Photographer. Writer. Editor. Expat. Mother. Wife. Life-long traveler Lola Akinmade Åkerström is all of those things and more. Based in Sweden, but navigating the globe as a travel photographer, Lola kindly found time to discuss her expat experience, her work, her family, and her latest projects with The Black Expat.
You were born in Nigeria, moved to the U.S. as a teen and you are now based in Sweden. Could you share a little more about your background? What brought your family to the U.S. and what led you to keep traveling and move abroad as an adult?
I moved to the U.S. when I was fifteen to start college but that wasn’t my first trip there. I come from a family of avid travelers. From my grandfather who visited Greenland in the 1970s and many more countries along the way, to my father who crisscrossed the globe frequently as a geologist. My first trip was before I turned one year old and since then we traveled a lot as a family. Investing in experiences over material things. So as cliché as it may sound, travel definitely courses through my blood.
You’re currently living in Sweden. What prompted you to move there? Would you consider it ‘home’ or just another stop along the way?
I met my Swedish husband while living in the U.S. and after long discussions, we decided it would be better for me to move to Sweden instead of the other way around. At the time, I was working a more flexible location-independent job as a programmer and system architect. I would say that move was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Sweden is currently home because we have a family here, and when it comes to quality of life and work-life balance for working parents, it clearly is the better option.
What has your experience been like as a Black woman in Sweden? Do your experiences in Sweden influence choices about where to travel (or live) in the future?
Despite all its positives, Sweden has a lot of integration issues and most of it is a systemic, ingrained type of prejudice that already puts people in pre-defined boxes upon arrival. It’s difficult to break out of these boundaries and many qualified candidates still don’t get called for job interviews because of the names on their resumes.
I often say this: despite the racial tensions in the U.S., I could be an Oprah Winfrey if I wanted to. In Sweden, while you’ll be left alone to live a quiet, relatively peaceful life, trying to be a CEO or mogul as a minority is about as difficult as it gets.
That said, I love living here and you can proactively carve out the lifestyle you want despite any challenges and oppositions one might face along the way. Living here in Sweden and fully understanding the cultural psyche of Swedes has shown me how much we can learn from each other’s different cultural traits.
Do you have any advice for Black folks looking to move to Sweden?
Definitely do your research as there’s no utopian country on earth. However, the quality of life here is exceptional compared to other countries of similar standing. Try to integrate as quickly as you can but also reach out to other Black folk who’ve been living here for a while and join the community. I help organize informal monthly dinners for Black women where we get together to connect, support, laugh, cry, vent, and just be there for each other.
You’re involved in a variety of projects promoting Sweden and/or the surrounding region (founding member of Nordic Travel Bloggers, editor-in-chief of Slow Travel Stockholm, photoblogger for Sweden’s official website). What inspired the creation of, and your involvement in, these organizations?
As a traveler, I’ve always been a very curious person. I think it’s extremely important for me to know and fully understand the culture I’ve married into because it is my children’s primary culture and mother tongue first. So it was a natural collaboration/progression that occured because I was and am truly interested in my new home and getting underneath its layers. As a travel writer and photographer, my beat is exploring culture through food, tradition, and lifestyle.
In addition to those projects, in 2017 you also published your book LAGOM: The Swedish Secret of Living Well. Congratulations! What prompted you to write this book and why now?
I recently wrote a blog post called The Power of Breadcrumbs that talked about my path to publishing LAGOM. I had written an in-depth piece about it for Roads & Kingdoms about four years ago and the publisher found that article and reached out to me to see if I was interested in writing this book.
So, it wasn’t even initially on my radar as the 2017 lifestyle word of the year, but I accepted their offer to write it because I wanted to put out a book that was much deeper. LAGOM isn’t all about baking cinnamon buns. It is the key to unlocking the Swedish mindset.
And now, the book has already been translated into seventeen foreign language editions so far around the world!
Congratulations also on being named 2018 Travel Photographer of the Year by the Society of American Travel Writers! You’re a travel photographer, writer, editor, and owner of Geotraveler Media. You’ve won many accolades and awards for your work, and clearly love what you do. Do you feel like the Swedish lifestyle is ideal for your busy schedule?
Thanks so much! It does seem like I can’t make up my mind and try to do everything. Having a fantastic and supportive spouse has really been crucial for me. Especially in a society such as Sweden which prides itself on gender equality. So, while I was out working, my husband was home with the kids and he took most of our parent leave, instead of me. Even if we didn’t live in Sweden, we would still have carved out a lifestyle that we both wanted that allowed us to pursue our purpose.
What are your top expat, travel and/or photo tips?
There are so many: for expat tips, try to learn the local language as soon as possible. This will get you deeper into the culture. Do your homework in terms of understanding cultural nuances so you can save yourself tons of headaches. Always travel with an open mind and go with the flow because life has an uncanny way of leading you where it wants you to go in a serendipitous way. For photo tips, check out my photo tip resource here.
I know it may be a difficult question, but what is one quintessential Swedish experience every visitor must have to make their journey complete? If it’s impossible to select one, we’ll happily accept a few suggestions!
Sweden definitely has a ton to offer. I run Slow Travel Stockholm (the capital city) which offers more insider tips and ways to slow down and truly enjoy the city. But I have to say, if you can brave cold temperatures, head to Northern Sweden during winter to watch the Aurora Borealis in Abisko – one of the very best places on earth to witness these natural phenomena.