December 7, 2013

An American Boards a Train in Sweden

Remember how in my last post I said I'd had some arguments in Swedish? At least one of those is a story worth telling. I boarded a Norrtåg train last Saturday night on my way into Umeå for church the next day. I rather enjoy taking the train. I had a car all to myself, my iPod was charged and ready to go, and I was settling in for forty-five minutes of pure contemplation. The conductor came by to check out my ticket. Since the train is never full, I've started just buying my ticket on board. It was the usual cost: 60 kronor, or about $9. I handed him my debit card. And there began the problem.

Here's a tip for any of you who plan on traveling to Sweden in the near or distant future: make sure your debit/credit cards have advanced chip technology in them. I'm not even sure exactly what the difference is, but the Swedes act utterly confounded when they see that my credit card just has one of those "old-fashioned" magnetic strips that you swipe through the machine. I am quite certain that I have said "Det finns inget chip" (There's no chip) more times than virtually any other phrase in Swedish, maybe short of hello. Maybe. I always have to explain this: to cashiers, to bus drivers, to train conductors, to people walking by on the street who can just sense that I'm the kind of person who has the old magnetic strips on my cards. Usually my only defense is, "Uh, I'm from the U.S.?" But are we seriously that far behind on the times?

The strangest thing about it, perhaps, is that there is always a way to swipe your card the tried-and-true way on the payment machines I've seen. But occasionally, the service people don't believe me and they ask for another form of payment. Sometimes I oblige, sometimes I just show them myself that my card isn't outdated by sliding it through the machine myself. The fact that this works is almost always met with surprise and suspicion, as though I have performed some voodoo magic to bypass the need for a chip. So on the train that night, it wasn't really shocking to me that the conductor was confused by my credit card or that he needed an explanation of why there was no chip and why that was actually okay.

He looked befuddled as he flipped my card back and forth, scanning it with his eyes for some sign of life.

"There's no chip," I ventured again, this time in English. He looked down at me more confused than ever. Okay, so English wasn't the way to go. I switched back to Swedish.

"There's no chip, but it's okay. It will still work."

"No, no," he kept insisting.

"Here, let me show you," I said, as I pointed towards his machine. He clutched it closer towards his body as though protecting it from my wanton attack.

"It won't work," he said over and over. "Do you have another form of payment?"

I showed him that my other card was just as archaic, apparently, and counted out my cash only to find that I was 10 kronor short.

"Since you can't pay, we will just bill you. There will be an extra fine of 50 kronor."

"Okay," I agreed, not entirely convinced that this was necessary but willing to do what I had to do to make this conversation end.

"What is your Swedish personal number?" he asked me.

"I don't have one."

At this point, I think I actually saw his head swell up in frustration and anger. "What do you mean you don't have one?"

"I'm from the States! I mean, I have a U.S. social security number..."

He was exasperated beyond belief that I had the audacity to be an American on his train with no Swedish personal number and no up-to-snuff bank cards to boot! I tried to explain again that I have taken that train dozens of times now along that very same route, that I have used that same card before, that he can just swipe it through his machine and everything will be okay, I promise.

"I don't care what you have done before, it doesn't work like that!" he kept saying to me, the aggression in his voice rising.

I could feel the frustration in my own voice. "Well, what do you want me to do?" 

We fought it out for a while before I decided to try and purchase a ticket online, where they don't care whether or not my card has a chip. The conductor walked away, promising to return to see if my little plan had worked. In the meantime, an old drunken guy meandered into my car and sat nearby. He reeked of beer and he kept shouting out to anyone who would listen that he needed to know how long the train would be stopped. He asked me a couple times to look it up on my computer.

I got online and tried to see how long our stop was. It was taking a while.

"Today, please!" the drunkard demanded.

"Sorry," I told him. "It takes me a while to look some things up because my computer doesn't have Swedish diacritical markings on it."

"Wait... why not?"

"Well, it's a U.S. keyboard."

He was thrilled to discover I was from the States, and I was thrilled that he hadn't been able to guess that earlier in the conversation. He asked which state I was from, what my name was, etc. The conductor came back and agreed to accept the ticket I had bought online for a train leaving the next morning (though, if memory serves correctly, he rolled his eyes). As if the night hadn't been rough enough on this guy because of my American shenanigans, he had to tell Drunkard that he wasn't allowed to have alcohol on the train. Drunkard explained that he had just been on a train that allowed him to drink his beer.

"I don't care what you have done before, it doesn't work like that!" the conductor said. I wonder if he practices saying that in the mirror every morning...

Anyway, a few hi-jinks later, including the drunken man's "pretending" to pour his beer down the bathroom sink so as to fool the conductor (didn't work), we were finally at our destination. I had talked with the old man for a good part of the trip. He was curious as to why I was in Sweden, what I'd studied, where I hoped to be in the future. Everyone asks me if I will be coming back. Yes, I say. Sometime. I just don't know when.

Why not right after Christmas?, they ask.

I usually stammer something about not having money or not being able to find a job here. Those seem like the reasons anyway. The old man had his own solution to that, though. "Come back, find a nice guy, marry him. That's how you do it!"

That easy, huh? Hopefully I can find someone with a chip in his credit card.

As we were ready to get off the train, the old man took my hand in his and kissed it. I wished him a nice evening. "It already has been," he said with a twinkle in his eye. "I met you!"

I stepped off the train a bit disconcerted that I had lost out on my peaceful contemplation but feeling kind of magnificent and like, bad-to-the-bone that I had fought with that conductor guy in Swedish. Not to mention figuring out the secret of life from that somewhat disorderly old man, who later asked me (again) where I was from. It was probably just the beer talking, but I tried to convince myself that maybe my Swedish was just so good that he had to double-check my claims of being American.

Today I took the bus into 
Umeå instead. The payment machine wasn't working, so I didn't even have to explain my chip situation to anyone and the trip was free. We'll call that karma doing its magic.

December 5, 2013

Miles and Miles and Milestones

It seems as though nearly every time I am prompted to write a new blog entry, it is because I have come to some peaceful, warm little discovery that I am among people who care about me and that Sweden truly is a place I can call a second home. But if I were to be completely honest, my actual experience is more like an overwhelming rollercoaster of either feeling totally out of place and wanting nothing more than to board a plane home or, as many of you have read about several times, receiving gentle confirmations that I do belong here in my own small way—that there might be a cozy little corner of Sweden that feels just as close to my heart as all the other places I love most in the world.

Both kinds of feelings have deepened in intensity over the past week or two, and they have begun to volley back and forth within shorter periods of time. It feels like I spend half the day half-tempted to go find a sketchy clinic that will take one of my kidneys in exchange for the fortune it would cost to fly home early and the other half feeling overwhelmed with joy that I can be here at this moment in my life, learning Swedish (and plenty of other things that I didn't bargain for, for better or worse). Today was such a day. Some friends noticed that I haven't been acting like myself lately. One girl asked me after everyone else had left the lunch table if there was something I needed to talk about. I almost burst into tears even though all I could really manage to say was that I missed my family, that I have had a bit of trouble sleeping, and that I usually carry my stress in my stomach. And lately that means I have stomachaches all the time.

None of that seems so profound, so shattering. I have had harder trials in my life. But I had to fight tears when I was trying to explain myself to this friend and it was almost even harder keeping myself from crying as I briskly walked over to the school library. I guess I figured I would either a) be safe weeping among books or b) keep my cool as I remembered how much I love reading. (If that sounds nerdy to you, that's because it is.) But it worked. I held it together and stayed on campus to do some reading assignments. About an hour later, one of my teachers from allmän invited me to join the class for a meeting they were having. I have been mostly attending lectures with Expo lately, so I don't see a lot of the old allmän gang anymore. I felt kind of ashamed. The last thing I wanted to do was to explain why I have been gone, which happens to involve an embarrassing combination of being with Expo and staying-at-home-eating-chocolate-in-my-bed because I can't pull myself together for the day.

My fears were allayed as I entered the classroom and Maria handed me gingerbread cookies. Everyone was drinking from juice boxes (I picked pear, a flavor they use way more here than in the States) and laughing at a Freudian slip Tomas had made as he began explaining our assignment for the day. We have been split up into groups that represent countries in the United Nations. I am one of the delegates from Russia. When this project first started a few weeks ago, it seemed like I was the only person ever doing any work. I gave a spontaneous presentation in front of the class about a dense climate-change document we had read, I looked up facts about the food situation in Russia, I organized our group binder, and I spent way too long looking up words so as to understand a Swedish write-up about Russia's political positions. It was frustrating because I am not the one who actually needs this particular education, and yet I was the only one fulfilling the group responsibilities. I guess I can't talk now because I basically bailed on the class after that, so now we Russians find ourselves in a quandary. Our group leader dropped the class just today, I believe, and all the other group members feel too overwhelmed to carry on with the task of representing our country in the meeting next week.

In spite of my limitations, I was nominated to give the talk explaining Russia's positions to the rest of the class; I mean, uh, the UN. Everyone expressed confidence in my ability to do this. And I have to admit, folks, I have come a long way since arriving here. I have grown more comfortable making spontaneous (i.e. not-laboriously-thought-out-before-raising-my-hand) comments in class, I can understand and participate in lunch-table conversation, I've given prayers and testimonies and even a talk in church, I can ask for help and directions without fear that I won't understand the answer given, I can talk on the phone with Swedes (that used to terrify me), and I've even had some arguments in Swedish now. That's a milestone. When the Expo class first returned after their seven-week internships, many remarked that my speech was quicker, more natural, and I was using more advanced vocabulary. I think I actually did a victory jump in the air upon receiving this news. My time and tears and turmoil have not been for naught!

So things are here-and-there. Up and down. 'Round and 'round. But I have found that traveling is kind of like that. You grow in miles. You are pulled out of not only your comfort zone but almost all your reference points. You are not yourself in relation to the familiar things: parents, siblings, long-time friends, familiar streets. It's like being alone with yourself in a sense. There is an element of discovery in that, a sense of wonder. Sometimes the peace I find in it is all-consuming. Other times, it just feels like loneliness wrapped in prettier packaging. But I'm trying to learn, or maybe just remember, that unexpected lovelinesses come out of loneliness. I wouldn't ever ask for some of the heartaches I've had here, but I likewise wouldn't have dared to dream of such rich blessings as the ones I've received since my arrival in late August.

Some nights I fall asleep while my thoughts spindle out into a long, unfinished prayer of gratitude.

December 1, 2013


There are few better ways to wrap up the first of December than to sit on your bed balancing a plate of cinnamon toast on your knees, sipping on hot chocolate, and listening to Christmas music. Come to think of it, there are few better ways to spend a weekend than the way I spent mine. Life post-Swedesgiving has been good to me. Let me tell you 'bout it.

A few weeks ago, a little committee decided that it would be a good idea to have some light entertainment during our Friday lunches on campus. One of my teachers asked me last week if I would be willing to be the inaugural act and play some jazz piano. It's funny because in Provo, pianists are a dime a dozen, especially if you're looking at my talent bracket. But here, everyone thinks it's such a treat that I can play. (Unfortunately, they also erroneously believe that I can just whip out anything I'm handed on the spot, which has been a problem more than once.) Luckily for me, I had some sheet music for the occasion and I agreed to the gig. I figured it would be really casual and like, no one would be listening anyway. But when I got to the cafeteria, Kurt, one of the groundskeepers, was carefully wiring a full-sized keyboard so that it would play through the speakers all around the room. There were two crooked little music stands shoved as closely as possible to the front of the keyboard (though not quite close enough, I came to find). Kurt seemed quite specific that I was to play thirty minutes of music starting at quarter to the hour. 

Lunch that day was especially exquisite. There was homemade bread, a nice cheese selection, pears, and then some kind of vegetarian cabbage soup that was warm and tasty. I was hesitant to leave my food to go be the center of attention, but fortunately most everyone just kept carrying on with their conversations while I played. Hopefully they didn't notice that I played a couple songs twice (guess a thirty-minute set is longer than I thought). Or that I kept playing the wrong notes. Or that my sheet music fell down like, three times. Or that the keyboard was originally set to a "Stage" sound setting that nearly blew out the speakers. Or that I had the hardest time keeping an even volume the entire rest of the set. The flaws left me wanting to sneak back to my table for more cheese and pears afterwards without fanfare, but one of the lunch ladies insisted that I come forward for applause and a series of gifts: a jacket, hat, and key-chain with the school logo on them. Even though I most certainly didn't deserve such enthusiasm, it felt really great to realize that I was among people who appreciated me in spite of my mistakes. I guess that's probably been the case all along.

Friday also happened to be the day when the groundskeepers set up lights in all of our windows and even a little electric Advent candelabra in the common room at my dorm. One of the things I've learned in my time here is that Swedes seem to be keenly aware of how the atmosphere of a given room or space affects our well-being. People are constantly lighting candles to make things "cozy," including in the cafeteria. Our classroom has been designed a certain way to make it inviting and conducive to learning. And obviously, my little piano performance was basically engineered to give everyone warm fuzzies while they were enjoying lunch. This attention to our personal environments has already been beneficial to me, but I can only imagine how much greater it's going to be now that the Christmas season is here. I've heard that the Swedes really know how to celebrate Christmas. So far, so good. A+, Sweden.

My friends Agnes and Lova invited me to go with them into Umeå to see Gravity at the movie theater on Friday night. My great discovery of the evening was that here, you don't have to sneak candy and treats into the cinema! You can just bring along whatever you want! Merry Christmas to me! Merry Christmas to everyone! We stopped at a convenience store on the way and I bought a full bag of cheese popcorn, a Dr. Pepper, and a pretty huge bag of candy with absolutely no shame, no blame, no remorse, and no fear that the items would later be confiscated if I didn't hide them in an oversized purse. That's what I call freedom.

Oh, and the movie was pretty good. Next time you see me, remind me not to go on that dangerous space mission I've been planning. Unless George Clooney is there.

Saturday was perfectly lazy and wonderful. I watched a nice film, did some cleaning, and ate Swedesgiving leftovers. (Holiday tip of the day: never underestimate a good glass of cranberry juice.) I'll be honest: historically, I've never particularly cared for Saturdays. As a kid, they actually used to scare me because they seemed so empty and void of a reassuring routine. That feeling followed me even into my college years. It was probably grad school that really helped me to befriend Saturdays and to truly welcome their possibilities. But I have to say, they are the best here. I can't explain it, but I'm always filled with this happy wonder about my quiet, modest life when Saturdays roll around here in Vindeln. It's a time for planning, for daydreaming. And for disinfecting my sink.

Some people like to go on about how Christ was actually born in April and Christmas as we know it is actually appropriated from a pagan holiday... blah blah blah. But you know what I think? Christmas needs to happen in December. We're getting cold and we're getting tired and the year has worn on, and then the Christmas season drifts in to give us warmth, light, peace, comfort, and the hope for new beginnings. 

Today is First Advent, which is the fourth Sunday before Christmas. Camilla was telling me today that Advent helps her prepare for the Christmas season and to feel as though she's celebrating the entire month. Obviously, count me in. Our church choir sang a traditional Swedish hymn called "Hosianna" to begin Sacrament Meeting. It also happened to be fast and testimony day. Without much forethought, I stood up to express my gratitude for everything the church members here have done for me. I wouldn't even be able to attend the Sunday meetings if it weren't for their generosity in offering to pick me up from the train station, allowing me to stay in their homes overnight (there are no Sunday morning trains), and giving me the honor of breaking bread with them after church while I wait for the train back to Vindeln. It has been a deep and rich blessing to get to know these families and to feel of their love these past few months. My heart is so full. Especially now as I rejoice in the gift of my family, even when they're far away, and of all the people who choose to be my family in the meantime. Even better that there's hot chocolate the whole way through. Swedes actually call it "warm chocolate," which seems extra cozy and holiday-esque. Is there really a better word than warm and everything it represents?