Photo Essay Contest

Isaac Campbell
2005-06 Contest Winner

Host Institution: Karlstad University -- Sweden
Home Institution: Roanoke College
Period: Spring 2006

Surprising Sweden

If asked to name a wild and exotic land in this diverse world, rarely, if ever, would anyone mention Sweden. This culture is dominated by images of the Nobel Prize, socialism, excellent public welfare, beautiful models, and of course, meatballs. While these things are a part of the Swedish identity, there is much more to this polarized state in Scandinavia than stereotypical norms.

Sweden is a truly amazing, ephemeral land where nights never end or never begin, colors seem to disappear from the world or explode from every surface, and the people are silent in contemplation or wild with expression. In Sweden there is one truth: everything changes with the weather

Nature as Life

Swedes continually asked me why I had come all the way to Karlstad from the US to study. What many Swedes take for granted, and the primary reason for my studying in their country, is the way in which their society interacts with nature. In terms of environmental issues, Sweden is one of the most progressive, forward thinking societies in the world. For example, the spruce and pine that dominate over 70% of the forest in the county of Varmlands is refered to as “Varmland’s Gold” by the locals. Being an environmental science student in Sweden was heaven!

This environmentally conscious society stems from a love that the people of Sweden have for nature. Even amid the darkest, coldest depths of winter, mothers would still take their children for strolls in the afternoon, the elderly would drop food scraps in the forest for the local moose, and the youth reveled in winter sports.

A winter path through Varmland’s Gold
Independence and Loneliness

The notion of equality pervades Swedish society. With equality comes personal independence and self reliance. It did not take me long to notice these cornerstones of Swedish character. On my first days walking down the street I was amazed at how few physical and verbal communications took place. People would nervously put their head down and rush away anytime I made eye contact, smiled and gave a friendly head nod in acknowledgement of their existence. At first, this social shyness left me feeling very alienated and alone. A Swedish friend later told me that if you ever see someone smiling at you on the streets they are either insane or American. After that explanation and a little time, things began to make more sense.

Wandering Stora Torget alone in Karlstad
The Hypnosis of Nature

If there is one thing that one can speak to anyone else about in Sweden, one thing that unites everyone, it’s the weather. I never once attended a class where there was not some discussion of the weather. Around the end of April the snow finally began to shrink away and everyone’s feet welcomed the stability of solid ground. Days were getting longer and people’s behavior was beginning to change. Temperatures rose above freezing, the sun began to shine more often, down coats were replaced with sweaters, and the trees turned green with the arrival of spring! In may, a week long heat wave turned the generally reserved Swedes into sun worshipping maniacs. I later came to this conclusion: when the sun comes out, Swedes loose their clothes. After such a long and harsh winter, everyone, including myself went into a frenzy of delight.

Celebrating at the shore of Lake Vanern over the arrival of spring
Taking a break and appreciating the sun became a part of everyday life in Sweden.
Summer brings Paradise

When I first arrived in Karlstad I received a map of city which was titled “Valkommen till solparadiset Karlstad.” All winter this map, with its palm trees designating forests, sharks in the lakes, and naked people playing with a beach ball designating parks, hung mockingly on my kitchen wall. How can there be a “solparadiset” when there seemed to be not even a “sol”? I realize now that it was a means for the university to get us foreign students through the winter, to get us to just hang on. For when summer did come to Karlstad, it was one of the most beautiful and hospitable places I had ever been.

As every Swede will tell you, the sunsets are truly something special in the summertime.
The Endless Nights

At the end of my time in Karlstad, just after the summer solstice, night no longer existed. The sun dipped beyond the horizon for a matter of hours and its presence was never fully gone as the sky displayed a pale blue light all night. Often, after experiencing the many breathtaking sunsets by one of the nearby lakes, I would return to my computer to view pictures from the winter for I found it hard to believe that I was in the same place.

Midnight at Lake Alstern with my international friends on the 9th of June
The Karlstad Community and My New Home

Throughout my time in Karlstad I pushed with my sociable, “insane”, American ways in order to really get to know the Swedish way of life. I asked girls on dates by “going for a coffee”, rode my bike everywhere, began to eat cheese on everything, old ladies at the local markets began to greet me with cheerful “hej hej American”, and slowly I felt, and regarded myself as, strangely Swedish. I was even lucky enough to publish an article about my views on Swedish life and environment from an American perspective in the local news paper (with the help of a translator of course). Most importantly to me however, was that I received much respect on the local football (soccer) pitch and from Europeans everywhere for my skills….DESPITE BEING FROM THE USA!

“Fascinating article, I must say!”
The Neutral State and Lessons Learned

One of the most formative experiences of my Swedish life came from my place of residence in Karlstad. Sweden is a leading nation in the world in acceptance and integration of immigrants. I lived among a community of middle eastern immigrants and would spend many afternoons outside tossing the frisbee, kicking the soccer ball, or even just playing my didgeridoo with the neighboring kids. Most humbling, was that most were originally from Iraq. What better picture could summarize a nation’s character than an environmental science student from the USA sitting around playing with immigrants from Iraq under the bright warm summer sun of Sweden? Indeed, this is a unique country that has taught me innumerable lessons and provided the medium for me to discover much about myself and this world I live in. Long live the spirit of the north!


I’ll be back soon.

Tossing the disk with the localsClick here for a full PDF version

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