'I knew three things about Sweden; everyone was blonde, it was cold and ABBA'
My Education Week: Louise Farrell,Erasmus student , Uppsala, Sweden
I nip into university on my bike. I have called her Jasmine and we cannot be separated. In Uppsala, bikes are all the rage. En route, I enjoy my daily 20 minutes of sun. By three o’clock, it will be dark.
Before the Erasmus programme offered me a place in Uppsala, I knew three things about Sweden; everyone was blonde, it was cold and ABBA. I figured that this was half the charm of Erasmus – having no clue what you’re getting into.
My subjects at home are psychology and Gaeilge, so today I’ll be sitting a module on Gaelic literature, translated back into English and taught by a Dutch guy. Absolutely bizarre and absolutely enjoyable.
After lectures finish, I find a red ticket hanging from my handlebar, informing me politely that I cannot park in this area. A parking ticket, for my bike. This is just so fantastically Swedish.
The Swedes love rules and they are a very honest people. I told my twin brother this when he came to visit. Being your typical messer of an Irish student, he couldn’t resist testing the theory. The Swedes love to put little blankets in the smoking areas of clubs to keep people warm.When we were leaving, he still had a blanket wrapped around him. The bouncer stopped him very calmly (the Swedes don’t do aggression) and explained that he couldn’t leave with it. Without missing a beat, my brother told him that one of the bar tenders in the club had sold it to him. Total fiction. The bouncer apologised profusely, without question, and we went on our way, wrapped in the little blanket.Sometimes I really do feel bad for them. . .
I have the morning free so I “fika” with a friend. Fika is a fantastic thing. It is a verb meaning “to sit on one’s arse”.
Put more eloquently, fika is the Swedish tradition of having a coffee with cake. All Swedish cafés offer you free refills on your coffee because fika is more of a state of being.
Later, I have Swedish class. You would think learning Swedish in Sweden would be pretty straight-forward. Wrong. They were recently given the title of the best non-native English-speakers in the English Proficiency Index 2012. I got chatting to a guy the other night and asked him which state in the US he was from. He looked at me, totally confused, and told me he was Swedish.
I try to practice my Swedish all the time. Sometimes, they bear with me. Other times they swap to English straight away. I think I might start telling them I only speak Irish and Swedish and see how that goes.
This morning, I meet with my Swedish language partner. She is a total hippy and I love her. We speak an hour of English, which is an absolute breeze for her, and an hour of Swedish, which fries my brain.
I arrive home in the evening to a very busy and aromatic kitchen. I live in a student corridor, with 12 rooms and one kitchen so it gets pretty exciting around six o’clock. Only when I moved in to this international environment did I realise the disgrace of the Irish student diet. My oven chips, drowned with salt and ketchup, get looks of absolute disgust. The three boys – Spanish, Greek and Lebanese – regularly ask if I’d like some butter, salt or ketchup with my beer. They find this joke hilarious every single time.
Tonight, they are all gathered in the kitchen cooking together, the Indian boys making exotic curries from scratch, the Greek creating amazing things with olive oil and feta cheese.
Food is my Lebanese friend’s passion in life. It’s like living with Jamie Oliver. He makes way more than he can ever eat because it’s very important to him to share. They spend hours asking each other questions about the food and peering over shoulders into frying pans. Then, they all sit down and share their meals together and have a rare old time.
For months they wouldn’t try anything I made, claiming they’d die of a heart-attack.
I spend my morning in psychology lectures. My current module is easily the best course I’ve ever taken. With only about 20 of us in the class, our weekly assignments demand us to display an understanding of what went on in the lecture, by applying the information ourselves and coming up with new theories on the subject.
A lot of the modules I take at home don’t even require you to turn up but rather learn-off a book of information before a two-hour exam at the end of the semester.
For the first time, I am being asked to get up in front of a class, present a theory and hold my own when the lecturer and my classmates poke holes in it. Creating a logical argument and defending it under pressure is not a skill that’s expected of Irish students. For the first time, I feel like I am attending a school of thought rather than a school of information, and I love it.
Tonight, I’m heading out to a “nation” with my gang of English-speaking friends. The idea of the “nations” is almost as old as the university itself (the oldest in Scandinavia). They’re like American fraternities or Harry Potter houses. Each nation has head-quarters, some of them hundreds of years old. These headquarters house the nation’s café, pub, library, student accommodation and sometimes nightclub, all entirely student-run. It is without a doubt the best part about being a student in Uppsala. I feel like I am part of the most successful and powerful student body in the world.
I would love to say I spend my time socialising with a big group of Swedes, nattering away in Swedish, but I’m afraid it’s a work in progress. When getting to know Swedes, you have to tread carefully, like approaching a grazing deer with a shotgun. You can’t be too loud or invasive. But once you make the effort to get to know them, they are usually the loveliest, most down-to-earth people you’ll find. I am still determined to find myself a nice Swedish boy before the year is out. They say it takes patience. Swedish boys are not fast movers. Unfortunately, my time here is of the essence so my nice Johan or Jonas had better show himself, sharpish.
The Erasmus Programme celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and 32,000 students from Ireland have travelled with Erasmus to study or work since 1987. Close to 3,000 students will travel this year, the highest number ever.