Student Nations: a 101

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The thought of  escaping the comfort of the Durham-bubble for 12 months was a big factor in my decision to undertake an Erasmus year – a notion which is becoming increasingly ironic as I spend more time here in Uppsala. Researching before I moved to this small, medieval European student city, reading about it’s dominating castle and cathedral, rural surrounds and strong café culture, I’m still not entirely sure whether I missed the uncanny parallels, or was drawn to them. Obviously, Sweden has presented some degree of culture-shock, even if it’s only in the form of the weather (snow in October, anyone?), but I can’t help feeling at times that I’ve entered some sort of colder, more expensive parallel universe.

The most obvious counterpart to Durham has to be the tradition of Student Nations. I’ve alluded to these previously, but, as the core of student culture in Uppsala, they deserve an explanation in full. The notion may seem a bit foreign, and my friends here were certainly perplexed by the system, but, as a Durham student, I had an immediate point of comparison. The idea of belonging to a small student body, complete with its own housing, pub, societies and formal dinners was completely new to most internationals; to a Durham student, however, this is a simply our collegiate system dressed in stylish Swedish garb.

The ‘nation’ model was adopted by Swedes from the French in the 17th century, and today exists in Uppsala university and our greatest rival, Lund. There are 13 nations in total, each named after a Swedish province: Stockholms Nation, Gotlands Nation, Västgöta Nation (VG), Östgöta Nation (OG), Gästrike-Hälsinge Nation (GH) , Göteborgs Nation, Värmlands Nation, Norrlands Nation, Uplands Nation, Kalmar Nation, Södermanlands-Nerikes nation (aka Snerikes), Västmanlands-Dala (V-Dala) and Smålands nation.

Traditionally, to be eligible to join a specific nation you would have to be from the province it represented. In today’s international academic environment, however, that logic doesn’t translate too well, and all students are now free to chose to join whichever nation/s they wish. This is with the exception of Snerikes, which still maintains that Swedish students reside in/ have close family residing in its associated province if they wish to become members. I’ve heard that people go to the lengths of presenting their grandparents’ birth certificates in a bid to join, so I was very relieved to hear that this condition is waived for Erasmus students!

Each nation varies massively in size, history and character, making for a lot of overwhelmed students in the first week of term, each very conscious of the looming deadline to join a nation before the temporary, all-access card given upon arrival expires. I, being true to form, deliberated for hours over the pros and cons of each nation, but finally settled for Västgöta and Snerikes, the two oldest nations – an apt choice for a history student.

The famous ‘Pink Castle’ of Snerikes nation

Snerikes is a very popular choice for international students, mainly because membership grants you free entry to a weekly club night held in the incredible ‘pink castle’. Built in the 1890s, it’s what it says on the tin, and its grandiose exterior is continued inside, with a large staircase winding upwards from the first dance floor to a balcony flagging the other two club rooms, in which portraits of sombre-looking old white men stare down at you disparagingly whilst you dance. It’s quite the experience.

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VG’s beautiful nation house

Västgöta nation, whose house boasts a candlelit medieval cellar as its pub, is one of the smaller nations, but equally historic and charming. Sitting on the riverbank, it has a lovely beer garden (which I only got to glimpse before it closed at the end of ‘summer’ in early September), quaint library upstairs and the most amazing daily vegetarian soup lunch.

Every nation serves food of some variety, whether it be three-course vegetarian dinners at Kalmar, study fika at Uplands, Sunday brunch at VG or traditional Thursday pea soup at Norrlands, the choice is expansive, the prices are good and the best thing is that they are entirely student designed and run. Working at a nation is something every student should try at least once – the pay is never the incentive (you can expect about £10 for a 6 hour shift, and if, like most exchange students, you don’t have a Swedish bank account, you won’t be able to receive it anyway), but it’s a lovely friendly environment, there’s always free food, and it’s a rare chance to meet elusive Swedes. I worked at Sunday brunch a few weeks ago with a friend, and the ‘work’ consisted largely of making industrial scale pancakes and hummus, which we ended up bringing home with us.

If nations are the body of student life in Uppsala, gasques are the beating heart. Best described as Durham formals on crack, these evenings need to be experienced to be understood, but I’ll give it a try. The night begins at around 5pm, when members of a nation gather in varying degrees of formal wear (according to dress code) for a drinks  reception. Following this, a three course dinner is served in the nation’s great hall. So far, so Durham, you might be thinking. You’d be wrong. Whereas Durham formals are occasionally enlivened by some odd traditions, in Uppsala the traditions are the gasque.

Firstly, every student owns a songbook specific to their own nation, which is employed at increasingly regular intervals throughout the night. You arrive for the dinner, you sing. Your food is served, you sing. Someone gives a speech, you sing. A choir or theatre group performs; you sing a special song to thank them for their efforts. And, of course, all these songs are unfamiliar and entirely in Swedish. After every song, a shot of snaps is drunk, involving an elaborate toasting ritual which had to be taught to us new students at our recentiors (freshers) gasque. The songbooks also serve as a journal for your friends to write notes in during the evening, which tradition dictates cannot be read until the morning after. The dinner ends with, you guessed it, another song, which is finished whilst standing on your chair – if you take a seat after this point it’s said you’ll never graduate…which is a convenient means of emptying the room of rowdy students and releasing them into wherever has been assigned as the dance floor for the night’s festivities.

Often, the gasques are themed: in the Backwards Gasque desert is served first and guests dress in pyjamas;  the Luccegasque celebrates Sweden’s St. Lucia by serving a traditional Christmas smörgåsbord ; and the Sångbooks Gasque provides extra singing for those who find the usual schedule to be a little too quiet for their taste…

Every year around Halloween, one of the most famous of Uppsala’s gasques occurs: the Skelettgasque. The story goes that, a few hundred years ago an Uppsala alumnus died, donating his body to the university in his will. The problem was that he was a member of two nations, Östgöta and Gästrike-Hälsinge, so his remains belonged to both. This issue was creatively resolved by separating his skull from his body, and ceremoniously bringing the two parts together once every year at a feast held in his honour. This tradition became the Skelettgasque, which is now distinctly Halloween themed, with a costumed dress code and the nation house replete with cobwebs and bloodied hand prints, and of course the skeleton of the great man himself taking pride of place on stage. I had a brilliant, if somewhat bizarre, evening, though was greatly disappointed when my (less naïve/ better sighted) friends pointed out the plastic qualities of the skeleton… our suspicions were confirmed when the hosts started dancing onstage with the bones, but I still like to imagine that the real thing was lurking in a cupboard somewhere nearby.

So that’s nations in a nutshell. Job opportunities, dancing, studying and, most importantly, singing. Student life in Uppsala just wouldn’t exist without them, and, as a Durham student, you can be sure that you’ll feel right at home.

 

 

 

Screaming, saunas and sunsets: A belated rant about accommodation 

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Hej hej folks!

Apologies for the delay in posting, I’ve been documenting my days by taking an excessive number of photos over the past few weeks, but have only today found the time to sit down and write. Too much has happened for me to produce anything comprehensive that’s even vaguely succinct, so I thought I’d focus on addressing the issue of accommodation, which is a pretty vital starting point for any exchange student.

I can’t say that the Erasmus application process was particularly smooth for me, but beyond a doubt the most stressful aspect was the month or so I spent in search of private accommodation online this summer. The standard procedure for exchange students at Uppsala is an accommodation guarantee for the duration of your studies, but for one reason or another this had fallen through for me, so I was informed I’d need to find somewhere to live on my own. Okay, okay, so I know this probably sounds a bit melodramatic, considering the stress a lot of my friends living abroad have been under, actually moving to a new country with nothing more than a few nights in an Airbnb secured. The difference is, however, that said friends were moving to cities where the housing market is relatively navigable. I’m not entirely sure what the issue is in Uppsala, or indeed in Sweden as a whole, but finding property to rent at short (or even long) notice is pretty much a no-go.

Articles such as this https://www.thelocal.se/20100928/29292, filled with their horror stories of students sleeping rough in the cathedral, lingered at the back of my mind through exams, and firmly made their way to the forefront as I divided my time between celebrating the end of second year and scouring the internet for available rooms. I paid to join a housing queue in which I never achieved a place below 100, sent numerous messages in response to ads (and learnt never to expect a reply) and eventually started to consider the possibility of abandoning the whole endeavour and begging the history department to find space for me this October.

As you’ve probably guessed – apologies for spoilers – this story has a happy ending. The scare-mongering emails I’d received from the housing office never came to fruitation, and I was able to secure a room through the university in a later application in June. It’s worth noting, however, the challenges you might have to face if you can’t get an accommodation guarantee. It’s by no means impossible to find somewhere, but determination and a little creativity (a friend of mine is currently living in a vicar’s house some miles out of Uppsala…) may need to be called upon.

So, as to where I finally ended up living! The point of that rather excessive context was, I think, to emphasise my belief that, so long as you’ve a roof over your head in Uppsala, you’re good. I’ve been rather envious of friends here who’ve the luxury of beautiful self-contained flats in the city centre, but at the end of the day, I’m here, and that very nearly didn’t happen. For exchange students applying for accommodation through the university, you’ve the option of selecting your top three choices. I won’t list them here, but the various options can be viewed at http://housingoffice.se, and I’m more than happy to chat to any potential applicants about the housing available.

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The deceptively charming path to Flogsta…

I mentioned Flogsta in passing in my first blog post, but, as an institution in its own right, it deserves returning to. I’ve been reliably informed that Flogsta emerged as the product of a rather endearing, if entirely naïve, belief that consigning hundreds of students to a purpose-built complex, in woodland 3 km outside of the city, would result in an environment conducive to peaceful study. The environs are indeed beautiful, with bike paths from the city leading through densely forested, bilberry studded grounds, but its charm ends there. Despite the presence of families, Flogsta is very much a microcosm of student life, and somewhat deserved of its affectionate (?) nickname the ‘Swedish Ghetto’. Flogsta consists of both ‘low’ and ‘high’ houses, the latter of which there are 10, each with 7 floors of two flats of 12 inhabitants…you do the math. As a result of such a large student populace, and a questionable housing company, the standards of hygiene leave a lot to be desired, and my initial excitement at realising I had a balcony was quickly shattered when I saw the state the previous inhabitants had left it in.

 


Flogsta found fame online a few years ago when a video of one of Uppsala’s strangest student traditions went viral. If you’re ever on site at 10 pm, beware, as the peace of the surrounding countryside is brutally shattered by the ‘Flogsta Scream’, a nightly exercise in stress relief which sees students leaning out of their windows and yelling with gusto for a good few minutes. Having participated on my first night in Uppsala, after a long and stressful day of travel, I can confirm its therapeutic properties, but I’m since finding it more useful as a timepiece – the punctuality never ceases to amaze.

 

Flogsta is also renowned for its parties, which test the limits of student ingenuity with brilliant results. I’d only been in Uppsala for a few weeks before word got around about a rooftop party on the building next to mine. The bizarre appearance of the high houses, which is best described as a fusion between brutalism and sci-fi, is partly a product of the colourful corrugated structures which sit atop of each building. These roofs actually house saunas, which were once accessible to all students, but after a series of escalating incidents – culminating in a flaming sofa being tipped from a rooftop – have officially been closed. The construction of metal bars on the steps up to the roofs has, however, failed to entirely deter students. Which is how I found myself climbing  through a narrow gap in the bars to join a host of others enjoying the sunset nine stories up.

 

The housing company has apparently since got word of this unintentional access point, and clamped down further, but I was so glad to get a chance to see the view whilst I still could. Looking east across to the lights of the city and westwards out over vast expanses of beautiful Swedish countryside, the quirks of Flogsta could be forgotten. Until of course, the clock struck ten…