Have You Ever Immigrated To Sweden?

Immigration to a country is tough. My adventure started with falling in love and marrying a Swedish citizen. I had to move to Sweden and start a brand-new life there.

17 mins read
Swedish flag
A Swedish flag hanging from a pole on a brown wall. Photo: Jonathan Brinkhorst / Unsplash

If immigrating to a country is an obligation brought to you by “marriage,” it couldn’t matter less what country you are moving to. Because marriage itself is a whole different country; with its love, sorrows, joys, arguments, its own budget, agenda, domestic and external affairs, even its own war and peace.

My wife, who is a Swedish citizen, told me it would be better for us to marry in Sweden so that I could get a residence permit more easily there. We married in a small city in Sweden and started waiting for my residence permit. During this process, a number of documents were requested from me, including photos of me and my wife together and an essay on how we met each other.

I visited Sweden several times for my residence permit application over the course of nine months. The first thing that I admired in the country was the fact that people were “not in a rush.” They looked peaceful and life was tranquil. It did not matter whether you stood on the left side or the right side while riding on subway escalators. No smartass would quickly pass by without even looking at your face, after reminding you that you should move right, like it would be the case in New York, London or Istanbul.

The weather was cold, but it wasn’t a big deal for me. It got dark at around 3:30 p.m. in winter, but I was a night owl anyway. I also remember that I didn’t care much about suicide statistics and other depression-related negative Sweden propaganda I heard from my wife.

Beggars, ‘The Loyal Residents Of Streets’

There are various ways of being introduced to a city. For me, it is the streets that give you the first impression. Beggars, the loyal residents of streets, have always been the center of attention for me. They give you a good preview of that city. For instance, in India, beggars are everywhere. They appear right in front of you after you walk out of bus terminals or airports. They rub their bellies and then make a hand gesture towards their mouths to mean that they are hungry.

Some years ago in New York, I had come across a beggar sitting behind a sign that read “I need money for hookers, beer and drugs. I’m not kidding.” I saw the likes of it in Germany and the Netherlands, as well. Beggars in Turkey and Saudi Arabia take spots outside mosques and in packed open air markets. “May God bless you!” is their opening phrase and they get pretty talkative after that.

I was getting out of a public library in Sweden, when I saw a beggar sitting next to the exit. He was playing Candy Crush on his smartphone that was connected to his power bank. He only shouted “Hey hey!” “Hey hey!” at passers-by with a big smile on his face. His IBAN was written on the sign near him. I think this man was the first Swede that I gave some thought to.

Meeting The Deceitful Sun Of Sweden

Following my trips to the country, the big day arrived and I booked my one-way ticket to Sweden. I stepped on its snow-covered soil in January. And I clearly remember my first morning.

Like one of those TV commercials of some tropical juice, such a bright sunlight came through the window. I opened the curtains with so much joy. The white cover of the earth was glowing. I randomly picked one of the Swedish coffees my wife got me and made it. Then I rolled up my tobacco, but of course I wasn’t going to smoke it indoors; I wasn’t that ignorant.

I just threw myself outside the front door in my shorts and T-shirt. That was when I met the non-warming, hypocritical Swedish sun. For the first time in my life, I thought that Hell could actually be an icy cold place. After taking a few hits, I had to put out my rollie in a fish can. My wife was laughing at me as I rushed back in and put on more clothes. “The sun here is like a lamp,” she said. It was true, the apperance was misleading.

The fact that even cashiers at grocery stores spoke frequent English tricked me into thinking I had no language barriers. At the very least, it was really nice that a Swede wouldn’t mind that you spoke English. However, I couldn’t go on like that. Not speaking Swedish would give me trouble while seeking a job.

Taking Swedish Classes Eventually

Following a month-long resting at home, I started attending Swedish classes. There were students in the classroom from all walks of life; from the UK, Syria, India, Kenya, Eritre. They ended up in Sweden for various reasons; they couldn’t find what they were looking for elsewhere, took a job offer they couldn’t refuse, fled a war-torn country, married a Swedish citizen like me or some other reason.

Of course they didn’t call dog a “dog,” but the Swedish language was not too far from English in the end. When it came to speaking, my lazy brain immediately switched my speech to English, but my test scores were good, and I was improving my reading and writing. “Hej”meant “Hi” and “Hejdå” meant “Goodbye.” Strangely, I had to put so much effort to stop confusing one with the other.

Even though my teacher and the other students thought I was kidding when I said “Hejdå” entering the classroom, and “Hej” getting out, I was seriously mixing the two. I actually still laugh about it.

Legend Of Zlatan Everywhere

I started watching Swedish TV series. But before I get to that, I should tell you about Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Swedish footballer. The face of Ibrahimovic was everywhere, all over the streets. There was always a book about him in the best-sellers section of every bookstore.

From one of those books I flipped through, I remember this sentence: “Man kan ta en kille från getto men man kan inte ta getto från en kille.” The sentence that I can roughly translate with my not-so-perfect Swedish as “You can get a child out of a ghetto, but you cannot take ghetto out of a child” was indeed the best summary to understand Ibrahimovic, according to many Swedes I talked to.

In a Swedish series, I heard a striking line about Ibrahimovic. A poor immigrant boy, who is doing well at school but constantly insulted by his class mates reacted to the Swedish girl he had a crush on: “You guys love Zlatan. And you love it best when he says ‘I have never read a book’ or ‘Girls can’t play football.’ Because that is what immigrants are to you. They are uneducated misogynists. But you still love them, because you are ‘tolerant’.” The girl got frustrated at his unfair and exaggerated comments, objecting to his generalization.

‘Never More Than A Foreigner’

It gave me so much joy every time I saw Swedish translations of books by Orhan Pamuk in second-hand bookstores. My wife often buys me one. Needless to say, Sweden is a Heaven in terms of libraries. As I kept studying Swedish, I was introduced to the book Ett Nytt Land Utanför Mitt Fönster (A New Country Outside My Window) by Theodor Kallifatides, who came to Sweden from Greece while in his 20s. You can spot his books in foreign authors sections of libraries.

Kallifatides says he was never able to be more than a foreigner in this country, and was always regarded as a “foreigner” despite his efforts to identify himself with Swedish people and their culture. “Bookstores still display my works in the section of foreign authors, after around 30 Swedish books I wrote,” he notes.

The main reason I felt the need to mention Kallifadites as I speak about being an immigrant in Sweden is this remark by him:

“Det var viktigt att inte bli en främling i mina landsmäns ögon, sedan blev det viktigt att inte vara en främling i svenskarnas ögon. Det slutade med att jag blev främling inför båda.” (It was important not to be a stranger in the eyes of my fellow countrymen, then it became important not to be a stranger in the eyes of the Swedes. I ended up being a stranger to both.)

You Need To Ask For Help Verbally

The government of Sweden paid me 650 Euro monthly during my attendance to the language school. But you should take into consideration that our 55 square meter apartment (592 square feet) costs us 900 Euro in rent every month.

Swedes are extremely kind people, but I should give you a little tip. Whatever it is about, you should relay your request for help verbally. For instance, if you are carrying multiple suitcases, nobody would give you a hand unless you specifically ask for it. However, the second you ask for help, pretty much every passer by would be volunteering for it.

I asked a Swede with an exaggerated argument: “If I lay down on the ground, bleeding, nobody would help me, but if I ask for help, they would carry me to a hospital on their back, why?” He realized that I was exaggerating, but he knew what I meant: “We, Swedes, dread disturbing others.” It was true. With almost everyone I met, most of the time I was the one to take the first step towards them. I’m assuming this is exactly the reason why you don’t see any employees around asking “How may I help you?” while you shop in stores.

Bleeding Man Waiting In Hospital Line

Because I lived in other countries before, Swedes did not quite surprise me. That being said, there were times I had truly stunning experiences. My wife and I went to a hospital once for her kidney stone. While a nurse was taking care of my wife, I was waiting in the line for some paperwork. I was the third in the line, and there was an Asian woman in front of me.

Then the entrance door of the hospital opened, and a Swede walked in, shaking off snow from his shoes. He stood right behind me, after greeting me. His right hand was wrapped in a grocery bag and blood dripping from the bag was hitting the gray floor. I panicked and told him to take our spot. With a pretty calm face, he thanked me. But this time, he starting waiting behind the Asian woman, while his hand kept bleeding. I asked the woman, who immediately gave up her place when she saw the man. What struck me as unusual was the Swedes that I told this story said they would act the same way in a similar situation, as they are extremely sensitive about lines.

First Time I Saw An Angry Swede

Another thing that surprised me was people’s strict adherence to rules while biking. Nowhere else in the world I witnessed every single biker — with no exception– signalling with their hands before making a right or left turn. It had annoyed me in some countries that drivers didn’t feel the need to signal. However, biking felt like walking to me, so I wasn’t used to signalling.

One day, I was biking home from the language school. A biker behind me slightly bumped into me, right before I made a left turn at an intersection. I didn’t even fall off the bike, but the woman who hit me did. To me, she was the one at fault, because she hit me from behind, simply failing to adjust her distance from me. I slowly got off my bike to help her get up.

While still on the ground, she took off her helmet and began yelling at me. She was asking me why I did not signal, and lecturing me about biking rules in the country. Thank God, I couldn’t understand everything she said. I wanted to say “You are in the city of Ingmar Bergman and Karin Boye, miss. The way you are acting is not very nice,” but I couldn’t. She might have also formulized the same words to react to me.

While I was astonished by seeing an angry Swede for the first time, I took my lesson. I am now one of those bikers who signals before every turn without fail.

Maybe because the city I am living in and the language school I attended were so cosmopolitan, I never really felt like I started living in another country. Nor have I felt homesick. It wasn’t until I finished the language school and began seeking a job that I realized I was indeed an immigrant and was probably going to stay that way for good.

**All rights reserved. Using quotes from this story requires crediting them to NOVO Gazette and adding a link to this page.

Thomas Novak is an Uppsala-based journalist, who contributes to several media outlets, including NOVO Gazette.

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