Lapland: lockdown edition

As Covid-19 rolled ominously across Asia and into the West, initially causing a deluge of cases in Italy, eventually the cloud burst over everyone. The distant, fluffy, cumulus cloud metastasized into an irksome storm cloud which proved to be the ultimate rain check for everyone on placement.

We first heard about the coronavirus shortly after arriving in Sweden in January. We heard distant reports of a new illness affecting East Asia, like the lockdown of Wuhan and the quarantine of the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan. Though saddening news for those impacted, such stories made the threat of coronavirus seem distant and almost unimportant from our perspective, like a small white cumulus cloud in a sky of bedazzling blue.

Yet as Covid-19 rolled ominously across Asia and into the West, initially causing a deluge of cases in Italy, eventually the cloud burst over everyone. The distant, fluffy, cumulus cloud metastasized into an irksome storm cloud which proved to be the ultimate rain check for everyone on placement.

What was to be begin with a trickle of stories concerning the spread of the virus became a monsoon of messages from parents, university staff and government urging for the repatriation of international students.

What were drips and drabs became a torrent of international students fleeing Sweden. They left for different reasons, for some it was the demand of their home institutions, for others it was the fear being stranded. But, one by one, students left and dutifully echoed the mantra of ‘get out whilst you still can’ to those who chose to remain.

But returning home doesn’t shrug off the shadow of coronavirus, does it?

Indeed, for many international students returning home was a step into the eye of the storm. Some countries have more cases of coronavirus and more stringent measures to enforce social distancing. Whereas Sweden is something of a pariah among the international community when it comes to Covid-19 responses. It only recently prohibited social gatherings of fifty or more and schools, shops, club and pubs remain open for business.

Nevertheless, the gaping hole left by fleeing students is irreparable. The remaining months for those remaining will be uncertain and possibly lonely. And I ,writing from a UK under lockdown, cannot help but reminisce back to brighter times.

Through the rose-tinted glasses I see through when looking back on my time abroad, one memory which stands out is my time in Lapland in late February, when coronavirus was but a dot on the horizon.

I arranged to go with three other Brits (Ben, Kirsten and Emily) through a tourist company called TimeTravels who produce an attractive itinerary of activities quintessential to Lapland. Though each of our experiences in their own way deserves a separate post, I will attempt to condense my experiences to the what I think is essential, whilst paying lip-service to the truth.

The trip began at the end of a hum-drum day in Uppsala. We met our group with whom we’d be spending the next week alongside and waited to be collected by coach to embark on the 19-hour bus journey to the Arctic Circle.

Our journey was punctuated by occasional outbursts from the group leader, Nico, an exuberant employee of TimeTravels who’s passion for adventure and lust for knowledge shone out of him like sunbeams.

He and the satisfaction of seeing the coach thermometre inch incrementally lower from 5°c to -20°c throughout the night made the time pass a little easier.

In the afternoon, the next day, we arrived at our accommodation, a ski-resort which, judging from the bustle activity that greeted us, was yet to be opened. Snow ploughs and staff shovelled snow frantically to clear paths from an astronomical amount of snow that had fallen during closed season. One employee told us that the region had experienced 3m of snow since January.

The next four days flew by. In fear of sounding repetitive, I’ll provide some photos with captions rather than exhausting descritptions.

The 6am sunrise at Riksgränsen, Sweden’s northernmost ski resort.
A pair of huskies, tethered to a sleigh and resting before the next run.
A traditional Sámi hut, used to dry meats in the summer months.
An inquisitve reindeer following the smell of lichen.
An Ice Hotel: international sculptors competed to design rooms inside.
The town of Kiruna. Due to the activities of a nearby iron mine which provides most of the jobs here, the entire town is in the process of being relocated.
Not sure who these guys were, but here they are at a Norweigan Fjord.
The Norweigan city of Narvik as seen from the 16th storey.

Of all of the experiences making up this trip, only one deserves a proper description. That is our sighting of the Northern Lights. Thanks to an app, we could track the movement and visibility of the lights throughout the trip. And on one fateful night, the clouds parted.

Faint at first, from a snowy perch outside our bedrooms, we saw them stretching across the sky. They moved constantly due to solar winds which blew the charged particles and created a rippling effect.

Yet, to call it a visual experience fails to convey the experience authentically. The tendrils of an illuminous lime-light unfurling before us in the sky transcended beauty and produced simultaneous feelings of awe and cosmic insignificance. It was what Kant, Hulme and Burke would compare to the sublime. And what the Sámi People would describe as the dancing souls of ancestors.

Both interpretations touch on a feeling that we were invited to witness something ineffable, that cannot be put into language, and that inability to describe represents our impotence in nature. It is the same feeling one gets from being stranded in the middle of the ocean with mountainous waves crashing against the side of a ship. A demonstration of the power and beauty of nature and reminder of how small we are.

What will we see when the coronavirus cloud parts?

Food Tourism in Flogsta

Not too long ago, I heard a rumour about an Ethiopian restaurant run from a bedroom somewhere amongst the brutalist blocks in Flogsta. Though I was told so little about it that it seemed mythical and even absurd. How could someone possibly do that? Where would they sleep? Is it profitable?

Not too long ago, I heard a rumour about an Ethiopian restaurant run from a bedroom somewhere amongst the brutalist blocks in Flogsta, Uppsala, where I’m living this semester. Though I was told so little, the prospect seemed mythical and even absurd. How could someone possibly do that? I thought. Where would they sleep? Is it profitable?

My mind raced and I struggled to believe it. Perhaps it was an urban myth made up to taunt international students with the promise of a cuisine that had more to offer than picked herrings and meatballs. Nonetheless, when I caught wind of the rumour I was struck by insatiable curiosity and felt compelled to find out the truth.

Over the next few days, after asking the same questions many times, I found out that there was indeed a restaurant run from the comfort of a bedroom. However, the discovery of this fact was only half the battle if I were to eat there.

Making a reservation was a tricky business but eventually, through a friend of a friend, I managed to obtain the name and phone number of the restaurant.  Perhaps this was due to the dubious legality of the set-up, the restaurant is not well advertised except for an obscure Facebook page which provides only a mobile number. Nevertheless, I called it to make a reservation for my flatmate Marie and me with the hope about finding out more about the identity of our host.

A man’s voice answered, he spoke quickly and abruptly as if he had been interrupted from doing something more important and curtly told me than now wasn’t a good time. Over a subsequent SMS exchange, he asked two questions; what time we’d would like to book and how spicy we’d like our food. Though the only nugget of information I gleamed from this interaction was that the food would have some level of spiciness, I was glad that my fantasy was fast becoming a reality.

With a ravenous curiosity and even deeper appetite, we approached the restaurant. As we neared, my apprehension for what we would find grew. A torrent of questions bombarded me. What sort of man would do this? Is he mentally okay? Why would I willingly go to a restaurant so ostensibly lacking food and hygiene regulations?!

It now dawned on me that my appetite for adventure had dampened my much more rational fear of the unknown. Such questions stewed in the back of my mind as we walked down a corridor that was so familiar to my own flat yet distorted unrecognisably by the potential danger that awaited us.

Even being a Hotelier at the Hotel for the Unexpected would not have prepared anyone for what awaited us behind his door. Could you imagine? What if someone had done this in Owens Park tower?

The restaurant, geometrically identical to mine and every other in Flogsta yet different in every other imaginable way, was dimly lit by single lamp nestled in the corner. Its light illuminated everything, from bookcases brimming with beer bottles to shelves stacked with CDs, vinyl’s and vintage magazines. In this archive of antiquities, lit up by a ghostly white light, stood our host, a man on the right side of 70 dressed entirely in khaki beachwear with a crop of greyish pink hair in a bun.

He was everything you’d expect and everything I deserved. He was old, Swedish and vivacious. After a short round of pleasantries, in which he refused to shake our hands and we admired his vast collection of collectibles, he spoke a little about himself. Though he never mentioned his name.

It turns out that he belonged to a group of residents who privately rented before the University bought out several blocks for student lettings. So, since 1989, he has lived here. Whilst Flogsta is little more than a half-way-house on the way to a career, mortgage and a family for most students for him it is, and has always been, a home.

It had also been, for a shorter time, an Ethiopian restaurant. Evidently, his room served as both the front-of-house and the kitchen. Amongst his collection of nostalgic knick-knacks were hotplates, saucepans and four hurriedly arranged chairs where Marie and I made ourselves comfortable.

A collection of beer bottles thats taken decades to grow

When asked what drew him to Ethiopian food, rather than a cuisine a little closer to home, he was unapologetic about his distaste for European food. What he disliked particularly about it was the absence of spice, a crucial ingredient which he used in spades in his restaurant.

He described his introduction to spice as a sort of religious awakening. Whilst hitch-hiking in the Scottish Highlands around the time Kraftwerk’s first album came out, he stumbled upon an Indian restaurant which served him a simple vindaloo which converted him to a new cuisine. I know a lot of people re-evaluate life after eating this dish. But who knew a vindaloo could transform a worldview?

It transpired that his love for Ethiopian food came from a flatmate from 25 years ago who had taught him the recipe for injeras, a kind of sourdough-risen flatbread with a slightly spongy texture, traditionally made out of teff flour. It was her recipe he’d been perfecting all these years, testing on the new batches of students who heard about him, through friends of friends. A legacy which Marie and I were to become a part of.

Alongside the national dish of Ethiopia he served spiced spinach and an ambiguous-looking meat sauce. Everything was laden with a smorgasbord of spices which overwhelmed every other flavour the dish had to offer. It is only now looking back that I question if he deliberately disguised the flavours…

But reflecting on my experience, I realise that what we ate is irrelevant. He wasn’t selling dishes, but rather himself. I had gone there to satiate a curiosity about a rumour, to find out about the man behind the myth. Not to be wined and dined in a Michelin star establishment. And to that end, my appetite for adventure was gone.

Uppsala Universitet: ‘run by students, for students’

In my first week here, a pair of Swedish students gave the University of Uppsala a glowing endorsement. They told me that Uppsala, with 40,000 strong student population, was a University ‘run by students, for students’

By Lucca Di Virgilio, Uppsala University, Sweden.

The Carolina Building. This is the main library of Uppsala University which sits on a hill overlooking the city.

In my first week here, a pair of Swedish students gave the University of Uppsala a glowing endorsement. They told me that Uppsala, with 40,000 strong student population, was a University ‘run by students, for students’.

After an agonising process of scrutinising this claim, I must say, begrudgingly, it would be misleading to characterise the Univerity of Uppsala as anything other than a sort of student-utopia with the phrase ‘run by students, for students’ it’s unofficial motto.

In this University town, that is close enough to Stockholm to visit at the drop of a hat, it is clear to me that the student always comes first. In the two subsections that follow I will show how when it comes to student-wellbeing Sweden has got it right.

Social Life

The postulations of the snus-taking Swedes have particular resonance when it comes to Uppsala’s social life.

In place of having societies, Uppsala University has student-run nations instead which, in exchange for a small fee, offer an eclectic range of sporting, musical and artistic pursuits. The nations are different sizes, from the towering and impersonal Stockholms nation and Västmanlands-Dala nation to the smaller yet friendlier Kalmar nation of which I’m a member. Although students stopped being required by law to join a nation in 2010, joining a nation offers myriad benefits. Not least, day-to-day entrance to nation bars, cafes and restaurants which are heavily discounted and weekly club nights. Being a member of a nation grants access to any nation-run activity across campus and allows international students to participate in the fabled Gasques which are traditional dinner parties culminating in Swedish hymns and dances.

Though the nations were created as homes-away-from-home for students coming from different parts of Sweden historically, their exclusivity has broken down with age. Now they have become a quintessential part of Swedish university culture which attracts thousands of international students each year. Indeed, students breathe the life and soul into the nation’s by working as part of the administrative or catering team where they can accrue points which can be used to apply for free residence at the nations. Though work at the nations is usually on a volunteer basis, consistent contritution to the nation opens the door for student to friendships and housing opportunities in their final year.

Naturally, the larger nations offer a greater range of events job opportunities and scholarship prospects as the recipients of most funding, nonetheless for the home-sick mancunian, the smaller ‘alternative’ nations have the most to offer in the way of concerts, jazz-nights and music sharing meet-ups.

As you’d expect the club nights in a small Swedish city are a far-cry from the broad palate offered in Manchester, most of the nation’s club nights feature the same dance-floor filling tracks you’d expect to hear on Capital FM. Nonethless, there is a indefinable charm to the way students flock to the clubs, in freezing cold or blistering wind, on any day of the week when they’d probably have a much more enjoyable time listening to the radio at home. Perhaps, it is the student-run ethos of the club nights which inspires students to come out in droves?

More likely still is the fact that club nights end by 2am and pre-drinking is an inconvenient and costly business in Sweden. Indeed, any alcohol over 3.5% can only be bought from Systembolaget, a government-owned chain of liquor stores which close at 8pm weekdays and have limited hours over the weekend. But, ultimately, this is a minor inconvenience and can be overcome by simple foresight.

Student accomodation in Uppsala adds another dimension to the social life at the finger tips of students. By far the largest and most popular student area is Flogsta, a suburb that is the same distance from campus as Fallowfield is from the SU. The complex itself is a thriving community of students who live in twelve person flats in seven storey blocks. Though aesthetically they are strikingly similar to Owens Park Tower, these flats are all self-catered, come equipped with an ensuite and cost a little over 4300 SEK (£327) a month with heating included. The fact that these flats are not owned outright by the University means that the building-complex also plays host to families who rent privately from the landlord.

Flogsta on a cold morning.

The international presence in Flogsta is overwhelming and each flat is a petri-dish of cultures and nationalities. In my own, there are undergrads and postgrads from Mozambique, Germany and Japan to name a few. The heterogeneity of the accomodation offers the opportunity to educate yourself about the different cultures, try different cuisines and make contacts all over the globe.

The mix of cultures, absence of any security presence and size of the student population creates wild possibilities which I hope to go into greater detail about in later posts. But, perhaps the most apt example of the solidarity and freedom of expression found in Uppsala is the Flogsta scream, everyday at 10pm students in the Flogsta flats join in arms to scream from their windows and balconies to allieviate the pressure of academic life, which, conveniently, I will discuss now.

Academic Life

Freedom is as much of a factor in the academic arena as it is in the social arena of Uppsala University. Each department is devolved and has complete control over its syllabus. The autonomy of departments extends to the architectural design of the university, with each department having its own building with cafes, libraries and study spaces for students. Last year, 29% of the University’s profits of $75 million USD were reinvested into the improvement of undergrad and postgrad courses taught in each department. Clearly, the upkeep of the academic environment is high up on the university’s list of priorities.

For Humanities, Arts and Languages, the course structure is vastly different from Manchester. As oppose to studying three modules per semester, students undertake generally a module each month or two comprising 7.5 or 15 credits. And attend one to three 2-hour lectures a week plus the occasional non-compusory seminar. Though this system is not without its qualms, it nonetheless allows for very independent learning which affords students the time adjust to Sweden and time to join in at the Nations.

Student well-being is also at the heart of the University examination system since students can retake exams if they fail or miss the first exam they can retake without penalty. Though this system trades off the competitive edge UK University students attain by having one proper shot at a good grade, it mitigates the liklihood a student is having an ‘off’ day when exam season rolls around. Perhaps this is only possible due to the simplistic grading system used in Uppsala consisting of Pass/Fail and Pass with Distinction. Swedish exams are traditionally an hour or two longer than UK exams too, which gives students room to breath in a claustrophobic exam hall

Bike racks are commonplace across the city. Pictured here is one outside of Uppsala Central Station.

The academic life of any student in Uppsala would not be complete without a second-hand bike. Uppsala certainly does not break the mold of the Netherlands and Scandanavian cycling culture. The ubiquity of cycling lanes and bike racks throughout the city makes buying a bike seem like a prequisite for fully embracing the student life. Bikes are easy and affordable to buy from one of the many second-hand bike shops in Uppsala or the Flogsta facebook page between 600-1000 SEK. And even easier to maintain as most cycling shops offer free repairs and servicing.

In light of these points, it is clear that the centrality of student well-being to Uppsala University is as clear as the Swedish sky.