Sunday, October 26, 2014

My Swedish Miracle

I didn't believe in miracles. Let alone believe that I, yes, I, a normal human body, can make one happen. But three months after arriving in Sweden, I am seeing my own little Swedish miracle. #Oh yeah, oh yeah!# (yes, I'm doing my disco hand move.)

My first week was truly a fresh-off-the-boat experience with the Swedish language. Just about all the printed information was in Swedish. That means shop signs, newspapers, government forms, and, #sigh#, supermarket flyers. Apparently those are very important to me if I want to do well as a hemmafru ("housewife"). Not to mention if I want to really be part of the society, and not just a subculture, to know Swedish is essential.

Most Swedes speak English very well, and they are very happy to speak English with you... So much so that my biggest fear was that I would easily carry on living here with English as my life jacket, as some expats/immigrants do. (To each of their own choice.) But I was determined to learn swimming in Swedish sea on my own. Personally I feel very important to live in a society where I can function normally without the constant language barrier.

"Speed bump"

But boy oh boy, did this goal of speaking Swedish feels like a miracle. Did you know that Swedish has three extra letters: å, ä and ö. If you do the math, that is over 10% increase from English. Apparently that pushes my brain over the edge. I was drowning in a sea of strange words and letters. One time I went to a språkcafe (language corner for new comers), and I left half way feeling so mad with myself for not understanding anything. It sucked big time.

So I worked hard and I worked smart, really hard and really smart, for three months. And now, I was very pleased to see a miracle budding. Earlier today I was carrying a pseudo Swedish conversation for a good five or ten minutes, where I understood maybe a handful of words. But those words are my precious air. It feels so terribly refreshing to be able to come up and tread the water somewhat. I am incredibly proud of this achievement knowing that three months ago how depressed I felt about the situation. Hey, you try listen to the alphabets 100 times and still not getting it.

Having said all this, for those who are curious, I am going to share with you what I have done, and who knows, maybe you will find one or two things helpful for your own study.

- Immersion. Yes, it sounds intense, but it is like jumping into a cold shower, it doesn't work to wet a finger at a time. I took the plunge in converting my environment setting from English to Swedish, from declining restaurant menu in English, to getting a Swedish keyboard, to changing the mobile phone language setting... Which was quite disastrous - for a good few days, I couldn't use my phone properly. :) The hardest part of this is to ignore the lazy voice in my head, the one that wants to read English and just gloss over Swedish. I know it will continue to be a struggle, but it is getting easier day by day, and it feels very rewarding to discover more and more Swedish words that I understand as I read more material. A bit like solving little Sudoku puzzles.

- Stay calm under water. A while ago I completed a personality study, and was told that I ranked low in the "temper" category. ("You don't say!", says Q.) During the language study process, I have panicked so many times that it is bloody annoying... I just end up swallowing bitter water, and lose some precious energy and time. The good thing about aging is that I am getting better at the self-awareness, and I would have these one-on-one conversations with myself. I give myself permission to feel frustrated, but with a time limit, because we need to move on and get back on track. I like having these heart-to-heart conversations with myself. :)

- Stay focused and move quickly. I am very grateful to Matteus from my Toastmasters club for offering me this tip. The argument here is that if I drag out my study, my mind and my friends will get used to the fact that I only speak English, and I would therefore miss some important opportunities to establish a Swedish mindset. It was one tip that helped me tremendously. Before moving to Sweden, I planned some extensive travelling. But after receiving this tip, I decided to stay in Sweden and focus on language studying.

- Listening and speaking over rules. Schools tend to focus a lot on grammar. I like grammar. Some rules help to make sense of the language structure, but quite often we become grammar book and don't know how to verbally communicate in every day conversations. To tackle this, I made it a priority to spend time listening and speaking before taking more school lessons. I would highly recommend these four tools: 8sidor.seLingQ.comSwedish Core 2000 Anki and Fabulo.

- Think and speak like the Swedes do. Nigel from the vill du prata svenska? ("Do you want to speak Swedish?") language group gave me this valuable tip. What it means is that instead of translating English expressions and sentences word-for-word, I must learn Swedish expressions, otherwise I would just end up with some Swenglish that nobody can understand! I find this quite challenging and fun. For example, I was told there is no such a thing as "sweet tooth" in Swedish, instead it is gottegris ("candy pig"). On a related note, Q is min gulle gris ("my cute pig"), ha!

- "I don't speak English." Milada from Toastmasters shared this trick with me. Because Swedes are very eager to practice their English, they would be so quick to switch the conversation from Swedish to English, so the idea is to pretend that I only speak Chinese, and not English, so they have no choice but speaking Swedish with me. I took this a step slightly different. When I start just about all the conversations here, my opening sentences are jag pratar lite svenska, men jag försoker att prata svenska. Är det okej? ("I speak a little Swedish, but I try to speak Swedish. Is it okay?")

Maybe you don't quite see it as a miracle, but I do, and maybe the next time I see you, I will be able to demonstrate it to you. :) I know they are just first steps, but I am on my way up, fast-and-furious style. It is all happening. Yesss! ...Now only if Q would speak more Swedish with me, hmm... Jag skojar, min gulle gris, jag skojar. :)

 Swedish waffles also help motivate language study.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Today I Feel Different...

This morning I slept through my usual 7.30 AM alarm and I didn't even feel bad. I took my sweet time with the morning yoga practice and wasn't checking for time. I didn't rush from going to dentist's emergency service or to my Chinese teaching appointment. Then it occurred to me... it almost seems like that I am ... relaxed. For the first time in the three months that I have arrived in Sweden, I am actually r-e-l-a-x-e-d. :)

And I think I know exactly why. After 6 months for Q and 3 months for me, we finally finally, YESSSS FINALLY, have a space that is completely and utterly livable and all to ourselves. A home we call our own. Here is the journey we took to get here...

BEFORE coming to Sweden, Q has done some hard work and found an apartment for us to live in. The contract was signed and we were all set. I shouldn't have laughed so hard on my flight to Sweden because -

A WEEK after my arrival, we were informed by the landlord that the apartment has been, surprise surprise, SOLD! We were back to look for a place to live. This would have been relatively easy in a lot of part of the world, but not in Sweden, and definitely not in August. Allow me to explain:
- Not in Sweden: There is some really messed up rental apartment supply and demand situation here. I don't get the whole gist of it, but it is something of a government-controlled rent control. We put ourselves on several waiting lists and were warned that it could take years before we get to have a rental through "proper" channel. Read more in these news reports: here and here.
- Not in August: August is the time when a lot of the Swedes take their month-long vacation. There is even a law in place to make sure companies allow employees to take month-long vacations in July and August, and the employees sure all do. Top to bottom. In and out. That means housing market is slow and we had a real hard time finding anyone or anything!

ANOTHER WEEK passed and we realized that us finding an rental apartment was like Rob Ford quit drinking. It just was not going to happen. Okay, at least not in the near future. So we had to change our strategy. We decided to take the plunge and buy an apartment. Yep, just like that, two weeks into the country, I am faced with my biggest purchase ever. I cannot speak for Q's reaction to this, but hey, Q loves shopping. :)

Sleeping on borrowed mattresses in an unfurnished apartment temporarily while looking.

TWO MORE WEEKS passed, and we found an apartment that we like. Okay, I am probably brushing over the apartment shopping effort here considering we are new to the city and didn't speak the language, but we did just that. We found an apartment that we fell in love with. It was love at first sight... Mind you, we were oh-so desperate either one of us could marry someone with an apartment! But I digress. On my one-month mark of moving to Sweden, I, my dear friends and family, I made a bid for us on the apartment following the Swedish way - with an SMS. Yes, a short short text message that read something like this,"Dear agent, we would like to put a bid for the apartment we saw for the ###### amount. Thank you." If you do the math, each character was worth essentially thousands of dollars. If hitting that "send" button doesn't get one high, I don't know what would.

ANOTHER WEEK's back and forth negotiation, yes, mostly by text messages. Some phone calls and emails on our part, since I can't stand sending texts. Anyway, we got the final agreement and a loan from the bank. That is another situation that is unique to Sweden. You can get a huge loan, and don't need to pay the principle ever, like EVER. Fine, don't believe me, read this.

WHEN we finally got the keys to the apartment, I wish I could tell you that I was happy as a new home-owner, but I wasn't. I really felt like we were forced into this commitment. A little sad, right? But no time to dwell in that, we literally got our shipment from Toronto the next day. Yeah, let's just say we went from no apartment, to an empty one, to one with just boxes, a lot of boxes. So many that Q and I were playing hide-and-seek. I still haven't found him yet.
But hey, at least it was a livable place, right? Uhm, NOT quite. The living room ceiling was falling apart and we had to get it fixed. That turned out to be a BIG job. Who knew. Okay, newbies here, remember? ONE WEEK, for one whole week, we tried to remove the old paint with friends' help. Oh that was so fun. I wish more of you were here, so we could share some of the fun with you, and have a little less fun ourselves. Really.

Then it comes to the moment of realization that we couldn't simply repaint it over ourselves because of the cracks in the concrete - apparently normal in these century-old buildings. Well, since Q had to work during the days, it fell on me to find a painter. That was real fun with the language barrier and cultural differences. Reading back at my notes, we contacted a total of TEN painters. Yes, that was a lot of Google Translation. And the quotes we got were all over the place. When we finally decided to go with one reputable company, it quickly became a communication nightmare. I was getting second hand information from Q, who was the initial contact with a home renovation store, which has a contract with a painting company, whose boss sent his staff to assess the job. When we realized the assessment wasn't done correctly, the staff informed his boss, who informed the store manager, who then emailed Q and Q told me. And this went back and forth a couple of more rounds, and I gave up. I found another painter, and worked with him directly. The new painter did a quick and fabulous job. ONE WEEK later, the living room was back to normal. And that was just in time for our first house guests' visit. Yay. :)

That was ONE WEEK ago, it was nice to have our visitors, but it was very well deserved when Q and I got to enjoy our apartment for the first time in its normal state just to ourselves. Ahh... home sweet home. Today I feel more relaxed, thanks to you.

p.s. Come visit us here. :)