Report from Uppsala

Hotel Grand Hornan

I spent a wonderful week in Sweden, thanks to my friend and colleague Sue Senecah who has an appointment at SLU university in Uppsala. She took such good care of me and I had a great time getting to know students and faculty in the environmental communications and conflict resolution field. My only disappointment was that the city is pronounced oopSAla rather than OOPSala, which is so much more fun to say.

As I explained in my last blog, understanding each other’s “landscape” in all senses was my goal. So, here are some glimpses into the Swedish landscape.

In mid-March it was dark and gray and wet. It reminded me of my hometown Seattle on steroids. But I was there for the equinox on March 21, when the temperature shot up to near 50, the sun came out, and everyone went nuts. After a long, very dark winter, here was proof that the long, bright summer was in sight. Restaurants had outdoor seating, with giant heat lamps, and people bundled up and sat outside, faces upward toward the precious sun. Some bikers and runners even donned shorts. Surprised babies were unzipped from their mummy-bag-strollers, like little butterflies coming out of cocoons.

Recycling is a way of life. The university where I spoke was equipped with containers everywhere. The cafeterias and break rooms had china dishes and real silverware, no plastic or styrofoam to be seen. In the break rooms on each floor, dishwashers were always humming. You can get by with public transportation and bicycles – plenty of each. Many bicycle even in mid-winter with snow on the ground.

And speaking of snow, there is no plowing in Uppsala. After each snowfall a layer of gravel is spread on top of sidewalks and streets, giving traction for walkers, bikers, buses and cars. As the temperature warms, the snow melts and there is a layer of gravel everywhere. The last day of my visit the city began “vacuuming” the gravel and depositing it in huge mountains outside town to wait for the first snowfall next winter. No plowing, no salt, just recyclable gravel.

Uppsala cathedral

I visited the cathedral, built by Catholics in the 13th century, but now the headquarters for the Lutheran Church of Sweden. Swedes seem to favor secularism, but love the history and cultural traditions. Easter is wildly popular for its chicks, bunnies, candy and prelude to spring. My visit to the cathedral coincided with a baby christening. From a distance I watched the parents and god-parents, with the tiny baby in a long white dress, approach the font in a side chapel, walking in time to the slow, ponderous organ music. I recognized the song: Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely?”  It was very sweet, and I suspect very Swedish.

From what I heard and saw the Swedish government  policies are enlightened, progressive and focused on caring for its people and the planet. The tax rate is 41% but the return is enviable — housing, health care, retirement, education, employment and aggressive tackling of climate change. Of course nothing is simple, and there are wrinkles that I can imagine would not work in other places. Soon after every newborn goes home from the hospital, a government worker makes a home visit. The purpose is to insure that the home is safe for the baby and the caregivers have what they need. New mothers are offered advice about baby care and given training if they need it. On the one hand it sounds great and a critical intervention to make sure that this new little citizen is off to a good start. On the other hand I can imagine that elsewhere there would be cries of government over-reach and interference in the private affairs of the home.

endless bicycles at central station

Individually there is a deep respect for the privacy of others, perhaps in the extreme for some. A friend in Uppsala was trying to mount a new bicycle that was too big for her, and as she swung her leg over the seat, she lost her balance and tumbled backward onto the sidewalk, bike on top of her. She cursed and struggled and managed to get up, while strangers walked by as if unaware of her trouble. She said that if she had called for help, she knows she would have been immediately surrounded by good Samaritans, but without her asking, the assumption was that she wanted to be left alone in her struggle.

And finally, here is a view of partying, Swedish-style. I was lucky to be invited to the installation ceremony of new professors at the university and the dinner that followed. The installation was full of pomp, brass instruments, recipients in tuxedos and evening gowns, a very inspiring speech by the Vice Chancellor, thoughtfully translated into English as a handout for those of us who needed it. Guests then gathered for champagne and conversation, before adjourning downstairs to the banquet room filled with eight long tables, each seating about twenty honorees, families, students, faculty, and lucky invitees like me.

What impressed me was the structure of the evening. There was a student body leader who acted as emcee, welcoming us all and inviting us to enjoy the evening. The first course was a smoked salmon salad which I relished, especially after a server came by and poured white wine for everyone. At the end of this course, the emcee introduced a speaker. I was expecting to continue to sip my wine, but looked up and down the table and saw that everyone sat upright, facing the speaker, hands folded in lap. I did the same. This was repeated throughout the evening, through the main course (a glass of red wine for everyone) and dessert (a glass of sweet wine). There was a singer/guitarist who apparently was very funny singing a traditional song of spring with modernized lyrics. A student spoke of a teacher’s influence on her. The Vice Chancellor spoke again. The whole evening was beautifully choreographed, and except for a rare trip to the restroom, everyone honored the structure impeccably. The dinner began at 7:30 and ended around 11:00, when we all adjourned upstairs for coffee, liqueur and dancing! And then all structure disappeared. The DJ played pop music and the evening gowns and tuxes rocked out with no inhibitions. I left around 12:30 but I’m told they went on til 2:00 am at least.

I would have expected myself to be frustrated by the structure and the social rules. Why can’t I have another glass of wine if I want? Why can’t I nibble at my dessert during this musical interlude? But on the contrary, it was very comforting to know that everything was under control, that we knew just what to expect, that no speaker would “go rogue,” that no one would drink too much, that no one would whisper loudly during a speech. And if I wanted to bust loose, there was a time and place for that.

Sweden has figured a lot out during those long, dark winters. There is a balance between the good of the whole and the rights of the individual that seems to work. Swedes are willing to conform when it’s necessary, and able to let loose and be themselves when appropriate. They know how to keep it under control and how to celebrate. Skol!

raindrops in sunlight outside my hotel

4 thoughts on “Report from Uppsala”

  1. What an interesting, thought provoking, and memorable experience!
    There remains one outstanding question:
    What evening gown did you wear?

    1. Ha! You hit upon the crisis of the trip. I was warned that I would be going to a formal event so packed the best I had — fancy black pants, pricey black top, and turquoise jewelry. My guide Sue did much the same, so at least we had each other. And I am sure that our Swedish hosts were gracious in excusing our barbaric American ways.

  2. What fun! I am being a stay-at-home-with-Oliver-George-the-cat these days, looking forward to more travel to the southern border, more photographs, more stories. Meanwhile, I’m so interested and amused by your words about the trip to Sweden, reminding me of some years I lived in Copenhagen where barbaric American ways were easily accepted and laughed at in front of me and elsewhere. My son ran away from home to his school — Bernadotteskolen, named for a famous nordic peacemaker — he rode the train from Copenhagen out to Norrebro and moved into a space in the school’s basement, where he was found a few hours later. He came back on the train with me glaring at him most of the way. Now I’m not quite sure where in the blog this bit of story should go, looking forward to instructions!! Happy New Year.

    1. So good to hear your tales from Denmark! Living — or even visiting — elsewhere is so enlightening, more about ourselves than anything else. You need no instructions to contribute comments — you did it perfectly.

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