Monday, March 13, 2017

Hello, Again. Again.

Sometimes I will go months without writing here on my blog (or anywhere at all) and when I try to do so I make several failed attempts that feel self conscious and awkward, like shyly trying to re-approach someone after a long time apart. I'm not sure of what to say, or how to act. I read back over old posts and think that it was something really nice, and then this compounds the problem- I have written all the nice things I will ever write. I am out of it. My interesting is gone. What is there left to say?

In that vein, I just spent about an hour sifting through half written essays, notes, stories, lists, travel journals, and half baked posts, having never gone back and done so, really, in the entire time I have been keeping such little digital scraps, which is about as long as I have been living overseas. The sheer amount of almost realized communication is staggering. I am even more shocked at how much of it I had absolutely forgotten, right up until that moment my gaze was sliding across the words reminding me that yes, this happened, yes, you did that, yes, remember you meant to write about ___________?

The one that really made me wince, the part that stopped me in my nostalgic wandering tracks and dropped me straight onto this waiting white page, was a post about this time two years ago, when I was finishing my thesis. I was bemoaning how all I had been doing for months was writing, but all I wanted to do was write, and could not.

It’s Friday night, and I was supposed to sit down, once more, with all of that data and start writing a story out of it: identifying themes, sketching out categories, separating and copy pasting and research marking and citing and connecting. I was supposed to prepare it to be grafted seamlessly onto what I’ve already done, so it is accepted and works well together and fills in another blank in this big project that I’ve come to see as so many seemingly endless blank squares that I am slowly filling in, tiny black letter by single keystroke by citation by article, a meditative inch by inch belly crawl through this last long stretch of requirements before I get my degree in hand.

Instead, I sat down and wrote this. This that means nothing other than a representation of what is in my head, when what should be in my head is research and facts and Chap 4 rough drafts and Chapter 2 reworking and formatting tables and figuring out how to make Excel do what I need it to do.

This feeling is familiar, still. I still have not found a way to fix it.

For the past two months, all I have been doing is writing, non-stop, in every single spare second I could wring from my weeks and take from weekend after weekend. But it has only been writing all over my students' writing- comments, feedback, paragraphs of advice and restructuring and help. For weeks on end, I spent an average of 20 hours a week writing, writing, and writing more, all over all of their writing. The last thing I wanted to do after analyzing others' writing for hours was sit down and pour out and pore over my own. Why look at a screen for another single second? And in case you think to suggest, so helpfully, dear reader, I could just embrace handwriting- no, no, because that, too, I have been doing for hours, adding my own scrawling notes to their handwritten exams.

Today on the bus it occurred to me that I have noticed I get more done the more I have to do, and this is generally true. I can be fantastically, outrageously, super humanly productive, packing my days full from morning to night with a variety of responsibilities, activities, and various jobs for weeks, months, and sometimes, in the case of full time work and full time university studies, years.

And yet, when I reflect on that productivity, it never applies to my creative endeavors. It does, thankfully, apply to personal hobbies like working out, being social, volunteering, and being politically active- but writing? Do I guard it with the same fierce vengeance I reserve for getting all my grading and comments done on time, or ensuring I make all my meetings, or registering people to vote, or cleaning my house every Sunday, or keeping up my training and silks?

No. Every time, no. I don't know why, but it is always the first thing to go.

It makes me disappointed in myself that I will diligently work for an extra 20 hours a week at my job, because of their external and arbitrary deadlines, but I will not afford writing the same respect from myself, to myself, to impose diligent, consistent, hours of work here. I will berate myself for not answering an e-mail within a few hours, but I will type up a heartfelt memory of a trip or a person or a moment and want to expand that into a piece of writing that preserves moments of my one and only human life, and then I will let that waste in a Word document in Google drive for two years and not even remember what I wanted to do with it until I happen across it and am startled with how far away that strength of a recollection feels now.

I just turned over another year living overseas- 5 now, to be exact- and I am not interested in racking up another year of untold stories and unrealized plots or unexamined experiences. For the foreseeable future, this space will become a strange accordion time warp of present ramblings and random pin points in my recent past, hopping from year to year and month to month within this half decade of time I have spent wandering the earth with everything I own in my hands and on my back. I am not sure where all of this writing will be going, or what I am doing with it, but I want to go somewhere, and do something. Even if all I am doing is showing reverence for my own life by taking the time and space to reflect on it, craft it into a story, and pin it down on a page so that I can go back and learn from it and enjoy it again, that's enough. It doesn't have to be a book. It doesn't have to be worth anything to anyone but me. But it has to be worth enough to me to give it the time I do think it deserves, because when I read back on past posts or journals, every single time, without fail, I think to myself how glad I am that I wrote that down.





Tuesday, January 17, 2017

One Year in Sweden

I wrote this in September. I still feel this way, so here it is in January, roundabout my first anniversary here in Sweden.



It is September in Sweden and the sun is still shining. I have never had a September in Sweden, so this comes as a welcome and pleasant surprise (I had imagined far worse in terms of light and cold). I have spent the first few weeks of school in a comfort and confidence I was not sure I would ever have when I was in the throes of setting up a life here last winter. I just finished a day at work in which I could feel the arc of time and history in a space wrapping around me: the familiarity of a lesson I taught last year, and improved upon; the return of students from last year’s graduating class; the last class photo my mentor group will take before they, too, graduate; a conversation held in the Swedish I have so relentlessly pursued in spite of how “impractical” learning it might be. I have a past here now, however short, however small. It is mine and it is also shared with everything and everyone here that helped build it. It is a reference point, a place to retreat in nostalgia, a thing to hold in the hands of my memory and say this is what My Life in Sweden looks like. 

Last January I arrived in Stockholm on a train after a whirlwind final journey through the last parts of voluntary unemployment and homelessness. I had gotten very good at the uncertainty of traveling with all my life on my back- no plans, no security, no guarantees. I had worked, hard, at the job of unraveling all my superficial expectations of what Success looked like, or what I should Own, or Be. I had fully embraced the ramble, the stray cat summer turned fall and winter and into a new year, all the fuzzy timelines and meandering routes and even, yes, the terror of the change jingling echoes in my bank account. All of it. I had accomplished what I set out to do when, in Laos, I was counting down to my last week of gainful employment and schedules and clarity. 



The problem, then, became trading in the pattern of unpredictability for the steady state routine of work and life and an apartment, and here came the psychological way station. It was no longer necessary to be good at being, by all accounts, something of a failure in terms of traditional values of shaping a life, because I no longer needed to be- look, a job! Behold, an apartment! My God, pay checks and upward account balances! But at the same time, I wasn’t good at all in this new life yet. It wasn’t just the abrupt change in lifestyle that was hard to adjust to, it was everything all at once. I had never started a teaching position in the middle of the year, I had never taught IB, and I had never had to navigate intricate Western bureaucracy as an immigrant. Add on a nice layer of illness and a general apathy towards Sweden as a host country (the excitement of Laos and Albania is hard to compete with) and I found myself in a place where I had let go of one rope before I had the other firmly grasped. I fell into the mire. It was rough going. To trudge through the mire, and look back on seven months of exhilarating, terrifying, life changing travel experiences and freedom, was no easy task. I imagined quitting and running away to the Balkans. Clearly, I did not quit and run away to the Balkans, and I am glad I didn’t.

But for real, this time last year I was daydreaming about any of these dots as a place to land...


I am so often stressing to my students the importance of context. We analyse how this shapes meaning and experience, and how much it can fundamentally alter even things we think have intrinsic value or meaning. When I was in this way station winter in Stockholm last year, I found it hard to get a context wrapped around myself, to latch on to references for even the most basic things- what is a friendship? What does family mean and who am I in mine if I am not there? What does it mean to value your job? What do I value in my day to day life? What do I want to spend my time on? What am I saving money for? What are my goals here in Sweden? Why am I here? The last was asked over and over again. 

I was, for the first time since those hellish years of full time work and full time college, reduced to subsistence living- just get through the days. Just make it through the week. The pile of work prevented me from merging my life with Sweden, from having as many social connections as I needed, from spending as much time on my hobbies and exercise. I bitterly joked that I felt like I was on a work release program. I felt more truly like an immigrant than I have ever before, culture shocked and questioning, and I felt less connected to the adventure of overseas life, which is why I do this at all. I ended up having some wracking crises of identity and purpose that hit me hard. I have never had an experience quite like it, but at the same time, being able to say that exact phrase is perhaps one of the most valuable things to me in how I approach life, so I am still grateful for it.

I remember this day in April in a visceral way- it was the first time I had a breather from work, the sun was coming back, and I finally had a real opportunity to sit and reflect on where I was, and if I wanted to stay.

Towards the end of last year, when the sun came out, things brightened up literally and figuratively. I ended the year happy and satisfied with how well I had done, all things considered. But it took this year, a retracing of steps, a walk down familiar paths, to show me just how far I had really come since January- walking back on myself in a circle felt like catapulting forward. I simply needed a context. I needed some repetition to gently remind me, more than once, that I had a place here, a place that was worthy of giving up my freedom and unemployed traveling for. When I came back in August I found familiarity in the most surprising of places, from the workers at the coffeeshop who remembered me to the dance studio where I worked to reconnecting with and deepening prior friendships with people who so graciously welcomed me into their lives last winter.

The experience of traveling with fundamental trust that everything would work out profoundly changed me. I have written at length here about how much I have come to cherish the benevolence of my random experiences, how people come out of nowhere to help, or situations arrange in such wonderfully lucky ways. I had 7 months of shamelessly throwing myself on the mercy of whatever came my way, and I was over and over again blown away with the results. But this was followed immediately after by such a hard transition to Sweden, which was followed immediately after with returning to Texas for the first time in two years. I am realising, now, as I enjoy the comfort of context here in Sweden, just how context-less I am when I go home to Texas- in general, but especially this last time. Usually when I have returned home it is after a year in a new place, plenty of time to feel firmly rooted. This time I slipped out of Sweden right as I found my feet, so again, I was in the way station- not fully realising my place in Sweden, and going home to Texas without a place there, either. 

But I never forget how to eat like a girl from the South...


In Japan or Albania or Laos or Sweden I have had rewarding, challenging, and interesting jobs that give me fundamental meaning in my life. I have diverse relationships with myriads of students who enrich my life. I am surrounded by a constant barrage of cultural experiences that challenge me, that stretch me, that are sometimes painful and awkward but important and deeply valuable to me. I am independent, living alone in all four countries, with my own transportation or access to excellent transportation. I have a lively and social group of friends who share  my lifestyle and experiences as immigrants, who enjoy uprooting and moving from country to country, who deeply understand the challenges and opportunities. I have hobbies and creative outlets and little routines and gym memberships and local causes. I have an entire rich and vibrant bursting life, complex and complicated and, for me, deeply fulfilling and meaningful because it is hard, challenging, and sometimes terrifying.

And then I get on a plane, and I go home, and all of that is left behind in whatever country I am living in at the time. I slide out of that life and leave it running, humming in the back ground, as I move further and further away, towards my old home. I get off the plane, and I have no material belongings save whatever is in my bag. I am sleeping on couches or spare bedrooms, working around others work schedules since I have day after day of summer break free time. I am coming back to the culture shock that is America after living in another country for years. I have my friends and family who love me and take me in and host me and it is so good to see them, but they don’t know the people in my life who have sustained me day in and day out for the previous years- the people who saw me through sicknesses and outrageous experiences or triumphs or failures. These people that mean so much to me, they are unknown to the people at home who also mean so much to me. It is a strange feeling to see your cousins again for the first time after your grandmother died and realise that they might never meet the compassionate circle of friends who held you as you cried over death and worked through grief. They might not know the names of those who whisked you away for the weekend and floated with you down a river under a blazing SE Asian sun while you were immersed in sadness and so far away from home. My entire current emotional life is left humming and thumping behind, bound up in these wonderful people who are my day to day support and networks, these thriving communities who have never met my family back home, who might never meet my college friends, who have only known me in the context of our shared life in whichever country where we met.

Because of this, I feel like entire years of my life just cease to exist when I go home, simply because the people and places and schools and students and experiences and values and goals of my daily life are unknown in the context of my home country. I feel, fundamentally, without a reference point or a touchstone. I feel, frantically, that I must either try to communicate all of it while also trying to see everyone as much as possible, or that I must just accept that it is impossible to communicate and then I struggle with feeling like I am reduced to being Cortney From Seven Years Ago, a person I am not, inhabiting Cortney’s Life from Seven Years Ago, a place I left for a reason. I want to connect so I reach far back in the depths of history for the point in time when I lived in Texas last- 2010. A long time ago. So then I occupy the past, which is now where I am and also not where my loved ones are anymore, anyway. This creates a warped feeling to all my interactions, like I am wearing a too small suit of the person I used to be, stripped of all meaning or reference, trying to connect through distorted mirrors with people from home- people who have also changed. 

Traveling back to Texas from Colorado- the beginning of what I did not know would be several years of traveling back to Texas for visits, but not to stay. 


Weeks into the visit, I find myself uncomfortably wishing I could just go home to my own apartment-life-job, not in Sweden, but in Texas, a magically instant life situation I could pop up and inhabit for comfort. I am essentially wishing for a distance within the intimacy of the visit, so that in some way I can assert that I am myself, independent, with a Real Life, not just a person who comes home with a bag and needs a place to sleep and doesn’t work over the summer. So even though I am content in Sweden (or Albania or Laos or Japan or even Colorado), I start wanting a different reality in Texas simply so that I can feel like a real person there and have authentic interactions with my family and friends. I don’t actually want a job and an apartment in Texas right now, or else clearly I wouldn’t be living in Sweden…but when I am home in Texas, I desperately want those things for context, so I can have relationships as Me, Cortney from Now, not a constructed narrative of a person patched together from postcards and Skype conversations and google voice calls layered over memories that are almost a decade old. 

It feels a bit like this.


This leads me to the inevitable- yes, of course, I did this to myself. Yes, I decided to leave. Yes, yes, yes. But what I am realising now is that if I am going to continue to enjoy this lifestyle I just have to let go of the need to have the life it has given me be fully understood or intimately known. I have to find a way to more comfortably interact with the strange experience that is going home. The truth is it goes both ways- I don’t fully understand or intimately know the daily life of my friends and family back home, either. This is a fundamental fact of living so far away, and it is a reality I have to accept in my current situation. Where I get stuck is thinking I can have both- my rich, full, meaningful life abroad, as well as a rich, full, meaningful life in Texas. I simply can’t. It isn’t good or bad, but it is. And at this point, I value so much my current experiences that I am willing to look this realisation in the face and say that for now, and for however long from now, I am without a present day context in my home country. I don’t know for how long that will last, but it’s real and wishing it away doesn’t change it. I am not a part of the daily rhythms there, and it is as absurd to expect to feel knitted into Texas daily life as it would be for me to expect my friends back home to feel knitted into Swedish daily life.

There is no life you can create that doesn’t have downsides. From being married or single, having children to being child free, choosing a certain career over another, valuing certain things over other things- nothing is without loss. We cannot have it all, we cannot even have close to a fraction of all of it. But the responsibility I bear is to own up to all of the consequences of my choices-not just the exhilarating, otherworldly satisfaction I experience when I throw myself into new places and succeed, or the abundance of growth I have known from that, or the friendships I have built in strange situations that have sustained me on a constant basis for years overseas, but also the fact that I do not live in Texas. I made a choice not to live in Texas before I even left America, when I moved to Colorado. And I made that choice, initially, with a naïveté that I could, through dedicated phone calls or postcards or FB interactions, maintain just as vibrant and complex a life in Texas as I have built here even though I am here and not there. And I simply can’t do it, it is impossible. No one could- proximity is an important feature for complex and close relationships that are informed by up to date information and interaction. And that has to be okay if I am going to continue to reap the benefits of the life I am so very proud of having pursued, this life of uncertainty and struggle and confusion and constantly kicking through the sandcastles of a routine to rebuild from the gritty wet foundation again. I want this life in a way I fought for and chose over and over again- this takes getting up every day and deciding I want it, with all the chaos it gives me. And I do want it, more than I want any other option. Nothing gives me more of what I need than this, and because that is true, I can’t greedily demand things from other places, too. 

I have a history in Texas, which is decades long, longer than any relationship I have made overseas, and that carries its own security. I might not have context there in the present moment, but history there means that I have people at home who have known me for years through good times and bad, who have seen me from childhood to now, and who always welcome me back with open arms when I come home. The fact that I have that to return to, and I have this current life of change and adventure and travel and learning to inhabit here, is luck of fantastic proportions. 


My past is my past, and it is never going to go away. My family and friends and Texas knew me and had me and loved me for almost 27 years before I left, just as I had and loved them. For the time being, that has to be enough, because I cannot do anything other than what I am doing right now. I have never felt more fulfilled, challenged, and expanded. I have never felt more free of anxiety and panic. I have never known how brave I could be, or how strong. I want to know more of those kinds of feelings, however difficult they are to come by, and however much I might have to acknowledge that in my pursuit of self fulfilment I have sacrificed, in some way, the right I have to feel deeply and intricately connected back home. I know I can always go back home, and that the history I have there is deep. For now I want to inhabit this rambling present and an uncertain future, and from here on forward I will work to embrace more honestly what that entails, in a way that honors my current reality and is understanding of the expectations I put on myself and others. I have a context, specific to where I am now. That is exactly right, and exactly where it should be. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Notes from My Socialist Hellhole: Healthcare

We just wanna go our own way,y'all. 


By the time I had lived in Sweden for only two months, I had gone to a women’s health office, the normal doctor’s office, an emergency dentist, the normal dentist, the emergency room, and the weekend urgent care clinic. Aside from having a surgery or cancer or intensive rehabilitative care after a catastrophic accident (no, really, universe, I can do without that) I have already experienced every aspect of the Swedish healthcare system.

Seeing as how many people are concerned about what might happen if America adopted similar socialised medicine to Scandinavian countries like Sweden, I thought I would let y’all know my firsthand experiences (spoiler alert- they were all great).

First off, as a worker in Sweden I am treated exactly like a Swedish citizen in terms of all social benefits. There is nothing a Swedish citizen receives that I do not receive. I was given a Tax ID number as well as what is called a “personnummer”, which is basically the equivalent of the American Social Security number. This personnummer and all my relevant information are stored in a main database. This database is accessible by every single health care provider and pharmacy. This means that anywhere in Sweden- if I show up to an ER in the south, or a doctor’s office in the north- I have a complete and accessible medical record. It also means I can fill a prescription at any pharmacy in the country, because they will have my prescription from my doctor.

As to payment: you pay 200 kronor anytime you see a doctor, which is about 24 USD. This is for any doctor’s visit, from a regular doctor to a weekend urgent care clinic to the gynaecologist to my vein specialist center- 24 dollars. This is all you pay, even if during that visit they perform tests or draw blood or take a urine sample- 24 dollars, you are done. And after you have paid 1,000 kronor out of pocket, or about 120 US dollars, you don’t pay anything out of pocket the rest of the year.

Here are my experiences with healthcare in Sweden thus far:

My first visit was, characteristically enough for me, to the ER. Only my second time out in Sweden with my friends, I went to an after work event and was knocked out on the dancefloor. A very tall and very drunk Swedish man got *really* excited over the huge balloons being tossed around the crowd, and decided to clock one with an uppercut. I turned around right as he did so, and he caught my jaw instead, which threw me back in a cartoonish way, laying me out on the ground and knocking me out for a second or two. I came to in my friend’s arms, as he carried me off the dance floor. We took a taxi to the ER, which is where I found out that I had been issued my personnummer (this was right after I got to Sweden, and I was waiting on the letter to arrive, but I was already in the system). The receptionist took me straight back to see a nurse immediately, who took all my vital signs, talked to me, did a test you do when someone gets knocked out, and then gave me a stretcher with clean sheets to lay on while I waited. She also gave me ibuprofen and water. I waited, yes, for three hours- but I have waited far longer in the ER in the U.S., I had been triaged as soon as I arrived, and like anywhere, had I been in immediate danger I would have been seen immediately. 

I was seen by two doctors who performed extensive tests to check for concussion and any problems, they took my full medical history to update the system (since I was brand new) and they allowed me ample time to ask questions. They were professional, kind, nurturing, and helpful. When I checked out the ER bill was 400 kronor, total, for everything, which is about 48 USD. I left knowing there would be NO surprise bill coming later to shock me.

My second visit was for my annual well woman exam with the local midwife. I called in on a Friday and asked to set an appointment; they told me to come in on Monday anytime after 3:30 for a walk in appointment. I admit I was skeptical that I would be waiting for hours. I showed up at 3:30 on the dot, took my number… and waited for less than 20 minutes. Many times I have waited double that WITH an appointment in America. I was taken back and seen by a nurse midwife in a cheery and bright office/examining room, where she took a detailed medical history, let me explain any concerns I might have, and then took the time to explain the medical system to me, how to make appointments, and where to call in an emergency. She performed the exam, drew my blood, and took a urine sample. I asked her how much I owed and where to pay, and she laughed. For a full consultation, a pap smear, a blood test, and a full STI screening I paid 0 dollars. I didn’t even have to pay for the office visit, because every woman in Sweden gets free pap smears/well woman exams. 

My third visit was when I was lucky enough to get strep throat. I woke up on a Saturday morning with all the symptoms, and this was when I discovered another useful aspect of Swedish healthcare: the 24 hour hotline staffed with nurses who will answer questions, triage you, and give you numbers and addresses of healthcare providers. I called the hotline and was given a number for an urgent care clinic late Saturday afternoon, and since I didn’t have a fever I accepted an appointment for the next evening. I went in the next day five minutes early and was seen right on time. I was given a strep throat culture test and a full examination, and a prescription for antibiotics. Again, I only paid 24 dollars, flat, for the office visit, because all tests are included in that. My antibiotics were 20 kronor- about 3 USD.

Unfortunately, my strep throat lingered and did not go away, so for my fourth experience with Scandinavian socialised healthcare I headed off to my vårdcentral, or local health center. This is where my midwife office is located as well. The vårdcentral is like the main health building for your local area, and a variety of doctor’s offices are housed all together in a big building. And no, it is not austere and cold and made of concrete blocks. It looks like a nice government building, the main reception is staffed by friendly people, and the main waiting room has lots of comfy chairs and magazines and a kids’ play place. You can walk in at any time, without an appointment, and be seen during normal office hours. 

Again, I was worried about how long I might wait. But again, I walked in without an appointment and was seen by a nurse practitioner, alone, in a private, bright office with a window and plants and the cliche doctor’s office cheesy nature posters, within 20 minutes. She triaged me, took all my info, and ordered a blood test to check for infection and told me I would see the doctor. I was given a red laminated card to take down the hall, walked right in, and got my blood test immediately. The results were processed within the 15 minutes I sat waiting to see the doctor, and he gave me a thorough check-up and asked me how I was adjusting to Sweden and where I had been before. He prescribed me new medicine and gave me a note for my employer. He also scheduled my appointments for a referral to a vein specialist. I paid my 24 dollars and left, knowing there would be no bills following me for the blood tests, because it was all covered.

My experiences with the dentist were similarly fantastic. I chipped a filling on my first day of work in Sweden, and after I got over strep I went to the emergency weekend dentist, where anyone can just walk in. I still hadn’t learned my lesson, and went in expecting horrendous wait times, frankly based on experiences I had had in America at dental offices. Instead I was given a number and told to come back in an hour and a half. I came back in an hour and twenty minutes and was seen right on time. The dentist looked at my tooth, poked around in it, tapped it, and gave me an x-ray. She declared the filling was just chipped, but was still sealed, and it would be fine to wait to see a regular dentist. I asked her how much I owed and she laughed. “We didn’t do anything, you don’t owe anything!” I was seen by a dentist, a dental hygienist, given an exam and an x-ray, and that was all free.

I went back to my vårdcentral, which also houses the dentist, and made an appointment for a full check up and dental cleaning for three weeks in the future. I went in on the set date, was seen right on time, had a thorough mouth exam by the dentist, had my teeth cleaned by the hygienist, and had an appointment set to fix the filling. Dental prices are different from other health services, but for all that I paid about 120. My filling will cost about 100. 

Finally, I recently had my appointment at my vårdcentral with the doctor concerning my legs, so he could refer me to a specialist. I showed up on time, was seen right on time, and he spent over half an hour listening to my history of symptoms, giving me various tests, and asking questions. I was referred to a vein specialist, he ordered a blood test, and he ordered an appointment with the nurses to fit me for new stockings. The order for the blood test is in my file in the database, so I can show up at anytime the vårdcentral is open, tell the receptionist I am there for my blood test, give her my personnummer, and they will do it at my convenience.

To make a long story short, I have received nothing but thoughtful, qualified, and timely care from friendly health care providers in comfortable and enjoyable offices and examination rooms. I can say it has been better than the healthcare I have received in America, from the environment/cleanliness of the offices and exam rooms to the consistently positive bedside manner and thoughtfulness of the providers. There is often some fear that you will be treated like a number, mindlessly pushed through a bureaucratic nightmare of cinder block grey prison cell like examination rooms, with austere and somewhat dingy surroundings. People often wring their hands about waiting times, or death panels, or whatever else. No, y’all, just no.

Most of all, I love the peace of mind that when I leave the doctor there is no waiting for the other shoe to drop, wondering how much a random follow up bill will be. Due to the vårdcentral system, I have seen the same doctor and the same nurses in my local community. I recognise the  receptionist ladies, they remember my name and face, they ask my how it’s going adjusting to life here, it all has the pleasant feel, almost, of going to your local library. However, just to clarify, I can go to any doctor, anywhere in Sweden, whenever I want. 

I also want to add that for anyone under 18, anything to do with health has no payment at point of service- from dermatologists to dentists (yes, even braces) to all immunisations to anytime you go to a doctor- no one under 18 has to have money to see a doctor for anything, ever. This means that as a teacher, I know that all my students are taken care of, from their bodies to their teeth to sexual health to their mental health. I cannot put into words the peace of mind this gives me, as someone who is in a position where I need to constantly think about my students on so many levels. Not having the stress of wondering if they are taken care of health wise is incredible.

I have now lived and worked in two countries with exceptional health care- Japan and Sweden- and I have far preferred both experiences to anything I have received in America. It is extraordinarily difficult for me to listen to the outright lies that are told about socialised healthcare by people who have never lived abroad and have never experienced socialised healthcare firsthand. I have friends all over the world, I have traveled extensively throughout the years and met hundreds of people in hostels, and I have never met a single person who envies the American healthcare system. 100% of the time when we talk about it they express outright pity and disgust. We are all entitled to an opinion but when you have an opinion that is totally not true about a system- socialised/public option healthcare- which every other country in the Western developed world has, it is very frustrating. 


Any system created or run by humans will have inherent flaws, and I am certainly not saying socialised healthcare is perfect, or that people in Sweden never have bad experiences with the system. But when the flaw of the American system is that people can be financially destroyed or die if they get sick, I think that is a fundamentally irreconcilable flaw. When the richest country in the world has citizens crowdfunding for medical bills, or putting plastic jars in convenience stores begging for help with a child’s chemo, we should be ashamed. Frankly it angers me that other countries have taken better care of me than my own. I showed up in Sweden and was taken care of with no questions asked as soon as I had a visa and I was in the country- in America, I worked and paid taxes from the age of 14 and could not afford medical care until a decade later when I finally was lucky enough to have a job that gave me good benefits- a privilege millions of Americans don’t have. 

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Right Now in Sweden: Saturday





In the early hours of this morning, I sat on the floor listening to the sound of Waylon Jennings on a record player. My friends were asking me about Texas, and what it was like, and the windows of the living room framed the milky grey night that was not quite dark, the kind of night you start to get in this part of the world this time of year.

All of my friends at the gathering were born and raised in Sweden, but the records stacked next to the player were the soundtrack of my childhood, as curated by my parents, aunts, and uncles: Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bruce Springsteen, more classic country than I could count.  As I sat listening to music that reminded me of home, my first home, the place I was born and raised, I realized that this time here in Stockholm, from January  until I leave in June to visit Texas, will be the longest I have spent in one country since I left America in 2012. That five and a half months out of four years would be the longest I had been in one place was a realization that dropped into my lap with a palpable weight.

In the punch drunk early morning wanderings of conversations and music and bookshelf exploration I felt a jumbled, heady mix of all my other homes, Japan and Colorado and Albania and Laos and Sweden. There was a refracting multiplication, a shattering of walls and distance, and all crashed together to clamor for a place in the nostalgia that fell around me.  All these other lives I know how and where to live, what they are like, the food I would be eating, the languages I would be speaking, the rhythms the days would have. If it wasn’t a record player in the living room in Stockholm it would be the garden of the hostel in Bangkok, or a sweat drenched backporch at a house party in Laos, or dancing on bars in Japan, or roaming the streets of Tirana with the gang. It would be long sunset rides on the bike path and sleeping under a clean spread of stars in a tent. The infinite number of possibilities of choice for where and how to live was dizzying.

I have been here in Sweden close enough to call it five months, which is damned near close to my consistent calculus of Country Comfort, which has always shown me that somewhere right under six months is the moment when things change in a new place. Suddenly, without my having quite realized when it happened, Stockholm became another city, in another country, where I know how to live. And live well. I can thrive here. But this means that Stockholm is also destined to be another city I leave. It will be another place where a parallel, potential me could have continued, but didn’t. It will be a ghost town of what ifs and unmade choices. It will forever be a place I will look back on, once I have left it, with nostalgia and longing and imagined futures that never came to be.

I never really thought about this when I started moving around. I knew, in an abstract way, that every choice cuts off every other choice. I know, philosophically, that we are all making thousands of choices every day that irrevocably change the course of our lives, from what we are doing to who we are meeting to where we are living. But it hasn’t been until I have immersed myself in these radically different places, and then left them, and left with the knowledge of exactly what I was giving up, that the enormity of that really sunk in. I can do anything, anything at all, anywhere I want. But I can’t do everything. This is the constraint. The whole world is before us, all of it, in excruciating detail, begging to be explored, and yet we have to select a small sliver, the tiniest corner, a fraction of a fraction, and immerse ourselves in that, to the exclusion of all the rest. Even if we live a nomadic life, we are only ever living that one life, that preciously pathetic little thread that weaves through the world, so fragile, and so short, but all we have to gather all of everything we are ever going to know, and love, and see, and have.


I am at peace, most of the time, with all of these other lives I have left running without me. But sometimes everything blurs and gets tangled, like in early morning milk grey nights, and the surreal convergence of something like Waylon Jennings and Stockholm is like seeing into a parallel universe. So I sat on the floor of and told stories about Texas to my Swedish friends, wondering about the people and places in the story, and wondering about what kind of stories I will be telling when I talk about Sweden in the future, once it has become part of my past. And then everything slid back into place, one frame, one clear line. I felt my cold feet on the wooden floor, and my hands clasped around my knees, and the crackling of the record player at my back. For now, right here, this is home.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

100 Days of Studying Swedish

I love the way Swedish verbs work, so I don't have to. 

I have now lived and worked in four countries other than my own: Japan, Albania, Laos, and Sweden. In every single case, I made an effort at committing time to learning the language, with varying degrees of diligence and, as a result, varying degrees of success. In Japan, I willfully chose to be illiterate so I could focus on conversational skills. There is a standardized Roman alphabet for the Japanese language, so I could read and teach myself out of books, and practice talking in my day to day life. By the end of my year there, I could hold basic chit chat conversations with taxi drivers, make niceties with my neighbors, effortlessly fling out all the set daily polite phrases for a myriad of interactions, and I had a firm vocabulary of the specifics of my life: the post office, the bank, the doctor’s office, buying things, ordering in restaurants, etc. 

Getting a fortune poem I could not read on New Year's in Tokyo.

Albanian was a similar level of fluency, aided by the fact that I could read signs everywhere and everyone assumed I was Albanian so they threw the language at me from the start.

Oddly enough, though, to make it to this Albanian beach I spoke Spanish with the Albanian hotel owner, who was giving me directions in Italian...


And then came Lao… learning Lao was rough, due to my transition, because from the first month I was counting down the days until I could leave. Of course, all that changed eventually, and as soon as I decided I was staying another year I threw myself into actively trying to learn the language. Unfortunately, this had to be shoved into the corners of life that were not taken up with grad school and work and being ill for a year with mysteriously bum legs. As a result, I am most ashamed of my effort in Laos, because I spent two years there and ended with less language capability than Japan and Albania.

Thankfully not everything required translation.

What I learned from the experience in Laos is that, no matter how long you think you will be in a country, yes, yes, the answer is always yes, you should start learning the language from day one. So impressed with this regret was I that I even stuck to this while traveling for half a year- I made active efforts to pick up day to day phrases in German, I endeavored to finally learn to read in Italian correctly, and all over the Balkans I was netting phrases- especially in Croatia, where I spent the most time. When I returned to Albania for a long awaited visit, I busted out all my old study sites and reviewed the language so I could use it every day. I don’t like to make the same mistake twice, and I hate feeling like I missed out on a learning opportunity.

I did as I was told.

So with all that in mind, here in Sweden I am approaching my most difficult task yet: I am living in a country where virtually everyone speaks English to a fluent level, and I am the most committed I have ever been to learning the language of my host country now that I am free of grad school for the first time since moving overseas. I am using two apps I highly recommend, Memrise and DuoLingo, and I strictly use my bus ride to and from work (about 20 minutes one way) for language study. My record keeper tells me I have used both apps every day for 100 days now. I amaze even myself at that kind of commitment, starting, as it did, when I was firmly in the “what the hell is my life?” blues.
What is difficult is that I find my level of self-consciousness in speaking a foreign language is directly proportional to the likelihood that the listener speaks my native language very well. So, in Japan, or Albania, or Laos, where I could assume the listener is not likely to be fluent in my language, I would gladly fumble through, hoping that my meager efforts would at least be met with understanding, or an appreciation I was trying to integrate. But here, in Sweden, the thought of speaking is almost paralyzing to me. I know that as soon as I start fumbling through the words, the person will rescue me, effortlessly, swooping in with a delivery of my own mother tongue, expertly spoken.  It makes me even more embarrassed to be mono-lingual.

I like knowing enough Swedish to read passive aggressive but funny notes on trees exhorting dogs to think of the children.

The real issue is that sometimes the ease with which I move through the world thanks to English really shames me. I think back to all the times I, as a foreigner speaking English, have been accommodated, have been understood, have been helped. I have a habit of ending up in foreign hospitals- every time, the nurses and doctors spoke at least enough English to explain to me the general idea of what they were about to put in me/cut out of me/test me for. I have never been shamed for not speaking the local language. I recall, fondly, the man who owned the shop in my building in Albania, who patiently typed out my total for groceries in the calculator before I learned the numbers in Albanian. No one has made me feel stupid, less than, or worthless for my lack of language skills. When I compare this to the rhetoric I have heard hurled at those who do not speak English, I feel even more guilt.

I know there are lots of people who have lived in Thailand or Laos or Albania or Japan or Sweden for years, and can barely string together a few sentences. Why? Because they speak English, and they run in English speaking circles, or hang out with locals who also speak English. Of course, when English speaking Western people do it, we give it cute names like Inter Nations or Couch Surfing or Meet Ups. We rest on the fact that it’s okay, most people speak English, I don’t need to learn (fill in the blank local language).  Sometimes, our friends who are citizens of our host country even graciously excuse us by making fun of the pointlessness of learning their language, going so far as to express surprise and ask “Why would you learn_________?” We should be asking ourselves why it is considered okay for western, English speaking people to not integrate, not learn the language, and not “assimilate”, even after decades of living in their host countries, but non-Western, non-English speaking people are seen as willfully ignorant and stubborn for doing the exact same thing.

And sure, you can come back at me with a very logical response- English is, for all intents and purposes, the unofficial global language. It is the most popular second language worldwide. The thing is, I’m not talking about purely logical or useful arguments for English. I am concerned with the ways in which people who speak English are absolved of responsibility for learning the language of their host countries, while those who don’t speak English are often judged very harshly, even in countries where English is not the mother tongue, but is rather the unofficial second language. Take my situation- I moved to Sweden, and I speak English, and thus no one gets prickly at me for not knowing Swedish. If I had moved to Sweden and spoke Spanish, French, and Italian, but knew no English or Swedish, I would suddenly be lazy or refusing to integrate or isolating myself. The only difference is that in the former case I was lucky by birth or opportunity to have learned English. And this is a problem- conflating English knowledge with intelligence or willingness to adapt or integrate, when most of the time it is just luck of the draw, pure and simple.


I have studied Japanese, and Albanian, and Lao, and I never became fluent in any of them, but the effort of trying to understand made me feel better than resting on the (unearned) laurels of my English ability. I have terrible pronunciation, my grammar structure is awful, and Swedish prepositions confuse the hell out of me, but I just remind myself that verb conjugation is so much easier than Spanish, at least it isn’t tonal like Lao, and I don’t have to learn an entirely new alphabet like with Japanese. So on my 100th straight day of studying Swedish, I will say I plan to continue studying Swedish, in spite of all the assurances that it is pointless and impossible to learn. I can say one thing with certainty- no, no, no, the Swedish chef is NOT speaking Swedish. But I do think I sound like the Swedish chef when I speak Swedish.

   


Thursday, April 28, 2016

Hay Bale Bus Stops and Telling Estonian Time



This is a journal entry from four summers ago, about one of my favorite and first experiences traveling solo.

There is very little information about Saaremaa online in terms of traveling on your own, so I headed into town this morning to work the information center. I found out that there was only one bus for the national park I wanted to go to, and it left within the hour. No problem, I have a bike, let's go get sunscreen and a towel. The pedal of my bike falls off, thankfully on the way back from the store, but unfortunately on the way to the stop for that lone bus which can get me where I’m trying to go. So I’m dragging my dead horse of a bike, hustling back to the bus stop for my ride, and stop to check my "watch" (my useless cell phone, with no reception, a dead box of a mid 90’s Nokia which has no idea what the internet is). It's dead, having decided that being useful in any way at all was not what it had planned for this trip. I feel it was a direct retaliation for my having said, right in front of it “This is my useless phone, which is, at the moment, just a large and strange watch.” I make a note to myself that technology can be vengeful when insulted.

I abandon my one pedaled wonder to the safety of a bike lock wrapped around a park bench and dart into a watch shop. There I buy the cheapest thing I can find- a hot pink kids' watch that conveniently says "hour" and "minute" on the appropriate hands, as well as "past" on the right half of the face and "to" on the left half. After the digital face of my previous watch the lesson was appreciated. The woman tries three different times to put it in different gift bags before she finally understands that hot pink plastic bling is all mine- there is no future birthday party with a cherub faced niece or nephew, no small child at home to whom I will give this, no student of the week prize this shall be. It’s for me, the sweaty 30 year old woman standing in front of her. I try not to feel insecure about my purchase, although her unwillingness to acknowledge it’s for me makes that hard. I leave the scene with the following score: down one bike, up one dead phone, up one slightly condescending kiddie watch, and down a bit of pride. Not my best travel game, but there is no time to think.

Oh, one more thing to add to the score card- then it starts to kind of rain. I have half an hour left, no lunch, and it’s raining just enough to warrant some sort of protection, but not enough to really be a respectable rain, so now I have to buy an umbrella for a rain shower I don’t really respect. The umbrella, thankfully, is not child sized but it is adult priced and I try not to think of how much the umbrella, the watch, the sunscreen, the towel, and my pride have cost me thus far.

I continue down the street, trying to regain my “Isn’t this CHARMING! What a lovely little island!” gusto while juggling all my new possessions that bear witness to this comedy of errors morning. My stomach protests that it has not gotten in on the gift action, so I stumble into a bar and get some pastries to go. I snag an apple off an old woman at a produce stand, and I’ll be thankful for this later. At this point I can see the bus stop, and the watch tells me with its labeled hands and patient face that I will, in fact, make my ride.

I sit on the curb and eat my pastries under the probing eyes of a small child. I instinctively pull off a hunk of pastry to share with her, stopping just in time to remember where I am- this is not Albania, and this is not a wide-eyed homeless Roma child. Her mother sits right next to her, in neat, tailored clothes. I am wearing dirty backpacker things, a scarf tied in my hair, mud crusted hiking boots on my feet. I am eating with my hands on the ground. I should be the one receiving handouts in this situation. I stop myself from bordering on child harassment and remind myself that sometimes not sharing is caring.

For the next hour I’m on a compact local bus, taking a winding route on pristine two lane paved roads- narrow, well-marked, flanked on both sides by thick woods unless it opens up into a sprawling field dotted with sheep or haystacks. People slowly siphon off at stop after strangely random stop- this one is an ornate wooden bench crouching on the side of the road, this one is a tree like any other but apparently it’s The Bus Stop Tree, this one is simply the side of the road on one of those open stretches with a sign planted like a “We conquered this for transportation!” flag. 

A small wooden bench, for your comfort, Weary Traveler

The bus driver periodically glances back at me, brow furrow ever deepening with each stop at which I do not depart. Between my umbrella and backpack it’s clear I’m a tourist and I’m certain he does not want to be responsible for me if I end up somewhere I didn’t know I was going. I want to tell him that not knowing where I was going has been a constant theme of the last year, philosophically speaking. Physically speaking, not knowing where I’m going has a relieving, tangible quality to it. Drop me anywhere, I want to say. I’m trying to find something anyway. I want to figure it out. I don’t say this, because that would be bizarre.

We drive on, just the two of us now, after I assure him that yes, I do want the last stop. His reluctance to take me there should have given me pause, but it didn’t. I’ve been trying not to pause too long and think about most things lately.

And so at the end of this gorgeous drive through isolated back roads I get dropped at the end of the line- a cluster of random buildings where there is no one in sight. I walk into a dusty “Can I retire now? It’s been a long job and I’m tired” town hall. I am greeted with a girl who looks to be about 15. She works the front desk, but it looks for all the world like a child playing make-believe in the unused front room of her grandmother’s house. This freckled young state employee tells me to walk 3 kilometers (back the way I just came) and turn right at the Vilsandi National Park signs. I use the bathroom and check the bus schedule on the way out- there is only one bus going back that evening. I have all afternoon and into early evening before it leaves at 6:45, but I have no idea what I’m doing and no idea how long it will take.  

I wander on down the road in utter solitude for half an hour.  I’m getting my wish- drop me anywhere, indeed. I don’t see a soul who could help me anyway. I sing some songs to myself. I think about my sister. I think about my family. I stop for a moment and put my hands on my knees and have to shake my head because this doesn’t feel like real life. The sky is too huge and I feel like I could slip into it and disappear, sliding out of the world down the curved slope of that blue bowl. How am I just cavalierly traveling around Estonia alone, hopping ferries and buses, walking down roads so far from home and my family and all that we’ve gone through? How did I get here? Is it okay that I’m here? Where is my sister? Where is the part of me that was a sister to her? I’ve stopped walking forward and have wandered into the edge of the trees already without realizing it, so I sit down and wait because I’m going to cry. I do, leaning into a tree. It’s not long, but it means something serious and it’s rough and it hurts my head terribly once it’s all out. When I’m finished I stand up and keep walking. I think of my sister, still. I feel like she’s in me somewhere. I’m carrying her down this road. I start crying again, but I keep walking. I stop crying as suddenly as flipping a switch. I’m used to this manic grief by now- the way it comes in, unannounced, demanding. The way you can’t stop it and it feels like something else in your skin. The way it leaves just as quickly and makes you confused.

I walk further on down the road and find myself back to a normal feeling. The eventual signs point me off the highway where I take a sun dappled gravel road through a tunnel of dense trees, a situation so idyllic that if it were depicted in a romantic comedy I would have rolled my eyes. An information center crops up in front of me, but because it’s awkwardly grouped with someone’s home and tool shed it looks like it stumbled into the wrong party and is just hanging out in the corner hoping not to be seen. Despite its obvious reluctance to help I go inside. There I find tons of brochures in a variety of languages- Finnish, German, and Estonian- but not so much in English. By not so much I mean nothing at all. Everything inside is spotless, made out of warm wood, hardy looking, like things get cold here more often than not. The woman working there is very kind but we can’t talk to one another. I wash my tear stained face in the bathroom. I am feeling better. This is relative to how badly I have felt for the last two months. It’s still better.

I’m sent on my “destined to get lost in the forest and eaten by marauding sheep” way with a map in three languages which I cannot read because dammit, America, where is your language education system? I wander in the general direction of the woman’s ambiguous gestures as to where I should begin my doomed adventure in missing American girl tourism, and commit to joining up with a dirt road whose main qualifier for my trust is that it is the only thing that looks like it could be a road to somewhere.

There are no trailheads; as I learned from my morning’s googling the trails are simply old post roads that are now grown over. I quickly come to a double fork which isn’t on my map, so at this point I can’t even read the lines on my map, much less the lines that snake into languages I can’t understand. It's fine though, I have a real watch now, and it's hot pink, and it tells me which hand is which. This probably makes me an expert at navigating. I take the left fork. I pass a farmhouse, and it seems exasperated with me, as though it knows I don’t belong here and can’t read languages in which it is probably fluent, and no one who has worked in or around it would be caught dead with a hot pink watch.

And then I don’t pass anything for a long, long while.

I am not altogether certain I know where I am, or how to get back. I wander for about two hours, but when you see no one, and hear nothing but the wind in the trees and in the waist high grass, this solitude feels like a much wider space, in good and bad ways. I mark my trail and take pictures along the way, and at one point I make myself shriek out loud in terror when I imagine returning home to edit the pictures only to discover a stranger in one of them- someone lurking in the bushes or standing at the edge of a field, waving. Why, brain? Really? Seriously, I will never run out of ways to torment myself.

Photo credit goes to crook of a tree and my self timer. 

I manage to make a loop back and lose my way about ten times, but eventually the information center sprouts awkwardly on the horizon again (in the opposite direction in which I was walking, might I add). I follow the gravel road back about 30 minutes before I need to catch my bus, and arrive with plenty of time to not get abandoned.

Since the bus stop is of the variety that is simply a sign on the side of the road I sit on the now useful map in the shade of a hay bale in someone's field and read a book. 
Hay poked and hungry, the view from here.

I stop reading the book and go back to thinking. I start to cry and stop thinking and go back to my book, the words blurred, the haybale sticking into my back, everything around me smelling like places I’ve lived in Texas. I’m alive and alone in the middle of nowhere alone in a country I know very little about, but I feel more comfortable than I have in a very, very long time. I lean into the hay bale some more. I pick up my book and the words are clear and I keep reading.

I begin to get a bit nervous when the bus does not show up at 6:45 as promised, so I abandon my hay bale to sit right under the bus stop sign, where I can see the road stretching, empty, to my right and left. I amuse myself by taking a self-timer shot at the middle of nowhere bus stop. 

I really should have made better plans. By better, I mean any at all.

The silence keeps getting louder and closer, gathering weight, leaning on me- I forgot how long I was used to the mid-level, constant cacophony of an urban center. I'm moved to take deep breaths and look around and swing my arms and just feel what it feels like to be in that kind of silence. Somehow that kind of heavy quiet seems even more tangible when you experience it with the trappings of civilization around you- a paved road with no one on it, a bus stop with a fresh, bright blue sign on a perfect new post, a tidy little farmhouse in the distance. Not a sound, from bird or animal or car or even wind now. I sit down and take out my book again. More time passes. I begin to think that I am about to have to walk back to that dusty little town 3 kilometers up the road and beg someone to let me sleep on their floor. My choices, from what I remember, include a gas station, a grocery store, the tired old city hall, and a few tightly buttoned and rather cold looking farmhouses.

My happy little watch continues to tell me bad news about how long I’ve been waiting. It’s like that really positive person who can’t read a room and barges in and talks about how great things are when everyone is stressed out. I get it, happy watch. I understand where the hours are. I know where the minutes are. I certainly know where I am- alone on the side of a road, waiting at a bus stop, living on faith the bus will come. Shut it with your helpfulness, all right? Right before I’m about to give up and walk to my floor sleeping hobo fate, the bus comes. I make up with my watch. I grab my umbrella. I almost forget my book. I leave an apple core behind.

Within an hour I’m back in the center of that charming little town, where there is Italian food for dinner, and the bike is still in front of the town hall, and my watch is telling me that it is 10:00 at night although the sun is still giving off a warm watery glow like headlights through a fog. I walk home washed in a sunlight that I’ve never seen, because I’ve never been in this part of the world, in this time of year, at this time of night. I look at the way this nighttime strange season sun falls on my arms and feel it on my face. Soon my street sign with an impossible amount of vowels comes into view, reaching out of an ivy covered fence with a maternal sympathy that seems to understand I have had very little of familiar signs today, and to come on now, you’re on the right path.


I realized that all this time I had been worried I couldn’t do this, but I am doing it, right now. I did it today. I did it the day before. I’m going to do it tomorrow. And I’ll do many, many more things like it. A fear I had never admitted I had stands up inside me now that I’ve finally called its name. And then it leaves me just as quickly, now that I know it’s not real. I feel it slide down my arms, peeled inside out, slipping off my fingertips, and I think this is probably the point where so many times before I would grab onto it at the last minute and wrap myself back up. This time I leave that inside out fear crumpled behind me on the sidewalk. And then I walk alone for the first time that day.

The remains of the day.