A little while ago, my stalwart companion in all potentially corny Swedish adventures (Steve) and I went to the Viking Reserve in Southern Sweden, and I keep thinking about the Vikings we met there.
When they spoke about living as the Vikings did, the passion they have for their lifestyle was clear in every word, and I found myself thinking about the lessons that expats could learn from the way they embrace the constant newness and discovery that comes with their lives as Vikings.
1. Follow what you love.
Choosing to live as a Viking in modern day Sweden is not exactly a common phenomenon, but the two Vikings we met, Jessica and Peter, obviously knew why they were there and how their choices reflected their priorities in life. That kind of clarity seems to be the result of both reflection and action—understanding what they want and making it happen.
Last July, I knew why I was moving to Sweden—it was to finally be with my boyfriend after two years of dating long distance. The question of what to do with myself once I was here turned out to be a little harder to figure out.
When I found myself in a new country, without a job and adrift from my normal life and routines, it was really difficult to set a course of action to create a life here that was in line with the goals I had for myself in the States. I had to start from scratch in so many ways—with Swedish, with a resume that didn’t mean much to Swedish employers, without an understanding of how the job market works here. I keep trying to follow what I love, however, in order to feel like the way I spend my time is worthwhile.
2. It’s all about your mindset.
I kept interrogating the Vikings for more details as to how they actually survive the winter. The Reserve is located on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea, and I can only imagine the wind chill come February. How, how, how is it possible that you don’t die, frozen stiff under an animal pelt?
While Peter satisfied my desire to know the specifics, he kept repeating the obvious foundation to his lifestyle: it’s all about your mindset. You have to think about possible problems and risks in advance, and you have to prepare for the unknowable.
Expats face the same demands when it comes to adjusting their mindset towards preparation and forethought. Just going from Lund to Malmö for a night out with friends used to require the careful consultation of timetables, maps drawn on napkins, and frantic phone calls home to my boyfriend to ask for more directions.
Trying to learn a new language also takes a certain mindset—one that’s open to vulnerability. If you want to make progress, you have to dare to speak and be willing to be wrong. Tackling bureaucratic tasks requires yet another mindset—one that mixes endless resolve, patience, and optimism.
The need to adopt all these mindsets is one reason why it’s so tiring to be an expat; it’s hard to let your guard down when you’re not on your home turf. It’s manageable, though, and it gets better with time.
3. Make it work.
One of the most interesting things Peter and Jessica told us about was their explorations into “experimental history” to find out how to live most authentically on the reserve. In short, they examine historical records and artifacts for clues as to how the Vikings accomplished things in their daily lives, then they (the modern day Vikings) give it a try themselves. If it doesn’t work, they’ll reexamine the source for more clues, give it another try, or move on to the next thing—all in pursuit of solutions.
It’s the same in expat life. You have to constantly try to make things work using the best information you have and the tools that are at hand. A year and a half ago, I moved here to Vienna with two suitcases. Several Ikea expeditions and a couple of trips home later, the amount of stuff—clothing, books, cooking ware, etc.—has more than doubled, and still there are times when I think, if I only I just had that … from home. When that happens, you just have to make do, looking up solutions on the internet or making them up as you go along.
One thing is sure: life never gets boring when you have to improvise on a daily basis.
4. Draw strength from your community.
Peter and Jessica did not talk about their alienation from “the real world” at length, but Peter mentioned his mother’s unhappiness at his retreat to the Reserve, his long hair, and his Viking outfits. Even if you know you’re doing the right thing for yourself, making unconventional life choices is rarely painless. That’s when your community comes into play.
I love the Swedish friends I have made here, and I have a close relationship with my family in the States. But man-oh-man, there are days when I just need to sit with some American expats and let it all out: the good, the bad, the exhilarating, the frustrating, all the petty annoyances we suffer as foreigners perpetually on the wrong foot, all the joy we get out of small victories.
It is so good to be with someone who understands where you’re coming from intuitively instead of just sympathizing with your discomfort because they like you and they trust the legitimacy of your emotions. I would be lost without my expat community to bolster me.
5. OWN IT.
One of the most striking things about the Peter and Jessica was how they described themselves. They didn’t call themselves “historical reenactors” or “Viking impersonators;” they called themselves Vikings. I love that. There are so many people who hide their goofy passions for fear of being exposed as secret nerds, but I say if you’re going to walk the walk, you might as well talk the talk.
The most obvious corollary in expat life is how you answer the question we all dread, “So what do you do?”
When you move abroad for a person rather than for a job, it can be hard to find a position in your destination country that matches the seniority or prestige of the one you left behind. There’s no shame in that, but I have heard so many expat women living with or married to Swedes sort of mumble out what they do during the day with a lengthy disclaimer of what they did before and what they’re looking for.
I’m also guilty of acting like I don’t have anything to be proud of. For months, I avoided mentioning my job blogging here when meeting new people for fear that they would laugh at me and think I was a silly girl with a laptop and an inflated sense of self.
The more settled-in I get, though, the more frustrating I find this expat bashfulness about what they’re doing with their lives. I understand feeling like it’s not up to your previous standards. If you’re going to bother making the leap to another country, though, don’t be so hesitant to see the strides you make as personal victories to be proud of!