How we learned to embrace our awkward existence as a multicultural family in Sweden

How we learned to embrace our awkward existence as a multicultural family in Sweden
We'll never quite fit in here in Sweden, but that's okay. File photo: Clive Tompsett/
A couple of beers made us realize we might never exactly "fit in" in Sweden. But in our third year here, we have come to terms with being different.

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As our first year in Sweden was coming to an end, our family went on a late-summer day trip to the country to explore a historic castle and nearby nature reserve. After a busy morning, a nice lunch, and some walking, we stopped at another restaurant just outside the nature reserve where there was a lovely terrace and a little playground. Walking out of the restaurant to find a place to sit on the terrace, I felt like all eyes were upon us. It was as if people had purposefully stopped enjoying their fika to stare at us as we walked past.

Naturally, I immediately wondered if we were somehow being obnoxious. Were we speaking too loudly? Was it that we were speaking in a combination of English and Spanish? Were our children – then three and five years old – misbehaving?

Any of these could have been true, but it was only after we sat down and began enjoying our drinks that I looked around and realized another, more likely reason: While all the other adults were enjoying a coffee, my husband and I each had a beer.


When the children had finished their snacks and run over to the playground, my husband and I discussed how what had been such a normal and typical part of leisure time when we had lived in Spain now seemed like a major cultural taboo, at least at that place and time.

Initially, it was discomforting. In some ways, it felt like we were doing something wrong. At the very least, we were a source of wonderment to those around us. I personally felt like I had when, as a pre-teen, my family moved from New Jersey to Texas, and I was faced with the challenge of finding a balance between being true to myself and adapting to fit in.

Of course, I had also been in a similar position when my husband and I moved to his native Spain. There, I not only had to adapt to Spanish culture while also maintaining parts of my own culture, but we as a couple had to blend our two cultures for our children. It wasn't always easy, and there were certainly occasions where our multiculturalism made us stand out in uncomfortable ways. But life in Sweden added a new twist to this situation.

Sweden was new to both of us, and our experience that day made us realize just how much we were going to have to learn about – and learn to fit comfortably into – its culture and traditions. As reasonable adults, we knew that we neither could nor had to abandon our multiculturalism, either as individuals or as a family. But we also knew that finding a balance for ourselves and our family – and helping to guide our children in their individual quests for balance – was now much more complex and would take time and effort to achieve.


Now in our third year in Sweden, we're still a work-in-progress, and I expect we always will be. We are far from being Swedish, of course, but then we are also not particularly American or Spanish, or even Spanish-American. Instead, our previous multiculturalism is becoming a new multiculturalism. The blend of customs and traditions we brought with us to Sweden is now blending with those we are discovering here, creating a unique and multifaceted existence that I quite like.

This is especially evident in our children, who are almost seamlessly combining their three cultures. I couldn't have felt prouder, for instance, when our six-year-old daughter helped a new girl at school who spoke only English by interpreting between her and their teachers and classmates. That she felt equally confident in both her American, English-speaking identity and her Swedish, Swedish-speaking identity, and was able to happily and productively blend them was inspiring.

Though my husband and I may never attain that same level of confidence or comfort, we are finding a balance for ourselves and our family. We have come a long way from the day when we and our beer stood out like a sore thumb among all the coffee-drinking Swedes at fika time. Not because we no longer do that (we most certainly do), but because we're comfortable with how we're adapting our existing habits and traditions with new ones.

I have no doubt that there are days where we blend in quite nicely here in Sweden, and others when we most certainly do not, and I'm perfectly okay with it both ways. I've come to realize that our multiculturalism will always be something that makes us “different”, no matter where we live. But, at the same time, it will also always be something that connects us to diverse and interesting people across countries and cultures. And that is worth a few long stares every now and then.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

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