A Cheapskate Abroad

I’m no longer in Denmark, but I’m still doing blog posts of tips and advice for future DIS students and other travelers. Here’s a post I drafted in March, back when ALDI shopping totals were still one of my big weekly stressors:

I keep a “bag of bags” to reuse. I sort my to-read list by which books I have to buy, and which ones I can get free of charge at the library. And I wore the same pair of Converse–which I’d found at a yard sale–throughout all four years of high school, even after the soles started falling out. My family ribs me often for how much I hate spending money, but I’ve embraced the title of cheapskate; I enjoy looking for ways to cut back, or inventively reuse what I have.

Studying out of the United States–especially in Copenhagen, which is notorious for having a high cost of living–has been the greatest challenge to my spendthrift ways. But it hasn’t been impossible. Here are some of the tricks I’ve picked up over the semester, divided by category. And keep in mind that I’m no expert–just a college student, often found making angry squint-faces at receipts, who regularly slips up. (Don’t ask me how many chocolate croissants I ate at Studenterhuset.)

Manage your finances well, and you, too, can feel comfortable when you see this sticker in downtown Copenhagen.

Before You Go

Bring what you can from home in terms of school supplies, and be minimalist. If you don’t need them, don’t worry about buying fancy notebooks with just-right dividers for your five classes. A sheaf of notebook paper in a slim binder will work just fine for handwritten notes, and slides more easily into a suitcase.

Clothes and Laundry

Wait to do laundry until you really need to. One or two shirts does not a full load make.

If you’re comfortable with doing so, and you’re on a short weekend trip or study tour, you can re-wear clean clothes without stains, like jeans. For these trips, pack long undershirt/T-shirt combinations instead of bringing many outfits. Wear both in the day to stay warm, and then wear the T-shirt with a pair of pajama bottoms to sleep.

Instead of paying to dry your clothes, invest in a rack. Or, if you can find clothesline and it’s nice outside, hang them up!

It never got warm enough for me to try this in Denmark, but it worked pretty well in Greece.

Food

I’m not as much of a foodie, so I avoid going out to eat as much as possible–but I know that for many people, this is a large part of the study abroad experience, and the amount I spend on visiting museums is probably what other people do to try dishes they’re interested in. So take stock of your own interest in food, and figure out how to spend from there. My own rule is that I try not to unless I’m in the city for night extra-curriculars or I’m out with friends.

If your friends invite you out for a bite but you don’t feel like spending–or eating–a lot, get an appetizer, side, or kids’ portion.

Jagger, my beloved favorite burger place in Copenhagen.

Don’t get too attached to American brands–avoid chains like Starbucks and McDonalds, and buy store-name-brand items. My favorite vice, potato chips, comes down to 7 kroner for a bag of “Joe’s” vs. 33 kroner for Lays. You might even learn something about everyday Danish life from the alternatives you find.

For cooking at home, look for fresh fruits and vegetables, bread, and pasta. These are less expensive than other items, and you can mix and match them to make a variety of meals.

Even if there’s only a little left, don’t throw things away til they’re finished. Use every scrape of peanut butter in the jar.

Carry a reusable water bottle. They’re better for the environment, you won’t buy bottled water, and you’ll feel less tempted to spend extra on a beverage if you’re out for a quick lunch or snack.

If you’re in a kollegium or around other peoples’ apartments, cook group meals together, or have a potluck where everyone chips in a dish.

Download the app Too Good to Go, which allows you to pick up excess food at a discount from Copenhagen restaurants before it becomes waste. I wasn’t able to download this on my American phone, but if you’re using a Danish one, it should work.

Shopping

Use reusable bags at stores like ALDI where you’ll have to pay for plastic ones. (The Flying Tiger locations in Copenhagen sell cute totes.)

Don’t blow too much money on souvenirs, especially cheap and easy-to-find ones! It’s hard on your wallet, local craftspeople, and your weight at the airport. Don’t buy things that are Dannenbrog-covered knockoffs of items you could find in the States, or ones you won’t use as part of your space regularly, or ones you could see yourself throwing away in six months.

Keep tabs on the local thrifting scene, especially at Studenterhuset, if you need clothes. Look for items on designated days at the DIS Sustainable Boutique–so far I’ve scored a backpack pin and a guide to deciphering hieroglyphs, all for free.

Become a window shopping pro. Enjoy walking through shops on Strøget or the stalls at the Glass Market; take them in without acting on the need to purchase anything. Sometimes, these are just enjoyable places to admire, or to observe cultural differences that pique your interest.

Fresh vegetable stalls

If you need particular school supplies, ask your professors or other locals for tips. Name-brand places will try to upsell you. My Danish professor Nan gave me a tip on where to find flashcards at the shop Papirlageret Nørrevold, and they were half as expensive for a deck of the same size at the bookstore/stationary place up the street.

Getting Around

This one should go without saying in Copenhagen, since it’s so bike- and pedestrian-friendly. Walk and cycle instead of taking taxis (or the subway, if you’re not using a commuter pass)–if you’re physically or otherwise able to, of course. If it’s later at night, exercise your best judgment.

Entertainment

For finding places to hang out and have fun–consider actually reading the DIS emails that will cascade into your inbox, which have information about discounts, cafes, and upcoming holidays. (I even got a student ticket for a concert!) Follow Danish and expat news services, like my favorite Local Denmark.

Check out the Facebook group for Hidden Gems Copenhagen for out-of-the-way sights and student discount restaurants. Many are near the DIS offices on Vestergade Street.

Look for extracurricular and other opportunities through DIS. With Film Club, I get into a movie a month free at venues across Copenhagen; Studenterhuset regularly hosts no-cost events like movie viewings, parties, and weekly swing dancing classes.

My ticket for February’s DIS Film Club pick at Vester Vov Vov cinema.

Plenty of museums have free days (like Tuesdays at the Glyptotek) or offer reduced admission to students (like the Design Museum). Do a little research and see what you can find for the spots on your to-do list.

How You Spend

When you arrive, do not withdraw money near the airport! Rates are highest there, and you’ll get way less kroner.

Force yourself to use paper money. I’ve found that I spend less when I see the bills physically disappearing from my wallet.

Keep track of what you spend every week. It’ll help you figure out what your patterns are and what you can cut out, and acts as a way to remember what you did each week, too. Scrolling through my own list in my phone notes, I can pick out the days I was sick or sad (“Haribo gummies”, “cough drops”), exploring (“extra zone pass”, “bike ticket”), or found a cool hangout (“coffee at American Pie“). This doesn’t have to be serious, either–some of my favorite entries are ” ‘dinner’ ” and “THE HOLY GRAIL” (long story).

A back table–the best writing place–at American Pie

Watch your kroner coins carefully–they’re in higher denominations than American coins, so they’ll add up together faster. If I found two of the larger ones under my bed, I could probably cover my grocery bill for a week!

Miscellaneous

Really reflect on what you’re doing for additional travel, and why. Is it somewhere you’ll only get to go this once? Is there something similar in Copenhagen? Is there anything you’ll be missing in Denmark when you go away? The costs of weekend trips around Europe can add up fast.

Look for places to study or hang out where you won’t feel tempted to purchase things. Libraries like the Black Diamond are always a good bet.

Some rare sunshine near the Black Diamond’s patio on the waterfront.

Be open to swapping things with others–books, clothes, household items. Or pay to cover people you trust with the stipulation that they do the same for you later. You’ll pay for their extra train ticket today; they’ll buy you a drink when you ask at the end of the week.

Consider where you can rough it. Since my umbrella broke during the first week, I’ve thought about buying a new one, but I’ve also gotten good at making do with a hat, hoodie, and big, thick, scarf–which is what a lot of Danes seem to do.

Look for bottle returns–several Danish grocery stores have them–where you can get cash back for turning in cans and glass.

And finally: be generous with yourself. Accept that you will splurge, and that things will happen while you are abroad. Your student ID will slip out somewhere on Vestergade Street, and you’ll need a replacement; you will have an emotional day and crave a candy bar (true stories). Relax–with a little planning, things will work out. You’re building a life here, if only for four short months. Take it all in.

(Header image: the kroner that I didn’t convert to USD in time. Guess we know what my first errand is going to be after Virginia gets out of coronavirus lockdown.)

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.)