“People are going to ask me, ‘So, what did you learn in Denmark?’ ‘Um…that 7-Eleven owns ninety-nine percent of the country!'”–Housing suitemate
I have been in Denmark for one week exactly, and I have learned the following from observation, DIS workshops, or both: There are more pigs than people in the whole country. Copenhagen is aiming to be carbon neutral by 2025. The capital has burned down and then been rebuilt multiple times. If you pause awkwardly in the middle of a city bike lane, you will be pegged as an American. And–yes–there are somehow even more 7-Elevens here than in my home town.
Before I knew about any of that–when I first stepped out of the airport terminal–the very first thing I noticed was a contrast. Half-asleep, I got the meteorological equivalent of a wake-up shake from the icy air and breeze slapping my face. (The next morning, the wind was so intense that it twisted the metal rods from their places in my dinky travel umbrella.)
Then I stepped into the hotel across the street, where DIS was offering transportation to housing, and was struck by the soft lights hanging from the ceiling–chains of stars and circles and triangles, all connected to each other. While reading “The Little Book of Hygge“, I learned about the importance of lighting and design to Danes. In all the places I’ve been in Denmark since then, I notice sources of illumination: my comforting bedside lamp that changes positions fluidly. Candles in restaurant windows. The electric globes around the altar at the Copenhagen cathedral. Wherever there’s winter cold around me, it’s countered, somewhere, by brightness and warmth.
Like the dark and light, the ups and downs of my first days play off of each other, too. Jetlag pretzel-twists me into a sleep-deprived, dizzy mess who only eats at odd hours. I woke up on time at the crack of dawn to get to DIS’s “opening ceremony”, and then took a five-hour nap the next day. I successfully rented a bike, and then at first had no idea how to buy the ticket to take it on the train home. I can now navigate my way in Danish through checkout at the ALDI next door, but the first day of my language class made my head spin even more than Ancient Greek does.
I’ve kept calm by taking the time, after information sessions and classes, to see Copenhagen with my own eyes. On Tuesday, I went to Max Burger, a Danish chain, with two of my suitemates, and then biked around the city; on Wednesday, a new friend from my philosophy core course and I explored any castle (including Christiansborg, the header image) or church we ran across with no aim. I’ve also been looking forward to my classes from the minute I picked up a satisfying stack of Kierkegaard books and Greek tragedies and education texts on textbook day. (I’ve sat in “syllabus day” for each one now, and I’ll write about them after learning some more next week.)
Another contrast: the feel of the beginning of my orientation week with DIS against being abroad last semester. Then, two other students and I were whisked away from the Athens airport by a wise-cracking, pop-blasting Greek van driver hired out by the program. He spent most of the ride over the speed limit, giving us tips on where not to go in our new neighborhood to avoid pick-pocketing. Last Saturday, a bus from DIS took me and some others directly to our housing, and the mood was considerably sleepier. And my orientation was so organized over the first three days–I even got a personalized schedule–that classes started by Thursday (with real readings).
I wonder if this reflects the energy in each city somehow: where Athens could feel anarchic–“chaotic in a good way“, someone there told me– the places I’ve been in Copenhagen have a well-ordered coziness about them. I love the minimalism of a church like Vor Frue Kirke, or the way that colorful buildings squat evenly next to each other on the street. So far, the craziest experience I’ve had in the city has been navigating the flow of the cycling lanes–but I’ll take the distinct lines that mark their presence over the situation in my home neighborhood, where, even biking centimeters from the curb, I ride in constant fear of being clipped by an SUV.
(Not to make generalizations about all Denmark, of course. I have yet to visit Freetown Christiania.)
Enough about Copenhagen here. Let me write a little about my other new home–the town of Roskilde, an hour-or-so commute by bike and train from my classes in the city. I’m living in a folkehøjskole (folk high school) with about 15 other DIS students and 100 full-time students from not only Denmark, but Iceland, Norway, and across Scandinavia. The full-time Roskilde Festival Højskole (ROFH) students are studying topics like songwriting, art, politics, and leadership in an atmosphere with no grades or tests–which, as an educational studies major, is the kind of learning I’d love to see more of in the United States!
We’re in class in Copenhagen at the same time the ROFH students are, but we join them for breakfast and dinner, as well as activities like the group sing-along that kicked off our stay. The Roskilde folkehøjskole has a special musical focus because of a yearly festival that takes place in town, and my housing is a thirty-second walk from the delightfully-named RAGNAROCK pop-rock museum (which I intend to visit soon).
For the last few nights this week, we did “speed-dating” with the other bogrupper (housing groups) at night, either visiting with a housewarming gift or hosting others in our common space. It was a lot to take in on the days when that last bike ride home from the train station seemed to suck all the energy out of me. But the highlights were worth it: trying Danish snacks like pork rinds and sour licorice; making new friends while playing Kahoot and Werewolf; the Scandinavians in two different bogrupper correctly guessing I’m from Virginia (?!?!).
I swing from positivity to exhaustion; I’m still disconcerted by the constant grey skies, by the number of faces in the full folkehøjskole I have yet to place to names. On Friday, though, I woke up to frail sunbeams–the first time in six days I had seen a sunrise–and I just played a fun round of Pandemic with housing friends (although we failed to save the world from disease). I have to remember that this is just the first week, even though, as the dinner table discussion tonight went, it seems like a first month. Disorientation–and DIS orientation–doesn’t last forever, and there are lights to turn on against the dark.