If you are unfamiliar with Swedish culture, let me introduce you to a little gem I’ve found: Ploggar. This is the combination of the words plockar, to pick, and joggar, to jog. Essentially, it is running around actively searching for litter and tossing it out. I came across this through a random pop-up video on Youtube and I thought, what the heck, why not try?
Depending on where you live, there might be a ton of space for ploggar. Although, it seems that the everyone in the town I am in are removing any opportunity to do it. I have gotten on at least a dozen runs, and I have found 0 trash, nada, zilch. Every morning I have past the same couple sporting animal print and neon eagerly searching to see a bit of plastic here or a bit of cardboard there. But we have all come up short. Nevertheless, I still have gotten to seen the town of Växjö through a great lens.
Växjö, at least in the summer, is a pleasant, quiet place nestled between several lakes. If there is a place that comes close to the Great Lakes in Sweden, leave it to the Michigander to find it. There are a lot of random little oddities that make exploring all the more fun.
Adding to the unexpected, my expectations were blown away by the kindness and willingness of my sponsors at the University. I got a warm welcome from several faculty and got to have an amazing conversation with many people about the project. I was gifted with my own office, access to their archives, and sweetest of all… a free coffee machine.
I have never slept this much and this least in my entire life. I don’t know if it is because I went abroad just after coming out of the chaos of finals or I just have a stubborn body, but I am currently sleeping on no one’s time. I thought this would be a great way to help any other folks out there trying to ensure that they never sync up with the places they travel.
1. Drink Alcohol Across Time zones
I thought traveling was all about indulging so I made sure to have a drink in my hand for each of my first steps in Sweden. A gin and tonic on the plane, a beer with my first breakfast in the city, a glass of wine for dinner, and an unholy amount of mölska to really “experience” the culture. Piling up all of these drinks and more over the first couple of days made sure that my body felt like it was awake. It all came together for the perfect recipe of faux alertness and a +16 hour hangover.
2. Can’t Sleep? Do Something to Pass the Time.
If you have seen my google calendar, you know I get really queasy when I am not doing something. My version of hell is just having to lay in a bed and try to think about doing nothing, while remembering that I could be doing something, but in reality should be trying to do nothing but get distracted by being able to do something… you get the gist. To make the most of my time, I opted in for doing research, re-watching the new GoT episodes, and enjoying the Swedish sunrise at 5 a.m. I finally got some shut eye around 8 a.m. and awoke at 2 p.m. It’s fine. Plus, who is out at that time anyway?
3. Schedule Your Trip As If the Time Difference Doesn’t Exist
My itinerary was packed the first day with visiting museums and parks and art exhibits and buildings. I did manage a few… the next day. I tried to drag my relenting corpse to the first museum I had scheduled, only to fall asleep at the first installation. I was fully able to enjoy the exhibits with my eyes twitching and head nodding, completely new perspective on the art.
4. Let Your Body By Its Own Alarm Clock… It Knows Best
I didn’t set an alarm the first couple of days on my trip. I was hoping doing so would allow me to catch up on some missed z’s from finals week. What I did underestimate was my ability to lie in a single place unconscious for extended periods of time. On my longest day here so far, I slept for a straight 15 hours and was completely eclipsed on where I was and why my phone wouldn’t plug into the outlet… but hey, I probably needed it then, right?
5. Coffee Is A Beverage For All Meals
Swedes are not shy to tell you that they are the global leader in coffee consumption per capita. What they won’t tell you is that this has led to an incredible tolerance to caffeine amongst the Nordic people. I don’t drink coffee at school. A single cup often leaves me jittery and bugging people with new ideas for insane start ups. But, I thought if the locals are doing it… when in Rome? I had a cup with dinner and promptly fell asleep at 5 a.m. the following day. But on the good side, I got to go to bed with coffee breath instead of waking up for it.
Finally getting my first chance to see the Swedish construction process in real time made me realize how unimpressive videos can be. I traveled to the town of Norrköping, a typical European looking city thrown into a river. It is known for its industrilandskapet (industry landscape) and the Motala Ström which flows through several dams in the city. The first thing I noticed after getting off the train was a cluster of buildings turned into its very own island–google Norrköping and it is the first thing that comes up.
I had the chance to tour portions of the city before meeting my American contacts. I pulled up google maps and decided to choose the densest part of the city I could find and head there. I stumbled into the mall, Spiralen, and moseyed around some of their stores. Once I was fully aware I wasn’t in the buying mood for clothes or candy, I headed toward the city center. On my way, I started feeling feeling like I was walking in circles because I kept passing the same driving school. I kept checking my phone to make sure I was heading in the right direction and it reaffirmed me that I was. That’s when I realized that Norrköping has to have the highest number of driving schools I have seen in any city. There was a driving school on nearly every block and they greatly outnumbered cafes. At the moment, I am fully unaware of why there are so many, but I’m hoping it had something to do with Volvo’s lobbying efforts.
The next morning, I was up at 5:30 a.m. to head to a build site for a new home outside of Norrköping. We pulled up to the neighborhood and there were cranes and trucks everywhere expanding houses. We were greeted by our extremely friendly contact who was the head builder for the house that day. His team ranged from the ages of 16 – 50 and I realized by the end of the day why this was. When we first arrived, all that stood was a concrete foundation with some wood planks flanking its edges. The workers began using the crane to move some of the internal wall materials onto the foundation. However, things got really interesting when the panelized wall elements started flying into the air. The team clearly had done this many times and it was great to hear Swedish in a very different context. From the first wall being attached to the crane to the final wall being installed, the walls of the house were in place in 1 hour… 1 HOUR. This process could take up to weeks in the US due to constructing the correct wall structure for windows and internal sheathing. All of the team were laughing at how we were marveling over the speed and simplicity of the process. I stepped aside to speak with one of the team members who was a studying engineer and the only female on the team. She explained that she wanted to focus on the construction process within the house factories to make the on-site construction even more efficient. I described the standard US construction style to her and she laughed and left the conversation with the final sentence “You have a lot you could learn from us then”.
The roof came after the walls and this was by far the most time intensive part of the build. Arranging the trusses so they are perfectly vertical and in proper alignment with the walls is a necessary time sink. Like clockwork, the trusses to the house were in place and being fastened at the end of another hour. Quickly thereafter, tongue and groove wood was being nailed to the trusses to enclose the house. Water-proof fabric was placed on top of the roof and then it was finally closed by adding furring strips for adding the roof tiles to. All this was done by 3:30 p.m., all on the same day. It was incredible to remember standing on a concrete surface and then experiencing the enclosed space all in a matter of a few hours difference.
It’s funny how things can conveniently fall into place, especially when traveling. It just so happen to be Stockholm’s Kulturnatt the second day of my arrival. I’ve learned that Kulturnatt should really be called “cashiers have gone on holiday and will be back tomorrow”. Essentially, the city opens up all of its museums and cultural centers to the public. If you know me, you can understand why I immediately dragged my hosts out of the apartment to do some of the most epitomizing tourist-y activities I could find. Staying true to my roots, I ushered my group to the Royal Stalls. While it was amazing to see the grandeur of the architecture for the stables, it was a bit unsettling to see that horses had a better skin care regime and living arrangement than I have ever had while in college. From there, we scooted over to Nordiska Museet–I prioritized the night on going to the museums/locations with highest ticket fees; once a college student, always a college student. The building stands on the vibrantly green Djurgården and overlooks the old harbor. It has been almost 2 years since the last time I was at Djurgården, but I was immediately thrown into nostalgic memories of eating ice cream while walking by the Vasa Museet. When you enter Nordiska, the first thing you will notice is the shear height of the space, and then the eye is drawn to a multi-story wood carving of a man with the strongest bowl cut I have ever seen (no offense Karl Gustav). I walked around with my hosts and some of their friends through the museum. There was a lot of amazing exhibits from the history of the chair through the terrifying/hilarious decoration styles of the Christmas pig.
You conclude the museum on the highest floor with amazing views of the harbor and storkyrkan. About ready to leave, I leaned over the edge and got to catch some modern Nordic history in the making. I have never heard of it, but the museum was coordinating a “danceoke” to teach tourists how to dance popular forms throughout time. Some may see this as a profound way to transcend languages and cultural barriers and instill the Nordic essence through the modes of dance… For me, I just saw a lot of tourists trying to do one of the most bizarre forms of Just Dance 3.
Because it was a Saturday night–or really any night– my host insisted I join him to his favorite bar in Gamla Stan. To enter, you first have to traverse the old cobbly streets so typical of all old European cities. An inconspicuous sign stands over the entrance with the words “Sjätte tunnan” (the seventh barrel) carved into a barrel. The entrance takes you down a long, dimly lit staircase where a friendly woman dressed in complete medieval garb greets you with a hej. All of the walls of Sjätte tunnan are arched and create the feel of moving through a cave or catacomb. We found a table and my host ordered a drink he had been boasting about since I arrived: Mölska. In his words, it is the lovechild of a craft beer and fancy mead. The drink came to the table in an extremely archaic, ceramic jug which looks as if vikings themselves had use to drink out of. I took my first sip and I warmed to the combination of hops and honey. The night continued with the conversations I remembered having with strangers on my past trips. I have found that Swedes are impervious to small talk and never shy away from hitting the topics which are often considered a bit intense for first-time conversations–or at least when alcohol is involved. Next thing I knew, people were flowing across the topics of NIMBY in Sweden, the monopoly of online consumer privacy, most likable cults, and what it means to ask someone who they are. Naturally, someone asked me why I was in Sweden and I brought up my construction project.
Lucky for me, there was a member at the table who worked in construction and was not shy to speak of it. I immediately became fascinated and I started asking as many questions as possible. The one I remember most–thanks to a combination of its shock factor and the mölska tugging away my memory– was what the worst build he had ever done. My friend took no time for hesitation and immediately began describing in a great detail a local Stockholm construction company that ignored his warnings that there was mold and moisture in the insulation of a small building element (basically a wall section). He found a colony of mold about the size of a tennis ball anchored into the space between the insulation and the window. It must have happened that during transport water had seeped into the window sill and the insulation absorbed it creating a perfect home for mold. His boss told him that it was not important and that he should simply take a scraper and peal off the colony. My friend was horrified by this response because it meant that this could put the lives of the future tenants of the building at risk. So, he spent 3 days of unpaid work investigating all of the building elements and replacing the sills and insulation for the ones which were contaminated. It was incredible to hear this story because he really did show extreme emotion and anger on the topic. It was clear that he felt a responsibility as a construction worker to create spaces which were conducive for human health, and I got the added benefit that he saw an opportunity to make a change by sharing his story with me.
Speaking with him I realized it was going to be difficult for me to remain impartial in my research. I have studied Swedish, been fascinated with Swedish design, and been raised with my closest friend as a Swede, so I typically search for the ways in which Sweden is a leader. To keep my report legitimate, I am going to have to turn off my Swedo-centric mind… which becomes all the more difficult when I have access to as much kaviar paste as I desire.
Even though I promised a lot of people that I wouldn’t become “euro-jaded” or start saying petrol instead of gas from this trip, I’m going to have to indulge a bit. It may be a bit cliche to start with this, but traveling really does open your eyes to what assumptions you understand your world through. After an eight hour long flight inundated with B-list films and the most Swedish couple I have ever met, I was greeted by an image of Raoul Wallenberg in the Stockholm Airport. This may not have any significance to most people, but students in the UM Architecture School have a personal connection with this guy. The school has an entire studio course dedicated to his work and contributions to the university; so to say, this was a nice beginning touch for my trip, especially considering I will be doing architectural research in Sweden. If anyone thinks this is the only dumb little coincidence I’m going to put existential meaning behind, we are in for a long journey.
Driving into Stockholm made me quickly realize that I am far away from the greasy South U. and preppy Kerrytown Ann Arbor which I am so comfortable with. I was always conscious of how difficult it was to practice my Swedish in Ann Arbor because I had to annoy teachers and friends to speak with me. But now, I have a constant smirk on my face because of the pleasure of eavesdropping in conversations not in my native tongue. I did get my confidence too high when I understood a mother and daughter on the bus talking about family and their weekend plans. This feeling of being hot shit was quickly dissipated when I tried to explain my entire back story to a cashier simply because my credit card wasn’t working. After she understood I was an American trying to force a broken conversation in Swedish, she easily switched to English and quickly sent me on my way. Luckily, I was buying the most important Swedish candy, Bilar, so I had a quick bounce back.
Once I left the central terminal station, I passed an infamous spot in Stockholm. The last time I was in the city, I came a few weeks after the terrorist attack which happened outside Åhlens City. At the time, a massive piece of plywood was propped over the hole the truck placed in the side of the building, standing as a conspicuous effigy. It was unbelievable to hear my host recall her experience during the attack, but what shocked me more was the reaction to the attack. The following day, she took her children to the location of the attack to join in a vigil and community gathering. I have such a strong memory of her explaining to me how she wanted to show her children that fear could not break their community. Since then, the hole in Åhlens City has been repaired and the street was incredibly vibrant. All of these memories came back to me because as I was walking past the store, I heard screams. I immediately jumped into fight or flight mode and began analyzing my surroundings–as if I had any tactical clue. Once the screams became louder and the commotion was extremely close, I saw an unlikely object which put me at ease: a blue sailor cap. For those who don’t know, these sailor caps are the equivalent to graduation caps for Swedes. Before I knew it, I was swarmed by a group of tall, drunk Aryans who looked like they were recently at a Pop-Eye cosplay convention. My anxiety quickly subsided and I began again gawking about the Scandinavian architecture. However, I never forgot how strong and fast my reaction was for assuming an attack was happening. I wish I could say this was only because of being sleep deprived and hungry, but after reflecting on the shooter scare that happened on campus, I know it comes from my American identity. This is not intended to be political, but to beat a dead horse, traveling often teaches you just as much about yourself as it does the world. While more introspective than I expected, I hope the next few days I’ll have the opportunity to write about the wonders of Scandinavian design and construction.
Hi and välkomna to the twisty-turvy path of a university student attempting to answer some really big questions with a really small mind. This is going to be a living place to explore what’s happening in the world of economics, architecture, energy, sustainability, social equity, real estate, cultural differences, rural development, future technologies, green spaces, evidence-based design, smart cities, financial inclusivity, environmental activism, etc. If you haven’t been able to tell yet, but my mind is a tornado of buzz words that I have picked up over my time as a university student. To boil it down, I want to build shit that makes people feel better and care about the world, all the while pasting plants on everything.
I hope that this blog will serve as a great place to investigate topics to the maximum of multidisciplinary, all the while showing a little bit of my self to the world. I’m beginning this trip with a pretty big first step: a research project in Sweden. I’ll be going completely alone, completely unqualified, and completely unaware. My hope is that doing so will give me the chance to translate all of this high level mumbo-jumbo into something that is accessible and relevant for every single person.
So, to set the bar low, I’ll begin with a crusty photo of me fresh off of an all-nighter across the Atlantic; fully exhausted, Swedish air can still make me smirk.