that the transition was smooth.
“It was fairly easy to land in life in Sweden,” he says.
After more than a decade in the country, Dahlen still doesn't feel particularly Swedish - “But I feel international,” he says.
And despite the darkness, it’s been worth it. Now Dahlen lands in the US a couple of times a year, but thrives in Stockholm with his wife and children.
Now the only downside is the complications of travelling.
“We often have to change planes when flying to the U.S., and transfers have become more stressful since we had kids. More direct flights would be a personal advantage for me and my family, and for every other American expat here, as well as for Swedes visiting America for business or leisure.”
Stockholm has long claimed to be “the capital of Scandinavia” in its marketing, but Dahlen says that its lack of connectivity weakens the Swedish capital’s assertion.
“Copenhagen has more direct flights than Stockholm,” he remarks. “It's better connected. I change planes there frequently.”
Now Dahlen, through the American Chamber of Commerce and in cooperation with the US embassy and the Connect Sweden initiative, is working hard to change that. Members of the AmCham team were at Almedalen on June 30th to discuss why Sweden and the US must be better connected.
“More efficient business travel is more efficient business,” he explains. “Sweden has always been export-oriented and Swedish businesses have to be out in the world.”
Better connections would increase not just trade but also tourism between the countries, as well as benefiting every American expat, he says.
Establishing US preclearance at Arlanda airport in Stockholm is just the first step, but a crucial one benefitting both countries.
“It's not just about direct flights and business efficiency,” Dahlen says. “It's also important for first impressions of America.”
Waiting two to three hours in line just to enter the US can be off-putting, especially for first-time visitors, he explains.
“America is a hospitable country and Americans are very hospitable people. So if we can make that transition smoother, that's good for our reputation.”