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)
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 keep telling myself I don’t deserve it. But time after time, DIS tells me that it’s no big deal…just eat the cake, take the tickets, drink the beer. DIS has been so generous to me this past semester, and I still don’t know how they do it.
Why am I posting this now? We just had a delicious group dinner for all DIS bloggers. On the menu…
I didn’t understand half of the things he said, but it sure tasted good! And for dessert, a marshmallow-rhubarb-yogurt-vanilla cupcake:
DIS has done a lot for me this semester, sometimes surprising but always exciting and wonderful: an in-depth beer tasting course with Soren, personal excursions through St. Petersburg, weekday tickets to the Royal Theatre, classes at the U.S. Embassy, and even a fancy little dinner during finals week. Sure, being abroad is cool enough; but all the little details really do make a difference!
My backpack felt unusually light – so light that I kept checking and rechecking my pockets to make sure that I didn’t forget anything. Riding over to the airport last week was weirdly liberating – no suitcase, no laptop, and only the essentials. It was just me, my backpack, a discount plane ticket to Berlin, and directions to a “couch surfer” host I met online who offered me a place to sleep.
I was pretty nervous. But I’ve learned that the more nervous you start, the better things usually end up. After spending the past few months going on organized trips and traveling with swarms of people, I really wanted to do something outside of my comfort zone, and I don’t think it could have turned out any better.
Denis proved to be an amazing host; he cooked for us (Alberto from Mexico also stayed at Denis’ while I was there) some traditional German meals every night (liver meatballs, sauerkraut, potatoes…just like Ukraine, think carbs+meat and you’ll get the general idea). After going to class in the mornings, he would meet me downtown for lunch and sightseeing. We watched Bayern Munich destroy Real Madrid on Wednesday night with his flat-mates, and sat on the beach drinking delicious Dju-Dju beer at a Jamaican island bar. We tried fried grasshoppers from Mexico and drank Berlin’s famous green beer. I asked him tons of questions about Angela Merkel and World War II and currywurst, but he never seemed to mind.
Outside of the “couchsurfing,” Berlin was a wonderful city to explore. In terms of politics, it is probably one of the most interesting cities to study. The past century has brought dramatic changes and challenges, including the devastation of WWI, the rise of Hitler, the Jewish tragedy, the East-West partition during the Cold War, and the formation of the European Union. All of these events have left their mark on the city, with many statues, museums, and memorials commemorating its tumultuous history. You can’t help but feel a little confused and overwhelmed as you walk through the busy streets.
But as great as the city was, what I’ll really remember is the people I met. Perhaps I just got lucky with my couchsurfing experience; but being the optimistic type, I feel that Denis is more like the norm than the exception. Often, we are too wary of strangers, especially in a foreign country. I think our first instinct is to be deeply mistrustful, to look over our shoulder and prepare for our next uncertain encounter. Sure, a certain amount of caution is needed. But caution should never prevent us from trusting strangers – perhaps not with our lives, but maybe enough to give us a couch to sleep on for a few nights in a new city.
Above all, Berlin showed me that people can be incredibly generous – not necessarily in terms of money, but with their time and space and minds. I think that more often than not, you’ll meet good and honest people in the world. Hospitality is an unmistakable virtue.
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.
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.
Forget those 6-page philosophy papers where you spend 2 hours just thinking about how to write the first sentence. Or all of those organic chemistry exams that my roommates always complained about last year. Or pouring through chapters of Plato’s Republic. Think that’s hard?
Try writing a journal about the past few days in Denmark, when I visited 3 different cities, met 20-some new students and 2 professors, sampled new plates of Danish food, listened to “happy birthday” at 7:15 on Thursday morning, cooked Danish meatballs with curry sauce from Morocco, applied for a Russian visa, almost pummeled my head on the iron ceiling of a German bunker, and heard my professor’s personal account of waterboarding, which he tried just to see what it was like.
My biggest worry – and what makes it so hard – is that I’ll forget to write something down and share it with you. But I guess its impossible to not do that. Why don’t you book a flight to Copenhagen so I don’t have to worry so much?
It’s a lot easier doing this with pictures, so here’s a montage of some highlights from my short study tour to Western Denmark.
The short study tour is one of the things I love most about DIS. Professor and students don’t just show up to class a few times per week and read through books and powerpoint slides. They get on a bus with you and will go on an adventure. They’ll take you to bunkers, naval frigates, mosques, embassies, and breweries. They’ll know its your birthday and bring you a croissant and a few Danish flags on the bus to celebrate. At the same time, you get to know your classmates a whole lot better. Can’t wait for the week-long trip to Bosnia!
In other news, I found a Ukrainian Catholic church this afternoon and met some of the nicest people at Mass. They invited me to their parish reception afterwards, and all of us gathered to have some lunch. They were so curious about my experiences in America and Ukrainian background, and were impressed by my Ukrainian speaking! I was put on the spot – they asked about my family heritage, why I valued my Ukrainian background, how my parents and grandparents adjusted after immigrating to the States (some of them were recent immigrants to Denmark and wanted advice!). I’m happy to find this little Ukrainian community in Copenhagen, and I will most definitely be back to the parish!
Time to eat, go to the gym and dive into some homework! I’ve got 2 presentations and an awesome essay about the legality of the US Navy Seals’ raid on bin Laden’s compound due this week. Yep, it’s actually called “study” abroad, don’t you know? Time to focus on the “study” part. Wish me luck!
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!
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.
Finally have touched down in Copenhagen! I flew Air Canada from Rochester –> Toronto –> Copenhagen. 6 people on my flight out of Rochester! I’m a huge sports fan, so as I was waiting for my flights I had my eyes glued to the TV screen, catching parts of both NFL playoff games on Saturday night. Reluctantly, I had to pull away from NFL this weekend, knowing that I would miss moments like the Ravens’ double-overtime victory and the Seahawks 20-point comeback. I sort of have to tame my sports obsession, and find new interests and activities in Copenhagen.
As for what I did and learned the past few days, I don’t really know how to write this post – there’s just so much to talk about!! It has sure been a busy start to the semester. Although classes don’t start until Thursday, DIS has organized 3-day orientation to help us adjust to the new environment. I’m waking up much, much earlier than last semester – getting out of bed at 7:30, meeting up with the rest of the students at my kollegium, and riding downtown by bus to the many speeches, info sessions, and activities that are planned.
Initial thoughts and things that I learned:
- Everyone is super, super friendly! The other 50-some DISers that live in Hoffmanns Kollegium (aka “The Hoff” – a dorm-style building, 25-minute bus ride to downtown Copenhagen) are incredible so far. Though it’s only been a few days, we have gotten along very well, and I’m slowly starting to remember names. Even the Danes – who are supposed to be of the quiet, private sort – have defied all expectations! They help me out at the grocery store, give me directions, and have been nothing but completely accommodating during these first few confusing days.
- $$$: downtown is super expensive. If you find a good deal for a sandwich, you’re still paying around $10, and beer is about the same price. There’s student discounts at most places, but by far the best option is the Netto supermarket located right next door to our kollegium. Prices there are the same as my Safeway in Georgetown, sometimes even cheaper. Everyone here is a living on a budget, and we were all pleasantly surprised last night when we went shopping.
- Weather: it is cold. Let me repeat, it is cold!! (And don’t forget, I’m from upstate NY.) Ok, maybe I’m overblowing it. Today wasn’t too bad – the sun was out for a few hours, and the snow was less intense. But Monday was freezing. I think it has to do with the wind, and we are very close to the water. Luckily for us, every day gets longer, brighter, and warmer this semester.
That’s it for now! Tonight we are going downtown again to meet up with more DISers, and hopefully meet some new Danes, too!