A lot of what makes for good writing is having the time to write.
After spending most of 2009 in Sweden, I’ve been back in America since December. Since being Stateside, I’ve realized that I just haven’t had the time or inspiration to write as much or as often as when I was in Sweden. Certainly, those who follow my articles on this site have noticed the same thing.
Frankly, it’s hard to write about life in Sweden when you’re not in Sweden.
The long road back
In January, I applied for a Swedish residence permit, a process that can take many months – after you finally complete the stack of paperwork and apply – to get an answer.
Legal residency has many of the benefits of citizenship, but is a softer, less permanent version of it. For many immigrants, residency is the first step toward becoming a Swedish Citizen. But for me, I am simply an American citizen who would like to live in Sweden on a longterm basis.
While I have been going through the residence application process this year, I considered writing periodic updates about my progress, but honestly, every time I attempted to sit down and share it, the experience was too nerve-wracking to put into words.
Typically, I prefer to write about things I know about, things I can research, or things I think may be of interest to readers. Applying for Swedish residency, while it was a unique, titlating and potentially life-changing experience, it is largely one in which the main character is in the dark about what’s happening in the story. The entire process is your classic “don’t call us, we’ll call you” experience.
Now that my application has been fully processed, I can more comfortably spill the beans about the whole adventure. Grab a snack.
Residence permit process
To become a legal resident of Sweden, one must apply at the Swedish Embassy in their home country. My home country is God’s Great United States of America (you may know us as “the bad cop”) and our Swedish Embassy is in our nation’s capitol, Washington, DC.
As you can imagine, the paperwork one must fill out is quite comprehensive. Obviously, like any country, the Swedes don’t want a bunch of unsavory characters moving into their country.
As much as any country wants to be hospitable and diverse (Sweden has welcomed more Iraqi refugees than any other nation), they also want to maintain a comfortable environment for the native population. The goals of ensuring economic vitality and security for the country are always primary.
To that end, the Swedish immigration authority, Migrationsverket, wants to know everything about you when you apply: who you are, where you come from, who is related to you, who loves you in Sweden, who is related to them, how many times you’ve been to the country, why you visited, how you’ll support yourself, how much money you have, where you will live, if you really think you can live without Mexican food or high-quality peanut butter, and detailed explanations of why you would possibly want to live in complete darkness for five months out of the year… especially if your home country is open 24 hours, you can take your gun to church, and the place is so plentiful, well, the oceans are practically filled with oil.
Despite the careful and meticulous nature of this process, from what I’ve heard, it is downright friendly in comparison to that of legally immigrating to the United States. I’ve read horror stories of families being split up in America due to immigration problems or as a result of painstaking investigations.
In my case, throughout the whole process, I felt like the Swedish officials I dealt with were on my side. Whereas US Immigration agents often seem to be portrayed as adversarial – even going to some lengths to “trick” applicants – it seemed the Swedes were there every step of the way doing everything they could to help me succeed.
I didn’t have to sing the Swedish national anthem. I was never forced to eat a jar of lingonberries or smell any pickled herring. I was never asked a single question about Olof Palme, that creep from True Blood, or Agnetha Fältskog. There were no games, no memorization, and no history tests.
Hurry up and wait
After submitting my documents to the Swedish Embassy in Washington, DC, in January, there was a silent period. This quiet zone can last several months and there’s no way to know how long it will be. For me, it turned out to be two and a half months.
Not knowing what was happening – or what was going to happen or when – was rough. I got really restless during this time.
At first, it was awesome to be camped out in America without a proper job or responsibilities, but after a while, the novelty of temporarily living in Louisville again began to wear off. I was beginning to gain back the weight I had lost last year in Sweden (did I mention the food in America is amazing?) and I was realizing that living without a plan can be as unsettling as it is freeing.
Waiting around to find out what’s going to happen with your own life ain’t easy. It prohibits you from making longterm plans, from seeking regular work, from building relationships, from buying a car, from entering into anything like an apartment lease or an annual cell phone plan.
Essentially, nobody wants to make an investment in someone who is possibly leaving in a few months. It’s hard to just wait and see what’s going to happen.
Luckily, I have some amazing friends who made this entire period a lot easier for me. I never would have made it through with my sanity in check without them.
We’d like to meet you
In late March, I finally received notice that I was being called in for my immigration interview. Heja Sverige! At last, something was happening! Now I just had to set up an appointment with the Swedish Consulate for my interview.
There are more than thirty offices of the Consulate General of Sweden in the United States. The offices are located in places as cold as Alaska and as warm as the Virgin Islands; as expected as New York City and as surprising as Raleigh, North Carolina. The closest one to my hometown of Louisville is the office in Chicago, just four and a half hours away by car. I picked that one. My interview was scheduled for early April.
A secret patch of Swedish soil
The Swedish Consulate’s office is a nondescript space of no more than six small rooms on the nineteenth floor of a downtown Chicago office tower. To enter, you walk in through one of those electronic glass doors that is always locked unless an important person activates it for you from the other side. (Further proof that all Swedish people are vampires: they have to invite you in.)
The tiny lobby is lit by fluorescent tubes and decorated with framed portraits of the King and Queen. A coffee table is stacked with magazines and books about Swedish life (all beautifully photographed and designed, of course). Seating is provided for four or five guests and a doctor’s office-style sliding glass window is on one wall, through which reception is offered and forms are passed.
I really wanted to take some pictures of the space for the purposes of sharing them here – if I ever actually got around to writing this article – but more importantly, I didn’t want to do anything that would jeopardize my chances of making a good impression. Hence no photos of the inside of the office.
I was told that the Swedish Consulate’s office is technically Swedish soil, so it felt reassuring to be back. (I’ve also been told that whenever a Van Halen song is playing, you’re technically in America, but I don’t know if that’s true or not.) The inside of the office actually did feel notably more Swedish than Andersonville, Chicago’s Swedish neighborhood.
And coincidentally, within the same few blocks of the consulate’s Michigan Avenue office, South Africa, Spain, the Czech Republic, Argentina, Japan, Italy, Pakistan, Ireland, Turkey, France, El Salvador, Switzerland and several other countries also have consulships. It’s like a bureaucratic EPCOT Center.
Interviews are my specialty
I love the idea of interviews. 60 Minutes is my favorite TV show. I always think the best magazine articles are the ones in which the writers simply coerce the subjects into telling their own stories. Vanity Fair comes to mind. I have even published thirteen editions of my own magazine called K Composite that is comprised almost entirely of interviews of my friends.
What I kind of don’t love about interviews is being on the receiving end when I’m trying to get something. Job interviews are probably one of the things that make me feel the most uneasy.
For some reason, when I have run for political office in the past, being interviewed on television or for the newspaper barely fazed me at all. It was exciting and invigorating, and the same goes for being interviewed for my music.
Once the interview becomes one in which my performance will be subject to approval – one in which there is an invisible, unknown line between acceptable and unacceptable answers – all comfort goes out the window.
So despite my interviewer being very friendly, helpful and accommodating, this interview was anything but relaxing. I have dreamed of living in Sweden since the first time I visited more than ten years ago. Now I have awesome friends and loved ones in Sweden, and my chances to really make it happen have come down to this one interview. Oy vey.
The best advice I could give to anyone reading this, who may also be going through the process, would be to just try to relax. It’s easy to get carried away with the thoughts of how devastated you’ll be if it doesn’t go well, but that should be the farthest thing from your mind. I tried to remember that as I walked in.
In the hot seat
The interview itself is kind of a blur when I think back on it. It took place in a small office with big windows. I was seated beside a desk where a 50-ish Swedish woman was facing both me and her computer. The screen was in my field of view, framed by the backdrop of a foggy downtown Chicago morning and the smaller buildings outside the window.
After a brief introduction, she opened a blank Word document and began the interview. The Q-and-A was conducted in English and while I spoke, she converted everything I said into a narrative story in Swedish. I understood almost all of what she typed. It lasted about 30 minutes. Maybe less. When we were finished, she asked me to sign a form, and I was on my way.
On a couple of occasions during my visit to the office – when I expressed thanks, greetings or farewells – I spoke Swedish to her and the other people I encountered in the office. They always answered me in English. I knew it! The Swedes really are trying to keep Swedish to themselves!
In mid-May, about a month after my interview, I received word that my application for Swedish residency had been approved. Helt otroligt! Weeks later, when I received my US passport in the mail with my Swedish residence permit affixed into it, I honestly could not stop looking at it. It remains one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life. Naturally, it’s my prized possession.
When I arrive back in Stockholm in a couple weeks, I’ll apply for my personnummer and settle into life in Sweden. Just in time for the cold, dark winter.
I’ve been told that no one ever moved to Sweden for the weather or the food. I believe that (though Louisville’s weather this summer hasn’t especially been ideal). However, there are plenty of other reasons to go.
This ain’t a reality show or a diary, so I won’t bore you with the fascinating, sexy details of my personal life. Suffice it to say that I’ll miss a lot of amazing people in America and a lot of great food, but I’m immensely excited about being surrounded by Sweden and within arm’s reach of the people and places I love there.
Tack så jätte mycket to everyone who helped me start this new chapter in my life. It is with great humility and honor that I accept this opportunity to be fake-Swedish.
Now somebody give me a job!