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I share a house here with three other students: a girl from Austria and two guys from Latvia and Hong Kong. Compared to the prison cell I’ve called home for the past year and a half at college, it’s a palace. I have my own bedroom and bathroom—so I can cry, shit and braid my leg hair in peace—and we share a communal living room, laundry room and kitchen. Our washing machine doesn’t require quarters, Swedish cable constantly plays Jodie Foster movies and the kitchen came with wine glasses and a garlic press. A sauna and subscription to Dog Fancy are all that prevents me from shredding my passport.
Since American culture is so rarely shoved down the throats of people living outside of the United States, I feel a sense of responsibility to exude a certain image to my housemates. I try not to talk too loud or eat too much or say “Jesus Christ thinks America is better than your country” more than three or four times a day. I also pretend that I know how to recycle.
I’m currently living in a country where 1% of all waste ends up in a landfill. I’m from New Jersey, where 1% of the state isn’t a landfill. The Swedes accomplish this by separating food waste from plastic from glass from the magical threads of golden hair caught in their hairbrushes. Since I’m here for a cultural exchange, I decided to take out the trash last week. Standing in front of eight different kinds of dumpsters, it wasn’t long before I got a PTSD flashback of the female-anatomy lesson from seventh grade sex-ed (“yeah, okay, but which one do you put it in…?”).
A half-hour and a prayer to Thor later, the trash had been separated. In the walk from the dumpsters back to my house, I passed by a dozen or so parents pushing baby strollers. Since children are as appealing to me as polio, they’re not something I would usually notice. What I did notice was that every stroller was being pushed by a father—without their partner anywhere in sight. American sitcoms have taught me that fathers are supposed to parent from behind their newspapers and between sips of beer so I had a strong desire to thank and congratulate every Cliff Huxtåble I saw. But my DILF-o-meter was spiking and I had to hightail it home before I pole vaulted into the nearest stroller.
It’s no wonder Mr. Moms run so rampant in this country. Both mothers and fathers get a 480-day parental leave after the birth (or adoption) of a new baby. This parental leave applies until the child turns eight and can be divided into periods as long as a year or as short as a Roxette-soundtracked feeding. Meanwhile, as a kid, my working parents were forced to drop me off at daycares that smelled like off-brand Lysol and separation anxiety. I still associate building blocks and Mary Kate and Ashley movies with thoughts of “I’m never seeing my family again.”
Children are holy here. Swedes, ever the egalitarians, treat their kids as equals. It’s been illegal since 1979 to spank a child, students of all ages call teachers by their first names, and 5-year-old girls are just as likely to be approved for a mortgage as their male equivalents. Swedes, on average, get married and have children later than people in any other country: so the average Swedish child grows up in a household with parents who have had time to travel, establish careers and perfect their tragically good-looking gene pools.
Last Friday, I was basking in said gene pool at a friend’s house. Everyone there was a student, most in their first year at university, but they were all at least a few years older than me. It’s common—and supported by most Swedish parents—to take a few years off after graduating from gymnasiet to work and travel before enrolling in college. Anders spent a few years in Brazil, Sofia worked during the winters and traveled Europe during the summers and Jonas grew his hair into a he-bun. I spent my two-and-a-half month gap between high school and college crying over episodes of Felicity.
I get asked a lot why I chose to study in Sweden. I don’t have a very good answer. What I usually say, and what’s closest to my idea of the truth, is that I wanted to live in a country that’s always seemed one step ahead. This country has so much to be proud about. But look around and you’d be hard pressed to find many Swedish flags being flown. But I guess patriotism doesn’t need to be reduced to just a flag when the gender equality index and that Ace of Base song are telling you that it’s a beautiful life.
I can survive without Dog Fancy.
Brian Burns is a Staff Columnist for The Hub and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow him on Twitter @burnsing_up732 .