Readers reveal: What’s it like moving overseas during a pandemic?

Readers reveal: What's it like moving overseas during a pandemic?
The Local spoke to four women who recently moved to Sweden to find out how the coronavirus affected their job and apartment searches and ability to settle in. File photo: Maskot/Folio/imagebank.sweden
Moving to a foreign country is a combination of excitement, stress, and careful planning at any time. The Local spoke to four women who relocated to Sweden very recently, to find out what it's like undertaking an overseas move during a pandemic.

Pearlyn, originally from Singapore, first began planning her move from Spain to Sweden in January after her husband found a job here. Even at this point, before the first cases had been confirmed in Europe, the coronavirus outbreak was on the couple's mind.

“During the time of our move, Singapore (and the rest of Asia) had already been badly hit. We were thankful to be in Europe then, little did we know that things would get so bad in Spain, where we moved from. To be honest, we were more afraid of being ostracised in Europe as we are Asians,” she comments.

In the early days of the outbreak, there were reports of racism towards Asian people in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe, while healthcare workers have also reported a “racist tendency” in the early calls about the coronavirus to helpline 1177.

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As the virus began its spread across Europe and lockdowns came into force in Spain and other countries, Pearlyn also began to worry her belongings might be delayed on the way to Sweden, or that they might struggle to find an apartment. Luckily, their shipment wasn't delayed, they found a new home, and enrolled their children in a school to start term in August — but the couple still face some practical challenges.

“The apartment is barely furnished and we are still living out of boxes. With no BankID yet, it's impossible to buy furniture online, which is a challenge during this period,” Pearlyn says, referring to Sweden's digital identification system used for online payments as well as verification with state authorities.

“We were looking forward to warmer weather to enjoy exploring the city and beyond, but that's shelved for now.”

 


File photo: Tove Freiij/imagebank.sweden.se

Making an international move at a time when people have been urged to stay at home more poses difficulties not only for settling in socially, but also adds to the bureaucratic hurdles and stress associated with a relocation, as Caitlin from Scotland found out.

“I was following both the UK and Swedish news every few hours to try and detect any sign that either country was about to close their borders. Once other countries started doing that I quickly changed my plans and left Scotland in a hurry. My main concerns were getting everything arranged in time, including moving most of my things to storage and leaving my job two weeks earlier than planned. It was a very stressful two days!”

“Then I went to the airport and was told at check-in that only Swedish nationals were allowed to fly. I called SAS myself and I believe they made calls on my behalf to the Swedish government and then to the staff at Edinburgh airport to confirm that I was allowed to fly. Everyone standing at the immigration counter was really happy for me and wished me luck, it was an amazing feeling of relief. Arriving at Stockholm airport was one of the best feelings I've had in my life.”


Caitlin. Photo: Private

“I'm doing well now I've been here for a month. I've applied for a personnummer and begun a distance Swedish course. I already knew some Swedish so I'm able to have simple conversations already luckily. I've met up with a few people to play music as well which was a big reason why I moved here, to play folkmusik. I can imagine it will make it harder to make friends initially as everyone is limiting their contact and many social events are cancelled but I can be patient!”

“I had visited Stockholm before and found it quite busy, touristy and I didn't like it quite so much. With the virus outbreak the city was much quieter and I found I could enjoy the city much more. In general I think it led to a little more of a shock as I had no time to really prepare for the move, but I'm an adventurous person so it was a good feeling too.” She has now moved to Gothenburg, where her new job is located.

Like Caitlin, Brazilian researcher Faye came up against difficulties actually carrying out the relocation, as well as with adjusting to working and living in a situation she never could have anticipated. She moved from Denmark to Sweden on Valentine's Day this year, to start work as a postdoctoral researcher in Uppsala. 

Faye says that when first planning the move, the coronavirus “felt like something that was happening far away”, but soon began to have an impact on the logistics of her move, and has led to severe disruption and uncertainty.

By early March, the researcher had moved to Sweden but her residence permit had not yet been approved. The Swedish Migration Agency told Faye she needed to leave the country temporarily for the permit to be processed, but couldn't tell her how long this would take.

“This was hugely stressful for many reasons, but the coronavirus situation made it worse because it limited the options of where I could go,” Faye explains. “I couldn't go back to Denmark because I had nowhere to stay there any more. And because of the coronavirus situation starting to get worse, I knew I should avoid going somewhere by plane, not just because I could get infected, but because the flights might be cancelled and airports closed before I got the chance to come back to Sweden.”

She declined an offer from her brother in southern Italy, worried that the situation there was fast escalating and fearing she would be unable to return to Sweden. Instead, she ended up driving to Oslo to stay with friends.

“It was there that the coronavirus first became a reality in day-to-day life,” she remembers. “People were already practicing social distancing by, for example, not hugging or shaking hands. One of my friends was self-quarantining 'just in case' because she had been in Tromsö where several planes with Italian tourists had been stranded by cancelled flights.”

Once she received her Swedish residence permit on March 10th, Faye headed back to Sweden as soon as she could, and has since begun work. 

“Living overseas right now is very strange. I don't yet know what is 'normal' life in Sweden. At my university, the orders are that we are to go to the office as normal unless we are sick or caring for someone sick at home. Still, the office is very quiet and most people are working from home. Planning my experiments has been a challenge because many things are delayed and many people are hesitant to start new studies or take on new responsibilities,” she explains.


Faye says the virus outbreak affected both the logistics of her move and her adjustment to her new job. Photo: Private

“On a personal level, life is also hard right now. I have been unable to make friends or socialise. My mother was supposed to visit me for Easter but her flights were cancelled and her holidays were also cancelled as she is a doctor in Brazil and the hospital needs all staff working. There is also the anxiety of knowing that if something happens to me or to someone in my family, I cannot go to them and they cannot come to me. It feels extremely isolating.”

For Kate, an Australian who moved to Sweden after nearly five years living in Thailand with her British partner, the move to Europe has brought her closer geographically to her in-laws and many friends — but she doesn't know when she'll be able to spend time with them. Planned weddings and other visits to family for the summer have now been cancelled, but in other ways she says the move actually went more smoothly than she thinks would have been the case otherwise.

Living in Asia, Kate had been aware of the virus for some time while planning her move, and was taking precautions to reduce her risk of catching it. She adds: “This was one of the biggest reasons we were excited to be departing Asia, along with the prevailing problems with pollution. We did not anticipate the swift and dramatic spread that Covid-19 would soon perform across Europe.”

“The escalation of the media coverage encouraged the move to happen a few days earlier than anticipated, due to the fear of closing borders, and because my partner had flown a week earlier than me due to work commitments. We did not want to be stuck on different continents.”

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“Booking the movers and other services was fairly easy because I suppose there was very low demand for moving while most people bunkered down. The Bangkok airport was an absolute ghost town, which actually made the trip easier because there weren't any queues,” adds Kate. “Airport staff were taking temperatures, and providing sanitiser and masks to everyone they saw. I was even able to use my airline points to upgrade my ticket last minute because Business class was practically empty.”

After three weeks in Stockholm, Kate has been spending her time looking (mostly online) for somewhere to live, and searching for a new job. 

“Because we had been travelling, we were very careful to stay in social isolation as much as possible upon arrival — and we still are. We also have a few friends already located here in Stockholm, which makes the sense of community a little greater for us. For now, we are safe and comfortable, riding this strange and unprecedented wave. Thankfully the Tax Agency and banks are still taking appointments and operating fairly efficiently so we are able to set ourselves up from that administrative perspective.”

But despite her relief at being able to go through with the move, some things are still on hold. The couple's shipment of belongings remains in Bangkok and recruitment processes for many companies have slowed down, affecting Kate's job hunt.

She's trying to remain optimistic, saying: “The most responsible thing we can all do right now is to do nothing — as much as we can. And with that in mind, it has been quite nice to spend some time alone together after such a busy period in our lives. Enjoying the empty Stockholm streets and parks in this stunning weather lately has been a very rare experience, at a safe social distance of course.”


File photo: Alexander Hall/imagebank.sweden.se

Kate said she was impressed by “the general social responsibility shown by the inhabitants of Stockholm, despite any government enforcement”, and this assessment was also shared by Caitlin from Scotland.

“Sweden seems to be taking a much more calm and systematic approach as opposed to simply making huge sweeping moves without really considering the impact they will cause. Also people in public are behaving more calmly. In Scotland before I left, I sneezed in a shop and everyone went silent and stared at me; when the same happened in a library in Sweden someone simply said 'prosit' and moved on. Sweden's approach is helping me stay calm about it too which I really appreciate,” said Caitlin.

But for both Faye and Pearlyn, the different approach in Sweden to the coronavirus has been harder to adjust to.

“I'm in touch with friends and family in several different countries and the differences are stark,” said Faye. “All my friends and family ask me how is it possible that Sweden is not reacting and they ask me to explain, but I honestly have no idea. I have read that one of the arguments is that Sweden doesn't have a culture of close contact anyways, that people don't kiss and hug and that families don't all live together in the same house, but the same can be said for Norway and Denmark.”

Pearlyn has also found herself comparing the situation in Sweden to the one she left behind in Spain. “While all my friends were stuck at home with a strict lockdown, we were completely unaffected, which worried us a little. There's still a sense of normalcy here. Shops and restaurants are still open, the field across our apartment is packed every evening with people playing football,” she explained.

“We are unable to understand why the government hasn't taken stricter measures as compared to the rest of other neighbours; maybe we haven't come round to understanding the Swedish culture, especially coming from Spain where there's little trust in the government.”


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