You were smart to ask me to prepare you for your first days in Sweden. As somebody who’s been here (since August) and until now had never been out of the U.S., I know all the ways to screw up.
O.K., first of all…
AIRPLANE TALK Unless you’re coming from Denmark, Germany, Finland, or the strange and bizarre land known as Norway, you’re probably going to have to fly. Be careful. You may be excited, but no matter what the middle-aged lady with the curly hair sitting next to you will be even more so. But I’ll be frank: if you only possess XY chromosomes, chances are she won’t be as talkative. If you’re a boy, for instance, you might have a conversation like this:
Passenger: The food isn’t very good, is it? Where are you flying to?
You: I’m going to Sweden to study.
Passenger: Never been there.
If you’re a girl, you’re more likely to hear a conversation like this:
Passenger: The food isn’t very good, is it? Where might you be flying to?
You: I’m going to Sweden to study.
Passenger: Well, isn’t that fabulous, dear! I’ve never been there myself, but back in ‘53 my uncle Johnny’s cousin’s fiancé’s half-sister was there during a stopover on the way to Italy. I think she landed in Stockholm, but the weather was grey and muggy that day and of course she had left her favorite cardigan back home, so…
REST When you get to Sweden, and have arrived at the university you’ll be spending the next six months to a year at, keep your head about you. There will be a lot of new and exciting things, but your first priority is to go straight to wherever you’ll be staying and sleep for the next 24 hours. Don’t even bother unpacking: just grab your pillow and pass out on the mattress. If you don’t have a bed yet, just sleep on top of a favorite jacket. Once you wake up a day later you can figure out what’s going on. Just try and remember that – although the room has four walls and a ceiling – you’re in Sweden, not Granholm, Minnesota.
CLASSES Unless your A’s are straighter than Al Gore, there will be an adjustment period. Yeah, you’ll probably understand the material, but Swedish professors don’t always teach the same way their non-Swedish counterparts do. Pay attention, ask questions, and you’ll have nothing to worry about.
The nice thing is, Swedes are among the most open-minded people on earth, so there’s no fear of a backlash against foreigners who might be better at them at algebra and innebandy. And while some professors may have a distant relation to the devil, Swedish profs are almost always fair.
PRESSURE There will be piano crates of it on you. This will be the tensest moment of your life since you filled out those college applications. If you choke, you’ll be out of thousands of dollars and perhaps an entire year of studies, not to mention suffer the eternal scorn of your previously supportive parents. You’ll hear it the rest of your life: so what if you were an honors student at Boise State? You still couldn’t hack it outside the Rockies!
But think of all the pressure you’ve already beaten! Applications a meter thick, the long and thoroughly vexing process known as getting a student visa, finding your way through the airport and enduring the longest flight of your life – succeeding in Sweden is more than doable as long as you don’t think too much about the pressure.
LANGUAGE Yes, the official language of Sweden is Swedish and, yes, everyone speaks it. But everyone also speaks English, and with an accent easier to understand than any New Yorker.
If you’re an American, some impressionable Swedes are going to treat you like a god. They watch the same shows Americans do, just with Swedish subtitles. Basically, lots of them associate the American accent with movie stars.
But please try and learn a little Swedish, even if you don’t have to. You’d appreciate it if someone who visited your home country learned the native language.
SPIDERS In many parts of the world, they’re all over the place. I’m yet to see one in Sweden. Arachnophobes rejoice!