Adjusting to life in Sweden

Weird.

The dictionary definition for this is “very strange; bizarre; unusual; unexpected, or not natural”. I often get called weird – usually by friends that say it almost as a compliment. And I take it as such. I like to be different; to be weird. It means I am not like everyone else, right?

Foreigner.

This one is more difficult. We hear the word “foreigner” and immediately have this preconceived picture of what that may be. I am South African – we all look like foreigners to someone, as we have people from all over the globe. For me, the term “foreigner” has always been a way to refer to tourists. Listening to news, you can argue this term refers to people not belonging in your country. Then you move to Sweden and it all makes sense. I’m not saying every Swede conforms to the stereotypical “Swedish” look, but I know for a fact it is clear that I am a foreigner. I look different, I sound different and I think different.

Frances Mayes – “Splendid to arrive alone in a foreign country and feel the assault of difference. Here they are all along, busy with living; they don’t talk or look like me. The rhythm of their day is entirely different; I am foreign. ”

 

We all live in this little cocoon. Your own little world. As we step into new places – new jobs, new cities, new countries – we expand our understanding of just how different we all are. You think you have it all figured out. The way we do it is how it is done everywhere. Then you realise that on this other side of the globe they do things completely opposite to what you are used to – and it works.

We can call it strange…

Depending on where you are from you might find them driving on the “wrong” side of the road or using the metric system – and this will be weird for you. Personally, these don’t matter much to me. Yes it is different, but this is a fact we have been familiar with for very long. I’ve mentioned some habits that you form here in Sweden in my previous post, 70 Days in Sweden. When I just arrived, most of these things seemed ludicrous. It is extremely antisocial to be stuck on your phone – staring at it as you walk to the bus, ride the bus, get off the bus… you get my point. Now, it makes sense. The bus is one of those places you have to “kill time” – it is literally a means to an end.

There are a lot of things that us as foreigners might find strange. Most Swedes I’ve come across in a public setting are not too keen on talking to strangers. However, this is not a set-in-stone rule – stuck in the same crowded bus where the door doesn’t want to close, and the lady next to you might jokingly comment on it (you probably might not understand her, but you will know she is joking, as she is laughing). Swedes don’t necessarily apologise for bumping into someone, especially on public transport. It’s crowded, and you have limited time to get on or off…

Then there is the concept of being cashless. As a born and bred South African this one threw me. If you don’t have cash back home, you might struggle at some shops. You don’t have coins for the car guard and you need to return the 20 bucks you owe your friend for the drinks they paid for last weekend. In Sweden there is “Swish” and a lot of stores actually specify they are cash free. It’s different. It is also difficult to do without a Swedish bank account that I can use for internet banking and Swish (which I still need to figure out).

 

But is it so different?

After the initial “what?” moments, you start seeing the similarities. You realise that the person next to you at the bus stop probably won’t look up at you, but if you would ask them for directions or to help you find the right bus, they will help you with incredible sincerity. I was standing at a very busy terminal this weekend; everyone scurrying past each other on their phones, headphones in their ears. This guy came rushing past the crowd, tripped and fell. Everyone around him suddenly stopped, came out of their ‘bubbles’ and helped him up and out of the street. They helped him straighten out and pick his things up, and then everyone continued again with their day.

For me, a very common question is “but how do you find the food?” – personally I don’t find it much different that in South Africa. Meat is expensive, alcohol is extremely expensive (comparing to back home) and “organic” is a big thing. Lactose free milk, ecological veggies and soda’s are quite expensive (which at least in my case is getting me to scale down on those super unhealthy treats). In restaurants, even fast food places, normal water is usually free. So, I find it… healthy. But not in a “ugh, which green smoothie are you drinking again today?” way – more wholesome. The foods you like or even love in a less serious-illness-causing form.

 

So is it difficult to settle in Sweden?

Short answer: no.

I don’t find it difficult at all – I suppose it depends on your affinity to change. You can buy the same sort of things at your local stores that you can find anywhere else – you just need to explore the different stores a bit to find your favourite. Most public signs are given in English, or in the few cases it is not, you can usually deduce what it tells you. Trains will typically give announcements in Swedish and English, and if not you can ask anyone around you and they will try to explain.

That being said, there are some things you have to keep an open mind to. I know every site you read and person you ask will refer to Sweden as being perfectly “English-friendly”.  If you come from a native English-speaking country (so UK, USA, Canada, Australia… you get the picture), you might find that you want to disagree with this. Although navigating won’t be a nightmare, keep in mind that Swedes aren’t all native English-speakers. This is a second language, and most people will be completely proficient. I have found some older people that cannot speak to or understand you at all – they will smile and politely make you realise that they can’t help you. In general though, the Swedes will try and figure out what you are saying even if it takes a bit longer. This just leaves the challenge of shopping with all labels being printed in Swedish. Tip: Google translate has a function where you take a photo of the text, and then select all text to be translated. This will help that you don’t buy too many wrong items. Worst case, just ask a shop assistant – they are unbelievably helpful!

The weather is something to get used to, but they have a saying about that: “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”. So I am still in the process of figuring out the clothing issue, but in general the weather isn’t that bad. It’s cold. And wet (well, at least here in Gothenburg). And it gets dark early. I think the trick is to just find a way to see those in a positive light – personally I love the rain, and the sun is usually too bright for my eyes, so it is just the cold I have to get used to.

 

At the end of the day, remember that you are a foreigner. You are allowed to not get the whole recycling thing yet, to forget your umbrella and get completely drenched and to take the tram in the wrong direction. You are even allowed to complain about the bad weather. I mean, I’ve been freezing for weeks and the locals are now pointing out that it is getting colder. It is part of the fun. Just don’t let anything get you down, and if does meet up with a friend for a drink (even if it is over Skype).

 

Let me know if you had any similar experiences and how you are dealing with settling in your new city.

 

Take care,

E

Getting ready for moving day

Moving day.

That dreaded day that is usually preceded by weeks of planning and packing. Wrapping valuables and labelling boxes. A couple of fights and tedious conversations with a moving company that you are still not sure knows exactly where you are moving to.

In my previous post 70 Days in Sweden I said I was planning to do a series on my experiences moving to Sweden. If you are new to my blog, catch up on how and why I ended up moving to Sweden in my post Time out.

 

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step

That is the common variation of an old Chinese proverb. My single step changed into a sprint on 8 April 2017. This is the day I found out I got my scholarship. I remember the details quite clearly: we were visiting my aunt and uncle, I was being absurdly socially awkward by sitting at my laptop with bulky headphones listening to a podcast about ‘Studying in Sweden’. I was quite anxious as everybody have received their feedback and I still haven’t, when I realised that I didn’t check my mail that day. Turns out I got the mail on the 7th already…

After reading the mail and retelling the story to every person present, I had this moment of panic. Would this be a wise decision? I had a great job, a comfortable life and family and friends that I adore. I also had no knowledge on Sweden, except that we have a Volvo and that I knew it is cold. It took me four days to send back the (very simple) acceptance form.

In the next few weeks I became a Google app’s worst nightmare – I had around 40 tabs constantly open with different blogs and websites about how to move to and survive in Sweden. I read up on customs and habits and things to expect (which in all honesty was not all very accurate). Then someone told me that Sweden is extremely expensive, and so started the dig into how much you need to live “comfortably”.

For the record, it is quite possible. I will share some financial insight in a future post. 

After about a month I realised that I first need to get to Sweden. So, I booked a flight. I was also fortunate to have my mom book her flight with mine – yes, she was joining me to help with the move. The plan was to spend the first week getting me settled, see a bit of Gothenburg and then early the second week to go to Stockholm for a bit of sightseeing before she had to leave again.

A major concern was that we didn’t know much about my apartment. At the end of April, I got an offer for an apartment with a kitchenette of approximately 18m². I knew that accommodation is really expensive and very scarce, so I accepted it. Rather blindly. I didn’t know an address, move-in date or what exactly an 18m² apartment could entail. I just knew it’s small.

Not knowing when I would get my apartment had one risk: we were planning to stay in it for our time in Gothenburg once we arrived in Sweden. Not having an apartment would mean that we had to book accommodation (which is insanely expensive). By the time I was thoroughly stressed about this, I finally received my tenancy agreement mid-June. At least by then I had a hundred plans of how to possibly arrange furniture in an apartment this size and I searched every website possible to find possible floor plans. And the move-in date was before my arrival.

The dreaded Residence Permit

This is one of those things that gives people sleepless nights. If I am being honest, I have almost no insight into the process and I had no trouble whatsoever. My greatest concern was that I waited a week longer for mine that the other scholarship holders. The visit to the embassy started as a horror show. In the middle of a very busy city (Hatfield, Pretoria) at 3pm on a Monday afternoon – I got wrong directions from a car guard, drove over a red traffic light (okay, it just turned) with traffic police looking at me and drove around in circles for almost half an hour because of the one-way streets. Finally, I found the right building, but with no clue where to turn in, I ended up driving on a sidewalk (as the road was a one-way in the other direction) to an art shop parking lot. From there I walked around the grounds for 15 minutes only to find the embassy nearest to my car. Next time I will know.

Once inside, it was the smoothest process ever – I waited for five minutes, had my photo and fingerprints taken and then I was off. Well, I first stopped in at the art shop. Three weeks later my card was ready for collection.

If you are interested in moving to Sweden, you can always visit the Swedish Migration website for more info. They have quite a lot of guidance and great links.

Resignation

Probably one of the scariest words. Not so much when you think about it, or even say it, but actually filling that document in and then submitting it for signatures was probably one of the scariest moments in my life. Here I was in a well-paying job with a lot of benefits, and I was giving that up to become a student (again). Goodbye dental and pension fund. Okay, the pension I kept, but it was still terrifying.

It was my comfort zone. I can go on about comfort zones forever, but the point is, I had my hole. I knew where I was supposed to be, what I was doing (most of the time) and most importantly I had the security of a permanent position in a country with a very volatile economic climate. In my notice month I was working harder than I ever. I wanted to hand over in a way that my projects wouldn’t suffer and I was trying to complete some things before I left.

My dad had two pieces of advice:

  1. The first time is the hardest. Resigning will always give you an “uncomfortable” feeling, but it gets better.
  2. They will blame you anyway. If you don’t get to handing over everything ‘perfectly’, they will blame you. And if you do, and the next person drops the ball, they will still blame you. Moral of the story: relax.

 

Packing

Unlike with a typical move, my moving day entailed getting on a plane with two bags – 46kg. Okay, my mom was coming with and so I confiscated some of her space. Still, this seems a lot until you start packing.

The reason for my move was to take up my studies again, so I would obviously need to bring some textbooks. I brought five – in my defence, I am busy with my first study period and have already used two of them.

I would need clothes. The “warmer” stuff I was planning on getting here in Sweden, but everything else had to come. Jeans and underwear as we all have our favourite brand and I know which ones work. Tops, because I cannot go naked. Shoes was a point of contention – I initially had two pairs of boots and a pair of pumps. Then I remembered that I might need sneakers, bought a spare pair of pumps, found two pairs of great boots in the back of my cupboard and just had to bring my slippers. You can see how this ended up making my packing space quite limited.

I also had to bring those much-loved jerseys, a poncho, a rather expensive trench coat (which is now looking like a good-for-summer item) and a whole selection of scarves, hats and gloves.

Toiletries, I figured, can be bought here. But medicine was a must have. So, I packed my pharmacy, my make-up case (it should last me about two years) and a small selection of jewellery. A couple of hand bags, an extra backpack and some electronics. Okay a lot of electronics. Two cell phones, two laptops, three hard drives, two cameras and a camcorder. And a flashlight. It should get me through.

We packed, and re-packed. Then unpacked and shuffled. It was frustrating and aggravating. Finally, we had four checked bags and two backpacks loaded to capacity.

 

The only thing left to do was to say goodbye.

 

 Border

 

Please remember to follow my blog if you like what you read here. And let me know if you have any topics you want me to elaborate on or just general comments you would like to share. You can also send mails to exploreratheartblog@gmail.com. 

Until next time,

E

 

 

70 Days in Sweden

20170815_163444.jpgToday I have been in Sweden a total of 70 days.

Significant? Perhaps.

Mankind is continuously trying to explain human behaviour. We understand theories and laws and “rules”. We like the boxes – ticking them, placing others in them and trying to think outside of them. One of these often contemplated general rules is how long it takes to form a habit. Recent studies suggests this magic number is 66 days – this is to have a habit become automatic. Looking at “easier” habits, like drinking a glass of lemon water in the morning you can argue to be accomplished sooner. More “complex” habits can take up to eight months.

What does this have to do with my 70 day mark? Well, I have to argue that moving to Sweden from South Africa comes with its fair share of new habits. I also have to agree to some extent with the study – some habits are in line with your way of thinking and therefore easier to adopt. Other habits are so different to what I am used to that I suspect it will take quite a bit longer than two months.

Over the next couple of weeks I will post a series elaborating on everything from weather to buying groceries. In this post however, we’ll only touch on some appetisers as I’m reliving my first 70 days.

Moving to Sweden

Moving is always stressful. So much to do; so little time. I had a bit more than three months to really plan. The curveball: I could bring 46kg. Throw into that mix that I have only been to Europe once before (not Sweden though). For those of you that don’t know South Africa – we have a lot of sunshine and nice warm weather, don’t get (real) snow in large areas of the country and rain is something typically limited to a season. So what do you pack – swimwear and sundresses or a parka you bought from the Russian import shop?

I opted to bring mostly jeans and tops and get the warmer clothes here. In hindsight, this was a good choice. In the past 70 days, days have gotten shorter by about 5 hours, temperatures dropped from early 20’s to around 14°C average and it rains at least 3 days a week.  Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely loving the weather but it takes some getting used to. Something else to get used to is how warm it is indoors.  This brings me to some habits I have developed:

Habit #1: Never leave the house without checking the weather first. Preferably the hourly forecast on your phone. Added effort is opening the window and getting an idea if you should add another scarf.

Habit #2: If the weather says rain (anytime during the day) take the rain coat. Don’t hesitate – you will need it. If no rain is predicted, take the small umbrella in your bag. Just always take the umbrella.

Habit #3: Layer. Yes like an onion, or Shrek. This does though mean that you have a whole undressing session when walking into a building. I haven’t mastered this yet, but I am catching on (I am also up to at least three layers). 

 

Living in a new country

We all have those favourite stores – for groceries, for clothes, a favourite restaurant or even pharmacy. Then you get here, and you realise that IKEA is probably one of the most amazing places you’ve ever visited. It is also almost an hour by bus to get there, so I should be safe on the budget end of things. Getting used to new stores (and figuring out labels in Swedish) was one side of the story – the other side is getting everything you bought back to your apartment. See in South Africa I have my car waiting outside. Enough boot and seat space to take home half of the mall. If I want to take an extra sweater, it is no problem just leaving it on the back seat “just in case”.

Now I travel by bus. For my state of mind this is brilliant – it keeps me off the road and thus my road rage is far less (no, sadly not yet gone – I still end up in busy shops behind trolleys and baby strollers). Thing is, you can only take what you can carry. Like one of those 60 second game shows, but you pay.

Habit #4: Buy groceries often and in moderate amounts. One bag – preferably a nice sturdy one.

Habit #5: Always take your shopping bag with you if you might possibly pass by the shop. Otherwise you end up with a hundred rather costly space fillers in your apartment.  

Habit #6: Figure out the English names for the things you want to buy. I’m not talking about confirming if the red thing you are holding is in fact a tomato. I bought filmjölk instead of milk twice. For those of you that don’t know: filmjölk is found with the milk. It sounds to the newbie like it could be “full milk” but in reality it is sour milk. A great alternative to yoghurt; not so great in coffee. 

Habit #7: If the local bus service has an app – get it. It will give you a good indication of the bus schedule and any delays. In Sweden (at least up until now) I have found the public transport to be quite on schedule. O, and check the schedule when you plan your day – maybe while you are busy checking the weather. 

Doing the laundry is also a rather new thing for me. I know, I have been spoilt in this most my life, but it is not the act itself that gets me. It is understanding the machines (which are in Swedish) and planning your laundry times so you will have clean clothes to last you. I think I have this figured out now. I am always in clean clothes and I have only shrunk a shirt once (maybe twice, I haven’t checked it after washing it yesterday).

Habit #8: Plan your laundry times – if possible, book ahead for the next two weeks.

Random tip: If you shrink something, you can save it! Wash it in hair conditioner, then stretch it back to size and lay out to dry. There are a lot of how-to sites and YouTube videos explaining this better.

 

Fitting in and making friends

This one is easy:

Habit #9: Get earphones. Plug them into your phone. Listen to something or nothing, as long as you have the earphones in your ears. Stare at your phone whenever in a public setting. 

Habit #10: Always talk on the phone using your earphones. Speaking on the phone with it held against your ear is a clear sign that you are likely not Swedish (if the darker hair and skin and lack of Swedish skills didn’t give it away). 

I know this is quite strange to newcomers – apparently Swedes are very antisocial and prefer the company of their phones. This is true… in public places. Walking around the mall or campus or on the bus, most people will be on their phones. Probably reading up on something or doing something with data. For context, data is unbelievably cheap compared to rates in South Africa. However, if someone tells you that the Swedes are cold, you can call their bluff. I’m not going into details now – I’ll elaborate in one of my upcoming posts. They are however not as “polite” as some people may expect – saying “sorry” to move past you or because you bumped into each other (regardless of who was at fault) is rare. They aren’t being rude per se, they are just minding their own business.

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So, I have been here 70 days

I am still getting used to some things, like the weather. I have already had some great experiences. Every day is an adventure, and if you go out and take a new turn, you will end up seeing something amazing – be it a lovely park or a spectacular or building or a quant shop. I have also made some amazing friends. People from all over: Sweden, Italy, France – well from all over Europe – but also from Africa, Asia and even one or two from the Americas. In a week I will be writing my first exam and I’m not ready (so at least I know I am already back into being a student).

I have gained some great new habits, like walking everywhere (it’s a lot of walking), not drinking a lot of soft drinks and doing yoga often. I am also drinking a lot of coffee and having fika regularly. Yes, I count the fact that Swedes LOVE coffee as a big plus and I will elaborate on fika soon. I am still working on the recycling thing, but I am now in the habit of turning off lights wherever I go (I mean, some public restrooms have a light switch inside and it is usually off when you enter, so I think they are trying to send a message).

 

Back to the question: is 66 days enough to form a habit? Well I now go nowhere without my earphones or shopping bag. My weather app gets nervous when I even look at my phone and I am shuffling laundry times like a pro. Using public transport changed from an absolute experience to just something you do (yes, sometimes even without thinking about it). I’ll have to check back later on the recycling thing though.

 

It is quite a fascinating experience – moving to a new country. And I think Sweden is turning out to have been a great choice. If you are thinking of doing the same (or if you already did) let me know of any topics you want me address in the series to follow, or tell us more about your own experiences. Keep an eye out for my next post on the process of Moving to Sweden.

Have a fantastic week! 

E

Time out

“While you’ll feel compelled to charge forward it’s often a gentle step back that will reveal to you where you are and what you truly seek.”  – Rasheed Ogunlaru

Sometimes we get caught up in life.

We get caught up in the little things, and the big ones. We start running and before you know it you are on this speeding treadmill with no clue how to switch it off. The only option is to use the emergency stop even though you know that probably won’t end well (you know, slamming into the handles or falling in a YouTube-worthy way). Sometimes we don’t even realise we are on that treadmill until the emergency stop is pulled on our behalf – by friends, family, your job, or in my case, your body.

See, I finished University with a 4 year Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering. I had a bursary at a multinational company and was one of those fortunate graduates walking out of class into my first job. The good life. I ended up in a less than ideal environment for me to develop my skills as engineer and spent most of my first year mastering administrative skills. In retrospect this was not a waste. I’ve been raised to know that “I can” – I can do whatever I put my mind to. Off course with that goes the responsibility to actually give your best. And that results in working as hard as you can until you reach the top (wherever that may be) – initially, for me the goal was to eventually be appointed as a “real” engineer.

I finally got the chance to start my official training, but I seemed to hit quite a few bumps along the road. Mainly fighting a system. A tedious and tiresome endeavour. In the mean time I bought a holiday apartment and did long distance renovations. This can only be described as a long distance relationship where you know your things can be destroyed at any time, and you are paying for it. To be fair, it turned out great and I absolutely love my place.

On the work front though, things were going slow. I was supposed to be up for a promotion by the end of my third working year, and instead my training program got extended (again). Although I was sure I’m doing fine, the stress was piling up. My body finally yanked the emergency stop. I ended up in hospital with encephalitis – yes it was serious; no it is too long a story and I won’t bore you with it. Moral of the story is, I was off from work for long enough to start rethinking life – especially my view on work. Ultimately I had motivation to get better: in three months time I was supposed to leave for Italy on the trip of a lifetime.

I got better, went on the trip and had some amazing experiences. I also had some time to start re-evaluating my life choices. All those long hours spent working and not caring enough about my health. Still, I got sick again in February 2016 – that is when I first started this blog. As an outlet. A way of getting away; sharing experiences and reliving memories. I just as quickly got too busy to work on it again, and my blog withered (and died for a while). This time it was a good busy – I got appointed, worked with an amazing team, gained incredible experience and finally reached a point where I realised that I needed something more.

Life was great, but the challenges didn’t seem to excite me anymore. And then, in the blink of an eye, I made the ridiculously spontaneous decision to apply for a scholarship to do my Master’s degree in Sweden. It started out as a moment of curiosity – can I do this, and do I have what it takes to be successful? I promised myself to stay realistic and not get overexcited. I had something like a 0.000005% chance to get it.

And I got it.

Both the most amazing and most terrifying moment wrapped in a simply worded email. This was also the moment I realised how life can take you on an absolute roller coaster ride to bring you exactly where you ought to be. Without getting sick, I wouldn’t have started considering a change. Without my work experience (the good and the bad) I wouldn’t have believed in myself enough to apply and then to follow through. Without the burglary that dragged us home early from a fabulous family vacation, I wouldn’t have been surfing Facebook endlessly only to come across an unbelievable scholarship opportunity.

Sometimes it is worthwhile to take a step back. A time out. A moment to just reorganise and take account of your life. I don’t have it figured out yet – maybe we never really figure it out. But I know that the past five years took me on a wild adventure – and I am better off because of it.

So this is take 2. I am officially in Europe. Living the (well, my…) dream, hoping to see a bit of the world while I am here  – and I would love to share my experiences with you!

 

“Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.” — Henry David Thoreau

Welcome, fellow explorer!

As a start to my first post (ever), I’d like to start off introducing myself. First, the formalities: my name is Erika, I’m 25 (for now), live in South Africa and work as a mechanical engineer. I love spending time with family and friends, enjoy a good book or movie, cannot live without music and love the rain. I’m a cat person; cats, because they are low maintenance and arrogant and prefer to only spend time with you when they feel like it. I play guitar, paint and plan travels across the globe.

Which brings me to my next point: my passion for seeing the globe. I have always had the desire to get out there and see what the world offers. To see new places, meet new people, explore new cultures – food, clothes, languages, bad habits and more. One of my favourite pass-times is to plan trips to different countries, setting up itineraries and exploring new territories through the internet. In the past five years I’ve planned probably 10 perfectly worked out trips. The first one that realised was in December of 2015 when I went to Italy with a friend.

So, my plan for this blog is to share my travel plans. Planned itineraries that didn’t pan out, trip plans that became a reality and tales from my travels (I’m still building on this experience). I’ll also share tips and tricks that was given to me, or the few that I have picked up .

That being said, I’d love to hear your views or opinions. Please share your itineraries or plans (I promise to give credit), or feel free to request some itineraries which you’d like to be explored. Whether you are a traveller, tourist, enthusiast or a fellow blogger that accidentally stumbled upon this post, I’m hoping that you’d find something around here that you enjoy.

Mark Twain once said: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

There is a big world out there – let’s get out and explore!