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Course evaluations

It’s final exam time already!  In total, I’ve got 5 research papers and 1 sit-down test.  Sounds like a big deal, but I’m the type that rarely gets stressed out.  All you’ve got to do is show up to class, pay attention to the teacher, ask some good questions, and everything will turn out just fine.

Speaking of those classes, I think it’s a good time to do some end-of-semester evaluations.  To be honest, but I ultimately chose DIS because of the wealth of courses that are offered.  Although you’ll have dreams of traveling around Europe and visiting all the fun cities and tourist attractions, that tells less than half of the story.  Let’s get real – with the exception of a handful of travel breaks here and there (I had 3 weeks off and a couple long weekends), you’ll be spending lots of time in the classroom, listening to presentations, writing assignments, and studying for tests.  Plus, you can get to most of the popular European destinations from just about anywhere – it doesn’t matter if you’re studying in Copenhagen or London or Barcelona, you’ll always be within flying distance of France, Italy, Germany, and even Ukraine.

That’s why it’s so important to not overlook the “study” part of study abroad.  Choose a program   that sounds academically interesting, not a city that sounds like fun.  When push came to shove, it wasn’t Copenhagen or the winter weather or the “world’s happiest country” that made me come to Denmark.  It was my countless hours searching courses online, researching the faculty’s experience, reading student testimonials.  Indeed, registering was so difficult because everything sounded so interesting – like Nordic Mythology, Humanitarian Law, Kierkegaard’s Authorship, Muslims and the West, etc.  I scrapped other destinations because the course selection did not even come close.  Mohyla Academy in Kiev had just 5 or 6 classes to choose from, and most of them were not even in my major.  Maybe it works for a Graduate program, but for now it was inadequate.

Here’s a ranking of the courses I chose, from 1 (best) to 5 (disappointing):

1. Humanitarian Law & Armed Conflict (core course)

with my 2 professors - Nicolai and Ulrik

with my 2 professors – Nicolai and Ulrik

  • Topics: military law, noncombatants, genocide, terrorism, case studies on bin Laden and Palestine
  • Fun faculty fact: both Nicolai and Ulrik served in Danish military as legal advisers, stationed in Kosovo and Afghanistan
  • Pros: fascinating 5-day study tour to Bosnia, thought-provoking research papers, intelligent class discussions
  • Cons: dense readings, lots of theory at beginning of semester, toughest class
  • Overall: the Bosnian trip had a profound impact on me (I firmly believe that this core course trip is the best one in DIS, because we had so much personal interaction with locals and tons of critical analysis; politics+law+religion = perfect combination), and the course makes me more inclined to pursue a career in law. Professors became some of my closest mentors at DIS and incredibly easy to talk to. *If you have any interest in law/politics, please take this course!!*

2. Muslims in the West

  • Topics: cartoon crisis, hijab, women’s rights, democracy & Islam
  • Fun faculty fact: Jakob is young, energetic, and loves to play “devil’s advocate”
  • Pros: visits to Islamic center and talks with Danish Muslims (including Imam Pedersen), lots of classroom discussion (Jakob often stops his lectures so that we can debate and ask questions)
  • Cons: relativism and failure to make normative claims was frustrating
  • Overall: Islam is a hot issue in Denmark, especially with the growing immigrant community. The professor really made this class great, although I’m still not sure if any solid conclusions emerged from this class.  Is everyone right?

3. Russia Past and Present 

with Mette and Jon at the airport

with Mette and Jon at the airport

  • Topics: Russian history, religion, art, literature; week-long trip to St. Petersburg and Moscow in March
  • Fun faculty fact: Jon is the official Russian translator for the Queen of Denmark, owns his own travel agency, and is married to a Ukrainian (!)
  • Pros: Jon is a freaking genius about Russia.  Our study tour was out-of-this-world (many thanks to Mette, too!), I asked so many questions and Jon always had an answer.  Reading Crime and Punishment was a great social commentary, and in-class discussions are always provoking.
  • Cons: class only meets once per week, sometimes felt like the class could have been 1 instead of 3 credits
  • Overall: I have a new passion for Russia/East European politics (wrote 2 research papers about the Russian-Ukrainian relationship). Once again, the professor really made this course great.

4. Partners & Rivals: EU-US Relations

  • Topics: security, trade & monetary policy, environment, leadership
  • Fun faculty fact: Jacob is the former Transportation Minister for the Danish government, has worked in politics for some 20 years
  • Pros: case-study presentations forced class participation, interesting lecture topics, met with Jacob twice as class representative, visited U.S. Embassy
  • Cons: lots of questions unanswered, lectures sometimes repetitive, very unenthusiastic students inhibited class discussion, often pro-European mindset
  • Overall: this class had a lot of potential, but the lack of participation was disappointing

5. Danish Language & Culture

  • Topics: Danish history, language, cultural studies
  • Fun faculty fact: Charlotte understands that Danish is hard
  • Pros: Studying ‘Jante’s Law’ and Danish tribal identity hints at the philosophy behind the welfare system and social dynamics
  • Cons: one semester is far, far too short to make any significant progress on learning Danish, and I can learn most of the “culture” by just living here and walking around
  • Overall: not happy that Georgetown required me to take this; sacrificed awesome courses like Kierkegaard and Nordic Mythology because of this requirement
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Going numb in Bosnia

Sarajevo

A single blog post does not do Bosnia justice.  I cannot fully convey my experience in Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Srebrenica unless I took you there myself – I learned too much, spoke with too many people, opened my eyes too wide.  I Skyped with my parents for an hour and a half when I returned to Copenhagen on Tuesday, and even that was grossly insufficient.

To kick things off, here’s a rundown of my itinerary and some of the places we visited (part of my Justice & Human Rights Program):

  • Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Court of War Crimes
  • European Union Delegation
  • Meeting with mayor of Tuzla
  • International Commission of Missing Persons
  • Srebrenica (site of genocide)
  • Meeting with Croat, Jewish, and Serb representatives
  • Dinners, cafes, and parties with local students

Quite a lot was packed into our 5-day trip, and once again I have realized why exactly I chose to study abroad at DIS.  We weren’t there to just sightsee or party at local clubs.  We were there to experience first-hand the issues we had read about in class and seen on TV.  I’ll try to sum up some of the amazing things I learned:

People have some amazing stories to tell.  It hit me like a brick wall; talking with local students – many of them the same age as me – was undoubtedly the most striking part of my experience.  During the Bosnian War (1990-1994), Sarajevo was under siege for four years, surrounded by the Serbian army.  Those who stayed in the city went through hell.  Food was rationed, cigarettes became money (they love to smoke!), and the civilians endured constant shelling and sniper fire.  Just imagine being a young child, maybe five or six years old, and seeing things like…

  • Your father shot in the leg while picking blackberries with him
  • Grandma killed by a sniper while buying bread
  • Having to crawl on your knees whenever you used the bathroom because you could get shot through the window
  • Going to school in your basement
  • Cemeteries, maternity wards, and churches getting bombed
  • Driving through the mountains in a crowded van in the middle of the night, with a older lady in the back crying and screaming as they tried to cross the border (personal account of our tour guide)
  • Not knowing if your Serb or Croat neighbor was going to shoot or save you

I stared in disbelief.  Seriously, are we living in the same world?  Am I actually talking to you right now?   It is amazing what some people have lived through, and how big of a cakewalk my life has been in comparison.  In what was called “Sniper Alley,” marksmen would camp out in abandoned buildings and deliberately target any civilians who were out in the open.  The so-called “Bosnian Romeo and Juliet” – a couple trying to flee across the river in “Sniper Alley” – were gunned down during the night.  Their bodies lay there for seven days.

The river was the main front of the siege, with Serbs holding the left side of the river. Snipers would camp in these buildings

The river was the main front of the siege, with Serbs holding the left side of the river. Snipers would camp in these buildings

There are plenty of reminders.  Next to the Holiday Inn and some new “skyscrapers” are buildings still pierced with bullet holes and broken walls.  Cemeteries roll up and down the mountains.  Amidst incredible beauty, scars remain.

Of course, there were happy stories, too.  The students smiled as they described how they collected artillery shrapnel, rode around in wheelbarrows (mistakenly called “wheelchairs”) and went to the soup kitchen – which was operated by Jews, Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks!  One guy even told me how his grandfather was rescued; dragged out of his home to a firing squad, his Serb neighbor threw him into the long grass of a nearby field when no one was looking, saving his friend from certain death.

Later we took a trip to Srebrenica, the site of a brutal massacre.  8000 Bosniak men were herded like animals and killed, their bodies thrown in mass graves.  Our guide, who was seventeen at the time, was lucky to escape by surviving the “Death March” – as several thousand men fled through the mountains into free territory.  At the International Commission of Missing Persons, we saw the bones of those that did not survive, neatly shelved in white plastic bags in the giant storage room.  I covered my nose and stood in delirium.

gravestones at Srebrenica

gravestones at Srebrenica

The experience was numbing.  It all felt so direct, so shocking, so real.  I’ve been to killing fields before – in Auschwitz, Gettysburg, Normandy.  But this was somehow different.  I’m not just looking at pictures and videos.  There is no historical or generational gap here.  I’m talking to the actual people that lived through this hell, and many of them are my age.  I can relate to them a little bit more.  These are my peers.

And I just keep thinking how damn lucky I am.  I was never afraid of running around or playing baseball outside.  I didn’t go to school in a dark basement.  I was never suspicious that my neighbors would stab me in the back.  I wasn’t going to get snipered in the middle of the street.

It’s amazing what some people had to live through.  I asked a billion questions on this trip, and I want to ask a billion more.

Christmas in March!

Forget about an “early spring.”  The ground hog is a big, fat liar.

In Copenhagen, it feels like spring is never going to come at all!  I’m still sloshing through the snow, and it’s almost April.  Sure, it’s getting brighter every day.  But when the sky is overcast with snow clouds most of the time, it looks more like Christmas than Easter.  Bundled up in my winter jacket, leather boots and furry hat, I look like a giant Eskimo on the Iditarod.  I’m speed-walking in between classes, cranking up the heater, and soaking up the “hygge” in warm cafes.

"feels like 14" :/

“feels like 14” :/

I was actually singing “Let it Snow” in the shower yesterday, and friends are planning snow ball fights at our kollegium (quote from Facebook page: “ATTENTION HOFFMANS! JAKE WANTS TO HAVE A SNOWBALL FIGHT STARTING AT 11:30PM. AKA 23:30. MEET IN THE LOBBY AND GET READY TO GET ROCKED)

I need to thaw.  I desperately want to go south – and luckily, I’m headed there next week.  For the first half, I’ll be in Sarajevo with my Humanitarian Law class.  Seriously, Sarajevo!  As the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we’ll be studying the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, the messiest European conflict since the Second World War.  Whereas other students are going to the more “mainstream” cities like London, Paris, or Berlin, our core class is really going off-the-beaten path.  When else will I really get a chance to see Sarajevo?  To relive the terrible massacre at Srebrenica?  To interview journalists and diplomats that handled the Dayton Accords?  To talk to the victims of one of the defining conflicts of the modern era?  And I’m experiencing all of this with two professors who, as lawyers and soldiers in the Danish military, directly participated in the Balkan conflict.

My expectations are high.  But after my fantastic DIS trip to Russia, I think this will be yet another surreal opportunity.

And as a politics/religion nut, Bosnia is right up my alley.  It is a country defined by political and religious tension.  Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks, and Orthodox Serbs live together in an uneasy peace, held together by intense international pressure. (Sidenote: the flag looks awesome, with the three corners of the triangle representing these three groups).

There’s been a lot of criticism of the international response; some say the Dayton Accords have simply institutionalized the ethnic problems that caused the conflict in the first place. The country is divided into regions based on ethnicity, and there is a three-man presidency that includes one member from each ethnic group.

On the way home, I’ll be stopping in Vienna for three days over Easter weekend.  April will be packed, with a week-long trip to Ukraine and possibly even Florence.  Summer plans are starting to materialize, and it looks like I’ll be back in D.C. once again.  Those 100-degree July days are going to feel really, really nice.  In the meantime, Denmark better step up its game.

Raining 3’s at 3 AM

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:

HOYA SAXA!

HOYA SAXA!

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:

EU-US group project

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.

Pirates, birthday, a really old man, and rainbows: my short study tour in review

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.

Forget the swords, these pirates are going heavy-duty

Forget the swords, these pirates are going heavy-duty

At the Danish military police HQ, looking at a Somali pirate boat with weapons/supplies inside

At the Danish military police HQ, looking at a Somali pirate boat with weapons/supplies inside

"Boy" with some boys

“Boy” with some boys

In the Rainbow tunnel overlooking Arhus

In the Rainbow tunnel overlooking Arhus

Celebrating the big 21 - Arhus style!

Celebrating the big 21 – Arhus style!

At the highest point in Denmark - which means I'm officially the highest human being in Denmark

At the highest point in Denmark – which means I’m officially the highest human being in Denmark

This guy was buried in a bog over 2000 years ago - now that's what I call a senior citizen.

This guy was buried in a bog over 2000 years ago – now that’s what I call a senior citizen.

our tour guide at the "Western Wall" - German fortifications during WWII

our tour guide at the “Western Wall” – German fortifications during WWII

Jelling Stone

Depiction of Jesus

Jelling Stone

A lion – to symbolize the strength of the Danish kingdom

Harold Bluetooth, the second King of Denmark, erected the Jelling Stone in the mid-900s.  It says that 1)he is honoring his deceased parents 2)Denmark is united 3)Denmark has converted to Christianity

Harold Bluetooth, the second King of Denmark, erected the Jelling Stone in the mid-900s. It says that 1)he is honoring his deceased parents 2)Denmark is united 3)Denmark has converted to Christianity

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!

Food, family, and football: Doing it Copenhagen style

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).

layer cake

layer cake

amazing buns

amazing buns

the whole thing!

table is lookin’ good

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)
St. Peter's bakery

St. Peter’s bakery

how can you say "no" to this?

how can you say “no” to this?

  • 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!

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