Posted on September 11, 2016
My and JoEllen’s mutual desire to travel is one of the things that brought us together as a couple. It is also the main reason we decided to move to Europe last July. I am proud to say that we have made the most of our decision and visited 12 different countries since moving to Sweden! Keep reading to find out more about where we went and highlights from our travels!
Our first trip and fourth wedding anniversary was spent in our Nordic neighbor, Denmark. After spending three months in Sweden, my first impressions reminded me how lucky I am to call Stockholm home. The streets weren’t quite as clean and the city views did not strike me the way Stockholm’s do. This was also our first trip in a while and our travel skills were a little rusty. However, after settling in I began to appreciate several things about the city.
To me the highlight of the city was Christiania. This is an independent “hippie commune” in the middle of the city with its own rules and regulations that are separate from the rest of the country. When you step inside, you feel like you are entering another world. JoEllen and I also enjoyed an escape from the expensive yet not so great beer choices in Stockholm. On our walking tour we even heard about a “once in a lifetime” Cantillion Brewery beer tapping which we decided to check out. Other highlights of the city included the best breakfast that I’ve ever had, street art, watching a seagull try to swallow a waffle cone whole! Oh, and did I mention the beer?
Croatia: Zadar, Split, Dubrovnik
Höstlov (fall break) was spent in Croatia. We truly got an unforgettable fall experience by visiting Plitvice Lakes. This UNESCO World Heritage Site has some spectacular views of waterfalls, lakes, and flooded forests. The trees were in the middle of changing colors, so JoEllen’s tree hugging heart was happy. On the other hand, my history loving heart was happy when we spent a few days in Split, a city formed out of the remains of Roman emperor Diocletian’s palace. We also had the best meal of the year in Split. Our next stop was a city that Game of Thrones fans would know very well: Dubrovnok. Since the city is a tourist town, it lacked some cultural depth, however, the views were incredible. JoEllen and I especially enjoyed counting stray cats (we saw 54 in one day)! We also took on the rough sea waters and spent an afternoon kayaking.
The city we flew into, Zadar, is well worth a visit. It is far less touristy than the other cities and has an amazingly unique outdoor sea organ. Have a listen! The views of Croatia that we saw while driving along the coast from one city to another were lovely. However, the view of the parking lot we sat in for nearly three hours because I left the headlights on was not. Husband fail. Also, it was quite terrifying when we almost broke down in the middle of nowhere while driving to our third country, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Bosnia and Herzegovina: Mostar
Probably the most impactful city that we visited all year. JoEllen did a fantastic job capturing the trip here.
I absolutely loved Riga! This very short trip to Latvia tops my list of our 12 visited countries. For JoEllen’s 31st birthday, some friends and I decided to so surprise her with a weekend boat trip across the Baltic Sea to this tiny country. I had no idea what to expect from Riga; I guess I imagined a dark and gritty place with not much to offer. Boy was I wrong! Even though I was getting over seasickness plus not feeling my best from a night drinking with friends on a boat, I was energized by the city’s charm. It was full of color and interesting architecture. We walked through parks and along lakes, photo opped with some neat statues, popped into some rustic cafes, and ate a delicious dinner for a great price. It is a shame we only had a few hours in the city, and I can’t wait to go back.
Our first visitor to Stockholm was none other than my best friend Stephen Rutledge! Since he had been to Stockholm once before, we also wanted to visit somewhere new, so we took an inexpensive train ride to our neighbor, Norway. Similar to how I felt about Copenhagen, this Scandinavian capital just does not compare to Stockholm. We enjoyed stopping into a few Christmas markets and trendy bars, however, the most unique part of the city was Vigeland Park, a park packed full of naked statues. My biggest takeaway about Oslo was how unbelievable expensive everything was! After walking into a few restaurants, we realized we weren’t willing to pay that much for food and ended up eating street hot dogs for several meals. Yum!
Nothing beats Christmas time in Europe, especially the Germanic countries. This is why we chose to spend Jullov (Christmas break) in Germany and Austria. Our first stop was Munich, and this entire city turns into one giant Christmas market! If you have ever watched The Office, you know all about Dwight’s interpretation of Krampus. JoEllen and I were lucky (or unlucky) enough to run into a few of these mischievous beasts on our first day in the city. They could sense JoEllen’s trepidation and zoned right in on her. We also had a good laugh visiting Pink Christmas… use your imagination on this one.
If you want to eat vegetables, Munich is the wrong city. JoEllen spent the trip enjoying the five German food groups: pork, beer, bread, pork and beer. Can someone get me a salad? There were a lot of highlights to this trip including: drinking beers at Hofbräuhaus (the most famous bar in the world), learning history through walking tours (we even stepped into the room where Hitler announced the creation of the Nazi party), eating delicious food at an international festival, sipping drinks that were literally on fire, and a strange Michael Jackson memorial. I even had time to do something I missed out while studying abroad and took a day trip to Neuschwanstein Castle while JoEllen worked from the AirBNB. This is the castle that Cinderella’s was modeled after.
Austria: Salzburg and Vienna
While our families and friends may have woken up on Christmas day surrounded by loved ones and extended family, JoEllen and I had a different experience. The two of us choose to spend Christmas day alone in the small and cozy town of Salzburg, Austria. Salzburg did not disappoint; it fully delivered the Christmas spirit. The Christmas market here was my favorite of the year (sorry Pink Christmas). JoEllen and I even split up for a few minutes to do some shopping for each other. There were definitely moments of homesickness; I especially missed loving on our nieces and nephews.
We ended our Christmas break with a trip to Vienna. This was the first time I had returned to Vienna since my semester abroad in 2007. Considering that this is the city that instilled in me the desire to travel and led me to eventually live in Europe, my feelings were mixed about returning. Since my memories and love of this city were are profound, I was worried that visiting again wouldn’t live up to my expectations or have the same impact. Then again, this is Vienna we are talking about, my favorite city on Earth!
Since my experiences of studying abroad were so closely tied to the people I was there with, things truly did not feel the same. The excitement and nuance of being away from home for the first time and exploring a new world had faded, JoEllen and I had been traveling alone together for 10 days and were beginning to get a bit sick of each other, and my beloved Rathaus Christmas had market closed for the season the day before we arrived. Don’t get me wrong – I still loved being in Vienna! It has has this classical, refined feeling that is unmatched. And though JoEllen may not have been as excited about it as me, I even found another house designed by artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser to match my favorite travel gem of all time, the Hundertwasser Haus.
In 2007, studying abroad in Vienna changed my life. An immature college student began to open his eyes to travel and culture. Now, almost 10 years later, I call Sweden home. Instead of going to classes everyday with a group of 32 incredible friends, I have have a career and wake up every day next to my lovely wife. I am deeply thankful for both of these experiences.
Updated on May 31, 2016
Even after our first two trips since moving to Sweden – Copenhagen and Croatia – Kevin and I began to acquire a list of travel skills that we need to polish to make the most of our time, money and patience.
So as a means of accountability, let me share our travel fails.
- Have a first stop planned for when you get to your destination. Whether it’s straight to the AirBNB, to an interesting local coffee shop to get some energy for a day of sightseeing, or whatever – just have a plan for when you step off the train/bus/plane. It’s not fun to get somewhere and then think, “Well, uh… what do we do now?”
- Know something about the public transportation system before you go. What’s the best way to get around – walk? bus? subway? And how do you get tickets? Which leads me to…
- Get local currency as soon as you arrive. Those transportation systems might not take credit cards, which is going to leave you in the streets until you figure something out.
- Figure out your phone, and have a backup plan in case you don’t have internet in that country. We’re still figuring out our phone plans, and customer service is all automated and in Swedish. Tricky, tricky.
- Don’t let the hanger catch you (hungry + angry = hangry). Food decisions are difficult when you’re traveling, because you want to eat at the coolest local place possible, and maybe it’s right around the next corner. Carry snacks and eat before you get hungry, because once you hit that point, you’ll just get irritable and take it out on whoever you’re traveling with, which will lead to fights, hard feelings, and a generally lousy day.
And for those renting a car:
- Familiarize yourself with the car BEFORE trying to drive off. Adjust your mirrors, know where you’re heading, and give yourself a mental refresher course on how to drive a stick shift. (We couldn’t figure out how to put it in reverse. Hint: push down on the gearshift as you move the gear into reverse.)
- Turn your headlights ON when driving. Some countries have laws about this, and some countries have tunnels every other mile.
- Turn your headlights OFF when you get out. Ask Kevin about this one. Really.
- Always have plenty of gas. In some places (like the hour and a half of gravel roads and mountains in Bosnia), there aren’t towns big enough to have gas stations.
- Backup plan: cross your fingers for lots of downhill stretches, then coast into the gas station on the fumes that should have disappeared miles ago.
Sometimes the best lessons are the ones you learn the hard way. We’re not pros yet, but our trips are getting easier every time we head somewhere new.
What travel tips would you add? What experiences and mishaps have taught you lessons about travel the hard way?
Updated on May 29, 2016
In my previous blog post, I wrote about some of the differences between being a student in America vs being a student in Sweden and concluded that students in Sweden have far more rights and responsibilities. In addition to these student rights, there are several other differences that make going to school in Sweden much different than going in America.
One of the most shocking contrasts that I have observed is the school’s stance on junk food. In America, students are regularly given opportunities to eat junk food provided by teachers as incentives for good behavior or rewards. Also, students are constantly encouraged to purchase junk food as fundraising opportunities for the school. This became a very concerning topic for me during my last year teaching in America. Multiple times a week, I saw students spending money on PTA “munchie carts” or school-wide bake sales, sharing sweets at lunch to celebrate a classmate’s birthday, or indulging at a class party. I am happy to say that I absolutely never see this being done in Sweden. Don’t get me wrong, Swedes LOVE sweets. BIG TIME. However, schools here know that using unhealthy treats as an incentive or to raise money is not in students’ best health interest. In Sweden, the schools (by means of the government) provide all materials and services that students need – including field trips and sport days – making it unnecessary and against policy to have fundraisers.
School lunches are also much healthier and tastier in Sweden. The meals at my school are prepared from scratch using fresh ingredients. Every day, students line up and walk through a buffet that offers the following options: salad bar; a meat, fish, or vegetarian entree; plus fruit and soup. Don’t forget about what I call the IES desert: a cracker smeared with butter (maybe not so healthy). As a teacher that eats these meals every day, I can testify that they are not only healthier but tastier than the frozen and prepackaged meals offered in my previous school system.
Grades and Testing
Right now in America, standardized testing is king. Students spend a great deal of the school year preparing for, administering, and stressing out over national standardized tests. Compared to this, students in Sweden rarely take national tests. This means that children spend more time learning valuable skills and information instead of drilling facts for a test.
In addition to this, younger students in Sweden are not even assigned traditional grades. The students in year six begin the year stressed out because they begin receiving a report card with grades for the first time in their school career. In Sweden, students have a limit on how much homework they can be given in one week (one assignment per class). Additionally, students must be given at least one full week to complete any homework that is assigned. A Swedish student will also never be expected to take more than three tests on any given school week.
Though students in Sweden have lots of free time in the day to make choices and develop social skills, they do lack the after school extracurricular activities provided in American schools. Most schools here do not have bands or sports teams (or the cheerleaders and pep-rallies that come along with them). If a student wanted to participate in these activities, they would be expected to take part in them through a third party, at a different location, after school hours. Or, if they were very serious about the hobby, they could attend a specialized school that included this activity in its curriculum.
Once a semester, Swedish students get to take part in a sports day. For me as a teacher, this is the most fun day of the year. On sports day, students choose an activity and spend the day learning outside of the classroom. Since I am very nonathletic, I chose to take students bowling. Other options include skiing, skating, and swimming.
Each semester in my new school is capped off in a really nice way. All students and staff gather outside of the school in a large auditorium for the end of semester ceremony. Performances by students and teachers are given, awards and acknowledgements are called, and final speeches are made. It is a really nice way to bring the entire school together and end things on a positive and communal note. When the ceremony is over, students line up to receive their final grades from their mentor. This hanging out physical copies of grades in a sealed envelope really adds a level of pomp and prestige to the grades which I enjoy.
They don’t exist in Sweden. Students are free to express themselves how they see fit. Since I am used to uniforms and American modesty standards, I often see students wearing clothes I am certainly not used to seeing.
Updated on April 23, 2016
After growing up in American schools then teaching in one for five years, I can without a doubt say that being a student in Sweden is MUCH different from being a student in America. Basically, it boils down to one big word: freedom. Simply put, students in Sweden have incredible amounts of rights, freedoms, and opportunities to make their own decisions that students in America do not.
Here is a profound example of this: my students’ weekly schedule.
When I first saw this schedule, many things were foreign to me. First off, all the different colors, each different color correlates to a different subject. As one can see, students in Sweden take a much larger variety of classes. Just like in the US, students take math, science, social studies, and language (Swedish instead of English, obviously). In addition to Swedish, they take English and a second foreign language of their choice (French or Spanish). That’s right, students at my school are actively learning three different languages. Finally, American students have a dabble here and there of a variety of related art subjects, normally one class period a day. In Sweden these classes are much more frequent and varied: all students take textiles/woodcraft (one semester of each), art/music (one semester of each), computer/life skills (one semester of each) lab, home economics, and PE. To break this down, American students typically have exposure to 5 or 6 subjects on any given week, whereas students in Sweden have over 10.
In the States, middle school students begin their day at 8:30 a.m. and are expected to be in their seats, ready to learn. After their first class is over, they have a few minutes to gather their belongings and rush to the next class, where they repeat the process until the school day ends around 4:00 p.m. Every minute of the day is scheduled and there is absolutely zero time for students to decide what they themselves would like to be doing.
These breaks in my Swedish students’ schedule – what are they doing then? Making their own choices, and boy do they have many to pick from.
My school (and, to my understanding, all Swedish schools) provide students with several fun options of places to go during class breaks. The most popular option is the student room. Yes, a room with the sole purpose of giving students a place to be themselves, hang out, develop social skills, and have fun. There are couches and tables to gather with friends, a TV playing YouTube clips or music videos, a pool table, foosball tables, healthy snacks, and various board games. Additionally, there is a team of three staff members (the student care team) who are present to support these students in whatever way is needed and to monitor behavior. Teachers also have scheduled break duty when they are expected to visit these areas and interact with students.
Students also have the option to have freedom outdoors. The school provides students with two football fields, a basketball goal, several ping pong tables, and benches to sit on and chat with friends. When the weather is nice, students love to go outside and blow off some steam with their friends. Though no phones are allowed in my school at anytime (an uncommon rule in Sweden), students are allowed to check their phones outdoors. In addition to the student room and an outdoor area, students who would like a quiet place to read or study can visit the library during free time.
Students have yet another opportunity to make their own decisions a few times a year on special “choice days.” Each school year, anywhere between three and five choice days are set into the schedule to break up the monotony of a normal school day and allow students to decide how they would like to spend their time. Each teacher is expected to come up with a lesson, project, or activity to offer as a option and students then select which activities sound the most interesting to them and take part. Popular choice day activities include: rugby, bracelet making, hiking, and field trips. Do you think anyone would sign up for Dr. Buckley’s history lesson on Hatshepsut: The First Female Pharaoh?
Another difference between my American school and my Swedish school is the student’s role in shaping their own educational experience. Each student has an assigned mentor whom they begin to develop a relationship from the beginning of the school year. For the rest of the year, the student can go to their mentor with any issues that may arise. If the student feels that they are being treated unfairly or that things are not going well at school in any way, they can go to their mentor for individualized support. In addition, the mentor has regular contact with each mentee’s parents and is expected to call once a month to discuss the child’s current participation in school. This regular communication between parents, mentors, and students keeps everyone on the same page and provides great support for each student.
Once a semester, each student and their parents are required by Swedish law to have a Student, Parent, Teacher (SPT) meeting with the child’s mentor. The idea is to have students lead this meeting and examine how things are going at school, both socially and academically. The students then shape their own learning by first coming up with specific goals and then brainstorming for ways in which they can reach them them. The parents and mentor also make commitments on how they will help the child reach the goals. All parties involved fill out a form detailing these goals and sign it as if it were a contract. This is an excellent opportunity that not only allows, but requires, that time be set aside to discuss the unique needs of each student.
To me, this high level of freedom that students have (which is significantly higher in other Swedish schools than it is mine) has some upsides and downsides. On the plus side, students naturally learn how to schedule their time and develop responsibility very quickly. I rarely have students who are late to class or who do not have their materials. The idea is that if students are given this freedom, they will value what they have and continue to cooperate within the system. Though this is the case with the vast majority of students, I do notice that some students take these opportunities and feel entitled to rights but do not give back to the school in a positive way. As is the case with any student, parent involvement and support is crucial to help students understand their place in society (or the school) and contribute in a meaningful way.
Updated on March 6, 2016
You know those times when you have an idea that you think is half crazy but you start to play it out in your mind, and before you know it that idea is really happening? That’s how our day trip to Bosnia went.
On Wednesday night, we looked at the weather forecast in Dubrovnik and realized it was going to rain the whole next day. Now, Dubrovnik is a beautiful city, but the things to do are centered around being outside – the views, the history, the outside cafes. There didn’t seem to be a ton of indoor options for experiencing the city, other than Netflix on a balcony.
So I had this crazy idea… what if we went to Bosnia?
To be honest, I didn’t know much about Bosnia and Herzegovina, but Rick Steves wrote about it in Travel as a Political Act (he also wrote about Freetown Christiania in Copenhagen, which I would have known nothing about otherwise), and described about how the Yugoslav Wars in the early 1990s resulted in heavy bombing across the country, the evidence of which still remains in many places. The reconstruction and history of a recently war-torn country sounded like a good of a plan as any for our rainy day, so off we went!
Kevin did some research and booked us a private walking tour with i-House Mostar. Since it was off-season, many of the tour companies didn’t have much going on, but lucky for us – that meant we got a private tour!
Mostar is a city that makes you take a step back and wonder… is this real? As we walked through the streets, we saw bombed out and bullet-ridden buildings – reconstruction has been random, so a new building might be just next door to a broken shell a of home. During the war, many of the city’s parks were converted to cemeteries, some of which were filled with casualties of a single day’s unrest. The war was more than 20 years ago, but some of these scenes make it feel like it was just yesterday.
However, the culture is alive, and the younger generation doesn’t want to dwell on the destruction left by the war. The best example of the new generation’s defiant optimism is their peace memorial. After a vote, the people decided on a monument that would symbolize a new attitude, something that everyone could agree was awesome, something that looked foward into a bright future instead of dwelling on the recent war. Their pick? Bruce Lee.
Mostar was a gritty, real, and somewhat baffling detour after spending a week in the tourist-driven coastal towns in Croatia, but there’s no other way I would have wanted to spend my rainy day than wandering through those streets.
Updated on April 23, 2016
During my very first Skype interview with the principals of IES, they informed me how difficult finding accommodation in Sweden is. As we began preparing for our move from Tennessee, JoEllen and I did lots of research on the the housing situation in Sweden and were constantly reminded how difficult it can be to find a place to live. We knew that finding a home would be one of our largest areas of stress once we moved. Because of this we decided to rent an AirBNB for the first few weeks of our stay. However, as our “vacation” time in Stockholm came to an end and JoEllen began working, it was time for me to begin looking for a permanent home.
My research on the matter plus a few conversations led me to believe that Blocket.se was the best place to start. Blocket.se is basically the Swedish version of Craigslist, people post things they want to buy/sell/rent and see who bites. Though the site is all in Swedish, Google Chrome did a good enough job translating so that I could understand most of what I read. So one day while JoEllen was working, I began to scan the listings of homes for rent and email the owners of homes that interested me. Though not being able to communicate in Swedish gave me a slight disadvantage, I was lucky that almost everyone who lives in Stockholm is fluent in English.
After spending the afternoon sending emails to dozens of renters, JoEllen and I sat back to wait for the responses to roll in. Who wouldn’t want us living in their home?? By the end of the evening almost no one had replied to my emails and the people who did only quickly informed me that they already found suitable renters. So the next day I changed my approach slightly and cast a much bigger net. I broadened my search area and price range and started sending emails as soon as new listings popped up on the site. I wanted to be the first email they read after posting their home. By the end of the day I must have sent over 60 inquiries. The number of responses offering to show us their home? Only three.
The first location was in a very residential area outside of the city. Though it was affordable, near my school, and a decent size, JoEllen understandably was not feeling the area. She had the foresight to think about working from home during a Swedish winter with no central city life around her to make her feel connected to the world. We thanked the renters for their time and made our way into Stockholm Central for our next showing. The first thing we noticed was that the location of this flat was the opposite of the last. It was a 10 minute walk from central station and there were shops, bars, and restaurants everywhere.
The owner of the flat was a nice guy named Felix who is a few years younger than us and moving to the US for school. He showed us around the flat and we knew immediately that we wanted this apartment. Though it was small and slightly out of our price range, it was everything we were looking for. The location was great, the commute to my school was doable, and my favorite thing about the home was the view from the window that overlooks Rådhuset and Policehuset (town hall and the police station). These are beautiful buildings, and it is surreal to look out a bedroom window and see them.
The apartment was fully furnished, which is good because JoEllen and I left most of our belongings in Tennessee. The only two things Felix said he did not have were a coffee pot and a TV: coincidentally, the only two household appliances we had with us (we bought a coffee pot and JoEllen’s parents gave us a TV projector). Felix replied us that our situation “fit like a hand in a glove.” We agreed and told him we would like to move in to his home.
We went over the next evening to meet the homeowners association board members and sign the paperwork, which took over three hours. Afterwards, we were handed our new keys toasted with some champagne that Felix purchased for the occasion. Felix then gave us a tour of our new neighborhood. By the end of the evening I told JoEllen that it felt like we had made our first Swedish friend, and it was too bad he was moving away.
Updated on January 24, 2016
After teaching in the American school system for five years, I can say without a doubt that the two education systems are miles (or kilometers) apart in many, many ways. I will try to explain some of the differences, as I see them, through several blog entries; there is just too much to talk about in one post. However, I must mention that I am constantly told how different my school system, Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES), is from typical schools in Sweden.
A little history on IES: It was founded by Barbara Bergström, a headstrong woman from America who moved here to marry her first husband. She felt that discipline and a calm environment were lacking from the Swedish school system and wanted to provide a more structured learning environment for students in her new country. In 1993, she opened her first IES school in Stockholm. Since this time, the system has grown exponentially year after year.
In fact, Bergström’s school system became so successful that in 2012 she made $81.5 million, making her the highest paid person in all of Sweden that year. Making so much profit off of a school system raised a few eyebrows in Sweden, but she doesn’t seem to care. She feels she is worth the money, doesn’t live a life of luxury, puts her kroner to good use, and always pays her taxes. As of 2015, IES operates 26 schools in Sweden with 17,500 students. Each school also has a very, very long waiting list of students wishing to get in.
From the start in 1993, Bergström, articulated three major convictions which still characterize IES schools and set them apart from others. First and foremost, all classes, with the exception of Swedish and social studies, are taught in English by native English speakers (mostly from the US and Canada). In fact, the first of the three beliefs that Bergström instated says that students will develop a “command of English.” Since English has become the world’s common language, or as IES calls it “the key to the world,” their stance is that children should learn to command the English language, not just know it, at an early age. Since fluency is best achieved through language immersion, instruction is done by native English-speaking teachers in an international atmosphere. This is obviously different that other Swedish schools that only teach in Swedish (with the exception of language acquisition classes). Imagine going to a school in America that had 70% of its classes taught in a language other than English.
IES’s second major conviction calls for in high academic standards and rigor. Parents who make IES their priority buy into their children being challenged and working hard. As their website explains, “Our conviction is that every child can achieve success irrespective of social background. This ambition to support every student to realize his or her own potential applies to those requiring special support to meet standards as well as the most gifted learners.” IES scores on the Swedish National Exams are always at the top of the chart.
Other than having most classes in English, the thing that most sets my school system apart from other Swedish schools is its determination to provide its third and final promise: a safe and calm learning environment. In the Swedish culture, kids have A LOT of rights. These rights are taken very seriously. Though many of these social norms are very much alive in IES, some are challenged in my system. For example, students who would call me Kevin in any other school are expected to refer to me as Dr. Buckley. Also, in other schools, students are allowed to have their cell phones in class; in my school phones must be kept in lockers at all times. In IES, not only must students be on time to a lesson, they must line up quietly outside the door and wait to be invited into the classroom by the teacher. After quietly entering class, the students stand behind their chairs until the teacher asks them to sit and begin the lesson.
I have talked to several of my students who came from different schools and they all say how much more they enjoy the calmer learning environment. They tell stories of unruly classrooms where teachers have a difficult time teaching because they can not control the classroom. They also talk of busy and loud corridors with students going in and out of the school. I am encouraged that each time I have one of these conversations and ask the students which school the prefer, they quickly and definitively state ours.
Once again, I have not taught in or even visited any Swedish schools outside of the IES system. These comparisons are made with my knowledge of IES and conversations with other teachers and students. It is important to understand the differences between my school system and other Swedish school systems as I compare my teaching experience in Sweden to my experience in America. Click here for more information on IES.
Updated on April 10, 2016
One afternoon, our Airbnb host Tomas knocked on our door and asked us if he could give us a tour of his “outdoor facilities.” After showing us his hot tub and pool, which were closed, Tomas took us across the street and through a wooded pathway that led to a lake and a set of family kayaks which he explained we were free to use. On the way home, Tomas pointed out places to pick berries and eventually motioned to a set of stairs that lead seemingly to nowhere and told us we should, “climb his mountain sometime.” This was the first thing I did after the tour, and it was awesome. The mountain was a huge rocky hill with a beautiful view of a nearby lake and the surrounding area. How many people have a view like this in their backyard?
Next, I took Tomas up on his offer and borrowed one of his kayaks. Since Sweden is covered in lakes, you don’t have to travel very far to find a beautiful view. As I rowed out alone into the middle of the lake, I had an incredible moment. The sun was out, the weather was beautiful, birds circled overhead, and ducks swam all around. I took in the beautiful sights and sounds of Sweden and was overwhelmed with the reality of where I was in life. I was thankful for the things that happened that led me to this new chapter and proud of the decisions I made that made it possible. I was out, by myself, in the middle of a lake in Sweden, my new home!
On the walk back to our Airbnb, I stopped to pick some blueberries at a location that Tomas had pointed out on his tour of the outdoor facilities. Sweden has a concept known as Allemansrätten (the Right of Public Access). This basically means that nature belongs to everyone. You can stop wherever you’d like to pick berries, flowers, or mushrooms. You can travel wherever your heart desires and enjoy the beautiful nature in this country. However, as Spiderman (or was it Spiderman’s uncle) said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Since the land is open to everyone, everyone has a responsibility to keep it healthy and beautiful. This is a responsibility that the people who live in Sweden take extremely seriously. Needless to say, the blueberries and raspberries I picked were delicious. I kept a glass full on hand to munch on whenever I wanted to eat them or add some to my cereal.
For dinner, JoEllen and I packed a picnic and enjoyed the 10:00 pm sunset with a view of the lake. At one point we heard a loud splash and saw the head of some mammal chasing ducks (in Swedish anka). I could have sworn it was a reindeer (ren)! Our host Tomas later told me it was probably just a beaver (beaver)… Silly Americans. JoEllen and I left our picnic very much in love with our new country. The warm and sunny day in nature did lots to foster this happy mood.
JoEllen and I are not the only ones who love the nature in this part of Sweden. Later on that week, we decided to go on a walk and explore the paths in our neighborhood. We saw several cars parked in a dirt lot near a trail that led into the woods and thought, “Lets go see where the path leads!” As we walked up, several others were walking away. I thought to myself that we were receiving some strange glances from the strangers but decided that this was all in my head. Eventually the pathway led to a clearing with a view of the lake. I noticed something large and white laying on the ground… a pale, white buttocks! I surveyed the scene and realized that this was a nudist alcove. JoEllen’s nearby gasp followed by giggles told me that she had come to the same realization. As we took a sharp turn and went the other way we couldn’t help but to have a good laugh. The majority of the people we glanced at were elderly men having a picnic. On the walk home, JoEllen had fun brainstorming for the best foods to bring to a nudist picnic: soup – ouch! Spaghetti – too messy! Ribs – eww! Popsicles – don’t make eye contact!
My next experience with nature was a little more wholesome. I knew that JoEllen and I wouldn’t be living in the Airbnb on the outskirts of Stockholm forever, so I decided to explore the area while JoEllen was working one day. I was very pleased at what I found when I took a turn and stumbled upon Skogskyrkogården (Woodland Cemetery) which is actually a UNESCO World Heritage site in Sweden. I spent the afternoon quietly wandering the forest and that had several alcoves with graves and a few statues.
Though I have never been very much of an outdoorsy person, I can’t help but to appreciate the geography and beauty of Sweden. Even if you live in the center of the city, you are always just a few blocks away from a lake, forest, or park. As the seasons begin to change, I notice that Stockholm has very distinct seasons that vary greatly and offer a fresh and beautiful perspective.
Updated on April 10, 2016
On Monday morning, JoEllen was back on the work clock and had lots to catch up on after taking a week off to get to know Stockholm. Since JoEllen is working from home, where we live is not only our home but also her workplace. So, when she is working, I try to keep out of her hair as much as possible. Since my first day of school was not for another week and a half, I had to find a lot to do to keep myself busy.
I decided to first occupy myself with a productive trip to the grocery store. Eating out in Stockholm is quite expensive and since our “vacation” was over, it was time to start living like a local. I took a bus to our local tunnelbana (metro) stop, most of these stations have a mini grocery store in them or nearby. I was not a good grocery shopper or cook in the States and, needless to say, shopping in a new culture with a different language and food choices is even more of a challenge. I picked up the basics: cereal, milk, and salad, then after taking my time to walk through each aisle and get a feel for the options, I finally settled on cooking a few things even I couldn’t mess up too badly, sausages for lunch and pasta for dinner.
In Stockholm, it is much more practical to make frequent smaller trips to the grocery. Many people (like us) do not have cars to fill the trunks and back seats to the brim with goodies. This means that our purchases are limited to what we can carry. It is also a good idea to bring your own bag or backpack to the store. Since Sweden is extremely active in protecting the environment, plastic bags at checkout are not free and must be purchased.
After cooking lunch, I left the house to JoEllen and decided to get out into the city and shop for some new clothes on Drottninggatan (Queen’s Street). I wandered around there until I found an H&M (this didn’t take long; there is one on every corner). Navigating through a new city can become stressful after a while, so I decided to act like the locals and have a fika!
“What is a fika?” you may ask. Great question!
Fika is one of my favorite aspects of Swedish culture. Since the Swedes believe in slowing down and enjoying life, once or twice a day, they stop what they are doing and take a fika. This is a break that must include two things: coffee and a pastry. Fika can either be done done alone or with a companion. It is used as a quiet time to relax, reflect, catch up with someone you enjoy being around, and re-energize with some caffeine.
The coffee here is incredible… incredible! Even the stuff you buy at the grocery or get at a gas station is better than the best coffee in America. I have also found coffee affordable, especially if you enjoy lattes or cappuccinos, which are in the same price range as a regular coffee. The pastries here are also delicious. JoEllen and I were not huge sweets eaters before moving here but that is changing quickly. We love their cakes with raspberries in them and their beloved kanelbullar (cinnamon rolls). Though Swedes regularly enjoy a small treat, they rarely seem to overindulge. Instead they pause, and truly enjoy their little moment of happiness. Taking fika (the word can be used as a verb or noun) makes Sweden the third largest coffee drinking country per capita in the world. I will do my best to help Sweden become number one (watch out, Netherlands)!
Updated on April 23, 2016
Our AirBNB host gave us the advice that we should pretend to be tourists for a few days and see all the attractions in Stockholm. We knew that once we got into a routine here, we might not take the time to get out and see all the museums, churches, etc. Come to think of it, I have still never been to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville…oh well. So on day two of being in Sweden, JoEllen and I pretended that we were on vacation and hit the town. We decided to each buy a three-day Stockholm Card that would allow us to use the public transportation and get into all of Stockholm’s 80+ attractions.
Gamla Stan (4/5 stars) -The first stop on our Stockholm “vacation” was a walking tour of Gamla Stan (Old Town). It was our guide’s first day, and some of what she said was hard to understand, but it was good to have someone show us around the city and tell a few stories. The best part about doing this tour first was that it gave us a better understanding of how the city is laid out and how to get around.
Vasa Museum (4/5 stars) – Awesome. This is a must see. It’s a Swedish warship that sank in the Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage in 1628, then lifted out of the water in 1961. It was then preserved and moved into the museum site. It is HUGE!
Next stop: Boat tour!.. Wait it just sold out.. Well, City Hall is close by, let’s just walk over there.
City Hall (5/5 stars) – Stadshuset (City Hall) ended up being my favorite attraction in Sweden. This is the place where the Nobel Banquet is held every year. Though the outside is nice, the architect did an incredible job designing the inside. He had lots of personality that showed through in his work. Doing a guided tour here is my number one recommendation to anyone visiting Stockholm.
Globe Arena Skylift (2/5 stars) – Globe Arena is the largest spherical building in the world. It is used for concerts, sporting events, etc. A few years ago they put clear bubbles that glide up to the top. JoEllen and I got into one of these and saw Stockholm from above. Not too shabby.
Boat tour of Kungsholmen (1/5 stars) – Boo. There was no guide on this tour. We got on an open air boat and listened to a bad recording tell us about the island of Kungsholmen. Not recommended, but at least it was sunny.
Skansen (4/5 stars) – Lemurs! (100/5 stars)- Skansen is an outdoor museum on the island of Djurgarden. The majority of the park is dedicated to showing what towns and houses all through Sweden looked like through the centuries. They even have little village people walking around doing daily tasks from life back when. It is also part zoo; locals and tourists visit to see animals that live throughout the wilderness in Sweden. Locals point out that the wolves are never out. Many visit Skansen throughout their life and never see the wolves. JoEllen and I had no luck spotting them either. If you visit, try your luck!
The best part of Skansen (or maybe all of Sweden) was the Lemur exhibit! There were three babies that constantly play fought with each other. One little guy was particularly meddlesome and kept throwing his hands up in the air then pouncing on his siblings and pulling the tails of adults. The adults just sat in big groups and cuddled with each other. These guys made me laugh out loud; I could have watched them all day. As JoEllen said, I found my spirit animal at Skansen.
Nobel Museum (1/5 stars) – Time for a little self pity. After Skansen, the clouds started rolling in and the rain began to fall. Though JoEllen took the week off from work, she had some issues pop up that needed her attention so we ducked into a café for free Wifi and to commiserate a little. We started to miss the sunshine, friends, family, and the comfort of home. On top of that, I was starting to feel a little puny; because of the excitement and stress of moving to a new place, I hadn’t gotten more than a few hours of sleep each night in almost a week.
After leaving the café, we headed across the street to see one of the sites I was most excited to see, but it was closed. After a few wrong turns in the rain, we eventually made it to our next stop, the Nobel Museum. JoEllen enjoyed this, but I was just not feeling it or feeling well. I eventually left the tour to get some fresh (and rainy) air. We were supposed to do a pub crawl that evening but I asked JoEllen if we could just go home and do it another time… that’s how you really know I wasn’t feeling great.
On the way home it was freezing and rainy outside, we were quite miserable. In keeping in tradition with our luck of the day, we just missed our bus and had to wait in the cold for nearly 30 minutes for the next one. We were very thankful to my mom, who gave us both North Face raincoats last Christmas; our day would have been even messier without them. We went to bed not looking forward to a Swedish winter. Maybe I can go cuddle with the lemurs when things get extra cold?
Swedish History Museum (3/5 stars) – On the way in we made a friend! It didn’t surprise me that she was from Wisconsin, I swear she could have been a missing Rote sister. This was a cute museum that had a Viking exhibit, asked you to reflect upon very deep issues, and gave a year by year history of Sweden which JoEllen and I accidentally did backwards… oops. There were also lots of kid-friendly games outside, which of course we played too.
Riddarholmen Church (3/5 stars) – One of the more iconic landmarks of Stockholm and Sweden’s oldest church. It’s on a little windy island just outside of Gamla Stan, you can’t miss it. The inside, where several royal family members are buried, is worth a visit.
Photography Museum (3/5 stars) – Though this is nothing I would typically be excited about, JoEllen was excited to go and I am glad that she was; this was a great stop. There were three exhibits when we were there. My favorite was on endangered animals in Africa. (Shout out to our friend and wedding photographer, Jenna Brie Henderson – come visit so we can take you!) One of the best parts of the photography museum is the cafe on top of the building. The view of Stockholm here is impressive.
Royal Palace (4/5 stars) – Our Stockholm “vacation” ended with a tour of the Royal Palace. We were surprised at how much we enjoyed this; it doesn’t look like much on the outside but is fantastic on the inside. Since we arrived just before it closed, we had to run through. I look forward to going back someday and spending more time wandering through the rooms.
We really enjoyed seeing some of the major sites of Stockholm and look forward to showing them off to our friends and family who visit.. especially the Lemurs!