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.)

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