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.