Ten things I will miss most about Sweden

10.04 Fredag, 24 Maj, 2013

Well, tomorrow, my stay in Sweden will be officially over.  I’ll be back to visit for a few days in June, but at that time, I will just be a visitor, sleeping on friends’ floors!  I suppose, then, that now is a good time to list some things that I like about living and studying in Sweden – or rather, what I’m going to miss when I go home.  So, here is that list, in no particular order, but numbered backwards anyway, for dramatic effect!

10.  Pressbyrån & 7-Eleven

Why would I miss a convenience store, you ask?  Because of fika, that’s why!  The convenience stores here have some of the best kanelbullar, and the coffee is delicious!  I will probably have withdrawals without it.  Maybe I should even sign up for kanelbulle-therapy.  In case you were wondering, American 7-Elevens aren’t the same – if they were, Starbucks probably would have gone out of business!  Also, Swedish candy is amazing.  Maybe it’s good that I won’t have access to such good lösgodis in Texas, but I will still be sad.

9.  Hej!  Tack!

It’s so much fun to speak Swedish!  I didn’t really find much time to use it since I was mostly surrounded by other exchange students, but I did go to the language café most weeks, and I’m pretty good at this conversation with ‘Lasse from 7-Eleven’*:

Lasse from 7-Eleven: ‘Hej!’

Me: ‘Hej! En kaffe och en kanelbulle, tack.’

Lasse from 7-Eleven: ‘Tjugofem. Varsågod!’

Me: ‘Tack!’

Even if I didn’t speak so much, though, it was really fun being able to read things!  A foreign language makes even boring things, such as advertisements in the metro, seem exciting.  This means that whenever I got bored, I could entertain myself by reading something that most people wouldn’t even look twice at!  Also, being able to understand what people around me are saying makes things more interesting.  Understanding the language makes things simpler in general and lets you avoid awkward moments such as when you hear an announcement and then wait for a translation that never comes…

8.  Årstiderna

Seasons actually do exist!  We don’t have them in Texas, but it’s good to know that somewhere in the world, you can actually look out your window and watch winter turn to spring.  In Sweden, you don’t actually get to see much of winter because the sun forgets about Sweden most days, but now, it’s bright until well after 22:00!  The long winter also means that Swedes get really excited when the sun finally comes back – the number of outdoor events increases exponentially, starting in April with Valborg and culminating in June with Midsummer, the biggest holiday in Sweden.  I enjoyed both seasons, even though spring didn’t come until May and all of the Swedish people were complaining about how it’s been winter since October.  At least they have seasons to keep things interesting!

7.  Crazy course-scheduling (seriously)

Remember the post I wrote about how strange the course scheduling at KTH is because I have class at random times and at different times every week?  Well, it turns out that this was a pretty nice way to do it, because it meant that I wasn’t trapped by my schedule into never being able to do something.  For example, if I wanted to do go somewhere on a Friday, even though I may have a course on one Friday, I may have the next Friday completely free!  With the fixed schedule that I normally have at UT, if there is something that I want to do that meets at a certain time every week, and I have a class at that time, then I can’t do that activity at all for the entire semester.  So, because my schedule changed every week this semester, I could do different things every week, which meant more opportunities to have fun!  Also, I liked the fact that the courses had fewer, but longer, lectures – I usually only had one or two lectures per day, which meant that I didn’t have to go back and forth to KTH several times per day.

6.  AB Storstockholms Lokaltrafik

Of course, I will really miss SL, the public transportation system in Stockholm.  It’s so convenient and easy to use, and you can get practically anywhere in the entire county with the public transportation.  To make it even better, the public transportation is almost always running right on schedule, meaning that if you want to go somewhere in Stockholm, you can actually plan your trip beforehand (there’s an app for that!), and you will most likely arrive at your destination within a minute of the scheduled time!  Plus, riding on a train is automatically more exciting than riding in a car!

5.  Travelling

Part of the reason I came here was because I love to travel (obviously).  It’s pretty easy to tell from my previous posts that I’ve been travelling at least twice a month this semester – when I go home, I will have to get used to not having a vacation every other weekend! :/  However, it has been an amazing experience being able to travel throughout Europe and visit places that I have always wanted to visit (and places I knew nothing about until I got here!).  But, there’s still so much more to see, so I have plenty of reason to come back here!

4.  Living in a real city

Because other cities are fake.  Well not really, but I love the fact that in Europe, you can actually live in the city!  Sure, I live in downtown Austin when I’m at UT, but Austin isn’t as nice of a city as Stockholm, and it’s really only the university students who live there – all the normal people live outside the city, in the suburbs.  In Stockholm, the city center really is the city center – people actually go there, because people actually live there!  Of course, there are plenty of suburbs where people also live, but they still pass through the central station on their way to work or school, and downtown Stockholm has plenty of things to do – I’ve even seen people wade-fishing near Gamla Stan!

3.  Living in a national park

Isn’t it amazing that I live in a capital city of two million people, just ten minutes from the city center, and I am surrounded by a national park?!  The Kungliga Nationalstadspark was actually the first ‘national city park’ in the world, and it consists of forests, fields, and lakes, covering a surprisingly huge area right through the center of the city.  Stockholm is about one third buildings, one third water, and one third nature, which makes it a very unique place!  In fact, because Sweden is one of the least densely populated countries in Europe, there is plenty of nature for everyone, and it’s really nice to have such easy access to nature – all I have to do is step outside, and there’s a beach just a five minute walk away!

2.  The exchange student life

While I may not have met as many Swedish people as I would have liked, I also had a great time meeting other exchange students.  It’s really quite a bit different than what I expected, because I was expecting to be surrounded more by locals.  Instead, I was living in a corridor with other exchange students, and there were so many activities arranged by/for exchange students, so there were plenty of opportunities to meet and talk to other people, which was very fun and interesting.  We had events such as parties, fikas, and picnics, and the we even cooperated to make travelling cheaper!  I’ve travelled with people I hadn’t even met before and it was a great experience and a fun way to meet new people!

1.  Alla mina nya vänner!

Of course, I will miss all of my new friends!  I’ve probably made more friends during one semester in Sweden than I have in five semesters at UT.  Unfortunately, I may not get to see a lot of them again, but I had a great time this semester meeting people from all over the world!  So, the next time I’m in their countries, I’ll let them know, and I’m sure they’ll do the same when the visit the US!  At least we have Facebook to keep in touch in the meantime!

 

* My Swedish teacher always told us to practice by talking to ‘Lasse from 7-Eleven.’  Lasse doesn’t actually work at 7-Eleven, it’s just a very typical Swedish name, and 7-Eleven is a very common store in Sweden!

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Ska vi fika?

12.43 Söndag, 19 Maj, 2013

An important part of Swedish culture is a tradition known as fika.  The word fika is a uniquely Swedish word that can be used as either a noun, a verb, or an adjective, and which has no equivalent in English.  The best description would probably be ‘to have coffee with someone.’  Basically, when you ‘ta en fika’ (take a fika), you sit down in a café, a konditori (a café that specializes in fika), at home, or some other non-work-related place and have a conversation while drinking coffee and eating fikabröd.  What is fikabröd, you ask?  Well, bröd means ‘bread,’ so fikabröd is ‘fika bread,’ which could be anything from a piece of cake to a pastry to the famous Swedish kanelbulle (cinnamon roll) or even a sandwich.

I’m not an expert on coffee, but Swedish coffee seems a little different from American coffee, and I like it better.  For example, it is common not put large amounts (if any) of cream in your coffee; rather, it seems that sugar (or maybe milk) is the most common thing for Swedes to add to their coffee.  Also, coffee rarely comes in jumbo sizes – and almost never in ‘venti’ sizes, because there are only three Starbucks in Sweden.  Generally, coffee comes in cups the size of the ones in the picture below or slightly larger.  The cup size doesn’t seem to hinder Swedes’ coffee-drinking ability, though, because Sweden is still one of the highest consumers of coffee in the world (second only to Finland)!

DSC07026

A kanelbulle

2013-03-27 16.40.24

Coffee and a coconut cake

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Göteborg, Norrköping, and a midnight taxi ride through the Swedish countryside

00.08 Lördag, 11 Maj, 2013

I’ve had another busy few days this week – this time, I went on a three-day trip to Göteborg (pronounced ‘Yuh-teh-bor-ee,’ and known as Gothenburg in English) in southwestern Sweden, and Norrköping (pronounced ‘Nor-shup-ing’), which is between Göteborg and Stockholm.  You can see them on the map here.  I went on this trip with some of the same people I went on the last cruise with, and we had a great couple of days exploring Sweden outside of Stockholm!

On Tuesday, we woke up very early to go to the Central Station to catch our 05:59 (!!) train, which took us the nearly 500 kilometers to Göteborg in just over three hours.  Since we had slept on the train, we naturally needed some caffeine when we arrived, and in the Göteborg station, we found the first Starbucks I have ever seen in Sweden (apparently there are only three in the whole country).  However, I was very disappointed – all the coffee I have ever had in Sweden was better than the coffee I had at Starbucks.  No wonder there’s not many here; Swedish coffee is just so much better!

Göteborg

A canal in the center of Göteborg

After finding our hostel, we walked through a large city park that even had a free zoo complete with penguins!  After this, we had lunch and then visited Stadsmuseet, the City Museum, where we saw the remains of the oldest Viking ship ever found (mainly just a few wooden planks).  Then, we went to an amusement park, called Liseberg, which is the largest amusement park in Scandinavia.  Although it was rather expensive, we had a good time, and we spent the rest of the evening there.

Liseberg

Entrance to Lisebergs Nöjespark

The next day, we walked around the city to see the main sights, and we went on a boat tour through the canal and the river.  Göteborg has many cherry blossoms, and we happened to be there during the short period of time that they are in full bloom, so everywhere we turned, we saw sights such as the one in the picture below!

Cherry Blossoms in Göteborg

Cherry Blossoms in Göteborg

Because Göteborg has always been a very important city for Sweden, it was fairly heavily fortified in the past with a moat and large bastions surrounding the city center, as well as two large defensive towers called redoubts located on hills on the north and south sides of the city.  The northern one is called Skansen Lejonet, because it has a gilded lion on the top, and the southern one is called Skansen Kronan, because it has a gilded crown on the top.  We climbed up the hill of the southern one to have a closer look.

Skansen Kronan

Skansen Kronan

On the boat tour that we went on, we were taken through the protective moat that goes around the city center and into Göta älv, the river that flows past Göteborg.  Many of the bridges that we passed under in the canal were very low, and some of them were so low that we even had to get out of our seats and crouch down on the floor of the boat in order to pass under!  In the main river, we passed by the old shipyards (only one is still in use) that were part of what made Göteborg so important for Sweden.  We also passed a building on the edge of the water with the word Amerikaskjulet written on it, which is where, throughout the nineteenth century, millions of Swedes boarded the ships and set sail on a one-way journey to the United States.

Göteborg

A street in Göteborg

After the boat tour, we walked around in another park in the center of town, then headed to the train station to catch our evening train to the city of Norrköping, which is about two thirds of the way back to Stockholm.  The reason we added Norrköping to our itinerary was mainly because the total price, including accomodation, was actually cheaper than just taking the direct train back to Stockholm.  However, it turned out to be a very interesting stop, and it gave us an interesting story to tell…

When we got to our platform at the train station, we discovered that our train had been delayed by about 25 minutes, and that the train that was waiting at our platform was not actually ours.  So, we waited 25 minutes, and shortly after that, our train arrived.  However, we couldn’t board it for several more minutes, and when we finally did, we left Göteborg about an hour late.  In order to get to Norrköping, we had to change trains in a little town called Katrineholm, but since the first train was so late, we were clearly going to miss the second train.  We did not know how we were going to get to Norrköping until we were pulling in to Katrineholm, and the conductor said that there would be some form of transport for us at the station.  So, we got off and waited in front of the station, along with a few other people who had also missed their connections.  After about half an hour, a taxi-van showed up to take us to Norrköping, which was about 60 kilometers away.  So, we got in the taxi and about 45 minutes of foggy countryside later, we arrived at the central station of Norrköping, around 23:30.  Fortunately, our hostel was very conveniently located – it was on the second floor of the train station!  However, when we got to our room, we discovered that there was another woman already in the room.  This would not have been a problem, as there were eight beds in the room, except that the woman had been told on her reservation that she had a female-only room.  She seemed rather annoyed at us, but after a midnight call to the owner of the hostel, she was assured that everything was okay, and she finally let us come in to the room.  So, in the end, everything was fine and we made it to Norrköping – just three hours late.

When we were waiting for the first train, from Göteborg, we were rather surprised that the train was so late, because usually in Sweden, everything is on time right down to the minute.  However, we were happy that we were able to get to our destination so smoothly; I have a feeling that if we had been in a similar situation with planes instead of trains, it would have been a lot more stressful!  It turns out that the reason for the delay was that the previous evening, a fire near one of the tracks southwest of Stockholm had caused train traffic going south out of Stockholm to be delayed, and the delays were still being resolved when we left Göteborg.

On Friday, we woke up and set out to explore Norrköping.  It turns out there was plenty to explore for a town I had previously known nothing about!  Norrköping used to be one of the largest industrial centers for Sweden, and along the shores of the cascading Motala ström (the river that used to supply hydropower to the town) were many old factories, several of which are now museums.  We visited a few of the museums, including Stadsmuseet (Norrköping’s City Museum) and the Arbetets Museum (the Work Museum), which both focused on the industrial history of Norrköping.

Norrköping

A waterfall in the old industrial area of Norrköping

Norrköping

The old industrial area of Norrköping

After spending some time in the museums in the city center, we walked along the river to a large park on the edge of town, where we ate lunch and then went to see a very important part of Swedish history.  Norrköping is home to the densest collection of Viking rock carvings in Sweden, with several thousand individual carvings throughout the city.  In the Himmelstalund park, you can see several hundred of them, so we walked through the park to have a look.  In the picture below, you can see some of the carvings – most of them represent either Viking ships, people, or animals.  There are also some carvings that relate to the rituals for the Vikings’ sun-god.

Rock Carvings in Himmelstalund

Viking rock carvings in Norrköping

After seeing most of the carvings that are visible in Himmelstalund, we stopped to play a round of mini-golf, then walked back through the park and along the river to get back to the town.  We then took a quick walk through the town center before heading back to the train station to head back to Stockholm.  I think the trains were still recovering from the delays of the previous day because our train was about 15 minutes late.  However, we made our connection and arrived back in Stockholm around 23:00, concluding my final mini-trip of the semester!

Himmelstalund

Himmelstalund park in Norrköping

Now, I’m back in Stockholm for two more weeks while I finish up my studies and take my final exams.  Then, at the end of May, I will travel for a few weeks before returning home to Texas in mid-June.  But more on that later…I should probably study now, and enjoy my last days in Stockholm!

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Den veckan jag blev en Stockholmare

23.25 Söndag, 5 Maj, 2013

This week, my parents came all the way from Texas to visit me!  We had a great time, and we visited many different places in and around Stockholm.  Throughout the semester, I have written so many posts about all the places I’ve been, but hardly anything about the beautiful city I live in!  So, this post will be a tour of Stockholm, just like the one I gave my parents!

Stockholm Map

Map of Stockholm – I live just off the northern edge of the map

Stockholm is situated on the eastern coast of Sweden, about a third of the way up from the southern tip of the country.  The city is built on fourteen islands at the point where Lake Mälar empties into the Baltic Sea, which means that the city is surrounded by water.  Historically, the main island of Stockholm is Gamla Stan (‘The Old Town’), where the original town was built as a trading hub to transport goods in and out of Sweden.  Since the surface of Mälaren is about two meters higher than the surface of the Baltic Sea, and this drop occurs at Gamla Stan, the island was the perfect location to collect taxes on imports and exports, because the goods had to be offloaded and reloaded onto different ships.  Gamla Stan used to be nicknamed ‘Staden Mellan Broarna,’ which means ‘the city between bridges,’ due to the fact that there are over ten bridges that connect Gamla Stan and the little islands around it to the mainland and to Södermalm.  Nowadays, Gamla Stan is the main tourist area of Stockholm, consisting of old Scandinavian-style buildings, beautiful churches, narrow and winding alleys, the Royal Palace, and the Parliament and courthouses (on their own neighboring islands).

View of Gamla Stan from Södermalm

View of Gamla Stan from Södermalm

Kungliga Slottet

The Royal Palace in Gamla Stan

In the southern part of the city is a large island called Södermalm, which literally means ‘Southern Island.’  The buildings on Södermalm are located on the top of a high cliff, which (after a hike up several flights of stairs) gives great views of the city (see above).  Södermalm was originally the poor area of Stockholm, where the working-class people lived.  Now, however, Södermalm is quite a popular area of town.  You can, though, still see signs of Södermalm’s history on some streets where the original buildings have been preserved, and even in the name of the main square, Medborgarplatsen (‘The People’s Square’).  Even farther south, past Södermalm, is the Ericsson Globe, which is a concert and ice-hockey venue and the largest spherical building in the world!

Heading back north, the district of Norrmalm (‘Northern Island’), which lies just north of Gamla Stan, is the real center of the city today.  This is where the central station, the main square (Sergels Torg), and many office buildings and department stores are located.  There is also a large park called Kungsträdgården (‘The King’s Park’), which is a very popular place because there is always something going on there, from ice skating in the winter to free concerts in the summer.  While I was there with my parents, there was a promotional fair for tourism in France, and the whole park was decorated with French flags to go along with the cherry blossoms that were just starting to bloom!

KTH, the university I attend, is located in the northern part of the city, north of Norrmalm and near a district called Vasastaden.  My apartment, Lappis, is near the campus of Stockholm University, about two kilometers north of KTH.  It is a little out of the center of town, and doesn’t really have a ‘city feel,’ but it is still very convenient, because it is only a short subway ride into town.  My post about KTH and Lappis is here.

Just west of Norrmalm, and separated by a canal, is Kungsholmen (‘The King’s Island’).  The main attraction on this island is the city hall, Stadshuset.  You can read more about the Stadshus in one of my previous posts here.

Stadshuset

The City Hall

On the other side of Norrmalm, to the east, is the Östermalm (‘Eastern Island’) district.  This part of town is the upper class neighborhood, where rich people can buy large, insanely expensive apartments overlooking the water on Strandvägen, and where there are food markets and fancy restaurants, clubs, and bars.

View from Skansen

View of Östermalm from Skansen

Southeast of Östermalm is an island called Djurgården (‘Animal Park’), which was originally the king’s private game reserve.  Now, however, Djurgården is home to several museums, such as Vasamuseet, Nordiska Museet, and Skansen, as well as the amusement park Gröna Lund.  At the Vasa Museum, you can see the Swedish warship Vasa, which set sail from Stockholm on 10 August, 1628, and promptly sank twenty minutes later, before it even made it out of the harbor.  Skansen is probably the most important museum in Sweden – it is an open-air museum (one of the first in the world, opened in 1891) that exhibits houses, farms, buildings, and animals from all over Sweden and from different times in history.  The layout of the museum even reflects the actual layout of Sweden, with the northern regions represented in the northern part of the museum, the southern regions in the southern part, and so on.  The buildings are occupied by people wearing traditional clothes and who talk about life in that particular region and time period.  I have now been to Skansen twice (once with my parents and once as a tour with my Swedish society class), so I learned quite a bit about Skansen and the buildings there.  The reason Skansen is so important for Sweden is because it has helped to promote a ‘Swedish identity’ throughout the last century, and has been somewhat of a unifying symbol for the country, especially during times such as World War II.  Skansen has celebrations for practically every Swedish-related occasion, including Christmas, Easter, Lucia, Valborg, Midsummer, the Swedish national day, and even the Norwegian independence [from Sweden] day!  There are also concerts at Skansen during the summer.

Vasamuseet

The Vasa, after 333 years at the bottom of Stockholm harbor

Skansen

A traditional windmill from the Swedish island of Öland at Skansen

The other main feature on Djurgården is the park.  Djurgården forms the southern end of Kungliga Nationalstadsparken (‘The Royal National City Park’), which is a nature area that extends over 26 square kilometers through the city, even encompassing the forest surrounding my apartment in northern Stockholm.  The park is mostly forest and some lakes and islands, and there are many very nice trails.  There are even a few trails that start right outside my window!

Trails through the woods in Djurgården near Lappis

A trail near my apartment

A few kilometers west of Stockholm, on an island in Lake Mälar called Lovön, is Drottningholm Palace, where King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia live.  Drottningholm was modeled after Versailles in Paris, as a royal palace outside of the city center with large gardens, its own theater, and even a ‘Chinese’ pavilion where the royalty could go to relax.  The gardens are now open to the public, and you can even go inside one half of the palace (the king and queen don’t occupy the whole building!).

Drottningholms Slott

Drottningholm Palace

To the east of Stockholm is one of the largest archipelagos in the world (by number of islands), called Stockholms Skärgård.  The archipelago consists of approximately 30.000 islands, which include everything from large forested islands to sandy resort islands to rocks sticking out of the water.  While my parents were visiting, we took a ferry to the town of Vaxholm, the main town in the archipelago.  In Vaxholm, we walked around the small town and had lunch and fika at a little outdoor restaurant overlooking the harbor.  Then, we hiked around the island and a few neighboring islands, and visited part of the fortress that protected Stockholm from enemies coming in from the Baltic Sea.

The Stockholm archipelago is a very popular summer destination, and many Swedes own summer houses on the the remote little islands, where they usually spend June, July, and August.  Since Swedes are known for their love of nature, it makes sense that a place where you can practically own your own island would be so popular!

Stockholm Archipelago

Map showing Stockholm’s location between Lake Mälar and the Stockholm Archipelago

Vaxholm

Stockholms Skärgård

As you might be able to tell, I really like living in Stockholm!  It is a beautiful city, and it’s what I would consider lagom, a Swedish word that means, roughly, ‘just right (in size, location, etc.).’  It’s so easy to get around in Stockholm (both with public transportation and by foot), and you are never too far away from a great view, a busy square, or even a hiking trail!  Unfortunately, I have to leave in two weeks, but I will definitely be back eventually!

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Våren är här!

00.43 Söndag, 12 Maj, 2013

Spring has finally arrived in Stockholm!  Although the snow melted several weeks ago and the temperatures have been steadily rising over the last month, it is only this week that the city is really turning green.  I never expected that I would be so excited by spring, but I suppose that living in a place that actually has four seasons means that the changes are a lot more apparent.  Now I understand why the Swedes have holidays to celebrate spring (Valborg) and summer (Midsummer)!

Below are some pictures I took yesterday around my apartment.  If you go all the way back to my very first post in January, you can see the difference!  When I first arrived, the sun rose around 9:30 and set by 15:30, but now, the sun rises at about 4:30 and doesn’t set until 21:30!  By Midsummer, it will be bright 24/7 in Stockholm.  That’s something that just doesn’t happen way down in Texas!

Springtime at Lappis

View out my window – compare with January

Springtime at Lappis

View of my building at Lappis

View of Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet in Springtime

View towards Naturhistoriska Riksmuseet from in front of Lappis

A swan in Lappkärret

A swan in Lappkärret, a small lake near Lappis

Trails in Djurgården near Lappis

Walking along the trails in the park near Lappis

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Glad Valborg!

01.14 Onsdag, 1 Maj, 2013

This past Tuesday was a festival known as Valborg (the English name is Walpurgis).  This festival is celebrated in several countries in northern Europe, but especially in Sweden.  Valborg is a celebration of the beginning of Spring, and it occurs on April 30 every year.  The most famous Valborg celebration occurs in the city of Uppsala, about 40 minutes north of Stockholm by train.  Uppsala is a university town, home to the well-known Uppsala University (as well as many famous people, such as Anders Celcius), and since it is not a very large city, the percentage of students there is very large, which makes for some pretty big parties.  So, naturally, it is common for students from Stockholm to go to Uppsala for Valborg to join in the party, and my corridor was no exception!  We took the train to Uppsala in the morning and came back in the evening, around 22.

In Sweden, the traditional way of celebrating Valborg is by eating strawberries and herring, drinking champagne, and having bonfires.  The festivities in Uppsala does have some of these elements, but there are also some other events that occurred throughout the day.

In the morning, when we arrived, there was a boat race going on.  Homemade boats, that is.  People had built boats out of wood and styrofoam and decorated them with different themes and were riding them down the river.  Since the river was fast-moving and the boats were not really built to last, most of them were missing large chunks before they even got to the two meter waterfall at the end!  I don’t think any of the participants were seriously trying to win the race, but it was fun to watch!

Forsränningen

This boat is missing something…

Forsränningen

[What was left of] Most of the boats survived the waterfall pretty well

After watching the boats for a while, we walked around the town to see what else was going on and do some sightseeing.  Uppsala has a castle on top of a hill in the center of town and is also home to the largest cathedral in Scandinavia.

Uppsala Slott

Uppsala Slott

Uppsala Domkyrka

Uppsala Domkyrka

Eventually, we made our way to a large open park, where thousands of people were picnicking.  Since we had brought our lunch with us, we set up and had a picnic also!  I left the picnic a little early to go watch a friend play in a concert on the steps of the Uppsala University library.  It turns out that I showed up at the right place for the main event of the day!  While the band was playing, there was a countdown displayed on a screen on the front of the building.  The clock was counting down to 15.00, which is when Uppsala officially welcomes the coming of Spring.  So, by the time the band finished playing, a huge crowd had gathered in front of the building, and there were people sticking their heads out of the windows and standing on the balconies, and the flags of the Uppsala ‘nations’ were marched up the steps (as far as I can tell, Uppsala ‘nations’ are roughly comparable to Hogwarts houses).  When the countdown reached zero and the clocked struck 15.00, the whole crowd began cheering and waving their sailor hats in the air.  At least, they look like sailor hats; in Sweden, students wear these hats when they graduate, and apparently for Valborg as well.  It turns out that this event is called mösspåtagningen, or ‘the putting on of the hats,’ which is a reference to the fact that a long time ago, when Swedish students were required to wear uniforms, they would change from their dark winter uniform to their white summer uniform on Valborg, and this involved putting on a white hat.

Picnic in Ekonomikum Parken

The big picnic

Waving the hats

Mösspåtagningen

Glad Vår!

Glad Vår! (Happy Spring!)

After the mösspåtagning, I met up with some other friends, and we took the bus out to Gamla [Old] Uppsala, the ancient settlement a few kilometers outside of town where Vikings lived and where there are large burial mounds commemorating the ancient Viking kings.  We had a nice walk around here, which was a good break from the crowds in the city.

Kungshögarna in Gamla Uppsala

The royal burial mounds in Gamla Uppsala

After we returned to the center of town, I spent the rest of the evening just walking around the town with different groups of friends.  There was plenty of live music throughout the day, and many parties going on throughout the city.  However, since we had not bought visitor passes, we couldn’t really go to any of the main parties, so we left around 21 to head back to Stockholm.  Unfortunately, we did not find any bonfires to attend that night, but we did build our own the following day (which was May 1, a public holiday in Sweden)!

The aftermath of the picnic in Ekonomikum Parken

The aftermath of the picnic…

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Our bonfire, made from pallets we took from ICA

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Touring the Gulf of Finland

00.59 Onsdag, 24 April, 2013

This past weekend, I went on a(nother) cruise with a few other exchange students from KTH.  This cruise was a 4-night cruise with St. Peter Line, which stopped in Tallinn (Estonia), St. Petersburg (Russia), and Helsinki (Finland).  Don’t forget to check out the updated ‘Places I’ve Been’ map!

Steering the ship!

Just wait until Moscow finds out the Americans have one of their ships…

If a picture is worth a thousand words, the one above is no exception…that is a picture of me standing on the bridge of the Russian cruise ship/ferry Princess Anastasia on Monday morning in the port of Stockholm.  However, it’s not that simple; there were so many things that happened leading up to this picture that it’s probably best to just start from the beginning of the story.  Unfortunately, the story doesn’t really involve hijacking Soviet ships, as the caption implies, but it is still pretty exciting!

The cruise left on Thursday evening, and after we were settled in our room, we went to watch the show in the lounge.  It turns out that the show was pretty good, but what was more interesting was that during the intermission, the cruise director announced that she was going to have a guest competition and that she needed volunteers.  The competition was going to be a ‘vodka contest,’ so naturally, a group of drunk Russian guys went up to participate.  However, as soon as they brought out the vodka, the guys just drank it and left!  So she needed new volunteers.  For some reason, she only got one more volunteer (also Russian), so she volunteered us…  After a little hesitation, we went up to the stage to join.  The game was like musical chairs but with shots of vodka instead of chairs; I was eliminated pretty quickly, and the Russian guy obviously won, but participating in this contest led to so many more things that made the cruise amazing, so it was definitely worth it!

After the vodka contest, there was another contest, which involved putting a life jacket on your partner and carrying her to ‘safety,’ aka the bar.  Two of the students I was with volunteered to participate, and some Russian girls volunteered to be their partners.  So, they did the contest and one of them won, and they chatted with their new Russian friends for a while.  This was the next bit of luck, which will become clearer soon.  Later that evening, we were approached by some Swedes who recognized us from the vodka contest and wanted to know what two Americans were doing on a cruise from Sweden to Russia.  So, we chatted with them for a while and eventually went to bed.

Estonian Flag

The Flag of Estonia

The next morning, we arrived in Tallinn, Estonia, and, after a little while in the customs line (the ship was ‘Russian territory,’ so we had to go through customs to get on and off), we were walking around in the old town.  For such a small city (less than half a million people), you may think I would be bored, since it was my second time there.  However, my second trip to Tallinn was completely different from my first trip!  First, we walked around the old town and saw the major sights.  Then, we found a little restaurant inside the city hall that was medieval-themed and sold traditional Estonian food.  We had a great lunch there, and it was cheap, too!

Tallinn skyline

Tallinn is a mix of old and new – and the home of Skype!

In the afternoon, we visited the KGB Museum, which is located on the top floor of the Viru Hotel in the city center.  During the Soviet times, the KGB had offices on this floor where it carried out the important task of monitoring all of the suspicious foreigners staying on the floors below.  Our guide took us through the offices (the museum only consists of about three small offices and some balconies with good views of the city) and explained the story of the hotel, its guests and staff, and the KGB’s activities in Tallinn and the hotel.  It was very interesting to hear about life in Estonia during the time of the Soviet Union and to find out how tightly the Russians controlled the people (and foreigners) in their satellite countries.  For example, visitors from Finland would often smuggle such luxuries as chewing gum or bananas into Estonia and sell them to the hotel workers, who would then either go home very happy or use them to buy other things that they needed.  Obviously, this was all illegal, though, and hotel workers were often punished by the KGB if they were found to be communicating with the guests.

Calling the direct line to Moscow in the KGB office

Don’t do anything suspicious – I have access to the direct line to Moscow!

Unfortunately, we had to leave the KGB tour a little early because we had also booked another tour directly afterwards.  The next tour was of one of the bastions and fortification towers surrounding the old town of Tallinn.  Tallinn has many old fortifications surrounding it because the city has been controlled by several different countries – the Danish, the Swedish, the Germans, and the Russians – who contributed to building up the old town and reinforcing its strategic position on the top of a hill near a harbor.

The guided part of the tour was a walk through the tunnel that goes through one of the bastions (a bastion is basically a large earthen mound built to reinforce and complement a city wall).  While the tunnel itself was not particularly impressive, its history was quite interesting.  It turns out that the bastion tunnels in Tallinn have been used for several purposes over the years.  Their original purpose was to allow easy transfer of ammunition to different locations around the city, but over time, it came to be used as storage space, a prison, a public refuge during World War II, a public bomb shelter during the Cold War, a hiding place for delinquents, and a favorite hangout/home for homeless people.  In fact, the tunnel was only turned into a museum eight years ago, and large parts of it are still not open to the public.

After the bastion tour, we climbed the fortification tower, which is called Kiek in de Kök (‘A Peek in the Kitchen’), because it is so tall that it gave the occupying army the ability to see into the kitchen windows of the houses in the town.  The inside of the tower was a museum with artifacts from the history of Tallinn, and at the top, there were some nice views of the old town.

Kiek in de Kök

Kiek in de Kök

After we were finished at Kiek in de Kök, we walked a little more around the town, and then headed back to the ship.  In the evening, we went and watched the show again, but this time, we did not participate in any of the volunteer activities (our Russian is limited to спасибо (‘thank you’), so the trivia game would have been a little difficult!).  Instead, we found the Swedes we had met the previous night and talked with them while watching the show and enjoying how hilarious the word нет (‘no’) sounds in Russian.  One of the guys in my group also met up with his Russian partner from the life-jacket competition and when he met back up with us, we found out that she had offered to give us a tour of her hometown the next day!

Russian Flag

The Flag of Russia

Leningrad sign at the entrance to the port of St. Petersburg

This sign says Ленинград (Leningrad) the old Soviet name of St. Petersburg

The next morning, the ship arrived in Санкт Петербург (Saint Petersburg) and we made sure that we were first in line to get off, because we didn’t want to end up wasting two hours in customs (the process in St. Petersburg was a little more complicated).  Once off the ship, we took a bus into the city center and began walking around on our own because our guide did in fact get stuck in the customs line for a while.  I was very impressed by the size of everything in St. Petersburg – all of the building were huge and every street was wide enough to be a highway!  It was certainly a big change from the small buildings and narrow alleys in the old towns of cities like Stockholm and Tallinn!

St. Petersburg

Everything is bigger in Texas the Motherland

Statue of Peter the Great

Statue of Peter the Great in front of St. Isaac’s Cathedral

Бургер Кинг

Fast-food looks so much more interesting when it’s spelled with Cyrillic letters!

We made our way around the main sights in the city center, including a couple huge Orthodox cathedrals, the Naval Museum, and a fortress.  In the center of the fortress is a cathedral that contains the tombs of several important people in Russian history, including Peter the Great, the tsar who founded St. Petersburg.  The fortress also contains a mint (the money kind) and several museums.  We went into a museum that told about the history and role of the prison that used to occupy the fortress.

After leaving the fortress, we went to meet up with our Russian friend.  With her, we went to a restaurant for lunch (I tried some Russian борщ, or borshch, which is beet soup).  Then, we went and visited the Cathedral of the Savior of Spilled Blood, which was just as impressive on the inside as it was on the outside!  We noticed that this particular cathedral is a very popular place for newlyweds to take pictures, because we saw several wedding parties pull up in limos for photo shoots in front of the cathedral.

Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood

The Church of the Savior of Spilled Blood

Our next stop was, well, a stop.  We went into the St. Petersburg metro to see the famously beautiful stations and be amazed by the ridiculous depth of the platforms.  When we found out that a trip on the metro costs only 28 rubles (about $0.89 US), we realized just how expensive it is to live in Stockholm; a trip on the Stockholm metro is over four times as expensive!  But anyway, the stations in the St. Petersburg metro were very ornate, with fancy columns supporting vaulted ceilings, and marble covering practically every surface.  There were even chandeliers and intricate golden mosaics.  It was even more impressive when we realized exactly how deep these stations were.  When we came off of the platform at the central station, we had to go up two escalators, which were each at least twice as long as some of the longer escalators in Stockholm.  In fact, the escalators were so long that no one even bothered trying to walk up on the left – it was a long ride whether you walked or not, so you might as well save your energy, and maybe read a book or two!  Actually, our amazement at the metro’s depth is justified – the St. Petersburg metro is actually the deepest metro system in the world by average station depth.

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A metro platform, about 100 meters underground

After several minutes on the escalator, we finally came out into the sunlight (the weather had dramatically improved from the dreary rain we had in the morning) and went to see the Winter Palace.  The Winter Palace was the home of the Russian tsars and now houses the Hermitage Museum, one of the largest art museums in the world.  We did not have time to visit the museum, but the building was still very impressive from the outside – and just as massive as everything else in the city!  We stopped for coffee after seeing the Winter Palace, and then had to run to catch the last bus back to the ship terminal – as the first off and the last on, we probably got the most time in the city out of everyone on the ship (unless they’re Russian, which was most people…)!

Once we left St. Petersburg, we were very tired and didn’t really do much on the ship in the evening.  However, since we were now heading back west, we got an hour extra to sleep before our final city visit.

Finnish Flag

The Flag of Finland

On Sunday morning, we arrived in Helsinki, the capital of Finland.  One of the first things we noticed was that everything was labeled in two languages, and one of them was not English; actually, everything was in both Finnish and Swedish!  Even the name of the city is written in two languages – Helsinki is called Helsingfors in Swedish.  The reason for this is that there is a large number of people in Finland whose first language is Swedish.  This is not recent immigration, but rather a remnant of the time when Sweden ruled Finland; there are still areas in southwest Finland where Swedish is actually the main language.  Anyway, the point is that I could read the signs. Sourire

Many people have told me that Helsinki is not a great place to go because there isn’t anything to do, but I found it to be quite a nice city.  It’s true that there aren’t many prominent landmarks – the skyline is basically cruise ships with a church or two in the background.  However, the city is spectacularly clean, and since it is almost spring, the weather was excellent while we were there.

Tuomiokirkko

The Helsinki Cathedral

After seeing the main churches and walking around the streets a little, we took a ferry to a fortress called Suomenlinna (Sveaborg, in Swedish).  The fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is situated on a cluster of islands near the entrance to the Helsinki harbor.  I did not have much time to spend here, however, because I had to go to church at 12:30, so we walked around the island for a while and then I left the group to take the ferry back to the mainland, where I went to a mass that was said in Swedish – which I understood most of!  Woo!

Suomenlinnan Merilinnoitus

Suomenlinna Sea Fortress

Suomenlinnan Merilinnoitus

Suomenlinna – or the Shire…?

Helsinki

View of Helsinki from the Suomenlinna ferry

After mass, I had a quick look around the parks near the church, where there were some nice views of the sea and the surrounding islands.  Then, I went and met back up with my group.  Unfortunately, the ship was leaving Helsinki fairly early – 16.00 – so we did not have time to do much else, and instead headed back to the ship.

Panoramic view of Kaivopuisto and the islands surrounding Helsinki

Panoramic view of the islands around Helsinki

The voyage back to Stockholm was very interesting, for several reasons.  First, since we left so early in the afternoon, we had several hours of daylight to be able to see outside.  Since the Gulf of Finland is not very wide, we were actually able to see both Finland to the north and Estonia to the south for several hours once we got out into the middle of the gulf.  Maybe you don’t think this is so interesting, but I thought it was pretty neat!

The second interesting thing that happened that evening was that somehow, three out of the six people in our group (us and our new Swedish friends) managed to win Bingo, and then one of us won the raffle, which was a bottle of champagne.  Needless to say, that put us in a good mood for the rest of the night!

The third interesting thing is the activity we volunteered got volunteered for during the evening show – a talent show!  Our cruise director wanted something to liven up the show since all of the volunteers she had gotten so far were planning on singing sad/depressing/serious songs in Russian.  So, our job was to perform ‘We will rock you’ as the final act of the talent show.  Well, this was a little out of my comfort zone, but I tried!  When we were finished performing, the cruise director used our presence on the stage to form a conga line that we then moved around the showroom.  This seemed to work in cheering up the audience after the rather dull first half of the show!

And now, after volunteering for and winning everything the cruise director had to offer for the past four days, she offered to give us a private tour of the bridge, which brings me back to the picture at the beginning.  We went up to the bridge right before we got off the ship, and the second officer explained what everything does, then we got a chance to take pictures pretending to drive the ship, which is not an opportunity that many people get, and certainly not something you would expect from a cheap cruise you found on Groupon.  And to think that it all started with a vodka-drinking contest…then again, this is Russia, what do you expect?

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