Crash, Chairs, Classes, Cafe

“You made it through the first week! Did you do anything? Did you do anything scandalous? Well…you should!”

–one of my professors

I fell off my bike! Does that count?

This week started off with a bang–literally, alas–when, after a horrible skid into the bike path on the way to catch my train, my nose hit the sidewalk. While I was relieved to find out I didn’t break any bones or need stitches at the hospital in Roskilde, I had to stay home the rest of Monday–missing what was shaping up to be an exciting Hegel-Kierkegaard double-header of discussion between my two philosophy classes. (That’s not sarcasm. I’m a nerd with so many questions to ask.)

After yesterday’s naps and ibuprofen, I’m feeling fine. If anything, I’m grateful this accident showed me yet more examples of the kindness of my neighboring Danes–the man who drove me back to the folkehøjskole and gave me paper towels, the hospital staff who were able to check up on me in English–as well as from DIS housing friends who offered me help. I also now have a cool scar; my reaction to discovering this in my post-crash daze was not disgust, but wow, this is going to look so punk.

(NB: NONE of this reflects biking safety in Denmark–only my own clumsiness. If you’re here or coming here, PLEASE take advantage of the cycling culture!)

Chilling out in my room for the day with the curtains drawn gave me lots of time to draw bad comics.

Even a residual headache can’t dull the memories of last week–that first real week, the safety guardrails of orientation lowered down. I spent last Wednesday as a tourist, wandering in the area around Kastellet–a five-pointed castle fortress–in a rare burst of morning sunlight. I climbed up a hill at one of the points and looked down on St. Alban’s, an Anglican church; I left the other four (and the church itself, which was closed off for Communion) for another day.

Realizing I was by the waterfront, I walked out to the Little Mermaid statue, reasoning that there couldn’t be that many visitors for her on a chilly morning in January. I was very wrong–but angled my camera in such a way that no one could ever tell:

Right up on nearby Bredgade street is Designmuseum Denmark (free admission for students!). I hung around there into the afternoon, pacing through rooms of bicycles, pottery, accessibility devices, furniture, recycled materials imagined into new forms. And chairs–one long exhibit of chairs with flickering automatic lights in front of each model, like the back hallway of a spacecraft. I felt in over my head at some points–the museum’s collection stretches back to crafting from the pre-industrial era–and was happy whenever I ran into typography and image, my favorite touchpoints of design. Post-museum treat: a cinnamon snail (the Wednesday special) at St. Peter’s, the oldest bakery in Copenhagen.

Typically, Wednesday is reserved for DIS’s out-of-the classroom “field studies” for each of my classes; on that day, I lucked out with a free morning. From now on, though, the rest of my schedule is locked in–I bid goodbye to the pop-up sessions and 3pm jetlag naps of orientation. On Mondays, I take the subway to the south campus of the University of Copenhagen for “Kierkegaard’s Authorship”, a class which has already spawned some pretty heady conversations. In the words of our professor Brian*, Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish existential philosopher whose writings we’re studying, is the kind of thinker with ideas you return to “when it’s 2am and dark and you’re in bed staring at your hand. What is this hand? you think. What does it mean to have a hand? Who am I?

Not quite a 2am existential breakdown, but here’s what an evening walk home from the train looks like in Roskilde.

I also have Brian for my core course, “Religious Mythos and Philosophical Logos”–which, as of an executive action on the first day of class, has been shortened to “Mythos and Logos”, or “Myth and Reason”. (Cue a sigh of relief from us all, who kept tripping over the first name during icebreaker games.) We spent week one reading ancient Greek creation myths and excerpts from tales like the Odyssey, trying to piece together what relevance these stories had in the societies of the people who originally told them.

Last Tuesday, I went to the Ny Carlsburg Glyptotek museum’s weekly free day, and pored over their collections of Egyptian, Greek and Roman antiquities. What new things, I wonder, will I learn about the worldviews of the people who made these pieces by the end of the semester?

*Keeping with a Danish practice of informality, all my teachers here go by their first names.

Spending dusk in the Roman statue hall at the Glyptotek.

Great, sweeping stories–ones that could be the backbone of a nation–also seemed to be the theme of the first week in all my other courses. In “International Advertising”, we watched promotional segments from around the world, talking about which cultural narratives they were made to reflect. My “Learning in Scandinavian Classrooms” professor said you can’t think about what makes a good education without also considering what makes a good citizen. (I want to push back on this a little–could there be education towards an even greater good than a “good citizen”?–but we’ll see where I stand at the end of the semester.) Between my increasingly less mangled attempts at pronouncing the “ø” in my Danish class, we began talking over where the language fits into the country’s national history.

A lot to mull over–but not too much. Last week closed out on Friday with a fun “cultural assignment” scavenger hunt for that last language class. My group researched and walked the Kongens Nytorv (“Kings New Square”) area, taking documentary selfies at important sites (including Nyhavn, the famous canal of the colored houses, at the bottom left). We each got 100 Danish kroner (around $10-12 USD) to use at the “best coffeeshop” we could find in the area. I’m no coffee connoisseur–I actually spent my kroner on hot chocolate–but I’m willing to vouch now for Cafe Ermanno, which kept us dry after the drizzly final leg of our adventure.

In between: I picked up flyers for Studenterhuset (a student union/activities hub for anyone attending college in Copenhagen), an international church, and DIS’s film club at Activities Fair night. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology re-tellings kept me company on the commute from Roskilde into the city and back. I had an involved dinner conversation with Danish and Norweigan ROFH students about California wildfires and Scandinavian fjords. I was selected to be a DIS student blogger! (Look for my face, sporting an action movie villain gash, on their website very soon.)

And tomorrow morning, it’s Wednesday again, and I do have a field study. I’m waking up at 6:45am to leave Roskilde and observe a Danish public school with my education class! Stay posted, and I’ll let you know if I scare any kids into always biking with a helmet on.


“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.

Vor Frue Kirke / Church of Our Lady, the national cathedral of Denmark, with lights front and center.

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.)

Parking my bike outside the Nørreport train station.

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.)

The (free!) view from the top of Christiansborg Palace.

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).

Early morning moon over the main hall at Roskilde Festival Højskole.

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 (?!?!).

Midway through a two-hour game of Werewolf–one werewolf caught, three or four more to go.

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.

My very first Roskilde sunrise over the RAGNAROCK museum.