Monthly archives: June 2011

Going “home”

Well, I’m back.

Fifteen hours of flight time, a five-hour delay in Washington D.C. due to thunderstorms, and I’m back in Oregon. My student visa has expired, meaning my studies in Sweden have come to an end.

It’s been a long, strange journey, but it seems it has reached its end. Or has it?

The last 302 days have brought some of the greatest joys of my life – from meeting new friends to seeing the world outside the United States for the very first time – and some of the greatest challenges (having to learn a new language, making new friends, having to cook for myself). There were times where all I really wanted to do was leave Sweden, to go back to the familiarity of the Pacific Northwest, but somehow I stuck through it. And because of it, I’ve emerged a wiser, better man.

The hardest thing I did in Sweden? Leaving.

It’s no secret that I fell in love with the country. The landscape, the people, and yes, even the climate, grew on me in a way I could never have imagined. If I had my way, I would stay forever.

For the first time in my life, I actually felt at home. Like all my life I had been away, and had finally come home.

But unfortunately I had to leave. I still have one more year of studies at Boise State, and without a job, I had run out of money.

So I went back. Was I happy about it? No. But it’s what I had to do.

Jag alskär Sverige - I love Sweden. Photo: Martin Winberg

I’m already dealing with reverse culture shock. Let me tell you: integrating back into the culture of your home country is much harder than assimilating into Swedish culture. That’s what no one can prepare you for, what no study abroad advisor can tell you: that sometimes you don’t want to go back, and when you do it can be almost overwhelming.

I’ve found I’ve changed in ways I could never have imagined. In just the few days I’ve been back, friends and family have commented more than once on my newfound accent. Seriously, I now speak English with a noticeable Swedish accent. I never thought about or noticed it before, but I’ve spent so much time in Sweden that it rubbed off on me so much that I even picked up the habits and mannerisms of native-born Swedes, permeating my very being and changing how I perceive the world.

It astonishes even me.

It feels like I’ve left a part of myself behind, like I don’t really belong in the U.S. anymore. I’m trying to keep myself busy to help bury my feelings, but I admit it’s not easy.

“Lord of the Rings” is one of my favorite movies. The other day I was watching “The Return of the King,” when something happened to me that’s never happened before while watching it: I cried. It was the conclusion, when Frodo and his friends return home after destroying the One Ring, and they were sitting in a pub. The characters silently shared a toast, the music was simple and unpretentious, and suddenly I cried.  Like a light bulb switching on in my head, the parallels became instantly stark: Frodo and his friends had experienced things nobody else would understand, travelled to strange lands much farther than anything they had ever known, and now they were home. The journey was over, their lives had been forever changed, and no one else would ever understand. The same, I realized, had happened to me. It hadn’t really sunk in before, but now I knew that I was back.

The best part about studying abroad? The people you meet. Photo: Ben Mack

The list of people who I’d like to thank could literally fill an entire novel, but to name just a few I’d especially like to thank University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) for helping me realize my dream of going abroad, Lennart and Katrin Nordmark (my host parents) for helping create a home away from home (not to mention providing more “cultural experiences” than I can count), Karin Siöö and the rest of the International Office at Linnaeus University, Professor Jerald Catt-Oliason for teaching me to remember to listen, Katrin Ruffing for inspiring me to go abroad and being such a gracious host when I visited Germany, Jana Lepple and Clementine Monet for also inspiring me to cross the Atlantic, Sari Kiviharju and Sara Vanaikka for giving perspective to things, Foluoso Abbey for helping me see inward, John Harrigan for reminding me that the world is not flat, my parents for all their love and support (both financially and emotionally), my wonderful corridor mates – from both the Fall and Spring semesters – for helping make me feel like part one big, dysfunctional family, Martin Winberg for being my best mate in Sweden and keeping me sane (and for teaching me more than a little Swedish), Julie Blomberg for encouraging me to have faith in myself (not to mention question everything), Corrine Henke and the International Office at Boise State University, Christine Deppe for always being there when I needed to talk to someone, Tamar Amashukeli for helping me see the world through new eyes, Alina Merinscu for being a doppelgänger for so many of my adventures, and of course the people of Sweden for putting up with me for the past year.

For anyone else I neglected to mention, I haven’t forgotten you. I blame human nature for not having the patience to go through all the names. I also want to thank you, readers, for following this blog. Writing for the Swedish Institute has been an incredible, and unique, opportunity, and I’m glad to have shared with you my experiences and tips and tricks for surviving – and thriving – in Sweden. Hopefully you won’t make all the mistakes I did!

My immediate plans are simple: in August I will return to Boise State for my senior year, where I will also be working as Opinion Editor of The Arbiter (the university’s student newspaper) and living on-campus in the Global Village Community, a special housing program for international students and those who want to gain new perspectives from them and help them adjust to life in the U.S.

And after that? Who knows?

Maybe I will return to Sweden one day. Perhaps I will never go there again. But whatever the future might hold, I know this: I am better off for having studied in Sweden.

Studying abroad is not merely a physical journey – it is also an academic, cultural, emotional, and spiritual journey. In other words, it is personal. No two people have the exact same experience, and no two people reach the same conclusions afterwards.

But what exactly are those conclusions? No one can really say until one has gone abroad, and even then there’s no guarantee conclusions will ever be reached. It is an enigma of a most individual nature.

The Swedish sunset is one of many things I'll miss. Photo: Anne Balonier

I am not a celebrity. I have not been, and probably never will be, President of the United States. I am just an ordinary, average person who has had an extraordinary experience. But so, why then, am I bothering to write this? The answer to that is simple.

By studying abroad, you will gain an increased appreciation for the interdependency of the world today, the commonality we all share as human beings

While no one else will ever have the exact same experiences I have, studying abroad is nonetheless something that is more attainable today than at any other moment in history.

If you do decide to go abroad, dear reader, Sweden is an ideal location. I think my blog posts, and those by fellow student blogger Kristin Follis and other bloggers at the Swedish Institute, speak for themselves as to the reasons.

But know this: there are many more reasons why you should study in Sweden, reasons which words cannot possibly begin to describe.

In the words of St. Augustine, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”

Tack så mycket, och hej då.

On the coast of Öland the day before going back to the U.S. Photo: Ben Mack

Top things I’ll miss in Sweden

While studying abroad is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, the hardest part isn’t going to your host country: it’s coming back home.

Meeting new people from around the world is just one of the many advantages of studying abroad. Photo: Ben Mack

I’ve been studying in Sweden for about a year, and am definitely going to miss a few things. Here are the 14 I’ll miss most.

_____________________

1. Strawberries

 Back where I come from in Oregon, we’re known for having some of the best-tasting strawberries in the world. But even they pale in comparison to the Swedish variety, which taste like a combination of ecstasy, fulfillment, and a satisfaction in knowing you will never have better.

2. Winter

I know what you’re thinking: how can anyone love a season where temperatures can dip below minus 20 Celsius, snow is almost a meter thick, and it’s dark 18 hours (or more) a day? That’s precisely why I love the Swedish winter: it’s so different than what I had been previously used to. In Oregon, winter is marked by over 100 centimeters of rain, and in Boise if it’s snowing… well, if it’s snowing, then that’s the least of your problems. But in Sweden mayors don’t declare a state of emergency when it snows, and the glistening white stuff is also, I’ve discovered, a lot of fun to play in.

Swedish pancakes are, in a word, delicious. Photo: Anne Balonier

3. The food

Sweden may not usually be the first place that comes to mind when people think of tasty national cuisine, but I’ve found Swedish food to be surprisingly scrumptious – and much more diverse than herring and köttbullar. It’s much more affordable than it is in the U.S. (where you usually have to go to a specialty store or IKEA), and obviously more authentic too. And, when I was tired of traditional Svensk mat, grocery stores carry foods from all over the world, including the artificially preserved,  flavorized, prepackaged, hormone-treated, sugar-infused fare I – unfortunately – was raised on.

4. The people

This one comes as a no-brainer. Life isn’t just about what you do: it’s about who you meet. And in Sweden, I’ve met some amazing people, from Swedes such as my host family and close friends to fellow exchange students who’ve helped me broaden my horizons and taught me a lot about myself, too. If it wasn’t for this motley cast of characters, there’s no way my time abroad would have been as magical as it was.

Any time is a great time for a fika! Photo: Anne Balonier

5. Fikas

A uniquely Swedish creation, a fika is a great way to spend time with friends, family, classmates, coworkers, or just about anyone. It’s also a great excuse to consume more coffee and sweets than your mother would have ever allowed you to have growing up.

6. The queue system 

Back home, when you go to someplace like the bank, housing office, etc. you have to wait in line. And wait. And wait. And wait. But in Sweden, you just take a number and wait for your number to be called.  It’s great for people such as myself who can never stay in one place for more than three minutes.

7. Traveling by train 

Trains in the U.S. are few, far between, and incredibly expensive. In Boise, a city of more than 200,000 people and a metro area of half a million, there isn’t even a single operating train station. Pretty much every town in Sweden has a train station, and – in my opinion – paying 400 kronor to travel from Växjö to Göteborg seems pretty cheap. It’s a great way for students without cars to get around.

Kronobergs Slottsruinen, located north of Växjö, dates back to the 15th century. Photo: Ben Mack

8. The history

Some Swedes may gripe that there isn’t much history in Sweden, but it’s a whole lot more than where I come from. Back in Boise, the oldest building is an old log house from the 1800s. In Sweden, people live in houses older than that. Heck, the Växjö Domkyrka (Växjö Cathedral) was built in the 12th century – more than 300 years before America was even “discovered.” Every town has its own rich and unique history.

9. Allsvenskan football

Few things are able to match the passion — and intensity – of Allsvenskan football matches. It’s one of the rare times you’ll see Swedes lose all emotional control, and is certainly not to be missed.

Few things match the passion and excitement of Allsvenskan football. Photo: Ben Mack

10.  My host family

Host families are a fantastic way to see the “real” Sweden, and I had a great time with mine. From going to football matches, to barbecues, to fishing, to speaking to secondary school students and to jumping in frozen lakes, I will miss them greatly.

11.  The summer

If the Swedish winter is spectacular, then the summer is even more so. Photo: Ben Mack

If the Swedish winter is spectacular, then the summer is even more so. Temperatures around 20 Celsius, clear skies, 18 hours of sunlight, Midsummer… what could be better?

12.  Nature

Swedes have a special connection to nature, and it’s easy to see why. Never in my life have I seen a country as green as Sweden is. From the forests to the meadows to the thousands of lakes, it’s hard to imagine more beautiful scenery anywhere else on earth.

13.  Teleborgs Slott

Sure it’s not that old (built around 1900), and sure it’s not that big, but it’s the first castle I’d ever seen. And when it’s only a five-minute walk from your flat, you tend to spend a lot of time there. Truly, it’s the most magical place I’ve ever been. No matter the occasion – whether I was having a bad day, was stressed out, wanted to enjoy nature, meditate, hang out with friends, take a girl on a date, study, or whatever – I could just walk through the castle’s spacious grounds or inside to have a fika. Every moment spent there was spent in timeless bliss.

Though not very old, Teleborgs Slott is nonetheless magnificent. Photo: Ben Mack

 

14.  The Swedes

Whether it’s their closeness to nature, tolerance of others, friendliness, ingenuity, or helpfulness, it’s obvious the Swedes are special. Never before have met friendlier, more tolerant, or helpful people in my life. With them, the glass is always half-full. And their smiles can power a small city. And they’re the most loyal friends you can ever have.

My advice to anyone coming to Sweden: enjoy every moment of it. Because when you’re gone…

You’re not in Sweden anymore. And that’s what I’ll miss the most.

When you're in Sweden for a year, you tend to meet at least a few Swedes. Photo: Tiina Syränjen

The magic – and madness – of Midsummer

So, what’s the strangest holiday you can think of?

Perhaps you’d say Halloween, an American creation which – as far as I can tell – consists of children dressing up as witches, ghosts, zombies, and all manner of less-than-kosher creatures and visiting the homes of strangers to ask for candy. Or maybe you’d say Diwali, a five-day Indian festival that involves enough fireworks to rival the energy output of the sun. And don’t forget Dia de los Muertos, the Mexican celebration of the dead in which people honor their deceased loved ones by eating skulls made of sugar.

Following basic logic, you’re probably thinking that next I’m going to say that the Swedish Midsummer is the strangest of them all, a holiday that, with its dancing around maypoles and eating more than even an elephant can stomach, makes about as much sense as O.J. Simpson and that infamous car chase.

I could say that but, honestly, Midsummer makes perfect sense. Heck, compared to other traditions it seems – dare I say it – downright normal. Allow me to explain.

Dancing around a maypole is one of the highlights of Midsummer. Photo: Mikael Häggström/Public Domain

June 25 is Midsummer, one of the biggest holidays of the year in Sweden. Traditional events include raising and dancing around a huge maypole (majstång or midsommarstång), an activity that attracts families, neighbors, wild animals, and pretty much anything with a pulse in Sweden. People listen to traditional Swedish music, and some even wear traditional folk costumes that, personally, look much better than those highly stereotyped Bavarian beer maid outfits or whatever you call that decidedly bizarre getup yodelers wear. In addition, many girls wear crowns made of wild springs and wildflowers on their heads. Potatoes, herring, chives, sour cream, beer, snaps and the famous Swedish strawberries are usually eaten, and a variety of drinks are consumed – proving, once again, that you can’t have a holiday in Sweden without eating something.

Like many other things in Sweden (see: winter), the key to surviving Midsummer is endurance. Endurance in the face of a gastronomic smorgasbord that could make all but the hardiest faint. Endurance in the face of talking to relatives you haven’t seen since Christmas or longer. And endurance in knowing that, thanks to almost 24 hours of summertime sunshine, the party might very well go on all day and all night.

But think about it: if you lived in a country where there’s frost on the ground six months out of the year, almost 24 hours of darkness in winter, and occasionally home to some of the coldest winter temperatures on the planet, wouldn’t you want to celebrate once the sun and warm temperatures arrived? Of course you would. And what better way to celebrate than on one of the warmest and sunniest days of the year?

Humans aren't the only ones who love Midsummer weather. Photo: Ben Mack

There’s some interesting history behind Midsummer, too. Because Midsummer was thought to be one of the times of the year when magic was strongest, it was considered a good night to perform rituals to look into the future. Traditionally, young people picked bouquets of seven or nine different flowers and put them under their pillow in the hopes of dreaming about their future spouse. In the past it was believed that herbs picked at Midsummer were highly potent, and water from springs could bring good health. Greenery placed over houses and barns were supposed to bring good fortune and health to people and livestock. To decorate with greens was called att maja (to may), and may be the origin of the modern word majstång. Other researchers say the term came from German merchants who raised the maypole in June because the Swedish climate made it impossible to find the necessary greens and flowers in May, and continued to call it a maypole. Today, however, it is most commonly called a midsommarstång (literally “midsummer’s pole”).

Another Midsummer tradition is that unmarried girls should – before going to sleep on midsummer’s eve – pick seven kinds of flowers and jump over seven roundpole fences and then sleep with the flowers under a pillow. Supposedly, during the night they would then dream about who they would get married to. If only things were that simple today, huh?

O.K., so maybe Midsummer is a little strange. But it’s about as Swedish as anything can get, as quintessentially part of the country’s heritage as meatballs, julmust, and red wooden houses.

Midsummer is a great time to hang out with friends. Photo: Tamar Amashukeli

And if you’re a lonely student looking to see what the big deal about dancing around a maypole really is, never fear: many towns and cities offer public Midsummer celebrations (the annual Midsummer celebrations held in Stockholm’s Skansen Park and Leksand in Dalarna are said to be the largest in the world).

If you’re lucky enough to be in Sweden this time of year, go out and enjoy Midsummer. I promise there won’t be any kids ringing your door at 11 p.m. asking for candy.

True confessions of Swedish dating disasters

Ask any expatriate, exchange student, fellow traveler, or even the guy selling strawberries down at the Saturday market, and they’ll all tell you the same thing: Swedish women are confusing, even more so than… well, there might not be anything more confusing than Swedish women.

Dating in Sweden can be... well, complicated to say the least. Photo: Tamar Amashukeli

And you know what? I agree. I’ve gone on a few dates here, and every time found myself more and more perplexed. Christ, even O.J. Simpson’s police chase makes more sense.

Let’s save ourselves a lot of time here and just agree that Swedish women are incredibly attractive. They have terrific personalities, million-dollar smiles, and are more in shape than 99.99% of everyone else. They’re well-educated, know exactly what they want in life, and usually speak with an accent that makes us men melt every time we hear it. Oh, and did I mention almost all of them look like they should be modeling somewhere? Seriously, Tyra Banks has nothing on them.

But damn, they are enigmatic. Allow me to illustrate by sharing my personal experiences.

I’ll admit I’ve always been a little nervous courting the opposite sex, probably due to watching – as God is my witness – more romantic comedies than quite possibly any other heterosexual male on earth. But I held firmly to the popular U.S. stereotype that Swedish women go crazy for American guys, and let my friends do the rest to inflate my ego to levels perhaps only rivaled by Muhammad Ali or Zlatan Ibrahimovic himself. I was young, I was in good shape, and I was American: when I arrived in Sweden, the ladies wouldn’t stand a chance.

But as the weeks went by, I gaped in paralyzed horror as my self-esteem was quickly ground into mush. Not only did all my previously held notions turn out to be totally wrong, but it seemed the opposite was true; compared to the endless number of good-looking, well-muscled, and much better dressed Swedish guys, it seemed no woman was interested in a pale, skinny American with absolutely zero fashion sense and a shaggy haircut.

Eventually, however, I drummed up enough courage to ask a girl from one of my classes for a fika in Teleborgs Slott. We talked, laughed, and I somehow managed to pay for her – something many Swedish women, I knew, were not used to. We hung out a few more times and, in my mind, there was no way I could fail. I was IN.

Just because you had a fika with a girl in a castle does not mean she will see it as a date. Photo: Ben Mack

But then disaster struck. I asked her to dinner, assuming the answer would be an automatic “yes.” Instead, I received a text message explaining that dinner would feel “too much like a date.”

In all my 21 years, I had never been so confused. Would feel too much like a date? Really? I mean, c’mon, we had coffee at a freakin’ castle!

A good way to get to know a girl is to spend time with her, even if it involves freezing half to death. Photo: Johannes Feldmann

In one swift blow, my self-esteem returned to its liquidous state. A few weeks later, it evaporated entirely when, after getting the phone number of a girl I had warmed up to, she rejected me by flat-out saying I wasn’t her “type.” Looking back on it, I probably asked her out for the wrong reasons anyway, but if I had known what I know now I could’ve gotten a lot more sleep.

A few weeks after her – whom my friends only refer to as “Miss A” – there was yet another girl. Unlike the others, she took the initiative of “first contact” by talking to me after a class we shared. A hopeful sign? Perhaps. But then again, I’m pretty sure I’m not psychic. And later events would certainly validate that.

The two of us had something in common right away: both of us studied journalism. She seemed to spend every moment picking my brains on life in the U.S., determined to study there one day. We had similar tastes in music and movies, and even shared a secret passion for documentaties.

Travelling to places such as Kalmar Slott is also a good way to get to know a girl. Photo: Ben Mack

We hung out every day for about a week, and finally one night she spontaneously invited me over for dinner. We ate a nice meal of chicken and rice, and then we talked for a bit. And talked. And talked. And talked some more. By the time I finally excused myself and went home, it was past 4 a.m. She had poured her heart out to me, displayed the entire spectrum of human emotion, told me things she said she had never told anyone else – or so I thought.

A couple weeks later, she told me she was seeing someone. A guy whose name I never learned, of whom she and her friends had never spoken, and of whom I didn’t even see any evidence of on Facebook.

Jeez, how cruel can a girl be? If you want to say “I’m not interested,” then just say it! Mentioning possibly fictitious boyfriends only makes it crueler!

But that’s dating in Sweden for you. If I’ve learned one thing from my time here, it’s that I don’t know anything.

So everyone, I’m with you: I’m just as clueless as you are. If you can decipher the mystery of Swedish dating, let me know.

I’ll be drowning my sorrows in coffee.

Why can’t we all be born this way?

Shuffling through my iPod again, I am reminded that no entertainer in the history of music had as much flair, was as much of a divo, as the late Wladziu Valentino Liberace, better known throughout the world – or at least a fair part of the world – simply as Liberace.

Liberace was a singer and TV personality, of course, one whose sexuality was –and will probably forever be – more ambiguous than the exact recipe of Nutella.

True: Liberace may have hid his sexuality for fear of a backlash.

Also true: Unlike Liberace’s native United States, gay rights are universally accepted by the Swedish government and most of society, and are vigorously defended.

While people have the right to express their own views, human rights are taken very seriously in Sweden. Photo: Ben Mack

Such a subject can be very controversial in different parts of the world – from countries where the death penalty is mandatory for those who engage in homosexual behavior to those where gay marriage is legal – but in Sweden the controversy is largely a thing of the past.

Though some people may not agree with such equality, it’s a fact of life students should be aware about before coming to study.

That being said, many individuals have called gay rights the most important civil rights issue of our time. While there are many different ways to measure it, it’s clear that some countries are ahead of others on the issue. And here, people should focus their odium* on something else, though it’s best if they don’t have any.

*Odium (oh-dee-uh m): intense hatred or dislike, especially toward a person or thing regarded as contemptible, despicable, or repugnant.

I’m not saying don’t come to Sweden if you disagree with such equality. Just be aware that it’s the cultural norm, and that affronts to equality are taken VERY seriously. You have the right to express your views, but it’s not O.K. to infringe upon the rights of others.

And if you’re part of a group that’s been historically victimized, let me say this: welcome to paradise. I promise your beliefs and lifestyle choices will be protected, and you will be valued and respected as a human being no matter what.

Personally, I think such equality is beyond refreshing. Life is stressful enough as it is: no one should have to live in fear just because of who they are. I applaud the Swedish government and the Swedish people for being so committed to human rights, and as a student you’ll get to see the result of those rights exhibited first-hand in a dynamic, multicultural setting.

Though people may sometimes protest governmental policies, Sweden consistently ranks among the most tolerant societies on earth. Photo: Ben Mack

In sum: Swedes are among the most modern, tolerant people on earth, with minority rights seen as extremely important. LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer) students are highly unlikely to encounter offensive behavior or other problems during their stay.

As Lady Gaga might say, why can’t we all be born this way?