Agneta Nilsson, founder of SWEA (Swedish Women’s Education Association) and Kerstin Shirokow
“I LOVE SANTA BARBARA. I have lived here for over 40 years now, and have taught at the University of California, Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara City College for over 35 years,” says Swedish-born Kerstin Shirokow, who grew up Kerstin Hård af Segerstad, in Eskilstuna, Sweden, a little industrial town in the central part of the country.
IN 2007 Kerstin published stories from her life in English, “Confessions of a Swedish Girl”, which chronicle the story of a free spirited, curious and adventurous Swede, and her travels around the world. “The book took about a year to finish. I wanted to write it because I have had so much fun in my life which I wanted to share with others, and also be an inspiration to young women to ‘go for it.’ To live and work in a foreign country gives you so much more than just to visit as a tourist.”
SINCE THEN she has translated the book into Swedish, and hopes to find a publisher for the Swedish version.
SHE SAYS that her life in California is quite pleasant.
“I SWIM EVERY day, have picnics and walk on the beach. From May 20th to September it is warm enough to swim in the ocean. But I also travel abroad a lot, and came back from my summer vacation in Sweden recently.”
She was also a columnist, “Montecito Matron,” for the local paper Montecito Journal, for nearly five years in the late 1990s. When she first arrived in the United States in the 1950s, she wrote articles about her American experiences for her home town newspaper, Eskilstuna -Kuriren
Kerstin Shirokow and family
KERSTIN Shirokow’s daughter Katya produces wild life movies for television all over the world. Her son Mike was tragically killed in a car accident about 20 years ago.
“I GO TO SWEDEN every summer and visit my sister,” says Kerstin. She is also active in what she calls “the wonderful organization SWEA” (Swedish Women’s Educational Association). We are about 30 members in Santa Barbara, and we meet about once a month and have a great time. I know other
Swedes as well. My niece and her daughter live here, and we see each other frequently.”
She adds that she sometimes misses Swedish food, although some of it is available at IKEA, such as the Swedish children’s favorite “Kalles Kaviar,” as well as “kokosbollar” and Swedish shrimp.
KERSTIN GREW up in a conservative and protective environment. “In Eskilstuna, I first attended a public grammar school for four years,”says Kerstin, who had three siblings, two older brothers and a sister. In 1946 she graduated from Eskilstuna Högre Allmänna Läroverk after studying at the school for eight years. “I studied German for eight years, English for five and French for four years.”
KERSTIN’S FATHER was an army officer and head of the town’s arms factory. He was forced to retire at the age of 50 as a major. This put the family in a rather difficult situation financially, and Kerstin’s mother had to start to work to make ends meet, since her father’s pension was not enough to support four school children. “I am sure it was difficult for my mother. She was a general’s daughter and had never worked to earn a living.”
KERSTIN ALSO talks about her special childhood memory of when she fell through the glass ceiling of the department store Epa, once a very familiar chain of stores.
“A FRIEND and I were playing on a yard in the middle of which there was a house, the object of which was to protect Epa’s glass ceiling, which was there to let light into the store. And it was, of course, built of glass.It had a little window, which was open one day and naturally I crawled in. I took a couple of steps on the glass ceiling — and it broke! I fell down and landed on the counter for underwear and stockings.”
WHEN THE SALES girl saw Kerstin, she fainted, and since it was rush hour, a whole lot of people gathered around her. Kerstin looked up and saw her friend’s frightened face in the hole in the ceiling. An old man came forward and said: “That was the funniest thing I have seen in a long time,” and gave Kerstin a two-crown coin. Some employees came and carried Kerstin up to an office, bandaged her legs, which were bleeding from cuts. The local newspaper, Eskilstuna-Kuriren, covered the story without mentioning any names.
“MY MOTHER, who had been to Stockholm, came home the next day and had read about the incident during the train ride. When my father met her at the train station, she said: “What a terrible thing! Imagine that parents don’t look after their children better! The poor child could have been killed. Do you know who it was? I would like to call the parents and let them know what I think!”
“No need to do that, my dear, I know who it is.”
“You do? Who?”
“It is your own child, dear!”
WHEN THE SECOND WORLD WAR broke out, Kerstin’s father returned to the army. And she, herself, became a so called “airplane spotter” during the summer months before graduation.
“THAT IS SOMETHING that I shall never forget. We were 10 girls between 15 and 17 years old (there’s a photo of them in “Confessions of a Swedish Girl” ), and we stood in a tower 24/7, reporting allied and German planes that crossed Swedish airspace. We telephoned their nationality, altitude, direction and speed to a central office, and then Swedish air force planes were sent out to try to get them to leave the country’s territory. This was done in order to prevent them from shooting down each other over
IN ESKILSTUNA, as in most of Sweden at the time, almost nobody owned a car. Kerstin’s parents certainly didn’t and very few of their friends. “You walked, took the bus or the train.” It was a different society, with a pronounced class structure: working class, middle class and upper class, not the least in the education system.
“SWEDEN WAS not enough for me – and I soon realized that I wanted to see the rest of the world, just like my Aunt Elsa, who had traveled a lot. And to do so, I would have to learn foreign languages. I studied English, as major, and minors in French and Spanish at the Stockholm University and received the equivalent of an M.A. But I also realized that one had to live in the countries to be fluent in languages, not just be a tourist. To improve my English skills, I took a job in London as ʻa mother’s helperʼ (au pairs had not been invented yet). To practice French I took care of children in Oyonnax, a small town in southern France. Having learnt English and French that way, I figured I could teach it, so I became a governess in Spain.”
KERSTIN IS STILL in contact with the children she taught there, and their children have come to visit her in the United States.
“BUT AMERICA was my dream! I wanted to see America. With my three foreign languages, I thought that I could easily get a scholarship at an American college. So I applied to Harvard, Yale and Princeton.!”
But Kerstin didn’t get any scholarships, and mentions that those universities only accepted males in those years.
“SINCE I HAD boasted to everybody that I was going to America, it was, of course, very embarrassing. But I was lucky. I heard about a small college in Illinois, Augustana College in Rock Island, where they wanted a Swedish teacher!:
“I had never heard of the college, and neither of Illinois, for that matter! But I applied, got the job, and I taught there for one year.”
“BUT I WANTED to go to California! California with its palm trees, Hollywood and stars like Tyrone Power, and the Pacific, had always been my dream. So when I heard that the Army Language School in Monterey, California, was looking for a Swedish-language teacher for army soldiers and officers, I applied and got the job. At the school, I met a Russian teacher, fell in love with him, we got married and had two children.”
With her husband George, who became employed by the CIA, she lived in Japan for seven years and in Italy for three. In 1967, the couple returned to California.