Moving between different parts of the world is pretty tricky right now — travel restrictions have made it impossible for most people, and for those of us who can travel internationally (because of dual passports in my case), nothing is quite the way it used to be. And I’m not just talking about the general nervousness one feels at this point in time when around strangers in tight quarters, mask requirements, and social distancing provisos. No, it feels as if something else has changed as well.

While the coronavirus pandemic in some ways has been an equalizer when it comes to understanding the lives of others — most countries in the world have been affected, and we have all had to make similar sacrifices — it has also upended “normal rules of engagement”. We don’t go about life the way we used to and so some of what I thought I knew about life in my home country of Sweden, for example, have been turned upside down.

I don’t actually know if it’s because of the pandemic or if it’s just I, who after 25 years abroad, have lost touch with my home country, and I’m just now noticing. There has always been a contrast in way of life and temperament between the people of the two countries. And I have never stopped identifying as, and feeling, “Swedish”. As a matter of fact, I have been certain that I am very typically Swedish, whatever that means.

But after spending the past month in Sweden, I’m wondering to myself if I have somehow crossed a Rubicon of national identity? Because I don’t think I have ever felt as culturally thrown off as I do now — not even when I first came to the US as an expat with a steep learning curve about all things American.  

It’s well-known that Sweden did not shut down in the same way many other countries did when the pandemic first took hold. Although, contrary to popular belief, there have been plenty of measures put in place, such as social distancing guidelines and limits on groups gathering, etc. Many places and activities have had to alter their services or shut down completely. But elementary schools, for example, have remained open throughout.

Early on in the pandemic, when I was in California under strict lockdown measures, I would get provoked when talking to my family back home — how could they still be functioning more or less like normal? What do you mean you are going to the gym? And how can you be so relaxed about sending your kids to school? You are throwing a birthday party — with friends invited — for your 10-year old? I was probably mostly jealous. But I was also surprised — I hadn’t expected this of Sweden and Swedes.

The way I viewed Sweden, after having spent so many years away, it seemed the least likely of countries to take the tack it did in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. I was certain Sweden would have been in lockstep with its Nordic neighbors, at the very least. But, doing its own thing — it just doesn’t seem Swedish to me.

Maybe it isn’t Sweden or Swedes that have changed, maybe I have changed. Perhaps Sweden has always been more individualistic than I realize. After spending the past month here, I can say that daily life has been very different from California. Not that coronavirus isn’t present, it very much is. However, there is a marked difference in how it impacts daily life, and also how it’s discussed in the news, for example. 

I have to admit that it’s been a nice mental break to experience the lighter restrictions and the more measured tone of the debate around how to go about life in a pandemic. At the same time, I am torn because it doesn’t feel quite right. I’m used to wearing a mask wherever I go and give a wide berth when meeting people. I have a hard time in my mind making sense of the two different approaches. I have a hard time reconciling in my mind the fact that Sweden is an outlier in its response. 

As in many parts of Europe, coronavirus cases are on the rise in Sweden again and just the other day, the region of the country I’m in announced stricter recommendations to curb the latest increase. When I read the updated guidelines, what struck me the most was the way the document was written. While it had all the typical social distancing recommendations you see elsewhere, such as work from home if you can, and don’t socialize outside of the people you live with, it was all worded as just that — recommendations. I’m curious to see what the impact will be on daily life — will I notice a difference, will people comply?

I don’t know what to expect — my cultural knowledge barometer has been a little shaky lately. Maybe it’s the pandemic. Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s just a matter of accepting that nothing is quite as it should be right now. 

By: Felicia Shermis

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