Europe is broad, with so many different cultures in each and every corner. For our second story in this campaign we’ll be hearing what it’s like to head north of the continent, all the way to Uppsala, Sweden. Aileen is a 24 year old who’s currently doing her masters in Dutch Constitutional and Administrative Law at Maastricht University. In the autumn semester of the year 2016-2017 she did her exchange in a small student city Uppsala, an hour from Sweden’s capital Stockholm. Let’s hear what that was like.
Tell everybody I’m on my way
“Around January that year I got a list to indicate my preferred exchange destinations. Uppsala was my first choice, and I’m lucky I ended up getting a spot for that one. The process to apply was pretty straightforward and quite early on I knew Uppsala had approved my spot. The communication was informative and very transparent. Around April, I got the learning agreement and in May I was able to choose housing. I ended up living together with 10 others, all of them internationals. We shared a big kitchen and living room together but each had our own bathroom which was very nice. The rooms were easy to dress up the way I wanted to and I was never bothered by any noise. Oh, it was also conveniently located, with several supermarkets and a bus stop nearby”. Aileen managed to find her housing through university. In Uppsala there are several residences that are meant for exchanges. According to her, they had the chance to pick their residence and it was indeed a first come, first serve situation. “When it comes down to the pricing of housing, I think they were fair and similar to what you would pay in the Netherlands. The residence I chose was my first choice and I got it because I was quite early with applying”.
I remember when I first arrived, I thought ‘Oh no, it’s raining!’. In all seriousness, I arrived before the ‘official’ arrival days, which meant that there was no airport pickup organized or anything like that. I had to find my own way from the airport to my new housing. I had to figure out where to go and how the public transportation works, all of that with NO internet on my phone and two huge suitcases. It was quite a hassle.
Step out of your comfort zone
If going on exchange is valuable, it’s because you have to step out of your comfort zone. You’re going to a new country, usually all by yourself. That’s already quite challenging, but then you also have to build a new social network. Two years after my exchange I went traveling in Southeast Asia all by myself for a couple of months. I don’t think I would’ve done that if I hadn’t gone on an exchange before. It helps you grow as a person, because you learn all new ways of life by living in another country, that makes you look at your home country in a different way. It’s the perfect moment to learn about new cultures, make new friends and expand both your network as your knowledge. I think going on exchange was the best decision I’ve ever made.
Culture-wise, I don’t believe Sweden is drastically different to the Netherlands, but there are some differences, of course. Clubs in Uppsala, for instance, close at 2AM, whereas in the Netherlands many close at 4 or 5 AM. The biggest shock in general was in relation to nature, as Uppsala is a lot closer to the polar circle. This means that during summer, the sun rises at 2AM and sets at 11PM. In the beginning I needed to adjust, as I would wake at 4 AM because of the light peeping through my curtains. Winter in Uppsala means that the sun would rise at 9 or 10 AM and set already at 3PM. I could never get used to that, my Vitamin D levels definitely had a drop because of it, haha.
When it comes to making your way around the country, it’s easy to communicate. Swedes speak English very well, even better than the Dutch I’d say, haha yes, I went there. For me there were no struggles at all in that department, only when I tried to speak Swedish and misunderstood the questions. That definitely led to some interesting conversations. Because English is spoken so well, I didn’t get to properly practice my Swedish, but I definitely took a class. My exchange in general was amazing, but there’s one memory I hold very dear, which is the time I went to Lapland and saw the Northern Lights. It was such a rare phenomenon and to be able to see it with your own eyes is an experience difficult to describe. What adds onto this experience is that I spent a whole week with friends up in the cold North.
This picture below might seem like an ordinary group picture, which you’re not mistaken in. However, it was taken at a so-called ‘Gasque’, a student tradition unique to Uppsala, and Lund if I’m not mistaken. It is a dinner with lots of singing, entertainment, speeches and laughter. Gasques usually consist of a three-course meal and are rather unique to Uppsala’s student nations. The dinners usually end with a ‘släpp’, which is a kind of dance with some DJ’s. There are several of these events throughout the year and they always have a theme and a dress code. In general, Uppsala has a very unique student life. There are 13 different ‘nations’, each representing a certain area in Sweden. You are free to choose any one to join, but they each have a different focus. One is more focused on sports, for instance. They all organise their own events, from lunches, to fikas, to club nights. It was amazing to experience such a unique student culture.
Something else I think is a must do when you’re in Sweden, although I think it’s a Finnish invention, is go to a sauna. Often in winter, people will sit in their sauna and then run outside and jump in the snow after. It’s a really interesting sensation going from hot to ice-cold. Other than that, I highly recommend heading North and spotting the Lights. During my stay I also had the opportunity to travel around. I did two road trips. One was around the Stockholm archipelago, the second one took us 6 hours north of Uppsala, and to Lapland. But I managed to go to Tallinn, Helsinki, and St. Petersburg as well.
During my exchange I mostly hang out with other international students, it just happened to be that way. Many Swedes already have their own groups so it was really nice to meet new people from all over the world. When people travel alone to a new place, they seem to be more open in general to new relations, so it was easy to get to know new people. My weeks at school looked different each week but I’d usually have a Swedish class on Monday morning, followed by my picked course. In the evening I’d make dinner, eat with my housemates or friends and then we’d hang out. On Tuesdays and Thursdays it was club night, so those are the nights we’d go out. Wednesdays were library days and Fridays were for relaxation. Every now and then on the weekend I’d explore a bit of Sweden with friends.
Sweden is expensive though! Housing is affordable, but everything else just seems to be quite pricey compared to the Netherlands. Think groceries, and especially drinks. I highly suggest looking into an available Erasmus grant, as that definitely helped me. Public transportation was also on a bit more expensive side, but in Uppsala everyone uses bikes anyways. But you quickly forget the prices, it took me two days before I fell in love with Sweden. It took me a 10 minute walk and I was all alone, immersed in beautiful nature. The only odd thing I can’t comprehend is ‘Surströmming’, which is a Swedish delicacy and it’s basically fermented herring. Apparently, according to a Japanese study, a newly opened can of sumströmming has one of the most putrid food smells in the world, haha, I don’t understand why someone would try it.
If you’re thinking of going on exchange, Aileen has the following thing to say; Do it! It might seem scary going to another country all by yourself, but you will gain so much from it. Friends, experiences, knowledge about another country and culture, valuable skills to add to your CV, you name it. When I returned home, I had the ‘Erasmus-blues’. Your exchange country is going to feel like a new home. I’m still in contact with all of my friends I made over there, we had a reunion in 2017 and exchange Christmas cards each year. I’m hoping I’ll see them again this year. Is there anything you still practice from your time abroad? “Haha, I leave clubs at around 2 AM, but maybe that’s just my age. Also, in Sweden they have a tradition called ‘Fika’, which basically means having a break to have a coffee and a pastry. This is something I often still do.
A huge thanks to Aileen for sharing her exchange story with us! Her exchange semester in Uppsala, Sweden was definitely an adventurous one. If you’ve got any questions for her related to doing your exchange up in the North, feel free to reach out.