“Välkommen till svenska för invandrare, jag heter Calle“ said the teacher. I smiled politely along with all the other foreigners and wondered what the hell he was talking about. I’m an Australian in Sweden, the Uppsala Koala, and here begins my story…
Uppsala, a city in Eastern Sweden, could be the setting for a fairytale. Cobbled streets are shadowed by ancient cathedral spires, a ribbony river idles its way through the centre of town, and high on a hill stands an enormous pink castle watching the townsfolk go by (usually on bicycles). It’s worlds apart from my hometown of Perth, Australia, but it’s plain to see why everyone loves it here. Plus, it’s criminally easy to get by with a simple “D’ya speak English?”
But here lies the biggest problem with Sweden. In allowing yourself to be swept up in the English tide, you miss out on the things that make Sweden unique. And above all else, this is the Swedish language.
You see, Swedes are an intelligent and adaptable breed and can switch between Swedish and English without a flicker of their blonde eyelashes. As for me, I hardly speak a word of Swedish. I don’t even know Björn from Benny or Agnetha from… the fourth one.
I took the easy road for too long, and by the time I received my personnummer (national ID number) without having learnt a word of Swedish, I decided it was time for a change. Someone taught me to say: Kan du tala engelska? (Can you speak English?) and it became my first major breakthrough.
It worked perfectly – I could say it at the bank, the supermarket, in cafes, at bars. Sometimes I even said it when I had no reason to. It was fantastic. I was polite, respectful, you might even say impressive. I had separated myself from the tourists in four deft Swedish words. In fact, those words even sound a little bit like English (especially the way I pronounced them) so it was almost too easy.
I overused this phrase for weeks, but soon a little seed of doubt planted itself in my mind. Was this leading to any kind of cultural experience at all? It was certainly enough to get by, but who wants to get by? I wanted to plunge headfirst into Sweden’s culture through a fishing-hole in the ice. I wanted to take the proverbial moose by the horns and ride off into the Northern Lights. I wanted to adapt. I wanted to be accepted. But how?
Someone told me that the Swedish government highly encourages foreigners to speak the language and has organised a nation-wide course for people to learn. And it’s completely free. In fact, some lucky people even get paid for it. It’s called Svenska För Invandrare or SFI (Swedish for foreigners). You can choose how often and when you want to study, from once a week through to full time.
I signed up and soon found myself behind a school desk, meeting a Swedish teacher and a room full of mixed nationalities. I found out we sometimes even go on field trips around Uppsala. This, I thought, might be a journey worth recording.
So – here begins my quest to develop Swedish Enlightenment along with a class full of foreigners. I’ll continue to update along the way as I evolve, occasionally looking deeper “Inside Uppsala” when the time is right.
Join me as I investigate the quirks and peculiarities of the people in this historic land. Marvel as my vocabulary expands (from four words) and as I attempt to ingratiate myself with the Swedes in Uppsala and beyond. And please, revel in my regular failures as I practice on the unsuspecting Swedish public.
Hejdå (better make that five Swedish words).
*For those who don’t know, the Koala is an excessively lazy marsupial from Australia. While he may sit around in a gum-tree all day doing nothing, few would dispute his unique perspectives and sharpish wit.