06 February 2009


Teh internets are amazing.

This is hardly news, we all know that.  The depth and breadth of information (and misinformation) out there is astonishing.

I had to write an essay recently, partially about my experiences as an exchange student.  As I strolled down memory lane and looked at the paperwork I still have (among many other things, the letter I received telling me I was accepted into the program) I remembered something long forgotten.

It was Superbowl Sunday in 1991, and all of the potential exchange students were required to attend a meeting at an extension office of a local university, to find out which country we were assigned to.

I found my name on the list, and next to it was the word in all caps: SWEDEN.  My stomach flopped.  What the hell?  Sweden wasn't my first choice.  It wasn't my second or third or fourth, either.  My first choice had been Australia, followed by New Zealand and England.  

In high school, I had ever-so-wisely chosen Latin as my language to study, and many countries (Germany among them) required at least two years' study of the language.  I had been to Spain and France, and didn't really have any desire to spend a year in either place, unless I could specifically choose Paris or a large coastal city in Spain.  The powers that be had told us over and over again that we didn't get to choose a city, so Spain & France weren't even on my list.  

I was afraid to go somewhere that I didn't speak the language, hence the choices of Australia, New Zealand and England.  Sweden had been number six or seven on the list of ten I submitted along with my application.  Denmark and Czechoslovakia had been on that list too, as those are countries where some of my great-grandparents had come from, but I had never - even for a second - entertained the thought that I wouldn't get my first or second choice.

On that day in 1991, here's what I knew about Sweden: my great grandmother Hannah Rebekah had come from there in the early 1900s, and so I was of Swedish decent.  Swedes were blue-eyed blondes.  It had the same climate, roughly, as Alaska.  Stockholm was the capital.  The official language was Swedish.

That's it.

I did not know where in Sweden I was going to go; that information came later.  The Rotarians told us that Sunday that we would probably get a letter from our host-family long before the official paperwork from the Rotary Foundation turned up, and that was true for most of us.

I had made a friend at those Rotary meetings, a guy who was my age, and also going to Sweden.  He called me a few days after that Sunday meeting, and told me he'd gotten a letter from a family in Umeå, a city in the north of the country.  I had, by that time, obtained a map of Sweden, and when my letter turned up, I spent a long time searching that map for the town that it had come from.  

In those pre-internet days, I couldn't just Google "Västmanland Province" and take a peek at what popped up.  I went to the main branch of our local public library and searched some more.  It wasn't until I spoke with my host family via telephone - - over a crackly international line - - that I found out where, approximately, my new home was.

I'm preparing to head back to Sweden soon, and since I don't have a chance to speak Swedish every day, I am spending some time each day reading the headlines on the main Swedish newspaper websites; Svenska Dagbladet (The Swedish Daily Blade), Dagens Nyheter (The Daily News), even Google's Swedish News.   

Besides those sources, I can also listen to Swedish radio, twenty-four hours a day, courtesy of the internet, by just going to www.sr.se.  That's the state-run "official" radio, and the options there are dizzying.  Since I am going to visit an area that is geographically quite distant from my Swedish "home", I'm listening to a station from that region, because the accent is quite different, and a little difficult to follow.  It would be roughly akin to a Bostonian trying to understand someone from bayou country in Louisiana; they're speaking the same language, but can barely follow one another.

I'm confident that by the time I get there, I'll have no trouble at all understanding the dialect, although I will probably never be able to pass myself off as a native of that region.

If I was doing this twenty years ago, though, I wouldn't have those avenues of newspaper and radio (and heck, probably TV, too, via YouTube, I just haven't investigated it yet) open to me.  It really fascinates me that the world is so incredibly connected; and yet, I couldn't tell you what my next door neighbor does for a living.

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