There are certain countries you grow up with depending on where you’re from, what your parents are interested in, and what’s going on in your country politically. We are aware of these countries almost from birth and continue to learn about them throughout our childhoods and into adulthood, whether through deliberate study or a more informal “impression-gathering.”
Sweden was not one of those countries for me.
England, yes. I know lots about England. Stiff upper lips, a dry sense of humor, a distinctive use of adjectives, an accent that automatically sounds more intelligent than my own… check. I also know a fair amount about France. Beret-wearing, baguette-wielding, prone to horizontal stripes and art house film, with an accent that automatically sounds sexier than my own… check.
On second thought, maybe it’s better that I didn’t grow up with the idea of Sweden.
Actually, if you had asked me about Sweden about three and a half years ago, the list of things I could have told you about the country—stereotypical or not—would have been quite short. I grew up in a nice Midwestern suburb with one WASP parent and one Italian-American parent in a predominantly Dutch area of Michigan, and my exposure to Sweden was almost nonexistent. If I had grown up in another area of the Midwest, especially Minnesota, that probably would have been different, but as it is, I bet all I would have come up with would have been a vague description of a Nordic country populated by very tall, very skinny, blonde-haired blue-eyed supermodels. (No word on the men… no idea why they don’t have a similar stereotype.)
“The land of Ikea” probably would have also made the list. Less certain entries would have included “Swedish meatballs—are they actually from Sweden?” and “that one Swedish pancake that my sister gets when she orders the international pancake platter at IHOP” (now renamed and re-categorized as a “Swedish crepe;” as far as I know, it’s still filled with lingonberry jam). That probably would have been about it for me.
Instead of the jumble of half-baked stereotypes and impressions that I have about Canada, Mexico, and a lot of other Western European countries, I came to the idea of Sweden with a nearly blank slate—as did the majority of my friends when I announced at the beginning of my senior year at college that I was dating a Swede.
Most common response: “Aren’t the girls really hot there?” Pause, no answer. *Skeptical look.*
Anywaaaay, when March rolled around, my group of friends didn’t know much more about Sweden than they had at the end of August, but they decided to throw me a very special surprise birthday party. As it happens, my friends are big on birthday parties, but not very good at surprises, so I knew something was in the works. I had been whisked away to a friend’s apartment for dinner (just a last minute thing, you know, it being Saturday night and there being NO SURPRISE BIRTHDAY PARTY TO SPEAK OF, of course). When I returned to my apartment, the living room was packed with people, and I saw that my “surprise” birthday party was also a theme party.
Every horizontal surface in the apartment was covered with bowls of Swedish fish (a red gummy candy) and there was a large bottle of Absolut Vodka in the freezer. Welcome to Sweden!
I guess you could say that my friends’ interpretation of the theme provides a unique insight into Sweden’s cultural and culinary contributions to the world… or maybe not. Now I would be able to make some more typically Swedish suggestions for food and décor—a Princesstårta would be high on the list, for example—and a more extensive list of characteristics to associate with the idea of Sweden and Swedish culture.
There are some things my friends got right, though. As my birthday approaches once again, I find myself looking towards home for ideas that will take me back to the friends and family that I miss. Whether you’re in own country and connected to someone or something abroad or actually living in another country as an expat, these celebratory occasions make you feel the pull towards the country, the culture, and above all the people you’re longing for. My Swedish-themed birthday party presaged the connection I would have with Sweden, and this year’s birthday meal will not have anything to do with Sweden except for the lovely Swedes I will spend my day with. Instead, my birthday meal this year is aimed to satisfy a hunger for a cuisine that you just can’t find enough of here: Mexican food.
Bring on the carnitas!