I heard about the new family from Sweden before I met them. It was an extremely hot September afternoon, three weeks after they had moved to DC, and the Lithells were getting ready to visit friends for a barbecue. While moving back and forth between the house and the front yard where their car was parked, they somehow left the entrance door of their house wide open.
My neighbor Pat noticed the open door around 7 p.m. when she was out walking her dog. It seemed strange, particularly as no people could be seen or heard around the house. However, she became alarmed when she passed by the house again around 10:30 p.m. that night. The door was still wide open and the house looked deserted.
Pat and Svetlana, another neighbor who was familiar with the family, sprang into action. They started yelling, “Hello, Swedish neighbors! Hellooo!” But despite all the noise, nothing happened, so they decided to call the police.
Pat and Svetlana were not worried about robbers so much as about raccoons and deer entering the house. But when Karin Lithell, her husband Göran and their three children returned to their home around 11 p.m., they discovered several Secret Service agents and police cars in front of their house.
Since Göran is the deputy chief of mission at the Swedish Embassy, the officers were unable to enter the house, officially part of Swedish territory. So they remained outside, guarding the home, while waiting for the family to arrive. One Secret Service agent pointed his flashlight straight into Karin’s face and asked questions, while the other stepped into the house with her husband to carefully search every room. The found no thieves – or raccoons. They were safe.
Soon after learning of this event, I got to meet Karin, her husband and their children – 12-year-old daughter Astrid and seven-year-old twins Harald and Svante. My son was excited. He finally got his next-door playmates!
Karin was not fazed at all by her family’s unusual introduction to the neighbors.
“We have been very warmly welcomed in the neighborhood and the incident with the door helped us acquire even more acquaintances,” Karin told me. One of those offering a welcome was our ANC 3F03 Commissioner Mary Beth Ray, who soon after their arrival in DC, took Karin for a very helpful neighborhood tour.
“DC is a fun and enriching city, full of green areas and sports facilities, with international atmosphere and interesting people,” said Karin.
Her kids have settled in nicely, too.
“Our kids are very happy in their new schools (Astrid is at the Field School, while Harald and Svante attend British School of Washington). They feel challenged and are exposed to so much even though they are very young,” she said. “Learning is something to be proud of. Sometimes in Sweden, I feel that the focus is more on sports than learning.”
Being the spouse of a diplomat has its challenges – and its advantages. Karin says it has made her family closer – and more adventurous.
“The fact that you don’t have your family and old friends close to you makes you tighter as a family. You need to stick together and help each other,” she says. “The other thing is that the fact that we stay somewhere just for a short period, makes you set aside a lot of time to explore the country which is usually not the case when you live somewhere for a long time.”
Where the challenge comes in, she says, is that “one has to figure out how to keep his/her own career alive during their spouse’s tour of duty.”
Luckily, Karin does not have that problem. During her husband’s first post in Saint Petersburg, Russia, in late 1990s, she discovered painting.
It all started when she visited a studio of a friend’s friend, an artist named Lisa Michailova. Struck by her art and the studio, Karin asked Lisa to give her lessons. It helped that she had always been a crafty person who loved sewing and pottery. Between giving birth to her children and her work for Swedish International Development Agency (Karin has a Master’s in business and economics, with a focus on environmental economics, and had worked for SIDA for almost ten years), she found time to pursue her love of painting.
In Copenhagen, where her husband served as a diplomat before coming to DC, she also studied to become an art teacher.
“For me it is a privilege now to have the opportunity not to have to go to my ordinary work every day and to be able to change my career,” said Karin.
During her time in DC, Karin would like to develop herself further as a painter and an art teacher. She joined The Art League at the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria and has already participated in their exhibits and sold her art.
Judging by the work displayed on the walls of her new house, she draws her inspiration from her family and beautiful landscapes.
“Just like my first Russian teacher, I do not paint out of my head, I use photos. However, I often change things that are in the original picture, trying to come up with interesting compositions and experimenting with colors.”
Her painting is influenced by one of the Scandinavian leading expressive watercolorists, Lars Lerin, and by Karin Broos, who paints large photo-realistic paintings in oil. Both artists come from the western part of Sweden, just like Karin.
I end the conversation asking about whether Swedes like IKEA as much as we, in the rest of the world, do. She smiles and admits that even though she now believes that painting is her true vocation, she would still accept the job of an environment specialist at IKEA if the job was ever offered to her.
To learn more about Karin Lithell and her art, please visit her website: KarinLithell.se.
Things about Sweden Karin told me she is proud of:
– It is beautiful and clean!
– Allemansrätten, the right of public access to the wilderness or the right to roam. This is an old law giving everyone in Sweden (and those visiting!) the right to enjoy the nature, but with the obligation to respect it. You can swim, pick berries, and put your tent up for a short stay pretty much anywhere you want, including private property (but not in other people’s gardens or very close to their house). Learn more at: www.swedishepa.se/en.
– The Swedish welfare system, that is designed so that everybody can have a reasonably good life.