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…)

Adventures Close to Home

It was a hazy week–one with a lot of long naps and long walks and microwaved popcorn (which is dirt cheap at ALDI, and I just discovered where to pop it in the folkehøjskole common building). Most notably, and maybe frighteningly to some of my peers: I didn’t travel anywhere outside of Denmark.

Yesterday capped off the first of DIS’s two “travel weeks”, which are set aside for long study tour field trips for core courses. If you’re not traveling, you have a week off to either independently travel or–to steal from the DIS website–“enjoy down time in Copenhagen”. Since I’m not due for a study tour til March and deliberately made no travel plans, I went with door number three.

I felt out of place when people rolled suitcases into class, or traded names in rapid-fire small talk: Paris! Rome! London! I also kept thinking of a quote I’d read for class from source of angst/new friend? Søren Kierkegaard, whose writing has this uncanny ability to apply exactly to whatever I’m thinking about:

“This rotation…is based on an illusion. One is tired of living in the country, one moves to the city; one is tired of one’s native land, one travels abroad; one is europamude [tired of Europe], one goes to America, and so on…”

–Kierkegaard, writing as the character “A”, in Either/Or

Before the real philosophy students come for me, yes, there’s more going on in this passage than that–for one, it’s attributed as part of a bundle of letters that Kierkegaard, writing as another character, found in an old desk. (I know–I get lost regularly in this text.) And I don’t want to look down on anyone for traveling on breaks–they’re breaks! Go forth and wander! Cry at a building you’ve waited your entire life to see! Get a sunburn!

But while I’m in Denmark this semester, it’s my goal to avoid the pressure of jumping in a “rotation” between countries on the weekends, and to be really here–to get a sense of place (not to rip from a popular DIS course) in Copenhagen and Roskilde. I want to learn from the rest of the country, too; there’s so many more train-side views and old turrets on the way to mainland cities like Aarhus. Not to mention the ongoing list of beaches, biking trails, and wildlife preserves I’m hoping to check out when the weather gets nicer this spring.

On the plaza outside Christiansborg in the evening

Even just staying here last week with no classes, I started noticing things, sensing rhythms–a micro-hailstorm on the train commute into the city; a rainbow on the one home. I could be hallucinating, but by last Friday, the sky was light at dinner time, and the air was March-fresh instead of bracing.


To kick off the break, I went to a three-in-one concert Friday night as part of Copenhagen’s JOURNEY music festival. With a student discount, I got to sample folk (Dirt Bike), electronic (Vegyn), and indie ((Sandy) Alex G) artists. Of the three acts, (Sandy) Alex G, representing my college home state of Pennsylvania, was the only one I’d heard before, and was without a doubt my favorite of the night. I loved that I could feel his songs in the echoes through the floor and the drum reverberations in a way that I couldn’t in my bedroom, headphones on.

Copenhagen Through my Dad’s Eyes

The real reason I wanted to stay in town this break–besides my goal to stay present–stepped off a flight early Saturday morning. My dad came to visit for the first half of the break, marking his first trip beyond North America, and I was so excited to see him and play tour guide. Dad’s first Copenhagen impressions? The raised cycling lanes (he bikes as well), wide use of English, and the honor system that train swipe-ins run on (which he thought Americans would completely take advantage of).

Taking Dad around the city made me realize how much of Copenhagen I forget I know, even after living here for two months. When I have to hit Google Maps to find an obscure side-street shop–or on the days where I only have time to go from the train to class and back–I feel like I haven’t seen enough. But tracing a route from up by Kongens Nytorv, where I had my “scavenger hunt” for Danish class, to Nyhavn, to the Little Mermaid…I saw all the pieces fall together. By Sunday night, Dad had crushed his daily step count record.

The Designmuseum Hall of Chairs, revisited

My dad has an eye for craft in everything, and that made walking around Copenhagen with him so much more meaningful, especially at places I’d visited before. He’d get up close to a chair or a cabinet in the Designmuseum and marvel at the shaping of the wood, at how long it had been preserved. On the pathway outside the Round Tower, he pointed out strips of metal that had been inlaid between the bricks, asking if I knew what they were. (I still have no idea. Guess that’s something I have to find out next week.) Everywhere we went, he’d catch something I might’ve missed–the tusk-like shape of the stock exchange spire; the layout of a train station; the notes of flavor in smørrebrød sandwiches.

…and, of course, with Dad’s interest in building things, we had to go to the huge city LEGO store at some point.

We visited favorite student hangouts, from The Living Room (the cafe with the dim lower space where I unwind and do homework) to Jagger (a new favorite Danish chain–sorry, Max Burger–with a killer pulled-pork burger). Then on Monday, we ventured out to try the new-to-me, including Den Blå Planet, an aquarium one metro stop away from the airport. Highlights: a wraparound tank creating the illusion that you’re swimming under hammerhead sharks and rays, and a sauna-esque rain forest room with a full tank of piranhas.

Trying to settle on where to go after the aquarium, we learned that nearly every sight to see in Copenhagen is closed on Monday–to the same extent that things are on Sundays in some parts of the United States. The challenge to locate something that was either open, or didn’t shut down at 4pm, led us to the Museum of Copenhagen, a place I’d starred on my map but didn’t know much about. What a great surprise find: inside is a story of the city unfolding across three floors, starting in ancient times and moving to royalty before the present. The treat is the uppermost floor, featuring a massive model of the city where you can pick out each individual landmark and train station.

The full model of Copenhagen at the city museum

Rockin’ In Roskilde

We set aside Tuesday to tour my Danish hometown, starting but twenty feet away from my dorm at the RAGNAROCK museum of pop, rock, and youth culture. We almost didn’t make it out at all because of the massive wall of headphones, each one playing songs from a different era of Danish music: jazz in the 20s, Beatles-inspired groups in the 60s, electronic in the 90s. I wish the full collection was available as a playlist!

RAGNAROCK is uniquely interactive–there’s a station to mix your own stage lighting, and one where you can follow along to videos of rave dances or the Twist. That last one produced some blackmail-worthy video of me that I’m sure will be brought out at our next extended family reunion. A game is set up in booths around the exhibits where you can create your own rock band; by scanning your pass from room to room, you check in on their rise and fall. Unfortunately, Dad’s band Love Brigade was plagued by scandal before they could hit the mainstream.

In a blow to our America-centrism, the entire second floor was devoted to an exhibit for a Danish 70s band called Gasolin that neither I nor Dad (with his prolific rock knowledge) had ever heard of. The walls were filled with accolades: the defining band of their generation! More popular than ABBA! It just goes to show that there’s an entire world of music beyond what we both grew up with. Turns out that Gasolin rock pretty hard, too–look out for them on our summer family beach playlist.

Wall of music videos
Art by David Byrne (of Talking Heads)

We ate lunch on the pedestrian walk in downtown Roskilde, near the historic buildings and church, then made our way downhill to the Viking Ship Museum. The scale of the salvaged boats alone was worth the price of admission; it was even more impressive to learn about how they were assembled from thousands of wooden pieces discovered in local Roskilde Fjord. (Fjord-in-name-only, I should write. Since the afternoon I biked there, I’ve learned it’s a totally different body of water. …?)

The museum, as it stands now, is in danger. The area’s been flooded before, explaining the wooden supports up against the windows, and the waters nearby are expected to rise again. One display outlined the risks of staying in Roskilde and the need to find another permanent home for the ships. It’s pretty ironic, Dad pointed out, that these ships were built for the water, and preserved under the water, and now it could be the water that ruins them. He started into an Alanis Morissette parody: “It’s like raaaa-aaaain! On a Viking ship!…

The folkehøjskole welcomes mealtime guests, so Dad and I ate one more time together–tomato soup with warm bread and fried potato skins, a good winter dinner. We got to take part in a ROFH tradition: guests get introduced by their invitees in front of the full dining hall, who all greet them with a “Hej!”

Dad flew out Wednesday morning, texting me proudly that he’d ordered his breakfast in Danglish. I rarely get homesick while traveling, but having him here for just a few days reminded me how much I’ll miss my family until May. I’m thankful Dad picked here as his first real across-the-Atlantic trip, and that the surprise gusts and Monday shutdowns didn’t scare him too much.

The National Art Gallery

I had places I wanted to explore for the rest of the week, but my time fizzled away at home between summer internship applications and readings that needed a second look. I’m more than OK with that. It was nice to take time to wake up at 11am or read a book I’d been eyeing from cover to cover; perhaps these are things I would have done regardless, since Roskilde got hit with a nasty multi-day drizzle.

I did get in one more day trip, though, to the Statens Museum for Kunst, Denmark’s national art gallery. I picked up the best punch-card deal, too: the Parkmuseerne pass, which gives entry to 6 different museums for 50% off their usual combined price. One down, five to go–good thing I have two more months left here.

One of the very first spaces inside is a long hallway with plaster casts of ancient Greek statues, combined with a contemporary artist’s light installation. This made for some fun photos:

Blinded by the light

All the art discussions in my Myth & Reason class may be slowly breaking down my brain. There were several rooms I entered and instantly thought, This doesn’t work as art anymore. But one space, dedicated to Danish art about the human body, really moved me. The room starts in the late 19th century, when optimism was trending for artists; there’s many paintings celebrating the potential and proportions of the human form. As the walls shift into the early 20th, at the cusp of disease outbreaks and World War I, the figures look increasingly disheveled and somber.

A hall of bodies, featuring “Christ in the Realm of the Dead” by Joakim Skovgaard

In all honesty, the mood of those early-20th-century paintings matches my own as I finish this post up. I’m a little anxious, and like the subjects of several of those pieces, it’s about sickness. Travel week ended with the first cases of the coronavirus diagnosed in Denmark, while my friends were pulled out from their abroad programs in Italy. I’m lucky, too, that this is the worst I’ve had to worry about, considering the life-or-death stakes in several other countries.

A discordant way to finish, but an important reminder. It was refreshing to have a full week off, along with a visit from family, in my home here, but I shouldn’t take a full break from being aware of what’s going on around the world. I guess I’ll be going into this next week one day at a time, finding comfort in the limitless interesting things right in Denmark.

(Header image: a stone labyrinth outside the Viking Ship Museum, overlooking the Roskilde “Fjord”. Post title borrowed from The Raincoats.)

Art Moves in Germany (Core Course Week, Part 2)

(Part 1 here)

Thursday, February 6th

I forget my toothbrush, somehow. And my hairbrush. I won’t figure this out and be able to fix it until later tonight, rifling through my backpack on the fifth floor of a hostel in Hamburg, Germany.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My core course’s study tour begins after I slip off the darkened grounds of the folkehøjskole at 5:45am, “Misirlou” pumping through my headphones to keep me awake. Our class takes the tour bus down a road with creeping mist and yellowed grass; then a nausea-filled ferry ride over the German border; then the bus again. Then we’re in Lübeck, a picturesque town surrounded by waterfront blocks and old steeples. It could be part of Copenhagen, only the signs are populated by umlauts instead of the slashed-through “ø”.

The cafe my lunch group goes to won’t take any non-German credit cards, so I jog a block over to get euros from a bank. As the bills slide out of the machine, I’m surprised at how much I’ve missed their colors and close-to-USD denominations from last semester. The holes in the center of Danish kroner coins are definitely cooler, though.

Lübeck waterfront

Brian split our tour into two parts – an “Apollonian” one for harmonious activities, like the fine arts, and a “Dionysian” one centered in the energy of the crowd, culminating in a Hamburg football game. Starting from Apollo’s side, we’re here in Lübeck to take in Marienkirche–St. Mary’s Church–and see if it still “works” as an art piece in speaking to us today.

We gather around a gated-off area inside, where a bell rests, shattered, in an indentation in the brick floor. Both bells fell from their places in the church’s two spires during an air raid in World War II, which also caused a historic medieval tapestry to catch fire.

One of the broken bells of St. Mary’s. (Photo credit: Paul)

The most quiet class seminar we’ve ever had happens here, done in whispers outside the gate–on why the bell was preserved like this, what kind of losses it might symbolize. Erik comments that the bell shows that for just one night in 1942, it might have seemed to the people of Lübeck, even in this place of faith, that a God wasn’t there.

St. Mary’s sanctuary

I walk the full church hall, feeling some of my worries from Wednesday return as I try to get it. I see all the cues–the high ceilings, the suspended wooden cross, the glass–and appreciate how beautifully they’re arranged. But Brian has spoken about how for those living during the church’s construction in the Middle Ages, St. Mary’s would’ve been the center of their lives–literally, with everything else in town pointing towards it–and a reflection of the divine itself. I’ve been taught that these things represent something sacred, and why, yet this church will probably never hold the same significance for me which it did for that community. Maybe that’s a deeper layer of loss.

Another bus ride finds us by the afternoon in the neighborhood of St. Pauli, Hamburg, where smokestacks rise up in the distance and every lamppost is covered over in a thousand raucous stickers. DIS covers our trip to Marblau, a Mediterranean fusion restaurant, for dinner; Rebecca, Tess, Maya and I talk over the meal about ABBA and terrible young adult dystopia books we once loved.

Marblau’s fig and pancetta pizza

Keeping the Apollonian mood going, we end the day with baroque music at the city concert hall. I’m nodding along with the first half of the show, but all the pieces seem to run together after intermission (albeit melodiously). Clearly, this is something else which should be working for me today but isn’t; half our class looks rapturous in the row behind me when it’s time for applause. My music taste really must be rotting my brain.

…then again, there’s an involved exploration on the walk to the city bus of whether we could’ve had an equal artistic experience by singing through the “Mamma Mia!” musical. In “Myth and Reason”, everything’s fair game!

Friday, February 7th

Breakfast is served at a pizza place next to the hostel, but contains no pizza; then we’re up and off on the train. The railway map looks like thirty colored earphones tangled in a pile, and somehow makes the Danish zone system seem simple.

Hauptbahnhof, the central train station in Hamburg, shot from the escalator.

Brian situates us on the first floor of the art museum, the Hamburg Kunsthall–hey, kunst, a Danish-German crossover word! We’re at the center of an art history ring that starts somewhere in saintly iconography and makes a lazy arc on over to the 1950s, and have gathered around this piece, “Der Mann im Stock” (“the man on the floor”), by Ernst Barlach. It reminds some of us of piety; others, struggle; others, old age. Brian thinks it works, and Heidegger thought a lot of Barlach’s pieces did, too.

“Der Mann im Stock”

Like at St. Mary’s, we’re free from guided tours or museum headphones, and have some time to engage with the art in our own ways. (We’ll write reflections about pieces that we were drawn to, like at the Glyptotek, when we return.) Renee and I get lost on a walkway between the contemporary exhibits in the basement and an entirely separate building, barely making it out in time for lunch. Maya and Erik tell us afterwards that, apparently, all the good Impressionist stuff was on the other side. “There were paintings that you see in art textbooks!” Erik will say at dinner, whipping out his phone to show examples.

The afternoon is set aside for an “art walk” around Hamburg, featuring the pieces mentioned in our class readings and discussions. As we progress, I realize that it’s also a chronological walk through history. First comes the tall, monumental pillar engraved with a mother and child, commemorating the “40,000 sons” of the city who died in World War I.

The Hamburg waterfront

In a nearby park, we contrast two pieces from the following war. On the left, a commemorative stone associated with the Nazis features figures that seem to have marched out of a propaganda poster (as Gus points out), with a text glorifying self-sacrifice in battle. Further down is an art piece made in response, portraying the victims of World War II bombings; the people are disfigured and dying, but seem more human. It’s a dialogue that forces you to walk the full length of the path.

Then, a stop at the home playing field for St. Pauli’s football club, a team known for their distinctive pirate logo and open-minded fans. (Brian kindly surprises us with matching skull-and-crossbones fan pins!) Nearby looms a former bunker from the second world war, currently a dance club, soon to be a hotel.

Throughout the route, Brian points out gold solpersteine, or “stumbling stones“, positioned carefully between the ordinary sidewalk tiles. Each brick memorializes a resident of Hamburg who was persecuted or killed under the Nazi government; they’re often placed near each person’s home. It’s sobering, yet with a bittersweet undercurrent of (for lack of a better word) hope. Someone points out that, while these individuals were dehumanized during their life, we can remember their loss today by their full name and address. For the rest of our time outside, our eyes are peeled to the ground, seeking out names.

Our final dinner is at the restaurant Nil. “Wow, mange tak–” –thanks very much– “–DIS,” Rebecca laughs, when we learn of its Michelin-starred status. Nora, a member of DIS’s administrative staff who’s on tour with us, jokes “I’m not even sure if I know how to eat this?!” as she scrolls through the menu on her phone.

We figure it out–plus, on our side, Gus, Travis, Chase and I make the happy discovery that unlimited bread is included on the tab. Mid-meal, Loren kicks off a conversation about whether people always picture deities in their own human image, which I guess was the sort of thing that was bound to happen when you shoved everyone in our philosophy class at the same tables.

Appetizer: salmon with pesto and lentils

A few groups go out into the city to dance to techno music; I’d love to join them, but the sniffle I’ve been nursing since the beginning of the week has morphed into a full-on state of Being Sick. There’s one Greek myth where a group of sisters, the daughters of the king Minyas, refuse to join Dionysus for his festivities because they’re weaving. In retaliation, he infests their looms with ivy and makes them turn on their children. I wonder what, hypothetically, Dionysus’s stance on forty-eight-hour colds would be.

Saturday, February 8th

At least two other people fall to sicknesses worse than mine during the weekend. We’re all offering up pain medicine and cough drops, making pharmacy runs, helping each other with luggage. Who knew that, during a weekend in Germany, stomach pains and sore throats and general sleep deprivation would be the some of the things we’d bond over most?

Everyone makes it back on the bus, though, as we go to our last artwork–St. Nikolai Church, the tallest building in the world when it was reconstructed in 1874.

Tower of St. Nikolai

The tower is stunning–you really have no choice but to crane your head up. And I suppose it’s so stunning that it erases any memory of the historical context or information from class I walked onto this site with. Wow, I think, if this is the steeple, the sanctuary must be just as well-built.

There is no full sanctuary.

Over the unfailing sounds of the church bells–which cut Brian off twice during our class conversation–we learn that most of St. Nikolai collapsed during Operation Gomorrah, the Allied bombing campaign on Hamburg during World War II. Today, the site is preserved as it was, to paraphrase one plaque, as an “argument against war”.

In both the observation tower and a museum in the church basement, displays explain not only the tragedy of the bombing for the church, but the actions within Nazi Germany which escalated the war to that point. Can I think of an American museum display I’ve seen that recorded history with that kind of nuance? I come up short.

Bells of St. Nikolai

Outside St. Nikolai and the bells, the surrounding area’s been rebuilt and modernized since the destruction, and it’s quiet on the street, save for rushing cars. On the grounds, I have no choice but to enter the world the church preserves of a tragedy in 1943. And I begin to grasp at a stronger idea of how to tell when something “works”.

After this last visit seems like a strange time to get Dionysian; I still feel like I’m in the world of St. Nikolai when I step on the bus. The walk to the football game, which takes us through a forest, is a good transition. “This is much more exciting,” someone points out, than being dropped in a stadium parking lot.

I’m not sure if the members of “Myth and Reason” fully become one with the crowd–more than once we have to consult with Brian to tell the Hamburg club apart from their rivals, who also have a blue logo. Everyone’s on their feet, though, for the two goals that Hamburg scores to win the day, when a collective roar floats up over the field. I bob my head along to the intensely choreographed chants of the home team’s fan section, who have special permission to cart in massive drums. On the way out of the park, some overenthusiastic German fans photobomb our group picture.

Now bus, ferry, bus back home to Denmark, the rides passing in a blur of sleep. In a tunnel on the way to Copenhagen, the lights streak a champagne-color, and the silhouette figures of everyone at the front of the vehicle glow. On the train to Roskilde, it’s just me and Loren again, ending core course week the way we started it–talking still. About travel and our long-distance commute. About whether, in a place like Hamburg, you ever can–or should–separate the present from the historical past.

Somewhere in my notes I have a comment scribbled from class, some qualifier for art. If you couldn’t have a realization about living or a shift in perspective without having seen a particular piece, it must be truly great. I can’t speak too soon, but I think this specific study tour opened up things for our class that wouldn’t have happened without it. Mange tak, DIS. For real.

Header image: “The Wanderer” (Apollonian) stands in front of the sticker wall at the FC St. Pauli store (Dionysian).

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.)