By Kelly McCarthy, Oberlin College ’19
It was never really a question of where I would study abroad. Even before I knew what college I would attend, I knew that if I was so fortunate as to have the opportunity to study abroad I would do so in Sweden. My grandfather — or Morfar, as my sister and I call him — was born and raised in a small industrial town in the middle of Sweden. When he was in his last year of high school, he went on exchange to the United States. High school led to college, college led to meeting my grandmother, and meeting my grandmother led (a bit further down the line) to me in my Morfar’s living room, drinking lingonberry juice and playing gömma nyckeln (hide the key, a Swedish children’s game). Until I was six or seven, my Morfar spoke mostly Swedish with me. But the language didn’t really stick. As I got older and started spending less time with my Morfar, I stopped speaking Swedish pretty much entirely. When we went to the first of many family reunions that we would come to attend in Sweden, I was ten years old and spoke barely a lick of Swedish.
Over the next ten years, I would go to three more family reunions, each one hosted by a different part of the family and in a different part of the country. Every time we made the trans-atlantic journey, my parents allowed me to extend my stay a couple weeks beyond the family reunion, to spend more time with my cousins in their respective cities or to visit with my Gammelmorfar, who still to this day lives in the region where he raised my Morfar. Despite the years in between each trip to Sweden, I became very close with some of my Swedish family, and fell entirely in love with the Swedish countryside. Sweden, to me, was trips through the woods by my family’s summer cottage, picking chanterelles under the guidance of my aunt; laying on the trampoline in my cousin’s backyard looking through her Swedish yearbook (which I was fascinated by); and long train rides through the country, eating Kex bars and staring through the window at the fields dotted with hay bales that, bound and wrapped in white plastic sheets, look like giant marshmallows. That was all I knew of Sweden. A summer haven, time spent with family I saw rarely and loved dearly. The two or three weeks I got to spend here at a time were always wonderful, but they never felt like enough. I wanted more; I wanted to know what it was like to actually live in Sweden, I wanted to know the language, I wanted to feel really at home in the country my Morfar grew up in.
So here I am, on month eight of my time in Sweden. I got my wish and then some; over the last eight months, I have explored more of Sweden than I have even of my home country. I have road-tripped through Skåne with my cousin Sofia and saw the church where her parents were married; I spent New Years cozied up at my family’s cottage with my Morfar’s brother and his family, snowboarding and cross-country skiing by day and lounging in the outdoor sauna by night; I have spent countless hours sitting by my Gammelmorfar, practicing Swedish with him and hearing stories of his childhood and later travels; I felt the secondhand excitement as I sat with my cousins Johanna and Fredrik and their family, watching the finale of the annual Swedish song competition, Melodifestivalen; I have been able to celebrate birthdays, chat over dinners, and get to know my Swedish family, and their language, better than I ever have before. I can’t even begin to express what a blessing that has been, nor what gratitude I feel towards the Swedish Program, Oberlin College, and of course my parents and family for allowing this experience to be possible.
In just two and a half months, we have another family reunion here in Sweden. Nothing makes me more proud than to know that for the first time in my life, as I sit at the dinner table with my entire extended Swedish family, I will be speaking Swedish right along with them.
Kelly McCarthy is majoring in Environmental Studies at Oberlin College. She studied at The Swedish Program during the 2017-2018 academic year.