Carnaval do Rio, Mardi Gras in New Orleans or Karneval in Düsseldorf? The Swedes can only laugh about special days of the year in other countries where people like to party on the street and dress up. Instead, all it takes for a Swede to get his craziest clothes out of the closet is the start of a new term in Lund.
If you have been in Lund since the middle of August, you have probably noticed the increasing hordes of Swedish students walking around the city, dressed up as fairies, prison inmates, soldiers, sailors or some unnamable creature. While the colorful overalls of the engineers definitely make you look twice, the more elaborate getups might even force you to stop your bike and stare unashamedly, especially since the dressed up students are either walking down the street singing or are taking a bath – in various stages of undress – in the fountain in front of the main university building. All of this is part of the introduction weeks for many new students, also known as nollning, where the different outfits and colors represent the faculties.
How can this strange behavior be explained? It sure seems like a paradox. The Swedes are a rather reserved people and according to the visitsweden.se website “have a very practical approach to clothes”. All of a sudden they dress up in the brightest colors, have glitter in their face and the absolute highlight: full grown men wearing skirts and dresses! Why does this happen every fall semester? The most obvious reason seems to be a counter reaction to the typical Swedish behavior. Since they usually keep back – as in not wanting to talk to strangers, respecting personal space and never wanting to inconvenience their fellow citizens – they make the most of an opportunity where they can be as crazy as they want without being judged.
From what I have learned so far, the stereotypical Swedish university student likes dressing up more than any other and costume parties seem to be disproportionally popular. The Swedes seem to have taken the original meaning of costume (from Latin consuetudinem “habit, custom, usage”) quite literally and have made this little spectacle their annual custom. Still, all of this is not for everyone. Although I always enjoyed dressing up for Karneval in Germany, which includes a lot of dancing, singing – that often sounds more like bawling – and drinking as well, I cannot imagine walking through Lund in silly outfits while everyone else is having a regular day, attending their daily business. Way too embarrassing!
However, I can see the positive effects this tradition has. Sharing a certain type of clothing always gives you a sense of belonging within a group, which is particularly helpful if you do not have a social network yet. Second, if you dress up like this and behave in a, let’s say, ‘unusual way’, you will make memories that will be unforgettable and that will likely connect you with others for the rest of your studies here.
So all you internationals out there: Try not to judge the Swedes too hard. It is only once a year they get to do this. Let them enjoy it and bear in mind that they will, thankfully, be back to their usual (reserved) selves in a few days…