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.

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