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I stopped putting my hand over my heart during the Pledge of Allegiance at 11 years old. America was in the thick of the Bush years, the Dixie Chicks were an estrogen-fueled-country-crossover-hit away from being tried with treason, and Crash won Best Picture instead of Brokeback Mountain. There wasn’t much about America that my prepubescent-self could be proud of.
I’m not exactly radical—I appreciate a hot shower and a sense of humor too much to occupy Wall Street, and seeing what nodules did to Julie Andrews’ vocal chords will keep me from participating in any kind of “we’re-here-we’re-queer-we’ll-ring-you-up-at-Urban-Outfitters” demonstration. But that’s not to say that I haven’t taken full advantage of some First Amendment rights when discussing the unanimous American interest in khaki.
Like most big decisions in my life, I chose to go to Sweden without giving it much thought. All I knew was that everything the country seemed to value, I held dear: left-wing politics, environmentalism, sexual equality, dairy products. It was everything I had always wanted out of a country that I could call home. The country was progressive, the people were egalitarian and there was a day when I ate salmon for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I finally felt like I was living in a country that aligned with the ways I had always looked at life. Life, however, is an asshole.
During week one of my time in Jönköping, a girl from the Netherlands approached me and said, “I could tell you were an American the second I saw you. You have a very American face.”
As I relished every sip of a seven dollar coffee during an afternoon fika, a French guy said, “You sound very American. Your voice is so deep and…loud…”
And a Swedish friend of a friend said, “You know, I don’t always understand Brian. His sense of humor is a little too…American.”
It’s called tragic irony for a reason.
Most Americans come back from studying abroad with their cellphone clocks switched to the 24-hour setting and a newfound interest in scarves. I’m guilty of both. But considering that two months were all that separated submitting my application to study in Sweden and boarding my flight to Stockholm, I didn’t have much time to think about how my time abroad would impact me. Beyond googling pictures of Alexander Skarsgard, my preparation process was mostly made up of hours spent in front of the mirror praying that, one day, I’d look good in a winter hat.
I still look like a freshly circumcised penis in a beanie.
But impact me, it has. I went to parties where I was the only non-Swede. I took classes where I was the only student who spoke English as my mother tongue. I saw Swedish boys dance and sing to “Grease Lightning” without an ounce (er, a gram) of irony. I ate pickled herring and bought Ace of Base’s greatest hits. I stayed up all night to watch the sunrise over Lake Vättern at 4 o’ clock in the morning and used the current size and location of my testicles as an excuse not to swim in said lake.
Quickly adapting has never been a skill of mine but, as “Dancing Queen” (very purposefully) soundtracked the final minutes I had in my apartment, I realized I was leaving the first place that I’ve ever really felt home. This country had taught me so much about the world, about its people, about myself and, most importantly, that blonds really are more attractive than brunettes. And I was sad to know that the lessons were over.
I’ve been home for about a month now. Not much has changed. In a lot of ways, it just feels like life on this side of the Atlantic was put on pause for the last five months. I haven’t decided if that’s good or bad yet. For fear of sounding cliché, I won’t say that life feels a lot smaller here after my experiences overseas. I won’t compare Michelle Obama to Queen Silvia. And I won’t go on about how much I miss the excitement and newness of it all. Instead, I’ll just put my hand over my heart and think of Sweden.
Brian Burns is a Staff Columnist for The Hub and may be reached at email@example.com . Follow him on Twitter @burnsing_up732 .