On (not) Learning Swedish

I shall call this one "Picture is Unrelated: Stockholm at Christmas."

I shall call this one "Picture is Unrelated: Stockholm at Christmas."

Last month Education First ranked Swedes at the top for English Proficiency and I can second that assessment. Perhaps it's because Swedish isn't too useful outside of Sweden or perhaps it's because Swedish and English share a Germanic root language. But if you ask them, Swedes will attribute their awesome English to television. English programming has subtitles rather than dubbing, so Swedes - especially the younger generations - have grown up hearing English on T.V. and in films. And it shows. Whether it's a wide, nuanced vocabulary or a native-like understanding of idioms and slang, I am continually impressed by the English I hear. Sometimes I'll even hear Swedes apologize for their "terrible" English which is a) so far from the truth and b) ridiculous. I'm the one in their country asking them to speaking my language. I'm the imposition here. But still, the apologies come.

I am fluent in Swedish pastries. 

I am fluent in Swedish pastries. 

All of this excellence has an interesting consequence: It's really hard to learn Swedish here. Sure, having lived in Sweden for the better part of a year means I can understand and read it alright.  But speaking? No chance. My patient friends have heard mostly "Hallå!" or "Jag förstår!" and still they tolerate me. #Thankful for them. I've tried Duolingo, but it lacks a speaking component for Swedish. I've added Rosetta Stone to my morning coffee ritual, but I'm not sold. I mean, there's only so many opportunities to slip "Varför luktar hunden illa?" or "Sköldpaddan är liten" into conversation.  ("Why does the dog smell bad?" and "The turtle is small" for those who are following.) And then there's SFI, Swedish for Immigrants. The government offers a language course for immigrant adults, but reviews from friends and colleagues have been largely critical.  SFI groups students by their education level rather than their experience with Swedish. So even though I have spent several months here, I could be placed with students who don't know the difference between "hej" and "hejdå". And often times, groups of varying levels all share the same teacher at the same time. It's tough enough to differentiate instruction for my fourth graders; I can't even imagine juggling masters level students in the same room as students who aren't literate in their native language. And the kicker? You need a personnummer to register for the course. Which I don't have. I guess it's pretty futile to complain about a service I can't use. So I'll keep muddling on with Rosetta Stone and hope for plenty of opportunities to talk about smelly dogs and small turtles.


More on my adventures learning Swedish later :)



Giving Thanks

Holidays away from home can be difficult and social media doesn’t make it easier. The barrage of snaps, Instagrams and status updates made last week challenging at times. I so wanted to be home with family like everyone else seemed to be. I wanted to hug my ninety-year-old grandma and congratulate my brother and his fiancée. I wanted to squeeze into Nanna’s house with countless cousins and bake pies without visiting the American Food store. I wanted to quote SNL’s “Back Home Ballers” and watch football with my dad. I wanted all of the familiar joy and gratitude of the holiday. How foolish I was to think I could only have that at home. 


Last week I celebrated no less than FOUR thanksgivings here in Uppsala. I celebrated with friends, roommates, colleagues and students and I ate more sweet potato than I am comfortable admitting. I laughed around a table with so many amazing people. I prepared my first turkey and didn’t give anyone food poisoning. I botched a pecan pie and then made a killer one. I shared in traditions new and old and broke bread with this family I have made for myself. And I regretted my poor, pitiful me routine.

In three weeks time, I will be celebrating Christmas at home with family and my petty homesickness will feel even more selfish than it does now. Truth is, our world is in a tough spot. There are families without a place to go home to, or families whose gatherings this holiday season will be a much more somber affair. There are many reasons to feel saddened or angered, many reasons to feel hateful or hopeless, but I am choosing gratitude. I have to. 


This picture is total crap, but you can hopefully see what I mean.

This picture is total crap, but you can hopefully see what I mean.

The building in which I teach was once owned by the university across the street, Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet or SLU, an agricultural college. While the land was under their ownership, birch trees were taken from up and down Sweden and planted along the road. In the fall, these trees lose their leaves according to wherever they come from in Sweden, from the Arctic Circle to Malmö. Now that it is firmly autumn here in Uppsala, some of these trees have lost their leaves entirely, some have leaves changing colors, and some have yet to show any signs of losing their summer abundance. Though these adult trees have grown just a few meters from one another, they retain the seasonal cycles of their origins. I walk past this grove daily and I can't help but see it for the metaphor it is. I feel like one of those trees sometimes. I am very much rooted here and rooted elsewhere, very much a product of the places I have known before. It has me wondering - how much of home do we hold on to? How much of our past experiences define our present? And is that a decision we can make for ourselves? I'm not sure I have any answers, just more questions. But I do know that this is the challenge I face, establishing roots in a place where I am so obviously a transplant, an expat, an unfamiliar birch tree. It is a challenge I have chosen many times before - in Boston, in Louisville and here - and it is a one I will likely choose again. And what a worthwhile challenge it is. 

P.S. Two months in today and just received word that I'll be here through June. These roots will grow a little deeper... Exciting stuff!



Please excuse my Saturday morning posts. They can get a bit self-indulgent. 

Yesterday, I hit the one month mark. When I arrived, the sun was rising at 4:21 and setting at 21:29. This morning the sun was up at 5:37 and will set this evening at 20:03. In just a month, we've lost 2 1/2 hours of what seems like the most precious commodity here: daylight. I'm conflicted by this. I love autumn's crisp air and shadowy evenings, how the shorter days make the noon sun all the more intense. But I also love the purply hue of a summer night sky here, the brightness of the mornings, the seemingly endless afternoons. There's this kind of light here that is simply magic. I can't quite describe it or pinpoint it, but there is something to it - something enigmatic. Perhaps it's this place that has some magic in it or perhaps it's in the light that touches it. 

Better than a Cup of Coffee

I survived the first week with students and contrary to previous beliefs, 4th graders are not terrifying. I thought my personality was better suited for teaching older students, but I must say that so far teaching the younger ones has been awesome. I have a smile plastered on my face constantly and I feel positively - dare I say it - peppy. And I think I know where I've found the energy to be like this.

I do not shy away from my addiction to coffee. I've started my mornings with the good stuff since watching Lorelai and Rory practically guzzle coffee at Luke's Diner in every episode of Gilmore Girls. I've been a faithful lover of coffee for more than 10 years. I've fed my addiction and spent God knows how much at Angelina's and Heine Brothers and Starbucks and Hillside Café and countless others. But now I can honestly say that I've found something that works even better.

Botaniska trädgården yesterday morning

Botaniska trädgården yesterday morning

When I arrived in Uppsala almost a month ago, I bought a monthly bus pass and a bike. I thought I would use the bus for commuting to work and the bike for trips around town. But after just a week, I was annoyed by the bus. I didn't like being at the whim of its timetable and the 750 SEK (about $90) wasn't a selling point either. The 7k ride to work intimidated me, but the bus annoyed me more. Late last week, I hopped on my bike at 7am and I haven't looked back. I thought I'd get to work sweaty and disheveled, but the mornings have been cool and I bring toiletries and a change of clothes. Since last Thursday, I've biked more than 60 miles and I bet that's further than I've gone in my 24 years combined. (Sorry Mom and Dad for all the bikes you bought me that I didn't fully appreciate and that I didn't notice were gone when you gave them away...)

Anyways, here's what I love about biking to work in no particular order: I pass by Carolina Rediviva, the largest library in Sweden, the Uppsala Castle, built in 16th century, and the stunning Botanical Garden. I get an hour's worth of exercise (and endorphins!) every day. I have to be alert early to navigate cars, pedestrians and other bikes, contributing to the "better than a cup of coffee" wide-awakeness that I feel. I'm getting a nice pair of thunder thighs and a butt to match. I make up for all those times I drove two blocks in Louisville. And I have the energy to keep up with 10 year olds. 

Come the dark and dreary mornings of December I'll be riding that bus without complaint, but for now I'm happy on two wheels.