Within hours of my arrival in Sweden, I found myself surrounded by tall, thin boys shaking seawater out of their blonde hair, naked except for their soaked-to-translucent tighty-whiteys. It seemed that stereotypes about Sweden’s liberal behavior were confirmed. That night was a first for me, but not the kind you’re thinking.
It was my time in a foreign country (unless driving across the Mexican border for lunch counts). It was my first time in a situation where my previous experiences did not provide clues for how to proceed.
And it was the first of many, many times, when I would completely fail in a social situation.
I was fifteen years old, and I was spending the summer with my best friend’s family. They had not lived in Sweden for a decade, but every summer they returned to their home town, renting the same cottage a short bike ride from the beach, in order to ensure that the three girls maintained their grasp of Swedish language and culture.
When I arrived in Malmö, my friend was still at her confirmation camp, and so I was delivered into the charge of her two sisters. As soon as I had deposited my suitcase, a group of boys showed up on bicycles. A brief discussion in Swedish of what to do with me resulted in the decision to ride down to the beach. They offhandedly offered me the use of my friend’s fixie, and took off. Too afraid to mention that I didn’t know how to ride a bike, I did my best to keep up.
The beach turned out to be a small pier. It didn’t really offer anything but a chance to jump in the water. No one had thought to bring bathing suits, so the boys stripped off and jumped in. As my friends did likewise, I squealed and hid my head, to the boys’ immense amusement. Even if I had overcome my shock, one look at my friends’ cute cotton undies ensured that I would never reveal my bra, which was designed for transporting cannon balls.
Which left nothing for me to do but dodge crotch shots as a boy named Per pranced in front of me, finding my reaction more entertaining than an evening swim. Eventually the older sister told him to knock it off.
She reminded them that I was a guest who had only just arrived, and cited cultural differences. But the damage was done. I had confirmed prudish American stereotypes and branded myself a dork in my first European social interaction. For the next month, the local kids would grudgingly tolerate me as an accessory to the Hanson girls. For the next month, adults would discuss me in Swedish over dinner as my friend translated, “They’re telling how you _____. It’s okay, they don’t think it’s bad.” For the next month, one or another family member would comfortingly cite cultural differences to explain away any number of failed challenges and awkward exchanges.
But I didn’t mind. I was a dork in Sweden. But I could also be a dork at home. What I couldn’t do at home was watch glassblowers at work; swim in the ocean after lunch; visit an apartment that had been continuously occupied for over a century. At home I couldn’t see houses with grass roofs; I couldn’t take a subway train; I couldn’t ride a bike down to the kiosk and buy gummy frogs with white bellies and Daim candy bars or watch the sunset at midnight then bike home in terror through the pitch black forest filled with fairy tale monsters.
I did all of these things for the first time in Sweden. It was my first international trip.
You never forget your first time.