The city of birches, fika and -27 degrees

I have now officially been living in Umeå, better known as the city of birches, for over two weeks now. Historical fun fact: It is known as ‘the city of birches’ because in 1888 a portion of Umeå burned down and a bunch of silver birches were planted to keep fire from spreading in the future, hence the nickname.

The journey here was an adventure to say the least. It took me around 17 hours between leaving Madison and arriving at my hotel. My first impression of Umeå was of an extremely tiny airport (literally a luggage belt, a hallway, and a bathroom) and the bitter bitter cold outside. Being that Wisconsin can get extremely cold, I thought I was prepared for northern Sweden. However, the day I arrived it was -27 degrees Celsius, which equates to roughly -17 degrees F. Extremely cold, especially when dragging about 60 pounds of luggage through unplowed streets searching for your well-hidden hotel.

Intense piles of snow on my walk to school

Luckily, some Umeå natives took pity on the aimlessly wandering foreigner and walked me to my hotel, even carrying one of my bags once my arms gave out. First impression of Swedes: extremely helpful and nice!

Since then, I have gotten lost many, many times. I pride myself on generally being able to use a map, but I swear the snow makes everything look the same. The pedestrian walkways do not follow main roads, making it even more difficult to find one’s way on campus. My best moment was after going grocery shopping it took me 45 minutes to make it back to my dorm when it normally takes five. That’s right, I’m directionally challenged in Sweden.

while also avoiding icy patches of death

Other than my frustrating inability to find my way around, my first week was stock full of orientation presentations, meeting other international students in the buddy program and, once again, getting lost trying to find my classes. Fortunately, I only had one day of classes the first week, so I had some time to find my way around and recover from jet lag.

The schooling system being vastly different than in the States and also from Europe in general, in Swedish universities you typically only take one class at a time, depending on the difficulty. It looks as though I will usually have classes about two or three times a week, not including my language course.

One thing that really interested me about the program in Umeå was the Buddy Program they offer. Once you arrive, they split all the international students in the Buddy Program into groups which have Swedish ‘buddies’ who plan activities such as international dinners, movies and fika.

My buddy group playing snow games in thigh high snow piles

Fika is a very Swedish cultural tradition, basically a coffee break where you meet up with friends and enjoy baked goods while talking for extended periods of time. I am quite fond of fika breaks thus far. Plus, honestly, who doesn’t love baked goods and sanctioned caffeinated breaks throughout the day.

The Buddy Program is a great way to meet people. To be truthful, it is much harder to meet Swedish students who are not involved in the Buddy Groups. I have so far only met three out of seven Swedish students in my corridor. It’s only a matter of time until I jump them in the kitchen and force greatly awkward introductions. I shall have no shame as we still need to work out a cleaning rotation and I will have a clean kitchen!

Before I depart, here are some intriguing things I have noticed since being here:

1. Swedish girls attain some cold-defying gene which I do not possess. I cannot believe my eyes when I see girls walking around in the bitter cold with only tights on. Not even leggings, but legit tights and nothing else while I am wearing two pairs of pants.

2. Swedes love their round-abouts. They are everywhere.

3. Cars will literally stop in the street for any pedestrian or bikes nearing the walkway. I have thought people were going to get run over, but no! Even the buses stop in the middle of the road. Unbelievable!

4. The entire nation runs on coffee and cinnamon rolls.

5. When meeting hordes of international students, rather than retaining names you simply identify everyone by their country of origin. Also, I cannot count how many times I have had to explain where Wisconsin is. It’s gotten to the point where I simply say ‘It’s in the middle’ and leave it at that.

6. Yellow colored cheese does not exist in Sweden. The cheese is all white and crazy expensive.

7. Everyone I have come across uses the word ‘sledging’ instead of ‘sledding’. I had no idea what anyone was talking about and just kept nodding until I heard the phrase ‘dog sledging’. It was quite the epiphany.

8. Small children speaking foreign languages are the most adorable thing in the world. Although, I have gotten some Swedish children hardcore staring at me while I was speaking English.

Next time I write I will have ventured into the far north of Sweden on our way to Jokkmokk and the famous Sami market. My next adventure: crossing the Arctic Circle!

For your viewing pleasure; a Swedish sunset…at 3:30 pm