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

Posts tagged ‘Uppsala University’

Meant to be

I sometimes wonder what on earth I am doing in Sweden. Most of the time I’m completely unaware of where I am. Other times I feel very settled and comfortable with my surroundings. But there are those moments – almost existential I guess – where I take a second, breathe, and realise I’m sitting in a country I’d only visited briefly once before I packed my little (well, it really wasn’t that little) suitcase and set off from Edinburgh Airport. It’s not that those moments entail any, ‘get me the hell out of here’, feelings. It’s more, how did my life lead me to be sitting here in Sweden’s fourth largest city? If you had asked me two years ago where I imagined I would be post-university, I think ‘Sweden’ would have been roughly the last answer I would have given you. Is that a bad thing? No, not at all. It’s just an excellent example of how you never know where life might lead you.

Now, I say all of this. But my father emailed me a picture this weekend which perhaps pours a healthy dose of doubt upon the above paragraph. There I am stood by the Trevi Fountain in Rome, 6 years ago. I had never actually seen the picture and, until he sent it through, I had completely forgotten that I’d ever owned a Swedish football shirt. I don’t remember why I bought it, where I purchased it, and I don’t even really remember wearing it. There is a vague memory of being chased down a street in Dundee on one of our unnaturally hot summer days a few years ago, by a bee that was convinced I was a giant, moving daffodil. I can’t imagine that ever happened to Henrik Larsson.

As hard as I try, I am struggling to cast my mind back to what my thoughts of Sweden were before I decided to apply to Uppsala University. Most likely, I thought of beautiful people, huge wealth, equality and social democracy, and an incredible welfare system. And has that changed? Well, in ways. But gaining a more nuanced, sophisticated impression of country whilst demythologising it, actually adds to its attraction.

Oh, we have snow by the way. Fairly deep, powdery snow. And there was me thinking it would never come. One last thing; please, please don’t judge me for the sideburns in the picture.


Disappeared into the Swedish mist

By my lack of blogging you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d disappeared and become one of the unfortunate characters of a Swedish crime novel. The last few weeks have spared me hardly a second to think. It has been the business end of our ‘period’ – mini-semester for those of you not versed in the Swedish academic system. At 1am this morning I put the finishing touches to the last piece of coursework for this period, so all that is left to do is present my latest work on Friday and then run to catch the bus to Arlanda, jump a plane headed to Copenhagen and, after a short stop off in what I’m informed is the most expensive airport in the world, I’ll be boarding a plane for Edinburgh.

In the intervening time since my last post I have turned 26, which I’m still trying to figure out my feelings towards, Julie has visited – around the same time – and I received my surprise present of flights to Belfast to visit Gary and Maeve. As I’m sitting writing this it has just dawned on me that this has been the longest period of time in my life that I’ve been away from Scotland and the longest period of time in 4 years that I’ve not seen my old uni pal Gary Cocker. So it’s nice to know the remedy to both of these issues is close at hand.

Gary and Maeve

It’s funny how the things that once seemed strange, new, exciting, or just plain annoying, have now become daily life. It has become the norm to understand nothing that is going on around me, to not see beggars, and to narrowly avoid being run over by bikes. It no longer seems strange that you can’t buy alcohol in the supermarket, that you have to take a ticket to join a queue, and that people leave work at 4:30pm – except on a Friday when you’ll be lucky to see anyone working beyond 1pm. There’s something bleak about Sweden; cold, damp, misty, and almost a little sinister. But that is counteracted by fashionable orange trousers, crazy hair, the fact it’s cool to wear glasses my grandparents would be embarrassed to sport, and the warm, welcoming nature of the Swedes.

A particular highlight was my first visit to a Swedish person’s home. One of our lecturers had invited the class to his apartment for a post-seminar and a general get together. In true stereotype the shoes came off at the front door, there was an array of weapons on the wall, and food and drink was provided. It was really nice and informal, which made me see the benefits of Sweden’s egalitarian system. Don’t be fooled, Sweden is by no means the land of milk and honey, and you can’t help but get the impression that a lot has changed in recent years – almost a loss of innocence – but the idea that a university is a community, with the professors all the way down to the first year students on an equal footing, is not just senior management rhetoric which appears in the latest recruitment pamphlet, the Swedes really mean it.

I get the impression there’s a lot more to learn about this country and the transition it’s going through. I’ve been surprised by some of the views I’ve encountered in what is supposed to be the home of liberalism and equality. I’m looking forward to better understanding Sweden during my time here, and it’s got me thinking that Scotland’s desire to emulate our Scandinavian cousins – to become a free social democracy in Northern Europe – might be chasing phantoms. Perhaps we’re aspiring to be the Sweden or Norway of twenty years ago, but things seem different here. It’s in off-hand comments and under-the-breath remarks that you pick up this air of disquiet.

Maybe people just like to gripe, but I have a feeling it’s more than that.

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.

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.

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. 

Planning for Sweden, worrying about Sweden, deciding not to go, then go, then not…

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.

Why Uppsala?

It was around the end of 2010 that I began to panic about what I was going to do after university. When I started my History degree in 2007 I was focused on an academic career, I had it all figured out. I would do my undergraduate at Dundee then move to somewhere, at the time Trinity College Dublin was the hope, to pursue a masters and then phd. But by the time I had reached fourth year, the fourth year of not only my degree but also of being poorer than the guy begging for money outside my crappy little flat, I had decided that enough was enough. It was time to get a job and earn some money.

My flatmate was very much of the same opinion so we both embarked on what was to become a soul destroying search for a faceless ‘graduate scheme’. You see, the problem with these schemes was not the money – which is rather good – it was not that on the whole they required us to move out of Scotland, it was not even that we were unmotivated. No, the problem was that neither of us were remotely interested in the jobs or companies we were applying for. To be honest, most of the time we had no idea what we were actually applying for. In one instance my flatmate attended an interview in Derby and when he received feedback he was told that he had aced the assesment centre. However, it would have helped if he knew what industry the company was part of.

After a moment of epiphany I came full circle. I decided that I would pursue an academic career and take the years of poverty that would come as part and parcel. The new problem was where to study a masters. I know my family could have helped out with postgraduate fees in Scotland, but I didn’t really want to put them in that position. So I decided to look beyond the UK. At first I was fairly set on applying to universities in the Netherlands. Although not free, the fees which the Dutch universities charge are certainly more manageable than the UK institution’s fee structure.

One evening my flatmate – I think since he has appeared so often I should name him: Gary – observed that Swedish women were not harsh on the eyes. We joked about it and I, still joking, googled Swedish universities. Up popped Uppsala – I have to admit I’d never heard of it. As I looked through the courses taught in english I couldn’t believe what I was reading. They offered a course called ‘Early Modern Northern European Studies’. A glance at the syllabus proved that if I was to design a course to fit my academic interests, well, this would be it.

I did a little research about Uppsala and discovered that it was a fairly impressive instituion. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the application procedure and I had no idea what my chances would be. I decided that I may as well apply, what was the harm?

Anyway, the fact I’m writing this you have probably guessed that I got in. I don’t want to go overkill with this post so I’ll leave it there. There’s a lot more to write about; from the appallingly bizarre centralised application procedure, to visiting Uppsala in April and feeling like I had been transported back to the middle of January. But I’ll leave these rants for another time.

Over the next two years I’ll be updating this blog weekly, so if you’re interested in the fortunes of a Scot in Sweden, then keep checking back.