Cold and other things

I remember some quote on a teenage girl’s facebook or myspace (Taylor I think it was you-) that was the quintessential teenage girl quote: I don’t remember it exactly but it was something along the lines of “Pictures help you keep memories, but on the truly unforgettable nights you are too busy having fun to remember to take any.” I feel pretty silly about starting my blog with this quote but this is how I feel when I sit down to write it. It has been an unforgivably long time since I last wrote down the things I want to remember, but it is because I have been so busy doing things I will never forget. Since my last post I have been to Copenhagen, Prague, Kiruna (northern sweden- in the arctic circle!), Paris, back to Copenhagen, and Stockholm a few times. I have taken exams and been to gasques, slept next to strangers on the floor of another stranger’s apartment but also in a hotel room overlooking snowcovered Stockholm, felt incredibly sick as well as unbelievably alive, and many more things than this sentence can hold. My blog isn’t the only thing I have been neglecting: I feel as though I haven’t checked in with many loved ones as much as they deserve, I miss doing my math (I know, I know, just shh), I haven’t been sleeping or eating as regularly as I should, but all of these are minor grievances. The thing I most regret not spending more time and effort on is the city of Uppsala itself, which is so unbelievably beautiful and which has provided me with such an incredible time. I wouldn’t cancel any of the trips I took if I had the chance to go back, but I feel like I haven’t spent nearly enough time cherishing my home here. This blog is starting to look suspiciously like a wistful goodbye one, and I refuse to write that one until I leave in a month or so. This week I have caught myself starting to get sad about how quickly my remaining time is dwindling (I only have about 17 days left in Uppsala) and I want to enjoy my final weeks here as much as I can rather than moping as they fly by. So without further ado, I will shift to talking about some things I have been up to! I will skip the cities outside of Sweden- maybe I will write a blog about them another time but for now I think I should fill you in on my home base!
When I first arrived, my program director told us that if we could get through November, we would be good to go. He also said, “If you have any friends coming to visit you, don’t let them come in November unless you want them to no longer be your friend.” I was therefore pretty apprehensive about the month, which was supposedly so unpleasant because it is cold and rainy and dark, but not cold enough to have snow which brightens the night quite a bit. The first snow fell at the very end of October, but didn’t stick. Sure enough, there was no snow until the last few days of November, but it was a surprisingly pleasant month nonetheless. The early darkness has not affected me nearly as strongly as I thought it would, and I have actually never found myself wishing it was daylight (I have found myself wishing that I woke up in time to catch more than an hour or two of it many more times than I would like to admit). I say all this because snow is an unavoidable subject at the moment. It started snowing about a week ago, and has not risen above freezing since. I have never seen scenes like it: serene, crisp, and of course beautiful. One good thing about leaving when I do is that I don’t think I’ll have time to get tired of the snow, and it will remain a purely positive memory. It is different snow than South Carolina snow, of course. It isn’t much deeper than the deepest I have seen back home, but the coldness means that it never gets sticky. I walked through about 6 inch deep snow last night on the coldest night since I have been here (-18C, 0F!) and the snow was more like sawdust or something. It didn’t stick to my shoes or pants, just blew off me. I hope you find all this at least slightly interesting. One fun fact that I have found: bundling up properly means that really cold and really really really cold don’t feel so different from each other, except in your nostrils. I kept getting the sensation that I had a stopped up nose last night, before pinching it and realizing that it was just the water in my breath freezing inside my nostrils. I left my window open all day yesterday by accident and came back to find a frozen bottle of olive oil and a computer that wouldn’t respond to my fingers on the trackpad. Not doing that again! I also find that you get colder than you realize- I think it makes your brain numb! Seriously though- the air is invigorating at first but after a little while my forehead gets a sensation very similar to brain freeze from a popsicle. But enough about the weather. You already know Sweden is damn cold- let me try to tell you some other things about it.
All the things I want to write down about it seem like I’m lying when I put them in words. I knew before I came here that it was one of the best countries in the world in terms of quality of life, but it is different to see it for myself. The most startling to me is the lack of crime. Bikes get stolen occasionally, but I have left mine unlocked many times to find it waiting for me the next morning. This may be due to the fact that my bike sucks, but it is still impressive. Besides bike theft, I haven’t encountered anything resembling crime. Some of my friends were assaulted by youths in a McDonald’s, but the weapons used were coca cola and french fries thrown through the air and they escaped unscathed. I leave my laptop and ipod in my gym locker all the time and the thought of someone opening the unlocked door never crosses my mind. The Swedes are somewhat reserved, but it is a spectrum just like in every country. I don’t think I meet the ones who are most shy because they hide in their rooms just like the shy folks back home, but out and about there are always Swedes ready and eager to meet you and talk. This is most pronounced at the nations, as I think alcohol is a social aid the world over. At first I found the lack of small talk awkward- I would rather talk about something inane than have a heavy silence. But now I find it refreshing- the number of people I have met only once and had the exact same conversation with each one means that I relish the fact that talk among the Swedes I am familiar with only happens when there is something worth discussing. Well I am tired of typing for now but I will write a bit about the language after this! I had the written half of my Swedish exam yesterday and the listening half tomorrow, so I am in the throes of Svenska at the moment. Much love to whoever checks in on these, thank you for being my audience! More soon.

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Hej hej! It is a beautiful day in Uppsala today- bright blue skies and the last of the yellow leaves clinging to their trees for as long as they can. It is cold out, but not as cold as I was expecting for this time of year. There is rumor among the students that it will snow tonight, but I am skeptical. No weather site I can find has any mention of it, but I would love a snow day in October! I am still cherishing autumn as much as I can- every time there is a day as nice as this one I worry it will be the last and try to soak up the sun. The air is crisp and dry, like it would be if I went to the Blue Ridge Mountains back home. But enough about the weather! I need to tell you about my trip to Barcelona a few weeks ago. I got back from my trip to Helsinki on Tuesday evening and left for Barcelona early Friday morning, which is perhaps the biggest climate change I have experienced within a 4 day period. Helsinki was drizzly and cold, and so was Uppsala for most of the week. I got to Barcelona in my pants and thick socks but soon realized it had other plans for me. I packed one pair of shorts for Sweden, and I think Barcelona will be the only time I use them before coming back to the states. Driving past palm trees on the way into the city having cycled through frost 5 hours earlier on my way to the train station in Uppsala was a bit surreal. That wasn’t the only big difference I noticed between Sweden and Spain while on the bus from Barcelona airport into town- the young teenagers noisily kissing each other on the seat behind me in the bus reminded me that not everyone is as reserved as the Swedes. The student nation of which I am a member in Uppsala is called Värmlands- pronounced similar to Vermlands- and is nicknamed Spermlands by some of the students here. When I ask why they tell me it is because it is the nation with the most hooking up going on at parties, but I have been to half a dozen big parties there and seen maybe three couples doing anything resembling scenes at an average middle school dance back in the states. In Spain, however, this was not the case. I think maybe it has something to do with the amount of skin showing in people’s respective outfits in the countries? Anyway I promise I noticed things in Barcelona besides the warm temperature and kissing couples. I arrived Friday afternoon and met my older sister and her good friend Olivia, who are traveling Europe together and wanted to rendezvous with me somewhere. We met outside our hostel, had a little sit and chat, and then walked out to get our first real glimpse of the city. Our hostel was a two minute walk from Las Ramblas, the main tourist street in the city. Aside from a fun food market with stalls and samples of all kinds, I was not a fan of Las Ramblas. It was engorged with noisy Americans and tacky souvenirs, but it was still interesting to walk down and observe. We ended up on the beach by an impressive plinth with a figure we couldn’t identify. It is one of the main landmarks of the city, but I’m ashamed to say I didn’t figure out what it is called and I don’t have internet while I am writing this. Anyway, we proceeded back into town and took some side streets in search of Tapas and Sangria. We were successful, and the food was expensive but delicious. The layout of the city is fun to walk through: it is gridded like most cities with blocks, but there are many streets running diagonally through the grid which creates many triangular buildings and unique views. We walked back through the city to our hostel, trying to soak up as much of its Catalan flavor before passing out early to get a head start on Saturday. We woke up and went first to the Picasso museum, which was amazing. I love exhibits which focus on one artist’s work and do so chronologically: I don’t know if I ever enjoy art more than when I have seen the artist’s progression in mood and medium over the course of his/her life. Picasso gave hundreds of his paintings to the museum before his death, and it focused on paintings he made while living in Catalonia. We then had some interesting pizza-like something for lunch, and went to the Sagrada Familia- a cathedral designed by Gaudi and perhaps the most famous building in Barcelona. The line was far too long so we decided to come back early the next day. We walked up a huge hill on the edge of the city and enjoyed the view- you could see the whole city in every direction. This is possibly my favorite way to look at cities: they have a different feel when viewed as a whole than from the streets within. I therefore was a little bummed at how brief we stayed at the top, but wine and food were calling us from the city below. We made ourselves a delicious meal and ate it on the little balcony outside our room in the hostel and then called it another early night. We did indeed make it to the cathedral on Sunday, and got there before it opened in order to beat the quickly expanding queue. The cathedral was unbelievable inside and out, a blend of themes Gaudi picked up in nature with some traditional European architecture mixed in as well. I didn’t realize the cathedral is under constant construction, with completion estimated to be in 2030. I didn’t feel as bad about my expensive ticket price once I realized it would contribute to the construction of this amazing structure. Amy and I also made it to the park at the top of the city that Gaudi also designed, but of course there was a strike among Underground workers (which seemed to start in the morning and finish around 5- seems like more of a collective sick day to me but what do I know) which meant we spent two hours getting there and back and only had time to run around and see as much of the park as we could in the ten minutes we had there before heading back down. When, not if, I return I vow to spend longer there as it was incredible architecturally but also provided views of the city from another angle, looking out over it and to the ocean beyond. We finished the night watching El Clasico in a bar with locals, a dream come true for me. El Clasico is the name of the clash between Real Madrid, the best team in mainland Spain, and Barcelona, the ‘Catalan kings’. It is my favorite rivalry in sports, not just because they are without doubt the two best soccer teams in the world right now, but because the history between the teams and the lands they represent. We met two Americans while stuck waiting in the Underground who had bought tickets that morning for $200 each, the cheapest price available. I was sick with jealousy, which turned to rage when the man told me he did not know who Messi or Ronaldo were, and admitted that soccer was pretty boring to him. I had heard all kinds of stories and warnings about pickpocketing and thieves before I went to Barcelona, but that man was the closest I came to seeing any theft while I was there, and I was the one who wanted to steal his tickets! The bar provided a brand new experience regardless, as we took a train out to the outskirts of the city to be close to Camp Nou, Barcelona’s 80,000+ capacity stadium. We found a bar, standing room only, and proceeded to sing and chant and cheer with the residents to the best of our abilities. We returned home, had a 3 hour nap, and woke up at 3:45 to catch our bus to the airport. I arrived back in Uppsala having slept on the plane, and found that it had transformed in my absence and was vibrant with fall colors. It was another day of blue skies, and I stopped my bike ride home from the train station to snap some pictures of the cathedral framed among the changing trees. I have to go again now, but I am slowly catching this blog up to the present! I will try to get another post done this weekend, and I will talk about my second Gasque and possibly my trip to Copenhagen last weekend.

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Well I promised a blog when I returned from Helsinki, and I am technically keeping that promise, albeit much later than I intended. Let me get right into it!

I mentioned in my last blog how cheap it is to take a cruise to Helsinki from Stockholm- about 30 USD- which is only slightly more than I paid for the 40 minute train ride from Uppsala to Stockholm. It might have been the best Cost:Fun ratio I have had since my arrival! Whenever I mentioned my upcoming trip to anyone here, they asked if it was a ‘booze cruise’. The cruise ships have a tax free store on them, which means alcohol is significantly cheaper than in Sweden where it is heavily taxed. Although the ship’s rules prevent consumption of this alcohol on board, it soon became clear that many of the passengers were on a mission to break this rule. I couldn’t decide if the number of middle aged drunkards on board was humorous or depressing, but it was a side of Sweden that I had not seen before. We left Stockholm in the late afternoon, so we were traveling through the archipelago as the sun was setting. This was, of course, beautiful. Stockholm’s archipelago has (as far as I know) 30,000 islands, more than any other in the world. We passed dozens of them, varying in size and shape but all covered in evergreens and most containing at least one small red cottage. Apparently a Swedish king (I am not sure which one, but I would bet good money that his name contained either ‘Gustav’ or ‘Adolph’ or most likely both) decreed long ago that all the houses in Sweden must be painted, regardless of the inhabiting family’s income. Red paint was cheapest at the time, which explains why almost every house in the countryside and on the archipelago is a deep red color. Yellow is also highly popular, and it is rare to see a house that isn’t one of these two shades. The effect is subtle but pleasant, as both colors blend well with each other and with the surrounding landscape. My friends and I had dinner on the deck (Swedish meatballs- of course) and watched the sun set before we decided we were too cold and went inside for a bit. We cruised through the night and woke up to a swaying boat, swaying passengers, and rainy Helsinki.
Helsinki was nice but we had to be back on the boat by 4pm and we didn’t get off it until 10 in the morning. There is a limit to how much you can do in a city in that period of time, so I don’t feel as though I got a fair representation of the city. The fact that it was a dreary day and we had slept on a swaying vessel meant that I was seeing it from an unfairly negative standpoint, but I couldn’t help but find the day somewhat depressing. There were, however, two of the most amazing cathedrals I have ever seen- Helsinki cathedral and Uspenski cathedral. Their architecture was unlike anything I have seen- both seemed to blend elements of Russian architecture with classic western European styles. Fitting, because Finland was ruled by Russia from 1809-1917. Of the brief glimpse I got of the country, my favorite aspect was the language; it fascinated me in written and spoken form. I encourage you to look up a youtube video of someone speaking finnish- there is no way I can describe it. My visit did inspire me to read up on a bit of Finnish history- of which I knew almost nothing- and I am glad I did. I recommend you just check out the Wikipedia page for a few minutes!

We made our way back to the ship and had a fun night on the open ocean- I spent a great deal of it on the deck of the ship with my friend looking at the lights of a fellow cruise ship on the distant horizon. We arrived back in Stockholm exhausted and satisfied.

This has been a shamefully short post but I promise to write another one next week! I need to talk about my trip to Barcelona to meet my sister, and attempt to catch you up on all I have done in Sweden also. I am getting up in about four hours to catch a train to Copenhagen- so I will have stories from there as well! Goodnight for now.

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Stockholm and a Gasque

Well it has been over two weeks since my last blog post, and I vow to start posting them on a more regular basis from now on. Since I last wrote, I have settled in, attended many courses, visited almost every student nation, traveled elsewhere in Sweden, and celebrated my 21st birthday. I even managed squeeze in my first ever trip to IKEA. Let me catch you up!

Today marks four weeks since I arrived here, and I am still waiting for time to start running normally. It feels like the days fly by and that there is no way I have done as much as I have in such a brief period of time. I am still finding everyone to be friendly and forthcoming, and I meet new people all the time. It is difficult to improve my Swedish because everyone speaks fluent English, but I don’t mind that too much. Although I am failing to pick up Swedish phrases as quickly as I’d hoped, I have noticed a few interesting aspects of the culture that differ from the United States. One huge custom that I have to mention is that of Fika, which is basically coffee and a cake (I think it is called Kanelbula) of some kind. It is similar to ‘having tea’ in England in that it is not just about the drink, but taking some time to sit and sip and enjoy a small sugary treat with a friend. Apparently if you ask someone in Swedish to ‘go out for coffee’ it means you want to take them out as a date, but asking someone for Fika is more casual and friendly.
There is also a pleasant practice of starting almost any planned event (including classes) at 15 minutes after (kvart över) the hour. Apparently this is so widespread that when a professor of one of my Swedish hallmate’s classes tried to get them to arrive on the hour, nobody showed up until a quarter past. He couldn’t get them to arrive on time for the whole semester, so he had to give in to the tradition. This is not the wildest difference, but I do like the origin story. My friend tells me that before the days of wristwatches or even pocketwatches, everyone told time by the chimes of the cathedral (domkyrken) belltower. So students would hear the chime at the hour, and know they had fifteen minutes to get to class. I think it is so appealing that this has never changed.
Things are more expensive here, but not as bad as I had heard they might be. If you order a beer inside of a student nation, the least you will pay is 27 kroner or about $4. Outside of a nation, in a bar or restaurant, the cheapest beer you will find is probably about 60 kroner or $9. Alcohol is pretty heavily taxed though, so you can find some cheap meals for only a dollar or two more than you would pay back in America. I am liking the fact that this has forced me to get better at cooking! I would say I make at least one meal for myself 6 days a week. The flipside is that flights to other areas of Europe are incredibly cheap. I have some friends who bought a round trip ticket to Poland for $8. One night in a nation, after spending 216 kroner (31 dollars) for 3 drinks, my friend told me that he had found tickets for a cruise to Finland that cost 200 kroner. The drink did not taste nearly as good once I realized I could be in a different country for the same price! I am planning to go to Finland this weekend and meet up with my sister in France the weekend after that. I want to visit as much of Europe as possible while I am here and free.
Last weekend I went to Stockholm, and it was the most unique and beautiful city I have ever visited. It is composed of multiple islands (15 or 20) connected to each other by large bridges. None of the islands are separated by much water, so the city doesn’t have the fragmented feel that I imagined it might. Areas of the city have managed to avoid integrating almost any modern architecture, giving it an ancient feel unlike anywhere I have been. Uppsala just has the lone cathedral that dominates the horizon, but Stockholm is scattered with spires of cathedrals all over the city. While I am on the Uppsala cathedral: I just learned that from the start of its construction in 1230 until 1970, it was the tallest building in Sweden. I love it- not just because it is as glorious as it is intimidating, but because I am terrible with directions and it always serves as a point of orientation wherever I find myself in town.
On the day of my 21st birthday, I had the pleasure of attending my first Swedish Gasque- a feast hosted by my nation that mixes formal tradition with, well, alcohol and singing. Everyone sits at long tables and is seated next to a member of the opposite gender, who is their ‘date’ for the evening. After any speech or song, you pick up your glass of schnapps and raise it to your date, then the person across from the table from you, then the person on the other side of you, and then sip. There are many, many speeches and songs so this process gets increasingly difficult, even with the added practice. We each received a leatherbound songbook, and tried to sing along in Swedish to their traditional drinking songs. Occasionally we sang one in English, and I enjoyed knowing which parts I was supposed to laugh at. By the end of the night people stand on their chairs to sing. People write messages in each other’s songbooks, but you are not allowed to read them until the next day. You can also bite into someone’s book, so you can tell how long someone has had one by how many teeth marks are embedded in it. The gasque ends with everyone leaving to dance in the nation’s nightclub. It was a successful birthday! I did not dwell on the fact that the day before, I received a ticket for riding my bicycle with no lights on it. It will cost me about $70, about half what I paid for the bike itself. I learned my lesson and will try to resist ‘riding dirty’ from now on. Off to bed again, but I will post another blog after I return from Finland next week!

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My first week in Uppsala

I want to start off by telling you a little about myself, although I am sure most of the people who will read this blog are familiar with me! My name is Ben Chalmers, and I am currently in my junior year as a math major at Wofford. I am from Spartanburg, and a large part of my decision to go to school in the town in which I grew up was the opportunities Wofford provides its students to study internationally. One of the first things I realized when beginning the study abroad application process is how difficult it is to find programs that cater to math majors. I am not sure why this is, but many jokes about ‘not leaving their dorm rooms, let alone their country’ come to mind! (I make the joke so you don’t have to…) Luckily, Sweden was my first choice and I was pleasantly surprised to find many math courses taught in English. I suppose I should tell you why Sweden was my first choice now? My parents are both immigrants from Britain, so all my non-immediate family lives there. I spent my summers growing up visiting family there, so I have a strong affinity with the country and the rest of Europe by extension. I am also quite interested in international governments, economies, and politics and so I quickly became aware of the uniqueness of the Scandinavian nations in many categories. Sweden would be considered socialist in the United States, and it has the lowest income inequality of any country in the world. It also consistently ranks among the top nations for the quality of life of its citizens. It is also beautiful!

I arrived here in Uppsala, Sweden on Monday, August 27. My cab driver from the airport is, as of today, the only person I have met here who does not speak fluent english. This was a bit awkward at first, but I enjoyed the opportunity to take in the scenery of my new home in near-silence. It seems impossible that I only arrived a week ago, but I know that is what everyone says. I am taking classes at the University of Uppsala, which was established in 1477 (when Christopher Columbus was about five years older than I am today). It has over 20,000 students, which accounts for over a tenth of the city’s residents. The city is gorgeous. It has the feel of an old European city- ancient brick buildings and cobbled streets- but the inhabitants are almost entirely young, healthy, and intimidatingly trendy. Uppsala is dominated by two things: the first is a massive, distinctive red brick cathedral that is visible from anywhere in the city and seems to be the universal symbol for Uppsala; the second is bicycles. Every university building has a massive bicycle ‘parking lot’ with barely any space for cars. Bicycles aren’t just the most popular mode of transport, they seem to be the ‘ruling’ one as well. I bought a bike within my first few days here, and I am still getting surprised by cars giving me the right of way in every situation. Cars brake for cyclists and pedestrians, and seem to be clunky and almost out of place among the leg-powered masses.
I was somewhat nervous about my accomodations initially- sharing a hall with other students in lieu of a host family- but now I wouldn’t have it any other way. I have a bedroom and bathroom to myself, and share a kitchen and living space with the 8 or 10 other students on my hall. One of the students is an American in my program, there are three Australians and the rest are all Swedes. The atmosphere seems to blend personal and public space in a way that suits me well: my room is available for studying or Skype sessions, but there is always someone in the kitchen or living room if I crave some real interaction. Our hall is on the 3rd floor of a 7 floor building in an area called Flogsta on the outskirts of the city. There are ten or twelve neighboring buildings identical to this one, and they are inhabited almost entirely by University students. Flogsta has a community and history of its own, with the most unusual tradition being the ‘Flogsta yell’. At 10pm every night, most of the residents open their windows or go to the roof and scream at the top of their lungs, to let out frustration or just for the hell of it. I have heard this began to commemorate students who committed suicide whilst studying for exams, but I have also heard that this is not the case. Whatever the origin, it is a fun spectacle. The roofs are accessible which of course means there are roof parties, some of which have DJ’s and light shows and many many guests.

The main social scene, however, is dominated by student clubs called Nations. Originally, each of the twelve nations existed to host students originating from the various regions of Sweden, and they are all therefore named after a different region. The closest thing I can compare them to in the U.S. Is the fraternity system, but only because they are areas where students gather and drink. The resemblance stops after that- students may be members at multiple nations, are never prohibited from entering any of them, and can switch which nation they are in from year to year. About 98% of students are members of the nation system, because being a member of one means you get discounts and entry at all of the others. I joined Värmlands nation yesterday. The nations don’t compete to host the best party every night, but have one night per week that is their traditional big night. Snerikes nation is the place to be on Tuesdays, Stockholms nation on Thursdays, etc. The system is unique to Uppsala University and other universities founded by Uppsala. Because higher education is free to all Swedes, I have heard of young people enrolling in one course at the university and never attending in order to be a member of the nation system. This is obviously rare but it shows what a fun system it is. Because every nation here has been around almost a hundred years longer than the United States has existed, they all have deeply entrenched traditions and images they try to uphold. One girl told me she would not join a particular nation because it was in a dispute with her current one. I asked when this fight started, and she said about 200 years ago. The dispute is more of a friendly rivalry, and as far as I can tell the nations are indistinguishable from each other aside from layout and location: they all have a cozy pub, and they all play house music and have students dancing after dark. Every night I fall asleep to the muted bass lines of various house tracks wafting in from the city. Speaking of falling asleep, I am off to bed! More soon.

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