going on exchange (with anxiety)

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It was dark outside. It could have been day or night, the Swedish winter isn’t picky. I was lying in bed, brain and body still not speaking to each other thanks to the jet-lag, and I was not doing well. I scrolled through my Facebook contacts, looking for somebody to talk to, but time zones are cruel things. “Active four hours ago” made my heart sink. I felt completely and helplessly alone.

I can’t claim to be an expert on either topic, studying abroad or anxiety. But, as a person who absolutely loved living in Sweden for six months despite near-constant anxiety, I thought I’d try to write something that might be helpful for someone else.

Moving or traveling somewhere new can be scary for anyone, but if you struggle with anxiety it can be hard even to imagine signing up for that kind of life change. Either way, here are a few things I wish someone had told me before I moved to Uppsala, Sweden:

  1. It’s okay not to be excited.

I have friends who said goodbye at the departures terminal of their favourite airport with a big smile on their face – leaving, to them, was just another adventure. And while I admire that cavalier attitude, but I was too busy worrying about how things would change back home or how much I’d miss everything to feel that kind of no-worries-excitement. If the idea of traveling to a new country and leaving your friends and family behind fills you with more fear than joy, that’s okay. You can still have a great time, and being scared does not make you ungrateful.

  1. Be prepared.

You might not know how you’ll react – emotionally, mentally or physically – to your new surroundings. But you can do your best in advance to make the transition easier. Pack your favourite clothes and a stuffed animal. Print out pictures to hang on your wall, but don’t put them up if they make you feel sad or jealous. Do some research and try to find at least one thing that you are looking forward to in your new country, so that you know you will have that, regardless of what else happens. For me, this meant shopping at IKEA and Happy Socks. Making realistic plans and packing tangible comforts is the best way to combat the inevitable onslaught of what ifs. What if I don’t make any friends? You will, of course. But even if everything goes horribly wrong, you can still catch a train to Stockholm and have a great day exploring Gamla Stan.

  1. Push yourself (out of your room).

This is so, so important in your first few weeks. There’s a good chance you’ll be jetlagged and homesick and disoriented, but don’t curl up for a Netflix marathon just yet. Try to attend a couple orientation activities, or explore your new city. Most people you meet will be equally new, lost, and eager to make friends. Pushing yourself doesn’t mean you need to go out every night if that isn’t your thing, or become best friends with the first person you meet. But try your best, especially at the beginning, to be around other people and make plans together.

  1. Be kind to yourself.

Being in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by new people, and trying out words in a new language, is draining. Pay attention to your physical and mental health, as this kind of change can take a toll on both. So yes, do try your best to get out and socialize, but if you need to spend a day in bed doing nothing, recognize that that’s okay too. If you’re studying abroad, you live there now. That’s a lot different than being on vacation – it means that you’re allowed to have off days and regroup. Check in with your friends and family back home, and your new friends, too. If you are having a hard time adjusting, chances are they are too.

  1. It will be worth it.

Even if it doesn’t feel like it right now, or while you’re waiting at your gate in the airport. Trust me on this.

This might not be you at all. You might be one of those eager, adventurous types who is always on the move. And if so, I envy you. But if, like me, you’re shy and sentimental, afraid of change or anxious about the prospect of uncharted territory, that’s okay too. You can still go new places and do big things, and you will be just fine.

a day at Vrångö

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Have you ever been to a place that felt familiar from the second you set foot there? We had a late start to the day, stopping for pastries and a long walk through the park before taking the tram to the ferry terminal. Vrångö is one of several islands just off the coast of Gothenburg in southwest Sweden. It’s home to approximately 400 people, and from our first steps onto the island, it felt like a special, private place.

The wind came off of the water in strong gusts, making it hard to keep your footing on the moss-covered rocks. There were people taking pictures, walking their dogs, and bravely having picnics on the cold ground. But there was also a calm sort of emptiness. It felt like coming back to a place you knew a long time ago, and recognizing every tree and cliff you passed.

If you walk along the coastline, taking in the view of the endless ocean, you come to a trail. We walked for half an hour through the woods, moving from dense pine forests to rocky outcroppings, until we caught our first glimpse of the people of Vrångö. Clustered close along the shore like they were keeping each other warm was a village of red-roofed houses. And, perched above it all on a cliff overlooking the sea, stood the pilot’s house.

It hadn’t been used for a long time, said the information sheet outside the building when we finally made our way up the rock face, following signs through people’s back gardens and climbing jagged, mismatched steps. But once, years ago, the pilot would sit in this house and make sure boats made it safely to shore.

After dozens of photos and being buffeted by the wind, we climbed back down and walked to the dock. There’s a lovely little cafe right where the boats arrive, though we had to wrap our cakes in napkins and run out the door because the ferry was approaching. Vrångö was exactly what I dreamed of when I first came to Sweden: quiet, secluded, sitting right at the edge of the sea like it’s ready to dive in at any moment. We listened to podcasts and tried to play with the dogs lying next to us on the ferry ride back. The next time you find yourself in Sweden, be sure to visit Vrångö for a perfect afternoon.

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all the things I didn’t know


I’m sitting in one of my favourite cafes as I write this. The walls are covered in blue and white striped wallpaper, and when you order a piece of cake they always ask if you want ice cream on the side. My kind of place.

I didn’t expect this when I moved to Sweden just over two months ago. I didn’t know about the country’s obsession with coffee or how meeting at a cafe (aka going for fika) is a national institution. I had no idea how to order in a restaurant, and to be honest I’m still too afraid to try, but I’m getting there. I didn’t expect to find a cafe right next to the river in my home-away-from-home where I can sit and work for hours, and feel like I belong.

I had never been to Sweden before I moved here for an exchange (although I go to IKEA on a regular basis, so there’s that). Despite all my research and devouring every Swedish detective series on Netflix, there are still so many things I didn’t even realize that I didn’t know before I got here.

“You never know until you try,” has been ringing in my ears since I got here. Or, in my case, “you never know until you pack a suitcase full of woefully weather inappropriate clothes and hop on a plane.” So here are a couple things I’ve learned. Maybe you can tell me some of yours, too.

(Some of) The Things I Didn’t Know:

  • Tote bags and purses will hit your wheels while you bike and make steering a nightmare – use a backpack instead
  • Swedes say “Hej!” but Norwegians prefer “Hei!” (both conveniently English-sounding so it’s easy to fake)
  • Everyone has a black wool coat and everyone looks amazing even when it’s -10 degrees outside
  • It will be -10 degrees outside at times. Pack more sweaters
  • Every window you pass has plants and flowers in it. It makes the long, dark winter a little more cheerful. Also, people leave their living room curtains open a lot – stop looking in, it’s weird
  • There are vegan, soy, and laktosfri options for everything here (including yogurt and feta cheese. I mean everything)
  • Sweden has great secondhand shops, even if half the clothes inside are from H&M (it’s still Swedish though, right?)
  • Spring in Sweden goes from 20 degrees and sunny one day to grey and snowing the next. Dress in layers and try not to be too disappointed
  • Fika is everything. It basically means going for coffee, taking time out from your day, by yourself or with friends, and it will become your new way of life
  • Swedish is similar enough to English and German that sometimes you can catch what people are saying. Okay, maybe “sometimes” is too strong a word
  • Riding your bike home on the first warm (ish) day of spring is the best feeling in the entire world

It took me a long time before I even knew why I had come to Sweden in the first place. But two months in and I think I finally have something close to an answer: I want to be the type of person who, when presented with crazy, amazing, outlandish opportunities, is brave enough to say yes.

So here’s to three more months and a lot more learning, with love from Uppsala, Sweden.