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.


  1. I just wanted to hug myself (and you) after reading this. It warmed my heart and made me love this beautiful world a little bit more.

  2. This blog was exactly what I wanted to hear! :) Moo

  3. What an adventure- it sounds new and cozy all at the same time :) I'm excited to keep reading.

  4. I absolutely love this, Richelle! I'm so excited to keep hearing about all of your adventures. Kisses. -Meg :)

  5. Cliff hanger is right. But not a bad start!