International story by Eavan O Dochartaigh



Eavan O Dochartaigh, affiliated Post Doc at the Faculty of Arts and Humanities

1. You came here with a family – is there something you would like to share regarding this experience?

Coming with my family was a lot tougher than I thought it was going to be. My husband was keen for the adventure but my daughter absolutely did not want to leave her life in Ireland. She was ten when we arrived and I thought she would be okay since she had both her parents with her and the city is a nice environment. But it's a difficult age to move abroad and learn another language through immersion. At that age it really takes a year to achieve fluency and it was hard to see someone previously very social be forced into a situation where she simply couldn't express herself. Although by Easter she could understand and speak Swedish, most of her classmates in the local school still treated her as if she couldn't. This was one reason we chose to change schools after the first year so she could have a fresh start. Now she is flying it and everyone says she will thank me when she's older for giving her this experience - I can only hope! One thing we did was bring her pet guinea pigs from Ireland, which was a lot of hassle. But I'm so glad we brought them for her so my advice is to bring the pets!

2. What surprised you the most?

There are so many small things that have surprised me. The mosquitos! They were relentless last summer, hunting us down for our untainted Irish blood (we don't have mosquitos in Ireland).

Sweden has had quite a good image in Ireland. We are always pointing to the Nordic countries saying we Irish could do better. So there is an expectation that Sweden will be better ... at everything. But when you get here you find out that not everything is perfect; I really miss the casual social interaction, the smiles, you get in Ireland; that is harder to find here and many people our own age seem more closed, unless they have spent time in another country.

It's also really surprising to come here as a native English speaker and experience the common use of English swear words or derogatory terms in the media and in schools. I can't bring myself to go into a certain restaurant chain, I nearly crashed the car when a radio presenter shouted "F**k you, f**k you, f**k you!" on air one morning, and my daughter informs us she learnt more English swear words than she knew existed at the local school. To a native English speaker it sounds really strange – we don't use those words that casually!

That all sounds really negative! But, as I said, we expect Sweden to be 'better' than Ireland. So I haven't been surprised by the fantastic cycling and walking infrastructure, the amazing access to nature, and the warm homes, but I am certainly enjoying them! And the biggest surprise of all: tasting my first dammsugare after a 5km walk in a snowstorm. Those things are good!

3. What are your "hidden gems" of Umeå?

Because the majority of our stay here has been during the pandemic, there must be a lot of hidden gems I haven't experienced. One thing we love are the fireplaces you find in many outdoor areas. It makes socializing outside so much nicer.

I really love the little café that is open in the summers at Nydalasjön, Kyrkstugan. It's a nice cycle to get there, most of the seating is outside and it's also a lovely spot for a swim. We also discovered that they have two canoes for rent very cheaply, so you can paddle round the lake for an hour or so, which is a nice activity with kids.

Umeå and the surrounding area is a great place for horse riding. I did it a lot when I was younger but I've really enjoyed getting back into it here. You can ride beautiful North Swedish horses Backfors Gård through the woods, Icelandic horses Grönåker and there are other places too. Near to town there are four riding stables Innertavle ridskola and I recently had great fun at a lesson for parents at Innertavle where my daughter rides.

4. What advice can you give to other internationals?

When you're looking for accommodation, don't forget to check the university's webpage "Bostad uthyres". Through that page, I found a lovely little house for rent on an old farm about 8km from campus. As well as fresh eggs (and free hay for our guinea pigs!), the couple who own the farm and live across the yard are landlords sent from heaven. They have been incredibly helpful, warm and kind to us.

For learning Swedish, I found that the most helpful thing was when my daughter discovered a comic strip that she loved. A troublesome little pony, Mulle (from Min Häst magazine), has taught us both a lot of Swedish! You can pick up Swedish kids' magazines and comics for almost nothing in second-hand shops (especially PMU and the Red Cross at Mariedal) so have a browse and find some you like. If you enjoy reading something in Swedish, you're far more likely to do it. It's a bit more fun than reading the news! Also, audio books from the library Mina bibliotek

Coming here as an international member of staff you're more vulnerable in a range of situations than an Umeå resident would be. You're away from your usual support network, family, and friends, and you can come up against unexpected situations that are more difficult to navigate than if you were at home in your comfort zone. Don't hesitate to contact Feelgood for help. Sometimes you need some direction to get you back on track and they're a great service.

It can be hard to meet people in Umeå, especially as a postdoc. You don't have your own PhD cohort for example and neither are you going to be a permanent fixture in a department. Try to join something that appeals to you, or even start your own. I started a writing group on campus and then moved it online in the pandemic. It's been a great way to get to know some people and get work done at the same time. I also started an English-speaking children's book club. The pandemic ruined my plan to have it in the city library but we ended up starting an outdoor book club instead and now have a lovely group of Swedish-International families; it's turned into something far more social and fun than I ever imagined and our outdoor meetings twice a month have sustained us in the last year. Please contact me if either of these appeal to you!

Rosita Nilsson