In preparation for my Challenge Series: Adventures in America, I've convinced The Swede, my Dad, to share the story of how he and my Mom, The Nutritionist, met, fell in love, moved to Sweden, then in the middle of our childhood, moved to America. It's great to have you here Dad. Thanks for taking the time to share your story with all of us.
THE SWEDE AND THE NUTRITIONIST
by Leif Bilen
“Do you have indoor plumbing in Sweden?” “What sort of clothes do you wear over there?” “Are there many polar bears where you live?” Those were some of the questions I got from my fellow students at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland, as they tried to get to know their new exchange student.
This was during Eisenhower’s second term about half a year before the Soviets launched the first Sputnik. The internet and social media had not yet transformed communications to give us a better awareness of what goes on in other countries around the world. I probably had similar illusions about this country.
I had read The Last of the Mohicans, and I had tasted that curious soft drink called Coca Cola. Then in school I learned a bit more about the Big Country in the West and the more I learned the more interested I became.
When the opportunity for a year’s scholarship to an American high school presented itself, there was hardly any hesitation. I applied, and after a few months a letter advised me I was one of the fortunate ones. I was told I would be going to Silver Spring, Maryland. “Man, this is going to be great. How can I be blessed?”
I soon found out that my family had four children and a maid living with them. The father in the family was an eye doctor. “How am I going to fit in over there?” I was an only child and my dad was a cop, who had to do a lot of moonlighting to make ends meet.
Later, I learned that this was a back-up plan, because the first host, a pastor’s family in the same town had backed out at the last minute. Now, I realize how different my life would have been, if this change had not taken place.
I was both excited and nervous when I prepared to leave my familiar surroundings. As I started to receive letters from members of my new family, I began to calm down. They seemed so nice and genuine. I would be hanging out with a “brother” my age and his letters were very reassuring.
One letter from his 15 year old little sister, Bonnie, puzzled me though. She told me it would be nice, if I could bring along some Swedish dishes. I didn’t quite panic, but I started to wonder. “How are they going to fit in my suitcase? What if they break in transit?” After consulting a dictionary or two, I eventually figured out that she was talking about Swedish recipes, and had I known then what I know today, I would have made sure they didn’t lack nutrition.