Tulaasi, outbound to Sweden

It’s December 25th and I am skyping with my mom back home. She has conveniently propped “robot me” in computer form on a chair so I have a good view of the festivities and am easily pivotable to get a better view when needed. Mom put the bacon in front of me on the chair and we took the appropriate pictures for the moment of me pretending to take a piece from the other side of the screen. The sun is out in Florida, and it looks unreasonably bright to be only through a computer screen. It feels like the sun just rose here on the Scandinavian side of the world, and it’s gently sinking back over the horizon again.

I spent Christmas with my really great friend Calla, who’s also an exchange student, and her wonderful host family. I have had the opportunity to get really close to them too, and they definitely feel like another one of my host families, so it was super nice to be able to spend the holiday with them. Christmas in Sweden is celebrated on Christmas Eve, so I get to celebrate it twice now which I’m actually really ok with. Swedish Christmas involved a whole lot of food, which I am also really ok with. They don’t joke when it comes to eating on the holidays. And they down it all with some schnapps to make sure it digests nicely (but none for the exchange student who isn’t allowed to drink of course). I was allowed to indulge in some glögg though (the Swedish version of mulled wine) which I am definitely bringing back to my family as a tradition. We ate kroppkakor (literally translated to “body cookies”) but they’re actually potato dumplings. Oh, and I definitely noticed a theme of pomegranate seeds- and can’t decide whether it was a coincidence or a festive delicacy that wasn’t ever really part of a conversation.

After we ate, the kids all gathered around the TV to watch a bunch of clips of Disney movies dubbed in Swedish, the main one being with Donald Duck (or Kalle Anka på svenska). Because Swedes are so fluent in English, movies for kids are basically the only ones dubbed in Swedish, so this was the first time seeing anything dubbed into another language for me and it was pretty dang entertaining.

Gift giving is a little different over here in Sweden. Tomten (or The Christmas Gnome) knocks on the door sometime after dinner when it’s dark outside and brings a sack with a gift for each child in the house. The children are meant to be scared and delighted of Tomten, which I’m still a little confused about. One of the parents is conveniently missing while the children are each nervously receiving their first gift from the burlap bag. I don’t know if this is part of the tradition in Sweden or just the family I was with, but the Tomten had a hard time pronouncing everyone’s names- which is obligatory with mine anyways- to add to the act in some way.

Side note, it was Calla’s host mom Sara that played the Tomten, so I’m going to refer to her as a “she” for now. She teased a few of the kids as they attempted to grab their package from her hands moving quickly in random directions so as to keep it away as long as possible. But once everyone received their first gift, we all gathered downstairs to open those and the rest of them.

I gifted a few ceramic pieces I have made in school this year for Calla’s host sister and dad, crocheted pot holders for Sara, gave her younger host brother candy and action figures, and wrote a poem for Calla. I have totally had way too much time for crafts this year and I love it. I got a cute little green ukulele from Calla, Hildur and Elis (host siblings of Calla), which I am going to play so much now because I miss mine back home a lot. It’s strange, I didn’t really play my ukulele very often back home, but it was always an option I had whenever I was bored, and there's so many things like this that I never thought I would miss. Like Poptarts, or Burts Bees products, or having my yoga mat to take with me everywhere (maybe I should invest in one here?). I’ve really gotten used to living out of a backpack and freeloading off of others’ endlessly generous hospitality, so these weird perks are definitely a distant memory to me at this point. Don’t get me wrong, I have been endlessly spoiled here, and I am so grateful to everyone that has made this possible, but I can’t help but miss those little joys I had from back “home” too.

I moved from my first host family almost two weeks ago. My exchange while living with them was very difficult for reasons that are hard to sum up into words, but I will say this for any future exchange students out there that have stumbled upon this entry: if you are having a hard time really connecting with your host family and feeling comfortable, don’t feel bad. Sometimes it is as simple as being the wrong match and it was just a personality clash. That certainly does not mean you did anything wrong, and I know it is easy to slip into the cycle that you would seem ungrateful and rude if you were to bring anything up with your host family or even your club counsellor. But these people are here to make you feel comfortable in this unfamiliar land and culture, so let them know how you feel in order for them to help you. I waited far too long to explain exactly how I felt about my host family to my club counsellor, which I realize now is a main reason why I was having a difficult time on my exchange.

I am still endlessly grateful to my first host family for opening their house to me and I wish them well on their next chapter in life. I am currently living with my club counsellor Claes and his wife Ingrid. They’re a wonderful couple in their 60s and all their kids have moved out, so this is the first time I have lived without people close to my age- but I am really enjoying it a lot more than I expected. Ingrid is petite, very patient with my Swedish, and is very physically active for her age. And Claes is humble, soft-spoken and makes amazing food. I will move to my next host family in about two weeks, which I am very much looking forward to, although I will miss living with Claes and Ingrid. I will have a host sister in my next family named Elinor. She is seventeen soon, has a freakishly similar taste in music to me, and will be going on exchange next year. We already get along really well and she reminds me a lot of my sisters back home, so it will be exciting to have another sister, with the added bonus of her being Swedish. Her father is my math teacher and mentor in school, and I have noticed that he always is making sure I am doing well in school.

It is comforting to know that he is looking out for me, and I’m excited to have him as a host dad soon. They also told me a little while ago that they will be taking me to Paris over Påsklov (Easter break) which I am very much looking forward to. (I seriously can’t believe I am getting get to go to France while on exchange). There will also be a trip up north in the Arctic Circle that I will be going on with other exchange students sometime soon. We will be traveling the distance from here to Italy- but in the opposite direction- so that gives a heck of a perspective of how huge Sweden is geographically. I feel so incredibly lucky to be able to have an opportunity to explore this part of the world with some amazing people that I have met in incredibly coincidental circumstances.

As the year is coming to a close my perception of time is going into question again. I am basically half way through this crazy year of being an exchange student which figuratively blows my mind. In just a few weeks, Sweden will be saying goodbye to a great group of exchange students from down under in Australia and New Zealand and will be welcoming some newbies to take their place. It will be impossible to replace a few of my oldies that I got really close to, but it’s exciting to think that I will be able to meet fresh new exchange students and hopefully form a similar bond with some of them.

Quick update on my literacy in Swedish: I have read the first 250 pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in Swedish, which was painful for the first few chapters but got surprisingly easy after that. I can understand almost everything in normal conversation, but I’m still very embarrassed to practice with people, so I usually just talk to the dog in Swedish whenever I feel like saying things out loud that sound funny. One of my New Year’s resolutions will definitely be to put myself out there more when it comes to speaking Swedish and stop leaning on my English crutch.

I am excited to see what the second half of my exchange has in store for me. The winter Solstice passed this week, so the days are finally going to start getting brighter from here on out. It’ll be nice to be coming home from school when it’s not pitch black outside in a few months. It has been an experience, and a pleasure for sure, to live through the Swedish winter, but I can see why seasonal depression is common here, for sure. I experienced my first Swedish snow a little over a month ago, but it has been surprisingly warm ever since and I don’t see snow coming again anytime soon, if at all, this year.

Skyping with my family earlier today was wonderful. Knowing that they are only a phone call away makes the distance feel a lot smaller and although I miss them a lot, I know the sweet hugs at the end of all this will be so much sweeter than if I cut this all short because I can’t bear to be without them any longer. Because the reality of it is that I almost can’t. I miss them almost every day. But this is exchange and I am taking this opportunity to become a Swede instead of spending my time missing my life back home. I definitely have realized more than ever that I am so lucky to have such a loving family back home. It sucks to miss them, but I would rather miss them more than anything than have nothing to miss as much as them. Ok, I’m signing off on this entry and again, am super bad at good byes. So see ya later interwebs!

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