I’m writing you, cross-legged, from atop one of two folding metal cot-sized bed frames, featuring two mismatched mattress pads. The frames were being discarded by our new neighbors. One mattress pad came from one third cousin, the other from another third cousin. We’re in our bedroom, the right half of an apartment split in two by a shared hallway. The bedroom was once a sauna. Across a dividing wall is a kitchenette, or half of one. It’s just a set of shelves, cabinets and a kitchen sink whose drain pipe will gush wastewater over the bowed wooden floors if the faucet runs more than a trickle. Next to that is a closet with another sink and a toilet. It’s got new tiles.
It’s uncomfortable for me to accept praise for this journey. Part of that is my natural impostor syndrome, and part of that is my resistance to the “bootstrap” narrative we keep hearing: If you have a goal and set your mind to it, you can achieve anything! And, yeah, a few bootstraps were pulled. We spent five years paying double on student and car loans and saving nearly every other dollar we earned. The last 16 months of that, Joe was on call at his medical courier job 24 hours a day to get as much work as he could. I worked several freelance jobs for a few years right out of college on top of a full-time schedule. Of course we’ve worked hard along the way.
But we’ve also accepted so much help and benefitted from so much privilege to get where we are. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that we wouldn’t be in our little Kålltorp basement apartment without our exceptional family, a network of amazing and generous friends, and the kind of position in life that means we are able to save instead of living paycheck to paycheck, or being buried in debt.
The left room of our split apartment was and still is the boiler room, though it’s pretty open. To the right is a kitchen counter with the third and final sink. Above the counter is a big set of shelves for dishes. Then, a shower. I don’t know why it’s there, between the sink and the stove, but there it sits. In all its glory. The shower and the sink both drain through a pipe into a large hole in the concrete floor with a metal grate over it.
Up a step is another almost-kitchenette, this one with a stove and a (now working) refrigerator. And lots of cabinets.
At the end of our shared hallway is a door with steps up to some outdoor space, which we’ve marked with a table, borrowed from one aforementioned third cousin, and two chairs, borrowed from the other aforementioned third cousin.
Nearly everything in our two little rooms was gifted or lent to us by family. We’re here because my cousins (I’m dropping “third,” because you get it by now.), who live two doors away, heard it was coming available and can be very persuasive. (The landlords, a very kind Italian-Swedish family, had just bought the place.) Before we moved in, we stayed in my other cousin’s living room, on couches. After a medical scare with Joe, we thought we’d have to put our move on hold, until almost 100 of our friends and family chipped in for our medical bills. That’s dozens of people to whom we directly owe our success so far.
Indirectly, I couldn’t have been accepted to my master’s program if I hadn’t gone to a decent public school, which funneled me to a decent private university, which gave me decent scholarships so that when I graduated with a decent amount of debt, it wasn’t insurmountable. We couldn’t have paid off those debts and saved up the money we’re required to save in order to be student residents in Sweden if I hadn’t networked into a decent job in my field right out of college. So many people don’t have these networks, this access to support, or friends and family who are both willing and able to chip in to fund their dreams. We do. And we’ve been moved to tears of gratitude because of that.
It’s emotional, seeing so many people who are willing to invest in your future, in your wild dreams, because they believe in your success.
To see friends and family in the U.S. help us pay medical bills, or drive for hours to say goodbye, or even tell us, “You got this. You can do it, and you should.”
To see friends and family in Sweden make room for us in their homes and their hearts, answer our many questions, welcome us into their networks, search for jobs and apartments with us, fill our apartment with things, or even pick up a coffee tab to say, “I’m glad you’re here.”
Just before opening my laptop to write, we watched another episode from the latest season of “Orange is the New Black” and ate a frozen pizza, which we baked in our oven that we barely figured out how to work. We folded Joe’s laptop on a side table from Ikea that he fixed after we found it in a wood-scrap pile, and streamed the show from our mobile hotspot with his phone propped up in our basement window. (Thanks for the free international data, T-Mobile!) When the episode ended, we washed the dishes, switched off the boiler room lights and curled up in bed in our cozy sauna home.
We found two tokens in our new home. One was a dried white bean uncovered while moving the old refrigerator. I put it in a bit of soil in a pot and it’s already begun to sprout. I think that’s a metaphor. The other was a tiny Santa Claus figurine that was perched on the range hood exhaust vent. He now sits atop our new refrigerator.
We’ve done a lot to make this strange basement apartment feel like home, and it’s come a long way in the week we’ve been working on it. I’ll post a slideshow at the bottom of this entry with some Before and After photos.
I’ve never been great at acknowledging when I need help, or accepting help, or giving thanks. But my heart is full and my bed is warm, and for that I am grateful. I know my words will never be enough, and I’ll never stop searching for ways to repay or pass along the kindnesses I’ve received along the way.