It’s now been over a year since Geoff and I were married back in Melbourne, Australia – what better a time than to finally go on our belated honeymoon?! We spent almost three weeks in Switzerland visiting 26 towns, cities and tiny little villages, eating ALL the chocolate and taking a ridiculous number of trains. We also took a drive down the most hair-raising cliff skirting mountain pass (track?) which put to shame the previous winner of that title – that time we decided to take the scenic route rather than the highway between Munich and Innsbruck and ended up along a cliff on a very rainy wintery night, with trucks hurdling towards us and very little evidence of barriers between us and certain death off the side of the cliff.
When we told our friends in Europe that we were going to Switzerland for our honeymoon a look of horror crossed most of their faces. Why aren’t you going to Thailand???!!! My reply usually consisted of pointing out that as a red haired person, I’m not actually supposed to be in the sun for more than 5 minutes, that a beach holiday is actually my worst nightmare, and the fact that Switzerland always seemed like this beautiful wonderland containing two of my favourite things: mountainous landscapes and chocolate! Actually scratch that – three of my favourite things because I soon discovered Switzerland is home to the greatest mayonnaise in the history of humanity – Thomy (try it – you won’t regret it) – something Geoff and I had been desperately missing in Sweden. We are now down to only 2 tubes left, so rationing is in place.
Luckily Geoff also wanted to see Switzerland, so off we went!
We started and ended our trip in Zurich, staying in Luzern, Wilderswil (a little village near Interlaken), Zermatt, Lausanne and Bern in between. The proper photos are Geoff’s, the instagram ones are mine:
Firstly, Lake Zurich. We were in Zurich for about 4 very rainy days, but at last the clouds lifted and we decided to take a boat trip along the lake from Zurich to Rapperswil.
Here is Rapperswil – I felt like we had arrived at a little Italian village along the Mediterranean. Everyone was sitting outside eating pizza and speaking Italian (despite the fact that we were still firmly in German speaking territory). It was love at first sight! Turquoise water!
Onto Luzern! Of all the cities we visited this was my top contender for Swiss Cities I would Like to Live In.I really have to wonder how the Swiss enjoy traveling to other countries when everything is so beautiful there.
Summertime in Zermatt – the city was a ghost town which was very cosy (yes American spell check – this is a word). We decided to try fondu again but came to the realisation that neither of us likes it. Blasphemy! The waitress looked a little heartbroken as she took away our two half eaten pots of fondu.
On the other hand we fell even more deeply in love with the true culinary delight that is rösti. Sadly, despite the fact that it is made from vegetables, we had to conclude that it is not in any way healthy and we can’t eat it every night of the week.
See the tiny little green valley in the distance? That is where Zermatt is. This is the view after a 30 minute climb with 3 gondolas up to almost 4000 meters above sea level. The view was amazing and we could see Italy from the top. I conquered my firm dislike of heights and made my way slowly up to the viewing platform to surprise a shocked looking Geoff who wasn’t sure I would emerge from the safety of indoors.
Down to lake Geneva and the beautiful Chateau de Chillon – also hello France on the other side of the lake!
Yes it’s time for a token hipster food photo – but this really was one of the loveliest desserts I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. We celebrated our 1st wedding anniversary at the La Table d’Edgard in Lausanne. The view over lake Geneva was spectacular, but the food was even better.
Fields of wildflowers in the Swiss countryside – this is how I imagined summer in Switzerland to be.
Last but not least: A double selfie – we really were there!
A famous 70’s campaign encouraging paternity leave featuring Swedish weightlifter Lennart ”Hoa-Hoa” Dahlgren
About a year ago I was going for a walk with my friend and while waiting for the lights to turn green at the crossing she turned to say hello to a little baby ahead of us. The man with the baby smiled at us, and hearing we were speaking English said ‘I’m not a gay nanny by the way!’ My friend looked a little shocked, but I could only laugh knowing exactly what he was referring to. Apparently a tourist visiting Sweden had publicly pondered why there were so many gay nannies here, resulting in much amusement by the Swedes because these men were not gay nannies but of course the fathers.
Compared with the rest of the world you’ve probably heard that Scandinavia is the holy grail of places in which to have children: Finland has baby boxes packed full of goodies and one of the best school systems in the world, Norway has paid parental leave at 100% pay for 46 weeks, and in Sweden you’re just as likely to come across fathers on parental leave as mothers.
In Sweden parents receive 480 days of parental leave, of which 390 is paid at the maximum daily amount of 946 SEK or US$143 with some employers choosing to top up this amount. Of these 480 day, both the father and mother are given 60 days of parental leavewhich only they can take, the remainder being shared between parents as they so choose.
This parental leave is also valid for parents who adopt a child, and parents with twins get an additional 90 days of paid leave. There is even an equality bonus for parents who share parental leave equally. Another important aspect of Swedish parental leave is that it doesn’t need to be taken all at once, but can be used by either parent up until the child finishes her/her first year of school and is available hourly if needed.
In 1995 Sweden introduced a reform to give each parent one month of paid paternity leave that only they could use. By 2002 this had increased to two months each, and there have been subsequent calls for this to be increased to 3 months as in Iceland. Women do still take more time off for children than men do, but these reforms have had a clear impact on the amount of leave fathers take.
Something must be working because I’ve seen more fathers pushing their children in prams here than I’ve seen anywhere else in the world and it’s only been here in Sweden that I’ve seen groups of fathers out together for coffee with their babies.
This gender equality is a huge selling point for highly skilled migrants choosing to relocate to Sweden where work-life balance is of huge importance. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had people tell me that parental leave played an important role in their decision to work for a company in Sweden, especially when one half of the couple is Swedish. The leave for both parents also means that international and cross-cultural couples are able to return to their home country/countries for a month or two and spend much needed time with their families. I know when we have children we will take part of the leave to return to Australia for a few months.
Part of the reason this works so well here is that there isn’t the same peer pressure as in many other countries to work long hours, companies are generally understanding when parents take time off, and if the father doesn’t take his two months of paid leave before the child is eight, the time and money are lost. But it’s important to note that the fathers I’ve spoken to have all willingly chosen to take the leave. They want time to bond with their children and the system in Sweden allows them to do so.
A beautiful little Swiss village Geoff and I visited in May
Here are some interesting links I’ve come across lately:
Dutch photographer Erik Klein Wolterink has produced a series of photos showing multicultural kitchens in the Netherlands. As one of my favourite things to do in a new country is to explore their supermarkets and see what sorts of new foods I can find, this seems like an even more intimate look at different cultures through the kitchen, arguably the heart of most homes.
An interesting take on the riots in Swedenthis year.
Eurozine is one of my favourite websites, and this article about transnational citizenshipby Claus Leggewie was very interesting. While I don’t agree with all of the conclusions he reaches he does touch on some interesting themes. I do agree with the fact that mobility is not just the realm of elites anymore, but is becoming more and more available to people of all socio-economic backgrounds – something Adrian Favell addresses regarding Europeans and mobility in his book Eurostars and Eurocities. Both the article and Favell’s book also talk about the nature of mobility and how it has shifted from the traditional more permanent migration of the past to a more fluid, temporary migration today, with closer connections to the home country via the internet, phone, not to mention budget flights. I’m very interested in just how temporary in nature migration is today, especially in the EU – I’ve seen some evidence of this shifting back to more permanent in nature, but I’ll explore this idea in a proper post and not the links!
Building a social network is one of the most important steps to feeling at home in a new country. It’s great to have people to go out for lunch with, to compare experiences with and to have someone you can call when you are trying to work out how to make an appointment with the doctor, or where on earth you can buy a certain item. (this can also lead to an informal importation/swapping service with friends bringing each other ziplock bags from the USA, Timtams from Australia, or chocolate from Germany, etc). If you are looking for work it’s also fantastic to have people you can brainstorm ideas with, to compare interview experiences, and to help one another with CV’s and so on.
When I moved to Berlin to work for 3 months this year, (apart from Geoff) my friends were the main reason I was excited about returning to Sweden. I was surprised to find after my time in Germany that Stockholm was beginning to feel more like home because of the relationships I’d built there.
If you want to read some specific tips about making friends overseas you can read my article. I do want to add that if you have children, this can be an excellent way to make new friends. I know a number of people here who have met new friends in the local park while their children play together, and also through schools and daycares. This is also a great way to meet local friends as well as fellow internationals.
Volunteering and building a network (for job hunters as well)
Volunteering is a fantastic way to become involved in your new community, even if you don’t yet speak the language. It helps you to meet interesting people, to keep busy, and to get some in-country experience on your resume. I began volunteering at a company related to my academic background a few months after I arrived in Stockholm, and it was one of the biggest changes to my life in Sweden. I had a place to go, interesting work, and met fantastic people. This, along with getting involved in different groups and going along to social activities helped me to built a network which has led to work and social opportunities.
Even if you’ve moved to your new destination with the intention to work, don’t forget about volunteering while you hunt – I’ve seen quite a few people end up with work in their industry as a result of volunteering, and they’d never have made those contacts without it.
Talk to your partner, talk to your friends and family back home – let people know if you are struggling. Many accompanying spouses don’t want to burden their partner or worry their families back home but it is very very important to let people know how you are feeling.
You might even want to contact a councillor or psychologist, which is a great option when you want to talk to someone independent and better still, professionally trained to help you work through things. In many countries you can chat to your doctor first to get a referral (sometimes these will give you 10 sessions or so for free or a reduced price), but otherwise do a google search and try and find a private one who speaks your mother tongue, or at least a language you feel comfortable in. Try and find someone who has experience working with expats – in Stockholm the Turning Point International Counselling Centre is a great example.
Get to know the local culture
Understanding the local culture can be a very important tool when dealing with culture shock and settling in to a new country. Even if you’ve just moved the short distance from France to the Netherlands there is still a distinct cultural difference you need to adjust to. When you get a feel for how the society works (even if you don’t necessarily agree with every aspect of it) it helps you to feel a little more in control.
If you are interested in cultural differences around the world, my favourite resource is Hofstede’s Dimensions, in particular his book Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind. For a quick overview check out his website for country specific information, but I plan to go into more detail on this topic in a separate post.
Steer clear of negativity
No matter where you go you are bound to meet people who drain the lifeblood from you with their negativity. Just distance yourself from such people, really. My views on friendship are quality over quantity, I’d much rather have a handful of great friends – friends who inspire you, support you, and who you do the same for. The same goes for people who constantly complain about the new country – everyone has bad days but if you meet someone who only ever has negative things to say (the weather is rubbish, the people are weird, the food is terrible unlike back home, etc, etc), then it’s time to move on, or you’ll end up just as depressed. If you think the person might not realise they are being so negative, have a relaxed chat with them about it – if they keep doing it then distance yourself for the sake of your own sanity.
I also want to add that some expat forums fall into this category – some of the comments and very useful but some can make life in your new country seem unnavigable and generally horrible. If you really need to check there for a good dentist, doctor, or a place to buy a vacuums cleaner, then go for it – but nothing very good can come from reading threads such as ‘What I hate about [insert country]’.
Talk to your partner’s HR department
More and more companies are realising the importance of supporting accompanying spouses. Sometimes companies forget to let you know what services they have available to you (this is not a joke – I’ve heard this many many times) – so send an email or give the HR department a call and see what they can do. Perhaps someone will be able to look over your CV and help you update it to better fit in with local job market. At the very least they should be able to direct you towards some online job portals, or perhaps a contact at a recruitment agency. They may also put you in contact with other families.
And if they don’t have any system in place to support you – a few calls might give them the encouragement they need to implement one!
Given the importance of dual incomes and careers today it is unsurprising that academics such as Yvonne McNulty have found that ‘the dual-career issue remains the No. 1 reason for refusing assignments.’ It’s in the company’s best interest to support you.
Give yourself a break
I’ve said it before, but settling into a new country takes time. Be gentle with yourself – you’ll have good days and bad days, and that is totally normal. Take yourself out for lunch or read a wonderful book without feeling guilty for not spending that time job hunting or what have you. Go for a walk through your new city and soak up the atmosphere, it can help you realise the opportunity you have before you.
Do you have any other suggestions for what helps as an accompanying spouse? Let me know below!
Just over two and a half years ago Geoff and I left Melbourne, Australia and moved to the beautiful student town of Uppsala in Sweden. We moved so that I could take up a scholarship to finish my masters there and luckily Geoff was able to transfer to the Stockholm office of the company he worked for. After I finished my masters, Geoff started working for a Swedish company and we decided to remain in Stockholm for the time being. I might not be a traditional accompanying spouse, but I can certainly relate to the experience on a number of levels.
Accompanying spouses go by many names: trailing spouses and STARs being two of the most common, but it basically means that you’ve moved abroad for your spouse’s career. The 2013 Brookfields’ Global Relocation Trend Report showed that 79% of overseas assigners were accompanied by a spouse or partner, and 43% accompanied by children. While the number of women being sent on international assignments reached a high of 21% in 2012, the vast majority of accompanying spouses are still female.
Having lived overseas of my own volition a number of times in the past has really made me appreciate how very different it is when you do so for your partners career. When I moved alone as a single woman for work or study I could choose where I wanted to go, for how long, and I could choose to move away at a moments notice. Moving as one half of a partnership is still an amazing opportunity: you get to experience a new culture, to learn a new language and to meet amazing people you’d never have met before – all with your best friend, but it does leave you with the feeling that you are somehow not in control of the situation. Although you’ve made the decision together, some sacrifices need to be made, and it is the accompanying spouse’s career that is often the first victim.
Indeed the question that strikes the most fear into the hearts of an accompanying spouse is ‘so what do you do?’ As the brilliant expat writer Robin Pascoe says in response to this question: ‘what did I used to do, what would I like to do, what am I going to do, or what would I like to do to you for asking me this?’ (In an aside, I’d love to have met her at a cocktail party, she sounds fantastic)
Being an accompanying spouse can be challenging. When I had first finished my masters here in Sweden and didn’t have a job, I lost count of the number of times people said “So are you ever going to get a job” – often accompanied by an indulgent smile, as though they thought I must just sit around painting my nails and eating biscuits all day. What is truly frustrating about this is that acquaintances have absolutely no idea of the struggle and heart break you go through on a daily basis when you want to work – looking for work in your field, finding very little in the country in which you are currently living, considering moving to another country, debating whether or not this is a good idea or not, looking for work again. There is often a lot of soul searching, stress, tears, frustration, anger, and sometimes resentment in accompanying your partner overseas. I wanted to shout “You have no idea how hard I am working to try and start a career here”.
At the beginning of this year I took up a position in Berlin working in my field of immigration research. It was an absolute joy to be working full time in a fascinating industry and in a truly enjoyable work environment. But most importantly it gave me a sense of purpose and positive self worth I had been lacking in Sweden. I was amazed by how something so small could have such an enormous impact on me. It gave me the motivation and self confidence to pursue my dream project full time: of interviewing highly mobile children and adults about their identity and to turn this idea into a book.
Choosing to go overseas with their partner is, for many people, the perfect opportunity to spend time on a project they’ve always wanted to get off the ground. I know people who have started successful businesses abroad, who have had the time to dedicate to writing books, who have become freelancers and been able to develop their careers that way, and some who have decided to return to study. I also know some people who have successfully found work in their field (very often people working in the IT industry), some who have chosen to stay at home and focus on raising their families, and some who have decided to simply embrace this time away and to enjoy themselves, knowing that when they return home things will be very different.
All of these are valid choices and should be celebrated.
So if you are an accompanying spouse, please ignore the negative comments you receive. People might dismiss your issues as first world problems or other such nonsense, but as far as I am concerned, life is not a battle to outdo one another in the nonexistence competition of who has the most challenging problems to deal with. It is totally normal to have fantastic days where you can’t help but smile when you realise you live in Stockholm or Paris, New York or Hong Kong. But it is also totally normal to have days when you feel lost, frustrated, depressed and angry. When you find yourself looking longingly at flights home or googling ‘how to make friends in [insert city]’.
Surround yourself with positive people who support you, with friend’s who are going through a similar situation as you, and encourage each other to reach your goals. I couldn’t have gotten through my time here without the support of the amazing women I’ve met here in Stockholm. The support of your partner is also invaluable, but most importantly I think it’s important to give yourself a break, take each day as it comes, and give yourself some credit for having moved to another country and for building a new life there.
My name is Michelle and I am an Australian living in Stockholm, Sweden. I research, write and speak about identity and the experiences of people who have lived across multiple cultures. Read more here.