Paperwork and a blank page: A retrospective of our first year in Sweden

Paperwork and a blank page: A retrospective of our first year in Sweden
Paperwork is something of a Swedish national pastime. Photo: Maja Suslin/TT
Paperwork and its close companion bureaucracy have been a constant presence since moving to Sweden, explains Victoria Martínez in her monthly family column.

As my family celebrates our first anniversary of immigrating to Sweden, I realize how appropriate it is that the traditional gift for first wedding anniversaries is paper. Although we're not celebrating a wedding anniversary, paper symbolizes our first year in Sweden better than it did the first year of my marriage. Looking back, I realize that paper – in the form of paperwork and its close companion, bureaucracy – have been a major presence in our lives over the past year.

Every immigrant to Sweden knows about the vitally-important personal number. Our experience was surprisingly fast, easy and painless. It was also an experience that lulled us into a false sense of confidence. The next step, getting our national identity cards, was decidedly more complicated, time-consuming and – at times – confusing. But even that didn’t prepare us for the excruciating experience of obtaining a fully-functioning bank account, which only came to fruition after several months and a certain American-who-shall-remain-nameless stormed out of the bank.

READ ALSO: The magic of Sweden's personal ID number

We can be forgiven for supposing that once the above had been accomplished, we were home free. In fact, an error on my Försäkringskassan (Swedish insurance agency) paperwork meant months of back and forth, with a final positive outcome only recently achieved. Around the same time, my personal saga with Arbetsförmedlingen (Swedish Public Employment Service) began when I was told matter-of-factly that they would do nothing to help me. Clearly, I didn’t take that literally enough. As a writer and historical researcher, I applied to be recognized as a “kultur” worker, which of course involved a certain amount of paperwork on my part. After several months, I was informed that my writing and historical research have nothing to do with culture.

As for learning Swedish, a place for me in Swedish for Immigrants (SFI) classes wasn't available until April, at which point I had to turn it down because Arbetsförmedlingen doesn't consider learning Swedish an “activity” that would allow me to increase my childcare hours so I can pursue paid work in my field and learn Swedish at the same time. Instead, I’m pursuing a self-learning approach through a combination of language apps, listening to my husband and children, and pursuing historical research projects related to Sweden – the same ones that aren’t considered cultural. The good news is, almost everyone in Sweden swears in English, so I can curse quite effectively over these frustrations.

Speaking of swearing, I can now do so, if desired, while driving with my brand new Swedish driving license. This particular piece of “paper” took me the entire year to obtain, and earning it is cause for celebration on its own. This part of integration in Sweden is one that is discussed at length in ex-pat groups and message boards, and with good reason. I think obtaining my master’s degree might have been only slightly more challenging and only marginally less expensive. Needless to say, this is the kind of paper I’m happy to receive as my immigrant anniversary present.

READ ALSO: Is Swedish bureaucracy slowing down integration?

Of course, nothing makes you feel fully-integrated in a country, at least in a bureaucratic sense, like receiving your first set of tax forms. No matter what other paperwork is still pending, tax paperwork reminds you pretty clearly that you are a fully-vested member of society.

As if becoming bureaucratically official hasn’t been enough proof that paper is truly the appropriate symbol for our first year in Sweden, I can add to that the professional paper involved in restarting my career after several years of being a full-time parent. Obviously, my profession involves a lot of paper, and I readily admit to being happiest when surrounded by books and other research material, but it was also one of the biggest sources of both anticipation and disappointment for me this past year. On my first attempt to fulfill a long-term goal of studying for a PhD in history, I came late to the application process and spent an intense two weeks writing a 5,000-word dissertation proposal. After three months, I learned I was not the candidate chosen from among the 37 applicants.

As dismal as I felt at that time and as frustrating as dealing with bureaucracy has been at times during our first year in Sweden, I also realize that the theme of paper in this context has a flip side. We came to Sweden with a blank page – a new beginning in a country we admired from afar and have since come to love and appreciate in many ways. We are still writing on that page as we enter our second year in Sweden, and are hopeful that the growing pains associated with the first year of any new venture – whether it be marriage or immigration – are to become just a small part of the story we are writing each day.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

Read more from her family column on The Local here