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21 June, 2020

Moving to Sweden During a Pandemic

Moving overseas is an exciting time, where dreams and expectations collide, and where the planning and preparation is filled with giddy anticipation. Moving overseas during a pandemic throws in a lot more complications, but is no less exciting.

My family and I decided to move to Lund, Sweden, from Canada back in February 2020. My husband’s work contract was signed, the cargo ship voyage was confirmed, our kids had been accepted into the International School. The plan was to travel there in June, settle into our new place, enjoy the long, sun-filled days exploring the country and then start school and work along with the rest of the country.

Then COVID-19 hit. 

It spread like wildfire across the globe, changing every country’s ‘normal’ to deep uncertainty. Complete lockdown, toilet-paper hoarding and general chaos followed.

We were living on our 42-foot sailboat at the time and exploring the beautiful islands in the Bahamas. Our family’s year-long sailing journey was coming to an end and we were trying to relish every last dolphin-sighting and beautiful sunset before going back to land-life.

Photo credit @Bonnie Thornington

However, Coronavirus made us wake up and take notice.

Countries were shutting their borders. Citizens were told to stay home. Businesses were going bankrupt. People were losing their jobs. Those lucky enough to keep their jobs were working from home. Children were being educated online. People were dying, afraid and alone. And there was no end in sight.

Decision

In mid-March, we literally made the decision overnight to sail back to Florida in the USA immediately where we could store our boat and rent a van to drive directly north to cross back into Canada. We felt it was the best thing to do in a time of such uncertainty.

The world was facing a dangerous, unknown virus and countries seemed to be making up new policies and rules by the minute. We did not want to get caught up in any travel restrictions or worse, risk being somewhere with no access to affordable healthcare or be a burden on another country’s health system. 

We made it back into Canada and quarantined for 2 weeks. We were the lucky ones; many people around the world were stuck on cruise ships or halfway around the world with very limited options on how to get back to their home country.

Photo credit @Bonnie Thornington

For a while, everything was up in the air. Even though our travel date was in mid-June, we were growing increasingly concerned that the virus was only beginning to wreak its havoc on the world. 

We moved in with my Dad temporarily while we deliberated our options. We were safe, healthy and suddenly found ourselves with a lot of free time on our hands, but the certainty of moving to Sweden was not so certain anymore.

Was the job in Sweden still secure? Would Sweden even let us in? What about travel insurance? If we did go, when would we see our family again?

The cargo ship had cancelled our voyage, so now we were looking at flying. However, not knowing which airlines were operating, we had to figure out which flight was the best to take and hope they wouldn’t go bankrupt in the meantime. 

Sweden

There were many unknowns but we made each decision as best as we could, based on the information we had at hand. We knew this could all change the next day, as it often did, but we were determined to make our way to Sweden one way or another and start our new life there.

We all know Sweden has been the exception in the world regarding how it has approached Coronavirus. Children 16 years and under were still attending school, gatherings could happen as long as they weren’t more than 50 people, shops and restaurants were still open, and the list goes on. Life in Sweden wasn’t exactly how it has always been, but it certainly wasn’t as drastically overturned like it was in the rest of the world. 

I have heard multiple times that Swedes are generally very good at abiding by rules to ensure a safe and harmonious society. So when citizens were recommended by their government to work from home, physical distance and wash their hands more frequently, they did. Still, statistics don’t lie and Sweden has one of the highest death-rates in Europe and the highest among Scandinavia.

Many well-meaning friends and family have warned us to be very careful when we arrive in Sweden, to be extra vigilant and to wear a mask at all times. I have chatted with a few people in the town we will be moving to (expats and locals) regarding the situation ‘on the ground’. It is difficult to know what to expect when all I know is what I read and hear from other people’s viewpoint. Like many things, there is a wide spectrum of responses and tolerance for what is deemed necessary, acceptable and safe.

We understand the risks and considered the pros and cons of moving now instead of delaying by a few months or even a year. To us, it was still worth going now if there was the opportunity.

When we finalized our flight date, everything else was set in motion. We could pack, organize and start to plan our new life in Sweden. It felt like we were on track again. We would be highly vigilant and cautious of course, but a concrete date gave us extra energy and excitement as we continued to prepare for our move.

Photo credit @Bonnie Thornington

Connecting

Networking and social connections play a big part in how integrated you are in Sweden. Word-of-mouth and recommendations carry a lot of weight and it is often the way jobs and rental accommodations are found.

I knew networking may be a bit more challenging in Sweden now with many events cancelled and physical distancing recommended. So I decided to take my networking online and get a head start by connecting with other expats and locals via social media.

This has been a great opportunity to do some pre-arrival research and planning.

Some of the relevant and extremely useful Facebook groups I joined are: North Americans in SwedenCanadians in SwedenParents in MalmöMalmö and Lund International Families and many more!

Learning Swedish

I also wanted to start learning some Swedish so that when I do eventually enrol in an SFI course, I’ll be able to say a few words at the very least.

Some of the best apps/websites that I found really useful were:

  • Duolingo – My favourite app for on-the-go language learning. There is no excuse to NOT do even 5 minutes each day! Simple, easy to use and you can see how much you are improving each time – a great incentive!
  • Learning Swedish – With self-study exercises in speaking and writing, this free program also provides cultural insights into Swedish society.

I also started to watch some Swedish movies and TV shows (with English subtitles). It was a fantastic way to listen to Swedish but the actual shows and multiple plot twists were really riveting too!

  • The Bridge –  A fantastic mystery-drama about a murder that happens on the Øresund Bridge bridge between Copenhagen. I watched this years ago but I am watching it again because it was that good.
  • The Bonus Family – This TV drama illustrates how blended families and relationships affect each other in our modern age. Funny, poignant and truthful.
  • Sami Blood – Excellent film about a coming of age Sami girl who is trying to find her way in the world. Brilliant!
  • Caliphate – A thrilling 6-part drama which delves deeply into today’s relevant issues such as religious extremism, Islamophobia, and human rights. Fantastic characters and a gripping plot.

Moving to Sweden is stepping into the unknown for me. I’ve been to Europe many times and lived in the UK for 5 years, but I’ve never even visited Scandinavia before!

All I know about the country is that they have gorgeous mountains, lakes and forests. Lots of people are tall and blonde. Work-life balance, gender-equality and environmental awareness is at the forefront of many Swede’s approach to life. Lastly, Swedes drink a lot of coffee and eat a lot of candy.

Whether those impressions are completely far-fetched generalizations or absolute truths, I know I will be arriving in Sweden in 5 days’ time with gratitude and relief after having overcome numerous hurdles of moving during a pandemic. I am ready to embrace whatever comes my way and even excited (ok, curious) to try surströmming!


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Bonnie Thornington on Github
Bonnie Thornington
Hej! My name is Bonnie and I'm a Chinese-Canadian who has lived/visited over 60 countries, most recently travelling with my family on our 42-foot sailboat for the past year from Canada down to the Bahamas. I love music, yoga, swimming in oceans and lakes and will try anything at least once. I am excited to be moving to Lund and look forward to immersing myself in Swedish culture - especially fika and lagom! Hope you enjoy my posts as I recount my experiences of relocating and settling into Swedish life during a pandemic!

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