1 April 2014

5 Ways Sweden is Better than England part I

1. Cleanliness. All student housing and the vast majority of apartment buildings have free communal washing facilities. Some smaller apartments and shared housing will have a washing machine in the kitchen, provided by the landlord, though this is less common. Not only are the machines of high quality and in abundance, the cost of using them is included in your rent. This is grounded in the welfare state and the period when folkhemmet was just beginning; a belief that every Swedish citizen has the right to clean clothes as a matter of cleanliness, illness prevention and dignity. In return, you are expected to abide by basic etiquette: clean up after yourself, empty the lint filters, ensure you haven't left any detergent in the machine drawer etc. These laundry rooms are also equipped with tumble dryers and heated drying racks which are free to use too.

2. Healthy eating. Junk and fast food outlets are scarce, with convenience food extending to oven chips, pizzas and (very good, vegan friendly) salad bars in every ICA supermarket. There are organic and eco-friendly versions of pretty much every product you can think of. Like everything else in Sweden, food can be expensive - but relative to the average wage of somebody who lives and works here full time, it's actually cheaper than other European countries.

3. Nature. There are rivers, parks, forests and fields everywhere. You are never far away from a forest so large you can walk around all day and never retrace your steps in, or mountains, or a hiking trail, or anything else you could want. There are cycle and pedestrian paths everywhere (in Uppsala, you need not come into contact with a car walking from Flogsta to Engelska Parken). The air is clean and, unlike most other European cities, even the urban areas have a significant amount of nature. In fact, everything is built AROUND nature, not vice versa: nature here is actual nature, not just a representation of it such as you might find in the cultivated parks of London, Paris or Amsterdam.

4. Access to education. University is free here. Not just cheap, or partially subsidized: FREE. For every Swedish citizen. Factor in that most young Swedes are fluent in English and knowledgeable on many things outside of Sweden from politics to history to music, it's pretty evident that high quality education need not cost the earth. Students are also entitled to grants of 7529 SEK a year, and can take out up to 47,640 SEK in loans per year too.
Also, you can take random courses without committing to a degree if that's your thing. So if you wanted to spend half your time studying climate science and the other on an art history course, that is your call.

5. Quality. As stated previously, daily life for a student coming from most places outside Scandinavia is expensive. However, you do pay for quality. If you buy something here then it will last, it will perform as it is meant to for the duration, and you'll find yourself annoyed that you have to leave it here when you go home. I bought the cheapest walking shoes that Stadium (an outdoor pursuits outlet) had to offer. I fully expected them to be knackered after a couple of uses. They're as good as new despite taking a near daily battering from whatever terrain I could throw at them and so now I have to decide what to sacrifice in order to fit them into my suitcase when I leave.

12 March 2014

Some Things I've Noticed in Sweden part I

1. Swedish men will just spit on the floor mid-conversation. Or anytime. Not all of them, but a lot. Cultural or not, it's kinda gross.

2. There is no litter anywhere. Obviously it exists: the woods behind Flogsta 4 for instance - but generally it is so clean here that I wonder if anyone actually consumes anything.

3. The stereotype of "beautiful Swedish women" is justified. Perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect skin, nice people. It's simultaneously amazing and depressing being surrounded by the very good looking all of the time.

4. Nature is EVERYWHERE and it is incredible. Swedish forests are proper forests that stretch for miles.

5. Winter and darkness last for ages. Bring vitamin D tablets if you're from somewhere lower on the hemisphere (yes, even England).

6. Being passive tends to be valued far more highly than speaking your mind here. Even in seminars where participation counts towards your final grade, people are hesitant to talk. I have encountered a lot of angry notes in various student corridors throughout Flogsta though, so I don't think this stems from an innate ability to suppress all negative feelings.

7. Everything costs more than you think it will. You will be warned before you come here of how expensive it is (unless you're from Denmark, or Tokyo, or similar...). Get your expectations, double them.

8. Still don't "get" Systembolaget.

9. I cannot speak for other nationalities, but if you have an English accent, you will be complimented on it daily. I have an Essex accent and yet somehow, people here still love it.

10. If you live in Flogsta, you don't really need a clock. At 10 PM every night - and I mean, every single night - the Flogsta scream takes place. It's really loud, loads of people get involved, at the weekends it can be kind of insane. I think it originally started as a means to offload stress but now it's more a mark of just being a student and living in Flogsta (which is the best, though not the prettiest, student housing location in Uppsala no question).

11. Everyone walks, runs or cycles. You can walk for miles, all across the city, and see maybe 2 or 3 cars. Obviously this increases when you get towards the highways and main roads towards Stockholm but still. It's impressive.

12. You will have fika, you will grow to love it, you will continue to do it after you leave. It's a social thing, generally consisting of eating something sweet with coffee (or tea), generally in the morning/early afternoon.

13. Swedish people drink a lot of coffee. Coincidentally, the tea that is available here sucks unless you really like Lipton black teabags. Which nobody does.

14. Snow here is crazy. It's really deep, it snows for months, and you can wake up to inches and inches of it overnight. Consequently, the city always looks beautiful but you always need to keep your gloves on you else you are fucked.

15. Even when everything is covered in black ice, everything still operates fine: public transport, shops, bars, phonelines, everything.

16. Ticks can be a big thing here. Get vaccinated or take precautions: as one of my tutors here said "they can give you serious illnesses and ruin you".

17. Seminars are very isolated in that nobody likes to speak. Not just speak first, speak at all. Unless they are an exchange student, and even then the deathly silence can be quite a deterrent. You also tend to sit in rows facing the front (aka looking at the teacher), as opposed to in a circle looking at everybody.

18. The "town and gown" divide in Uppsala is very apparent and is characterized by geography in relation to the river that runs through the town. On the West is the castle, the cathedral, and the universities and nations. On the other side: everything else.

19. Nations - there are several different ones, and you choose which one to join. They are similar to Student Unions but less "united". You pay to join but international students are able to get into all of them regardless of which one they "belong" to due to the shorter stay rendering changing pretty pointless. Home students have to request to change as far as I know. They are student led, and put on different events from club nights to fika to dinners to gasques (which are basically proms). Each one has a very different vibe: I joined Kalmar because it's all about veganism, the environment and house music. Cliche Sussex student. Stockholm, for instance, is very different and seems to pride itself on mirroring "high society". All of them have their own beautiful old building.

20. Flogsta parties happen every night. I mean, every single night of the week. Usually more than one. There is literally no reason not to meet people: follow the sound of the screams.

21. The buildings here are incredible. Old, colourful and beautiful.

22. Hardly anyone smokes. The only people I know that smoke are English, French or Belgian. It's also very cheap to buy cigarettes here: the equivalent of about £4.80 for 20 Marlboro.

23. Do not get into the habit of buying Maribou chocolate because you will never be able to stop.

24. IKEA is treasured here. It's promoted at every available opportunity and celebrated whenever possible. They even managed to shoehorn a short history of IKEA into all 3 of the prospectuses and student guides I received. Naturally, there is an IKEA bus, the first trip is free if you book yourself in on orientation day. I've never been.

25. Having pets doesn't seem to be a big thing here. This may be because I am living in Uppsala, which is predominantly a student town, or because I have only really visited very rural or very urban areas. Either way, it's strange not having a cat cut you up on several occasions every time you leave the house.

26. If you try and speak Swedish and you're doing it badly, Swedish people will just switch to English. All courses are taught in either Swedish or English here and so it's not too much of a presumption on their part, plus it saves time (I guess...).

27. Finding a doctor or a dentist here if you are a visitor and not fluent in Swedish is very, very difficult.

28. Everything is on time. Your flight will leave and arrive just as anticipated. Your train and your bus will depart and arrive exactly as stated. Someone will check your ticket. Everything... is... just... as... it should be...

29. At some point, you will pay £9 for a pint. You will pay £11 for a sandwich. This will happen and you won't see it coming. Prepare yourself.

30. Salt liquorice is a big thing here. It tastes like seawater in solid form. Some people go mental for it, I personally wanted to burst into tears the first time I tried it and had to force it down out of politeness. In that sense, it's the equivalent of Marmite, which coincidentally does not exist here unless you go to The English Shop (with very Swedish prices).

31. I saw the Aurora Borealis faintly from the balcony of our corridor once. It was fucking amazing. Trips to see them are expensive but if you can afford it then I would highly recommend it.

32. The Swedish language looks difficult, but is actually really easy to learn if you are already a native or fluent English speaker. Most words mean exactly what you assume they will mean and phonetically, the alphabet is very similar to that of English too.

33. Some things are cheap here: phone credit, brie, decent wine, decent beer, fresh fruit and vegetables, and rent (particularly when you consider that bills and laundry are included).

31 January 2014

Year of the Horse

MY YEAR (or anyone born between January 1990 and February 1991). It is mine though.
Happy New Year. Enjoy:

28 January 2014

Interesting Things I've Noticed

Some things I have noticed about Sweden (or at least, about Uppsala).
This will be the first time I have lived abroad and no doubt I will notice many more things as time goes on but during my first fortnight...

1. Everyone has heard of this - the Systembolaget. Basically, you can't buy alcohol over 3.5% unless it's from a Systembolaget store which is a government owned off licence chain; referred to as "the system". A few bars and clubs sell stronger alcohol but they are few. Also, at 18 you are legally allowed to buy alcohol with maximum 3.5% a.b.v. - to buy anything stronger, you must be 20 years old. It's also really expensive to drink here. Considering I am not even in Stockholm, the average cost of a beer in a bar is 70 kroner (and there are about 10 SEK to 1 GBP). Also, bars and clubs are scarce in Uppsala. As a student I can go to the nations or to corridor parties but for an English person visiting as a tourist, there may not be much to do at night...

2. EVERYTHING is expensive here. Except brioche, brie, cigarettes, certain chocolate, chickpeas, bus passes and phone credit which are all far cheaper than in the UK. By expensive I mean, London prices and then half again. I've not been into Stockholm yet. I'm nervous.

3. It's cold. Properly below freezing cold. The last couple of days haven't been so bad but previously it was getting down to at least -10C and feeling colder because there's snow everywhere. It's not the kind of snow you can fight with - it's really powdery - but there's so much of it that you can go sledding, which is pretty cool.

4. Everyone cycles. And I mean - EVERYONE CYCLES. Even more so than in Amsterdam.

5. Swedish people do not seem to be as liberated or blunt as I was expecting. In fact, they seem more reserved and perhaps a little more shy than people in England. Getting paraletic or talking about sex openly, for instance, do not seem to be commonplace here. It is also impossible to get hold of weed, particularly good weed, and you can get deported for having any on you. This seems like a minor (major) overreaction but each to their own...

6. Learning the Swedish language is really difficult. Many people speak perfect English anyway but a lot of Swedish words are merged together so it's really difficult to work out what things mean. The language itself is really nice though - upbeat and friendly.

6.5 Despite people here speaking perfect English, you need to learn some Swedish. Ingredients are written in Swedish, as are signs, road names, maps, instructions, menus... and unlike some countries, there aren't multiple language versions of the same text. It is just Swedish. The other day I ate a whole can of soup concentrate by accident because I misread the label and it was only when I said "this is too salty" that one of my Swedish housemates read it, laughed hysterically, then told me you are meant to add water and mix it as it is supposed to make multiple meals. Life experience.

7. Public transport is far more limited. Buses heading towards the centrum (centre) are most frequent, but even then they are only every 15 minutes and stop at 2 am. For some places this might seem late, or regular, but contrasted with Brighton it kind of feels like living in the sticks sometimes. Once the weather improves, walking will be an option as it is only 45 minutes from Flogsta to town. Right now though, even with thermals and base layers and a ridiculous amount of winter clothing, it's just a stupid idea.

8. The country is really beautiful and clean. You can actually taste how much clearer the air is. More or less everyone cycles or takes public transport, a lot of which consists of electric trains or green buses. The only other vehicles you tend to see on the road are taxis.

9. There are no sirens ! Ever. I haven't noticed any police presence whatsoever since I've been here. Due to black ice everywhere, there have been a couple of ambulances, but no police. Crime seems to be non-existent compared to England. People seem to be more respectful, more honest and a little calmer than they are in the UK. Considering I am in student accommodation, I have yet to see a Swedish person throw up, pass out or be embarrassingly wasted. Pretty much every other nationality on the other hand...

10. If you walk down to the shop with your pyjamas over your base layers (because why get changed just to leave the house for 10 minutes ?), people stare at you. Bear in mind, this is a non-thing: it's not weird or unusual, it's just pyjamas. There are a lot of things people stare at you for. As lovely as it is, it really has brought it home how open-minded Brighton is. You can do literally anything you want, whenever you want, and nobody cares. I kind of took this for granted before.

11. Swedish people seem to love English accents. Even my disgusting Essex drawl. I don't know why.

12. Women in Sweden really are THAT beautiful. Everyone is slim and tall with beautiful skin. It's kind of soul destroying but....