Monday, March 12, 2012
Thursday, August 19, 2010
|Erik enjoying cafe in the town square|
My back tailbone was the first to hit, I think. I knew it hurt, but couldn’t figure out what happened. My flip flops were strewn like when you kick them off drunk after a good party and wake up to see them in odd directions on your living-room floor. All was quiet in my head and then as if blurred vision came into focus, I heard Erik screaming swear words and getting up a few feet away from me, covered in blood. I had blood on me and all over the camera, which was still in my hand. I couldn’t move and my back was killing me. Erik stood dripping blood with rocks embedded in his feet, knees, hands, and elbows.
|Waiting to be X-rayed|
|At home with my new boot|
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Monday, March 1, 2010
At 33, after 4 1/2 years of a long-distance relationship, and 7 years of a career in international women’s human rights, I decided to pick up my life and move to Sweden - the land my fiancé hails from (ironic, as I hate the cold).
The leaving process was a lot like a death. I was leaving the town I grew up in (minus 3-4 years living abroad during/after college). I was leaving my family - most of whom I could reach within 5 minutes driving. I was leaving my career, which up until I met my fiancé, was what I was married to. And, finally, I was leaving my friends. While most of my friends live all over the world, there are still a few in my home town who I remain very close to.
My heartache was indescribable. On the one hand I was going to live, full-time, with the love of my life. After years of plane trips, planning, and dreaming, we were finally going to be together permanently. On the other hand, I had to let go of the life I had built for myself. The process was like slowly ripping a bandaid off. Everyday we tugged at the edges a bit more. Until the departure day finally arrived.
Saying those goodbyes were by far, one of the hardest things I have ever done. Hugging my Grandmother who is 87 and feeling here soft hands in mine, telling my 10 year-old niece that I would always be there for her - even from a distance, holding my god(dess) daughter for the last time, leaving my office and colleagues after years of collectively working towards the fulfillment of women’s human rights, sharing last words with my family members and friends, and watching my lovely Rocky Mountains disappear behind us as we rode towards the horizon and the airport.
Our priorities and attachments change as we get older. While leaving my family when I was 19 to travel the globe was hard, it didn’t have the same impact that this goodbye did. Building homes and careers and watching elders in your family age or babies be born, makes the notion of leaving a bit less tangible. This move was no exception.
It’s a well-know fact that we are habitual creatures and become comfortable in our routines. We often spend years, or lifetimes, building our communities. We basically know where we are going at all times.
As a result of my career, I had traveled the globe, worked in war zones, been in bombings, escaped violent protests, and worked with some of the most incredible women human rights defenders in the world. Therefore, living in a new country should come easy to me. Learning a new language would be exciting. Rediscovering my talents would be rewarding. And making friends would be simple.
While all these new opportunities are blessings unto themselves, I somehow forget the important role my friends play in my daily life. Suddenly, after a more than full-time job and a busy social life, I was quiet. The buzz of life had crept to a whisper. And while I occupied my time with yoga, writing, walking and cooking, some moments required the warmth and ear of a good friend.
My partner is amazingly supportive and has made the move as painless as possible. He helped to ensure I had many things set up when I got here and was always willing to lend a hand or a shoulder to cry on. But, our partners cannot be the only ones we rely on. It is healthy to have friends outside our relationships, friends we can go crazy with, wear wigs with, dance our brains out with, geek out with and cry with. And while I still have many friends all over the world, I suddenly found myself alone in our apartment on many an afternoon.
I always prided myself on being a person who made friends easily, and not just acquaintances, but lifelong friends. However, the older I get, this seems to get harder for some reason. Maybe I’m just not that gregarious anymore. Or perhaps it’s the language barrier that makes me a bit skittish when approaching Swedish people for conversation. Or maybe it’s a daytime issue, sans alcohol?
All this got me thinking about how we make friends and how making friends is a lot like... dating. Unlike childhood, where school and activities produced the perfect friend-making environment, when you grow up your circles sometimes shrink as your routine may not force you to interact with new people. Or, as in my situation, you move halfway around the world, and need to build a new community. And this means you have to put yourself out there, much like you do when you are dating. In some ways, I was newly single again.
On the first day of my yoga class, I met a woman after class who struck up conversation in Swedish. We briefly chatted about the heat and intensity of the class. ‘Hej da’ (Goodbye) I said, as she left. I felt happy. It was a simple interaction, but it reminded me how important social interaction is. I wondered if this would be just an acquaintance or if she might become a friend. Much like dating, it’s hard to tell during those first few interactions.
As the weeks went on, I would see this woman at yoga from time to time. We would chat about small subjects, mostly yoga, and how we were doing. Slowly, the conversations broadened to include what we did outside of yoga, and then I mustered up the courage to ask her to ‘fika’ (coffee). And, similar to dating, I was nervous! Why I felt this way I have no idea, but I speculate that it is the uncomfortable feeling we get when we are in a new environment and unsure of the protocol for social interaction. Or, a bit like dating, we are unsure what the other person’s response will be. When does light conversation at yoga shift to coffee afterwards? Is it when you discover that you have more in common than yoga? Or does it shift when you recognize that you have discussed enough topics to render your interaction positive based on common interests? I remember feeling this way when I was dating. A bit unsure of what might happen when you cross the line from simple greetings to the next step in human connection.
On another day at the yoga studio (I know, I’m there all the time), a very gregarious, loud, man from the U.S. was sharing his thoughts with a fellow classmate. I was drawn to the familiarity of his outward nature (unlike most Swedish people) and his flamboyant presence. I missed my community and immediately had the urge to break into his conversation. His eagerness to almost shout about his boyfriend who won’t marry him, his bowel issues during the class, his contempt for the Swedish laundry system in apartment buildings, his lack of awareness of all people around him (or his desire for them all to hear), was so comfortable and homey to me. I realized, with horror, that I was missing that barbaric North American culture (not to be confused with the typical N. American tourist culture), on some surreal, and almost unrecognizable level.
As I listened on, he would occasionally glance at me smiling, as if he knew I was listening and liked it. I wanted to shout ‘Hey, you’re from San Francisco? I love San Francisco! I think the laundry system here is weird too!’ But, instead, I shrunk back into the couch. I realized that the woman he was talking to was his friend. I’m sure he already had a gaggle of friends, as it appeared he had been in Sweden for a while. When your friendship circles are overflowing, do you really want to invite a newbie into the picture? And, just like that, I felt like I was dating all over again. This time the scenario was similar to when you want to chat someone up, but they are with someone else and you aren’t sure if it’s their partner. Here this man was, talking to this woman, and instead of thinking ‘is that his partner?’, I was thinking ‘is that his friend?’. Was this like hitting on someone else’s friend? Was it poor form to slip my way into their established banter?
Would I come off as too eager, or even needy, if I interjected into his conversation purely because some cultural genetic link bound us in a filthy display of U.S. culture? Did I really want this guy, who was kind of obnoxious, as a friend? Or, was I just attracted to his very outspoken presence? Either way, it felt like I was on the prowl for a partner... and I quickly remembered how awful dating could be at times. At least this didn’t involve those ridiculously high-heels I used to wear.
With all the Facebook, Twitter, My Space, and Blogspot, social network mediums out there, have we lost our ability to make friends in person? Have we crawled so far down the tech tubes that we find ourselves living safely, albeit individualistically, in the web-womb? Has online dating, turned into online friending?
Does it take moving across the world to remember how, simple comments/exchanges, can lead to lasting friendships? Or has the vulnerability of real life become too hard to swallow now that we live so virtually? As hard as it is, I prefer the uncomfortable and often awkward moments that signify the sparks of in-person friendship, over the profile proselytizing that has become the modern online community. While putting myself ‘out there’ again feels a bit like being on the prowl, at least I know I can still ask someone to ‘fika’ and live to tell the tale. And maybe, I'll even find friends to 'wig' out with here in Stockholm.
Tuesday, February 16, 2010
On the day we arrived in Sweden, Erik and I walked jet-lagged around the neighborhood. I swayed this way and that - still fresh from the long journey. I instinctively crept towards the walls of buildings, that way if I slipped on the sheer ice that is Stockholm sidewalks, I would have the walls to crash into. Little did I know, this was the most dangerous instinct I have ever had.
Erik tugged my mitten-clad hand and informed me of the sign up ahead: ‘Risk för snöras, istappar.’ The sign had an image that reminded me of meteors headed towards earth. In my mind I understood the Swedish to read ‘risk for snoring monsters shaped like meteors that could fall from the sky’. Um, no. This, Erik alerted me, was a warning for falling icicles. I giggled a bit at the concept and the hilarity of his concern, but when I saw he was serious I composed myself and listened on. Apparently these ice daggers are really dangerous and, have been known to kill people! I quickly moved away from the inner sidewalk and sidled up to the curb towards the street. My giggles packed tightly away in my mittens.
Strangely, after visiting Sweden for over 4 1/2 years, I had never really noticed these signs. Perhaps because we were living in the suburbs at the time. Now that Erik had pointed them out, I suddenly saw them everywhere. There was no escaping them. My walking habits immediately changed. Now I couldn’t walk anywhere without being conscious of what might pierce my brain as I strolled Stockholm’s streets. I now swerved and swayed to avoid the ‘istappar’ danger. I imagined what it would be like to be killed by a falling icicle. Not pleasant, I decided. And so, whenever I saw death’s warning, I would crook my neck up, and peer at the huge icicles that seemed to be just waiting for me to walk by so that they could come undone.
‘How do Swedish people deal with this impending death threat?’ I thought to myself. And quickly, as the winter days continued, I learned that there is a whole mechanism within Swedish society for handling the foreboding crystalized daggers.
During my second or third week in Sweden I noticed men on the roofs of buildings and cordoned-off areas on the sidewalk and streets below them. What were these guys doing on the top of these enormously high buildings? You guessed it. Their job is to break down the icicles! To prevent death before it kills you. As soon as I realized what was going on, I had a million questions: Do you grow up knowing you want to be an icicle handler? How do they keep track of all the icicles in the city? Once knocked down, how long before the icicles grow back? How many icicle handlers are there in Stockholm? Does this country seriously pay people to climb up roofs and knock down icicles? What do the icicle handlers do in the summer?
Like the other city employees who keep things running smoothly, such as bus drivers, trash collectors, and sidewalk shovelers (at least in Sweden), the icicle handlers are a part of a well-oiled, albeit strange, machine that keeps Stockholm’s streets safe. These guys (haven’t seen any women up there) are on ice-laden roofs, suspended by harnesses, edging along slowly and, knocking the icicles down and dashing all hopes the icicle may have had of killing you.
Suddenly, the streets felt a bit more sane. And then it happened: as I approached the back exit of our building, to head to the laundry rooms, I saw the ‘istappar’ warning sign. It was literally right in front of the door. ‘Is this some kind of joke?’ I thought to myself. I mean seriously, how can you avoid the ‘istappar’ if you have to walk directly under it? What was the point of having the warning sign right there? Why not just knock the icicle down? I didn’t know what to do. Did this mean I wasn’t supposed to use this exit? Wouldn’t there be a sign if that was the case? How else would I reach the laundry rooms? In the U.S. I at least knew I could sue someone for this type of reckless abandon of reason, but here in Sweden, they actually trusted people to take care of themselves!!
I decided I had to risk it, for the good of clean clothes everywhere. So I bolted out the door, praying that my head would be spared by the icicle goddesses. And it was. But, every time I had to go in and out of that door, I ran as quick as I could, my heart beating fast. I’m sure the Swedes who saw me thought I was crazy. After a few days of this cat and mouse game, I noticed something a bit scary. Right outside the door was the remains of a giant icicle. It’s huge body, bent and broken, lay strewn across the threshold. It had fallen!! ‘It could have killed me’, I thought. And again was faced with whether to go out the door or not. I conquered my fears, but felt a pang in my heart, as I burst through the exit hoping I would be spared.
Then, yesterday, the sign was missing. I crept out the door, peering up before my usual lunge past the danger zone. To my surprise, all the icicles were gone! Yes, the building grounds keepers had taken them away! Thank goodness too, for just the other day I read an article about a woman who was hit in the head by a huge falling chunk of ice! She almost died (see photo below).
I still don’t know how the icicle handlers track the elusive icicle, but I am thankful that this odd, yet functioning, Swedish mechanism works. While death often comes without warning, this is one warning sign I’m going to pay attention to. So, if you ever decide to visit Sweden in the winter don’t forget to watch for the signs: ‘Risk för snöras, istappar.’ They may just save your life.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
In early 2010, the world's largest coffee chain will invade Sweden. At Arlanda airport there is a huge advertisement for the notorious coffee monopoly that will, for now, be confined to the airport. It’s a great idea right? Because what any healthy country needs is a 3,000-calorie, mocha, caramel, dolce, triple-shot, 1/2 caf, frappuccino. Aside from the sub-par coffee and obesity enhancing ‘Venti’ options disguised as ‘cafe’, Starbucks represents the destruction of a European landmark: the locally owned neighborhood coffee shop.
But my concern goes beyond the loss of coffee-shop culture. It stems from the deep respect I have for the precious commodity that is Swedish culture - in all its vastness and glory. A healthy diet made up of fish, potatoes and vegetables is quickly being replaced by Big Macs and super-sized fries. In a culture where going out to eat is a fairly recent development due to high prices at restaurants, cheap imported fast food has produced an appealing alternative. Small, light, meals are being substituted with U.S. sized portions loaded with trans fats. As my bus rolls by the McDonalds in Slussen, slim, milky, Swedish faces stare out the windows as they push the burgers and fries into their mouths. How long will it be until the obesity epidemic that has ravaged the U.S. destroys the healthy balance of Swedish diets?
It’s not just a concern for coffee shops and healthy diets. What happens to a progressive and healthy society when other cultures are express shipped into their living rooms? The more quick fix, body perfect, skin-injected, happy meal lifestyle has arrived in Sweden, and it scares me.
In the Hötorget area of Stockholm, American Apparel (AA), a modern U.S. company that touts it’s ‘non-sweatshop, prime, working standards’, but that simultaneously degrades women in a way that takes us back to the beginning of gender equality arguments, has become a hip and trendy place to purchase - thong unitards, among other trashy throwbacks. In an ‘art house’/soft porn marketing campaign (which they describe as ‘provocative’), AA has found a way to bring porn (of young emaciated girls who are barely women) into our neighborhoods, with huge billboards of the scantily clad stick-thin girls in degrading poses. We are taught to believe this is appropriate and sexy. And while Swedish women appear less affected by image/diet campaigns (in part because the obesity rate is non-existent compared with that of the U.S.), I presume it isn’t long until teenage girls here begin to starve themselves or vomit up their McDonalds. Worse, when you walk the area of Stureplan, you can see the results of ad campaigns like AA’s. With young girls looking more like they are working the streets, rather than walking them. Women, even after all the work we have done to be seen as more than objectified Barbie dolls, seem to have fallen trap to an unrealistic ideology: deadly skinny, questionably young and, totally vulnerable, is what men want (this is of course addressing a hetero-normative scenario). Paying big bucks, or kronor, to look that way, is the logical next step. Botox recently made it to the mainstream newspaper here with a huge article on its popularity in Stockholm. Unfortunately, Sweden is not immune.
The juxtaposition: Walking by the AA store in Hötorget is a man pushing a double baby stroller/trolly in the middle of the day. He is a Swedish male, probably in his early to mid thirties. His two kids, aged around 1 1/2 and 4, are with their father because he has ‘Pappaledighet’ (paternity leave) or is a stay at home dad. In Sweden, a couple can take up to 13 months off work between them, with the state paying 80% of lost wages up to a ceiling of SKr24,562 ($3,425) a month. A further 90 days can be taken for a token sum. The leave can be used in a block, or taken in batches before the child is eight. (The Economist, January 2004). What this means is that fathering (more than diaper duty some nights) is an integral part of Swedish culture, a phenomena that I was struck by when I first began visiting Sweden. You see them all over, fathers parenting, and not just for a few hours. You find them on the bus, lugging a huge stroller and calming unsettled little ones. You see them wiping their noses, and teaching them new words. Mid-day, you can find them in the grocery store, pushing the kiddos around, doing the household shopping. Changing diapers, wiping spit-up, calming cries, and teaching children about life, is all part of their gender equitable job description as a father. How does this very important human aspect of being parented fully, affect a society? Are Swedish children who are parented by both parents equally more adjusted, healthier, etc.? Is gender equality more attainable because of this norm?
It’s amazing how culture shocked I was by this when I first came to Sweden. In the U.S. it is not as common. And, although there is an increase in stay-at-home fathers in the U.S., we are a far cry from paternity leave, or from leaves that extend over a period of 13 months. In the U.S., if you’re lucky, a parent can take 2 months off (usually the mother). Sadly this leave is often referred to as ‘Short-Term Disability Leave.’ Interesting to say the least. To be fair, though sadly noted, Sweden is not perfect either. Although they have one of the few, if not the only, paternity leaves in the world, too small a percentage of fathers take it. Admittedly, there is still work to do, however it is clear they have taken the lead internationally. And from what my eyes see daily - this should be recognized and commended.
As this culture shift (that started in 1974) towards paternity equality grows, how will it be affected by the import of U.S. imperialism? Is it just a matter of time before we reverse the progressive outcomes of Sweden’s hip and forward-thinking social democracy? Can Sweden survive McDonalds and stay fit and healthy? Will they continue to ‘fika’ (have afternoon coffee and treats - a national pastime) at local shops with homemade goodies? Will women develop the deep insecurities that plague adolescent girls in the U.S.? Perhaps the scariest question of them all is whether men in Sweden will continue to father in a way that trumps fathering in the rest of the world? Will Sweden’s progress be reversed by the globalized pornification of, *gasp*, U.S. culture?
Is it just me and my newly-arrived eyes that see a demise of cultural genius? Or, can we truthfully link the arrival of Strarbucks and other U.S. cultural icons, with the potential downfall of fatherhood? You decide.