It all started last fall. I had been back home in France, after having spent the past few months in Mexico: teaching French, writing my thesis about drag culture and queer movement and just enjoying la vida loca and las fiestas in some amazing places.
After summer, past the thrilling moments of reunions with friends and family, I was wondering what to do with my life. At that moment of the year, when everybody goes back to work or starts new projects, I was experiencing mixed feelings. On one hand, I was relieved of having defended my thesis and obtained my master’s degree in Gender Studies. I was also excited about new doors to open and opportunities to seize. On the other hand, I didn´t really have any plans for my future. And that feeling of freedom was as scary as it was exciting.
The only things I knew at that moment were that my priority was to make my professional project evolve and become clearer and that I didn´t want to stay in France. I felt that I needed to go abroad again and to live another experience in a country I had never been to before. I have heard about the European Solidarity Corps program in the past and I started to look for some projects on the platform. This is how I got in touch with MINE in October. When I read their call for a volunteering position in their organization, some words really resonated with me: Inclusion, Diversity, Norm Criticism, Intersectionality… These are some values I want to work within my professional life as in my personal life! Then I sent my application. And after having filled a form, answered a few questions and had a Skype interview with MINE, I finally received a call from them. I had been chosen for the volunteering position! I was moving up north, to Sweden, in January!
You probably wonder what the European Solidarity Corps program is. The ESC is a European mobility program that aims to enhance exchanges between European countries. It offers the possibility for young people aged from 18 to 30 to go abroad for a period from 2 to 12 months and to volunteer in an organization. The projects are all related to social, cultural and/or environmental issues like human rights, inclusion, sustainability, citizenship and democratic participation, non-formal education, etc. MINE is an NGO that promotes inclusion and diversity in the workplace. Its main goal is to help foreign-born academic people living in Sweden to find a job and at the same time to educate companies about how important it is for the workplace to be an inclusive space and how diversity is associated with growth and development. In that sense, the four pillars of MINE are Mentorship, Inspiration, Networking, and Education. The organization just received the agreement to host a volunteer last year and I, therefore, have the chance to be the first volunteer in the organization!
I wouldn’t say that I was completely comfortable with the idea of moving to Sweden at first. One of my biggest concerns was the climate. I was living in Nice, in the south of France at the time and I have spent the entire last winter in Mexico, where the average temperature was around 25° every day. I felt like I had been living in an endless summer for one year and a half and that I would just end up collapsing when getting off the plane in Copenhagen, due to the thermal choc, and that I would never arrive in Sweden alive. In the end, the cold isn´t that cold. And this is not a good thing. Global warming is real, and this is a constant conversation topic between Swedes since I arrived. If the cold is not that cold, the darkness, however, was there, dark as it was supposed to be. This has probably been the most difficult thing for me to adapt to. After landing in Denmark, I was supposed to reach Sweden crossing the Öresund bridge on the train from Copenhagen airport to Malmö. I thought that I would be offered amazing landscape views between these two countries for my arrival in this new territory. Nothing. I got on the train at 4 pm and at that time of the day, the night was already that dark that I didn´t even realize the train was running on a bridge. I had the very sensation that I had spent the entire trip between these two cities in a tunnel!
Then I had to wait three weeks until I could see a little piece of blue sky for ten minutes. But anyway, the days are on their way to be longer now, and we finally start to see the light at the end of that tunnel. I have been told not to be surprised if at some point I notice a bunch of Swedes standing up motionless during spring. They would probably just be loading themselves up with D vitamin. For your information, that can also happen in winter. I witnessed this kind of situation a few days ago while I was in Stockholm. A man was half-naked in the street, sunbathing, although it was 5° outside. But well, I guess when you´re craving for something, the end justifies any means.
At this point, you must probably think that Sweden is a sort of hostile land where people try to survive the entire winter in order to grab some happy and sunny moments in summer. That would be a wrong representation of this country. Winter here has got its good parts as well. You can, for example, go warm yourself at the baths, a very traditional way to relax, spend time with your friends, and socialize with local people. To get the most of this experience, the recipe is to spend about 20 minutes in the Sauna, where the temperature goes up to around 80°, then go out and jump in the (very) cold sea! If you prefer, you can just pour an iced water bucket on your head. And then repeat! Yes, I know, this seems completely insane. I had seen that scene in some documentary a few years ago, where these people were digging a hole in the ice and jumping in it after having spent some time in the sauna and I thought: “What´s wrong with Swedes!? Have they lost their mind???” I really thought that I would NEVER have to try this kind of crazy things in my life. Well, never say never… I was again terrified about the thermal choc, but It was not that hard, and it even felt good! After I left the place, I felt exhausted but very energized at the same time, a mood I never really experienced before.
After that, it´s obviously time for a Fika! What is fika? Fika is probably one of the first Swedish words I have been taught here, and this is also an entire experience. I had a hard time understanding that fika stands not only for the moment when you have a break ( that can be with colleagues, friends, family, at work, in a bar, at home…) but also for the food that you eat during that break. I must admit that I was a little bit confused about what type of food fika is. A few days after I started at MINE, Ivar, the project leader at MINE, asked me to go buy some fika for a work meeting. His point was that it would be a great cultural learning experience for me. I would be lying if I say I didn´t google it on my way to the supermarket to try to figure out what food I needed to buy. Concretely, there´s always time for a fika, and fika can be anything, from Swedish bread with cucumber to these AMAZING kanelbulles I fell in love with. And what else than food to warm your body and soul up during cold days? Maybe a Drag Queen Bingo game!
I don´t know if Drag Queen Bingo can be considered as part of the cultural heritage in Sweden but it is for sure one of the best ways to have fun, make some friends and warm yourself up on winter days!
When I travel, I can´t help but be curious about the drag movement and the queer culture in the places I visit. A queer friend told me about the Drag Queen Bingo event at Plan B, an alternative space that organizes some queer parties in Malmö. Craving for glitter, fake eyelashes, high heels and some drama in our lives, we decided to attend the event. And as expected, the drama was there. Two queens were standing before us. The biggest one, splendid and vertiginous two meters tall creature, went downstage in the crowd, sat right next to me and started asking me some questions in a flirty way. In Swedish. All I could answer was a poor “Sorry, I don´t speak Swedish”, showing an embarrassed face. My Swedish vocabulary is still quite limited to these few words: “Hej”, “Tack”, and “Jag heter François” and I will never know if what she told me was a love declaration or a sketchy joke, but at least I was laughing and so were the people in the room. My affair with this drag queen could have ended here but It was far from over. The bingo started, and my friend was translating me the numbers in Spanish when I realized I had two lines marked off in my grid. I screamed “BINGO!!!” and jumped on the stage like a spontaneous child going for his reward. The drag queen took my grid, threw it away, hugged me. She told me to go to the bar, where I could have some shots for free. I decided to offer some of them to my playmates who were sitting at the same table (tipsy tip: offering drinks is always a good way to introduce yourself and make some friends). Then one of our new friends and playmates won the two entire Bingos! And two bottles of Prosecco as rewards, that she decided to share with us. We came back home at night a little bit dizzy but warmed up with a laugh, good energy, and new friendships.
We also talked with the two drag queens after the game – a couple married for a few years and the ambassadors of Drag Queen Story Hour in Sweden. Drag Queen Story Hour is a program in the libraries, schools, or bookstores where a drag queen reads stories to children. Citing Judy Zuckerman, director of youth and family service at the Brooklyn public library, “Drag Queen Story Hour is a fun and important program that celebrates diversity in the way that children may dress and act. It encourages children to look beyond gender stereotypes and embrace the unfettered exploration of self. Programs like DQSH encourage acceptance of difference and help to prevent bullying, while providing an enjoyable literary experience.” That moment was also the moment I decided that taking some Swedish classes wasn´t an option anymore, but an urgent necessity.
The week after, I was starting to study SFI (Swedish for immigrants) at Folkuniversitet in Malmö. And who knows? Maybe next time I can understand the numbers at the Drag Queen Bingo. And maybe in a few months, I will be able to flirt with a drag queen in Swedish. Or at least to attend a Drag Queen Story Hour session. Because It is never too late to let our inner child express itself. And it is never too early to make the world a more inclusive, diverse and respectful place to live in.