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First days tips & tricks

Dear Student,

Never fear: you, too, can survive in Sweden!

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…

Eating right is important anywhere, but especially when studying abroad. Sharing meals is also a great way to make new friends.

You: Zzzz…

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.

Confusion while abroad happens. It's just how you deal with it that counts.

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!

Always remember to relax and have fun!

Teleborg’d

I’m not usually one to brag, but here at Linnaeus University we actually have a castle on campus. Seriously.

Having class on the grounds of an actual castle is an experience not soon forgotten. Especially when you have a marshmallow in your mouth for no apparent reason.

Yes, I know I sound conceited. But hey, it’s pretty freaking cool, especially when your home university is well-known for being ugly even by U.S. standards.

Your campus might have a massive football stadium. Your campus might be in the heart of a major city like Stockholm. Or your campus might even have its own movie theater, or be located in Hawaii.  But your campus doesn’t have Teleborgs Slott.

Teleborgs Slott (Swedish for “Teleborg Castle”) was built in 1900 by Swedish count Fredrik Bonde af Björnö as a wedding gift for his wife Anna Koskull. After the couple died in 1917, the castle was used as a hotel for young girls. Finally, the city of Växjö bought it in 1964 for – as legend says – one kronor.

Today, the castle is used for a variety of purposes, including weddings, city council meetings, conferences, and a 23-room hotel. But as a student, perhaps its best function is as the site for Sunday afternoon fikas, where from 1 p.m. until 4 p.m. anyone can come and have coffee. And at only 22 kronor (about $3.50) per person, it’s even cheaper than a trip to Starbucks. But it serves another purpose as well: the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

The entrance to Teleborgs Slott. Built in 1900, the castle today is used for a variety of purposes.

When I was a kid, I owned enough Legos that if I had called the right people I probably would have set a world record. But of all the strange and bizarre things I spent countless hours building (and rebuilding, and then rebuilding some more), my favorite thing to build was castles. I’d imagine having all kinds of great adventures, usually involving dragons, treachery, blackmail, the impending end of the world and/or lots of unnecessary violence resulting in the deaths of virtually every non-essential character.

As I got older, my love affair with the archaic medieval architectural innovation took on different forms, from reading fantasy novels to watching sword-and-sorcery films such as “Lord of the Rings” to even trying to write my own novel (alas, it remains unfinished).

But for all my adoration – and even my parents visiting the famed Neuschwanstein in Germany – I had never actually seen a castle in person, Disneyland not included. Up through high school, and even my first couple years of college, I still dreamed of how cool it would be to actually visit one at some point.

Then I went abroad. If I were to tell you that having a castle on campus wasn’t a factor in my decision to come to Sweden, I’d be lying. Teleborgs Slott, though not large, was the first castle I ever saw in person, and though small, remains the prettiest I’ve seen so far – despite its eerie similarity to Hogwarts in the “Harry Potter” films (the real-life inspiration, perhaps?).

Teleborgs Slott is just as pretty inside as it is outside.

Yes, I’ve had some wild times in Sweden so far, but I’ve also had some more calming ones, too. And most of those calming ones, I’ve noticed, tend to happen in and around the vicinity of Teleborgs Slott. In terms of the most memorable times of my life, they’re definitely up there.

Normally this is where I’d tell you how beautiful the castle is, how it’s many parlors open to the public are exquisitely detailed, how the luscious grounds look they were used as background in a major motion picture or how the ivy growing along the Western side of  the main façade gives the castle an overpoweringly romantic feel. But for the first time in my life, I’ve got nothing.

All I can say is this: words truly cannot describe how beautiful it is. Sure, studying abroad anywhere is great, but when you have something so overpoweringly beautiful on campus, it makes the whole experience even better.

So when I eventually go back to the U.S. and am feeling nostalgic, I just might unbox the Legos or try again at writing that novel.

And this time, my adventures would be based on a true story.

Teleborgs Slott in the fall.

Teleborgs Slott in winter.

Cool & creative ways to keep kronor

Food. For many students – especially those with XY chromosomes – it’s the first thing you think about in the morning, and the last thing on your mind before you go to sleep.

While tasty, the hamburger diet can be quite expensive, to say nothing of the potential health risks.

Chances are, you’re thinking about food right now.

But let’s face the facts: food in Sweden is expensive. While we can speculate all day long as to the reasons for such high prices (the harsh climate, government subsidies, plot by reptilian alien shadow government to enslave mankind), that’s just the way it is.

Sounds depressing, huh? Thinking of taking Uncle Lester’s advice and forgetting studying in Sweden?

Well don’t. Because there’s hope.

For almost as long as I can remember, I’ve been a big fan of the phrase “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” And in this case, saving money is as easy as… well, just follow these tips and you’ll still have enough kronor for that 80s theme party this weekend you’ve been dying to go to.

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Shop for sales

It sounds simple, but this just might be the most important thing you can do to stretch your food budget. Unlike their U.S. counterparts, most Swedish universities don’t offer a meal plan for students, meaning you’re on your own when it comes to food. But many grocery stores have weekly sales, and sometimes it’s good to buy items like rice in bulk if you think it’ll last a while. Check newspapers, flyers, and online for the best deals. You’ll be glad you did.

Knowing where to find sales is key to saving money on food.

Do distressed

Many grocery stores have what’s known as a “distressed” section where perishable foods (meats, dairy, etc.) that will expire soon are placed – usually near the back of a store or in an otherwise hard-to-find location. Prices can sometimes be more than half off, so it’s definitely worth the effort to hunt for it. The only drawback is that since the food will expire soon, you have to eat it within one or two days before it goes bad.

Avoid eating out too much

This is one of those “no duh” tips. Compared to the U.S., eating out in Sweden is often crazier than an Italian football match. Even fast food is spendy: a simple 15-centimeter (six-inch)turkey sub at Subway costs 43 kronor – about $7. Even if you were to eat just a simple 15 kronor cheeseburger at McDonald’s once a day, every day, you’d end up spending more than 450 kronor (around $75) a month. While it’s okay to eat out once in a while, do it too often and your wallet will suffer.

Eating with friends can be a great way to save money, in addition to being an excuse to swap stories about your day.

Become a food cart fanatic

If you don’t feel like cooking, then a food cart is your best bet for satisfying cuisine. Food carts offer everything from traditional Swedish meatballs (köttbullar) to kebabs or falafel. Prices aren’t as high as restaurants, and the portions are generous. They’re great after a night at a pub or club, or a quick bite to eat on the way home from class. Personally, I find the “kebab i pita med tzatziki” (“kebab in pita with tzatziki”) from a food cart that’s run by an elderly Bulgarian guy here on campus to be the greatest invention ever. Granted, food carts may not be high class, but there’s a certain indie-hipster coolness to them anyway that only a student would understand.

Surf for serious savings

It sounds simple, but it can go a long way. Finding out from others how they save money can help give you ideas for how to do the same, and online resources offer a dearth of information on the subject. I myself am a big fan of the Get Rich Slowly Guide, but there’s many other sources like My Money Blog that are just as useful.

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Cost should never prohibit someone from doing something – it’s merely an obstacle that can be overcome. And with a little creativity (ditto learning how to cook), getting your daily nutritional requirements while on a budget is more than doable.

Eating cheap can be classy, too.

It may take a little practice, but once you start trimming your food budget you’ll be thrilled to finally have a little extra money to start paying off all those student loans you took to get to Sweden.

Or you can just visit H&M.

The finer points of fikas

The fika. It’s about as synonymous with Sweden as ABBA, meatballs, and Tiger Woods’ ex-wife, and occurs more often than the weather here changes. It’s an integral part of Swedish culture, and is usually one of the first things foreign students experience when they arrive.

The fika is a Swedish institution. Swedes drink more coffee per capita than any other country except Finland.

But what exactly is a fika? What’s so great about it for Swedes to get their shorts all stuck in a bunch? Is it a good thing? Does it have anything to do with IKEA? As a matter of fact, where is the nearest IKEA? Can you recommend something there that would go with my carpet? Could you be the best man at my wedding?

Whoa, slow down there, buddy. Let’s take this one question at a time. Questions three through five have nothing to do with a fika. And unfortunately, I think I have an appointment the day you’re getting married.  Sorry, pal.

But back to the fika. Basically, the word “fika” means a coffee break with friends or family (though if you ask my German-speaking grandpa, it means something else that can’t exactly be printed). It’s an example of nineteenth century Swedish back slang – in which syllables of a word were reversed – that originally came from “kaffi,” an earlier variant of “kaffe” (“coffee”). Nowadays, the fika is an institution enjoyed by everyone with a pulse.

So fine, you say, people just consume empty calories and talk.  And yeah, you’re mostly right. But a fika can also be so much more.

Tired of studying? Have a fika. Want to catch up with friends? Have a fika. Want to schmooze that blonde bombshell you’ve been eyeing but want to take things slowly? Have a fika, son.  And looking for a way to celebrate your “VG” test results?  Then have a fika, Einstein.

The interior parlors of Teleborgs Slott, located on Linnaeus University's campus, are an ideal place to have a fika.

While not necessarily required, food oftentimes enhances the overall fika experience – unless you’re an aspiring supermodel or an individual such as myself who frequently forgets the importance of eating. Typically, fikas are enjoyed with “fikabröd,” a collective term that refers to all kinds of biscuits, cookies, and buns. Baked goods are also a popular choice, as is having the fika at a “konditori,” a coffeehouse/bakery fusion that may just be the greatest innovation in the coffee world since the coffee maker. The important thing, though, is that coffee is consumed – after all, Sweden is number two worldwide in coffee consumption per capita, second only to Finland.

Fikas can be highly intimate affairs – a popular choice at Linnaeus University is Sunday fika in Teleborgs Slott (I know, it’s pretty awesome to have a castle on campus) – but they can also involve more people than a ½-off sock sale at Wal-Mart: in May 2009, a record 3,563 people had a fika in the town of Östersund. Do you know how many sugar cubes that is?

When in Sweden, you will inevitably have a fika, and probably lots of them.  In the 225 days I’ve been here so far, I’ve had thousands. Every time I’ve loved it, though all the caffeine has caused me to stay up a little bit more than I’m normally used to.

But there you have it, the mysteries of the fika revealed. Information has been transmitted, and with this newfound knowledge I suggest you do only one thing: have a fika. Now. Because somewhere in Sweden, someone else already is.

Why not follow the crowd?

Although it is possible, a public restroom in Gothenburg is usually not the best place to have a fika.

Reality TV (made real)

I’ve noticed that privacy seems to be a pretty important value in Sweden. While Swedish students may sometimes seem anything but reserved at a local pub/nightclub/any other establishment that sells alcoholic beverages, when it comes to where they live they usually prefer to be alone.

BENJAMIN MACK - Student housing on Linnaeus University's campus. The university is the only residential campus in Sweden.

Unsurprisingly, this desire to be able to watch reruns of “Friends” at all hours of the day is reflected in the housing options available to students at Linnaeus University. As the only residential campus in Sweden – where the majority of students live on campus and all university buildings are centrally located – students have basically two options:

  1. Live by yourself. As Depeche Mode might say, enjoy the silence.
  2. Live in a corridor, a social environment that bizarrely offers private bedrooms and bathrooms but a public kitchen and lounge area reminiscent of a sleazy motel. Beware of cockroaches.

Personally, I prefer a little bit of sociability from time to time, so naturally when I came to campus I went with option B. Turns out it’s been the best decision I made since I decided it was probably a good idea to eat food every once and a while.

Seriously, there’s nothing quite like living with seven other guys and girls who are equally passive towards the need to remember to put the toilet seat up. And it’s always encouraging to see others eating cereal straight from the box and wearing a bathrobe for most of the day.

I love living in a corridor because…

  • It’s about loyalty, friendship and family. I’ve lived with the same people for the past 221 days, and by now we see each other as one big, over-medicated family worthy of any reality show.
  • It leads to instant parties. How cool is that? Name anything else that galvanizes people to invite 100 friends over for a costume party that involves 90 minutes of planning.
  • It’s the best kind of reality TV. There’s real cheers, real tears, and real cheese quesadillas. There’s no director hollering “Cut! Effects!” And the best part is, you’re a participant. For overly dramatic people like myself, it’s even better than Jerry Springer.
  • It gives you a sense of place. Living in a corridor, you become exposed to new cultures. People in my own corridor come from Germany, Italy, South Korea, Belgium and France. Unsurprisingly, the food is incredible.
  • There’s no “faking it.” If you’re Brad Pitt’s daughter and you want to act, you get to act. If you’re a Trump, you get to build. If you’re a Bush and want a ranch in Texas, then you get a ranch in Texas. Those people may get to slide by, but in a corridor you have to learn to get along with others. At the very least, it’s usually a good idea to remember who’s coffee mug belongs to who.

    BENJAMIN MACK - There's nothing quite like an impromptu costume party, one of the many benefits of living in a corridor.

  • It turns hardened people into mush. You share laughter, tears, and flu-like symptoms with these people.  Their emotions become yours, and yours theirs. Tell me the last time the guy taking your order at McDonald’s did that.
  • It encourages good, healthy hating. You all become fans of whatever sports team other people in the corridor are fans of. And these new converts can be even more rabid than you. I got my entire corridor hooked on Boise State football. While hosting a viewing party against Fresno State, I jokingly commented that an opposing player had made a decent play. I was told I could go to hell.
  • It’s cheap. Having eight people sharing most everything sure cuts down on living costs.
  • It’s all new, all the time. Today will not be exactly the same as yesterday, and tomorrow will not be the same as today.
  • It gives you something to look back on and talk about when you’re visiting family for Christmas without upsetting Aunt Sally or causing Grandpa to storm off in a huff. It’s not religion, politics, war,  money, or even sports. And hey, you might even get to become the main topic of conversation. Because let’s be honest: there’s a certain satisfaction in one-upping your cousins when it comes to what you’ve done in the past year.

So bite me, those of you who want to live by yourself. Life isn’t just about what you do, it’s who you meet.

And besides, the last time I was silent for more than ten minutes, I hadn’t been born yet.

BENJAMIN MACK - Outdoor fikas are a blast, especially with other people.