By Hal Keelin 

First week of September 2019: Gamla Uppsala

It’s still warm-ish, every night this week has been full, we wear t-shirts in the day, something unconceivable in the coming winter months. We are warned about winter, and the game of thrones reference has got slightly old. No-one’s very busy with studying. We’ve come here in the evening, on our bikes, we are trying to catch glimpses of the northern lights. The gravel path crunches, whispers of excited voices behind.  I’d heard others had plans to try from the Castle, my group laughed at this – “in the City! Seb is astonished, “ you are basically guaranteed to not see anything there, too much pollution!”. We avoid the site that is alleged to have been the pit where sacrifices to pagan gods took place a thousand years ago and lie down. Here, lie the roots and very foundations of the entire Swedish kingdom. Burial mounds of Viking rulers.  In the daytime, this place is mounds of dirt that swing around like great humps of a sea monster buried under a nearby field. Stars gradually reveal themselves in blank space. We don’t see any dance of the aurora though. My new friend asks in the dark staring up at the sky: “does anyone else feel really, really small?” Silence, it is not a new thought and I know we all nod.

Saturday, October, Centrum.

Bright sunny days this far north give the impression that it is perpetually early evening or late afternoon. Going through my photos taken of a walk through the city recently, the light is weak and the sky, pale hazy blue. The sun hovers low on the skyline, but it is not about to set, it is at its highest point.  These brisk yet sunny days have always been some of my favourite back home, but in Uppsala they are even more special. Days when the cathedral stands rock still, its redbrick glinting by the gently flowing rapids beneath it and the cool blue above it. Riverside cafes teem with people, sharing fika and pricy coffee. The queues spill out onto the fallen yellow leaves in the cycle lanes. Opposite these restaurants are situated some of the prettiest and oldest nation buildings, Vastgota, Norland’s, Gastrike-halsinge. A nation is a club or community of members with a long history of choir singing and formal balls. A thought that often enters my head whenever I am in one of these establishments is  “I am standing in a place where thousands of people, thousands of students across centuries have stood, with similar aims, thoughts and motivations before me”, I try to imagine these bodies, try to conceive of the doorway to a nation and the years rolling back in a kind of reverse time-lapse.

At first, like any new surroundings, Uppsala felt unfamiliar and an energy took over that was all the curiosity, excitement and trepidation that being in a new place inspires. Within some weeks or months this energy inevitably transpires if it is not renewed, for what at first seems unfamiliar gradually unveils itself. An almost dangerous feeling that you have exhausted the limits of the city takes over and a pressing need to go out and travel extensively can be tempting. A quest for ‘the perfect moment’ sets in. Come October, get used to loud (usually American, Canadian or Australian) voices in your Basic Language class announcing their trips to distant European cultural havens, Krakow, Geneva, London, Paris, Milan etc. And who can blame them if it’s there first time in Europe. For Europeans, the getaways are a bit more local, or at least within the confines of Scandinavia and the Baltic. I for one have had some great trips away to the Norwegian border, to a frozen waterfall in a pristine, snow filled national park. We went to Helsinki, Finland on the infamous booze cruise offered by Viking line. We spent six hungover hours there, (the boat docks at 10 am only to leave at 4pm on the same day) and so in the frantic rush to experience a European capital in half a day we enthusiastically sampled the delights and horrors of a Finnish staple pastime, the sauna and ice plunge pool. What Cobwebs!? I asked in a stupor afterwards, refreshing is an understatement.  

Beware, however, that to assume you’ve exhausted the town you are calling home for the year or a term is a false assessment. Al Humphreys, a self-titled “adventurer” in his brilliant new podcast series entitled “living adventurously” has found this. To paraphrase the wisdom of a recent episode – I cycled all the way around the world desperate to escape the confines of my small Yorkshire town, only to find I can have similar if not better experiences in my own county”. There is no denying that Uppsala, especially for one of Sweden’s largest towns, is small by European standards. This doesn’t mean that it therefore becomes known more easily. Out on my bike, early January cycling for ten minutes to a new course I’d enrolled on, I found an entirely new area of park, forest, and campus all in one. It reminded me of what a friend, also on his year abroad had realised.

 “I’ve come to see that there is so much going on in any town “there are so many nooks and crannies…”. Facebook events is most definitely your friend. Within five minutes you have access to the entire area and its quite incredible to see what goes on, right under your nose. This last weekend, the offer in a town that I often hear described as small was: swing dancing, yoga, Oscar film screening night, indie club nights, forest walk with fika (coffee and a sweet pastry), guest lectures on the environment, a football match, ice hockey, ice skating, bouldering or a waste food workshop. 

What I’ve come to value in my time spent away from my home university is the unravelling of a new perspective on life being born out. It grants both the space and time to fully appreciate what being a student is all about. It is learning to appreciate how life can so often work for and with you if you have a positive and curious mindset. The vast, unknowable territory of the future becomes a little more accessible and comprehensible in my own experience. I came to Uppsala with one future certainty and that was all, that I would graduate from Sussex with a degree. I had no real inclination of what was going to come after, and I purposefully abandoned any real realistic probing because it was quite frankly a little unsettling. Now, just over half- way through my time away and I’ve come to have not a certain idea but a little more than what I had before. Just with this idea, with just this tiny ounce of grounding, I feel far more prepared for what lies around the corner after graduation and far more at ease because of it. Life has become much more about allowing it to work for me and embrace challenges as opportunities than trying to fix or fight at something. A good friend, from last term revealed recently he thought he’d changed a little too, and we agreed that although it might be batted away as empty cliché we truly felt that we had come to know at least a little bit more about ourselves, about what grounded us as individuals and bit more life philosophy.

The past half a year has affirmed me that life is about creating value, not in a materialistic sense but in a pure sensory, “life in the moment”, Thoreauvian one. When we take time to appreciate a moment for ourselves and experience with others, it brings contentment. This life affirming sense was most definitely encouraged by the ridiculous ease at which you can get out of the urban city and into nature in Sweden, combined with the luxury of having an incredibly relaxed study schedule that I took full advantage of. 

Too much solitary wandering can induce feelings of loneliness however and this is especially true for me with a girlfriend the other side of the world and the effect of the sun beginning a swift descent in its arc by 2 pm in winter in central Sweden. It is advisable to stay a bit like Jim Carrey in Yes Man during the time away, meaning, you must stay open, to seek out events and stay both positive and patient.  

 Once on top of Kung Bjorn’s Hog (king Bjorn’s hill, just south of the city) I had walked out of Uppsala suburbia through  pretty light to truly comprehend what Neil Ansell meant when he stated how alone in nature, deeply profound thoughts surfaced that wouldn’t have flowered in the confines of an urban daily routine. Looking out on the ochre valley with its fill of weak winter sun I recalled Ansell’s words, “you see a tree as pure form, without the impressions of a lifetime”. All I saw then was the valley in pure brilliant form, and for a moment it was the stillest most content place on earth. I felt an urge to come again as I caught the bus back, hell to come every other day and leave my phone behind this time. If I did this, so went the thinking, then the moment would have been ever deeper and perhaps more. And there I was again searching for something “more”, something “better”, I laughed at myself and went home. 

Image credit: Hal Keelin

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