Howdy, y’all! (Please humor my temporary lapse into Kansan colloquialism.) I’m back in the Sunflower State once again!

The trip from Sweden to Chicago was pleasant enough. I was seated next to an American college student who was on his way home from visiting his mother’s family in Finland (his relatives are Swedish-speaking). Within three minutes we were engaged in a (friendly) debate about the nature of “globalization” and the fate of the world. Later, the conversation drifted into subjects related to our personal adventures in globe trotting and our views on life in the Nordic countries. He was enamored with Swedish women and nightlife in Helsinki, and had no qualms about explaining his experience with both in detail.

Mentally, I contrasted this flight companion with the one that I had on my way to Stockholm last fall. I arrived at my seat and found a middle aged Swedish gentleman occupying the space next to me. After an initial, “hej”, he said no other word to me or even looked in my direction until breakfast the following morning. After he had eaten and the plane was about 30 minutes from the airport, he began flapping his jaws about how much better I would enjoy Sweden over the U.S., even though it would be difficult for me to find a decent steak in Stockholm. Quiet and anti-American… I would meet many more of his type in the coming months.

Back to my most recent travels. By the time my next flight, which was from Chicago to Kansas City, left the airport in Illinois, it was already due to land in Missouri. The reason for the delay, of course, was the weather. Storms had put the the aircraft and its crew behind on schedule on the preceding trip from Minnesota. Once we were finally in the air, turbulence kept the flight attendant from serving us our beverages. Dadgumit. We were put into a holding pattern outside of Kansas City, as heavy rain, high wind, and reports of hail prevented our touchdown. After circling for about three quarters of an hour, we were diverted to the airport in Omaha, Nebraska, as our fuel was running low and there was little hope of the storm abating soon.

After we landed, it was hinted by United Airlines staff that we would be put on a bus to complete the trip to KC by road. What would have taken 20 minutes by air would have taken 3.5 hours by ground. Obviously, it was not a happy development for me and my travel mates. Luckily, the eventual solution was to wait for a flight team to arrive in Omaha from Denver. After a few invigorating (-insert sarcastic tone here-) hours in the Omaha Airport, the new team flew us from Nebraska to Kansas City. I finally met my sister a little after 1:00 in the morning (poor girl had been waiting at the airport for hours).

It was a lovely feeling to cross the river into Kansas, a place I had left nearly 11 months before. Home! Like Dorothy, I can tell you that indeed, “there is no place like home!”

Kansas Highway 25

Kansas Highway 25

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I just want to write a little note to say that by this time tomorrow I will be back in the good ole U.S. of A. Wish me a safe journey!

I’ll be continuing my ramblings on this blog while I’m away. Surely once I am back home I will be reminded of some more contrasts between life in Sweden and life in the U.S.

Look for more posts soon, and thanks for reading!!

I’ve written a bit about the Swedish higher education system already. Now, I’d like to highlight something about my experience at Stockholm University you wouldn’t expect: the lack of Swedish students in my program.

Inspiration for this entry came to me from two sources. The first was a post by my fantastic French friend, Cyril. You can read his blog post about it here. Warning! The text is in French, but if you go to Google Translate, you actually will get a good interpretation of what he has written. Plus, you can listen to some tunes on his site! The second source is a recent article by The Local on a new governmental policy of charging tuition for international students.

There is no tuition for higher education in Sweden. Zero. Zip. Nada. Universities and other educational institutions get all of their funding from Swedish taxes. However, students are required by law to pay dues to a Student Union at their school. I think I pay about 300 SEK (or $50) every semester. Then there are text books to purchase, but that is about it as far as expenses go.

Needless to say, university students in Sweden have a pretty sweet deal. I know I do, and I greatly benefit from the tuition-free education at SU. But for the rest of Swedish society, my free education is a burden. Swedish tax payers fund my studies with little hope or expectation of every recouping the costs of my education. You see, my student residence permit is only good while I am enrolled at a university. After that, I am expected to leave the country, unless I have formed some kind of family structure with a Swede. Despite the fact that I have gotten a free education here, under current law (as a non-EU citizen) I am not allowed to enter the job market and contribute to the economy or tax base of Sweden. Instead, I’m expected to go home and work in the U.S. Sweden will practically be giving a free gift, in the form of a highly educated worker,  to the U.S. when I go home. The deal really doesn’t make much sense for the average Swede.

Moving on, let me describe the effect of this tuition-free education in Sweden. My graduate program has 21 students enrolled. Of those, only two are Swedish. There is one other student who has hinted that she has either Swedish citizenship or permanent residency. The other 18 student are all foreigners. Of those, 11 are from non-EU countries. Over half of those in my program that come from outside of the EU.

This past year, I have been able to work and study with people from all over Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. I have truly enjoyed it, and have met wonderful people from all over the globe. It has been interesting to learn their points of view, all the while sharing my own. However, I think it is a shame that there are not more Swedes in the program. Granted, it is very possible that the program has some specific appeal to international students (since one of the subjects in focus is “globalization”), and so other programs may contain a higher proportion of Swedish students.

I know that it may seem hypocritical of me to decry the structural problems of the Swedish education system, and then talk positively about the effects those inadequacies have created. So be it. Just to be clear, I’d rather the problem didn’t exist. There are several proposed ways of mitigating the problem, besides charging tuition to foreign students, and one good way would be to allow foreign (non-EU) students to remain in Sweden if they have secured employment. This is something the government is currently considering.

Right now in Stockholm, it doesn’t get dark at night. The sun “sets” in a way, but there is always a tinge of light to the sky, and this only lasts a little while before the sun rises again. The morning light starts to filter in through the windows in the wee hours of the morning. Some people have to cover up their bedroom windows with blankets to get any sleep. And it’s even lighter in the north of the country, in places like Kiruna, where there is continual sunlight.

I knew about the long summer days before I moved here, but it still amazes me to look out the window when it is light at midnight. That kind of stuff just doesn’t happen in Kansas!

To give you an example, here is a picture I took at about 11:00 p.m. on June 9, 2008 in Värmland. That’s right… the sun was only beginning to go down!

00 p.m. June 9, 2008

Of course, all of this sun at this time of the year is tempered with long nights in the winter. That kind of deep, prolonged darkness is tough on the spirit, so Swedes enjoy in the sun while they have it. Part of this is celebrating Midsommar, when the longest days of the year are experienced. Midsommar is a pagan holiday that was originally a fertility festival. Nowadays, people mark Midsommar’s passing with folk music, dancing, herring, spring potatoes, strawberry cake, and brännvin (vodka).

This is Midsommar weekend in Sweden. I attended my first Midsommar celebration on Friday at noon in a neighborhood near my home. Everybody gathered in the parking lot of a grocery store before forming pedestrian parade. While we walked through narrow residential roads, children banged on pots, rattled bottles filled with pebbles, and played kazoos. The horde eventually ended in an empty field with an erected midsommarstång (which is similar to a maypole). Then, those who wished to dance gathered around the pole.

A large speaker system was set up, out of which folk music boomed. The songs were short and sweet, and each had its own corresponding choreography. People sang and danced to songs like one that boasted “you think you’re pretty, but I don’t”, one that described weekly household chores, one about taking a walk while wearing big clogs, and of course the every popular ditty “Små Grodorna” (“The Small Frogs”).

There is a big celebration every year in Stockholm in Skansen, which is an open-air museum. I plan on going there for Midsommar next year. Here is a video that was taken of the festivities at Skansen this year. The clip depicts the raising of the pole, the crowd dancing to the folk songs, and some traditionally dressed dancers.

Midsommar is a wonderful time to be in Sweden! I’m glad I decided to stay for it!!

While I was perusing in Barnes & Noble last summer, I came across a book titled 1,000 Places to See Before You Die: A Traveler’s Life List. I flipped through the volume, specifically looking for places in Sweden, which I knew would be my new home. Along with an Ice Hotel in northern Sweden, the book advocated visiting the Vasa Ship Museum in Stockholm. The other day, I marked one of the 1,000 places to see off of my list. And trust me, the Vasa Ship deserves its place on that list.

Being the landlubber that I am, I found the museum as a whole to be very informative about ship making and life at sea. Moreover, the museum was packed with tidbits about life in Sweden in the 17th century. Walking through the exhibits and being reminded of how hard life was for people back then, my gratefulness of being born in the 20th century was renewed. Being a European sailor or soldier at the time of the Vasa pretty much guaranteed one a shortened life… not that it was that much better (or longer) for those who dwelt on land. The thought of it all sends shivers down my spine. Ugh… Okay, moving on…

The ship itself is amazing. Vasa was commissioned by the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus to fight in the war against Poland. It was designed to be the largest and most impressive ship in the Royal Navy. Painted carvings and statues of roaring lions, Roman emperors, forest savages, and heavenly cherubs cover the exterior. The images boasted of the military might of Sweden and her King. Vasa was designed to have two gun decks that housed a total of 64 guns. Crew and soldiers were to be relegated to sleeping on the upper deck underneath the stars, as space below deck was used for weaponry, ammunition, and supplies. Unfortunately, the ship was unbalanced by design and wasn’t heavy enough to sit properly in the water. The result: the ship sank on her maiden voyage on August 10, 1628 in less than one nautical mile. It was rediscovered in the late 1950s and raised from the depths soon after.

Unfortunately, my photos from the museum leave a lot to be desired. Instead, please enjoy this short YouTube video that somebody else made of the ship.

And if you’re interested in seeing for yourself the great wonder that is this 17th century wooden ship (one of the only ones remaining in the world), you had better hurry. The ship is deteriorating, despite the best efforts of its caretakers. But let me assure you, the trip to Stockholm to visit Vasamuseet is well worth the effort!

I have not written in a good while, for which I apologize. I have been occupied with several things, but the number of posts should increase now that I am free for the summer.

Free for the summer!… But have I really been “un-free” this past academic year in Sweden? The answer: eh, not really.

Let me start by reassuring you that I am registered as a full-time graduate student at Stockholm University. I attend every lecture, every seminar, every excursion, and every meeting scheduled for my program. Moreover, I am always sufficiently (if not overly) prepared for class, I participate in class discussions and activities, and I complete and turn in all of my assignments and projects by the deadlines. Given the structure and requirements of my program, however, this is not a difficult track record to achieve.

Full-time studies (for both undergraduate and advanced degrees) in Sweden are supposed to require a student to devote 40 hours per week to school-related activities. These 40 hours include attending class, reading course literature, doing assignments, studying for examinations, and making additional efforts to comprehend and master the content of the course. Unfortunately, in my experience, the reality of full-time studies does not remotely resemble this ideal.

This year, I took four classes: two each semester, but only one course at a time. Each course had its own (erratic) schedule for lectures and seminars, but the average time I spent in the classroom was about four to five hours a week. Some weeks I only had one class meeting scheduled, other weeks I was at the university for three days in a row. The random scheduling of class time is an issue that requires an entire article of its own, but for my purposes in this entry, it is important to note that I did not spend much time in either lectures or seminars.

There are several reasons for this. First of all, I’ve been told that the departments have limited funds for lecture hours. Secondly, students are expected to be primarily “teach themselves” by following the course material independently, rather than have a professor “hold them by the hand” in academic matters.

I can accept that most of the work is supposed to be done outside of class, and it really isn’t a new concept for me. What I find odd is that the professors, course designers, and coordinators of my program actually think there is enough to do outside of class to fill up ten, forty-hour weeks.

My first course, which was an introductory class for the program, had six text books and several academic articles which were required. However, we were only expected to read specific selections from most of the texts, rather than the works in their entirety. The second course, which was a physical science class, had only two books, and a few select articles, associated with the it. The third course was based upon articles and one textbook, with two other books used as reference sources for the final project. The final course had three texts, one of which was supposed to be used as a handbook and style resource, and the other two were rather short.

Clearly, the reading of texts and articles for class is not enough to fill ten weeks of full-time studies. What about assignments, then? Weekly assignments ranged from preparing a five minute presentation of course material, to handing in a page of notes from the reading, to one page reflections written with a partner, to (usually) nothing.

My colleges and I were not close to being sufficiently busy with school work until final examinations of each course were coming due. Even while were were working on these big assignments or studying for tests, working for 40 hours a week was generally not required to fulfill the requirements of the course.

I have a friend who is following another program in the same department. She spends significantly more time than I do both in the classroom and working independently on long-term projects. Perhaps her studies are full-time work. But my conversations with other university students indicates that they, too, have a lot of downtime outside of class. My experience is not the exception, it is the rule.

Its not that I feel that my educational experience in Sweden is not worthwhile. On the contrary, I think that I have been mentally stimulated and challenged at my university. But frankly, I find the way the system is set up to be rather ridiculous. Classes seem to be something I have to take to “pay my dues” and fill up the two years necessary to earn my graduate degree. I am comforted, however, by the fact that my thesis work will, and should, be the most important part of my degree. The quality and time involved in the work will entirely rest upon my shoulders.

It is the pretense of “full-time, 40 hours a week” studies that bothers me, not necessarily the structure itself. I would find it more acceptable if they considered “full-time” as something else, even if it is an arbitrary definition (such as full-time = two classes a semester). As of now, this supposed “40 hours a week” requirement is used as an excuse by administration when course structure or teacher involvement are lacking. Additionally, students, both individually and collectively in unions, use the “40 hours a week” definition of full-time studies to prove that students are incapable of holding any type of employment while enrolled in university. It becomes an excuse to get more grant and loan money from tax payers (in addition to tuition-free education).

I’m heading back to the States in a few weeks to visit my family and friends. I’m more than excited to be going home for one glorious month. Then it is back to Sverige and back to school.

While I’m away, there are a few choice items that I will be missing in the U.S. Here is the promised list of my new, dearly-loved Swedish things.

  • Knäckebröd
  • Lingonberries – Especially lingonsylt, which is jam made from the berries. I like to have this on bread or pastries. I’ve been told this is very strange, as in Sweden lingonsylt is usually served with meat. Lingon soda is also very nice.
  • Snails – But not for eating! We don’t really have them in my part of Kansas, but they are everywhere here. So cute!
  • Looooooooong summer days when the sun hardly sets
  • Gamla Stan – Old Town Stockholm
  • The abundant large bodies of water (including the Baltic Sea and Lake Mälaren)
  • Swedish forests
  • Having a grocery store just down the street
  • Incredibly fast internet connection
  • The Stockholm University campus
  • Swedish