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THE ONLY WAY TO HAVE A FRIEND IS TO BE ONE*
Half an hour south from us, the leaves on the chestnut trees are singed with brown around the edges; autumn in the hems. The lights are on in the sugar beet factory although the chimneys are not yet pouring sugar-smoke into the darkening evenings. It's dark when I arrive for choir practice, or nearly, and the lights in the fountains of Pildammsparken glow unearthly across the water. It's dark when I drive home, the choral-aid CD for the concert plunking out an alto harmony in monochromatic style. It's dark when I drag my reluctant self out of bed in the mornings now; not full dark, but dark enough. The body knows. It's time to sleep.

One of my good friends here in Sweden is a Swede. That seems like it ought to be an obvious sort of statement to make, but in fact, for most expats, making and keeping Swedish friends is not as easy as it sounds. Swedes are stereotypically known for being reserved and withdrawn, and they don't have the culture of spontaneity and extroverted-ness that Americans tend to. That's not to say that there aren't spontaneous and extroverted Swedes, there are, it's just that COMPARED with Americans, and GENERALLY speaking, it takes more work and more time to really become friends with Swedes than most unsuspecting expats realize.** I've read, and heard, and seen myself, that most people in Sweden make their friends young, and keep them forever. They already have a full circle of support and friends when they grow up and trying to break into it to get to know someone takes more patience and more subtle pressure than notoriously impatient and superficial Americans have time for. There are all kinds of stereotypes at work when it comes to the way we perceive people from a different culture, not to mention the way we perceive ourselves, and I sometimes think it's far too easy for us, as humans, to dismiss anything that is different or strange.

If someone doesn't react to your overtures of friendship the way you expect them too, it might not be YOU at fault. It might not be THEM at fault. There might simply be no fault at all, but rather a simple failure to connect, a culture gap that leaves you both standing on opposite sides wondering what that was all about. It may be disheartening, but it doesn't mean you should give up the whole idea, with that person or with others.

I'm friends with a lot of Swedes, actually, but they came as part of a package deal, since they were all childhood friends of my husband, or attached to the childhood friends in question. But there is a fundamental difference in the way I interact with them that is especially noticeable when I compare those friendships with the friendships I have with other expats. Our Swedish friends, for the most part, are NOT spontaneous, but they CAN be, and they are genuinely delighted when we are, with them.

When I started writing this I was meaning to talk about a specific friend, not the subtle differences involved in cultivating friendships with people from another culture. I'll try to grab on to my rapidly receding point. What strikes me most about my friend Camilla, the Swede in question, is how spontaneous and extroverted she is. She says herself that she is unusual in Swedish society, and while that may be true, and while it may be one of the reasons WHY she is a good friend to ME, it's really nothing to do with the fact that she is Swedish. I'm not friends with her because she's Swedish, in fact, her being Swedish often comes as a surprise to me at certain points in our conversations when I suddenly realize that DESPITE our similarities, there is still a fundamental difference in the planes of reference from which we come.

Regardless, to have a friend, Swedish or expat or otherwise, that spends an evening with me where both of us can talk animatedly about books, about reading, about why I don't watch TV news and whether I come across as ignorant because of it, about the subtle differences between English and Swedish word usage and whether varm in Swedish translates to "warm" or "hot" or both, about the pain and pleasure of teaching language, about the injustice of certain situations at work, and ways to remedy them, about her plans to quit her job and travel, and my fear that she won't return, and whether or not the environment really is going to hell in a handbasket and what we can personally do about it, and about well...everything and anything, is something special. I need more friends like her in my life. And you know what? I've found some here with this journal.

***

In the morning, I'm driving to Oslo with 2 other members of our AWC to spend a weekend carousing with a large group of expats (which probably means no posts from me after this until Sunday night). It's the Regional Meeting for all the AWC's in Scandinavia, and there are 10 clubs, most of whom will be sending representatives, and many of whom I've met at previous meetings. I'm really looking forward to it, not least because I haven't been back to Norway in over 20 years and it is in my personal Top 5 Favorite & Most Beautiful Places on Earth list. I'm going to meet new LJ friend kachunknorge, who knows cottontimer, a little circle of it's-a-small-world-friendship that delights me to my very core.

One of my bestest friends in all the world who lurks on this blog is on her way here, and will be landing in Malmö in November. Our husbands say we were separated at birth, and I can't wait to reconnect with her. She and her husband lived in Sweden for 3 years and then moved to Sydney, Australia 4 years ago. They are traveling all around the world for 4 months, and just landed in Singapore on their way to Japan, China, and Mongolia, then taking the Trans-Siberian railway through Russia before coming to Sweden. After that, they'll be jaunting down to Switzerland, Greece and Spain before flying across the Atlantic to several stops across the U.S. and finally home again in JANUARY. This isn't their first round-the-world trip, but this time, most of the way, they'll be staying with friends. They have friends all over the world, just like I do. How cool is that?!

Old friends in far-off places, now friends in nearby spaces, new friends just around the corner!

Really Great Writing Out There Right Now: A Dreamer of Dreams

LOTS of Really Great Writing Out There Right Now!: Mosaic Minds Just A Little Issue. It might sound like a bit of weird theme, but it inspired some GREAT writing. :)

*Ralph Waldo Emerson
**ROMANCE with a Swede, on the other hand, goes quick like a bunny! :P
 happy
mood: happy
music: Alison Krauss—Down to the River to Pray


Comments

*squeal* I love Alison Krauss! I've seen her and her mighty men in concert, and she was so funny and charming that I wanted her to be my new best friend.

Wonderful post, liz. Friends are a good thing, where would be without them? On the couch with a bag of Cheetos, with our heads in a book or the TV. Okay, I still do that, even though I have lovely friends. I just don't do it as MUCH. ;)

And thanks, a gabillion times over, for the link to my post. It makes my WHOLE DAY to be 'really great writing out there'!

I can't speak of even living in a foreign county like you but I can speak of making new friends. And of making new friends from all over the US. I know the US is one country but every region has its own character. My new best buddy IRL is from Texas and I feel so lucky to have a girfriend who "gets me" and my sense of humor!


What a clever bestest friend you ahve for moving to the best country in the world ;)

And you are so right about Swedes, but they are always great to work with - sure the fact Australians tend to jsut start something and not worry about the odds would often worry them, but once tugged away from their "group" mentality they were readily corrupted into Australian ways of working......

as for Mosiac Minds absolute genius, especially the poetry ;)

(Anonymous)

I've had the exact experience you describe with making Swedish girlfriends. My closest friends here aren't Americans--they're French, Indian, and Serbian--yet there's still an easiness that I found immediately with them that I don't have with my few Swedish girlfriends. But I hope to change that.

-Amylou

Reading your entry made me remember something that struck my funny-bone last week. I've made a close friend with a swedish woman, in the sense that we really enjoy each other's company and can tell each other the intimate secrets of our lives and laugh together, in the same way that I did with my best girlfriends back in my homeland. I think part of it developed because she is unable to really speak or understand english, so I was forced to speak only swedish from the beginning. Case in point, when we first were getting to know each other, she tried to say something polite in english. No kidding, she said "it's raining "frogs" från himlen. Förstår du vad jag menar?" I nodded politely, but it took me two days to realize that she was trying to comment that it was "foggy" outside. Anyway, when she was visiting with a whole group of people last week, I overheard her telling another female swedish aquaintance who has never made the effort to do anything besides smile and nod politely to me, that I was a great friend, and so fun to be around. The aquaintance replied stiffly, "Jaha!" and remained seated there without further comment. I suspect that it sometimes is hard to break the friendship barrier, no matter what nationality you are, but being in a land of swedes, I know how much more comfortable I feel speaking my native language, so I think that the reverse must be true too. In order to make close friends and overcome that natural barrier, it's necessary to do it in swedish, and expect it to go slowly. Sorry this got so long, but as usual, your entries provoke thought.

(Anonymous)

Have a fabulous time, Liz. And yes, this 'friends around the world' phenomenon is a pretty amazing thing, eh? :) ~Marilyn

I consider myself blessed with my swedish friend Anna. I have had the same experience you described in your journal. At one stage I was crying like a baby on my husbands shoulder asking him why don´t the swedish people in our village like me. No one spoke to me, I was not used to that reaction from people. It took me awhile to figure out that they are really so reserved and shy in their upbringing, and that they had all the friends and connections they needed with people they had met as far back as school. When Anna came along she was the first swedish native to extend a hand of friendship to me, and I so grateful that she did that. I know we will always be friends and it makes a world of difference to have a native of the country befriend you and accept you as you are. BRAVO TO GOOD FRIENDS!!! (Sorry my reply was so long, I didn´t mean to go on like I did, but I love the subject of friends)

I think differences between cultures, and the imapact they have on relationships is fascinating. Now there's a book for you to write, right there. Have a great time on your trip. ...What does sugar-smoke smell like, anyway?

It smells pretty nasty, actually :)

I came across the bit below on an unrelated message board this morning, and it immediately made me run back to this post. (I'm assuming this isn't considered horribly offensive by the cultures named; I apologize for my ignorance in advance, if otherwise.)

Two cows from each of Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Sweden are marooned on an island. After 3 weeks they are rescued. By that time, the Norwegian cows had built a boat and fished up all the fish around the island. The Danish cows had formed a union. The Finnish cows had cut down all the trees. The Swedish cows were still standing there waiting to be introduced to the other cows. (UFie forum)
Many of the observations you make about friendships in Sweden hold true to friendships in portions of northern New England, as well. I was particularly struck by the contrast between Maine and Nova Scotia, for example, when Fred and I were up there last month: it's not that the Maine folks were unfriendly, it's just that they were extremely reserved (much like my own circle of friends in NH), while the local Canadians were phenomenally outgoing and open in comparison.

Cultural differences fascinate me. ;-)

I've heard a couple of different variations on that joke, and it's ALWAYS the Swedes that are the butt of it...problem being it's VERY true in a rather general way. :) Actually, at every party I've been to with Swedes, each person goes around the room when they arrive and shakes hands with and says their name to EVERY SINGLE PERSON there, no matter how many. It's bizarre to watch :)

I loved reading your first paragraph. It was so full of imagery. So perfectly phrased. Ahhh too read good writing. It's like relishing the last sips of a really good latte. You don't really want it to end...

Which is why I keep coming back, see?

I thought your ideas about friendship, esp. international ones, was so interesting. I can imagine that it IS hard to make friends within a different culture, but oddly, I think it is just hard everywhere to make friends with people outside of work, you know? Somehow we're not very adept at it in daily life--meeting people, and growing friendships. Different than growing a relationship with a boyfriend/girlfriend, this is somehow delicate terrain for most people. Interestingly though, the blogosphere we're both in seems to provide some type of overlap that isn't always present in day to day life. It's so fascinating to gradually get to know you--and to know, I'd spend hours drinking tea and talking books with you in the evening darkness, if I were there. We have so much in common, yet without this strange two-dimensional world of information spreading out across the geography, invisibly, we would have never met. The fish, by the way, are on the way. I hope they get there without being crumpled. I didn't think to use cardboard to protect them until I'd already sealed the envelope, posted it, and left the post office. :)

Hey there! Just speed-reading through my email after a long day of buffet lunch, goodbyes in Oslo and a 7-hour drive (me at the wheel) back...I'm wiped out, and heading to bed, but wanted to let you know the fish arrived Friday while I was gone, and I opened them right when I walked in, and they are fine and I LOVE THEM. More soon, promise! XOXOXOX!

Thanks for the really good writing. And your thoughts on friendship/making friends~

Swedes sound a lot like the Dutch in regards to friendship.

The days are getting shorter fast...and to think it isn't even fall equinox yet.

Ooh, fun to see the new issues of Mosaic Minds and my poems. I read a bit and it does look like there is lots of good stuff in there.

Man, all this time in therapy and it turns out I'm just Swedish!

On an unrelated note: AWC = Americans With Chains? Americans Without Country? All Who Care?

Have fun!

LOL! American Women's Club :)

I think I know the background behind this post, and actually, you're right. It is hard for Swedes to break out of their social network, and I wonder how Swedes deal with it if they have to move across the country for employment? I have a few Swedes as good friends, though I wouldn't say that they fit the normal Swede model. That would be the exception, since most of the Swedish friends are usually friends of Helena.

As for the Americans being generally extroverted, you may be right, despite that I'm usually an introvert by nature. It just happens to be that it is easier to socialize with others in the US, even if you don't have a friendship with anyone else in the same room. An introvert can at least talk without revealing many personal information.

i do not have any swedish friends of my own yet (mommy, i want THAT one!). only thomas' childhood friends who live a ways away from us. but i am sure the day will come, i just have to keep trying.
have fun in norway!

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