September 23, 2013

You are more

Studying literature for the past seven years (/my whole life) has yielded more beautiful things than there is space or time to tell. I wouldn't trade it for anything. But I have to admit that something ugly has grown inside me as a result: it's the feeling (and I can't shake it) that my personal worth is somehow inextricably tied up into how well I express myself. You're so eloquent, people tell me. The way you speak is beautiful. To those who have said so, thank you. You are too kind. And insofar as you're right, it's probably because I read all the time. I learn from the best. I figure if I can inspire anyone half as much as Whitman or Rilke or Mary Oliver have inspired me, I will have far exceeded my own expectations of what I have to offer the world.

But what happens when I don't have that anymore? What happens when my pretty words are replaced with the silence of uncertainty and "um"s and mispronunciations?

Well, I'll tell you. I start feeling pretty low about myself. Is it possible to be a good student when the only things you can say all class period are "I don't know," "I'm not sure," "I can't"? Not to mention, how could anyone possibly want to be friends with someone who might not be able to understand their stories or offer witty/kind/inspiring commentary? I love stories. I love talking. Back home, that's like, my thing. That's how I connect. That's where I thrive. But even my friends here who speak English to me (and all of them do at one point or another) seem more at ease with each other in their native Swedish. More intimate. And who could blame them?

I was feeling nervous and fidgety after my second day in Expo class last week. We had been discussing the nuances of antisemitism. Even when I understood enough of what was happening to have a relevant question to pose or comment to make, there was no way I had the words in Swedish for any of my thoughts. That is no lie and no exaggeration. By the end of class, I was exhausted and embarrassed and hoping more than anything that I hadn't offended the instructors with my radio silence and, worse, my actual refusal to speak when invited to do so by other classmates on a couple occasions. I decided to approach Åke after the lecture to apologize. I felt that bad about it.

After saying sorry about my silence, I somehow ended up explaining to him how impossible it is to show my personality in Swedish. I think my initial goal in bringing that up was to explain why it's maybe-probably-sort-of-possibly(?) okay that Beatrice always talks to me in English (something that has come under the disapproval of Åke and one Christian Borén). Even though it doesn't help my Swedish one bit, I'm glad that Bea communicates with me på engelska. I mean, someone around here has to know that I'm smart and have things to contribute, right? It's frustrating to feel like what's inside of you is being stifled by the difficulty (or even impossibility) of expression.

But what Åke said in return meant more to me than he probably knew.

We can see who you are, he responded. You are more than what you say.

I walked back to my room after that conversation and cried. I couldn't tell if it was because I was relieved to hear what Åke told me or because, deep down, I knew there was a huge part of me that would not be able to accept it. How am I more than what I say?

As is the theme of my life lately, I can't promise I know precisely what else he said, but I'll venture some guesses.

I am also what I do.

I am also how I treat others.

I am also my kindness.

I am also my smile. 

A friend of mine gave me some advice early on in my trip. He said I shouldn't let my thinking-about-how-to-say-this face be squinty or pained. He told me to smile. I'm still learning the value of smiling, and doing it generously. Maybe the most important take-home message here is that I am not only more than what I say; I'm more than what I can't say.

So to any of you who also feel burdened by all those things you can't say, all those things you can't do, or all the ways you perceive you don't measure up, I feel impressed to tell you this much (and I mean it ever-so-much):

You are more than what limits you.

You are the smell of apple pie baking on a Sunday afternoon. You are the arms that reach out to hug when someone looks lonely. You are the warmth of an over-sized sweater. You are the trees changing color with the season. You are that magnificent sunset I saw on the train. Or maybe you're the rain. You are the sweetest smile. Yours are the eyes that flicker in the candlelight. You are the song I play over and over. You are the most beautiful language. You are a river. You are a prayer.

You are more.

September 17, 2013

A language worth learning

Turns out my name is really hard to pronounce in Swedish. It just doesn't work. The Swedes have the same problem as Americans and almost always think it's Michelle at first. Even with my actual name confirmed (once, twice, thrice sometimes: "Rachel. RA-shell. RiCH-elle? RIchhhelle? RichELLE. RichELLE), for some reason they always ask me if it's French. I've taken to saying yes. Due to this ongoing pronunciation challenge, some of my friends at school have started calling me Kjell (pronounced "shell"). That's actually a name here in Sweden. Granted, it's a man's name, but... I'm already the bizarre American. Why not add in some gender confusion fun?

I suppose the fact that people seem to care about saying my name correctly (and/or christening me with endearing Swedish alternatives) means I'm making friends, little by little. There are so many lovely girls here in particular. Lova is a vegan and so beautiful (I'm not sure if she knows it). Her name in Swedish means "to promise." Agnes is as sweet and patient as can be. Katarina speaks marvelous English in a really charming South African accent. She has encouraged me again and again to join the Expo class because she's convinced I'm smart enough. Beatrice makes me laugh the most. I only see Linda in the matsal (cafeteria) here and there, but she has been a huge supporter of my blog and my ability to actually learn Swedish. Jennie just told me yesterday not to feel stupid if I don't understand things; just ask. She likes to bake and work out. I could afford to be better at both.

Come to think of it, I could probably use some improvement in the asking-for-help part, too. It's really hard to admit that I don't understand what's going on around me. Since when has that ever been a problem in my life? And not to mention, since when am I the shy and silent type? My family and friends probably wouldn't even recognize me here. I can go an entire meal without saying a single word. It's hard to be assertive (or even present) in conversations when you are always reaching for a word you may never find. And that's only if I even understand enough of what other people are saying to contribute in the first place. I realize this is my own issue and no fault of the kind and generous people around me, but it's really hard going into every single day knowing that it will be riddled with mistakes and misunderstandings.

Being forced into my own sort of quietude has produced its own little miracles, though. One afternoon last week during lunch, one of my friends smiled at me from across the table (subtly, of course, as is his way) and it was like we had a whole conversation. I felt so much happier about that than I would have if I had my normal arsenal of words at my disposal. Body language is a language worth learning, too. It is a precious, precious thing.

There is a boy here who is always on the edge of a smile. He tends to quietly observe what is going on around him with an energy that seems eager to burst forth. It's always teetering. On the brink. That sweet, happy energy. When he does smile, it's magic. I've noticed this about a number of Swedes, actually. Many are reticent to laugh too loudly. In our entire class roster of about fifteen, I am the only student who is showing my teeth in my school picture.

The Swedes. Their smiles are generally modest, but it's heaven when, at long last, the radiance can't help but break through.

September 13, 2013

Fall is here, hear the yell // back to school, ring the bell

My next-dorm neighbor/fellow exchange student, Tatiana (though we call her Tanja), just came to inform me that our class is going down to the river this morning and they're "not taking up any particular topic for the day." Given that I was running late as it was, I think I'll just settle down for a cozy morning in my room rather than going to a Kumbaya session with the other allmän. Sometimes it's nice to be in a school setting that is much more laid back than anything I've participated in since kindergarten, but other times it leaves me without much energy or motivation. 

This was our second week of classes and the first week in which we settled into our normal daily schedule. We have rotating subjects in the mornings depending on the day and then devote our afternoons to studying a particular "theme" for several weeks. Our current theme is feminism, so in the afternoons we've been researching different topics relating to feminism in small groups. Strangely enough, that seems to be an area where I am flourishing. It's actually easier in some ways for me to pull out the academic Swedish than to speak conversationally. That's probably thanks to my Swedish literature class at BYU and a whooole lot of cognates. (I had to convince one of the teachers here, a hippie-type named Tomas who wears capris and running shoes to class every day, that "essentialistisk" could work. Here's to you, my fellow comp lit compatriots!) That's not to say I didn't break a sweat when I had to explain postcolonial feminism to my class in Swedish. But what's life without a little challenge?

I think I'm going to regret having said that.

Our class timeline of important dates in women's history

Anyway, our daily routine this week has put me in some interesting situations. For starters, our class has three periods per week devoted to learning English. At first I was going to use that time to just peace out and go work on Swedish grammar or reading comprehension in the library, but I've found it's actually refreshing to have some English thrown into my day and to (for once) not be exerting all the energy of my being into expressing my most basic thoughts. Not to mention, one of my most ridiculous/memorable classmates, Chris, was putting up a big fuss the other day because he didn't feel he could be challenged by the class since his English is so good (and it is, it is, I'll give him that). He doesn't want to take any more tests or learn any more grammar, he just wants to "talk Coleridge." Our teacher, Maria, later asked me to sit in on his advanced class and "give him a run for his money." Challenge accepted.

The other subject that our instructors offered me a free pass on skipping was math. At first, I'm pretty sure they thought I was avoiding the math class because it's not my strong suit. I was probably thinking the same thing; I mean, I haven't taken a math class in over seven years now. (Insert "Why was high school almost a decade ago?!?!?!" crisis here.) But I decided to sit in on the first matematik lesson for fun and I realized that I'd have no problem keeping up. I decided to rent out one of the math books and start reading through as a way of practicing Swedish as well as stretching my left brain a wee bit. I still think I will probably only go to math once a week. I'm not sure how well it will ultimately serve me to know how to say "square root" or "prime number" in Swedish (as opposed to more useful phrases like, say, "Pumpkin cheesecake is my life" or "Will you marry me?").

The rest of what we do is relatively normal, I suppose. We also have Swedish class, history, and current events in the mornings. The one other subject worth mentioning is hälsa (health) on Wednesdays. I happened to be running late that morning and when I arrived at our classroom, no one was there. I searched the building and the surrounding area to no avail. With nothing else to do, I grabbed a book from the library and camped out on a couch near my classroom to wait for everyone to come back. I have been checking out lättlästning books, which are basically abridged texts in simple Swedish for people who are struggling with reading (that's me right now). So far, I've tried to pick out novels that were originally written in Swedish so that I can get some additional cultural exposure in the process. But on Wednesday, I was drawn to Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. I know most of you are probably morally opposed to doing anything too Halloweeny before October or whatever, but I am suspending any such rules and doing everything in my power to celebrate fall while I can. The first snow is supposedly on its way in the next couple weeks.

When the gang finally returned, they told me that for health class, they'd gone up to the yoga studio on the third floor and meditated. 

What the namaste? Not only "Why is that part of our curriculum?" but why did I have to miss out on probably the coolest thing we did all week? Note to self: Make health class a priority. I'd hate to miss the day we all get free Swedish massages.

More than a few of my friends here (yes! I have friends now!) have begged me to join them in the Expo program, where I can have better camaraderie and be exposed to more stimulating material. It's not a bad idea, but I have to admit that there are days when I really dig the weirdness of allmän. It's like being back in grade school again. Walking to the cafeteria for lunch every day, I can hear a recess bell ringing at a nearby elementary school, and for a moment I feel like a kid again.

September 12, 2013

5 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Sweden: Language

1. When affirming or agreeing with something that has been said, Swedes will often draw in a quick, sharp breath or say an unvoiced ja (the Swedish word for "yes") while taking in air. Apparently this is called ingressive sound and it is commonly associated with Scandinavian languages because of their penchant to do this in daily conversation. (For more, go here and scroll down to "Inhaled affirmative 'yeah.'" There is an audio clip there of a Norwegian doing this same thing.) Swedes in particular think of this as a Swedish phenomenon. It seems strange at first, but I have found myself doing it involuntarily a few times, although my breath intake is usually slower and less noticeable. So if I come back to the States doing this, know that I have not suddenly developed asthma and I'm likely not choking on anything; I'm probably just agreeing with you.

2. Speaking of which, Swedes seem to affirm each other more often than we Americans do. Think about a conversation you might be having with a friend. You'll occasionally insert, "uh-huh," or "right," or "of course" or "cowabunga!" here and there to suggest that you're listening. Now, multiply that instinct you have by approximately nine million (the population of Sweden and/or the number of Marabou chocolate bars I'm hoping to bring back) and you might come close to how often Swedes affirm each other in daily conversation. All day I hear: ja, ah, visst, javisst, jaha..., precis, and one of my favorites, just det. I'm willing to believe that I notice this more because I'm a foreigner and half the time it's all I understand from a given exchange I overhear. But even that aside, I think Swedes just use affirmative speech more often in casual conversation. Such agreeable folk!

3. Have you ever wished for a special word to describe people who are dating and cohabitating? No? Well, Sweden's got you covered either way. There are the general nouns for boyfriend (pojkvän) and girlfriend (flickvän), but they also have another word, sambo, that specifically refers to pojkar and flickor who are living together. The word comes from tillsammans (together) + att bo (to live/dwell/reside) and it functions as both a noun and an adjective. Examples: "My sambo and I are going moose hunting this afternoon" ('tis the season, folks) or "I'm meeting up with Sven and his sambo for fika" (to which you could respond, "Ah, just det"). When I was first learning Swedish, I heard a joke that grown men who are still living at home can be called mambo with the same linguistic principle in mind: att bo (to live/dwell/reside) + mamma (mother). Genius.

4. If you ever happen to be in Sweden and you can't understand a single thing being said around you, just give it five or ten minutes and I guarantee you will hear an English word or phrase just thrown into the mix. I know we English-speakers do this with other languages (things like Gesundheit! or C'est la vie or, a personal favorite of mine, je ne sais quoi), but not nearly with the same frequency as Swedes. Nor does it seem that they have the same purpose. It's not like there are a few choice English words or phrases that have crept into the general Swedish lexicon; that would make sense. No, they just sometimes break into English for seemingly no reason. Out of nowhere, I will hear people say things to each other that could just as easily be expressed in Swedish: "Good job!" or "What's up with the Russians?" or "Let's see if this works" or "That sh** is fun!" As to the latter example, which I heard just the other day, the Swedes love swearing in English. (And in general, for that matter, as I learned the hard way.) 

But really, the English can happen anytime, anywhere, and completely unprompted. It doesn't last long, either; it's usually just a word, phrase, or sentence thrown into their otherwise rapid and fluid Swedish. I always notice when it happens, of course (it's like a slice of home!), but I'm surprised at how often it happens and when it does. I know there are some words in English that just do the trick better than Swedish words, but that's not the only thing going on here. They are seemingly just picking things at random to say på engelska. I'm not even sure if they fully realize they are doing it. I will keep investigating this phenomenon and see if any patterns emerge.

5. Ju. This is a little adverb Swedes tack on to everything and for which there is no real translation. From everything I've read and noticed in my own Scandinavian wanderings, it seems to be used as a general intensifier and often more specifically to emphasize common knowledge or when the speaker thinks that the listener should know better. For this reason, I've seen people translate ju as meaning "as you know," or "as I've told you." But I've seen such various translation attempts as "of course," "I'm telling you," and "after all," to name a few. Most people agree that it's an intensifier, but I've seen a few examples where ju almost softens statements a bit or at least makes things more casual. Sometimes it can express surprise? Now I'm just rambling because the truth is, I'm not sure. As a Swede might say, "Jag är ju inte säker."

I'm planning on making more lists like this, so let me know if there is a topic you'd like to see covered and stay tuned for more Swedish adventures!

September 10, 2013

First Week of Skola

I had every intention of posting again last week. I wish I could say I didn't get around to it because I was so busy with school and making new friends, but the truth is that I was sleeping every chance I got. My sleeping habits actually gave me something of a reputation around here; every time someone would knock on my door to invite me to dinner or to watch a movie, they were greeted by the groggy American who seemed to be making a lifestyle out of napping. Once or twice, I actually had random people say to me, "I've heard about your yet-lag." Fortunately, jet-lag is the same word in Swedish as in English, only they pronounce it with a y sound the way they do with all js. This is especially charming when they are speaking English and they continue to say "yet-lag" anyway. So if you're wondering whether I'm adjusting to being six time zones away, the answer is not yet... -lag. 

Fortunately, I did a couple things besides sleep during my first week in Vindeln. But maybe we can blame a few of the embarrassing things on my yet-lag. For example, we had a big meeting together on Monday a few hours after I first arrived at the school. All the students gathered together in a small auditorium in the main building. I think there are fewer than 100 of us on this campus. Although I can't pretend to ever understand exactly what is going on when people are speaking Swedish in large settings at normal (read: rapid) speed, I have to admit that I was particularly clueless at that meeting. I had gleaned from some e-mails exchanged between me and the administrators that I would be in allmän kurs, which seemed to be a way of saying "general education." After the big meeting together, everyone broke into groups according to program. I overheard Bengt (the teacher with whom I'd had the most contact before arriving) telling someone else that allmän were meeting downstairs. So I went down there and stumbled into a room where people seemed to be gathering. There was a nice little table setting of coffee, tea, fruit, and cookies. I helped myself to a plum, a digestive, and some blueberry herbal tea with honey. I could get used to this.

The teacher came in to talk to us and I noticed... well, she wasn't Bengt. But what did I know about what was going on? I tried to understand what she was saying. The first thing that stood out to me was something along the lines of, "We had forty applicants for this program and only you eight were selected for admission. This is an exclusive group; you should feel proud to be sitting here." Uh-oh. That definitely was not my situation. I was not selected for anything besides to be an international tag-along in general classes! What even was this? I got the sense I was in Färg och form i inredning, which I'd read about in the online course catalog and is an interior design program. I didn't know how to escape, though. The only way out required me to walk right in front of the teacher, and of course I'd still have my tea and plum pit in hand. Not to mention, I had no idea how to gracefully explain that I must have gone to the wrong room without feeling like even more of an imbecile. As the instructor began to hand out some papers with information, I took the chance to dart out of the room without a word.

Ambling into the correct classroom with the other allmän, I realized my mistake was even more ridiculous because my class had not provided any treats, so I was the only one sitting there with delicious goodies. Oops. This would be the first of many embarrassing "Sorry, I'm not Swedish, I don't understand anything" moments. Of course, another major incident happened the very next day. Our allmän class gathered together in the morning and immediately began playing a getting-to-know you game we often play in the States, too: you say an adjective that starts with the same letter as your first name after reciting all the adjectives + names that have come before you. I ended up being one of the last people in the line, meaning I would have to recite a lot of names. I began panicking. I didn't understand most of the adjectives, not to mention most of the names were decidedly Swedish or otherwise unusual to an American sensibility, so I was in for a disaster. I pulled out my trusty Field Notes memo book (thanks, Evan) and began writing down all the adjectives and names I was hearing. As they were repeated a few times by the other students who went before me, I was able to figure out how most of the adjectives might be spelled, or at least pronounced. Yeah, I know, I had to put way too much thought and effort into a simple little game. Such is my life now.

When it finally came to me, I was able to say all the adjective and name combinations, even if with a tinge of hesitance. The teachers applauded my efforts and were quick to add, "If you are ever struggling to understand something, just let us know. Were there any words you don't know?" First of all, I don't think they understood the can of worms they were opening by asking me to talk to them any time I didn't understand something. Namely, every minute of every day. But there were a few of the adjectives that were more unfamiliar to me than the others, so I asked about a couple of them. One of the words I asked about, associated with a kid named Jesper (read: Yesper) who was wearing a baseball cap, received a round of laughter from everyone in the room.

"What?" I asked as they all continued to chuckle.

"Ah, det är ett svär ord," one of the teachers said.

"A four-letter word!" Bengt said a bit too gleefully in English.

Are you serious? A student introduced himself to the class with a swear word? And everyone else said it unflinchingly when it came their turn to say it? What the *&^%$#@!? Later when I looked the word up on (my go-to dictionary), I learned that it's pretty much the equivalent of the F-word in Swedish. Great. I've since learned a few other choice vocabulary words that I hear liberally sprinkled throughout their conversations. Call me old-fashioned, but since when did it become okay to say "four-letter words" at school in front of your teachers? Ah well. My sense of it is that Swedes just don't take swearing very seriously at all. I'm pretty sure one of our instructional class videos had uncensored swearing (that same word) in some of the interviews, too. Fortunately for me, the Swedish swear words aren't very offensive to me because I haven't been culturally trained to find them vulgar.

This story illustrates something more generally about my class as well. Though I knew from the start that folkhögskolor (basically, community colleges) aren't as academically rigorous as universities and that allmän kurs is a general studies program, I didn't realize that most of my fellow students actually enter this program specifically because they didn't finish high school or had enough problems that they need some extra help before applying for jobs or to go to university. The result is that they are something of a rough, rag-tag bunch. In other words, I have very little in common with my classmates at first blush. Maybe at last blush, too. It has led to a number of frustrating moments and experiences, but I also have to remind myself that I am here to learn Swedish. And so far, I am still being challenged in that arena.

Just to give a more general picture, we have class every day from 8:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. (excuse me, 15:00. I'm still getting used to the 24-hour clock). Lest you are about to feel bad for me for being back in a high school-style schedule, I should probably mention that we get an entire hour for lunch and two half-hour breaks called fika. Swedes love fika and you should too. Here's why: it's a consecrated time given to students and employees everywhere at least twice a day (in my experience) where you drink coffee, eat little cookies, and sit around chatting and/or doing nothing in particular. The word actually comes from a verb (att fika), meaning to drink coffee/tea/some other relaxing beverage (in my case, hot chocolate). It's also the noun that refers to the time said coffee/tea/relaxing beverage is enjoyed. You can read more about fika here. You'll probably encounter it multiple times on this here blog as well, so start adjusting to the fika life. It's a good one.

Once school is done for the day, I generally retire to my dorm room (remember that whole sleeping-all-day thing?). Last week, I had very few friends to my name. Most people seemed pretty content to just ignore me. At first I thought it was probably (and understandably) because my Swedish is so limited that I am not very interesting to talk to. Later, others offered the explanation that, on the contrary, the other students were probably curious about me but nervous to speak English in front of me. As a consequence, I spent most of my time with Tatiana, the other international student. She is from Belarus and has relatively limited English and even more limited Swedish, so we had an interesting time navigating our little exchange-student friendship. Early in the week, a nice girl named Luis took pity on us and began speaking to us in slower Swedish and explaining things we didn't understand. Together, the three of us made our first trip to the grocery store and explored some of the forest surrounding the school, including a path down to the river.

Tatiana and me

Me and Luis

Near the end of the week, I also made the acquaintance of Beatrice, a hilarious and lively girl from the Expo program. Remember when I thought Christian, the guy I met on the train here, was studying "export"? It turns out he actually said Expo, which is a program dedicated to combating racism and I think releases a magazine in conjunction with the students' projects. When I first met Beatrice, I joked to her that I had no friends. "You have Christian!" she said. "He told me you're like, his best friend here; like, you guys met on the train or something?" I'm not sure how much she was joking, but I realized in spending a long evening with her and Christian that more people want to be my friend than I realized. I just need to be patient. It's also much easier when they decide to talk in English to me, which Beatrice did. Even when I understand conversational Swedish, I generally have very little to contribute. It's still approximately five billion times easier to express my personality in my mother tongue. Beatrice said I laugh more when we're talking in English.

Class ends early (at 11:30 a.m.) on Fridays. We celebrated that evening with a barbecue down by the river. And by "we," I mean me and mostly a bunch of students who had not deigned to talk to me all week. Again, it was really only possible to connect with people when they would slow down their Swedish or switch to English. They are usually quicker to do the latter, interestingly enough. I had a couple interesting conversations that night about politics and philosophy thanks to the Swedes' keen ability to manage such topics even in English. But the barbecue taught me another lesson about this semester: don't go to events where there is alcohol involved. The Swedes have a special way of drinking, namely as much as possible of the hardest liquor possible until everyone is totally hammered. What can you say? They've got Vikings for ancestors.

First-week Friday night barbecue

Me and Roland, the truest Viking I've met thus far

I've heard people explain the "Swedish way of drinking" by way of the weather here, which is already chilly and about to get colder. Much colder. And darker. For now, though, it's relatively standard thoroughfare for fall; we're just jumping into sweater-weather much more quickly than those of you back in the U.S. The sad news is that the 60s F temps that have been gracing us ever since I arrived (and that I love so, so dearly) are rapidly going to turn into the first frost of the season and then snow, maybe as early as in a couple weeks. Autumn is kind of like the sunset in that way: so beautiful, so brief.

For now, I'm enjoying the leaves that are beginning to speckle the paths with color, the apples falling from the tree next to the gym, and slipping under the covers with a light sweater when my yet-lag gets the better of me.

September 3, 2013

Hej från Sverige II: Traveling to Vindeln

In my last post, I left you all breathless as I embarked to the north ensam (alone). I managed to stumble around Stockholm Central again with my cumbersome bags and find the night train that was taking me up to Umeå, close to where I am going to school in Vindeln. Because regular tickets were sold out, I had a seat in a six-person sleeper car. I was a bit nervous to be in a sleeper car with total strangers, but relieved at the chance to maybe get some real rest before arriving in Vindeln. (I have come to find that there are few things more infuriating than wanting desperately to stretch out and sleep while you are forced to sit up in a plane, a car, or a train. Can I get an amen?) As we pulled away from the station, I marveled that no one else had joined me in my little car. Maybe I had the whole thing to myself! I set my luggage on a seat that wasn't mine, moved myself to a better seat that wasn't mine (with a window view!), stretched out, and began watching the scenery go by while sipping on Fanta Exotic, a beverage sold in northern and eastern Europe for which there are simply no words.

My inaugural Fanta Exotic of Sweden twenty-thirteen for the win.

Of course, that was just too good to be true. At the first stop, I was joined by a young German couple who actually had tickets for the window seats. They were armored with those giant backpacks that scream "We're hikers!" And seriously, there is no shortage of those young bohemian couples traveling around Europe to hike. Somehow, they are always from two different countries (in this case, Austria and Germany) and they have always been together for like, seven years, even if they are only twenty-one years old. I'm not sure how that works, but I promise it's a thing. (And I'm always wondering, How did you meet? or Why have you been together for a decade but you're not engaged, WHAT?) I was a little disgruntled that the Germs had robbed me of my freedom to roam about the car as I wished (in this case, ensam was the way to go!), but I was a bit placated by the fact that they thought I was Swedish at first.

Later, an old Swedish man joined us in the car. It goes without saying that he definitely didn't think I was Swedish from the start; the Swedes can generally smell the USA all over me before I even say a word. Once I open my mouth, the game is definitely over. No, I take that back. I have found that I can say three things and still convince Swedes I might be native: "Hej" (their basic greeting), "Förlåt" (which means "sorry," and obviously I have to say it all the time when I'm bumping into everyone in public transit), and "Ursäkta mig" ("Excuse me"; again, one that comes up a lot for me). The real trick is that I've learned the prosodi of these words, the sort of native rise-and-fall of the language, and I can pronounce them with the weird nasal intonation that many Stockholm women use. The minute I say anything else, though, my true identity is known by all. 

In spite of my initial reservations, the company in our sleeper car ended up being nice. I bought a small dinner: another woefully inadequate ham sandwich (remember the “breakfast” on my flight to Copenhagen?) with a Marabou chocolate bar (my first of the trip!). We arranged our beds and I was able to sleep for a few hours before arriving in Umeå. As I was waiting to get off the train, I met a sweet couple who invited me to visit them in their hometown before they even knew who I was. They ended up being quite parent-like to me. They switched between talking to me in Swedish and English and were keen to learn about my travels and education. I found out they're first-grade teachers from a small town in northern Sweden and so, so sweet. We met another guy standing there who turned out to be a student on his way to the same school in Vindeln. We all had long waits before our connecting trains/buses (four hours of waiting! at 2 a.m.!), so we hunkered down in the old Umeå train station with free WiFi and lazy conversation that came in and out.

I almost wrote a blog from Umeå station just because it was such an odd and vivid experience. It was the middle of the night, I was bantering with complete strangers, and an old man with the scraggliest beard and dirtiest toenails this side of the Baltic was sleeping on a dirty yoga mat behind us. Later, he tried to engage me in a conversation about drinking, karaoke, and the problem with school bullying. He said he was an elementary school teacher. (What? Can just like, anyone do that around here?) 

Umeå train station

It wasn't the worst middle-of-the-night wait, really, but I was glad to finally head out to my spår (platform) and catch the connecting train to Vindeln. By that point, I had made myself better acquainted with the other student on his way to Vindelns folkögskola. His name is Christian and he told me he is studying "export." I still have no idea exactly what that means. He seems to be already midway through a career of some kind. He spent the past four months traveling to different places in Europe for... some... company? Doing... some... thing? That's the kind of understanding you get of people when neither of you share a language you're both good at speaking. That's not to say his English wasn't pretty good; it was. But there's still a barrier of sorts when it comes to certain topics.

The train ride to Vindeln was short, maybe twenty minutes, and rather pleasant. The sun was rising over green forests. The day looked to be somewhat overcast, though, and I could already tell it was cooler than it had been in Stockholm. To put things into perspective for you: Stockholm is already about as far north as Anchorage, Alaska. Vindeln is nearly 450 miles north of Stockholm and is just a couple latitudinal degrees shy of being part of the Arctic Circle as it was defined in 2012. In other words: Cold. Middle of nowhere. Probably terrifying. In fact, if you're anything like me, looking up just how far north and how desolate this area is on Google Maps, you might have a panic attack on my behalf. But don't worry, turns out it's beautiful and pleasant and not a snowy tundra. At least not yet.

I made a rather pathetic attempt at taking a picture of the pretty scenery we passed on the train, but that is too embarrassing to even post. Here, however, is the view I had walking up to my school in Vindeln. In fact, this is the school! Can you believe it? A cluster of charming little houses almost, nestled in the forest. (I think I said "nestled in the forest" to describe the Jonssons' house as well. Running theme.)

Vindelns folkögskola

Speaking of themes, my luggage was so heavy. Still. Good thing Christian is apparently a personal trainer and just like, carried my huge suitcase up the stairs for me like a total boss. I'm afraid this trip has utterly made a damsel in distress of me. We managed to run into the groundskeeper and a couple of the administrators with whom I have had e-mail contact over the summer. I am not sure what they were doing up and about at 6:30 a.m., but at least it meant we got the keys to our on-campus dorm rooms. Christian and I ended up having rooms just down the hall from each other and we share a bathroom. (Something about that seems so strange and intimate, but I guess I'm just used to the strict housing policies at BYU.) I spent the entire morning napping until it was time for our big meeting with all the other students. 

My next post will be about my first couple days on campus, but for now I'll leave you with some photographic evidence of the view from my charming dorm room.

I think I could get used to this.

September 2, 2013

Hej från Sverige: Traveling to Sweden and My Weekend in Stockholm

Greetings from the North! I never thought I would be a travel blogger or even someone who blogs about my comings-and-goings in a journal style, but I wanted a way to communicate some of my experiences, stories, and observations while being a student in Sweden to my friends and family. So here we are. Varsågoda!

Traveling to Sweden and My Weekend in Stockholm
Waiting at O'Hare for my flight to Copenhagen was surreal. I wish I could find a better, less worn-out word to describe it, but it did seem like a sort of hyper-reality or the result of the kind of dream you only get while napping on the couch. The preceding weeks had gone by in a flash: host my family in my apartment in Provo, finish teaching my class on campus, graduate with a master's degree from BYU, pack up all my earthly possessions, travel across the country with a U-Haul and a bad cold, and then spend a whirlwind ten days in Michigan visiting family and friends. I was grateful I had even been able to finish packing and zip up all my bags (which is not to say they weren't too heavy; this will become a running theme throughout the early part of my adventures). In fact, I had to shuffle some of my luggage at baggage check just to avoid a $270 fine on my largest suitcase. The lady who was helping me, a sweet Dane wearing light pink lip gloss, took pity on me when she saw I was about to throw away my hair dryer to bring my suitcase down to acceptable weight. "Put it back in," she said. "I won't tell anyone."

Of course, I somehow managed to end up in the furthest back row of the plane. At least it was a window seat. The guy sitting next to me asked if I could understand any of what the flight attendants were saying in their native Danish. No, not really. For all the grief Americans give Swedes about "borg borg borg" (which, for the record, is not really even an accurate caricature of that which can be caricatured about the language), it seems like we'd notice that Danes talk as though they have marshmallows in their mouth. And a really bad cold to boot. But even still, I was beginning to feel my Scandinavian fever setting in. It was nice to hear those nasal tidbits sprinkled with cognates that sounded familiar.

The night seemed long and uncomfortable, but actually I slept for most of it and barely noticed when we landed. The airport in Copenhagen was quite nice. I hobbled, hungry and bleary-eyed, into a cool joint called Joe & The Juice for a spot of breakfast (no, Scandinavian Airlines, a complimentary chunk of dry bread with one thin slice of ham doth not a breakfast make). I'm glad I stopped in at Joe's, though. The juice (apple + strawberry + kiwi) and the sandwich (tuna + avocado) were almost as delicious as the attractive Danes preparing the food.

My Swedish experience began almost as soon as I stepped foot into the waiting room for my connecting flight to Stockholm. It seemed like everyone in there was speaking Swedish... or were they? Suddenly, I realized I couldn't understand much of anything. I hoped maybe I was still hearing the muddled strains of Danish. But no, it seemed that most of the passengers were Swedes. Great. Four months of not understanding anybody or anything suddenly seemed a bit more daunting.

Bye, Copenhagen.

In spite of this realization, the flight to Stockholm was a dream come true, and by that I mean I slept the entire time. I think I may have arrived in a different terminal of Arlanda Express than I did three years ago; nothing looked very familiar. Perhaps the strangest thing was that no one bothered to check my passport. I exited through a little hall that seemed to be the only way out of baggage claim and was marked "EU Customs." But there was no staff, no gates, no little windows or counters to suggest that anything significant ever happens there. I just waltzed into the country without anything more than a Dane back in Copenhagen perfunctorily glancing at my passport. Joakim later commented, "That's Sweden for you."

I took an express train into Stockholm and arrived at Stockholm Central station, which was the first truly familiar location I encountered. My bags were extraordinarily heavy and unwieldy, but most people were patient with me as I lugged them on and off the train. Two ladies even insisted that they wait for me to collect my bags before they would leave the train. When I tried to apologize (förlåt) for holding them up, they said, "Det är lugnt." I thought they said "Det är tungt," meaning "That's heavy," (meaning my suitcase, and it was!) but I later learned that "Det är lugnt" is a pretty common way to say "It's cool" or "It's no big deal." It's a pretty useful thing to know, especially when surrounded by easygoing Swedes.

Once in the train station, I realized that I had no really good way of figuring out where to meet up with Joakim, my friend who had kindly agreed to pick me up when I arrived in Stockholm. In broken Swedish, I asked a man eating a popsicle if I could borrow his mobil to call my friend. (I figured it was impossible for someone to say no while eating a popsicle.) He agreed and I dialed up Joakim. We still couldn't seem to come to a consensus on where we were or where to meet, but at least I knew he was there. I found him a few minutes later upstairs near the bus terminal. It was so good to see a friendly face. He transformed into a Norse god before my very eyes when he took my heavy luggage from me and told me we were getting dinner. 

We went to a trendy Italian place just down the street called Vapiano. They serve fresh pizza and pasta cooked to order in front of you, almost like a Mongolian barbecue. The dish I ordered (fusilli with lobster sauce, fresh vegetables, and Swedish crayfish) is easily one of the best things I have eaten in recent memory. Joakim and I had a nice time catching up, although he was a little distracted by the fact that he had to find me a place to stay that night. Originally, I was going to stay hos honom (at his place), but his sister had unexpectedly come into town with her three kids and needed to stay with him. After some diligent searching on his part, he made plans for me to stay with the Jonssons.

We took the pendeltåg (commuter train) out near where I stayed with the Bertilssons three summers ago. We then caught a bus into the Jonssons' neighborhood. The five-minute walk to their house was magical. It was a little community that seemed almost rural: quaint little schools, clusters of small, well-kept houses lining the streets, but all of it was nestled in the forest. The Jonssons' house was no exception to all of this overwhelming charm. The parents were out for the weekend, so I met their son, Adam, who seemed to be close to my age. Apparently he's a quite skilled guitar player who is in a Swedish band that is currently touring with Yellowcard. He was thrilled to learn that I speak a little Swedish, so he went to town talking to me på svenska and commenting on how "duktig" I was (a word for "studious" or "talented" that the Swedes use quite liberally). The truth, though, was that I could only understand bits and pieces of what he was saying and then (in)adequately respond to a fraction of that. Therefore, we popped in a movie.

The guest room he let me stay in was divine. It was on the third story in a corner with a big window overlooking the forest that was their backyard. When I woke up on Saturday morning after seven hours of natural, blissful sleep, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. I wish I had thought to take a picture. We'll blame it on the jet-lag (another common theme of the weekend).

In the morning, I met Adam's younger sister, Miranda. She ended up being my saving grace for the next two days, starting with breakfast on Saturday: toast (the Swedes generally seem to eat theirs with ham and cheese rather than standard American breakfast toppings), cereal (which they typically eat with either yogurt or filmjölk, a nasty Nordic soured milk; I opted for the yogurt), and apple juice. It was my first time eating mesost (brown cheese), which was delicious. It tasted like a mild goat cheese with an added sweetness. (Turns out the way the cheese is made turns the milk sugar into a caramel that gives the cheese its brown color and sweet flavor.) Over breakfast, Miranda told me about the Swedish word lagom, which has no direct translation in English (and, according to Swedes, no adequate translation either), but it roughly means "Enough to go around" or "Just enough" or "Not too much, not too little." It's kind of like a balance thing. Or a Goldilocks and the Three Bears idea. Take note of this... I get the feeling it will become important during my stay here.

My biggest task on Saturday was to go into the city and either get a Swedish SIM card for my phone or purchase a new phone that I could use during my stay. Instead, I took a jet-lag nap in the afternoon, uploaded summer photos to Facebook, and finally showered. By the time I was presentable enough to head into the city, it was evening and Miranda had invited me to eat with her again: a dinner whose name I can't remember, but it was like a Swedish stir-fry with potatoes, chicken, and some veggies. Miranda convinced me to just stay in for the night since it was raining outside and it would be nice to have a whole restful Saturday. I like how this girl thinks. We watched a movie together (the Jonssons seem to love movies and they own a ton) and talked about music, dating, and our respective cultures for a long time before calling it a night.

Miranda and I went to church together Sunday morning. The first meeting of the morning, hjälpföreningen (Relief Society), was really encouraging to me because I understood more Swedish there than I had at any other time up to that point. It helped that we were talking about familiar topics and that the lesson structure allowed for me to hear a lot of the same vocabulary words over and over. We discussed "oberoende," which means independence. In my experience hearing this topic covered in church meetings in the U.S., I find that such lessons generally focus on the importance of self-reliance, being financially independent, etc. Those elements were somewhat present in the hjälpföreningen meeting, but of course the Swedes have their own take on it. You could tell by the way they were talking that they don't see independence the same way we Americans generally do. They believe we always need help from one another, so at moments the lesson transformed into a lovely discourse on the importance of charity. I liked that a lot. They also emphasized at many junctures that it is important not to judge. That came up several times during church, which likewise seemed quite Swedish to me. Love these folks.

The meetings became harder to understand as church wore on, probably because I was getting tired. It takes a lot of brain power to have to focus so much on listening for even basic comprehension! The last meeting of the day, Sacrament Meeting, was a testimony meeting. A couple people went up to bear testimonies in Spanish or English with members of the congregation translating their remarks into Swedish. I am always astounded at how duktiga the Swedes are with foreign languages.

After church, Miranda took me into Haninge, a suburb where we were able to purchase my Swedish mobil (cell phone) for 200 kronor ($30) and a month of unlimited in-country calling and texting for the same price. It was such a relief to finally have a way to get in touch with my friends who were helping me out. Speaking of which, Joakim came through for me again and met me at the bus stop just so he could carry my heavy luggage onto the train for me and give me a goodbye hug as I headed off for my adventures in Vindeln. I was sad that I couldn't spend more time in Stockholm with Joakim and my new friends. Although I am generally not a very shy person, it dawned on me that after that point, I wouldn't know a single soul. I was truly on my own.

... and that dramatic cliff-hanger is where I will leave you for now. My weekend in Stockholm was so lovely, not because I saw any monuments or even did a single touristy thing in the city, but because of my kind friends, old and new, who helped me to begin acclimating to Swedish living. Maybe you could say my weekend was lagom. But, to be honest, I still don't know if I'm using that word correctly. In any case, it was nice (a word Swedes say in English all the time interspersed in their regular Swedish conversation, maybe because they just have so many nice things here to talk about). Things are off to a good start.