Sweden <--> Ohio: Student

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

I haven't died, gotten ill, or fallen into a ditch - though I haven't posted in a while or taken many pictures.

Nor has my brain rotted in my head - wheels are still turning, cultural adjustment is taking place, and I'm still making observations.

However, I feel slower about these - not quite sure of my conclusions. Still percolating.

Two subjects at the moment: the Swedish school system and their astounding focus on individual choice and democratic decisions as a basis of their process in a way that I can barely picture or comprehend. The school visits we'll be making next Wed and Thurs should be instructive in this area.

Secondly: drinking. There's a very different cultural expectation than I have experienced elsewhere on the subject. I am curious about this area both from my interest in discovery as well as from a public health and addiction perspective. I'm curious how addiction is defined, treated, and handled socially and culturally and what/if there are public health repercussions of this cultural model of drinking (which involves fantastically heavy drinking on the weekends and complete sobriety during the week - and I'm not talking only about college students).

There seems to be a pervasive refrain of 'trust/listen to the child' here that sounds mundane but in experience is quite extraordinary. I am curious how this intersects with a medical process whose first step (in the US) is a highly coercive manipulation of the patient into accepting both the medical definition of their situation as a 'problem' and the medical treatment for the situation which involves a period of dependency and external rule-making.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

A visit to the first Ikea store, in Almhult Sweden.

Picture intensive, as this was my first trip to the rural countryside:

This was the largest stack of timber that we passed - however, it was in no way the only one! Small plots, large plots, plots with trees dead from storms, plots with clearcutting, plots with selective cutting, and once a plot in the process of being cut.

The countryside that we passed was all farm fields or timber fields:

Click here for a larger view of that one to see the house and barn way in the back.

More of the sky, swedish housing styles, and the very outside of Almhult, before reaching the store.

Upon entering the store through a turnstile that includes advertising as part of the door, you walk up some stairs and enter Ikea proper.

I insisted on taking a picture of Maria in this lovely chair - it was *really* comfortable!!!

Finally, there was shopping, oohing, and ahing and much admiration of lighting (by me). I was disappointed to learn, however, that prices were not at all comparable to what they were in American stores or available from the website - a few of the items on my list were quite offensively more expensive than the American product of the same name.

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In crossing cultures, even if the language boundary is a comparatively minimal one, traditions are changed. While this happens in a wide context (Americans have never heard of St Nicholas or the Italian/Swedish tradition of Lucia), it also happens in a small, personal context, on a daily basis, while living - transplanted - in another culture.

I belong to the church of coffee. I belong to the church of a lot of things, actually, so my membership here isn't exclusive, but it's a daily ritual I invest a fair amount of time, effort, and enjoyment in practicing.

Like most traditions and customs as practiced in our own culture, my practice is invisible. I have no pictures of my coffee ritual, coffee maker, or favorite mug. Pictures do exist of the long process of roasting your own coffee, which I highly recommend - not as easy as opening a bag of pre-ground pre-roast, but enjoyable nonetheless.

So, in the spirit of continued documentation, I present to you pictures of my own mundane coffee ritual as transformed by the transplantation and adaption process.

Everything changes - from the text on the milk container (which I cannot read), to the orange cow patterning and blue and white daisy icon signifying brand, to the fineness and taste and strange smell of the brown sugar I use to flavor my coffee.

The coffee changes, but this is a predictable and expected change. The coffeemaker was a gift, quite thankfully, from my fadder, Maria. I have not seen much evidence of their popularity - apparently Swedes prefer to take their coffee at work and at school.

In addition to belonging to the Church of Coffee, I am also a staunch supporter of the Church of Breakfast. Like the Swedes, Breakfast is a significant meal, not to be missed. Breakfast is yougart in cerial, in this case musli. It's a popular Swedish choice, but not exclusively. I've had this breakfast at home. The difference is in the yougart - sweetened, flavored, thinned, and arriving in a cardboard 'milk' container or plastic juice-type jug.

Even with the variety of differences, the magic red button remains the same.

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Thursday, January 25, 2007

Today was a better day.

It wasn't perfect, and it wasn't painless, but it was far, far better than yesterday.

For example, once my phone charged and I was actually able to make phone calls, I called about my bike - and the tires didn't need to be replaced!

After a quick bus trip downtown ('centrum'), I picked up my bike from the shop. In anticipation of some pain, I got on - the anticipation was warranted... the pain was severe.

Persevering, I started home. I came to a fork in the bike path. Not sure of the right choice, I went right (knowing that eventually I would make it around the lake and back to the University but hoping I'd picked the shorter path). I should have gone left.

The two good points of this choice are the pictures you see here and an ongoing sense of thankfulness that when I walked home the other night I inadvertently took the left path (otherwise I'd never have attempted to bike it - the right path is far longer than the left!).

In addition, I gained a greater appreciation for the value Swedes place on nature. It was a cold day - clear but dark and bitterly cold with some wind but no snow.

People were out in force around the lake. It's a primarily scenic route - and rarely was I alone on the path (it's a 5-8km loop). People of all ages; some biking, some walking, and a group of three with ski poles walking in deeper snow along the side of path. In addition, I saw two old people - people so old they helped each other walk, slowly, pausing every couple of steps in the middle of the path.

I was in awe. They were _opting_ to subject themselves to the cold, the wind, and the elements on one of the more unpleasant days I've seen yet in my time here! And they're "old and fragile", at least in theory, and certainly in appearance. A fall (they were walking on packed snow and ice!) would result in a trip to the hospital and months of rehabilitation and possibly surgery...?!! What would posses them to voluntarily walk around a lake if they had anything else even remotely attractive with which to occupy their time?!!

I didn't talk to them, so I can't answer that question, but I can guess, based on what I've learned in my classes so far. Swedes like nature. Really. A lot. Almost all of them, almost all of the time, even when the rest of the world (or at least me) thinks they're utterly crazy. I learned that New Years eve is spent outside, knee-deep in snow, in expensive formal wear, watching fireworks. I am aghast.

I may perhaps see the beginning of an understanding of their public health system. Nature is revered, protected, and cherished. In addition to protecting people's health, animal and plant life and health is also protected. Perhaps for a country dedicated to spending three weeks before Christmas and two or three (or five!) weeks around Midsummer in rural country cottages, nature has a more immediate meaning than the theoretical understanding we as Americans have of it, viewed from our car windows, between strip malls, parking lots, and subdivisions?

Perhaps also this love of nature involves spending time with it... walking around lakes, walking into town, even if a car is an option, building extensive walking and bike trails in addition to roadways. Perhaps this, in addition, involves involvement in athletic pursuits, also contributing to greater overall health.

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

I bought a bike today for $42 and I'm a little bitter about it, though that's a wonderful price in this very expensive country.

It's ugly fluorescent orange, mountain bike tires and a woman's heavy duty body style - I'm not sure if it just inherited the handlebars from something belonging to a child but it's a bad fit - my legs never stretch out fully as I peddle. Also, the seat is very hard plastic with a crack in the middle to boot. You might wonder if the brakes work and I can assure you that they do because I tried them before purchasing. What else? It has gears, which I hear is quite helpful and worth paying a little extra for, however, it's chain sometimes jumps and it may change gears on it's own, as I experienced on my long ride home.

Remaining cramped up in a ball while peddling through the snow is rough on the thighs, you know? Also, adding an oversized, overfilled pack to the equation is a bad idea (ream of paper, 2L or so liquid, books, binder, and a table cloth I'm using as a rug).

I took two buses out to the bike shop (the only one with cheep used bikes in stock) but because I didn't know that by default you're given a transfer (more expensive) and I didn't know how to request the cheaper ticket (by .75$ or so) and because I waited in the freezing cold for FOUR DIFFERENT BUSES (two of those involved waiting in the wrong place), I'm including the cost of my two bus tickets and bringing that price up to $51. Do you see why I'm bitter about the bus?

And almost finally, to bring this long sad tale towards it's whiny conclusion: I have two flat tires. Before I left I had them filled up at the shop I purchased the bike from, so it's not a 'slow leak' or minor problem. After half-walking and half-riding the thing towards downtown (2-3km?), I spotted a bike shop downtown. I inquired about the cost of repairing flat tires: 140SEK... per tire.

That officially *doubles* the cost of the bike (if I include the 14SEK bus ticket home)! I'm calling tomorrow to discuss and hope the total isn't as high as I expect. (In addition, I'm ignoring the 20SEK I spent on a flashlight, my concession to the rule that bikes must be lighted at all times, and the 50SEK I spent on the cheapest lock available, at the strong advice of the international office during orientation).

In addition, I'd planned on doing all this with a friend (Karolina, the Polish girl) but she had other errands to run and couldn't join me. The small ammt of Swedish that she already knows would have been much helpful.

To top it off (and this one is self induced, so can I bitch? I'm not sure), my room is swelteringly hot so I have to convince myself that it's cold outside when I get dressed in the morning (I really *really* wanted to wear a T-shirt and rain jacket today... I decided a very very light cotton long sleeve shirt was acceptable at the last second, luckily).

I had pithy and insightful thoughts today while I was waiting for my three buses for 30-40min in the freezing cold but I can't remember them now. Something to do with how wearing the constant experience of being wrong is, no matter what your culture, and no matter the kindness of the people around you. It's hard.

I'm gonna go on faith that it's good in the end cause I'm not buying it right now.

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Monday, January 22, 2007


You wouldn't think it was that different in another country, right?

You'd be wrong.

Once getting in the door (which took about 15min and that was _with_ the tip thankfully given to me by my hallmate that the system uses a magnetic key entry found on my keyring), I departed again and returned with my laundry.

I scheduled a time for myself (now) using the Swedish-language laundry controller through many errors and guessing.

I placed my laundry in two machines. I added soap (guessing at the correct slot). I chose my wash option (thankfully there were English instructions on the wall about what the different wash cycle icons meant). I pressed Go.

I got flashing lights and a flashing timer icon.

I tried a second time.

At this point another student came in to retreive her laundry from the drier so I was able to ask her what the problem was. After repeating my steps, she got the same result, much to her surprise. Then she asked which group I'd signed up for? Uh, group?

Apparently scheduling is even more controlled than access being given simply to a number of people during a two hour period... you have assigned washers and driers. What a disagreement-preventing idea!

I placed my laundry in the correct washers, added more soap, pressed the same buttons, and it washed. I'd read that Swedish laundry systems are known for being particularly harsh (downright brutal to anything other than cotton, in fact), with a reputation for returning clothes in a condition far different from when they were placed in the machine. I chose a wool wash cycle and was pleased with the results (on my perfectly normal non-wool clothes).

While I waited, I knit, and got a bit further on my sherbet sock (which I'm considering converting to a toe up Jaywalker sock).

After the washing, I had two options for drying. There was the option I was most familiar with - a tumbling cylinder full of heated air. On this version I got to choose temperature as well as dry time. The other option was one I'd never seen before and reminded me of proofing chambers for bread in bakeries (pix is with visual interest, of course).

A hot air closet (?) is the closest description I can come up with. Drying racks for air drying of delicates (also with choices of air temperature and cycle time). Interesting!

And of course, lastly:

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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Yesterday we had a presentation by an American student who has been at Vaxjo University for a year so far and hopes to stay longer. She talked about Culture Shock in a way that I'd not realized was particularly American (blunt, short, clear, fast, almost brutally or rudely concise and colorful and dramatic in her descriptions). Her presentation covered useful information for me and reinforced things I was already doing (and warned me to watch out for other aspects of integration or disintegration).

She talked about the three phases of Culture Shock. The first is the honeymoon phase. This is when the experience is new and exciting and differences are viewed as positive and frustrations are minimized. Until yesterday evening, my honeymoon period was in full swing. I was in love with the country, the culture, the weather, and viewed all differences as 'cute' or exciting.

Then I got tired. It's exhausting to constantly adapt, to run translation filters for common words in a mother tongue (and I'm in awe of what the non-English students have to go through!), to wander blindly looking for bathrooms, coffee, or food, asking for help from strangers in all aspects of life (thankfully, Swedes as a group are SHOCKINGLY helpful and very willing to speak English to assist complete strangers). The second phase of culture shock is one of anxiety, fear, and withdrawing.

Cultural differences are viewed negatively, differences are frustrating and no longer exciting, a desire to leave may be expressed or simply a desire to spend time only with other students most like yourself (or other exchange students only). Irritability if the key characteristic I find myself expressing of this state (and lets me know that I've reached this second phase in my adjustment).

Like depression, the cure for this state is engagement. Refusing to spend time only with exchange students or North American students (there are several Canadians in addition to the American students from Chicago, North Carolina, New Mexico, and Kentucky) was something I did instinctively but will have to discipline myself about in the coming weeks. Consciously spending time and seeking out Swedish students or exchange students from other locations needs to be a forefront goal of my daily interactions.

To that end, I've found a riding stable on campus and am inquiring about employment there tomorrow (I suspect my lack of Swedish will hamper me *greatly* in this but I hope that perseverance and willingness to learn will make up for it). It is easy walking distance from my dorm, which excites me greatly.

In addition, my Swedish fadder Maria has been immensely helpful in smoothing my transition to Swedish life, answering stupid questions, obvious questions, and bringing to light some hints about unspoken Swedish cultural rules (never wearing shoes in the house is a cultural norm, but the unspoken reason for this is a national preoccupation with hygiene and cleanliness).

Gems like this give me some structure on which to hang my understanding and observations of Swedish culture.

It is my hope that in time I will reach the third stage of cultural adjustment: integration. In this stage and appreciation of cultural differences does not mean native culture is rejected and present cultural environment is accepted wholeheartedly, but that differences are noted, examined critically and accepted without value judgment. It is my (private) hope also that a greater appreciation of my own culture will be possible through this experience. Uniformly, the Swedes that I've spoken with talk positively about American culture, with the exception of politics, while also retaining an appreciation for their own culture - and it is my hope to emulate this.

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I've arrived.

I flew from Detroit to Frankfurt, Germany, then to Stockholm, Sweden and then onto Vaxjo, Sweden. It was more or less 24 hours spent in airports or in the air.

My favorite or most interesting thing about the airports were the variety of toilets I encountered. American toilets are porcelain pedestal with a rectangular porcelain box on the back with a lever attached to the side. Pushing down on the lever flushes the toilet. My favorite (or least favorite, depending on my frustration level) toilet was the one I found in the German airport.

It was a regular pedestal (small details made it obviously foreign but the most basic features were the same) but mounted on the wall. There was no rectangular box full of water and no levers to press. There was a small black sensor thing that I placed my hand in front of several times to no avail (perhaps it was an automatic model with no need for levers?). The only other detail on the wall was a large plastic slightly raised box (a huge flat light switch?) that I surmised had something to do with maintenance, storage of seat covers, or perhaps feminine product disposal. After examination of every aspect of the toilet (including the bottom of the bowl and the floor and the off chance that the flushing mechanism was a button of some sort), which took perhaps 30 seconds, I started fumbling with the plastic box on the wall.

The toilet flushed. The large flat plastic switch was the flushing mechanism. I felt both stupid and very smart, something I'm finding is characteristic of my experience abroad so far.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Pix over at my Flickr acct of the rural/suburban area I'm coming from. Some trains I'm particularly fond of:

Currently, I'm drinking my last Michigan beer: Bells Cherry Stout (it's stupendously good) and packing.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Awake, worried.

Mostly about money but also mundane stuff like fitting in, getting around, adjusting, and a lot of anxiety about social foot-in-mouth as a result of being a Dumb American. Great fear, that one, that of being a dumb American and also knowing that I'm being relied upon to represent our country (the people of which I don't actually believe are all as sucky as the politicians, corporations, and marketing departments have lead me to believe).

There's a social event in roughly a month I think where I'm expected to present... a song and dance and speech sort of affair. I don't have anything to wear and am petrified about presenting. What to say? What to wear (and should I go shopping now, where it'll be cheaper, but require fitting into the limited space of my luggage)?

So how could I possibly represent 'us'? (America, the United States, the slavering consumerist masses that constitute the non-Canadian part of North America). What right do I, social and political malcontent, have to represent the whole country at some university event (Yes, it's a big deal, they specifically emailed me and said to pack something formal and start planning now)?

“We aren't as dumb as we look. Really.”

Despite our skyrocketing health care costs, and astounding costs of prescription drugs, we've allowed our drug companies to market to uninformed consumers. Consumers now self-diagnose invented illnesses and ask their not-very-trusted doctors for the solution to their life's problems by name (after watching a 60 second TV commercial consisting mostly of a soothing jingle and pandering to our need to believe in a magic bullet cure for our lifestyle-induced chronic illnesses).

Our political system is a sham. Politicians compete for votes by competing with commercial donors for campaign contributions so they can buy more TV 'spots' in influential districts. By some accounts the present leader of our country wasn't even elected, instead seizing power through a shady voting scam involving his governor cousin. Half the countries' voters are holding their breath until the new presidential elections and hoping the political system holds out long enough to keep Bush from nuking anyone or declaring martial law.

Despite record unemployment (and underemployment, and 'restructuring'), we've eliminated almost all of our social welfare programs, along with our subsidies for college education, unemployment insurance, and most terrifying; the accelerated financial atrophy of the educational system. We're instead funding the slaughter of increasingly unprepared and unqualified solders fighting a 'war' that is both unethical and unwinable.

I'm so exhausted just thinking about those items that I can't even talk about the damage we willfully inflict on the environment (not even in the name of progress, this is political head-burying long after the dragon's turned around to claim it's tail).

Really, I want to say our people are better than that. We're better than the astronomical personal debt, lack of investments in our future, our environment, and our own health, not to mention any sort of securing of those resources for our kid's futures. But I'm not quite sure how.

We have to be better than that.

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Camera, check!
Memory card, check!

Computer... maybe.

Downloading Swedish mp3s and reading Google news in the hopes of sounding less like a dumb American than I might otherwise. Setting up webcams, email accounts and Skype accounts. Also beginning the process of time change adjustment.

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