A tale of two countries: Italy and Sweden

Authors: Albachiara Boffelli and Lorenzo Bruno Prataviera (Politecnico di Milano)

The visiting period is a common step in an Italian PhD student journey. It is usually a tough but very rewarding experience. In this article, Albachiara and Lorenzo share their common visiting experience at the Department of Industrial Management and Logistics of Lund University in Sweden.

Lund University’s Library – Picture by Albachiara

How everything started

If you are wondering how you organize your visiting period, the answer is by contacting the professor you are interested in working with. Being you a very young scholar at the second or third year of the PhD path, asking your supervisor to contact the professor (and if the supervisor has direct contacts even better) gives you higher chances to be successful in your request of hosting you for a period from 3 to 6 months. As Albachiara remembers “During my second year, I started to think about possible destinations and professors I would have loved to work with. After choosing Lund University and Prof. Jan Olhager, my supervisor contacted him, since he knew him from conferences, to ask for his availability to host me. After the first contact, all the subsequent practical stuff was managed directly by me”.

On the other hand, you might have to first-hand contact professors worldwide to get through this process. You usually review the academic literature to identify what are the leading scholars in your own research field. Once identified those who are closer to your research purposes, you submit a proposal and…cross your fingers! As Lorenzo acknowledges “I was pretty lucky: prof. Andreas Norrman from Lund University was my first choice, and he quickly offered his availability to host me for six months. That was also the moment when I knew that another Italian PhD student would have been visiting Lund in the same period!”.

The first period: entering a Swedish community

As widely acknowledged, Italy and Sweden represent two different sides of the same coin, i.e. Europe. Italian people are usually deemed to be warm and messy, while Swedish people are normally associated to nordic, cold habits. However, both of us found in Sweden a warm hospitality from all the people living the “Teknisk ekonomi och logistik” Department. 

As Lorenzo remembers “I travelled by car from Milan to Lund. A friend of mine was with me up to Frankfurt, then I travelled all by myself. And when I arrived in Lund, after 2 days driving, I was pretty exhausted. Asa Malm, the Programme Administrator of Engineering Logistics at Lund University, supported me for home key delivering and providing essential information. However, I did not know any Swedish word and…I left my car in a parking-fee zone. The next morning, when I met Andreas, the first thing he helped me with was paying the fine I got!”.

Of course, even if warm, entering a new and consolidated group of people might be difficult, especially for a shy and introverted person, as Albachiara recalls “Back then, I was in a difficult period of my PhD path, feeling quite insecure and unconfident about my research abilities. Moreover, I was not yet a good networker. I usually needed some time, even months, to create a relationship with new people. To complicate things, my spoken English was not excellent, and sometimes, at the beginning, I was having trouble communicating. Moreover, Swdish people have different habits and ways of behaving, and understanding how to behave properly was putting a lot of pressure on me. Nevertheless, all the people from the Department have been great and made their best to let me feel as welcome, I could feel that! And among them, I have to thank especially Malin, the PhD student that was working with Jan, for her availability to support me and openness to work with me on a new research proposal, even if she wasn’t obliged to do that.”

The darkest period

A huge difference between Italy and Sweden is darkness. We don’t only mean emotional darkness, or the ability to scrutinize within ourselves, but also the true absence of light! Despite Lund is located in Southern Sweden, still quite far from the Arctic Circle, fall and winter can be challenging. Especially for two Italians! 

Swedish people we met claimed that the hardest period is January. Indeed, from November houses and buildings start to be filled with many lamps, and candles, that actually provide “light” in people’s lives and souls. However, Lorenzo feels that his hardest moment was the beginning of December. The weather was pretty cold, days were shortening, and Lorenzo was angrier than ever (Albachiara remembers it very well)! But “I found a great environment where to share my feelings, and my thoughts as well. Not only with Alba, who had the pleasure to listen to my rants in Italian, but also with the Swedish colleagues and friends. And, overall, that was a huge experience that taught me a lot about how to handle and manage myself”.

Albachiara, despite agreeing with Lorenzo about December being the darkest period, does not consider the weather and the lack of daylight as the major responsible: “I have had a really hard time, especially during December, because of lack of self-confidence and of a clear direction. At the beginning of December, we still did not have strong research ideas, just some intuitions, and I was not sure I could have ended my PhD. I started wondering whether to give up and go back to Italy. All my dearest people were telling me to come back, but I’m now happy that I decided to insist till we, Malin and I, with the support of our supervisors (and of another Swedish colleague, Joakim Kembro, who was always available to talk about research and methods), found an interesting research project and planned for the next steps starting from January. In the end, the joy-providing Christmas lights and spending the Christmas holidays with my family and friends helped me in starting in January with a lot of renewed energy!” 

Living like a Swede

During the visiting period (and after December we enjoyed it even more!), we met a wide array of great people (and great scholars as well), and gradually learned and adapted to their habits. For instance, in Italy it is unusual to have lunch before 12.30. Well, in Sweden it is common to have lunch at 11 or 11.30! The very first days, we felt quite impossible to “live like a Swede”, but later we gradually improved our adaptation to the Swedish days’ scheduling. 

For example, we became huge fans of “fika”! Despite its clear similarity with a well-known Italian word, the Swedish fika is a coffee break where coffee can be replaced by tea, juice, lemonade, hot chocolate, or squash for children. As Wikipedia also acknowledges, fika is a social institution in Sweden and, as a common mid-morning and mid-afternoon practice at workplaces, fika also functions partially as an informal meeting between co-workers and management people. And, above all, we went crazy for Thursday-fika, every Thursday at 2.30 pm, where sweets and pastries were present too. We also organized our own Thursday-fika after coming back from Italy in January with Panettone and Pandoro.

Another great experience we shared was playing curling. In Italy, curling is not widespread (we actually checked, to detect whether it was possible to practice, since we enjoyed it a lot!). In Sweden, there are instead “curling clubs” where you can spend an entire day. And this is what actually happened in January, when we had the opportunity to take part in the winter Division Day. First, to discuss recent research projects or outcomes during the morning. Then, after lunch, to actually play curling. And, despite being the first time for the Italians, we are proud to say that we waved our flag high!

Moreover, our Swedish colleagues made sure we had the full Swedish experience by organizing: the national kanelbullar day (October 4th), a soccer match of Malmö team, the barbecue at Andreas Norrman’s house, the Saffron Buns cooking, the St. Lucia concert (they were extremely surprised when Albachiara told them that St. Lucia is celebrated also in Bergamo!), the Christmas fika, the Christmas dinner, the evening at the University theater, and finally the Malmö house-tour to see where our youngest colleagues lived (and surely we are forgetting about many others).  

Keeping the network alive

At the end of February 2019, both Albachiara and Lorenzo (sadly) had to leave Lund and go back to Italy. However, the “Italy-Sweden network” (as the name of the Whatsapp group that was born) did not stop.

One of the last days in Lund with our present for the Department (a mug for everyone with their names on it) – picture by a random student

After six months far from Lund, Lorenzo travelled back to meet the Swedish friends on the occasion of the summer Division Day, which took place at the wonderful Bjärsjölagård Castle. Similarly to what happened in January, a “research-driven” morning was followed by recreational activities and collective cooking (and dining, of course) in the late afternoon. Moreover, in early December Ebba Eriksson (a PhD student under the supervision of Andreas) achieved her Licentiate, and a colleague of Lorenzo acted as her opponent during the discussion. Of course, Lorenzo joined the trip, “and that was a great opportunity to not only meet friends, but also to celebrate!”. In addition, the research collaboration with Andreas is continuing, with one paper currently under review and another in progress that directly builds upon the activities they carried out together in Lund. 

Unfortunately, for a series of circumstances, Albachiara was never able to go back again to Lund after the visiting period. Although, Malin was visiting her in Bergamo for three days in late March to submit the full paper to EurOMA conference and start planning the one for EDSI. Then, the same year, Albachiara met both Jan and Malin at EurOMA Annual Conference in Helsinki and at EDSI Annual Conference in Nottingham, where they also won the best paper award for the project coming out from the visiting period! A second best paper award was then achieved at the global DSI Annual Conference in New Orleans, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of the collaboration. Nowadays, they are still working together on the projects started from the visiting period, and hopefully new ideas will come in the future!

In the end, we both can recommend, if you have the opportunity, to plan for a visiting period abroad. It surely opens your mind and allows you to get in contact with a new culture and, hopefully, with people that are smarter than you. You can learn a lot from the experience and the people that you will have the opportunity to meet during your visiting period.

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