Fulbright Features: Researcher explores archives and the outdoors in Sweden

Tess Kutasz
November 11, 2015

Penn State students are traveling around the world to conduct research, teach English, attend masters degree programs and more as part of the Fulbright Program, a highly sought-after nine-month international educational exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State. This is part of a series of essays written by Penn State student Fulbright winners who have returned from or have just embarked on their trips.

While the official total isn’t yet released, at least 11 students have been offered the scholarship this year, according to Penn State’s University Fellowships Office. Last year, 13 Penn State students received the prestigious scholarship. For more information about applying for the program, visit the University Fellowships Office’s website. Click here to read more Fulbright Features.

 

“Winter is coming.” This is what staff members of the Swedish Fulbright commission told me on my first day in Stockholm when I arrived at the end of August. As they put my paperwork in order, the staff encouraged me to get outside and enjoy what was forecast to be one of the year’s last days of warm summer weather. 

I will be here in Sweden for 10 months, and have enjoyed talking with people about my somewhat confusing situation as an American art historian of Italian Renaissance and Baroque collecting, working on documents in Sweden written in French and Italian about ancient Roman objects purchased in 17th century Italy by a Swedish queen. My dissertation examines Queen Christina of Sweden’s self-fashioning through the display of her collections, and her involvement in the antiquities market in Rome after she abdicated her throne at the age of 28, converted to Catholicism and moved to Italy to become one of the period’s leading patrons of academics, music and the arts.

In the spring of 2014, I attended an information session at Penn State about grant opportunities offered by Fulbright and decided to apply. In the spring of 2015, I was notified that I’d been selected for the award and, along with another Penn State art history Fulbright applicant, would be departing in the fall for 10 months of dissertation research -- she to Germany and me to Sweden. 

Before this trip, I’d visited the country only once on a brief research trip, barely having had the chance to see anything except the inside of the royal archives. I still spend a good deal of my time in libraries and archives, translating the official court records, letters and palace inventories of Queen Christina, and I have attended several seminars and symposia, making valuable professional contacts. 

As Fulbright recipients, we are encouraged to complete the academic projects that brought us here, but also to fulfill our roles as cultural ambassadors, balancing our individual research goals with involvement in our local communities, exploration of the country and immersion in the culture. In that spirit, I’ve made it a point to enjoy my time outside of the archives and have taken advantage of this opportunity to visit museums, travel, meet locals and try interesting new foods such as reindeer, whale, moose and cod roe.   

Already, as I write this in the last week of October, the sun stays low in the sky all day and sets before 4 p.m. Next month, I will take an 18-hour train ride north to Swedish Lapland, located within in the Arctic Circle, with the promise of seeing reindeer below the northern lights and mushing sled dogs outweighing my love of daylight and warm toes. The encouragement I received from the Fulbright staff to go outside and enjoy the outdoors upon my arrival — a recommendation I’ve heard reiterated by other Swedes I’ve met since — was not simply a warning of colder days to come, but an earnest suggestion to experience the season and enjoy nature. Enjoyment, preservation and understanding of nature is a central part of both individual and national identity for many Swedes, and it is the reason why several of the other Fulbrighters in Sweden have come to study how the country has embraced green research initiatives and ecological business practices.

Along with universal health care and free college education for all Swedes, one of the most frequently mentioned social rights enjoyed by the people here is the “allemansrätten” or “right of every man” to have access to nature. This constitutional freedom gives equal access to land, privately owned or not, for the purposes of hiking, skiing, camping, mushrooming and berry picking or biking so long as individuals do not disturb or destroy the property. No matter the season, people here embrace the outdoors with the famous Swedish design aesthetic often highlighting organic functionality and incorporating large, inviting windows. There is something of an indoor-outdoor balance to the lifestyle here with many cafe patios staying busy, despite the steadily dropping temperatures, by providing lap blankets for customers.  

Fika, a social coffee and pastry break taken one or more times a day throughout Sweden, is a constant no matter the weather or daily schedule, and many people here particularly enjoy a small picnic fika when out exploring the countryside. While traveling with locals, I’ve been treated to pre-packed fika to-go everywhere from a stone monolith site in the southern coastal region of Skåne to the side of the road in the middle of the burnt remains of the Västmanland forest.

In each participating country, the Fulbright experience is slightly different. Sweden typically hosts about seven American Fulbright students each year while others host over 70. I highly recommend anyone who is considering a Fulbright application to discuss possible opportunities with his or her adviser. The connections, academic opportunities and cultural experiences offered through Fulbright provide personal and professional benefits that will last a lifetime. Skål!

Last Updated May 12, 2016