‘How was Sweden?’ This is the question I dread when I arrive back in Canada. These three words fill my mind with people, places, challenges we’ve faced. I can see myself now awkwardly responding with ‘Sweden was great, amazing – I loved it,’ while my questioner waits, expecting more from someone who has just spent ten months abroad. How do I ‘put into words’ these experiences and explain them to someone who has never been on exchange in Stockholm?

I’m sitting now in my (as well as a few of my friends’) favourite cafe on Gamla stan. We discovered it halfway through first semester and have now taken up residence here; frequenting the place at least three times a week, bringing our bags filled with schoolbooks and reading for hours at a time. This is one of the things I love about going to school in Stockholm – and about Swedish culture – this atmosphere of comfort no matter where I go in the city. I can just imagine what would happen if I tried staying too long in a cafe at home, first glances from the owners and then a request to leave, making room for more customers. In Canada, I go to one of the biggest schools in the country, York University in Toronto. The campus is located north of the city and to get downtown it generally takes an hour to an hour and a half. Not exactly the best situation for spontaneous trip into town. Everything is done on a very timed and scheduled basis. Whereas I enjoy the relaxed spontaneous nature of living in Stockholm, its transference into the school system has been hard to get used to. One of the aspects of school I struggle with here is the way my schedule changes from week to week and the difficulty of juggling classes from many different departments at once, when the departments don’t really coincide with each other.

I’ve grown up with the Canadian school system and throwing myself into this Swedish one has proved challenging. I find myself getting nervous handing in assignments, not exactly knowing what approach Swedish professors are expecting me to take; and not knowing how they will approach reading my assignments either. The average size of classes here is smaller as well. My lectures at home would usually be in halls that sit from one to two hundred students. Here, my classes do not exceed thirty. This changes the way that schooling is conducted and I find myself becoming more involved and ‘self-taught’ – skills that will be extremely useful when I return home for my final year. Though the average size of classes is smaller, the average age of students seems to be higher. In North America there is a mentality that you must graduate high school and enter university or college immediately at the age of eighteen. This is what is expected. I’m finishing up my third year of school at twenty-one, but most Swedes I’ve met my age seem to be just beginning. I like this concept; it puts less stress on deciding ‘what to do with your life’.

Aside from University, the most memorable experiences I’ve had here in Sweden have been with the people I’ve met. So many Swedes ask me ‘how do I find it here?’, apologizing for their ‘reserved’ nature; but I find that no matter where I go in Sweden, the people have always been willing to help – from an elderly woman in Kiruna attempting to direct us to our hostel with her choppy English to my classmates showing me around the Swedish school website – the hospitality has helped me create a home here. For me, and I’m sure my fellow international students, the biggest challenge of being on exchange is still to come, boarding that plane home and saying good-bye to Stockholm.

Text: Stephanie Clinton