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.
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.
I’ve got a love-hate relationship with this place. I’m sitting inside my favorite hyggelige café spot (you really can’t find a better deal than $2 coffee and croissant; my wallet actually shrieks every time I pass by a sign advertising $8 lattes), staring outside the window at students still bundled up in their snowsuits, and memorizing my Russian history as I spend countless hours registering for next year’s courses (am I actually going to be a senior??). As always, thousands of thoughts flowing through my head – what exactly I am going to do in Ukraine next week, how Razkilnikov is planning to escape in Crime and Punishment, possible topics for several upcoming research papers, what’s going to happen next in Game of Thrones (still catching up in Season 2).
I am all over the place, kind of like the weather here. Over the course of a single week, we’ve been showered with wet snow, pulled out the umbrellas for the rain, and sat in parks enjoying the warm sun. It’s hectic, but hardly surprising. As my law professor quipped, we may never actually see the Copenhagen Spring before we leave in May. I don’t think he’s joking.
But there is hope. This semester, I’ve learned to take it all in stride. When it’s cold and dreary, you’ve got to grab a coffee, sit somewhere comfortable and take in the hygge. Sometimes I feel like just sitting on the morning bus and never getting off, circling the city a few times until I finish the chapter I’m reading (I’ve yet to do this). And when the sun decides to come out, I can’t help but go outside. Put away the laptop, buy an amazing sandwich from St. Peter’s and soak up that Vitamin D that I’ve been missing.
That’s the thing I love most about Danes – they really appreciate the sun. Even though temperatures are still hovering around 40, it looks like it’s summer already. They’re lining up at the ice cream shops, opening the Tivoli amusement park down the street, and lounging on the grass at Rosenburg Park.
Sometimes I actually see why Denmark is rated the “happiest country in the world.” Danes tend to make the best of not-so-good seasons and situations, and they hardly complain.
Perhaps they’re not overflowing with happiness. Rather, they seem content – happy not because they are super enthusiastic about everything, but because they are satisfied with what they have and seek nothing more. Though it’s difficult to generalize, Copenhagen strikes me as incredibly passive – sometimes frustratingly so. The city lacks the “edge” that I have been accustomed to. Do I want it back? When I return home in May, I think I’ll find out.
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.
Sitting on the bus during one of my daily commutes to-and-from school (takes about 20 minutes), I figured there’s a better way to spend my time than staring outside the window or at the TV screen that lists the stops going by. I’m going old school – pen, notebook, and a mind full of interesting stories and ideas.
First, a bit about the buses themselves. There’s a lot of them, and lots of people too. Lots of stops. Lots of bus drivers – some that smile politely as they check your transportation card, some that look like they couldn’t care less if I was showing them a valid ID or a movie ticket. Some yell at passengers drinking beer on the bus, others would probably join along if they could (side note: did you know it’s actually legal to drink a beer while driving? No, seriously. You can crack open a Carlsberg behind the wheel, and as long as your alcohol level is not above a certain limit, you’re perfectly fine. Crazy weird laws here. Or is it our laws that are weird?)
Anyway, I had a busy, fun-filled week. Sunday was definitely a highlight. Though we might be several thousand miles and 7 time zones away from New Orleans, I still watched the entire Super Bowl! My eyes were fighting to close as the clock struck 5 am, but I planted myself in the front row of the Studenterhauset (a main student bar/cafe hangout) and watched the game until the final snap. To be honest, it was mostly DIS and other American students there. But it was nice being at a place where “football” actually means American football, and not soccer. Best. Sport. Ever.
But Sunday became awesome even before the game happened. I was invited to the birthday party of my visiting family’s aunt. Wow, the food was glorious. I was a little worried at first, because when I showed up at 3 pm we started eating desert. Did I miss something here? Don’t worry, it was phenomenal: home-baked layer cake with bananas and strawberries, apple-cinnamon cake, banana cake, these fluffy, slightly sweet bread rolls that were crisp on the outside and soft like pillows on the inside. I love food, and this was basically desert heaven (its made 10x better because everything is made with the most natural ingredients – no artificial preservatives, sugars…that’s why all of the bread loaves at the store taste so good but expire in 2 days).
Still, I was worried because I thought desert was the first and only birthday meal. I love the cake, but at heart I’m more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy. I was in luck, because after an hour-long desert, present-opening, and more hours of talking on the couch, we were treated to a wonderful dinner around 7 pm. Chicken, pasta, potatoes, lasagna, salad, more salad, more baked bread (this time with olive oil and salt), veggies. After about 45 minutes of feasting, my stomach bulged like a balloon, and I was more than stuffed. I seriously think I’ve gained some weight here. But it’s absolutely worth it! Thank you, Larsen family!
And did I forget the mention the company? These people are wonderful; opening their house to me and allowing me to share in the celebration. We talked about lots of things (in perfect English) – the upcoming Super Bowl, New York, Georgetown, the Danish legal system, the Muslim immigrant community, the weather, trip planning, and even the best bars/clubs in town. To all you prospective DIS students: if you ever have the opportunity, please please please sign up for a visiting family! You can’t go wrong with amazing people and food.
In other news, this week is a “core course week” for DIS students. Basically the whole week is devoted to my Justice and Human Rights program. Today we visited a giant UNICEF facility (takes care of impoverished children) north of the city, and conducted an interview with DIGNITY, an NGO that works with victims of torture (according to our contact, America has got some work to do!). On Thursday we’re heading for western Denmark, where we’ll be doing some law-related field studies, and some non-related ones as well. Our professors are young and energetic, our student leader is super peppy, and our hostel for Thursday night looks like its in the middle of the woods. Translation: we’re in for a good time!
Other random notes:
- I played (real) handball for the first time last Wednesday; I think I can keep up with the Danes
- Still no bike
- Getting really creative with food; made some Danish meatballs with a few eggs over top and rice – sounds weird but its good
- Went to the gym to work out for the first time in over 3 weeks…feels so good
- Feeling like I’m getting fatter every day; probably a combination of amazing bread that I can’t stop eating, worrying that I won’t eat enough (I am), really delicious beer, desire to huddle up in the cold with a cup of tea and these amazing tea cookies from Netto (may be addicted to them)
- Due to point 5, need point 4 really badly (gym membership coming soon!)
- writing on paper takes a long time
- I stayed up until 5:30 am watching the Super Bowl
- Did I mention I love football?
- Waiting for soccer season to start so I can start cheering for FC Copenhagen
- Danish language is super hard
Tomorrow is off, but lots more to do later this week. Hej hej!
As I’m sitting here at my desk enjoying some home-made pancakes (thanks to my roommate for the extra batter!), I would be remiss to not mention something that every cultural enthusiast wants to talk about: entertainment. Yes, there is such a thing as good Danish entertainment! Sure, Copenhagen has been somewhat “Americanized,” just like any major city. At bus stops there are movie posters for Django Unchained and Zero Dark Thirty; bright signs for McDonalds and Burger King seem to clash with the dark, medieval-looking buildings that surround them; John Mayer and Taylor Swift can definitely be heard inside coffee shops and bars; and it seems like there’s a 7-Eleven on every major corner.
But against this backdrop, the Danes have held their own. Here’s two examples from the past week:
1) As part of a day trip for my Danish Language & Culture class, we were required to watch a movie about the Danish Resistance during WWII. Sounds cool, except is was also at the ungodly hour of 8:30am on Wednesday morning (we usually have no classes on Wednesdays!). Charlotte, our wonderful teacher (we call everyone by their first names here – it still feels weird), bought us some freshly baked cinnamon buns (the bakeries in Copenhagen are unbelievable) to keep us enthused. So while many of our fellow students were sleeping in back at the kollegium, we watched Flame and Citron, a gripping Danish movie that told the story of two soldiers in the Danish underground. Check out the trailer here:
This film was incredible! Masterfully shot, a gripping narrative, and superb acting that could probably win a few awards at the Oscars. After a while, you forget you’re even reading subtitles, or that it’s only 8:30 in the morning. A highly recommended movie for anyone who likes great movies (I think that means you).
2) Professor Charlotte (I’ll drop the “professor” part eventually) also showed our class example number 2: the “Danish Mick Jagger.” This guy won an award for the best Danish song of the past few decades. It’s called “Kvinde min”:
Maybe not exactly the Rolling Stones, but you can sort of see the resemblance, right? Notice how the words come out of his mouth: in Danish, every syllable is from the back of the throat, so the words sounds a bit thicker in my ears.
These are just two of my favorite examples, and of course there’s been plenty more, like that beating Danish techno-pop that makes your head go nuts. That’s usually on the weekend menu.
It’s all about the people. If there’s one thing I’ve learned so far in my very short 20 years of life, this is it. No matter where you go to school, what cities you visit, or how many drinks you buy, there’s one simple fact: it’s all a letdown without the right people. I love Georgetown so much because of all my close friends and fellow students that I spend time with every day. The same goes for my high school, my hometown, my family, my country.
And the same goes for Denmark.
Please throw away the stereotypes (if you’ve read up on Denmark) that Danes are hard to befriend, introverted, private, non-talkative people. With the exception of the public buses (which immediately become 100x louder every time a group of Americans (us) storm the doors) – the Danes have been downright wonderful and trustworthy in all the right moments.
Today is a perfect example. I did something today that probably would have been very stupid if I was in downtown NY or DC. Searching for a bike, I stumbled upon a burly, imposing handyman who fixed and resold used bicycles. Arriving at his door in a shadowy apartment complex, he invited me inside, and proceeded to lead me through several doorways through his basement. Had this not been Denmark, I would have half-expected some robber to jump out of the corner and steal my wallet. But nothing happened. No finagling, no back-handed deals, no gimmicks. Just a smiling, gentle giant with dozens of bikes looking for an honest deal. He even suggested that I drink some tea to warm my frozen fingers.
Then there was my visiting family, whom I met for the first time on Saturday. Maria and Michael, along with their son Simon, spent the entire day with me. They took me grocery shopping, showed me how to translate certain food items, sampled different kinds of cheese, and emphasized the wonders of coarse, black bread (I think my digestive tract is still getting used to it!). We listened to Bruce Springsteen – one of the father’s favorite singers – and sat around the table eating a home-cooked meal. We walked their dog Buster and watched some college basketball on TV, as I carefully explained to them some of the more complicated rules of the game.
There’s plenty of other people who have had an impact on me so far. Matilde, my kollegium’s RA, who helped me with my cleaning duty; Thomas, a volleyball coach, who was more than excited to welcome me onto his team when I walked into the gym (was it my height?); all of the unassuming bystanders who help me with directions; that strange guy on the train who keep joking and talking at me as I just nodded my head (do I look like I know Danish?); all of the bakers and cashier’s who smile as I smell their fresh bread.
And how could I forget last night, when we met a older gentleman (who’s name is very Danish and difficult to remember) at the bar next door right down the street from our kollegium. Although we originally intended only to watch the 49ers game, we ended chatting with this awesome guy for a few hours:
He whupped us both times, and even messed up the math on purpose so that it would be a closer game. We’ll definitely be back for redemption!
The bottom line: the Danes are not what I expected them to be. It’s crude to classify people as introverts or non-social. Only one week in, all I had to do is give them a chance.