New age, new country…same me

Right now I’m sitting in a hostel in Bergen, Norway, during my independent travel break. You may have noticed that I didn’t post anything last week — I had planned on writing about my 21st birthday and all of the cool things I got up to, but in all honesty, I was dealing with some tough circumstances and emotions. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t have an amazing birthday. I most definitely did, as you’ll see in a few minutes, thanks to my amazing friends and family, both at home and in Sweden.

But I have been coming to terms with an important realization: despite the novelty surrounding me, I’m still the same person I was before I arrived in Stockholm, and that’s okay. I think the notion of studying abroad in college, especially as an American in Europe, is so intensely glorified that we expect a transformational experience within weeks of being here, but that’s often far from reality. It’s okay to feel anxious or depressed, and it’s okay to stay in all day or sleep past noon. As one of my friends put it, there’s no right way to study abroad.

It’s easy to feel like you’re not maximizing your experience when so many of your peers travel every weekend or occupy most of their free time with museums and sightseeing. But, as I’ve gradually realized, there’s nothing that I should be doing and no way that I should be experiencing these four months. So I’ve had to cut that word out of my vocabulary.

Not everyone can say they turned 21 while studying abroad in Sweden. Leading up to it, I felt pressure to do something flashy and memorable, but this was just another case of trying to fit a certain prototype. Luckily, I didn’t push myself to do anything, and I had tons of fun at Skansen and Drottningholm slott.


My birthday fell on a Wednesday, which is our weekly field study day. I had a Swedish Language & Culture field study at Skansen, the world’s first open-air museum, located on the island of Djurgården.

Our lovely guide took us through the ages of Swedish history, starting with Seglora Church, which dates back to the 1730s. It was absolutely stunning on the inside (and a nice respite from the freezing temps). I probably could have stared at the ceiling artwork for hours, but we had a few more centuries of Swedish culture to cover.

The outside of Seglora Church
Inside Seglora Church

Here are some of the other cool buildings and structures we saw — featuring a rare blue sky that appeared just in time for our visit.

After parting with our first guide, we got fika before heading to the Nordic zoo. My professor found out that it was my birthday and naturally had the entire class sing to me in Swedish. Ten-year-old me would have been mortified.

Our new guide, a biologist, took us through the animal exhibits. We saw seals, goats, reindeer, bison, owls, boars, and even a wolverine, which are native to Sweden. We also got a free lesson in evolutionary biology thanks to our very knowledgeable guide.

Despite the cold, it was a perfect way to spend my birthday. I learned a lot about Sweden, saw some awesome Nordic animals, and got to experience it all with my friends.

Drottningholm slott

On the following Sunday, my visiting host family invited Kajsa (another DIS student who shares the same family!) and me to explore Drottningholm slott, the residence of the Swedish royal family. It was a short drive west of downtown Stockholm, but it felt like another world.

We spent most of our time walking through the palace grounds, which were beautiful and serene.

We also came upon the Chinese Pavilion, a collection of Chinese-inspired buildings that were built for Queen Lovisa Ulrika’s birthday all the way back in 1753.

Before heading to my host family’s house for dinner, we got to pop inside the palace before it closed and catch a glimpse of the striking frescos and friezes.

We then had a lovely dinner with my visiting host family, and I tried meatballs for the first time ever. No joke. I’ve definitely been missing out for the past 21 years.

I got my second Swedish birthday serenade after dinner when my host family surprised me with a delicious (and gluten free!) dessert. Since I couldn’t be with my family at home, I was so grateful that they took the time and effort to make my birthday special.

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