London: City of Lives

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As my core course landed in London, I was taken aback by the livability of it all. So many cities, when I’ve gone to them, felt as though they would consume me with the weight of their simple¬†existence.¬†London may have been large and uncontrollable, plagued by issues that constantly pressed at the back of my mind on this trip, but there was something uncanny about the attractiveness of that city.

As any large city has the sense to, London was absolutely kinetic from start to finish. Even on a Tuesday, the night life was utterly absurd, with lines outside the bars and nightclubs. The tube, oldest subway system in the world, buzzed with activity on a near round the clock basis. That’s why, to me, London feels like the city of lives. Everywhere you look, you get the sense that people have lived and done everything possible in this plot of land, and direct operations around the globe from this odd sort of base.

Doubtless, the shadows of colonialism still linger in the city. While the Swedish museums that I’ve been to took an apologetic tone when it came to past misdeeds, there is no such sense in the United Kingdom. In fact, it feels as though the general idea of the museums is that other cultures should be proud that the British took mummies, Ottoman rugs, and Buddhist statues. To some degree, it’s nearly impossible to atone for every sin, but the lack of admittance was my first indication that a past of Western domination, lies in the heart of London.

As an American, I’m not really one to be throwing stones. The US, as a geopolitical power, relied and relies heavily on military intervention and economic colonization to bolster its status as a superpower. The United Kingdom is not strange to me in how it romanticizes the past. A friend of mine, an East Londoner who works as a civil servant, allowed me to compare the way that the US and UK school systems were similar; both share a tale of how history collaborated with itself in a gambit to create our respective nations. She also shared with me the discrimination she sometimes faced going to university while Anglo-Chinese, and was one of the first people to not be shocked when I told her that my home university had similar problems when it came to racial harassment.

It makes me wonder what could be done to fix our world. It seems as though education, for all its good, still has trouble scrubbing away the darkness that makes people target minorities. This is one reason why I study literature, and hope for diversity in all forms of media: by representing the lives of people who break the status quo, you create familiarity in the common humanity we all share. It won’t be one work that changes the tide, but the work of thousands of books, movies, shows, plays and video games that changes the way race is seen across the world.

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But back to the UK. We saw the ups and downs. On the uppity side of life, we ate high tea, went to the previously mentioned museums, and attended a personal acting workshop at the globe. These experiences, while nice, did have a certain sinister edge when compared to the problems in Britain. We saw Grenfell tower, which burned down just last year due to lack of fire code adherence, where nearly a hundred working class residents burned to death. Covered up with a white shroud, it loomed as a reminder of what happens when people are reduced to costs and benefits.

London, however, is truly a city of life. I was privileged to have met a wonderful friend from the area and have an in-depth conversation with her, and was able to see a great variety of what the city had to offer. There’s something beyond attractive about the sheer density of human story here. No wonder my teacher called it the “city of bookstores.”

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Travels in Prague

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Prague was… beautiful. It spoke in so many different architectural languages, whether Mediterranean, Jewish, Gothic, Romanesque or modernist, there was always something new to interpret there. However, this variance of voices, this polyphony, betrayed the static nature of the city.

I would say I wasn’t there to be a tourist, but that would be a quarter-truth at best. I intended to visit an old friend, one I hadn’t seen since high-school, but I found myself clamoring to see the sights as best I could. Something about the fear of missing out on the city. My friend came to Indiana in the Fall of 2013, a black-clad European among the brownish-gray Americans. We became friends while working in theater. We were close enough to enjoy each other’s company quite a lot, but not enough to have some sort of soul-bond. It was sad to see her leave the following spring.

Still, the chance to have a local friend help me through an unfamiliar place was enticing, and there was no way I wasn’t going to take advantage of that. Despite a tirade of voices telling me that Budapest was the better travel spot, caution and the desire to see my friend drew me to Prague.

So let’s get back to the city.

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Scaffolded Cathedrals

While there was movement and bustle, you got a sense that things just… didn’t change. Set in its ways, the thousand-plus year old Bohemian capital felt alive, but just by a thread. More often than not, the city felt satisfied to plod along as it had been, entropy be damned. You could see this in the halted construction around the city, layers of plastic and scaffolding that added extra complication to already ornate Gothic cathedrals. My friend’s mother, a lively person in her own right, let me in on the secret that the scaffolds and plastic covers were meant to hide the wear, rather than remedy it.

This pattern could be seen in other parts of the city as well. The subways, while functional, had a sort of barren quality to them that implied that their goal was more utilitarian than cultural; this was a far cry from the Stockholm subways, where each station was bedecked in art as trains with quaint little names on each car blasted through the metro.

It was this sort of malaise that seemed to govern the Franz Kafka Museum, one of the three historical sites that I bought tickets for. While there is a great collection of history at the exhibit, it was altogether disappointing. I’m certain that there was precious little left of Kafka’s life after all was said and done, but

This doesn’t mean that there’s no fire in old Prague. However dim it was, there were elements of the city that the people seemed passionate towards. References to the Russians, communism and any form of fascism were meant with a certain level of disgust by the people at large. I was taken to a park, flat now, but thirty years ago was the site of a massive Stalin statue. As anyone in Prague would be happy to report, they blew that up after the revolution in a city-rocking blast. Before that, it was the Nazi occupation, and still before that it was the Germans, the French, and the Swedes. Needless to say, Prague’s centrality has made it a popular invasion spot. On of the first things I saw on making it to Sweden was the Codex Gigas: a massive book taken straight from Bohemia.

To all reading, though, I would recommend taking your free travel week to see something that you’ve always wanted to see. Make mistakes (but hopefully not too many), be independent, and let your will guide you to wherever you feel is best. You’ll thank yourself that you did.

The Studentboende

While living in Sweden under the DIS program, there are several housing options to choose from. Among the four offered, I ended up going with the studentboende.

This is a housing option for those who would like a roommate and cooking in a common area with a lot of chances for socialization. I personally chose it because I tend to be a bit of a wallflower, and needed the extra push to be in social situations. While the floor is mostly Americans, you’ll also get the chance to interact with Swedish students living and working in Stockholm as well. You’ll want to strategically place yourself in situations where you can get lots of social interaction.

Furthermore, the studentboende is one of the most food-independent options for students. While home-stay students tend to have one meal provided for them by their parent household, the studentboende expects you to provide all three meals for yourself. You are given three gift cards intermittently to the nearby “ICA” grocery store, but these cards will only get you so far without some major budgeting. Keep an eye on expenses, and remember that fish and eggs are a cheap source of protein!

Overall, I’m quite happy with my choice in the studentboende. It hits a good balance of independence and exposure to others that will definitely help you make the most of your time in Sweden!

So We Beat On…

Things have certainly picked up at DIS, to say the least. With one paper submitted, there’s little room for breathers as the next few assignments are piled on. Between this, the constant readings, and outside occurrences that monopolize the occasional hour or five, time management is key to making the most of the limited time here in Stockholm.

Having so much to do can either be a blessing or a curse. In one respect, it gives you the chance to focus yourself on a world that definitely seems to need your help. on the other hand, it can result in frazzlement, burnout, and a looming sense of dread. Always remember to try to look on the bright side of things, and if the work does become too much, always look to see if there are other people to talk to. Outside parties give a wonderful sense of perspective, or at least are good to commiserate with!

Up next, I plan to write about travelling abroad during the free-week that you are given at DIS. Don’t miss it!

Churches in Uppsala

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Imagine this: a week precluded by feeling unsafe, not knowing who to associate with, and feeling that vague, constant feeling of loneliness ends with me in a room with all of the other students at core course week. We’re all playing charades, and one of my quick friends is trying their best to capture the essence of “Bart Simpson” with nothing but motions.

You could say that core course week really got things going socially, but it was so much more than even that.

Our professor, Jan, gets the chance to work with another staff member during this trip. A tall, bespectacled man named Anders, who seems to have a well of knowledge on all subjects. The two of them in tandem add something rich to the courses that we have during the later half of the week. Sure, there’s a definite feeling of knowledge in the room, but also a certain levity and caring that can only come from two well-acquainted professors. The assignments take on a new nature, going from essay-based to creative in short order.

It really seems to be a chance to try something different, and travelling is only one facet of a much larger picture. Visiting the Cathedral in Uppsala (pictured above) is a chance to see how Europe tried to present itself to the world. Although late to the game of building churches in this style, Sweden used and uses churches like these to claim a part of the greater Christian world. This is a definite act of self definition, and the intent is clear: God is great, above us all, and so is the culture that we belong to.

Beyond that, though, this was a monumental chance to bond with the people in my core course class, as we were sharing rooms and spending free time together. Some of the greatest moments were the times I shared with both students and the professors at restaurants. Rather than just eating and leaving, these times were a chance to talk in a casual setting about nearly anything. Everything from childhood to philosophy, really.

When core course week comes along, don’t be shy! It’ll really come in handy by the time your travel week rolls around!

Running in Circles

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As you deal with your first few weeks in Sweden, there may be a feeling of loneliness that tends to creep up. This is perfectly normal. Coming to a completely new place, there tends to be a period of acquaintanceship with everyone else in the program.

Personally, I’m the type who needs both quiet time and interaction with people. The former was quite easy to come by, but as for the latter… there are many programs and opportunities that DIS sets up to make sure that you get the chance to meet Swedes and other DIS students.

For LGBTQ+ students, there is an organization run by one of the faculty that serves as a meeting space. Early on, there is also an activities fair that introduces you to many of the sports and interest clubs at KMH (that’s the school that DIS shares space with!). They offer a reduced rate to join, 500 kronor rather than 750.

Early on, I was also able to go to a welcome party put on by KMH, where I was able to meet a lot of Swedes. For their privacy, I’ll refer to them as J and H. Both music students, ended up talking with them about the standard elements of introduction before getting into deeper conversation on politics and philosophy. It’s interesting to hear about all of the ways that the US is different from Sweden, and dispel some of the myths that I had before. One thing that I really noticed was the frequency with which J and H complimented the US. J had been there, and he seemed to be enamoured with the seriousness that freedom of speech was given there.

This came off as interesting to me.

I pushed him for further information, as I had assumed that freedom of speech was treated equally between the US and Sweden. Elaborating, he responded that while freedom of speech is an important tenant of Swedish rights, he felt as though the average Swede was not bold enough to take full advantage of those rights. The US, to him, seemed to represent a world with no filters and reservations.

I ended up turning that thought over in my mind for quite some time. What about the United States made it seem as free, open, and even as forceful as it was? I consider myself somewhat reserved in the context of the US, but I’ve often felt as though this idea of openness has varied depending on your place in America.

It’s difficult to say for a matter like this. The sheer magnitude of different personalities, both in the US and in Sweden makes coming up with a national stereotype difficult when living on the inside.

Normal for Now

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A picture of the German Church in Gamla Stan.

After all of this time… here I am. In terms of accomplishment, it feels as though I’ve made it to the Moon. The flights, one long and one small, fade into memory as I stop to take in the world around me. All that remains is a handful of cinnamon candy that an old woman gave me, the product of a short conversation from a layover out of a London Airport. I find myself hoping that I’ll have the chance to meet others like her in this town.

Although it’s at the tail end of a record-setting summer heatwave, a foreign sharpness in the air gives indication of colder weeks to come. Worries of being under-packed for such a climate knock at the back of my mind, but the weight of the suitcase that I lug behind me assures me that taking more would have been foolish. Having carefully rolled a portion of my personal belongings into the case, my outfits will only consist of a few core outfits in the upcoming months, although I may supplement that with the occasional thrift store purchase.

Personal expression is something that I truly want to experiment with while I’m here. Being so far away from home, this program is a chance at a new identity, with none of the trappings of home.

I shouldn’t say that… not completely.

You’re going to bring a little bit of your old self, no matter where you go. Even if you plan to become a completely new person, some element of your past will follow. This isn’t all bad, and I actually had quite a lot of fun hearing from other students. Introductions are somewhat magical in that way; you’re able to see completely new people from novel places. For some, I was the only Indiana native that they had ever met. Rather than trying to be a representative of my state, I found it best to share a few fun facts and move on.

I never imagined all of the new people I’d meet. While there were a fair amount of Swedes, I also came to know quite a few Brits and Americans. I had a particularly nice encounter with a girl from East London who worked as a civil servant. Only a few years older than me, she seemed to be carrying a lot of weight. Having just ended a relationship, she had taken an extended vacation as a chance to heal and reflect on her life. She seemed as though her travels had given her a lot to think about, and I could detect that she was beginning to consider if other parts of her life were making her melancholy as well. I was able to share my own life concerns with her as well, and she listened with an interest difficult to find in the States, at least. At the end of our chance meeting, we both sagged a bit at the thought of not seeing each other indefinitely.

Sheepishly, we shared our e-mails, and hoped to get back in touch during my study trip.