As the temperature here in DC starts to dip below 40, I am starting to feel “cold” again for the first time since trekking through the dark, snowy streets of Copenhagen last winter. As students begin to button up their jackets and complain about this week’s forecast, I’m thinking to myself, “You think this is cold? You don’t know what cold is!” This isn’t cold – this is like spring-time weather in Denmark! It is absolutely stunning here in Georgetown, and I’ve taken good advantage of it too, spending long nights out on my back porch while working on my research paper in the dim light. There are even a few small candles lit on the table. Ahhh, the memories of hygge.
I know you’ve heard it a million times, but where has all the time gone? As each month passes, I’m getting closer and closer to the one-year anniversary of my departure for Denmark. Last week, we even had the closing panel discussion and ceremony for the Junior Year Abroad Program (JYAN), the group of student-bloggers writing for Georgetown’s Berkley Center. We talked about lessons learned, challenges overcome, and surprising twists to our study-abroad narrative. Most people had nothing but the fondest of memories.
That conversation really made me think about writing another post – a really honest post. Because looking back on the previous semester, all I can remember is people saying how fun it was, how good of a time they had, how they traveled and met people and experienced those once-in-a-lifetime events.
For the most part, I think this blog has followed that trend. When you see someone who was abroad that you haven’t seen in a while and ask them “how did it go?,” the answer is always the same. “I had an amazing time with amazing people and saw some really amazing things.” That’s the standard 30-second answer. It is absolutely ridiculous, and it gets me frustrated. “Fun.” “Amazing.” “Cool.” Those words are so utterly inadequate to describe my whirlwind of a semester.
Fun? Sure. But no one ever talks about how hard it was. How hard it was to meet new people, to adjust to the culture, to stay warm in the blizzard, to get used to paying $10 for a drink and commute 25 minutes to school every morning. I was thrown a curveball, and I definitely swung and missed a few times. I got lost in the city. I fell asleep on the bus and missed my stop. I was awful at Danish. I was thrown into an environment so different than what I was accustomed to at home, and it was hard knowing that everything back in Georgetown was so easy and familiar.
But somehow I got through it all. I stumbled through Danish classes, found more than a few welcoming churches to attend, got cozy with my dorm floor watching Game of Thrones, and managed to cook some delicious meals in the tiniest of kitchens. I attended a Muslim prayer service, marched with the Danish socialists, walked around free-town Christiana, went couch-surfing in Berlin, met family members for the first time in Ukraine, and did some things I never imagined I would experience.
It wasn’t always comfortable, and it wasn’t always easy. But it was in these very challenges that I learned the most – about myself, about Europe, about politics and religion and culture and whole bunch of other things. Just remember that being abroad is not a one-dimensional reverie. There’s so, so much more going on than you think – and if you want to enjoy it all, you’ve got to keep that perspective.
Lots of students claim to experience “culture shock” upon returning home from study abroad. I have heard the same stories over and over – how the people are so much more pleasant in Denmark, how the food is so much tastier in Rome, or how Washington and New York are not as great as people make them out to be. One of my friends from Copenhagen admitted he could barely leave his room during the first few days of summer. Another vows to return to Europe as soon as he graduates next year.
Frankly, I thought they were being ridiculous. Studying in Europe was a joy in so many ways, but I really looked forward to reconnecting with home after my crazy five-month adventure. I missed staring at the glowing lights of Healy Hall every night. I missed country music night at Tombs. I missed seeing signs in English and the heat of D.C. summer. But most of all, I missed something I liked to call the “edge” – that aggressive, go-getter mentality that I proudly considered a hallmark of American culture.
At least, that is what I thought I missed. After moving back to D.C. and starting my ten-week internship at a defense consulting firm, I quickly realized that above everything else, the edge hurt. I just wanted to slow down – slow down during my fifty-hour work weeks in my glass-plated office building; slow down during my morning bike rides over the Key Bridge; slow down all the applications and essays bouncing around in my head. I wanted to take a break from my research and email-writing and unglue my eyes from the hazy glow of the computer screen.
Although the proverbial “culture shock” might have hit me a few months later than everyone else, I think it hit me hard. I feel overly relaxed in tough situations. I am less opinionated and go-getting than my coworkers and peers. I am perfectly fine with sitting on my back porch on a Friday night, doing nothing in particular.
Yes, it appears that Copenhagen has mellowed the heck out of me. It might have been the Danes’ quiet personalities or their obsession with the candle-light “hygge.” It might have been the slow, casual way they walk on the street. It might have been all the social energy and group cohesion that visitors always seem to notice. I am starting to act like I am working and studying in Denmark for the rest the summer. I am coming home earlier from work and spending more time with friends. I am waking up early just so that I can sit outside on the porch in the precious, long hours of sunlight. I am walking slower and breathing easier.
But somehow my newfound complacency feels out-of-place. At Georgetown it sometimes seems like everyone is on a mission, breaking their backs at an unpaid internship or cranking out a new brilliant thesis in Lau. Everyone has an opinion about charged topics, whether it is the handful of Supreme Court decisions this summer or ongoing debates about homosexuality and Catholicism on campus. There are some very strong, outspoken personalities at Georgetown, and it can often get overwhelming. Maybe it’s the natural product of a very educated, eloquent student body. Maybe it’s one of the many consequences of living in D.C.
Whatever it is, I have grown tired of it all. When I ask what you do, don’t tell me your office job at the investment bank or trendy nonprofit. Let’s not talk about politics or work for once. Things can get so serious and testy, even over a drink. In most cases, an argument about the DOMA decision or Obama’s energy speech is not worth shouting over.
This summer, I want to step back from that edge. It is our final summer before graduation, for goodness sake. It is our last time we can take a three month “break” in between semesters. I do not think you have to go Copenhagen to realize the benefits of slowing down. It reduces stress and recharges your batteries. It checks conflict and fosters good relationships.
In one of my favorite commercials, Kingsford Charcoal urges us to “slow down and grill.” As this summer winds down, let’s see if we can adopt that mentality. Once school starts up again, we can crank it back into high gear.
It feels good to be back home. For my first dinner, we had a delicious juicy steak, perfectly grilled by my master-chef father:
I’ve caught up with my neighbors and home-town friends, went shopping for some snazzy summer work clothes, visited my grandparents’ house at least 3 times, and enjoyed the sunny, 80-degree weather.
To all of my readers – thanks for your friendship and support over the past 4 months. I wrote this blog not just so that I could remember all of the things I did while on the other side of the world. I wrote it so that I could share my reflections, pictures, stories, and special moments with the rest of the blogging universe.
I also know that some of you are prospective DIS students, so I think its good to offer some advice…
1) Please please email me if you have any questions! I had tons of them during my application process, and talking with DIS alums was super helpful…firstname.lastname@example.org
2) Over the next few days, I’ll post advice about: housing, courses, things-to-do, tips, and unique opportunities. I hope you continue reading! (Get ready for lots of lists :D)
With my last paper handed in, it’s officially time to take in all of the “lasts” of the semester – the last Wednesday, the last potluck dinner, the last meeting with my visiting family, the last St. Peter’s cinnamon roll, the last coffee & croissant breakfast at Studenterhuset. Has it all gone by too fast? Is it weird that I’ll never see most of these people for a long time, maybe for the rest of my life? Welcome to the reality of ending your study abroad.
Honestly, it’s not as hard as I thought it would be. I think I’m ready to go back. Unlike some of the more emotional types, I’m not really sad that it’s over – I’m happy because of all of my lessons and memories and experiences over the past four months. I’m happy because I have so much to take back with me. I’m happy because being abroad has reminded me that I have a wonderful home to go back to.
That being said, I still have one day left here. That’s one more day to walk around the city and enjoy the sunlight (shining for over 16 hours now!). One more chance to take an afternoon nap in the blossoming parks. One more time to stop by my favorite jazz bar and listen to some music.
There’s been plenty of ups and downs along the way (I’ll talk about this some more in an upcoming post). But in the end, I’m pretty confident that I saw and did enough this semester. I’m not freaking out because I didn’t get to visit all the places that I wanted to see or do all the things that I wanted to do. That’s the reality of time – 4 months feels very, very short. But I know that I’ll probably be back here in the future. Maybe not in the exact same place or with the same people. But whether it’s through work, volunteering, vacationing, or more studying, my future “abroad” is full of possibilities.
I grew up watching my babas bake pierogies and roll holobsti on the kitchen table. Even today they still do it – but I’m not always there to see them. Being away at college means I miss out on all of these little things that I usually take for granted. Part of it is those delicious home-cooked meals, my dad’s grilled steaks that we eat every Saturday, the Sunday night snacks and the deep velvet-colored borscht. But there’s another part that you can’t eat or touch or see. You can feel it, but not in a physical way.
Being abroad accentuates these emotions. It’s not home-sickness – it’s just called “missing home.” (see another blogger’s wise words of advice here.) As I’m walking around Europe, I can’t help but compare everything I experience with the grand ‘ole USA. What would I be doing at this exact moment if I were in D.C. or Rochester? It feels so strange to see all of your friends’ pictures on Facebook, hosting parties and going crazy at basketball games. It feels so strange to celebrate Easter in Vienna with a friend from Jersey, eating brunch at a cellar bar instead of sitting around the dining room table with my parents, grandparents, and cousins. It feels so strange celebrating my 21st at an Alphabeats concert in Aarhus, instead of getting my forehead stamped at the Tombs. There’s plenty of things to remind me of life across the pond – Facebook stalking, Skype conversations, my “I Bleed Hoya Blue” t-shirt that I wear to the gym, and my country music playlist on Spotify that gives me visions of burgers, Samuel Adams, and my giant gas-guzzling SUV in my Rochester garage.
Sometimes I wonder if being here for only one short semester makes it more difficult to attain full cultural immersion. Even after living here for 4 months, I still feel more like a visitor than a Dane. I have my peculiarities that set me apart from the Scandanavians – walking fast in between classes, my long black Nike socks, going to Church when I can, constantly overeating, often smiling and talking loudly on the bus.
At the same time, being “un-Danish” makes me cherish all the things that I have back home. You only know what you got when it’s gone. Truer words have never been spoken. I have a lot of amazing things here in Europe that I will sorely miss – just flip through my pictures and you’ll get a taste of what I’m talking about. But there’s also things that I don’t have here – my family, my Hoyas, and my country that I feel so lucky to return to in one week’s time. It’s a marvelous life on both sides of the Atlantic.
Somehow I’ve got to tie this whole thing back to holobsti – after all, my babas will probably cry tears of joy to hear that their Ukrainian culinary skills are in my blood, too. (thanks to Olga from Moscow for sharing the recipe – don’t worry Baba, she’s half Ukrainian!) I think those delicious little cabbage rolls symbolize the wonder of multiculturalism. I’m from America, living in Denmark, and cooking Ukrainian.
I’m hundreds of miles away, but I think I’ve taken a little bit of my family and friends here with me. It’s not easy practicing Ukrainian, finding time to Skype, or blogging about my reflections and emotions with all of the commotion going on. But whether it’s in the kitchen, in church, or riding on the bus to class, I miraculously found a way to tie it all together.
No, it doesn’t always come out Danish. But with a few different competing identities, it’s all about compromise.
It’s a wonderful feeling to be welcomed with open arms by people whom you’ve never met nor spoken to. That’s the amazing thing about family – a few drops of shared blood are enough to make them treat you like their first-born son. After spending an entire week in Ukraine going to family parties, eating home-cooked food, strolling down winding cobblestone streets, and practicing my first language, I’m already beginning to dearly miss everything about Ukraine.
By no means is Ukraine a perfect country. There’s a lot of things wrong with it. There’s plenty of political apathy – those who are fed up with all of the corruption and “selective justice” in Kiev are so frustrated that they have stopped trying to do anything about it. Infrastructure is suffering, and the awful condition of the roads is a running joke. There’s a marked East-West divide, and I could barely understand all of those who spoke Russian in Ukraine’s capital.
But the very fact that I am Ukrainian means that none of these problems really matter. I love Ukraine not because it is powerful and respected in the international community (it’s not, as recent GDP, democracy, and corruption indexes indicate). I love it because of its colorful identity – which I have happily embraced as my own. It’s about the beautiful language and the unique sounds of the Cyrillic alphabet. It’s about the painted Easter eggs and ornate woven shirts. It’s about all of those pierogies, kobasa, and kapusta that wallow in my stomach as I fall to sleep. It’s about the Ukrainian folk dancing and brightly decorated costumes. It’s about the sung Ukrainian Catholic liturgy, and the golden icons that adorn the walls of our churches and homes. And yes, people here actually go to church!
It’s about the fact that I’m not just an American, but a Ukrainian American. As the third generation living in America, it is quite a miracle how my family has been able to hold all of it together. Being Ukrainian defines how we celebrate our holidays, when we come together as a family, how we speak to each other, and how we practice our faith. It’s always been a part of my identity, but being abroad has helped me value it so much more.
As one of my cousins told me (after tearfully playing his accordion), there’s two things that you cannot choose in life: Family and Country. On one side of the Atlantic I’ve got America, and on the other I’ve got Ukraine – with an amazing family awaiting me at both ends. Indeed, I am truly blessed.
They say you should never bring up politics or religion. Well, I do both. I’ve talked to many Danes – fellow students, professors, bus passengers, my visiting family – about their religiosity, and I get a similar response almost every time. Either they are more “spiritual” than “religious” (we could debate for hours about what those terms actually mean), or they aren’t anything at all. I consider them atheist, agnostic, doubting, confused, indifferent. There are lots of different words to describe their beliefs, or lack thereof.
In fact, I have not met a single Dane who is religious. Not a single one. Given my expectations and research, I cannot say that my experience so far has been surprising. But given my background, it has been somewhat shocking. My greatest revelation is not about Denmark, but America. In particular, I realize I have been very isolated over the past 20 years. I have attended Catholic schools my entire life, and while studying abroad I have become surrounded, for the very first time, by people with views completely foreign to my own.
My shock may come across as a bit silly. Indeed, I am living in a foreign country, so I will obviously encounter foreign opinions. I did not gasp when my host brother could not remember the last time he went to church, or after meeting Dane after Dane who admitted they were not raised in any religious context.
But cut me some slack; for the first time, I am not in the majority. I’m part of a minority that is not just Catholic or Christian, but religious. Compared to the touted “diversity” or Georgetown, Denmark feels worlds away. Despite the diversity of the Hilltop – manifested in not only race and ethnicity, but in beliefs and ways of thinking – I still feel a strong religious presence there. I can spend hours in a classroom discussing Nietzsche’s political theory or debating the ethics of abortion, yet when I step out of class, I am greeted by the statue of John Carroll and the stone crosses on Healy Hall. I can attend Mass on Sunday in a chapel packed with eager students, where there is often standing room only. I can talk with my chaplain, sing in the church choir, and volunteer with the Knights of Columbus. It is all so accessible and familiar.
You can certainly do these things in Copenhagen – there are just harder to find and not well-attended. I have been to several different churches, although most of the parishioners are immigrants, not ethnic Danes. (Which begs a tangential question: at what point do immigrants become “Danes?” The concept of cultural integration is much more opaque here than in the States, especially concerning the growing Muslim population.)
It has been a struggle, because as a practicing Catholic, my faith has undoubtedly shaped my social network. Many of my classes, clubs, and organizations at Georgetown are filled with people who are already inclined towards religion. Prior to this semester abroad, I was very optimistic about the religiosity among young adults – and maybe foolishly so.
Copenhagen has thrown me a curveball. I did not choose who would be in my social network in Denmark. I could not choose who would be living in my kollegium in the same way that I chose to be part of the Knights of Columbus or Catholic chaplaincy at Georgetown. We are thrown together like awkward freshmen – students from public schools and private ones, religious schools and non-religious ones, different family backgrounds and cultures, various majors and interests. There is a lot of diversity, but not much religion.
My perception of the world has completely changed. Things that I have taken for granted for the past 20 years are being challenged like never before. Perhaps God does not really exist. Perhaps personal relationships are our ultimate calling. Perhaps morality can be independent of religion. And most shockingly, perhaps most people do not actually believe in God.
It is time to find some answers, if there are any. It all seems a bit overwhelming – but I think that’s the point.
When you travel, you’re supposed to learn. Taking photos and following tour guides can be so shallow. Sometimes you’ve got to take a step back and study the country. If you really get to know the place, meet the locals, learn the language, study the history, and grasp the culture, then the experience will be so much more rewarding.
And like in Russia, hopefully you can make some critical judgments along the way. Here are some that I made about Saint Petersburg and Moscow.
Religion is a roller coaster. Surprise surprise, Nick is talking about religion again! Russia’s Orthodox Church is amazing. Behind all of the shimmering mosaics and icons is a strong, active religious community. The history is astounding – Russia went from being one of the most religious nations in the world to one of the least in just a few generations, sparked by the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. After the Cold War, churches opened up again, and the Church-State relations are now as tight as ever.
While in St. Petersburg, we talked to Father Vladimir at the Transfiguration Church. We discussed the Pussy Riot scandal (his take: don’t disrespect the Church – it exists on a level far above punk rock), his personal beliefs (“If you are a slave to God, you can never be a slave to man”), and the totality of the Orthodox faith (permeates both personal and political life). A truly inspiring man, and one of my highlights of the trip.
The facade is beautiful. I already raved about this, but Russia is unbelievable to look at. The food, sun, landscape, churches, statues, canals, palaces, and colorful streets really gives these cities their charm.
Just be careful if you dig a little beneath the skin. There’s a memorial to the victims of the “Communist Terror,” but on the other side of Petersburg is a communist rally for Stalin sympathizers. There was a Pussy Riot protest underneath peaceful church domes. There’s Bentley’s and homeless beggars. There’s two sides to the story, and a whole lot of irony.
Communism sucks. There are parts of Russia that look like a blast from the past. We visited an old communitarian apartment (the Soviets threw out the rich family that used to live there and redistributed all of the rooms to poorer, working-class families). The utopian intentions are fluffy, but in reality, all of the common areas looked disgusting. Broken windows, cracked walls, dirty floors, and a tiny bathroom that was supposed to fit 7 families. As Russian author Joseph Brodsky says, “If there is an infinite aspect of space, it is not its expansion but its reduction.” Indeed, about 10 square meters per person. And whatever you do, don’t complain.
The personal rooms, on the other hand, were clean, finely decorated, and much better kept. The bottom line: whatever is communal tends to get forgotten. So much for being comrades, huh?
People are people. If there is one thing I’ve discovered on this trip, it’s how incredibly small the world is. This really hit me when I spent a day with Russian students, cooking holobtsi and chatting around the kitchen table. Speaking in half English, half broken-Ukrainian, we talked about base-jumping, politics, why they were proud of Russia, and hitchhiking across Siberia. We got really deep on the way back to the metro station at night. No matter who you are – regardless of your education, your job, your family background, where you live, what you do – you can always talk about life. Its meaning, its purpose, God. It seems so general, so gushy. But everyone is happy to talk about it.
I also tried to overcome the stereotypes about how you think other people look or act or think. Not all Russian drink vodka (though we learned how to), support Putin, or go to those beautiful Orthodox churches. People are different, and yet so much alike. Even the beat-up communist apartment could resemble my dorm room on a Saturday morning. There’s Bentley’s and beggars in New York City too, you know? We’re not communists or republicans, students or drop-outs, Russians or Americans. We’re just people, and we live in a very small, small world.
Hoyas win! Hoyas win! Hoyas win! (for those of you that don’t get the reference, watch this). What a game last night – a double overtime 79-78 victory over Big East rival UConn. It’s Georgetown’s 10th straight win, and they remain in first place in the Big East conference. Otto Porter is Mr. Clutch once again, scoring the go-ahead basket with less than 10 seconds to play. And all of this, of course, coming off his 33-point barrage at Syracuse last weekend. This picture is my new official screen-saver:
Despite living so far away, I power through the 6-hour time difference and remain dedicated to my Hoyas. Yes, I pay a price. I’m currently living on less than 4 hours of sleep and 1 cup of coffee, but it is absolutely worth it. (The Donald only sleeps 4 hours per day, so today I’m in good company.)
Meanwhile, the semester whizzes along like my morning bus, and I’ve been so busy over the past few days that they start blending into each other. I hate measuring time, but its sort of inevitable when you realize you only have 16 weeks here. Weeks have become my standard measurement. Not days or hours, but weeks.
This week was filled with seminars, guest lecturers, high school visits, and papers. I just finished working on a research project analyzing EU international security policy. White boards definitely come in handy:
When analyzing the evolution of European security policy post-WWII, we divided it into 3 periods, and tried to find the “defining events” from each period. For example, the Arab Spring in the 2000s, the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, and the Suez Crisis in 1956.
I hope you’re not getting bored with all of these details, but I can’t help it because all of my courses absolutely fascinate me! In Humanitarian Law, we’re currently studying the legality of detaining noncombatants at Guantanamo, and the difference between an international and a non-international armed conflict. Sounds a little technical, but trust me – it’s awesome. For anyone interested in the Justice and Human Rights program, you can even check out my essay about the bin Laden raid here, just to get a taste of the kind of analysis we’re doing. Conclusion: although I support the undercover raid that took out Osama, the U.S. did violate international law (but that doesn’t mean anyone is going to do anything about it…after all, we are the United States of America).
So as you can see, the academics here are excellent. On a typical day, I’m not simply wandering around the city looking for things to do. Instead, I’ve got lots of things on the schedule: seminars about the Armenian Genocide in Turkey and the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska, guest lectures with Muslim women about wearing the hijab (head-scarf), visits to high schools to discuss stereotypes, American politics, and all sorts of weird topics with jittery teenagers.
My mind is spinning – and that’s certainly not a bad thing.
It’s that question that every college students hates to answer. 5 years? I don’t even know where I’m going to be in 5 weeks! Studying up on my Bosnian history? Road trip to Berlin? Visiting cousins in Ukraine? Eating some wienerbrød at the corner bakery?
Sure, there’s lots of stuff that I want to do. The question is – do I have the time? If I could, I’d put down my work and go around the world for a few months, seeing all sorts of fascinating things and meeting amazing people along the way. That’s sort of what I’m doing right now. But at the same time, I feel tied back to the States. Applying for summer jobs and scheduling interviews (which included answering the 5-year question) has reminded me where exactly my real home is located. It’s back in Washington and Rochester, where I’ve been for the past twenty-one years.
So in many ways, my first 6 weeks abroad have been a breath of fresh air. Sure, I’m doing work, but I don’t feel like I’m in school. I’m abroad, in Copenhagen, thousands of miles away from everything and everyone I’ve ever known. This past week was spent preparing presentations and writing essays, but every day I’m always itching for more and more immersion. That’s what makes it different than Georgetown. I still feel like a quasi-outsider here, and I won’t be satisfied until I visit every castle and landmark in this gorgeous Scandinavian city. By now, I know the buses and shortcuts and best places to eat. But around every corner there’s always something new, somewhere interesting to poke your head in and look around.
I’ve found this “immersion” in the smallest of places. On my way home yesterday, I stopped by a pizza shop to grab a quick snack. I ended up sitting at the counter for an hour. Me and the Bulgarian waiter tried to communicate – him with his 5-word English vocabulary, me with my exaggerated hand motions and limited knowledge of Danish (which he knew fairly well). It was probably the greatest language barrier I’ve experienced in any social interaction here in Denmark. It sounded more like indiscriminate sounds coming out of his mouth than any sort of understandable language, but I enjoyed the struggle. And towards the end of our “conversation,” a Polish girl walked in who happened to live a few miles from Tarnow, the small town where I volunteered two summers ago. Small world, right?
So back to that 5 year question – please, throw it out. For all of you who have your upcoming promotions and careers all planned out, congratulations. Give me some time to enjoy Copenhagen. I think I’ll keep talking to Bulgarian guys in pizza shops.