by Jana Záhoráková
I guess I should have done my homework before applying to this university, but I probably would not comprehend its importance without having a first-hand experience there. The truth is that Lund is something like a Swedish Harvard or Yale. It is a university town near bigger cities, Malmo and Copenhagen, and historically, the university is one of the oldest universities in Sweden and continually ranks among the top 100 universities in the world. In other words, it can be very intimidating, so perhaps it was better for me to go in blind and without fear.
I met some girls who studied biology and they were in a lab until midnight and had barely time to sleep because they had to wake up early for lectures and seminars in the morning. My German roommate who studied design also spent most of her time away from home, either in lessons at school or collaborating on projects with classmates in the library. However, the Joint Faculties of Humanities and Theology (or HT for short) where I took my classes did not seem more demanding than Masaryk University. I only had 2 courses each semester because Master courses are worth 15 credits. This meant that I could prepare sufficiently for my classes while still being able to work on my MA thesis, prepare for the state exam in Brno and even get in some partying as well. All in all, I thought that the workload was well-balanced, and I was, therefore, surprised when some of my classmates did not read the books assigned to us before the seminars.
Because of the nature of our studies, there were many international students in the classrooms, so it was hard for me to test the theory that professor Chovanec once told us which is that Scandinavian students are less likely to “interrupt” teachers with questions or self-select themselves as next speakers in the turn-taking system described in conversation analysis. There was always good discussion, but it is true that the classmates who never spoke were almost always Swedish. I also met one of the best teachers I have ever had in my life. He was Irish, and taught a course called Contemporary Writing in English and made keeping a stimulating academic conversation seem effortless. I think his superpower was that he reacted to every comment with care and expertise. No matter how minor or insignificant that original comment was when the student first uttered it, Cian would throw fancy terminology spin on it- like “yes we called that heterodiegetic focalisation” and the student would feel very smart about their contribution which in turn made them more likely to react again with further observations about the text. He was not only very professional but also very human. During our last discussion of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, one of the students said she did not finish the book completely, that she stopped 40 pages short before the ending and did not know the resolution of the story. So, when started discussing the conclusion, Cian actually apologised to her for the spoilers. He, as a teacher, was apologising to his student who did not do her homework. To be fair to her, the book is more than 700 pages long.
Because the courses are worth so many credits, the faculty only offers one or two courses with Anglophone subject matter, so I always picked one course about English literature and then one about world literature and one about Belarus and Ukraine. This last one was in the first semester, and it was online which meant that my classmates there were even more international than on campus. I also experienced a bit of a shock when these classmates introduced themselves as most of them were older and with jobs like foreign policy adviser to the Belgian prime minister or British military analyst with experience in Afghanistan. There was also an older lady who was writing a novel about the Romanovs and considered this part of her research. So, understandably when it came my turn to introduce myself, I felt a bit inadequate when I finally said that I am studying English literature, but as I am from Slovakia, we do share a border with Ukraine. And that was all I had. However, the course overall was great, and somebody created a group chat for us on WhatsApp so we still keep in touch and discuss news about Belarus and Ukraine.
I do, however, have one grievance regarding the way administration is organised before the start of the semester. Pampered by the Czech university system of providing all the information about the potential courses in the semester to the students to help them make informed decisions about their schedule like name of the teacher, timeslot of the lessons, literature that will be read, requirements to successfully finish the course etc. I naively thought that this is a standard practice at all universities, but no. All you have access to at Lund University before you sign up is the name of the course and nothing else. Then after about a month the schedule is published, and they kindly ask you if you have any clashes (of course I have clashes- I did not know the schedule before signing up) and they upload the reading list just a few weeks before the semester starts. I do not understand why this is so difficult because the administration does have the information, so I am not sure why they withheld it from students but one of my classmates who was British told me that this is the third university in Sweden that she is studying at and so far, Lund had the best organisation of them all so I honestly cannot imagine the chaos at the two other universities. Fortunately, the schedule clashes are usually not such a big deal as the departments cooperate in some extent so that in the spring semester I had the two literature courses, I did not have any clashes but in the autumn semester when I added the course about Belarus and Ukraine which was more cultural than literary, I had three clashes. Luckily it was only three because the lessons do not always take place at a regular time. Another thing I misunderstood as a standard was the MS Office package which was not available on any of the computers in the HT library. They all had touchscreens but no MS Word or Excel. Also, their version of our course opinion poll was not online but a piece of paper we filled in after the very last session. So, to all the Masaryk students: in some respects, we are more progressive than Sweden.
The most information I got about Sweden was on a so-called SUSA course which is technically a Swedish language introductory course, but our teacher perceived it more to help international students cope with the culture sock in his home country. He proceeded to give us tips on which supermarkets are cheaper and where to buy a good falafel or good advice on how to avoid annoying old Swedish men by using a regular pavement as a bike lane as this might lead to the old men pushing us from the bike on the ground (this allegedly happens at least a few times each semester). He explained what they call the academic quarter (=akademická čtvrthodinka). In Lund it means that even if the class starts at 3 pm according to the official schedule, it will in reality start fifteen minutes later. The lectures are also separated into 45-minute segments with each segment starting at, for example, 15:15 and ending at 16:00 with a 15-minute break and then the next segment starts again after the academic quarter. This is great as it allows both students and teachers to get a coffee or even a “fika” and then continue with refreshed minds. Their take on the academic quarter might make it seem like Swedes are very flexible about time, however, according to our teacher, the opposite is true as it is considered very rude to arrive late to a lecture, seminar, or even other non-academic meetings.
Architecture and Surroundings
Lund is a beautiful place. You can enjoy the intimacy and security of a small town while simultaneously explore the bigger cities like Malmo and Denmark’s Copenhagen which are just minutes away by train.
Lund itself is also one of those bike towns where bicycle is the most treasured means of transport you can ever possess. Although, the terrain is not consistently even as it is in other bike towns in the world, people are still more likely to envy and steal a bike than a car. Sometimes you really have to work hard to get over some smaller hills. And there is also the wind. A few times I would go down a hill, but the wind would be so strong that I actually just stood still. In my home country of Slovakia, people usually hate all cyclists, unless said cyclist’s name is Peter Sagan. This is because due to the lack of bike lanes, the cyclists are either threatening pedestrians on the regular pavements or they are sharing the road with motor vehicles which is dangerous for them. This is why the abundance of bike lanes in Lund felt liberating. Not only that, but this bicycle culture is so engrained in the brains of the residents that the cyclists are treated as the kings and queens at every crossroads, respected by both the people walking or driving cars.
When I used my new bike to go to school for the first time, I made a mental note of parking it in front of a beautiful red-brick building covered with ivy. The only problem is that this is a description that fits most buildings in Lund, especially the ones that belong to the university, so it was a lot more complicated to find my bike on that day.
Unfortunately, I did not manage to get accommodation in dormitories since international students who come from outside Europe are given priority to in this matter and there is a shortage of rooms available (probably because this was the first post-covid semester and more people chose to keep their spot in dormitories than was estimated). However, the residents of Lund are actively encouraged to rent out their free rooms or apartments to incoming students and there are several websites that advertise these possibilities in cooperation with the university that actually checks and approves of the posted listings. I wrote to several people in reaction to these advertised rooms but only received a reply from the most suspicious one which had no photos and no exact address. Fortunately for me, it turned out to be a great match: a very nice and active older lady originally from Poland, who lived with a lovely tomcat and rented out two rooms in her big house with a big garden. She also sold me the bike I already mentioned. I lived on a street called Svenska vägen or Swedish way so there could not be anything more Swedish. Even though, the house was owned by a Polish lady.
As for the weather, it was usually not less than one or two degrees colder than at home due to Lund being located on the south of Sweden. When I returned in summer, the weather in Lund was constantly sunny, while it was raining in Slovakia. Sweden is in the same time zone as Czechia, and I also did not experience the midnight sun as the sun has risen and fallen at a similar time as in my home country.
One of the key elements of Swedish culture that made me decide that I would like to go and live there for a while was the country’s dedication to feminism. Everyone kept asking me why I went there, and I couldn’t say that I originally wanted to go to Spain, so I told them that as a feminist I wanted to be in a country where most population is also feminist, and most people told me that this was a good reason to come. Unfortunately, shortly after I arrived in Sweden, there was a general election and the new government decided to discontinue the ground-breaking Feminist Foreign Policy that was introduced back in 2014 and served as a successful model for other countries as well. I just hope that it was not my own bad luck that made Sweden a tiny bit less feminist in its official political direction. Hopefully it takes more than one term of governing to affect people’s thinking in this aspect. For example, some people told me that some diapers in Sweden have a picture of men with babies instead of the mothers, but I forgot to check as that is not a part of a shop that I usually give much attention to. My closest encounter with feminism in Sweden occurred when a neighbour was building a garage in front of their house and one of the lorries that was used to bring sand and other material belonged to a woman named Suzanne. I know her name because it was written on the lorry in pink and surrounded by pink clouds and behind the front window, there were also several stuffed toys. Now that is what progress looks like. Unfortunately, the progressiveness can also be measured by the expensiveness of everything from basic food products to culture. On the upside, you can pay for everything with a debit or credit card, even for an entry to a bathroom in a public place. This is very convenient for tourist as there is literally no need for cash, but the Swedish teacher told us that this is a result of the people letting the banks do whatever they want and them charging the businesses so much for cash payments that most of the small ones do not even offer a payment in cash anymore. It is kind of like the opposite of what we have in Slovakia and Czechia where some small shops only let their customers pay with cards for a purchase of certain amount to make it profitable after deducting the fee that the bank charges for the card payment.
Some things I feel are related to the progress: the bathrooms at the university were all gender neutral and some of the administrative staff and teachers informed us at the end of emails or in their version of ELF what pronouns we are to use when we are talking to or about them. These are “hon” for “she,” “han” for “he” or a new gender-neutral pronoun “hen” which was added to Swedish grammar and dictionaries quite recently in 2015 as a reaction to the progress.
Another aspect typical for the Scandinavian countries is recycling. Yes, there were no less than eight different slots to separate the garbage into: plastic, cardboard paper, magazine paper, coloured glass, uncoloured glass, food waste, metal and the rest. On top of that, the Swedes also have PANT which means you pay 1 Swedish crown (=cca 10 cents of Euro) more per plastic bottle that you get back upon returning it in a special machine. At one point my landlady told me that a garbage man knocked on the door and complained that someone from our house threw a plastic container into the paper bin. Yes, recycling is very important in Sweden, as it should be everywhere.
Some things, however, are similar to our culture; like the importance of eating a big breakfast, or dairy products in people’s diets. Then there are weird things; like the fact that Swedes do not put eggs into refrigerators in supermarkets. I also sensed a kind of discrepancy between the rigid ethics of the people (manifested by them wanting to pay their taxes no matter how high they are) and certain peculiarities. For example, Swedes do not smoke cigarettes as such. They prefer their nicotine intake to be from what they call “snus.” It is a tobacco product that comes in a form of small individually wrapped packages that you insert under your upper lip and as it dissolves it gives you a hit of nicotine. Now there are other countries that make different kinds of flavoured “snus,” but Sweden claims to be the only one in European union that is legally allowed to sell the original version with a super high nicotine content. Similarly, Swedes love their super salty liquorice and to make it extra salty, they use ammonium chloride which was originally used as a cough medicine. Because of this medical connection, only one company is allowed to put ammonium chloride on their liquorice.
Swedes also have some weird rules regarding alcohol consumption. For example, you cannot buy drinks with alcohol percentage above 3,5% in a regular supermarket. If you want to buy something stronger, you must go to Systembolaget, which is the only shop that can sell these stronger spirits and is completely owned by the state. However, the prize of alcohol is quite high, so it is no paradise for an alcoholic on a budget. As for drinking in a bar, that is obviously even more expensive, and the bartenders seem to follow certain rules. For example, during our welcome party, my American friend tried to buy two shots of tequilla so that she would not have to stand in a queue again, but when the bartender found out that she would drink both, he declined and said that she would have to come again when she is finished with the first one.
When it comes to Swedish food, people usually imagine the meatballs from Ikea, and this was one of the things the I tasted on the official Nordic Food Walk during my trip to Stockholm. However, the food in the two cafeterias that I frequented in Lund was ethnically very diverse from moussaka and Cajun gumbo to pasta and I had to take this food walk to found out more about Swedish cuisine. For example, I was told that Swedes eat a lot of game meat like bear, reindeer, moose etc. Fortunately, they are quite accommodating to vegetarians these days, less so to vegans as they like their cheese, eggs, and dairy products. The vegetarian meal is usually something we would call “karbonatek” made from vegetables or less often a soya alternative with oven baked potatoes and a thick dip. This dip is very important because the rest of the meal is usually very dry, so you need something to help you eat it. Even meat did not have the gravy that typically accompanies it in Czech or Slovak restaurants. Also, there are no bones involved… none. Not even when you eat chicken. I did not encounter a single bone the whole year I was there. One thing that surprised me was that they did not offer more fish as Lund is quite close to the ocean. One cafeteria had fish on the menu once a week, but it was always breaded. Another surprise was that the “no meat alternative” to the fish was always soup. But this was not soup as we know it on our lunch menus where they serve as starter or appetizers. No, this was soup as main dish. The cafeteria also had a huge open buffet where you could add vegetables or pasta to your meal which made it more likely that people would choose to have “just the soup” as their main meal. Swedes also have something they call “fika” which is essentially taking a break from studying or working and having a coffee and maybe some cake, pastry, or sandwich.
Nevertheless, the best way to sum up Sweden cuisine is in the words of my landlady: “Thank God for immigrants and their food, otherwise I would starve to death here.”
Sense of Community
Most of my classmates lived in Malmo, not in Lund, so they were in a hurry after class to get on a train home, but I managed to get closer to some of them during the breaks or through group presentations. The other friends that I made at the SUSA course had their own parties at school dormitories which I only visited once. There was, however, something that the Swedes call nations which are essentially sororities and fraternities but, like so many things in Sweden, they are gender neutral. I visited some pubs, some clubs and even went on a ghost walk which were all part of the nation scene and a good opportunity to make more friends.
One major perk for tourists and exchange students in Sweden is the fact that almost everyone there speaks English… everyone. From shop attendants and post office clerks to garbage men. The people that I met that did not speak English were immigrants who only learned Swedish. This obviously weakens any motivation to learn the language. I had big plans of studying it, but after the introductory SUSA course I came to realise that it is a) too difficult (I speak some German which was a big help, but it was still tough) and b) I will most probably never ever use it again as it is a language only spoken in Sweden and a little in Finland. However, there is one phrase that will stay with me forever: “Ursäkta mig” (pronounced uršekta mej). It sounds like some kind of horrible insult but means “Excuse me” and I found myself screaming it at people in my way while riding my bike with a non-functional bell.
One last bit of interesting information about the Swedes goes back to their lifestyle; our Swedish lecturer on the course about Ukraine had a Ukrainian wife and a stepson and he explained to us that unlike Slav seniors, grandparents in Sweden do not consider their main activities to be revolving around their grandkids. Instead, they still lead interesting independent lives and cannot be counted as a free and easy babysitter. For example, my landlady was in her early seventies but that did not stop her from going on hikes and exotic vacations. When I tried to explain who Banksy is before going to Malmo to see his exhibition, she just waved her hand and said: “I’ve already seen it in Portugal.” She probably had more of social life than I did. She went out and had fun while I stayed at home writing my thesis and taking care of her cat.