15 July 2013

The story of a boy who went to Sweden

Since I was a teenager I was thinking of living abroad. After finishing college I was considering a few options. I knew some Slovaks living in England, Switzerland or USA. In the end I chose Sweden partly because I didn't know anyone here.
When given a choice, choose the thing that scares you a little. – Jeff Atwood
One of the reasons to move here was actually orienteering. It is a sport that is a lot of fun, but unfortunately it's not very popular outside of Scandinavia. I was always dreaming of living here and doing orienteering in some of the world's most challenging terrains. I visited Scandinavia before to practice orienteering and do hiking, and I have been impressed by the beautiful nature and how organized everything was.

Then I applied for some PhD positions and I was accepted as a student by one of the best theoretical computer scientists in history, so Stockholm was clearly the best option for me in the summer of 2009.

I actually started this blog to keep my friends updated about life in Sweden, but I never wrote a post about my view of Sweden. I have been here for a while and I feel like I know Sweden pretty well by now.

Things I like

  • The Swedish language has a beautiful sound, has no grammar and is very easy to learn. It's also very interesting that the word vak means hole in the ice, but to say addictive you need beroendeframkallande, which is 20 letters. Shorter words are usually used more often, so this tells you something about Swedish culture.
  • Swedish humor is very witty, playful and often subtle.
  • Swedish state leaves me alone most of the time. They take away half of my money and the housing system is horrible, but those are about the only times when I notice its presence. Sweden is liberal, you have a lot of personal freedom, there are not many rules to follow and bureaucracy is low. I value the personal freedom more than all the money that is taken away from me.
  • I enjoy working with Swedes. They are very hardworking, pay attention to details and get things done in a timely manner without any stress.
  • It's a beautiful country, forests and water are everywhere. Places like the one on the following picture can be usually found within one hour drive from your home.

  • A calm day in Tyresta, my favorite place near Stockholm
  • Sweden is an introvert-friendly society, unlike USA for example. Before I came here I read some blogs of Americans living in Sweden and they were basically complaining that Swedes should be more extroverted. I think it's nothing wrong with being introverted and other people think the same.

Thing I don't like

When someone asks me about my least favorite thing about Sweden, my answer usually revolves around the same topic. I call it lack of expressiveness and it has many forms. For example, Swedes don't like conflict and rarely disagree with people. But this goes in the other direction as well. They have trouble showing that they like something or somebody. It is thus very hard to make friends as well as make enemies. There are exceptions of course, for example I like that my supervisor is not afraid to criticize me and I also have a few Swedish friends.

Since I moved to Sweden, I have made about the same number of new Slovak friends as Swedish friends. On the other hand, I think I got into a conflict in Slovakia much more often than in Sweden. It's not uncommon to get into a conflict with a waiter/bus driver in Slovakia for no reason and I don't miss these pointless conflicts here. However, I still think Swedes should express their negative feedback more often.

The lack of expressiveness has effects on the whole society and not just one-on-one interactions. The way people dress is very uniform, nobody wants to stick out and express themselves. Swedes describe themselves using the word lagom, which means just the right amount. The Wikipedia entry for lagom among other things says about the Swedish society:
Nonetheless, it is still widely considered ideal to be modest and avoid extremes.
Another phenomenon explaining the Scandinavian culture is Law of Jante which says
You are not to think you're anyone special or that you're better than us.
However, I have a feeling that this is slowly changing, especially in the big cities people are not that homogeneous and try to be unique in some way.

What I learned

I seldom end up where I wanted to go, but almost always end up where I need to be. – Douglas Adams
I learned that things almost never go as planned. On the other hand they often went much better than planned. I got the honor to teach the best high school and university programmers in Sweden, I got an awesome part-time job at Spotify with a lot of autonomy and there were a few more positive surprises.

Of course there have been some negative surprises, but I have never questioned my decision to move abroad. I learned a lot by being forced outside of my comfort zone. It is hard sometimes, but it's worth it in the long run.

I encourage everyone to try living abroad at least for a while. You will be frustrated and lonely at times, but in the end you will become stronger and a better person. Psychologists claim that the best time for this decision are your twenties, so don't waste your time!