International Story by Karim Rafie



Karim Rafie, Affiliated Post Doc at the Department of Medical Biochemistry and Biophysics

1. Coming to Sweden/Umeå, what surprised you the most?

After living in Egypt, Germany and Scotland the first thing that surprised me was the tranquility of Umeå. Don't get me wrong, not in a bad, boring but rather in a calm way. Everything here is so relaxed and flowing. I have to be honest though, it took me a while to get used to everything being more relaxed here. No country that I lived in before had this kind of deep calm, which I believe is largely attributed to the closeness to nature. The woods are a part of Umeå, just as much as the city center or the university. Nature acts like a buffer to soak up the noise and stress. Already on the walks to and from work, I passed through a short stretch of woods, which allowed for a brief respite before and after a long day in the lab. Of course nothing was flawlessly, as it seldom is. The initial long wait time for the personal number and not being able to open up a bank account did put a small asterisk on my first two months here, but after that it was smooth sailing.

The next big surprise came in summer, when I realised that (nearly) everyone here takes five weeks of summer vacation. During that time, Umeå has something of a ghost town vibe coming off of it. Despite that, I do enjoy the summers here. OBBQing with friends, sitting at the river, biking, hiking and so much more. Everything right here at your doorstep.
The final big surprise, and by far the one with the most significant impact, was the darkness in winter. It's not as if I haven't been told (even warned) about it but I don't think one can truly appreciate what it is like, without actually going through it. Thankfully, the year I arrived we had a nice crisp-cold winter with temperatures going down to nearly -30 °C, which in my opinion made it enjoyable and exciting. On top of that we had loads of snow, deepening the tranquility I mentioned in the beginning.

2.Many people experience the Swedish culture and our way of being difficult to understand. Have you experienced situations where this has affected your work (or private life) and how did you handle it?

The Swedish culture definitely takes some time to adjust to but I never had the feeling that I had any issues due to cultural differences. For me it took the longest to not make small talk when I meet people. Everywhere else I lived, people usually chit-chat about something, here in Sweden speech is silver, silence is gold. Definitely something I can get used to.
Regarding the meetings, I appreciate the ambition to have everyone agree on things, which is expected from a healthy society. However that being said, sometimes the need for unanimous agreement only leads to deferment and in the end things are being done later than they should or, in the worst case, never. So far though, if this ever came to pass it was with non-significant topics, i.e. ones that did not hinder me in my work nor private life.
The one thing I would appreciate more though, is to get to know more Swedes outside of the lab. It is very difficult to make new connections as there is no culture of just meeting new people at the pub (definitely not during the pandemic). Especially, because I have yet to meet a Swede who was not nice, helpful and polite. I can definitely see myself staying in Sweden in the long term.

3.Do you have any general or good advice to other postdoctoral scholarship holders?

Yes definitely. First of all, if your PI or department offers you a flat, take it. Finding a flat here in Umeå for long-term stay is next to impossible. Also, sign up with Bostaden straight away. You never know, maybe you get lucky and can move into your own flat after some time here. Second, try to get the paper work for your personal number and identity card done as soon as possible. Most of it is out of ones hand but having all the documents ready definitely helps. Third and most importantly, enjoy Umeå (and surrounding). It is an amazing place, with so much to discover and enjoy, especially in winter. Try to get a bike. It allows you to get around the city fast and easy. Or walk, you never know what you might find.

4.What are your "hidden gems" in Umeå?

Ohhh... that's a tough one. Definitely the Chinese bridge at Nydala. It is quite nice to sit there and enjoy the day. Just a little bit further down the road, after crossing the bridge, is a small spot with a fire pit and a T-shaped pier allowing you to walk a bit out onto the lake. In winter you can also just walk directly onto the frozen lake. I have to say though, my favorite place, as weird as it may sound, is the little green space at the river just opposite Strömpilen. It feels like sitting at the intersection between the bustling city and nature. The noise coming from the shoppers, the cars and lorries at the back and the silence coming from the slow moving river. Give it a try, if you are inclined to do so.

Rosita Nilsson