Monday, September 23, 2013

An unreal life

Today I met a colleague for coffee, a professor affiliated my department, but whom I have only briefly interacted with before. In fact it turned out he did not know my history or how I had ended up in Sweden*. When he asked about an industrial research company in Denmark, I admitted that I had only ever gone to university there, most of my adulthood I have spent in the US and the UK. I laughingly said, "Unless you count waitressing in my early twenties, I have never held an actual job in Denmark". We continued talking and he again showed lack of knowledge in terms of my background by explaining that it can look good on your CV to have co-authored with a range of people. It was a well-intentioned piece of advice but also something I have been aware of for over 10 years and which is reflected in my list of publications. He continued: "I mean, if you want a career here in Sweden". I laughed again but bit my tongue and didn't say the obvious: "But I don't want that. I want to make sure I have a CV that can take me out of here again". This was when I realized that he had definitely did not know about my situation and in a way it was nice. I was a blank slate to him and could give a fresh impression.

But it also hit a nerve because it made me remember that people think I'm here because of a specific desire for me to be living in Sweden. I even try to convince myself occasionally that I want to be here. But with each weird encounter on the street, each experience with Swedish lack of ambitions in my research world, I am reminded that it was never my own self-motivated choice to move here. Fact is that since I never consciously decided to live here, I keep pretending I don't. My Swedish has not only deteriorated, I am also refusing to speak it now, except for ordering my morning latte. I find myself speaking English to people if I need something outside of work (at work I only speak English, per principle) and Danish if I need to have a short conversation (Danish and Swedish is close enough that most people can understand basics of the other language if spoken slowly and keywords are replaced). I pretend I don't belong in this society but that I'm here on short transit. Almost two years ago, I felt my life here was unreal, and honestly, it hasn't changed much since. I continue a narrative inside my head, expressing just how annoying Swedes are and how stupid things can be here. I count the number of Swedes that I really like at any given moment (three right now: a colleague who lives in the US, a friend who lives in the UK and my close collaborator and co-manager in my department; can't think of anybody else). Everybody else I tolerate, get along with, or they are foreigners like me. Because that's what happen when you live in a foreign country: You gravitate towards other foreigners and my closest friends here are not Swedish.

But it also motivates me to not give up. I have not given up on moving to a place where I really want to live, or a place where I can be closer to my family. In fact, some of my recent decisions in terms of work are not just to improve my immediate situation, but also for building up a springboard that can possibly take me away. And I really, really hope that my personal life will let me; however right now I'm here and I'm gonna make the best of it. Real or unreal.

*Note, that this is not a case of me imagining that I am terribly famous but more a reflection of my field (and I would say many academic fields) where a lot of us know one another and know about one another through colleagues. It largely comes from reading others' research papers and people moving research groups frequently.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Dancing in Swedish

Zoe has always loved dancing. Her first steps were moves to music and I remember her laugh as I did a few pirouettes in the kitchen when she was still a baby. She soon tried to imitate them. We dance together in the living room and it is no surprise that she loves it, because so did I. I told my mom I wanted to be a ballet dancer when I was 4. I took classes throughout my childhood, classic ballet, jazz, modern and then back to a few seasons' of classic as an adult. In fact, last time I took a course was when I was pregnant, proudly still jumping in week 27. I couldn't wait until she was two so I could take her to dance class. Last year we went every Sunday to a studio in Gamla Stan where a nice Romanian girl would make sure we all (because parents were dancing with the kids) were having a fun time with hola hoops, drums and most importantly moving our bodies to music. I followed Zoe's lead and quietly told her what the teacher said she should do. She picked most of it up herself through watching.

But the teacher left and I felt it was time to try another studio. I was looking around too late and several studios were already full. But one, which was on the same subway line, had a kids-dance class, one where the kids danced by themselves, with the parents on the side if needed. The season started last Sunday and Zoe and I went excitedly with great expectations, this time Zoe wearing her actual ballet dress and slippers that we had bought in New York.

Zoe trying her ballet outfit in the Capezzio
flagship store in New York
Zoe is a bit shy and I sat down with her at first, noticing that I was the only parent in the ring. The other parents were on the side, encouraging their little outgoing ones to stay and listen to the teacher. Who started talking. Fast and a lot. She was asking the kids questions. Explaining that they had to hold up their hand when their name was called. Asking what they thought their horse was called. Asking if it was a shark, a crocodile or a fish that was swimming in the water. In between there was some running around and jumping, but not much dancing. And a lot of questions that Zoe and even I had a hard time understanding. Zoe clung on to me and kept asking me to come dance, which I eventually did for most of the hour but not without being slightly annoyed that she couldn't do it on her own, as the only kid in the room. But I also know that she was extremely intimidated by the new situation and she kept asking me "mom, what is she saying, what is she saying?" I honestly didn't realize that Zoe knew so little Swedish but on the other hand I wasn't surprised. Her whole world is in English apart from my house and when we go to Denmark. She juggles two languages pretty well and is just now starting to understand the concept of different languages (although she often names them wrong). But Swedish is not one of them.

In the end I asked the teacher if we could switch to the earlier class where the kids dance with the adults. I probably offended her in the same breath by letting her know that, well there was a lot of talk in the class. Unfortunately it is the same teacher in the earlier class and I have to see how Zoe is dealing with it, or if we have to think of something completely different. Because while Swedish might be an option, dancing is not.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

What did you do at work today mom?

Like most evenings we were sitting down at our dining table in the large bay window, having dinner, Zoe and I. She was happily munching away on cucumbers and pasta when she asked "what did you do at work today mom?" I tried not to laugh because it sounded so much more grown up than her 3 year old self could contain, but I have heard her ask that a few times before, obviously modeled upon my eternal "what did you do in daycare today, Zoe?" Because she is 3 and have a hard time remembering even the smallest things from daycare on command, she most often says "I don't know". I then encourage her, or try to give her a "template" for conversation by telling her exactly what I did that day at work. It is an excellent exercise for me, and I believe for any adult, to try to condense and describe a workday so a 3-year old can understand. I often try to explain that I write articles so that others can read them, that I teach adults difficult things. She has been at my work several times so she has mental references to my office and my colleague who had to look after her once.

So when she asked this particular evening I tried to explain in a simplified way what had happened. "Well, I had a meeting with my boss. And he said he thought I should be in charge or more people. In fact he gave me a whole new type of job where I get to tell others what to do". Zoe seemed unimpressed. "I'll get more money", I explained and she lightened up. "Zoe want money too", she said and I laughingly promised her that we could go and buy her a present next weekend.

So there you have the big news. The head of department offered me the position as head of one of the sub-departments (our department is so large that it is divided into four, each the size of a small academic department). After a week of considering I accepted on several conditions (that shall remain unmentioned here). I was very surprised about the offer because our department is heavily 'old male' oriented to say the least but a colleague had put in a good word for me and I honestly think that it is a good idea to have some 'young fresh blood', seen from an objective perspective. From a management perspective, I am that. In fact I'm the only female in a leadership position there; oh wait, I'm one out of four or five female faculty members out of 50+. Well, that's natural science for you. After accepting I speed-read Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In and discovered that it is very much a book about leadership and I actually felt I could use a lot of her expertise and experiences. We will see how it goes, so far Zoe seems mainly excited about the doll-pram that she might be getting because of mom's new job.