I am no stranger to upping sticks and transplanting myself somewhere completely new. In the second year of my undergraduate degree, I took part in the Erasmus student exchange programme, moving to Sweden to study at Högskolan i Skövde. It is a time of my life that I look back on with great fondness, and January 2013 marks a decade since that rollercoaster of a year.
The evidence of my time there is limited to surprisingly few photographs, but looking through them I'm instantly transported to that frozen little town, and I remember the rush of adrenalin of knowing nobody, a blank canvas, new faces, the language barrier, and snow. Endless white and shimmering ice. Of course it wasn't all plain sailing, but I do consider myself quite adept at handling new situations and it didn't take long for Sweden to steal my heart.
I consider it a formative experience, not least of all because my time there taught me some important lessons about going it alone, starting over, and the fact that you probably don't want to drive to Stockholm and back in one day when it's snowing and you haven't really slept.
Sweden planted the seed. My family has travelled a lot and lived in some interesting places, but the Erasmus trip was the first time I made such a life-changing decision on my own. I knew next to nothing about the country, except that it was picturesque and somewhat expensive. I was interested in Scandinavian folklore and though I almost managed to recruit a couple of fellow journalism students to come along with me, in the end I was a solo flyer. Just me, a few other native English-speakers including a lone Australian farmer-in-the-making, a handful of Spaniards, a smattering of Dutch, and a whole herd of delightful Finns, of whom it was believed (though never confirmed) drank vodka with their morning cereal.
I studied several modules at the university, then spent the summer reading, practicing the language, researching the possibilities of not leaving. I ran a lot at odd hours, because the sun never really went down and with no fixed commitments my body clock was totally shot to pieces. I took one of the back roads right out of that little town, snaking through forests, past lakes, watching the sky subtly change colour, returning just as the delivery trucks reached the nearby supermarket and the electric milk float made its rounds. Unfortunately, it was also the summer that I mysteriously contracted glandular fever and I survived for a number of weeks on strawberry milk popsicles. Like I said, it wasn't all våfflor and gravlax.
If I hadn't met Evan, I'm sure that in time something else would have drawn me away from the UK. The seed festered (or blossomed, depending) and at the point of my emigration I had lived in Edinburgh for a good seven years. Moving again to a new country (albeit one with a shared language), meant that I was able to call on some of those coping mechanisms from ten years ago - not being afraid of new experiences, savouring the every day things that make me happy, exploring and engaging with my surroundings, making new friends. Sure, I was productive and procured myself some decent enough grades to earn me a place on my Masters course, but the main thing I took away from that year was that it is possible to build something out of nothing, to lose it all and to create something even better from what remains. That is not meant to sound cryptic, or like the cover blurb for a dicey self-help book; it is really the only way that I am able to break down the experience. I think it had a huge bearing on the person I am today and not just because it started a love affair with lake swimming and sylvan frolicking; no, it grounded me somehow. So to the frozen north, to the land of sommarstugan, kanelbullar and lakrits: thank you. Don't be a stranger.
**Swedish countryside blanketed in snow (taken from the train)//overlooking Skövde