Alcohol and blonds in Uppsala
There are lots of rumors and gossips about student life in Sweden: expensive alcohol and blond girls. I came here for an exchange semester at the famous, old and very traditional Uppsala University, located in the fourth largest city of the country. Let us stop guessing and see what everything looks like in reality.
From a very first glance, Sweden seems to be organized to the same incredible degree as the Netherlands: trains are comfortable, schedules look convenient and the university is trying to take care of students really well. Each exchange student is assigned a personal “buddy” – a local student – who will meet you at the train station, accompany you to your accommodation, and helps with settling in and further life.
Of course everything is not as perfect as it looks. Also in Sweden trains may run late, as everywhere, settling in does not go as smoothly as it should and some “buddies” seem to be on summer vacation. But apart from these small usual happenings, which can hardly be avoided anywhere, life is great here. The student housing block has a friendly party atmosphere and neighbor students seem to be open. Many doors in the corridors have names and countries written on it, with invitations for other new comers to drop by and get to know each other.
This week the welcoming week starts, which is similar to Eurekaweek in Rotterdam. The only difference is that the programme has more free time for improvisations. This is an advantage, because international students already started to prepare a getting-to-know-each-other “festival” online on Facebook more than a month ago.
Another interesting fact is a traditional “Flogsta” student scream. This unbelievable gossip seems to be true. In the biggest student housing area, the habit to open all the windows at and start screaming is still alive! All windows are opened at 10.00pm and every student starts to scream for a couple of minutes. Yes, it looks, and sounds, wild and crazy, but it is a lot of fun.
The birth of this phenomenon was more than hundred years ago, when students needed to blow off steam during the exam period. Don’t you ever feel like screaming, after having studied non-stop for a couple of days and still do not understand something? Swedes feel the same emotion, and they simply do it – start screaming. Since this activity seemed to be fun, it became more and more wide-spread until it reached the current level. Now it is not unusual to see thousands of open windows with screaming students in this city, Uppsala, with a population of around 190.000, out of which more than 40.000 are students.
Fraternities vs nations and Swedish student life
We all know about student fraternities and unions, which are common in the Netherlands and beyond. In some of Sweden’s student cities however, like Uppsala, there are student Nations. Traditionally these represented particular regions of the country; now they are open to all students.
Contrary to how it works in the Netherlands, student union membership is compulsory in Sweden. It is the only way to get a student card, which in turn is necessary for taking exams. Also different from the Dutch fraternity system, membership of one Nation grants access to all thirteen existing Nations in town. This is a great advantage because student Nations are non-profit organizations and have their own pubs, clubs, restaurants, theaters, libraries etc. Consequently, prices are about twice as low as in regular bars. Even alcohol becomes affordable!
Each and every student, including internationals with no experience, can work for any Nation. It is fun and it is some extra income. Entry to the nations is granted only to students and university staff. Members are not obliged to do anything, but are welcome to join various activity groups like singing, art, acting, sports etc. The nations have enormous libraries with study books too. Although it is possible to migrate through all Nations at any time, members get discounts and priority to enter their nation without queuing at the door.
In case someone does not support the general Nation idea – no problem. There is a fourteenth nation, which is different from the others – it is a fake one. The Nation does not exist in reality, but students can join to get the student card. These students however are not allowed to enter any of the other Nations and participate in their activities.
In general, Swedish student life style is quite different from Dutch student life. It is normal to go out at around 6pm because most of the bars close at 11pm or midnight. Only a few places in the cities stay open till 1am, due to strict Sweden’s rules and regulations. Therefore, the time around midnight usually feels like 4am in the Netherlands. It makes you feel like going to bed early. It is strange somehow, but after a whole evening of partying you will usually find yourself fit in the morning! Another typical Swedish student thing is to have corridor parties in the student housing blocks. One corridor will throw a party in their kitchen and the next time the next corridor will do the same thing!
Most of us are used to arrive at our lectures at the times stated on the schedule, sometimes even a little earlier. Sounds simple, clear and obvious. But the Swedes in Uppsala never do it. If the schedule says the lecture starts at noon, Swedish students will read 12:15.
At first this sounds quite shocking to newcomers and internationals. It is especially weird to see the professors entering the lecture hall or classroom ten minutes after the official starting time.
After my first encounter with this phenomenon, I immediately thought: “Wow, if it would be the same in Rotterdam, I would always be perfectly on time!”. But life is life and in Rotterdam it simply does not work like that. But on the very first day here in Uppsala, lots of freshmen who could not manage to find their classrooms in time, had this pleasant surprise: instead of being seven minutes late, they came in eight minutes early…
This very old tradition is called ‘the academic quarter of an hour’ and can be seen in some other universities in Finland or Germany and even until recently at the University of Amsterdam. This tradition began in a time when hardly anyone had watches. Therefore the church bell used to be the main thing indicating the start of a class. After the church clock struck, students and their teachers needed the fifteen minutes to reach their classrooms.
Although technology overcame this situation and in 1982 it was officially abolished in Uppsala, in reality nothing ever changed. The rule of the academic quarter did not disappear. Of course today almost every student has a watch or cell phone, or both which, by the way, quite often can be synchronized with the university’s calendar on the student web site.
Yes, the Kingdom of Sweden has many old customs, traditions and other memorable facts and the Swedes take pride in these things. You notice all this small patriotic ‘propaganda’ from the very moment you arrive. The first things visitors see after arriving at Arlanda airport, Sweden’s main international airport located exactly between Uppsala and Stockholm, are huge posters with portraits of famous Swedes. It starts with sportsmen and artists and it moves on to politicians and CEOs of big (international) Swedish companies. They all are saying: “Stockholm. Welcome to my city!”
After reaching the university, during the first welcome speech we were congratulated to be a student at one of the world’s best one hundred universities, which is associated with fifteen Nobel prize winners. Besides this, exchange students are welcomed by student organizations – nations, which surround us with facts about Sweden’s achievements, songs and artists like the Cardigans, ABBA, Kent, Alcazar, Opeth etc. Yet, this is not the end. Later at the Swedish-language classes, we had to write a letter, dictated to us, which turned out to contain the names of famous Swedish persons, whose life and achievements would be discussed later on.
Studying and relaxing
We are called students because of one simple reason – we study. Some of us do it more intensely than others, but at least formally we all do this. Here in Uppsala students have great facilities for studying. Like in Rotterdam, students often go to the university library to study, where you simply have fewer distractions and a more inspiring study-related atmosphere.
Although libraries close pretty early and students can not stay there as long as they like, there are lots of other suitable places for studying. Almost each corridor at the university has studying corners. These are perfect for team work during daytime and quiet enough to study on your own in the evenings, weekends or nights. Yes, students can study at night as well. After the university closes, every student can enter the building by swiping the personal entrance card and entering the PIN code. For students the university is open 24/7. You can always people find studying here, or sometimes even silently pre-partying before going out while pretending to study.
But actually, it is not as boring as it sounds. On Friday evenings in front of one of the buildings, music is being played. Students usually refer to this ‘service’ as ‘the nerd parties’ because they take place on the campus and stop early. But at least even the most serious or boring students have a chance to have some fun without going far away.
Next to the studying part, students have plenty of opportunities to do sports. The university’s sports centre, similar to the one Rotterdam, offers a wide range of affordable activities. Furthermore, there are other places in the city for students to hang out, and there are the student nations. But there are regular amateur frisbee competitions too, or football matches. A Facebook account is a necessity here; this is the place where everybody gets to know about all the activities, starting with groups of students who like running together or who have paintball matches outside of Uppsala, or even open house parties or live concerts at the student nations. All is organized by us students ourselves. As winter is pretty dark in Uppsala, there are lots of lit hiking paths and running and recreational cycling tracks in the areas around the city. To sum up, whenever you want to study, relax or just have fun – there is always a chance for it.
Queue management systems
Sweden: up north, cold, slow. These are the associations that often come to mind when hearing this country’s name. Most of the foreigners expect the Swedes to be a bit passive and calm, which is actually true. This can be noticed right after entering any store. Even when there are extremely long queues, (like on Friday evenings in systembolaget – the state-owned alcohol stores), every customer patiently stands and waits. These people usually do not show any signs of tiredness or annoyance, that is, so long as nobody disturbs them.
Yes, if you somehow try to avoid this boring procedure by approaching a counter from the other side or pretending to join someone in the middle of a queue – watch out and be careful. You will get to experience the real wild side of the Swedes!But this can not happen too often. As we are used to see in the Dutch public institutions, queue number machines often help to solve the situation. Whether you are in a bank, pharmacy, bakery or bar, the first step is to queue a line in order to get your queue number and then you can simply relax and watch the numbers changing on the board without trying to push someone out of a line.
All this seems to be easy and simple, but at the same time it can not be avoided anywhere. Rules are rules and do not be surprised if in the electronics shop where you are the only customer at that moment, a Swedish salesman would first ask you to pick a number to only then start helping you.The systems are not all as simple as it may look. They actually have a name: queue management systems, and they can be found in many different forms. It starts with simple boxes where a numbered paper roll is inside, from which you simply have to tear a ticket for yourself, (similar to your toilet paper roll), and goes on till electronic ticket kiosks with touch screens (which alert your laptop) and an integrated printer. All this is connected by cables or wireless systems to the control units at the counters and after analyzing using special software your number is presented to you, dearest costumer, on fancy LCD screens.
Earth is travelling around the sun and since the earth rotates at an angle, the seasons are changing. The days in the northern hemisphere are getting shorter. In Uppsala however, the difference is that days have become even shorter than in the Netherlands. Although this does not sound very nice, it seems to be fair: Longer summer days, pay-back time in winter. Winter itself in Uppsala is not bad at all. White snow is all around which lights the city. The whole environment looks pretty much lighted up. November is probably the worst month in Sweden, because in October there is still a lot of sunlight and from December on everything around becomes white and stays so until late spring. At the moment, it snows only once in ten days because it is still quite warm during the day. So, similar to Rotterdam, one can easily notice that days are getting shorter and winter is almost here.
But the government is doing its job and takes care of the locals. To avoid the mass depression that may set in among the people and to attract more tourists, The world around us is being made nicer and more colourful. A project called “All in light” was developed. This means that during November, twenty places around Uppsala are lighted in different ways. Huge coloured lamps are installed in front of various buildings, tunnels, parks, children’s playgrounds, etc. which literally colour the dark world. On some of the buildings changing pictures of leaves are displayed, and dragons or castles, exactly like in the cinema. Other buildings or bridges are simply coloured in different colours that are changing or moving, sometimes even with sound in the background.
What is more, it is impossible to miss the mysterious lights in the parks which create yellow stars on the ground and colour the trees, benches and children’s playgrounds. And as it is getting colder in the evenings, often the fog sets in, which makes all lights much more spectacular and mysterious. Free guided tours through these places are organized and everyone is welcome to hear the stories of each installation and enjoy it. Since everything is in the best known places in the city, people are basically having their sightseeing tour again, while looking at the same things from a different point of view.
How tot survive winter in Sweden?
At times Uppsala starts to seem small, especially when we start looking for something new. Next to its many outdoors activities – those are impossible to count – there is not such a big variety of indoor happenings here, besides the usual clubs, live-music nights and sports tournaments.
Although the number of students is the same as in Rotterdam, the city is only a third in size. As a result there is a relatively small number of shops and cultural activities. At the same time one should not forget that this is still the fourth-largest city in Sweden. But then another question arises: what is it like in other towns? Especially the towns further up north where mother nature is not so kind during the winter, what do people do there to survive the winter?
There is no specific answer to it, or solution to survive. But people here simply do not worry about it. They just accept it as it is, and start having fun, using what nature has thrown at them. They do for example nice things like cross country skiing or check out the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis, see the picture). The further north you go, the more often you see it.
At the same time, winter does not prevent people from doing the same things they do in summer. Cold weather is not a problem for Swedes – you can always dress up more. Even I already managed to learn surviving the minus 8 degrees with a summer jacket, while layering my other clothes under it in a proper way. Of course I will always prefer my winter jacket in such conditions, but the most interesting thing is that layering works very well and when you are properly dressed – cold weather ceases to be a problem.
Modern technology also helps here. In the northern towns, most of the car parks are equipped with electricity plugs. They are used to plug in the cars, which special programmable heating systems that switch on at certain hours in order to warm up the engine and make it ready to drive even before you leave the house. What is more, besides the compulsory slippery driving conditions lessons, and tests before getting a driver’s license, many cars have two or three extra bright lights attached, which dramatically increase the visibility. As I realized myself while driving in northern Sweden, this helps a lot. The Swedes do not change their driving habits in winter and keep driving at about 15km/h above the speed limit on the empty snow-covered country roads.
Winter in Sweden
Finally winter has come and the Swedes have taken out their skis, sledges and of course snow shovels. Sledding ‘parties’ and snow fights began to emerge among international students and we got used to going out for city walks while it is snowing. Yes, as it has just started, everyone is still enjoying this slightly cold weather.
Although in summer you hardly notice cars in town – Swedes tend to drive slowly, carefully and silently, things have now changed. To the surprise of all foreigners, the slow and safe image of driving has disappeared. Many drivers keep their summer driving style; some even start playing in the snowy streets when they are empty – many of the older Volvos (the most popular car brand in Sweden) are rear-wheel drives, which makes drifting on a slippery surface very easy. Streets here usually look snowy, because nobody tries to melt the snow using salt, as is common practice in most other European countries. Snow is simply pushed out to the sides and then the street surfaces are sanded. Cars have studded winter tyres; this does not cause any problems.
Winter has also divided students into two groups: the ones who keep cycling, and the ones who do not. Some find it too cold, some – too slippery and others simply choose walking or taking a bus because their friends do so and cycling alone is much more boring. But there is a group of students who is enjoying this – it is fun to skid, the beautifully white surroundings along the way are awesome and bicycles can be easily parked right in front of the university’s entrance – now there is plenty of space for parking. Although shops have many bicycle tires with spikes or similar to the usual ones, but made from special winter rubber with better grip on snow or ice – most of the student’s bikes look the same as in the Netherlands. Nobody is spending money on expensive accessories.
Nowadays one can notice many strange or unusual happenings outside: to begin with cyclists wearing skiing glasses till cross-country skiers on bicycle paths. But besides this and stories about people in the towns of northern Sweden who walk to the city with shovels during snowstorms, it can be said that winter here is not causing any big problems for everyday’s life or transportation. One only needs to know how to deal with it and the Swedes have some experience.