How to Become a Swedish Resident

Moving to a new country is not as easy as packing your bags and taking a flight. You must first receive permission from that country’s government by obtaining a visa. In Sweden, there are several situations that may allow a person to become a resident such as marrying a Swede, studying in Sweden, or seeking asylum. However, in order for me to live in Europe, I knew that what I needed was a work visa.

Cover of Sweden’s newspaper during the height of the Syrian refugee crisis. I was very proud of my adopted country.

Several people have asked me how to obtain a work visa and live in Sweden, and I must admit that it is not easy. Generally, a Swedish company works on your behalf to help you acquire this visa. So, basically, your task is to convince a company that you are the best candidate for a certain position and hope that they will hire you over any applicants that may already live in Sweden. You can either do this as I did through online applications and Skype interviews or in person during the 90 day maximum visit that you are allowed in Sweden. Once you have been offered a job and that company decides to help you apply for a work visa, a long process of paperwork and bureaucracy follows.

However, living in Sweden is awesome! You can do it!

First, the school or company that plans to hire you must get plenty of paperwork and identification from you (and your partner if you have one).Typically, they will require you to send in:

  • Signed power of attorney form
  • Completed work permit application
  • A marriage certificate (or a document stating that you’ve lived with your partner for at least two years)
  • A scan of passports

Once all the proper documentation is in, the company’s economist or HR department will communicate on your behalf with Migrationsverket, the agency in Sweden that regulates migration and approves visas. The process can take up to a few months, but as long as everything goes according to plan, your request will be granted and you will be eligible for at least a one-year work visa.

Next step: Pack your bags, you are moving to Sweden! Once you land, one of the first things you must do is schedule an appointment at Migrationsverket to be fingerprinted and photographed for a residency permit card. This card is important and shows that you have permission to live in the country for one year. Make sure you have a reliable physical address that it can be mailed to.

Woohoo! You are one huge step closer to being a bonafide Swedish resident!

However, to be considered a real person in Sweden, you still need the all important personal identity number. Each Swede is given this 12-digit person number when they are born, and people that move here must apply for one as well. This number is needed to get medical treatment, open a bank account, purchase a cell phone plan, and even apply for grocery store loyalty programs. It is also important that your employer is given this number because it is associated with your taxes. In fact, the tax agency, Skatteverket, is where you need to go to apply for a person number. Make an appointment and bring your passport, residency permit cards, marriage certificate, and birth certificates for any children you may have. If all goes well, your person number will be mailed to you in a few days.

Once you have a person number you can now open a bank account. Since my school had an agreement with Handelsbanken, opening an account was not too difficult, though we did need more documentation as Americans than my Canadian coworkers did. Throughout the last year, I have heard a few horror stories of endless back and forths when applying for a bank account. If you want to save time and a headache, do your research and find out exactly what a person from your country needs before going in to set up an account.

Congratulations! You’re done and you definitely deserve a fika!

At this point, you basically have everything you need to logistically live in Sweden. However, you may also want to consider applying for a Swedish ID card. This is not required, but since your residency card was received before your person number, it can be helpful to have an ID card that shows your person number. To get this ID card, you must have a Swedish bank account so that you can transfer the 400 kronor fee for the card.

>Now that you have completed all of this seemingly endless paperwork, your one year permit in Sweden may be up. The good news is you (through your company) can now apply for a two year residency permit. However, keep in mind that if your passport will be expiring within a year, you will need to renew it before your two year work permit will be approved. Be proactive and renew your passport in advance so that you don’t force yourself into a stressful situation.

Want to know how I found a teaching job in Europe?

For more information on getting a job teaching in the school system that I work for in Sweden click here.

The Best of Budapest

So you’ve accepted a new job, but it doesn’t start for a month. What to do? Travel, of course!!

OK, maybe not always the best idea financially, but since Kevin was on school break, how could we resist? Off to Budapest!

Here are some of our favorite experiences in Budapest.

Thermal baths

Don’t let the old men in speedos put you off – the thermal baths in Budapest are not to be missed. Pick your flavor: the indoor/outdoor, swimsuit required, mixed pools at Széchenyi Baths in City Park; the more upscale and touristy experience at Gellért Baths; or the all in, leave your swimsuit in the locker, single gender baths at Rudas. We opted to keep on suits on and tried out both Széchenyi and Gellért. There is nothing better to soothe tired legs and brains after long days of touristing than a leisurely soak at the baths.

Perfect for: anyone who underestimates the distance you walk on city trips.

Memento Park

I’ve never been great at history. I can’t remember dates or who’s who, and I get easily bored. But visiting Berlin got me to thinking about what life was like on the other side of that wall they built. Then in book club (nerd alert), we read a novel about a family from Lithuania who was sent to a Soviet labor camp during WWII and didn’t return until years after the war (and even then, they weren’t allowed to speak of anything to do with their absence). Then I started a 600-page book on life in Eastern Europe under communism.

It was awful! (The communist regime, not the book. The book was great.) I’ve realized that there is so much that I know so little about. Knowing the history of a place gives enormous insight into understanding the culture, the food, the attractions.

After the fall of communism, some enterprising young soul gathered up many of the statues and monuments erected by the communist leaders and created a park in the outskirts of Budapest.The heavyhandedness, the lack of art, the absurd poses and ridiculous motivations were front and center as we walked through Memento Park. Rick Steves’ commentary kept us giggling at every stop. We struck silly poses and considered buying the “Communism’s Greatest Hits” CD at the gift shop. We were the only visitors in the park, which made the whole experience even more surreal.

Perfect for: anyone interested in the dark communist past, who doesn’t mind thumbing their nose at the absurdity of it.

Ruin bars

Hungarian wines are top notch, but when you’re ready to make friends and get rowdy, the ruin bars are the place to be. Imagine walking down a somewhat questionable alley, which opens up to an eclectic hipster haven. Part crumbling basement, part vine-covered garden, and full of future friends. The Pest side of town, specifically around the Jewish quarter, is covered with just this type of place. The most famous, Szimpla Kert, happened to be next door to our Airbnb. Pro tip: bring a Sharpie.

Where Swedish bars are generally not super conducive to make friends, ruin bars are the opposite. We met folks from all over, shared fresh carrots and hookah, and had an all around great time.

Perfect for: people who have always wanted to turn a thrift store into a bar.

Nighttime on the Danube

One thing is for sure: Budapest knows how to show off its architecture. Once darkness falls, floodlights give these grand and imposing structures extra drama. There are plenty of river cruises to glide you along the water (but for goodness sake, turn off your flash if you’re taking photos inside the boat), or broad walking paths make for a lovely evening stroll.

Perfect for: Anyone looking for a nice way to wind down at the end of the day.

Of course there is TONS more in Budapest that I haven’t mentioned here, but these were our favorites.

So next time you’re faced with an empty holiday weekend, get out there and plan a last-minute trip to explore somewhere new! You’ll be glad you did.

Life Without Four Wheels: Public Transit in Stockholm

Without a doubt, one of the most drastic changes to my day-to-day life since moving to Europe has been not having a car. As anyone who lives in the States knows, driving a car is most often the only way to get around. However, this is not the case in Europe; most cities have extensive public transportation systems. So before taking the flight across the Atlantic, JoEllen and I sold our cars and began life without four wheels.

We were happy to find that Stockholm’s public transit system is one of the best a city can offer. After a few personal failures (I once made it into the subway as the doors were closing, leaving JoEllen on the other side… on Valentine’s Day), we learned that living without a car comes with both positives and negatives. If I had a car here, my drive to and from work would take about 35 minutes. Instead, my morning commute takes almost an hour. It starts with a a five minute bus ride, to a 30 minute train ride, and finishes with a 15 minute walk to school.

Pros

First, let’s talk money. To use the SL, all you need is a prepaid card so that you can beep yourself (get your mind out of the gutter) onto the bus, metro, tram, train, whatever. JoEllen and I knew we would be staying around for a while so we decided to buy a one-year pass that cost 8320 SEK (roughly 900 USD). That’s it. No more car payments, monthly insurance drafts, gas fill-ups, tag renewal fees, mechanic bills, depreciation, or speeding tickets.

Money is not the only green thing saved by using public transportation; it is also much better for the environment. For example, mass transit such as the tunnelbana (metro) in Stockholm not only saves fuel, but produces 76% lower greenhouse gas emissions per passenger mile than a single driver in a car. Since using public transit forces people to walk more, it is also more beneficial for overall health. According to my Fitbit, I walk on average two miles more per day that I did when I owned a car, which saves calories for more food and beer.

Speaking of beer, the option to take public transit can literally be a lifesaver. If a person chooses to have a few beverages, they have a safe way to get home without harming themselves or others and without getting in trouble with the law. Friends can enjoy going out together without assigning a designated driver for the evening.

Not owning a car also highlights how much stress driving can cause. Worrying about getting in an accident, careless drivers, and – most of all – traffic is eliminated when taking the tunnelbana or pendletåg (commuter train). As I hear that traffic is getting worse every day Nashville, I am thankful to jump onto public transit and enjoy the ride.

Not being in control of the vehicle also allows travelers to engage in other activities that would be impossible while driving. JoEllen loves to read during a commute, while I tend to play on my phone or practice learning Swedish.

Almost all of Stockholm’s stations also have a Pressbryån, a nice little shop to pick up a snack for your commute. I love my routine of getting a coffee every morning from the same little shop, saying hello to the ladies who work at the store, then sipping coffee on my train ride to work.

Stockholm as a city also has a few perks that make its public transit all that more special. Our friend Linda, who was once a Stockholm tour guide, once told me that one third of the city consists of water, another third of nature, and the remainder of developed city. This means that the views of the city as you commute are often stunning.

One of the best parts of my day is walking over a bridge on my way to school that has a beautiful view of Stockholm. The weather mixed with the constantly changing hours of daylight this far north cause the same view to have different nuances everyday. There is always something new to appreciate. No matter how good or bad my day is, I pause here for a brief moment to remind myself I am lucky to be living my dream of teaching in Europe. These four photos were taken from this bridge on my way to work during the same week.

Stockholm is also one of the only cities in the world that includes ferries in its public transit system. Without paying extra, locals and tourists can take a trip across water and enjoy the views. Additionally, more than 90 of the 100 subway stations in Stockholm have been decorated with sculptures, mosaics, or paintings from 150 artists. The Stockholm tunnelbana system, 110 kilometers long, is said to be the world’s longest art exhibit. The blue line that JoEllen and I live on is particularly beautiful.

Cons

Now for the negatives. I can’t deny that sometimes I just miss the feeling of driving down the road alone, with the windows down, radio up, and singing as loud as I want. Now, instead of having my own little bubble and some alone time, I am lucky to get a seat that is not directly next to a stranger (and I don’t think they would appreciate my singing voice too much).

Having a car also allows a driver to be on their own schedule, there are few things worse that getting to the train station after a long day at work only to see the doors shut in your face and have to wait 15 minutes for the next, especially during Swedish winters. Every so often there are issues with the public transit that force trains to be delayed.

Not only can timing public transit be difficult, but finding the particular bus or train stop you need can be as well. JoEllen and I have had many stressful moments wandering around trying to find the best way home. Getting to certain residential areas outside of the city without a car can also be difficult because transit lines, though extensive, are limited. Certain bus routes also pause during the late hours of the night, so if you miss the last one, you’ll have to cough up cash for a taxi.

Overall, JoEllen and I are enjoying this phase of life without a car. However, we do look forward to getting back behind the wheel when we take our summer trips home to Nashville.

Swede Tooth

After living in Stockholm for a year and a half, one thing has become crystal clear to me: Swedes are born with an insatiable sweet tooth! Swedes take their sweets seriously… very seriously. In fact, their confectionery consumption is a rich part of their culture.

First of all, there is the most quintessential Swedish experience of fika. This is a quick break taken during the day to enjoy a coffee and a small sweet treat. To learn more about fika, check out my previous blog post.

In 2016, the average Swede ate 23.1 pounds of candy, making Sweden the country with the 7th highest per capita candy consumption (say that five times fast). This does not surprise me at all. You know the little candy stores in US malls where you grab a shovel, fill a bag full of candy, and weigh it? Every store, gas station, movie theater, and you-name-it in Sweden has one of these! One day, I was talking to my Swedish landlord who is currently living in America. I asked him how the States were treating him and if he missed home. He replied simply, “I miss the candy.”

Beware: Swedes also have an obsession for salt liquorice, so proceed with caution!

My sister-in-law visited and had her first lördagsgodis!

Most of this candy is eaten on one special day of the week: lördagsgodis or Candy Saturday. Possibly in an attempt to remain lagom – enjoying just enough without over indulging – Swedes limit the majority of their candy consumption to Saturdays. This seems to cause children and adults alike to anticipate and appreciate lördagsgodies even more.

Lördagsgodis is not the only special day associated with a sweet treat. Swedes have a few calendar days throughout the year when one MUST enjoy a certain Swedish pastry. First there is JoEllen’s favorite: Semla Day, celebrated on Fat Tuesday. Imagine a mini bread bowl of soup but sweet and filled with whipped cream and almond paste and topped with powdered sugar.

 

During the darkest week of the year, Sweden celebrates St. Lucia. This day is filled with music that allows Swedes to commiserate in the darkness while looking forward to the bright days to come. On St. Lucia everyone must eat a few luciabullar. Though these pastries are not very sweet they are flavored with saffron and two raisins.

Most importantly, there is kanelbullens dag, Cinnamon Bun Day, on October 4, celebrated since the time after WWI when rationed food started to make its way back into Swedish homes. The kanelbullar is definitely the most beloved pastry in Sweden; supposedly the average Swede eats 316 of these a year! Appropriately, the first kanelbullar I ever had was on kanelbullens dag and it was a eye-opening experience. Instead of being covered in icing, these rolls are sprinkled with sugar crystals and jam packed with cinnamon. YUM!

So the next time you are at the mall and see one of the little candy stores, consider picking out a few colorful treats and enjoy them on Saturday!

12 Countries in 12 Months (Part 2)

From December through July 2016, JoEllen and I visited five more countries to round out our travel total to  12 countries in 12 months. During these trips we began a new tradition of collecting a small flag from each country. Searching for these souvenirs has been a lot of fun. They cause me to look more closely at each nation’s flag, and each one has a fun memory associated with it.

Sweden: Uppsala, Falun, Mora and Ydre

It is crazy to think that neither JoEllen nor I had stepped foot onto Sweden until we moved here, and we are very lucky that we both fell in love with the country right away. Not only do we constantly find new things to love about Stockholm (many weekends are spent checking out a museum with our friend Frida and others), we have also ventured outside of the capital city to discover what else the country has to offer.

For sportlov, which is a week long school break in February designated for enjoying sports and nature, JoEllen and I ventured north. Our first stop was a visit in the college town of Uppsala, which has a very impressive cathedral. Next, we spent a day in the city of Falun, which is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Falun Gruva, a copper mine that was in operation for over a thousand years and produced over two thirds of Europe’s copper during this time. We were in luck and visited the small and cozy town of Mora while the Vasaloppet (the oldest and longest cross-country ski race in the world) was in full swing. However, the highlight of sportlov was our visit to the original Dala horse factories where we got to see how they are made! For hundreds of years, the Dala horse has been the national symbol of Sweden and these hand carved, hand painted wooden figures just make me happy. It takes over two weeks to transform a boring block of wood into a beautiful cultural icon, and we picked out a customized little fellow to take home.

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One of my favorite weekends of the year happened in June, when we were lucky enough to be invited to spend the weekend with our friends Alex and Ale in Ale’s family’s traditional summer cottage. Since we were going to miss Midsummer, our friends wanted to make sure we still got a taste of a quintessential Swedish summer holiday. This relaxing weekend consisted of everything Swedish: delicious meals eaten outside, swimming in a freezing cold lake, walking through the woods in search of 12 different types of flowers to make a krans (flower crown), drinking wine, and playing board games until the sun went down around 2 a.m. JoEllen and I were both very thankful to Alex and Ale for making us feel like bonafide Swedes.

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France: Avignon, Nice, Aix en Provence, Orange

For påsklov (Easter break) JoEllen and I spent the week road tripping through the Provence region of southern France with a Canadian (Kelly), a Swede (Frida), and an American (Alex). Experiencing a new part of the world with our close friends made this trip all the more special. We enjoyed seeing the sites at a relaxing and leisurely pace. In particular, we loved our home base and the hours spent in the “House Next Door.” JoEllen did an excellent job finding this AirBNB, which was a huge historic home with plenty of room to cook, enjoy wine in the spacious yard, play card games, while also having more than enough private space for everyone. Alex even surprised everyone by providing us with traditional Swedish Easter treats! We really felt like a little family for the week.

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When we weren’t enjoying time in our AirBNB, we enjoyed getting to know the Provence region of France. The highlight of the trip for me was visiting the Pont du Gard, a Roman aqueduct that is one of the civilization’s most impressive engineering feats (you may recognize it from the Volkswagen Bug commercial). Seeing this enormous structure in person exceeded my expectations and reminded me how people can do almost anything they put their minds to. The cliff-side fortress and town of Les Baux was also a worthwhile pit stop, mainly because of its unique underground quarry light show/theater. It is impossible to describe this experience, the best I can do is say go check it out!

One entire day was spent on a wine tour of the region. We had a personal driver pick us up and take us to different vineyards while teaching us how wine is grown in the region and how to taste and experience the wine like professionals. The wine expert at the final vineyard was especially memorable, I felt lucky to learn from his enthusiasm for the wine-making and tasting process. To this day, when any of us have a glass of wine together we sometimes joke around and see if we can “detect the nose” of a particular wine.

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The last few days of our trip were spent exploring Orange (with its Roman theater), Avignon (and a tour of the Palace of the Popes), and Aix en Provence (a beautiful city that we were all too tired to enjoy properly). “Three Americans, a Canadian, and a Swede go to France” was a pleasant and memorable trip.

USA: Nashville

Home sweet home!! There is nothing like coming home for three weeks after being away for an entire year! Unlike the other 11 countries, where we visited with checklist of new things to see and experience, it was nice to settle into the familiar for a few weeks.

Reasons it was good to be home:

  • Play time with our nieces Harper and Collins
  • Mexican food
  • Drinks with friends at The Flying Saucer
  • Family time at the Diggs’ lake house and seeing how much the nieces and nephews have grown
  • Monday Night Raw with wrestling friends
  • Fried chicken
  • Relaxing evenings with the Buckleys
  • One-on-one time with good friends
  • Hosting my Swedish coworker and her daughter (my student) in Nashville
  • Seeing EVERYONE at Tony and Liz’s 4th of July party


A few things did catch me off guard after being gone for a while. First of all, slow down Nashville, you are growing way too quickly! I can’t believe how many high rises are being built downtown; I barely recognized the place. Also, things in the US have gotten politically charged. Everyone wants to talk about politics, but no one wants to listen. This was particularly hard for me because my political and social outlook has changed vastly since moving to Stockholm. (More on that in another post someday.) I was sad to leave friends, family, and food, but it was also good to come back home to Sweden.

UK: Cambridge, London and Bath

After spending a few weeks with my family in Nashville, it was their turn to visit us in Stockholm. After a quick stop in Cambridge, we spent a week in my mom’s favorite city, London. London is a city full of some of the world’s most iconic historic landmarks and the Buckleys explored several of them. We took a boat tour (where my mom was nice enough to help clean seagull poop out of JoEllen’s hair) and got a view of Shakespeare’s Globe theater which we later went inside of to enjoy a showing of “Macbeth”. We enjoyed delicious meals and beers with the family, and Natalie and I even beat Chris and JoEllen at a game of wife swap darts!

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JoEllen is a huge fan of street art and since London has a renowned street art scene, we couldn’t miss taking a street art tour. We loved seeing the unique artwork and the off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods of London. Camden Market in particular stole the show. We could have wandered the maze of oddball shops and ethnic food stalls all day. Some of London’s neighborhoods gave me an eye-opening glimpse into the process of gentrification – seeing the stark contrast of upper/middle class patrons enjoying their fancy hipster cocktails in the middle of low income areas caused me to think deeply about how gentrification affected these Londoner’s lives.

Poland: Krakow

When our close friends from home, Amy and Aaron, wanted to come visit us in Europe, where to go was a no-brainer. Aaron’s grandparents are from Poland, so we joined as he visited this country for the first time. I am so glad that we did. Krakow is a must see European city and has so much to offer: history, great cuisine, a lively night scene, a stunning old town, and most importantly, everything is affordable! Krakow’s old town square is the largest in Europe and I can’t think of a better place to spend a sunny afternoon with friends.

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Since traveling throughout Europe and getting to know other cultures was the main reason we decided to move to Sweden, we are thankful to have had an exciting first year full of new memories and friendships. I look forward to where the next years take us and to adding many new flags to our shelf.

Click here to catch up on part one of the series 12 Countries in 12 Months. 

12 Countries in 12 Months (Part 1)

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!

Denmark: Copenhagen

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?

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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.

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Plitvice Lakes

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Cat counting in Dubrovnik- 54 in one day!

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Bosnia and Herzegovina: Mostar

Probably the most impactful city that we visited all year. JoEllen did a fantastic job capturing the trip here.

Latvia: Riga

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.

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Norway: Oslo

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!

      

Germany: Munich

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.

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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.

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Salzburg Christmas Market

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Vienna Opera House

Click here to read part two of the series 12 Countries in 12 Months.

Note to Self: Practice These Travel Skills

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?

Student Life in Sweden: Lunch and Stuff

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.

Healthy Eating

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.

Special Activities

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.

School Uniforms

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.

Student Life in Sweden: Rights, Freedoms, and Responsibilities

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.
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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.

It’s Raining in Croatia. Let’s Go to Bosnia!

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!

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Hold up, gotta wait for the sheep to finish crossing the road.

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.

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Believe it or not, this is what Mostar really looks like in 2015. This used to be the premier hotel in the city.

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The rubble and the replacement, side by side.

12193882_938831298869_1315214931821630046_n 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.

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Not kidding.

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.

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