Stories from Sweden: Culture Shock
[This is the first in a series of stories of my Erasmus exchange semester in Sweden. This series will take you through my amazing time in that country and through the several shenanigans I went through.]
I spent an amazing 6 months in Sweden on my exchange semester in 2014. Back in the third trimester of our third year of college, an email was circulated on our college ID and it spoke of something something exchange something scholarship. I saw the mail and paid it little attention but mostly didn’t because my brain was mired with the thoughts of preferring to go on exchange in the fifth year (rather than the fourth) which is usually lighter. But a classmate of mine, SM — whom I’m forever indebted to — convinced me that going away in boring fourth year and redeeming exchange credits in fifth year made a lot of sense. It did. I had the lightest fifth year ever and got to be there for all the fun stuff! Anyway, one thing led to another, I made my apps, attended interviews etc. etc. etc. and finally got admitted to the Uppsala University for a semester of study, fully funded and with a stipend.
Obviously, I was super excited about the entire exchange and really couldn’t wait to get there. By this time, I was a semi-experienced traveller which, if you’ve read my previous posts, accounts for almost nothing, but at the grand old age of 21, you’ve basically conquered the world and know everything there is to know, isn’t it? Up until now, I had lived all my life in Bangalore and though I had visited several other cities and stayed there for extended period of time, I had never actually stayed away from home for this long and entirely by myself (no family or friends around). This was obviously a shocker waiting to happen, but that’s not going to happen to me right? I’m king of the world.
I am not. The next few paragraphs will describe just how much a culture shock can actually change your style of thinking, rather, make you stop thinking.
Getting to Sweden was fairly straightforward. I took a flight to Frankfurt and then onward to Stockholm Arlanda and made it all on time. Except for that part where my flight to Frankfurt was delayed from Bangalore and I had just about 1 hour to run across the airport, go through security and turn up for my flight. I ran so much that my shirt was drenched. I partly had to run because I took the stairs everywhere for some reason.
I actually went to the loo and changed (wouldn’t want to turn up in Sweden as a sweaty mess eh? First impressions matter!). Anyway, got onto my plane, dozed off and missed the approach into my new home. Walked about aimlessly for a few minutes at the airport till I found the lovely info desk people who sold me my train ticket and away I went for the 30 minute train ride to Uppsala. Yay!
I’m there! Somewhat.
Now, the train had free wifi, so I was able to tell home folks what I was upto and kept them informed of where I was and what I was doing. So far so good. Reached the station and lo and behold, more wifi! First world really living up to its name until now. Bought myself a bus ticket (just the one) to reach Flogsta (affectionately called a student ghetto — also accurate) and was told that the bus stop was “just beyond that building”. It was not. I was lugging my suitcase and a handbag with no shoulder strap walking about trying to find a normal looking bus shelter. Found one but nOooOo that was for inter-city buses and the pedestrians (as usual) had no clue about the intra-city ones. Walked for 15 minutes to finally find it tucked away along the most BORING looking bank building there ever existed and with just one pole with a tiny timetable on it. ONE POLE to rule them all. That was annoying but hey what do I know.
Anyway, I was slightly jet lagged but mostly cheery because hot damn I’m in my new home! I reached the Flogsta bus stop and got off with my stuff. I had to collect my keys from housing office. I knew map-wise where it was, but absolutely couldn’t find it in the uniformity of Flogsta’s 70s era buildings.
These buildings are long and I wandered around bags in hand, managing the light rain that’s started to fall on me. Thankfully, this lovely lady called out, possible taking pity at my my tired face and pointed me in the right direction adding that she had just dropped her daughter off. Mothers — showing care and love all across the world, am I right? Got my keys and hopped to the next building. Yes, I had actually just walk in a straight line from where I knew my flat was to reach the office. But nope.
I reached building 9 and made my way to floor 5 where I was to settle in. Got there and as I entered, I was met by a very warm gent who was from Eritrea and post introductions very kindly said that I could ask him for any help. Yay, great neighbours already. I settled in, probably took a nap, as would be normal for me and when I woke up, I woke up excessively hungry. I stepped out of my room and as I reached the kitchen another corridor-mate was there cooking instant noodles and post introductions told me that the pizza place downstairs would be a great solution to the instant hunger. He was right. That place was good. Getting hot pizza and tons of salad with a student discount just hit all the right spots. I took back my pizza and reached my room. I settled in watching House and after the flogsta scream (loud video, it is exactly what the name is. A scream.) for the night, dozed off.
How culture shocks manifest
A few things at this point — I had no internet in the room as I needed some sort of activation to be done by the uni folks. I had no real food as I didn’t carry any (despite protests from family, with me confident that “I’ll get something there, pffft”) and I had no international roaming. At this point, it’s been about 17 hours since the family last heard from me but I did not realise it. I woke up the next day knowing that I had to make it to the uni to get internet access and sign up with the foreign students office.
Culture shock reaction #1: I knew where I had to go, but not how. I’d only taken the bus and assumed that the bus would be the way to go back. Except I didn’t have a pass and the buses wouldn’t sell tickets against cash, only card, which I did not have. No map, no directions in hand, I walked out and began walking along the route of the bus. Literally following it, till it reached a busy intersection after which I had to take a diversion. I made my way slowly back to the only place I knew i.e. the train station. For the wifi. I reached there thinking I’d download the map and make it to the university.
What I could have done: I don’t know, maybe just ASK my neighbours how I can make it across town. Turns out there was a straight line, pedestrian friendly route to the university from Flogsta and I completely missed it.
Culture shock reaction #2: Remember how I mentioned that I had no internet and that the family was basically probably writing me out of their wills at this point. I did actually realise this somewhere along the long trek I made and reached the station. Once I plugged into the wifi, I found a bazillion messages asking me how I was and that’s when the realisation hit (sorry, folks). I sent a whole set of voice messages assuring them that I’d reached in one piece and wasn’t missing any vital organs. That was not fun.
What I could have done: Again, ASKED my neighbours to use Skype for 5 minutes and just say that I’m A-OK. But nope, pizza and House it was for that night, wasn’t it?
Anyway, finally made it to the uni office and met the wonderful coordinators who I’d been in touch with before and got a lowdown on what I had to do, what the stipend payment schedule was etc. etc. One of them, V, also handed me a map and said, “Here, take this and figure out how to get back.” I tried getting some hints, but nope. She was right. I learnt my way around. Got back safe and sound WITH INTERNET and settled in.
Culture shock reaction #3: Remember the pizza? It didn’t last longer than one additional meal and I was hungry. I got to know where the local (and best) store, ICA Vast was and made my hungry way there. All the memes had told me that I’d be buying out the store shopping on an empty stomach, but I didn’t. I bought a big bag of crips (sour cream and dill) and a loaf of bread. That’s it. I had an entire grocery store’s worth of food before me, but this is all I picked out. No fresh food, no ready to eats, nothing. Just bread. And crisps. I had ready to cook Knorr soups with me that I did make and for some reason did not use the well stocked kitchen cutlery but instead relied on my travel mug to have. A day and a half, till my college friend made her way, I survived drinking soup, eating crisps and bread.
Whats I could have done: Just been normal? I had basic cooking knowledge and I had tons of food that I could’ve bought and made for myself. But I suppose being so removed from my comfort bubble made me act rather absurd.
So many lessons. Clearly, getting out of one’s comfort zone is a massive effort and one is definitely not smart at age 21. All of these incidents from above were all TWO DAYS into a six month stay. I’m glad I was high on excitement and adrenaline to have not got freaked out and curled into a corner thinking that was a mistake. But yeah, culture shocks happen. They manifest in many ways and this was my first brush with it.
If you’ve made it this far I’m sure you’re sat there thinking that this write up wasn’t as funny as my usual ones, and you’d be very right. Looking back 7 years on, none of this is funny, even if I’ve regaled these tales before in jest. I suppose I never realised how much I worried others with these shenanigans and in hindsight I’d have done a lot of stuff very differently. In fact, a little learning happened right then since I wrote my friend a long mail telling her to buy a bus pass as soon as she reached the station and offered her my system to skype home. Anyway, it was a kinda rocky start to my semester, but the rest was an absolute blast!
Stay tuned for more!