Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Last Year: Part One - Sweden

It seems very hard to start writing a blog again after leaving it for so long. Well, my last post was about a failed attempt at a marathon early last year. This left me wondering what on earth there was for me to write about. While I continued to swim on and off for a few months after that fateful run, I was not particularly focused on sports at all. Thoughts of a possible trip to Hawaii where I could have got back into training again had to be pushed back as plans did not work out quite as expected.
So, what is there to write about over the last year or so? The first major event was a trip to Sweden, for about 11 weeks - not exactly a flying visit.
My wife and I stayed in a small campus community of about 100 people in an area that was mostly farmland. Fortunately, there was good Internet access, so I could keep in touch with the world outside.

I arrived by plane in Göteborg, Sweden in mid-September after a week visiting family in England. After a train ride and a short drive by car, I found that I would be living in a fairly remote farming area for most of my time there. My wife was taking a 3-month course as part of her degree program, and I would be getting on as best as I could with my own work, as well as taking the opportunity to learn as much as I could about Sweden and hopefully attempt to learn some of the language.
Picturesque views like this meant that in the afternoons on sunny days I could sit and overlook the sea while getting on with some of my work, based on the idea of doing work but enjoying nature at the same time.

Having done quite a lot of swimming earlier in the year, I thought there may be opportunities to swim here, since I knew that the sea was only walking distance from where we were staying. However, while I did dive in once (very briefly), I realized that it may be better to wait until I returned to Taiwan before taking up swimming again.

Apart from the water being a lot colder than what I was normally used to, the one thing that stopped me from at least one longish swim was the many jellyfish that happened to frequent the waters at this time of the year.

A Lutheran retreat center about an hour's drive away. These were quite idyllic surroundings and I would have liked to have been able to just stay here.

While living on what had once been a private Christian school, at times it felt like being a little cut off from day-to-day Swedish society. This was because there were many different nationalities represented on the campus, meaning that English was the main means of communication. Certainly not very good if one hopes to learn the local language. So, to try to speed things up a bit, I ended up picking up Swedish here and there through the Internet, especially through listening to music and comparing what I heard with the lyrics of the songs which I could usually find somewhere.

When someone had said there was a lake within walking distance of the retreat center, I had thought that it might be the size of a small swimming pool which might provide the opportunity to swim. This lake (Kornsjön) was so huge and isolated that a swim was out of the question.

While living at the campus, in order to relax a little and get away from my desk, I would go for walks among the nearby farms - usually after lunch, as it got dark fairly early.

Because my wife and her classmates needed to visit the library at the University of Gothenberg, I had a chance to go there, too. We also went to the Economics library in another part of the city. I found that interesting, although I am glad that I hardly ever go to libraries now, preferring to find whatever I need on my computer.

The city of Göteborg has many nice buildings, many of historic significance.

Later in our trip, we got to visit the Laxå commun. I cannot remember if this church (Tiveds Kyrka) was actually in that commun, but it was in a very nice part of the countryside half way between Göteborg and Stockholm.

One of the local farmers started grazing his horses (North Swedish horses) in the field in Restenäs right next to where we were staying.

A trip to Sweden wouldn't be complete without a visit to Stockholm, in my opinion one of the nicest looking cities I have been to. We stayed in the Old Town (Gamla Stan). Here we are looking out of the old town.

Jocelyn and I in Stockholm. I was quite pleased with the hoodsweat I had found in the "boutique" (the free second-hand store) on our campus. Certainly one of my Swedish friends like it. The Swedes are very patriotic, at least a lot more than the British.

There were many nice souvenirs on sale in Stockholm. I have a few souvenirs that I brought back. However, it is not the items that are important, but rather the memories that you bring back.

Occasionally we would see a nice sunset. However, towards the end of our stay (early December) one had to hurry after lunch to get there in time.

The horses were obviously used to the cold winters. On the day this photo was taken the temperature was between -5C and -10C. Just taking my gloves off to take a picture was quite a challenge for me.

I still miss the horses, particularly this one, which always came up to me when I waded through the snow to visit them.

Each time I passed this cottage (stuga) next to our campus (which appeared to be "empty"), I wondered about one day living in one of these.

In England, the airport would have been closed. In Sweden, this was just a normal day. After dousing the plane with warm water and making sure the snow was swept off the runway, the airport authorities allowed us to take off without incident and we were soon back in England where it fortunately was not snowing.

So, what did I learn from my trip? I kind of had a lot of mixed feelings about my trip. On the one hand, it was great going to a country to which I had never been and finding the local people that I did manage to meet to be quite friendly, although not very easy to get to know. I am not a very touristy type of person, and I am not really interested in just seeing the sights and enjoying the comforts of hotels or having everyone talk to me in English just because I am British.
When being part of an international community, as we were, relationships with other people can tend to be quite shallow since everyone tends to be busy with their work or studies and after a few months most people are going to move on. That is why I particularly enjoyed being with local people who just live their normal lives year in year out in the location, usually working at the same job and living in the same house. While these kinds of contacts were few and far between, I did at least have a few good conversations (in English of course), which proved that despite the differences in nationality and background, there was still a lot we had in common. It was nice to hear people we visited talk about their taking the train each day to Örebro each day to go to work, or to hear how one man almost my age coped with the harsh winters and how they affected his livelihood. The Swedes on our campus were mostly in their early 20s and so it was like my wife and I were talking to people of our children's generation. However, that was also a lot of fun. In fact we have been so used to that over the years that we don't realize how old we are getting.
I wish in a way that I had spent some time learning the language before going to Sweden, but that is a lot easier said than done. The pronunciation of Swedish is quite different from what I would expect. Therefore, I feel I learned to recognize the sounds a lot more easily by actually being there and listening not just to the occasional Swedish spoken around me but also to music to compensate for the lack of interaction with local people. I will always be better prepared next time. I hope to go again. I went to Oslo (for one night) since my wife needed to meet her classmates there for one week as part of her course, but unfortunately my Norwegian friend was not there at the time. It is so much easier if you know someone there with the time to show you around and introduce you to people. On this trip I wasn't attending a school or doing a specific job for people so that in some ways restricted me, but on the other hand it gave me a few more opportunities, too.