As I write, my friend Jeremy (who has been staying this week), is travelling back to London; right now he will be in the air somwhere over the English Channel. He made the comment when we were waiting at the bus stop that it was a brave step that we had taken to move to Sweden at this stage in our lives. My immediate response was – not so brave really, this is not such a hard place to live.
But I almost immediately realised that my response was simplistic and that this was indeed a brave, and an unusual thing to do at this stage of our lives. For me, in particular, it is a strange place to be. Of course, many men in their mid forties move, with their families, to new places to do new things. But almost invariably it is because they have an offer of a job, or they are pursuing higher education, in that other place. Others are forced to move as refugees and others migrate to better the opportunities for their children.
For me the decision has been based not on any of these reasons, but on a desire for our children to understand a part of their family heritage which I barely understand myself – their Swedishness. This involves living in the culture Maria was born and bred into, learning a new language, getting to know relatives and friends who mean very little to them. At the same time, there is a desire to learn Swedish for myself, and to enter into Maria’s culture and heritage in a way that I can never do on holidays or by reading about Sweden from the other side of the world. It comes from a desire to know Maria better, and to share something of the world from which she came.
The problem is simply this. In Sweden I am nobody. In Australia I have a history, I have a professional identity, I have family and friends so I belong to various different communities – places where I feel valued, appreciated, known, loved. The only place I belong here is in the immediate family. It is the only place where I am really valued, or even noticed. As far as the rest of Sweden is concerned I could disappear and it would cause barely a ripple anywhere except here in our little flat. Even in church I feel almost invisible.
It is hard to go from being a somebody to being a nobody. How hard should I try to become a somebody again, I wonder? Should my place at home be enough? How do I enter society here? I can’t even get a job because my language ability is barely at the level of a 12 year old.
The reality of life is that we need more money. If we stay here longer than a year it will be very hard to continue to live on Maria’s income. So I need a job. That means learning the language and moving back into my chosen profession – starting in medicine at the bottom again, as an overseas trained doctor, a species so often looked down on by my colleagues “back home”. I don’t know how that will be.
So gradually, I suppose, I will develop an identity here in Sweden. I have no idea how that will look. I have no idea how long it will take. I imagine I will always feel rather “outside” but that is nothing new for me. The journey I have travelled these last 40 years has already developed something of the outsider identity in me, and I can’t imagine that is about to change. But I am not alone as an outsider. There are plenty of other people like me, like us, here and in every place we go. Jesus himself was something of an outsider. Every missionary knows the feeling, as do refugees and migrants. Even country folks moving to the city.
Yet even outsiders can make a positive contribution to the world around them. Perhaps that needs to be my focus. Rather than spending my time wondering who I am, whether people have noticed that I exist, perhaps I need to spend my time wondering what I can contribute to the people I encounter every day, whether it be my family, my neighbours, or anyone who happens to cross my path.
I guess even smiling can add something to another person’s experience of the day. Smiling is surely not so hard, even in Swedish. Mmmm… I must smile more…