Sometimes cultural differences can be shocking. Like the time I was writing my final exam for my theology course on St. Bridget of Sweden, at the University of Lund, in 2003.
Imagine, if you will, a room full of Swedish theology students. Some 200 people or so, on an early snowy morning in Lund, Sweden.
Most of them are supplied with food and beverages -- Swedish exams are long enough to necessitate bringing provisions. People are arriving on a drop-in basis since there is usually a one-hour window during which you can show up. Yes, very strange from a North American perspective, but hey, this is Sweden.
About half-way through the exam, I heard someone say "I'm doing this to get your attention, and to protest that I am not allowed to write my exam."
Now, I am used to Canadian exam-room settings. Stress, sweat, starvation and strict rules on exam start times, bathroom use, etc. No one ever says anything out loud (except: Put down your pens and stop writing now). Ever.
I looked up and saw a red-haired guy standing at the front of the room. My first reaction was, is this guy trying to advertise the Engineering play? Was this just another cultural difference?
There was, however, one problem.
The guy was completely naked.
Well, except for his shoes.
After getting over the initial shock, I remembered that Sweden is liberal in attitudes towards nudity. But during a theology exam? Was this normal behaviour for students possibly preparing for careers in the church?
Had this happened in Canada, probably everyone would have been allowed to leave with an A+ since they would have been considered victims of sexual assault of some kind.
What happened in Lund that morning was this: the proctors managed to convince the guy to leave (still naked) without writing the exam. I continued writing my exam (and got top marks) and the world kept turning.
But the story, I think, is one of the best I have from my academic career.
Here's the comment that was published in Sydsvenskan, followed by my translation:
"Had been in his clothes, I probably would have stayed in them."
Fredrik Lindström, Prefect at the Faculty of Theology, regarding the student who stripped to protest that he was not allowed to write his exam when he arrived late.
Source: Sydsvenskan (29 January 2004)
Note: In Swedish, the expression "to be in someone else's shoes" is "to be in someone's clothes"