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

Paperwork and its close companion bureaucracy have been a constant presence since moving to Sweden, explains Victoria Martínez in her monthly family column.

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

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

For members


Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Are you raising children in Sweden? Here are a few very personal tips for what not to do from Alex Rodallec, who was raised in Sweden by a French Breton mother.

Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Raising children is hard enough as it is without having to do it in another country. The added difficulties of being a foreigner can be taxing: grappling with the language, the cultural differences, not being well acquainted with how the system works.

So how do you get advice from someone who knows a bit about the issues your child might face growing up as the child of an immigrant in Sweden? One way is to ask someone who was raised by an immigrant parent in Sweden.  Someone like me.

I am no expert in child rearing, and have no children of my own. I can, however, tell you a few things that you should try to avoid. Here are a few of my best tips for what not to do.

Do not reject your adopted country’s culture

This does not mean that you should assimilate completely. It is, however, a good idea to try to embrace your adopted country’s culture as a positive, rather than a negative, for the sake of your children.

Why? Because your children will not have your cultural identity, at least not entirely. And this will be true no matter what you do to prevent it. They will in part become Swedish, imbued with many of the values and customs of Swedish society, with the behaviour and norms.

This might not sound so serious, but if you are someone who is resentful of Sweden, or if you ever become resentful of it, it might become a serious problem.

My mother, who was French, first came to Sweden as a tourist and then later to work, but with no plans of staying. Then she met my father, a Bolivian man, whom she would eventually divorce when I was around two years old. After that my mother went to live in France with my big sister and me, and with the intention of staying.

The next part I am not so sure about, but I believe my father might have threatened legal action if she did not return with us to Sweden. Whatever the reason for her involuntary return, I do know that my mother’s dislike of Sweden grew with her resentment of having to stay there. And sad as that may be, because of our Swedishness she eventually began seeing us children – though only intermittently – as physical manifestations of the country she hated. Or perhaps we were a constant reminder of the fact that she could not leave. Why could she not leave? Because she loved us. How complicated the twists and turns of life sometimes play out.

Growing up, my mother would often tell us that it was our fault that she was “stuck in this country”, and her most common use of the word ‘Swedish’ was as a profanity directed at us, her children. Naturally this created a dissociation with Sweden and Swedishness, primarily in myself and my big sister, and to a lesser degree in my little sister.

And even though my mother had put my big sister and I in private schools with other children of immigrants (The Catholic and English Schools in Gothenburg), coupled with the fact that we went to preschool in France, we had still committed the cardinal sin of absorbing ‘Swedishness’. My little sister had it the worst when it came to this. She went to a Swedish public school, and never had the experience of going to preschool in France, and so was the most ‘Swedish’ of us all.

To this day, the subject of Swedishness and the like or dislike of Sweden is still a topic of conversation whenever I talk to or meet my sisters. My little sister has accepted her Swedishness, and lives in Gothenburg where we grew up. But my big sister and I both live abroad, and to varying degrees have issues with the country we grew up in. I am slowly learning to love and accept my Swedishness while living in France, but my big sister lives in London and baulks at the thought of ever moving back to Sweden. We are a separated family, in part due to our varying degrees of acceptance of Swedishness.

Perhaps I should stress that my mother was not a horrible person, but she suffered greatly from the circumstances of her life.

So, do not fill your children with your resentment of the country they will grow up in, it may very well be detrimental to their well being and their integration into the society they grew up in.

Do not ignore the complexity of cultural identity

Even though cultural identity can become symbolic of underlying issues, as was the case with my mother, it can also be a great resource, albeit one that might need some help along the way.

Being half French, half Bolivian, born and raised in a Swedish multiethnic suburb, had me untangling the threads that make up my cultural identity for decades. An experience common among multi-ethnic children. Your children might eventually need your support in this, I know I could have used some help.

My advice is to promote the idea that one can be many things all at once. And that to a certain degree these things are contextual. I myself am Bolivian to a greater degree when I spend time with the Bolivian side of the family, and more French when I spend time with the French side.

Having multiple cultural backgrounds also has benefits. Your reference points are multiplied compared to someone who has only one cultural background. You can act as a sort of cultural bridge, much like Commander Spock in Star Trek, for the Trekkies out there. Beyond that, having multiple languages is an asset, children who grow up speaking multiple languages struggle a bit at first, but then tend to outdo their peers in language mastery.

Do not be intimidated by how well your children adapt to Swedish society

This one might be slightly odd, but is an experience that many of my friends of immigrant background have shared with me.

Because your children will grow up as cultural insiders they will master the ins and outs of Swedish society much better than you. Most parents want their children to outdo them, but a parent also wants to feel useful and capable in front of their children. You might have a hard time coping with the fact that your children at a certain point, and perhaps much quicker than they would if you were in your home country, will outdo you. On top of that, in many cultures there is also a more authoritarian parent role, where children ought to know their place as children, and let the parent lead and decide.

My advice is: if you have an issue with your children making you feel inadequate, try to think of yourselves as a family unit. If your children can help you do better, that is good for all of you, try to embrace that. And why not look at it as a great opportunity to learn?

What are your best tips for parents raising children in Sweden? Share your experiences of parenting in Sweden with The Local by emailing us at [email protected]