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Sweden Journal: Good Bye Blue Skies of Carolina

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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As I am getting to ready to begin a new chapter of my life in my wife’s homeland, I will keep a journal here to mark my thoughts and transitions to life as an expat American in Sweden. It will be marked “Sweden Journal”, so those only interested in science content can ignore it. I hope you enjoy!

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Peaches, the Dixie Dingo (look it up) enjoying a typical blue Carolina sky day.

Today was a gorgeous day, no different from the majority of days here. It is no wonder why Captain Blackbeard would sail the Queen Anne’s Revenge between the barrier islands and pine savanna to call this place home.

Beaufort is a quaint fishing village of a few thousand folk west of Cape Lookout where the Outer Banks end and the Crystal Coast begins. It’s been the North Carolinian home for my family and I for 4 years, which in a town this size is long enough to get to know more than a few locals. The skies are carolina blue, with only a few wispy clouds, and gentle breezes sway the tall longleaf pines like a dancing hula girl.

I embraced southern living when we moved here after finishing my masters degree at Penn State. It’s one of the few places where I’ve felt I really belonged. When I visit my home states of Iowa and Illinois, I feel an odd nostalgia that everything has changed and there is no going back yet it still feels like home – like a desert oasis you know can’t be there. Arizona left a bitter taste in mouth while I attended the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences to follow a dream to work in music. A dream that bursted into flames like the busted up moving boxes burned in what seems like an annual offering to Saint Uhaul.

California, though, was something else. But it is hard to separate growing as a person with the experience of being a resident in the state. I went through several iterations of Kevin Zelnio in my 5 years there. I came to work with rockstars and left the state with a degree in Evolution and Ecology, a trip to the bottom of the ocean and a beautiful wife from Sweden.

When I got the offer to go to grad school in Pennsylvania it was a no-brainer for me since it was my only offer. I didn’t get into other grad schools, was denied from Teach for America corps and hadn’t yet begun to look for jobs yet. I enjoyed my master’s degree for the most part and felt really at home living in the forests and mountains of central Pennsylvania. We spent 4 years there and State College always has a special feel to it since both of our children were born at Mount Nittany Hospital.

Some people called rural Pennsylvania “Pennsyltucky”, and it is not far off. We definitely got more into a rural lifestyle involving local food and crafts, hole-in-the-wall diners and microbreweries out in the middle of nowhere, and appreciating the land for what it is. I think some of these characteristics paved the way for my appreciation of southern living.

Growing up in the midwest, I sort of unwittingly scoffed at the south via unfounded stereotypes seen through the lens of here-say and media. I always made sure to avoid it in my travels and was wary and nervous when I needed to go down that way and make a stop anywhere. It was stupid, but that’s what ignorant people do. Once I visited Beaufort for an interview at my former job, the Duke University Marine Lab, I instantly fell in love the ocean, the weather, the barrier islands, the coastal scrub and the wavering longleaf pines, which reminded me of the Eastern and Scots Pines in Pennsylvania. It just seemed right for a marine biologist to be on the coast!

Now, we are preparing for our move to Sweden this Thursday. Another chapter in my family’s and I long history of trekking around. After I lost my job at Duke and then started and subsequently quit a PhD at UNC Wilmington, I’ve felt lost and, frankly, scared. We bought a house here under the false assumption that we’d get more funding, something that my PI led my wife and I on to believe. Somehow it would be OK and I’d be certain to be employed at minimum three years. Of course, I was naive about how science funding works to believe this and we hedged our bets and bought a nice piece of property during the crash of 2008. It’s 1.4 acres on a tidal creek, enclosed by several more acres of Longleaf Pines with a 2400 square foot house (now all for sale!) – with just the perfect floorplan for a family.

While we were in Wilmington, when I attempted a PhD, we rented it out to what we thought was a decent man who just moved here from Iowa and was scouting out a place for his family. He turned out to be jackass who’s wife apparently ditched him (we’ll never know the true story), who then ditched the house and rental contract, left a mess and left us with several months to pay for the mortgage while paying rent. Not feeling my advisor at UNCW (who treated me as if I were 21 year old fresh out of college kid with no family and without a decade of professional experience in science), missing my family because I was working three jobs (I lectured at the university, was a research assistant and a freelance writer the semester I quit) and unable to keep up with school work, with the overbearing burden of debts and now unrealistic financial obligations because I couldn’t cover mortgage, rent, bills, and finally, with worthless university-mandated family health coverage that wouldn’t cover anything they said they covered on paper (seriously guys, nearly $2000 worth of shot and routine check-ups for 2 kids??).

I had to get out. This is not how my life, or anyone else’s for that matter, should be lived. Academics love to talk about sacrifice, how they gave up this and that for their career and research. Bullshit. Family comes first. I took on that responsibility and I’m not letting a dehumanizing and devaluing society take me down with it. I quit, moved back into my house and put it on the market.

Wilmington was a nice town to live in. Carolina and Kure Beaches were serene and there are so many things to see. My children adored the brilliant Children’s museum, the giant sloth at the Cape Fear Museum, the gorgeously laid-out Fort Fisher Aquarium. Downtown boardwalk on the Cape Fear River was a delight, bike rides around Greenfield lake were just perfect, a fantastic music scene and the best damn radio station in the country: 98.3 The Penguin. My boy made his first friends there. We were sad to leave but logistics and reason demanded we move back to Beaufort into the house we owned and go from there.

This was last Fall.

For years we’ve entertained the idea of moving to Sweden. But we did our best to follow the trajectory of potential careers for me since I was the “educated” one. So we moved and moved again wherever I could teach, tech or write like a science mercenary finding the next assignment impossible. It’s hard on a family and hard on the soul of a “family man”. Since I work freelance we decided that I could work anywhere.

Deciding to move to Sweden was a no-brainer, but it is still not an easy choice. About the time we made the decision to go and started the paperwork for permanent residency there, I started getting tempting offers and opportunities for employment. As we have gotten closer to our exit date they haven’t let up. It’s painful to turn down so many potential opportunities, especially when you are blindly moving overseas with nothing really lined up. It always works this way. Last time I was looking a for job, nothing for 8 months then I accept an offer and BAM! 3 more offers in the following few weeks. Yet, I know the salaries are barely livable for a family of four in the areas we would live (DC, San Francisco and New York City).

My wife and I are doing this for our kids, though. Well, mostly for the kids anyways. The benefits far outweigh the costs. Subsidized health care (it’s not really free, we’ll pay a small amount, but it is universal coverage), subsidized day care, no-tuition schools and college, a fairer tax system (and my rate will only be slightly more than what I pay now, a price I’m happy to pay considering the social benefits) are just a few. The unquantifiable benefits are many though. These are personal but center around the support network we can expect from Linda’s family, the idyllic rural coastal scandinavian lifestyle that I hope to write much about here, and comfort of not having to worry about how we can pay for another $50,000+ medical bill if my kid gets pneumonia again. (For the record, CHIP program helped out a lot but certainly did not cover it all, your donations were extremely generous and kind and my family will never forget your help in a tough time for us.)

Staying behind results in little to no healthcare for us unless I manage to find a job with benefits, which is much more difficult to find these days. If you don’t believe me, quit your job and get yourself freshly on the market again. It results in further isolation from family and no support network, constant moving and de facto poverty. Less tangible results for my kids are growing up in a country where corporations feed them pure crap in schools, obesity reigns supreme, girls are devalued and boys are hyper-masculinized. I know these are stereotypes and not certain fate, but we’ve been around the block long enough and connected the dots so we can make these decisions for our family.

And that is what it is all about. We are able to make this decision. Even the most libertarian among you can’t deny we are free to move to society that caters more to our own ideals. But most people cannot make this decision and this saddens me. I love my country and don’t really want to leave. I’ve lived all over the place, travelled to the majority of the states, and it is a beautiful and diverse country with amazing people in it that have touched my life personally and indirectly. But the politics of this country have poisoned the tone, tempo and mode of the people who live here. Comedian Rob Delany wrote today in a wonderful piece on Levon Helm’s passing and America, regarding the song about the Civil War “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down“:

This all makes me think of the civil war taking in our country today. To be accurate, it’s a civil cold war or sorts, though I believe it exacts a toll on our nation’s soul that is far steeper than the more famous and studied cold war that took place between the United States and the Soviet Union. I’m talking about the acrimony that our government and media, and the corporations that support them, stir up between regular folks like you and me. It’s there every day, but it reaches a fever pitch during our poisonous and ever-lengthening election seasons. We’re told by CNN or FOX News that you can either be a Democrat or a Republican; half of us need to be one and half of us need to be the other and we must define ourselves by our desire to crush, subvert or absorb the other one. An “us and them” mentality is foisted upon us. It doesn’t matter what side you’re one, as long as you pick one. It is critical to the success of this illusion that we remain trapped in that struggle, actually hating each other, while our highways and railroads fall apart, health care costs skyrocket, the national average body mass index balloons, and schools shuffle toward bankruptcy.

It is INSANITY to believe that what FIFTY PERCENT of Americans want is bad, wrong, or destructive to the country and its citizens at large. If that were true, the country wouldn’t be here anymore, or it would resemble a Cormac McCarthy novel, and it wouldn’t be All the Pretty Horses.

Anyways, these are my thoughts and my opinions. You are welcome to disagree with them, but you are not welcome to criticize my decisions and life. I’ll be chronicling my struggles, the move and integration into the Swedish social democracy and how it makes me feel as well as opinions I have about the scientific, environmental, cultural and political differences between the US and Sweden. Finally, I’ll be doing my damned best to bring a little slice of the South into the south of Sweden!

I plan on bringing a proper Carolinian pig pickin' to the land of the Vikings.

Kevin Zelnio About the Author: Kevin has a M.Sc. degree in biology from Penn State, a B.Sc. in Evolution and Ecology from University of California, Davis, and has worked at as a researcher at several major marine science institutions. His broad academic research interests have encompassed population genetics, biodiversity, community ecology, food webs and systematics of invertebrates at deep-sea chemosynthetic environments and elsewhere. Kevin has described several new species of anemones and shrimp. He is now a freelance writer, independent scientist and science communications consultant living near the Baltic coast of Sweden in a small, idyllic village.

Kevin is also the assistant editor and webmaster for Deep Sea News, where he contributes articles on marine science. His award-winning writing has been appeared in Seed Magazine, The Open Lab: Best Writing on Science Blogs (2007, 2009, 2010), Discovery Channel, ScienceBlogs, and Environmental Law Review among others. He spends most of his time enjoying the company of his wife and two kids, hiking, supporting local breweries, raising awareness for open access, playing guitar and songwriting. You can read up more about Kevin and listen to his music at his homepage, where you can also view his CV and Résumé, and follow him twitter and Google +.

ResearchBlogging.org Editor's Selection Posts on EvoEcoLab!

Follow on Twitter @kzelnio.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 3 Comments

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  1. 1. kellyoakes 12:02 pm 04/25/2012

    Good luck with the move! Looking forward to hearing about Sweden.

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  2. 2. meeralee 12:35 pm 04/25/2012

    Yes, good luck! I hope you get your ID number quickly so you can become a real person over there! :)

    Link to this
  3. 3. David Kroll 8:15 am 04/26/2012

    A bitterweet goodbye, my friend. But not really, is it?

    Despite our living anywhere from 150-900 miles apart (that’d be 240-1440 km in your new home), your energy and talent has enriched my life and my breadth of knowledge just as though you were living next door. Your contributions to our community are endless – your welcoming soul and boundless energy for a good time and good science have fostered an environment, online and off, that I always thought academia would be. You and your Deep Sea News team renewed my childhood enthusiasm and interest in all things marine. And there was nothing like Whiskey Wednesdays on UStream.

    The true highlight of our time together was jamming with you and Andy Revkin at the ScienceOnline2012 open mic night. (Holy shit, we played with Andy!). But the years of our friendship are what permeate my day-to-day life. And I feel for you and your lovely family what with all the bad breaks on health care, jobs, school, and such. Your wonderful wife took a big chance with you in coming to the States so I know that you are all too happy to return the favor. What a great place to move even without the added benefit of being embraced by family.

    I wish you all the best in your journey, not just to Sweden but for the rest of your lives. We’ll still be here on the intertubes, as far apart but as close as ever.

    Love ya like a brother. DJK

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