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Expats in Sweden during the pandemic: Linda's story

People hear about Sweden’s public health policy as a“social experiment” in regards to the coronavirus but unless they are here, they can’t understand the daily reality of what life is like here. My friends and family back in New York were jealous that “everything” was open, and daily life unblemished… life was going on as it had been. These were misconceptions. Since I was social distancing, I couldn’t go out and meet people. In my photographing, I tried to portray the contrast between the isolation that I often felt in juxtaposition to the Swedish crowds of friends and family who appeared unaware of the restrictions of a global pandemic. For that reason, I captured cafes, as well as peering in through windows, a voyeur capturing the spirit of Sweden in a pandemic. I have been both an observer and recorder of history, a critic and defender of the ways in which Sweden has handled the situation. My sister sends me photos of New Yorkers proudly sporting masks and I agree. Masks aren’t invasive. They have been proven to reduce the virus substantially. I have tried to explain to the Swedish people with whom I speak that if the country requires seatbelts and helmets for safety, and encourages condoms, masks are also preventative. This often falls on deaf ears. That said, have I enjoyed not being in lockdown? Yes!!

I didn’t intend on becoming an expat in Sweden.

I wound up here by default. We were all just learning about this horrible disease when I was living in London. No one knew how to treat it; people were dying in droves. Spain and Italy had been hit the hardest. The shared videos by medical staff describing the lack of resources was terrifying. In response to the increasing cases of COVID, the NHS announced the intention of rationing care (deciding who would get the ventilators according to age, and perhaps more). I chose to fly to Sweden to be near my daughter. I left on March 15th. On March 19th, travel was eliminated. My plans to work on a participatory video project in Portugal addressing the assimilation and integration issues of “migrants,” fell apart. As time went on (I’ve been in Sweden for nearly 6 months and just extended my visitors permit), I began to have an awareness of how it felt to be transplanted in another country. Social distancing and isolation became synonymous although Sweden had only advised that people over 70 stay home making it hard to photograph. I began to see how I felt the same resistance to assimilation and integration as an expat that immigrants might feel. We were allowed to be here, but we didn’t completely fit in, nor...to be honest... did I want to do so. I missed home, my culture and food. Ah.. the food.. I told my sister in New York about how I would kill for a New York bagel. I listened to Governor Cuomo’s daily coronavirus information sessions that connected me to the New York I know, but I was here and trying to reconcile myself to the way the Swedes were dealing with the virus. It wasn’t just the pandemic, but the difference in culture. I think what troubled me the most was the lack of diversity that I witnessed here. To use an odd phrase, it was foreign to me. I could now well understand the plight of migrants who wanted to (or in my case, had to) be elsewhere but wanted to bring their culture with them. It wasn’t possible. I, too, had to change. Still, I swore off Swedish meatballs within one month.

I behaved like a tourist through most of March and April. There were not as many COVID cases here as the UK, or New York, but still when I arrived, there was an air of uncertainty. I had only brought a few clothes, but certain that I would return to London in a few weeks, I had left my computer and other belongings assuming that I would only be here for a couple of weeks. I can still picture my pink rain boots on the floor beckoning me. I wanted to do a “command-find” and drag them here like a misplaced file.

When I first arrived here, there were not as many COVID cases here as the UK, but still there was an air of uncertainty. I stayed at the Skanstulls Hostel because I had stayed there before over the Christmas holidays. The Hostel is a beautifully decorated hostel on Ringvagen in Soder decorated with Victorian style lamps and furniture, and quirky designs in each room. The owners and staff (now significantly reduced) were welcoming; I felt at home. I was used to the large open kitchen available for use with its endless supply of pasta, stainless steel pots and pans and seating area. In my previous visit last December, I had stayed in a small room without a bathroom, but due to my fear of catching COVID, I chose a room with a private bath. The owners explained that the government had not yet made a decision on whether hotels, hostels, restaurants or stores would be kept open or closed. The restrictions were, like much of the world, a work in progress. Since I didn’t know if I could stay, we agreed that I could pay every few days with the understanding that if they suddenly were ordered to close,’ I’d receive a refund. They had sent their cleaning staff home so the guests, of which there were about 5, were expected to clean up themselves, and watch over each other to ensure that no one was “sick” and spreading the virus. Every few days, I could bring my dirty sheets and towels in exchange for another set. At this time, there were two men from Spain who had returned in time before the lockdown there, a couple from Sweden who were between apartments, and me. Rumor had it that there was another woman but as I had my own bathroom, I didn’t see her. We were careful not to leave dirty dishes. I bought hand sanitizer and wipes. Since we had a plastic card to swipe in and out of the kitchen and our rooms, I swabbed the card before and after entering anywhere. There were two large refrigerators. Again, out of an abundance of caution, I swabbed the handles, too.

I followed the rules at the hostel, as did all of us swept up in the madness of the early days of a pandemic in a collective environment. After one man had a fever, and his girlfriend did too, I began to worry about the shared kitchen. My daughter found me a private place where I could worry less about contamination and use less hand sanitizer. Going into and out of the kitchen, swiping the card each time had become an extraordinary nuisance. I left the cozy warmth of the hostel for a sublet. I expected to be here a couple more weeks. Of course, as we all know now, the pandemic soared in global proportions. The virus increased in Sweden, as elsewhere, but there was no hard line by the government to close the hostel. The restriction limited crowds of more than 50 people. Sweden had taken what others described as an ‘unconventional” way to deal with this problem according to Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s State Epidemiologist but without enforcement. People were told to “socially distance and stay two-meters away.” Those over 70 were told to stay home to protect themselves. To me, it felt like ‘house arrest.”The joke they tell here about the two-meter rule is that the Swedish want to know “Why so close?” That said, it looked to me like people mingled in large groups close together. I decided to see how much actual compliance I observed. I knew that were often large groups of teenagers and children hanging out on the street, in the bars, restaurants and so on. In fact, on the street where I was staying, twenty somethings can be heard shouting, laughing and talking until 5:00AM. The long hours of daylight contribute to this.

When I began, I expected to confirm my hypothesis that no one was socially distancing, but on some days when I shot, I had to admit that this wasn’t the case. Sometimes, I even saw people wearing masks in the grocery store, clothing stores, on the street. For the most part, however, people didn’t wear them. In fact, one woman I interviewed on the phone told me about “mask-shaming” a result of the lack of mandate to wear them, and the resistance movement that had evolved. Personally, sometimes, I felt that people regarded me with the same piteous look they might have for a burn victim.

International news organizations frequently took the same sort of pics that I had… showing people crowding together at restaurants. Unlike New Yorkers who are quick to question everything the government does, here residents adhere to the regulations that when the government says, “shall” keep a distance, it means “will.” Although they say that they follow Social distancing,I didn’t find that to be universally the case in the months that I have been spending here. Of course, some people seem to be isolating, but I wouldn’t see them similar to a convention for agoraphobics. It’s more hit or miss but much fewer people appear to remain two meters away.

Unlike other countries, Sweden’s hair and nail salons and tattoo parlors were open. I didn’t care so much about my nails, and wasn’t in the market for a tattoo, but I would have liked to have my hair cut. I’m still waiting for this. The barbers and hair stylists haven’t changed or reduced services which is very different than the rest of the world. I haven’t had a haircut in 5 months. Not only are these places, open but few people wear masks although salons and barbershops are high risk places. They don’t wear masks because the policy didn’t mandate it. My friends back in the states and the UK were all wearing masks both on the streets and in stores when allowed to go out. Unlike Sweden, people in the UK were on an outdoor diet restriction of one hour a day. The rest of the world was masking up. My sister sent me a picture of the Upper West Side of Manhattan with masked customers. New Yorkers had gone from the epicenter of the virus to a rate of below 1 as a result of masks. As such, they had achieved greatness and overcome the odds while in Sweden, people felt that they could accomplish the same without “infringing” on personal liberties. I had to admit that here, I was enjoying the ability to go into stores, markets and occasionally a restaurant. I even went to a swimming pool a couple of times and stayed at hotels a few times despite being in the high-risk group. The hotel visits were like a “dirty little secret”…staying in a hotel during the pandemic while New Yorkers like much of the world was in lockdown.

I wanted to stay at a hotel for my birthday in May. It seemed reckless but the fact that the hotels were open enticed me. I looked at several in Stockholm. One elegant one was very generous in offering me a special price. On my way out, I ran into a couple who told me that there were only 5 people staying in the hotel. Most hotels had eliminated the buffet breakfasts and were only offering “take away.” Some, however, were still acting as if things were unchanged.

I stayed at two hotels during this time:once at the Hotel Kung Carl; BW Premier Collection. Due to the pandemic, the included breakfast was takeaway. The room was regal and luxurious, a welcome respite. The staff was exceedingly kind; hand sanitizers were kept in plain sight. Although I had been apprehensive about staying at a hotel at this time, I felt confident and comfortable that they were taking precautions.

Another act of normalcy was going to the Mall of Sweden. I wore a mask, as did a few people. The mall was crowded with shoppers. I went to the Apple store at Taby Centrum where people stood outside in line, had their temperatures taken, given masks and hand sanitizers and then allowed to go in. This seemed to be a good compromise to total lockdown. It worked here.

With the arrival of the summer heat, I desperately wanted to go swimming. The hotel outdoor pools (I wasn’t comfortable about indoor pools) were expensive and cost extra even for guests. I found one hotel, The Winery Hotel, that had a pool included with the stay. The rooftop outdoor pool was small, but a perfect temperature although in keeping with the Scandinavian volatile weather conditions, it was cold outside. It was decorated in industrial style, had a full breakfast buffet but gloves and hand sanitizers sitting atop the buffet table. I didn’t eat from the buffet (not that confident) but did have coffee and eggs cooked to order.

Sweden prides itself on being welcoming to migrants but it is nothing like the diversity of New York. There seems to be a schism between the policy and the reality. For my research, I was exploring the idea of assimilation and integration of migrants. As an academic, the topic was from a distant perspective. I had an epiphany around July. As an expat, I began to have a rich understanding of the challenges imposed by another culture. I wanted Sweden to be more like home. Things I had taken for granted did not exist here. The Swedish culture was different. I tried to understand the Swedish lifestyle from a New York perspective which wasn’t easy. It had taken me time to understand the subtleties of “outsider.” The issues that migrants face became more relevant as an expat. For one thing, I don’t speak Swedish, although initially I tried to learn some. The language was far more difficult than I thought. Since people speak English in Sweden, especially Stockholm where I have been spending my time, I became lazy in my attempts at the language. In fact, one of the expats in a Facebook thread said a doctor she visited complained about this very issue. “Everyone speaks English, so people get lazy and don’t learn Swedish.” The manner in which the message was delivered was cold and abrupt, but I am guilty as charged. While it is true that many people speak English, the problem is most websites and information are almost entirely in Swedish. In fact, my visa was written completely in Swedish. My daughter’s boyfriend had to translate. This lack of translating information into other languages was pointed out to me by others, as well. I was used to the United States which printed most government communiques in several languages. In fact, one website wrote about the issue of the lack of COVID information in other languages. This lack is considered to be an inducement to learning the language. Although Sweden is “open,” the language schools were closed. For my research, I was exploring the idea of assimilation and integration of migrants. As an academic, the topic was from a distant perspective. As an expat, I began to have a rich understanding of the challenges imposed by another culture. I wanted Sweden to be more like home. Things I had taken for granted did not exist here.

Back home in the US, my friends and family (and I in agreement from afar) were rebelling against the lack of uniform policy and direction from the government there. I continued to listen to NY Governor, Andrew Cuomo to keep abreast of the news. Many people weren’t buying the “party line,” but here, it was different. Since the COVID policy relegates responsibility to the people to comply with the public health policy, socially distancing is vague at best and I found people with conflicting views. Some people were more outspoken about their views, such as a guy at an outdoor cafe who said “I think this whole thing is a hoax. It is like the flu. It won’t hurt me. I’m going to go to work and go out and do whatever I want.”

The Scandinavian summer was late in its arrival. It wasn’t warm until July, but the nights were bright with the midnight sun. Sometimes, I would wake up in the middle of the night to see the brief two hours of darkness. I became used to it to some extent. It rained nearly every day. Someone said that the psychology behind the lack of a lockdown was how long and early the winter darkness was here.

In an effort to encourage sunbathing in the city, there was an area of chairs for sunbathers to sit.... right in the middle of Stockholm. People of all ages came and sat, reading, eating, chatting or resting. Most restaurants had outdoor areas but unmasked. A waitress at an outdoor restaurant said that she had just returned from London where she had been quarantined for two weeks. Upon her return, she felt uncomfortable not wearing a mask and wanted to do so at work, but her mother stopped her saying, “Don’t do that. You will scare the customers away.”

She was right; there was an undercurrent of mask mocking. So few people wear masks that when someone does wear one, they are regarded as “different” like the kid who wears a bathing suit in an elegant restaurant.

I was feeling trapped in Stockholm, so my daughter and I took a commuter train to Sigtuna, a pretty little town an hour or so outside the city. I wondered if most people would or would not wear masks in a tourist town. From what I saw, it was much like Stockholm, maybe a few less. I snapped this shot of a woman wearing a mask at a restaurant, and one of my favorites, the tiny statue in a window wearing a mask.

For months, I had walked all over Stockholm, sometimes 7 miles a day. I was centrally located but I took the same route around the island past Slussen where construction made for an uphill climb with little redeeming value other than a view of the Fotographiska Museum, through Gamla Stan, the artistic area with quaint restaurants, shops and touristy boutiques. The cobblestone streets weave in and out giving it the feel of an old city (more like Gothenburg). Some photos I took show the cozy restaurants although many were closed for much of the “spring.”

It is now September,and a return to the US is nowhere in immediate sight. Not only are the flights long and circuitous, but tenuous. The US has the highest COVID rate in the world. I have requested an extension of my visitor permit and hope to share more in my next adventure.

As a final word, I would never have thought or chosen to be in Sweden for months on end, but, I can always say that I was living in the social experiment during the pandemic. I was able to create a photobook, Sweden UNMasked although if someone asked me about doing that prior to all this,I would never have thought that would be something I’d do. I guess that’s life. It decides for us.This is what it has been like from the eyes of a New Yorker. I’m adjusting to life here but I think it’s true what they say, “You can take the girl out of New York, but you can’t take the New York out of the girl.” Is that true of all expats, I wonder?