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.)

Time Marches Forward

Did Daylight Savings happen? I could barely tell. The signifiers of early spring have appeared here regardless–something that’s shocked me after two months of winter deadlock. Bulb-shaped flowers, yellow and purple, pop up around the apartment complex grounds on the way to the train. Light lingers in the sky for just a few minutes after dinner. After spending some time working at the University of Copenhagen after my Kierkegaard class, I left the student lounge to find this:

Sunset at the south campus of Copenhagen University

Here are some other things, ordinary and not, that have happened this past first week-or-so of March:

Folkehøjskole Fastelavn

February ended at ROFH with a costume party for Fastelvan, a national carnival holiday. The festivities culminate with everyone coming together to take a crack at a hanging wooden barrel with bat (like a pinata!).

I had no idea what to dress up as; ROFH students who’d been planning for much longer showed out as Breaking Bad characters, Batman, and a cardboard recreation of the national folkehøjskole songbook. In the thirty minutes before the party, I pulled through, throwing my trusty beanie, a yellow shirt, tape, markers, and a cut-up old copy of a “Myth and Reason” reading together into a barely-convincing flower. (Alternate guesses from ROFH students: “a really cool Pokemon” and “a fire”.)

After we each got a turn at the barrel, which rained down sour lollipops, I bested the competition at Twister! Then I got whooped in a follow-up round and woke up the next morning with cramps in muscles that I didn’t even know existed…but that’s irrelevant.

Midterms, Coronavirus, and Other Looming Things

Downtown in Copenhagen, deadlines are nigh. DIS is different from my classes at home in that group projects are more prevalent than essays and tests, which fits with the importance of teamwork in Danish education. In “International Advertising“, we wrote creative briefs in groups for popular Danish companies, swapped them, and are now designing advertising campaigns based on our newly-received brief. After learning about the Finnish and Danish teacher education programs in “Learning in Scandinavian Classrooms”, we’ve been tasked with designing the perfect training curriculum.

The number one way to derail any of those project meetups? Coronavirus, appearing in dark humor–“I mean, now that we have the cards for free healthcare, would it really be so bad to get sick here?”–and nervous phone stat-checking–“Wait, it’s twenty cases in Denmark today?!” Things have intensified since last week; all independent travel to Italy is now off-limits for DIS students, and Denmark has shut down events with over 1,000 people. A football game that DIS had offered up free tickets for disappeared from the schedule, forcing me to spend yesterday afternoon confronting some more personal deadlines. (Internship applications and taxes. Fun!)

And, of course, there’s the ever-hanging threat that at any second, an email will shoot through cyberspace from our home institutions, calling us back to the United States. But this is uncertain, dependent in my case as a Dickinson student on a host of CDC advisories and State Department warnings. I guess I’ll just worry about my Danish midterm tomorrow for now.

Field Study: A Walk in Nørrebro

With so much to panic about, it was good to get some fresh air–and where better to do that than Nørrebro? This colorful Copenhagen neighborhood had been on my bucket list for some time. For my Wednesday field study, my Danish class met on-site to learn about its diverse residents and history.

Our tour guide, a friend of our professor Nan’s, took us around Assistens Cemetery, a sprawling green space with the graves of some of Denmark’s best-known luminaries (including Hans Christian Andersen and Kierkegaard!). Instead of focusing solely on the famous, he told us about the mix of characters that have lived in the Nørrebro area over the years: manual laborers, American jazz artists, community organizers, to name a few.

Around us, Assistens was being used like a park in the most literal sense of its Danish name, kirkegård–a church yard. (And, yes, that does mean the often gloomy philosopher Søren I’m reading shares his last name with a term for cemetery.) Mothers pushed strollers past our group, and we had to part frequently for cyclists. It’s different from the American suburban kid lore I grew up with, where any car ride past a graveyard mandated that you hold your breath or risk losing your soul.

Now that it’s a few degrees warmer outside, I want to continue wandering through Nørrebro–preferably on bike–since there were so many spots on our tour that I’d never heard about. Like the tiled soccer ground/meeting space, Blågårds Plads (center image)–it’s part of the Black Square area, possibly named for the former site of a foundry. The sculptures at its perimeter, all bent over at similar angles, were created by artist Kai Nielsen to represent the neighborhood’s residents at work on their trades. Also on the square’s edge: Sorte Firkant, a bar, cafe, and community space where we rested our feet and drank from foamy hot chocolate cups.

Two Mazes

The first maze: on Friday, my friend Renée introduced me to Paludan Bog & Café, the oldest joint bookstore/cafe in Copenhagen. It’s right across the street from the University of Copenhagen’s city offices, so it gets a lot of the student crowd, though there’s a good mix of all kinds of visitors. While Renée and I ate warm cookies, the vacant seats at our long table filled first with moms and their babies, then some Greek women who were very excited to overhear us talking about the ancient sites we’d covered in “Myth and Reason“.

Being huge bookworms, we had to step down to the basement, where used and collectible books are sold. We were impressed to find a multilingual trove covering everything from the classics (Homer in Danish!) to linguistics to crime novels. On the wall were inscrutable mixed-media sculptures (see left image) with baby doll parts, old handguns, and records. We were surprised at how deep down the collection went; it was much farther than the parameters of the cafe would seem to allow.

Saturday brought one of the most unsettling museum experiences–in a meaningful arty sense–that I’ve had in a while at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. To get there, I had to buy my first “extension ticket” for Danish rail. DIS covers my commute route into the city, but I need to pay extra to ride through the transportation zones outside of that. I went a half hour up the coast from Copenhagen, and could smell the brine and sea breeze when I stepped out in the town of Humlebæk–a scent close to my ocean-loving heart.

The museum grounds are home to an outdoor sculpture garden, which is so easy to get lost doing figure-eights in. I typically don’t think that there are “right” and “wrong” ways to go through art museums, but whatever I did on Saturday wouldn’t be recognized as “correct”.

Marble-esque sculptures of the planets in our solar system

One outdoor installation is a set of now-rusted steps, only a few inches wide in diameter, that you have to balance on ever-so-carefully to get down the slope behind the yard. At the bottom is the shoreline, and I spent good time sitting on rocky outcroppings, running my hand through the water. In my excitement to see the sound, I accidentally left through the one exit off the museum grounds, and had to reason how to hike back up the hill–the first of many times I’d lose track of a set path.

Shore of Humlebæk, with Sweden on the horizon

Besides the physical disorientation, there were the exhibitions themselves–like the dazzling reflections of the art in Hot Pink Turquoise. I was disappointed that I didn’t get to go inside artist Ann Veronica Janssens’s Red, Blue, and Yellow, an immersive cube of fog and light. The line went up and around the installation, and it had to close an hour before the museum did.

I also couldn’t find my place in the exhibition Bronze, with its endless slabs of grey sculpture. Every time I thought I’d seen them all, I’d descend a staircase and turn a corner, only to find yet another dimly lit, dead quiet room with similar pieces. This second maze was inarticulately eerie.

Sculptures by Per Kirkeby

For me, the most powerful exhibit–which I have no pictures of because I was so fully absorbed in it–was Lauren Greenfield’s Generation Wealth. It’s a photography collection of decades of the artist’s work, investigating the often shocking ways people modify their homes, bodies, and clothing in pursuit of financial status and beauty. Some of the images jolted my brain for a while after I’d taken the train back from the Louisiana.

An example of the Louisiana’s twisted architecture at the entrance to “Generation Wealth”

It was freeing when I set off out of the maze and went back down the streets of Humlebæk, which seems to get a lot of traffic from the museum; the train stop even has “Louisiana” printed on all its signs. Everything seemed sharper and more real in the evening, outside of white rooms and hairpin-turn walls.

So was the beginning of this month–started with candy; closed with affecting art and a train ride into a dark wood; coursed with historical perspective. I’d say it was worth coming back from break for…except, of course, for midterms.

(Header image: passing the changing of the Danish royal guard, which has almost made me late to class twice now, at the Kultorvet fountain. Only in Copenhagen…)

Art Is Dead? (Core Course Week Etc., Part 1)

Tuesday, 1/29

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?”

“What?”

“You know, the study tour?”

“Yeah, I know–that’s next week?”

“Yeah!”

Yeah. You know. Just heading on over the border into Lübeck and Hamburg for three days. For a field trip. Normal stuff.

“…of course!”

Saturday, 2/1

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“.

Sunday, 2/2

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.

The first quarter begins, to a packed house

Monday, 2/3

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!'”

Coincidentally, I was listening to this the night before…

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:

Not pictured: Netto, 7-Eleven (not technically Danish, but close enough), ALDI, etc.

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.

Tuesday, 2/4

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.

Den Franske Bogcafes Efterfølger

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.

Wednesday, 2/5

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.)

Growing Places

August. That’s the instant sensation of entering the glass hothouses at the University of Copenhagen Botanical Garden. The doors swung shut behind me, and I was enveloped in that feeling of steamy sidewalks after the rain, of nights reading on my front porch. It’s 40 kroner ($4-6 USD) for the walk-through; if only it were free, I’d be there on all the days I feel homesick for sunnier weather. (Though, given the six-weeks-with-a-snow-day streak at college last winter, I’m sure I wouldn’t find much escape in Pennsylvania, either.)

Last Sunday, my housing friends Rachel, Sydney, and I met up at Social Foodies–a cafe that also funds aid projects in Denmark and across Africa–and all stole from the bag of flødeboller (Danish chocolate-marshmallow treats) that Rachel had made for a DIS-sponsored cooking class there. We took the subway down to the garden and spent an afternoon basking in the greenhouses, which feature orchids, palms, cacti, and exotic plants. Outside, we passed by the hills and lawns that form the remainder of the green space; I’m sure they’ll make great picnic spots in a few months.

“I bet this is the most elevated surface in Copenhagen…
…hey, you should put that on your blog.” –Rachel

First Field Study

Like greenhouse plants, it seems, we all thrive as students in particular environments. Leading up to my education class’s visit to a K-through-9 school, we broke into groups to talk about the best and worst teachers we’d ever had. Complaints were vented. Memories were shared. We agreed as a class that the great teachers in our lives somehow struck a balance between being supportive and authentic while challenging us.

Would any educators at our field study mirror our ideal teachers? Early Wednesday morning, I caught a bus, then a train, then the subway with Vicky (another folkehøjskole floormate who’s in my class) to see. Our school was on Amager, a large island directly opposite Copenhagen–also home of the university I head to on Mondays for my Kierkegaard class. Many students at our site rely on public housing or other assistance; nearly all of them live a five-minute walk or bike ride from the building.

The street outside our field study school

I sat in on a 9th-grade social science course with classmates from DIS, and was surprised by how much it reminded me of my mandatory high school personal finance requirement–right down to the ThinkPad laptops and supply-and-demand graphs. But the class ended on an innovative activity that hadn’t been a common practice in my own freshman year. As students clustered up to research different countries’ economies on their laptops, their teacher explained to us that they were working in the “cafe model”: each group would teach another group about their findings, and then the second group would present them. It’s easy to throw out a ten-minute spiel about a topic, blink, and forget it (guilty). It takes real understanding to bring someone else up to the same level of comprehension as you.

After joining up to reflect with other groups in the class, who’d shadowed younger classes, administrators led us on a walking tour of the school. Unlike the windowless, blocked classrooms I’ve often had, this building incorporated lots of glass, wood, and natural light. There were even live birds in an enclosure in the front hallway–we all did a double take after realizing the soft cheeps we heard weren’t coming from a speaker.

Growing plants near the science wing of the school

Observing educational design might’ve been the point of this field study, but I think I learned more about teenagers. Even halfway across the world, they’re still the same, in all their TikTok-quoting, mid-class-stretching, spontaneously laughing glory. What’s remarkable is that, because Danish public schools split cohorts by birth year rather than ability, the kids in that social science class have been in the same courses for nearly ten years. They really know each other as individuals, and I could sense it in the cadence of their conversation, even in Danish. Vicky would point out to me later that by the end of the class, at some point, everyone had raised a hand to speak.

Bondegården

When our field study ended, our professor Heidi offered to take us over to a local playground, Bondegården–with goats. Ninety-nine percent of our class followed her there with no hesitation.

Besides the petting zoo animals–kids can also visit with chickens and pigs–Bondegården is one site of the suttetræ (“pacifier tree”) tradition. When Danish children outgrow their pacifiers, their families tie them to branches, sometimes adding decorations or handwritten notes. Heidi told us that her daughter, after her own visit to another tree, received some gifts from a “pacifier fairy”. (A cousin of the Tooth Fairy, maybe.)

In another area of the playground, by a zipline and a labyrinthine castle playset, we came to towers, several feet high, that children had independently built with wood and nails. (No pictures for privacy reasons–imagine a structure the height of the castle below. Ten-year-old me would’ve had a blast.) I remembered the “adventure playgrounds” I’ve read about in England, where kids are free to play and experiment without helicoptering supervision.

I was struck the whole time, both on this playground and in our field study site, at how much trust surrounded these children. Young kids, unaccompanied by a teacher, were scattered working around the common space when we first went in the school. They looked at our big, loud abroad-student circle with curiosity, and then went back to their assignments, uninterrupted. Later, a physics teacher we ran into had no reservations when explaining why one of his students wasn’t in class the day before a major paper. She’s at home, working, he told us (to paraphrase), because it’s too distracting for her here and she wants to focus.

The greatest example of trust, one I won’t forget soon, came when we turned out of the playground. “Do you see what’s over there?” Heidi asked, pointing a finger over the fence demarcating the gravelly path from what could’ve been a vuggestue (“cradle room”, nursery service). A dozen black strollers were on the lawn, in view of the window–but with no one outside next to them. We offered up the correct answer, shocked, as Heidi grinned: babies, sleeping.

…Meanwhile In Roskilde

Back at home, it was a good week for conversations with ROFH people. Between my first shift on folkehøjskole kitchen duty–chopping rutabagas, potatoes, and carrots–and nightly dinner, I’ve heard about hip-hop’s influence in Denmark (explaining the Run-D.M.C. graffiti I found at our field study site), the annual summer music festival in Roskilde, and Danglish (Danes’ tendency to slip between Danish and English). On Saturday, a handful of us gathered with a visiting teacher for hyggeligt (nice, hygge-filled) rounds of board games, ping-pong, and table football. I’m starting to catch the basic phrases I’ve picked up in Danish language class in conversations–that game night, there were many “unskyld“s (“I’m sorry”s) after an impromptu Expo marker throwing war.

It has now fully sunk in that I have been in Denmark for three weeks. I feel unsure whether I have yet done anything in particular, or just observed a lot. I’m also now realizing how much time my commute from Roskilde can swallow–especially in the last week, when I took a short hiatus from biking (for safety’s sake) and walked the twenty minutes to the train. Plus, I’m not a fan of building an impenetrable first-month friend group, but it has been harder to meet more DIS students when I vanish from Copenhagen at 4pm most days.

Later this week comes my study trip for my core class–a bus trip to Hamburg, Germany (!)–and, though I’m counting down the days, I’m hoping I’ll have enough time to grow to the fullest where I’m living here, too.

A gloomy day at the Roskilde Fjord, where I biked to last weekend

DIS-orientation

“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.