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how DIS and Stockholm broke my expectations pt. 1

A longer but helpful post about the shocks of studying abroad and the solutions I invented to remedy them. Stay tuned for part 2!

Right now, I’m writing in one of many Espresso House locations around Stockholm, essentially the Starbucks equivalent here. In a sense, this is an achievement. Maybe I’m no longer a silly tourist, yearning for the perfect, culturally-rich coffee shop, trying zealously to catch a vibe of what Stockholm is like. Maybe, having lived here for over a month, I have become a pseudo-local: knowing the places, having done the things. I’m kidding. If any Swede in this shop heard me order in English, saw the amount of color & pattern my clothing has, or listened to how loudly I speak, they’d likely think otherwise.

But at this point, things have begun to feel more normal here. For the most part, I’ve found friends I really connect with. I’ve memorized the times I have classes and the latest possible minute I can step on the train to get to DIS in order not to be late to them. And I’ve figured out a few of my favorite spots: Kaffekoppen for a delicious latte and semla, Hornstull Burger for a late-night snack (seriously… this is a must), and the Zinkensdamm stop, where after walking about a block out the train station, you can get the best view of the city.

The View from the mini-mountain outside Zinkensdamm stop (Skinnarviksberget)

Week 1 me would read the last paragraph and wonder how any of that happened. What lavish Instagram photos and study-away websites fail to demonstrate is that any transition of this scale is hard and sometimes slow. I think I came here expecting some of the fruits I now enjoy to sort of immediately fall into my lap. But I wouldn’t say after a week, I felt the same as I did during week 2, or during week 2, the same I did week 3, and so on. So in order to help your transition to life in Sweden, I’d love to share some of the things I didn’t so much anticipate (shocks) and the tactics I used to navigate through them (solutions). Let’s just say I waited to get where the grass is greener to write this post, not that I spent weeks here procrastinating it.

Shocks & Solutions

SHOCK: The Learning Curve + Technicalities

There’s a fear that accompanies the knowledge that you don’t yet belong in a place. I remember feeling nervous to go to the grocery store (ICA, pronounced EEK-UH) for the first time, despite its being less than a block away from my apartment. You’re somewhere completely new, not a familiar face in sight or a sign written in a language you understand. To get anywhere, you need to use the metro system. To buy anything, you need to know the conversion factor between USD and KR (divide KR by ~10 = USD). And to call anyone without breaking the bank, you need to get your international plan set up.

These technicalities pervade the first week of being in Stockholm. But beyond them, it’s up to you to learn about a place and a people who live, feel, and act very differently than you do. If this is your first time abroad, you likely won’t anticipate this quality of “differentness” that comes from living in a foreign country long-term. These are my tips for navigating it:

1. Talk to Locals

I’ve never had an experience where talking to locals has not been fascinating and helpful. Seek out the stories of others because they will teach you the things about Swedish culture you can’t learn from a YouTube video, a Google search, or a classroom. You don’t have to force these encounters or go up to someone randomly on the street (neither should you because Swedes are often shy). Just strike up a conversation sometimes with your barista/waitress or a local you naturally encounter. Sometimes you’ll get asked where you’re from, and that in itself is a conversation starter. Doing this when possible will seriously enrich your immersion.

The American restaurant in Tallinn, Estonia where we talked for 20 minutes with a waitress about how Estonia plays into the war in Russia & she gave us recommendations for cool sites to see.
My roommate, Ian, who was here last semester and decided to continue his stay in Stockholm. He truly immerses himself, constantly talking to locals, using his Swedish, and learning from cultural differences.
2. Excitement Before Fear

There will be times when immersion feels burdensome. One thing I’ve learned here is that nearly every time I enter a public space (restaurant, shop, or bar), the language barrier is immediately obvious, such that I either embarrassingly revert to English or work through broken Swedish to half-express myself. There’s a part of me that misses the fluidity of entering a coffee shop in America, ordering in English and feeling that I belong from the first words spoken. That’s something you’ll lose for the four months you’re here.

However, this doesn’t always have to be the norm. There’s a temptation (admittedly one I sometimes fall into) to treat the brevity of being abroad as an excuse to half-immerse or not dive at all into a culture. Not learn the language. Not learn about the people. This is such a wasted opportunity. In a sense, you owe it to Swedes to learn their language and conform to their way of life. But beyond this, you are missing out on a unique chance for self-reflection – a comparative analysis of sorts between you and an entirely different people. The more I immerse – use Duolingo, talk to a local, go to a cultural staple – the more I am rewarded by this abroad experience. Otherwise, you might as well have spent your semester in Detroit (if you’re from there, sorry).

3. Apps and Websites

Thank me later. These are the apps and websites you will use on a daily basis when abroad.

DIS Navigate: announcements, contacts, and calendar for DIS

Canvas Student: class portal for DIS

RyanAir: time to get that $5 round trip flight💅

SJ: long-distance trains out of Stockholm! For times you want to go to Copenhagen or another Swedish city. Highly recommend an overnight SJ train (the Polar Express IRL).

Hostelworld: cheapest living arrangements in travel destinations

Too Good To Go: a concept I’m skeptical of but that my friends laud. You basically can get food that would otherwise would be thrown away for super cheap. The legend goes that my friend got 16 pastries and a baguette for $5.

Websites: One thing to cross off your DIS bingo card is someone frantically perusing flight deals on Skyscanner during a class lecture. Just input the dates you want to travel and it finds you the fastest/cheapest flights. a cool website my friend put me onto. Search any travel destination, and it gives you tons of detailed articles about how to spend three days in Budapest, best hostels in Vienna, or best gluten-free food in Rome.

Stay tuned for part 2, where I discuss the shocks of alone time and DIS’s freer approach to academics!

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