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Studying Abroad: The Realities of Fleeing the Country


I’m still getting used to being called an exchange student. I had assumed that the idea of moving to Sweden would have at least sunk in by the time I was thirty-eight thousand feet up in the air. But here I am, two weeks in, feet firmly on Swedish soil, and I’m only just feeling settled.

Most days I still have to pinch myself to prove that I have actually moved countries, and that this isn’t some lovely dream, where I cycle everywhere, and spend most of my afternoons tucked away in cosy coffee shops.

I am spending my year in Uppsala, Sweden; a beautiful city located a thirty-minute train ride north of the Swedish capital, Stockholm, and filled to the brim with students. The city is home to an incredible cathedral, a picturesque river flowing right through the middle, and café’s that would run Costa out of business.

Here we party in castles (I mean that literally), cycle rain or shine and still get a fair amount of sleep because the clubs close at 2am.

It all sounds idyllic, and for the most part, it is. That being said, the past fortnight hasn’t been without its challenges. So, what is it really like to pick up and leave the country?

First and foremost, I should disclose that as thrilled as I felt to be moving, I was hardly skipping onto the plane. My stomach was in knots, my legs felt like jelly, and I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that I’d forgotten something I was going to need, (I had in fact left behind my hot water bottle).

The reality is, studying abroad is scary. Moving somewhere completely new on your own would faze most people, and the nerves are not a sign that you’ve made the wrong decision. Change is never comfortable or easy, and moving hundreds of miles away is not the same as changing your hair colour. It’s an adjustment to your entire life, and one that doesn’t happen overnight. But the fear is temporary, and for me, eased as soon as I met the first person also travelling to my university. Embrace the nerves, the risk is worth the reward.

It goes without saying that studying abroad is exciting.

Exploring an entirely new culture, meeting people from across the globe and getting to know yourself even better are all invaluable life experiences. Studying abroad makes you realise just how big the world is, and how much you can learn from people who lead different lives to you. I’ve been taught expressions in foreign languages, games from different countries and seen some of the incredible and historical traditions happening right here in Uppsala. Studying abroad forces you to be self-sufficient, independent, and to put yourself out there. I’m not sure how many chances you get in life to completely pick up and start anew, but the opportunity to do so is exciting, and unlike the fear, for me, that excitement is yet to dissipate.

Moving countries also comes with a lot of lifestyle changes, the most notable for me being the fact that I now cycle everywhere.

Cycling used to be a twice-yearly occurrence, but now, two weeks in, I can’t imagine life without it. Shopping? I cycle. Classes? I cycle. Clubbing? Yes, I cycle, and my legs have never known such a workout. My beautiful second-hand bike has been named Ebba, and so far, she’s been a dream.

In terms of nightlife, you can expect to start clubbing at ten latest and to be ready for bed at around two am. As a student at Leeds, this all sounds criminal, but I am quickly adjusting to attending class on a full eight hours of sleep.

Another lifestyle change that I have readily adopted is the daily ritual of Fika. This is the simple act of sitting down, drinking coffee, chatting, and eating something sweet. It is my excuse for eating a cinnamon bun everyday, and my dedication to the pastime has earned me the original nickname ‘Fika’, from my dad. Swedish specialities include Chokladboll, a golf ball sized mix of oatmeal and chocolate with coconut on top, Prinsesstårta, cake with vanilla and raspberry cream layered with green marzipan, and of course, cinnamon buns.

There is an expression which I think explains perfectly what study abroad feels like at the start, ‘Be like a duck. Stay calm on the surface but paddle like hell underneath.’ You are trying to balance a million things, like making new friends, settling into an unfamiliar environment, and studying in a different way, whilst still trying to make time to rest and recharge. Its simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating, laborious and liberating, and an experience full of new challenges. But as the days go by, you can paddle less and less, and eventually, without even noticing, you’re effortlessly floating, and calling this new place home.

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