Sunday, August 24, 2014

Luleå 2014: The Journey There

Note: this blog has been migrated to Medium, with the articles here available to preserve permalinks. Please see this post at

I knew that my time in Sweden was going to be an adventure, but I was not planning on the trip there being such a big adventure. And every good adventure needs to have its story told, so here it is.

It all started almost two months before I was scheduled to leave: I applied for a Student Residence Permit through the Migrationsverket website on July 2nd. Soon afterward I tried to check on its progress and learned two things: the waiting time could be up to two months, and their website only lets you check on the status of applications made on paper. For online applications you have to call the embassy to ask about it. The problem with that approach is that they only answer the phone for residence permit questions for an hour a day, three days a week. That hour started at 10am, which meant that I could never call personally because working at camp does not give much free time during business hours. So +Amy Buck started calling, but they are so busy that if you do not call right at 10 you will almost assuredly be in hold for the whole hour. Finally she got through on August 11th, one week before I was scheduled to leave. She found out that my application had been rejected on July 28th, but they had never sent me an email with my rejection letter.

Now the reason it was rejected is interesting: part if the application involves demonstrating that you have enough money to live in Sweden during your stay. So I had sent them a bank statement and a statement about my financial aid for the fall semester. Problem: I forgot to make sure that the bank statement had my name on it (duh). That's okay, the financial aid should be enough. Well, turns out it "wasn't clear that the university was giving me access to that money during my time in Sweden." What do they think financial aid is for?? So my mom decided we needed to do it the brute force way: she transferred $7,000 to my bank account (telling me all the while that I am not allowed to spend it) and we printed a bank statement with my name on it. We sent in the new documents along with an appeal letter the next day.

We had no idea how long it was going to take for the appeal to go through, but we waited vigilantly. According to our contact at the Swedish embassy it was illegal for me to enter the country while my permit was being appealed. The day before I had to leave we started looking for alternate options: it would cost way too much to change my plane tickets, so I made an offhand comment about staying in Germany until I was allowed to go to Sweden (my last plane change was in Düsseldorf). Suddenly mom sat up and presented the idea of staying with Laura Mertens' family. Laura had studied in America and stayed with us for a month a year and a half ago. Laura told us that they had plenty of room in their house, and they told me which trains to take to get to their town near Frankfurt.

Before leaving I had a little gathering, mostly of Morris buddies who hadn't seen since May. +Sonja Richardson had told me that she wouldn't be able to make it to the party or to see me off at the airport; turns out she wanted to surprise me by picking me up from camp. And surprise me she did, despite +Eric Buck almost giving the whole thing away.

My first flight left Minneapolis at 10:22am, so we got up at 6 so we could get there about three hours early. Because I was still scheduled to get on a plane to Stockholm from Düsseldorf, we didn't want to have any check in luggage whatsoever for fear that it would automatically transfer to the next airplane and go to Stockholm without me. We packed about a week's worth of clothes into a bag and all of the electronics I was taking into my backpack and I took them both as carry on.

The flight from Minneapolis to Newark Liberty was pretty short and uneventful, but man it was so exciting because it was my first flight in ten years. I was grinning like an idiot throughout takeoff and landing.

The plane from Newark to Düsseldorf was way bigger and more luxurious. Each seat had a pillow, a blanket, a screen to watch movies, and a USB outlet. I tried to sleep for most of the flight (it was about 11pm in Düsseldorf when we left) but as you can imagine that's not an easy task. The ear plugs that +scott kopp gave me definitely helped. I also made my first airplane buddy. I was on the aisle seat in the middle section, and the only other person in the middle section was an old lady at the other aisle seat (so there were two empty seats between us). When she saw me struggling to sleep, she motioned me to lay down on those two seats and stacked up the pillows next to her. In hindsight maybe she was a vampire trying to get my neck nice and close whole I was sleeping, but I'm pretty sure that didn't happen.

Do I got into Düsseldorf, got my passport stamped (I was suddenly reminded of Papers, Please) and it was time to find a train. That turned out to be pretty easy, as the instructions Laura's mother sent were thorough.

There are a few things I noticed about Germany right away:
  1. T-Mobile appears to be king, as all of the pay phones are operated by them, as well as many of the Wi-Fi networks in the train stations. Unfortunately I still counted as roaming, and so I just left my phone in airplane mode to avoid paying $0.50 per text message or $1.50 per minute.
  2. There is a lot of graffiti lining the railways. I gather that it is more of an artistic expression than defacing property (I suppose I should call it "street art,") but still technically not allowed.
  3. Smoking is a lot more prevalent than I am used to. It's not allowed inside most of the time, but In the Frankfurt airport I saw a smoking area that was a big plastic box.
  4. A lot of people said goodbye to one another with a really cute " cheers! "
  5. In the little town I was staying in, there aren't any sidewalks. There is the street, then there is a paved area that pedestrians and parked cars share.
That first day in Germany was an interesting one: I spent most of the day hanging out with Laura's little brother Felix, who does not enjoy his English class so we had trouble communicating. I was also falling asleep for most of the day so I wasn't much help. I wasn't sure how long I was going to be staying with the Mertens, but a mere four hours after I got to their house I received the email saying that my residence permit had been approved. The timing couldn't have been worse: I didn't really get any time to hang out with them, and I had to spend another $500 for a plane ticket and train ticket.

So the next day I went to the Frankfurt airport. Oddly the German security was more of a hassle than American security was; their metal detector went off when I had everything off but my shirt, pants, underwear, and socks. My first flight went to Helsinki. I sat next to an older Finnish man who I talked with before the flight, but he fell asleep before we even left the ground. My flight from Helsinki to Stockholm was in a tiny little two-propeller airplane, and let me tell you that the smaller your aircraft, the more terrifying the landing will be.

Once in Stockholm I was pretty much on my own. I had booked a night at a youth hostel, but first I had to get there. Using the wifi in the airport and the saving grace that is Google Maps, I figured out that I could take an airplane bus to a metro hub, then a subway to a station about a block from the hostel. Only problem with that plan was that the ticket machine didn't like my card, so I walked a couple kilometers instead. Keep in mind that I had two heavy bags bursting with all of my worldly possessions, so I kind of felt like a badass.

The next morning I had to get over to the Migrationsverket to get my picture and fingerprints taken. This time the ticket machine liked my card, so I got to experience the subway for the first time. It was a little intimidating when I went down the stairs, got my ticket, then saw the real flight of stairs I had to go down. Subways are pretty easy to navigate, though you can't use a GPS to see how far you are from your stop.
I was significantly less confident in my ability to figure out the buses, so I walked another couple of kilometers to the Migrationsverket. I arrived a couple of minutes late for my appointment, but they were very nice and called me up when they had an opening. I met another American who was also a couple minutes late for his appointment and who also owned a Nexus 5. I swear, we were twins.

After that I took a metro train to Stockholm Central Station and bought a ticket to Luleå. By that time it was about 1pm and my train didn't leave until 6pm. I stowed my bags in a locker, got some lunch in my belly (I ate at a McDonald's, but don't yell at me; it had to happen once) and then I was ready to be a tourist. I could see several cool buildings from the station, so I just started walking from one to another taking tons of pictures.

My favorite building was the Stockholm City Hall. It is a big red brick building on the waterfront that has a big old garden, a courtyard, tons of statues and interesting things to see. And it didn't cost anything to get in!

I also found the oldest building in Stockholm, a church built in the 1200s. It is the royal burial place of many Swedish Kings, and I want to go back and explore it more extensively but it is a museum so I saved my money for another time.

I suppose I could let you read this sign to find out more.
There were also a bunch of other buildings that I took pictures of but don't know anything about.

And then there is this shop front that I wouldn't be surprised to find in Minnesota.
After my afternoon I went back to the train station and found my platform. There were a couple of girls getting on in front of me who had tons of luggage (remember them later, I am using a writing technique called foreshadowing). As it was an overnight train ride I settled in to read some more A Clash of Kings before going to sleep. I slept better than I had on the plane from Newark to Düsseldorf, but that isn't saying a whole lot. I woke up before 6am and decided that it was pointless to go back to sleep. After the last stop before Luleå I noticed that the two girls I had noticed before the train ride were still there. So I went up and asked them if they were going to the university. Turns out they are Marta and Renata, exchange students from Poland, don't know any Swedish yet, and didn't have any idea what to expect when we got there. So we decided that if we were going to get lost we would do it together.

Our arrival in Luleå was pretty depressing. It was cold and rainy and early on a Saturday morning, so there was nobody around. Marta and Renata already had tickets for the bus to the university, but I didn't and the ticket station didn't open until 9:30. I had to hope the bus sold tickets as well. While we waited I saw a cute little park and took some pictures.

The bus finally came and it did indeed sell tickets, but once again the machine didn't like my card. I was about to get off the bus, but the driver kindly told me that I could get on. We got off at the university and realized that we had absolutely no idea where to go. All of the doors were locked, and there was nobody around to ask what to do. We looked so lost that someone asked us if we wanted to get inside a building. We said yes, if only to get out of the rain. Inside there were a few people sitting around, so I asked one of them if we could use his phone to call our contact at LURC (the office that helps the international students.) He told us that we would be able to get our keys at 1pm, and until then we could store our bags in the fitness center. The guy whose phone we borrowed, Tobias, showed us where to put our bags, where we were going to go to get our keys, and where we could get some food in the meantime. He also owned a Nexus 5.

So we waited for a while, and then someone from LURC came by and gave us our welcome packages. He drove us over to the apartments where we are staying and got us set up. Later in the day there was a barbecue where I met a bunch of cool people. I missed about a day of activities, but I made it here in one piece and with all of my things, so I'd call it a win!

I'll be keeping a fairly detailed journal here on the blog, especially when significant things happen. You can bet that orientation week is going to be significant. I have also been posting thoughts and pictures as they happen on Google+, so be sure to pay attention to that if you want to see my day-to-day. I have a really good feeling about this semester, it's going to be a blast!