This summer I took my boyfriend to the Swedish countryside. We stayed in a small village with traditional red and white houses by a lake. In the woods nearby were remnants of abandoned dwellings, from a time when the area was an important mining district. Did I choose the place because it was close to where my grandparents and father were from? Perhaps.
The village itself had more summer visitors than permanent inhabitants, of whom there were eleven. The youngest, 61. One evening we were having a barbecue, despite the assault of black flies around dusk. We had smeared ourselves with a tar-based cream, and had a freshly caught pike and perch on the grill. Our two closest neighbours were there – one reluctantly, since, he explained, he didn’t really like to be around people that much.
After some conversation, he asked me, are you gay? To which I replied, yes, we are together, gesticulating towards my boyfriend.
“Are you going to Stockholm Pride?”
“No, not this year.”
“I’ve been to Pride,” he said. “Several times.”
“Have you walked in the parade?” I asked.
“Yes.” He paused and then said, “I’m a cross-dresser.”
He explained that, these days – he was 76 years old – he didn’t feel the need to show off in high heels and short skirts, but enjoyed driving around for a whole day dressed only in a bikini.
A couple of days earlier our other neighbour and I had had a discussion about immigration. In 2015, the nearest village had been overwhelmed when 400 refugees had arrived, almost doubling the population. He said he didn’t want them here, where he lived. His feelings sounded similar to the way he talked about a hunting ban protecting the ever-increasing population of wolves in the area. That people somewhere else took decisions that changed things for people
”There are only two solutions: adapt to society, against your nature, or try to recreate the independence from within the family and society”
But, about the cross-dressing neighbour, who had moved to the village from Stockholm, he just said: “He’s a transvestite, but he’s OK, anyway.”
What made some people welcome and others not?
As someone who has lived abroad for most of the past decade, I wonder about questions like these. I am a globalised, cosmopolitan, Western citizen who moves easily around this world. My culture and life is change, and so is my home. Yet, even though I don’t agree, I empathise with those who, like that neighbour, love what they have. The ones who don’t want their world to change.
Still, living in other countries make me see that I’m also someone with a nationality. In the book Är svensken människa? [Is the Swede Human?] by Henrik Berggren and Lars Trädgårdh, the writers describe a national dilemma often found in literature about Swedish national characteristics. The Swedish ideal is to live in nature, as an independent individual, freed from the mutual dependency you have when living with other people. But, in order to be a nation and a culture, Swedes realise they need to abandon their ideal, and live together with other people. There are only two solutions: adapt to society, against your nature, or try to recreate the independence from within the family and society – apparently then often succumbing to alcoholism or melancholy.
I smile at this, because there’s only one Swedish thing I miss when I’m not living there, and it is the country’s nature. Five years ago I was on top of a mountain in the north of Sweden. I was alone and I couldn’t see a single human being for miles around me. I felt serene and happy. I felt at home.