Field report: An Erasmus semester in Gothenburg

Hej,
jag heter Janne och jag ska berätta lite om mitt liv som Erasmus-student i Göteborg. Jag har bott där i ett halvt år och pluggat “Scandinavian Cultural Studies” på Göteborgs universitet. Nu är jag tillbaka hemma i Tyskland och har haft tid att skriva ner mina tanker om livet i staden vid Sveriges västra kust.

Arrival

My term started on January 19, 2015, so I arrived by train from Hamburg on January 15. The almost 9-hour journey is easy to manage even with a lot of luggage – you only have to change trains once in Copenhagen. Once arrived in Gothenburg, one buys monthly tickets for public transport (streetcars and buses) for 435 SEK (= 48 €), since there is no semester ticket here, as we know it from Germany. The transportation network is very well developed. Streetcars run every 10 minutes around the Brunnsparken and Järntorget junctions. The buses meander through many residential areas and are often surprisingly fast. I saved up for the ticket during the summer months and just loaded money onto my card since I rode my bike a lot. The city is hilly, but everything is fairly close together and you can walk or bike many distances quickly. Good to know is that you can go with the normal public transport fares to the islands in the archipelago.

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The Welcome Week at the University of Gothenburg took place during the first week of university. Fortunately, the events did not overlap. There were a lot of welcome events for the many international students as well as introductions to the different faculties and libraries (in my case the Faculty of Humanities, Humanists) and an introductory event for my course block (Scandinavian Studies: Cultural and Social Perspectives / 30 CP) by the program coordinator. There was also a small “fair” in which various organizations were presented – I found these rather uninteresting. One evening, all exchange students were welcomed by the city of Gothenburg with a buffet. Afterwards, many students met in those pubs in Andra Långgatan frequented by internationals (Kings Head, Queens Head …) – I felt less at home in the midst of all the international crowd and cheap beer during the entire stay and gradually dodged to other pubs in the area.

Later there was a pub crawl as well as some Erasmus parties – I rather avoided those. The welcome program also included a guided tour of the Maritime Museum & Aquarium and a city rally. Another program item after a few weeks was the International Dinner, where many students brought a variety of food and dined together. Throughout the semester, language café afternoons were held where students could practice various languages. A few sports events were also organized. I didn’t attend many of them because my circle of friends didn’t consist of many Erasmus students.

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Instead, I often met with a very nice group, Svenska fika. At the beginning weekly, later in more irregular intervals, we met in different cafes or restaurants to speak Swedish together and laugh about mistakes. Through this, some friendships developed and we got to know the city and its corners a bit better. We also went to the (Swedish) theater or cinema together, baked semlor, went on picnics or watched Swedish movies. We organized ourselves through Facebook and new people kept joining. I can really recommend this group.

Housing

To be on the safe side, I applied for a dorm place at SGS and received the acceptance at the end of November. You can set priorities and choose between different locations and classes (own kitchenette, own bathroom, room for two, etc.). Of course, this is also reflected in the prices. For example, I would have paid just under €500 for my room. The chance to get a room as an exchange student is quite high.

However, I looked around for accommodation in a shared flat because I wanted to get an impression of Swedish life. So I went to Gothenburg for two days at the end of November, wrote to shared flats beforehand (e.g. on the website blocket.se), then looked at some of them and finally had an acceptance in a very nice kollektiv house, which, however, was located very far outside. I declined the room and, back in Germany, kept looking. I was lucky and found a room through a Facebook group and contact with one of my later roommates. It was rented through the international student organization AIESEC, who had rented an apartment for their international interns and still had a room left. So I lived with 3 other internationals in a nice apartment right in the city center – in Linné. In the end, I paid just under 4,100 SEK for a furnished 9m2 room – a lot of money, but a bargain for my location and also cheaper than the dorm room I was offered.

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One thing you should know about student housing in Gothenburg is that very many students, including Swedish students, live in student residences. This is due to the tight and partly state-controlled housing market in Gothenburg. WGs like in Germany are therefore not so common. There are a few collectively (larger WGs, often ideologically – vegan, feminist, politically left, etc. – angehaucht, often in houses slightly outside), but more common are accommodations with single adults or older people whose children have moved out and with whom you then live purposefully together. My shared apartment was also more of a purpose-built apartment. In order to make contacts, it is therefore actually sometimes easier to live in a dormitory.

Quality of Life

Sweden is a very advanced country, everything works very reliably (traffic, internet …) and the university is financially and technically super equipped. Everyday life is highly technologized, a lot is done via smartphone (tickets, payment …), doctor’s appointments etc. are booked on the internet, you can (and often have to) pay with card – even in cafes, clubs or at the university. I often had and needed no cash for weeks. However, sometimes I had problems paying with my German EC card, so it is recommended to have a credit card.

I opened a Swedish account, but without being registered in Sweden (more on that later) this only works at two banks (SEB and one other). Once you have this account, you can only pay with your debit card and get statements at the ATM – you can’t transfer money or do online banking without a Swedish ID. I found this to be very impractical, so I don’t recommend it.

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One aspect that disappointed me personally was the Swedish personnummer. This is a number that every citizen receives at birth and keeps for life. If you are a foreigner, you get it if you have an employment contract or if you have been enrolled at a Swedish university for at least one year. You give this number everywhere, it is included in every contract and you use it in many places to use websites – e.g. at the university, when you open a bank account, when you register at the library, when you look for a job, when you get written on lists at parties and so on…. You really need it everywhere. A lot of things work without it, but that often means going through detours (e.g. different replacement numbers at the university and at the bank). In my case, frustratingly, I already had such a personal number because I lived in Sweden for three years as a child. However, since I was only enrolled for one semester, it could not be activated at the Skatteverket (tax office). Even with 2 semesters of study, this would probably not have been possible, since one is not enrolled for exactly 12 months. So I was neither registered in Sweden nor did I feel part of the Swedish society. Finding a summer job – as I had previously thought – was therefore not easy either, and I ultimately discarded the plan. Partly due to this fact, I found the Swedish population to be wealthy, socially balanced, friendly and very tolerant and helpful – but it was very difficult to be accepted into their ranks.

University & Courses

The Erasmus cooperation of my university is with the Department of Cultural Sciences, which is located on the campus of Chalmers Technical University at Kapellplatsen. The Swedish university system is somewhat different than in Germany: A semester is divided into four 4-week blocks. So you don’t have several courses at the same time, but always only one course with 7.5 ECTS (or maybe sometimes an 8-week course with 15 ECTS), which consists of lectures, seminars and study group meetings. Unfortunately, the subject matter was not really applicable to my German field of study, as it was geared more towards Scandinavian studies than cultural studies. So I learned quite a bit about Swedish society and could understand a lot of things there better, but I could not deepen my interests.

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Unfortunately, the level of the courses was also very low. I partly felt like I was in 7th grade history class, where we gave funny short presentations in groups. In Hamburg I learned to reflect strongly on everything, this was not encouraged here. Deeper discussions were often interrupted by the course instructors (people say that Swedes are very consensus-oriented and avoid arguments). One problem was that the courses were only taken by international students, who came from a wide variety of backgrounds, and due to a lack of common prior knowledge, they were therefore always starting from scratch. This diversity of origin was not used to examine cultural patterns, but rather the goal was for all these internationals to learn about Scandinavia. Thus, the courses seemed more like a travel guide to Scandinavia: unreflective and promoting stereotypes. There was not a single Swedish student in this module. Also, it is a module that does not belong to any B.A. and so no one graduates in this subject. In this way there was no motivation among the students, no sense of community and therefore it was very difficult to cope with the many group works.

The language of instruction was English, which led to communication problems and rather superficial discussions due to different levels of both lecturers and students. The lecturers were mostly PhD students. There was often a lack of communication between the course instructor and the lecturer, so we only heard about field research and were not able to learn any (theoretical) overall framework or ways to investigate overall complexes.

I solved this problem of underachievement, few university events and lack of contact with fellow students by going to the library a lot on my own, reading all the course literature there and investing a lot of time in my essays at the end of the course blocks. I also spent a lot of time in the city, doing “my own field research” and looking not only at museums, but also at life. I tried to take other courses (also in Swedish), but I was not accepted for the courses I was interested in. I was offered alternatives, but they were not in my field of expertise or interest.

Support from the University?

The support from the university was very good, emails were usually answered by return of post and at the university you could either contact the StuKo, the Student Office or the various Service Centers. Everyone was very helpful and showed responsibility for their area. They gave us their contact information several times in the beginning.

The faculty building was also very open, you can get directly to the lecturers’ offices, there are open lunch places, many shared microwaves and workstations. It reflects the flat hierarchies in Swedish society (you are on first name terms, academic titles are almost irrelevant). The Swedish refectories are quite expensive compared to the German ones, as you usually have to choose a daily menu for about 70 SEK including drink/dessert/soup/salad. The Swedish microwave lunch is a Swedish national sport.

The libraries are great. I spent a lot of time there, especially in Pedagogen and Humanisten. You can just walk in there without locking up your stuff. There are plenty of workstations and you can get comfortable on the armchairs. I’ve often only been in the library for 1-2 hours because the effort is so minimal.

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Language

Briefly, I am fluent in Swedish, having learned and maintained it here as a child. I have subsequently been on vacation in Sweden every year and so have made little progress in comprehension during my stay, but rather in everyday language and written Swedish. I also feel much more confident in speaking now. But in general: in Sweden you can get away with English everywhere. Everywhere.

Since my classes were in English, my friends were mostly internationals (though not Erasmus students) and my roommates were also non-Swedish, I spoke a lot of English and also improved a lot, especially in writing.

Nevertheless, Swedish, as in all other countries, is so important to immerse into the Swedish everyday life. I don’t think not knowing Swedish would have been a problem, but you pick up a lot more when you know Swedish. And Swedish is really an easy language if you already speak English.

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The university offers every exchange student to take a language course – but like the other courses, this course only lasts 4 weeks. If you are a beginner, you start in block 1, but if you are more advanced, you start in blocks 2-4 – after you have already spent some time in Gothenburg. My course would not have started until a month before the end of the semester, so I did not take it. Instead, I took a B2.2 level course at Folkuniversitetet (the Swedish VHS), which was okay, but not outstanding. At least I had the good feeling of having actively done something for my Swedish. I heard about the Swedish courses at the university that they were overcrowded and the level was very low. Many dropped out of the language courses because of this – you can get by with English anyway … Too bad.

Cultural Offer?

Gothenburg is the second largest city in Sweden and has about half a million inhabitants. I find Gothenburg very exciting in terms of development because, like Hamburg, the city has been in transition since the crisis of the 1970s and is very segregated. There are many different neighborhoods with interesting stories: Haga, Långgatorna, Majorna, Gamlestaden, Kvillebäcken, Lindholmen, Eriksberg …

In addition, there are many museums that are very cheap or even free for students (the Röhsska Design Museum, the Konstmuseum, the City Museum, Röda Sten Konsthall). Insider tips are also Mölndals Museum, Remfabriken or Kortedala Museum. There is a large amusement park (Liseberg) and a great – but expensive – natural science experiment museum (Universeum). Compared to Stockholm, however, you realize that Gothenburg is more of a small city. Stockholm has great big museums, but they are also very expensive (about 100 SEK and up) and crowded.

Free is also the Stadsbibliotek with the headquarters at Götaplatsen (even without personnummer!). One can browse there wonderfully and borrow many books (also foreign-language), films etc.. Working there works thanks to 1h free Internet also times, only the toilets cost unfortunately 5 SEK.

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Otherwise, there are a few cinemas (the best is the program cinema Haga Bion in Linné – films for 60 SEK student price), a quite good theater and many cultural houses such as Pustervik, Folkets Hus, Café Hängmattan, Kulturhuset Oceanen, Frilagret and so on. In January there is the Gothenburg Short Film Festival, which has a very good reputation, in the summer there are events like the half marathon Göteborgsvarvet, the music festival Way Out West, many flea markets or street festivals/markets. There is actually something going on every week – Gothenburg calls itself an event city after all.

There are also thousands of gyms, but I spent much more time in the many parks and nature: the archipelago, Delsjön, Slottskogen, Trädgårdsföreningen, Skansenkronan …

Conclusion

I spent a nice half year in Gothenburg and I don’t want to miss the experience. I met a lot of great people and learned things – about Gothenburg, about Sweden, Swedish society, Swedish history, Swedish everyday life and most of all about myself. I have to say that I had highs and lows throughout my time in Sweden: there were many wonderful moments, but there were also some moments when I felt alone – that was because the university underchallenged me and didn’t integrate me like at my home university, that was because of my purpose shared apartment, that was because I didn’t have a job. I didn’t feel needed, so I always had to find tasks and something to do myself. In doing so, I tried to find people around me to accompany me – but above all, I had to constantly motivate myself. I found that exhausting.

Unfortunately, the fact that I had been to Sweden so often as a child and in my further life had a negative effect on me in the sense that I had already had a lot of positive experiences in Sweden and I was now feeling the rather negative ones. Nevertheless, I am very happy to have been immersed in the reality of Sweden and that I now view this country more critically than before.

The biggest gain from this time was to get together with so many international people and hopefully stay in touch for a while. The expectation of coming to a country and being integrated is too high, especially for this short time. However, I think I was actually able to experience the purpose of the Erasmus program quite well: To come together with people from Europe, to realize how great the European community can be, to communicate, to become friends and to exchange ideas. I think Erasmus is a great way to bring young people closer to the European idea and to promote a peaceful coexistence of different people and cultures. I still think that Gothenburg is a great city, well suited for an Erasmus stay, thanks to its compact size and cultural offer. I will definitely return soon and I am curious to see what will happen there in the coming years.

Images: © OBS!

Field report: An Erasmus semester in Gothenburg