Category Archives: Sweden

There’s no denying it anymore

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It was only a few weeks ago that a friend of mine posted something on Facebook: “Just made jam from the plums in my garden, gotta love the fruits of the autumn!” (or something along those lines, my Swedish is still a bit shaky). I immediately replied, of course: “As long as the trees are still green, it is summer, I don’t care how cold it’s getting or how much fruit/mushrooms/nuts you collect!” (again, that was the intended message, whether the Swedish I threw together meant the same remains an open question).

But then autumn-themed posts appeared in my feed. And the trees actually started changing color (well… the leafs did). And I knew… there’s no denying it any longer.

Lund University Library in autumn. Photo by JanneM via Flickr.

It’s not like I have anything against autumn in particular. I don’t. I don’t have anything against any season. I don’t really have anything for any season either though, to be honest – the concept of a ‘favorite season’ is kind of alien to me. No – what I like most about seasons is the mere fact that they’re there. I would hate to live in a country which has summer all year round, or even only two seasons. It’s the changing of the seasons, the continuous dynamic of that vicious circle that keeps things interesting. I love the freshness of the green in spring, I love the abundance and smells of summer, I love the colors and tastes of autumn, and I love the serenity and quiet of winter. Granted, I generally long for one season when another one is still going on, but I’m working on that.

Still, this year, I’m not exactly looking forward to the changing of seasons. Autumn is not too bad, I guess, although a few extra degrees would never hurt, but the really bad part about autumn is that it is so, so close to winter. And I just. don’t. feel. like. winter.

Don’t get me wrong – wrapped in a fleece blanket, hot chocolate, coziness by the fire place, snow walks (I REALLY need to lose my snow angel-virginity this year), skiing: I get it, it’s great, it’s wonderful. But winter also means: dark. And here in Sweden, even though I can’t really complain as I’m as southern as it gets, there’s an awful lot of dark: at the winter solstice, the shortest day is around 7 hours long – or short, as you prefer – with the sun setting around 14h40. Last year I minimized the effects of this: objectively, Ghent only gets half an hour of daylight more, so that’s not too big of a deal, is it? But, since Ghent is not only located more south, but also more west, this translates in a Ghent sunset over a full hour later. And last year that mere hour of difference induced a full-on winter depression for me.

So no, I’m not really thrilled about the leafs falling and the temperatures dropping, the nights getting darker and the birds moving south. I know (better) what I’m up against this year, so I know what signs to look out for but still… I’m not looking forward to it.

 

The art of queuing

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When I arrived here in Sweden, I was warned about a number of things. To be punctual, for example (which, for me, is a total nightmare). To take off my shoes whenever I was visiting someone at their home. To be “lagom”, i.e. not to try to be better than anybody else. Last February, The Local, a Swedish news site in English, published a list of 20 things any foreigner should know before moving to Sweden, and I found myself smiling and nodding over more than one thing.

There was one phenomenon, however, I hadn’t really experienced: the Swedish art of queuing.

I was told the Swedes are patient, and usually await their turn calmly, in a queue. To get on the bus, for example, they form a queue along the bus, waiting to get on. Anywhere else, however, there were only very little queues to be spotted. The reason is very simple: there are numbers everywhere.

You go to the bank? You take a number. You want to buy a train ticket? You take a number. You go to the butcher’s? You take a number. You call a help line? You get a number!

But last Saturday, I was finally able to witness the queuing in its glorious perfection.

Picknick tables on the street at Malmöfestivalen.

Currently, in Malmö, there is the Malmöfestivalen, a free open-air music festival. Apart from the big stages on almost every square, lining the streets are of course stalls with jewelry, clothes, and naturally – food. Now it happens, especially around dinner time, there’s a lot of people wanting to take something out at the same time. We have a similar (although obviously bigger and better) festival in my home town each summer, and it is always a challenge to get the attention of whoever is running the food stall and actually get your food.

Not in Sweden.

In Sweden, people queue.

There’s a gazillion people on the street, pushing to get through, but when it comes to getting the food, they all queue.

And they don’t just queue. Oh no. They queue parallel. Like such:

(Forgive my drawing skills – they have not yet reached the costume making-level…)

I tried to take a pretty picture of it, but it didn’t work out on camera at all, so you’ll have to do with the drawing. Believe me when I say it looked amazingly funny.

I later mentioned this to some Swedes at work, and they nodded seriously in response: “It is sometimes hard, though, when there are only 3 or 4 people, do you already start a queue, or not? And which direction? But there seems to be a common intelligence, and fortunately, it always works out.”

Most fortunately, indeed. Because what on earth would they do if no queue were formed, right?

How (not) to go to the sauna – revisited

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Remember this?

This is Malmö’s kallbadhuset, a sauna-and-bath complex located at the end of a 200m-long pier. Last December, a friend and I thought it would be a neat idea to go to the sauna – it was the middle of winter in Sweden of all places, so it was only fit. The “fun” trip turned out to be a nightmare involving getting lost in a construction site, spraining an ankle, incredible disappointment when we found ourselves before closed doors because of misinformation on the sauna’s websiteand ultimately pleasant surprise when receiving two vouchers for a free sauna visit after complaining about said misinformation. So when a friend of mine came over last weekend, we thought we’d finally cash those vouchers and enjoy an afternoon of bathing.

Turns out…

… the vouchers are for a different place.

See, when we initially looked up the opening hours for the bath house, we actually were looking at the website of ANOTHER bath house, which coincidentally has the same name. But not the same opening hours. So when we found ourselves before closed doors it was not because there were two websites, one of which was not updated, it was BECAUSE THERE ARE 2 BATH HOUSES!

So basically I complained to the second bath house that the first bath house was not open during their hours.

Derp.

Standing in front of the cashier with my totally worthless vouchers, I felt immensely stupid.

We still enjoyed our (paid) visit though. I am used to sauna complexes with literally 10+ types of sauna scattered over a domain, while here there were only 2 sauna’s, and just plenty of room to sunbathe, but the atmosphere of the place is so unique – located almost literally in the middle of the sea, the whole complex gives you a stunning view over the water wherever you are, and it’s such a charming, quiet, peaceful place. In addition, men and women’s sections were separated, which at first I found a bit stupid (and odd… it’s bloody Sweden! they don’t even have separate restrooms!), but which, in strange way, did make the whole experience a whole lot more relaxing. The “best” thing though? Cooling off after the sauna in the sea. There’s nothing quite like a 10ºC (50F) salty bath to arrest your blood flow ;).

I still got 2 free vouchers for a bath house I don’t even know the location of though… .

Santa Lucia

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Ah the options of a story today: how my friend and I missed the biggest Christmas market in Sweden (we searched high and low, but simply couldn’t find it), how I missed the lecture by Konstantin Novoselov, one of the receivers of the Nobel Prize in Physics this year for his work on graphene (on a regular lecture, you can make full use of the academic 15 mins – however, it doesn’t quite seem to work that way when the speaker recently won a Nobel Prize), or how I decorated my house with Swedish Christmas decorations (I will get you some photos of that later, though). But since I know how much you love hearing about foreign traditions ;) (although it seems to be celebrated in some parts of the US also), I present to you: Santa Lucia!

 
You are really supposed to be celebrating it by the crack of dawn, but I was lucky enough to be in a lab where the Lussetåg only came by around 3pm. So while enjoying my lussekatt and a hot chocolate, I saw my very first Lucia procession: first comes Lucia, a girl dressed in white with long blonde hair, 5 candles (fake ones!) on her head and a red ribbon around her waist, followed by a number of other girls (virgins, supposedly…), dressed similarly but for the candles and the ribbon, and stjärngossar, and boys dressed in white with a princess-like hat and holding a star. And yes, that looks very gay. Subsequently, they sing. There appear to be a finite number of Lucia songs, but they ALL have to be sung. Which, if you don’t understand the lyrics and the singers aren’t very well trained, can be… a bit long. Don’t get me wrong, it was fun to experience and see – they were clearly very nervous and not always sure which song was the next, with the occasional girl starting to sing on her own and then – oops! – shut up :).

Lucia up front, with the virgins and the stjärngossar behind her.


For the occasion, they also brought a gingerbread girl, Santa, and a Christmas tree.

So because I also needed to see a ‘real’ (read: serious) Lussetåg, I had subscribed to an event organized by an organization for foreigners, and this is what their Lucia looked like:

They could sing. Really. And yes, that are real candles on her head (on of the stjärngossar was carrying a bucket of water, just in case).

 
For those interested in some background history, you can read up on it below – for everyone else, I give you a picture of myself being very proud of my first home-made lussebullar (saffron buns), and the recipe!

Ingredients: 1 stick butter (8 Tbsp.), 1 1/3 c. milk, pinch saffron, 3 Tbsp. yeast, 2/3 c. sugar, 1/2 tsp. salt, 2 eggs (1 in dough, 1 to brush), 4 c. flour, raisins for garnish
Melt butter in a small pan over low heat. Add milk and saffron and heat until about body temperature. Mix milk mixture and yeast and let sit about five minutes. Add the sugar, salt, one egg, and about half the flour. Knead the dough on a floured surface, adding flour to make a smooth dough. Let rise in a warm place about half an hour. Punch down, and then form into buns. Lay it on a parchment-lined baking sheet and tuck raisins into them. Let rise again in a warm place. Brush the risen buns with beaten egg. Bake at 400 degrees F about 15 min, until buns are golden brown.

 
Lucia was a Sicilian virgin who died as a martyr in the 4th century after she was denounced to the Roman authorities as a christian by the man she refused to marry. The Romans, unable to move her, even with a 1000 man and 50 oxen pulling (try to picture this… does anybody else find it hilarious??), decided to burn her. Which obviously didn’t work – as it never does with saints. Wikipedia states that a soldier got annoyed by her continuous reciting of encouraging words to other christians and stabbed her in the throat to shut her up (which… didn’t work, indeed), but my colleague claims she was complimented on her beautiful eyes by one of the Roman guards, after which she took them out (as only saints can do) and offered them to him. In return for her cheekiness, she was then stabbed in the side (hence the red ribbon).

If you’re wondering how the Sicilian Lucia came to be one of the few saints to be celebrated in protestant Sweden – I haven’t got a clue. It was probably a mixture of traditions, since December 13 was previously believed to be the shortest day of the year, and the most dangerous one, for Lussi, a female demon, would then ride through the night to take away naughty children (through the chimney). The importance of light (lux – lucia) in this time of year melted together with the day of Lucia (who is claimed to have put burning candles on her head to have both hands free while working in the catacombs). According to the same colleague though, it was just an excuse for students to party – but that in turn might derive from the custom of staying awake during Lusse-night, to make sure nothing bad happened. However it came to be – it is a must-celebrate for every Swede, and I’m happy to join in, if only because I love the lussekatten/lussebullar/saffron buns ;o).

So here I am

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… on my own again.

I will have to get used to it – a fact which was demonstrated only now when I got home and wanted to open the front door by pressing the handle instead of using the key: for the past 2 weeks, someone was waiting for me here, and the front door wasn’t locked. It was great fun and we travelled around quite alot, although I managed to arrange some drama here and there with tears on both sides – I really have to learn when to shut up. Or actually, simply to shut up. Generally I know perfectly well when I should, the problem is I don’t. Maybe I’ll come back to this later, when I’ve arranged my thoughts on the subject a little bit better.

We’ve taken a whole lot of pictures, and thus I take advantage to change my header image to something of my own making – the Öresund bridge is very pretty, but everything is just so much prettier when you made it yourself ;). Below is the complete stitch (click to enlarge) which is unfortunately too wide for the header. I’ll try to post some of the better pictures in a later stage, once I’ve had the time to sort them all out and photoshop those in need of a straight horizon (seriously, one would think half of the pictures were taken while standing on a rocking ship!), but right now I’m just tired and wanna go to bed – I have just gotten home from work (it’s 10 pm) and it’ll be early day tomorrow (don’t feel too sorry for me… I only showed up at work around 1 pm today). Oh, and there’s 200+ posts waiting in my feed to be read…

Tomorrow…

Kullaberg, Sweden (courtesy from myself)

Swedish for… Swedes?

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I prepared another post for today, but it’ll have to wait. See, today I tried to get inscribed for Swedish language classes. I was really looking forward, because I HATE (and yes, that needed to be in capitals) to be as isolated as I am now. Because that is exactly how it feels – isolate. While everybody (or almost everybody) here speaks English as fluently as you can expect from second language learners, it is just embarrassing having to reply “I’m sorry, could you repeat that in English?” time and time again every time someone in a shop or on the street addresses you for whichever reason. Let alone how annoying it is not being able to understand the signs in the street/in the shops, to have to ask your colleagues every single thing because you can’t even Google where the nearest hairdresser is. But I digress.

The SFI program Autumn 2010... in Swedish, obviously

Now, they have a nice little course in Sweden which is free for immigrants, called Svenska För Invandrare. For Lund, their website can be found here. Notice how it is in Swedish? Because obviously, people who want to learn Swedish… understand Swedish already, right?

But oh, you got me there! There IS an icon to get to the English version of the page. Try it. All in English! Isn’t that nice! Now try to find the opening hours. Whether there are courses Autumn 2010. When they start. It’s not there? Ain’t that a pitty…

So we send an e-mail to Pia Lindskoug, the SFI contact person, to ask for further information. At least on the Swedish page she is designated “Kontaktperson”, there is no mention of her on the English page. Maybe that’s why I haven’t received an answer to the (English) mail I sent 2 weeks ago. But hey, we’re flexible, let’s just go and visit!

I am fortunate enough to inform with my colleague about the opening hours, because those apparently don’t match what is stated on the web page (not that I found them on my own – that page was in Swedish). Now, to subscribe, you need to have a personnummer (some type of ID number). For which you need a Swedish address, a Swedish job and a Swedish person as a guarantee. Well, I’m lucky enough to be able to provide all 3, but while the application only took 10 minutes, it can take 2 months before I actually get the number – it’s a busy period, see. But no personnummer – not even a provisional (official) one – no classes.

So to be able to subscribe to Swedish classes, you need to

  • have a Swedish address
  • have a Swedish job
  • have Swedish friends
  • speak Swedish (to understand the website)

Basically, you need to be Swedish.

I understand the Swedish Democrats managed to get into the parliament – with this type of policies you’re making it real hard for foreigners to learn the language, a prerequisite for integration.

Sweden in a nutshell

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I thought, if I can successfully write a recap of two weeks of blogging, I can surely successfully list the things I love/hate most about Sweden, two weeks into this little project of mine?

  • I love … free coffee. Free coffee, I’m telling you! Well, at the lab at least, but anyway… Nothing helps to recover from (or prepare for) a failed experiment as does a cup of coffee. At our lab, there is a HUGE, and – more importantly – cosy coffee room with two coffee machines and all the sugar, milk, cups, spoons, … you could ever need. Heaven surely must come close to this…
    However, I hate … the lack of Freddy. Freddy was the guy in my previous lab who filled pipet tip boxes, did the dishes (you cannot believe how much dirty glassware one scientist can produce in a day), did the ordering, made media, autoclaved everything – in short, did all those lousy, dreadful things a scientist has to waste his/her time on. There is no Freddy in Sweden :(.
  • This is maybe not the best example... but at least I could afford it.

    I love … the shops! I am not talking clothes shops (obviously) – if you thought IKEA had neat ideas, think again. I am absolutely loving to stroll around interior decoration shops and discover all the genius little things on display. Buying them would ruin my budget, but one can dream, at least…
    I hate … their opening hours. Granted, the supermarket is open till 10pm every day, but on Saturday you will not find any shop open after 4 or even 3pm. I mean, how can you enjoy a relaxing day of shopping when you only have 5 hours? Honestly?
  • I love … cycling. And everybody cycles here! There are loads of parking places for bikes, separate tracks along the road, … There is only little traffic but it is well organized – you know how as a pedestrian you have these buttons to speed the green light when crossing the street and it seems that it takes longer when pressing the button than if you’d have just waited? Not here! You press and … presto … cross along! b.r.i.l.l.i.a.n.t
    But I hate my bike. Or maybe that’s too strongly put. I don’t actually HATE it. But it squeeks. And it has a back pedal break. And my bell is broken. I can do something about the squeeking and the bell, but that damn break… .
  • I love … the gym. At €165 per year (for university employees, it’s around 200) including full access to the gym and all spinning/aerobic/workout/… classes, you have no excuse not to go (which probably is the point). I’ve been there for the first time today and it was a blast (though I’m stone dead now – after only 2 classes… how disappointing). The teachers are good, the building and equipment are recent and modern, and while the majority of people are students, you see a good deal “older” people (grey hears included!) so I’m not really feeling out of place.

    I hate … that they don’t have dancing classes. Don’t get me wrong, I love a serious session of Aerobics, but I am completely hooked on “true” dance classes, where you take a song and work out a choreography over a couple of weeks, so that you really have time to make the dance your own. Most group session are “gympa”-based (defined as “All around workout in a group with focus on strength, cardio, and flexibility”) so the dance element is often missing, but even the Funk or Afro sessions are drop-in (understandably) so … not gonna happen. I keep on searching, though!

I love the purple trains … I miss UHT milk … I like the rabbits in the university grounds … I hate it that I don’t speak (or at least understand) Swedish … I love the many trees/green spaces in the city …

So all in all, the things I like about Sweden are at a slight advantage. Let’s see if they can keep this up ;).

It’s green and it lives on my window sill…

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They GROW!


I apologize for the poor quality picture – despite having 2 (TWO) camera’s with me on this trip, neither is working properly (although I should add that, even if they worked properly, I wouldn’t be able to post the pictures because I don’t have a SD card reader or a USB cable to connect them to the laptop directly) and thus this picture was taken with the webcam. But even so, I think it is clear my stuff is GROWING!

When I came to Sweden I took 3 bags with herb seeds (parsley, and… eh… well, 2 other kinds of herbs) and these three little pots which should grow forget-me-nots (?), sunflowers and 4-leaf clover, respectively : to not forget my home, to bring light during long winter nights and for luck. While the spices aren’t doing much (or at least it doesn’t show on the surface), barely a week after planting the little ones, they are sprouting and growing happily. I kinda expected the clover to do ok, but the other ones were supposed to be planted before mid-July, so I didn’t really expect miracles… but look, some earth, water, and patience, and before you know I’ll have to buy bigger pots to replant them :).

It is strange though, especially with the sunflower seeds since I actually like eating them (though they’re a lot of trouble, I admit) : you can buy them in the store, keep them in your closet for ages and they will stay there forever, ready to be eaten. But give them just a little bit of earth, some drops of water and look : they open up and sprout little white roots and little green leaves… It is marvellous to see. And in addition, they will brighten up my otherwise pale living room :).

A new beginning

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So today was my first day at the new lab. The first day of a new beginning. My first post doc.

As I was walking to the Information Desk this morning my heart was pounding. Why was I there, anyway? What the hell was I thinking, where the hell was my head when I decided to do a post doc, let alone a post doc abroad? Why didn’t anyone stop me?
They should’ve stopped me.
But time was ticking, and at 10:29am I had no choice – Swedes apparently invented punctuality so the last thing I wanted to do was make a bad impression by being late. I introduced myself. Henrik came to fetch me. No way back.

(as if there was any way I could’ve backed out before)

I still don’t know whether I’m up to this, this post doc-thing. It felt so weird, Henrik introducing me to everyone as if I were someone with experience, an added value to the lab. I am not so sure I am. I’m so… green. Inexperienced. So insecure.

So many things need to be done – register at Skåtteverket, file for a personnummer, get a bank account, read articles (by tomorrow!), finish my articles from back home (2 of those, plus 11 structures, …). Meanwhile keep the fridge filled, learn Swedish. Be a good post doc.

Oh hell.

This is never gonna work.

The joys of bike riding

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So, I got my bike. And I hate it.

Let me rewind. I’m a cyclist. I have never in my (admittedly short) life owned a car, nor am I planning on purchasing one in the near future. The reasons are simple – apart from my part-time obsession with saving the earth (part-time as in, I consciously don’t buy a car, but I do love my long and hot showers), it is just incredibly expensive: purchase, gas, taxes, maintenance, … . Well I got some traveling to do before I go bankrupt, thank you very much. So, especially since in Lund (as in many student cities) a bike is almost indispensable anyway, it was only natural that I wanted to have a bike here. And this morning, as if God was sending me a signal that He, in fact, exists, there was some sort of… let’s call it a park sale. 1200 crowns (€127) for a second-hand, well-repaired bike. And while I was trying on one black-and-green-and-orange bike (I thought it might be easier to spot, as I tend to forget where exactly I parked it), there he was, smiling at me. A grey, Swedish version of the well known Dutch bike, which immediately felt as if it were made for me. Sold!

And so the trouble began. The handle bar is fairly close to the saddle (if my legs were 5cm longer, I wouldn’t be able to cycle), but it is also bent. This appears to be normal to most people, but on my old bike (which has been in my possession for 15 years, some intervals when it was stolen notwithstanding) the handlebar is straight. And this has some serious implications when, after grocery shopping, you want to hang your full bags on either end of the bar, since in the case of a bent bar, the distance to your feet – more precisely your little toe – is shorter. A lot shorter, even. Them bags were swinging and turning as if they wanted to generate electricity, banging my poor little toes with each failed attempt. The wobbling made steering rather difficult, and in addition to this, my beautiful bike was equipped with a back pedal brake. I am not exactly familiar to those, and as a result found myself almost falling on several occasions – I don’t think correcting with my left foot was the best solution, but it was either that or kissing Swedish soil. And if that weren’t enough, the handle of one of the bags broke, spilling my peaches and potatoes all over the park (admittedly, the bike may not be entirely to blame for this. still.). I made it home though, and immediately added to my to-bring-from-home-list: cycle bags.
We’ll have a long way to go, my new bike and I.

Ok... - I said NOOO! - How did you know it was me? I had disguised myself so well!

But on a totally unrelated but at least more cheerful note: I got a library membership card and brought Astérix comic books home to learn Swedish – jeij!