Sunday, October 30, 2011

Feeling at home in a suitcase

During a recent visit to Zoe's grandmother, it turned out that
she found herself more at home in our suitcase

Finding a home

Today, Mark, Zoe and I continued our Sunday pass time activity of looking for an apartment to buy in Stockholm. The place we live in now is temporary; it is owned by a very nice lady who has ME (a chronic tiredness disorder) who needed to get away from the dark and cold Stockholm autumn and is therefore kindly letting us stay here for a reasonable price. She is coming back in the end of December so we need to buy an apartment before then. The past two Sundays and on occasional weekday evenings we have looked at places around the area where we would like to live. The system here is that the apartments for sale keep an open house at a specific time during Sundays where potential buyers can come and take a look. I am not going to bore my reader with financial issues but one of our surprises have been just how expensive a cozy little two bedroom apartment can be if you want to live in a nice neighborhood with cafes around the corner and an appropriate train station within walking distance. Basically our dream place is about 700.000 SKR (the equivalent of 110.000 USD) more expensive than what we can afford. We have seen close to 20 places now, all just within our price range, some slightly above it, and so far there is only one that we really like, unfortunately it is slightly above our range, but we are considering bidding lower. It is not perfect but it encompasses minimalistic cosmopolitan living and has a really nice feel to it. And it has high ceilings. The latter has ended up being one of the most difficult things to find within our price range and within the area we want to live. I grew up in an apartment with high ceilings and it is the one thing that, if missing, makes me completely claustrophobic. High ceilings come in apartments built in the 1930s or before, the more modern complexes has much lower ceilings, often just 2.5 meters. But I am realizing that we might have to compromise somewhere. Perhaps size?

Zoe is enjoying the viewing, walking around opening cabinets and sitting on sofas. Today she made herself home in the bathroom of one place, inside the shower cabin where she enjoyed pulling the curtain back and forth until another viewer asked around if anyone were missing a child. I hadn't panicked yet, but had started looking for her, so I was grateful for the discovery and got her out of the bathroom with a few objections. When I asked Zoe if she would like to live in that apartment she shook her head and said "nooo". Yet another reject. Apartment hunting continues next Sunday.

Friday, October 28, 2011


Going from 'I think I am having a nervous breakdown' to 'this is tolerable', I am now slowly starting to enjoy the situation of being a temporary stay-at-home-mom. Especially because I have managed to get myself out of it for the most part. This week things finally came together a bit better and my upcoming weeks look something like this:

Monday is mommy-Zoe day; we go to the open preschool in the morning where I have met a couple of really nice parents that I talk to while Zoe meanders around by herself, playing, in this child-safe haven. I feed her a pre-lunch there and as I leave she falls asleep in her stroller, packed snug inside the stroller bag and several layers of clothing. I quickly find a cafe where I read an academic paper, check email or listen to an interview (research data). She wakes up 1 1/2 hour later, we go home and get some real lunch. If weather permits we go to the play ground and play and get home for dinner at 6pm.

Tuesday is babysitter day. Sasha is our new babysitter from England. She is very nice and had no clue what babysitters get paid here in Sweden so she asked for a ridiculously small amount per hour, which I had to add 10 Kr to in order to keep some sort of clean conscience about employing her, but she is a darling and Zoe and her get along really well. I go out between 10 and 3.30 pm where I get to work in a cafe. When I get home, weather permitting, I take Zoe to the playground.

Wednesday: repeat Monday, except I go to another open preschool where there are English speaking parents. In the afternoon I go to the gym where Zoe plays in the 'mini club'. I am very impressed that she doesn't mind being there considering she probably understands zero of the child-minders' Swedish. But as long there are toys, she seems happy.

Thursday: repeat Tuesday

Friday: I go to the gym in the morning and hand Zoe off to Mark who does a daddy afternoon (and works home in the morning). I go to a cafe with big candles in the window and where the owner serves cappuccinos with smiley faces. The cafe's lack of internet is also a bonus because it means I can only read and write, not surf.

All in all I get to do some work, stay on top of email and well, write a bit on this blog and stuff, while still pretending to be a stay-at-home-mom. This apparent comfortable situation of course didn't prevent me from calling up the daycare coordination office again last Wednesday, using a few key phrases such as 'I have to get back to work' and 'I was told my guarantee month was october', conveniently with a crying toddler in the background. The friendly operator (you never get to talk to the right people straight away, government services are like a secret society where you don't know the codes to get in or even find the right door) ensured me that somebody would call me back; however, I have yet to receive a phone call now Friday afternoon.

I want my daycare place now!
The most difficult part of my situation is of course still the lack of adult interaction, particularly interaction with like-minded colleagues. The research center where I am going to work is a good 45 minute commute away and I have therefore avoided going there, even when I have the babysitter. Six hours of child care can quickly turn into two hours of actual work if I spend 2 of them in transport and two of them setting up my desk. But the frightening notion that, right now, my most important quality is being able to coerce a toddler into wearing a snowsuit *before* we leave the house and get a stroller elegantly in and out of a bus, is gradually getting to me. Mark is being a star, cooking almost ever evening and complimenting me work-wise too ("Today I discovered that your X paper is now one of the most referenced papers in Y!" and "[colleague] tells me that he really enjoyed your last study of Z"). Yet, being without regular adult conversation is one of the things I can't live without and this is one of the reasons I was never meant to be a more steady stay-at-home-mom. So please, day-care people, call me back with some good news. Zoe and I are waiting by the phone.

Thursday, October 27, 2011


Yesterday I went to a different open preschool, one that the Australian mother had recommended and found her sitting at a table with the 6 month old sleeping in her arms and the 2 year old throwing food on the floor. She was friendly and had either not heard my accidentally rude comment from last time or pretended not to. She introduced me to other 'ex pats', an Irishman and an Englishman, whom I already plotted to befriend Mark. The conversation was typical of settled foreigners in a country: what are the cultural differences, what was awful about the country and what was good. I got to complain about how Swedes (and Scandinavians in general) don't look you in the eyes on the street or in shops, how they turn away and pretend not to see anyone else, and I learned that British men are generally more involved parents than Australian men. As much as she loved Sweden, still, the Australian woman would like to go back there to live again so they could have her parents look after the kids once in a while. I mentioned that we have a babysitter and she explained that she couldn't do that. The girls had never really been with anyone else, the only times her and her husband went out was when her parents were visiting from Australia. I tried to hide my chock and explained that that had never been an option for me. I cannot spend that much time with my adorable, wonderful daughter, I need me-time, work-time and Mark and I need us-time. She said that her girls simply didn't couldn't be with anyone else, no further explanation. I kept thinking I should feel lucky that I have always been able to leave Zoe with others. Sure it has sometimes been difficult, but I have never thought about not leaving her with babysitters. But in the end I felt lucky that I am a bit more realistic. Wanting to make such a bit move to have babysitters, is not realistic. I can understand being hesitant about leaving them with someone else but I believe it is necessary for both children and parents. Parents can only be good parents if they are happy in their own skin and get a bit of time off. And I truly believe that children will be just fine with other care-takers on occasion. On my way home with a sleeping Zoe in the stroller, I decided to offer to babysit her two girls next time I see her. She and her husband seriously needs a night out.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Playgrounds for the parents

Sweden has a reputation for high taxes and as much as I have yet to bring home a paycheck to witness this myself, I am increasingly getting a better understanding of where these go. Throughout the city there are publicly funded "open pre-schools" with teaching staff were parents can take their little ones for some socializing with other children and coffee drinking with other adults. They are not daycare as such but a place where the parents stay with the kids for a couple of hours. I knew about these public play groups from last year where I spent my early maternity leave in Stockholm, so the first weekday here I ran over to the closest one to get some adult interaction and for Zoe to see some actual toys (the one small bag of toys we brought with us, I forgot in New York, leaving her with a second-hand push-trolley from London, two dolls that her aunt gave her during her visit and the lego car her dad brought back from the US last week). True to my daughter's upbringing the thing she reached for as the first thing in this toy-heavenwas the giant plastic airplane. I helped her get it down from the shelf and for 10 minutes she was engulfed in putting little figures into the plane and taking them out again. I got to practice my Swedish but must admit I felt relieved when Zoe refused to stay in the circle of parents and babies when they started singing. Obviously also in Swedish.

This morning we went to another playground than the one two blocks from our apartment and I stumbled upon two English speaking moms. It was as if Zoe was gravitating towards them, reminding me that she does not understand a word of Swedish yet but must feel more comfortable hearing English. The moms had two girls each and they did not promote that whole big family very well. The American's oldest girl of 2 1/2 managed to take Zoe's purse out of her hands twice, making Zoe inconsolable and tempting me to wrestle it back with a vengeance. The Australian mother kept yelling at her older girl whenever the girl did something wrong, which obviously a 2 year old with a new little sister did a lot. I almost asked her how much time she spent only with her older daughter but realized that just because we immediately all bonded over the being foreigners in Sweden, she was not by best friend yet. Instead I accidentally thought aloud when they were about to leave and the older kid needed the bathroom *just* after she had been put in her snowsuit: "It must be so hard with two kids, this isn't a good example is it?" I could have bit my tongue but instead tried to cover up my unintended rudeness: "We all have our tough days, don't we?". The Australian seemed too caught up in trying to twist the kid out of the fluffy garments but then turned to me, handing over her 6 month old: "Can you hold her for a second?" I felt honored to be allowed to hold such precious little cargo and put her on my leg while kneeling down so Zoe could see her. The baby started crying a bit and Zoe went over, looking a bit puzzled. "There there", I said, padding the baby on her head and Zoe helped out. Together we comforted the baby and handed back a smiling girl when her mother returned. Perhaps I didn't make such a bad impression anyway. Perhaps this is a step in the right direction in terms of making friends. In any case I am going to be happy to pay my taxes.

Monday, October 17, 2011


Today I opened an account in my fourth country. On Wednesday I will then have debit and credit cards in 4 countries, Denmark, the UK, USA and Sweden. I also have personal security numbers in each country, which is necessary in order to get bank accounts in three of these (UK is an exception, instead they require a vast amount of paperwork including "proof of address", which usually presents a catch 22 of getting official letters sent to your address when you don't have an account yet). When I asked to apply for an actual credit card as well they questioned me if I really wanted that? Did I not just want a debit card? In the US they throw credit after you, continuously sending you offers for company affiliated credit cards where you earn points: frequent flyer miles, retail points and even coffee points. Here you don't get any points at all but instead a dirty look from your banker.

I am really looking forward to have an actual Swedish card to pay with in the shops. One of the major problems with having money and cards in 4 different countries is that you occasionally (well, often) have to pay with a card foreign to the country you are in. For US cards this is a challenge. On average they close off my card after about 6 transactions in another country. Then I have to call my US bank and tell them that I did indeed travel (like I do 5-8 times per year) and used my card in a foreign country. Then they lecture me that I need to call them up in advance and I agree, knowing that I am never going to do this because 1. between packing and planning a trip, who has the time to call your bank? 2. half the times they have not closed off at least one of my cards making payments perfectly possible. 3. Really? (Mark once had a rant at a banker over the phone questioning why they just couldn't write a note on our cards that we travel often.) But I guess if I had called them up this time I would have been spared the embarrassment of having both my US cards rejected while trying to explain in my broken Swedish that "US banks hates other countries and therefore closed off my cards" (that was as nuanced as I got). The 25 year old clueless store clerk just looked at me like I was the biggest crook trying to pay with cards with no credit. Or worse, cards that weren't mine. So I really look forward to have my own card, at least if that gets rejected it is because I am genuinely out of money and I can only blame myself.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Lost in Translation

The reader who knows me personally will know that Sweden was not my first choice in terms of country to live in. Instead it was chosen for me by some sort of twisted sense of humor, a joke probably only understandable to Danes (who always make fun of Sweden, the Swedish language and all things prohibited, like everything in Sweden). I have embraced the situation with my head held high and have gone through many tutoring hours (and a lot of money) to learn to speak Swedish. Yet being new at a language again is something I am not used to and find rather difficult. Like when at the playgroup yesterday where a woman I attempted to compliment for her shirt looked at me wide eyed, repeating her "what?" because I had clearly not pronounced 'shirt' correctly. I tried with a "not your dress but that one", pointing at her chest but that didn't go down well either. She snickered and I considered my friendship bid a failure. Luckily I later managed to strike up a conversation with an Irish dad feeding his 14 month old a jar of vegetable puree, still in Swedish, about sleep patterns and daycare. It turned out to be a match in heaven, he spoke slowly enough for me and was patient enough to wait for my corrections when I accidentally used a Danish or English word. The irony here of course being that the conversation would have been manyfold smoother if we had just switched to English. But we were both engaged foreigners in Sweden, doing what we can to fit in, even if that is speaking Swedish, just for the practice of it.

Mark tried to comfort me at home telling me that in 6 months I would be completely fluent and not worry about it anymore but I am not so sure. Right now I am in that frustrating state of wanting to make jokes, talk insiderish and just feeling that I belong, but not having the words for it. I find myself saying "jag är dansk", I am Danish, before people even say hello because I know that my accent is implacable, and I want them to understand the context. I want them to know that I am almost one of them, I just can't speak like them. And yet I know that I am not. My claim to be Danish is only a small part of me and it simply explains why I talk the way I do using odd old-fashioned words to a Swede, yet being fairly fluent in the Stockholm dialect. But I am a foreigner here, wondering why people don't hold the door, why they don't say hi when you enter a shop and why people drink so much coffee. They certainly wouldn't behave like that in my home country of America where I wonder why everyone pretend to be so happy and why the waitresses suck up to their guests in ways that seem almost inappropriate. Not like in Britain where their subdued friendliness has an edge of sarcasm to it, making servant/guest interactions   more sleek. Then I remember that I am not American, neither British but Scandinavian by birth and upbringing. But these days I am a foreigner everywhere I go.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Stay at home mom

This past Saturday we flew the two hour flight from London to Stockholm. Stockholm will be our home for a foreseeable future, not sure how long, not sure how short. Zoe made up for her crying on the plane from Copenhagen the week before by, hold on, sleeping the whole flight, even though it was not her naptime. She sat in her own seat (thanks SAS) between Mark and me, got a bottle for take off and leaned against me as the plane roamed into the air. She was asleep before even the flight attendants were allowed to stand up.

I have temporarily turned into a stay at home mom because we are waiting for the lovely affordable government subsidized daycare. When I called up the central daycare administration Monday they were very nice and told me I was number 47, but that I would have to talk to the local agency of my area. Another woman then called me up today and told me that 1) I would not be able to sign up before I had a person number (which takes 3 weeks from our in-person application that we did this Monday) and 2) that I had signed up in the wrong local area and would therefore be put in the back of the queue anyway, when I get my person number. Or more specifically Zoe's person number. I almost started crying. Holding back tears I said in my accented Swedish "But I need to go to work". I argued my case for a bit and after emphasizing that I had contacted them in February because I knew I was going to move to Stockholm and I knew that I needed daycare right away, the administrator softened. She promised to call my local daycare coordinator and tell her about the situation. "Sometimes things can happen quicker", she said almost as if she was providing me inside information, hinting at that magic that can happen if you play your cards right, even in the uptight bureaucracy of Sweden. I thanked her several times using words that were not normally used with official people here and hung up.

Non-Scandinavian readers might ask why I am not just getting a private child minder or even a part time nanny as we had in the US, so let me explain. Firstly, it is our aim to get Zoe into a daycare. I am a firm believer in daycare for children above 1 year and the quality here is high. Secondly, even a temporary private solution would be insanely expensive. Official prices of one-on-one childcare range from $30 per hour and up, almost twice what we paid in the US. This is the reason why private solutions to childcare do not really exist here, the quoted prices are for occasional babysitting, i.e. 1 day per week or evenings. So unless you have a grandmother who can look after the child for free you rely on the official channels here. Therefore I am a stay a stay at home mom at the moment.