Saturday, May 18, 2024

Where Did I Go? And Am I Coming Back?

[“Let Inga Tell You,” La Jolla Light, published May 20, 2024] ©2024

As my husband, Olof, and I like to say, every 40 years we spend a year abroad. January 20, 2005 was, by coincidence, the 40th anniversary of our meeting as high school exchange students en route to Brazil’s Southern Hemisphere school year. But our planned anniversary celebration was pre-empted by Olof being sent to Stockholm by his boss to sign a contract with a Swedish company. The ink barely dry, he called me from Sweden. “They want me to move here to run the project,” he said. “Are you game?”

Well, that was pretty easy: No. Okay, I know that most people would leap at the chance to live abroad. But I was not one of those people. Or not one of those people anymore. As a teenager, I was so desperate to travel, I would’ve leapt at a bus trip to Boise. When I was given the chance to go abroad for a year as a barely-17-year-old high school senior, I was willing to go anywhere they sent me, learn any language, and go on two weeks’ notice. Which, in fact, was all the notice I got. I didn’t know a word of Portuguese but would be expected after only a month to have picked up enough on my own to go to a Brazilian high school. The family I’d be living with spoke no English.  There was no international phone service to the area I was going so I wouldn’t be talking to my parents much less seeing them for a year. Still, I didn’t have a moment’s hesitation. At that age, no bad things can happen to you.

Olof turned out to be one of the other three American exchange students going to the same town. I knew after three weeks in Brazil that we’d be friends for life.  We were fortunately both avid letter writers in a pre-internet era and never lost touch even after we returned from Brazil. In pre-word processor times, our first drafts were the last. 

We didn’t marry each other the first time around despite an abiding affection for one another. At 17, marriage was not even a blip on either of our radars. Post-engineering-degree pilot training in the Air Force prevented Olof from attending my wedding. But my husband and I were at his wedding in Pasadena in 1973.

I’ve often reflected on my once-adventurous spirit. “Where did I go?” I’ve asked myself. “And am I coming back?”

Somewhere along the way I stopped being able to embrace change. I can’t pinpoint when this happened, but in my current view, all change is bad until incontrovertibly proven otherwise.

Olof, on the other hand, just manages to roll with the punches. Not so secretly, I’ve always hoped that some of his quintessential calm would somehow, by some cellular process I didn’t need to understand, transfer itself to me. 

There was never any question, of course, that we would go to Sweden despite my nightly anxiety attacks. Miraculously, in record time, my employers gave me a leave, the Swedish government gave us work permits, the consulate gave us residence visas, our cars were disposed of, our finances went online, winter coats were ordered from Land’s End, boxes were shipped, hands (mine) were wrung, and, eerily reminiscent of the short notice we’d had to go to Brazil, Olof and I began our second senior year abroad. Or make that seniors’ year abroad. Hoping to embrace our Swedish experience, we dubbed ourselves Inga and Olof our first day there. 

And here’s where a funny thing happened. The years we spent in Sweden were the absolutely best of my life. Fortunately for me, the Swedes aren’t exactly balls of fire when it comes to contract deadlines.

I loved everything about Stockholm (well, except maybe those icy sidewalks)—the beautiful city, the fabulous public transportation, the much slower pace of life, the wonderful food. On top of that, I felt like I had died and gone to liberal feminist heaven. Except for grandchildren, which we didn’t have at the time, I could have happily stayed there forever—cold, dark winters notwithstanding. A Swedish friend laughingly commented that Olof and I could afford to be Sweden’s two biggest fans; we didn’t pay taxes there.

In Sweden, the 17-year-old version of me was back, alive and well.  There seems to be something about being 17 and/or in a foreign country that seems to bring me to life. 

Since returning from Sweden, the insanely adventurous 17-year-old me has faded from view once again (not helped by being clobbered by a drunk driver days after our return).  Fortunately, the senior citizen me, while a ton more cautious, has a lot of redeeming qualities. Among them: I’m still here. The 17-year-old version of me in Brazil didn’t always have the best judgment. (That would be an understatement.)  But I’m incredibly grateful that I got the opportunity to revisit her.

 Olof and I return to the U.S. after our year in Brazil


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