Subterranean Homesick Blues

I left British soil just before Christmas 2011, to start a new life in Stockholm with my Swedish partner and 11-month-old son.

New country, new start. I’d been looking forward to it immensely. Nothing was cooler in the UK at the time than Scandinavian crime, with the likes of Wallander, the Millennium Trilogy and The Killing all at the height of their popularity. The bands, the cars, the interior design. Ask most British people to say one word in connection with Sweden, and it will probably be just that: ‘cool’.

I had decided the best way to acclimatise would be to put my home country behind me, and ‘become Swedish’. After a few weeks and various form-filling my presence in this snow-covered land was legal, and I started the first of many Swedish lessons.

For the first six months or so I felt like a tourist, but then as my Del Boy Swedish slowly progressed beyond the phrase-book stage, I resolved that the only way to become a part of Swedish society with all the new friends and new opportunities it had to offer, was to become nothing less than fluent. So I pushed on further. If I wanted to watch something, it had to be in Swedish, or if it wasn’t it had to have Swedish subtitles. If I wanted to read a book, it had to be in Swedish. Ditto newspapers and magazines. I set myself a rule that when I left the apartment, I would speak nothing but Swedish, with five exceptions: at the doctor, at the dentist, at the bank, with the taxman, and anything to do with my son. This led to daily, mildly embarrassing situations, like being asked at the supermarket something as straightforward as whether I wanted a bag, and responding proudly: “Förlåt, min svenska är inte så bra” (‘sorry, my Swedish isn’t very good’), before standing there gormlessly waiting for her next move, knowing full well the normal thing to do would be to simply speak English.

The months passed, I found work (home-based), my Swedish got a little less brutal, the snow eventually melted, I found new parts of the city to explore, and for that first year the whole thing remained a bit of an adventure, and I didn’t think much about the future at all.

But then I became conscious that something wasn’t right. I hadn’t acclimatised at all. I hadn’t made any new friends. I worked in an empty apartment. The only people I saw apart from my family were the teachers at my son’s nursery, who spoke no English and with whom I would exchange a few clumsy words of Swedish.

And come to think of it, I thought, this is all a bit shit. Why does nobody talk to me? Why do people seem so dull and conformist? What’s with the hysterical political correctness everywhere? Why is it still freezing cold in April? Where are the decent pubs? Why don’t they drink real beer? Why don’t they show rugby on the telly? Why are the Sunday papers so thin? Why does nobody do anything on a Sunday? Why’s the music so bad? Why is nowhere open before 10am? Why are all the buildings so fucking square?

And while asking questions, why was I going all the way to Södermalm on a whim to visit the English food shop, and coming away with 400 kroner (about £40) worth of rubbish (‘Ooh, Horlicks. Ooh, Marmite. Ooh, PG Tips’)? I could also ask why I bought a Sunday Times for 100 kroner, on a chilly and overcast Thursday, to read outside an ugly shopping centre which my imagination was trying to turn into a sun-drenched beer garden on the Cowley Road? And I could barely contain myself when Lewis came on the telly on a Saturday night – having previously deemed it a poor man’s Morse – and found myself bereft whenever a season came to an end.

Slowly it dawned on me. Not only was I not Swedish, I never would be. And furthermore, I didn’t want to be. My nostalgia for my home country was overpowering.

I have always found people’s pride in or attachment to their nationality a little peculiar, given it really is nothing more than an accident of birth, but as my time in Sweden has progressed I think I get it. It took me around three years to understand, but eventually I realised that for the first time in my life I was suffering from homesickness.

homesickness1

I’ve met people who cannot bear to be away from home other than when on holiday, and many more who have tried living far from home and found they simply couldn’t do it. This was something else I never quite understood. Homesickness was something I always associated with childhood, or with moving away to start university.

So I recently did a little research on homesickness in adults.

‘Homesickness’ is a translation of the Greek ‘nostalgia’, a term coined by a 17th-century medical student to describe the anxieties displayed by Swiss mercenaries fighting away from home. They were banned from singing Swiss songs, lest they lose their effectiveness on the battlefield. At the time, nostalgia was seen as a dangerous and potentially fatal illness. Symptoms reportedly included fainting, high fever, indigestion, stomach pain, and death.

Sir Joseph Banks used the word in his journal during the first voyage of Captain Cook. On 3rd September 1770 he stated that the sailors “were now pretty far gone with the longing for home which the Physicians have gone so far as to esteem a disease under the name of Nostalgia”.

In the current era, the British actor Robert Lindsay abandoned attempts at a career in Hollywood due to homesickness, admitting he once broke down in tears on the side of a Hollywood freeway when Elgar came on the car stereo.

It’s an increasing problem in these days of globalised working, and particularly among people who live away from home for 15, 20, 30 years, before finally giving in and returning home, only to find that their home country has changed beyond recognition, leaving them with nowhere to call ‘home’.

I write this at the beginning of January. In Sweden, the period between Christmas and the end of March is known as oxmånaderna – the ‘ox months’ – as in you need the strength of an ox to get through them. Stockholm is a grim place at this time of year unless you have the right mindset. On a Sunday in January in Oxford, I would retire to the Royal Oak with the newspapers for a Sunday Roast, or the Rusty Bike where I’d almost always bump into a familiar face. Here, they just don’t have that Sunday culture like they have in Britain, where there are any number of things on offer to help you forget that it’s Sunday. I simply try to keep as busy as possible (not difficult these days with two kids, I can tell you), spend quality time with my family, and run when I can, until I can barely feel my legs.

I do still experience stomach-churning nostalgia from time to time, when seeing pictures of old haunts on Facebook, or when hearing from an old friend, or when reminiscing about certain places with Hedda. I downloaded an app to my phone which lets me listen to all national and regional radio stations in the UK. That was a mistake (aah, tailbacks on the A34, those were the days). And sometimes it comes out of nowhere. But it’s a relief to have realised the fault in my approach to life here in Sweden. I now know it’s okay to hold onto my Britishness when I need it. It will always be there. The other lesson is that nobody can ever hope to integrate anywhere without a lot of effort on their part. That took me three years to learn, and I’m finally taking steps – taking six months off on paternity leave (thank you Sweden) while I decide what I want out of life here, joining a British football team etc.

There is no cure for homesickness, but life is what you make it regardless of where you find yourself. My kids thrive here, and the grass is very rarely greener on the other side. As difficult as it can be at times, then is then, and now is now.

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4 thoughts on “Subterranean Homesick Blues

  1. Matthew Jones

    Calum, your blog is extremely well written, and has matched my thoughts and feelings of my time here. 2hours by plane and so different. Good luck with everything here, you never know, we may meet at the The Liffey one day watching the 6 nations!

    Reply
  2. LostSoul

    Totally emphasise with all of this. My own personal solution to this is simply to go back to the UK as often as possible. You should make that visit to Lord’s. Especially if you get lucky with the weather, sitting there in April looking across the lush green outfield when Sweden is still frozen solid is a particularly satisfying experience.

    Reply
  3. Laree Weasel

    An impressive share! I’ve just forwarded this onto a co-worker who was conducting a little research on this. And he actually bought me dinner because I stumbled upon it for him… lol. So let me reword this…. Thank YOU for the meal!! But yeah, thanks for spending time to discuss this issue here on your web page.

    Reply
  4. Sandy Robertson

    This is well written and very perceptive. I have been out the UK for 7 years now and agree this time of year is especially tough. Like you, having the young kids allows me to be not only distracted but forward looking and recognising this is a new chapter my life with old ones behind me. Thanks for sharing this and good luck with all of it.

    Reply

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