There are certain phrases that sound perfectly normal after a few weeks in another country. Only when you remove yourself from the moment can you realize how lucky you are–how ridiculous it is–to be able to say them.
Like when I was abroad last semester, knee-deep in Attic Greek homework, and leaving the apartment: “I’m going to go sit on the Acropolis for a while and clear my head.” Or the way we give each other directions to places in Copenhagen: “It’s by the castle. No, not that castle, another one.”
Or more recently: Tuesday, when everyone from DIS is out on our folkehøjskole floor common room, and Loren leans over and says, “Hey, Claire, are you ready for Germany?”
“You know, the study tour?”
“Yeah, I know–that’s next week?”
Yeah. You know. Just heading on over the border into Lübeck and Hamburg for three days. For a field trip. Normal stuff.
I barely catch the last train that can arrive at Copenhagen Central Station by 8:30am–the time of my visa appointment in the city. The DIS Roskilde folkehøjskole group takes up half the top floor of the bus shuttling us over to the government building. Inside, we wait on line to scan our fingerprints and get our passports reviewed; outside, it’s grim, and it rained at some unidentifiable point. My phone’s camera still finds rainbows everywhere.
At the Royal Danish Library cafe, I struggle to parse this week’s Kierkegaard readings over a croissant. As a break, I go up to the top floor, five stories above, for the “Grand View” of the waterways.
My afternoon’s free, so I cross the waterfront bridge; I want to figure out how to reach the inviting brown-gold spire I see every day over the skyline. (When you’re not navigating by castles in Copenhagen, you’re using spires.)
The building is Vor Frelsers Kirke–the Church of Our Savior–over on Christianshavn. The sanctuary inside turns out to be just as stunning as the tower:
Nearby are canals and vein-like streams, along with a marshy park that grew over a set of fortifications first planned by King Christian IV. I take the escalator down into the subway home, and a musician plucks out an acoustic version of (fittingly) “Love is All Around“.
Three hours inside the National Museum of Denmark…and I don’t even make it to the Vikings.
I guess I should’ve anticipated feeling overwhelmed–there’s four floors in the museum, spanning thousands of years of Danish and world history. I spend most of the afternoon lost in the “peoples of the world” section, particularly the room that plays both ancient and contemporary music from different cultures. I also pass through the rooms of 18th-century Denmark, learning about divine rule and festivals and persecuted folk beliefs. (There’s an uncanny number of traditions that end in some warning about becoming a single “old hag”.)
Back in Roskilde, our floor celebrates a DIS-double birthday weekend! Malobi and Zach cut the first slices of a tangy lemon cake and open the cards that we all signed on Friday night. Keeping with national birthday tradition, a mini-Dannebrog (Danish flag) is put out on the counter for decoration.
Around midnight, a crowd of enthusiastic Scandinavians and DIS students congregates in ROFH’s Orange Room–named for the fluorescent shade that coats the chairs, ceiling, and wall–to watch the Super Bowl in real time. I last a half-hour before calling it quits, but several Americans make it til three or four in the morning, planning to sleep while in transit for their own DIS trips the next day.
Happy Monday! Art is dead.
Or is it? Our goal as a class this strange week–Core Course Week–is to figure it out. For the next three days, all our other classes have been waived for four-hour sessions (with lunch breaks) and a field study in “Myth and Reason”. Then, on Thursday morning, we’ll all leave for our “study tour” to Germany together.
We’ve got quite the match-up to judge, too. In one corner, Hegel argues that we’ve turned to use science and reason as our ways of understanding the world, and art can never hold the kind of power for us that it did for ancient people. In the other, Heidegger pushes back, writing that art can still have something to say about what it means to be human. And then there’s Nietzsche, who makes a guest star appearance in our reading during class to wail that everything sacred is dead (or so he claims).
Brian asks us if we think there’s any art left that has fundamentally shifted our understanding of the world, and hesitant answers crop up: cathedrals, Mad Men, Harry Potter. Maya suggests punk rock, and Brian agrees, saying that those bands are often more interested in the spirit and beliefs they play in than the world’s ideas about quality: “They’re just like, ‘How do you do this?'” Miscellaneous guitar noises ensue. “‘Oh, OK. Cool!'”
The train’s late after class, spoiling my evening plans to track down a helmet before the biking shops close. But I stumble on a huge mall in downtown Roskilde which somehow contains every Danish outlet store I’ve learned to recognize so far:
I buy a whiteboard at Arnold Busck for our floor–the suggestion for a place to doodle and leave messages popped up at our last meeting–and, embarrassed, ask the cashier for “Engelsk?” (English?) when I don’t realize she’s offering me a bag.
The common room is eerily quiet that night when I go to put the board up–no trap music, no laughter. Nearly all the other DIS students have their study tours at the beginning of this week. I stay up too late working on Tuesday’s readings and a blog post; by the time I go to sleep, the first news from the Iowa caucus has started rolling across social media.
Our class hasn’t quite killed off art yet, but we spend a lot of time today talking about ghosts–the “spirit” of people; the way places feel haunted when they don’t mean something to us anymore. Brian projects images on the board of some of the creations we’ll be visiting in Germany, and each time, asks the question that will become infamous in our class–“Does it work?” Does it still have something meaningful to say?
Erik, Sarah and I order food at Sandwichpigen, AKA “The Sandwich Girl”–a popular DIS lunch spot because of their student discounts. We check out a basement-level cafe-bookstore that’s caught Erik’s eye, only to discover the literature is entirely French-language. None of us know French, so we scan spines and call out authors we recognize.
During dinner at the folkehøjskole, ROFH student Eskil animatedly tells me about football club rivalries and fan fighting when he finds out our class is going to a game in Hamburg. “Do people in the United States have fights like that about sports?” he wants to know. I admit he might get better answers from another DIS student–like Aiden, who seems to not have missed a single American football game since we’ve arrived. But I know enough to tell him about the frenzy in the streets in Philadelphia after the Eagles won the Super Bowl last year. Eskil assures me our class will probably be fine, and won’t run into any “hooligans”.
I have my longest Danish conversation thus far with the toddler of a visiting teacher, leading with “Hvad hedder du?” (What’s your name?). The rest of the evening is for helping with dishes and doing a last round of laundry before the trip–“practical matters”, as Brian might say.
A holiday! The Dannebrog hangs from Christiansborg and (in a tinier form) off of buses alike. Our class meets up at Cafe Katz for coffees and refreshments before our field study; there, Rebecca figures out using her phone that it’s Crown Princess Mary’s birthday. Brian laughs–he’s got dual Danish-American citizenship, but it’s still hard to keep track of all of the royals.
Today we’re visiting the Glyptotek, with a goal of taking pictures of art that we think–you guessed it!–“works”. We have to upload our images and reasoning as a discussion post online before the week ends. Paul and Nicole both bring real cameras, cementing their status as two of our class’s Legit Photographers.
An uncomfortable realization hits me when we’re given free time to roam the halls. I’ve always loved going to museums like the Glyptotek, but usually because of the beauty of the art, or what it tells me about a certain time period, or because I like playing Mythological I-Spy like the classics nerd I am (“Hey, Amazons fighting Greeks on a vase!”). All well and good, but when’s the last time a piece of art really changed my worldview? Is art dead to me?
I like the memento mori message of the piece I end up using my assignment, though I’m still not sure if I feel it, or if it really sinks in.
“Death and the Maiden” by Elna Borch
The afternoon is my last time for a little while to be fully present in the city, and I want to soak it in, get a full sense of the spirit. I start on Strøget, the longest pedestrian street in the world, keeping an eye out for lamppost stickers and churches.
On Skindergade Street, where “Myth and Reason” meets, I browse around in Accord, the used vinyl store (despite not owning a record player). Eskil and I talked on Tuesday night about records in Denmark after I said how surprised I was to find three different shops for them in Copenhagen. He said that the “hipsters” were helping to bring them back, before imploring me to listen to Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd (one of my big rock blind spots) in its entirety. Records, he explained, helped him listen to albums like that as a whole, without feeling tempted to skip tracks. I get a little of my optimism about art back–maybe, if you approach it in certain ways, it’s more likely to “work”.
I end in the University of Copenhagen library, where stained glass circles line the walls and burnt candle stubs mark the tables. (In Denmark, candles are welcomed almost everywhere!)
It’s a night of arrivals and departures in Roskilde. The common room springs back to life as people return from study tours; Zach brings home a spongy cake that tastes like bananas. In my room, I roll up jeans in my backpack, throw in my passport, wonder how our class will get by this weekend without a lick of German language knowledge (that I know of) among us. I sleep less than I should.
(Part 2 later this week…)
(Header image: Loren, in the middle of some crushing revelations about art, strikes a pose in front of the Sphinx sculpture at the Glyptotek.)