"Telling old stories, and singing songs, that make me think about where I came from"

I will not be run over

A month in and I may not speak a word of Swedish – well, beyond the odd word to get me by in a shop and the necessary ‘I don’t speak Swedish’ phrase – I may not have tried canned rotten fish, or experienced unusually cold weather, yet. But at least I have now internalised which way to look when crossing the road. Gone are the early days of repeated left-right-left-and-right-again, every time I approached the kerb, a routine which must have made me look like I was having some form of convulsion. I’m settling in. Each day that goes by the inevitable confusion of culture clashes becomes less frequent, and I am beginning, slowly, to understand Uppsala.

Like Dundee, Uppsala is a student city. The University is not merely the lifeblood of this city, but it is the vital organs which preserves its life. Last week was Kulturnatten, a day when the city played host to various cultural events, stalls, and festivities. In the evening Julie and I took a trip up to the castle and watched some fire dancers in the botanic gardens. There was a wonderful carnival atmosphere in the city, but again, it had a student feeling. I couldn’t help thinking about Raisin Monday in St. Andrews, or Scotland’s best Freshers Week in Dundee.

As I walk down any street in Uppsala I am becoming blind to the differences from home. In the beginning they were everywhere; from the American style suburbs with boulevards lined with trees, to the incessant flag flying, or merely the architecture. Close your eyes for a second and you could be forgiven for thinking you were in New England. Not that I’ve ever been, but it’s certainly reminiscent of how I imagine Maine, Massachusetts, or New Hampshire to look.

The differences that I am still struggling with are the academic idiosyncrasies. Instead of a 3,500 word essay, I have to do a ’20 page project’. The lecturer seemed confused when I quizzed him on the required font, font size, line spacing, and margins. I mean, come on, a slight tweak of any of the formatting and you could drastically increase, or decrease, the length of the piece. Added to that, classes in Uppsala start at quarter past the hour, and some begin at 8:15am. I felt like death warmed up when discussing useful theoretical frameworks in early modern history at that time in the morning. Without caffeine it just wouldn’t have been possible.

All of these ‘issues’ are really minor complaints. I’m loving my course and I will be eternally grateful to Uppsala, and the Swedish people, for allowing me to study here free of charge. The country is welcoming and very interesting for anyone, like me, who has a passion for early modern history. Sweden’s answer to St. Giles in Edinburgh is the Domkyrka in Uppsala. This is where the reformation in Sweden began and it’s a 2 minute walk from my department.

If I stayed here for a lifetime, there is one thing that I would never get used to. For all the good that Sweden has done me, I now hate cyclists with the passion of a, well, a thing with a lot of passion.

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On the 1st September the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra played the BBC proms concert in the UK. For the first time in its history, the BBC had to cease broadcasting due to protests in the hall. In an article in the Telegraph, Steven Pollard slammed the protests as ‘anti-semitic’ and described

‘an air of Weimar Germany, and the way Nazi party members broke up meetings.’

Having been involved in the student protests against the Israeli bombardment of Gazza in 2009, I have an intimate knowledge of the pro-Palestinian campaign. Like many people, I was shocked by the scenes on our televisions as the Israelis indiscriminately targeted schools, hospitals, and the basic infrastructure of an already pitiful land. And like many involved in the protests, my disgust and contempt was borne out of human compassion. I’ve shared a stage with Hajo Meyer, surviver of Auschwitz and anti-Israeli campaigner, and I invited George Galloway to speak about Palestine at Dundee University. I’ve been outraged at the ‘anti-semitic’ label being thrown about; a seemingly reasonable defence, but really a way to avoid any criticism of Israeli policy. But I have also seen the darker side of the pro-Palestinian campaign, because the label ‘pro-Palestinian’ is not a reasonable description. Rather, ‘anti-Israeli’ would be closer to the mark.

Hajo Meyer

Anti-semites, left-wing extremists, and Islamic fundamentalists take shelter under the umbrella which also includes those, like myself, who merely wish to see a peaceful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. This campaign is often likened to the South African anti-apartheid movement. But where South African sport was isolated on the world stage because of its racist rules – all white teams were mandatory – the protests against the Israeli Orchestra are different. These protests attack and disrupt the performance of a musical group not because of racist rules, or any actions of those involved in the orchestra, but because the members are citizens of Israel and children of Abraham. To avoid the term ‘anti-semitic’ would be duplicitous.

When Hamas launch rockets into Israel, or Israeli settlers are murdered by Palestinian ‘martyrs’, it is not good enough for the pro-Palestinian campaign to maintain silence. For the campaign to have any credibility it must outright condemn these actions, realising that every rocket that lands in Israel makes our argument less sustainable and on the wrong side of morality. When drunken fools racially attack an Israeli student in St. Andrews, the pro-Palestinian campaign must stand shoulder to shoulder with that young victim, turn away from the perpetrators, and welcome their criminal convictions. Because if the pro-Palestinian movement is to have any credibility, it must be built upon the foundations of anti-racism, human decency, and pragmatism.

These will be unsavoury words to those involved in the campaign. Like many left-wing movements, it characteristically lacks self-criticism or inner dialogue. But to have a future, to continue to argue for a peaceful solution, where Jew, Arab, and others can live side by side in equality, then these issues must be addressed.

Not for coffee

As the title suggests, I had my first little accident in Sweden. Surviving without coffee was not something I was ever going to do, but when I bought sour yoghurt – thinking it was milk – and added it to the already cheap and nasty coffee, I got a fairly revolting surprise which left me caffeine-less for an evening. It’s a mistake I have no intention of repeating, and I’m pleased to announce, that I have now figured out the Swedish word for milk – mjölk. Don’t ask me why that was hard.

Settling in a new country is a little like being a recovering alcoholic; you have good days, you have bad days. Today is a good day. Everything seems a little easier now and I’ve regained some of my focus; if not really started any serious reading. Being a masters student is rather different from my time as an undergraduate. We have access to a study room exclusively for postgrads, we have a little kitchen to prepare food, 24hr access to the buildings, and an air of superiority – maybe that’s just me. Having been set some reading for one of my courses I was surprised to notice a name

Chris Storrs

I recognised. The book in question was written by Chris Storrs, a Professor at Dundee who taught me during honours. I have to admit that I’ve never read any of his work before. It feels a little strange coming all the way to Sweden to read the works of my former teachers in Scotland. I’ve also decided that most of what I’ll be tackling for my assignments will be Scottish history – which begs the question why I’m in Sweden. Well, I suppose there’s the little fact of no fees.

In the last week I’ve realised how poor Scottish football is, not only because of our defeat to the Czechs (which was hard to swallow), but by watching the Swedish third division and noticing a parity with the SPL, I’ve continued to be sunburnt – Scottish skin is not made for this climate – settled into my new home, enjoyed class, played football with Swedes, drank coffee, had fika, liked fika, refused to eat raw heron, and began to enjoy the whole experience.

Julie visits on Wednesday… I’m counting the days. So much to catch up on, so much to see. For now, spare me a thought as I tackle the mountains of reading that I have been set. I need to make space for my favourite Scottish girl who will have my undivided attention for the latter part of this week.

12 Days Later

In some ways my stay in Sweden has been a little like the film which has inspired this blog title, ’28 Days Later’. There hasn’t been any mass extinctions or hoards of zombies, but I have spent the last 12 days being rather confused, a little lonely, unable to communicate with some of the locals, and wishing things could go back to the way they were 13 days ago. That’s not to say that I don’t like Sweden, because I do, nor that I’m really struggling, because I’m not. It’s more that the novelty of it all is wearing off somewhat and I’m eager to start class and move into my room – thankfully both events happen in the next few days.

Rangers football fans

There’s lots going on in Uppsala – it’s the way I imagine St. Andrews University to be, with a little more euro-trash. There’s a certain innocence to the city, and to the students who can be found dressed in funny clothes and singing songs at each other. I’m not quite sure what it’s all about, and to be honest, I’m not that interested in finding out. But I can’t help thinking that if this was Scotland the songs would have a sectarian undertone and the gangs of people would be far more menacing. Because that is the main difference that has struck me. In Uppsala you feel safe – not just in the student areas, but everywhere, all of the time. There’s no edge, no feeling that you should be aware of what’s going on around you. Take for instance the bike situation: everyone seems to ride a bike here and when they park them, very few people bother with a security chain. Rather, they’re just left there. In Scotland they’d last two minutes before being ‘acquired’ by one of the locals.

The hardest part of being here is being apart from Julie. We’ve been using skype – which has been tricky since I’ve been in hotels, searching for a decent connection, at times speaking to my computer in public. I’ve become one of those awful international students that used to drive me to distraction in the library. We text a lot, and phone occasionally. But it’s not the same as being in the same room as someone. She comes to visit on the 6th September, I’m counting the days.

This has been a hard entry to write. I’m not loving it here, but I’m not hating it. I’m a little bored and I miss Julie a lot. But I’m in limbo right now. This week I start class, move into my room, go to the supermarket for the first time, watch the local team tonight, and begin to live in a more permanent way. Once this week is out, I’ll have a better and clearer view of Uppsala, the University, and my adopted home for the next two years.

Oh, and I now live in a city where it’s cool to have a side-parting.

A real Scot in Sweden

18th August 2011: my flight landed in Arlanda, Stockholm, and I finally commenced a two year stay in a country I had visited once before – for a day. I’m sitting in a small hotel room in Uppsala, the window is open and the rain is tearing down, cars are noisily passing the window. It is, however, quieter than the night, when added to the cars are the sounds of drunken residents of Uppsala and the snores of my father in the adjacent bed. Quite how he sleeps so soundly is beyond me. Each night I’ve crept to bed, scared of waking him. I’m slowly coming to the realisation that I could stomp around the room, shouting, and the snores would continue to emanate from his resting place.

I could give you a run down of everything that has happened in the days since I arrived, but I want you to enjoy my blog, not fall into a deep sleep like my father. So, in brief; I’ve been lost in Stockholm, visited the archipelago, eaten expensive food, generally been shocked by prices, got a sun tan, been drenched in rain – twice – seen the Cathedral, Castle, centre of town, looked for Neds, not been able to find Neds, and generally accepted that notwithstanding cultural quirks, Sweden is generally not too different from Scotland. That is, if Scotland had a bit more money and brightly coloured houses.

Whilst on the boat trip in Stockholm we saw lots of really impressive summer houses on the little islands that make up the archipelago. I don’t think I would be alone in assuming that these houses belonged to wealthy Swedes. And I don’t think I’d be wrong in this assumption. But our tour guide said something that took me aback. 50% of Swedes own a summer house – a remarkably high number, albeit many of these will be substantially smaller than the archipelago  mansions. Yet, it is not only the upper and middle-classes who have such luxury. In fact, 30% of Swedes receiving state benefits (the dole to all the Scots reading this) own a summer home. At this stage I could make lots of sweeping generalisations about Sweden being a more inclusive state than what I’m used to, that Swedes are generally more wealthy, or that houses must be really cheap. I’d be intrigued to know how many Scots on benefits holiday in the Costa-del-sol; perhaps it would provide a rough comparison. I can’t make any authoritative statements and I leave this post as merely the reflections and first impressions of a new immigrant.

Two days in and I like this country. Uppsala is beautiful and Stockholm is a must see. But I’m still on tourist mode. If I figure out the truth – or lack thereof – of any of the above statements then I’ll come back to them. For now, well, I just wish it would stop raining. 

The year is 1812, Thomas Thomson visited Sweden and recorded his thoughts. I came across them and thought they might be of interest. Got me wondering if it has changed much…

“The principal merchants in Gothenburg are Scotsmen. In consequence of letters of introduction which we carried to several of them, we experienced from that liberal and respectable body a profusion of kindness and politeness which it was impossible to surpass, and which it would be very difficult to equal. The want of inns, and our ignorance of the Swedish language, would have made it very difficult for us to have procured dinner while we stayed at Gothenburg, but this difficulty was obvaited by the merchants, with one or other of whom we dined every day during our stay in that city. The entertainments which they gave were in the Swedish style, and possessed a degree of splendour at which I was not a little surprised. As the mode of dining in Sweden is very different from the mode followed in Great Britain, I shall give a general description of a dinner, that my readers may form some notion to themselves of the customs of that country.

The houses in Sweden are fitted up with great magnificence. The public rooms are usually on the first floor, and vary from three to seven or more according to the size of the house and the wealth of its master. These rooms always open into each other, and constitute a very elegant suite of apartments.The furniture though very handsome is not similar to ours. You seldom see mahogany chairs; they are usually of birch or of some other wood painted. As the table cloth is never removed they have no occasion for our fine mahogany tables, and as the dishes are brought in one by one, and the dessert and wine put upon the table before the company sit down, they have but little occasion for a side-board. Accordingly, except in the house of Mr. Lorent, who had a very splendid side-board made in London, I do not recollect to have seen one in Sweden, even in the houses of men of the first rank. The rooms are not provided with bells. This I am told is owing to the extreme cheapness of servants in Sweden, which enabled every person to keep such a number as rendered bells unnecessary. This reason, which I do not consider as a very good one, exists not at present, for since the loss of Finland the wages of servants have considerably increased. Bells, therefore, might now be introduced with the greatest propriety; and to a foreigner, from Britain at least, they would constitute a great convenience. I have sometimes been obliged to go three times to the kitchen during the course of my breakfast, to ask for things that had been neglected or forgotten by the servants.

The Swedes are fond of great parties. I have more than once sat down to table with nearly 50 people in a private house. The hour of dinner is two o’clock. After the company are assembled they are shown into a room adjoining the dining-room. In the middle of this room there is a round table covered with a table-cloth, upon which are placed bread, cheese, butter and corn-brandy. Every person eats a morsel of bread and cheese and butter, and drinks a dram of brandy, by way of exciting the appetite for dinner. There are usually two kinds of bread; namely, wheat-bread baked into a kind of small rolls, for I never saw any loaves in Sweden: and rye, which is usually baked in thin cakes, and is known in Sweden by the name of nickebroed. It is very palatable but requires good teeth to chew it.

After this whet, the company are shown into the dining-room, and take their seats round the table. The first dish brought in is salmagundy, salt fish, a mixture of salmon and rice, sausages, or some such strong seasoned article, to give an additional whet to the appetite. It is handed round the table, and every person helps himself in succession to as much of it as he chooses. The next dish is commonly roasted or stewed mutton, with bacon ham. These articles are carved by some individual at table, most commonly the master of the house, and the carved pieces being heaped upon a plate are carried round the company like the first dish. The Swedes like the French eat of every thing that is presented at table. The third dish is usually soup, then fowls, then fish (generally salmon, pike or streamlings), then pudding, then the dessert, which consists of a great profusion of sweet-meats, in the preparation of which the inhabitants of Gottenburg excel. Each of these dishes handed about in succession. The vegetables, consisting of potatoes, carrots, turnips, cauliflowers, greens, &c. are handed about in the same way. During the whole time of dinner a great deal of wine is drunk by the company. The wines are claret, port, sherry, and madeira. What they call claret at Gottenburg does not seem to be Bourdeaux wine. It is a French wine with a taste intermediate between claret and port. At Stockholm I drank occasionally true claret; but scarcely in any other part of Sweden. As all the wine used in Sweden is imported from Great Britain, our wine merchants can probably explain this circumstance though I cannot.

The Swedes employ the same articles for seasoning their food as we do, salt, peppar, mustard, vinegar, &c. I was struck with one peculiarity which I had never seen before: they always mix together mustard and sugar: I had the curiosity to try this mixture, and found it not bad. The dinner usually lasts about two hours. On a signal given the company all rise together, bow with much solemnity towards the table, or rather towards each other, and then adjourn into the drawing-room. Here a cup of coffee is served up immediately to every individual. It is but doing the Swedes justice to say that their coffee is excellent, greatly preferable to what is usually drunk in England. This is the more remarkable because the Swedes import all their coffee from Britain: its quality therefore is not different from that of our own, and its superiority owing solely to their understanding better how to make it. You can get coffee in the meanest peasant’s house, and it is always excellent. It is usually about five o’clock when coffee is over. The company separate at this time, either going home to their own houses, or sauntering about in the fields if the weather be good.”

The waiting game

You know that feeling when something has gone wrong in your life and it’s a few months down the line? You learn to come to terms with what happened but there will be the odd day, the more recent the unfortunate event the more regular these will be, where you just feel lost, and down, and frustrated. I’m beginning to realise that moving country entails the same concoction of emotions. The move to Sweden has become a waiting game with little annoyances thrown in. A large part of me doesn’t want the day of departure to come and another side of me is desperate to rip that plaster (band-aid to my American friends) off, step on the plane, and begin my Swedish adventure. Note, if I ever use that term again please hit me, throw me off a bridge – or for the more polite – ask me to refrain from clichés.

There still seems a lot of little things to do. Pack, sort out the relevant documentation, perhaps glance at a timetable of events for the first week, get an EU medical card, say goodbye to people, then say goodbye to more people, have what I’ve come to term ‘the Last Supper’ with my girlfriend (Julie is her name, just thought I’d throw that in there, an introduction I mean), and take a breath, look around, and make my peace with Scotland. Anyway, some of these will be fun, some emotional, some time-consuming, some annoying. I’m not a details person.

Am I methodically working my way through the above list? In a word, ‘no’. Instead I’ve read for pleasure, read for research, gone for a walk, enjoyed the sun, gone for a swim – well down a flume and traversed some waves – drank coffee, eaten Chinese food, cooked fajitas, written blogs, read up on football, watched some football, done some work, shopped, and shopped, and shopped, and done anything which comes to mind that isn’t in the list of ‘things to do for Sweden’. Currently I’m sitting in a pub under my old flat: a pub which is providing free internet, mediocre coffee, and a not so alluring smell of human faeces.

I’ll get around to the organisational side of things. For now I’m feeling fairly contented, enjoying glancing at the International Buddy Page for Uppsala University and awaiting my inevitable fate. 

I don’t usually get phased by big changes. I really don’t tend to think about life defining events or decisions until the precise moment when they kick in – in this case it would be stepping on a plane from Edinburgh to Stockholm. For some reason, though, this time is different.

Maybe I’m becoming a worrier in my old age – if mid-twenties can be defined as such. Maybe it’s just how big a decision this really is. I mean, I’ll be leaving Scotland for two years to study in a country I’ve been to once before. The thing is, I can’t quite pin point why I’m so nervous about the whole affair. My girlfriend, for her sins I guess, is having to deal with a rather temperamental version of me just now. At the slightest moment I snap at her – can’t be much fun. Maybe the whole thing will make sense if I go through some of my thoughts – apologies for the incoherence of this post.

Money, or lack thereof, is a serious cause of stress right now. I’m not too concerned about my financial situation a few months into my Swedish stay. The problem is the initial outlays; hotels (note the plural), first month rent on my apartment, food, clothes, books, and the distinct knowledge that my biggest weakness is blowing money on nothing-much-in-particular.

Missing home. This one is odd for me. I spent my whole life growing up dreaming of foreign lands, believing Scotland to have lost any charm or sense of adventure that it may once have had.  I remember reading somewhere that the Swedes have a word which roughly translated means ‘home blindness’. It conveys the idea that people never fully appreciate the merits of the place they call ‘home’. I think that idea can be expanded upon, because it is an affliction that particularly the young suffer from. Recently, and maybe because the reality of leaving has set in, I have begun to realise how great Scotland really is.

Leaving my life; Dundee, family, girlfriend, friends, and so on, and on. The same as missing home but a little different. By this I mean the personal aspect of home sickness, not merely missing my country and the things which I am used to, but missing the people who are part of my life.

Ok, now the big one, the constant nagging questions: Why the hell am I going to Sweden? And, why am I going to do a Masters when I, ignoring the arrogance, know that I could have gone and got a fairly well paid job? I’ll leave these questions unanswered and open-ended right now. I have to admit that the allure of a graduate scheme for some faceless corporation, as soulless as it may sound, is still a temptation that I’ve not fully managed to deal with.

Why is any of this helpful or worth reading? Well, I guess a lot of people who are about to head off to Uppsala, Lund, Stockholm, Edinburgh, or really anywhere that means going to a foreign land, are suffering the same doubts and indecision. If you don’t feel like this at all then I’d chance a guess that you will, or have, at some point. The reality is that we are never sure that a certain path is the right one. Particularly when our chosen path seems to preclude other hitherto options. I’m sure I’ll go to Sweden, figure out my finances, enjoy the novelty of it all, get excited about snow, get bored of snow, enjoy the academic challenge, blog, praise and curse skype in equal measure, and moan. Definitely moan, because if you’ve never met any Scots before then bear this in mind, we like to moan.

Oh, and just for you Troy if you’re reading, the price of alcohol in Sweden is playing on my mind as well.

What are your thoughts?

From the Scottish public to foreign visitors, students to professional historians; everyone has an opinion of Neil Oliver. To those of you who fit none of the categories above, Mr. Oliver is the rugged, long-haired presenter of the BBC’s ‘History of Scotland’ series. His gruff Ayreshire accent provides the same opening line to each programme, a line which reverberates around my head, a line that is so tempting to imitate, ‘Welcome to Scotland’.

That the BBC has seen fit to create this series is evidence of the growing interest in Scottish History. There seems no coincidence that since the opening of the Scottish parliament in 1999 a barrage of books on the early-modern Scottish Parliament have been written. However, between 1900 and 1999 only a handful were released. The correlation seems too obvious to discuss further. Like any television broadcaster, the BBC create programmes which respond to the interests of their audience. There is no doubt that the ‘History of Scotland’ series has been successful, with impressive viewing figures to support this evaluation. The problem, for some, arises when we consider that this series is the only source of Scottish History which many people are exposed to.

Admittedly it is an ambitious project, with a £2million budget to boot. But it was hit by controversy when Professor Alan MacInnes of the University of Strathclyde resigned from the advisory board. He was angered by the ‘anglocentric’ nature of the programme, an early indication of the objections which would be repeated by many others, that with the creation of this series the BBC had an obvious political agenda to downplay Scotland. It was then revealed that Professor Tom Devine of the University of Edinburgh – a historian who holds an almost God-like position in Scotland’s academic community – had refused a position on the project’s advisory board. Without any meaningful academic contribution to the programme’s creation, could the programme go beyond the repetition of tired and outdated myth?

As if to confirm this, the BBC then compounded the problem – in the eyes of many – by hiring the charismatic archaeologist Neil Oliver as the programme’s presenter. Note ‘archaeologist’, not ‘historian’. I’ll always remember the disdain with which the academics at Dundee discussed Neil Oliver in a panel lecture I attended.

I find it hard to believe that from the plethora of academics in Scotland the BBC could not have found one who was articulate enough, charismatic enough, attractive enough, to present a programme on Scottish History. I am confused as to why they would not have tried harder to maintain the support of the academic community by having an advisory board with appropriate credentials. And I don’t understand why they felt it necessary to traipse over the same old stamping ground that we are taught as children in primary school. But, and you knew there was going to be a ‘but’, despite these minor objections I actually really like the BBC’s ‘History of Scotland’. I even really like Neil Oliver (please, please don’t tell anyone).

The objections are motivated by academic snobbery, political victim mentality of the ilk of ‘the BBC are an arm of the British establishment and will do anything to undermine Scotland’. The reality is that this series has filled a vacuum in Scottish broadcasting. It has brought what is too often the reserve of students and geeks alike, to the mass public. Through Neil Oliver’s idiosyncratic style he provides excitement to what can often be dry subject matter.

For better or worse, one thing is undeniable, the ‘History of Scotland’ is the BBC’s contribution to something far bigger than History education. It is playing a part in the awakening psyche of a nation which is desperately trying to define itself. That the mouthpiece for this series doesn’t have a History degree seems irrelevant to me.