Flying Back With Fear And Trembling

The places I’d visited. The cross-cultural understanding I’d gained. The new Danish friends I’d hopefully make. These are the answers I gave the very nice representative from DIS back in November after he hit me with this doozy of a final interview question: What do you want to be reflecting on during your plane ride home from studying in Denmark? I mean, really, I’d text my mom jokingly after the video call, they think I’m going to be reflecting? I’m going to be trying to nap with headphones on.

Here’s what I ended up thinking about instead, wide awake and white-knuckling the seat, on a flight back to America two months early: What if I hadn’t gotten this flight? Did I make it out in time? Do I have coronavirus?

The signs were all there that something would happen. Literally. When the virus first reached Denmark, around the end of February, posters flew up across the folkehøjskole about hand washing before meals. Reading the Local Denmark‘s daily coronavirus reports–first a trickling of isolated cases, then 50, then 100–became an uncomfortable part of my morning routine, somewhere between downing a coffee and taking the train and studying at the Copenhagen Main Library.

Then DIS, understandably, canceled the second round of week-long study tours for core courses–including mine–citing concerns about travel in Europe. It was for the best, but my heart still broke–less for me, and more for my classmates in “Myth and Reason”, many of whom hadn’t been to our planned destinations around Greece before. I had been looking forward to walking my friends down the orange-tree-lined streets in the neighborhood where I’d studied in Athens in the fall, and to my favorite gyro shops. I felt for our professor Brian most of all, who’d said our class would be missing its soul without our trip.

So we came to Wednesday, March 11th: a day of back-to-back field studies. Our morning guest lecturer for “International Advertising”, a man who’d story-boarded and produced several ads for national American television, had plans to travel elsewhere after meeting with us in Copenhagen. “But not anymore, because of all this–” –air hands– “–corona stuff.” Nervous laughter.

My education class met outside the national cathedral, waiting for the bus to pull up for an afternoon site visit. I, along with several others, had brought an onsdagssnegle–a Wednesday cinnamon roll “snail”–from the nearest bakery. “Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if this was was my last Wednesday snail in Copenhagen?” “Haha, don’t talk like that, dude.” An update on my phone from Local Denmark: “Coronavirus cases in Denmark hit 340 after overnight spike.”

A goat outside at the byggelegepladsen. Maybe the real lessons from study abroad were the goats we met along the way.

The ride to our field study–a byggelegepladsen after-school program, featuring yet more goats–was long enough for the prevailing rumor to whip through the whole bus. By the end of the week, or so according to someone’s friend’s professor’s interpretation, DIS was going to come to A Decision.

Stirring soup. No pics of the kids allowed for privacy reasons, so I tried to nail their expressions in emoji form.

A byggelegepladsen is a “construction playground”; like the last park we’d visited on field study, the students there had more room for independent play than many American playgrounds could provide. Stations had been set up for different activities outside and inside–building freestanding forts; adding to a fire pit; painting; taking care of rabbits and goats. While adults supervised at a distance, the kids were in charge of setting their own schedules, and a hands-dirty do-it-yourself ethos was everywhere. Our professor Heidi added that, during a DIS summer session, her classes had built bonfires at the byggelegepladsen and butchered a chicken.

Our fearless professor Heidi (foreground) chops some wood.

After getting trounced a tag game involving plastic machetes by some byggelegepladsen students, several of us kept occupied at the wood-chopping station. Even younger students at the program are trusted to use this area, provided they’ve been taught the rules and use of equipment. It was therapeutic to take turns hacking away at the stubborn logs. At one point, I handed off the ax to another boy in our class, who, like me, swung in vain.

“You’ve gotta put force into it,” I said. “Think of something that makes you really, really angry.”

He started pumping the ax down, up, back down in a flash, yelling loudly enough to turn heads: “I am not getting sent home! I am going to stay here! I am going to stay in Denmark!

From atop the wood pile.

Indoor arts and crafts were more distracting. Over pressing paint-stamps made from carved potatoes, we asked one of the program’s assistants about his future education plans and the students’ favorite TikTok songs. The present still managed to creep in. One Danish boy reported that a friend’s school had closed earlier in the week, after a student tested positive for coronavirus.

At the table, potato pressings in progress.

Whispery bus ride back into the city. Train home to Roskilde. Tense dinner. I spaced out–couldn’t jump into conversations. Couldn’t start my case study for “International Advertising”. Everything seemed to be on the edge, clicking towards an unknown point. What?

Around 9pm, we all found out, through the texts of homestay students with access to live television: the Prime Minister of Denmark was closing all public schools for the next two weeks. Including our folkehøjskole.

The common room erupted. Someone booked a flight without waiting to hear if DIS would close and then made for the airport, suitcase banging on the metal steps. Someone else found a phone speaker and cranked up a track from the Billboard Top 10 until the entire floor reverberated, because he could. Five different phone conversations sparked and ran together. I called a good friend, then called my mom, then lay in my bed on my back while sucking on my last lollipop from Fastelvan and deciding not to look at homework for the rest of the night.

A weepy mosh pit, its participants all holding copies of the national folkehøjskole songbook, clustered around the Orange Room piano. This would be the last time we Americans would see many of our Scandinavian friends. In the morning, they would depart, and dinner that next night would be the last meal ROFH could provide for us. We’d have to use the kitchen ourselves or buy meals in town from then on out.

One last singalong.

Each hour afterwards brought some new panic. DIS texted to expect an update later in the night. Another rumor arose that Denmark had hit a level three warning on the CDC’s travel advisory—the threshold where many colleges (including Dickinson, my own) were calling off their programs. At midnight, DIS emailed out the final verdict. Within the next week, we all had to be home.

I was saddened, but mostly relieved. Things were getting worse; at the end of the day, the number of coronavirus cases in Denmark had mushroomed to over five hundred. I took out my last load of laundry, called my parents one more time, got ready to go to bed—I could get in touch with the airline the next day about rearranging tickets. Except my friends at home kept messaging me:

“Claire r u ok?”

“Claire, are you going to be able to leave the country?”

That’s how I learned that the United States government was placing a month-long ban on travel from Europe, starting in forty-eight hours. In the morning I’d find out that American nationals were supposed to be excluded. But that Wednesday-now-Thursday, I didn’t know that. Nobody did.

Unlike the plane ride interview question, I did have a faint vision of what I wanted to be doing on my last days in Denmark: stopping at my favorite sights, close to friends. Never had I thought they would be like this: my floormates racing into the night, one by one, with packed bags. Waiting as number 1,500 in an airline’s queue before resigning. Grabbing one of the last seats on an Air France flight for Friday morning with a ticket price that made me want to throw up. (DIS generously reimbursed some costs for newly purchased tickets.)

I’d like to say I was able to grab one more Jager burger on Thursday, my last day, or to get a final long glimpse from the top of Christiansborg. There was just no time. I scrambled into the city, where the wind was so intense I almost fell over while cycling, to drop off my bike, textbooks, and the items that wouldn’t fit into my suitcase. The central train station blasted coronavirus warnings on loop. Every plaza seemed deserted. Everything I loved about Copenhagen–every street I’d found charming, all the afternoon pedestrians–had fallen away.

This picture (outside Christiansborg and the War Museum) was taken earlier, but several streets downtown looked like this on that Thursday.

On Friday, I moved out of the bogruppe at dawn, and took a cab, notoriously pricey, only because the once dependable train timetables could no longer be trusted. I was told to expect three hour wait times at Copenhagen Airport. In some miracle, I got through in much less than that.

After a layover in France, I made it to Washington D.C. at 5pm. Just in time. Then came Customs.

Somewhere between France and Canada.

Packed into a line hundreds of people deep for forty-five minutes, there was strangely little acknowledgement of the pandemic we’d all left for. No warnings were given about contact–I put great effort into not touching anyone around me. No one checked my temperature or questioned my health. When I asked my Customs officer if there were any special precautions I needed to take, he seemed nonplussed as I explained I came from Denmark, and told me not to worry–as though I hadn’t spent the last week watching numbers grow higher and higher on the news. By the end of the weekend, the Danish borders would be closed.

I tripped out of the terminal with my bags and suitcase. Just before Dad pulled up to the Arrivals curb, a warm spring breeze fluttered over my shoulders. After two months, I had forgotten what that felt like.

Arrivals at Dulles International, a place I am now too familiar with.

In the last twelve days, the only places I’ve entered have been my bedroom and the house upstairs bathroom, which the rest of my family has temporarily stopped using. I’m riding out a self-quarantine: I eat meals alone and place my laundry by my door in bags. When I left a paper outside for my dad to scan, he lifted it–half-teasingly, half-playing-it-safe–with the edges of his fingers. I haven’t gotten to hug a single person in my family yet.

I can write for certain that for now, I don’t have coronavirus, though Virginia regifted me some spring allergies as a welcome back present. As I’m sure you can imagine, I’ve had a lot of time to decompress–yet surprisingly, I haven’t been hit with an overwhelming feeling of loss about Denmark. The things I won’t be present for, or didn’t make it to, have popped up in my mind: biking around Copenhagen in the spring. The mainland cities. An island perfect for stargazing. But so do the ones I was lucky to do, often just in time: philosophy classes. The Louisiana Museum. That last Wednesday snail.

Graffiti (not by me!!!) in Hamburg, summing it all up.

I guess for now, I can only say what the graffiti (above) does: I was here! And I’m happy I was here. And while I’m no longer in Denmark, I’ll still be here, on this blog–writing about my online classes, which start next week, and posting some tips for future DIS students about money, sightseeing, and managing seasonal blues. It’ll be different from what you were expecting if you keep reading. But I’m going into it with what’s been my mindset for the last three weeks: let’s just see what happens next.

(Header image: glacial lands somewhere over Canada. Title with apologies to Kierkegaard. Part of this post is taken from a shorter op-ed I was asked to write by my college newspaper about this experience.)

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