About once a day here, someone asks me “Do you find Sweden very different from the U.S.?” Until last Friday, I would have replied, “Not terribly, it’s not super different.” I’m from a country whose culture encompasses the easygoing Pacific Northwest, the hospitable South, the fast-paced East Coast, not to mention the vestiges of every family’s own ethnic background. I’ve always been around people whose worldviews and customs differed from my own. “American Culture”–and non-American cultures present in America– embody such a diversity of norms, attitudes and habits that I’m afraid I’m a bit jaded. It takes more than a foreign language to make me feel out of place.
On Friday, Sweden did it. When I least expected it, the feeling hit me: this place has its own history, these people have their own frame of understanding the world, their own rules of interaction of which I am not a part, and with which I am not familiar. The foreignness crystallized as I watched a penguin of a man in a tailcoat direct a procession of flag bearers and guests of honor into an ornate auditorium. A chamber ensemble played a plodding little song as these people in white gloves, with medals hanging from ribbon collars, stepped to the beat, up the aisle, across the front, to their seats.
The occasion was the formal welcoming ceremony for new students in Uppsala. At the beginning of every school year, the university’s student social organizations, called student nations, put on a traditional formal dinner for new students. The dinners, called gasques, take place in the nations’ respective nation houses and involve an elaborate meal interspersed with drinking songs and speeches. Think Hogwarts house-meets-wedding reception-meets-karaoke.
Before the welcoming gasque, or reccegasque as they’re called, new students march with their nation to the university main building for the welcoming ceremony. We were lined up two-by-two and directed into the auditorium. I took one step inside the opulent room and I felt that I was a foreigner there. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. The gilded designs all over the ceiling and walls were distinctly Swedish: simple plant motifs mostly, but lined with gold and painted in rich reds, yellows, blues and greens, repeated in dense patterns. And yet, the floor was of simple wooden boards, unvarnished and unstained.
As I said, the ceremony itself began with the penguin man directing guests of honor to their seats to the music of the chamber ensemble. Then began a series of speeches by people whose position I wasn’t sure of, since introductions and speeches were given in Swedish. Since I couldn’t understand what was going on, I had a lot of time to think about what was happening in that auditorium and my place in it.
I think the formality of the occasion brought out the more concrete expressions of culture that I hadn’t been seeing in everyday student life. I’ve been to a thousand ceremonies in a hundred American auditoriums before, and this ceremony wasn’t wildly different from those. In fact, if it had been happening in English, and there were no flags or medals or blue and yellow sashes, it would have felt downright familiar.
But those differences were enough to make me realize that, though the ceremony could have been just like home, it wasn’t. And that’s what’s significant. If the people had dressed differently, talked differently, hadn’t marched in neat ceremonial lines– if they had been stripped of the expressions of the culture that shaped them– then they could have been giving a ceremony anywhere. But they were Swedish people, it was a Swedish ceremony, and I was an American kid just looking on.
And I was happy to finally feel out of place. I didn’t come here to feel at home.