Dancing On My Own: notes on friendship, Robyn and being alone in Sweden
I made my first friend in Sweden on a walking tour of Uppsala. I overheard her voice and she reminded me of home. By the fourth day of knowing her, we’d shared pints and dinners and a bonded over a twin talent of being able to fall asleep in under a minute. We eventually shared an apartment, made art shows and navigated our tiny kitchen together, elbows poking in the way of one another, or clanging our knees on cupboard doors because our kitchen really was that tiny, it was incredibly sweet but also it literally could not accommodate two people.
Living with her really was the dream of living with a good friend (particularly after a year and a half of living with strangers, acquaintances). It was the scene in Girls where you listen to Dancing On My Own and jump around your bedroom; it was noticing when one another’s routines shifted, and asking if they were okay. It was small things; it was being able to ask if she needed anything from the shop. In June she moved away, and I’m learning how it is to live in Sweden in another kind of way again.
On Saturday it was my two-year anniversary of living here. Overall it really has been two gloriously happy years, and it was marked by seeing Robyn – Sweden/the world’s greatest musician tbqh – in concert in Stockholm. Her lyrics, dancing, the underwater, honey-dripped magic quality of her music, how it bonds people together so intimately, dovetailed with this personal milestone for me. It got me thinking a lot about what I’ve learnt about friendship and intimacy, of living life with other people here. And as importantly, it got me thinking about what I’ve learnt here in terms of what it can mean to be alone in Sweden.
When I moved here in the August of 2017, it was with the idea of very deliberately not being alone. I came here for the Master’s, and I came here for the Swedish way of life, but I also came here because of a partner. Like many before me, I mistook the small population size as evidence that Sweden was a small country. And like many before me and no doubt many after me, I was tricked by the reality of its massive geography. The combination of missed train connections, the daunting effort of travelling between cities and the sluggishness of winter arriving meant the relationship couldn’t weather the distance, and I found myself alone again.
When you look at the advice given in the aftermath of a break-up, and the advice given to those settling into a new place, they resemble one another. The situations intertwine in the need to adjust to being on a different footing with the world again. Try new things: say yes to pretty much everything within the parameters of legality. Surround yourself with people, and don’t let the quiet moments get too quiet. In both instances, this can sometimes be good advice. When I first moved here and went on that walking tour of the city, I really, really couldn’t be arsed to do it. But I forced myself anyway, and if I hadn’t, I may never have met one of my best friends. There were also beer pong tournaments at student nations which I can barely remember (not for being too drunk lol). All I know is that I stood there awkwardly with my arms across my stomach, still not understanding the rules and pretentiously not wanting to; feeling far from comfort, feeling far from home.
It can be good to go to these kind of student events, but you’re not obligated to do everything in order to “settle in.” That approach can lead to over-socialisation and friend-burnout early into your stay here. It can also be good to bunk off some of these events, to buy a rain poncho from IKEA alongside your shop for room supplies, and go out for a walk without a map to understand how your new city moves, and how you can move within it. It can be good to do that without headphones and to try and hear noises of the new place you live, to marvel at the new things, and to feel the faint tremor of remembrance when you hear a bird or the tooting of car horns which remind you of home.
Making friends with exchange students is hard.
You set yourself up to get a bit heartbroken on rotation every semester/year. I remember so clearly when I was heading for such a heartbreak, in the March of my first year in Sweden. The nightlife in Uppsala during the winter (yes March is still winter) truly delivers. From gasques to club nights – student nations stave off the cold by putting lots of warm bodies together in basement rooms. I was out with a new friend, and she had brought with her a friend who was visiting from home. We were all dancing, later joined by another mutual friend, a charming and conventionally attractive man we both knew.
The night was one which continues to be incredibly popular at Kalmar nation – Indieklubben – where upon arrival you’re given two different coloured glowsticks. You attach them to either wrist, and there are two DJs, who select two tracks which the audience then votes on by raising a glowstick. One of the choices was Robyn’s Call Your Girlfriend versus Robyn’s Dancing On My Own. Though both are, objectively, massive bangers, the crowd’s selection was overwhelmingly Dancing On My Own. As the narrative started to punch in with the mysterious yet knowing Somebody said you’ve got a new friend, as if the universe was spinning a too-close and cruel joke, I watched as the conventionally attractive man (who I happened to have a fleeting crush on) made out with the girl who was visiting. Continuing to dance off the sting of literally standing in the corner, watching you kiss her, I noticed that my friend – the exchange friend I was out with – was watching this unfold the same way I was, and I could see the same twinge of distraction on her face. And then we saw one another’s faces, and realising the sweet shared pain of a similar crush, began dancing absolutely insanely together.
For months we were very inseparable. But we also argued like we were sisters, and I have never had a friend like that and that scared me a lot. Once she moved back to her home country I did the only thing I knew how and let that distance become the block in the road. I remembered those arguments as evidence for me letting that roadblock emerge. When I say making friends with exchange students is hard, it is because it can be so gorgeous to luxuriate in the memory of how you became friends: spun by fate from different corners of the world, by being at the same small student bar at the right time, being on the right walking tour, being on the right dance floor. It can be harder when those friendships fade away in the distance, and you wish that if it had to end, that you had been brave enough to acknowledge fault for why it did.
And then there are some exchange friendships which have endured that gap. Two Frenchmen who were on exchange visiting my programme this year have become extremely fundamental to how I live in Stockholm. Now they’re gone, and life rolls on, but the city feels worse without them here. But there are plans to go to Paris in October, and anticipation for queer clubs and a lot of dancing in lieu of the absence. One of the French men loves using Mapster, and I love to look at his map of Paris and daydream about where we will go, once we are all together again as we should be. He’s planning to come back for Stockholm Pride next year. It’s a year away, and we’re already excited.
My takeaway from making friends with exchange students is thank god we had that time at all, with the kind of people who upend their lives for just one semester or one year, in the bid to know somewhere and other people better. Thank god they did that, and thank god we had that time at all.
One of the most obvious activities to do alone in Sweden is running, or exercising more broadly. The bountiful open space, varied terrain, and time literally given by schools and employers for people to exercise means that it’s something taken advantage of often. It also means that lots of events spring up, bringing solitary runners together. This past Saturday, as well as the Robyn concert it was the famed Midnattsloppet in Stockholm – a midnight run involving thousands of people. Friends, partners, passers-by flank the streets, cheering the runners on in the dark.
Sometimes I run in Stockholm. Running requires determination, and for me, distraction. I remember last summer, running round one of the islands of Stockholm, listening to my favourite podcast for motivation. The podcast hosts of Call Your Girlfriend* were talking to the author Glynnis MacNicoll about her memoir No One Tells You This. It’s her memoir about living past forty as a woman attracted to (some) men, without wanting to marry or have kids, and the societal pressure around the value of her life without those things. As my feet hammered into the pavement, something struck a chord as Glynnis talked about living her life “without a blueprint”, how she had never really wanted those things women are so told they are meant to want, and how it was hard to find role models to look up to for a way of living otherwise. It made me think about living here, and how as a place it has made me feel safe to try for that kind of life, without judgment. I had to stop running from crying.
*(Again, named after a Robyn song. When I first moved here, my favourite Swedish artist was ABBA, and I listened to them so much. I proudly visited the museum four times during my first year. I look back and know that was partly a way to keep connected to home – friends and family in the UK adore ABBA, and I know it was a way for me to keep feeling tethered to them, overly making sure they could exactly comprehend parts of my new life in Sweden. I also know that as I have come more into my own here in Sweden, Robyn’s music started threading more throughout my time here – some of my most special memories being inflected with, being inseparably bound up with her music. I’m not surprised that it’s this way. The way of feeling free in your body when you dance, a balm for the years previous, spent in self-consciousness. The way of being connected intimately with strangers, the hope of new friends, if only for the night).
There is a stereotype which I sometimes know to be true: that Swedes can really be quite shy, especially in public. Which, really, is what makes them all the more remarkable when they do let loose as part of a group.
At the Robyn concert this past Saturday, the feeling of being in a crowd of 25,000 people in the middle of Stockholm was overwhelming, not least because the intimacy of her lyrics can feel so personal, so insular. But there were literally thousands of people, all in the rain, a great sea of people made purple and pink by the light outside of the Maritime Museum venue. In the bass and the thrum of it, bodies packed together, you could feel so immediately how these lyrics twined us all together.
When Robyn left it to the crowd to sing the chorus of Dancing On My Own without her, alone but altogether… I don’t think I’ve experienced as magical a moment in my life as that. This is how she’s approached the song in all her concert dates this summer. But this Stockholm crowd did something a bit different to what I have seen from videos of the other crowds – those at Primavera in Barcelona, at Roskilde in Denmark. The first time we sang the chorus, we all clapped and cheered (some of us cried), as she held her heart on stage and said “Tack” repeatedly. And then the crowd – unprompted – sang the chorus again, and again once more before Robyn took a breath, and prompted for the rest of the song to carry on. It was sublime that the moment kept extending, for longer and longer, the audience wanting more of the feeling. It was the kind of moment which made you feel like other kinds of worlds are possible; that it is possible to be more together, more collective, more and more and more of the time. Knowing how many people, right there, are all at once feeling overcome by the brilliance of being alive.
As we all left the venue in the pouring rain, my friend and I sang the lyrics of the song quietly. Some people next to us – three friends huddled under an umbrella, one in an astounding silver jacket – quietly called the lyrics back to each other, to us. I put on my confident voice, and started to sing louder. Maybe ten or so people around us joined in for a few lines. You felt like you were soaring, just for a few moments. There were also people around me who I could see were judging my singing/yelling ability, laughing in not-quite-a-friendly-way. The next day, when I was deep in post-concert blues, I relayed the story to a friend. I focussed in on that last detail, getting worked up and saying that I wish people hadn’t judged, I wish more people had just sung along, extending the feeling of togetherness as the crowd dispersed and we all walked away. My ever-wise friend said that those weren’t the ones that I should be focussing on, and that I should keep my attention and love with the ten or so people who did join in. Because it was special enough that every single one of them had wanted to sing along too.