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The “hard” part of studying abroad


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.


Time for the “lasts”

thank you St. Peter's!

thank you St. Peter’s!

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.

last evening with the Larsen's (my visiting family)

last evening with the Larsen’s (my visiting family)


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.


Sun, “happiness”, and hygge

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.

sunny afternoonBut 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.

almost too beautiful to eat

St. Peter’s finest

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.

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.

Arrival & adjustments: my first few days!

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.

Supermarket down the street from kollegium

  • 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.
during the ride in this morning

during the ride in this morning

That’s it for now! Tonight we are going downtown again to meet up with more DISers, and hopefully meet some new Danes, too!

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