My favorite part of reading blogs is discovering extremely gifted writers whose self-published books I might never otherwise have heard of. My most recent ecstatic find is Natalie Burg, author of the hilarious, page-turning memoir Swedish Lessons.
An ambitious but slightly directionless 23-year-old fresh out of a soul-crushing romantic relationship, Burg is offered a position as an au pair in Sweden. What better way to put the past behind her and surge confidently into new adventures than to spend a year abroad? After all, it worked for Elizabeth Gilbert! The only hitch is that Burg’s Swedish adventure is missing one thing: the adventure. It turns out, once she’s firmly planted across the Atlantic, that she’s going to be doing a great deal more housekeeping and hard labor than nannying. Her responsibilities begin with horse mucking twice a day, continue with thrice-weekly vacuuming, mopping, and window washing, and only get better from there. For instance, one day it suddenly becomes her job to prepare lunch for her employer’s husband. The ingredients provided? Fish with their heads and other vital body parts still attached. “[M]aybe I’m supposed to figure out my destiny by process of elimination,” she muses. “Cross this off the list.” None of the advertised perks of the job–occasional outings to the South of France, formal Swedish lessons–ever materialize. Burg has about three hours of free time a day, but since her employer’s house is in the middle of the Swedish countryside, she has no means of spending that time anywhere but in her cold basement room.
The conditions would be perfect for Burg to be converted to the cultish religion promulgated by her employer. (Oh, did I forget to mention that her employer is a cult leader?) Fortunately, Burg retains enough sense of self to resist the attractions of a belief system in which “our bodies are not real” and “sex is a failed attempt to join Jesus.” She washes linens for the adepts who descend on the Swedish farm to attend conferences–and sneaks peeks at their strange goings-on–but she manages to escape with her own belief system intact.
And then finally some local young people invite Burg out for pizza. And over dinner they start proposing future outings. Like to clubs–in an actual city! Burg can barely contain herself:
When I was dropped off at [my employer’s] that night, I felt my life in Sweden had finally changed. Yes, I’d had several long, quiet, painfully slow weeks to start things off, but everything was different now. I had friends. Life was about to begin. I fell into the quiet of my stylish-but-minimalist Swedish bed that night just knowing that the adventure I had signed up for was about to unfold.
Good thing I didn’t know then that I would never receive an invitation to do anything with any of them ever again. That would have made me notice the quiet.
Fortunately, sometime after this major disappointment, Burg strikes up an unlikely romance with the car mechanic/free-lance hearse driver who lives down the road. (“Unlikely” only if you don’t consider that he’s the only sane person within walking distance.) And with Johan’s help, she finally finds herself some adventures, like trips to IKEA to dive through the bargain bins, a vacation in Stockholm which consists of several days sitting in a parking lot listening to people discuss cars in Swedish, and a urinary tract infection. This last is the most exciting, given that her employer has failed to declare her existence to the Swedish government and she technically has no right to be on Swedish soil, much less make use of the Swedish healthcare system.
No, Eat, Pray, Love it is not. More like Clean, Rake, Scrub. But Burg’s upbeat, edge-of-your-seat writing style turns one of the most disappointingly boring periods of her life into one of the most engaging, hard-to-put-down reads I’ve had in a long time. And even though Burg’s experience was fairly extreme, I think her narrative captures remarkably well–and in wonderfully hilarious fashion–the universal awkwardness and isolation of living in a foreign country in the home of a family you didn’t choose. I doubt there are many exchange students/au pairs who won’t identify.
The back cover of Swedish Lessons advertises that “Natalie’s ability to lay bare her blind sprint into indentured servitude is nakedly funny and will leave you wishing you could sit down with her to have a beer and hear more.” For once, the back cover is exactly right. Though, instead of a beer, I have to say I’d settle for another memoir by Natalie Burg. Pronto.