So I’ve reached the end of the first semester here in Sweden, which means it’s an appropriate time for some kind of stream-of-consciousness post about my experience here. If I had to sum it up (which is impossible), I’d say the highs have been astronomically high while the bumps in the road have been minor, and for that I’m very grateful. Anything could happen in the second half of the year, and a lot could change, so I want to take a moment to reflect on where I am currently. This will be a long one, and perhaps not particularly interesting, so thank you for reading, and feel free to jump ship at anytime! It’s also, perhaps, more for my own benefit than anyone else’s…
Settling into sweden + making friends
Of course, the biggest worry when moving to a new place – however briefly – is settling in and meeting new people. I spent the summer thinking this over, and preparing my introverted self for an exhausting first month of socialising and introductions. But it was far easier than expected – life in Gothenburg is nice and I didn’t deal with any particular culture shocks. I was surprised to have solidified a nice group of friends within a few days, which probably impacted my first few weeks here, meaning that I could really hit the ground running, explore the city, and dive into my studies. There’s nothing really that I miss from home, apart from perhaps understanding the conversations around me and making small talk (anyone from the north of England will know we can make friends in the shop, at the bus stop, in a waiting room – anywhere). I confirmed this when I went back to visit – even just chatting in the toilets of a bar or club is somehow something I miss?
Having said that, I think it’s important to remember that I’m not fully integrated into Swedish life – i.e. I’m not employed here, I’m not in contact with Swedes in my daily life (I do have two lovely Swedish friends, but that’s it), I haven’t used any healthcare (touch wood), I don’t drive, pay tex etc. Life could be very different if I was in a Swedish office setting compared to international classes and surrounded by other exchange students. My bank account is registered in the UK and I only recently started using a Swedish phone plan. In almost every way, although daily life feels more permanent, my stay here is only temporary. And students are already different in many ways from the rest of the population, Erasmus students even more so, so while stereotypes tell me that making friends in Sweden is hard, my experience isn’t a fair judge of that.
Life in Gothenburg
Life in Gothenburg has been exciting but relaxing at the same time. I love the range of nationalities and cultures here, even within the dominant Swedish culture. The city itself feels pretty international, between tourists and immigrants, but I don’t perceive any tension. It’s very non-intimidating to be foreign here. I’ve also discovered that the cold and the dark really aren’t a problem for me – in fact I love it. But then again, that might be because I’m not dragging myself out of bed at 6:30 and thawing my car out. By pure luck my earliest classes throughout December were at 10am, with the odd 9am sprinkled in, and they’re a mere twenty minutes away by tram. Swedish Christmas decorations are amazing, and seeing rows and rows of windows lit up with stars and advent candles makes everything so much more cosy. I was so happy when I got back here after Christmas and they were all still up.
The language barrier has only been a real problem on a handful of occasions, which were easily overcome. Swedish people will either tell you “of course” they speak English, or they will very hesitantly tell you they know a little bit. In both cases they will speak fluent English. The one and only time I’ve felt slightly jarred, like things weren’t working, was when I tried to get a new SIM card, and that was mostly because the girl in the phone shop was not in the least bit helpful. She made it out like it was because I didn’t have a person number, but really I think she just wanted to clock out. I went to a different branch of the same company and walked away not only with the pay-as-you-go SIM card that I wanted, but also a full mobile plan pending.
Don’t be spooked by people’s “if you don’t have a person number in Sweden you basically don’t exist” narrative. If you can speak to someone in person it’s usually possible to sort a temporary number and get what you’re after.
Cost of Living
The cost of things isn’t half as bad as I was expecting – whether that says more about Sweden or the UK I don’t know. But it is noticeably more expensive here, even if I adjusted pretty quickly. There are some things I’m saving to do back in England – haircuts and such. But restaurants are more reasonable than I was expecting, and I’m pretty savvy in a supermarket, so believe me when I say I’m still eating good. Public transport tickets (I buy for ninety days at a time) are eye watering, but probably less than what I’d pay to run a car anyway, and combine that with the fact that the transport gets me directly where I need it and is rarely delayed, and it starts to seem a lot more reasonable.
The hardest money-related problem is actually sorting out admin for the Uni to receive loans and Erasmus travel grants, and any prospective study abroad students should get as much information about this process as they can!
So I do hear some talk of Swedes giving preferential treatment to other Swedes – this is just something I’ve heard about and I don’t know how often it really happens. My friend got turned away from a club once while blind-drunk blonde Swedish girls got in, but how valid that is as an example is questionable. Bouncers in England are just as bad anyway. It is true that Swedish politics is going through a bit of rollercoaster, so I’ll be interested to see how the atmosphere develops.
A stereotype is that Swedish people are friendly but closed off, which, again, I can’t comment on myself. Friends from Sweden say the same thing, despite being the opposite themselves. Perhaps there’s a difference among students and young people. I have got the idea that Stockholm suffers from capital city syndrome like any other, and generally the people I know that have moved from there to Gothenburg slightly prefer it here. Sounds just like London.
I will say that Brits are really self deprecating and other people don’t echo that – we’re the butt of our own jokes all the time and think that Europe is laughing at us but people aren’t. Well, maybe they are. But it doesn’t come up as soon as you’re introduced. In fact, I’m usually met with gleaming eyes when I tell people where I’m from. Time to appreciate home a bit more! Still, meeting other English people here actually isn’t that cool – but I’m not sure why. I really like the other Brits I’ve met, but I never sought them out. I’m just not here for that I guess. Nonetheless, to head back home with some extra friends will be lovely.
To be honest, the studying is the hardest part of life at the moment, and I didn’t prepare for that at all over the summer. Inbetween visa applications and Duolingo lessons and packing layers, it just didn’t cross my mind to think about it – why would I? I’ve been a full time student for two years already. But this is so different. I’m learning so much new content as every single module I’ve done so far has been a new area of study for me. It’s interesting but exhausting, and I’ll be glad to go back to Psychology, where I know the field and have a bank of information and understanding to draw on.
All my written assignmentsso far have been opinion essays, meaning that, while I have a lot to say, I didn’t necessarily want to write blog posts because I’m tired of writing. And I’ve been conditioned to back up everything I say with references, which makes presenting my own opinion pretty difficult.
Another challenge is differing grading systems; the English university system has several grade bands but you’ll also receive a percentage grade for each assignment. Here, there are two or three bands: pass and fail, and sometimes pass with distinction. I’ve got mixed feelings about this. At first, it stressed me out, big time. How do I know how well I passed? Did I scrape by? Am I passing with flying colours? How much harder do I need to work (or by how much can I relax) for the next assignment? How do I know where I’m at on average? Now though, I’m coming to terms with it, and it does have its benefits. Whereas back home I’ll slave away until five minutes before the deadline, painstakingly scrutinising the phrasing of every single sentence, here I simply work until I’m satisfied and hit “submit”. Feedback which at first seemed lacking now serves to reinforce a good grade, rather than highlight negatives. If I receive a pass with distinction, there’s no pulling apart of the paper with points for improvement. At Warwick, things are very different, with highly, highly prescriptive assignments, Excel matrices of criteria, and whole documents of feedback. Even when receiving a First Class grade, the top band, the pages of commentary can really detract from the achievement and pile on the pressure for next time. There are times when I’ve noted feedback first and prepared for a grade around the 40% mark based on what was said, only to be surprised by a 70-80%. It’s nice to not fear opening my grades for once.
The mix of perspectives in class is lovely, especially because there’s more nuance in conversations rather than the black and white political discussions (shouting matches) that I feel England has devolved into these days. It’s not unusual that everyone in the class also comes from different subjects and countries and so we all have different experience and knowledge to draw on. It was strange to adjust to a more scholarly discipline after only knowing science – the literature is much more “fluffy” and less empirical and I still don’t know how I feel about that. My second course was just stressful, honestly, and I’m glad it’s over. But I have already noticed myself remembering key names and papers, and linking lectures back to what I’ve read, which just goes to show that if my last two years had been spent studying these subjects instead, I’d know just as much as everyone else seems to.
Despite the stress and the workload and constantly feeling on the back foot about not knowing enough, the courses are really stimulating. They involve a range of assessment types, meaning that I’ve written essays, done presentations, engaged in peer review, seminars etc, and even a mock Brexit negotiation! Once I’m over the stress, I can see that it’s an incredibly valuable experience, and I’ll return home a far more educated person than I was before. And as a bonus – no summer exams! The workload is higher now but much more balanced through the year. At home, I work myself into a frenzy through the year to complete maybe 40% of a module, only to prepare for and sit a 60% exam at the end – sometimes for a module that ended in December. On the other hand, some of Gothenburg’s shorter courses are so short and sweet that it feels like a whirlwind, and I’m not sure I get the full benefit of their teachings.
Looking to the future
Going home for Christmas made me realise how much I miss it, and it didn’t feel like I was there long enough. Leaving felt like I had to tear myself away. But despite that, I’m absolutely not ready yet to leave behind my life in Sweden, and I’m so incredibly excited to have six whole months left. There is still so much I want to do and see, and I will hate to leave this lovely flat I have and return to a shared place in England. I don’t really miss driving, apart from rural countryside drives back home, but I will miss Gothenburg’s public transport when I’m back in Britain.
The next few months will look very different to the first. On the one hand, I’m entirely settled now, but on the other, half of my friends are leaving! It’s much more common to study only one semester abroad, rather than the whole year, so a good chunk of my friends will head home in mid-January. I have other friends who are amazing and I love hanging out with, but the loss of this incredible group of people will hit hard. We’ve been on some great adventures together, seen each other almost every day since we arrived, and really bonded in a short period of time. Gothenburg might feel like home, but it might also feel very different without them here.
I want to make the most of the rest of winter (seriously, I love it here. I need to do more cold weather trips) and then I can be excited to see spring in Gothenburg. I want to travel some more in the next semester, although perhaps not as much as in the first one. I’ve ticked off almost all the cities in this region, so all that remains is a visit to a dear friend in Helsinki.
I’m also excited for my first actual Psychology course since I got here (although it looks heavygoing) and hopefully feeling a bit less out of my depth academically, even for just a couple of months. If I can squeeze in a visit home in the meantime that would be great – six months is a long time.
My time here so far has made me think a lot about the processes and identity turmoil associated with moving abroad, as a result both of studying in another country, with a range of nationalities, and the topics of study – international relations, foreign policy, and global social work. This is especially pertinent to me as i’m open to the idea of living abroad in the future but never thought hard about what that means for my identity.
Watching everyone leave was rough – far worse than I was prepared for, and I ended up deleting an earlier paragraph about being excited to meet the new exchange students when they arrive. Even though I will meet new people, and I’m genuinely excited about it, I’m worn out from saying goodbye to ten people in one weekend, then diving straight into a new course, and the last thing I want to do is be out socialising! I do feel for new students though – when I arrived in the summer, I had a week of long, warm days with no classes, whereas these guys have had to jump straight into courses (sometimes before even picking up keys). The city feels different now that the majority of this amazing group I had was gone, and even though I know we’ll see each other again, the group dynamic and just taking for granted that everyone was “around” won’t be the same again.
But enough depressing talk – I get another five months here, and I’m incredibly grateful for that. No matter the situation, I was not ready just yet to say goodbye to Gothenburg, and I know I can tackle whatever the next semester throws my way.