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Even though it’s only halfway through the spring term, it feels more like finals time right now, because here you’re supposed to take one five-week course at a time, so a set of courses is ending now. Because of the weirdness of the university schedule and my desire to get as much out of my Swedish experience as possible, I’m finishing up three courses at the moment. One is for my actual M.A. program, and two are “extra”: Swedish for Foreigners III and The Swedish Education System. They’re 10-week, half-time courses, so it’s only a double course load, not a triple one. For the second half of the semester I’ll have only Swedish for Foreigners IV. Well, and I’m supposed to be writing a master’s thesis too.

So if I don’t write anything terribly interesting for the next couple of weeks, it’s because I’m busy writing papers and things.

I’ve been meaning to write about what a high-quality afternoon we had last Saturday. After visiting the library, we went downtown, finding 6 kronor worth of returnable bottles (that’s like, almost a dollar!) along the way. We visited a antique shop that we’d passed by many times and got a bit of a Swedish art history and art investment lesson from the proprietor. In the central square, under a tent which proclaimed “cooperation for a more pleasant town”, they were giving away free waffles and lemonade, for no apparent reason other than to make a more pleasant town. The sun was shining and it was warm and people were out and about, which is not always the case in sleepy Falun. There were street musicians – not only the not-terribly-talented drummer who’s often around, but a young woman playing guitar. We didn’t see the not-terribly-talented accordionist who’s often around (Kostia: He should learn a new chord. Me: What’s wrong with that one?). It was a lovely Saturday afternoon in this small Swedish town.

As international students, Kostia and I often find ourselves among speakers of other Slavic languages – Polish, Czech, Slovak, Ukrainian, even Macedonian and Bulgarian. We have a fun time comparing Russian words to their counterparts in other Slavic languages, but our language of conversation is always English, as it’s usually our only common language. Sometimes it seems silly to speak English among people whose native languages are so much closer to one another than any of them are to English.

Enter Slovio, the artificial simplified pan-Slavic language. If you’ve ever studied a Slavic language, you should be able to understand what’s written on this website. It’s like Russian without all that nasty grammar! While I don’t think it’s a replacement for learning a “natural” language properly, it is nice to think that we don’t have to use English to speak to Czechs and Poles.

Sxto es Slovio? Slovio es novju mezxunarodju jazika ktor razumijut cxtirsto milion ludis na celoju zemla. Slovio mozxete upotrebit dla gvorenie so cxtirsto milion slavju Ludis ot Praga do Vladivostok; ot Sankt Peterburg cxerez Varsxava do Varna; ot Sredzemju Morie i ot Severju Morie do Tihju Okean. Slovio imajt prostju, logikju gramatia i Slovio es idealju jazika dla dnesju ludis. Ucxijte Slovio tper!

Lo those many years ago (7, to be exact), when I was working on Ralph Nader’s presidential campaign, for which transgression I will never be allowed to work in mainstream US politics (not that I want to anyway) because it is my fault that George W. Bush is president of the US (never mind the 48 million imbeciles who voted for him), my co-workers and I were out drinking after a late night at the office as was our custom. We were already in an advanced state of drunkeness when we somehow wound up sitting with some rather strange people who had gone to high school with one of us. One was a girl named Alice who kept smoothing her eyebrows with her pinky fingers and repeating that the “A” in her name corresponded with the “A” she got in honors English in high school.

Another was a sweaty chubby guy who, upon being introduced to my co-worker Jonah, started shrieking, “Like in the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series number 5! Number 5!” “What?” said Jonah. “Didn’t you read the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series books?” “Well, some of them, I guess,” said Jonah. “There was a character in number 5 named Jonah! Choose-Your-Own-Adventure series number 5!” “OK, man,” said Jonah, who was amused, and probably relieved that at least this guy didn’t say anything about whales like most socially inept people do when they meet someone named Jonah.

Why did I remember this story? Because today Anand sent me this link, to the Choose Your Own Adventure Books That Never Quite Made It. Be sure to look at all the pages, because the funniest ones aren’t on the first page. Here’s a sample:

Dedicated to Jonah Baker. If you’re out there, get in touch, eh? That goes for all you Naderites.

Thistles said:

Totally unrelated to your post but I was just reading an article in Mothering Magazine written by an American ex-pat in Sweden. She was writing about the attitude towards children and independence she found when living in Sweden. For example, when playing on the playground parents mostly hung back and watched. Little children were allowed to take their chances on climbing structures, etc. and parents would only intervene if it looked like bodily injury was imminent. Contrary to our American expectations, there were actually fewer injuries because children were encouraged to test out and practice their physical abilities.The more I read about that place, the more I wish we could live there. I know you’re not working in a preschool now but I wonder if you’ve noticed any difference in the attitudes around “doing things properly” versus “letting them work out how to do it” between Sweden, Russia, and the US?

The following are completely non-scientific and highly subjective observations.

One thing I noticed straightaway in Sweden is that kids in preschools wear helmets when they play outside. Just playing, not riding bikes or anything. It looks a little funny, but as a former preschool teacher I can say that it’s a good way to both protect kids from harm and protect the teachers from liability. In the preschool in St. Petersburg, the schoolyard contained all kinds of monkey bars and things that were simply not appropriate for small kids, and the only way we were able to deal with it was to yell at them all the time not to climb on them. Of course, that’s about the worst way to deal with it – it stresses out kids and teachers both to be scolding all the time. It would be much nicer to have them wear helmets and go at it.

As you said, I haven’t experienced Swedish preschool first hand, but I am observing a third-grade class in an elementary school for my Swedish Education System class. On the question of “doing things properly” vs. “letting them figure it out”, they are definitely on the latter end of the scale. I’m struck by how much of their work is pairwork or groupwork – very different from the US or what I observed in Russia. The kids really are encouraged to find things out for themselves, and more significantly, with each other. I haven’t seen first hand whether the same approach is taken in the preschool level, but I did read a book that said that in the Nordic courtries there is a lot of resistance to “teaching” at the preschool level. Rather, children are supposed to explore things for themselves.

The St. Petersburg preschool was quite the opposite, particularly with the drill-sergeant head teacher I worked with the second year. Every minute of the day was planned, with highly-structured lessons. Even when we had “free play” time, the children were supposed to play quietly and independently from one another, and they were taught to play with particular toys in very particular ways, and were scolded for playing with them wrong. Creativity was strongly discouraged. And when we played outside, we were supposed to be playing teacher-led structured games all the time, though I tried to avoid doing that whenever possible, feeling that they were herded and scolded and told what to do the whole rest of the day, and they should actually have some time to do what they wanted and interact with each other on their own terms. But ours was a special private preschool with specific educational goals and claims made to parents about how much their kids were going to learn, so is not representative of Russian preschool in general.

As for family life rather than school life, from what I’ve seen of kids and parents out in public in Sweden, kids are often allowed to roam around a bit, as long as they’re in view of their parents and not doing anything dangerous. Parents seem quite patient and tolerant.

In Russia, kids don’t seem to be allowed to roam around so much (but there my fieldwork was performed in a large urban area :-), but parents don’t seem to scold their kids in public as much as American parents, and kids seemed better behaved. I think the American practice of saying “don’t-do-this-don’t-do-that” all the time actually backfires, because eventually kids start to ignore these admonishments, and then they don’t pay attention when it’s really important.

So, the short answer to your question is that, from what I’ve seen, Swedes seem to be pretty into letting kids figure things out for themselves both in school and in families, Russian families seem to be pretty mellow but Russian schools are highly (overly) structured, and, well, my American school experience was pretty highly structured, and I don’t even want to talk about my family in this regard, but let’s just say it wasn’t healthy.

It annoys me when people complain about the heat all summer long and cold all winter long. I know, it’s just human nature to complain. But at some point I decided I should only complain about one or the other, rather than being a year-round whiner. At the time I made this decision, I was living in Washington, DC, which has relatively short and snowless winters, and long, torrid summers. I decided to embrace the hot weather that was a fact of life and only be whiny in January.

Then fate brought me to 60 degrees north latitude, where it usually starts to snow in October and doesn’t stop until sometime in April. After two long St. Petersburg winters, by the end of each of which I was nearly insane from cold and cabin fever and wearing heavy sweaters all the time, my blood had finally thickened a bit and I got used to the idea that winter lasts for six months.

Falun, Sweden, is at the same latitude as St. Petersburg, and, from everything I read, tends to have similar temperature fluctuations. So I was completely mentally prepared for a nice long winter. Only this year has been different, both here and in Northwest Russia. Winter didn’t really settle in until mid-January, and now it seems to be over.

I’m having a hard time reconciling this in my head. After all the mental preparation for a long winter, I feel somehow cheated. It doesn’t seem right that the sun is shining brightly and it’s +5 Celsius.

Kostia keeps telling me that this kind of weather is also normal for this part of the world, and that I just picked an unlucky two winters to live in St. Petersburg. Maybe so, but I fear climate change. Well, there’s nothing I can do about it right now, so I guess I should go outside and enjoy the sunshine.

Last week I started getting some comments in my Russian Live Journal that said “I read about you in Esquire…” At first I didn’t understand what was going on. It turns out the March edition of the Russian version of Esquire did a piece on non-native Russian speakers blogging in Russian, and I was one of the ones featured and quoted. Russian Esquire’s website is still under construction, but a kind Live Journal reader took pictures of the article and posted them for me.

Strangely enough, it’s not the first time a blog of mine has made it into the Russian press. This post was translated and published in the SPb version of Afisha magazine in July 2005. They were quoting blog posts by foreigners about St. Petersburg. I shared a page with Moby and David Byrne.

Happy International Women’s Day, everyone! Or maybe “happy” is too… happy. After all, there’s still a lot of inequality in the world.

Swedish 9-year-olds are already aware of this. Today I visited the third-grade class that I’m observing for my Swedish Education System class. Each morning the teacher and one of the students look at the calendar and announce the date, what’s for lunch, and anything else important that’s going on. Jakob read from the calendar that today is Internationella kvinnodagen. The teacher said “And why do we have International Women’s Day?” “Because men and women weren’t always equal,” said a few of the kids. “Are they equal everywhere in the world today?” “Noooooooo,” said all the children in unison. “That’s right,” the teacher said, “Even in our country, some immigrant women aren’t equal in their own families.”

Gender equality is one of the core principles in the Swedish national school curricula. The effect is noticable.

They say the present continuous tense will disappear from international English. I think it already has. Yesterday I was looking at a bulletin board in the international students’ dormitory and there were two notes tacked up next to one another:

“I sell my bike”


“I look for my watch”

I’m not trying to make fun of anyone; I really respect everyone around here for functioning fluently in a language that is not their mother tongue. It’s just that sometimes it’s mildly amusing for a native English speaker. Either one of these messages would not be particularly funny in isolation, but in juxtaposition, they are.

Our friends Vadik and Elya went to the March of Dissent yesterday, and wrote up a summary of the experience, which Kostia posted on his LJ, for those who can read Russian. We may get around to translating it into English, or not, but the New York Times article is pretty good, more informative than the BBC one. Addition: an article from CNN that focuses on the negative.

Seems the major Russian news sites update their English versions on weekdays only, but there’s a slide show here at Pravda’s site. Click on “Следующее фото” (“next photo”) under the picture to advance the slide show.

In lighter news, the joys of living in small-town Sweden. Last week the local paper devoted the entire front page of the second section (with a leader on the front front page) to a follow-up story about a guinea pig.

In the original story, a dog found two guinea pigs that had been left out in the cold, and brought them to his owner, who brought them to the police. They were scratched up and starving and one of them died.

In the follow up, “What a transformation“, the surviving guinea pig had been adopted by someone who saw the original story. We learn that the dog who saved him was a golden retreiver named Zedd. The guinea pig has completely recovered, doubled his weight, fathered a litter of four, and won a ribbon for his cuteness. In one of the pictures he’s shown demonstrating his “fatherly affection” by “kissing his daughter on the snout”. Wow. He’s really pulled himself out of the gutter and turned his life around, hasn’t he.

On the one hand, I have to laugh that they found this story newsworthy. On the other hand, the tale is unbearably cute and touching, and if I can be that sentimental, well, I shouldn’t make fun of the newspaper for printing it.

Apparently they really do find guinea pigs newsworthy. When I did a search for “marsvin” (guinea pig) on the newspaper’s website, there were 39 results.

photo credit:

The Swedish Guinea Pig Association

About This Blog

I'm an American who started blogging when I moved to Russia in 2004. Eventually I moved to Sweden, where life is pleasant but uneventful, and stopped blogging for lack of interesting things to say. And then I joined Facebook, which further destroyed any motivation for blogging. Maybe someday I'll start blogging again, but for now, this blog is dormant, an archive of The Russia Years: 2004-2008.

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March 2007