Claudia Towne Hirtenfelder has been traveling since 2004, with her first international trip being an exchange program to Switzerland for six weeks. She has since traveled to over 20 countries and has lived in Korea and Sweden. Claudia has a Master’s in Social Studies of Gender from Lund University as well as second Masters from the University of Johannesburg in Tourism and Management.
What country and city did you live in?
Lund (15 months) and Uppsala (6 months), Sweden!
When did you live there?
I arrived in September 2011 and left in June 2013
Why and how did you choose to live in Sweden?
I got a scholarship! Yip, I secured an Erasmus Mundus Scholarship to study in Europe and Lund University was the top choice of the panelists who gave me the award. I knew nothing about Sweden, quite literally!
Erasmus Mundus provides scholarships for semesters (6 months) and for full programs including Master Degrees (2 years) and PhDs (3-4 years). There are particular agreements with countries too! Coming from South Africa I was eligible for the Eurosa scholarship, another being em2sa, and was part of the first group of South Africans sent over. What a privilege! I applied for a year and I got two years of life transforming living and learning.
Did you move with a friend or partner, or alone?
This was possibly the most difficult part of the move. At the time I had been with my now husband, then boyfriend, for 7 years and we had just completed a year of living and teaching in Korea and backpacking South East Asia. Oliver was ready to head back home and I was concerned about long distance relationships.
In the end, he gave the push. I remember sitting on a curb in Ho Chi Min City, two days after finding out I received the scholarship and agonizing over whether to do it, whether we could manage two years apart. Oliver stopped me mid-sentence and said I would be stupid not to take this opportunity to one of the best universities in the world and for gender studies, my main study interest.
We cried like babies when we said goodbye to each other three months later. It felt so daunting! In retrospect it was one of the best things we could have ever done. It was shit at time. Simply down right shit being on the other side of the world, not being able to cuddle or share but on the flip side we started saying when we were so young that it was great to carve out spaces for ourselves, get to know who we are apart and in the end it reaffirmed how much we enjoy being together (cue the Kleenex ;). We saved every (well most, let’s be honest and say most) penny to see each other every four months and our Skype conversations were epic!
ANYWAY – the point of this little side note about a long distance relationship, when I could have simply answered you with a no, is that you can totally make it happen if you and your partner are invested in it!
Did you do research before going? What resources were helpful?
Honestly my research was minimal due to traveling before departing (lucky me). I used the university’s website and directed questions to the scholarship providers so I was well in the loop. I also bought myself a trusty Lonely Planet which I nerded out on over the 18 months I was there. Ticking off adventures and awesome stops along the way!
Did you speak the language when you arrived? Is it necessary?
I had tried to learn basic phrases and counting before arriving in Sweden but my brain was in somewhat of a flip flop, having recently left Korea, so all the foreign words would get tangled in my mind!
Is it necessary? No ways. Swedes are seriously amazing in their command of English! That said, they are also gracious enough to let you stammer your way through a Swedish sentence to help you grasp their lovely language.
Tip: Most local government offices offer some form of language learning but I am not too familiar with those as I signed up for a course with my university. This was a great way to learn. I met other students and I am goal orientated so having tests and deadlines was exactly what I needed. The university had also set up a language café which is just such a simple, novel and beautiful idea.
In essence you sit at a table of people trying to learn a language (German, French, Swedish, English, German) and you talk to each other in that language. Oftentimes you will get fortunate enough to have a native speaker at your table too egging you on! Lund has such a diverse mix of international students that this language exchange is hugely successful (and the free cookies and coffee are a bonus!)
Also check out ielanguages.com for some free online podcasts.
What items were you most happy to have brought with you from home?
-Photos! They were littered on my dorm walls!
-30 Seconds – A fast thinking game from back home that was great around the dorm room table.
-My new fancy laptop – It was a birthday/your leaving gift from Oliver before I left. It was my everything! My source of Netflix binging, furious typing, studying, and Skyping. I still have it and am typing on it right now!
What did you wish you had?
I could find anything there, more than I am used to finding! I was surprised at the price of alcohol at first as this is state owned and operated but that just meant buying good beer and having drinks with mates in the park before going out. Also, eating dinner out is pricey so I would always opt for lunch out instead which is where you find the great specials.
Getting Set Up
What kind of visa or residency process did you go through?
Oh gosh. This was a while ago. Because of the short timeline between leaving South East Asia and arriving in Sweden, there was a minor error in my timing and I missed orientation because it takes a few weeks to process all of your biometric information. That said, everyone is super helpful and kind. Also, once you have your personal ID number, this is your key to everything in Sweden such as accessing health care of setting up a bank account.
When it came to setting up bank accounts and phone services the university was instrumental in this. They provided detailed information and the whole town is geared towards students and used to international arrivals so everything was super easy. Just make sure you have your ID card. As a student I had to reapply for the card once a year.
How did you find housing in Sweden?
Again as a student you have a far more options available to you in terms of accommodation. During my time in Lund I stayed in my own apartment, in a corridor room, and shared a flat with someone. It all depends what you are after. However, most of it is arranged online. You can find out more here.
Did you need to dress differently than you do generally?
No ways, Sweden is as progressive as it comes. However, in terms of weather, Sweden gets cold so you will need to be prepared for a proper winter, but you can get everything there (H&M was my favorite pit stop).
What were your favorite things to do in Lund?
I loved riding my bicycle and walking around. In Johannesburg, where I grew up, this is a luxury. I found riding my bike tough in the beginning but over time it became to trusty friend, my transport, and my grocery carrier. It was always peaceful coasting down a street looking at my surroundings!
I loved being in coffee shops. I loved meeting with friends and talking about the world around us, making incredible Swedish friends who I am still in touch with! Drinking coffee, taking breaks, and enjoying something sweet is an institution in Sweden, fondly called Fika!
I loved the old libraries and the changing scenery with the seasons. I loved how Swedes made time to spend time outside, particularly in Spring, soaking up the sun like lizards who had come out of hibernation.
I loved drinking in the park and taking trips to Malmo the neighboring city. I loved that Copenhagen was a short train ride away! That I could have a night out in either, or both!
I also loved doing nothing, getting locked away with my books, or TV series.
I loved the learning. I loved the new experiences. I loved the feeling of my brain feeling constantly swollen like it was on the precipice of understanding something it previously didn’t.
I absolutely cherish my time at Lund and miss it dearly!
How did you like the food?
Swedes love their dairy so if you are a lover of cheese this will be paradise. Salmon is also reasonable priced and delicious in Sweden!
One thing I did notice is that portions are smaller and meals tend to be healthier. On any menu there is always a vegan or vegetarian option.
The food was good but the most stand-out things were the pastries and the beers. They have exceptional pastries like the yummy semla bun!
How was your social life?
I met people from around the world in Lund but the best friends I made were all Swedish. They were class mates and I must say I was struck by their intellect and worldliness. This ended up not just being my friends but even off chance encounters I had with people while traveling is that people know things. I encountered bus drivers who had an incredible grasp of South African history and fellow students who would stump me with questions about my own country’s past. It was rewarding to learn to listen.
Swedes listen, they don’t interrupt you (most of the time at least) and you learn to want to pay it back and listen too!
I’ve heard people refer to Swedes as cold that wasn’t my experience whatsoever. Whenever I needed help someone was there, whether friend or stranger.
What was the most difficult thing about living there?
Being away from Oliver was very difficult at times. Learning to be alone was difficult at first and then I grew to love the space of solitary reflection. Other than that, nothing really. Life of a student in Sweden with enough money to cover their costs is a breeze and a gift.
On a scale of 1-10, how safe did you feel there? Why?
1000 000 X 1000 000 = Out of the ball park! The reasons for why are probably more complex that you would expect. The most obvious reason is because Sweden is safe and there is a very low level of crime. When you live in a town that has coffee shops where you take your own stuff, put down your money and then take your own change it’s difficult to not return the trust. However, I also come from South Africa where crime is a huge issue so I might have also been a bit dismissive of any fear concerns.
What are the top 3-5 things someone who is visiting should do?
- Fika! Just chill out.
- Explore the university library. They have some great exhibits and there are awesome art galleries not too far away.
- Take a day trip to Malmo.
- Ride a bicycle and have a beer in a park.
- Check out the cathedral in the middle of the town and get your mind around the fact that it’s been there for almost 1000 years!
What were the challenges of studying in Sweden?
To be fair there were very few challenges. The university is very involved in ensuring that students get the most out of their experiences. It is not as cheap to travel around Sweden as it is other European countries, and it is not as cheap to go to other European countries either because Scandinavia is relatively isolated, but that was minor. I managed to use my summer vacation to backpack instead of paying for accommodation and that was well worth it!
What are your top 3-5 tips for someone else moving there to study?
- Do more research than I did regarding your accommodation. Think about what you want. Find out where your campus is and figure out how far your accommodation is from it. Lund is a university town so things can be a bit spread out depending on your department.
- Go to a language café and learn the language. Sure, Swedes’ English is good but if you show a curiosity and a willingness to learn that is always appreciated.
- Take it slow. Especially in a small town, you will learn that there is great pleasure in taking your time to appreciate this time you have to learn.
- Travel Skane. The province is gorgeous with so much to offer. Make saving to explore part of your trip.
- If you are an English speaker doing a course in English with primarily non-English speakers, be aware of your privilege and try to speak slower and give others a chance.
- Apply for scholarships. JUST APPLY. I applied for others prior to getting this one and it was a fantastic experience. You, quite literally, will not get the opportunity unless you try 😉
What places did you visit within Sweden? What were your favorite and least favorite places?
I also lived in Uppsala for 6 months of my time in Sweden. It is also a small student town but this time North of Stockholm. Doing an internship can be part of your Masters program so I did one at the Nordic Africa Institute and quickly fell in love with this little town and the university which is in constant rivalry with Lund.
One of my favorite spots has to have been at Kolarbyn Ecolodge, an exceptional, magical place where you stay in small overgrown huts where grass is growing on the roof and you’re are tucked into the middle of a forest with no electricity. Romantic in every way imaginable.
When we were there the forest floor was littered with blueberries and our mouths and hands were stained with delight (and blueberries of course!). And the sauna! The sauna that floats in the middle of a misty lake surrounded by huge pine forests. Freedom. Exceptional freedom is jumping into that lake naked and feeling weightless and humbled by the majesty that surrounds you.
What other countries did you visit while you were there? Why?
Like I said, I went backpacking during one summer. I gave up my housing for the summer so that I could use rent money to backpack instead. I went to Hungary, Slovenia, Austria, and Switzerland. Europe in the summer involves exceptional hiking and long days. Gorgeous!
I also travelled to Ghana to see Oliver and his dad over Christmas, and once back to South Africa to see friends and family, but primarily to carry out my fieldwork for my Master’s thesis. It also happened to be the trip I got engaged!
On Living Abroad
What do you wish you knew before you moved?
That I would fall in love so hard my heart would literally mourn for the country and time years later.
Why do you feel living abroad is important?
There are so many reasons why it is important but let me start with some of the downsides: living on a timeline can make you stop ‘nesting’. You won’t buy things because you will worry about weight restrictions when going home. You will miss friends and family. You will miss important events of important people you love. You will have moments of fleetingness not knowing where you will be next. You will have to have gut-wrenching goodbyes with people and places you have grown attached to.
That said, I took my first ever international trip 11 years ago on a rotary exchange and that changed my world, quite literally expanded my borders. I backpacked thereafter and then lived in Korea for a year, then Sweden for two, and now I am back in Korea for the next two. There is something about living in a place you weren’t born that is spectacular.
I love the initial arrival period when every sense is on high alert as you engage with new surroundings, products, foods, languages, people; the settling phase where you start to find your feet and figure out your little corner of existence in that time and place, and the fact that it is temporary puts you on edge, makes you have enhanced relationships and makes you stop and take moments to realize and appreciate where you are. You go and see that thing now because it’s availability is not on an infinite timeline. That’s beautiful.
It’s important for me because I love it and if you love it, it will be important for you too. As I write Oliver and I are saving for our next trip or destination – the borders of that journey are not yet defined but we know that mobility is in our future and we want to have the money to do it. That’s a priority in our lives. I could go on more – really I could! It’s important because it changes your perspectives and widens them.
But as I develop in my journey of journeying I am also learning to be more responsible, and more critical of the services I use and how as travel widens your experiences one should be conscientious the impacts it has and the people and places in which you live and travel. An entry for another day maybe 😉
Interview conducted by Evy Bround