4th of July can be a strange holiday to celebrate abroad. Without the fireworks and the nationwide patriotic euphoria, there’s not much that distinguishes a 4th of July party from any other summer evening spent drinking and barbecuing with friends.
All the same, in past few years as an expat, I’ve given it an honest try. One year, I made several trays of Jell-o shots with Jell-o bought at the American Store in Malmö. Both the how and the why of that particular food (drink?) were difficult to explain.
Another year, I made homemade barbecue sauce and Southern-style banana pudding, which was definitely more popular. One year, I spent the whole day in the no-man’s-land of one airport after another, flying from North Carolina to New York City to Frankfurt to Vienna, nine days before moving to Sweden.
This year, I decided to give up the evangelization efforts and take it easy. Thank goodness for the American Women’s Club in Malmö. I joined their celebration for the first time and it was exactly what I was hoping for.
Picnic blankets covered the host and hostess’s yard in a blanket of red, white, and blue, and our white cardboard plates were overloaded with hamburgers, hotdogs, multiple varieties of potato salad of both American and Scandinavian persuasion. Later, the owner of a new cupcakery in town arrived with several dozen much-awaited cupcakes.
Contrary to what you might expect from a group called the American Women’s Club, the membership is neither exclusively women nor exclusively Americans. On our particular constellation of blankets was an English marketing researcher (Hey, Carys!), a Serbian scientist, and Simon and me.
On three sides, we were flanked by Swedish-American families; on the fourth blanket next to us was an American-Irish family. They were soon moving back to France, where they had previously lived for 12 years.
At the dessert table, we met a Motown and blues artist from Chicago who said that he had originally come to Stockholm to play a gig, but that 25 years and three kids later he was probably a Swedish resident for life.
In true expat style, nationalities and traditions were being blended together willy-nilly, with the kids shifting effortlessly between languages.
In a similar vein, the 4th of July celebration was actually a few days early, on Sunday, on what we were duly informed was actually Canada Day. Someone planted a small flag in the garden to represent their side of the North American family.
I’ve had several people in Malmö ask me about the AWC and what it’s all about.
Originally, it was established in 1931 with the grand hope of promoting world peace through American expats living abroad. Today, it’s a place to meet up with other internationals (including Swedes!) and hang out, whether you’re a woman or an American or not. They do philanthropic work, celebrate holidays, and arrange social events for a range of ages, whether you’re a 20- or 30-something or a parent or older.
At first, I resisted joining the AWC and Internations, another expat/international networking group, because I really wanted to be totally at one with Sweden and avoid living in an expat bubble.
In the time since then, I’ve realized that participating in social events and making friends with other expats isn’t a cop out, and it doesn’t mean that I am somehow distancing myself from Swedish culture.
If anything, the AWC is a place where I can meet people who have been doing this “expat in Sweden” thing longer than I have and can give me some insight into life here (as well as tips on where to find things like canned pumpkin around Thanksgiving… obviously very important).
Most importantly, it’s also given me the opportunity to meet some great friends.
If you’re planning on becoming an expat, I would strongly recommend at least checking out the international organizations in your area.
Thanks to the internet, they’re getting easier and easier to find. Meetup, Facebook, CouchSurfing, language schools, Internations, and LinkedIn are all great places to look for social events or groups that will share a common interest with you. If it turns out not to be your style, no harm done!
If you’re an expat, I would love to hear from you. What have been your experiences with international groups? Do you think it distances you from the culture of the country you’re in, or is it a necessary support as a foreigner?
And to all the Americans out there — Happy 4th of July!!
Resources for international/expat groups:
FAWCO - the overarching organization of American Women’s Clubs