Want to go FIKA?
The life as an exchangestudent
At home in the States, people like to refer to me as “the Swede.” Some even mistake me for a Swedish exchange student on my campus and comment on my lack of an accent when speaking English. I also tend to think of myself as Swedish, even though I was born in the US. My mother was born and raised in Östersund but has lived in the States for 35 years now. Until a certain point in my childhood (I can’t say exactly when), I didn’t think anything of the fact that my mother sometimes speaks Swedish and I have a grandmother who is called “mormor” and speaks no English. I have a vague memory, though, of at some point becoming conscious of what it means to have Swedish heritage. I made the connection through the stereotypes I encountered on TV and in movies—hot, blonde babes in bikinis and tall men skiing through beautiful landscape while enjoying the benefits of the famous welfare system. It seemed to me like a good thing to be Swedish. From that moment on, I started telling anyone and everyone that I am Swedish. In my mind, though, I knew I wasn’t really Swedish. I had spent many summers in Sweden with my mother and mormor and saw the evidence all around me—I don’t like the outdoors enough to camp for more than one night, I’m more afraid of skiing than fond of it, it took me a long time to like lax, and I probably wouldn’t eat herring voluntarily on any other day than Christmas. To become truly Swedish, then, I knew I had to live in the country for some time. I decided to study abroad in Umeå so I could try to figure out what it takes to be one of them. Being that I had spent some time in the country before, I thought I knew what things were all about. I knew at least that ICA is the place to go for groceries, and that plain filmjölk and salted licorice are the most disgusting things in the world. I was well versed in the varieties of Swedish candy (my favorite being Ahlgren’s bilar), and I knew that fika means to have coffee and sweets. I knew how to speak some Swedish, and I even knew how to open the cardboard milk boxes. When I arrived in Umeå, though, I began to think that maybe things weren’t going to be any easier for me than for anyone else. My first day was a disaster. After getting off the bus at Ålidhems Centrum, my mother and I asked at least six different people how to get to Fysikgränd. Most of them said they didn’t know, and some of them gave directions that included descriptions of trees, small trash buildings, and bike sheds. Coming from the US, I’m used to directions that include cross streets, stoplights, turns at intersections, and street names. I couldn’t believe how one could ever navigate through the unmarked, curvy roads and alleys of Ålidhem. After making it halfway down Fysikgränd by chance and asking one last person mere meters away from my door for directions, I found an empty, dirty room with torn wallpaper that was to be my home for the next six months. I was overwhelmingly disappointed. Shortly after arriving, I was happy to find that another girl from the US had moved in next door to me. Before leaving home, I promised myself I would stay away from Americans while abroad, but in the moment, it was incredibly comforting to have a partner in all these new experiences. We got completely lost walking from Origo to Ålidhem, spent half an 26
hour taking the bus from centrum in the wrong direction, and walked through ankle-deep slush to get to ICA Maxi. After skipping the first day of orientation, my friend and I decided to go to the second day for at least a little while. To our surprise, we ended up making our two first friends in Umeå over lunch. For the next few weeks, it seemed like groups of new international students could be found waiting for friends around every corner in Ålidhem. With no more than an hour and a half of class per week, I had nothing else to do but attend every mentor group activity, international pub, or corridor party and keep meeting new people. I wrote e-mails home listing all the nationalities of my new friends. My new favorite thing to do was converse with people about differences in everything from language, politics, education, culture, and music to just being a student. Eventually, though, the friend-making process started to slow down. I was happy with the circle of close friends I found, as it seems that everyone else was because the mentor group activities struggled to survive. Somewhere in between the intense friend-making process and growing closer and closer to my new best friends, I forgot about my plan to become a real Swede. Instead of trying to find a way into a group of Swedish friends to uncover the real info about what’s what in Sweden, hanging out with my new international friends brought my attention to more nuances of Swedish culture that I had never noticed before. Two of my friends still can’t fathom the fact that you have to take a number to return your books at the library, and one of them got yelled at in ICA for eating one of the free, ripe bananas—he didn’t know they were for children only. Others are appalled that almost no one wipes down the exercise machines after they are done at IKSU, and the people from the US are absolutely amazed that you can take re-tests. Everyone was angry at the Systembolaget thing at first, but now our tolerance levels have gone down, and we just drink what is available in the grocery stores. Now, a month and a half before going home, the last thing on my mind is how Swedish I have become. Contrary to what I expected, living in Sweden has made me realize that maybe it’s not possible to shed the American half of my heritage. I have never felt so much like a typical American before. At first, I felt like I was shouting whenever I was talking in public places, and I am still devastated by the lack of super-size grocery stores and variety of good, cheap restaurants (I am ashamed to admit that I had to recently pull myself out of a weeklong strike against cooking for myself). What makes this situation confusing, though, is that when I go home, people will still call me “the Swede.” This does not mean that I am going to stop them, though, because my belief that it’s a pretty good thing to be Swedish has only been strengthened. Never before have my friends and I had so much time to drink coffee together, enjoy the sunlight, and travel. What being Swedish means to me, though, will probably be a little bit different. Instead of thinking about the potential I have to become a real, fashionable, well-traveled, happy Swede, I will think about the incredible friendships I made and the unforgettable experiences we had together while living in a country that was foreign to all of us. I already know, though, that I will have to constantly stop myself before asking my American friends, “Want to go fika?”
SKRIBENT: Anna Konrad LAYOUT: Anna Pohjanen