International story by Eric Campano



Eric Campano, Doctoral student at Dep. of Informatics

1. What do you wish you knew before you moved to Sweden and Umeå University?

Swedish! It's such a delightful language. To me, it often sounds like someone telling a fairy tale, the way the melody loops up and down, and with all these cute words like fjäril ("butterfly") and annorlunda (which has the rather humdrum meaning of "different"). I'd bet most native Swedish speakers don't realize how beautiful the word "annorlunda" is to non-Swedish ears.

I tried to study Swedish with a tutor, in Milan, where I was living before I moved to Umeå. How much harder can Swedish be than Italian? I thought, since Swedish is known to be a relatively easy language to learn for English native speakers like me. Well, I really underestimated the difficulty of understanding and mimicking the pronunciation, which has taken a long time. A lot of international staff come here and rely upon English, without ever learning Swedish. That's normal, and it's OK if you do that. But it greatly enhances your time in Umeå to be able to converse comfortably in Swedish, so I recommend that you prioritize getting into a Swedish class and not giving up until you can understand the jokes the little kids in the city bus are making about you, supposedly behind your back.

And also: academic lectures in Swedish! No matter what your area of research, you'll get a new perspective on it once you've heard it discussed in the language of Carl Linnaeus and August Strindberg.

2. What surprised you the most?

How warm Umeå is, and I don't mean just the people, but literally. Before moving here, my only experience in Sweden was in Stockholm in March, and I thought, jeez, this place feels like it's been frozen forever. And Umeå is 600 kilometers north of Stockholm, so I was expecting it to be like one of those documentaries of people living in Antarctica, with ice particles stuck to their beards and high-tech sunglasses protecting them from blinding blizzards. Actually, Umeå is quite comfortable in the winter. There's not a lot of wind, and the giant snow piles seem to insulate the warmth at ground level. I say "seem" because I have no idea if that's scientifically true. But: the winter here is not comfortable if you're not wearing enough layers of clothing. So, invest in those thick snow pants and indestructible waterproof boots. Then enjoy a snowball fight, or moose-spotting in a Narnia-like forest.

3. Three pieces of advice for new international staff?

1. If you don't already have housing, sign up as soon as possible to get in the queue with local housing companies like Bostaden and Lerstenen. It can take years in the queue before you qualify for an apartment. One international student I knew decided in 2009 that she would someday move to Sweden, so she signed up with Bostaden back then. When she finally arrived in 2017, she got a top-floor flat with a view over the river, Teg, and, if you squint, Norway.

2. You can get almost all the furnishings you need very cheaply at loppis (second-hand markets), such as PMU in Söderslätt or Returbutik in Strömpilen. This requires you, of course, to be eclectic in your decorative style. You'll need to match that 1970s leopard-print-upholstered sofa with a 19th-century neo-Gothic desk that looks like it came from a Harry Potter movie. Be daring!

3. Bicycle everywhere, if you can. It's the fastest way to get around, including in winter, as long as you have snow tires. Don't be afraid of climbing the Svingen, the bicycle ramp from the city center to the university. Try to ride as far up it as you can, then walk the rest of the way. Soon you'll probably be strong enough to handle the whole ramp, no problem. Still, I really wish the city would build a bicycle escalator up that hill, especially for people whose physical condition does not permit them to be able to cycle the whole way. The Norwegians have figured out how to build bicycle elevators, and you can watch gleeful YouTube videos of cyclists on them, being gently swept up hills, with absolutely no effort on their part.

4. What are your hidden gems in Umeå?

They're located in a treasure chest under the Aula Nordica. No, just kidding.

For the adventurous: the mystical island of Tarv. It's located off the coast of Obbola, to the south of Umeå. In the winter, you can walk to the island over the frozen Kvark (the Swedish name for the Baltic Sea, pronounced like the cheese.) In the summer, you'll have to convince someone to give you a ride in a boat. Tarv has a labyrinth and compass roses that are leftover from settlers from a time I believe is unknown to anyone. The island has been inhabited for a thousand years.

For volunteers: Vän i Umeå ("Friends in Umeå"), an organization founded in 2011 by the Church of Sweden, Red Cross, Save the Children and the YMCA, meant to help improve integration of newcomers to Umeå and to "make the world friendlier". Vän i Umeå does all kinds of fabulous activities -- even during coronavirus -- such as helping kids with homework and going for jogs in city parks. Vän i Umeå has a joyful vibe.

For the gastronomic: the fish and chips at Två Fiskare downtown. These are some of the best fish and chips in the whole, wide world. Be careful: they're so good, they might spoil the fish and chips you eat anywhere else, for the rest of your life (and so they are a reason to stay permanently in Umeå).

Rosita Nilsson