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FAMILY

How we learned to embrace our awkward existence as a multicultural family in Sweden

A couple of beers made us realize we might never exactly "fit in" in Sweden. But in our third year here, we have come to terms with being different.

How we learned to embrace our awkward existence as a multicultural family in Sweden
We'll never quite fit in here in Sweden, but that's okay. File photo: Clive Tompsett/imagebank.sweden.se

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As our first year in Sweden was coming to an end, our family went on a late-summer day trip to the country to explore a historic castle and nearby nature reserve. After a busy morning, a nice lunch, and some walking, we stopped at another restaurant just outside the nature reserve where there was a lovely terrace and a little playground. Walking out of the restaurant to find a place to sit on the terrace, I felt like all eyes were upon us. It was as if people had purposefully stopped enjoying their fika to stare at us as we walked past.

Naturally, I immediately wondered if we were somehow being obnoxious. Were we speaking too loudly? Was it that we were speaking in a combination of English and Spanish? Were our children – then three and five years old – misbehaving?

Any of these could have been true, but it was only after we sat down and began enjoying our drinks that I looked around and realized another, more likely reason: While all the other adults were enjoying a coffee, my husband and I each had a beer.

READ MORE BY VICTORIA MARTÍNEZ:

When the children had finished their snacks and run over to the playground, my husband and I discussed how what had been such a normal and typical part of leisure time when we had lived in Spain now seemed like a major cultural taboo, at least at that place and time.

Initially, it was discomforting. In some ways, it felt like we were doing something wrong. At the very least, we were a source of wonderment to those around us. I personally felt like I had when, as a pre-teen, my family moved from New Jersey to Texas, and I was faced with the challenge of finding a balance between being true to myself and adapting to fit in.

Of course, I had also been in a similar position when my husband and I moved to his native Spain. There, I not only had to adapt to Spanish culture while also maintaining parts of my own culture, but we as a couple had to blend our two cultures for our children. It wasn't always easy, and there were certainly occasions where our multiculturalism made us stand out in uncomfortable ways. But life in Sweden added a new twist to this situation.

Sweden was new to both of us, and our experience that day made us realize just how much we were going to have to learn about – and learn to fit comfortably into – its culture and traditions. As reasonable adults, we knew that we neither could nor had to abandon our multiculturalism, either as individuals or as a family. But we also knew that finding a balance for ourselves and our family – and helping to guide our children in their individual quests for balance – was now much more complex and would take time and effort to achieve.

LIFE IN SWEDEN:

Now in our third year in Sweden, we're still a work-in-progress, and I expect we always will be. We are far from being Swedish, of course, but then we are also not particularly American or Spanish, or even Spanish-American. Instead, our previous multiculturalism is becoming a new multiculturalism. The blend of customs and traditions we brought with us to Sweden is now blending with those we are discovering here, creating a unique and multifaceted existence that I quite like.

This is especially evident in our children, who are almost seamlessly combining their three cultures. I couldn't have felt prouder, for instance, when our six-year-old daughter helped a new girl at school who spoke only English by interpreting between her and their teachers and classmates. That she felt equally confident in both her American, English-speaking identity and her Swedish, Swedish-speaking identity, and was able to happily and productively blend them was inspiring.

Though my husband and I may never attain that same level of confidence or comfort, we are finding a balance for ourselves and our family. We have come a long way from the day when we and our beer stood out like a sore thumb among all the coffee-drinking Swedes at fika time. Not because we no longer do that (we most certainly do), but because we're comfortable with how we're adapting our existing habits and traditions with new ones.

I have no doubt that there are days where we blend in quite nicely here in Sweden, and others when we most certainly do not, and I'm perfectly okay with it both ways. I've come to realize that our multiculturalism will always be something that makes us “different”, no matter where we live. But, at the same time, it will also always be something that connects us to diverse and interesting people across countries and cultures. And that is worth a few long stares every now and then.

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.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

But the most common recurring story reflect Sweden’s longstanding guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
 
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
 
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
 
 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
 
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
 
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
 
Glad Påsk!
 
Midsommar drowning  
 
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
 
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
 
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
 
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.
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