A Year in Sweden

By Leigh Thorsen

I’ve lived almost half my life outside of South Africa, and I’ve just changed country for the third time.

Ten years in the UK, ten in the US, and now, with the California economy tanking on a scale not seen since the ’40s, it seems time to try…one more country.


Leigh with all the stuffed animals
Leigh with all the stuffed animals

My husband John is a Swedish citizen, as are our two children, and I have Permanent Residency status. John and I met in London, married and moved to the US soon after; and started a computer graphics business in Santa Rosa, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco.

We’ve had a reasonably good run of things in California, but like so many small businesses we’ve taken a beating since the onset of the global recession in 2007. So, after much agonising and by mutual consent, it’s decided that I will move to Sweden with the kids, and leave John behind to shore up our beleagured home and business.

John’s working on a project that should keep him busy till the end of the year. We hope that in the intervening months the phones will start ringing again, or that he can get a job to tide us over the worst of the slump. If not, we’ll rent out our house, pack up our stuff, and he’ll join us in Sweden in early 2010. He might even bring the cats. (Claudia has already made a transatlantic move, most succesfully.)

However, if the US economy picks up, and life in California starts to look viable again, we’ll have to decide, once and for all, exactly where it is we’d like to live: Europe or the US. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t just go back to South Africa. Trouble is, the more you move, the more complicated it gets, as each new country comes with its own unique set of pros and cons…

In short, there are many reasons for this major family upheaval, but there’s no denying that right now Sweden seems particularly attractive: free health care for the kids, the possibility at least of employment for myself, and what appears to be an admirable social system that will support us till I get working again.

My American friends encourage me to go for it. Why not? After two years of entrenched recession I’m hearing a lot less about how the US is the ‘best in the world’ at, well, just about everything. I’m now deeply disenchanted with the US, despite the advent of our new President, who looks like he’s got way too much on his plate right now to make anything better in a hurry. Time for a change.

That said, I’m an old hand at this moving countries game. It’s not that easy, and we’ve got two kids to think of. It’s all a far cry from my initial move from Jo’burg for the traditional ‘year in London’. That turned out to be ten years in London, with an onward flight to California and no going home. Now I’ve got a husband, a business, a mortgage, children and two cats to consider: No more ‘up and offing’ at a moment’s notice.

So John and I strike a deal: I’ll try life in Sweden for a year. He’ll stay behind, and hopefully, make enough to keep our house, keep our business. If the US economy picks up, and Obama can push through a halfway decent public health plan, I’ll put away my skis and head for home (did I just call California ‘home’? I confuse myself at times).

To be honest, I don’t have skis. Don’t like snow at all in fact.

I grew up in Durban, and incline to surf, sand and long, tall palm trees.

It seems, though, there’s a way we can compromise: I could stay in Trelleborg, a port city in the very south of Sweden, complete with palm trees.¬† They even have an annual Palm Fest, right at the end of August. Let’s call it the Durban of the North.

Besides, my mother-in-law lives there. She’s 89, lives alone, and her health’s not great. She needs someone to keep an eye on her. It seems to make sense somehow: the children and I will move in with their grandma (we’ll call her granny in Swedish style, which is FarMor), I’ll learn Swedish and look for a job, and the children will get to know their Swedish roots.

Natasha in Sweden
Natasha in Sweden

Natasha and Ross are sceptical about this plan. Not surprisingly, they don’t want to leave home. Sweden is OK for a visit, and they like nothing better than a romp with their cousins in Stockholm, but they have no intention of actually living there or anywhere else.

I have to face facts: At heart these two are true blue Californians. I can harp on about their Swedish-South African roots as much as I like, feed them ProNutro for breakfast (chocolate flavor!), and Swedish meatballs for dinner, but I am aware that I am uprooting them from their real home – for a while at least – in the most painful way.

Still, my kids like an adventure, and in the end they agree. We can keep in touch with everyone in California by email, Skype, Facebook – whatever. We’ll talk to Daddy on the phone every day, and order chocolate-flavored ProNutro from England. The wonders of computer technology allow me to strike some powerful deals.

What about a puppy? asks Natasha, who’s always inclined to push the envelope.

Obama may have fallen for this, but not me.

No puppies, is my firm reply. I can’t think of anything less suitable right now.

Unless…unless we decide to stay in Sweden? she persists.

Well, maybe.

In the end they agree to give it a whirl, and so the tickets are booked for the end of July. We depart from San Francisco with six bulging suitcases, and an awful lot of stuffed animals.

Ross in Trell
Ross in Trelleborg

Transferring this lot from Stockholm Central Station for our fast rail connection to Malm√∂, en route to Trelleborg, is almost enough to make me rethink the whole adventure. We cross miles of platforms, struggle with the complexities of the Swedish Krone (why can’t you just do the Euro, Sweden?), and collapse, cross and exhausted, into a taxi some six hours later.

Our taxi driver is Iranian, and tells us he emigrated to Sweden when he was eight. He’s an enthusiastic advocate for his new homeland, but wonders why we would leave California for…he pauses… well, for Trelleborg.

California is kaput – for the moment, I explain airly. There’s a terrible governor in charge, you know, Schwartzenegger, the actor in those Terminator movies. The taxi driver agrees that this is indeed a strange choice of leader for the world’s eighth biggest economy. He’s sorry we had to move on – such a good climate we’ve left behind! – but he’s sure we’ll be very happy in Sweden.

He thinks the school system is great, and he’s still in touch with his very first Swedish teacher. Our children will integrate very fast, no problem, he assures me.

Natasha and Ross at The Legs Fountain
Natasha and Ross at The Legs Fountain

Finally, finally, we draw into Trelleborg. It is about six pm and the city is shrouded in shades of gray. But what hits us hard is the stench from the Baltic, a sulphorous odour that I’ve never noticed on earlier visits.

Our driver notes our expressions. It’s just algae from the sea, he explains cheerfully. You’ll get used to it!

That was two months ago.

Our driver was right about one thing: the school system is wonderful. We love it.

But we still haven’t gotten used to the smell.


1 COMMENT

  1. I just happened to come across your name on this site and I am most interested in knowing whether you have relatives in Norway. Are you the daughter of Harald Thorsen and the granddaughter of Ellen and Henry Thorsen?Ellen was my father’s sister and emigrated to SA from Haugesund, Norway. I live in Stavanger; Norway.

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