Well, here we are. Physically speaking – in a local Swedish cafe nibbling on a Kanelbulle at 11:30am on a balmy Sunday morning in Stockholm. Metaphorically speaking – back to these pages. A lot changes in a year, especially when there’s a global pandemic narrating our lives. But waning out of a COVID-19 world, I now feel comfortable enough to comment on those ambivalent lockdown months and my subsequent move to a foreign country 14,000 kilometres away.
Sweden. Who would have thought? Definitely not me. Besides being the land of my favourite four-lettered things – ABBA, IKEA and FIKA – Sweden seemed like a random and irrelevant place for me to live. I had travelled to Stockholm once before on my solo travels in 2019 but my experience and knowledge of this Scandinavian capital were limited to it being just a ‘nice place to visit in Europe’. What was essentially ‘spin the globe and put your finger somewhere’ David and I spent 19 months of long-distance creating PROJECT REUNITE – a comprehensive Google Doc that listed all the potential visas we could apply to. Similarly, my cousin Melinda and her boyfriend Doug were in a parallel situation and had just applied for and received their visa for Sweden, so we decided to jump on the European bandwagon and try our luck. Vetting visas is one thing, applying for an exemption to leave your own country is a whole other ball game. We spent weeks writing letters and collating photographs, text messages, gift receipts etc. The end result? A 20-something-paged exposé of our relationship for government officials to take microscopic scrutiny to. We made sure to go extra hard on the ‘gooey love’ messages to really make them squirm.
Now, the waiting game. Patience is my least favourite and most undeveloped virtue. Combine that with an overly anxious and somewhat pessimistic brain and you get the most insufferable person in waiting. I was dejected and brooding and truly believe that my mother and father should win an award for suffering through it all with me. Finally, some months later in mid-September during a Monday Zumba class, I got the golden ticket saying I had been approved. I ran straight out of the room and called David in London to tell him the good news. All we did was smile in silence and take it in turns to say ‘Holy shit’ whilst the other one said ‘I know!’.
Melinda and I decided to team up our flight path and move over together in October with her settling in Gothenburg and me in Stockholm. Australia was still heavily locked down and limited on travelling during this period. For our entire flight journey, we both kept thinking that any minute now someone would say that we somehow cheated the system and send us back to where we came from. Everyone always asks “how did you feel knowing that you were going to see David again?”, and besides anxiously scanning every corner for peril and disappointment with borders, I felt oddly calm about him.
For the past year and a half, I had the time to process whether this was something I really wanted; whether David was someone I really wanted. I would be lying if I said doubts never crept into my mind. What if we didn’t work out? What if we ended up resenting each other or feeling trapped in this life plan? Yes, I was undeniably in love with him, but we had never lived together nor had we even spent more than a week in each other’s company. Some would call it romantic; I saw it as complete lunacy. It was as important that this move was as much for myself and what I wanted for my life as it was for my relationship. After London, I knew that I would never live a completely settled life in Australia again. There were – and still are – so many countries that I want to habit in and make a living out of. The thought of not moving to Sweden was madder than the act of doing it, and that’s why I never questioned it again.
Reuniting with David at Arlanda Airport was the most surreal, out-of-body experience I’ve ever encountered. I could hear his voice in my ear and feel him squeezing me in an embrace, but every inch of me was overwhelmed and overstimulated that I kind of felt everything and nothing all at once. The only way I can describe it is like meeting a celebrity that you’ve watched on your screen for years. In some ways, they are smaller in real life than you think but also larger than life itself. I remember gripping onto his hand the whole taxi ride home in fear that he would disappear, but also telling him to not look at me directly in the eye for too long because I felt shy and it was weirding me out.
For the first few weeks, we lived in this delirious bubble of pure, elated joy. Making each other tea in the morning was a privilege, getting groceries together felt like we were playing ‘grown-ups’ and falling asleep next to the other was like winning the lottery every single night. In our case, it was true that distance did make our hearts grow fonder. We had so much gratitude for time and togetherness, and we were quick to remind ourselves that we would “never ever take each other for granted again.” That’s incredibly profound and schmaltzy of us, but it’s also not very realistic. Just like other non-romantic relationships, this one is no different in that it takes natural effort in order for it to work. We can be moony walking through Stockholm city one second, and the next I’m getting angsty with David for holding my hand limply instead of having all of his five fingers tightly secured around mine to show absolute and unbreakable commitment. We argue and bicker about small domesticities and personality traits that we’re still loving and learning from. But we also laugh every single day, dance around the living room and routinely cook each other hearty meals – all as acts of love.
Life in Sweden is blissfully balanced. There’s so much to do and see, but all at a relatively eased pace. Harmoniously conjoined, Stockholm provides an abundance of nature alongside vibrant city life. With most of the original architecture preserved, the neoclassicism influence and Art Deco aesthetics make the city extremely beautiful and hard to avert your gaze from. The people are tremendously nice – albeit notoriously shy and reserved – and committed to kindness. It’s extremely underrated, and for that reason alone, I love it.
But to accept life as an expatriate is to accept that nothing will ever be straightforward and simple. Want a bank account? Give us your firstborn. Daresay you want healthcare? Turn one hundred times, do the splits, say the alphabet backwards and tie a cherry stick in your mouth – simultaneously. The simplest life tasks are especially galling, but when they are achieved, they’re your most celebrated breakthroughs. In the past 7 months, it has been a joyous feat navigating the terrain of being a clueless couple in a big, foreign city. Somehow though we’ve meandered our way through apartment hunting, building friendships, finding new jobs, applying for social security numbers and the list goes on. There are still important hurdles looming ahead of us, but as long as we take one step at a time and purge with a really good cry session, I think we’ll be fine.
So, how do we know that the decisions we make will be the right ones? The likelihood of it is that you’ll never know for certain. I believe that the decisions you choose to make in that moment of your life will always be the right one, even if later in life with the beautiful gift of hindsight, it was a bit questionable. And if all else flops, live by “Everything is copy” – a Nora Ephron philosophy whereby all that happens in life, good and bad, is fodder for a great story.
Covid was a dreadful time and lockdowns were the bane of our lives, but I also…kind of loved it. Not for the horror and heartbreak, but for the unfiltered and uninterrupted time it gave me to be with my family and friends. I wouldn’t trade in those months back at home for anything, not even if it meant being with David earlier. And I know he feels the exact same way. We can happily say now that we got the best of both. Like a Joni Mitchell ballade, we can look at these periods of our lives in a poignant manner and see how beautifully complex and imperfectly perfect both sides are. Life, no matter where you choose to live it, will be filled with wonderful, painful and joyous moments. All I need to do is observe and learn from it, and to never cease having a taste for more.