Lessons from Scandinavia

walk-dont-walkA few nights ago I stood on a street corner near my apartment. It was a little before midnight. The air was crisp, the sky was bright, fir garlands twinkled with Christmas lights. I stood alone, nary a car in sight…and waited for the light to change from red to green.

Shit, I thought. I’m practically Danish now.

Five years in Copenhagen has almost completely erased twenty years of proud NYC jaywalking. In a fit of civil disobedience, I crossed against the light. But the fact that it took a conscious thought to do so made me realize how much living in Scandinavia has changed me.

I’m less competitive. As an American abroad, I didn’t have to explain the notion of American exceptionalism because it was evident in everything I did–or did not–do. But five years in Scandinavia has taught me that competing with myself and those around me? All it does is exhaust me. My kids don’t have six activities each. A day. The older one doesn’t play an instrument. Neither one of them is on the chess club. If there is a future checklist of extracurricular activities they need for college acceptance, we’re failing. And after five years here….that’s ok with me. In fact, if they choose not to go to college, that’s ok with me too. They’re kind. They’re happy. They drive me nuts but they are good, inclusive, thoughtful kids. No amount of piano or extracurricular Arabic lessons are going to enhance those qualities. I don’t always succeed and it isn’t always easy, but I’m learning to place those qualities above grades, above awards, above percentile and rankings.

I’ve admire the way Scandinavians look at the world. Scandis are loosely guided by the social principles of Jantelavn, which places the value on the whole rather than the individual. In fact, those who attempt to stand out above the fold are often looked down upon. It’s pretty much in direct opposition to the way I was raised, the way most Americans are raised–in a culture that demands and encourages you to stand up and shout. I hated it at first. I mocked it. They are striving for mediocrity! There’s no innovation! There’s no competition!  There’s no ingenuity! And it’s true. There’s not a whole lot of that. (Or rather there’s plenty, just not by super-sized American standards). What there is though? Contentment.

I’ve seen how social programs can work. Contrary to what many Americans seem to  think, ‘socialized’ health care doesn’t result in people dropping dead on the main drag on a daily basis. Will you get the same level of health care you’d get with a top-tier US insurance plan that’s costing you or your employer $3,000 a month? Nope. Do you need all those bells and whistles? 95% of the time, nope. Will you ever go bankrupt in Scandinavia because you get sick or are in an accident? Nope. But more than the very real benefits of tax money which pays for everyone to have decent health care is the pride the Nordics have in taking care of one another. They all contribute and they all receive. They are proud of the way they’ve structured their economy to look after one other. Nope, it’s not perfect. Yes, there is fraud. But there is a deep-rooted sense of satisfaction which comes from knowing that not only are you taking care of, but you are taken care of. I admire it greatly.

When you get rid of one, two more take its place
When you get rid of one, two more take its place

I’ve learned to worry less. Kid number one goes to Tivoli with a friend on his own. Kid number two walks to the toy store two blocks away by himself to buy Pokemon cards. The 12 y/o rides public transport alone. They go to the park near our house on their own, they stay home by themselves while we do the grocery shopping. And I don’t worry. It’s not that I don’t worry because bad things could happen. It’s that I don’t worry because I’m not immersed in a culture which is so obsessed by worry it that it dictates every action, reaction and counter-action. And by virtue of marinating in a more relaxed atmosphere for five years, I’ve absorbed it. And quite frankly, it’s glorious.

I’ve learned not to look for answers to problems that don’t exist. I realized this the other day sitting in a meeting which was peppered with ‘what ifs?’. It took some scrawny Danish guy from the bus company who shrugged his shoulders and said, “if it becomes an issue, we’ll address it.” And suddenly…it made sense to me. For most of my life I’ve demanded an answer to ‘what if?’. The problem with demanding answers for issues that don’t exist is that once there is one problem, three more follow. It’s like the Hydra. It turns out when you free your mind from could be-maybe-what if? problems, there’s a lot of room for something like…well, happiness.

scandi-nationsScandinavians have it right about a lot of things. Not everything. But a lot of things. They have it right about the work-life balance. They have it right about vacation time. Scandinavians–scratch that–Europeans think Americans are nuts. Oh, and they don’t give a fig if overworked Americans think Europeans are lazy and entitled. You know why? Because they’re sipping drinks on a beach somewhere enjoying their vacation time. Americans take a perverse pride in just how much they are being screwed over. There is a bizarre sense of I must be heartier, stronger, better because I work more and harder for less. It took me eight years of living outside of it to be able to put my finger on that. And I still don’t understand it completely.

I don’t know where life will take us next, what the next chapter will hold. But I hope that the lessons I’ve learned after five years in Scandinavia come with me, wherever we end up.

Hear Me Roar

sisterhood-is-powerfulI talk a lot (no, really, A LOT) about my passion for women’s issues. I talk a lot (A LOT) about how important it is to change the way we think about women, talk about women, and treat women. I talk a never-ending lot about systematic sexism, about reproductive rights.

But I’ve never explained why I’m passionate about these things.

I’ve never explained why I roar.

I roar because for most of my life I have been made to understand I am less than. Sometimes the message is subtle. Sometimes it is as clear as a cartoon anvil landing on your head.

The problem is, I do not feel less than. I don’t wake feeling less than. I don’t approach a situation or a problem and feel I’m unable to do, achieve, or be simply because I am a woman.

And so I roar. I roar because there is nothing about me that feels less than.

There are things I am good at, just as there are things I am not so great at. Some of those things even fall along stereotypical gender lines. I can’t read a map to save my life. In fact, I can’t even follow the GPS on my phone. But while that means I probably shouldn’t get a job as an Uber driver, it doesn’t make me less of a person. Or a person deserving less.

I roar to make sure we make that distinction.

I am passionate because I believe in the strength of women, even though that strength may not be as physically evident as a male’s. A woman’s strength comes from a willingness to compromise, to empathize, to listen. It comes from an instinct for adaptation, change, and growth.

I roar to recognize that strength.

I believe, passionately and to distraction, that empowering women to make decisions about their own bodies is crucial to the function of society. Yes, this includes abortion, but it includes so much more. Providing women with information, resources and access to make informed decisions about the very personal and complex issues we face as women affects every level of society, from the micro to the macro.

Demanding bodily autonomy for women is why I roar, continually and repeatedly.

I roar for your sisters and your daughters so that one day they will know what it is like to walk down the street without having to cross over when a man approaches, to run through the woods with both headphones in, to walk home without their keys in their fist.

Women should not be raped or beaten or killed for rejecting a man’s advances, to satisfy the honor of some imagined wrong, to appease a God. As a woman, I don’t want or need gun-toting advocates rallying outside of a rapist’s house as protection. I want the culture that allows, condones, and yes, justifies rape to stop. That is the protection I want.

That is why I roar.

I roar because women are not punching bags or blow-up dolls. I roar because we exist outside of the Madonna/whore continuum. We are multi-dimensional, we are complex and we are flawed and as such, we choose different paths.

I roar to make sure that we are not forced onto one path. That both the road less travelled and the well-worn path are equally recognized and valued.

I roar so that men understand that if we sometimes put our heads down, it is not because we are weak. It is because we have been strong enough to know that sometimes it’s the only way we will survive.

I roar for the girls who have been silenced, burned, cut, sold or given away. I roar for the women who have been beaten, raped, killed. I roar for those women whose voices are shuttered, who cannot roar for themselves.

roarSo share this with your daughter so she knows I roar so that she won’t feel less than. Share this with your mother or your sister or aunt so they know I roar loud enough for them. Share this with all the women who roar so they know their voices are not alone.

Roar with me.

 

 

 

 

One Foot In, One Foot Out

foot The last few months have been mild with a chance of uncertainty. There have been lows of sorrow and confusion, with projected highs in the upper range of understanding.

I’m exhausted. Yet after a lot of wine and some self-examination, I’ve think I’ve finally managed to diagnose myself.

I’m having a mid-expat life crisis.

We left the U.S. in October of 2008 for what was supposed to be two to three years. I’ve written extensively about that first year abroad in Cyprus, about our time in Copenhagen. About the ups and the downs and the lack of decent black beans. I’ve written about friendships and hardships, guilt, burnout–every time I think I’ve nothing left to write about, something else comes up.

This though, this is a new one for me. I may be far from home, but I suspect I’m far from alone in what I’m experiencing.

After eight years away, I feel like I’m straddling two different worlds. One foot is planted solidly at home while the other is well outside of its borders.

I’m still an American, but after eight years away from America I no longer feel 100% USDA approved.

It’s not surprising. If traveling is enough to broaden your horizons, living outside your culture implodes them. It changes you; for better, for worse, for both. Whether you’re gone for six months or sixteen years, you’re a different person than the one who packed up and left.

It’s a strange feeling when the things that always seemed familiar start to seem unfamiliar, when the once recognizable become unrecognizable.

Broadband and streaming have allowed us to keep up to date with trends. Social media lets us keep up with family and friends. Those things make slipping in and out a whole lot easier. But while I’ve been gone I’ve changed. The folks I left behind have changed. The country I left behind has changed as well.

foot 2

The fact of the matter is, I’m not there, boots on the ground. I can only read and talk and do my best to understand those changes from afar. In one sense, I feel fully engaged because I pay more attention than when I actually lived there. In another, it’s like reading an echo.

I’m not experiencing it. It’s all second-hand smoke signals.

The issues that affect the day-to-day lives of my family and friends don’t affect me. I’m not driving on roads that need fixing or trying to scrape together enough money for a prescription that isn’t covered by my insurance. I dip in and enjoy the good bits and then fly out again, trying to figure out how to fix the bad bits from somewhere else. Not looking down upon, but looking in, at.

I am from America, but living outside of the U.S.  for nearly a decade has changed the way  I identify with being an American.

In a global game of spot the American, I’m probably a fairly easy to target. It’s not just the color of my passport or the whiteness of my very straight teeth. It’s not even the way I will forever pronounce tomato (just like it’s written). It’s the volume of my voice and my ideas, the phrases I use, the small customs I cling to because they’re important to me. It’s a bit of gung-ho, a little chutzpah, some bootstrap pulling but…

…the longer I’m away, the less identifying these things become. My speech has always been supplemented by a few British turns of phrase, but recently I’ve found myself using words that my American friends have trouble recognizing…and not being able to remember the American term at all. I have seen policies that so many Americans swear will never work not only work, but work well. I have found my own balance between what Americans constantly refer to as ‘exceptionalism’ and the less stressed principle of ‘good enough’.

So much of our self-identity is tied up in where we come from. Yet after all this time I feel a strange disconnect from that where. Each year we are away I’m spooling out further from the zone in which I firmly identify as American. At the same time, I’m probably more patriotic and pro-American than I ever was living there.

At what point do you become introduce yourself as being “from America” (or from Britain, Australia, France) as opposed to straight-up “American” (or British, Australian, French)?

I am straddling two worlds with not only with my feet, but with my ideology and my heart.

There are still so many things I miss about the US. I miss big-toothed smiles. I miss small talk with strangers in my own language. I miss people wishing me a good day. Watching the reboot of Ghostbusters with my kids recently I was blindsided by a visceral longing for New York City. For a few minutes in the dark of a Danish movie theatre, I longed to be back in my spirit home. (If others have a spirit animal, then damn it, I’m going to have a spirit home)

foot-xray-CompressI miss corn on the cob and really good ground beef. I miss Target and Labor Day sales and New England beaches. I miss New England. I miss the scale of my country, the grandeur, the seasons, the possibility.

There’s a lot I miss.

There’s a lot I don’t.

One foot in the door, one foot out. It’s a bizarre place to reside, but ultimately not nearly as scary as taking one foot out altogether: From either place.

 

 

 

 

Show Me the Way to Go Home

WofOWhen I traveled back to Denmark in November after my grandmother’s funeral, I was carrying some extra weight with me. A little extra cushioning below the belt (I had been doing so well, too…), a suitcase full of brown paper craft bags (don’t ask), a few new books and a tiny seed of longing to move home tucked in a side pocket.

Funerals are emotional affairs under any circumstance. I’m sure that heightened sense of emotion played a part in returning home to Copenhagen with a mild fever of homesickness. Yet standing there, a giantess among my very short Italian family, I felt like I was back among my people. Even if I did have to bend at the knees to greet most of them. The loudness, the chewing with the mouth open, the jokes bordering on inappropriate–all of that is as familiar to me as the freckles on my face. It felt normal to me. It felt comforting. It felt like home.

There is a strange sense of weightlessness when you come home after being home. For a few hours or a few days, you are caught between the here and now, the now and then, the then and there. It’s like emotional jet-lag, when there are bits and pieces of your heart in two places at once.

Normally, by the time you unpack, by the time you get the seventy-two loads of laundry underway, and after a good night’s sleep in your own bed, you can shake off the feeling of having your head in one time zone and your heart in another. Maybe it was the physical reminders I chose to take, a few sentimental items of my Nana’s. Maybe it was the photographs I took with me. Hell, maybe it was the craft bags. But this time there was a palpable, identifiable yearning waiting for me in between the clothes and the books and the toiletries as I unpacked.

It’s the first time in a long time I’ve felt a pull to go home. We are happy here in Denmark. Sure, we know it’s not a forever home. We know that as the calendar months turn over into years, we’re getting to a point on our timeline when we have to start making plans for the future. So in a way, it was nice to feel that small embryo of “I’m ready to go back home.” And yet..

And yet…I fear I don’t know the way home. What was supposed to be a three stint out of the U.S. is now going into its seventh. The longer we are away, the further the idea of ‘home’ slips from my grasp until I am sometimes afraid I won’t be able to find my way back.

UN

A lot has changed. Politically, socially, economically. Neighborhoods have changed so that I don’t recognize them. The slang is different, favorite restaurants have closed, there are suddenly ubiquitous chains restaurants that didn’t exist when we left. Friends have dispersed, have moved on. Kids have grown up. There have been seismic cultural shifts. But more than anything else, I have changed.

I worry. I worry about fitting in at home, something I’ve never even given a thought to in the past. I worry about being ‘other’ in a place where I should be firmly planted in the ‘us’ camp. I worry that I’ve missed out on cult television shows. I worry I won’t get the references, get the jokes. I worry that I will laugh when people complain about the cost of things because hell, a hamburger costs $20 dollars here. I worry that my kids will have missed out on those sticky early years when friendships are cemented in place.

I worry that moving back to what I’ve always viewed as home is going to be just as much of a shock to the system as moving abroad was, yet without the support network. No one thinks you need a support network when you’re moving where everybody knows your name. I have a sneaking suspicion that’s when you need it the most.

Yet within the uncertainty is also the promise of roots, the promise of the familiar, the promise of a little bit more breathing room. It is the promise of returning from a stupendously, fabulously, every-second-instagram-worthy adventure and falling into your own bed for the first time in ages. The one that is molded to your shape, the one that is not too hard or too soft but is just right. There is a gravitational pull toward the familiar that I think many of us carry with us, a deep-rooted longing to be home.

I would guess that many of  us are also afraid we’ve forgotten how to go back there.

32767884215629736566_610wFor now, we have no immediate plans to sort and pack and call up the shipping company. But the time is coming, I can see it out there on the horizon. Whether or not it’s this move or the next, eventually we will return to what I’ve always, in the back of my mind, considered home. I fervently hope that my short, Italian tribe will still be in abundance and that my exceedingly tall husband and soon to be exceedingly tall children will have the opportunity to bend at the knees to hug them. I hope that when the time comes, I have someone to help show me the way back.

Most of all I hope that when we return, we will feel that our time away has not been too long or too short, but like that bowl full of porridge, just right.