Four months. Just like that. Poof.
When endings come along in our lives, we often like to look back at where we were when it all started.
Where was I? Lost is an understatement. I didn’t know a soul here, what the heck a “t-bana” was, nor did I even know how to pronounce the town I would be spending the next four months in (you tell me how YOU would read “Täby Kyrkby” without any concept of Swedish phonology yet?). If I could talk to that Clara, what would I say?
Remember to look up. Yes, it’s cold. Yes, it’s way easier to combat Stockholm’s winter with your face buried so deep in your scarf and with your hat pulled so far over your head, that you can barely see where you’re walking. Do that too often, and you’ll miss out on the gem of a city standing right before your eyes. The serendipities in life don’t come with big flashing signs. We have to find them. We just need to be paying attention.
Don’t withdraw cash. Though DIS gives homestay students stipends to partially cover lunch expenses (you can use the cash for whatever you want), Stockholm is on its way to becoming cash-free. More often than not, card is the only form of payment accepted.
Don’t over stress about taking a language course here. You learn the most through experience. You won’t really get to practice what little Swedish you get under your belt in a short four months. The second any Swede hears you hesitate, they’ll most likely switch from Swedish to perfect English. A semester is not enough time to become fluent in another language, so just do your best, and worry about nailing down basic phrases.
Don’t take Stockholm’s public transportation system for granted. It’s incredibly efficient and it’s incredibly clean. Take advantage of it. You will miss it.
There is nothing wrong with doing this alone. A fair share of students sign up for this program with friends from their home institution. That in itself serves as a sort of social barrier — old friends don’t always feel like they need new friends. You’ve been in a new country at a new school for about 6 hours of orientation so far — it’s okay to not have formed a clique as tight as The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants yet. In fact, it’s quite normal to not. The beauty of doing this alone is in being able to reinvent yourself based on who you want to be.
It’s okay to be vulnerable. There are people like you in this program. Express yourself in a way that’s true to your values. Start there, and you’ll find the people who value you for that, not the projection of your idealized self. Open yourself up to others and your world will expand.
Everyone has their own baggage. It’s easy to make surface-level assumptions. Small talk is called small talk for a reason. If there’s one universality to human existence, it’s our resilience in holding up the baggage that we each carry. Know that first impressions are misleading, ask questions, listen, have compassion, and take care of one another.
Quality beats quantity. There are 7.7 billion people on this planet. Take the time to really get to know the people you come to meet. Some of them are pretty darn special. Hold them close.
Take care of yourself. We’re all just barely turning twenty-something and admittedly, we’re not nearly as good to our bodies as we should be. Can’t see the damage in 1-2 business days? Eh, what’s it matter anyway! Try to think a little harder than that. Don’t skip meals and don’t waste your precious sleep time. Drinking water is such an easy task to accomplish — why not just be nice to your brain and hydrate? Go outside. Don’t waste your sunny days in Sweden — they are few and far between. Darkness takes its toll on your wellbeing. Do what you can to counteract that and surround yourself with that which brings you light.
Mental check-outs are cool. Ah, guilt. Staying on top of assignments, spending quality time with a homestay family, fostering new friendships, and keeping up with old ones are not exactly things you can easily cross off of Monday’s to-do list. These are elements that are hard to balance and since you are human, the scale will tip sometimes. That’s okay and being hard on yourself for it only makes things worse. Sometimes you need a minute (or three hours) to neglect all of these things and to sit and enjoy your own company, to read a book unrelated to school, or to dedicate an embarrassing amount of time to making a new Spotify playlist.
Be grateful. This isn’t something that we’re all able to do. The more you think about what there is to be grateful for, the more you realize that you actually have, and the happier you are.
Exercise your flexibility. No, not literally…. but you should probably be stretching everyday, now that I mention it. As a homestay student, it’s easy to tense up after a while about a lack of independence — not that you don’t have any in a homestay — it’s just that you’re almost regressing in comparison to being an American college student, quite used to living on your own (universities in Sweden don’t offer room and board). Though you might not be used to being checked up on by an adult figure at this age, and it might make you feel a little younger than you are, know that it comes from a good place and that it won’t block you from having the experience that YOU want. So soak up the family experience and have some perspective. It’s both enriching and comforting to come home to people who care about you.
Underpacking is better than overpacking. I will be paying (quite literally $$$) the consequences.
Learning happens beyond the classroom. Given that we all have such different backgrounds of experience, it’s hard for a teacher to gauge where to start and how far to go. That being said, a lot of what you cover might feel introductory. Some assignments might feel like busywork. Just because you might not feel challenged in a classroom, doesn’t mean you can’t seek out challenge elsewhere. Experiences are worth so much more than a lecture.
You will get frustrated.
Between different time zones, cultural barriers, finance worries, and tedious assignments that you just can’t figure out the point of, an experience like this can get pretty stressful, but you’ll manage. Life does this funny thing of continuing even when we’re not ready. Last time I checked, the movie Click was fictional, and there wasn’t any sort of universal “pause” button. Life at home won’t go on hold for you while you’re gone. It just happens, same as it always does. You’ll miss out on things you wish you could be home for. Both the good and the bad. You’ll feel pissed at the world for its impeccable timing. You might feel helpless 4,000 miles away from home. Be kind to yourself and try not to get stuck on the obstacles that are beyond your control.
Eat all of the cardamom buns that café Oktav has to offer. These taste of literal blessings. Yes, it’s your second one of the day. No, you won’t regret it.
Budgeting isn’t lame, it’s awesome (and so satisfying when you do it right). Little things add up. It never hurts to keep track. Pretty self-explanatory — your future self will thank you.
It’s also okay to be lame. You don’t need to go out every weekend. Yes, enjoy this experience as much as you can, but doing that can sometimes be calm and peaceful. Cook dinner with your homestay family. Soak those moments up with the people you care about. They are so special.
Take advantage of your campus’ concerts. These are skilled performances by students at the Royal College of Music and they are all FREE. You don’t get stuff like this back home.
The greatest expectation is to expect nothing at all. That sounds pessimistic. Simply said: don’t expect to reenact the leading part in the The Lizzie McGuire Movie as your study abroad experience. Bring nothing but an open mind (and your suitcases). This world doesn’t deal its hands to us based on what we’re used to. Comparing and anticipating your experiences gives you tunnel vision. Keeping an open mind works wonders.
Soak up your limited core course days. Because of trips and field studies counting as class time, your core course ends over a month earlier than the entire program’s end date. Each core course is different, but mine became its own little family. Cherish such special experiences with such special people.
The only permanent thing in life is impermanence. Time is fleeting. Friendships don’t stay as golden as you’d like them to. That giddy honeymoon phase comes and goes. Seasons turn. Goodbyes have to be said. Don’t expect the good things to be infinite, because shattered illusions are worse than the change itself. And find solace in the impermanence of the bad.
Your time is what you make of it. Two people can participate in the same program and experience that time on two completely different planets. The way your four months unfold is entirely up to you. The lenses that you choose to see the world through parallel to the way you experience the it, and as a result, how others experience you.
Spend your money on experiences. These are what you’ll remember anyway, not the over-priced drinks or the newest trends. As far as souvenirs go, you can order anything that you want on Amazon when you go home for a price ten times cheaper than that of Gamla Stan’s tourist traps.
Take pictures. Take so many that it feels embarrassing. That thing or that place. Local people will glare. Get over it. Be in those pictures too. You won’t look back on a photo and remember that view, you’ll remember you when you smelled the first hints of springtime in the air, when you felt the sun on your face for the first time in weeks, the joke your friend told behind the camera, and the sound of your own laughter. You’ll remember the happiness of that moment — not just what it looked like.
Pack your precious cargo. Though I haven’t started packing yet, I’m starting to think about what exactly I’ll be putting into my suitcase when I return home. Yes, I will absolutely be carrying more clothing than I packed (and more than I can fit in my luggage, in fact). I will most definitely add to this weight and carry little souvenirs for folks at home.
The post cards, trinkets, and photos from my travels will always be riches to me from some of the most magical moments.
But of all these great keepsakes, I’ll also be packing a few other things… maybe just in a different pocket of my suitcase. I will hold a family halfway across the world – people who opened their hearts and their home to me. I will carry memories of places that photos could not serve justice to, a few life-long friendships, and a few to just remember and smile about.
I’ll zip my suitcase up with the lessons that I have been taught by the people and places around me and the interest in learning about what others carry in their suitcases.
I’m ready if not eager to close this semester out, but I’ll be going back with my luggage overstuffed with some of the most priceless carry-ons.
Instead of goodbye, I’ll say vi ses, Stockholm.
(n.) lit. “moon road”
The glimmering trail of light left by the moon’s reflection on water.