How do you know when you’ve adapted to a new country? It’s more about an accumulation of little things than any list of criteria or ‘breakthrough’ moment, writes The Local’s Catherine Edwards.
Have you ever tried on a piece of clothing, maybe a hat or glasses, which felt strange at first? Maybe it was heavy, or obscured your vision a bit. But then, after wearing it for a few hours, you forgot you even had it on – possibly leading to strange looks in public if it was an especially funky accessory.
That’s the closest metaphor I can think of for the process of adapting to a new culture, although it takes months or years for things to feel natural after moving countries.
Sweden’s government is currently mulling the introduction of language and civics tests for foreign residents applying for citizenship. This change, proposed back in the January government deal, means prospective citizens would need to answer enough questions to show they can speak the Swedish language and demonstrate a “fundamental understanding of [Swedish] society”.
I’ve written about feeling at home in Sweden before, and thought about it a lot; it’s one of my favourite topics to chat with fellow international residents about. Some still don’t see Sweden as home even after years living here, while for others there’s a big watershed moment, such as attending the annual ceremony for new citizens on National Day.
But more often than not, the process of adapting to a new culture doesn’t feel like a straightforward path with milestones to tick off, or a curriculum that you could study section by section. It’s more likely slowly absorbing dozens of tiny, almost immeasurable things, until you don’t notice that you’re no longer noticing them.
These things are personal to everyone. Sometimes it’s nothing specifically ‘Swedish’, but you start to feel more at home in a new place once you can get to work and your favourite bar without the help of Google Maps; your feet take you there automatically. Or simply having a favourite bar, especially one where you start to recognize regulars or know which chairs are wobbly, might be the thing that makes you feel you’ve found your place.
I always recommend that homesick friends try to build a routine as soon as possible, even if it’s just taking the same walk every weekend or getting coffee from the same spot. Many social psychologists believe (and have the research to back it up) that physical proximity is one of or the most crucial factors in whether two individuals will form a strong relationship: it’s called the ‘proximity principle’. I think this can be true of relationships with places and cultures too; spend enough time at your chosen spots, and they’ll often take on their own special meaning to you.
And just as getting to know another person means learning their quirks and habits good or bad, and working out how best to deal with them, it’s a similar process getting to know a new culture and society.
During my first summer in Sweden, I was surprised to keep coming across rows of Swedish people crammed into the small patch of sunlight on a pavement, faces upturned, eyes closed and smiling. I call it the Swedish sun face. Last July, I found myself zig-zagging across roads to be in the sun as much as possible, barely registering that I was doing it until a bemused visitor from home asked why.
I also catch myself inhaling an ‘ah!’ to signal that I’m listening in a conversation, even if we’re speaking English (if you’re not familiar with this linguistic tic, there’s background here). And Sweden has taught me to live with the seasons: mysa in winter and embrace friluftsliv all summer, including in weather that would have sent me scurrying back inside when I lived in the UK or Italy.
Not all these adjustments are necessarily improvements. In June, I spent a week in Berlin, a city I lived in before moving to Stockholm and have returned to several times since. This time, there was something different; it felt noisier. Getting the S-Bahn back to my hotel one evening, I got off at the station not far from where I used to live, and was surprised by how noisy it was, not due to any shouting or loud music, but just the buzz of dozens of conversations on a crowded train and platform.
I’d missed this background noise and liveliness, but I’d forgotten I’d missed it until I was back in its midst. I used to find it amusing when Swedish friends would talk about the value of a sommarstuga (summer house) to ‘escape the city’, when the city in question was the relatively sedate Stockholm, but the longer I live here, the more I find myself adapting to the Swedish norms of a quieter, slower pace of life, for better or worse (or both).
There are things about Sweden that I love and wouldn’t change for the world, and there are things that if I had the chance, I’d change in a heartbeat. That’s going to be true of anywhere, whether you’re a local or not. So for me, the sign of adaptation isn’t necessarily accepting each and every one of those things as ‘better’, in order to prove you’ve converted to Swedishness. It’s when you no longer feel like you’re running up against a wall when you face the parts of Swedish life you’re less used to.
Instead, you know what to expect and how you’re going to react to it, whether it’s internal eye-rolls and calming deep breathing as you brace for the Saturday 2.45pm rush at Systembolaget, or even better, having adjusted your own habits so you’re better prepared in advance and never have to face that dreaded queue.
It’s about being frustrated when no-one answers your work calls for the whole month of July, but being able to balance that with an understanding that people do need vacation, even four whole weeks of it, and that you’ll probably be taking your own before long. And it’s about the small moments when you realize that you may never feel fully ‘Swedish’, but that in many ways you’ve already adapted with or without a conscious effort.