Saturday, January 6, 2018

Right Now in Sweden: Best Laid Plans

I decided that once I got back from Canada, this would be my return to glory. After a stutter step November/December, hindered a bit by injury and darkness induced "meh" approaches to most things in my life other than work, I would find Productive Me, regain my motivation to do All the Things Nonstop, and hit January 2018 running. Sleeping well, eating well, saving as well as one can when a traveling problem is involved that requires a lot more money in Scandinavia than in SE Asia- it was all going to come together. I just had to take a car ride, two planes, two trains, and get through 30+ hours of sleeplessness and a 6 hour time difference to jump right back in with both feet. I got home on January 2nd, and truly believed I would be a paragon of efficiency on January 3rd (if you want the real lolz, consider that I thought I would unpack, clean, and go grocery shopping on said January 2nd after no sleep for more than a day, having just jogged in place behind my airline seat every hour on the hour for all 8 combined flight hours). If you have no idea why I would be jogging on an airplane across the Atlantic, read here. I'll wait.

So, of course, I got home and spent a few days in a quicksand of uncooperative jet lag, which, by virtue of having never traveled home during the school year and on a short break, I had naively thought I "had never really had". Um, no. When you leisurely backpack your itinerant ass to America every other summer break by traveling across the globe (literally across the surface of it, usually) languidly peeling hours back layer by unnoticeable layer, and then you get to your final destination and have 5 weeks to "adjust to a schedule" that consists of staying up late and partying with friends and family, sure, jet lag isn't a thing. And, when those weeks of summer socializing wind down and you come back to whatever country is hosting you via a series of spaced out flights dropped neatly into various time zones for little adjustment periods of sightseeing, and then end up with a glorious tail end of vacation to slide you into some obliging inset days in August at the beginning of the school year, you REALLY "don't really ever get jet lag".

I suppose one good thing about jet lag is that I was awake during the night, with no distractions to keep me from being productive, and making plans, and setting some goals for this year. Anyone care to guess how I chose to spend my jetlagged insomnia? In the spirit of new beginnings, was I making budgets? Culling my things to give away? Writing goals? Unpacking?

Nah, mostly I just slithered through internet rabbit holes for about 3 days. Last night I finally hit my limit and found enough disgust to at least have the decency to read a book when I was awake until almost 4 a.m. What finally snapped me out of it and made me do what I should have been doing all along, which is reading a damn book? I had been inexplicably watching marathons of 2-5 minute clips of the Duggar family on YouTube. This was after spending an hour reading old blog posts (when I could have at least been writing a new one), and before I found the search function on Instagram and realized I could kill time there just as easily as anywhere else. Did you know there is an entire world of accounts devoted to skin removal progress pics following massive weight loss? And of course, okay, yes, one or two was interesting and inspirational- but once I had scrolled through five, and by scrolled through I mean I made it back to their first post, I was just being ridiculous. This was better than what I did the night before, I guess, when I decided to teach myself, at 1 a.m., how to use an eyebrow pencil I bought on a whim when a drugstore employee working her way through college drew better eyebrows on me than I was born with. I saw God a little bit in the magic, but it might have been her highlighter blinding me. Whatever the reason, I bought brow things to bring back to Sweden as a result, and I fell asleep in my tentatively drawn new eyebrows after the sun rose, before sleeping until 1 p.m. and getting out of bed at 3 p.m. The brows, in case you were wondering, were still in place.

But back to last night. Apparently this was my approach to getting back into a more productive swing of thing- watching outdated videos of religious zealots court their way into early marriages, making appraising/approving facial expressions to no one but my phone screen as I viewed the nearly invisible stitches that run along the outline of an entire human body after it is sewn back together where 15 pounds of loose flesh used to be, and drawing fake hair on my face above my real hair.

Oh, wait, I also wrote a blog post about how I didn't want to write a blog post, optimistically referenced going to bed at midnight (clearly that didn't happen) and fell asleep with that book on my chest around 4 a.m. I woke up to an even more optimistic alarm at 7 a.m., felt like I might actually die of exhaustion like those medical interns you hear about, and let myself sleep in until 9:00 a.m.

After 5 hours of broken sleep, littered with weird Duggar references I still can't categorize as dreams or nightmares, I think I am finally, FINALLY, back in Sweden, in terms of my body understanding I am here. My mind is still lagging a bit, and I have more than a small amount of trepidation about rolling into work bright and early Monday morning.

I suppose one positive of losing 3 days to a stupor of sleeplessness and exhaustion fueled internet dickery is that it has led me to a good old fashioned stream of consciousness blog- and this leads us, dear reader, to my having posted two days in a row, for the first time in years. I mean, both of these posts are trash but I'm rusty, just give me time.

For now, I am going to eat another chunk of grocery store kladdkaka and write 2018 goals about health.

Picture of kladdkaka for reference:

If you want to make kladdkaka at home, try my easy recipe: take a box of Duncan Hines brownies, and instead of baking it, just broil the top so it's chewy and crispy and everything else is raw and gooey. Start 2018 with a taste of Sweden!

I can't find a picture of it the way I eat it, which is to plop it in a (large) bowl and pour room temperature coconut milk over it. It pairs nicely with the endearing clip of the Duggars Do Asia. Serve in bed. I didn't mention that part until now, but yes, I was also eating cake in bed. 

Come on 2018!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

2 Years In, or, What Day is It?

Yesterday, January 3rd, was my two year anniversary of living here in Sweden.

Unfortunately, I didn't know that until I realized today was January 4th, because yesterday was spent in an addled haze of jet lag, insomnia, and staying up until almost 7:00 a.m. this morning dealing with both.

Last year, I wrote a nice long reflection on what a year inSweden meant to me. You can read that here if you want to revisit my more traditionally wordy ways. I'll come back to the topic of time in Sweden soon. But not tonight.

Since one of my goals for 2018 is to write more, even when it's not perfectly thoughtful or several rambly paragraphs long, you are getting this, dear reader, which might be the shortest message I have ever sent you. But it's less a message, anyway, and more of a checkmark of accountability, a single step into 2018. And it ends now, because it's midnight and I am finally, blessedly tired at the proper time, which is now technically January 5th.

I can't tell if this is a good start, because perfection is the enemy and at least I'm doing something, or if it's a bad start, because this is just an action to say I did it. I guess we'll never know.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Predictions are Pointless

Exploring my current home country- my love for forest lined, temperate beaches continues (I am sorry SE Asia, but the sun...)

I think almost any question about life- what should I do? where should I go? why pick this over that, or do this other thing? if I obsess enough, will I come to the perfect right answer?- can be brushed aside with the following quote:

"... nothing in the world can one imagine beforehand, not the least thing. Everything is made up of so many unique particulars that cannot be foreseen."- Rainer Maria Rilke

Rainer, real talk, if you weren't long dead I'd kiss you for how perfectly you build a sentence and weave a thought through it. But seeing as how I am already pathetically in love with one dead poet (what's up, Walt? still singing songs about yourself? cool, cool) I guess I'll just say, yeah. You're right on with this one, Rainer, like always. And, like always, although I found and loved this quote almost a decade ago, I am still working on believing that truth. It is so much easier to get wrapped up in the idea of certainty and rightness, as though punching in the right combination will make everything work. I think I can look back at the last few years and say that I have pretty much punched in every random combination one could think of, and it all worked out.

Tonight, in my Swedish immersion lesson, my Swedish teacher asked me how I chose to move to Sweden. I laughed, a spontaneous burst of "oh, honey, no" tinged sound, and repeated back his sentence- how did I choose to move to Sweden? I never really did- I simply ended up here on accident and now, after a year and a half, I can have full conversations in Swedish with my teacher and tell him how I got here: I was traveling, aimlessly, without a plan, and met a person who would become my future co-worker in a hostel in Bosnia. Why was I at that hostel in Bosnia? Because I was reuniting with the friend with whom I had worked two years earlier in Albania, and she was now living in Montenegro, and her vacation happened to coincide with the travel plans of two friends I had met in Laos, after leaving Albania.

Life is absolutely insane. People say things happen for a reason. There is no reason. Fantastically unpredictable things happen, awful tragedy and pulsing joy and unexpected challenges and unearned luck and privilege, and then you respond to those things as best you can. This goes on every day of your life until your life is over. The best advice I was given to assuage my perfectionist, anxiety riddled need for certainty was that there is no "should do" when one is vacillating between several perfectly good options, or making a decision with little information to go one. You just make your choice, do your best, and work with what happens.

I just had an hour long conversation in a language I never wanted to learn in a country I never planned on visiting, let alone living in. What an absolute joy it is to have absolutely no clue where you will end up when you start something.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

5 Years Later

June 18th, 2017 marked five years since my sister died. August 3rd, 2017 marked five years since I moved abroad. I had no idea what I was doing, I was mourning the loss of my sister, and I was heading to a continent I had never been to so I could live in a country I knew very little about and start my very first year of teaching. To say there were questions, to say I was confused, to say I was overwhelmed, is a massive understatement.

Five years on from such a great loss and such a great change, and it seems unimaginable and terrifying to leave when I did- I have no idea just how it formed and affected me as I was grieving and simultaneously leaving everyone and everything I knew. I remember thinking that there was no way I could leave for Albania a little over a month after her funeral. But I did, because in the end I knew that there would be no right answer either way, and that leaving or staying, she was already gone. I knew for certain she wouldn't have wanted me to stay for her, when she wasn't there.

So I carried her with me across the ocean and grieved my way through that trip and the next year in Albania. I wrote about her, over and over, and wrote to her, and cried for her, and spent untold hours just sitting and thinking about who she was and how much I missed her. In some ways, in eerie and spiritual ways, she was my closest companion even as I grieved that she was gone. Away from home and family, when I turned to memories and tears and sinking feelings of loss, she was also, even in the form of a memory, the one who comforted me, who understood the loss of that family bond. It was, in this way, that I grieved my way with her, about her, and into a place I came to again and again, that I carried her, and carry her now, always.

I wrote the following passage about my sister a year after her death. Re-reading it on the fifth year since she passed I don't feel quite this way anymore. It's all still true, and I still feel it this viscerally at times and in some ways, but the feeling of carrying the absence has become less of a noticeable and painful burden. I think it's because I have gotten to used to the weight and space it occupies in me. This is where grief ends up in you, in the bodily record of loss. It doesn't get any easier to lose a sister. It never becomes ok. You simply learn to work with that reality. If that means you can go stretches of time without pain or sadness because you have grown accustomed to bearing the absence, it also means that sometimes you will be walking through a grocery store and hear the song played at her funeral and suddenly there are tears running down your face. It comes and goes, and when it comes you are more prepared than the time before. No amount of years will ever undo the wish for more time, but at least now, when I reflect on the time we did have together, the memories can bring me the joy of remembrance for what we had, instead of the pain of the loss of what we can never have now. I think Heather would be happy to know that five years since her death and four years since I wrote these words, I don't feel so carved and cut these days. Her name and face are her own again in my memories.

For My Sister

June 18th was the day the summer carved and cut from me, shredding and scattering and leaving the hollow. The sun baked the edges and burned away still more. I poured out of my face and fell out of my throat and rotted in my own belly. Every waking began with the slivered edge of a remembrance of what was, followed fast by the rushing wailing of the remembrance of what was now. I was breaking and broken and crucially crumbling, wasting away in the tender part that knit us together, the part that was carved, the place that was cut, the pieces that were shredded and scattered, the hollow that remained, waiting, growing. I crumpled around the absence and slid inside. I wept my way around the borders of this emptiness; I crawled in the dark of it, finding it ever expanding under my searching palms, my dirty knees, my bowed and broken head. In this way I mapped the shape of the place my sister occupied in the person I was. I often forgot where I was and thought I would find her there, even though there was the place of where she was not. So I heaved and sobbed through a wretched and winding way, and in these crawling, sliding, elbow dragging travels I discovered what the hollow held. There in the dark, wet cold, I did not find a straightforward grief, or frank loss, or blunt pain. It was nothing so simple or neat, not so clean or sane. Inside, instead, I found a living thing. I found an unwanted and strange creature, humming and fluttering along under my ribs. It has a name I love and a face I miss, but it is not her.

It’s a beating and breathing mass of all that she was, and all I was with her, and all we were together. It murmurs what was left unsaid, and remembers what should never have been said. It shimmers with memories beautiful, and shudders under memories terrible. It teems with joys, with guilt, with questions; it dreams in misty ifs and cries in sharp barks of why, why, why? It is frenetic and dangerous, full of teeth and grasping claws that mark me over and over again; it is smooth, docile curves where I can rest my head and hear the beating heart of what it meant to be and to have a sister. In the hollow, beneath my ribs, sometimes it’s so small I can breathe around it. Sometimes I forget it is there and glance down to find its eyes on me, and then I have to discover it all over again through the infinite shock of knowing. Sometimes it’s wild and screaming and threatens to overtake me; sometimes it does, and then I’m in the hollow, in unfamiliar places I have yet to map, crawling again on searching palms and dirty knees, lost. Sometimes, when it has been exceptionally tame and I am feeling especially brave, I make myself reach in and carefully cradle it in my hands. I make myself feel the shape of it, and softly stroke the finality of what it means to have such a creature inside of me. I feel the awful weight of it in my palms, the warm, weeping reality cupped there, the insistence of the necessity of carrying it with me until I, too, am an unwanted and strange creature beating and breathing in the hollow under someone’s ribs. Rare are these brave times, because they leave me exhausted- far more so than those first lost days of crawling, sliding, elbow dragging travels. At the bottom of everything, of course, such distinctions are pointless: whether cupped in my hand or curled in the hollow, I can never, and I will never, be apart from it in any way that truly relieves me. The geography of the body doesn’t allow for such distance. Our proximity is complete and final.

Most of the time, I can be neat and clean and sane, and allow it to live as I know it must live, to dream and scratch and breathe and beat and shimmer and shudder, to hum and flutter along somewhere under my ribs. Most of the time I can set my shoulders and move through the world even as it moves inside of me. Most of the time. Still, in slipping moments I sometimes give in to the need to stand on the slivered edge of remembrance of what was. I shake my head at what is now. I try to fill in the space where I was carved and cut, but it pours out of me. I try to gather the shredded and scattered, but it is forever lost. In this ritual I try to deny what is now, even as I know I cannot forget the crawling travels of the hollow, or ignore the unwanted and strange creature under my ribs.

Despite the hopelessness of it, I do so desperately wish that it hummed and fluttered anonymously.

Despite the hopelessness of it, I do so desperately wish that it did not take the name I love and wear the face I miss.

Despite the hopelessness of it, I do so desperately wish for June 17th.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Rainy Days and Wasting Time

The crooked staircase leading to the abandoned amusement park

I am writing to you, as I so often do, on a long train. This one is the Kaunas, Lithuania to Bialystok, Poland version. It’s a three carriage affair with bright new red seats that was, for the first half of the journey, so silent and empty that I had an entire carriage to myself in which to shamelessly roll out a yoga mat in the aisle for half an hour. Considering this was a four hour, no, surprise, you forgot about the time change, five hour train, that kind of first half was certainly appreciated. Currently in the second half of the journey the train is more bustling, with cell phone conversations and seniors on bike holidays and painfully cool teenagers who are studiously and self-consciously draping themselves into various positions of could not care less- no, really, I don’t care, see? I see. The mother two aisles back from me has been desperately wrangling a small bouncing child, who has now resorted to screeching a protest against the time spent on the train. The train is indifferent to the protests, and continues to pursue the track at a slow and methodical “yes, we will take five entire hours to get there” pace. 

The scenery sliding by my window could be the American midwest: rolling hills, cows dotting the countryside, flocks of white birds bursting low across the tops of fields. The skies are summertime blue, clouds are obligingly white, and coupled with the farmhouses that crop up intermittently it is thoroughly earning the description idyllic. Nothing is left of the sopping day before. That day was wrung out in Kaunas, spent biking into a constant faceful of cold, pricking mist that frequently turned to fine, persistent rain. It doesn’t occur to me to feel anything towards this seemingly bad weather luck, even though one would think rain and trains and sun and bikes fit together more nicely. Generally speaking, this is true, but there are always exceptions. Almost nothing reinforces a lack of responsibility more than willfully, slowly, moving your body through the rain without concern for the consequences. No matter being wet, hair frizzled, smelling slightly of outdoor cat and wet leaves, sweat mixed with humidity, a fine layer of grit all over- to move unhindered by, and uncovered in, the rain is to declare that absolutely nothing is expected that would require being presentable.

And so every pedal stroke over every slick surface chanted Iamonvacationrightnow, round and round. I was spectrums of wet and disheveled all over that town- there was no quick dash from shelter to shelter, no wait it out, it was all let’s swan through, take the time, look at that statue, have another turn around the square. I walked through an abandoned amusement park under trees dutifully turning leaves full of water over onto my head with every breeze. I sat down to lunch decidedly not dry all over, my hair expanded into a water born creature with a life and goals of its own. I visited a bakery after carelessly sitting in the puddle my bike seat had collected while I observed a church organ for as long as I wanted, humid and thoughtful. That evening, I crept softly through the shelves of a local bookshop with my jacket quietly weeping down my legs, rain drop curls clinging to my neck. The clerk responded to my request for Lithuanian poets with a handwritten note that listed four names; she pressed it into my damp palm where it promptly transferred the authors backwards into my hand, passport stamp proof of that strange and lovely day.

I will remember Kaunas as a cold, grey bowl of a world, explored lazily on a rented bicycle, guided by a paper map, the meandering route in the wind and rain punctuated with these warm pockets: the abrupt, stark silence of the unexpectedly stunning cathedral; the circle of heat from the pizza oven at lunch; the yeasty air of the bakery; the bookshop scented with coffee and pastries. This might not even be Kaunas- who knows what the sun brings- but it’s the Kaunas I had, and it was gloriously grey scale and otherworldly. 

I’m telling you this part after a train station layover, now on the final leg to Warsaw- the first time for that city, but the third visit to Poland. Returning to foreign countries is something I never thought I would do and will probably never get used to. It still seems lucky and strange to me to get to visit new places at all; going back to old places and enjoying familiarity and favourite spots and comfort feels like a luxury that belongs to other people with different lives. I don’t know if the person I was a few years ago would have been able to make the most out of the one day spent in a small town being surrendered to rain without being filled with regret. Everything felt so tenuous, so desperately important, when I was first traveling and living abroad. There were so many firsts to be had, an almost endless parade of them that I knew I wanted, and I also knew I didn’t want anything to be squandered. Being able to graciously rinse a day out in the rain, or leave earlier than planned, or stay later than expected, or “waste” vacation days going back to the same city just because I liked it on a previous trip, is a freedom that has come with getting to the point where I have satisfied so much of what I needed to satisfy. 

I realized, even just now as I was writing this, that I don’t travel like I am starving anymore, like I need to consume the world in one mad dash to make up for lost time (which is usually not lost at all, just defined as such, and so it finds itself lost). I have spent years of my life pursuing what I needed to have, and I have been able to have so much of it. I am finally at a point where I can give all the time I want to it. I can stay longer. I can go back. There isn’t an arbitrary expiration date hanging over me anymore, wagging a finger that I need to hurry up. I don’t have to pray for sunny days, or hope a school will hire me in spite of lack of experience, or wonder if my funds will travel with me as far as I want to go. 

I’ve reached the point where Kaunas can rain, and I can let Kaunas rain, and nothing feels ruined or lost. This is the current version of the product of all these decisions over the last five years. I have traveled and explored and searched my way into feeling like I am walking through places now, and letting them wash over me, instead of running after them. I liked the running- it felt good to know I could run to get the things I wanted, when I needed to. I don’t need to anymore, and that feels good, too. 

Monday, July 10, 2017

Learning Swedish on the Watermelon Farm

When I was living in Laos, I met three Italian men while they were in the process of putting the final touches on the bar they were about to open. Over the course of what ended up being countless visits, I got to know them and so many of their stories well. The short version of one of those stories is that they met while working on a watermelon farm in Australia, saved up money, and bought the bar. The long version is one of my favourite stories about goal setting, motivation, and language learning.

L., the bartender, told me how he came to find himself on that watermelon farm in Australia in the first place. When he was deciding to leave Italy to work abroad, he knew he could have gone to the UK much more easily. You don’t need a visa, it was closer, and the flight was certainly cheaper. But one of L.’s goals, in addition to saving money and living abroad, was to learn English. At that point, he was in his late 20s and he knew virtually nothing of language. Learning English by immersion was possible in the UK, but he told me that he also knew that if he went to the UK he would most likely move into an Italian neighborhood, with his Italian friends, and speak only Italian. And if things got hard? It’s an equally cheap, short flight right back home. So, instead, he spent all of his money on Australian visas and flights, and put himself in a situation where he was forced to stay, and forced to learn. There were people from all over the world at the farms where he worked, and English was the official language of communication. There were always a few Italians, but he asked them to only speak English with him, no matter how little he understood. 

He said the first three months were miserably painful. He felt stupid, out of touch, didn’t feel socially connected, struggled with the language, with listening, with speaking. Loneliness was an enduring feeling in the first weeks, because language connects, and he didn’t have the language. But after those first three months, things improved, and after that, everything accelerated. Only two years later, he stood before me telling me this story in perfectly fluent English, having learned it all orally and by immersion on a succession of farms in Australia. It reminded me that so many things people do are accomplished because they simply do them, and keep doing them, even when they are not doing them very well in the beginning.

Since then, I often think about taking on big goals and projects as putting myself on the watermelon farm. For one, this reminds me I am choosing to do this to myself, and for two, it reminds me that I will be able to accomplish the task, even if the beginning stages are absolutely miserable. Unexpectedly coming to Sweden and learning the ins and outs of the IB program while picking up halfway through the year qualified as a watermelon farm project for sure. More directly connected to L.’s story, when I am struggling through tough patches in my own Swedish language study, I always think of my friend and his time on the watermelon farm. 

Having this approach is useful, because studying Swedish in Sweden often gets reactions ranging from Swedes jokingly saying “why are you bothering learning Swedish?” to expats vigorously defending the idea that the language is impossible to learn due to the prevalence of English. When told that learning Swedish was useless and/or impossible, it motivated me even more, on top of my main motivation to not make the mistake I made my first year in Laos, when I didn’t commit fully and immediately to language study. I have, therefore, spent a lot of time teaching myself Swedish in the last year and a half, on top of recently taking a class and getting untold amounts of help from Swedish friends. At this point, it is hard for me to imagine not having this level of language knowledge. Understanding Swedish, even at my current basic level, has made me feel more connected to Sweden, and connected to people within Sweden, and has without a doubt fundamentally enriched my experience here. Now that my Swedish has gotten more complex, I have multiple interactions a week that give me a feeling of happiness and accomplishment, because I am using something I worked hard for. Having something to show for it, that results in human connection, is deeply satisfying to me. In a strange way, though, it is only by knowing Swedish that I understand the benefits and impact of knowing Swedish. 

Just the other day I came home to find a woman, and her bike, on my front stoop. As I got closer, I saw her furrowed brow, and still closer, she saw me and her expression turned expectant. She asked me, in Swedish, where the pendelt├ąg station for Sollentuna was, and how far it might be. Her words were richly accented from a language I could not place, and they made the Swedish sound lilting in a wholly different way, one I found pleasing and unique and still totally understandable.

I responded back to her, in what I know is my own richly accented Swedish, and gave her directions and approximate times but admitted I was not aware where the bike path started. She immediately replied back that maybe she should just take the train to meet her friend, and I affirmed her choice and wished her well. In spite of our respective flairs of accents, intonations, and melody, neither of us had any hesitations or problems understanding one another. We had a pleasant interaction, she was helped, and then we went our separate ways. 

Interactions like this always get me thinking about the definitions of speaking a language “correctly”. As someone whose mother tongue is English, I am accustomed to hearing English more ways than I can count, with a seemingly infinite number of accents and melodies and intonations, grammatical structures and wording. It never occurs to me to care if someone has a “native” accent in English. I enjoy hearing all the variations of English accented with mother tongues- the guttural persistence of the French r, the musicality of Hindi, the thick twang of Southern accents twisting vowels into entire words, the rolled r’s of Spanish- none of this makes the English less English, and I have never had a problem understanding and being understood. Language does not need perfect pronunciation and grammar to work. If we can understand one another, the language is working just fine. After being here in Sweden for awhile, I can notice different accents in spoken Swedish, but I find them interesting variations, not problems.

What I have noticed, conversely, as a speaker of English learning other languages, is how tortured English speakers get with their expectations of pronunciation perfection when they start trying to learn other languages. Anxiety around pronunciation might be the number one thing holding back language learners- you might know that phrase, or have the words, and maybe you are even sure of the grammar, but you hold back because you know as soon as you open your mouth, you will be found out. And you probably will- but just forge on ahead. Unless you are speaking a tonal language, pronunciation should not be totally making or breaking you, because context also matters. Maybe you pronounce the vowel sound wrong and it sounds like a similarly spelled word, but in the context of the situation 99% of people will be able to fill in the blanks. If ever you feel self conscious about your accent, just remember all the millions of ways you have heard English, remember everyone has an accent of some sort, and then open your mouth and speak whatever language you are trying to learn. Swedish can be daunting for me because it is a musical language, and that melody is hard to hit. I can feel painfully awkward at times, but never speaking it certainly won’t help, so I am just hoping I can talk my way into something that has a bit more flow to it. 

Speaking of pain- learning a language is a monumental task that takes years to refine, and there are definitely painfully embarrassing moments, but it is not impossible to work on the watermelon farm. You do not have to be “good at languages”, or have some magical gift, or even have hours of free time every day. What you do need to have is commitment, consistency, and a drive to do it. If you have zero desire to learn a language, you will never learn that language- and frankly, that’s totally fine. There are only so many hours in a day and days in a life, and we all make choices with how to spend that time. The key is realising when we are making those choices. 

Here is where the watermelon farm story can often be used as an excuse- it’s very easy to hear that story and take a different lesson from it. Maybe something like “Well if I were in that situation I could learn a language, too!” And that wholly misses the point. L made the choice to put himself in that situation. You must also make the choice to put yourself in that kind of situation. And you can do that with language learning. With all the free resources there are now, it is possible to immerse yourself in any language, in any country, wherever you are, if you have access to the internet.

If you have some language learning goals, I highly suggest these two free apps for your phone: Duolingo and Memrise. Another excellent resource I use for general language learning motivation is the site Fluent in 3 Months. While the catchy title means different things to different people, I have yet to find a better aggregation of inspiring stories, useful tips, and motivation to keep studying. 90% of my Swedish study has been based on these three resources, as I only just recently took a Swedish class for conversational practice. Fluent in 3 months has several articles about free or very cheap conversation partners, which is also useful if you are learning a language while living somewhere that language is not widely spoken. 

At the moment, my next step with Swedish is to take the A2 Part 2 course in the fall, and I think I should probably have a weekly conversation partner to force me to talk about things beyond the standard day to day interactions I have at shops. I am looking forward to seeing where my language skills will be a year from now, judging by where I have gotten in about a year of total study time. I have to say that I have surprised myself with what I have learned, and there are often times when I open my mouth and something I don’t remember learning comes out. On the flip side, I also have terrible grammar and word order at times, my verb conjugations are atrocious in the past tense, and I still don’t get the endings of adjectives right. But every time I have used Swedish, no matter how raggedy and American accented, I have been understood, and that’s the main goal for me right now.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Notes from my Socialist Hellhole: Filing Taxes

As an American living abroad, I not only have to file taxes where I live and work (not America) but I have to file taxes where I don't live or work (America). Only two countries in the world require this of citizens living overseas: the U.S. and Eritrea. The exceptionally awful bit is that even if I legally owe zero dollars in taxes to the U.S., I can incur enormous fines for not filing my taxes, or for filing them incorrectly. 

Because of this, I filed my American taxes about a month early. This involved: calculating my salary here, taking into account my taxes, filling out a 1040-EZ, filling out a foreign earned income exclusion form, printing it all out, checking it, signing it, making extra copies for my records,buying stamps, buying envelopes, and then mailing it. Including extensive preliminary research to be sure nothing had changed in international tax laws for American citizens, this took about five hours. 

Here is how I filed taxes in Sweden: the government mailed me a blue envelope, I opened it, made sure the pre-filled form had my correct personal information, and then I logged into an app on my phone and submitted my taxes with a simple checkbox text message. The end.

Since everything runs through an organization known as Skatteverket, the government is able to take my income information, automatically generate it into the correct form, and then automatically print it and mail it to me. As a worker in Sweden, I automatically have a Skatteverket account associated with my personnummer, so it's all taken care of. My tax return amount was already on the form I received, and it will be sent to me via direct deposit (as my bank account is also linked to Skatteverket). 

Taxes filed with a text message confirmation that the form I did not have to request, research, or fill out was correct? I'll take it.