I spent my senior year of high school as an exchange student in Sweden. I lived in a small village called Kilafors, around 1100 residents, located in Halsingland, north of Stockholm. My high school was located in the town of Bollnas, 20 minutes away by bus.
I actually lived outside of town on the folkloric mountain of Harga. I lived on a small family farm, and my host parents were dedicated to producing as much of their own organic food as possible. They raised sheep, had fruit trees, a large garden plot, and foraged in the mountains. I was placed on the farm because of my passion for horses and show jumping. But at 16 I was much more of a city girl. I liked hunting for vintage dresses in consignment shops, and taking moody black and white photographs in historical Philadelphia cemeteries. I had never foraged for chanterelle mushrooms, fed sheep or harvested an entire field of potatoes. I was way out of my element.
Because I was only 16, I was placed in the second to last year of high school in Sweden, equivalent to junior year in the US school system. Even so most of the students in my class were older than me. The higher education program in Sweden requires students to choose a line of study. I was placed in the social science program, Samhällsvetenskapsprogrammet. Luckily there were a few girls from my village who were in the same class as me. We quickly became lifelong friends, and it was because of their friendship that I quickly adapted to my surroundings.
In order to graduate from my American high school, and not have to repeat the year, I was required to pass gym and English. The rest of the classes were not officially required, and I quickly realized that no one would force me to go. For electives I joined the choir and I took Spanish (translated from Swedish). I took English as a second language to meet my English requirement. While the class was somewhat easy for me as a native speaker, it was also challenging to look at my home language from the perspective of a second language. For example, one of the questions on my English year end final exam was; What is the noun form of "graze"?
The bus picked me up for school at the bottom of Harga mountain, about 2km from my host family's house. I had a bike I could use, and as it got darker and colder, the wind chill from biking downhill to the bus stop in the dark of Swedish winter took its effect. I learned how to avoid ice patches which were especially treacherous on the bike ride uphill, on my way home from school. Around the halfway point of my year I moved to a new host family, who lived closer to town in Kilafors, and closer to my friends' houses.
My new host parents were jazz musicians, and also ran the family knitting-design catalog. Anders played stand-up bass and was a photographer. Ewa sang and designed knit fashion. I learned how to play the guitar, and how to knit and crochet. The had peanut butter, bought from the store, in the fridge. Although living in town was a better match for who I was in that point in my life, my experience living on the organic farm on Harga mountain altered the path of my life just as profoundly as the rest of the experiences.
There is a kind of self-regulating freedom in Sweden, that I had never experienced before. No one told me to go to school, or not to drink too much on Friday night, or to be home at a certain hour. Of course there was concern for my safety, but I was allowed to make many of my own decisions that had previously been decided for me through rules and societal boundaries. This was very shocking for me to experience at sixteen. I didn't have to rebel because there was nothing to rebel against. While my friends had all been raised in this philosophy, I was like a bull set free in a china shop. I didn't know how to govern myself. Luckily I had a whole year to figure it out.
I now see this year abroad as transformative to who I have become as an adult. Very little was the same inside of me when I went back to the US. I cried when it was time to leave, slept hand in hand with my best friend the night before my flight home. I think we realized that I wouldn't be back quickly. In the end it was 15 years before I was able to afford to return.
During the time I lived in Sweden I discovered that making a living as an artist is not only possible, but fulfilling. I found a deep appreciation for sustaining the natural world. I learned that I am adept at foreign languages. I realized that freedom often gives harder lessons than rules. I began to see myself and my surroundings from a new angle. And finally, I learned that the noun form of graze is grass.