Sometimes the best way to understand what you like and dislike about a country is to leave it for some time. The cultural translation, bracketing, brokerage; the cultural shocks one experiences in transitioning between two places, allow to understand deeper what we cherish and what we abhor about them.
Every year I travel to India with my husband and son for a month or two to escape the Swedish winter and spend time with our Indian family. This time I took it as an opportunity to reflect on our life in Sweden through my experience of being outside it; more than that, being in a country which is drastically different economically, socially, and culturally. I am not comparing them, because such a comparison is meaningless. Rather, I note what I missed about Sweden while in India – and what I miss about India when I am back in Sweden.
What I missed about Sweden while being in India…
Beauty and elegance
No other country I have been to beats Sweden when it comes to the beauty of the surroundings, both natural and human-made, and the incredible sense of connection of the two. Stockholm is a thing of beauty, where architecture and landscape perform a little pas-de-deux. Nowhere have I seen the ability of landscape architects, city planners, interior designers to create such a perfect sense of unity between the natural and artificial elements of the surroundings. The Swedes, a highly educated, humble and sophisticated nation, have magically managed to preserve a connection to nature which, I suspect, has a religious status in this highly secular society (I have this religious feeling when I go, for example, to Artipelag).
Even though, to be frank, Scandinavian design tires me a bit after six years of living here, I still hold it as an absolute benchmark of beauty and elegance. I often find that, whenever I go south, things tend to start looking a little gaudy. Christmas decorations, packaging, clothing, interiors – nowhere I find these mundane elements of everyday life as elegant and tasteful as in the North. Of course, I have seen designs of breath-taking beauty in the South of Europe and in Asia, and, as I said, sometimes it is the very simplicity and neutrality of the Scandinavian aesthetics that tires me – but it has become a home base to which I will always return from my east- and southbound adventures.
Privacy and independence
While in India, I was desperately looking for a more diplomatic synonym for ‘people minding their own business’. Privacy is a coveted and rarely found luxury in India – but it Sweden it is ample and, perhaps, sometimes a little bit in excess. The respect of the other’s personal space is coded firmly into Swedish etiquette, organisation of public spaces, educational programmes, the very fabric of society, for better or worse. Privacy and inviolability of a person go hand-in-hand with the value of absolute personal independence. Of course, independence is to some extent an illusion – we all depend on each other as long as we live in a society, because that’s how it functions – but nowhere else in the world have I enjoyed such extreme sense of freedom and autonomy as I have in Sweden.
In Sweden, surprises are minimised. Of course, there are hiccups with trains and buses on a regular basis – but those are usually quickly fixed. Everyone, especially Swedes themselves, are complaining about Swedish bureaucracy, Swedish public services, Swedish weather – but to be honest, after having lived in Russia and India, I find the Swedish bureaucracy, the Swedish public services and the Swedish weather (at least on the East Coast) the most predictable and benign things in the world.
Reliability is also the trademark of the Swedish working life. Here you generally know what is expected of you, and you are given a large credit of trust from the beginning, and, as long as you prove you are worthy of that trust by delivering the best results you can, you will be able to achieve your goals and be respected by your colleagues. By the same token, transparency and accountability is something you can expect from others, and teamwork is usually valued very highly.
Equality may not readily be seen as something one can directly observe in a society – but it is. Unfortunately, like everywhere in the world, this foundation of the modern Swedish society has been somewhat eroding in the past years, but still, this feature is quite striking – just as striking as the contrasts between castes and classes immediately observable in India.
However, ‘equality’ may not be the right word for what one sees in Sweden. A more precise term would probably be ‘the existence of a large middle class’. The highly educated middle class with an adequate quality of life, social security and personal freedom has dictated the values of the Swedish society. This society is far from perfect and, offering a generous gesture of acceptance of large numbers of asylum seekers, has struggled to become a cohesive multicultural society. And yet, I hope that the values of equality, solidarity and mutual respect are deeply enough ingrained in the Swedish mentality, and they will be able to prevail, and multiculturalism in Sweden will be able to live up to these values on a practical level.
What I will miss about India when I am back in Sweden…
Diversity and vibrancy
In India, you can find everything under the sun. And I mean it. This society constantly defies and de-defines itself; as soon as you think you’ve figured it out, it shows you its other face. Or faces. As soon as you say something, anything about India – it proves to be the opposite.
There is something liberating in this experience. You can sit and stare at everything and everyone – it is a never-ending spectacle. There is no uniform, no universal standard. At times, it gets tiring, visually and sensually overpowering. But it is enjoyable.
Being fashionably late
In Sweden, we come on time and in time. Once I confused the time of my regular check-up appointment at the BVC (the childcare centre), and came twenty minutes early, as I thought – but actually ten minutes late. We were asked to reschedule the appointment, although we still had twenty minutes in which we could be admitted. It was explained as being to the benefit of the child, ‘so that we don’t have to rush things and it doesn’t become stressful’. I couldn’t but agree. But it also feels funny, as in a country like India the timing of an appointment is a relative thing.
In India, I find some kind of a quirky joy in trying to figure out, by how late should one actually be, depending on the occasion. A movie? Twenty minutes after the time shown in the ticket (to skip the commercials). A wedding function? At least an hour in Mumbai, at least two hours in Delhi. A business meeting? You set out around the time you need to set out to get there on time, and then ring the other person on the way to update them on the traffic. Because you will be at least an hour late, unless you’re meeting in the middle of the night. So it’s not about what time you need to be there, it’s about how late you can be.
Flexibility and spontaneity do not really exist in Sweden. At least not spontaneously – they need to be built into the design, the schedule, the plan. Being very far from a spontaneous person myself, I enjoy that. But I also enjoy the opposite – the opportunity to ‘go with the flow’, ‘see what happens’, ‘take it as it comes’. Well, at least as an exercise to toughen my nerves a little. And test my level of ‘zen’.
The ecology of interconnectedness
And this is the actual reason why I come to India. The reason, perhaps unconscious, why I married an Indian in the first place. As much as I crave freedom, independence, self-sufficiency, autonomy – I know they are illusions. For better or worse, everything and everyone is interconnected and interdependent – and India is a way to experience it. The Swedish Theory of Love is of course nothing but a caricature of Sweden, and yet it shows a perspective on to what extreme the idea of an independence of an individual can lead – and that perspective also has a right to exist. We are all dependent on something or someone. Unity with others comes at a high personal cost – but it is ultimately meaningful and rewarding. In a paradoxical way, the Indian society may be unequal, male-dominant, with deeply rooted prejudices – and yet it often feels much more cohesive, tightly knit than the Swedish one.
I am sure that all of us, newbies and not-very-newbies, expats and migrants, have similar experiences of finding a home away from home in Sweden. What is it that you miss most about it when you are out of the country?