Sandy writes about her return to Sweden 30 years after she was an exchange student in the country.
July 21, 2012
When I was in 10th grade I attended a presentation at my high school about foreign exchange student opportunities with an organization called Youth for Understanding (YFU). I was mesmerized to hear how students could spend a summer or even a year in another country living with a family and learning about the people and culture in that part of the world. I went home that night and asked my parents if it was possible for me to be an exchange student. I was overjoyed when my parents agreed that I could apply to the program.
That next summer I had the opportunity to spend eight weeks living with a family on an island outside of Goteborg (Sweden’s second largest city). Sweden was my first choice because I was interested in going somewhere off the beaten track in Europe. Although I was homesick for the first 10 days, by the time the eight weeks were over I did not want to leave to go home. It was a life-defining experience for me and one that sparked my curiosity about the world.
Now, for the first time in over 30 years, I was returning to Sweden. Unfortunately my correspondence with the people I had met and stayed with back in 1978 had fallen off many years ago. However, I was excited to come back and experience the country with Darren, who has never been to this part of the world. Our first stop was Stockholm and to get there from Helsinki we took an overnight ferry. The ship, which carries over 2,000 passengers, was full and busy with people on holiday. We booked a two-person, inside cabin which was comfortable and provided us with a good night’s sleep.
When we woke up the next morning we went up on deck to look outside, as we were about two hours from Stockholm. I was excited to see the approach to Stockholm, as my only other visit to the city was to transfer from the train station to the airport when I went home after my exchange student experience. When we arrived outside, we saw that the ferry had entered the Stockholm archipelago of over 20,000 islands that is off the coast of the city. With the sun out, the blue water and green forested islands were wonderfully illuminated. We enjoyed a cup of coffee as we watched the spectacular show floating by. With all the small wooden houses we saw, it reminded me of my family’s island home on the other side of the country.
The ferry docked just south of the Gamla Stan (old town) of Stockholm. In the process we were able to view the harbor and buildings in the early morning light. We could also see bridges linking some of the other 14 islands that Stockholm is built upon. Later in the day we walked from our hotel to the see the old town, which dates back to the 13th century. While there, we saw the Royal Palace and visited the Nobel Museum.
Another day we made a trip to the Vasa Museum on Djurgarden Island. It is the most-visited museum in Scandinavia and it is easy to see why. It tells the amazing story of the Vasa ship, which sank in Stockholm harbor in 1628, and sat at the bottom of the sea for 333 years, until it was raised in 1961. The ship is 95% original and can be seen from several vantage points. The exhibits about the people who were on the ship and the restoration efforts were fascinating and held our interest for three solid hours.
Later, we went to a grocery store to buy some snacks and I recognized some of the foods I had eaten with my Swedish family, such as pickled herring, dill, Wasa crackers and cured meats. It was great to experience them again. Looking at signs, a few words seemed familiar to me. Although I did by no means learn very much of the language in the eight weeks I was here, I did begin to understand what I heard by the time I left. It seems to me that people speak much more English than when I was an exchange student. In the late ’70s German was the popular second language, not English.
One thing that has not changed is the weather! When I lived in Sweden for eight weeks that summer I joked that it was like spending the winter back home in Southern California. During our time here it has been in the 50s and 60s F (12 to 20 C) with some rain. Fortunately there has been quite a bit of sunshine as well.
We only have a couple of days in Stockholm because our major motivation for visiting Sweden is to hike. We will be taking an overnight train to the Arctic Circle city of Kiruna, where we will begin a week’s trek on the Kungsleden, or King’s Trail. So far it has been great to be back in Sweden to relive some of my fond memories. I am looking forward to creating new ones on this trip as we complete our time in Stockholm and trek above the Arctic Circle.