"To learn from travel, one must train
oneself to capture messages."
Sweden is a country I had never really thought about visiting, although in the back of my mind there lingered some awareness of its status as the best-ranking country in the world in gender inequality, and some notion that this wealthy Scandinavian nation is recognized as exemplary in terms of social equality in general and successful welfare state policy.
Would it be "too boring", too "solved" to really capture my imagination, I wondered, when the chance to go there came in the form of professional commitment. Of course, there would always be historical monuments, natural beauty, perhaps the chance to take a ride through the countryside on a fine Swedish (or Icelandic) horse, and then of course, the numerous museums to visit....
Now I am already on my second trip there. On the plane from Amsterdam to Stockholm, after a grueling 11 hour flight from São Paulo, I sit next to a Swedish woman whom I soon learn has gone from nursing to a doctorate in public health. Probably well into her fifties, she is a still youthful mother of three, now in her second marriage to a man who had several children of his own. When I comment, “So, I know that your country is considered number one in gender equality”, her reply comes quickly, together with a wide smile and, I detect, a twinkle in her eyes, “Yes, this is true! But we are still not satisfied [with the way things are]!”
My first stroll around Stockholm takes place on a drizzly, mid-November afternoon. There, at the boutique she works at in a trendy Stockholm neighborhood, I meet Sari, a young Afghani immigrant. Although the acute perceptions of life in Sweden that she shares with me lead me to believe she has a real penchant for the social sciences, she tells me, in beautiful English, that she has finished high school and not gone on the university. Then she explains that in Sweden, her adopted country, everyone has all their basic needs taken care of, so that the real difference between rich and poor can be seen through access to spheres such as hobbies and leisure. “There are many things you may want to do but if you are from a poor family, perhaps an immigrant family, you just won´t get the chance”. She also tells me that her mom wanted to bring her daughters to Sweden so that they could have the opportunities she never did. And as her daughters lives unfold in new ways, Sari´s father "isn´t too happy with it".
Later, in the evening, I am at a bar with my Rumanian friend, enjoying a bit of the city's night life. As the night draws to its end, emptying out rather early, in fact (well, it is a Tuesday evening, after all) there is just us and a large party at another table. One member of the group, a young man, gets up and starts to dance, showing off his not-so-meager talents in flashy movements of hands, legs and body, rather à la Michael Jackson. Then the d.j., who seems to be a friend of the group, switches the track to Middle-Eastern music, and a middle aged woman and another, somewhat younger one, who we later learn is her daughter get up from the table as well. Soon we are all dancing and laughing together, this one brief chance meeting pulsing with a sweet and dizzying current of something larger. Tamara, the older woman, tells us it is her daughter´s birthday, gestures toward her lovely granddaughter, a girl of about 16, and then goes on to lament the closed-off nature of Swedish life, its families and reserved society. “Look at us, we are all from somewhere else!,” she exclaims. Somewhere, in this case, means mostly Iran, but also Cabo Verde and Chile. Later, the young Chilean I speak to in Spanish tells me she was born in Sweden, daughter of people who found exile there, after Pinochet´s coup wrought fear and terror in their native land.
I am in Uppsala, after day one of our conference, chatting with Johanna and Ingrid over a beer. It is rather noisy in the pub, populated at the moment by a gregarious crowd that doesn´t seem to fit the “boring” label I have heard foreigners apply to the Swedes over the past few days. So I ask my friends to tell me something about young people in Sweden today, their habits and their life style. Johanna tells me her older sister is a Lutheran pastor, a single mother who “made” her child under the auspices of a Danish sperm bank and with current plans to follow suit for a second one. Ingrid, who tells me she still dreams of a rather conventional married life, like the ones who parents built and enjoy, to date, also adds, “A husband! Yes, I would like one. But I can also easily make my life without one. In fact, my best friends are a bunch of guys, and I´m almost always hanging out them, só for them, maybe, I´m just... well, one of the boys!”
On the final evening of my stay in Uppsala, snow is falling lightly, covering the ground with a thin and gauzy sheet. It is almost warm outside, and better yet, I have the prospect of a toasty, cozy hotel room awaiting me. So, there is none of the discomfort of Curitiba at the end of a winter day in store for me tonight. I feel satisfied after several days of “communing with kindred spirits” and after a well- received talk on fellow women travelers - in this case the Brazilian women in Barcelona who have shared their life stories of searching for self, of border-crossings, introspection and sometimes, “muito jogo de cintura” (a particular kind of cleverness, roughly speaking). On the plane home the next day, I read stories from the book my son has given me for my recent birthday. There are many good ones among them, but one in particular (Conversa de Bar, by the gaucha Renata Wolff)catches my attention, reminding me of the session my students and I “back home” spent re-visiting Rosario* . Like Castellanos, Woolff, Plath and others I so admire, Wolff's story takes a humorous and ironic look at mythologizing - and often disabling- ways of writing women, and perhaps also, of being women: the scripts, the "contracts" we accept and their “fine print” - and bringing me back again to a one of the questions that so often, or from time to time, come backs to haunt me: if in our ocean and border crossing, if, amidst our changing circumstances and selves, there is something we must still, most urgently, most importantly, dislodge from within.
*(Castellanos, El eterno femenino)