Definition of a nation

This year’s first snowflake dropped on my nose yesterday. Actually, the first snow came to Uppsala the evening before but it visited just briefly and before I got to the balcony, it was gone. Generally speaking, I do not get excited over snow; slightly irritated if anything, because snowflakes floating elegantly down like ballet dancers in the Swan Lake mean that I will be constantly freezing over the next couple of months no matter neither where I am nor what I am doing. However, this time it feels different. It is Sweden after all, and snow is naturally part of the experience. Nevertheless, needless to say, it did get considerably colder in the past few days.

Tonight I am going to my very first gasque, a traditional Swedish student ball organised by a university nation, and therefore, time has come to introduce you to the nations, a truly unique feature of the Uppsala University, before exploring the many traditions of a gasque next time.

Sometimes, the nations are compared to American college fraternities/sororities. Given that my knowledge of the Greek system in based purely on America TV series and my friends’ stories, I do not find myself knowledgeable enough to comment on this comparison. Anyway, before diving into explaining the current functions of the nations, let’s sacrifice a few lines to the historical background.

This is a story I have been told but it seems to differ a little bit from what the Internet has to say about this matter. Nonetheless, I quite like it. In the first half of the 17th century, young gentlemen from wealthy families would be selected by their local parishes to come to Uppsala in order to study. These young gentlemen, however, would party. And they would party hard. Back in the day and until now, the social life has been organised around the nations and the membership was obligatory until 2010. Originally the nations corresponded to the parishes sending students to Uppsala and, to maintain the order at the University and in the city, would report any misbehaviour to the local parish and the priest would then spread the word all over the parish causing humiliation for the young gentleman and his family. Consequently, as a punishment the humiliated family would refuse to send the much needed money to the partying black sheep.

Before coming to Uppsala I had heard quite a lot about the nations but somehow kept finding myself unable to really picture what the system looked like. I will do my best to describe it as much as I can, but you most probably will not get the exact idea of what it is until you visit the city (ok, I try to use this term now).

An important footnote: majority of nations’ events and venues are accessible to members only. As an Uppsala University student you can become a member of a nation and after graduation you can opt to continue paying the fee to maintain your member status (a semester membership costs a little less than 300 kronor). Being a member of a nation grants you access to a vast majority of events organised by any nation, though you might be required to pay slightly more to get in. If you just visit the city, you can buy a temporary pass provided that you have a valid student id on you (it costs around 50 kronor as far as I know).

So, what is a nation? Well, it is a building to start with. Each nation has an old (usually old as in ‘wow-what-a-lovely-piece-of-architecture old’) nation building. They are all to be found in the centre close to the Main University Building. Only Gotland nation is situated on the other side of the river because being an island Gotland needs to be separated from the rest of Sweden by water. What is important for a regular member is that nations host pubs and clubs where alcohol is considerably cheaper than in a regular bar (I have heard that it is because they are exempt from taxes). On that note, nations also run reasonably priced restaurants and cafés, where nation cards are generally not required though exception proves the rule. Before you go to either of the above, you might want to check whether they are actually open. Whereas some nations run their pubs every night, others might have a couple of club nights a week, or open a restaurant or prepare a fika (if unfamiliar with this term, kindly consider reading my previous post once a week. In other words, if you have your heart set on a particular event, you might need to plan a bit in advance.

Nations are run exclusively by students. To work in a nation you need to become a member first. To discuss the work hierarchy of a nation would probably not enrich you very much, so we will pass on that one. More exciting is the following: today I have worked for the first time at a nation. I helped out with a fika. Just to be clear, jobs at the nations are not well-paid, some of them are not paid at all (so do tip if you happen to go to a nation’s pub etc.). Moreover, in general, to get paid you need to have a Swedish bank account (not easy to open one as an only-one-semester exchange student) and Swedish tax number, which is a bit discouraging. Therefore, working at a nation is mostly about meeting new people, practising Swedish, trying new things, having fun, perhaps taking a break from studying… Plus, it is very flexible; you may work regularly or just occasionally. As you wish.

Importantly, nations also offer scholarships and housing (which there is a terrible shortage of not only here in Uppsala but apparently in all major university cities). Since neither of these features really applies to me as I am staying here just for one semester, I do not know much about them.

Not to forget, with all the social events including gasques, fikas, brunches, beer-tasting sessions, cocktail nights and much more, nations are perfect places not only to go to with your friends but also to meet new people.

You might be wondering how does one decide which nation to join? I have no idea. To be honest, at the beginning they look all the same. Before the academic year starts students get a free trial week to check out all the nations. This week is called Orientation Week and those of you coming here on exchange from Edinburgh will be most certainly disappointed by its smallness (what a nice word).

Still unsure what a nation is? It depends greatly on you, too. For some a nation is the people who run it, who work there, who just hang out there. Nation is like family to them. Some, on the other hand, see a nation as a venue. They change nations like socks according to the clubs ran at particular nights. Or they consider it a relatively cheap place where to go for fika or to eat out. Alternatively, people might join a nation to be able to go to a gasque or to take part in other nation’s activities such as a choir, a dance group, or a photo club, to name a few. I am certainly missing a number of other viewpoints here. Others decide not to join a nation at all.

If you happen to be (considering) coming to Uppsala either as an exchange or regular student and have questions, as I surely did myself, feel free to leave a comment.

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