Merry Christmas etc from me to you

Dear friends and family,

Merry Christmas! I don’t normally send mass letters out, but I’m making an exception because I’ve been out of touch with a lot of you lately, and I haven’t updated my blog much since I arrived in Sweden three months ago.

Hmm… where to begin? I guess I can start with my studies. My program at Uppsala Universitet, the oldest university in Scandinavia, is called a Master’s degree in International Humanitarian Action. Our entire program is taught in English, and the Swedish government pays our tuition, as they do for all Master’s students in Sweden regardless of citizenship. We’re 19 students in the program in Uppsala, and there are 6 other universities in the Network on Humanitarian Action that offer this degree, so in total there are roughly 140 students across 7 universities in 7 countries in Europe. We take one course at a time here, for about 3 weeks each, and so far we’ve studied Anthropology, Public Health, Management, and International Law. Each time we start a new class, we change to a new building and new prof, so our program sort of mirrors the life I’ve been living recently – always spending some time in one place, then having to shift headquarters to a new location, then shift again, etc.

At the moment, my thesis idea is to do a bit of field research in a refugee camp and try to see if there’s any link between a child growing up as a refugee in a camp and the prospects for that child to join or support armed movements in his/her country of origin. The current tentative plan is to do that research in Northern Thailand, an area of the world I very much enjoyed visiting three years ago, as there are a number of large camps for Burmese refugees there. There are a bunch of potential problems with the idea, but we’ll see how it pans out. One interesting thing about this thesis is that I’m collaborating with three of my friends in the program to make a joint project out of four individual theses. Each person has a different topic, but we have a common framework and a fairly solid basis for combining the four into one publishable document/book a year from now. Hopefully the concept will work.

Uppsala itself is a small city, about the same size as Dunedin, where I lived in New Zealand in 2005. Like Dunedin, Uppsala is very much a student town, with over 40,000 students at two universities. Uppsala Universitet is a good university, super old (founded in 1477), and its buildings are spread through the centre of the city sort of similar to the Catholic university in Leuven, Belgium. There’s a small river running through the middle of Uppsala, and the buildings along both sides are pretty old and neat looking. They’ve got all sorts of Christmas lights and decorations up on city property now, which is really nice.

It gets pitch dark by 3pm and the sun is only back up by 830 or 9 in the morning, so the Swedes make a big deal of having decorative lights up at this time of year to help prevent depression. For instance, almost every home has a candle stand thing with 7 candles (they’re almost all just candle-shaped lamps now, due to hundreds of fires over the years). They put them in the window, so you can see them from outside as well; most homes and businesses have them in more than one window.

It’s much colder in Uppsala than it is in Vancouver. I wear a scarf every day, and I have to wear more than just a tee-shirt under my jacket! In Vancouver I often only wore a tee shirt and a windbreaker in the middle of winter, no problem. On my walk home last week in Uppsala, I had to put my scarf over my face, then the condensation from my breath froze and made the scarf turn solid! I also had little ice crystals in my goatee, like those people in movies about Antarctica, but not as many ice crystals and no frostbite or goggle tan for me – yet. I live 7 km outside of the city centre, in an area surrounded by fields and forest, so I get a nice cycle ride most days to and from uni. There’s a gravel path along the river which I often take when I’m not in a rush, very nice! Most of the river is now frozen over, and soon I reckon it will be safe to walk on, though I won’t be testing that theory. February is the coldest month here, so it’s only going to get colder and colder and colder.

I live alone in a furnished bachelor pad, which is basically a big room with my bed, desk, table, TV, kitchen, and my own bathroom and shower. Every single thing in the room is from Ikea. Seriously. The room includes all the pots, pans, plates, etc, etc that I need, and every single one is Ikea. The flooring, the windows, the curtains, the wardrobe, every single thing is from Ikea. Weird. I might be moving at the start of January, though, as there is a small room becoming available in my friend’s apartment and it’s more than $200 cheaper per month, and I wouldn’t have to spend money on the bus anymore on days when I can’t cycle, as I would be in town already, within walking distance of everything. Very tempting.

I’ve been trying to learn Swedish, but haven’t had so much time to devote to it. I took a 6 week beginner’s course, 30 hours in total of classes, which was very helpful and has given me a rough foundation for further learning, and I’ll take the next level class starting at the end of January. Everyone here speaks English and all our classes are in English so the normal effect of being immersed in a culture is not as great here, and it’s therefore not as easy to pick up the language. I hope to be moderately fluent by April or May.

Right now, as I write this letter to all of you, I’m in the guest room of my friend Vania’s family in Göteborg (known in English as Gothenburg) a very long way from Uppsala. Vania is in New Zealand, but I figured it would be nice to meet her parents and sister on my way to Copenhagen, so I’m staying two nights here. Gothenburg is the second largest city in Sweden, after Stockholm, and has a population of about half a million people. It’s a really beautiful city – I spent 4 hours walking alone around the town centre today, just walking and looking at everything around me and people-watching.

Last night I walked around Liseberg, the largest amusement park in Scandinavia, where Vania used to work and where her sister Sonia still works. It’s open for a bit during the Christmas season and really decked out with holiday cheer, and then again in the summer months. Sonia took me to a party with her coworkers at a local nightclub last night, which was super fun. We had to stand in line for about an hour and I may have done permanent damage to my bladder while waiting in that line-up, but the party was a lot of fun and I really enjoyed meeting a bunch of Sonia’s friends, all of whom were very friendly.

Mohammad and Jinus Ranjbar (Vania and Sonia’s parents) are terrific hosts, and Jinus is a very good cook too – we had reeeeeeally good Persian food last night: rice with berberis berries, which are sort of similar in taste to cranberries or foxberries, but different, and very Iranian. And some tasty, tasty chicken and salad. And they gave me some mango green tea, which is pretty much the best non-chai tea I’ve ever had. Just thought I’d throw that out there.

Tomorrow morning I’m back on track, (literally, the train track) on my way to Copenhagen. I’ll be spending Christmas there with my friend Mike, who’s from Vancouver but has spent the last year in Paris. My friend Nina (coincidentally Vania’s flatmate when they were exchange students at UBC) lives in Copenhagen, and when I asked her by email if she could meet up with us at some point, she offered us her apartment! She’s going home to stay with her family for Christmas, so she’s giving me and Mike the key to the apartment in central Copenhagen – talk about a lucky break for two poor students! Now we can afford a decent Christmas meal :-)

Not sure what adventures we’ll get up to in Copenhagen, but I will try to put some photos and stories up on the blog afterward. As of now I have no New Year’s Eve plans, so I could be anywhere doing anything. I will probably end up back in Uppsala by then, and try to find a few friends who haven’t left town.

Oh, and I shaved my head again. Well, I didn’t shave it – the hair dresser lady did. I’ve only had it shaved once before, back in June when I was getting too much cinder block dust in my hair on the construction site in Cameroon. With running water for only a few hours each morning and a few hours each evening, it was no good returning home with cement forming in my hair from the sweat and cinder dust, and not being able to wash it out. I let it grow back until it was way too long and ugly, then got a haircut from a friend to look more respectable, but decided to get it buzzed on my way to the train yesterday in Uppsala. It’s way more convenient for toque-wearing (beanie-wearing if you’re not from Canada), as toque-hair is really unbelievably ridiculous as well as hard to fix without water.

Well, that covers just about everything! I hope each of you has a wonderful Christmas and New Year, and I’d love to get an update from you on your life – it doesn’t have to be this long, though ;-)

All the best,