I have officially been in Sweden a little over two weeks, and it has been a whirlwind. I had a lot of nerves on my flight from London to Stockholm, but the second I got to my hotel and saw the beautiful river and the way the city lit up in the night sky, I knew I was in the right place. My first day, I immediately noticed how so much was written in half English and half Swedish. I assumed this was because I was in a popular tourist area, but upon going to Umeå, I saw the same thing. I asked a Swedish friend about this, and she said most Swedes speak just as much English as Swedish and it’s considered an unofficial second language which shocked me. Everyone I have talked to has spoken English just as well as any natural born English speaker, and I am so impressed with the people’s ability to speak with such fluency. I think my favorite thing so far has been how friendly everyone has been. I have noticed Swedish people are shy and more reserved, but if you go up and talk with them, they will keep a conversation for an hour! I think the craziest thing is how intrigued everyone is with American life and culture. People will ask me questions on anything from politics to what is served in a University dining hall. The best thing is that most people think Las Vegas is in California, so I get asked, “Do you see celebrities a lot?!” They do not get many people from the U.S. here. In fact, there are only four other American exchange students most people are from Germany, France, or Italy. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, Sweden does not come up in most Americans minds for a vacation unless you are really into winter sports.
If there is one thing I wished I researched more was how to walk on ice and snow. There was a winter storm the day before I got to Umeå leaving 3 feet of snow everywhere. The snow gives amazing and breathtaking views, but it is so dangerous! My first day of class, I found a small hill with a shortcut to campus. Given I am from a place that hasn’t had snow in years, I did not anticipate that the snow would melt during the day and leave a hidden layer of ice at night. My second day of class, I took on step on the hill and slipped. I wasn’t embarrassed because everyone had problems walking, so I decided to make the best of my fall. I couldn’t stand back up, so I stretched out my legs and pushed myself down the rest of the hill like a slide. Despite my self-consciousness, I felt like I made a rite of passage into the Swedish lifestyle. The Swedes are so used to slipping and the weather, they have no fear. They ride a bike at full speed around an icy corner and not even blink. I can barely walk down the stairs outside my apartment without believing I am going to wipe out. A couple days ago it snowed for the first time, and as I was walking to class, I was in awe of how quiet it was and how the snow falls on the trees. Even though I have seen snow before, it is so different here. Everyone appreciates it and plan their days around when to go skiing or taking a walk through the forest. I feel like back home most people complain and do not understand or respect how gorgeous it is.
That is another thing that has been a bit of a culture shock to me. Everyone here takes their time. Coming from a 24/7 city and even just the U.S., I couldn’t believe how many breaks people take here. In class, we will be doing problems and people will frequently get up for Fika or have conversations. People here take their time with their days and aren’t constantly worried about what to do next. Days start later here and everyone makes a point to connect with other people during meals and most Swedish people I have met go out every night to bars with their friends. They are very social yet hard working people, and I want to find the fantastic work- life balance Sweden has found. It has been hard for me to navigate this because I come from a society that engraves into you the importance of always having to do something and if you are not, you are lazy. I want to deconstruct this idea I have, and I begun this journey by making sure I do not do any school work during my hour lunch break and instead talk to people in my class. I love going to cafes, and I have found a favorite one here in Umeå right by the river, so I promised myself that once a week I will go for a walk along the pier, get some Fika, and just read, write, or whatever it is I want to do for myself.
Here in Sweden, you take one class at a time. Each class length varies but for me I am taking Organic Chemistry until March and then will switch to Biochemistry until June. I have only been in a short time, but the system here is fantastic. The class is less focused on testing assessment and more on taking lectures and applying them to practice problems. Every single day we are working on problems, and I feel like I learn better through this because I am not focused on memorizing material for an exam but actually understanding and working with the lectures giving me a great understand of Organic Chemistry. I guess I am just happy that the only exam is the final!!! Besides school, have joined the Buddy Program at Umeå University, and it is the best thing. There are 25 international students per group with about 10 Swedish buddies there too. Each week a social event is planned for your specific group and twice a month, the whole program puts on events. I have met so many great people through this program and am so glad I decided to join because there are people from countries I have never had interactions with.
While the endless semla, chai tea lattes, and social events has been once in a lifetime, there have also been times where I wonder if I made the right choice. Having to confront imperfections about your culture and figuring out your place in a foreign country is scary especially without familiar faces, but I know I can challenge myself and learn how to make myself better. Being nine hours ahead of everyone back home is a lot to adjust to, but weekly video calls are always the highlight of my day. I miss my family, but I know they are so proud of me and love hearing my stories. Sweden is a fantastic country, and I wonder if there will come a day in the next few months where I forget how far away I am and that I haven’t always been in Umeå.